Talking Movies

January 31, 2018

Any Other Business: Part XIII

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 thirteenth portmanteau post on television of course!

Dangerous, Handle With Care.

Very Dangerous, Do Not Handle At All.

Watching re-runs of The Avengers (in colour!) on ITV 4 over a few months before Christmas it was hard not to be struck by two things. It was better than most current TV shows, and it made the soapbox posturing of the CW’s Berlantiverse look utterly inane. The ludicrous blackmail episode, ‘You Have Just Been Murdered’, is so hilarious, as the blackmailers repeatedly mock-murder their wealthy victims and leave a calling card just to prove how easy it would be to do it for real, so pay up, was one of the best episodes I saw on TV in 2017. The sustained ninja attacks on Steed’s friend; a car almost runs him over, he is attacked with a fake katanna, and finally shot with an arrow that imprints ‘You Have Just Been Murdered… Again!” on his shirt; floored me. And there were many other episodes almost at the same level in Diana Rigg’s 25 colour episodes, and some equally wonderful in the subsequent 32 episodes with Linda Thorson. The Rigg episodes were very telling in their writing of Renaissance woman Mrs Peel: painter, sculptor, chemist, journalist, mathematician published on the subject probability as applied to Bridge, and amateur secret agent. Nobody makes any deal out of Steed’s partner being a woman, apart from a doddery Colonel back from the tropics in ‘The Hidden Tiger’; “Highly unusual to have a woman on a hunt, Steed” “Highly unusual woman, Colonel”. And Mrs Peel, expert in judo, wins most of the fights she gets into, hence her amusement in ‘The Correct Way To Kill’ when she finds two photos with handwritten annotations in the local KGB HQ. Steed is described as ‘Dangerous, Handle With Care’. She then discovers that ‘Very Dangerous, Do Not Handle At All’ refers to her. This is a fictional universe where many of the villains have women as their most ruthless lieutenants, and any daffy woman is very possibly a ruthless lieutenant hiding in plain sight by playing up to bimbo stereotypes. In ‘The Living Dead’ the village hospital is run by a woman doctor, and nobody mentions her gender; she’s just the doctor who runs the village hospital. Steed and Mrs Peel almost co-opt her as a third agent in their investigations, but Mrs Peel doesn’t make a big deal of it. It would be literally impossible for a woman to run a small-town hospital in a Berlanti show without a plethora of dialogue about it, and if she were to aid Supergirl we would get girl power dialogue about the sisterhood working together in a man’s world. It is disconcerting when a 1967 show assumes equality, entertains, and provides an indomitable heroine with a delightfully light touch, while 2017 shows talk endlessly, needlessly about equality, as if trying to convince themselves.

The Berlantiverse was once highly praised on this blog but as time has gone on it has become more and more obviously flawed. So let’s try and isolate the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Berlantiverse: The Good

Tony Zhou amusingly gutted the MCU a while ago for its complete, deliberate absence of memorable music. Their copy of a copy of a copy elevator muzak approach seems to be a determined attempt to free cinema from the Wagnerian leitmotifs that composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold had in the 1930s made the convention for scoring the fates of characters and the progress of action. As a result of Marvel’s decision no matter how many Avengers assemble there will never be any music that can announce the arrival of a single one of them. What is lost by that? Well, look at what Blake Neely was able to pull off in the Supergirl/Flash/Arrow/Legends crossover extravaganza for the final fight against the alien Dominators. When Green Arrow is shooting the Dominator the jagged Arrow theme is heard, when he is thrown off the roof the music hangs in the air with him with a sustained note on strings, only for a roar of brass to announce the arrival of Supergirl to catch him from plummeting to his death. That is what leitmotifs are for. Why Marvel would want to pass on that sort of emotional punch is a mystery.

Berlantiverse: The Bad

There are elements; such as 24’s lack of humour; that you forgive so long as the show is good. But once you stop enjoying a show you remember those flaws, and notice new ones. I never made 10 episodes of Arrow, but I was surprised the same creators brought forth the fun that was The Flash. I also watched Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl until the recent crossover. Then I ditched all three shows. My problems with Arrow I’ve outlined. The Flash became idiotically repetitive; “My name is Barry Allen, and I am the fastest man alive!” – apart from Reverse Flash, and Zoom, and Savitar…; emotionally manipulative; Barry watches his mother die again, watches his father die, gets them back sort of only to give them up, gives up Iris, how much damn angst does one character need; and eventually unwatchable despite maintaining a comic edge. Supergirl from the get-go had problems, which started to converge with the problems of Legends. Legends degenerated from a fun show in which time-travellers screwed up their mission, to a less fun show in which they took George Lucas in Love as their ur-text and applied it to Lucas, Tolkien, and Arthurian legend, to the E.T. episode where they re-did E.T. in 40 minutes with their characters, like House or CSI: NY saw writers take off a movie they saw, just with less self-awareness. Supergirl’s characters kept getting on soapboxes; Jimmy Olsen on black men not being allowed show anger, Cat Grant on being a woman leader, Kara on being a woman and a superhero; rather than having comic-book adventures. Moving network for season 2 Berlanti decided that Alex should be gay now, an abrupt character reboot handled with the grace of an Austin Powers skit. But then he doubled down by beginning season 3 with Alex and Maggie engaged. Wow, that was quick! They break up because they never had a discussion about having children before getting engaged. Berlanti’s political imperatives were trumping his aesthetic imperatives with a vengeance. Legends’s characters arrive in the 1950s with an injunction not to attract attention; so they set up Ray and Kendra as a married couple, with Sara as a nurse. Berlanti castigates Jim Crow racism and has Sara liberate a repressed nurse. This makes nonsense of the injunction not to attract attention. The way to do that would have been to have Ray and Sara play house, with Kendra as a nurse. But internal logic was starting to be damned if it got in the political way.

Berlantiverse: The Ugly

Can you tell who Don Siegel voted for in 1956 and 1972 from watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry? Adlai Stevenson? Maybe? Richard Nixon? Maybe?? It’s not easy. Can you tell who Greg Berlanti voted for in 2016? … It seems Berlanti was traumatised by the failure of America to be with her. Now, art and politics don’t need a Jeffersonian wall of separation, but there ought be some artistic guile cast over political intent, like Arthur Miller addressing Senator McCarthy at three centuries’ remove. Berlanti has a beef with Trump. He could silently showcase heroic, adorable, and honourable minority characters like The Blacklist. [Navabi, Aram, Dembe] He does not. Instead, to stick it to Trump, he introduces to Legends the rather insufferable Zari, and reminds us repeatedly that she’s a Muslim American. He probably needs to remind us because she doesn’t wear a hijab, or have a prayer mat, nor use it 5 times a day, worry about keeping halal, or attending a mosque. Given previous complaints about American artists’ inability to take faith seriously this shouldn’t surprise, but ironically it makes Zari the kind of Muslim Trump might endorse – invisible. Berlanti could espouse meritocratic ideals like Bernie Sanders’ support for basic income. He does not. Instead Berlanti has gone down the rabbit-hole with Hillary. Her failure was due to misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. Ignore that she was as historically awful a candidate as if the Republicans had nominated Robert A Taft in 1948, and that she called ¼ of the eligible voters “a basket of deplorables”. Pushing Hillary’s apologia is killing the Berlantiverse. It would be clumsy and obvious to try and push basic income. But it couldn’t be worse than the gender studies harangue when Helen of Troy appeared in Legends, or when The Flash had a stripper lecture her clients on her critique of the male gaze. That same episode a female supervillain was taken down by the female characters working together and Iris said “Hashtag Feminism”. This, along with insisting “We are The Flash”, is Iris’ new thing. The abandoning of all pretence of artistic guile over political intent in attacking Trump came in the recent crossover, with this interchange: “Make America White Again” “Which it never was” “Hashtag Melting Pot”. But the nadir was Nazi Arrow proudly announcing “We’ve created a meritocracy”. … … … One should not have to point out that Nazis did not believe in meritocracy, but in its exact opposite, aristocracy. It is self-evident.

If you’re looking for the brightest and the best, you get Einstein, and then, if you’re a Nazi, mutter, damn, a Jew, and issue another call for the brightest and the best, but Aryans only please. Whereas if you’re not a Nazi you say, Welcome, Mr Einstein, I hear you are a very brilliant genius. Meritocracy advances people on the basis of ability. Aristocracy advances people on the basis of bloodlines, rather than their ability.

Berlanti wasn’t being ironic, none of the superheroes protested about this calumny of meritocracy. That degradation of meritocracy, the one true guarantor of equality, shows Berlanti pursuing a political agenda that while thinking itself liberal is not. The Berlantiverse no longer entertains because so many artistic decisions are clearly suborned to a political agenda, and it troubles because that political agenda is clearly Hillary not Bernie. Meritocracy doesn’t see colour, gender, or religion. It sees ability. And it only sees ability. Attempt to attach secondary considerations to it and it is gone. You can’t grade a test on correct answers and ensuring a diversity quota.

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June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

I come not to praise Seth MacFarlane, nor to bury him, but to consider his failure with a comedy-western alongside Damon Lindelof’s Cowboys & Aliens.

o-A-MILLION-WAYS-TO-DIE-IN-THE-WEST-TRAILER-facebook

I found A Million Ways to Die in the West to be oddly reminiscent of early Woody Allen films like Bananas; intermittently hilarious, but not really a film. But if Woody pre-Annie Hall was simply stitching together sketches without anything but the most broadly-drawn larger narrative purpose, then it seemed like the reverse was happening to MacFarlane – making ‘a Western, goddamnit!’ sucked the humour out of his comedy-western script. And so to a knotty point – there was a grindingly efficient story structure at work, but the central comic conceit of MacFarlane’s movie was unclear. Critic Joe Griffin pitches the film as – “it’s a normal guy with 21st century sensibilities who lives in the violent frontier of the Old West and is dragged into a typical Western story.” This nails MacFarlane’s interactions with Amanda Seyfried, which come close to replicating the clinical psychoanalysis terms Woody uses with Louise Lasser in Bananas with an almost identical purpose – the comedy of language entirely inappropriate to the situation. But the first genuinely funny moment is MacFarlane’s later riff on the dead mayor, which literally comes out of nowhere. Along with the inevitably blood-soaked county fair, it suggests that the titular conceit of horrible deaths would’ve been a far better source of thematic comedy. Instead MacFarlane decides to mine comedy by working the most exhausted seams of the rom-com with Charlize Theron; even down to the obligatory big lie – she chose not to tell him she’s married to terrifying Liam Neeson. Only very occasionally (to wake the audience) does he sprinkles absurdist comic moments; and meanwhile he’s also trying to touch every Western generic base.

Griffin writes “This, I think, is what happens when someone has had too much control on a project so early in his film career.” MacFarlane is the star, director, co-writer, and producer of A Million Ways; and his co-writers are his Ted and Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. That’s a lot of control. To put it in context, it’s more than M Night Shyamalan ever managed to acquire at the height of his hubris. It’s undeniable that without the success of Ted it’s unthinkable that MacFarlane would have been allowed to cast himself as the physical lead, and it’s probably equally unlikely that Wellesley and Sulkin would alienate their TV day-job boss by proposing a page-one rewrite of his pet film project. I have to agree with Griffin because getting too much control because of success is part and parcel of the disastrous creative bubble I described in 2011 which I predicted would scupper The Dark Knight Rises; Wellesley and Sulkin wouldn’t be silent because they wouldn’t want to rain on MacFarlane’s scripting parade, they’d be silent because they’d be doing the Macarena in the middle of the parade. Because they’d written Ted they’d assume whatever any of them suggested would be equally awesome, and so nobody cries halt until the train has gone far over the horizon. But I want to dissent against myself and speculate that what happened in the Million Ways writers’ room (story structure and Western tropes pushing out badly needed jokes) was the same as the fiasco that occurred not so long ago in another writers’ room not so very far away…

Cowboys and Aliens

Remember 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens? No, well, don’t feel bad. Here’s what its co-writer Damon (LOST) Lindelof had to say about it in an extremely interesting 2013 interview: “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down—a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie. Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies—the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.” Cowboys & Aliens was supposedly based on a comic-book by Scott Mitchel Rosenberg, which, from the small sample available on Amazon, appears to proudly wear ‘guilt over the treatment of Native Americans in times gone by’ on its sleeve. That suggests that Ace Ventura creator Steve Oedekerk was right to create a fun screen story distinct from the comic-book. And then rewrites began… Of the credited writers a draft was done by Mark Fergus & Howard Ostby (Iron ManChildren of Men), whose credits suggest that a more serious tone had begun to emerge. Which is presumably why Lindelof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, M:I-3, Star Trek) were brought in to do the final draft of the script. Add some humour? Some nonsense? Yeah, well, obviously that didn’t work. But look at what Lindelof characterised as a genre trapping of the Western: Native American allies. What?! That would certainly be news to the Duke…

In 1991 historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr took aim at America’s universities in his polemic The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger was extremely alarmed at the mass of evidence that political correctness had triumphed over sanity: “When a student sent a memorandum to the ‘diversity education committee’ at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her ‘deep regard for the individual,’ a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: ‘This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges (sic) the ‘individuals’ belonging to the largest or dominant group.’” (117) In his 1982 novel Before She Met Me Julian Barnes had a history professor baffled by the genuine horror and anger of a student whenever the wrong side triumphed in any given stand-off. Schlesinger Jr was damning of attacks on ‘Eurocentric’ American history, and it was essentially an appeasement of Barnes’ fictional student; by rewriting history. In one district where Native Americans had political clout it was taught that their tribal politics had influenced Thomas Jefferson every bit as much as European Enlightenment. It had not, as Schlesinger Jr flatly stated. And yet… In Sleepy Hollow, co-created by Cowboys & Aliens scribes Kurtzman and Orci, we find Ichabod Crane noting how in his 1770s existence Native American tribal politics had been a pivotal influence on Thomas Jefferson. A throwaway cute line; to anyone who hasn’t read Schlesinger Jr’s book. If you have, you’re stunned that this is not meant as a joke or provocatively revisionist statement; it is simply stated as true when it is not.

Rio Bravo John Wayne Dean Martin

MacFarlane, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof were all born in 1973. This puts them in college at Brown, Wesleyan, UT Austin, and NYU Film School, respectively, during the height of the ‘Death to DWEMs’ tide that Schlesinger Jr was trying to turn back. I honestly think every time somebody sits down to write anything Western-related in Hollywood these days they get some epic pol.sci/film studies college flashback. As a result, in between apologising to Native Americans, rewriting the role of women in the West, inserting grim truths about the lawlessness and brutality of life then, demythologising Wayne and Ford’s back catalogue, and faithfully inserting and then attempting to subvert in the accepted revisionist mode every Western trope they were ever taught, they lose any sense of fun. Lindelof posited “a Western that had aliens as bad guys” as “the cooler movie”, and yet Cowboys & Aliens is entirely lacking any sense of being a cool adventure. It is, indeed, simply unthinkable that anybody could produce a Western right now that is exuberant fun; nobody would give you the finale of Rio Bravo. I think that may be a combination of film school prioritising, nay, canonising, serious Westerns like The Searchers and Red River over entertainments like El Dorado and Gunfight at the OK CorralRio Bravo isn’t a silly movie, but it is unabashed adventure played with great humour. But Lindelof’s description of embracing “the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies” suggests an inability to take the Western genre as it was, not as it ought to have been…

The complete failure of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t stop the even more epic failure of The Lone Ranger following it down the trail two years later. The savage darkness of The Lone Ranger was completely unsuitable for a Disney blockbuster supposedly aimed at kids, but it fitted perfectly the template of the Western produced by people Schlesinger couldn’t save. It’s admirable to insert a Sergio Leone tone into a Western romp for children, only if you also take that bloody-minded approach to your contemporary blockbusters and give us Transformers directed by Ken Loach as the working poor fighting against transforming robots who’re the highest form of capitalism. Really I think the idea of the Western as conceived by the children of 1973 is fundamentally incompatible with exuberance. In the 1970s radical directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Walter Hill and Michael Cimino couldn’t wait to make a Western. But the revisionist Western wasn’t what audiences wanted. Nicholas Jarecki on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast recently made some interesting points about ‘genre exhaustion’, when an audience has seen every possible permutation arising out of a generic set-up. I don’t believe that’s what happened to the Western in the 1970s. I follow Stephen King in believing that George Lucas took the ‘pioneer spirit’ of the Western and simply, in a belated emulation of JFK’s call for a New Frontier, relocated it in space. And, as Spielberg’s Western framing at the end of The Last Crusade transparently indicates, crying for the death of the Western is like bemoaning the death of the dinosaurs while looking at flying birds: dinosaurs aren’t dead, they evolved.

Clint_GranTorino

If the blockbuster is the repository of the spirit of exuberant fun that lights up Rio Bravo, what does that make the contemporary Western? Well, it’s tempting to twist Lindelof’s words and say merely the outward trappings of the genre, stripped of its soul. Since Heaven’s Gate we’ve had serious Westerns like Dances with WolvesOpen RangeWyatt EarpUnforgivenTombstoneThe Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford3:10 to Yuma, and Seraphim Falls. We’ve had comedy mash-up disasters like Wild Wild WestCowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. And we’ve had nothing like a Rio Bravo… It’s admirable to try and cinematically reinstate the reality of the shameful treatment of the Native Americans in the Old West. But this admirable endeavour may run up against a problem if it’s part of a wider refusal to accept the Western genre for what it was and to believe that it can simply be rewritten to make it what it ought to have been. Such a massive undertaking may be more than the genre can accommodate, in one important respect – it can make for a good film, a good Western, but not a fun film. A Million Ways is not a fun film, even though it’s meant to be a comedy. And I think it’s because MacFarlane tried to hit every base; Native Americans as allies, the brutality and lawlessness of the West, rewriting the role of women (with particular emphasis on the brothels), the exploitation of Chinese labour; because he is one of that generation that can’t see a Western without giving a lecture on its propagandising.

MacFarlane certainly won’t be getting A Million Ways 2 off the ground, and his fiasco has probably scuppered any competent Destry Rides Again for the 2010s that was out there. But, considering Lindelof’s tropes, surely Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino comes closer to the cool movie that Lindelof wanted than Cowboys & Aliens. It shouldn’t be impossible to combine the 1973 generation’s ideal Western with exuberant fun – maybe it just needs Clint back in the saddle…

August 7, 2012

The Plough and the Stars

Director Wayne Jordan reprises his acclaimed 2010 production of O’Casey’s old warhorse, but, even with returning stars Joe Hanley and Gabrielle Reidy on good form, this fails to ever soar…

O’Casey’s final Abbey play sees the 1916 Rising explode into the lives of the extended Clitheroe family and their tenement neighbours. The socially ambitious Nora Clitheroe (Kelly Campbell) is cordially disliked by her neighbours Mrs Gogan (Deirdre Molloy) and Bessie Burgess (Gabrielle Reidy). Cordial dislike also exists within the extended Clitheoroe clan as the preening Citizen Army member Uncle Peter (Frankie McCafferty) is tormented by the Young Covey (Laurence Kinlan) for placing nationalism above socialism. Ignoring these political discussions is Jack Clitheroe (Barry Ward) whose pride has seen him resign from the Citizen Army on being passed over for promotion. However, when it’s revealed that he was promoted, but Nora hid the letter because she wanted him out of danger, Jack furiously leaves her to join a monster rally that stirs the patriotism of even the disreputable Fluther (Joe Hanley). But though the Rising has begun Nora isn’t finished yet…

This show lacks the comic vim of recent O’Casey productions, and this makes it feel slow-paced. Peter and the Covey just don’t strike sparks the way they should, and without that relationship being totally anarchic Nora is no longer trying to keep order in a madhouse but is merely trying to social climb within a tenement, which makes it difficult to empathise with her. Nora’s line “What do I care for th’ others? I can only think of me own self”; an attitude that would’ve brought the French Revolution to a shuddering halt; becomes uncomfortably emblematic, especially as it immediately precedes her pleading with Jack to come home,utterly oblivious to the disturbing squib-enhanced suffering of his dying comrade. Thankfully Hanley is very funny as Fluther, and Reidy very skilfully executes O’Casey’s most complicated character as she lifts the curtain on Burgess’ constant abrasiveness to reveal an equally generous heart.

Kate Brennan’s grimly realistic costume and make-up as the prostitute Rosie Redmond is contradicted by the overly self-performative turn she gives alongside Tony Flynn’s complementarily pouting barman. The effect is disorienting, and when the viciously combative Burgess and Gogan arrive into this milieu it defeats Casey’s satiric intent in juxtaposing Pearse’s rhetoric with poverty the new republic would not ameliorate. The high-flown idealism of the Man in the Window becomes a relief from such petty squalor. The unflattering juxtaposition caused riots in 1926 but here the blood-thirsty speech is instead rendered only slightly more extreme than Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Oddly enough its genuinely rousing effect is counterpointed by the production’s most moving moments being the unseen troops singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ as they march past on their way back to the hell of the trenches, and the two English Tommies climactically crooning ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. The latter moment saves an act almost ruined by an imaginary window within Tom Piper’s steel scaffolding set being established then sloppily ignored…

This is a decent show overall albeit with serious flaws, but in the wake of tremendous renditions of The Silver Tassie and Juno and the Paycock ‘decent’ can only disappoint.

2.5/5

The Plough and the Stars continues its run at Belvedere College until the 15th of September.

November 25, 2011

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part II

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Deja Vu
I’m finding it impossible to work up any enthusiasm either to read Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help or to see its very successful film adaptation. The reason is that The Help is what I like to call a ‘self-evident proposition’ work.

JEFFERSON: Isn’t liberty a great thing?
ADAMS: Um, yes. Were you expecting a different response to that question?
JEFFERSON: No, I just wanted to check that it was indeed a self-evident truth.

Having seen trailers, clips and interviews I feel like I’ve already seen the movie and read the book.

THE HELP: Wasn’t racism in the Deep South in the 1960s awful?
AUDIENCE: Um, yes… obviously – got anything else to add?
THE HELP: Isn’t inter-racial class-divide-crossing female empowerment just swell?
AUDIENCE: Get out…

I praised Emma Stone when I reviewed Superbad for InDublin in 2007 but I’m not about to watch predictable platitudes just to boost her to a well-deserved A-list status. Especially not when the platitudes are wrapped in another faux 1960s package, hot on the heels of Mad Men, Pan Am and X-Men: First Class. I’m a bit of sick of people caricaturing a decade they weren’t around for to make themselves feel enlightened.

The Horns of Desolation
I had the misfortune to stumble across the final scenes of Troy some weeks ago. My Delaney sketches can be traced back to one colour piece in the 2004 Christmas issue of the University Observer where I poured as much scorn as 908 words could hold on Troy. A poorly scripted mess that is stunningly disrespectful of one of the founding texts of Western literature and brought to botched life by a mixture of hammy or simply ill-judged performances Troy is a film that few people will ever watch again willingly. Which leads to the intriguing idea that any work wasted on it could be salvaged for use elsewhere. James Horner scores the fall of Troy with blaring horns and trumpets that bespeak desolation and the fall of an ancient civilisation, and I knew the melody they were playing very well. But I hadn’t seen Troy since 2004 so I couldn’t know the music from Troy itself. I seemed to associate the music with another film entirely but oddly also particularly with just such a scene of a culture being traumatically destroyed. And then it hit me, it’s the music from Avatar! The assault on Hometree and then the final battle – it’s the same horns of desolation. Horner, by association of ideas genuinely composed the same melody and orchestration again, or, (as I hope) directly lifted music he’d composed and foolishly thrown away on a much loathed film and re-used it on a much loved film.

September 21, 2009

Creation

A biopic of Charles Darwin that a creationist and Dawkins could go see and both happily leave halfway thru, agreeing that something so boring and utterly wretched wasn’t worth arguing over.

Creation opens with a caption proclaiming Darwin’s idea to be the single greatest in the history of thought, and then, for 109 minutes, casts doubt on whether cinema can communicate ideas at all. Creation is the worst of a biopic sub-genre (Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind) where great works are reduced to inanity by focusing not on the work, but, to paraphrase Creation’s captions, how the person came to write that work. You would think Darwin came to write his work by years of painstaking research, the formulation of a revolutionary hypothesis, and then months of hard graft writing up his findings by hand – but no! Darwin wrote his work addled on laudanum and guided by conversations with his dead daughter.  This conceit, like the flashbacks to his daughter’s life, is at first preposterous, then annoying, and finally unbearable.

The always capable Paul Bettany, bald but eschewing the beard of popular imagination, seems to be playing his own greatest hits. Darwin is a laudanum fiend and naturalist, like Bettany’s character in Master & Commander, who writes his great idea due to conversations with people who aren’t there, just as Bettany inspired Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Jennifer Connelly as Darwin’s religious wife is under-served by the script, although she and Bettany shine in the best scene of the film when they finally confront the possibility that their daughter’s poor health was because they married, despite being first cousins. Connelly’s character though is under-served because she is religious and this is a fatal weakness.

If you want true dramatic conflict you must give each character in an argument the possibility of winning or the scene is predetermined and therefore pointless. This holds even ethically – witness the astonishing scene in Sophie Scholl where Sophie is questioned for her anti-Nazia propagandising by a Gestapo officer in an intellectual debate in which every point Sophie makes is eloquently contradicted by him, and he makes points she can’t refute: the scene positively hums with dramatic tension even though he represents genocidal evil. In Creation poor Jeremy Northam as Reverend Innes is given dialogue which is comically bone-headed – his preaching on Genesis’ most absurd passages drives Darwin to walk out of service, while his approach to bereavement counselling for the Darwins involves endless references to God’s wise plan. This loading of the dice dramatically makes these scenes deeply idiotic, and matters are not helped by TH Huxley (Toby Jones appearing for five minutes) being more Dawkins than Huxley in his startling belligerence. Indeed his effect on Darwin in the film leads Innes to deliver his only good line, “I had always regarded you as one of those rare mortals with whom it is possible to disagree without a shade of animosity. I see that is no longer true”.

Evolution is, as Thomas Jefferson might have put it, a self-evident truth, but writers John Collee and Jon Amiel seem to think it so specious that they need a straw-man construction of religion. Ignore this bizarre farrago and instead try to watch the two BBC documentaries Darwin by David Attenborough and Did Darwin Kill God?

1/5

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