“8, 16, 32”: Brick, Looper and Rian Johnson

I had planned to write this recap/review a lot sooner – as in, the same evening or the day after the event, when everything was fresh. But this happened, so here it is, nearly a week later and with a lot more paraphrasing (take note when reading the ‘quotes’) and vaguely trying to remember things.

First thing: I’m going to keep referring to Rian Johnson as Rian Johnson, in full. It seems a little cheeky  to call him Rian, since I’ve never actually spoken to him; Mr Johnson is far too formal. Johnson makes this read as far more proper film writing than it is. So, Rian Johnson. [Note: this gets a bit annoying later on, but at least I’m consistent.]

The Prince Charles Cinema (PCC) originally planned a BRICK/THE MALTESE FALCON doublebill. Rian Johnson, it turns out, follows the PCC on Twitter (@ThePCCLondon)– being that it’s an amazing cinema and rightly world renowned (Quentin Tarantino also loves it; Kevin Smith has a toilet cubicle there).  When they announced on Twitter that they were showing BRICK, he upped and offered to take time out from his holiday to drop in and do a Q&A.  So they moved THE MALTESE FALCON to the other screen, and added LOOPER to the doublebill (and honoured all tickets already bought for single films as being for the doublebill).

Full disclosure: Mostly, I like to rip films to shreds – even ones I enjoy. I like discussing plot points and what ifs and, like any internet armchair critic, I relish spotting plotholes. But then there’s some films that come along, and they really entertain me, make me concentrate, make me invest in the characters. The acting blows me away, I love the story and am willing to forgive anything and suspend my disbelief and not question anything shaky too closely.  BRICK and LOOPER are films like this, and it’s a rare director that manages to deliver two such films for me – so this isn’t really a film critique, or, indeed, a Q&A review, because I love both films and don’t want to critique them. Whenever people give me reasons why they really aren’t their thing, or issues they had with the plots, I find myself shrugging and switching off, because I just don’t care. And it’s not really a Q&A review because I hold Rian Johnson and his writing and directing abilities in very high esteem, so he would have had to truly be an asshole to dislodge my general respect. And in the event, he was most definitely not an asshole.

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Rian Johnson on stage, being interesting and engaging and upstaging the rather gorgeous backdrop.

In fact at the Q&A, before he even really started answering questions, he told  the audience how pleased he was to be visiting such a great cinema, and how lucky we all are to have it – which just prompted an audience already ready to like him (we had just watched BRICK, after all) to really, really like him. He also took a picture of us all (can you spot me?)

A lot of people had questions (mostly concerning BRICK, because the Q&A took place after that) about the writing process, the editing process, use of location. Speaking of which – question-askers, where did you all learn to sound so damn professional? I stutter like a fool in front of large crowds, but you lot reeled off eloquent askings as though you’d been trained to it for TV.

He answered the (extremely good) questions openly and helpfully. And inspirationally, actually. I can’t be the only person who sat there aching to film something, anything, after he described making short after short as practice (“Go to film school if you really want to, but go somewhere that’s a film hub, with contacts. Otherwise, just keep making films. I used toy soldiers in one of mine, just to film something.”) , and the terror of finally filming BRICK and working with professional actors for the first time (“I thought they had a code and I’d ask them to do something and they’d be like, ‘What’s the code word’?”) after seven years of pulling together funding. The actors thing is something that the guys over at The Fitzroy can probably appreciate.  He talked about casting, and being able to spot the actor he needed for a role as soon as they walked in (and this is an instinct that is obviously dead right).

He also discussed not wanting to treat the viewer as stupid – the importance of not hitting them over the head with every bit of information, and said that there are reams and reams of information concerning the world LOOPER is set in that never made it into the film. I think he said he could write a book on it. I might have imagined that out of hope because myself and friends spent a while theorising about that world and, Rian Johnson, should you ever read this, that would be an amazing book.

No one managed to get any plot info on the final season of BREAKING BAD, though.

I can attest that Rian Johnson also stuck around in the bar during LOOPER, chatting to people. I know this because I ducked out to go to the bathroom, failed to spot the reason for the gathering, and on the way back in, realised. Then I wallflowered for about two minutes, trying to figure out if I could break into the conversation to say hi. Then I realised I had nothing to actually say beyond going, ‘Holy shit, I love your work!’ which is not a good reason to break into someone else’s discussion, so I slunk back to LOOPER. I’m such a socially adept charmer. I’m actually annoyed with myself because more than anything else, what came across in the Q&A is that Rian Johnson is a really nice, really interesting film buff and he’d be great to have a drink with.  But hell, he replied to a tweet. That’s almost the same, right?


BRICK and LOOPER – on seeing them together

I am disinclined to write synopses of the films here, so in the event that you haven’t watched them,  please Google if necessary. Also, spoiler alerts all the way through.

I hadn’t seen BRICK in about eight years. I watched it (with CM and about five other people) when it came out on limited release in Wales, then again on DVD. It was tremendous back then, and it’s aged well. CM wrote an essay about it for his MA (before making a zombie film noir, which was tremendous fun to film [for me, anyway, playing a zombie and doing the make-up], but I digress). I’d been reading about BRICK in Empire and online – there was some hype about it – and had asked that we go (but didn’t have to do a lot of convincing the others). I also remember that it was an Orange Wednesday, because we decided to stick around afterwards and watch Michael Mann’s MIAMI VICE, which isn’t his best film under any circumstances, but viewed immediately after BRICK it really didn’t stand a chance. I mention this because BRICK blew me away yet again and this double bill was the third time that I’ve watched LOOPER since its cinematic release – but I was still hooked on it.

It was particularly interesting watching the two of them back-to-back because although they are, on the surface, very different stories (with very different budgets), two slightly bizarre parallels jump out:

Hair stroking – Joseph Gordon Levitt getting his hair stroked by women in sad, mourning-the-death-of-a-friend, sex situations (cf Laura in BRICK, just before she essentially seduces him, and with Suzie in LOOPER). He does have nice hair.

Limps – in both films there is a potentially dangerous character with a gammy leg (the Pin, with his built-up shoe and eagle cane, and Kid Blue, with his shot foot).

And, less parallels, but things that struck me and made me wonder slightly about the influence of aging and real life on script writing.

Parents – In BRICK, the parents are oblivious. Brendan avoids his mother entirely; no one is monitoring the parties; and the Pin’s mother is apparently clueless of the dealings going on in her basement.  The total lack of adult intervention ends in a bloodbath. In LOOPER, the presence of parental figures are key. Sarah (played by Emily Blunt, a great bit of casting) is the possible saviour of, well, everyone if she keep her son with her. She loves him enough to stay, even though she’s scared of what he can do. Note, I never feel that she’s scared of him – the scene where she hides from him, but will not run from him, speaks volumes about the relationship. Much is made of the need for a mother’s love, because without them, men like Abe (played by Jeff Daniels, at once genial and chilling – a man who’s taken over a city because he’s bored) step into the breach, and you get something like the messed-up, manipulative father/son  of Abe and Kid Blue. The epitome of a destructive relationship –the kind of thing  waiting for Cid if he ends up out in the world alone.

Joseph Gordon Levitt/Noah Segan conflict  – I kind of wondered if the pitting of these actors against each other in the roles they’re in is some sort of in-joke between them and Rian Johnson.  I can’t say that the Brendan/Joe v Dode/Kid Blue conflict is a simple light versus dark.  It would be wrong to have them down as polar opposites.  Joe and Brendan have their demons and anger. They are withdrawn, they are angry – but they are cool, calm and calculating about using that anger compared to Dode/Kid Blue’s inarticulate rage and need to be needed. With precarious social positions and relationships (with Abe and Emily) threatened by the presence of Joe/Brendan, Dode and Kid Blue are the fall guys for JGL’s loner leads. They highlight the charisma of JGL’s roles, and they are, actually, the characters I cry for.

Special mention for Noah Segan here, because the world and his dog worships JGL (with good reason – check out www.hitrecord.org. The man is a font of creativity and apparently a genuinely nice guy to boot), while Noah Segan, who matches JGL for onscreen presence, is undeservedly less well-known. He takes characters which could have been played with little sympathy and more derisive comedy, and turns them into sad anti-heroes that you actually care about (or I do, anyway), and that might not have been the case if they’d been played by anyone else.

Dode is inarticulate and lost in a world of drugs. Kid Blue is desperate for recognition by Abe. Both are manipulated by people they care about, but who do not care as much for them. I can’t read Kid Blue as truly malicious – just trying so, so hard, and ending up so angry as he’s pushed aside or punished again and again. And Dode’s anger at Emily’s death seems to be as much at himself for failing to keep her safe as at the man he thinks killed her. Both films have their moments, but it’s Dode’s death that makes me cry in BRICK, and it’s Kid Blue giving up his gat that makes me sob in LOOPER.* (That scene is no small thing. Remember the conversation Abe has with Joe about giving Joe his blunderbuss, about giving him something that’s his? And then they take Kid Blue’s something away. It’s heartbreaking how he keeps going back to be kicked again, and double heartbreaking that he goes on to try and avenge the death of the father figure that treated him with nothing but derision. ) This has all gone a bit film school essay, sorry.  And, Jesus, looking at where my sympathies lie I’m suddenly wondering if I should maybe turn this sort of analysis to my own relationships.

What a self-involved note to end on. Whatever.  It’s my blog.

*Actually, Cid also makes me cry in LOOPER – seriously, if nothing else about the film tempts you to watch it, you should do it because this is child acting at its absolute best. Haley Joel Osment is nothing compared to Pierce Gagnon. Cid makes me cry on a personal level, though, because he looks an awful lot like my nephew (who I’m sure would love to be able to blow things up with his mind and can match those evil glares squint for squint) and whenever he is sad or upset it just kills me. Emotionally, I mean. Not in a telekinetic explosion.

5 thoughts on ““8, 16, 32”: Brick, Looper and Rian Johnson

  1. It’s always nice to see a little Noah Segan appreciation! Dode and Kid Blue are my favorite characters in those films as well.

    Have you seen Rian’s second film, The Brothers Bloom? There’s another villain with a limp there, and an animal head cane too.


  2. Thanks for reading!

    I have only seen part of The Brothers Bloom (annoyingly – I keep meaning to watch it properly). But that’s interesting. Is there any hair stroking at all on a lead character?


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