Going down an eighties wormhole

Walter Hill, Sly Stallone and when a film-maker is past his prime.

Walter Hill has a new film out this week. This is good news. The movie itself is not — it’s a flippant and only intermittently fun action movie called Bullet to the Head, which is notable largely for the agonizing spectacle of Sylvester Stallone battling his own immovable facial muscles, clamped mouth and trash-compactor diction to deliver intelligibly the simplest line of dialogue.  “It’s easy to get sentimental about things,” Stallone says at one point. Maybe so, but it’s not easy saying a word like “sentimental” without moving your lips, as Stallone demonstrates. Honestly, it’s like amateur ventriloquists’ night. Anyone for a gottle o’ geer?

Nevertheless, I wrung a few rich drops of enjoyment from the picture. Perhaps this was made possible by my undying respect for Hill, whose 1970s and 1980s work has earned him a lifetime’s worth of credit. Or it could be down to the fact that there were many films like Bullet to the Head made in the 1980s, and I went to see them all, so the movie became a bit of a time-travel expedition for me. There is nothing to distinguish it from that era except for a few modern gadgets and references to the internet. Certainly the screeching blues-rock score and the guns-are-fun attitude seem to have been cryogenically frozen from the Mullet Age. And not just guns. While the title demands the destruction of assorted skulls belonging to minor cast members, the film could just as happily be called Axe to the Foot or Flick-knife to the Neck. But I was a little disappointed to find that parts of it aren’t very well directed. One particular shot, seen through the eyes of a dead man, makes no sense. The dead can’t see anything. You can’t go around giving them point-of-view shots.

The film pairs Stallone, as a bounty hunter named Jimmy Bobo, with a straitlaced cop (Sung Kang) on a revenge mission in a clammy New Orleans (locations include a tattoo parlour, a bathhouse and a succession of sticky, neon-lit bars). There’s a juicy cameo from Christian Slater as a minor-league villain who is called upon to shout entire chunks of plot information (“This goes way up!”) and to call Stallone a “dumbbell”. (Please, somebody, put Christian Slater in more films: he’s still really good.) And I liked the casting of Jason Momoa as Stallone’s main adversary, the one with whom he goes head-to-head, or rather axe-to-axe, during the violent climax. Momoa recently played the title role in Conan the Barbarian, the reboot of the 1982 sword-and-sandals adventure which starred Stallone’s old box-office nemesis Arnold Schwarzenegger. So, in a way, Stallone fights (and—not really a spoiler, this—brutally vanquishes) a Schwarzenegger proxy. He’s doing what therapists warn us about: he’s restaging endlessly the battles of his past, hoping for a brighter outcome. Do stop me if I’m disappearing into a 1980s wormhole here.

Hill’s most notable credit over the last decade was his Emmy-winning work on the abrasive HBO series Deadwood. The last film he actually directed (a 2002 prison boxing thriller called Undisputed) went straight to video in the UK. The one before that, Supernova, didn’t even have his name on it, having passed through an array of other filmmakers during its troubled history (Francis Ford Coppola, Geoffrey Wright and Jack Sholder were all reported to have directed or re-cut parts of it). Before that? Before that, he was really something.

His films are pared to the bone—none more so than The Driver, the 1978 thriller that marked his first significant success. (If you’ve seen the Ryan Gosling movie Drive, you’ve basically seen The Driver 90210.) Until its release, Hill had a pile of genre screenplays to his credit, all of which displayed the same stripped-down approach that he would elevate to an art form once he got comfortable in the director’s chair. Among his produced work at that time was The Getaway (1973), an unsparing crime picture directed by one of his heroes and spiritual cousins, Sam Peckinpah, and The Drowning Pool (1975), a downbeat Paul Newman vehicle that threw audiences in at the deep end. In the same year, Hill directed Hard Times (aka The Streetfighter) from his own script, casting Charles Bronson as a bareknuckle boxer. But it was The Driver that provided the purest distillation yet of Hill’s modus operandi.

You need only peruse the character names to get the gist. Ryan O’Neal is The Driver. Bruce Dern is The Detective. Isabelle Adjani is The Player. Ronee Blakley is The Connection. Walter Hill is Frugal With Information. The viewers are Left To Figure Things Out For Themselves.

Dispensing with the back story, subtext and motivation so beloved of other filmmakers creates an existentialist environment in Hill’s work and allows him to cut to the chase—literally so in the case of The Driver, much of which takes place on four wheels. As the title character, a taciturn getaway driver, Ryan O’Neal doesn’t get to deliver a monologue about how he chose a life of crime because his daddy didn’t love him. He just sits at the wheel, cool as a cucumber, hot as mustard. For a man who spends his life in constant, hair-raising motion, he’s curiously still and serene.

It should be remembered that Hill is capable of cracking a wry smile when the mood takes him. He may have been a big influence on the work of Michael Mann, but Mann can’t conjure the authentic smell of pulp like Hill does in The Driver and later movies like Streets of Fire (1984) and Johnny Handsome (1989). And I’ll eat my MOT the day Mann does anything as funny as the sequence in which The Driver takes the car of his potential employers for a spin in an underground car park. “How do we know you’re good?” they make the mistake of asking him. “Get in,” he shoots back. Within seconds, the wheels are spinning into a blur and the car is slaloming around the concrete pillars: forwards, backwards, sideways, turning on a dime. The Driver strategically demolishes the vehicle, losing a light here, a door there. At the end of this bravura demonstration, the car is a shadow of its former self, but The Driver doesn’t have a hair out of place.  

Hill went on to co-write the screenplay of Alien (1979), and was instrumental in getting Ridley Scott to direct that movie. His own movies became steadily more daring. There was The Warriors (1979), a visually delicious succès de scandale about New York’s gang culture; his accomplished western, The Long Riders (1980); the Deliverance-like thriller Southern Comfort (1981); a box-office smash in the shape of 48HRS (1982), which marked Eddie Murphy’s spectacular film debut; and the garish, visionary rock’n’roll adventure of Streets of Fire.

But The Driver remains unrivalled as Hill’s signature movie—and, next to low-rent fare like Bullet to the Head, it’s likely to retain that position. In a culture where every blockbuster is nudging three hours, and rewrites and script polishes overburden a movie with unnecessary incident, it’s fat-free film-making. In one scene, The Detective observes that the sports pages are the best part of a newspaper because they report only “winners, losers, how it happened, score". In that line is the essence of Walter Hill.

"Bullet to the Head" is released on Friday

 

Walter Hill at the premiere of "Bullets to the Head" (credit: Getty Images)

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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Why are we sometimes so reluctant to enjoy ourselves - even when we're allowed?

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is a profound meditation on the ways we deny ourselves pleasure.

In the sage words of the novelist William Maxwell, “It is impossible to say why people put so little value on complete happiness.” The psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips has, for some time, been engaged in investigating this enigma. A recent collection of essays, Missing Out, explored our propensity to attach a greater value to what we have not, rather than what we have. His latest book, Unforbidden Pleasures, is a profound meditation on our reluctance to enjoy ourselves as we might and, more crucially, as we are apparently granted the freedom to do.

A good deal of complex thinking and ­reference is compressed into two hundred or so pages. Phillips’s first witness is Oscar Wilde, whose provocatively intelligent statement on political engagement – “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” – sets the book’s terms. “It is, of course, Wilde’s point that socialism interferes with sociability,” Phillips comments. Our ideologies – whether extraneous, as political or moral systems, or internalised – estrange us from our more creative and enjoyable instincts.

If Phillips sees in Wilde an ally, it is because the latter’s epicureanism made him suspicious of all enemies of pleasure, most especially self-inflicted punishment. A mistaken respect for a forbidding authority is, in Phillips’s view, the basis of conscience. He considers this problematic concept through the example of Hamlet, a character with whom Freud was also much preoccupied: “Tragedy is the cultural form in which we are trying to reveal something not about the real horror of life, but about the horror of life lived under the aegis of a certain kind of conscience.” Rather than seeking to actualise a limiting ideal that can never be realised (according to Phillips, this is the tragic norm), Hamlet is unusual in ­exploring, in his self-reproaches, alternative ways of being.

In Hamlet’s best-known soliloquy, “To be, or not to be” – a rumination with resonances as wide as the sea – we encounter the line: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” In the Second Quarto, this appears as: “Thus conscience does make cowards.” From this more open-ended version, Phillips launches a stellar exploration of the  politics of intimidation as the basis of our so-called morality.

To be moral by dint of intimidation is not to be moral at all but to be the hapless citizen of a totalitarian system. Much of our behaviour is at the behest of an inner censor, absorbed through our upbringing, whose influence is at best restrictive – a cruel clipper of wings – and at worst murderous. Guilt, Phillips wants to persuade us, is often the fearful reaction to this internalised tyrant’s disapproval, rather than a result of honest remorse. With the terrible phrase “to be ashamed of yourself”, it is worth asking, Phillips suggests, what made the self of whom one is enjoined to be ashamed.

But in Shakespeare’s day, “conscience” also meant “consciousness” – and consciousness can seem to make us cowards, not through intimidation but by exploring realms of thought that break the prevailing rules. Freud appears never to have questioned the call to revenge that Hamlet buckles under. He perceives Hamlet’s procrastination and ensuing self-criticism as no more than the displacement of violence towards his murdering uncle, never considering that Hamlet’s “conscience” may also be a disinclination to obey a dead father’s demand. If, as Hamlet suggests, “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” it may well be, as Phillips speculates, that he is attempting to hunt down and bag Claudius’s shabby morality in order to expose it on a public stage. But it may also be an attempt to engage Claudius in a more creative conversation through play (or, to be specific, a play – for Hamlet, as well as being an artist’s protégé, is an artist).

Phillips never quite spells this out but it seems the natural conclusion to his thinking. For the play that Hamlet puts on is surely an unforbidden pleasure, in striking contrast to the highly forbidden pleasure of murder. Wilde provocatively claimed that all art is immoral, but that is so only if “moral” means “doing the done thing”. It is part of Phillips’s point that the forbidden becomes enticing; in an environment of free choice, it may be naturally eschewed.

Phillips would probably demur at being described as a religious writer. Yet he is, I think, in the wider sense, because he explores seriously the great moral themes that play in the theatre of human consciousness. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Genesis myth is evoked. Why did God forbid His human creations to eat of the tree of know­ledge of good and evil? Surely, in His omniscience, He was aware that by forbidding it He was prompting the disobedience that led, in Milton’s epic words, to “all our woe”. But what if all God was doing was describing a consequence – if you do this, then that follows? Maybe the real sin of our “first parents” was in hearing a forbidden in what was only, after all, a health-and-safety warning: the foolhardy sin, as Phillips might see it, of choosing tragedy over contentment and play.

Phillips has said that what he most desires for his readers is that they be stimul­ated into new thoughts. With this supremely thought-provoking book, he roundly succeeds.

Salley Vickers is an author and former psychoanalyst. Her latest collection of short stories, “The Boy Who Could See Death”, is published by Viking

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is published by Hamish Hamilton (208pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war