TV Eye: 30 Rock and Jonathan Meades on France

30 Rock

Jacob Knowles-Smith on homophobia in elitist liberal comedy and nationalism in polymath documentaries

After the inconvenience of creator Tina Fey’s pregnancy, the new season of 30 Rock (NBC) has finally aired. If there was one impact of her pregnancy on the show it was Fey’s slightly fuller face – which, I should say, was only noticeable when compared to Alec Baldwin’s now deflated head and less-substantial figure. At first I feared a slimmer model Jack Donaghy might lessen his comic presence, but, after watching the first episode twice and the second episode, I was too busy listening out for the rapid-fire dialogue which makes a second viewing a must when it comes to 30 Rock. One question, however, still remains, who now will spearhead the campaign for weightier, middle-aged men to be considered as sex symbols?

Gay fans of 30 Rock who haven’t already switched off because of Tracy Morgan’s homophobic comments last summer, might well be dissuaded by Jack – though he’s still very much a ‘daddy’ – no longer being so much of a ‘bear’. Furthermore, I’m not sure Tracy Morgan’s character, Tracy Jordan, having his own homophobic controversy will draw back the LGBT audience, but I’m sure he regrets his comments and it’s a pretty good stab at a public apology.

As ever, the show’s subplots remain inventive and anarchic – from hayseed zealot Kenneth’s disappointment over the Rapture failing to transpire, to Kelsey Grammer reprising his role as conman-extraordinaire. There’s also an ever-welcome slap in the face to Simon Cowell in the form of Jack’s new reality TV vehicle: America’s Kids Got Singing. I leave the only comment that needs to be said about such ‘talent contests’ to panel judge D’Fwan: “You need to remember reality television is formulaic.”

When the Republican candidates vituperate their inflamed rhetoric against the ‘elitist liberal media’, one can only assume that 30 Rock is high on their lists of targets. Of course, in reality (somewhere far from the primaries), those targets are a pretty narrow field – the vast majority of America media products – from TV to newspapers – do have an underlying message of the primacy of family values, patriotism and Christianity. 30 Rock, however, is heretical because it dares to suggest that all America is equally, well, American. There is no bucolic heartland that remains sheltered from tendrils of the east and west coasts, and New York and Los Angeles are not completely peopled by cosmopolitan hipsters and pro-choice heathens. But there is a reason the presidential hopefuls are required to expound on this cultural divide – to distract people from remembering that that the Gingriches and Romneys are also part of the elite.

Another oft-presumed elitist, Jonathan Meades, returned to BBC4 this week with Jonathan Meades on France. Not that you’d really know about it because, though his previous documentary series about Scotland, Off-Kilter, was widely reviewed and praised in the press, a wordy-overachiever talking about France is clearly a step too far. Susan Sontag described a polymath as someone who is interested in everything and nothing else. This might be a fair description of Meades, but, as Jonathan Miller once pointed out, ‘polymath’ is more usually a slur in Britain, as if being interested in more than one thing is catholic indulgence.

Nevertheless, BBC4 is the welcoming home of people who are interested in things – even multiple things – and Meades’s first-of-three films about France was as diverse in content as a week’s schedule for that channel. All the subjects were things beginning with V; Valise, Vedette, Voltaire; and if there was a loose thread running throughout – but not all of them – it was the OAS, the far-right nationalist terrorist group that tried to prevent Algerian independence in the 60s. Meades seems to have mixed-feelings about the group and, if not sympathy, understanding of their aims. He has, however, no understanding – certainly no sympathy – with nationalism, and this is a theme throughout many of his earlier films. Illustrated overtly in documentaries about Nazi and Stalinist architecture and more subtly in ones about British culture, the message Meades tries to convey, and rightly so, is that identifying too closely with where one comes from stymies progression of culture and diminishes us as individuals. Modernism, for example, has no ‘nationalist etiquette’ attached to it and was thusly despised by the far right; fascism allows its subjects no identity other than homogeneity. This might sound unpatriotic, but people (those Republican candidates especially) should consider whether they’d rather be defined by their background or by their talents and individuality.

On France has a much more personal perspective than Meades’s other documentaries; the country – where he now lives – became his, he says, in 1962, when the OAS declared their war. At that time, the architecture of France also inspired ‘wonder and delight’ in his fifteen-year old self – he didn’t make the connections then that he describes for us now, but he has tried to make a career out of making us wonder about things, and, for me at least, that is a constant delight.

Shame (Dir: Steve McQueen)

Steve McQueen Shame

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Steve McQueen’s second feature is a visually arresting, thematically dense piece of cinema, that may, and probably will, prove to be an important film in years to come. That is, if enough people get to see it. Having been cursed with a NC-17 rating in the US and a limited release in the UK, it seems those it may have been intended for will be largely unaware of its arrival.

From the opening frames it becomes clear there is again, after Hunger (2008), a meticulous method at work, both in front and behind the camera; McQueen’s fine arts training fixes every image immaculately, as if leafing through a glossy (yet depraved) coffee table book, a look which works as irony for its subject matter, and the extension of McQueen’s intention to interrogate his audience.

Then there is Fassbender as Brandon, a long-time sex-addicted New Yorker running the hamster wheel of untameable urges and the subsequent self-loathing, his demeanour and quiet menace recalling fellow-pointy-face Christian Bale in American Psycho, only less cartoonish and more sinister.

Brandon’s condition worsens when his younger, ever-vulnerable and needy lounge-singing sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to visit. The pressure of her presence and her constant encroachments on his territory adds to the strain he already feels. Her re-appearance twists him in new ways, not helped by her dalliances with his boss, Dave (James Badge Dale). Brandon gradually crumbles into himself.

And there is much to admire in its telling. Shame is something of an orchestral symphony, all of the components coming together to form a cohesive and remarkable whole, made from the music, and the visuals, and (most of) the acting. One notable sore spot, however, is the mildly irritating dinner scene, in which Sissy performs a heart-wrenching number in front of her brother and Dave. The camera trained on Mulligan’s quivering face, the film’s flow is interrupted. A long long shot of just too much supplicatory ‘acting’. We are made fully aware that what we are witnessing is an actor’s attempt to state her claim as being ‘the brightest young thing’, the scene far too drawn-out to leave any sympathy remaining in this particular instance. That is not to say Mulligan won’t be praised. She surely will be; it is the kind of thing that critics go for, this false attempt at intensity behind a look of painful worldliness.

Despite this, what co-screenwriters McQueen and Abi Morgan have managed is to make real, living, breathing humans of Brandon and Sissy. You may not like them; one is an arrogant bully, the other a needy liberty-taker, but somehow you reach some state of empathy.

Of course, as you may have heard, a lot of the film is sex. That almost goes without saying. (It is like the filmed memoirs of Dan Fante.) But the way McQueen has worked it disconnects the viewer from the sex, even from the sex in other films, this sex for gratification, the cold relief sold as ‘love’. It is the same with Brandon, and we arrive again at empathy. He cannot resist his urges to abominate himself, using hookers, masturbating at work, spending the in-between watching internet pornography, sat with a beer as if looking at a football game, completely on automatic. While, at work, his computer is confiscated as a result of the material found on it.

As he goes on, Brandon has more and more emotionally numbing sex, his pursuit leading him eventually to physical injury and homosexuality (with an odd and subtle implication that homosexuality is rock bottom, if we are to go by the music and intended drama. But it is little trips like these* that make you realise this film was actually ‘made’, that it didn’t just fabricate to teach our society a lesson.)

Shame seems not only about sex addiction as a distancing affliction, but also about alienation in general, though it does too hint at familial problems, sexual or otherwise, as the root cause of the siblings’ troubles. But McQueen is less interested in working the psychological aspects, opting instead to document, not explain: Here is a man who is of no value to himself. He has lost touch with any sense of worthiness, any purpose, other than fleeting and momentary gratification. What is he worth, if he is nothing even to himself? This is why it seems as if this is an “important” film (in quotation marks as how important a film can get has its obvious limitations), and completely of this era of commodified sex. An issue of the times.

Quickly the glossy sex becomes abhorrent to watch, because we are with Brandon, and it’s as equally degrading to the viewer as the participant, made most obvious in the clips of porn flickering on Brandon’s screen. McQueen merely shows this to the audience, does not tell it, by taking us from our awareness of his commercial-like images, which open the story, to the grimy opposite, but filmed in the same style, while simultaneously the world that Brandon inhabits becomes as glossed over and false as the sex and pornography that clouds him.

“These days it is not realistic to limit yourself to one partner”, Brandon says at one point during a date with a girl from work in which he also expresses his pessimistic view of long-term relationships, that one becomes bored with the other. It is clear that he is constantly reaching for the now, the instant gratification. This is what makes this film of our time. It sounds like social commentary, and it probably is. Fassbender’s Brandon is an icon of modern man, a symbol, while the final effect of Shame has some kind of reverb with Tarkovsky’s (disappearing) idea of having a film hopefully make the viewer turn to ‘good’. Shame is the sound and sight of an artist speaking and moving, yet without didacticism or lame solutions. And by the end, we are given a sense of hope, of man resisting himself, gaining control. Shame that a lot of people probably won’t even get a chance to experience it.

[*How many times can the distorted reflection of a protagonist be used as a metaphor in film, without someone piping up and saying something?]

TV Eye: The Story of Musicals and Timeshift: The Smoking Years

Jacob Knowles-Smith tries to make sense of this season’s viewing

With the Christmas schedule now safely out of the way, viewers can settle into shows designed to ward off the effects ‘the lull’ and winter blues that come without an enforced sense of Christmas cheer. This year Charles Dickens, the codifier of our Christmas traditions, was more prominent in our minds than ever. Several documentaries and a sleek adaptation of Great Expectations (BBC One) are all very well, but none of this can really compete with The Muppet Christmas Carol. All we can hope from any adaptation of Dickens’s work is that people deduce from what they are watching on the screen that this might actually be a good book worth reading – rather than just a Great Book, gathering dust on a shelf.

The festive line up wasn’t, by any stretch, all bad but the sound of sleigh bells in the background eventually takes a Pavlovian toll that renders one unable to resist shoving a fifth mince pie into a mouth already aching from over-use. The standout Christmas special for me was ITV’s annual adventure with Poirot: The Clocks had a slightly audacious plot, stuffed full of red herrings but it wouldn’t be Christmas without David Suchet with a waxed moustache.

As we passed into the New Year, thoughts of Poirot turned to another detective, Sherlock Holmes. BBC One’s modern adaptation, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, doesn’t need more praise heaped on it than necessary here but I did find it interesting that the charge of sexism was levied against it. It was questioned whether – to say nothing of the nudity – the portrayal of the episode’s female antagonist was sexist because her plot was based on sexuality rather than intellect. We can reasonably assert that no woman should try to use her sexuality to get ahead in everyday life, but surely it’s perfectly natural for a villain to use any method to confound their adversary, especially as one would assume that in order to qualify as a villain at all they must have at least one variety of antisocial personality disorder. All sociopaths and narcissists use their sexuality as readily as any other attribute to achieve their goals, so this is really an effort to create needless controversy.

The Story of Musicals (BBC Four), innocuous as that title sounds, showed how sometimes controversy is very much necessary. This documentary series describes how British musicals took hold of global of the theatre industry. Putting aside for now the question of whether that was a good thing or not, it also portrayed how they challenged censorship, conventions and the establishment. Musicals seem to have supported the anti-war movement, through shows such Oh, What a Lovely War!, more than many of the rock and roll musicians who came to prominence subsequently. This latter group clearly influenced productions such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar – the first rock opera – but it was musicals that resulted in the Lord Chamberlain having his powers of censorship revoked and even predated The Beatles in leading the ‘British Invasion’ in the United States.

Leading the charge Stateside, and putting us at the mercy of Dickens’s once again, was Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s response to the sensational West Side Story. Oliver!, though, however much of a good knees-up it is, is a poor Dickens adaptation which strips all of the danger away from the real pivot of the story, Fagin. For commercial reasons, this is forgivable. Had they portrayed Fagin as the true bastard he is, the show would never have played well in New York and inevitable charges of anti-Semitism would have followed. (Indeed, Dickens himself fell short of describing all of the acts an actual Fagin character would’ve had his urchins engage in.)

When one does think of the musicals that started the British response; Oklahoma!, South Pacific, West Side Story, etc; and when one compares them to shows, which will presumably be discussed in the next episode, like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, it seems that British musicals ultimately had a pernicious effect on the genre, sapping the vitality from Broadway and the West End until all we’re left with is Wicked. At the very least, it confirms that people like Tim Rice or Andrew Lloyd Webber are no Sondheim or Bernstein.

The Rattigan Enigma (BBC Four), another theatrical documentary, neatly bookended British theatre at the other side of the war years. Benedict Cumberbatch was on hand– in rather lacklustre style, it must be said – to take us through the life of playwright Terence Rattigan from his days at Harrow through his struggles with repressed homosexuality and becoming acknowledged as a serious artist. I struggled to figure out what the ‘enigma’ of the title actually was; Rattigan’s life as an artist never quite coming to terms with his sexuality is no unique tale, and I suspect that ‘enigma’ was employed specifically due to Cumberbatch’s presence as presenter. Rattigan, though, deserved his own documentary even if was only to hear lines like “I’m glad we never made the mistake of falling in love with each other.” Few writers came closer to capturing the cold relationships between endured by faded Bright Young Things in the post-20s world.

Those same Bright Young Things came to age in what was, according to Timeshift: The Smoking Years, the golden age of ‘the smoker’. If that was true, then we smokers – there’s no point in hiding bias here – must now be in a stone age. Harried out into the cold streets, smokers of my generation may still remember when old cinemas, though they had banned smoking years since, still had ashtrays fitted in the backs of seats – relicts of a once great smoking civilisation. I’m being glib here, and that’s not entirely intentional, I would never encourage anyone to smoke, but it’s something of a response against militant anti-smokers who suffer from being far too serious. There was a leading anti-smoking campaigner in the documentary, and she managed to summon fond and humorous memories of the years when she did smoke.

One wonders what, now that smokers are banned from polite society, these people who must interfere in other’s lives are actually against. Instead of imposing moral superiority against the individual smoker, surely the bigger targets are the tobacco companies themselves, of course, but also the television and film companies. Where do you draw the line between realism and responsibility? An adolescent watching Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy or Mad Men is bound to find these depictions of smoking more attractive than the crumpled office workers, huddling against the wind, in their local city centre. I don’t mind smoking outside and I don’t think it’s an invasion of civil liberties but everyone minds being harangued because of their peccadilloes – where are the warnings against people who provide dull lectures?

TV Eye: BBC Fours’s All American season

BBC Four American

Jacob Knowles-Smith sits down for a TV dinner with Tom Wolfe

Thankfully BBC Four hasn’t been demolished just yet. If it had been, we wouldn’t have had chance to enjoy its recent ‘All American’ season. They say that BBC 2 would absorb the channel’s role, but doubtless this would come with – if not dumbing-down – half as many documentaries as they currently produce. And, indeed, they’ve produced a near-dazzling array of films for this latest season focusing on US culture – but this is no paean to American hegemony, and the more I tried to absorb the schedule, the more I wondered if perhaps Tom Wolfe hadn’t been given some role at the Beeb. The subjects covered over the last couple of weeks have been like a cross-section of that writer’s brain; there’s been high culture, low culture, kitsch culture, surf culture, diners, journalism, nomads, hookers and civil rights. Any fan of Wolfe will no doubt be able to pluck a volume up and thumb through almost all of those subjects in one of his collections, but then I began to wonder, how would Tom Wolfe write a TV review? Well, for starters he probably wouldn’t title it anything nearly as banal as the above, but he might call it something along the lines of…

The Electric Blu-Ray Acid Mind-Bath: America is Over There!

‘Why’s all this paint here?’ You can see Andrew’s mind ticking over and his puppy-dog eyes begin to twinkle with his excitement – Yes! Pollock painted here! And they’ve preserved it, an encrusted monument to that great man’s drips. Great man? You can make up your own mind. Andrew Graham-Dixon has made his up in the Art of America and, as the BBC’s finest regular documentary maker – now that Attenborough stays out of frame, we can cut him a little slack. He deftly traces – with his infectious enthusiasm and never-patronising dulcets – the history of American art from pilgrims to present. All American art is here: Rockwell, Hopper, Warhol, The Simpsons?… and all of it, it seems, is about the loneliness of being one among many in a great big country full of people. After all, can’t Manhattan at rush hour be the loneliest place in the world?

Hopper’s popping up all over the place, and his most famous work – ‘Nighthawks’ – gives us a lead into the next show and the lonely fat-clogged heart of America in Stephen Smith’s America on a Plate: The Story of the Diner. This is where we sit down at that democratic counter and look across into America’s short-order soul… French fries pancakes sausages coffee doughnuts shakes steaks turkey clubs plastic seats – top you off? – cheeseburgers blueberries coffee onion rings eggs over easy – warm you up? – French toast roast beef meatloaf coffee gum chewing waitresses truck stop bacon coffee. What more can you say? What more can anyone ask for!?

Now this cat’s crazy, he’s touched the hem of death after all – or, at least, skirted around the edges – and who wouldn’t be a little spooky kooky cuckoo? James Ellroy’s Feast of Death (BBC 2) – with some strong language! – delves into the murder-centric mind of the author and we meet the embodiment of obsession. Kim Bassinger? She’s alright. But forget the movies – what the fuck good are we to him? Who are we to ask anything of this guy? This modern Beethoven! (Just ask him… why listen to anyone else?) Did the bitch overcook the steak again, James? Nah – It’s sexual power. That’s murder. Right there. If you don’t believe him, then why else do we care about serial killers? Men think about sex more than women, so they kill more. Ellroy is clearly obsessed by his mother’s murder; perhaps he sees himself as a failure – a not-quite-Beethoven – because he couldn’t protect her, but, if that’s not it, then he still has every right to be obsessed because, he says it, closure is bullshit. What’s a dyke bounty?

Now we’re with shutterbug Rankin in America in Pictures: The Story of Life Magazine. He’s indulging himself in a bit of hero worship – mutual snapshotting of these wily old coots that chronicled America. And, sure, maybe these guys aren’t exactly the man – but they were working for a Luce publication! Think Fortune, think Time. Think middlebrow America. But that’s, perhaps, not entirely fair, Life was, as Rankin’s film describes, a great unifier of the people – all of America could ooooooohhh and aaaaaaahhh at the pretty violent shocking beautiful celebrities/dead soldiers/famine victims but – look over here, America! – you could be looking at those photos next to this fridge, in this new kitchen or on this new lawnmower (in your fourth floor apartment) and, boy, now here’s Rita Hayworth. Call me an elitist or a cynical bum, but Life always seemed pretty cheap.

So, that’s all American, and, if that’s not enough for you, some of the most delightful chocolate chips to be found in this rich cookie came in Old Jews Telling Jokes. It’s pointless to tell the one about the rabbi or the gentile here, but these rascals have their own website and you have a few minutes to spare.

Roger Ebert: Life Itself: A Memoir

Reviewed by Robert O’Connor

Roger Ebert Life Itself“I was born inside the movie of my life.” That sentence starts off Roger Ebert’s new memoir, Life Itself. The first chapter, ‘Memory’ – which is numbered zero in the table of contents – shows the great arc of his life from the beginning to now. It touches on the essential moments, the essential people, and demonstrates why writing a memoir now at the age of 69 is just the right time. The life Ebert ends up describing, most of it spent as the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, is an extraordinary one, and what makes the memoir so much fun is that it seems like Ebert is just as astounded by it as any chronicler of it would be.

Ebert was an alcoholic when he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first film critic to win it. He has lived the last five years with just as much vigor and worked with the same enormous industry as before, despite being unable to speak, eat or drink and thanks to corrective surgery, it is painful for him to stand and hard to walk. And after starting his blog, his voice has been even more powerful. Any of these things could easily make a somber, melancholic memoir just by themselves, but Ebert tells his life story – all those things and more – with no cynicism or anger.

Chicago magazine had a long piece on Ebert several years ago that pointed out that he had lived an extraordinary life without making enemies. One of the most moving chapters in the book is about his rival, who eventually became his great friend, Gene Siskel. Siskel was the film critic at the Chicago Tribune, and was given the job to rival Ebert. They were fiercely competitive with each other and when WTTW wanted them to host a show about the movies, neither of them wanted to do it. The show made them famous, in part because in almost every respect they were the opposite of the other. When Siskel died in 1999, Ebert dedicated a show to him, sitting in his usual spot, while Siskel’s seat stayed empty. In a recent profile by CBS Sunday Morning, Ebert said that he “misses [Siskel] terribly every day.”

Much of the book is pulled from the most personal writing that’s appeared on Ebert’s blog, with some editing. There’s a chapter on the Eyrie Mansion, where he stayed while in London that first appeared in 2010 when it was torn down. His chapter on Russ Meyer includes the tale of Who Killed Bambi, the never-made film that would’ve starred the Sex Pistols. He had posted his original script and retold the story when Malcolm McLaren passed away. His stories about O’Rourke’s, where he would go every night after work when he drank, read poetry, sang songs and interviewed movie stars also first appeared on his blog. Some of the people he interviewed there like John Wayne and Robert Mitchum get their own chapters.

This isn’t a criticism. After all, the best stories are told many times.

Before the surgeries that took his voice, Ebert produced a stunning amount of work: six movie reviews a week for the Sun-Times, a weekly TV show, a Great Movies column and an Answer Man column, to say nothing of the features, interviews and opinion pieces he would do for the Sun-Times and various other places. He still does all of them, albeit he produces the show instead of co-hosts. I’m convinced he’s possessed by the same demon that Studs Terkel said possessed Mike Royko that made him write so much. Those two great Chicagoans get tributes and memories in the book.

The most moving stories he tells are the ones Ebert leaves until last. His memories of Gene Siskel at the end and his tribute to Studs Terkel. He also has a loving tribute to his wife, Chaz, who has saved him from living out the rest of his life alone. He closes with a chapter on his beliefs about religion and another about death. His religion is what Richard Dawkins would call “Einsteinian,” in that the experience of the universe, from the grandness of it to the smallest of intricacies gives him the ecstasy others find in a personal God. And death – which he’s already stared in the face – is nothing to fear.

Publishing details for Roger Ebert’s Life Itself at Grand Central Publishing

TV Eye: Bored to Death and Desperate Housewives

Gender agenda: Jacob Knowles-Smith on men without women, dysfunctional families, and killer whales

Bored to Death

After many years of not watching Friends on any of the Channel 4 family of stations, since they flogged it to Comedy Central, I’ve suddenly been spending entire Saturday afternoons watching episode after episode. Now that the show is no longer the running gag of Channel 4’s schedule, it would seem that it’s actually the funniest thing, along with Frasier, on Comedy Central. The performances, the gags, the timing: all of these should make the writers of contemporary sitcoms flinch with shame. Mike & Molly and Two and a Half Men are such new comedies and are, presumably, meant to be big draws for Comedy Central. The problem, of course, is that they aren’t funny. Mike & Molly consists mainly of – and one can glean this from simply watching the promos relentlessly book-ending segments of Friends – racial stereotypes and homophobic slurs combined with a celebration of America’s obesity problem. And whilst there may always be a certain slapstick laugh to be gained from a fat man falling down, you can’t base an entire series around it. Two and a Half Men, however, gets most of its laughs from misogyny – this was never terribly funny with Charlie Sheen at the helm and now, with Ashton Kutcher, it’s just embarrassing.

All of this is merely a prelude to the sigh of relief that must surely have escaped from comedy fans’ lungs when it was announced that a new season of Arrested Development (Fox) would be arriving ahead of a final (?) big screen farewell to the Bluth family. Shunted (as it was in Britain) to the doldrums of late night BBC 2, Arrested Development was not only a classic comedy in its own right, it also paved the way for other ‘higher comedies’, if you will, such as 30 Rock (NBC) and HBO’s Bored to Death. Both shows are undervalued by the wider audience (and more on 30 Rock next year) but Bored to Death with its short-running seasons of eight episodes is almost too easy to miss.

Centring around a novelist who blunders his way into becoming a private detective, the show is a fine blend, full of witty little literary and crime fiction references, casual drug use and a bromance like no other between the three principal characters. Jonathan Ames, our writer/PI, played by Jason Schwartzman and a fictional version of the show’s creator of the same name, Ray (Zach Galifianakis), a pot smoking comic book artist, and George Christopher, a hodgepodge of American journo-grandees (fore- and surname taken from Plimpton and Hitchens, respectively) played exquisitely by Ted Danson. Innocents all, they manage to navigate an imagined New York City on acid – fine, just New York – with the insouciance of Laurel and Hardy dusting themselves down after the building collapses on them yet again. They rebound pretensions and glib assertions off one another at such a pace that one has to resist the temptation to go back and catch the lines again. If they were simply horrible people, they wouldn’t be able to pull it off but we can forgive them for their self-involvement and living like a “demented god” because the friendship and acceptance between the trio is one that we – men, at least – would all like to have. Who among us doesn’t yearn to smoke pot and spoon with two close friends?

Just as no one seems to be particularly bored in Bored to Death, the women of Wisteria Lane never seem too desperately in need of anything. Indeed, the lives of the characters in Desperate Housewives (ABC) – perhaps, at a guess, the ultimate ideal of female friendship – only seem to be disrupted when the new killer or other bad element moves in to disrupt suburbia – and who’s killing whom this season? Perhaps the series has run too long, but this is the last season and they seem to be giving it a better shot than the last and, more importantly, it’s still entertaining and can easily raise a laugh. Desperate Housewives has always been the highest of guilty pleasures and may ultimately be missed when it’s gone. The show’s main skill is switching with unbelievable pace between the tragic and the comic. This is chiefly achieved through the music: just when the violin strings start tugging the heart strings in the direction of divorce or cancer – cue a jaunty variation of the theme music to herald a bon mot. Despite touching on nearly every subject from class to women’s rights and alcoholism to gay rights, Desperate Housewives has never been a ‘challenging’ drama. It is something more in between farce and black comedy but I’d much rather have it than another episode of the obdurately ‘challenging’ Treme.

A couple of years ago, the BBC ran a set of aggrandising and slightly smug promotions that all carried the slogan “This is what we do” – i.e. so pay your bloody license fee. However, David Attenborough is demonstrating, as usual, exactly what the BBC does and what it does better than any other broadcaster in the world: nature. In his latest documentary series, Frozen Planet, Attenborough shows us that we should be far less worried about James Murdoch being part of the mafia than if the killer whales decided to start taking care of things. Their hunting methods are so calculated and chilling – strike pun – that one is inclined to think that rational thought is at work, rather than a magnificent killer instinct gifted by nature. If the BBC starts hiring them to collect license fees, call me Ishmael.

Take Shelter

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Take ShelterFrom Shotgun Stories writer/director comes a second feature on small town America, another portrait of troubled family which despite its flaws, reaffirms Jeff Nichols’ potential to become an independent cinema mainstay.

Michael Shannon is Curtis LaForche, a family man in anytown, Ohio, father to a recently deafened girl, husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and son to an institutionalised mother, Sarah (Kathy Baker). Despite money worries surrounding his daughter’s rising healthcare needs and enrolment in special education, the couple are contented, even happy. The envy of his friends (it is said to his face) and a crew chief for a sand-mining company, everything seems to be under control. Until he starts to have increasingly disturbing visions of an apocalyptic storm coming over the horizon at him, his family and the world as he understands it.

Unsure whether the prophecy in his dreams is coming true, or if his mind is succumbing to inherited mental ills, Curtis begins to build a large underground shelter in his backyard, to the dismay of his family and friends.

By now, we’re already familiar with Shannon’s well-rounded ability to play a man set against society (or vice versa), having seen him play the wild-eyed and obsessive in a number of high- and low-profile roles (Revolutionary Road, Bug, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done), but it’s with these independent pictures and through building a fruitful working relationship with Nichols since the director’s debut, that he is carving out a legacy of memorable performances, and surely lasting work. [Editor’s Note: Shannon is also well-known as Nelson, the compulsive, conflicted and compelling federal agent in Boardwalk Empire.]

His is a slow-burn of a breakdown and, though the audience is treated to the usual dream/reality blur of his visions, Nichols largely deals with it in a robust, humane and relatable way. Curtis is an ‘ordinary’ guy, he tries to understand his own illness by taking books out of the library and testing himself. He visits his ‘schizophrenic’ mother and generally does everything he can to understand what is happening to him. And, at first, he does it alone.

Of course, the central reason for Curtis’ breakdown, his prophetic dreams, also works as a metaphor for a wider anxiety that afflicts those who reach a certain point where there are people and things to protect, certain conditions of living that need to be maintained. But it’s hardly an apologist’s account of the seemingly inevitable slide into conservatism, (though it would be tempting to view it that way). Nichols details the general realisation that much too much is beyond any one man’s control, something Curtis comes to realise by eventually confiding in his wife.

Nichols, with his now-emerging trademark of slow-talking midwestern characters, realises his own anxieties through his creations, all plucked right out of real life and scripted with a style that seems to align his future with that of Terence Malick, while, visually at least, somehow recalling the quiet frenzy in the first half of Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces.

Take Shelter is, however, far from flawless. One glaring weakness is the unsure pace of its repetitive narrative, culminating in a rushed yet ultimately tantalising finale. The film seems to have a trajectory that frequently turns back on itself and, as much as the nightmares are entertaining to watch, they seem to stifle the story rather than advance it. Nichols uses the already-familiar language of dream/reality confusion to almost clichéd effect and, though there’s fun to be had in the making of it (there are some jarring images of displaced furniture and splattering birds), it feels like a tired, even over-simplified way of exploring these ideas with an audience. These are the moments where Take Shelter feels like a very small film not saying much about anything, apart from playing around with some substantial, ponderous issues.

But this criticism is mostly rescued by its performances. Chastain and Shannon are consistently impressive (save for some odd dry heaving), along with the rest of the supporting cast, most noticeably in the film’s turning point, a dinner scene that ends in confrontation and some over-turned tables.

Another of the film’s failings, and possibly its most noticeable flaw, is the distractingly executed visual effects, from the renowned Strause Brothers’ company, Hydraulx. The CGI is too flimsy, too hollow, and not made of the same grit that the rest of the film is covered in so that when they appear, the images pull the viewer right out of Curtis’ nightmare vortex and drops them back in their seat, left staring at a big screen.

Nichols’ film is absorbing regardless of these shortcomings, and is the work of a man honing his style, finding what works, while dealing with his own concerns. His third feature, Mud, will be the next in the Shannon-Nichols collaboration, making it a rough trilogy of small town America, which will also star Matthew McConaughey and Reece Witherspoon. Look for it in 2013.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Tintin

Steven Spielberg’s big missed opportunity. Reviewed by Robert O’Connor. WARNING: may contain spoilers!

Two goats are sitting on a back lot in Hollywood, chewing on cans of film. One remarks “This is terrible!” and the other one says, “The book is better.”

A few weeks before his death in 1983, Hergé signed the movie rights of his creation Tintin to Steven Spielberg. Spielberg, he believed, was the only director capable of recreating his creation on the big screen. He came to this conclusion after seeing and loving Raiders of the Lost Ark, which the French press compared at the time to a Tintin adventure.

In the late ’80s and ’90s, there was a renaissance of traditional animation in both movies and television. Spielberg was partially responsible for it, producing animated movies that captured the public imagination like An American Tail, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He also produced animated shows like Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs that revived the spirit of the old Warner Brothers cartoons. But he didn’t make a Tintin movie.

Then he saw the motion-capture technology pioneered by WETA studios and its head, Peter Jackson, and saw that as the way to make the Tintin movie. And so he has, almost 30 years later. The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, should be a warning to not sit on an idea until its too late to bring it to fruition.

The movie is a combination of two Tintin stories, The Crab with the Golden Claws and Secret of the Unicorn. I’m not against combining the stories for film adaptations, since the originals were serialized in a Belgian newspaper and, as with most serialized works there would be pacing issues in a faithful movie adaptation.

The movie starts out with a brilliant title sequence by Kuntzel and Deygas, the same team that made the titles for the much better Spielberg movie Catch Me If You Can. The opening scene, with Hergé painting a caricature of Tintin (Jamie Bell), is a nice nod to the character’s creator. John Williams’ music in the opening credits and opening scene are light, but lively, with accordions and pianos dominating. Tintin buys a model of a ship, the Unicorn, and is accosted by two men who demand he sell it to them. One of them is Ivan Sakharine, who shows up later. Sakharine’s men steal it from Tintin’s apartment because of a scroll hidden in the ship’s mast with a cryptic message on it.

In the original story, Sakharine was an antique collector who owned another model of the Unicorn. He is originally a suspect of the theft of Tintin’s model, but his model is stolen as well by the Bird brothers, who own the third model. The Bird brothers own Marlinspike Hall, which is owned by Sakharine in the movie.

Tintin is then knocked out and put on the SS Karaboudjan as a prisoner of Sakharine. It’s here that Tintin meets Captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), who has a Scottish accent. It makes his famous swearing funnier and while he says all the required curses (“blistering barnacles”, “thundering typhoons”, etc.) he doesn’t use them as often in the movie as in the books. He also tends to growl more than shout. Haddock has been kept drunk by an endless supply of whisky by his first mate Allan, who is an accomplice of Sakharine in the movie, but in the books was a drug smuggler and the main villain of The Crab with the Golden Claws.

It’s here that the movie really starts to sink. The story of Haddock’s ancestor Sir Francis and his battle with Red Rakham in the comics was a thing that kept the story going. But in the movie it’s a way of providing Captain Haddock with “regaining the family honor” arc that isn’t in the spirit of the comics – and doesn’t entirely resolve itself in the movie anyway. And to make Sakharine not only a villain (complete with a falcon that does his evil bidding) but Red Rakham’s descendent, complete with lines about old scores to settle is just idiotic. These stories weren’t grand tales of revenge, or eternal battles fought across lifetimes like in Hindu myths, they were a rollicking good time.

Tintin, Snowy and Haddock escape the boat and capture a seaplane piloted by Sakharine’s men. In the original story, the plane firing on them was suspenseful because the reader didn’t know Allan had sent the pilots. In the movie they know Sakharine sent the plane because the plane is seen on the deck of the Karaboudjan at least twice. The plane is forced to land in the desert due to a storm.

And right here in the movie is a moment that had my mouth hanging open. Well after I left the movie I couldn’t believe this moment happened. Such a moment happened in Spielberg’s last movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, right at the beginning, where Indy hides in a fridge to survive a nuclear bomb. But that was at the beginning, and this moment is in the middle.

The plane is flying through a storm and the Captain is drinking rubbing alcohol – there’s no whisky on the plane. Snowy’s having some too (at least Snowy is in character). Because of the plane’s wild flying, the alcohol floats in the air like in space (physics? what’s that?) and the two of them try to catch it with their mouths. This happens in another Tintin story, Explorers on the Moon, where the characters head to the moon and the rocket loses gravity. It was funny there because they were in space. Here, it just doesn’t make sense.

And then, Tintin suggests pouring the rubbing alcohol in the gas tank to give them extra fuel. And Captain Haddock belches into the tank. And it keeps the engine going. It’s supposed to be funny, but I sat there astounded that such a moment exists. It’s made worse by having Haddock climb out of the plane and get tossed around by the propellers as the plane lands. In the original story he never got out of the plane, which crashed because he tried wrestling the controls away from Tintin while drunk on whisky – the real Captain Haddock never drank rubbing alcohol.

A while later, they arrive in the fictional Moroccan port of Bagghar, learning that Omar Ben Salaad has the third model of the Unicorn behind a bullet-proof glass case. In The Crab with the Golden Claws, Omar was the leader of the drug cartel Allan was a part of. Captain Haddock retells the story of his ancestor Sir Francis, but in the movie there’s an additional idiotic layer that as he tells the story he “enters the mind” of his ancestor – this is absent in the comic.

Longtime fans of Tintin may have noticed that up until now I haven’t mentioned two staples of Tintin’s adventures, the bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson. Well, that’s because in the movie they barely appear. They have one good laugh at the beginning when one of them falls down the stairs. In the movie they appear in Bagghar in disguise, as they do in The Crab with the Golden Claws, but in the original they were looking for a murderer. In the movie, they’re just there because the movie decided they hadn’t been in the movie enough.

Another staple of Tintin stories, Professor Cuthbert Calculus, is omitted entirely, which I guess makes sense since he doesn’t appear until Red Rakham’s Treasure, the story that follows The Secret of the Unicorn. Rumor has it that there will be a sequel to the movie with Peter Jackson directing it this time. Maybe he’ll appear then.

The soprano Bianca Castafiore, who appears in none of the stories I’ve mentioned so far, makes her appearance here, performing in a special audience for Omar Ben Salaad. The only explanation I can come up with for her appearing in this thing is so the special effects people can show off how well they can show glass breaking.

The movie uses motion-capture technology for the actors. The problem with this is that the characters are made to look real while keeping their cartoonish looks. Some liberties are taken – Tintin is given big blue eyes instead of the black dots he has in the comic – but big noses and other exaggerated features are kept in the movie. There’s a theory in robotics about the “uncanny valley,” where a robot (or anything made to resemble a human) that sort of looks human is pleasing, but a robot that is too similar to humans is repulsive.

The point I’m driving at is that the people in Tintin are made to look real, but they’re not pleasant to look at. Bianca Castafiore is especially bad in this regard.

One thing I will say about the movie is that the action sequence that follows is really well done. I saw the movie in 2D, and I can only imagine how it might look in 3D. It would have been even more thrilling if during the rest of the movie the camera had been stationary. All throughout the movie the camera moves around like it stole Haddock’s whisky.

Right afterwards is a scene that would never be in any real Tintin story. Sakharine has the three scrolls that lead to Red Rakham’s treasure and gets away. And Tintin gives up. That’s right, the ever-optimistic, ever-resourceful Tintin, who always has a plan up his sleeve, gives up. And he snaps out of it only after Captain Haddock, who in the comics is always ready to quit and go home, makes a speech straight out of a thousand other sappy movies about not letting failure get to you.

At the end of the adventure, Sakharine is carted off to jail after a ludicrous sword fight with Haddock where they refer to each other as Sir Francis and Red Rakham like they’re reincarnations of their ancestors. Captain Haddock gets Marlinspike Hall back after discovering the secret of the unicorn, at least he does in the comic, I’m not sure about the movie. The movie ends when they decide to go after Red Rakham’s treasure at the bottom of the ocean, which they change in the movie to Haddock’s treasure that Red Rakham tried to steal. Also, the secret coordinates of the treasure on the three scrolls in the comics tell of the location of the ship at the bottom of the ocean, not Marlinspike Hall as in the movie.

Why did Spielberg not make the movie in 2D during the animation renaissance? Why did he allow the compromises and bastardizations made when he could’ve used his clout to stay firm and faithful to the classic stories that were just fine as they were? And why does Omar have an Easter Island statue in his courtyard? These are all questions I would like answered.

But on the bright side, maybe newbies will see the movie and want to pick up the comics. Hopefully they come to the conclusion that the comics are much better than the movie.

Two episodes from the 1990s cartoon adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin:
The Crab with the Golden Claws and The Secret of the Unicorn

Mark Kermode: The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex: What’s Wrong with Modern Movies? (Random House)

Reviewed by Jim McConalogue

Commode

 Mark Kermode is his same old self in this book. Like your straight-talking granddad balling on about the price of a cinema ticket, it is littered with anti-Hollywood sentiments (which for Kermode, and for film buffs generally, is understandable because of the blockbusterisation of the industry), his judgements on the role of excessive money in film, combined with technophobic attacks on 3D cinema and of the multiplex experience in general (and his reduction of cinema staff to the level of primates), all of which makes this book an absolutely essential read. This may sound cynical but let me explain.
 
If not for his film criticism, then it is essential for the excellent writing and terrier-like doggedness in pursuing the horrifying contemporary experience of multiplex-going with audiences of popcorn-munching, seat-kicking troglodyte-adolescents going to watch the next bunch-of-crap digital instalment from Hollywood. There is an almost scary result of his rigorous cultural assessment, like the fiery rants of Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, so one cannot help sympathise and root for his cause.   
 
The book begins, in its ‘Prologue’, with a manifesto protesting at the recent historical death of the projectionist and celluloid – and a stark objection to the general removal of the ‘human’ from the mechanised, digitised cinematic process. It then moves on to a humorous and cynical analysis of cinema-going as he provides an account of his trip to the multiplex with his eleven-year-old daughter – and the arguments he finds himself pursuing with various cinema staff while purchasing expensive tickets, the obligatory popcorn and the badly projected screening of a Zac Efron film (who bizarrely, Kermode thinks is great). The engine of the modern multiplex is a “computer programme with no memory of the past, no human interaction, no soul” which replaced the care and craft needed for celluloid with digital and smudgy third-rate 3D glasses.
 
Citing Pearl Harbor, the Saw movies, and many others, and their exorbitant budgets, Kermode explains that in blockbusters, money just seems to lead to even more money without fail. On the whole, I find myself nodding in agreement (even though as I write, I read that monster movie, Creature, has received an all-time awful total box office revenue of just $331,000 after 1,507 screens, even though it is made by a well-known producer).
 
Kermode takes us through a vast range of expensive movies and demonstrates “how infrequently they have failed to turn a profit, regardless of quality”. The failure of blockbuster-makers to entertain and engage comes down to them not wanting to do better and audiences accepting their laziness. And yes, it is we, the audience, who keep paying them. I must have watched nearly all the films Kermode rubbishes, for my sins.
 
As for 3D cinema, Kermode gives an analysis of its failure – designed to “head off movie piracy and force audiences to watch badly made films in overpriced, undermanned multiplexes”. 3D has been consistently rejected by viewers for more than a hundred years. It is now a ploy to feed up money-hungry Hollywood producers. He gives out a pretty heavy 3D-bashing to Clash of the Titans-2010 style as an example of its failure – and on which I couldn’t agree more.  
 
He is unrelenting in his criticism of the Oscars – whose films are hand-picked by “a bunch of unaccountable drunken bozos” or the Hollywood Foreign Press Association – and sweeps aside the critique that the British film industry is in terminal decline and strongly defends its film-making and acting contributions, referring favourably to The King’s Speech and United 93. Kermode asks us to “stop worrying so much about film production, and start worrying a bit more about the support and upkeep of independent UK cinemas that show the kinds of movies (British, foreign language, arthouse, etc.) in which the multiplexes have little or no interest”.
 
In his self-deprecating style, Kermode acknowledges that many do not go by what critics have to say and in many respects they are powerless among audiences but which he accepts – because it is not for the critics to tell audiences what to watch but merely telling audiences what they think about them in an entertaining and engaging way. It is perhaps his ‘insider’ knowledge of the use and manipulation of critics which I found most intriguing about the whole book.
 
Kermode’s protest at this totality of the culture industry, the near-authoritarian output of multiplexes and the blockbuster, the way in which critics feed the very profit-driven producers they seek to criticise, end up bearing a strong resemblance to the film, cultural and music criticism of one of the greatest European cultural (and anti-fascist) critics of all time, Theodor Adorno (1903-1969). In Adorno’s view (Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) and Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life (1951)), the critic becomes a self-incriminating entity and empty criticism is then an almost defunct activity for the messengers of a totally administered society. The ‘absolute’ culture industry encompasses the death of its own counter-arguments. Criticism becomes part of the institution. He argued that the critic is free to make accusations but the despairing will rightly predict that only a number of chat shows and a radio show later, such a “dissident will soon be reconciled” into the totality of the culture industry. Kermode’s explanation of the way in which film critic’s words are used in promotional quotes to sell the films are a perfect example of how this is carried out in the marketing of the modern blockbuster.
 
Theory aside, the critique that Kermode outlines for the modern multiplex, and the cultural whipping he deals out to Sex and the City 2, amongst others, make this a must read for all those interested in the irritating snags and the wider failures of modern cinema.
 
If there is one thing I would have liked to hear more of, it is that Kermode rarely touches on the key issue of ‘choice’. Yes, we should support our independent cinemas, as he suggests, but should we not also take on the uniformity of the multiplexes and ask them, through local campaigns, to screen at least one alternative/offbeat/world cinema category movie so that movie-goers can choose? Choice means letting the gobby, annoying cinema-goers have their 3D and awful dumbed-down Hollywood blockbusters – after all, they are the regular ticket-payers – but we can also have intelligent cinema screenings, showing world cinema movies or at least something more engaging that doesn’t entail crashing helicopters and end with waving US flags and moronic whooping and jeering. All in all, this is a thought-provoking, illuminating, well-informed and humorous book.

Steve Aylett: Lint The Movie

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Lint The MovieUntil recently, the promise of Steve Aylett’s £750 foray into feature-length film productions had seemingly been wandering desultorily around the Internet for quite some time, indulging in some shallow vanishing since 2009, popping up here and there on blogs, before triumphantly reappearing for its premiere in Brighton earlier this year. Followed closely by a London screening, it has since been saddled up for a couple more dates, in Northampton (October) and Portland at Bizarro Con 2011 (November).

If you’re not already familiar with Jeff Lint or Steve Aylett, then this paragraph is my opportunity to appear smug. Which is off-putting, isn’t it? If you are already a Lint obsessive then a review for this film is pointless, as the mere realisation that there is a Lint film in existence would mean you have now closed this window and opened a new one, searching for the next screening. Which puts this article in an odd place. Anyway…

In a quoted excerpt for Lint, Aylett’s 2005 book, the reviewer calls the creation a “laugh-out-loud funny mock biography of a pulp fiction writer who only exists in the author’s imagination”. But now, it seems, the character occupies also the minds of an array of esteemed Lintian pundits, who, riffing on the endless possibilities of such a character, clearly relish the chance in Aylett’s debut movie project.

Working both as an introduction as well as an extension of the Jeff Lint history, the film mixes in some of the speculation and anecdotes that makes up the original Lint book and its sequel, And Your Point Is? (2006) taking some of these ideas further and giving them worthy airtime. Thankfully they survive the transfer from page to screen and remain full of Aylett’s sly subversions.

Lint was the ultimate non-conformist, to the point of failure. A variable variety of talking faces (the shots are usually that close-up) gladly confirm this. Intercut with archive footage, the faces detail much of the Lint legend: his distrust of waiters, his failed Star Trek and Patton scripts and his ‘magic bullet’ theory. Further highlights include some startlingly demented clips of Lint’s cartoon Catty and the Major and recounted tales from a gravelly Lord Caul Pin, writers Alan Moore, David Harlan Wilson (Codename Prague), Mo Ali and Bill Ectric (Tamper), plus comedians Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Robin Ince, and Aylett himself.

Similarly to its source material, Lint The Movie runs episodically with nugget after golden nugget of supreme absurdity, which often go beyond the simple exposition of Lint’s antics and instead into the realm of something meaningful and satiric (despite Aylett himself noting, “Satire has no effect – a mirror holds no fear for those with no shame”). But exactly what this ‘something’ is is hard to define, making Aylett’s Lint all the less boring and all the more satisfying.

Appropriately disrespectful of power, institution and instruction, Aylett is a writer who makes it look as if he is at play, before cunningly twisting on you with sudden twists of truth which make Lint, in all his forms (man/book/movie), true originals.

Now all we ask for is a full series of Catty and the Major.

TV Eye: True Stories: Kissinger and House

You wait all season for a misanthropic, sociopathic doctor, then two come along at once. Jacob Knowles-Smith reviews

House

Around the turn of the last century, events both natural and unnatural conspired to shed the giants of the 19th century, such as Queen Victoria and William McKinley. In our new century, however, assassinations being less frequent (in the West) and healthcare being more advanced, we don’t seem to be able to escape the extant dinosaurs lumbering across the contemporary landscape. Neil Kinnock’s soundbites are unavoidable whenever the Labour party does anything newsworthy (or otherwise) and Norman Major was even dragged up during the recent plight of poor Dave and Dr Fox. Granted, the ‘90s weren’t so long ago but More4’s recent documentary True Stories: Kissinger was a grotesque display of pandering to a mandarin who’s had his time.

An obvious point to make is that a documentary series entitled True Stories and Henry Kissinger could be considered something of a misnomer. His lines have been so rehearsed since the ‘60s that he is now the personification of a foreign policy statement. Furthermore, this is pretty cheap TV, as surely these are just Niall Ferguson’s research interviews on tape, whether filmed with a good camera and spliced with archive footage or not. The time to delve deeper into the Kissinger legend will be when Ferguson’s (two-volume) biography is published and, on that point, Ferguson is a good historian but it’s possible he has been commissioned for the project simply because he is the most sympathetic candidate Kissinger has come across since his displeasure at Walter Isaacson’s admirable book published in 1992. (Alistair Horne was allowed to do a snapshot history focusing on a mere year when the doctor was at the height of his power.)

Kissinger proudly boasts, either here or in another interview, that he has had more direct involvement with American foreign policy and/or met more Chinese leaders than anyone else. This is quite true and thus, by natural progression, it is therefore no surprise that wherever there is a human rights issue in the world, China, and indeed Russia, have their boot firmly inserted in the backdoor. However, the main problem with the documentary is that Kissinger isn’t terribly interesting. Whatever charm – it can’t simply be power, can it? – that allowed him to spend so much time with beautiful women has long since vanished. He is not without a twinkle in some of the early archive footage. Nixon will always be a more complex puzzle of a man. Perhaps this gives truth to Hannah Arendt’s thesis that evil is banal.

The film reminded me of a documentary about another old warmonger, Robert McNamara, who (in The Fog of War) displays genuine, tearful regret for the decisions and actions of himself and the Kennedy Administration over Vietnam. Kissinger stands by and attempts to justify his every action and shows no outward signs of any regret. I thought of the words of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries, from interview footage that appears in the movie Downfall and says – to paraphrase – that ignorance was no excuse. They could’ve found out what was going on under the Third Reich if they had wanted to. This is not to say that many people did not know, and especially not to make a comparison between Kissinger and McNamara with Hitler but these former two did know what was going on, what they were doing, and they don’t get to have our sympathy.

Meanwhile, in the eighth season of Fox’s drama, another doctor, Gregory House, is where many people would like to see Kissinger – in gaol. Luckily – for the sake of the show’s format – only for the first episode, which really served only to introduce a replacement for Cameron (girl-doctor) in the form of prison doctor, Jessica Adams. When House (Hugh Laurie) is inevitably released at the start of the second episode, everyone was no doubt surprised to see that Foreman (Omar Epps, as ethnic-doctor) has taken over the top role at PPTH. Not that most people with Twitter would be surprised to know that Lisa Edelstein had departed from her role as Cuddy but anyone with half a brain might wonder how a doctor who with so little management experience could become Dean. All shows need conflict, of course, and House, like Frasier after Niles and Daphne came together, lost much of its energy when the tensions between Cuddy and House were relieved, as it were. Furthermore, Foreman, as the character always most in danger of turning into House, could prove to be a more stubborn and capable opponent than Cuddy.

No doubt Chase (boy-doctor) and Taub (everyman-doctor) will be back as well as Foreman, but by the third episode House has assembled a motley firm consisting of the aforementioned Adams (new-girl-doctor), Thirteen (Olivia Wilde, briefly, it would seem, reprising her role of bad-girl-doctor) and a very annoying character called Chen (ethnic-girl-doctor). With the introduction of this latter character, it’s hard to understand what the point of med-student Martha Masters (no, no more designations) was in the last season, other than yet another fresh person for House to test his skills of manipulation on. Clearly we just like programmes about misanthropes and sociopaths. But the banter seems, so far, crisper in this season and, when that ankle-tag comes off House, I look forward to seeing what tortures he can inflict on the new management in the name of medicine.

TV Eye: Boardwalk Empire

This week, Jacob Knowles-Smith ponders whether its us or them to blame for the muted response to HBO’s lavish series

Boardwalk Empire

Wikipedia is a killer. A plot killer, that is. Before its advent, the history of a period drama like HBO’s Boardwalk Empire would be known only by those with an interest in prohibition-era American history. A wider audience might reasonably be expected to know a little about Al Capone but he’s hardly at the centre of the show; which is a good thing too because an ‘origin drama’ focusing around Capone wouldn’t hold any of the subtleties that Boardwalk Empire does – it would be painted as the traditional saga of a man driven by poverty to exploit and crush everything around him until he destroys his very soul – and we’ve had that in The Sopranos. As it is, we have Nucky Thompson, a fairly obscure player in the history of American gangsterism but at least we know he’s a man for whom salvation isn’t an option or even much of a concern, and, thanks to Wikipedia, now any viewer – with but a few keystrokes – can find out about his entire history, something which they might not have been inclined to research a decade (or less) ago. My point (thanks for staying) is that surprise and invention can’t play a large part in such an authentic programme and because Nucky, and Steve Buscemi’s portrayal of the character, are the very large and imposing focus of Boardwalk Empire the writers don’t have much room to manoeuvre.

This may be part of the reason why the show is yet to achieve the popularity it covets, and surely, to some extent, deserves. This is not the popularity of critical acclaim and awards but the ‘water cooler’ factor, the public have not fallen in love with the show. The two shows of which it is surely the heir to, The Sopranos and The Wire, both had central characters that obviously loomed large over the entire series. Tony Soprano was a central character people lived to watch – and vice versa, I’m sure – for over a decade but we were equally captivated by the stories of the supporting cast, plots which often had no direct connection to Tony. The Wire, on the other hand, was careful never to have a too obvious face, characters at the forefront of one season could be ruthlessly butchered by the next and even McNulty was a minor presence in the fourth season, but Baltimore itself was the central character in that series and was no less a presence than Stringer Bell or Omar Little.

Nucky Thompson, however, is the only character, so far, presented with any depth in Boardwalk Empire. Jimmy and Margaret perhaps, but they are mere Pips to Buscemi’s Gladys Knight. Even the scenes that don’t feature Nucky, which are few, are usually full of people plotting against him or wondering when he’ll be back for dinner. (It should be noted, of course, that every scene is gorgeous – and often gorgeously violent, so watching just for aesthetics is encouraged.) In the first episode of the second season we have sulky Jimmy, proud Commodore and jealous Eli preparing to take down the man who has been, respectively, father, son and brother to each of them – only literally in the third case, of course, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will be the actual blood tie that saves Nucky. Then again, if the previous season is anything to go, he will probably mastermind his own solution and single-handedly defeat each of his many adversaries, or will it be the dulcet council of Margaret Schroeder that proves his salvation? Behind every great man and all that…

In the end, Boardwalk Empire is stuck in a difficult position: it’s easy to criticise such a fatted-calf of a show and easy for critics to overpraise it. When people say it’s the best thing on television, or some bore in a wine bar utters those chilling words “it’s the new Wire”, they’re clearly not paying enough attention to Breaking Bad, Justified or even Mad Men – a show which one would wonder how people could pay more attention to and, yet, people even criticise that for not being engaging enough. Could it be we’ve all been spoilt? In Boardwalk Empire, we have a show with quality direction, performances, dialogue and enough precious ‘themes’ – social, political, etc. – to keep even the most post-modern Marxist-feminist blogger happy, and so should we all be.

But it could be funnier.

For those whom have access to the Universal Channel (UK), and want to wile away an evening with the best kind of good-bad TV, it would be remiss not to direct you toward Law & Order: Los Angeles (Thursdays, 9:00PM). This is a clever enough procedural/legal drama, produced with all the slickness and snappiness (the cliché threat level is on its lowest setting) you’d expect from Dick Wolf (producer of Miami Vice and the Law & Order franchise) with the added bonus of having the great Alfred Molina filling its maverick role. I only came to the show about two thirds of the way through, but, when a UK DVD release is announced, I can already feel my cursor drifting toward ‘Pre-order this item today’ . Yes, we all have our vices.

Dream Team: The Brothers Quay

In 1995, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve interviewed twin brothers Timothy and Stephen Quay about their beautiful full-length debut Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life. Many thanks to the author for permission to reprint in full.

The animated-puppet worlds of the Brothers Quay have entranced art cinephiles since 1979. Seemingly made by miniature shadow-fairies rather than the actual tall humans the Quays are, their films – Nocturna Artificialia, 1979, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, 1984, Street of Crocodiles, 1986, Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, 1987 – and music videos, including the award-winning ‘Sledgehammer’ for Peter Gabriel, take us eyeball and eardrum through fantastically handcrafted architecturally impossible visions of lost modernity. Deeply intellectual, their work is suffused with moodiness, patterned after the writers who inspire them: Franz Kafka, Bruno Schultz, and the Swiss novelist Robert Walser, whose Jakob von Gunten, 1908, served as the armature for their first live-action and full-length feature film, Institute Benjamenta, which premiered at New York’s Film Forum in March.

Institute Benjamenta – the Institute is a school for servants – is smart and beautiful. Each shot is its own still; each edit, a dazzling transformation of narrative space. As such, Institute Benjamenta is as much a foray into the memory of film itself, a sensuous evocation of the cinema of the miraculous (Jean Cocteau, Luis Bunuel, Maya Deren, Sergei Paradjanov), as it is a fairy tale of spirits crushed by the soul-killing monotony of rules, repetition, and subordination.

In reputation the Brothers Quay are wrapped in mystery, including whispers about their dense and dark London atelier (Koninck studios, which they founded in 1980 with their producer, Keith Griffiths), rumored to be crammed with such things as antique dolls in bell jars and stacks of crumbling insect wings. I half expected to find them a pair of wizened gnomes with rusty screws, butterfly dust, and cobwebs dangling from their hair. Nothing so exorbitant – only two disarmingly friendly, whirling personas of elegantly rumpled charisma, who just happen to have turned their accidental birthright as identical twins (born outside Philadelphia in 1947) into one of art’s most ingenious and visionary collaborations. The following conversation took place amidst New York’s blizzard of ‘96, as though the environment were duplicating the atmospheric wonder that the brothers’ films so effortlessly provoke.

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve: A beautiful quotation opens Institute Benjamenta:

Who dares it – has no courage To whom it is missing – feels well Who owns it – is bitterly poor Who is successful – is damaged Who gives it – is as hard as stone Who loves it – stays alone

What is “it”?

The Brothers Quay: “It” is the riddle, the enigma. The quote isn’t from Robert Walser’s novella but from an anonymous folktale, a conundrum, that Carl Orff set to music and that we’ve had a cassette of for 19 years. Our initial ravishment was the music; we’d never had the text translated. Yet it utterly intrigued us and so we began corresponding with the Orff foundation to trace the text’s origin – which of course remains unsolved.

TNG: Music seems almost as primary as the visual for you. You once described it as “just the darkest blood imaginable.”

BQ: Actually, we’re failed composers. What we try to do is create a visualization of a musical space – we want you to hear with your eyes and see with your ears. It’s like saying, What kind of decor, in what parallel world, would evoke that music? So Lech [Jankowski, composer for many of the Quays’ films including Institute Benjamenta] wrote the music before the film was shot. He read the book and wrote suites, which he gave mysterious titles – not ‘Jakob’s Theme’, or ‘Lisa’s Theme’, but ‘Chorale’, and ‘Waltz Z.K. Minor’. He made no direct reference to the book whatsoever, at least to our knowledge.

TNG: Filmmakers are often interested in character, but what’s most alive for you is the depth or “animation” of sets and objects. Humans seem like an afterthought.

BQ: Not exactly. It’s just that they’re no more important than anything else. In Institute Benjamenta, what is most magnetized is the space itself. The Institute is the main actor, or the main character, and as a character it exerts a dominion and sway. We wanted it to carry the essential mysterium of the tale, as though it had its own inner life and former existences, which seemed to dream upon its inhabitants and exert its conspiratorial spells and undertows on them. We were looking for that Walserian notion of a world half awake, half asleep, in between.

TNG: Could you map the Institute for me? I mean, does it really exist as phenomenal space, or is it more a miraculous space?

BQ: With the puppet films, we came to terms with conceiving of space: whether it was to be stylized (the great privilege of animation) or realistic, a metaphysical space or a fantastic, nongeographical space, a mental configuration. There could also be analogic spaces, created in the editing process, or abstract spaces, created by massive close-ups and deficient depths of focus – by violations of scale. Whatever form the space took, it was always firstly a poetic vessel through which the fiction would course.

We’ve tried to explore different aspects of space in all our films. In Institute Benjamenta, we searched particularly for mental spaces. Since our location – a dilapidated old mansion – had to be a “found” space (unlike in our puppet films), we had to free it of its own geographics. The Institute seems to be positioned in a city traversed by trams. It’s also beside a port, and it’s also encroached upon from behind by a forest. In fact the forest is slowly invading it, like the tides.

To every space is allied its own quality of light, and this too should be a poetic conception. Light creates the essential Stimmung, the metaphysical climate, those “thicknesses” in the space itself. For Lisa [Alice Krige], the Institute’s instructress, the building is a realm of light. Light swells, advances, becomes like liquid myrrh, glows and invades her. At other times it may be a trapped, fetid, dead light, or an annihilating, corrosive light. What happens in the shadow, in the gray regions, also interests us – all that is elusive and fugitive, all that can only be said in those beautiful half-tones, or in whispers, in deep shade.

TNG:In the puppet films, you controlled every aspect of production; you can’t do that in live action. Yet you’ve managed to translate your miraculous space, and your whole point of view. To be honest, I was surprised at the effortless transition you made.

BQ: Though the puppet films hadn’t prepared us for the social aspect of ensemble work, we’d worked in theater and opera before [the Quays have designed stage productions in England and Europe], so we knew the value of collaboration, and we realized that we’d have to stop mumbling between ourselves and make ourselves intelligible to our team. We seemed to have earned everyone’s loyalty – that, or they all felt sorry for us.

For the mise-en-scene, we worked with our friend Alan Passes, a writer. We approached the novella with a free hand, trying to conceive it from an imagistic point of view – almost like a silent film. Camera, quality of light, decor, objects, sound and music, dialogue, voice-overs: we tried to create a synthesis of all these metiers. And that’s exactly how we’ve worked all these years in our puppet films.

TNG: I have a personal question about you guys as identical twins.

BQ: Oh, that one.

TNG: I know there’s frustration with the question, but it’s also a logical one: you do experience an entirely different metaphysical existence from the rest of us. This struck me because Lisa’s isolation is a big theme in the film. So I want to know – do you ever experience loneliness? Could you? Or is that outside your experience?

BQ: It would take one of us dying to know what that would be. Until then it’s a mystery.

TNG: Do you know how profound that is in terms of us “singulars”? We go through the world –

BQ: – always alone, searching for some possible other…

TNG: For most of us, encouplement only comes through the lover.

BQ: Yes, in some way our relationship is a reproach or challenge to marriage in the sense that you have to find your soul mate, whereas we had –

TNG: Your soul mate from the very beginning?

BQ: From the very beginning. It was just something that was natural. We always went around together; we couldn’t even help it. I guess the proper thing would be to get a life, get married, break up, but film has actually brought us closer, because of the collaboration. We did each do our own drawings when we were in art school, though.

TNG: Did you draw similarly?

BQ: We both drew with our right hands.

TNG: Okay … but did you have different interests in what you drew?

BQ: We always had a similar, literary interest. We constantly absorbed the same material. There was no way one of us could discover something the other one hadn’t already seen or read or heard about.

TNG: So you really are a unit; more one than two.

BQ: Yes.

TNG: And that’s why it’s frustrating when people want to –

BQ: – search for the dissonance. They want to say, Which one’s who? We always say it’s just the twins, just the Quays. The films aren’t made by Timothy or by Stephen, or by Stephen or Timothy.

TNG: You seem born to make your puppet films, as though you were making puppets and environments as children. But you apparently got into puppets almost as a kind of eccentric dare.

BQ: The British Film Institute said they would give us money for something experimental. We said, We’ve never done puppets, so why not – it was the most experimental thing we could think of. We’d only been illustrators at that point. And we figured if we failed, it would at least be a beautifully slow suicide.

TNG: Suicide?

BQ: Because there were no great expectations. Also, in our huge ignorance at that time (1979), puppet films not for children seemed virtually extinct. But then we saw quite a few puppet films made for adults, and they intrigued us. It was just an intuition that this was something we wanted to explore.

TNG: How do you conceptualize what you’re going to shoot?

BQ: We can bluff a storyboard, but we know from experience that when you’re confronted with the physical space itself (whether it’s puppet space or live action), the space blossoms. You might say, Let’s use a 50-millimeter lens here, but by mistake the camera has a 105-millimeter lens on, and you say, That’s it! We have a great belief in accidents. We sort of nurture them and trap them and build upon them. We’re appallingly open to the chance encounter. We always have a drift, an arc, for a project, we know where we’re going – but it’s a thread, a shimmering web. Things happen as we go along. We’ll discover things.

TNG: As oblique as your work can be, I do see a theme. It has to do with meaningful versus alienated labor. You seem to revel in artisanal craft-like puppet animation, where the hand is utterly involved and you’re immersed in the material process. For you, work in a modern or postindustrial capitalist society is soul-killing.

BQ: Our work is so close to us it isn’t work – it’s a way of rendering life at its fullest. And in puppetry your hands do a lot of thinking. As for Institute Benjamenta, it’s a metaphor at zero degree, of course, in which millions are already enrolled. An image of Kafka’s comes to mind: he spoke of chewing on the sawdust already chewed on by thousands of others. But suspended over the story of a school for servants there’s also a fairy tale – essentially Sleeping Beauty. Walser himself talked about his book as a “senseless but meaningful fairy tale.” There’s a ward with a deer-hoofed wand (Lisa); an ogre (Lisa’s brother Herr Benjamenta [Gottfried John]); seven dwarfs (the students); and the princeling, Jakob [Mark Rylance], who arrives with a kiss.

TNG: What’s the significance of all the antlers and stag imagery in the Institute?

BQ: They’re not in the book. But we thought, the Institute had an existence before it trained servants. So we imagined it had been a factory for making perfume. Musk comes from the male deer – actually from a deer without antlers, but we took a little poetic license.

We also imagined that the man who had run this factory had had a Wunderkammer room where he collected somewhat pathological deer imagery. This is the museum that Jakob discovers. Like the Institute, it’s a maze. On one side of it there’s a hell jar of ejaculate of stag, from when they’re rutting. We got the idea when we were sawing antlers one day and as the horn fell onto the paper it smelled of sperm. Did you know that when an antler deroutes, they presume – it’s not really known – that it’s because the deer’s been shot in the testicle? When a deer is hunted, it turns its behind to the gunshot to run away. If the bullet hits the testicle, that – possibly – deroutes the antler.

TNG: Which means what – that it falls out?

BQ: No, that it becomes aberrational. We have collections of antlers with these extraordinary detours and florescences – a flowering of the testicles in the opposite direction.

All of that was a subtext. We were interested in this contamination of the Institute by the dead perfume factory. Herr Benjamenta closes himself down into this world of deer memorabilia – almost as though it was he who’d been wounded in the testicle. Then the Institute itself, in that it’s for teaching servants, is like a reservation of young bucks – eunuchs. These guys are learning the art of demeaning repetitive labor. They’re being taught an abstraction, an ideal code or system: “Work more, wish less.” And all those elements come together with the animal kingdom in the film’s layer of fairy tale.

TNG: Walser himself attended a school for servants, didn’t he?

BQ: Yes, though not for long. For us, Jakob is a quiet portrait of Walser. He spent the last 26 years of his life in an asylum. At the beginning he still wrote; then he stopped. He said, “I’m here to be mad, not to write.” He died on a walk in the snow on Christmas day. That’s why Mark Rylance does that gesture at the end with his hat – because Walser was found facedown in the snow with his hat falling off, one hand on his heart. It’s the most fairy tale-ish ending. In one of his earliest novels he talks about coming across a poet dead in the snow.

TNG: Is that landscape of death the same landscape that ends Institute Benjamenta?

BQ: Oh yes – in a sense we just tried to create that final realm. We actually took that last walk of Walser’s when we were in Switzerland – we had this photograph of him dead, and we were wandering around trying to position it in the landscape. We never asked Mark to make that gesture; he just did it, and it was only when we were looking at the rushes that we went “@?!@?!!,” because we had shown him the photograph.

TNG: Your description of walking, looking for Walser, suggests how you inhabit the world as flâneurs – wandering around, looking not for something specific but just for what the world will give you. That’s how you build your esthetic.

BQ: Absolutely – walking in the street, we’re always taking photographs of strange still-lifes, the conjunctions and little epiphanies that life supplies. You can miss them but you shouldn’t. We want to uncover those quiet, elusive moments, those drifts that just go off.

TNG: There’s an impression of you as these hermetic souls, like watchmakers laboring at your fantastic miniature constructions. Actually, though, the phenomenal world is as much your laboratory as the music or literature that inspires you.

BQ: Exactly. In a way, Street of Crocodiles was just us documenting Poland, the Krakow and Warsaw of 1974 to ‘86. We’d walk around and photograph, say, a little shop window, empty except for a high-heeled stiletto with little cleats going around it. We generate material just by walking about. An event happens and we tuck it away.

TNG: So though people often bring up the “s” word with you, you’re really materialists, not surrealists.

BQ: Yes, because the material is generated, not invented. We just see it. People do sort of want to stick the label “surrealist” on us, but the world gives these things up to us – they really happen. Mostly, we want things to remain true to themselves. The object can speak in whispers if you let it.

TNG: Which reminds me of the forks in Institute Benjamenta – in the opening scene, the actors make them “sing” by tapping them before using them to eat. Though those moments are live action, they’re actually about animation in the deepest sense: endowing the inanimate with life. You make it seem as if using a fork just to eat is like making people into zeros in their job. In fact your work is furious at how not just humans have been made inanimate, but objects as well: they’ve been stripped of their magic, their “soul,” which you give back to them.

BQ: We knew the fork was part of the enigma. It’s a fantastic thing! We adore forks – part of a ritual, yet so practical.

TNG: And the fork is potent thematically, because so much of the Institute’s teaching is the kind of empty social forms typified by those codes about using a fork properly. So what a wonderful subversion when Jakob “plays” the fork – one of those quiet, sly moments that the worker develops within a space bound by rules. The same with that lesson on how to present a napkin, which you choreograph into a beautiful somnambulistic ritual.

BQ: That scene was conceived to Lech’s music. We worked it visually like a musical cadenza.

Walser was attracted by all that was hard, gray, and lowly. He liked to take the circumference of something small and insignificant – a button, an apple, trouser cuffs, things that were a kind of degree zero – and to show that by passing through the zero, as Jakob does, one could be liberated. That’s why Kraus [Daniel Smith], the servant, who is the perfect zero, is also the pearl in the oyster – the pearl permanently secreted by the Institute.

TNG: At the end of the film, when Jakob and Herr Benjamenta leave the Institute, is it supposed to look like they’re in one of those snow-filled glass-ball paperweights?

BQ: Yes. At that point we wanted it to appear almost as though Kraus were telling the tale. He’s feeding the fish, and the food falls into the fishbowl; so it’s as though he’s making snow for the fish. Having Jacob and Herr Benjamenta in the snow, which looks as though they were in a glass bowl, gave it that slightly fairy-tale ending.

TNG: Herr Benjamenta tells Jakob, “I’ve pronounced the Institute dead. We are free… Follow me out of this world forever.” Yet Kraus remains. Lisa is dead – killed by the Institute, or, better, by her evolving inability to enact its rules.

BQ: These people course through the film in strange trajectories: Lisa is slowly arcing down, Herr Benjamenta is rising euphorically, and Kraus will be the pearl secreted by the Institute. He’ll be there for all time, with the fish in the goldfish bowl, just turning these endless circles. And Jakob is the princeling who should have woken Sleeping Beauty with a kiss of life, but he’s brought the kiss of death.

TNG: Jakob says at one point, “As long as I obey her, she will live.” But he has instigated in Lisa the desire not to be obeyed, the desire to move beyond this world in which, a sign reads, “Rules have already thought of everything.” But why is it Herr Benjamenta who gets to leave with Jakob at the end?

BQ: In his final speech, he says, “Once I was crowned with success, the world smiled on me. But I hated the world. Hated existing. Hated those I taught to take orders… But no longer, now that I am not a king…”

TNG: “… Now I want to live…”

BQ: Yes, “Now I want to live.” But the film in fact ends unexpectedly, with Kraus – the genuine work of God, the nothing, the servant. Earlier, Lisa has told Jakob that God gives a Kraus to the world in order to entrust it with an insoluble riddle. This line is an echo of that fiddling opening quotation from Orff. And so, ending with Kraus, the film ends as it begins, with a riddle; the circle is reformed. And maybe we’re no wiser, because, as Lisa’s voice from the heavens says in the film, “Things unfathomed still occur. And this fairy tale will tell you last.”

TV Eye: Downton Abbey and The Story of Film: An Odyssey

This week, Jacob Knowles-Smith takes on the 20th century as seen through the cinema lens and the eyes of Julian Fellowes

DowntonIt is curious that since the first series of Downton Abbey (ITV 1) the BBC has also made an effort to create period dramas set in the 20th, rather than 18th or 19th, century. Have they lost their faith in bonnets? After all, the autumn television is the season for getting people hooked on such comfortable dramas so they can ward off the effects of the waning year. Whatever the reasoning, the 9pm choice on Sunday was between the death, or finale, if you prefer, of Spooks (BBC 1) and the start of the new series of Downton Abbey, I went for the latter, never having watched either before.

On first viewing, the dialogue, both down- and upstairs, seems authentic enough and mercifully light of cliché with wit peppered throughout, particularly in the case of Maggie Smith’s character who is plainly one the main reasons to watch. Together with Hugh Bonneville’s performance at the heart of the show, who unfortunately he had little screen time in this first episode, except a glimmer of greatness whilst having a professional break up with a servant. It’s difficult to know whether there’s enough here to keep one coming back in the week after week – if you don’t really like love stories, there’s little to engage with. Certainly the issue of class struggle hardly plays into it; last year it was decided by the media that people would enjoy seeing the sumptuous sets and how the other ‘half’ live during a recession, but will a second helping prove too much to stomach? After all, “thick and rich” said Samuel Beckett of the cream of society.

Staying with ITV 1 for a moment, the adverts during the new Jonathan Ross Show are, of course, book-ended by sponsor messages – however, one ‘skit’ has the line ‘not funny at all’ in it, which is a potentially dangerous case of word association for Ross’s new venture.

What can be said about More4? Noble attempt – gesture? – to recapture Channel 4’s long-lost association with the higher end of middlebrow and cultural significance? Or graveyard for repeats of the less sensational documentaries made by its parent channel and those dramas they no longer care about (later episodes of The West Wing, for example)?

Probably both; but if Channel 4 doesn’t have the money to produce or buy programmes other than those that have the asses-in-seats potential of Seven Dwarves (if you don’t know, don’t look it up) or The Inbetweeners, then that’s the cycle of ad-revenue power they’re stuck in. Occasionally, however, they do move out from under the shade of the cat house and bring to our attention something significant like Mark Cousins’s 15-part documentary, based upon his book of the same title, The Story of Film: An Odyssey. The first thing to say is that people – critics, mainly – will argue about the merits of Cousins’s delivery ad infinitum and his rising, languid tone can, at times, be distracting but not, surely, enough to deprive him his seat in whatever Valhalla is reserved for documentary makers.

With that safely to one side, something about the series itself: three episodes have aired so far, taking us from the birth of film, to Hollywood in the 20s and the activities of film makers around the world in that, and the proceeding, decade. Cousins guides us through the work of various directors, paints their themes and dreams, and interspaces shots from their pictures with, where possible, images of what the streets and buildings look like today. Is this technique an attempt to demonstrate the timelessness of film or, as in shots of Shanghai, to show that where film starts, capitalist excess follows? Or, perhaps, does it give him time to say what isn’t going on in preceding movie scenes, but rather what the directors were attempting? Either way, he does sometimes have a tendency to spend a little too much time describing what we can plainly see for ourselves. However, this is, arguably, a necessity for the viewer whom hasn’t seen many of the films from around the world. Though, one supposes, many contemporary audiences wouldn’t be very familiar with the work of Chaplin or Keaton. Cousins also shows us scenes from later directors that are inspired by his current period’s film makers but, all too often, these shots are so brief that we have to take his word for it.

But these are minor ‘flaws’ (the bigger problem is that, by virtue of being on More4, the film simply won’t be seen by enough people) and, taken as a whole, The Story of Film is hypnotic and magnificent. With a further 12 weeks of episodes to come, moving next to the birth of sound, as far as this column goes: you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

TV Eye: Bill Hicks, The Field of Blood and Page Eight

Jacob Knowles-Smith settles down for an original American comic and some not so original British drama

It might be a cliché for fans of Bill Hicks to reminisce about the man and wonder what he might have to say about the present day, but it isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination: he wouldn’t have to change much more than the names in his routines and, perhaps, amp up the bile. In American: The Bill Hicks Story (BBC 4) fans old and new were treated to an in depth account of the life of the comedian; from footage of his first gigs at the all-too-precious age of fifteen right up to the famous performances that most viewers will probably have known by heart, and find all the more hilarious for this.

The most interesting aspect of the film was the insight into how Hicks’ most well-known jokes – set pieces? – evolved into their final form; particularly so when noting that the anger first emerged as a result of seeing how much alcohol he could consume when first on stage and later honed this feature into a fine art when sober. A whiff of hagiography has been associated with the documentary but his unpleasantness as a drunk is noted and what would there be to gain by scrutinising his ‘dark side’ other than a cautionary tale that would be anathema to Hicks himself?

Visually, the film is an innovative and smooth blend of animations put together through family photographs and video footage of his live performances that give an extra aesthetically pleasing element to a fine film made by the people who loved the man most, and should stand as a primer for many years to come for all those who will fall in love with Hicks and his message of individualism and not giving those in charge an easy ride.

Less than a week since the final episode of The Hour the BBC seems to have known they were onto something and split the still-warm corpse of the programme down the middle, creating a period drama set in a newsroom and a spy thriller. Sadly, neither can be modified with tags such as ‘high octane’ or even, for that matter, ‘thriller’. The former was the adaptation of the novel The Field of Blood (BBC 1), the story of a jobbing young reporter trying to get to that ever elusive truth, and the latter was Page Eight (BBC 2), a tale of MI5 high jinks and skulduggery.

In The Field of Blood Jayd Johnson, who admirably carries the show on her young shoulders, plays plucky young copyboy-come-investigative journalist Paddy Meehan, embroiled in a murder implicating a family member. Whilst she seeks the real story, she subsists on a diet of hardboiled eggs and there are plenty of hardboiled reporters in the world of a 1980’s Glasgow-based newspaper to help – mostly hinder – her quest. However, even in this most unglamorous of settings the influence of Mad Men prevails – within the first five or so minutes there is gratuitous shot of some grizzled hack taking a nip from a flask – realism is one thing, but this felt like an all too knowing nod to Madison Avenue.

The dialogue rolls fairly well and amusingly along; though one look at McVie – another hack – and you could see the words “You’ll make a journalist yet” tumbling out of his mouth a few scenes later, which seems all too easy if one of the themes they’re trying to portray is the struggle of a young woman making it in a boy’s club.

This is forgivable though, when confronted with the clunky and often glib script of Page Eight: “Wake up, Johnny – 21st century” or, when musing on who has true power, “The bankers did, and look what happened to them.” Well, what exactly did? Such leaden lines were fortunate to have Bill Nighy, as Johnny Worricker of MI5, around to carry them even if he does curiously swing sociopathically from flat monotone speeches to sudden bursts of rage. And he walks a lot. Walks from this scene, walks to that scene. Is this to show his isolation, that he’s a man out of time? Or a clumsy attempt at pointless establishing shots?

The characters Worricker meets, between stumbling upon ‘too much information’, are equally random and bizarre: shoved together from clichés that are, one supposes, meant to be so blunt they trick us into assuming they’re some fresh take. There’s a predatory homosexual Financial Times journalist, a very wised-up Muslim secretary, and Johnny’s attention-starved artist daughter whom he just doesn’t ‘get’ but – dash it all – he never could refuse. And, not to forget, Michael Gambon keeps popping up, until he dies, before Nighy goes for another walk. I wonder if the BBC thought we should be grateful for this as our Bank Holiday treat – given that it undermines the goodwill of The Hour – flawed, but charming – and proves the sameness of both programmes to everything else on TV at the same time.

Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)

A radical new direction for the acceptable face of art house cinema? Hardly, says Declan Tan

“Let’s open with one of those long, audience-testing shots, yeah, yeah, keep him driving around. Make about ten laps then we’ll cut.”

I imagine this is how Sofia Coppola speaks and I imagine this is how she sets up her anchored camera, after watching some ‘70s european art house cinema and listening to some French indie pop, before mumbling instructions to her Ray-Ban-wearing crew. She silently pats herself on the back with a studied expression of seriousness.

Wait. That’s a bit harsh. To be fair she has done some worthwhile work (Lost in Translation) then again, some bordering on disgraceful (Marie Antoinette), with the rest in between (The Virgin Suicides). But it’s this next one, starring Stephen Dorff and Elle (sister-of-Dakota) Fanning, that turns out to be simultaneously intriguing and self-satisfied, dropping in somewhere around the middle of Coppola’s so-far tolerable filmography.

Dorff plays Johnny Marco, an actor whose very name even sounds like a cliché. He has lived in the well-worn fast lane like many of his kind before, blitzing circuits in his Ferrari, habitually bed hopping in the Chateau Marmont, probably chunking his nose but certainly draining exorbitantly priced bottles. But (you guessed it) there is something desperate nagging at him. Do you see now? Miss Coppola wants to poke her golden stick at despair and existential angst again. Joyous day.

Plot? Easy. We have Johnny going from place to place, day to day, not knowing when or what, regularly booking the same blonde twin pole-dancers to perform for his amusement. He parties now and then, breaks an arm, cracks a smile occasionally (but only for the twins), not finding what he’s looking for anywhere, oh but his daughter, Cleo (Fanning), she appears and isn’t she so down-to-earth? Surely, their love for each other can help him find that somewhere. Right, right.

So, familiar territory and safe ground for Coppola, picking apart that theme again, allowing a repeat of those possible interpretations (from her own experience growing up in a similar position to Cleo, or from the perspective of Johnny, a reflection of Coppola in her own career), a subject that allows her to sharpen her already-cut teeth on the fluffily fake glamour of the movie business. Being a bit too repetitive for anyone that saw Lost in Translation, there is nothing said here that wasn’t said last time round. Perhaps this is the only life that Coppola has ever known, or can ever depict. So just as in her Tokyo story, the press and PR incompetents again receive the same treatment as before; they are evermore insincere, moronic and ridiculous. Sometimes laughably so, yet mostly it’s single-chuckle material at best.

Nevertheless, it’s subject matter with plenty of meat for the audience to chew over. We’re presented with the hollow man, a mould (literally, in one scene), who is neatly given purpose and meaning in his on-camera moments, by a script or a director. Outside of that, Johnny is the empty vessel that is filled only during the hours when he embodies someone else. When he is off-set, there is no dictated purpose or meaning or lines to deliver; he is vacated. He realises this, saying: “I’m nothing. I’m not even a real person”. This is where Coppola strikes the right notes. Even a character that has everything is still reduced to nothing, evoking the sympathy of the audience. There are moments when we can ourselves taste the bitter nothing, subdued performances allow these moments to poke through, but often the camera technique is what gets in its way, becoming a film never allowed to realise its considerable potential.

All of this works as a distraction to what could be something real, a message though heard before, still worth listening to. But instead we’re faced with the smugness that seems to underline it all. It’s hard to ignore the self-aware camera work that draws attention to itself with every static shot, every long take, topped with the conspicuously drawn symbolism. It also doesn’t help that the ending is a lazy one.

Route Irish (Ken Loach)

Often something of a cinematic conscience, Ken Loach turns the camera to the Iraq war. Declan Tan reviews

Ken Loach’s take on Iraq was always going to be one to look out for. After In Our Name, Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and a slurry of others sent hot and steaming down the pipe of supposedly cantankerous cinema, Route Irish is a welcome return to veracity that has undoubtedly been amiss in previous war-film efforts. This isn’t to say that those other films aren’t sincere. Surely their respective producers think and believe the things they project up onto the screen, supposed wisdom in a blindfold, it’s just that no one as qualified or well-informed as Loach has bothered to make a mystery/thrillerama like this, until now.

It’s immediately obvious. Loach’s is the film that Green Zone never could be; brash, confrontational, and with more than a Wikipedia source of research. Coming from the pen of Loach’s oft partner-in-crime, Paul Laverty, the script takes on adversaries others have shied away from in the past, as it reaches upward to the source of profit and other reasons for invasion, rather than lazily kicking stones into the faces of those at the bottom of the pile, the soldiers. While other films are looking over their shoulders to see whose jackboot toes they just farted on, Loach’s rolls dead ahead not even casting a look back to see all the faces he’s left in the methane smog. And there are plenty coughing up the guff.

The plot follows ex-sas Fergus (Womack) as he investigates the death of his childhood friend and fellow mercenary, Frankie (Bishop), killed on the deadly stretch of road, “Route Irish”, that joins the Green Zone and Baghdad Airport. Fergus slowly pieces together the reasons for Frankie’s untimely demise, through a furied investigation of private security contractors and big business, putting Skype and mobile phone videos to use like never before. (These technologies even become central to the plot.)

That the story is so routinely executed leads one to realise that this film is simply an excuse for an essay, on modern warfare, on moral ambiguity, concerning the Middle Eastern invasions. Not only satisfied to unglove corporate hands fiddling for profit, it works to question the audience’s complicit involvement in the subsequent revenge Fergus takes out on those culpable, questioning whether we too would succumb, becoming either a victim or hero of circumstance in the ensuing vengeance. Through this, the audience is implicated in the crime of torture. Though Fergus does it out of despair, a regrettable vendetta, because he knows that he is lost inside, we, the audience, enjoy the heavy justice he takes on those responsible. At least a little bit, be honest. Well, for a while, at least.

It’s these side dishes of commentary on the human condition, done well in the context of the surrounding images, that compliments the main of objective of honest storytelling, elevating this above the standard Iraq/Afghan “anti-war” film fodder that can’t help but preach an emptiness both obvious and pointless. The characters here are well-fleshed out and real, not caricatures or propagandists, and the performances well-rounded.

But to call it important is a stretch. Route Irish is the work of a director trying to say things more easily said in other, less subjective or interpretive mediums. And the argument is also there, that it is too late for this kind of film to have any effect, working more as a reader’s letter sent in by a concerned citizen that got lost in the post for a few years. Nevertheless, Loach’s film marks a significant turning point in the way these two invasions are dealt with in cinema, (though it isn’t likely that many other filmmakers will follow the same route) that the war is the Iraqis’ tragedy, no one else’s, not the Brit’s or the American’s, only the Iraqis’. One million war dead and countless others lost. This is the core of Loach’s film. Leaving us with the question: Is this the first honest British film about the invasion?

The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper)

Is there anything left to say about The King’s Speech? Declan Tan thinks so

The King's Speech film posterWelcome to the throwback film of the century. You already know the story thanks to the BAFTA-soaked hype parade (and the ubiquitous trailers), and you’re vaguely familiar with the history, World War II and all that (though you won’t be too much the wiser by the end of this movie). On top of this, before even a single frame is set on the screen, prepare to be shunted into a retrogressive state of thinking: that the ruling of a pillaged Empire is something to take great patriotic pride in.

We’re thrown in right before our boy Albert/King George VI is about to give one of his silence-filled speeches, just after the film’s opened with a little heads up on where we are, 1925 England to be exact, the closing speech of the Empire Exhibition. Cue all the trendy framing a voguish director can muster of our reluctant King (later assuming the name George VI when taking the throne) with requisite plain spaces of nothing with our principal character poised at the edge of it, or maybe just the corner of his hat and an eye. Very modern and unimaginative but efficient, much like the film itself.

So Prince Albert (Colin Firth) has a stutter. Not good for a man who regularly has to stand in front of thousands and speak, nor accommodating in a time when the wireless has expanded the reach of said person’ stammer, thus multiplying his failings Commonwealth-wide. So his dutiful wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter), gets him help. They’ve been through the struggle of correcting his speech with incapable doctors and therapists, until Elizabeth decides to seek out the man who will change all that. The result is a misfiring, very British stiff upper lip comedy of manners at the outset when we first meet loveable rogue Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). She calls for him, standing in his reception. He answers her from the shitter. It’s all very amusing.

Then there’s a montage of elocution lessons where he makes progress in the confines of Logue’s office but still can’t hack the pressure when it comes to it. Oh and he’s got a mean Daddy who doesn’t help. The story runs smoothly most of the time, kind of chugging along like a well-oiled BBC costume drama, the sort director Tom Hooper has been known for (along with some Byker Grove and EastEnders).

That’s not to say that some of the cinematography isn’t decent. But Hooper’s film, at its core, seems strangely confused over quite a simple story, purposefully evading any complexities to strike its broad brush at the canvas of World politics, finding it acceptable enough to merely shove in a few cameo appearances from Churchill, Baldwin and Chamberlain, occasionally name dropping Hitler and Stalin. Seidler’s script tries its hardest to humanise the King, to make him appealing to the common man with his common problems (a victim of child abuse, how can that miss?) but the tear-jerkers are ticked off one-by-one in supposedly heart rending conversations with Lionel like a film version of a Wikipedia page.

Rather hypocritically it makes the point that the King will never know anything of the ‘common man’, yet Seidler goes out of his way to pave that one-way street, as we the audience/the people are given the dubious honour of trying to understand what it’s like to be royalty (oh so very trying) when the same effort isn’t done from their end. The ruddy swines. It’s the film equivalent of a book that reads “blah blah blah blah b-b-b-b-b-blah” and a sadly condescending experience at that, where magical Disney music plays when a ‘normal’ person has an encounter with the King and Queen. It’s artificial and generally a bit doughy: a forced quaint kind of humour and over-exerted in its attempt at quirkiness.

Churchill (Timothy Spall) especially is played up with unnecessary fervour, too knowing of his potentially important role as if to say: “Yeah, I’ve got a winner here and I’m gonna milk the bastard for all its worth”, taking the part by the throat and throttling it. The same goes for the majority of the performances; Bonham-Carter acts too hard, Firth is almost irritatingly histrionic. Something should be said for Rush though, who carries off his part with dignity and is the only member of the ensemble who makes the thing watchable.

What’s most confusing about The King’s Speech is that it both argues for the importance of a King at a time of crisis, then at the same time passes him off in the main as a complete non-entity and just a speech giver. So which is it?

By the end, and by the time King G VI has to step to the mic, it’s a ruddy relief that he spits out the words, not so much because we’re with him on his dastardly journey, but that the film is nearly over. Amidst this, (of all things!) is the perpetuation of the myth that the people need the Monarch with the silver screen affair ending like a flood of hot turds run into the eyeballs. Hyperbole perhaps. But maybe that’s why it even earned the Queen’s approval. I’ll calm down now.

Alternatively: watch The Madness of King George.

Keeping Up with the Jones: Regarding Indiana

Indiana Jones poster

Whilst the Star Wars trilogy has embedded itself deep within our cultural mythology, Robert O’Connor wonders about George Lucas’ other classic serial, the Indiana Jones films

George Lucas made the first Star Wars movies as a throwback to the classic adventure serials like Flash Gordon. A few years later he did it again with the Indiana Jones movies. They’re all pure entertainment, the Star Wars movies have become a part of the cultural consciousness. The mythology in them has been given serious treatment by scholars, journalists and the like. What of the Indiana Jones movies?

For this discussion, I’ll be looking at the first and third Indiana Jones movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. These two have the most in common with each other in terms of plot and subject matter. After all, the artifacts at the center of the movies are central to Judaism and Christianity, respectively, which are in themselves closely related.

Both films, for example, begin with Indy in the middle of one of his adventures trying to acquire a new item for the museum. In Raiders, it’s a South American idol. In the second, a Conquistador cross.

The opening adventure in Raiders serves the purpose of introducing the villain, Rene Belloq. His relationship to Indy is summed up in his first line: “There is nothing you can find that I cannot take away”. He then warns Jones about choosing friends wisely, and holds up the idol for his native soldiers to grovel at.

Belloq is not obsessed with the relics he takes. Nor is he interested in selling them to a museum like Indy would have done. Belloq has a desire for power over others, which he gains when holding the idol above his head. When he calls the Ark “a transmitter, a radio for speaking to God”, that is the reason he wants his hands on it. And he’ll befriend the Nazis to get it.

In the end, Indy finds the Ark, and Belloq takes it away – only to be destroyed by the Ark.

As for Crusade, the opening adventure establishes a theme that runs through both movies: obsession. Indy finds the crusader cross and spends his entire life trying to get it back from the bad guy.

In both movies, an older man is obsessed with finding the treasured objects. In the first film, Indy’s teacher Abner Ravenwood had an obsession with the Ark, while in Crusade, it’s Indy’s father Henry that was obsessed with the Holy Grail. Indy’s relationship to both men had fallen out and he thinks of the objects of their obsessions with suspicions. Through the course of both movies he begins to believe both of them and reconcile his relationship with both, albeit in Raiders, Abner is dead by the time the movie starts, so Indy reconciles with his daughter Marion, who is implied to be the reason for Abner and Indy falling out.

Because of his obsession, Henry Jones knew the dangers that were to be faced on the way to the Holy Grail – the journey, the three tests. He had written all of it down in his diary which Indy used to get through the tests.

Another recurring motif in the movies is knowledge. In Crusade, Indy says in his opening lecture that “80% of archaeology is done in the library”, and that it doesn’t involve hair-raising adventure. Both Walter Donovan and Belloq know an awful lot about the objects they desire, but key misunderstandings cause them to fail.

In Crusades, Walter Donovan knows a lot about the Holy Grail. He says he’s passionate about antiquities, though his regular job is never revealed. But when he enters the Grail room, he is given a beautiful golden chalice – one that looks like most depictions of the Grail. He calls it “the cup of the King of Kings”. But when he drinks from it, he ages rapidly and dies. Similarly, Belloq knows a lot about the Ark, but doesn’t heed the warnings spoken most clearly by Brody at the beginning about the wrath of God.

Donovan believes from the beginning that the Grail is the cup that gives eternal life. Everyone else believes the Grail is more abstract. Brody believes the Grail is “the search for the divine in all of us.” Henry Jones, who knows everything there is to know about the Grail after 40 years of research and is healed by its powers, but in the end, he says the Grail gave him “illumination.”

Even Dr. Schneider, who hands Donovan the golden chalice knowing its the false Grail, who knows the real thing wouldn’t be made out of gold – “the cup of a carpenter” – didn’t really understand it. Henry says at the end that “she thought she had found a prize” in the grail. That’s why she reached for it and fell into the crevice. But a prize for whom? Her loyalty is to the Nazis for much of the movie, but when confronted by Indy in Berlin, she insists she doesn’t believe in any of it. The best answer is herself and Indy, since when she crosses the Grail seal with it, she calls to Indy that “[they] have it!” But what use would she, or anyone for that matter, have of it?

The Indiana Jones movies are entertainments first. Any analysis of them should keep this in mind. They are not brooding, introspective films that consciously try and explore deep themes. Any attempt to glean philosophical meanings from them is bound to yield shallow answers, if any answers at all. Questions necessary for these kinds of analysis don’t have obvious answers, since the primary aim of the films was not to deal with them, but to give the viewer a rocking good time. Which is exactly what I take from them.

TV Eye: The Hour and The Culture Show

The Hour

In his second episode of television reviews, Jacob Knowles-Smith looks at the BBC’s Suez-and-spies drama The Hour and The Culture Show on holiday in Edinburgh

Just when you think that the BBC have peaked with a smash hit like Dr Who and abandoned the idea of a making programme that comes without limitless potential for merchandising, they slap The Hour (BBC 2) onto our screens and you thank heaven that an hour-long show is always an actual hour on the BBC, rather than the dissected alternatives higher up the channel list. All of the comparisons with Mad Men have already been made and, in most cases, found wanting. The one thing they undoubtedly (and, again, thankfully) share is a look so easy on the eye that it leaves no room for the spirit of British amateurishness and occasional chumminess that haunts many shows. However, it is still easy enough to imagine the command filtering down through the BBC that it might not be a bad idea if someone got together a series, if not similar to, then in the same vein as Mad Men, especially since BBC 4 will no longer be premiering that show on this side of the Atlantic.

Because The Hour is limited to the standard BBC run of six episodes, it has a somewhat quicker pace than an American drama which will typically have double the episodes to play around with. Thus we can see certain twists and trysts coming along and waving their arms in the background but the show is driven and kept engaging by it’s three leads: Ben Whishaw (Freddie Lyon), Dominic West (Hector Madden) and Romola Garai (Bel Rowley). Whishaw plays a brash young journalist with shades of brilliance who seems to have come up with the whole idea of a serious weekly news show (it’s not clear) and is pipped to the role of host by Dominic West’s Standard English pretty boy, a man whose chief purpose in life seems to be the charming into bed of their female producer – and who can blame him? Romola Garai combines sassiness with a certain quiet resignation towards the insecurity and authenticity of her position as a female producer in those times, not to mention the wider inequalities imposed upon her by society – though who would really want to join those men for brandy?

It’s fortunate that these three performers are so credible, because there is something lacking in the script – hire an American? – and, looking at the descriptions above, those could all be stock characters plucked from a novel written by someone like Lyon’s beloved Ian Fleming – which brings us to the cloak and dagger element of the plot. Without risking any spoilers, one has to wonder if this series wouldn’t be more interesting if it were a drama concerned more with the struggle to launch a new television format without having to have so much subterfuge involved? (As an aside, it seems that Dominic West got the better of the BBC offers after the success of The Wire compared to Idris Elba’s struggles in the mind-boggling Luther – I never doubted either of their accents on the streets of Baltimore, but I’m not entirely convinced by Elba’s English one.)

If you weren’t already kicking yourself for not being among all the champagne swigging, Primark wearing, tattoo stamping, frappé quaffing fauxhème booboisie wandering around the streets of Edinburgh over August then BBC 2’s The Culture Show special may, or may not, leave you with sore limbs. Sometimes the main impression derived from the Edinburgh Festivals is that of the atmosphere of the Cambridge Folk Festival and the knowingness of a Radio 4 panel game being thrust upon the arts in all their gloriously bizarre and beautiful forms – fortunately The Culture Show spared us from hearing the opinions of the punters.

It failed, however, to spare us from hearing the opinions of Julian Sands and John Malkovich whilst they were getting excited over Harold Pinter’s poetry. It’s not particularly exciting to read in the first place and one got the feeling that Simon Armitage didn’t see what they were getting at either. We also learned that Rauschenberg’s later constructions were about greed, but that he lost his edge – terrible fate for metal sculptor – and that humanity is obsessed with its own inevitable demise. That sting couldn’t come soon enough when one presenter, an Edinburgh Festival virgin, toured us around the shows require varying degrees of audience participation: when required to dance in one performance piece he warns us “I’m not much of a dancer”. Where was the warning “I’m not much of a presenter”? Doing a piece to camera takes skill, but mild proficiency is surely the least an audience at home can expect from a man who is otherwise talking to the bottom of their screens.

Thankfully the whole show was rescued by the women, A.S. Byatt and Ruby Wax in particular. Byatt deployed her dulcet tones to describe her new book Ragnarok: The End of the Gods and spoke brilliantly about the superior relevance of the Norse mythology to the world and our lives. The Book of Revelations, for example, sounds like Sunday lunch compared with the story of Ragnarok. And Ruby Wax was her usual enchanting self – enchanting in the way that all Jewish comedians seem to be able to enchant this reviewer – though she was somewhat subdued compared to her previous self, and no surprise after her mental breakdown which she explores in her new show Losing It. Finally, Sue Perkins proved herself to be a better hand at presenting The Culture Show than any of the regulars, perhaps it’s because she was as serious as a fairly lightweight overview of arts and culture actually needs to be.

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)

Eight years after One Hour Photo, music video director Romanek steps back in the ring with an adaptation of Ishiguro’s much-touted novel. Declan Tan reviews

In 1952, the breakthrough came. All disease and illness were cured, all disability wiped out. By the 1960s, age expectancy reached over 100 years.

This is the opener for Never Let Me Go, a love-triangular pseudo-sci-fi-drama in which mankind undergoes the dystopian treatment in an alternative history, where science and technology have made the simultaneous leap to put an end to all (physical) human suffering. This, we are shown, is achieved through harvesting body parts and vital organs, taken from mild-mannered clones, to transplant into and onto the broken bodies of the higher strata of society. By now you could be tempted to think Brave New World or possibly Gattaca, and ponder that we might already be well-acquainted with this plot.

Or at least we have seen these ideas before, and more proficiently explored. And that’s the main issue with Romanek’s latest, adapted for the screen by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) from the cult-ish 2005 Kazuo Ishiguro novel of the same name, though the premise is ripe with possibilities – questions of ethics and what it means to be ‘human’, questions of science and destiny, questions of soul and suffering and so on and so forth. Yet what we are presented with is a semi-complete dystopian vision, a world half-rendered by Garland’s script, and a sequence of scenes ironically devoid of any human emotion or completion of its big concepts.

The film opens in the 1990s with our 29-year-old heroine, Kathy (Mulligan) the carer, over-seeing a ‘donor’ ‘donating’. She delivers a solemn voiceover filling us in on her dulled recollections. We flash back to 1978, a twee-looking boarding school where the children talk through their noses and their starchy uniforms stifle free movement and free thinking. Introduced are Kathy’s classmates Tommy (Garfield), who she quickly falls in love with, and Ruth (a sedate Keira Knightley), her then-best friend. As we learn more about life at Hailsham school, a new teacher enters the fray and begins to undermine the control held over the children’s pre-determined fate. We quickly begin to realise that there is a darker side to the apparently parentless joy of regimented school life under Miss Emily (Rampling) with episodes showing playground bullying, their inability to think outside their boundaries and chorus-singing of mindwash anthems. But when the mystery of their purpose evaporates (after the first 40 or so minutes) we are left with little reason to hang on, and this is seemingly what the three protagonists are thinking, as they fail to kick up a fuss or do the human thing and rebel. But Ruth and Tommy make a go of it while they’re young, destroying Kathy in the process, leaving her to watch them from afar as they share their first kiss.

When the film jumps forward to 1985, not much has changed. Where the three used to inhabit a school they now live in ‘The Cottages’. They sit around with blank faces, impersonate characters from American television, go on day trips and exist in a kind of ennui on their next step to ‘completion’ (Ishiguro’s euphemism for death). On one of these road trips Ruth glimpses what she thinks might be her ‘possible’, the person for whom her organs and limbs are supposed to be harvested for, yet this event is passed over without much thought or delicacy. The subject of the wider society is also missed, as a short scene in which the trio shyly orders some food at a café merely demonstrates another example of the film’s self-imposed limits.

Frustratingly, the clones simply accept their fates without displaying any trace of humanity; they sink into misery and merely acquiesce to their destinies. And this seems more of a defect on the film’s part rather than an intentional comment on human nature. So, unremarkably, throughout the three decades that the film spans, the three friends experience almost no progression or development; they are static, which is not aided by the type of wispy acting on display from the three leads, and who could only fall flat as a result of the flaccid dialogue anyway.

Also a tad irritating is that Kathy, Tommy and Ruth talk of nothing but their situation, occasionally of ‘love’ but without ever showing it or saying what they seem to think it is (this being another opportunity to delve into the aspects of perceived and actual love) but again, this is brushed away, glossed over with stereotypical reflections. Yet the most implausible aspect must be the fact that the world they live in does not seemed to have changed at all, apart from people living longer. Perhaps this is the film’s intention, to reveal only the singular perspective of Kathy. Even so, it makes the film feel somehow incomplete. And Kathy’s world that Romanek and Garland have recreated is empty and bereft of humanity, the core of Ishiguro’s admittedly overrated book, in a place where man’s body is elevated in meaning and significance in light of his predicament, making it all the more ridiculous that these three fail to deal with anything, waiting years to find out the details of their fate.

Never Let Me Go also suffers from another massive disconnect throughout; a disconnect between its style and the content of its script. Warm hues carry an incongruously somber tone, giving an unintentional sense of discomfort, the sign of a project that does not know its purpose or its meaning. And in an attempt to wrench in some feeling to the one-note script work, the soundtrack plays out melodramatic strings and trite crescendos, telling you when and what to feel, when perhaps silence would say much more than the manufactured emotion.

And to compound these inconsistencies, Romanek seems to possess the extraordinary talent of finding the most conventional and tediously orthodox shot possible for every moment, with the film evidently too busy getting on and telling its tale to get any ideas across visually or verbally, leaving the possibility that perhaps the only cliché avoided here was to not save the twist for the end.

When the inevitable conclusion does arrive, you’re left trying to pick out the pieces that might have meant something. Is it all some treatise on the ramifications of stem-cell research? Who knows. Is it a religious bit of work, blending in (accepted) notions of the soul against man’s concept of law? Probably not. An intriguing concept that at first seems interesting is instead taken for a ride where only the end is sought, and not the journey. So by the time we hear the last grating after-thought of a voiceover trying to tie things up nicely, with too many aspects of the story taken for granted and with social context forgotten, the whole thing sounds like A-level metaphysics, bordering on self-parody: “We all complete. And somehow it never feels quite long enough”.

Miral (Julian Schnabel)

Julian Schnabel’s switch from painter to filmmaker was one of the more surprising reinventions in contemporary culture. For Declan Tan, however, his most recent effort is a serious anticlimax

Julian Schnabel has more than impressed, actually he has excelled in his past features, all biopics of wildly varied personalities and very different nationalities. First there was his contemporary, and fellow New Yorker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, for whom he made 1996’s ebullient Basquiat. He followed up with an Oscar-nominated performance from Javier Bardem in the Cuban-set Reinaldo Arenas biography, Before Night Falls (2000), before picking up more Academy award nominations and the Best Director gong at Cannes with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007).

Now Schnabel has transported his considerable skill to the Middle East. And unfortunately, it is with little or no impact. Too poorly informed to be a serious political film, too aware of its own possible significance in having any impact, and too clumsily written to be a comprehensive biography, Miral is simply a disappointment for what could have been a great cinematic statement. It’s like Schnabel finally wants to claim an Oscar for himself, by making a film that looks brave but only on the surface.

Miral doesn’t just try to tell the story of its titular heroine, but also Miral’s biological mother, Nadia (Yasmine Elmasri), a would-be terrorist in prison, Fatima (Ruba Bial), and Miral’s unofficially adopted mother, Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass). The latter is the core of the film, we start and end with her, and she is the reference point to all of the passing characters throughout.

We begin with Hind’s funeral in 1994 then cut back to 1948 in a kind of a how-it-all-began deal. Hind is walking to work and amidst gunfire and settling dust in the aftermath of the Deir Yassin massacre, she comes across 55 stranded orphans in the streets. She takes them to her mother’s home and feeds them, clothes them and eventually begins educating them. Over the years, this 55 turns to 2,000 until she has a bona fide school for girls, holding strong to a policy of non-participation in political struggle (in any overt way) and a complete commitment to “her children”.

Yes. This is an admirable story.

But Schnabel and Rula Jebreal, writer of the novel and the film, get muddled trying to mix the heavy story and politics, always stalling at a shallow depth on both. Schnabel freely admits he is no expert, admits he is not even trying to be. So he wants to use up the situation for an artistic experience, OK. Perhaps you don’t agree with that. Maybe he’s using the situation to get his hands on some awards. It’s hard to jump to that conclusion, but it looks that way. The politics are watered down, Schnabel and Jebreal seem to have redacted anything too controversial, anything that doesn’t fit in with this kind of fashionable social awareness where only the most superficial details are left in, the crimes of the Israeli government left without analysis, without debate, and only mentioned in clumsily didactic exposition.

As the movie unfolds we’re also offered a backstory for Fatima, the nurse turned activist, who plants a bomb in an Israeli cinema during a showing of Polanski’s Repulsion. Schnabel seems prepared to confront and condemn the thought-process behind an attack on innocent life by Palestinians on Israelis, but the other way round we rarely see the violence, Israelis only demolish buildings, imprison and then release. The murder of civilians seems far away and not immediate, contrary to the actuality of the situation.

In the Palestine that Schnabel creates, the Israeli army is not quite the belligerent occupying force that history has shown them to be. There are snippets of this poking through, some actual footage is cut in with the gloss, but it is ambivalent and afraid to come out and say what it is and say it straight. At the rushed conclusion we are told that the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 were a serious hope for an end to the atrocities. Perhaps this would have been an acceptable comment if the film was made in 1993. With the gift of hindsight Schnabel should or could have plugged the depths of this event for what it really was, another step in further dispossessing and systematically destroying the people of Palestine and as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe says: “to corral Palestinians in South African-style bantustans”. Instead the film laments that the accords have “not yet been honoured”.

Coinciding with the films political naivety, Schnabel seems also to have run out of ideas stylistically. The opening titles are atrocious, even amateurish. Then there’s the camerawork. It seems to try and show the possibility of hope, of freedom in its freeform style, often handheld and spinning looking up at blue sky or the trees, or whatever. But the whole experience is unconvincing, even insincere. These flourishes that made his previous films refreshing and even remarkable, are used to little or no effect here. Ultimately, the photography, mixed with a clumpy script and a removal of the US role in proceedings, amounts to what seems a poor understanding of the sheer desperation of the oppressed people in Palestine.

The Fighter (David O. Russell)

The Fighter film poster

Is there more to the Christian Bale Method than weight loss and accents? Declan Tan views his ‘return to acting’

As unimaginative and uninvolving as it is, The Fighter still manages to (insert boxing pun) throw a few punches before (here’s another one) the final bell, though admittedly it’s identical to every other underdog boxing movie you’ve ever seen. It couldn’t be more predictable, even if you already know the tale of “Irish” Micky Ward, with the only element of this different to any other pugilistic picture being that there’s a crackhead or two involved. And a greedy mother. Which both seemed to have gotten this one fast-tracked into production.

You can imagine the pitch in the Paramount offices, boxer Ward overcomes all the obstacles of his trainer/brother’s drug addiction and troubled upbringing to become the unexpected welterweight champion of the world. With a built-in audience that either like a good Dropkick Murphys track, play Xbox or have seen Rocky, the makers of The Fighter seemed to have realised early on it wouldn’t require much thought or craft to make a success. So if you’ve seen the trailer then there isn’t really any need to sit in front of it for two hours, is all.

But the acting is what it needs to be. The same cannot be said for the lazy script which does its best to confuse with a choppy timeline that skips long periods with no explanation, even leaping over less successful moments in Ward’s comeback career and ending before the much-lauded trilogy of fights with Arturo Gatti.

Bale (playing Micky’s half-brother Dicky Eklund) does his best to squirrel it up a bit, maybe too much, his familiar sunken eyes and weight loss doing most of the work for him, though when we catch a glimpse of the real Dicky during the credits he does appear to have the role down pat. But it isn’t really enough to carry it. Thankfully though, the two leads don’t compete for attention when they are on screen together. Wahlberg keeps it to quiet frustration and restrained integrity as the hero, having spent around four years training to ‘become’ Ward, even having the two brothers live in his home. We can’t knock that part of the production.

We can however take a second look at that script, with shared blame going to Scott Silver (yes, 8 Mile), Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, leaving us thinking who actually has dementia pugilistica in this story? The film presents a kind of a black and white world where people are either bastards doing evil, selfish things, or basically noble and valiant. There are no shades of morality to question here. And it comes out in the dialogue and the narrative, it wears thin and somehow gets a little tedious in spots.

And instead of having you sneer sanctimoniously at the working-class of Lowell, Massachusetts and more specifically the family of Micky Ward, it actually treats the whole familial fighting thing with an almost refreshing lightness of humour, while at the same time allowing you to, without guilt, despise and detest the scummy side of the family. So it does have its good points. Other highlights being the reconstruction of live television, using the appropriate video to give it the feel of live pay-per-view fights, the commentary intact, as it gets the point across that it’s just as much about the people watching Micky and not just Micky himself, as all their hopes rest on his supposedly “Irish” shoulders. Then there’s also Micky’s entrance music: Whitesnake’s ‘Here I Go Again’. Yep. Pretty good.

So it’s not all bad, but with the telescoping of film-worthy material condensing down to the last ten or so years, we’re left asking if Lennox Lewis is the next in line for the Hollywood treatment. Don’t do it, Paramount. Don’t.

TV Eye: HBO’s Entourage

In the first instalment of a new column on TV programmes, Jacob Knowles-Smith reviews Entourage

Entourage logo

As anyone who has ever read Casanova’s memoirs knows, even the Great Seducer was knocked back once or twice. But it took seven seasons of Entourage and a drug problem for Vincent Chase, arguably a modern-day equivalent, to get himself turned down by a woman. The comparison falters a bit when remembering that Vince (Adrian Grenier) is, of course, fiction and Casanova wasn’t; though it could just be that reality isn’t what it once was and in that in the 21st century and the culture of mutual usage a man of Casanova’s ability let loose in LA could indeed make up those notches on his bedposts. This doesn’t say much for feminism but then neither did Sex and the City.

When one thinks of the great HBO dramas, Entourage doesn’t immediately come to mind and, even keeping in mind that it’s billed as a comedy-drama, perhaps this is because it took all those seasons to ever offer much more than a hint of the underbelly of Hollywood. This is not to say that all television drama must necessarily be dark, but Hollywood is a gift horse – and it has rotten teeth. Only now are we seeing the binges taking their toll, actions and words having not just consequences but ending in legal trouble and rehab; the latter of which Vince emerges at the start of the eighth (and final) season seemingly free of previous troubles. Troubles that might cause the hardened nose candy veteran of Hollywood to slightly disturb the mountain of coke before them with a snicker before they planted their face into it for breakfast. It remains to be seen if Vince can stick at the clean living – but enough talk about him. Lovely as he is, he’s always been least interesting character. The clue, after all, is in the title.

Whilst Vince is busy pitching a clanger of a film for himself, perhaps to ward off feeling sorry for himself, the rest of the crew have problems of their own. Eric, Turtle and Ari are all having difficulties with girls and the incomparable Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) is on the cusp of animated glory. Without going into too much detail, the girl trouble is much the same in Hollywood as it is the world over: how to keep the women in their lives happy whilst dealing with the ass that is the spokesman for every man’s ego and, again almost universally, the solution seems to lie in getting drunk and getting angry. Such foibles make an otherwise despicable character like Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) the kind of person you’d like to go for a drink with, or at least have as your agent. On the other hand, Drama’s ego allows him to be so self-satisfied with his status as a lady killer that he is free to pursue his professional activities (though he wouldn’t even have them if he hadn’t, for once, shown some contrition at the end of the last season). The biggest threat to the success of Drama’s new ape-themed cartoon comedy seems to be the complications that may be provided by his co-star – the ghastly ‘Diceman’ whom some may still remember from his comedy-free comedy in the late-eighties/early-nineties. Entourage has always kept up the fine tradition started by The Larry Sander’s Show of celebrities appearing as loathsome caricatures of themselves. Perhaps not always caricatures – Seth Green might be a prick. Either way, ‘Diceman’ is just one less vowel away from having a more appropriate title.

This is, as mentioned, the final season of Entourage and the small screen will certainly suffer for the loss of the show’s piquant camaraderie that bestows the greatest gift of all on the viewer: feeling like one of the boys. Whether or not the big screen – a movie is planned to crown the series – will allow the show to be as clever as it is in its present incarnation, is a matter for internet forum debaters to tackle for the subsequent decades. As for the rest of the diehards, we’ll keep the show alive in box set heaven until our own difficult other-halves suggest better uses for the space taken up by our DVDs.

If fast cars and rehab isn’t your scene, you may’ve caught My Life as a Turkey on BBC2. This Natural World special was the charming and curious tale of biologist Joe Hutto and his family of wild turkeys. The premise is surreal enough to have been a subplot in Northern Exposure but, guided by Hutto’s dulcets, we move through the story of how one man became mother to a whole clutch of turkeys and become fascinated by his dedication to both the birds themselves and the pursuit of science. Only the greatest philistines and cynics of the age could fail to experience joy at the sight of the birds being driven to utter distraction by a turtle, or even a pang of regret imagining how much understanding of our own world we’ve lost compared to so unworldly-looking bird as a turkey.

Read Jacob Knowles-Smith’s reviews of Lead Balloon and Curb Your Enthusiasm here and on Damages and Breaking Bad here

West Is West (Andy DeEmmony)

West is West film poster

A decade after its hugely successful predecessor, Declan Tan encounters an entertaining but lightweight imitation second time around

As the long-awaited sequel to the 1999 breakout hit that was East is East, comes scribe Ayub Khan-Din’s West is West, a continuation of the Salford-set story of Sajid (Aqib Khan), jumping us forward five years to 1976. Except this time the plot moves the family (or at least two members of it, initially) out from the bleak chip shop and terraces of Greater Manchester to father George’s motherland, Pakistan.

We’re quickly reacquainted with the principal characters with, among other gags, the expected Pakistani/English culture clash jokes. There’s an abundance of those, but only occasionally do they feel out of place or forced. It has to be said of director Andy DeEmmony, that his control over the tone and the narrative, having taken over the reins from East’s Damien O’Donnell, is stamped from the get-go. He’s obviously at home with this sort of thing, having directed episodes of Father Ted, Spitting Image and Red Dwarf and it’s competently shot, perhaps even well done, but it doesn’t venture to try anything new. The same can be said of the script, which seems happy enough to take on some serious issues with a light-hearted approach, and not to get swamped by social commentary. It tells its story and that’s that. But at least this seems purposeful, because West is West is genuinely feel-good. So we’ll ignore some of the less-than-inspiring acting that the film opens with, as it really starts to pick up when we land in Pakistan, as everything before it just seems like a short meet-and-greet before the story proper gets it’s boots on.

Sajid is at odds with his Pakistani heritage, forced upon him by his old-school father George (Om Puri). His mother Ella (Bassett) is a little more forgiving. But the kids at school aren’t. All of these elements create a state of alienation for the pubescent Sajid as he begins to reject the traditions George has tried to inculcate in him and his family. Recognising this, George whisks Sajid off to Punjab, to the family home of his first wife (whom he abandoned for England 35 years previous), to try and correct the crumbling of his values.

Here we go on the old coming-of-age story-train. Yes it’s all pretty soft, bit soapy even, but it has it’s moments when George’s anguish to repent gets the better of him and the audience. And it’s all pretty much down to the performance from Om Puri who is as commanding as ever. George must fix all the wrongs and face all the things he’s tried to forget over the years since moving to England’s hallowed North. There’s a lot going on: He’s got a son looking for a wife, a wife looking for her husband, his English wife looking for her husband, another son looking for meaning, and a load of other troubles that begin to make themselves known when he settles back into home life in Punjab. Oh and he starts losing his son Sajid to the local sage’s influence, who takes him under his wing with more understanding and tenderness than George can manage.

Suffice to say, if you didn’t like the first film then there isn’t any reason to get in on this one. It’s largely much of the same, a lot of crisp dialogue coupled with some truly affecting family moments (but nothing on a level with the previous film’s physical abuse). The problems is just that it’s instantly forgettable.