The mid-European style of American dystopia

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A Mercedes E-class sedan in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Watching the two seasons of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, one thing becomes apparent very early on: Gilead’s ruling class loves Mercs! The commanders and their wives love to be ferried around in luxurious black Mercedes sedans and SUVs. Gilead’s rulers’ fascination with the German brand is such that although the totalitarian regime uses cars of other brands, Mercs are the only cars “allowed” to bear a brand logo! Look closely and you’ll see that all the (blacked-out) Lincolns, Fords and Cadillac SUVs are stripped of their logos, as if these are reviled reminders of an era when their passengers were the happy families of the American Dream.

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Gilead “govenment” SUVs – all branding has been removed.

This choice of car-maker is not just a stylistic preference; like everything else in the show, cars are carefully chosen for their contextual associations. Mercedes is a symbol of wealth and power — it was also Hitler’s luxury car-maker of choice. The German cars are significant even when they are not used: in episode 11 in season 2, when Offred finally finds a vehicle to escape with, it is a shiny 1975 Chevrolet Camaro, carefully hidden in an inconspicuous shed. This proudly American (logos and all) car is obviously a symbol of freedom; it is also the only piece of streamlined, classic American design across all 23 episodes of both seasons.

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Commander Waterfords’s house: an 1893 Victorian mansion in Hamilton, Ontario.

Mercs are not the only European “import” in The Handmaid’s Tale. Julie Berghoff, the production designer of the first 5 episodes and the other designers of the show have carefully “erased” any sign of Americana from the world of Gilead, and replaced it entirely with middle-European influences. Gone are the classic American diners with the chrome-edged counters. Gone are the 1950s and 1960s motel signs and classic American graphics. Architecture is strictly limited to the styles of turn-of-the-century Victorian and Gothic Revival for the houses of the commanders and of Bauhaus-inspired modernist for public spaces. The setting and the filming locations are key in this decision; the story is set in New England, home of some of the oldest, European-influenced housing in the U.S.; the filming locations in and around Toronto, Canada are of similar age and match the mid-European styling perfectly. In fact, when Offred walks across the River Humber you would be forgiven in thinking she is strolling along the banks of the Rhein, somewhere in Cologne or Basel.

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Humber river in Toronto, Canada, as used in The Handmaid’s Tale

In horror films (psychological or otherwise), the use of European aesthetic influences in American settings is not a new thing. From Psycho, to The Exorcist, and more recently to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, the preferred architectural style for every haunted house, mysterious mansion or cobweb-covered abandoned estate, is resolutely middle-European. In dark fantasy it is the same; Tim Burton, and more recently Guillermo del Toro have built their careers exploring (and exploiting) the European — mainly Gothic — artistic heritage to embellish their dark fairy-tales. Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is the most obvious, recent example; the story unfolds in Baltimore, Maryland but the sets resemble a darker, crumbling version of Amelie’s Paris. It is similar to the “villain with the British accent” fad in action films; if there is a house or other setting where sinister or highly dramatic things are about to happen, it is bound to be old and it is bound to be of European architectural heritage.

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Elisa’s apartment in The Shape of Water.

This approach has now almost become a cliché, but in The Handmaid’s Tale, it works exceptionally well, supported by an appropriately muted, “Nordic” colour palette. The costume design reinforces the concept, with the European element represented by the Amish-inspired handmaids’ uniforms and the black-clad government guards and officials (taken straight from the Nazi uniforms of the SS and the Italian fascist blackshirts). With the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale approaching soon, we can only expect even more European luxury cars and classically decorated, Victorian mansions on show. Hopefully the new episodes will also remain free of villains with British accents!

The Unbearable Lightness of (period) Detail

A favourite scene from Philip Kauffman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being came up on my YouTube feed the other day. So I clicked play and watched Thomas tell his lover Sabina that “her hat is the detail that makes her totally different from all other women”. Sabina then explains how this bowler hat is very, very old because it belonged to her great, great grandfather. At that point, my mind drifted to something completely different. I thought: “This hat looks way too new. Surely it cannot be a hundred years old.”

Therein lies the curse of the designer obsessed with period-accurate detail. Being able to freely revisit scenes from your favourite films on YouTube means that you get to discover previously unnoticed flaws (in this case, a minor flaw — it was the right hat; it maybe needed a bit of ageing down).

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). The bowler hat.

In my career, I have been lucky to have worked with designers and directors who took historical accuracy seriously. I can still remember the late Antony Minghella visiting the props department of Cold Mountain, in our offices in an abandoned office block just outside Prague, to check the hand-sewn Confederate and Union military flags we had made locally. He said to us: “We have a duty to all the people that died in the battle of Petersburg to get these right”.

For Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, I was once sent from London on a day trip to the University of Sussex’s archive in Brighton, with the sole purpose of photographing Virginia Woolf’s original letters, so they could be accurately reproduced for the film, using period-accurate fountain pens, ink and paper.

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The Hours (2002). Virginia Woolf’s letter.

No such dedication seems to exist in a lot of recent shows, where periods seem to blend, 50s electric wall clocks have no cords, and Victorian newspapers feature inkjet-printed photos. I am not talking about small, no-budget productions here. Even big, expensive shows like Amazon’s recent adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock seem to take liberties with period styling, mixing fashion and architectural styles and infusing the visuals with modern touches, producing results that in some cases resemble pastiche. It is not always the art department’s fault. More often than not, these are “strategic” choices of the director and the producers, in an effort to repackage the show for a modern audience. The art department is just following instructions.

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Sleeveless Victorian frock? Tinted specs? Early 1900s Australia looks very Lagerfeld. Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018)

What is even more irritating, is that even respectable film and TV critics don’t seem to notice this lapse in historical accuracy. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw hailed Call Me By Your Name as a “ravishingly beautiful film”. I guess any film shot in the summertime Italian countryside and starring handsome actors can be called “ravishingly beautiful”, but I’m afraid the recreation of early 80s Italy is questionable. Shirts are too baggy, shorts are too long, every motorbike is a shiny Vespa, the family seems to own the entire back catalogue of Lacoste polo shirts, and so on. It looks more like a fashion editorial, than an attempt to recreate a period. And don’t even get me started on props. I still can’t get over the shiny, modern Illy coffee tins.

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Call Me By Your Name (2017). Shinny modern Illy coffee tins in 80s Italy.

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Timeline of Illy coffee tin designs.

Of course, this is not a new problem. And sure, there are still examples out there of films and film-makers who respect historical accuracy — check Tom Ford’s A Single Man if you want to get a dose of impeccable 50s styling. I just feel that in the age of Netflix and Amazon Video, the examples are few and far between.

This might sound like a rant about things that are really not that important, but I feel that Antony Minghella was right. As professionals charged with the task of recreating past periods, we do have a duty to get things right — or at least as right as possible. Otherwise, we are at risk of producing work that is homogenised, and with no contextual bearing in reality. And when we get things right, it does make a difference. Look at Barry Lyndon, and the amazing set and costume work that looks like it jumped out of a Constable landscape or a Gainsborough social scene. In 50 years from now, every film school in the world will still hold it as the golden standard of period styling. Who is going to remember Amazon’s adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock?

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Barry Lyndon (1974) Period styling, done properly.

 

The trouble with Twin Peaks

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The famous “Welcome to Twin Peaks sign”.

Three years ago, I signed a petition to save Twin Peaks. Showtime had just announced that due to contract differences with David Lynch, it would not go ahead with plans to produce the long-awaited third season of the cult TV series. I was a huge fan, and I felt compelled to help out in any way I could. After all, this was the show that had opened my mind to the limitless potential of television, all those years back.

Yesterday, I watched the final episode of the new,  third season of Twin Peaks, that my signature (along with 30000 others) helped to get off the ground. It was episode number 18, and watching the final credits roll felt like crossing the finish line of a long, mental marathon. It was an awkward experience, punishing and rewarding at the same time (more punishing than rewarding, actually), wrapped up in a bleak finale. People I know, fans of the first and second season, just like me, gave up long before episode 18 — they just couldn’t invest the time and effort to watch what seemed like an exercise in self-indulgence. I can’t blame them, because many times I felt the same.

There are fans out there who loved it — I occasionally visit the forums, and have come across Lynch die-hards analysing the episodes with admiration — but there is a general numbness in most people’s reaction; with the exception of a few moments of Lynchian brilliance (see episode 8), this was not the Twin Peaks we had loved and missed all these years. One can go on analysing what’s missing this time round, but I feel it can be summarised thus: save for a fleeting glimpse in the penultimate episode, the famous ‘Welcome to Twin Peaks’ sign was nowhere to be seen.

 

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Alphaville. Dir. Jean Luc Godard (1965)

I discovered the use (and power) of signs in film design, early in my art department career. I was fortunate to work with production designers who appreciated and used signs in their films, both as a narrative tool and to convey information. I have used them in my own films — in my short The Village, the main character restores the village’s sign to express his longing for communication. And I have admired how some directors use signs as a way to negotiate the limitations of a small budget. Look at Godard’s neon signs in Alphaville: a simple, neon-lit ‘Sud’ turns 1960s Paris into a sci-fi metropolis. Or Lanthimos’ clever and funny ‘transformation room’ sign in The Lobster. The act of humans transforming into animals, delivered, not by state-of-the-art special effects, but with a simple sign above a door.

 

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The Lobster. Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (2015)

So, it is only natural that I came to love the ‘Welcome to Twin Peaks’ sign. And I wasn’t alone. During and after the first season was broadcast, it was everywhere: in the show’s main titles, on the cover of the best-selling soundtrack, on the posters and much of the merchandise. Steven LaRose, the artist who painted it, claimed that he spent no more than a couple of hours making it; nevertheless, I think it was a masterpiece of American naïve art — at the same time welcoming, and evocative of the small-town dread that Lynch so masterfully used to weave his fable.

I think the absence of this sign epitomises the trouble with the new season: distant locations (including France!), aloof characters, and more time spent in the Red Room than in all the town’s locations put together. Twin Peaks the show is not about the town of Twin Peaks, any more.

Perhaps that was the whole point. The TV landscape in the era of internet streaming is too vast to be preoccupied with a small American town in the Pacific Northwest. And, granted, there is still no other TV show that comes even close to this show’s audacity and willingness to challenge the conventions of televised entertainment. I just wish there was more of the charm and humanity of the original. And more of the sign that read: ‘Welcome to Twin Peaks, Population 50,201’.

 

The Village Sign

Carlo Simi: Framing the Action

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You may or may not be a fan of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, but there is no escaping the fact that they have an enduring influence; Quentin Tarantino, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese are self-confessed fans, and Clint Eastwood dedicated his Oscar for Unforgiven to Leone. I grew up with spaghetti westerns — there was a time in the ’80s that they were a staple on Greek television, and not just Leone’s well-known ones, but also obscure ones by Sergio Corbucci, Enzo Barboni and others. Some of these were real gems — I still think Corbucci’s The Great Silence is one of the best revisionist westerns to come from either side of the Atlantic. The main reason I liked spaghetti westerns was the iconography: the low-angle shots of larger-than-life characters, the stylised action and the comic-book sensibility that was so different from anything coming from the United States. They were also great fun to watch.

Instrumental in the creation of that iconography was the work of production designer Carlo Simi, Leone’s collaborator and designer of films like For a Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Looking at Leone’s films again, one can identify the visual devices and the carefully structured staging that Simi and Leone used to establish this highly stylised world. One of these visual devices was the way they used the architecture, the locations and the landscape to frame the action. A good example is the famous shootout in Sad Hill, the cemetery in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Setting this climactic scene within the big circular centre of the cemetery elevates the characters from mere combatants to high-drama actors on stage in an ancient tragedy. This action framing is found everywhere in Simi’s work; every whitewash archway, every telegraph pole or wooden fence frames or complements a dramatic moment.

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Above: Ancient Roman Amphitheatre in Fiesole, Italy. Below: Sad Hill cemetery.

Highly stylised staging can be risky in cinema. In the hands of a less talented director, actors can become parodies of themselves, and in the hands of a less talented designer, stylised settings can lose their grounding in reality. Leone and Simi were clever enough to infuse their stylised settings with a great deal of historically accurate detail, thus making them believable. The Spanish location builds, like the famous town of ‘El Paso’ built in the desert of Tabernas in Almeria, look more real than the real thing. They easily compare with or surpass the detail in the best films of Ford or Peckinpah. But Simi did not just create the sets. He also designed the costumes, and is credited with the creation of the iconic poncho-caped look of Eastwood’s “man with no name” character.

A testament to Simi’s influence is how much his costume and set designs have been imitated throughout the years, not just in westerns, but also in commercials, music videos and indeed in the work of postmodernist directors like Tarantino. Carlo Simi’s work in realising Sergio Leone’s vision of the Wild West illustrates perfectly how a production designer’s influence can occasionally define and characterise an entire genre, but also reach beyond that.

For more information about Carlo Simi, check out a Facebook page dedicated to his life and work here.

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Carlo Simi (left) with Sergio Leone (right)

 

As close to the first time as it gets

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I got into film making because of Star Wars. In the summer of 1982, at the age of 10, I walked over a kilometre on my own to my local cinema to watch – alone ­­– The Empire Strikes Back (amazing that there was a time when a 10-year-old was allowed this in Kallithea, one of the busiest suburbs of Athens). I remember the cinema’s name was Etoile (Star in French) which, in hindsight, adds an extra layer of magic to my memories. I remember the lights going down, John Williams’ score booming through the stereo speakers and then … well, an experience like nothing I had ever felt before. When the lights went on again, I emerged from the cinema awestruck, floating above the pavements of Athens like a mesmerised X-wing pilot. It was a life-changing event, and needless to say, I was hooked. Hooked on Star Wars, and hooked on cinema.

When the prequels came out, like a lot of Star Wars fans of my generation, I found the weak characters and video-game aesthetics extremely lacking. I thought Lucas had not treated his own franchise, and the fans’ expectations, with respect. And like a lot of Star Wars fans, I greeted the news of a new Star Wars film with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The snippets of information emerging from the film’s production were encouraging: the original characters were back, practical effects were replacing the CGI onslaught, real three-dimensional sets had been built, etc. When J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens finally came out, I was more than pleasantly surprised.  Despite my cynicism, acquired over 34 years of watching and studying film, I felt this was a worthy successor to the film I had watched back in 1982.

I have to say that I was not a fan of J. J. Abrams work before The Force Awakens, mainly because I had moved on from fantasy TV series and action-adventure genres. But I thought The Force Awakens was the work of a very clever director. He made a film catering to both new and old fans, with a dose of nostalgia and with new vibrant characters to advance the franchise. OK, the plot wasn’t terribly original, but Abrams made a shrewd decision to build on the old universe rather than replace it. He also realised that the main theme of the first trilogy was loyalty – loyalty to family, to a cause, to one’s beliefs. With Finn, Abrams introduces a protagonist whose awakening and launch to the limelight arises from an inner conflict: between loyalty to his masters and loyalty to his own values — a reflection of Luke Skywalker’s predicament in the first trilogy. Rey has all the charm and focus of Princess Leia, and she carries the baton of dynamic female characters with remarkable ease.

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Apart from the very clever work on the characters, there was some outstanding work in the design department. Star Wars, for the first time since Return of the Jedi in 1983, looks and feels familiar. Rick Carter, Darren Gilford and their art department have studied carefully the original Ralph McQuarrie designs: the new planets, vehicles, interiors and characters look like they belong to the same familiar universe. All the real-world references to existing or historic structures and objects (which contributed to the success of the original Star Wars) are there. I love for example how the triangular shape of a Star Destroyer crashed in the desert of Jakku resembles the pyramids in Egypt. The fact that a lot of the sets are built with real three-dimensional materials, aged and weathered, instead of being a sum of pixels on a computer screen, adds the realism that even sci-fi needs, to properly come to life.

Watching The Force Awakens made me feel a bit like a child again. That’s its biggest accomplishment, at least for a 45-year-old fan. Of course, as with all things in life, there is only one first time. They say that you can never repeat the excitement of your first kiss, the thrill of the first time you were given a pet, or the pleasure of the first time you read your favourite book, and this is definitely true for me and Star Wars. While the impact of the first time I watched The Empire Strikes Back can never be repeated, The Force Awakens is as close to the first time as it gets.