KILLER PENCIL: ONE GREAT BIG METAPHOR FOR ARTIST’S BLOCK
Fellini. Kurosawa. Bergman. Kubrick. Scorsese. Hitchcock. Were the pantheon of great film directors, for want of a better phrase, a board of directors, one can imagine the horror greats Hitch and Stanley twitching in their director chairs at the prospect of the new enfant terrible Remi Milligan soon to be perched beside them. The British director’s directorial debut, Killer Pencil: Curse of the Inanimate Objects is, on the surface, an over-the-top B-movie horror. But look deeper and a layered and personal subtext is there to be peeled away. This essay examines the film as a metaphor for artist’s block.
As pure entertainment, Killer Pencil is unadulterated fun. A B-movie extraordinaire, it is an entertaining, bargain basement joyride full of gore. Milligan, a clear cinephile, draws the viewer into his world dropping them headfirst into a mystery centred on the protagonist, a struggling artist named Nick Wade – brilliantly played by Milligan himself – that is somehow linked to an (initially) inanimate pencil.
The opening sequence shows in grainy VHS, Wade engulfed in a stupor…doodling laconically waiting for inspiration. This is the story of a struggling artist. Whatever he is doodling clearly is not something he will discard – it’s his thought process, his artistic outpouring which he rolls up and keeps for later hoping to be inspired. We see the pencil, which he put back in the desk pencil holder return to the blank page. Once again, he returns it to its rightful place and after he leaves his desk the camera ominously pans down to reveal the pencil has once again returned to the page. The shot cuts to Wade asleep in his armchair when suddenly his pencil – notably blood red – stands erect and a breath is heard, a first breath…a killer is born. The pencil has taken on a life of its own and proceeds to doodle all by itself covering Nick’s empty Sudoku squares with sixes. This seemingly random numbering of satanic digits intercut with shots of the horror film Nick fell asleep watching only heightens the disconsolate feeling we’ve been lowered into.
Through a series of hand-drawn flashback sequences layered with a voiceover so full of gravitas – Nick’s grandfather Charles Wade educates Wade Jr. expounding on a curse that has affected his lineage. While Nick himself seems sceptical, he learns from his grandfather the curse upon his family from almost a century prior by the scornful gypsy grandmother of his great-grandfather’s fleeting romantic interest, causes the death of all the males in his family via inanimate objects.
Wade Jr.’s scepticism is brushed away in the final act as he is chased around his house by the titular pencil. Milligan’s direction remains tight and claustrophobic throughout. He shoots the chase sequence with the killer object fastened to the camera to give the object not only a viewer’s persona, but instils an actual personality in the pencil itself. The technique itself is a masterclass in awakening something lifeless and drawing the audience in, drowning them in the horror of the situation. It evokes Scorsese strapping a camera to Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets’ famous drinking binge scene – albeit in a far darker way. Wade hides in a room – the only room in the house conveniently lit in blood red – slumping to the floor in relief he’s outrun his attacker. Horror tropes are not skimped upon here though and the ravenous pencil bursts through the door, penetrating the woodwork at eye level, foreshadowing Wade’s imminent death with glorious pastiche. Milligan’s directing style and grainy cinematography emphasises the horror in a way that with modern film making techniques simply wouldn’t be as effective. The titular pencil itself is given more character and personality through a stop-motion animation sequence as it climbs out of a pencil case, gloriously drenched in blood. These staccato movements offer a more jarring perspective that casts the viewer back to a more simpler time – the pencil case itself a symbol of youth and education – and without getting distracted with CGI, we are left with a juddering and disturbing scene. The final scene sees Wade sitting on the floor of his upstairs hallway struggling with the pencil as it finally overpowers him and penetrates his eye right through into his brain. The penetration of the eye, an artist’s key instrument, is a clear metaphor for artist’s block. The artist himself has been suffering…stuck in a purgatory, doodling and sleeping. This idle behaviour, Wade’s dearth of inspiration and artistic flourish is conveyed to us through Milligan’s rudimentary but allegorical vision. The symbol of the protagonist’s creativity – the pencil – instead of being something that helps him flesh out his vision, is what kills him.
Killer Pencil feels autobiographical in its theme of personal strife. Milligan, himself something of an enigma, delves into his own subconscious, exposing himself and his struggles to his audience. He explores artist’s block, which creative people in many walks of life suffer from but very few have had the bravery to commit to celluloid. He portrays his own struggles as a director starved of stimuli through the movie’s central character; Nick Wade is slumped in his armchair, almost world-weary in the early scenes. He has the look of someone struggling, hardly smiling even when meeting his grandfather; his voice rarely climbs above a concerned sigh (apart from when he’s screaming in terror). He is paralysed by the fear of failure that is attributed to many who suffer from artist’s block. He is rendered immobile by this condition, his inability to gain any inspiration is only amplified when he is subsequently physically rendered immobile trying to protect himself and ultimately killed by his instrument of inspiration – the pencil. The condition of artist’s block is ultimately a self-critique; a fear of failure and this is what is stopping him. As American novelist Jeffrey Eugenides once commented: “No one is waiting for you to write your first book. No one cares if you finish it.”
The film can also be interpreted as a dream. That Wade dreamt the story of the curse and his own death perhaps subconsciously looking for motivation for a real-life film. The scarce sound in the final scene suggest so, why does this scene, the most violent, remain so quiet? Is Milligan using the silence to portray to us that it was all in Wade’s subconcious? What is key to observe here is that we don’t actually see Nick’s face once [he?] has been killed. His head is out of shot and we see a body twitching. So is it actually him? The theory that one cannot die in one’s own dream feels pertinent. We cannot, as the viewer, 100% guarantee that the dead body is Wade’s. Death also symbolises rebirth & the start of something new, perhaps Wade is actually the pencil and is clearing the roadblock of his own consciousness and escaping his artist’s block that is the protagonist?
Remi Milligan’s directorial debut has the confidence and fearlessness of a young director baring his soul to the world without a care. Not only in the screenplay but the cinematography, camera shots, techniques, writing and above all the metaphorical subtext. Of course semi-autobiographical debuts are not unheard of for any director making his debut, last year’s bleak and brutal Nil By Mouth from fellow Londoner Gary Oldman is but one example, but we can only hope that Milligan continues to put out films coated & seething with such subtext, ready to be dissected.
THE GREEK CONNECTION & THE 1980s
Remi Milligan’s second feature is a homage – to his surroundings of north London and to the time and genre that has had the biggest influence in him blossoming from movie geek into fledgling director: the 1980s. The Greek Connection is a crime thriller, which follows a private investigator who has been hired to take down a notorious criminal organisation in the dangerous suburbs of north London. Following on from his debut, Killer Pencil: The Curse of the Inanimate Object, Milligan once again plays the hero of the piece, the director himself a Londoner – born in 1974 in the suburbs in which the fast-paced crime thriller takes place, he clearly knows this world and soaks every shot with that gritty feel of which he is familiar – he is a child of 80’s having spent his formative years growing up in that hedonistic decade when excess wasn’t frowned upon, rather it was demanded. Having recently deed-polled his name to Remi Milligan (he was born Michael Benedetto to Italian immigrant parents), he has established production company Punchadolphin Productions and even hired a personal biographer to record all his continuing work. The shift from horror to action shows Remi Milligan isn’t afraid of taking risks and confining himself to one genre. As with his debut, the trademark B-movie grit is ever present: the dialogue here is not as polished as Killer Pencil but the grainy film, the tacky costumes and acting along with his penchant for absurd narratives and violence remains.
In a rare interview with Hotdog magazine last year, Remi claimed that the first time he watched Roadhouse (1989) at the age of sixteen, the die was cast. Patrick Swayze’s seminal OTT violent, ‘so good it’s bad movie’ was a huge influence on him. This can be seen in every aspect of TGC. The low budget, the violence, the central character, every pore of TGC oozes 80’s excess. The protagonist’s chivalrous attitude mirroring 80’s über-macho protagonists such as Swayze’s Dalton or Stallone’s Cobretti where sex & violence combine in sweaty style. Milligan plays Brutus Doyle (an on-the-nose pun on and nod to Gene Hackman’s character in the French Connection) a P.I. who is more in touch with his cigarette than his feelings, the cigarette representing his masculinity (whether lit or unlit). His stoicism is his key. He is a man of few words, the strong, silent magnetism foregoing the loquaciousness of more familiar 80’s heroes such as Marty McFly, John McClane or Dalton from Roadhouse and more akin to Harrison Ford’s Deckard or Stallone’s Rambo.
One of the most notable aspects of The Greek Connection’s homage to the 1980s is Milligan’s use of electronic/synthwave music. The use of electro-pop/synthpop is arguably the most fundamental and notable feature of 80’s films and this could have been just another low-budget movie with a generic score but Milligan’s intelligent use of music creates not only an atmosphere but another character. The synthwave is so rich and recognisable that the absence of too much dialogue is perfectly supplanted by the soundtrack, the music belies our intrigue, it characterises the detective’s confidence. No doubt growing up in that era Milligan would’ve been surrounded by new wave electro legends such as Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis and the opening title sequence is a glorious throwback to this. The Miami Vice style fluorescent green titles, the font & synthpop set our expectations – this is a film which oozes confidence and this is a director who knows what he is doing. No other decade can be defined as much by its music than the 1980s and this is why the electro-soundtrack instantaneously transports us emotionally back there. The great juxtaposition however, is the sudden stop and cut to black. Almost right in the middle of the title sequence, it stops and we are suddenly shocked into a setting that is about as far from the glamour of Miami as one could get. Swapping the colourful backdrop of 80’s thrillers like Scarface or Miami Vice, Milligan prefers the gritty London streets where scum and graffiti permeate the crack of every brick. Shiny skyscrapers, ubiquitous palm trees and corrupt lawyers make way for the filth of an abandoned factory, rusted pipes poking out from every direction creating a labyrinth of grime.
The 1980s were a time of questionable but memorable fashion and that is evident in TGC. The detective sports his overcoat (in the sunshine no less), he quickly finds the hostage – a damsel in distress wearing a see-through tank top yet covered in sexy pink pastel garb & garish hair – while the villain borders on cartoonish with no backstory offered. Said villain is dispatched of as quickly as he’s discovered and here we get the classic slow-motion replays of his gratuitous shooting, the blood erupting from the squib after he begins falling to the ground. There are then evident sound issues when we meet the next bad guy – who is found and surrenders meekly as the detective escapes with the girl. Even though he is speaking on a mobile phone the sound throughout the shot is muffled, something that was not surprising in the 80’s when surround sound wasn’t conceived. All shots cut abruptly to black with the music also truncated. This dis-jointed feel only adds to the retro atmosphere and our hero has time to light a cigarette before making his getaway. Despite the fact he’s surely in a rush, he retains his coolness – the coat, stubble, the sunglasses, the attitude, the machismo, it’s so frightfully close to Cobra that he is one leather jacket away from receiving a cease and desist letter from Stallone’s lawyers. Another cut to black hits us and we then land into the ultimate 80’s staple…a car chase. Disconsolate rear projections of London backdrops are applied ramping up the nostalgia. While Sonny Crockett may have been blessed with a collection of super sexy cars in Miami Vice our detective doesn’t have the Ferrari Testarossa that was so ubiquitous in the 80’s – he instead has to settle for a 1978 VW Polo.
It is clear that Remi Milligan considers the over-the-top style of the 1980s and its themes fundamental to the action thriller genre. If the 1980s were an artist then the action genre was its magnum opus. Action films never recaptured that simultaneous grit & new wave coolness in the decade after. The Greek Connection is the ultimate example of this. The 80’s style and tropes served to enhance the genre and bring it out of the darker dramas of the 1970s. Of course, there have been action films in the preceding and following decades but it was the 1980s when it felt as if the genre was truly born. The notable bridge being Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood which was seen by many as the perfect channel between the Vietnam dramas of the 70’s and the OTT action films which it almost single-handedly gave birth to in the 80’s. Violence was more gratuitous; women were dispatched of brutally with massive guns (another symbol of the male phallic power) with less censorship scrutiny than in today’s era. The 80’s were unapologetic in everything – fashion, music and over-the-top action combined to help the Action genre reach its peak. Like many artists who peak too early such as Spike Lee with Do The Right Thing, that self-indulgent time is a nostalgic drug we all want to take and recapture. Remi Milligan plays to his strengths and remains just as unapologetic and confident in his direction and storytelling as those he grew up idolising. Unfortunately, he was seriously injured while attempting a car stunt on the set of TGC last year and his health has since declined rapidly. This could be why the film feels slightly incomplete; the feel-good ending we are so accustomed to from the 80’s is notably absent. As always with Milligan, he continues to elude the mainstream media and details around the accident, as most of his life, remain shrouded in mystery.
FLAMINIA MASINA - NEVER A DAMSEL, ALWAYS IN DISTRESS
Remi Millgan’s third feature, Song and Dance at Guantanamo Bay, sees him team up with Greek Connection collaborator Flaminia Masina. Once again shifting genres, Milligan’s latest film is a move away from seminal action into a musical with socio-political & satirical undertones. The premise is bizarre; a dance troupe is mistaken for a group of wanted terrorists, taken to the infamous Cuban detention facility and tortured. Considering the themes and styles of his first two films, it initially seems a wayward move from Milligan to produce a musical and fuse it with such serious subject matter and is an obvious critique on America’s stance on human rights of detainees in Guantanamo. Considering that GTMO was a response by the US Government to last year’s attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th and the empathetic sentiment towards America’s hard-line stance on terrorists in this political climate, it is a risky move for a relatively new director to approach and address such a deep and scathing topic.
Guantanamo Bay was only opened in January of this year and while Michael Moore has already launched his own commentary this year on the alarming state of America’s gun violence with Bowling for Columbine, Remi Milligan lands his own assessment on America’s record of human rights abuses in musical form. However, Milligan has created more than just a musical; this is a political assault that engages the viewer immediately and immerses them into his world. The songs and lyrics, while entertaining, are also the tools with which Milligan uses to attack the policies surrounding the infamous Cuban detention centre. The sing-a-long style, words popping up on screen (helped along by a small black face hood) along with heavily amended lyrics of classics such as ‘The Hills Are Alive’ and ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’ drips satire like water torture on a GTMO inmate.
Why would Remi Milligan make such a film? He is clearly a man with something to say. Like all deep-thinking artistes, he uses his creativity and medium to convey his deepest and most tortured personal feelings. All three of his films have themes of struggle be it personal, mental or physical. Killer Pencil, a metaphor for artist block as the protagonist struggles to find inspiration. The Greek Connection, a detective contains his emotion while the damsel in distress struggles to convey her appreciation of being rescued. In Song and Dance the theme of struggle to achieve one’s goal continues with what we traditionally associate a lead action protagonist is flipped on its head. Throughout the film we see the dance troupe being repeatedly beaten and tortured, the only way they can express their feelings is through song. Are they really terrorists or have they been wrongly apprehended? This is never clearly answered but the fact that Flaminia Masina’s de facto leader of the group escapes with such skill and cold-bloodedness, it would be safe to assume they are.
Song and Dance, along with its obvious social commentary, is also one big metaphor for the emergence of strong female characters on film. A production about (alleged) terrorists breaking out of a prison with a male lead would’ve been predictable and interestingly it is the only film of Remi Milligan’s in which he has not starred himself. This is a key factor considering he played the main role in both his previous films but in Song and Dance he takes a back seat and has clearly found an actor whom he trusts. Flaminia Masina is to Milligan what Linda Hamilton was to James Cameron – an actress of considerable talent who in her most famous role of Sarah Connor was capable of transforming from docile every-woman who needed saving in the first Terminator film to a symbol of ultimate girl power, ready to die for her cause in the imperious sequel. These values and character traits are reflected in Masina, she is clearly a strong woman not in need of saving, rather saving those around her.
We first see Masina in Song and Dance practicing a routine with her dance troupe dressed in a loose pink jumper with a black bra underneath – a clear nod to her role in TGC where she sported the same colours in reverse. The troupe is arrested and detained at Guantanamo, tortured by sadistic prison wardens. All this with Milligan’s trademark trashy B-movie opening credits sequence in full flight. The torture sequences are all portrayed through jaunty musical numbers contrasting the horror of the situation. While the rest of the team look fearful and crushed, Masina remains angry, scheming a clear plan in her mind. She shoots her abuser without so much as a blink – blood splattering orgasmic all over her face – frees the troupe from torture and invoking her inner Ellen Ripley, fights off her captors and escapes through a chain-linked fence and leads the team to freedom. Holding the wire up for the rest to getaway, Masina remains the last to leave emphasising her leadership of the group. Her escape is without a hint of fear, weakness or submissiveness, contradicting everything we saw of her in The Greek Connection. In Milligan’s previous film she was reduced to a kind of nouveau damsel in distress saved by the detective but not grateful for it, never advancing on her hero sexually, rather chastises him for his antics. In Song and Dance, there is no mistaking her as the dominant personality, the sexy centre of chaos and rebellion against authority; she is not only attacking her abusers but also attacking the societal norms of oppressed females.
These themes of female empowerment, rebellion against the establishment along with the social critique against Guantanamo Bay, make Song and Dance feel revolutionary, breaking misogynistic cycles and shifting social paradigms. This is Remi Milligan’s most cerebral and interesting work yet.