Gilbey on Film: Genre capers

Five films that play with the private eye movie.

Should you be in the market for a low-budget US independent film that happens to be set in Oregon and is given to tinkering around with genre codes (and, let's face it, sometimes that's the only thing that will hit the spot), then I am happy to say that you are in luck. Two fine examples of this specialised breed were released last week. Meek's Cutoff you will know about. But you should also hotfoot it to whichever cinema is showing Cold Weather, a charming detective story of sorts from the writer-director Aaron Katz (who made the haunting Van Sant-esque Quiet City and Dance Party, USA).

Cold Weather follows a former forensics expert who slips gradually into crime-solving when his ex-girlfriend goes missing. There are plenty of Sherlock Holmes references (the main character even buys a pipe -- though not quite a calabash -- to suck on while he's piecing the puzzle together) and the film has a sweet'n'loose approach to genre. Like Meek's Cutoff, it also builds to an ending which some will consider frustratingly abrupt. Others will argue that it allows the movie to continue gestating and flowering in the viewer's head. I'm in the latter camp.

Katz's picture fits into the modern tradition of revising or riffing on the private eye movie. Here are five more that pulled off the same trick with wit and panache:

The Long Goodbye (1973)
Robert Altman's baggy take on Raymond Chandler, with Elliott Gould at his crumpled best as a seen-it-all Philip Marlowe, was considered sacrilege in some quarters at the time of its release. How could anyone have the brass neck to take such an icon of detective fiction and turn him into an unshaven, shambolic drop-out? Now it's generally (and rightly) considered one of Altman's finest films, as well as an evocative, atmospheric snapshot of the loosey-goosey 1970s West Coast lifestyle.

The Late Show (1977)
Altman had a hand too in this wonderful lost gem from the same decade -- he produced it, while Robert Benton (best known, with his writing partner David Newman, as one of the nibs behind Bonnie and Clyde and What's Up, Doc?) wrote and directed. Ira (Art Carney) is a former private eye, and Margo (Lily Tomlin) is the over-excitable young client who tempts him back to detective work with the unpromising case of a missing cat. Benton modelled the film on the mood of the plangent western Ride the High Country, which is not to say he neglects the specifics of the thriller genre -- after all, the picture is also a commentary on our love affair with detective movies. ("I swear I feel just like Nick and Nora," babbles Margo, referring to the heroes of the enduring Thin Man detective movies of the 1930s and 1940s, adapted from the Dashiel Hammett novels.) For another great sleuth comedy in a similar vein, see the 1993 Manhattan Murder Mystery, one of Woody Allen's wisest and sunniest works.

Zero Effect (1998)
Bill Pullman lets his hair down as the socially inept but intellectually astonishing private eye and all-round man of mystery Daryl Zero, with Ben Stiller as his emissary and Dr Watson-style sidekick. Weirdly forgotten since its release, this is as inspired and affectionate a modern twist on Sherlock Holmes as the similarly discarded Without a Clue (1988), which cast Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley in the Holmes/Watson roles respectively, painting the former as nothing short of a nincompoop.

The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen brothers' comic masterpiece (their most beautifully realised film by some distance) is a thriller with backwards momentum, a whodunnit where the clues lead only to dead ends, or to other clues. The picture is essentially a hard-boiled, 1940s-style Californian mystery gone soft, and updated to early 1990s Los Angeles. The lollopping, doped-up "Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is mistaken for his namesake, a millionaire whose wife has been kidnapped. The other Lebowski hires the Dude to deliver the ransom, but the plan is derailed. A severed toe arrives in a jiffy bag. A trio of Kraftwerk lookalikes may be responsible. Also, it could be that the kidnapping never even took place. So whose toe is it anyway? One clue to the film's brilliance lies in its marriage of cool precision and dazed goofiness: it's equal parts Chandler and Cheech & Chong.

Brick (2005)
The last great revision of the private eye thriller came in this too-cool mystery set against a high-school backdrop, the twist being that amateur sleuth Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the adolescent misfits, femmes fatale and budding psychos with whom he comes into contact are as sassy and fast-talking as any wiseacre thugs from the annals of noir history.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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