Monday, November 22, 2021

"I believe you; thousands wouldn't."

A preface: The following essay will be detailing almost every major plot revelation in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, as well as that from another well-known Italian thriller by  a name director. I don't personally believe that knowing all the details will ever hurt a first-time viewing of a movie if the story is good and the direction well-executed, but there is definitely a specific pleasure to be obtained from going into discovering a previously unviewed film with a blank slate. So use that information as you will...

It lay buried here, it lay deep inside me
It's so deep I don't think that I can speak about it
It could take me all of my life
But it would only take a moment to
Tell you what I'm feeling
But I don't know if I'm ready yet
You come walking into this room
Like you're walking into my arms

Longtime readers of this blog know from previous writings that I am openly and unashamedly in the tank (or should that be in the boot?) for Edgar Wright. There is the surface appeal, which is his genial cinemania, both on display in his films via creatively repurposed homage, and in his public profile, refusing to engage in cultural gatekeeping by politely observing that those who have never seen any of the canonized classics have the unique gift of seeing them with fresh eyes. But always beneath the playful visualizations, there has been serious reflection on the difficult moments faced in a life, usually involving taking responsibility for bad choices amidst increasingly calamitous circumstances. In a sense, he is the current master of delivering potent medicine inside the most delicious candy coatings.

Yet even by that metric, LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is a striking variation on the Wright template. There is still virtuoso composition at work, but with much more discipline than the comical quick cuts in his comedies. For that matter, while hardly bereft of levity, there's little comedy at all in this production, with those being Laugh Quietly To Myself rather than Laugh Out Loud incidents. There is allusion to influential works of the past, but most are not so direct as to be pointed to by Rick Dalton watching himself on TV. Notably, it is his first film with a female lead, who also happens to be his youngest as well. And for once, the protagonist is not faced with having to change and adapt, it is the environment around her that is shown to be mired in stasis.

Ellie Taylor (Thomasin McKenzie), in the tradition of several Wright heroes, is living with the loss of her mother, made particularly painful in that the parent took her own life, as opposed to dying in accidents as Baby Miles' in BABY DRIVER or Danny Butterman's in HOT FUZZ, or being dispatched after zombie infection as Shaun's in SHAUN OF THE DEAD. However, the girl regularly senses her presence in mirrors, a mixed gift which alternately gives the comfort of feeling the absent parent is witnessing her still but leaves her worrying if she too will succumb to the same emotional turmoil that drove that end-of-life decision. When she moves to Soho, and embarks on a path of dream-state journeys with her Swinging Sixties avatar Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), Ellie receives physical sensations of the experiences, driving her to investigate if they're based in real events. And after an initial run of piquant encounters, the increasingly bleak and violent turns of Sandie's circumstance bleeds into Ellie's waking consciousness too, making her sense threats around her even she's in no outwardly perceivable danger. Effectively, her concerns about subsuming her mother's psychosis have now been replaced by inheriting the mounting paranoia of a kindred spirit and fearing that she too will be consumed by that darkness. To paraphrase an otherwise tired cliche, once you've been struck down like a nail, everything that comes at you looks like a hammer.

In short, if there were a giallo-appropriate alternate title for this tale, it should be The Girl Who Felt Too Much. The same internal chemistry that buoys her when she listens to '60s Britpop is what inspires embarrassment when her mother's energy is present, making her lie to her grandmother about how recently she's had the sensations. When initially thrust into a a clique of Mean Girls, she can't just blow off their catty insults or ignore the noise they make; it's directly injurious. Yet in the deceptively quiet confines of the quaint bed-sit she moves to, in the absence of people and cacophony, she ingests the energy of lingering memories that only near the end, she realizes were indeed based in reality; the life of her outwardly taciturn landlady...Alexandra Collins (Diana Rigg). Like Ellie, she too had pendulum swings of elation and paralyzing fear, but somehow Ellie never realized that Sandie resolved that problem by killing everyone who threatened her...because that's when Sandie stopped feeling anything anymore.

If you can't tell your sister
If you can't tell a priest
'Cause it's so deep you don't think that you can speak about it
To anyone
And you tell it to your heart?
Can you find it in your heart
To let go of these feelings
Like a bell to a Southerly wind?
We could be like two strings beating
Speaking in sympathy

Different viewers have been gleaning different themes from the film, mostly about the dangers of the big city, or of romanticizing the past. But these readings seem facile. Yes, London may be an overwhelming place for a sensitive "country mouse" as Ellie, but as Gary King might attest, small towns are just as capable of callous behavior since they tend to be the kind of place where everyone knows your business and has an unsolicited opinion about it, regardless of whether or not they have been absorbed into a giant alien consciousness. While the nightmare sequences well demonstrate how the surface image of smashing birds cavorting on Carnaby St. disguised how many women's throats were under the heels of Beatle boots, the present day sequences involving a creepy cabbie, space invading male students, and indifferent police, make it clear that not only has the misogyny not gone away, it's even more blatantly out in the open. Even when retired vice squad punter Lindsay (Terence Stamp) is revealed to be roughly benign, he is hardly a model of chivalry: telling Sandie in the midst of her sex work that "you're better than this," without offering any sort of direct route to that mythical better opportunity, is not the compliment he thinks it is, and the condescending tone he takes in conversation with Ellie suggests his attitude toward women may not be malicious, but it's not nuanced either. And for a vulnerable girl in any incarnation of the city, getting people to take them seriously when they claim powerful men have abused them is often met with as much resistance and ridicule as, well, claiming to possess paranormal capabilities.

However, people suggesting that Wright has made an opportunistic "#metoo" story are neglecting that in all his major works, the comedy may have the appearance of "lads being lads," but there's always been criticism of that mindset. Baby Miles Driver is often too clever for his own good, his impulses to show off in the face of threatening parties puts those he ostensibly cares about further in harm's way; even with all the people who vouch for his integrity, he's still going to have to do that prison sentence to get some perspective. When Scott Pilgrim meets Nega-Scott, and his antithesis offers to buy breakfast, it's pretty clear that the doppelganger was the "good" Scott all this time. Shaun may be easily distracted and Ed an enabler, but it is jealous jockeying by Liz's flatmate and unrequited lover David that brings the most cataclysmic battle of their zombie exodus. Danny Butterman ultimately stands up to the martinet classism, racism, and outsider demonization of his police chief father, but he and Nick employ the same militarized tactics to eliminate the Neighborhood Watch Alliance, and its hinted that much like the meme of a bomber plane painted with a rainbow flag, Sanford is going to have a more virtuous but not less violent police force. And Gary has found sobriety and consideration for others and asserted the worth of the individual (even alien clones), but he's forced the rest of mankind to return to hunter-gathering in the process. You could love all these men if you knew them in real life, but you would confess privately to those friends of yours whom they don't know that they're a handful.

In contrast, Ellie stands out not just by her youth and gender, but her willful reserves. She is still raw about losing her mother, but is secure in the knowledge she did not take her presence for granted like Shaun did, and unlike Danny, who has cocooned in childish police cosplay after his mom's passing, or Baby, whose tinnitus from a car accident may as well be mentally obscuring the memory of his mother's death throes, she presses onward with her goals. She must sometime retreat to herself when the world is hostile, but she has activated her self-respect a lot sooner than Scott Pilgrim has. Despite the mounting phalanx of horrors in her head, she soldiers through researching the forgotten crimes of the past, confronts the enigmatic Lindsay, and saves herself.

Thus, Wright and his co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns demonstrate that in many circumstances, women cannot and do not take the luxury of stewing in their sorrows like his other arrested adolescent characters. This is echoed in the grim descent of Sandie, in the cautions of Ellie's world-weary pub boss, even in the glint of sympathy and strength accorded to Ellie's outward nemesis Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen): admitting to a parental loss herself, her one-upmanship and over-it-all manner among her peers may well be projection of a personal pain she fears she should not admit to lest she be thought too weak and emotional too. It could be said that Jocasta is on the precipice of becoming a future Alexandra Collins, repressing her legitimate heartbreak in favor of callous bravado to survive, endangering her humanity. There's also an interesting parallel to Wilson-Cairns' previous screenplay credit of 1917 with Sam Mendes, where that film's two lance corporals are continuously attacked and injured, yet they must literally continue going forward or else they and thousands more will die. The bitter difference being that after two World Wars, the battle between the English and the Germans mostly ended, but the battle between the sexes has gotten more lethal.

Take away the love and the anger
And a little piece of hope holding us together
Looking for a moment that'll never happen
Living in the gap between past and future
Take away the stone and the timber
And a little piece of rope won't hold it together
We're building a house of the future together

But let us not allow the deep concepts being discussed here to overshadow that above all else, LAST NIGHT is a feast of luminous performers, gorgeous visuals, compelling set-pieces, and thoughtful connotations to a diverse body of songs and films that may not be readily familiar to its audience, raising awareness while remixing them to new effect. In a sense, it is the fulfillment of the possibilities offered in his exuberant fake trailer DON'T! from GRINDHOUSE in 2007. In fact, here there is a tip of the hat sent back to that ambitious Rodriguez/Tarantino project, in that deep cut pop band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, whose 1968 single provides the title of this film, was a passionate subject of debate for Sydney Tamiia Poitier's ill-fated D.J. Jungle Julia in DEATH PROOF, and Ellie's ghoulish dark-eyed Halloween party makeup recalls the haunting visage of Marley Shelton as Dr. Dakota Block in PLANET TERROR.

Casting choices for the supporting players are particularly astute, not just for their iconic status from the bygone era, but for the specific archetypes they represented therein. Rita Tushingham is most perfect to play Ellie's supporting grandmother, because in the same manner of Ellie's travails in the city, Tushingham's film roles included an interracial relationship in A TASTE OF HONEY, growing too enmeshed with a serial killer in STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING, and coping with sexual distress brought through miscommunication in THE KNACK...AND HOW TO GET IT. She even starred in an Italian murder film (albeit comedic) called BLACK JOURNAL about female serial killer Leonarda Cianciulli. And after achieving immortality for playing a sexy heroine named homophonically for her M(ale) Appeal, Diana Rigg not only presents an elegant coda to her career by playing a Darkest Timeline version of what her life could have become, as the elderly, hardened Ms. Collins, but also a sly tribute to other past characters of hers from THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU and THEATRE OF BLOOD, that on the outside seemed harmless but harbored deadly secrets within.

For all the British kitchen sink dramas and European thrillers that Wright has declared as influences on SOHO in interviews and promotional videos, a title I have not yet seen discussed that feels like a very direct inspiration is Lucio Fulci's 1977 mystery SEVEN NOTES IN BLACK, released in America as THE PSYCHIC. In that film's screenplay, written by Roberto Gianviti and Dardano Sacchetti, the protagonist, Virginia, is first seen as an English teenager in an Italian boarding school, who visualizes and feels the pains of her mother's suicide in Dover as it happens in real time, and then, as an adult (Jennifer O'Neill) in an otherwise pleasant marriage, is haunted by recurring visions - a deconstructed wall, a smashed mirror, a dead body - that suggest a killing has taken place in a mansion purchased by her wealthy husband Francesco (Gianni Garko). Against the disbelief of others, she investigates on her own, and the revelations initially contradict her claims - a dead body is found, but not the one she saw, a magazine was not yet published when the murder took place, etc - but soon she realizes she has not seen a past event, but a future one. What she does not figure out until too late is that the event is her own murder. Fulci had envisioned the film as a story about challenging fate, and whether it is even possible.

Ellie too is challenging fate throughout her entire odyssey. On a superficial level, the fate of being a small-town dreamer who can't hack it in the competitive field she aspires to join. On a personal level, the fate of being the daughter of a fatally depressed parent and potentially repeating the same fragility; a trajectory predicted by Jocasta within hours of meeting her. On a visceral level, the fate of being driven to madness by another woman's trauma. And then of course, the primary level of coming face to face with a murderer that wants Ellie to take her secrets to the grave.

The difference between Fulci and Wright's heroines is that unlike poor Virginia (her musical watch notwithstanding), Ellie succeeds in changing what would have been seen as inevitable. Not just that she survives the nightmare. She finds a balance for her sensitivity. London doesn't break her. Her artistic pursuits continue. Threats don't make her cower. And in a most poignant turn, she even changes the fate of Alexandra Collins: rather than watch her commit suicide in a state of self-loathing, Ellie intervenes and demonstrates that she has born witness to the promise and ache of young Sandie, she is that one person that understood her and what was lost so many years ago to a band of predators. Ms. Collins will have to face a fiery, lacerating death for the lives she ended, but she knows now, in her final moments, in the memory of one girl, she will not die as a monster.

In years to come, Ellie Turner may not become a popular cosplay subject like other Edgar Wright heroes, but her instincts for empathy, adventure, discovery, justice, and trusting in even the aspects of herself that others would mock, may well make her something better for the random distressed soul who sits down to watch LAST NIGHT IN SOHO for a little distraction: an understanding surrogate. Someone Sandie never had. Someone too many sweet souls of the past never had. 

Well, if it's so deep you don't think that you can speak about it
Just remember to reach out and touch the past and the future
Well, if it's so deep you don't think you can speak about it
Don't ever think that you can't change the past and the future

You might not, not think so now
But just you wait and see, someone will come to help you

- Kate Bush, "Love and Anger"

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