Over the weekend, to coincide with the release of their sixth album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, Arctic Monkeys transformed Golden Age––a small boutique cinema and bar underneath an art deco building in Sydney––into an Arctic Monkeys pop-up store. Aside from the addition of a merch table in the middle of the bar, the venue didn’t need much transforming: it was already the perfect encapsulation of the band’s new 70s lounge sound, decorated with mustard-coloured velvet drapes, dim lighting, and plush, intimate booths.
These pop-ups took place in Sheffield, New York, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo too, but Sydney got something extra: the band programmed five films to play in the Golden Age cinema over the course of the weekend. So, naturally, I did what any semi-sane music writer would do: I spent my entire weekend at the pop-up, watching every single film.
When I enter Golden Age on Friday night to watch the first set of films, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is playing on repeat in the bar. Hearing Alex Turner croon “I’m Jesus in the day spa” and how he got “too wild in the 70s”, makes me cringe. I’m filled with dread, a feeling which was, in hindsight, an omen for what I was about to endure.
The venue is packed, teeming with fans hovering around the merch stand. The store, manned by workers dressed in matching red jumpsuits from the band’s “Four Out Of Five” video, is selling the new record, alongside other album-related wares: lyric books, tote bags, diamond-shaped keyrings fashioned to look like retro hotel room keys. You can buy blown-up matte posters of the little hotel diorama that appears on the album cover, or one with Alex Turner, cloaked in darkness, hovering over that same diorama, looking like a giant.
Most of the crowd is in their late 20 and 30s, many of them sporting Turner’s style circa- AM, leather jackets and gelled-back hair in abundance. Many are seemingly long-time fans, with a lot them exiting the venue with a brown paper bag stuffed full of merch. And, perhaps most surprisingly, dozens of those who turned up are, like me, ready to endure hours upon hours of (mostly) terrible 70s cinema.
Le Cercle Rouge (1970), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville (140 minutes)
The first film programmed for the night is French crime thriller Le Cercle Rouge. The screening is crammed: extra chairs are set up inside, and Arctic Monkeys fans jostle their way into the cinema holding beers and fancy cheese platters.
In a recent interview, Turner said he was inspired by the interiors of Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime noirs while writing the new album. The film’s score, a dark, atmospheric, orchestral set, feels akin with the album too.
The movie is about criminals and cops, and how their lives are bound to intersect. It is very gloomy, and existential, and French.There is little to no dialogue in Le Cercle Rouge. Instead, men just stare at each other with disdain and smoke cigarettes.
Literally every man (and there are a lot!) in this film wears either a nude-coloured trench coat or black suit and skinny tie. Many of them wear fedoras. It becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain who is who, because they are similarly-looking frenchmen wearing the same damn outfit. There is only one female character in this film. She has one line in the entire movie. She says “What is it?” while fully nude.
This movie is very, very long, its centerpiece a half-hour long wordless jewelery heist. The New York Times called it “exquisitely choreographed”. It is boring. Melville shows you everything: From the asaliants slowly maneuvering their bodies to avoid detection, to them making glacial-pace cuts into glass. During this sequence, the guy sitting next to me dozes off and starts softly snoring.
I thought these films wouldn’t have any tie to the Arctic Monkeys record aside from aesthetic, but the way Le Cercle Rouge is constructed feels of a feather with Tranquility Base. The film resists brass theatrics in a genre that now has become so reliant on them, mirrored in the way Tranquility Base purposefully disregards discernible pop hooks. Le Cercle Rouge is forcefully long and, as in the 30-minute heist scene, forces you to appreciate detail, much like the album.
The Conversation (1974), directed by Francis Ford Coppola (113 minutes)
Made in the wake of the Watergate scandal, The Conversation is about privacy, suspicion, and surveillance. The film follows protagonist Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert, who becomes enveloped in crimes he unwillingly help instigate, which exacerbates his already growing delusions and paranoia about being recorded and followed.
In the end, this paranoia completely consumes him; he envisions blood casading out of toilet bowls, and tears his apartment to shreds––ripping up floorboards, smashing religious figurines and tearing down wallpaper––in desperate attempts to unearth what he believes to be a secret recording device bugging his home.
The Conversation is an excellent, arresting thriller, and watching it now, it feels like an eerie forewarning to privacy breaches and invasive datamining that have become so prevalent today. Listening to Tranquility Base, it’s clear that Alex Turner also sees technology as a threat, and often as a burden. He discusses getting sucked into his phone (“Batphone”), critiques our incessant scrolling (“The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip”) and Instagram addiction (“She Looks Like Fun”). When it comes to commentary on technology though, Turner’s diatribes feels tired and years too late.
L’Eclisse (1962), directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (126 minutes)
I have no precursory knowledge of this film going in, and when it starts I feel relieved. A light, black-and-white 60s italian romance film! Cute right?
The film centres around Vittoria, played by a young Monica Vitti, who strides around a bleak-looking Rome in a bunch of stylish shift dresses. Everything is nice and chill until suddenly, Vittoria is visiting a neighbour with another friend. The neighbour in question grew up in Kenya, and as she’s talking about the country, Monica Vitti, completely out of nowhere, appears in blackface, wearing a tribal necklace, wielding a spear while cartoonishly dancing. And then her neighbour calls everyone in Kenya “monkeys.” This movie won the special jury prize at Cannes in 1962.
Critics looking back at the film say Michelangelo Antonioni was trying to make some sort of criticism about racism amongst upper-class Italians, which seems like a cop out considering the film literally uses blackface to no good effect. This scene has very little to do with the rest of the movie: the rest of the film largely centers around the stock market and Vittoria’s new love interest, a sleazy, egotistical stockbroker. Other than that, it’s mostly just Monica Vitti leaning against various objects and sighing a lot.
There are lots of screaming Italians and stilted dialogue, and the end of the film is just a ten minute montage scene of random, outdoor shots. Ominous eerie piano music swells. Arctic Monkeys fans leave the cinema confounded––I hear one woman mutter to her partner “that wasn’t what I expected.” Same.
The Last Waltz (1978) directed by Martin Scorsese (116 minutes)
Because this entire program has been selected to torture me specifically, the next film is a documentary of The Band, the 70s roots group who were once Bob Dylan’s band.
This is basically a live concert of their supposedly last (they would reform in 1983) show in 1976. It’s interspersed with studio shots of the band performing, plus snippets of The Band being interviewed by Martin Scorsese.
These talking heads basically amount to the band complaining about road life––how it’s tough, how it’s unsustainable, how it breaks you. They’ve been doing this for sixteen years, they repeat over and over, to the point where in becomes some sort of infuriating and inane mantra. Every time one of the band members speaks, a woman sitting behind me howls with laughter. The Band never say anything remotely funny.
They have lots of famous friends. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell all show up to play with them. Eric Clapton appears briefly too, in a velvet blazer and ridiculously frilly blouse. There are lots of long, meandering guitar solos.
There’s not much substance here, so I spend the entire movie thinking about having the audacity to call yourself The Band when you’re a second-tier soft rock band who never reached the same heights as your contemporaries and collaborators.
Inherent Vice (2014), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (149 minutes)
Finally, I think, a movie made in this decade! But joke’s on me, as it’s set in the 1970s, and follows the trend of long-winded, rambling movies by men that Arctic Monkeys seem to love so much.
As I enter the cinema for the final time, the theatre attendant, noticing that I’ve been here for two days, says “You’re really slogging it out!” No shit, my dude. At this point, I’ve been at the cinema for over seven hours. The smell of popcorn now makes me feel like dry-retching.
In Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix plays a mumbling, perpetually stoned private investigator in LA who’s wrapped up in several conspiracies all at once. There is a lot going on in this movie:nazis, property developers, rehabilitation clinics, wild dentistry practitioners, Martin Short as a coked-up super-creep. The movie is awash with a hazy, manic energy, that make me feel as if I’ve become delirious. But in a way it’s a fitting note to end on. The film, like Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, is equal parts surreal and confounding, lacquered with dream-like imagery, sci-fi poetics and a grave sense of claustrophobia.
Overall, the films the band chose to program over the weekend were certainly reflective of Arctic Monkeys’ values. Most of the films were cult classics, not necessarily popular or well-known, but certainly canonised and deemed culturally significant. It’s obvious that with Tranquility Base, Arctic Monkeys are trying to align themselves with this history––a culture of artists who did away with conventions and nevered pandered to their audience.
Tranquility Base certainly defies expectations, but the album itself falls flat under these lofty ambitions. So anchored in it’s aesthetics and littered with layers upon layers of absurdist wordplay, esoteric references and surrealist storytelling, the album that results is a muddied, overwrought mess. What's gets lost under all of this is any emotional depth. Something a lot of the programmed films seem to lack, too.
But I have to hand it to the band, the album––winding, languid, piano-heavy––is the perfect soundtrack for this dark, moody bar. It fades seamlessly into the background.
Isabella Trimboli is a writer from Sydney and editor of Gusher Magazine, rock criticism written by women. Follow her on Twitter.
Arctic Monkeys' Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is out now on Domino/EMI.