Talking Movies

September 30, 2019

Politik: Part X

As the title suggests, so forth.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it

Having watched both episodes of The Cameron Years on BBC 1, which somehow forgot the referendum on PR in which he took out the legs from under the Liberal Democrats, I was left thinking not about Cameron and Lord North; whom Paxman scathingly shelved him aside in the pantheon of catastrophic Prime Ministers; but about Cameron and Robert S McNamara. McNamara in The Fog of War, more than 40 years later, was still insisting that Ike had let a missile gap develop. He had not. Everyone knew it. But RSM still couldn’t admit it.  He had his lie from 1960, and by God he was going to stick to it to his dying day. Cameron has his lie, Labour blew up the British economy with their frivolous spending (on the undeserving poor) and poor old Call-Me-Dave had to fix the mess with a decade of biting austerity; which will somehow now magically end because Boris needs to throw money about to hide the economic consequences of Brexit. It’s a good story, it’s just a pity it’s not true. In 2005 the UK current budget deficit was less that £20 billion. The budget deficit somehow got to £50 billion in 2009 and £103 billion in 2010. Austerity had got the deficit by March 2019 to just, wait, oh actually there was now a budget surplus of £19 billion. Wow, that was some enthusiastic deficit reduction. But Labour, what monsters of frivolity! To balloon spending so much so needlessly in 2009 and 2010; almost as if they were reacting to some incredible economic shock that threatened the entire system. Check out the very revealing graphs here: https://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/uk_national_deficit_analysis

November 21, 2018

Notes on Overlord

Julius Avery’s WWII horror follow-up to Son of a Gun was the catch-up film of the week on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle last Sunday.

Watching Overlord is a time-travelling experience, and not because this WWII guys on a mission movie mash-up with a gory zombie horror begins with Ike’s reading of his celebrated D-Day missive to the troops about to undertake the deliverance of Europe from the Nazis with the logistical marvel of Operation Overlord. This feels like a film from the mid-Zeroes. Hostel is in its DNA, as is the second episode of Band of Brothers, and, via Doom, the aesthetics of a shoot ’em up video game. In a film about hideous Nazi ‘medical’ experiments on civilians, that is seemingly oblivious of the existence of Dr Josef Mengele, proceedings end with a zombie boss fight – because that’s the logic at work. Wyatt Russell is the gruff ‘the mission is all that matters’ paratrooper who takes command of the decimated forces including Jovan Adepo, John Magaro, and Iain De Caestecker. Their mission: destroy a radio tower. Their distractions: a pretty French girl (Mathilde Ollivier), an SS Captain (Pilou Asbaek), and a dark secret lurking inside the base.

If it wasn’t bad enough to be oblivious of Mengele and have a zombie boss fight in a WWII movie about Nazi experimentations, there is also, regrettably, the trope that infuriates like few others in modern Hollywood – of one life being prioritised to the point of insanity. cf Saving Private Ryan, The Matrix Reloaded, The Cabin in the Woods. Is it worth leaving Europe under Nazi occupation and letting the Holocaust continue on for the sake of saving one random French kid that the soldiers have just met? That is the choice that Jovan Adepo’s character forces on the others. Wyatt Russell’s disbelieving explosive expert tries to remind his men that they are supposed to blow up the radio tower so that D-Day can succeed, does that not strike them as slightly more important than Adepo trying to impress a girl by saving her brother? Guess what they decide…

April 1, 2010

Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation)

So, for this the final part of the three-part series, it is finally time to examine the Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation) to see historically what has been most popular with audiences. And the answer (un)surprisingly tends towards the gimmicky, the romantic, the big broad brushstrokes, the zeitgeisty, and the already popular from other mediums…

10  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
9    The Exorcist
8    Dr Zhivago
7    Jaws
6    Titanic
5   The Ten Commandments
4    E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial
3    The Sound of Music
2    Star Wars
1    Gone with the Wind

Gimmickry showcasing of spectacle, especially spectacle unavailable to TV, is important in a number of these films. The Exorcist was full of grotesque effects that TV legally couldn’t replicate. Dr Zhivago and The Ten Commandments showcased the widescreen landscapes TV couldn’t do with The Ten Commandments also being a special-effects extravaganza as well as having the proverbial ‘cast of thousands’. Star Wars was of course mind-blowing when released because of its complete reversal of previous film-making methods involving model-work, and Gone with the Wind was both in the expensive and new ‘glorious technicolour’ as well as being so lavishly produced that a Confederate veteran famously complained of the burning of Atlanta sequence that “If we’d a had that many men we’d a won the damn war!”. Jaws was nearly the pinnacle of the 1970s obsession with shooting on location, 1937’s Snow White was a risky gamble that audiences would accept feature-length animations (you’re welcome Pixar), and Titanic was a monumental folly of integrating huge sets with unprecedented use of CGI.

We criticised Avatar for using broad brushstrokes but many of these films use such a large canvas you’d have needed a damn mop. The difference is craft… Jaws was such a superbly directed suspenser that Hitchcock handed the torch to Spielberg, who then reduced children and their parents to blubbering wrecks with E.T.’s outrageous emotional manipulation. The Sound of Music showcases its joyous musical numbers with a much sharper script that you remember, and Satan Vs Christ is enlivened by a sub-plot of some depth about faith and doubt in The Exorcist. Lean never lost sight of his characters’ emotional truth in Dr Zhivago’s epic landscapes and The Ten Commandments was filled with charismatic performances, while Snow White and Star Wars enacted their simple archetypes with great charm. Gone with the Wind meanwhile successfully melds an intimate love story with an epic backdrop with humour, romance and compelling dramatic grandeur.

I’ve previously argued Gone with the Wind’s release just before the world plunged into World War II was apt as people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling through. Stephen King argued that The Exorcist appealed to parents concerned about losing their kids… and those teenagers, eager for shocks. Jaws was a subtle allegory of post-Watergate political tensions, Star Wars showcased the all-American optimism that had been so lacking in 1970s cinema, while Charlton Heston’s Moses appeared in Eisenhower’s reign as President during which Ike added references to God to both dollar bills and the Oath of Allegiance. Critics meanwhile noted E. T. as one of the first mainstream films that was informed by the new baby-boomer experience of a divorced father’s absence from a middle-class white family and the bitter cost on the children.

A number of these films were adapting already popular material. Snow White was a universally beloved fairytale, while The Exorcist, Dr Zhivago, Jaws and Gone with the Wind had all been bestselling novels, and Cecil B DeMille was dramatising the Bible. Robert Wise was adapting a hugely popular stage musical from the reigning kings of Broadway, while Star Wars drips with archetypal elements from Joseph Campbell’s rummaging thru the heroic legends of the world’s ancient cultures, and everyone thought Titanic was clichéd in the way Avatar was clichéd in its use of over-familiar story tropes, and on top of a famous event to boot. E.T. is the only original script here which would have been completely unpredictable to audiences. Perhaps the decline of reading as attention-spans collapse has eliminated the universal reception possible to films in the past, especially Gone with the Wind whose casting of Scarlett O’Hara was as protracted and famous as it was simply because so many people already had their image of Scarlett from reading Margaret Mitchell’s book. The new impossibility of gathering a monolithic audience in any sphere of entertainment means no film will ever top Gone with the Wind.

Oddly enough for an age that regards romance as a structural necessity regrettably foisted onto blockbusters or the stock-in-trade of the worst genre in the world (rom-com) we find romance dominating half these films. Snow White is the idealised fairytale romance, Omar Shariff and Julie Christie are thwarted lovers married to the wrong people in David Lean’s swooning 1965 epic, while forbidden romance again figures in Maria’s transformation from nun governess to beloved stepmother of the Von Trapp family, and Titanic is the archetypal American romance between an uptown girl and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. And of course the most tormented, dysfunctional, sweeping romance of them all stands at the very zenith. “Our love is epic”, Logan Echolls told Veronica Mars, “Epic?” “Epic. Spanning continents and decades. There’s betrayal, bloodshed and heartbreak. Epic.” And damn if Epic Love isn’t still the top film of all time. From the Golden Age of Hollywood comes the mythic love story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler’s romance while the Confederacy burns around them.

Titanic is the only film made since 1982 on the list. Seven of these films overcame television, with Titanic also defeating the ubiquity of video which removed the urgency of seeing something ‘only in theatres’, but we are now at an historic low for cinema-going. Why is a question for future postings…

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