The solitary yet exceptional full length feature by filmmaker Martin Bell is one of the purest attempts at neo-realism in American cinema, effortlessly detailing the painful relationship between a father (Jeff Bridges) and son (Edward Furlong) in the scuzzy underbelly of Seattle. Anchored in what is a characteristically threadbare neorealist plot that finds father and son attempting to save what little they have so they can make a futile escape to Alaska, Bell’s semi-documentary approach tenderly conveys an actuality full of tangible bit players who hang on the fringes, eking out a pitiful livelihood, recalling the antediluvian textures of Huston’s Fat City.
Streetwise (1984), Bell’s remarkable documentary on the lives of teenagers in Seattle, which was in turn inspired by the award winning photography of Mary Ellen Mark, is a template for American Heart, onto which the writers craft something more accessible. Conversely, the inescapable desolation that father and son must confront is realised in their perpetual separation and union, culminating in an unpretentious dénouement that is disarmingly poetic. Co-produced by Bridges in what is probably his best performance, Bell’s film seems to have largely been forgotten about today but deserves rediscovering and resituating as a key work of American independent cinema in the 1990s.
The Yuppies are back (did they really ever go away?) in this expertly crafted psychological thriller that fuses the ornately technical sensibilities of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby with the bombast of The Omen. The result is one very claustrophobic work, visualising the descent of a family into ruin who become increasingly imprisoned in their high-class New York apartment. Director George Ratliff succeeds at creating a deeply impressionistic horror, favouring a mounting tone of dread than going for the jugular. This is equally a film about motherhood, a terrifying take on post-natal depression, much of it channelled through the exhausting performance by Vera Farmiga as a mother who begins to lose her mind, much of it orchestrated by her son – a piano prodigy psycho child of Satan. The link to the world of finance is made concrete in the obnoxious Yuppie aspirations of the father played by Sam Rockwell, the suggestion that horror and capitalism exist in a twisted parallel actuality. The ending is superbly underplayed, consolidating Jacob Kogan’s exquisite performance as the disturbed Joshua.
The much publicised kidnapping and coercion of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army is the focus of Schrader’s 1988 film, a critical look back at the protracted complex political choices that underpinned the counter culture of the 1970s. It is an unusual film to have emerged from 1980s Hollywood cinema and is also one of Schrader’s most political works. Reconnecting with the proletarianism of Blue Collar, Schrader examines how the will to adopt and maintain a political posture is riddled with a gamut of intersectional insincerities that are class and race related. Schrader treats the first part like an exercise in Brechtian tableau, imbuing the SLA with an ideological sincerity while sympathetically framing militancy as wholly reasonable given the wider inequalities.
At the core is Natasha Richardson’s gruelling performance as Hearst who conveys the right degrees of ambivalence to make one uncertain of her motivations and ideological beliefs. Much of the film deals with the assimilation of Hearst, brainwashed to join the group, suggesting the decorative nature of counter culture was simply a momentary allure to middle class white people wanting to interminably escape the system while indulging in faux acts of sexual and political liberation. However, the government’s brutal annihilation of the SLA, carried out with impunity by the police, critiques the gradual erasure of counter culture militancy as something unambiguously ideological; a benign cultural struggle for political discourse, mainstream lifestyles and conformity.
Alastair Sim had that rare natural faculty, innately switching from pleasant English gentleman to scheming bastard, all with the quintessential shit eating grin. The Green Man, a cornerstone of Sim’s acting career, finds him playing a semi-retired assassin with an international reputation of bumping off third rate dictators. In what appears to be one of his last jobs, Hawkins (Sim) comes undone by the tomfooleries of vacuum cleaner salesman George Cole long before he morphed into Arthur Daley in Minder.
Robert Day’s richly dark comedy belongs alongside works like The Ladykillers; sinister, malevolent and nonsensical, that revels in the banal sexual and class repressions that fester serendipitously in post war British suburbia. The extended sequence in the two semis is deftly handled by Day, a comedy of errors in which dead bodies, mistaken identity and blood merge into a brilliant pastiche. A triumph through and through.