Talking Movies

July 7, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXXV

What is one to do, so forth.

This bank deserves a better class of journalist

Watching BBC 2’s Inside the Bank of England during the week was a profoundly dispiriting experience. The process of setting the interest rate involved the 9 member monetary policy committee being brief on element after element of the complex matrix making up the British economy. Each briefing was the result of the work of dozens of people crunching statistics or scouting the country to gauge sentiment. The Beast from the East had hit the growth of GDP in the first quarter, so the Bank was likely to not raise interest rates to curb inflation. And what was the reaction of the journalists, who had been locked in a vault with 50 pages of material explaining the statistical context – Governor Carney, does this make the Bank an unreliable boyfriend? Are you bothered by the tag of unreliable boyfriend?

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July 4, 2019

The Age of Attenborough

The Age of Attenborough can be said to have begun on the 16th of January 1979 with the broadcasting of the first episode of Life on Earth. Attenborough, before his stint as director of BBC 2 where he pioneered Wimbledon coverage and Monty Python, had of course been presenting Zoo Quest, and he presented other programmes, even delivering the Royal Instution’s Christmas Lectures in the mid-1970s. But Life on Earth was a self-consciously landmark series in the manner of Civilisation and The Ascent of Man, which Attenborough had commissioned for BBC 2 to show the ambition of the new channel.

1979 was coincidentally also the year my parents bought a humble cathode-ray tube television which has been faithfully broadcasting Attenborough’s explorations of the natural world since Life on Earth and will remain his faithful servant, as RTE 1 prepares to screen his Dynasties programme, until the 6th of August at which point the analogue signal will be turned off and this technical marvel bow out after 40 years of service.

The series that Attenborough has made over those 40 years are astonishing: The Living Planet, The First Eden, Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives, The Trials of Life, Life in the Freezer, The Private Life of Plants, The Life of Birds, The Human Face, The Blue Planet, The Life of Mammals, Life in the Undergrowth, Planet Earth, Life in Cold Blood, Life, Madagascar, Frozen Planet, Kingdom of Plants, Galapagos, Africa, Micro Monsters, Life Story, Conquest of the Skies, The Hunt, Great Barrier Reef, Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II, Dynasties, Our Planet.

June 30, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXXIV

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirty-fourth portmanteau post on matters of course!

Good Times, Bad Times

All of human life can be observed on the bus, the best and the worst. In the space of a week recently I observed benevolence and bowsiness. The bowsiness came courtesy of a new cycle lane, which gave me pause considering the BusConnects nonsense about putting cycle lanes everywhere as part of their bus ‘plan’.  As the bus pulled in to the bus stop a young woman moved forward to get on. Cue the one cyclist who would likely use the new cycle lane that hour, a white-bearded man leading two young children on bicycles. As he had to slow down to accommodate the microsecond it took her to board the bus he roared at some volume “F*** YOU! F******* YOU!!” and then cycled past, setting a splendid example to his grandchildren on how to treat strangers. I was quite taken aback, observing this road rage from the top deck. Should she have waited? Perhaps. But then the cycle lane was new. Certainly the screaming profanities were uncalled for. But then there was, mercifully, benevolence on another trip. Another white-bearded man, on foot, turned around and saw with horror the bus bearing down on him, some distance from the stop. He turned and began an agonised shuffling run, and it became clear this driver was one of those cohort in whom the milk of human kindness has soured; those who affect blindness whenever they can refuse to do someone a good deed. But then the bus’ speed began to fall. How odd. The car in front had noticed the man running and had dropped to a crawl to give him a fighting chance of making the stop. The bus driver was outraged, and hooted a couple of times. The car continued defiantly dawdling. Enraged the bus driver moved to overtake only for the car to accelerate, pushing the bus back into its holding pattern. By which time the white-bearded man had got close enough to the bus stop that he could make it by the time two Spanish students there had boarded. They were going to take their time. As the unhappy bus driver began indicating to pull in to the stop the smiling Spanish students gave thumbs up to the car who resumed normal speed down the deserted road. The white-bearded man made his bus, and it did the heart good to see such benevolence.

 

Netflix is a TV network, of middling appeal

How many people actually watch Netflix? Not that many NBC claimed a few years ago, bemoaning that a show like Jessica Jones which would be cancelled for low ratings on broadcast television became a media darling and propagandised as being a hit when on Netflix. Netflix used to keep their viewing figures a tightly guarded secret, while simultaneously boasting about the record-breaking success of everything on their service. Service? Network. Netflix is essentially a TV network. It’s not too hard to imagine in the near future Netflix, Amazon, Warner Bros+/HBOxxx, and Disney+ becoming the four networks of streaming in the way that ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox were the four networks of broadcast television in the 1990s. Indeed they may supplant them entirely, at least in the esteem of the media. Netflix claim that 30 million households/individuals/smarter than your average dachshunds watched their latest movie Murder Mystery starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. Wow! That is so impressive! Except… Only 13 million of those were in America. Given an average ticket price of $9.01 this year that would be an opening weekend haul of $117,130,000, a figure that puts Murder Mystery at No 11 at the North American Box Office for 2019! But of course Murder Mystery isn’t a movie, it’s a TV movie; something Netflix are moving heaven and earth to collapse as a distinction. Nobody had to leave their house to see Murder Mystery, nobody had to drive anywhere to see Murder Mystery, nobody had to buy popcorn to see Murder Mystery, nobody had to arrange babysitters to go see Murder Mystery, nobody had to put up with phone-using bozos to see Murder Mystery. And nobody had to fork out 9 dollars to see Murder Mystery, they’d already forked out $8.99 to watch as much as they could in a month. So taking Murder Mystery as a TV movie, which is what it is, on a TV network, which is what Netflix is, how impressive is it that 13 million people watched it in America over three days? Not very. 19.4 million viewers on average watched every episode of House season 3 but Fox didn’t release a press release to crow about it. It seems to be as important to Netflix as it is to Disney to create the impression that they are beloved on a level unknown to humanity before this moment. They’re not. 105.9 million Americans watched the finale of MASH in 1983. Beat that Netflix. Beat that Disney. If they’d all bought a ticket for it at $9.01 a pop, it would have made $954,159,000. But of course they didn’t have to – because it was (gulp) free.

June 23, 2019

Any Other Business: XXXIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirty-third portmanteau post on matters of course!

Ancient Aliens: I don’t want to believe

I had the misfortune recently to come across a paean to Erich Von Daniken on the History Channel, a special of their disgraceful Ancient Aliens series. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, was, probably tongue-in-cheek, used by Roland Emmerich as an adviser on his preposterous 10,000 BC. His patented pig-swill has popped up in everything from Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Prometheus. And as it doesn’t seem to show any signs of going away it can’t be treated as the joke it is anymore, it’s become harmful. The memorable verdict of the court psychologist looking into Erich von Daniken’s mental status after his epic embezzlement had got him jailed was that the man was a pathological liar and his book was a marvel of nonsense. It is a marvel of nonsense. It should be obvious to anyone who reads it why. There are some very clever Biblical reinterpretations like Lot’s wife being got by the flash of an atom bomb, but there’s the rub. Everything that the ancient aliens do on earth is from the technology of von Daniken’s time. They dress like the Apollo astronauts. They set off atom bombs. But, Erich, we barely made it to the moon at that level of technology, if these bozos travelled here from a far-off galaxy which we can’t detect why did they apparently travel dressed in vintage couture? Could it be that because von Daniken lacked the imagination or understanding for futurism that his aliens only had the available resources of 1968? Odd that they don’t have the internet, or wi-fi, or cell-phones, or quantum devices. Odd that humanity has developed so much since that book was written, and yet people are still, and perhaps increasingly, under its spell; which has the stupefying message that humanity cannot advance without alien assistance.

Worth waiting for? Probably, not.

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win: Part II

Previously I compared the reaction to Game of Thrones’ finale to the eerily similar meltdown everyone had in 2010 at LOST. I’d like to tease out the perils of serialisation. I remember reading a piece about LOST which suggested the flashbacks gave just enough of a narrative hit, of a story told within an episode, to keep those plebeians who watch network shows coming back for more; despite the frustrations of a never-ending story that flailed around for 6 years, and ultimately revealed it was always insoluble. I also think of an episode of Boardwalk Empire, where the episode ended with Nucky looking at his footsteps on the carpet, and it occurred to me the episode could have ended at any point in the previous ten minutes and it would have made no difference. But it was bad of me to think that, because there is an almost secular theology at work – the virtue of pointlessness. A story that gets wrapped up in an episode?! That’s for muck savages! The sort of NASCAR-attending mouth-breathing trailer trash who’ve kept NCIS on air since 2003. No, sophisticates only watch serialised shows, where nothing ever gets wrapped up in an episode. They are above needing a narrative hit; they are doing their penance thru endless pointless episodes for their reward in the future of a grand finale that makes it all worthwhile. I think that in serialised television, if there’s no episode by episode hit of story begun and concluded then the stakes get dangerously high that the end of the show must provide the meaning that makes all the perennially delayed narrative gratification worth it. And when everything is in service of a grand ending, there never is a grand ending. People howled at the end of The Sopranos, LOST, Game of Thrones: How many times can this three card trick be played before people get wise to it? It may not even be possible to play that trick, even if you have the ending up your sleeve. Smallville’s ending was clearly something they could’ve done at any point for the preceding number of years because it was an ending that made sense but was totally disconnected from anything immediately leading up to it. LOST and The OC ended with cutesy call back to the pilot imagery which pleased only other TV writers. [LOST writer Brian K Vaughan’s pointless Y: The Last Man ended with an image he said he knew from the beginning, the problem being it was literally an image, and the comic could have ended years earlier with it.] How I Met Your Mother stuck to the original ending, not realising that too much time had gone by with the story under its own impulses to bolt that ending on without enraging everyone. It’s a Kierkegaardean paradox: stick with your original ending and ignore the life the story took on of its own volition, or do not stick with your original ending and do not ignore the life the story took on of its own volition – you will regret it either way. When I think of shows that ended well, they tend to be network or basic cable: Buffy ended with a Mission Accomplished, Angel ended with a screw you cliffhanger and a quip, Veronica Mars ended with a bittersweet exit into uncertainty, Justified ended with a character moment after an episode that wrapped up its plot surprisingly early. Their Whedon X-Files model in common? Every episode a story, every season a bigger story – complete.

June 11, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXXII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirty-second portmanteau post on matters of course!

It’s a Mads Mads Mads Mads World: Part II

The ‘not that firm, never floppy’ quip of Mads Mikkelsen in the ‘Greetings’ ad for Carlsberg had become an in-joke between me and my Dad on the subject of handshakes, so I was delighted to see the ‘Unfiltered’ ad; in which the Great Dane seemed to have been retrieved after a two-week bender in the woods; so quickly followed up by a new ad in which he cycles around improbably balancing a huge amount of beer on his bike, even when he’s got off it, because Carlsberg is so perfectly balanced. But then I saw the other new ad he’s made for Carlsberg, ‘The Lake’. For most of the ad it seems quite humdrum compared to previous outings, until you get to the last seconds and the bubbles in the water – at which point if I had been drinking tea I would have spit it straight across the room so explosive and uncontrollable was my snort of laughter for Mads’ ‘Probably…’

Is this about Brexit?: Part II

At the end of February I wrote about two commercials that kept catching my eye on television, both of which seemed to be about Brexit without saying they were about Brexit. HSBC’s seemed to be an implicit rebuke to Farage’s Little Englanders by playing Elgar’s Nimrod Enigma Variation over Richard Ayoade comically reminding everyone how hopelessly connected with and dependent on the rest of the world their small island really is, and apparently offence was taken for just that implicit reason. Now Ayoade is back with another pointed ad for HSBC that is curiously impossible to find on YouTube. Amidst talk of barriers going up and shutters coming down on the high street it seems obvious that the bank is taking aim at Boris Johnson & Co’s desire for the economic calamity of a No-Deal Brexit to prove some Old Etonian point about Little England not needing any help from anyone. Except America. And Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Commonwealth. Chlorinated chicken, anyone?

May 27, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXXI

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirty-first portmanteau post on television of course!

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win

I gave up on Game of Thrones after suffering thru 3 seasons. I was unwilling to continue torturing myself to ‘keep up to date with pop culture’. So I’m quite amused at everyone now having a LOST-style meltdown that the show wasted their time for 8 years. In retrospect it was probably insane of HBO to greenlight a TV show based on an ongoing book series that the author clearly had no interest in finishing. I’ve long been comparing George RR Martin to a stand-up comic who 10 minutes into a 12 minute shaggy dog story loses interest and wanders off stage, leaving the poor fools in the audience outraged that he just wasted 10 minutes of their time, and even more outraged when Neil Gaiman walks by to chastise them for feeling outraged that his good friend George wasted their time – he doesn’t owe anybody the punchline to a shaggy dog story.

But now I wonder if there was another more conniving strand to his literary inaction. By refusing to finish writing the books Martin has got the poor saps Benioff & Weiss to test an ending for him to gauge reaction to it. So now Martin just has to say his books would have done it all … differently, and continue to never finish them, but do more fun things like attend sports events and fan conventions like a conquering hero, and he’ll go to his grave with that taunt irrefutable. When did he realise that by not finishing he can eternally be better than the TV ending without ever having to actually furnish his ending?

Jazz Trances, real and fictional

Happening across The Mighty Boosh late at night the other week I suddenly remembered Howard Moon’s jazz trance, something which I saw just a few years prior to a 2011 live episode of Later with Jools Holland featuring a bona fide jazz trance. Jools was trying in his inimitably (and endearing) ramshackle way to keep the show on track for time given that Newsnight was prepping to air live too once his show stopped. And standing waiting in the shadows was a 40 piece choir ready to join Elbow in a rendition of a meisterwerk, but unfortunately he’d put on a jazz band led by an aged jazz legend just before, and all four of them had gone into a proper eyes closed working out their melodies by feel jazz trance. The camera captured a nervous looking Jools baffled at how to get them to stop as he couldn’t make eye contact with any of the players: a moment of panic that reduced Dad and I to helpless laughter. At last one musician opened his eyes and Jools was able to flag him down. He stopped. And then another musician opened his eyes wondering why he’d stopped, and saw, and stopped too. Only for our man, the legend, to misinterpret this, in his jazz trance, as his merry men waiting on him to change key, which he duly did, until the third musician stopped, and then he opened his eyes, and lo, the jazz trance was broken. And a mightily relieved Jools rushed across to stop it starting up again and hurried Elbow and their 40 piece choir into action.

May 5, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXX

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirtieth portmanteau post on television of course!

The night is always darkest just before it’s totally black

Game of Thrones‘ latest episode has garnered much criticism for being less an adaptation of the work of George RR Martin and more that of Matthew Arnold:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

But it made me think about Robert Elswit’s work on Velvet Buzzsaw, not least because of its cinematographer’s curious defence. Fabian Wagner, as reported by Variety, blamed the poor saps who shelled out a cable premium to watch this underlit farrago. It’s all down to “viewers’ home devices, which he says aren’t fit for the show’s cinematic filming. ‘A lot of the problem is that a lot of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly, ‘ he said … ‘Personally I don’t have to always see what’s going on because it’s more about the emotional impact. Game of Thrones is a cinematic show and therefore you have to watch it like you’re at a cinema: in a darkened room. If you watch a night scene in a brightly-lit room then that won’t help you see the image properly.'” But but but Fabian, this is a TV show, you’re not meant to light it as if it was a movie, because people can’t watch it as if it was a movie. I loved Bradford Young’s work on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but I completely understood the objections of some critics about its sepulchral lighting.  I have never seen it on television, and I can imagine it would lose much impact and become quite frustrating on the small screen because, and pay attention here Fabian, it was lit for cinema viewing – which doesn’t just mean that you watch it in the dark, but that you watch it on a big screen in the dark. A BIG screen, hence Roger Moore’s disquisition on the value of a raised eyebrow because it shoots up about 12 feet on a proper cinema screen. [As for the idea that you don’t need to see what’s going on because it’s about the emotional impact of what’s going on that you can’t see – arrant nonsense.] I had the very odd sensation watching Velvet Buzzsaw that something was off about Robert Elswit’s normally glorious cinematography; and I felt he’d got caught in an existential crisis. Here he was working on something that Netflix wants everyone (especially the Oscars and film critics) to accept is a proper movie damn it, and yet aware that this might be shown at a single film festival and then watched by nearly all of its (usually undisclosed number of) viewers on a small screen. If a movie is made to be watched on the small screen, and not to be watched in a cinema on a big screen, then what makes it different from a Hallmark TV movie other than its star power, budget, and attendant style?

Yes, Renault, I smoke, there’s no need to be so shocked about it.

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there

The BBC has got my goat in the past few days with their irritating nonsense. Multiple times on Friday night’s tribute to Jazz 625 we were treated like small impressionable children with no more free will than a Pavlovian dog by being warned that footage of the original 1960s show would contain people – gasp – smoking – clasp your pearls in horror, there’s worse to come – indoors -gasp for breath as if your lungs were being filled with secondhand smoke from a 1960s image and fall to the floor writhing in agony! Thank you Auntie, but I am capable of realising that the 1960s is not the 2010s.  But there was worse on Thursday night when Janina Ramirez warned us that footage of Alan Yentob talking about Leonardo Da Vinci in 2003 would contain Yentob – gasp – smoking – clasp your pearls in horror, there’s worse to come – indoors – gasp for breath as if your lungs were being filled with secondhand smoke from a 2000s image and fall to the floor writhing in agony! Oh for Christ’s sake…. The repetition of the phrase ‘it was a different time’ clearly means this is some sort of policy at the BBC to lecture the audience at every opportunity, but as so often with this kind of approach it was counterproductive because Yentob simply had a half-smoked cigarette in one hand while he spread out notebooks by Da Vinci on a bar counter. I would not have noticed the cigarette if my attention had not been drawn to it, if I had seen it at all I might have mistaken it for a short pencil. Well done, BBC, well done. This is the kind of policing impulse that shares a mindset with the fools who want all old movies rated 18s because they feature smoking, and it both cases it betrays a mind that wishes to excoriate when it doesn’t forget the past in order to smugly bask in the wonderful nature of the present. Oblivious to the fact that the present will no doubt be excoriated in similar manner in the future, most likely for what it is most smug about right now.

April 21, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXIX

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-ninth portmanteau post on matters of course!

“Nah, I don’t like it”

This ad has been annoying me for months, to an unusual degree because of its omnipresence in the inescapable setting of a cinema. From the start I thought of the moment in Castle when his daughter’s layabout boyfriend questions what colour sofa Castle was proposing to give them  – “What colour?? Free!” That’s the lack of gratitude which offended me greatly from the start, taking a gift and just tossing it aside; like the inscribed books in second-hand bookstores I wrote about here some years back. There’s the fuzzy logic at work, you must buy a new sofa to put your own stamp on the place. Well, surely you must also only buy new build houses or else how could you possibly put your own stamp on the place? But then I suffered this ad after David Attenborough’s jeremiad about climate change. One of the talking heads featured said we need to lead a less wasteful life, and that this wouldn’t impact on our standard of living very much at all. We just need, in his example, to buy a good washing machine, care for it, and make it last. Well, this ad now offends on a whole other level. As well as the two elements that got my goat such obliviousness towards a comfortable, generously gifted sofa will end civilisation and the existing ecosystem.

A TIME TO KILL, Matthew McConaughey, 1996

A time to kill?

I had cause recently to encounter a small but outrageous rewriting of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

For everything there is a season,

And a time for every matter under heaven;

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war, and a time for peace.

God has made everything beautiful in its time.

Mysteriously some latter-day Bowdler somewhere had decided that there should no longer be a time to kill. Which makes John Grisham’s novel seem a good deal less biblically inspired and a good deal more originally vicious in retrospect. I then discovered another verse from Ecclesiastes has been given the same treatment. I didn’t recognise what 44:10, “Next let us praise illustrious people, or ancestors in their successive generations”, was meant to be until musing on the meaning of it I suddenly realised it should have been, “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us”. Again, with this change, out the window go the ironical echoes in James Agee and Walker Evans’ photojournalism of the Great Depression Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Jessica Mitford’s devastating takedown ‘Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers’. The Bowdler would no doubt defend good intentions, but no. Leave the Word of God alone. If you give yourself license to rewrite the Tanakh because you don’t like some sentiments or gendering then where do you logically end? Do you silently elide Yahweh torching Nadab and Abihu for using fire from the wrong source for their censers? And if not, why not? It’s a bit of an over-reaction, right? Please, change nothing or change everything.

April 14, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXVIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-eighth portmanteau post on matters of course!

Doesn’t suit you, sir

I’m not sure exactly what happened at the end of the 1960s to cause it, but it seems to me that suits suddenly became considerably less sharp. The final post-Mrs Peel seasons of The Avengers see Steed’s suits bend more and more towards the hippy Carnaby Street style pilloried by excess in Austin Powers, but also just become less distinguished somehow. It’s tempting to attribute this to mere ego, that Patrick MacNee was designing his own outfits more and more and displacing Pierre Cardin’s wares. But that doesn’t explain what happened to that less suave spy of the era more or less simultaneously. Watching Diamonds Are Forever with the awareness it is by the director of Goldfinger is a major jolt on several levels, as it lacks the sophistication that comes through so naturally in nearly every aspect of the former. Sean Connery wasn’t attempting to tailor his own look though, so it really does say something about the fashions of the era that the suits in his final Eon outing look very shabby next to his mid-60s outfits.

March 31, 2019

Epitaph

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘A Psalm of Life’

 

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;

 

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

 

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labour and to wait.

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