Talking Movies

May 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

If not Lazenby, then who?

Almost anyone. But seriously, folks. There were any number of actors in England in 1968 who could have done a better job of picking up the keys to Sean Connery’s Aston Martin. A three-cornered discussion with Friedrich Bagel and The Engineer produced this shortlist of contenders:

Rod Taylor, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Terence Stamp, Anthony Hopkins

Patrick McGoohan, Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Lee, Nicol Williamson, David Warner, Edward Fox

Now, not all of these people would have been asked, in order to keep the budget down. And some of them would likely have refused (contemptuously in some cases) had they been asked. But Sean Connery was not unknown when he was cast. Far from it, he had already appeared in Darby O’Gill and the Little People and his supporting role in The Longest Day would have been appreciated by British TV audiences who, between 1959 and 1961, had seen him as Count Vronsky, Hotspur, Macbeth and Alexander the Great. He was not an unknown, he was quite well known to British audiences as a leading man playing historic roles. Lazenby by contrast was quite well known to British audiences for advertising Fry’s chocolate bars.

The critical rehabilitation narrative

I’ve been thinking recently about what we might dub the critical rehabilitation narrative. Nothing seems to please some critics more than to discover neglected masterpieces, to rescue from the discard bin gems that were unappreciated at the time. The only problem is sometimes the critics are very pleased with themselves, their wider critical narrative powers along, and it’s only a minor detail that the film in question is still rubbish. That’s not to say that it is wrong to revisit films and see if they were misjudged; after all Fight Club suffered hugely from being released so soon after Columbine. But sometimes there is much to be said for reading the original reviews and getting a bracing perspective, like disinterring The Cabinet of Dr Caligari from the reverence of generations of film students and discovering in Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture that its own writers disowned the finished film for changes made to its finale which they regarded as dangerously reversing its political message, and doing so at a time that imperilled the nascent republic. Or realising that Matthew Modine saying recently that Full Metal Jacket has aged better than other Vietnam films because it’s finale of urban insurgency could be in Iraq only proves the point of the objections made by critics on release. Because of the WB indulging Kubrick’s power-tripping laziness he had departed from the novel’s jungle war conclusion to instead depict the (easily manufactured in England) ruined city of Hue, because he couldn’t be bothered leaving England. And it would be hard to easily manufacture in England a jungle war. Just as well Vietnam wasn’t noted for being a JUNGLE WAR. Revolution was reviled on release and exiled Pacino to Broadway. But Revolution is an unfocused film of baffling decisions, like shooting it entirely in England and not having Annie Lennox sing, rather than an outright atrocity. Watching its depiction of the start of the American Revolution, the mob bullying, the expropriation, the self-interested and abrasive self-righteousness is oddly reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago’s portrayal of the Bolsheviks. It’s hard not to think that this enraged American critics at the time, who sublimated that rage into attacks from other angles. And yet the final minutes of Revolution feature a truly astonishing tracking shot, a technical marvel and a triumph of production design, that I have never ever heard anyone praise or even mention. If you can’t do the hard work of salvaging the good from amidst the bad then what is the point of critical rehabilitation?

November 30, 2019

From the Archives: Rescue Dawn

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down on his first mission over Vietnam. Captured by the Vietcong he plots to escape and find his way home.

Christian Bale adds another impressive characterisation to his resume playing real life Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler. Rescue Dawn is inspired by events in Dengler’s life previously documented by the legendary (by which I mean famously bat-crazy) German director Werner Herzog in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Bale expertly plays a German who has become an American citizen and whose accent is American, but not quite genuine, and whose mental state could best be described as…peculiar. Herzog, the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo is quite at home in this cinematic territory of insane heroes in the jungle and produces his best fictional feature in years. Werner Herzog is after all the man who dragged a boat over a mountain for the making of Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century rubber baron in Brazil who wanted to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon.

Herzog brilliantly uses minimal dialogue for the first half hour to tell the story of Dengler’s capture and torture at the hands of the Vietcong thru the medium of pure cinema. He wordlessly conveys the utter terror of the Vietcong whenever an American airplane screams overhead. Herzog achieves a sense of location few Vietnam films have, even Apocalypse Now’s intense feeling for its locale is eclipsed by his extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography which makes the lush jungle almost another character. Bale’s time in the POW camp moves out of this art-house territory towards more mainstream fare, and the film slows down and becomes less distinctive. The men sit and bitch about being prisoners of war, plot escape plans (as all prisoners of war seem to spend most of their time doing, to the detriment of their guards’ nerves) and try to raise morale by fantasising over their favourite meals. Herzog inserts some excellent gags here but never lets you forget that Dengler is a very odd hero figure for these men to rally round.

The relationship between Bale and Steve Zahn as a fellow American prisoner in the small Vietcong camp is highly convincing but Jeremy Davies is endlessly irritating as the only other American POW. Davies has been using the same mannered tics since 1994 and has blighted films from The Million Dollar Hotel to Solaris. His popularity with casting directors continues to mystify. Steve Zahn, by contrast, grasps with both hands the chance to do something more substantial than his usual comedic sidekick roles and delivers a touching portrayal of man worn down by despair and malnutrition. Herzog’s languid pacing in this film, particularly in the second act, may irritate people raised on MTV editing but the majesty of the landscape and the emotional depth he achieves is more than adequate recompense, Rescue Dawn is an offbeat take on a familiar genre, welcome to the extreme as a matter of course.

3/5

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: American Gangster

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

In 1970s America, narcotics agent Richie Roberts works to bring down the drug empire of Frank Lucas, who is smuggling pure heroin into the country in military coffins returning from the Vietnam.

The black Goodfellas this is not. Ridley Scott is hailed on this film’s posters as the director of Gladiator. He’s also the director of GI Jane, Kingdom of Heaven and A Good Year to name just three of his super-turkeys from the last decade. This film has his usual striking visual quality, it’s very murkily lit and NYC looks very grimy and cold indeed. But American Gangster lacks energy, the analogy with Goodfellas practically screamed at us by the end sequence only reminds us just how dazzling Scorsese’s frenetic direction of that film really was. Such lethargy renders this film grotesquely long, the sort of running time that makes you keenly aware of absurdities, like why are all the hookers cutting Frank’s drugs topless or naked? It’s eventually lamely explained but it seems part of a drive by Scott to get as much gratuitous female nudity in to the film as he can manage. Is this Good Luck Chuck?!

Denzel Washington is as bad as he’s been in Inside Man, Out of Time, and all the other dreck he churns out while retaining a baffling reputation as a great actor. Russell Crowe, in a role with surprisingly little screen time, fares slightly better but despite playing a character of great professional integrity and personal dishevelment he looks like an actor going through the motions rather than exploring the possibilities of the part.  Josh Brolin, so good as the crazed Dr Block in last week’s Planet Terror, is much more committed as repellent bent cop Detective Trupo. The amount of police corruption portrayed in this film is really quite depressing. Scott uses it, in an effort as misguided as John Boorman’s attempts with Martin Cahill in The General, to valorise Frank Lucas. A psychopathic killer who pays lip service to taking care of Harlem while getting the whole borough hooked on cheap, potent heroin? Either pick someone else to mythologise or get a better scriptwriter.

Oscar-winning writer Steven Zaillian (an award the trailer boasts about far too much) won for a film Aaron Sorkin did an uncredited dialogue polish on while his previous film for Scott was co-written with legendary playwright David Mamet. His directorial debut, last year’s All the King’s Men which he also wrote, abundantly proved that, along with his problems with writing memorable dialogue, Zaillian has no idea of pacing. This story is just not interesting enough to sustain its bloated length while characters/plot devices like Carla Gugino’s shrill wife (divorcing Crowe’s emotionally distant cop) never convince as real people. The trailer for Charlie Wilson’s War, written by Aaron Sorkin precedes American Gangster and painfully highlights the utter vacuity of Zaillian’s dialogue in a film which all concerned obviously believe to be epic and meaningful but which is nothing of the sort.

1/5

October 2, 2019

From the Archives: Across the Universe

Another rummage through the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers Julie Taymor’s under-watched and under-appreciated Beatles musical featuring the under-appreciated Joe Anderson.

Liverpudlian dock worker Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels to Princeton in the 1960s to find his long lost GI father but moves to New York with Max (Joe Anderson) and falls in love with Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). When Max is sent to Vietnam, Lucy’s political activism tears her away from Jude…

Musicals, like Westerns, seem to be experiencing something of a renaissance. But both genres are nowadays farcically burdened with justifying their conventions and director Julie Taymor never quite establishes whether people are just going to burst into song randomly like in 1950s musicals or in archly contrived scenarios like 2002’s Chicago. Instead she throws both styles together, which works fine for the most part, but this is definitely more Moulin Rouge! than Chicago. Be warned, there’s a good deal of the overt theatricality you’d expect from a director with Godlike status on Broadway. The use of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ is fantastic as Max is accosted by a poster of Uncle Sam and choreographed sergeant majors at his army medical exam before a visual gag far too good to spoil here. However, this use of CGI and wooden masks presages the utter nonsense that begins when Bono arrives to sing ‘I Am the Walrus’. The use of photographic negative and trippy imagery that takes over proceedings quickly becomes very irritating and makes the running time of the film seem grotesquely overlong.

A simpler early sequence best exemplifies the cleverness with which Taymor approaches the songs. The extremely poppy ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ is transformed into a slow minimalist heartbreaker of a song as lesbian cheerleader Prudence (TV Carpio) serenades the lead cheerleader while footballers tackle each other as a tumbling chorus. If you don’t like this sequence then you will hate this film and most probably punch the person behind you who mutters ‘That’s Awesome!!’ Taymor at her best is able to wring unexpected meaning from the over-familiar songs and brings out the sadness implicit in Lennon and McCartney’s fondness for minor key compositions. At her worst she completely loses the realism of the Jude/Lucy love story and the sly wit in making the songs emerge organically from action, indulging instead in symbolical visual zaniness that plays like a bad 1960s Roger Corman exploitation film.

Jim Sturgess as Jude can sing but he lacks charisma and Evan Rachel Wood is good as Lucy but not good enough to carry him, she should have really have been playing opposite Joe Anderson who is wonderful as the raffish Max. It takes heroic resolve to overlook Taymor’s wayward psychedelia but she does return to the realism of musicals so that the finale has a nice emotional oomph with the end credits a neat pay off for a gag we’ve been waiting for the whole length of the film. No I’m not going to tell you what it is, go see it yourself.

3/5

August 9, 2019

Graham Greene Festival 2019

The Graham Greene International Festival is about to happen at Greene’s birthplace of Berkhamsted once again, and this year’s event, running from Thursday 19th to Sunday 22nd of September, is the 21st such garrulous gathering.

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it, how you always get what you pray for,” reflects Milly, beloved daughter of Wormold, the hapless intelligence agent in Graham Greene’s comic satirical masterpiece Our Man in Havana (1958). The theme for the 2019 Festival is described by Festival Director Martyn Sampson as Reflections on Greene: to give voice to the shades of reflectiveness and the reflections — and reflections on reflections — that present insights into the life and work of Greene. The programme of events could be compared to a veritable hall of mirrors, plentiful in perspectives and diverse in points of view, in which Festival-goers can pursue all manner of different leads and ideas.

Tickets will be on sale at the door for all events other than the meals, and online via the website: grahamgreenebt.org/tickets.

Season tickets, which offer a discount, are available for those who plan to attend all the talks and films. Friends of the GGBT can obtain a small discount on tickets by putting ‘Friends’ in the code box when purchasing.

 


THURSDAY 19TH SEPTEMBER

Railway Station (or Court House) and the Town Hall

Afternoon session (£5)

Berkhamsted Railway Station (or Court House)

2.15       Berkhamsted, The Greene Guide: a guided walk of approximately one hour, led by Brian Shepherd, with readings from A Sort of Life, The Human Factor and The Captain and the Enemy, by Judy Mead and Richard Shepherd. Meet outside the rear entrance to Berkhamsted Railway Station (the Platform 4 exit) for introduction. In the event of wet weather, there will be an illustrated talk with readings in The Court House.

 

Evening session

The Town Hall

(Supper and film £30; supper only £20; film only £10.)

5.15       Film Supper: 5.15 meet for drinks at pay bar, 6.00 waitress – served two-course supper with coffee; vegan/vegetarian option.      

(Please book by Monday 9 September at the latest.)

7.15       (For 7.30 start.) Film: 21 Days (London Film Productions, 1940, 72 minutes), directed by Basil Dean, screenplay by Basil Dean and Graham Greene, and starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Introduced by Mike Hill.

 

 

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FRIDAY 20TH SEPTEMBER

The Town Hall, The Civic Centre

Morning session (£16)

 The Town Hall

9.45       Greene & Sherry: The Fox & The Hound: a talk by Lucinda Cummings-Kilmer, who was research assistant to Norman Sherry, the first biographer of Greene

10.45      Break for tea and coffee

11.15      “It was our Bible”: US Vietnam War era Reporters (1965−1975) and the impact of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American: a talk by Professor Kevin Ruane of Canterbury Christ Church University.

Break for lunch

12.45      A repeat of Berkhamsted: The Greene Guide (£5). In the event of wet weather, there will be an illustrated talk with readings in The Town Hall.

 

Afternoon session (£16)

The Town Hall

2.30       Brighton Rock: Wrestling a Wonderful Story from out of a Book and onto the Stage: Bryony Lavery and Esther Richardson are interviewed by Mark Lawson.

3.30       Break for tea and coffee

4.00       The Priest in the Novels of Graham Greene: The Saint and the Sinner: A talk by Revd. Canon Emeritus Professor David Jasper of the University of Glasgow. The David Pearce Memorial Talk.

 

Evening session (£10)

 The Civic Centre

7.30       Film night: Our Man in Havana (Kingsmead Productions, 1959, 111 minutes), directed by Carol Reed, screenplay by Graham Greene, and starring Alec Guinness, Ernie Kovacs, Burl Ives and Maureen O’Hara. Introduced by Quentin Falk.

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SATURDAY 21ST SEPTEMBER

Deans’ Hall and Old Hall, Berkhamsted School (Castle Street)

Morning session (£17)

Deans’ Hall

9.45      Vicious Cities: Shadows of The Third Man in Our Man in Havana: a talk by Dr Chris Hull of the University of Chester and Dr James Clifford Kent of Royal Holloway, University of London.

10.45    Break for tea and coffee

11.15    What or who was The Third Man . . . and the vital question remains. . . .: Miles Hyman and Jean-Luc Fromental are interviewed by Dr Brigitte Timmermann.

Break for lunch

 

 

Mid-afternoon session (£17)

Deans’ Hall

2.00      The launch of the Graham Greene Film Review Competition: A presentation by Dr Creina Mansfield, Emma Clarke, Quentin Falk and Dr Jo Barnardo-Wilson.

2.30      Our Woman in Havana: Reporting Castro’s Cuba: a talk by Sarah Rainsford.

3.30     Break for tea and coffee

4.00      Politics and the Novel: a talk by Sir Vince Cable, former Leader of the Liberal Democrats 2017-19 and former Secretary of State for Business.

 

Late-afternoon session, including Birthday Toast (£15)

5.00      The Birthday Toast: by Jonathan Bourget.

5.30      Where is the line between true crime and crime fiction?: a talk by Geoffrey Wansell.

 

Evening session (£36)

Old Hall

8.00      Festival Dinner: three courses with wine and coffee; vegan/vegetarian option, with grace to be said by Revd. Canon Emeritus Professor David Jasper. (Limited to 60 tickets. Please book by Monday 9 September at the latest.)

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SUNDAY 22 SEPTEMBER

VIth Form Centre and Old Hall, Berkhamsted School (Castle Street)

Morning session (£16)

VIth Form Centre, Castle Street

9.00      A Tour of the School & Archives: including a look at the Exhibition Room, the green baize door, Old Hall and the School Chapel. Meet outside Old Hall.

10.00     Scandinavians are terribly Scandinavian: Graham Greene’s friendship with Norwegian writer Nordahl Grieg: a talk by Johanne Elster Hanson. This talk will follow an introduction by Ian Thomson.

11.00    Break for tea and coffee

11.30    Graham Greene’s Hungarian Connection: a talk by Dr Tamás Molnár and Dr Ramón Porta.

 

Old Hall Lunch (£25)

1.00      Farewell Lunch: cold buffet, wine and coffee; vegan/vegetarian   option. (Limited to 60 tickets. Please book by Monday 9 September at the latest.)

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The venues will feature exhibitions during the course of the Festival. The Graham Greene Trust Festival bookstall and Richard Frost’s second-hand bookstall will be open on the Friday and Saturday. Both will feature a large selection of books by, and relating to, Graham Greene. A free Festival brochure will be available during the Festival. It will include a full Festival programme, details of speakers and more. A Season ticket to all events, including both films but excluding meals, is available for £106. There is free admission to all Festival events (excluding meals) for under 21s. If you have any queries or problems with tickets, please email ticketing@grahamgreenebt.com or phone +44 7988 560496.

Friends of The Graham Greene Trust

You are cordially invited to become a Friend of the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust at: grahamgreenebt.org/membership

Benefits include receipt of a quarterly magazine entitled A Sort of Newsletter and a Festival discount of £2 per event (for up to five events).

May 22, 2018

From the Archives: Stop Loss

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives turns up a very under-rated Iraq war film featuring strong supporting turns from Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The Iraq War has become a continuing nightmare for the United States military to set beside Vietnam. Surprisingly it’s also become impossible terrain for American film-makers compared to the cinematic response to Vietnam. It falls to writer/director Kimberly Pierce to make the finest film about the Iraq War to date. This is her first feature since 1999’s acclaimed Boys Don’t Cry and Pierce has waited a long time to provide another absorbing and heartbreaking slice of small town Americana. The film opens with an action set-piece in Iraq that conveys tedium, paranoia, fear, bloodlust and chaos more effectively than the entirety of Brian De Palma’s Redacted. The real focus of this film is the psychological battle on the home-front back in Texas.

There is no place for a warrior in a stable society. This is a melancholy truth that has found expression over and over again in fiction, if you set out to protect your home your violent deeds will unfit you for ever living there again. “I’m going to miss blowing shit up” laments Channing Tatum’s Steve Shriver as he hands over his weapons for discharge from the army having served his required tours of duty. What exactly are these men going to do back in their small town? Jobs are scarce, they’re adrenaline junkies and scarred by the savagery they’ve witnessed and been forced to commit in Iraq. The dilemma is best exemplified by the out of control Pt. Tommy Burgess. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a supporting role as the violent alcoholic Tommy is as superb as his performances in Brick, The Look-Out and Mysterious Skin have led us to expect. Burgess and Shriver desperately need their commanding officer Brandon King to keep them in check. King is leaving the military…until he finds the President has signed an order keeping him in the army against his will.

Ryan Phillipe is impressively mature as the righteously indignant Staff Sergeant Brandon King who thinks he should not be asked to pointlessly lead more men to their deaths. Australian actress Abbie Cornish is a fine foil as Michelle, Shriver’s neglected girlfriend who offers to drive King to Washington. There are echoes of Phillipe’s previous role in Flags of Our Fathers. King is convinced that he can just take the matter up with his local Senator who welcomed him home but he quickly learns the harsh truth. You’re a hero when you’re fighting, but when the war finishes or you’ve gone AWOL from a Stop-Loss, they don’t want to hear about you anymore. The shadow of Vietnam hangs heavy over this film as King suddenly realises his choices are return to Iraq or flee to Canada, start a new life there and never be able to return home again. This is never preachy, always compelling and emotionally taut. An absolute must see.

5/5

October 6, 2017

The Mountain Between Us

Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are stranded in the Rockies in a two-hander that feels like it was scripted by Bear Grylls and Nicholas Sparks.

Ben (Idris Elba) is stuck at an airport due to bad weather. He needs to get back to Baltimore to perform life-saving brain surgery on a young patient. Alex (Kate Winslet) is stuck at the same airport. She needs to get back to NYC to get married. She comes up with some ingenious lateral thinking. They should charter a small propellor plane to do the short hop to Colorado where they can make connecting flights. Walter (Beau Bridges) flew missions into Vietnam with people shooting at him, what’s the worst thing that could happen in a bit of bad weather? I mean apart from Walter having a stroke at the controls? And even if you do crash, what’s the worst that could happen? Get seriously menaced by a cougar? I mean Kim Bauer got through that. Yeah, book that plane guys!

There is some fantastically captured scenery in The Mountain Between Us, and some very nice shots by cinematographer Mandy Walker locating the actors in the middle of a vast snowy wilderness. But that’s about as far as you can go with anything approaching unqualified praise. I was genuinely astonished during the credits to find the score had been written by Ramin Djawadi as it had made no impression whatsoever. Indeed the abiding impression was that this film was long, in particular its final 20 minutes make this 104 minute movie feel about 134 minutes, as the inevitable point is hummed and hawed at before being reached. And the point should equally inevitably make Speed fans think of a certain repeated line of dialogue.

Too often this feels like a bad Bones episode, except for tiresome faith v science arguments you get Ben needing to stop trying to control everything and just take risks like the free-spirited photographer who got him into this mess in the first place. And there are painful screenwriting 101 conceits piled up higher than some of the snowdrifts they encounter – of course you wouldn’t tell anybody where you were going and what you were doing before you got stranded, of course you wouldn’t assume you can get cell reception atop the Rockies, of course you wouldn’t eat Walter’s dog for food, of course you wouldn’t let Alex’s injured leg imperil chances of survival, of course Ben wouldn’t be so colossally stupid and unaware as to not wear his gloves and endanger his fingers by frostbite leading to losing his ability to perform brain surgery and so have to relinquish control over his life to fit the neat thematic statement the movie is apparently attempting to make.

The moment you might remember most from this underwhelming romance/adventure is when Idris Elba announces that he’s from Britain but now lives in Baltimore.

2.5/5

December 31, 2015

1916 without 1916

By now we’ve all seen the Government’s video about the 1916 Rising that somehow forgets the Rising. I’m not sure I’ve seen something so straight-facedly absurd since Brad Dourif preached “The Church of Christ … without Christ” in Wise Blood.

Enda-Kenny

From the suggestively chosen imagery it’s tempting to conclude (apropos of Interstellar) that we’re commemorating when David Cameron, Ian Paisley, and Queen Elizabeth II travelled back via a handily placed wormhole to Dublin 1916 in order to ensure a docklands fit for Google and Facebook to live in. Sadly the truth is less imaginative, and depressing; because this fiasco was entirely predictable. The Proclamation being rendered as Gaeilge via Google Translate was a perfect statement of intent. Nobody cared enough to flag that it ought to be double-checked before it went live. It is unthinkable that in 2004 a Polish text could have been given such haphazard treatment while our government was hosting the EU’s big expansion into Eastern Europe; Bertie Ahern cared deeply about that Farmleigh event. It is unthinkable that a German would text would not be excruciatingly parsed if Angela Merkel were to visit next week; because Enda Kenny would care deeply about such a visit. But for the literal genesis of our political consciousness as a modern state? To appropriate the current Rabobank ad’s stylings: “Any translation” “Any translation?” “Any translation…” That attitude expresses a political weltanschauung: Labour gives the distinct impression of being embarrassed by our Constitution; which Eamon Gilmore liked to dub outdated (ignore the awkward fact the Americans are still using their 1780s constitutional settlement); and Fine Gael, despite their self-definition (as Pat Leahy has put it) as the party of “Law and Order. Law’n’Order and the Foundation of the State!”, are ashamed of 1916 – which is to primarily be remembered, whereas they celebrated the 75th anniversary of winning the Civil War…

Labour’s Aodhán O’Ríordáin, while insisting that the video was a preview of what the entirety of 2016 would be like (apparently a never-ending bacchanalia of Macnas and BOD coming out of retirement to score tries), offered a non-apology apology: “If we got it wrong, we got it wrong and we should look at something else.” (If? If?? IF?! Yes, ye got it wrong. This has been made abundantly clear by now, so lose the “if”.) He went on to offer the official version of the mindset behind the video: “The point is that we’re trying not to present a very stiff and stale and unimaginative and cold depiction of what happened 100 years ago, which can almost turn some people off immediately.” Maybe he sincerely believes this, maybe not; to my mind this defeatist insistence that marking the events of 100 years ago is impossible because it’s all deathly dull so let’s just talk about the Queen’s visit in 2011 is a disingenuous cover for the fact that it is the government itself who are the people turned off immediately by the idea of celebrating 1916. The BBC spent 2014 producing radio and television documentaries and fictional serials about WWI. If you could watch 37 Days’ dramatisation of the failed diplomacy of July 1914 and find it very stiff, stale, unimaginative, and cold, then the problem lies not with history or its recreation but with you. If you could watch Niall Ferguson’s provocative arguing for WWI being a mistake and the hostile reaction of his academic audience and find it very stiff, stale, unimaginative, and cold then presumably you find newspapers insupportable because they’re about events from distant yesterday. It is telling that the video’s themes; Remember, Reconcile, Imagine, Present, Celebrate; visually remove ‘celebration’ from the revolutionary past…

The video’s visual cues for ‘remember’, ‘reconcile’, and ‘imagine’ taken together imply sorrow for having had the bad taste to rebel against Britain, and a desire to plot how to go forward together. As approaches to celebrating a country’s independence from its colonial masters go it’s got the merit of originality. But it cannot go uncontested. How does marking 1916 by mentioning Ian Paisley and not Padraig Pearse make sense? How is it even acceptable to prioritise, over a man who gave up his life as a blood sacrifice (of the type Rupert Brooke valorised) to start a fire whose flame would burn a hole in the map of the British Empire, a man who became a big avuncular bear once he’d made it to the top of the greasy pole having first done considerable damage in his life-long climb to the top in his capacity as venomous firebrand? (When Seamus Mallon dubbed the Good Friday Agreement ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’ who did he have in mind?) I have walked some of the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front, where Irish and British soldiers died together in 1914, and remembered them. It does not preclude me from celebrating 1916.

French historian Francois Furet rescued 1789 from the grasp of communists who wanted to make it a proto-1917, by instead inflecting 1917 as the culmination of 1793’s Terror; and the Terror as the betrayal of the Revolution. Terence Brown has argued that Kevin Whelan’s The Tree of Liberty was vital in allowing 1798 to be celebrated here as a good thing, instead of mumbling embarrassedly about it. We need something of the same now. It doesn’t matter that we’re an indebted country who’ve signed away our sovereignty to the Troika. America in 1976 was hardly in a wonderful state. Vietnam, Inflation, Watergate, Roe V Wade: if ever a country was having a crisis of confidence and identity it was America then. And they still pulled off a celebratory bicentennial instead of sitting around bemoaning lost opportunities and how the Brits would have given them parliamentary representation if they’d just waited longer…

The government’s video suggests that we celebrate the future, and take inspiration from … whatever. That’s completely wrong, but completely in character. We should celebrate the past, and be inspired by it. We should not look back at 1916 and be embarrassed by it, we should look back at 1916 and be embarrassed by ourselves. We need to mark 2016 as a combination of July the 4th and Gettysburg. It is both a cause for celebration, and a time for serious discussion. And if there’s anything in our national poet’s complicated canon that best sums up conflicted Irish identities in a triumphal way it’s this watchword for the coming centenary year:

“Sing the peasantry, and then

Hard-riding country gentlemen,

The holiness of monks, and after

Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;

Sing the lords and ladies gay

That were beaten into the clay

Through seven heroic centuries;

Cast your mind on other days

That we in coming days may be

Still the indomitable Irishry.”

December 13, 2015

Speed-reading towards illiteracy

Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller gave an interview recently to BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme, which poses some intriguing questions about how new cinemagoers experience the medium.

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Miller cited Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By as a seminal text; the entire language of cinema was defined pre-sound. Miller was intrigued by the notion that there was a pure film language not reliant on the spoken word, and he decided to tell stories through that language; going so far as to describe Mad Max: Fury Road as a silent movie with sound – what matters is that one shot leads into the next shot to a purpose. As Miller notes this kind of cine-literacy is an acquired language, and a recent one; but it is one that can be mastered, in all cultures, before we’ve got a handle on actual literacy. But it’s his remark that we’re now all speed-reading stories (backed up by some statistics), that is a lit match tossed into a powder keg… Mad Max 2 had 1,200 shots, Mad Max: Fury Road had 2,900 shots, while Miller was told Jurassic Park had 950 shots, and Jurassic World by his estimation had more than triple that.

If we’re speed-reading stories, are we speed-reading into illiteracy? Back in 1997 Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese bemoaned the cine-illiteracy of young audiences:

ALLEN: I was talking to some college kids the other day, and they were bright kids who were going to a good college, and they had no idea about great directors. These bright college kids have no knowledge whatsoever of Truffaut’s films or Fellini’s films. And yet the universities do encourage them to read Mark Twain and Flaubert and Melville. … So many film students are film illiterate. They’re not unsophisticated. They probably know more about steadicams and special effects than the average audience. The guy who drives your cab will use those terms when talking about a film, but they’re illiterate in terms of —

SCORSESE: The lineage.

ALLEN: They’ve never seen any of these films. I think they have a different attention span. [My italics]

I admit my culpability in having that different attention span Woody Allen fretted over. I saw Scream as a teenager and was blown away by it. When I subsequently saw Hallowe’en I was inevitably bored by its slow pacing compared to its younger rival. I knew that without Hallowe’en there would be no Scream, I understood the lineage, I respected the execution, but I couldn’t stop myself wishing Carpenter would hustle things along a bit. As a result I’ve never re-watched Hallowe’en, while Scream remains one of my favourite and oft re-watched films. In 1997 Scorsese bemoaned his inability to be influenced by younger film-makers: “The young people today are the 21st century. I’m 20th century, I can’t help it. It’s hard to let new stuff in.” And there’s an equal generational problem in film criticism. The New Hollywood has been so valorised by audience that Bret Easton Ellis and Quentin Tarantino bemoan the 1980s to each other as the nadir of American movies. Whereas Back to the Future Day demonstrated the impact that decade’s movies had on their audience.

Miller extols the virtues of Buster Keaton and the montage technique of Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, but will the youngsters who lapped up Mad Max: Fury Road delve back into cinema history to watch the movies that inspired Miller’s visual storytelling? No. If you are used to 2,900 shots a movie something that’s less than a third of that will bore you senseless. What was already a problem in 1997 is only going to get worse. ‘Jurassic World is a mere inept retread of Jurassic Park’ howl we who saw the original in the cinema. But, like a dead owl, the kids going to Jurassic World don’t give a hoot. They probably haven’t watched Jurassic Park all the way through because they find it unbearably slow-moving. This might explain the Russos’ baffling belief that the execrable Captain America 2 deserved an Oscar for casting Robert Redford and throwing 1970s paranoia shapes.

1970s paranoia was an organic cinematic response to the mood engendered by Watergate and Vietnam, and, like all movements that begin organically, when it became a commercial affectation it died a horrible death. The idea that Captain America 2 in rehashing a trope that was valid and original 40 years ago somehow itself becomes pertinent and (coughs in disbelief) original is as absurd as Gareth Edwards believing that his 2014 Godzilla is a good parallel for the trauma of Fukushima. If Sion Sono’s 2011 Himizu can react almost instantaneously to Fukushima in a valid and original cinematic fashion what makes Edwards think that Hollywood rehashing its interpretation of a 60 year old Japanese response to an entirely different national trauma is anything but a crass attempt to attach spurious relevance (via some extremely patronising cultural voiceover work) to the commercial imperative of rebooting a dormant franchise. But here’s the kicker – it doesn’t matter. None of the fulminations of film-makers or critics or punters of a certain age matter. My complaint that Jurassic World is not as good as Back to the Future doesn’t matter. Logic doesn’t even matter. The 12 year olds who go to Captain America 2 and Godzilla will likely never watch All The President’s Men or The Parallax View or Gojira because they’re too slow-moving and boring. 2045 will see Jurassic World as fondly remembered as Back to the Future is now, and all us haters will be so many Bret Eastons moaning that the 2010s were the nadir of American movies.

Perhaps we’re not speed-reading into illiteracy so much as into an eternal kinetic present. The past is a foreign country, they edit films boringly there.

October 15, 2014

’71 – 7 Dispatches

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1. Holmes

Belfast native David Holmes has composed the grooving soundtrack for a lot of good films with an eye for suspense and action, being Steven Soderbergh’s go-to-guy. But I don’t think he’s done 1970s synth menace before, and when he unleashes it in the third act to long takes and tracking shots of people stalking the endless concourses in The Divis block of flats it ratchets up the tension.

2. Scott

I love it when actors play the extremes of their range in a single year, and Killian Scott does it here. Scott had the funniest scenes in Calvary as misfit Milo, convinced that being homicidal would be a plus for the army – ‘like an engineering degree’. As the ruthless emerging IRA leader Quinn in ’71 he seems older, tougher, and even almost taller so complete is the transformation.

3. Dredd/Dread

’71 is so unpredictable that you don’t expect Chekhov’s rifles. And yet one pops up. “You can use the Divis as an orientation point, but don’t go inside the flats. It’s an IRA stronghold” the soldiers are told at their briefing. So of course Gary wakes up to find himself on one the top floors of The Divis, with the IRA coming up, and guarding all possible exits…

4. In-Country

“You know where Belfast is, right? Northern Ireland. United Kingdom. Same country. You’re not leaving the country” the deploying soldiers are informed. Well… they kind of are. Gary’s complete bafflement at the sectarian madness that greets him in Belfast almost satirises Thatcher’s infamous contention that Northern Ireland was just as British as Finchley. This isn’t so much not leaving the country, as going in-country in the Vietnam sense…

5. Football/Religion

One of the funny moments of the film comes when Jack O’Connell’s protagonist has his named parsed: Gary Hook, obviously Protestant. Just to confirm he’s not a Taig, he’s asked by his foul-mouthed child protector if he is a Protestant. “Uh, I dunno.” “You don’t know?! Now I’ve heard everything.” Later he demurs any possible Nottingham connection, “Darbyshire and Nottingham don’t really get on.” “Why?” “Don’t know really.”

6. Collusion

’71 initially surprises by using the Troubles almost as an incidental backdrop for an urban survival thriller. But then it really surprises in its acknowledgement of the North’s Dirty War. British military intelligence officers are depicted both training loyalists in bomb-making, and talking to leaders of the IRA. ’71 just takes it for granted that this is what happened, something which would outrage Daily Mail blowhard Peter Hitchens.

7. Reed

Black Watch playwright Gregory Burke and TV director Yann Demange (Dead Set, Criminal Justice) make an arresting cinematic debut with this movie – tense, sharply scripted, and directed with disorienting and dazzling flair. And praise doesn’t come much higher than saying it reminded me of another film about a wounded man in Belfast falling in with people with agendas of their own – Carol Reed’s 1947 classic Odd Man Out.

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