Empire State Review
A few brief flashes of violence and a woman comes to. She’s in full make-up and an expensive dress, but the car in which she finds herself is in a far worse state: the windscreen is smashed and the bumper crushed. She exits the vehicle and enters an office block. The company is Metropolis, a Time Out-alike magazine, wherein she finds a desk, a flyer for the Empire State nightclub, and a blood-spattered electronic typewriter. Hitting the ENTER key she receives the following message: “MARIA. REMEMBER WHAT I TOLD YOU. WRITE IT.”
So begins Empire State. Immediately after the message appears we flashback to twenty-four hours previous and are introduced to the first of many characters who will occupy this narrative. In the commentary writer-director Ron Peck notes how the intention was to create an Altman-esque film, one populated with numerous plot strands and players. Moreover, they are situated within stories which go some way to capture the zeitgeist of the time. Empire State is set in the London of the mid-eighties and thus casts its eye on the massive redevelopments going on in the Docklands and the East End, the body culture of the time, the nouveau riche, the clubbing scene and the designer drugs, the “flash bastards” as one of the characters has it. To tell the tale Peck and co-writer Mark Ayres employ a mixture of hustlers, petty criminals, businessmen, journalists and others caught in the crossfire; together they combine to create a rich tapestry of the times.
Given this scope and the comparative scale of the production, Empire State initially feels like the odd one out in Peck’s filmography. With Nighthawks and its sequel Strip Jack Naked he approached gay culture initially from a low-key dramatic standpoint and then from an intensely personal documentary one. Similarly his later films Fighters and Real Money did likewise with the East End boxing scene. His only other feature, last year’s Cross-Channel, was another small-scale affair, a semi-improvised and self-produced drama shot on digital video. In each case these films are happy to examine their own concerns in their own finely detailed ways; there’s never an attempt at grand statements or capturing something of the times in a major fashion. This statement may seem a little odd given Nighthawks’ standing as the UK’s first explicitly gay film to be set within that community, yet it was very much a film without a clear agenda. In many its status was a mere by-product of its creation and as a result didn’t feel the burden of having to represent or signify an entire culture within its 110-minute running time. Conversely, it’s hard not to pick up the anti-Thatcher sentiments which pepper Empire State’s duration.
The other key difference with the rest of Peck’s oeuvre is the presence of professional actors - and indeed many familiar faces - amongst the cast list. Martin Landau and Ray McAnally are arguably the best known, and consequently play two of the narrative’s most significant characters, respectively an American business eyeing up a potential investments in the Docklands area and an ‘old school’ East End villain-type being forced out by the massive changes taking place around him. Surrounding them we also have a host of names who would go onto major television roles: Lorcan Cranitch subsequently did terrific work on Cracker; Perry Fenwick is now synonymous with his EastEnders character Billy Mitchell; Gary Webster also worked on that soap and played George Cole’s nephew in Minder; and Glen Murphy was a regular in London’s Burning for all of its fourteen series. Elsewhere Empire State provides Jamie Foreman with his first major role (having previously had appeared only in tiny parts on the big and small screen, in the likes of McVicar and Nigel Kneale’s Kinvig), and if you look closely you can find a very young Sadie Frost and an even younger (and uncredited) Eddie Marsan.
Yet Empire State isn’t a complete diversion for Peck and many of his common themes and practices do manage to invade the narrative. Within this milieu of the old East End and big business we also find some of the fringes of gay culture - particularly Lee Drysdale’s rent boy Johnny and the young Geordie lad, taking his first steps in London, whom he takes under his wing - and the boxing element that was to emerge in Peck’s subsequent features. (I would also argue that Peck is far more sympathetic to these characters as opposed to the overtly Thatcher-ite ones found elsewhere.) Indeed, Empire State was in many ways the director’s entry point, as it were, to that particular environment; his research becoming the foundation for the documentary Fighters and its spin-off fiction Real Money. The explicit connection is made with the presence of Fighters’ “champion of nothing” Jimmy Flint, here playing a variation on himself. And of course, his casting is typical of Peck’s usual approach to actors, i.e. having non-professionals lend that added edge of authenticity insofar as they bring something of their own experiences to their roles. Thus alongside the likes of Landau and those familiar television faces we have Flint, Drysdale and others providing that additional grit. Those who have seen Nighthawks should also recognise Stuart Turton as one of the bar staff in the eponymous Empire State nightclub.
The research element extends beyond the boxing milieu too. As the copious extras which adorn this release demonstrate, every aspect was looked into in great detail. As well as some of the actors bringing their own experiences, Peck also interviewed those with similar lifestyles (there’s one such interview - all 93 minutes of it - included on the second disc) and took in the various nightspots, fashions and attitudes prevalent at the time. The look of Empire State is therefore highly important, not only the overall production design - notably the Empire State itself, which Peck and Ayres note in the commentary was considered a character in its own right - but also the individual styles. Peck’s documentary experience comes in handy here and as a result his film presents a very particular snapshot of an era. Though interestingly, given the flamboyant nature of the hairstyles, wardrobes, et al, it also looks incredibly cinematic. Empire State is, essentially a crime melodrama, and as such any associations with film noir, say, or Douglas Sirk prompted by these extravagances make for a perfect fit.
Indeed, one of the elements which may not have been expected given Peck’s other work is just how cinematic it is. His other features have all been shot on either 16mm film or utilised video. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m correct in saying that Empire State was his only film to have been made using 35mm. With this added quality comes a more adventurous approach, complete with roving camerawork and even a few aerial shots. Certainly there are budgetary restrictions in place (this is a British feature, after all), but clearly the film remains Peck’s most overtly stylish work to date. More importantly, however, his handling of the material is similarly slick. Despite the wealth of characters, Empire State slowly has the action dovetail to a head as their interactions increase and the majority find their way to the eponymous nightclub for the final stages. In some respects you can see this as a film of two halves: the first in which the numerous players are introduced and their interactions laid out; the second in which they converge and with it the plot and pacing necessarily tighten, effectively transforming the film into an all-out thriller complete with escalating violence and, of course, an explanation of those opening moments.
With this escalation arguably comes a bit of excess too, and I’ll admit that Empire State does open itself up to a little criticism in this respect; there are scenes here which would seem wholly out of place in the more earthy environs of Nighthawks, say, or Real Money. With that said, I do wonder as to how justified such criticisms would be. Empire State was partly financed by Film Four International and as such screened on Channel 4 in the UK not too long after its cinema release (controversially, it turns out - see the Right to Reply excerpt amongst the extras). Given the presence of all of those television faces, there is something about the film that suits the small screen, although I’m thinking here more of the miniseries than the standalone ‘play’. The scope of the film and the range of characters suggests that it could perhaps have accommodated a multi-episode series as well as it does that of a feature. (Which, interestingly, is how Peck’s Fighters documentary was originally conceived.) Moreover, many of the miniseries of the time were prone to injected heightened, possibly even absurdist, elements into their sprawling narratives - just look at certain scenes from Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff or G.B.H., made either side of Peck’s film, or consider Troy Kennedy Martin’s original, subsequently abandoned, ending to Edge of Darkness involving Bob Peck transforming into a tree. If such aspects were acceptable, even praised, within the world of television then surely Empire State should be let off lightly for some of its more excessive touches. After all, wasn’t excess symptomatic of the times?
Network Releasing are issuing Empire State as a dual-format edition akin to those released by the BFI, Park Circus and lately taken up by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range. Thus we have one Blu-ray disc and one standard definition DVD which the extras split between the two. Rendered in high definition, the film looks absolutely wonderful and manages to convey the colourful production design perfectly. The level of clarity is excellent (during the commentary it is pointed out that a slumped over security guard in the opening scene is now perfectly visible whereas he disappeared into the darkness on previous releases) and the image remains consistently sharp and detailed throughout. A fine level of grain is expectedly present and damage is at a minimum. The only flaw to be noted is some blue speckling during one of McAnally’s later scenes, though no doubt this was inherent in the original materials. The soundtrack - which also accommodates tracks by New Order and Jimmy Somerville - is similarly sharp (and present in its original stereo), though note that optional subtitles for the hard of hearing are not present.
The discs are also stacked with extras, arguably more so, or at least on a par with, the BFI’s Nighthawks/Strip Jack Naked set from 2009. The Blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Peck and co-writer Ayres plus a trio of image galleries and the original theatrical trailer, whilst the remaining features accompany the DVD as they would gain nothing from the HD treatment having been sourced from videotape. To begin with the commentary, Peck and Ayres make for an engaging pair. They discuss all of the requisite elements - from budgets to research to casting to reactions - and barely pause for breath. Given the range and scope of Empire State you feel they could easily chat away for another couple hours, though that’s not to say they don’t already provide a wealth of information. The three galleries also present consist of Barry Peake’s production stills, some of the costume research (seemingly photographing various punters at one particular nightclub) and Adrian Smith’s design sketches.
The DVD extras are arguably meatier still. The main piece is a lengthy 93-minute interview which Peck conducted as part of his research. Here he speaks to a Welsh man about his experiences of abandoning his hometown and heading to London where he worked as a rent boy. He goes into these experiences in some depth giving a very personal account that is remarkably honest. The latter half of the interview is spent talking about the film in hand as Peck discusses potential script ideas and how these square the anonymous interviewee’s own story. Elsewhere the disc also finds room for a pair of deleted scenes (both involving Jamie Foreman’s character) which were clearly cut for pacing reasons and 33-minutes worth of screen tests and improvisational footage - a feature which has become commonplace on discs of Peck’s films.
Those looking for information on Empire State’s reception are also accounted for thanks to an excerpt from Channel 4’s Right to Reply programme (totalling seven minutes) in which Peck faces the reaction of those who found the film too violent and not acceptable family viewing when it screened on the channel in 1988 (albeit after the watershed it must be noted). Backing this up is also a wealth of material in PDF form including Peck’s notes and press clippings which, as with everything present here, are fully worth a look. The PDFs also include the complete screenplay and numerous storyboards.
As with the main feature, optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing are unavailable.
Nighthawks and Strip Jack Naked: Nighthawks (also containing Peck's short films Soho and 149) were released onto DVD by Second Run in 2005, but have since gone out of print. The films were reissued in 2009 onto a two-disc Blu-ray or DVD package by the BFI containing a number of Peck's early films amongst the special features: Its Ugly Head, On Allotments, Edward Hopper and What Can I Do With a Male Nude. Second Run have also issued Fighters and Real Money onto DVD, whilst Peck has released his latest feature, Cross-Channel himself. Reviews of the Second Run discs can be found by clicking the following links: Nighthawks, Strip Jack Naked and Fighters/Real Money. A review of Cross-Channel can be found here.