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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Red Riding

Friend of Thursday City, Kosta Stratigos, and I recently went to see a marathon screening of the Red Riding trilogy. If you haven’t heard of it, it is a BBC Channel 4 production that is being pushed onto the big screen in America by the good people at IFC. The individual films are entitled 1974, 1980, and 1983. They are directed by three different directors and, inexplicably, in three different formats. The screenplays were all written by the same man, Tony Grisoni.

The films were filled with bleak atmospheres, truly terrifying characters, violence, intrigue, and more. In typical British fashion they are unafraid to cast actors who actually fit the part, rather than a collection of beautiful people. The characters are ugly and scary and tough and grim. And they match their landscape. There were easily three of the most convincingly terrifying villains you will ever see on the liquid landscape of moving images. And they were terrifying, because they seemed like real men. Men who would stop at nothing to have their way. Men who looked and sounded like they had been birthed of coal mines and rock quarries not women. When they say: “To the North where we do what we want.” you believe them and you don’t want to be anywhere near the North, where they are doing what they want, because what they want may destroy you.

Having watched all three of them back to back I find it difficult to separate them from one another entirely. They are all set in Yorkshire, and have recurring characters throughout, though in each film different characters are in the lead. The background for the films are a series of kidnappings and murders that terrorized and horrified Yorkshire during this time period. Tentatively the attempt to solve these murders by several different people is what the films are about. But in actuality they are about the devastating impact that ruthless and unscrupulous men can have on every aspect of life in a community and society. The films explore the way that ruthlessness and drive for power creates a seemingly inescapably self-reinforcing matrix, for both the perpetrators of power and its victims. Most people are likely to watch these films and see them as typical conspiracy theory paranoia or gratuitously violent. And the films don’t do much, explicitly, to sidestep those interpretations, but in truth the actions that these men and women choose are woven together in an inevitable and inextricable mesh. The mesh is very messy and there are many loose threads, but this only suffices to make the films more life like. Life never really resolves itself in the neat ways that the entertainment industry would have us believe.

As ruthless as the characters are in their drive for power, the films are just as ruthless in exposing the workings of human character. Over and over we see the way that man’s actions doom or fate him to certain other actions, and how those actions reverberate throughout the lives of communities. We see the way that, whether explicitly or not, we are all caught up in a conspiracy. In truth it is the tacit conspiracies that are the most binding. Just as the Fenris wolf was finally bound by the most ephemeral of bonds, the Yorkshire of these films is bound by invisible and unbreakable ties. As communities turn a blind eye to domestic abuse, police brutality, corporate plunder, vice, etc. they doom themselves to being preyed upon, abused, brutalized, plundered, and victimized. One of the few redeeming characters in the trilogy, journalist Barry Gannon, says at one point something to the effect of: “The devil wins when good men do nought.” This is a paraphrase of Edmund Burke’s aphorism: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” For me this scene and this line was the moral axis that the entire film revolved around.

As an aside, we were two rows up from Wallace Shawn. If you don’t know him by name you have definitely seen him in Woody Allen movies, “My Dinner with Andre”, or his most iconic role, as Vizzini, in “the Princess Bride”. I spoke to him while waiting for the theater to open and he was quite nice and gracious. You can see him here through the hole I blasted in Kosta’s head, sorry Kosta:

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