Disorganised crime

In praise of John Boorman's "Point Blank".

John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank is to the American hardboiled genre what Michelangelo Antonioni’s films are to Italian neorealism and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad is to postwar French cinema. It acknowledges and articulates the formalist fracture that modernity brought to film culture, the way expression adapted and adopted new aesthetic forms from a changing world.

If the noir, first in literature then in cinema, had narrated the urban anxieties of men and women thrown together in big cities by industrialisation, Point Blank registers the birth of a new kind of society and crime. Seedy bars and dimly lit alleys make way for luxury apartments and corporate offices. Crime is no longer the prerogative of shady characters defying sleep and the authorities in the dead of night; exclusive suites and residential complexes are the new criminal milieu. Hitmen are nothing but pawns in the hands of businessmen. The quest to get to the head of these new criminal organizations is shrouded in obscurity. Boorman here both anticipates and exceeds the genre deconstruction that would characterise the films of the "New Hollywood" in the 1970s.

Walker (Lee Marvin) is persuaded by Mal Reese (John Vernon) to intercept and steal a cash exchange that takes place in the abandoned Alacatraz prison amongst gangsters. Mal owes money to one of the heads of the organisations, Carter (Lloyd Bochner) and will not share the booty with Walker so as to pay Carter back. Their action is successful but a triangular love affair gets in the way of business and bitterly divides Mal and Walker who, determined to get his due, starts to take out one by one all the members of the “organisation”. But is money really what Walker is after? Or does he merely want to avenge his betrayed love? The film leaves such questions open, confounding the audience through visual accelerations, temporal cut-ups and a hypnotic montage. As Walker shoots his way through the top of the organisation, his inner psychology remains as impenetrable as the slick surfaces of the modernist buildings he walks in and out of. Unlike the classical noir hero, riddled with indecision and pained by moral conflicts, the Lee Marvin character seems devoid of any emotional involvement with his predicament. The spectator will in fact discover at the very end that this silent rider was actually acting on behalf of an even more obscure force, an even bigger player.

A metaphysical thriller with a Kafkesque quality in which the protagonist's stubborn determination to scale the last heights of the “organisation” only plunges him deeper into the impenetrability of a manipulative corporate web, Point Blank has lost none of its cogency. Here Boorman captures a world of geometrical constructions where human agency is reduced to nothing. The film is a play of forms in the drama of space. Time in Point Blank is abstract, like the interior design adorning the scenery, it is more ornamental than functional. Its saturated colour palette comprises the cobalt blue of the Los Angeles sky, the warm brown of three-piece suits and the refracting light of chrome surfaces. Walker’s journey towards his goal is as detached and cold as the long, neon-lit corridor he walks at the beginning of the film on his way to his ex-wife. Boorman manages to create pathos through the orchestration of bodies and objects in the frame, the acting is almost choreographic, never emotional. Similarly Walker organises the aimless sprawl of Los Angeles almost instinctively, travelling its freeways in his stubborn quest.

"Point Blank" is showing at BFI Southbank, London SE1 until 11 April and at selected cinemas around the country until 24 June.

Lee Marvin, centre, in John Boorman's "Point Blank" (Photograph: Getty Images)
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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.