Talking Movies

October 1, 2019

Judy

Renee Zellweger goes all in to win an Oscar playing troubled star Judy Garland in her last public concerts before her early death in 1969.

The finances of Judy Garland (Zellweger) are perpetually in a state of vague distress. When she is forced to house her children at the home of their father Sidney (Rufus Sewell), after her hotel releases her suite, she finds herself accepting a five week engagement in London over Christmas 1968 to try and raise some quick cash. Impresario Delfont (Michael Gambon), his fixer Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley), and bandleader Burt (Royce Pierreson) are unprepared for the ramshackle performer who arrives, despite her reputation. Adding to the volatility is her unwise romance with much younger musician Mickey (Finn Wittrock), who she meets at a party where daughter Liza (Gemma-Leah Deveraux) reveals she is about to star in a musical. Such breaks are beyond Judy at this point; her voice and body failing after years of substance abuse, these concerts become a swansong.

Judy isn’t as colourful as one might hope from director Rupert Goold of the Almeida Theatre. Instead it feels an awful lot like the sumptuous but sedate My Week with Marilyn, another BBC Films biopic of an American starlet in post-war London that was simply straining itself to earn Oscar nods. Production designer Kave Quinn and costume designer Jany Temime do a sterling job of recreating a late 1960s London that feels by turns swinging and solid, but the screenplay by Tom Edge; reshaping Peter Quilter’s play and fleshing out Judy’s mistreatment by Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery in a highly creepy performance perhaps informed by Harvey Weinstein); only occasionally reaches high notes of emotion or insight. On the whole proceedings are quite dull.

It’s hard not to think the film-makers in focusing on shows that lurched to shambolic collapse are trying to pull a Woodstock and valorise what was really a failure.

2/5

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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.

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.

July 14, 2018

The Drone Aesthetic: Part II

I recently saw the effective double-bill of ‘The Bad Place’ and ‘Wayward Sisters’ episodes of Supernatural season 13 and think it’s time to revisit the idea of the Drone Aesthetic.

September 2nd 2016 saw me musing on the unusually expansive quality of aerial photography in three BBC documentaries. Simon Reeve showed off his drone with shots that started near him and then wheeled away to reveal the mountainous quality of the Greek landscape. Brian Cox was observed from a height walking English beaches and Icelandic glaciers, and he also deployed the drone for the same effect as Reeve: the camera suddenly tumbling back in space, revealing itself as airborne and the person standing near a cliff edge. Peter Barton explained the Battle of the Somme using a drone to seamlessly move from a trench view to an aerial vantage point of the battlefield; revealing obvious differences in height over the wider landscape which, while invisible from a trench, was consistently put to work by the Germans in their defensive strategy.

It seems something of an arms race then developed in the BBC as both Rick Stein and Michael Portillo’s various travelogues were granted their own drones. Soon Stein and Portillo were mooching around Europe and North America by plane, train, and automobile, accompanied by a faithful drone to show they could walk along a beach observed from a height just as well as that young whippersnapper Cox. But they were less given to the ostentation of what we might call the Reeve Effect. There were a sight less sudden pull-outs by the drone to reveal its airborne status. Instead the focus was on shots by the drone serenely observing cityscapes or flying gently over rising hills. By an odd coincidence just 10 days after I wrote about the Drone Aesthetic I saw Don’t Breathe, which begins with a drone shot.

May 31, 2018

From the Archives: The Edge of Love

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals an inert biopic of Dylan Thomas that presumably sent Matthew Rhys scurrying back into the comforting arms of well-written television roles.

Keira Knightley stars in a film written by her mother Sharman Macdonald. One hates to toss around words like nepotism but I would be very surprised if another actress would have been so eager to get this project green-lit. Macdonald is an established playwright, The Winter Guest being her most famous work, and director John Maybury previously directed Love is the Devil, another art-house biopic about a self-destructive artist. Sadly this film about poet Dylan Thomas falls far short of his take on painter Francis Bacon. Brothers & Sisters star Matthew Rhys is magnificent casting as the saturnine poet but the film seems to shy away from Thomas’ mile-wide self-destructive streak until near the end when it belatedly remembers that the man could be a total bastard and that he dedicatedly drank himself to death before he turned 40.

The Edge of Love begins promisingly with a vividly impressionistic take on the horrors of the Blitz, all soft-focus reds and blacks. There are some visual echoes of Atonement though which really hurt this film which lacks the emotional power and crisp scripting of that masterpiece. Keira Knightley (with a passable Welsh accent) is Vera Phillips, an ex-girlfriend of Dylan from Wales, who randomly meets him in war-torn London. A messy love quadrangle quickly forms with Dylan, his wife Caitlin, (Sienna Miller acquitting herself well once she dispenses with a half-attempted Irish accent) and Matthew Killick, a standout performance by Cillian Murphy as a stolid English soldier who is the voice of reason amidst all these selfish Celtic lunatics.

Sadly once Killick leaves to serve in Greece the film’s momentum goes with him. The script becomes so dramatically inert that you recoil in horror on hitting the hour mark as you realise there’s still another 50 minutes to go, which alternate between the incredibly boring and the absolutely infuriating. How you can possibly take the life of Dylan Thomas, add abortion, attempted murder and infidelity and induce yawns is beyond me. The best you can say about The Edge of Love is that it is ‘interesting’, by which of course one means that it assembles a number of good ideas and then leaves them lying around waiting for a coherent script. Killick’s shell-shock for instance is ‘explored’ through ridiculous scenes like him slapping a preposterously irritating woman from the BBC who sneers at his war service.

This film fails miserably at getting inside Dylan Thomas’ head no matter how many lines of poetry it has Rhys sonorously mumble in voiceover. It never really gets to grips with the tormented marriage of Dylan and Caitlin and in fact it really only succeeds, intermittently, in portraying female friendship forged by a connection to a charismatic but repellent man. And that really isn’t enough to sustain nearly 2 hours of cinema.

2/5

April 10, 2018

What becomes a Christie most?

Can the melancholic approach taken in Murder on the Orient Express work for a proposed Death on the Nile sequel?

I was quite surprised by the melancholic tone of Branagh’s first Poirot outing, but that, more than anything else, even his energetic performance as an exacting, physical Poirot, was what made the film work. And with a 350 million return on a 55 million budget it is inevitable that the sequel set up in its final scene will happen – Death on the Nile. Discussing this prospect with occasional co-writer Friedrich Bagel (which I still strongly suspect of being an assumed name) he opined that it would be better to go for a Christie mystery that has not been filmed, like The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Sadly, I opined right back, two things stand in the way of that – people would riot in their cinemas at the finale of Ackroyd, and marketers would riot in their boardrooms at the prospect of actually having to do their job rather than utilise the name recognition of already beloved properties. Alors, Nile

One hopes that someone in Burbank isn’t thus scrolling through Peter Ustinov’s IMDb profile. Ticking off Evil Under the Sun and Appointment with Death as the final entries in the Branagh Poirot quadrilogy, sneakily noting Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man’s Folly, and Murder in Three Acts as potential TV specials to cross the street with to HBO if the Branagh Poirots hit a wall at the box office, or God help us looking about for young Branaghs for a potential prequel Mysterious Affair at Styles. We know that Michael Green will again be adapting Christie’s novel for Branagh to star and direct. Reviewing Murder on the Orient Express back in November I noted that Green redeemed himself from the double whammy disasters of Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049 with his melancholic interpretation, which saw Branagh and composer Patrick Doyle render the murder almost as a mourning ritual. But that card can only be played once, leaving an obvious possibility that will annoy the purists.

That card is the trump that left the London Times spitting blood this Easter weekend when the BBC changed the identity of the killer in Ordeal by Innocence. It’s impossible to change the killer in Murder on the Orient Express, and one would think the same applies to Death on the Nile, but a severe rewrite (in the order of the tortures visited upon Stoker for Laurence Olivier’s Dracula) could yield anything. It is disconcerting when screenwriters assume they know better than the Queen of Crime who done it, but then there is a general tendency to sniff at Christie’s writing as being mere three-card-trick-plotting, overlooking some wonderful sly comedy as well as much darker effects of suspense, paranoia, and cynicism in The Hollow and And Then There Were None. No, if Green were to change the identity of the killer in Death on the Nile it wouldn’t be totally inadmissible, but it would be a hefty task of rewriting to keep Christie’s logic intact.

It is a matter of opinion that the melancholic card can only be played once. Green’s invented character arc for Poirot, where he admits shades of grey into a Manichean worldview is similar to the moral agony endured by Suchet’s Poirot on the same case. But Suchet’s crisis was explicitly Catholic while Branagh’s was, predictably for Hollywood, a crisis in the secular Markwellian ethics of consistency; allied to the writing of Poirot’s OCD as the scrupulosity of consistency in all things. (Although I vigorously object to the tendency to dub any and all devotion to precision as OCD, rather than, say, a devotion to precision.) I hold that the senseless murder of a kidnapped child naturally occasions a melancholic atmosphere in a way that a twisted love triangle climaxing in slaughter does not, but as Green threw out large chunks of plotting and minutiae to focus on a mood, it would not be outrageous to think he could do much the same thing for Nile.

Bagel took me to task for harping on Branagh as a physical Poirot, declaiming that Poirot was a policeman so he should be able to chase people, and that Christie herself admitted she’d blundered with his age, being retired in 1920 he would be 105 when solving crimes in 1960s Chelsea; a mistake akin to PG Wodehouse initially locating Blandings Castle damnably far from London for later plotting purposes. I retorted that Branagh’s physicality distinguishes his interpretation. Peter Ustinov naturally brought a raconteurish quality, and his bumbling was a play on how Christie made Poirot exaggerate his foreignness to trick villains into complacency. Suchet, lacking that flaneuring spirit, emphasised Poirot’s prim and proper sedentary use of the little grey cells; more true to the retired from active duty to pure consultation of Christie’s first forays with the detective. Branagh takes some of the fire from Suchet’s Poirot, indignant at evildoers expecting to get away scot-free, and makes his Belgian less retiree, more Fury at large.

To end where we began Herr Bagel wrung his hands that there is no decent actor who can play Hastings, the Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock, without being ‘annoying’. Hugh Fraser was perfect in the part for ITV, and, by indirect associations; he had previously played a villain in Edge of Darkness, he was tall where Suchet was small; I led myself to the only candidate (sic) for the part – Toby Jones. Who, by good fortune, was recently in Witness for the Prosecution for the BBC, and previously played opposite the great David Suchet on ITV’s Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh is Poirot, Jones is Hastings, the sun is high, the Nile water deceptively calm…

January 31, 2018

He Got Melody or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Love John Williams Again

It was while I was watching this John Williams BBC Prom at the end of last summer that I realised I had done him wrong.

John Williams gets stick in austere musicological circles for his tendency to write theme after theme with the same rhythm. And it’s certainly true that Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and E.T. all pomp along on more or less similar rhythmic lines. Well, so what? Danny Elfman writes interesting, varied, and energetic rhythms, and has barely written one melody in his entire career. What is his Spider-Man theme? Can you hum his Batman theme beyond the first five notes where the rhythmic variations kick in? You can’t really hum a rhythm without a melody, but, be the rhythms e’er so simple, everybody can hum any number of different Williams melodies. It was happenstance that I watched the John Williams Proms shortly after watching Neil Brand’s BBC documentary on the evolution of film music. As he got to the present day, let’s call it the Age of Zimmer, the all-pervading influence of modern synthesiser and digital programming and recording revealed the paucity of actual music written for actual instruments, as opposed to programming in a swathe of sound; a trick that works well for strings, brass, and percussion, hence the now trademark Hans Zimmer sound, but works less well when applied to woodwind instruments. Either you write a melody for the clarinets or you don’t, but you surely don’t need to throw 40 clarinets at a purely rhythmic ostinato developed from Zimmer at keyboard. And noticeable from early on in the John Williams Proms was woodwind instrument solos, everywhere.

I mentioned austere musicological circles, and I had in mind a particular academic faculty; but also a broader critical tendency. Discovering the Minimalists Glass, Reich, and Adams on BBC Radio 3 in the last five and a half years has been a joy, but has also left me retrospectively incredulous that my music theory education ignored them. I was taught that melody was debunked, Cage and Stockhausen were the heirs to Schoenberg, any other approach was Canute in staves, and that was that. Well, not quite, as it turns out. That tendency, to regard melody as an affront to modernity, is particularised in distaste for Williams’ scores. Jerry Goldsmith gets more love in such circles because he subscribed to their agenda of atonal experimental serialist dissonance. To a point, that is. And the point is interesting. Goldsmith wrote the immensely hummable themes for The Man from UNCLE and Star Trek: The Next Generation (first used for 1979’s The Motion Picture). He wrote a sinuous oboe for Basic Instinct, overpowering choral harmonies for The Omen, and a rambunctious march for Gremlins. But it is because he so often chose to write mood music not hummable melodies; prioritising dissonance over harmony, atmosphere over leitmotifs, and prepared percussion over woodwind solos; that he is esteemed a better composer. One might nearly say a more virtuous composer, because the valorisation is almost more ideological than it is aesthetic. And the result can be seen in a quick, easy, and telling contrast with John Williams.

Let us take some sci-fi classics. Goldsmith scored Planet of the Apes and Alien. Williams scored Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Having heard Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind suite in the National Concert Hall I can attest it is largely dissonant mood music that isn’t particularly rewarding detached from the accompanying Spielbergian imagery. It is therefore probably the closest Williams in large scale came to the more critically valued Goldsmith model. And yet it contains a five note melody that is hummable seconds after you first hear it. If I show you a still of Francois Truffaut at Table Mountain regarding the gargantuan UFO mothership and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, hum those five notes. If I show you a still of Mark Hamill regarding the twin sunsets of Tatooine and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, start humming a swelling string melody. But if I show you a still of Charlton Heston regarding the Statue of Liberty on a beach and ask what music you associate with it, you should hum and haw, and mutter there was some business with horns and drums earlier in the chase sequence. If I show you a still of John Hurt regarding his Chinese dinner with unusual indigestion and ask what music you associate with it, you should be stumped, and mutter there was something slow, eerie, and atonal in space at the beginning.

Goldsmith’s opening titles for Alien are strongly influenced by a piece of music by, I think, Bartok or Shostakovich (I have aggravatingly misplaced my scribbled note). But the ur-text for Williams, especially for Spielbergian japery, is, I would argue, the 4th movement of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. And that is crucial. As a child Shostakovich was forbidding and austere to me, whereas Prokofiev was the beloved creator of Peter and the Wolf. (Shostakovich indeed has only truly come to life for me in the last five years.) And while Bartok and Shostakovich have the spiky rhythms and dissonant harmonies that make one modern, Prokofiev, like Gershwin, was held in less regard because of his continued devotion to melody; a mere melodist, not a serious composer. But that is why Peter and the Wolf works, because Prokofiev is effortlessly able to create memorable, instantly hummable melodies for each of the characters in his story. Leitmotifs – much like Williams’ old-fashioned approach to scoring character in action. When you hear Prokofiev’s music you can see in your mind’s eye the action the narrator interjects. And those melodies take on a life of their own beyond the production, in the same way that Williams’ melodies take on a life of their own beyond the cinema screen; appearing as ringtones, programming in classical concert halls, and literally hummed by people to one another at appropriate moments – much as people do their best screeching Psycho strings whenever a situation parodically calls for Bernard Herrmann’s equally screen-transcending moment.

As Neil Brand’s sweeping outline of the evolution of film music had it, everything begins with Korngold; bringing to Hollywood the leitmotifs of Wagnerian opera with an extra lush string-laded Romanticism. Bernard Herrmann introduced serialism, dissonance, and experimentation, but could equally effortlessly pen the frenetic and melodic North by Northwest title music. Jazz and atonal dissonance broadened the spectrum of sonic colours available; together in the case of David Shire’s music for The Taking of Pelham 123 in which the inimitable great rolling funk bass and percussion provided the mother of all propulsive and hummable hooks over which jazz trumpets blared in serialist sequence. And then the synthesiser began to take hold and film music became technological and thoroughly modern. … Until the biggest film of the decade, Star Wars, abjured all this for a return to Korngold. John Williams, then, was a titan, who forcefully and singlehandedly redirected film music back to the melodic orchestral track. A brief side-note: having previously thrown around the word ideological in the placing of Goldsmith over Williams it is meet to note here that Stockhausen himself was a man of self-regarding dogmatism, to the extent that a Hungarian composer stormed out of one of his fabled workshops volubly cursing that Stockhausen’s insistence that any return to melody and harmony was … counter-revolutionary … sounded all too unpleasantly familiar to someone who had lately run from Soviet tanks. But Williams’ counter-revolution would never have succeeded had he not had so many damn good melodies.

John Williams is 85, and still scoring the occasional movie for Spielberg or Lucas (sic). It is important that we treasure him while we can.

July 2, 2017

RIP Barry Norman

I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of former BBC film critic Barry Norman. I can’t add to the obituaries, all I can contribute is a personal note on what I think he meant to me and other film fans of my generation.

Barry Norman for a whole generation was the archetypal film critic. His avuncular remarks from his comfy chair in the studio that morphed with changing fashions over the decades let you know exactly what films were worthy of recognition and championing in the ongoing narrative of cinema. His retirement from the BBC in 1998, volubly aghast at what Hollywood was purveying as their stock in trade, seems like a merciful escape for him now that some American film critics are writing serious thinkpieces about their duty to avoid reviewing much of Hollywood’s current (even worse) stock in trade lest it destroy their critical palate. I watched Film 98 and its previous incarnations religiously, and howled in outrage every summer as Norman buggered off on his holliers just as we all most needed his guidance on what blockbusters were worth watching.

Norman was famously unimpressed by the ego and entitlement of famous actors and directors, from John Wayne to Mel Gibson, and would never have stooped to the recycling of breathless press releases gushing about the all-time record box-office grosses just achieved by … (never of course adjusted for inflation, for painfully obvious reasons) that drives so much of online film commentary. Instead he took the long view, a very long view indeed. His 1992 book 100 Best Films of the Century ostentatiously dwelt mostly in the past; a duty given the tremendous present bias that afflicts our culture; with only 5 films being made after 1980. I read it an impressionable age, and when revisiting it after a decade was aghast/amused/astonished to discover I had been parroting many of Norman’s contentions under the genuine belief they were my own opinions.

Not of the individual films, I hasten to add, but the broad sweep of cinema as outlined in his contextualising introduction to his picks. Some of the lines about certain films still resonate, Apocalypse Now being the best example; I read his piece on it before seeing it, yet frame in my mind in his terms. Barry Norman was such a fixture that something similar happens with Back to the Future II. I didn’t see it in the cinema, but I think of his review on BBC and the scene he picked to illustrate it whenever I see that scene in the movie. What he talked about on Film affected what I thought was worth watching, even if I disagreed. He valorised Woody Allen for years, and I never got it; but I eventually investigated 1970s Woody and thus began to appreciate the body of work. Alas, I never made it to the Helix in DCU years after he’d stopped presenting to see him speak on some of his favourite Old Hollywood films, but I still have his book, and helpfully someone on IMDb has used it to create a watch-list of Norman’s picks: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls055207230/

 

The Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, The Gold Rush, The General, Napoleon, All Quiet on the Western Front, Frankenstein, Duck Soup, It Happened One Night, The 39 Steps, Top Hat, Modern Times, La Grande Illusion, Oh, Mr. Porter!, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Vanishes, Pygmalion, La regle du jeu, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, The Grapes of Wrath, The Thief of Bagdad, The Bank Dick, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Bambi, To Be or Not to Be, Double Indemnity, Laura, Les enfants du paradis, I Know Where I’m Going, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Big Sleep, The Best Years of Our Lives, My Darling Clementine, A Matter of Life and Death, Great Expectations, Bicycle Thieves, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Red River, The Red Shoes, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Whisky Galore!, The Third Man, Orphee, Rashomon, Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, The Lavender Hill Mob, The African Queen, Jeux Interdits, High Noon, Pat and Mike, Singin’ in the Rain, Genevieve, Shane, Seven Samurai, On the Waterfront, La Strada, Bad Day at Black Rock, Pather Panchali, Richard III, The Searchers, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Nights of Cabiria, Paths of Glory, Some Like It Hot, Psycho, A Bout de Souffle, Lawrence of Arabia, The Leopard, Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Z, The Wild Bunch, M.A.S.H., The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Cabaret, The Godfather, Mean Streets, Sleeper, The Godfather: Part II, Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Gregory’s Girl, E.T, Ran, Hannah and Her Sisters.

While some people may worship at the protean altar of the crowd-sourced IMDB Top 250 or the too cool for film school hipster fashions of the Sight & Sound poll this will always be for me the North Star of cinema. An unapologetic focus on Old Hollywood, foreign films picked because they made a huge impact not because you need to fill a quota, the silent era dismissed in just 5 films rather than (as Sight & Sound’s polled experts are wont) pretentiously behaving akin to a lover of the theatre who bemoans everything since the Greeks, and the recent past put on hold to see how it sets before celebrating it: only 5 films since 1980 in a list compiled in 1992, and only 12 films admitted from the 1970s. Norman never pretended the present moment was uniquely awesome.

Barry Norman’s legacy is to forever be the voice in your head which asks, “Yes, this film is fun, but will it endure?” In a way every Irish film critic of my generation, professional or dilettante, will have internalised for life Barry Norman’s scepticism of commercial success being equated with artistic quality as well as his sardonic “…And why not?”

September 2, 2016

It’s just me and my drone

While watching three different BBC documentaries recently I was struck by the unusually expansive quality of their aerial photography; and then realised they were all using drones.

drone-filming-other-drones-for-bbc-simon-reeve

The first documentary was Simon Reeve’s travelogue in Greece, in which elaborate pull-out shots of mountainous Greek landscapes seemed to come from nowhere; starting too close to Reeve to be a zoom from a helicopter, but ending up too far away to be a crane shot. They were of course drones, and Reeve even made the drone the centre of attention when he and its operator jumped out of a van in a salubrious part of Athens and surreptitiously sent their drone straight up to see how many of the local worthies were cheating the government of tax by pretending they didn’t have a swimming pool when there were clearly nearly twenty in the drone’s frame. Such guerilla tactics would make Werner Herzog proud, and of course Herzog has employed drones himself; nearly making everyone sick in Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D by flying from a vineyard up to the titular site. But drone technology has developed since Herzog’s 2010 shoot.

Brian Cox’s recent Forces of Nature loved nothing better than tracking Cox from a hundred feet above as he walked along English beaches or Icelandic glaciers, and the images were startlingly good. Whereas Herzog’s drone imagery was disjunctive, Cox’s drone imagery was notable only for the style it employed, not for any difference in quality to more traditionally mounted cameras. One of those signature styles was a reprise of the Reeve special, narrating to the camera which suddenly tumbles back in space and reveals itself to now be airborne and the narrator standing near the edge of a Greek valley or the white cliffs of Dover. Peter Barton’s The Somme From Both Sides deployed its drone in a related manner to great effect. At a fraction of the hassle of using a crane camera Barton delivered his narration to a drone which then swooped upwards to reveal the landscape beyond him, so that we went from a trench’s view of the battlefield to an aerial vantage point in seconds. This was tremendously effective in conveying why the Germans made the Somme so bloody for the British; from the trenches you miss the obvious differences in height over the wider landscape which the Germans consistently put to work in their defensive strategy.

But can advances in drone technology and falling drone prices make for a new cinematic aesthetic? David Fincher in Side by Side notes that he was able to place a camera in a boat for a sequence in The Social Network because of how lightweight a digital camera could now be. If a drone camera needing only one operator can achieve a shot that would have taken Orson Welles days to prepare for with the technology of his time then could we be in for a new avalanche of style in indie movies? If someone wants to achieve the isolating effect of the pull-out from Gary Powers in the dock in Bridge of Spies they don’t need the resources of a Spielberg, they could just hover their drone and then fly it away and make their low-budget drama suddenly seem incredibly slick. Forget filming your movie on your iPhone like Tangerine, imagine sitting in the IFI’s smallest screen watching a low-budget film in which unknown actors look out a window when the camera suddenly pulls away from them and keeps on retreating, observe them fading away into irrelevance as just some of the people with stories in this city.

The Drone Aesthetic.

August 22, 2016

Graham Greene Festival 2016

The Graham Greene Festival returns after a sojourn last year for another hectic long weekend of events in Berkhamsted organised by festival director Mike Hill.

the-main-street-in-berkhamsted-25884

Hill says of this year’s event “In The Third Man, Graham Greene lampooned earnest literary gatherings by sending a writer of cheap novelettes to answer questions on James Joyce and the stream of consciousness. He might forgive us for organising a literary festival in his honour, an event now in its eighteenth year. People from all over the world will again descend on Berkhamsted to celebrate his life and works – many of them seasoned Greene Festival-goers, some first-time visitors. All are welcome, and all assured of a varied and interesting programme. There may be some earnestness, but there will certainly be friendliness and laughter. I hope you will come along.”

The festival is organised by the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust as Berkhamsted was where Graham’s father was headmaster of the venerable public school which Graham reluctantly attended; a deeply unhappy experience immortalised in the 1971 autobiography A Sort of Life. Greene mellowed towards his hometown though, returning to it imaginatively in late novels The Human Factor and The Captain and the Enemy. The four-day festival is only a half-hour train ride from London Euston, and is well worth the attention of all Greene fans in the Home Counties and beyond. As well as film screenings, gala dinners, and talks by both Greene scholars and film-makers involved in adaptations of his works, the festival has become a venue for launching new works of academic Greene scholarship.

This year’s highlights include the coup of a talk by Labour Big Beast, political biographer, and proud Yorkshireman Roy Hattersley on the recusancy of Shakespeare and the 20th Century revival of an English Catholic literary tradition. There is also an interview with Greene’s daughter and nephew, and a rare chance to see a 1961 version of The Power and the Glory starring Laurence Olivier and George C Scott, as well as two episodes from the 1970s Thames TV series Shades of Greene. The 2014 Festival innovation of a Greene book club is retained and expanded to include eight different titles (including my personal favourite The Ministry of Fear). Festival venues will feature exhibitions including ‘Greene in Theatreland’, and alongside the Festival bookstall’s recherché joys will be Richard Frost’s bookstall, with a large selection of books by and relating to Greene.

 

 

Thursday 22 September

Court House, The Gatsby, The Rex Cinema

Afternoon session (Cost: £5)

Court House, beside St Peter’s Church

2.15 ‘Graham Greene’s Common’: a guided walk (under three miles; includes WW1 trenches) led by Brian Shepherd, with readings from A Sort of Life and The Human Factor by Judy Mead and Richard Shepherd.

Assemble outside the Court House for introduction. Cars/lifts and stout walking shoes required for the start of the walk at Inns of Court War Memorial, New Road car park. If wet, illustrated talk with readings in the Court House.

 

Evening session

The Gatsby

5.30 Social gathering and buffet supper at The Gatsby. -7.15 Two courses and a glass of wine; vegan/vegetarian option. (Limited to 73 tickets. Book by Thursday 15 September at the latest.) Cost: £16

 

Film Night at The Rex Cinema

7.30 The Power and the Glory (CBS Television, 1961 – 90 -9.30 minutes) Director: Marc Daniels. With Laurence

Olivier, George C. Scott, Julie Harris, Cyril Cusack, Roddy McDowall.

Introduced by Professor Neil Sinyard. Cost: £9

 

Tickets are available for purchase online at www.grahamgreenebt.org, or by telephone: 07988 560496

 

Friday 23 September

The Town Hall, The Civic Centre

Morning session (Cost: £15)

The Town Hall

9.45 Journey With Maps: the beginning of Greene’s Quixotic holidays: a talk by Professor Carlos Villar Flor on Greene and Father Leopoldo Duran.

10.45 Break for tea and coffee

11.15 Travels with Auntie: the BBC’s James Naughtie interviews Nick Warburton about his writing career and his radio adaptations this year of The Honorary Consul and The Power and the Glory.

 

Break for lunch

 

Afternoon session (Cost: £15)

The Town Hall

2.30 The Catholic Muse: a talk by Lord (Roy) Hattersley.

Why, until the end of the nineteenth century were there so few distinguished Catholic writers and why were so many of the Catholic poets and novelists of the twentieth century converts? Roy Hattersley – carefully distinguishing between Catholic writers and writers who were Catholics – offers answers to those questions and tries to resolve the age old conundrum, was William Shakespeare, in the language of his age, a Papist?

3.30 Break for tea and coffee

4.15 Graham Greene Book Club: eight discussion groups, each focusing on a different Greene novel: The Man Within, England Made Me, The Power and the Glory, The Ministry of Fear, The End of the Affair, Our Man in Havana, The Human FactorThe Captain and the Enemy.

 

Evening session (Cost: £10)

The Civic Centre

7.45 Film night: two episodes from Shades of Greene -9.45 (Thames TV, 1975-6): Two Gentle People (50 mins), with Harry Andrews and Elaine Stritch, and Dream of a Strange Land (40 mins), with Ian Hendry. Introduced by: Dr David Rolinson of

Stirling University.

 

Saturday 24 September

Deans’ Hall and Old Hall, Berkhamsted School

(Castle Street)

Morning session (Cost: £16)

Deans’ Hall

9.30 Current Greene Research: presented by a University of North Georgia panel of students and faculty.

10.30 Break for tea and coffee

11.00 Graham Greene remembered: Vincent McDonnell, author of The Broken Commandment, interviewed by Mike Hill.

12.00 Launch of Graham Greene Studies by Professor -12.15 Joyce Stavick.

 

Break for lunch

 

Mid-afternoon session (Cost: £16)

Deans’ Hall

2.15 Greene and Jews: a talk by Professor Cedric Watts on the paradoxical treatment of Jews in a number of Greene’s nonfictional and fictional works, including The Name of Action, Stamboul Train and Brighton Rock.

3.15 Break for tea and coffee

3.45 Regarding Graham: Caroline Bourget, Greene’s daughter, and Nick Dennys, Greene’s nephew, interviewed by Dr Jon Wise.

 

Late afternoon session (Cost: £12)

Deans’ Hall

5.00 The Birthday Toast: by David Pearce.

5.15 ‘I’ve always wanted to be in a publisher’s office’ (Graham Greene, 1933): a talk by Professor Judith Adamson on Greene the publisher.

 

Evening session (Cost: £35)

Old Hall

7.45 Festival Dinner: three courses with wine and coffee; vegan/vegetarian alternative. (Limited to 60 tickets. Book by Thursday 15 September at the latest.)

 

Sunday 25 September

Careers Library and Old Hall, Berkhamsted School

(Castle Street)

Morning session (Cost: £15)

Careers Library (next to Old Hall)

10.00 ‘Something to catch hold of in the general flux’: Greene’s presentation of religious ideas and longings in his first three novels – The Man Within, The Name of Action and Rumour at Nightfall: a talk by Dr Alice Reeve-Tucker.

11.00 Break for tea and coffee

11.30 Taking liberties: two controversial film adaptations of, and by, Graham Greene: a talk by Professor Neil Sinyard.

 

Lunch (Cost: £24)

Old Hall

1.00 Farewell Lunch: cold buffet, wine and coffee; vegan/vegetarian option. (Limited to 60 tickets. Book by Thursday 15 September at the latest.)

 

 

Tickets

Tickets are available for purchase at http://www.grahamgreenebt.org, or by phone: 07988 560496. A Season Ticket to all events, excluding the film at The Rex and meals, is available for £95. There is free admission to Festival events (excluding the film at The Rex and meals) for under 21s and holders of the Dacorum Card.

Enquiries: grahamgreeneboxoffice@gmail.com

 

Friends

Become a Friend of the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust at http://www.grahamgreenebt.org and receive a quarterly newsletter, a Festival discount of £1 per event (for up to five events), or a Season Ticket to all events, excluding the film at Thee Rex and meals, for £95.

 

Graham Greene Birthplace Trust

On the website (www.grahamgreenebt.org) there are further details of the talks, interviews and speakers, online ticketing service, and information on any changes that may arise. Tickets will be on sale at the door for all events other than the meals and the Rex film, but it would be preferable to book in advance online from the website. Season tickets are available for those who plan to attend all the talks.

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