Friday, September 25, 2009

The Real State Of Play

With its DVD release I finally got around to watching State of Play. Maybe I should have waited just a little while longer to catch it because, with Paul Abbott’s original miniseries still relatively fresh in my mind, as the events began to unfold I couldn’t help being distracted by the changes they had made, paring down the characters and situations to fit the shorter running time.

Once the film took on a life of its own, switching the location from London to Washington DC, where the political conspiracy now involves the privatisation of homeland security rather than the dirty dealings of oil multinationals, all that was put behind me. What interested me more than the familiar thriller aspect was the story thread about the newspaper being taken over by a media corporation, where Russell Crowe’s old-school reporter teaches the young political blogger on staff that, rather than simply having an opinion, it’s better to dig a little deeper for the facts that will provide an informed opinion.

While State of Play is a decent enough film, ultimately it was the end credits that intrigued me. Once the presses started rolling and the film was played out with a really good Creedance track, I moved the chair closer to the television screen and concentrated on the credit roll. During Jason Bateman’s brief but marvellously sleazy turn as Dominic Foy, stuck in the hotel room and hectored by Crowe’s Cal McAffrey, the pill-popping PR weasel lights a cigarette. Never mind the grubby political manoeuvring and sick shit the character is revealed to get up to at work and play, it’s when he sparks up – in a no-smoking room no less! – that one of the newspaper’s support team videotaping the interview calls him a “douche”.

Last month I’d been surprised to see the notice in the end credits of Gran Torino that distanced the film from smoking products. Whereas the central character of that film was a smoker, and a major plot point hinges on that fact, here that brief scene with Foy is the only instance a cigarette appears, and once it’s lit McAffrey plucks it from his lips and keeps hold of it while he barracks him some more. Still, after the American Humane Society notice appeared in the credits, reassuring viewers that no one had had a hissy fit on set and hurled kittens headfirst into a brick wall to get rid of their frustrations, this appeared:


For one lit cigarette?! And yet leading up to that scene we see McCaffrey repeatedly making calls on his mobile while driving in the rain, jumping a diner’s lunch queue to order an artery-clogging meal, and jaywalking. So that’s acceptable, right? And what about an announcement reminding people that hindering a police investigation is bad? Or that murdering people is, on a scale of bad, even more bad? In fact, why not just end the movie by telling the audience to go home, be nice and behave, and maybe the world will be a better place?

If they just went down that route, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. Unfortunately the filmmakers didn’t stop there. After the American Humane Society notice – and to be frank, I couldn’t remember seeing one goddamn animal in the film – and before they tucked their tails between their legs like a bunch of fucking pussies and ran away from any association with the evils of tobacco, there was a statement that said:


Oh, for fuck’s sake! Granted State of Play was a relatively low budget affair compared to the big summer movies that followed it into the cinemas, and actually had something to say rather than just be an empty, piece of shit blockbuster, but if this starts being a regular announcement, isn’t it a wee bit hypocritical for studios pissing away close to $200 million or more on movies with absolutely no value whatsoever, and then point out they recycled all their fucking soda cans?

The problem with this green is the new black horseshit everyone’s trading on is that once Hollywood starts flying that flag, every time you go looking for some relaxing entertainment you come away resisting the urge to vomit.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Twists And Turns

At the end of last month, in the wake of the Edinburgh International Television Festival, I had planned to comment on James Murdoch’s James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture. But after watching the footage I was reminded of an edition of The News Quiz where, commenting on Jeffrey Archer’s release from jail, when one panellist suggested they didn’t give him the oxygen of publicity, the much missed Linda Smith responded with: “I’m not that happy with him having the oxygen of oxygen, actually.”

In fact there was only so much of Murdoch’s speech I could stomach before I switched to reading the remainder on an available pdf document. Listening to his demented ravings, I kept being distracted by deciding this would be the exact result if Victor Frankenstein had simply grafted a mouth onto a massive cock. When it eventually came, his attack on the BBC was so utterly predictable. Of course he would sound off at the public’s hard earned money going to the Corporation rather than lining the pockets of British Sky Broadcasting, of which he is a non-executive chairman, or News Corporation, where he is the Chairman and Chief Executive.

It was odd reading the speech because, unless I’m missing something, most of the charges that he was apparently levelling at the BBC could just as easily be laid at Sky’s doorstep. Since its launch in 1989, Sky has grown into the big bully of the television schoolyard, picking on all newcomers, and aggrieved that the BBC, still remaining the Head Boy, stands up to it. With the newspaper business heading into the crapper, one of Murdoch’s bugbears was the dominance of BBC news and in particular the BBC News website:

Most importantly, in this all-media marketplace, the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important in our democracy.

Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet.

Yet it is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it.

We seem to have decided as a society to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market and then get bigger to compensate.

Where do we start, other than to wonder why he didn’t precede this proclamation by driving around the stage on one of those little clown cars with a squeaky horn and doors that fall off? Free news? Not really. With the BBC funded by the licence fee, we are all paying for its digital presence. Because the citizens are putting up the cash, how does that make it “state-sponsored”? Don’t you think the succession of politicians taken to task by the likes of Robin Day, John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman would beg to differ?

Because the BBC is not out there struggling in the commercial sector where advertising revenues have been drastically reduced, it does appear to be a threat to those companies trying to keep their heads above water and ride out the current recession. Perhaps if, from behind the podium, the Murcock had mentioned that News Corporation recently posted losses of £2 billion the reasons behind his argument might have become more transparent.

Struggling to make enough money from their websites, News Corporation is already considering charging people to peruse the newspapers online. Obviously this is going to be an uphill struggle when they have a competitor that already provides an online news service for “free”. But at least by pillorying the BBC in advance, it means that Murcock has someone already in place to blame for the potential outcry that arises when a fee system is eventually implemented.

Yes, the BBC’s internet presence does have a somewhat unfair advantage insomuch that in the twelve months to the end of March 2008 their web operations could go a staggering 48% over budget and the useless pissants responsible for flushing away that £36 million excess weren’t taken out and repeatedly pummelled around the face and neck with rusty claw hammers. What did they do, hire merchant bankers?

Though the BBC news website covers most major events it isn’t all encompassing. Like the regular bulletins on the television channels, they present the major points of a breaking story but, like all television news, never have the space to cover it with the same depth as good old fashioned print journalism. But then do the majority of people want to know more than just the main bullet points anymore? As we go from Blogger to facebook to Twitter, it wouldn’t surprise me if we reach a point where the news is just reduced to a brief headline accompanied by one of the many smiley face variants to denote whether it’s good news or bad. LOL.

Not to bang on about it, but I have to say that I was particularly unimpressed by the BBC’s coverage, or lack thereof, of the passing of Troy Kennedy Martin last week. Granted, he was from the old school of writers who preferred to let the scripts speak for themselves, as opposed to the current breed of media whores, pushing their faces into the camera at every opportunity to peddle the latest piece of crap shat out of their computer, but given the quality of his body of work you would think we was worth a brief mention.

There was a very brief tribute on Tuesday’s edition of Radio 4’s Front Row that consisted of a conversation with Jonathan Powell, the producer of The Old Men at the Zoo who, in his later role as the BBC’s new Head of Drama, commissioned Edge of Darkness. When an obituary eventually turned up on the BBC News website, it looked like an afterthought from some office junior who had skimmed through his IMDb credits, omitting the blindingly obvious one. (Still, it was a mild improvement on the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain blog announcement that managed to confuse his solo credit for The Italian Job with the 2003 remake).

When it came to the BBC news programmes themselves, there was nothing. Maybe within the Corporation someone with authority still held a grudge from the time when John Birt, having taken over as Director General, convened a think-tank of writers to discuss what they felt was wrong with the current state of BBC drama, and Kennedy Martin gleefully called him a Leninist and declared:

You've replaced a rigid and uncreative bureaucracy with an even more rigid and even less creative bureaucracy.

Or it could have been that, one year on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the global economy still in tatters, not to mention all the other heinous shit going on, they simply couldn’t spare the coverage. That said, in the days that followed both the BBC news and website did find time and space to commemorate the deaths of not only Brian Barron, the former BBC foreign correspondent, but Titus, the silverback gorilla from the jungles of Rwanda who appeared in Life on Earth. As Adrian Mead says, if you’re getting into the screenwriting business simply for the fame and glory, forget about it.

Even if Murcock’s mad ravings were quickly dismissed, many in the industry agreed that the BBC does need to scale back and trim some of its fat. After the Conservatives called for a freeze of the licence fee earlier in the year, just last week Ben Bradshaw, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport who was once a BBC reporter before entering politics, decided that in fact the fee needed to be reduced. Reducing presenters’ fees, if not reducing the number of presenters would be a start. But well before Bradshaw’s announcement, The Times had already weighed in, gleefully deciding that the BBC needed to cut back on buying US shows.

Given that earlier in the year Jay Hunt, the new BBC1 Controller, announced that she won’t be actively shopping for any new American series, all that remains are the slim pickings that appear sporadically on the other three channels. Even though BBC3 recently started showing the trashy Harper’s Island, the CBS drama is limited to only thirteen episodes, The Times decided that Heroes, Mad Men and The Wire were the shows that would have to go.

If you want to discuss the current state of journalism, the article, written by the newspaper’s own media editor, was published the same day that BBC2 broadcast the final episode of The Wire’s fifth and final season. So, if anyone is expecting more they’re going to be sadly disappointed. To compound matters, a few days later, after Tina Fey won the Outstanding Guest Actress In A Comedy Series Emmy for her portrayal of Governor Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, the newspaper reported:

Ms Fey’s career was on the decline until her relentless mocking of Sarah Palin’s stumbling performance during the US presidential campaign became cult viewing and gave her the crown as Queen of Comedy.

So at least we can assume that Sky hasn’t poached 30 Rock from Five just yet. Given the subject matter it would be a crying shame if BBC4 lost Mad Men and it went to a commercial channel that broke up the narrative with ad breaks. As for Heroes going, that would be no great loss. It was bad enough that the once promising series went rapidly downhill after the first year, but having the BBC to shell out £400,000 an episode for the second season only rubbed salt into the wound. A full series of that regrettable nonsense would pay for a good high–end UK drama serial with enough left over for dinner for twenty–nine at the Bellagio Hotel.

If there aren’t any decent new UK dramas, the BBC could always look to Europe. Twenty odd years ago we had Das Boot followed by Edgar Reitz’s Heimat and its sequels. Recently BBC4 has shown ten episodes of the Swedish detective drama Wallander, with the final three episodes tentatively scheduled for the Christmas period so as to add to the festive cheer. In the meantime, BBC4 used the gap in its schedule to broadcast the second series of the marvellous French drama Spiral (or Engrenages if you want to be really picky about it).

It has been a long time coming – the first series was first shown in 2006, with a repeat last year – but two episodes in the new series is proving to be well worth the wait. Following the efforts of the Parisian police detectives, public prosecutors and investigating magistrates in a way that isn’t particularly the greatest advertisement for the French judicial system, one can’t help be reminded of aspects of The Wire. The fact that it comes from the cheese–eating surrender monkeys that revere Jerry Lewis makes it all the more remarkable.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Into The Shadows

Troy Kennedy Martin died yesterday. Since he was a writer and therefore didn’t appear in front of the camera his passing doesn’t seem to have been important enough to make the news, which is a great shame.

Born in Scotland and educated in London and Dublin, Kennedy Martin spent his National Service as part of the peacekeeping forces stationed on Cyprus in the years leading up to Britain surrendering the island as a Crown Colony. Back in England he turned his experiences into the drama Incident at Echo Six, which was submitted to, and accepted by, the BBC. Following a small army unit who find themselves marooned overnight in a police station high in the Cypriot mountains, the Radio Times described the drama as:

...[A] powerful play, written without sentiment and without any false glamour. For Martin has caught exactly the sense of inadequacy and the feeling of nerve-racking anxiety that must come to these young officers as they consider not only their own defensive actions against savage and unheralded attacks but the retaliatory measures that in a declared war would be straightforward and acceptable.

Transmitted live in early December 1958, Incident at Echo Six, which also featured the acting debut of Tony Garnett before his switch to a story editor and producer, led to Kennedy Martin being taken on as a scriptwriter for the BBC. Once there he became part of a group of television drama writers and directors eager to experiment with the form. Working with producer/director James MacTaggart, Kennedy Martin wrote and adapted six experimental plays for the anthology series Storyboard. Broadcast during the summer of 1961, their aim was to tell each of the studio-bound dramas in visual terms.

In The Magic Barrel, adapted from a story by Bernard Malamud, a sequence of the drama was cut to the Spanish guitar piece Fantasy for a Gentleman to give it a more cinematic effect as it conveyed the emotions of the characters on camera. The following week, The Middle Men required a rapid montage sequence toward the end of the half-hour drama, fully utilizing the cameras trained on members of the cast of twenty-one characters on the five different studio sets. An easy task to perform now with the editing software readily available, at the time it was a major undertaking that showed the levels of their aesthetic ambitions.

With the conservatism of the 1950s giving way to 1960s modernity, Kennedy Martin set his sights on invigorating the police drama typified by the long-running Dixon of Dock Green. Taking his idea to Elwyn Jones, then responsible for the Drama Documentary section, Kennedy Martin intended to set the show in the north to reflect the social changes taking place in England. Once co-operation was secured with the local constabulary, in the company of director John McGrath and the writer Allan Prior he began to research modern policing methods in and around Liverpool.

First broadcast in early January 1962, Z-Cars was the first step toward the sometime controversial, socially conscious drama that BBC Television would soon gain a reputation for. Set in the fictional Newtown, which was based on Kirkby, Kennedy Martin had decided not only to show violence as a routine fact of life but also portrayed police officers as gamblers and wife beaters. Soon after transmission the Chief Constable of Lancashire County Police was in the office of the Controller of BBC Television, demanding the series be taken off the air. Instead only the credit thanking the police for their co-operation was removed.

Though transmitted live, Z-Cars included a far greater number of filmed inserts than its contemporaries. Together with an average of fourteen different sets that required five cameras for the 250-odd changes of shot used to realize Kennedy Martin’s interweaving storylines, the fast-talking characters and their actions came together to create a fast-paced drama that refused to pull any punches. An immediate success, with audience figures rising to 14 million, Z-Cars was extended well beyond its original thirteen episodes and a second series was commissioned. Deciding that the success would lead to the series becoming more formulaic than they initially intended, Kennedy Martin and John McGrath decided to leave the show.

Continuing to develop non-naturalistic new drama, in an attempt to theorize the challenges he was up against in the face of contemporary television drama and suggest ways to get past them, Kennedy Martin wrote Nats Go Home: First Statement of a New Drama For Television. Published in Encore Magazine in March 1964 the manifesto-like attack on the theatrical naturalism that dominated television drama was criticized by writers who mistakenly concluded that he was promoting giving far more responsibility to the director when it came to New Drama.

Instead Kennedy Martin was advocating that writers worked creatively with directors to avoid the sort of dramas that, confined to the studio, relied on an overdependence of drama that left directors with no other option but to shoot talking heads rather than narrative action. As an exercise to get beyond this Kennedy Martin and John McGrath had been writing Diary of a Young Man, which followed the adventures of two young working-class northerners in London.

Introducing narration, still images and montage sequences to the story structure, the six-part drama employed a combination of Eisensteinian montage and French New Wave editing to emphasise the sense of visual storytelling they were aiming for. Working in concert with their directors Ken Loach and Peter Duguid and the drama’s producer James MacTaggart, Kennedy Martin and McGrath showed that television could become truly collaborative medium, with the end result proving to be an influence on the early careers of the likes of Tony Garnett and Dennis Potter.

After writing single dramas for The Wednesday Play, the BBC’s science-fiction anthology series Out of the Unknown, and episodes of the ITV drama Redcap, starring John Thaw as a sergeant in the Royal Military Police’s Special Investigation Branch, Kennedy Martin broke into film with his script for The Italian Job. Based on an idea for a television drama that featured a robbery set in a traffic jam in Central London devised by his brother Ian, Kennedy Martin bought the concept from him and relocated the action to Turin, having been vaguely aware that the city employed a computer-driven traffic control system.

With Michael Caine onboard as Charlie Croker and the treatment renamed The Italian Job, once Paramount bought the idea Kennedy Martin spent six weeks writing a first draft that was more of a hard- edged thriller laced not just with wit but also political and social undertones. Though director Peter Collinson didn’t share his sense of anarchy, the finished film still retained enough satirical swipes at the British take on Europe and the Common Market mentality. Though it didn’t quite end up the way Kennedy Martin initially envisioned, the comedy caper has become something of a national institution, which is some compensation.

Staying with the gold robbery theme, Kennedy Martin wrote Kelly’s Heroes. Set during the Second World War and following an unruly mob of soldiers as they go AWOL in an attempt to help themselves to a stash of German gold held behind enemy lines, the film was made during the final years of the Vietnam War. Heavily influenced by the current political climate, like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H before it, Kelly’s Heroes relished every opportunity to thumb its nose at the establishment.

Returning to television, Kennedy Martin wrote the situation comedy If It Moves, File It, before working on wrote numerous episodes of The Sweeney. Created by his brother, as a continuation from his 1974 Armchair Cinema episode Regan, the show arrived on television screens a decade on from the introduction of Z-Cars, which by now had settled into the cosy conformity it had once railed against. With its fast pace and undiluted violence, The Sweeney instigated another seismic shift in television police drama. Amongst all the agro, the episodes Kennedy Martin wrote across the four series benefited from his wicked sense of humour to counterpoint the action.

After scripting the movie Sweeney 2, Kennedy Martin turned his attention to long form drama, feeling that a television serial suited his writing style better than film or individual TV drama episodes. Broadcast in the early 1980s, his critically acclaimed twelve-part espionage thriller Reilly, Ace of Spies followed the exploits of the WWI double agent Sidney Reilly, born Sigmund Rosenblum, leading up to his ultimately unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the Bolshevik government in post- revolutionary Russia. This was followed by a five-part adaptation of Angus Wilson’s The Old Men at the Zoo that used high drama and low comedy to comment on the state of British society.

Two years later he delivered his masterpiece: Edge of Darkness. Kennedy Martin began writing it never expecting the drama to be made simply because at the time the BBC had shied away from having any political dimensions in their recent slate of dramas. Initially focusing on the coal miners’ strike of the early 1980s, Kennedy Martin didn’t feel the story was really going anywhere and turned his sights on the nuclear industry. It was only when he saw Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “star wars” speech, advocating the proposed Strategic Defence Initiative, that it started to come together.

With born-again Christians and Cold War warriors changing the White House’s nuclear strategy, coupled with the escalating protests here at home at Greenham Common, Kennedy Martin had the makings of a story. Understanding what people were against, he had to know what they were for. At that point Kennedy Martin came across James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. Positing that the Earth was a self-regulating system designed to maintain the optimum conditions for life, it gave its readers the opportunity to re-evaluate their relationship with nature.

Beginning with Ronnie Craven, Bob Peck’s suitably dour Yorkshire police detective, delaying an inquiry into alleged vote-rigging of a miners’ union election ballot to investigate the murder of his student activist daughter, Edge of Darkness opens on his personal sense of grief and loss before gradually opening out to reveal the far wider canvas. Evolving from a police drama to a political conspiracy thriller to a nuclear thriller in which the survival of the planet is at stake, by transcending genres Kennedy Martin also managed to slip in some unexpected mystical and supernatural elements.

Over the course of the story the characters that are introduced as members of the establishment take on more radical stances. Craven comes to personify the Celtic Green Man while Joe Don Baker’s CIA agent Darius Jedburgh reflects a Knight of the Marches defending the borders of Eastern Europe. Kennedy Martin saw Jerry Grogan, chairman of the company that profits from the nuclear industry, as a descendant of the Knights Templar who, according to legend, guarded a special wisdom in the Temple of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, leaving Emma Craven, who returns in the form as a ghost, is transformed into the messenger of the Earth Goddess Gaia.

Shot during the latter half of 1984 on a budget of around £2 million, Edge of Darkness was first broadcast on BBC2 in late 1985. The groundbreaking drama proved to be so successful that Michael Grade, BBC1’s then Controller, almost immediately repeated the serial on BBC1 in the lead-up to Christmas. The winner of six BAFTA Awards, a quarter of a century on Edge of Darkness remains the definitive conspiracy thriller than nothing produced since has ever managed to better.

Following its success, Kennedy Martin’s career at the BBC was curtailed by his criticism of Director General John Birt. Eventually he returned to the Corporation with the BBC-HBO co-production Hostile Waters, based on an unconfirmed incident just prior to Reagan and Gorbachev’s historic Reykjavik summit in which a Russian Yankee-Class submarine colliding with an American Los Angeles-Class Hunter Killer submarine while on patrol northeast of Bermuda came close to causing a nuclear catastrophe. Two years later he co-wrote the BBC adaptation of Andy McNab’s SAS memoir Bravo Two Zero. His last produced script was the 2004 drama Red Dust. Returning to his roots in documentary drama, the adaptation of Gillian Slovo’s novel centred on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission.

In early 2007, during the National Film Theatre’s season celebrating his career, Kennedy Martin was scheduled to give a second talk regarding his many unrealised projects, including The Other Side, a satire on American corporate bureaucracy, and a biography of Enzo Ferrari that had Michael Mann attached to direct. Ironically it was curtailed because his drama on global warming, based on writing of James Lovelock, had been greenlit by HBO. Reported to have finished scripts just before his death, hopefully the six-part drama, titled Broken Light, will eventually see the light of day.

There’s always the danger when you’re lucky enough to meet your heroes that they could turn out to be complete and utter arseholes. I’ve had a couple of instances where that has turned out to be the case. But when it came to meeting Troy Kennedy Martin he was charming and avuncular at both the BFI Southbank’s bar and then later in the green room. Though he will be sorely missed, his magnificent body of work lives on.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Independents Days

I’ve had few good things to say about The Esteemed School of Art. For most of the three years I thought I had made a big mistake being there and the tutors pretty soon made it clear that they too thought it was a big mistake me being there too. Still, there were always upsides. With the first year tutors trying their damnedest to make my life there as uncomfortable as possible, even when I wasn’t directly their responsibility, I had fun ticking them off by simply hanging on in there.

When I tired of sticking in their craw I’d duck out and catch a movie. Writing a few bits and pieces at the time, I was invited along to a fair number of press screenings during the morning. Then one or two afternoons a week I’d scoot off to catch a current release or some old classic at one of the many rep cinemas. In both instances I usually went for the kind of films that most probably wouldn’t have made it west ways until they appeared, boxed up, on the shelves of a local video rental store.

Apart from the more familiar mainstream releases that were readily embracing the new “high concept” formula of filmmaking, smaller, cheaper, and more unusual American movies started to appear, made by writer-directors who hadn’t simply gone cap in hand to Hollywood. Looking back now, these people were obviously the next generation on from the movie brats of the 1970s who conquered Hollywood by tearing up the old studio system rulebook only to just as spectacularly destroy their careers before the decade was out through a mixture of drugs and rampant ego.

With the emergence of film distributors like Nik Powell and Steve Woolley’s Palace Pictures these more idiosyncratic feature films, which were less likely to show up on screens across the country in the days before the arrival of the first multiplexes, began to appear in London’s collection of arthouse cinemas. With little information to go on, sometimes I made the wrong choice when it came to picking which film to see. I never really got Jim Jarmusch until the arrival of 1989’s Mystery Train, and there was a Greek film about two young sisters searching for their missing father that was one of the most tedious movies I’ve ever seen.

But to compensate for the films that I remember as failures or the films that, after all these years gone by, I don’t remember at all, there were the delights of Mark Romanek’s wonderfully offbeat Static, Alex Cox’s downright weird Repo Man and the thoroughly demented Re-Animator. Although the chronology regarding release dates probably doesn’t exactly fit, they were all loosely bracketed by The Coen brothers’ Noir-influenced Blood Simple, which I saw at one of the local Chelsea cinemas early on in my first year at The Esteemed School of Art, and their slapstick follow-up Raising Arizona, which arrived just before graduation and freedom.

As entertaining as those varied movies were, my favourite came a year after Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and just before the rise of Miramax as a distribution and production company turned Independent Film into a going concern. That film was Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, released in late 1990. I mentioned back on the It’s Only a Movie Meme that the film was one I was really pleased to finally be able to get on DVD, although calling it, “a tale of adolescent angst that takes place against the backdrop of New York’s debutante society,” was a rather glib way of describing it.

Made on a shoestring budget of $210,000, a good portion of which came from Stillman selling his apartment, Metropolitan takes place over a Christmas break in New York and follows a Princetown student of limited means falling in with a group of well-heeled Upper East Side preppies known as the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack”, making the rounds of the season’s debutante balls. Obviously this may not to be everyone’s tastes, especially if they’re after mindless fistfights and car chases, but as a sublime comedy of (sometimes bad) manners, Stillman’s film is an absolute treat.

Four years later Stillman was back with the equally charming Barcelona. Financed this time by studio money and influenced by his own experiences of living in Spain a decade earlier, the film follows an American salesman residing in Catalonia and his visiting naval officer cousin negotiating the awkwardness of love and anti-American sentiment. Another four years on and the director was back in Manhattan with The Last Days of Disco.

A gloriously sardonic comedy, The Last Days of Disco followed the lives of two young women working as lowly publishing assistants and their circle of Ivy League graduate friends, set against the backdrop of the last dying gasps of the disco craze. The third film in a series that Stillman described as, “Doomed Bourgeois in Love”, it was further evidence that these movies were in a similar vein to the most acerbic Woody Allen comedies, but without the distraction of having a creepy old guy repeatedly chasing after nubile young girls.

If that regularity had continued Stillman should have made two more movies by now, with a third just around the corner. Alas, he returned to Europe, residing in Paris for the next nine years, where he found a very different system of filmmaking in place, which made it far more difficult to raise finance in what is essentially a subsidized industry. Now that he’s back in America maybe there is hope for another film. That would certainly be a breath of fresh air now that independent film has become a brand that too often get entangled between the worst aspects of Kevin Smith and the emptiness of that arch cine-thief Tarantino.

A couple of evenings ago I was watching The Last Days of Disco again, which has recently been reissued on DVD as one of the latest additions to The Criterion Collection. The last entry in what has become a loose trilogy recording the lives of – as one character in Metropolitan attempts to identify themselves – the “urban haute bourgeoisie”, to link the films Stillman playfully includes cameo appearances from Taylor Nichols’ Ted Boynton, stopping off in the Studio 54-like on his way through town from Barcelona, and members of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack reliving debutante season on the dance floor.

An hour in, Carolyn Farina’s Audrey Rouget appears with other characters from Metropolitan (including, rather bizarrely Taylor Nichols’ Charlie Black, giving him two roles in the film). A few scenes later she pops up again, dancing just in front of the film’s lead actresses, Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale. Suddenly I found myself reaching for the remote, scanning back to where she is ensconced on one of the club’s plush banquettes and hitting the pause button.

What is it that attracts you to a movie? Is it because a favourite actor is in the lead role, or the director behind the camera, or the attendant hype lures you in, or you’re simply looking for easy entertainment? For me it’s story first and foremost, although I have to admit I am occasionally taken in by these other temptations. Whit Stillman’s films had become favourites due of his wry observations of social dynamics, which I’m always trying to get my head around as they both fascinate and infuriate me to this day.

But in that instance, staring at the still frame of Audrey Rouget on the television, I was struck by just how much she reminded me of The One That Got Away. Obviously she wasn’t a true doppelgänger. The hairstyle was different and The One That Got Away had a more ample bosom, but it was the posture and demeanour on screen that made her appear so familiar. Ultimately, I was shocked not just by the sudden awareness but that it had taken this long to actually notice the similarity.

Last night, rather tentatively, I watched Metropolitan again, buffered by the audio commentary that Metrodome, the DVD’s UK distributor, had specially brought the director over here to record. In the final scenes, the sideways glances the character gives in a beach house out in The Hamptons and then her stance on the Long Island shore certainly confirmed my earlier reaction and I was left wondering how I could have been blind to it over all these years.

It would take far too long to explain what The One That Got Away meant to me. She wasn’t my first love. That would be far too sappy. But the time we had together, which started just after I had graduated, was working for The Mouse and was about to be published, was probably the happiest in my life. All this happened before Metropolitan was released and then a year after I’d seen the film for the first time our paths crossed again. Rather tentatively we’d meet up over the course of the next couple of months, culminating in an extraordinary night of passion, after which she sent me an invitation to her wedding.

Clearly that’s never the best way for a romance to end, at least from my perspective. Since then she has gone on to haunt every relationship I’ve been involved in since, from the Fertile Psychopath through to The Blonde with the Butterfly Tattoo and beyond. And if a day goes by where I don’t think of her at some point, then I figure it has been a good day. You’re long gone but I can’t move on, indeed. Still, this late and unexpected realization didn’t diminish my enjoyment of Stillman’s films. So I suppose in the end you just have to count your blessings and carry on.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

No Smoke Without Ire

I started watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on ITV1 has night. Then after about a minute of that nonsense I came to my senses and put on Gran Torino instead because a meditation on guilt and redemption coupled with racial tension in contemporary culture seemed a whole lot more interesting than kiddies twatting around on broomsticks. Obviously it’s an age thing.

As the end credits rolled I nipped into the kitchen to grab some juice and when I got back, up on screen came the announcement:

“No person or entity associated with this film received payment or anything or value, or entered into any agreement, in connection with the depiction of tobacco products.”

We’re all familiar with the American Humane Society notices slapped onto the tail end of the credits, assuring everyone that no animals were harmed in the making of the film, but this seemed new.

Back in 2007 the Motion Picture Association of America announced that it was going to start taking smoking into account when it came to doling out film classifications and I assume over here the BBFC followed suit. I suppose if you think about it characters in movies have been less inclined to spark up during the last few years unless, of course, there were extenuating circumstances.

In the plot of Gran Torino the story hinges on Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski being a smoker. Jeremy Renner’s reckless bomb-tech specialist in The Hurt Locker is repeatedly shown angrily puffing away when he isn’t poking around the latest IED. Given the circumstances you can’t really blame him, but whether Bigelow inserted a grovelling apology of sorts in the end credits I’ve no idea. As soon as the film was over I was out the door eager to get to the street and spark up myself.

If they changed it so Kowalski was reaching for his nicotine gum or Staff Sergeant James was addicted to Liquorice Allsorts you get the feeling both films wouldn’t have the same impact. Then again both films contained enough violence and adult language to get the higher rating whether the characters were lighting up or not. So I suppose they could have changed Clint’s pet dog to a beagle and stuck a Marlboro in its mouth too.

But as mentioned a couple of posts back, it seemed particularly strange in Watchmen that Silk Spectre’s smoking habit was expunged from the film, especially considering the unnecessary addition of particularly brutal acts violence not in the original comic book. So does that mean Adrian Veidt’s PA getting her fingers shot off and Rorschach hacking open the child-killer’s head with the meat cleaver is more acceptable to seeing Laurie Juspeczyk puffing away on a cigarette?

But what about the movies that aren’t infused with sex and violence? Early last month Liverpool city council announced it was considering giving any film featuring people smoking an automatic 18 certificate. The idea had come from the local Primary Care Trust after half of the young kiddies in the city who smoked, when asked what made them take up the habit, claimed they had been influenced by films.

The motion had been put out to public consultation, although the results weren’t in yet. If they go ahead maybe Liverpool council should take the next step and slap adult ratings on any film that involve thieving bastards or annoying wankers with a chip on their shoulder.

Yes, smoking is bad for you but what isn’t these days? And when it comes to the self-righteous fanatics of the anti-smoking lobby campaigning to take away our fun, I’m always reminded of one of the late, great Bill Hicks’ routines on smoking where he announces to the audience:

“Non-smokers die... every day. Sleep tight!”

Since Hollywood now revels more than ever in portraying death in the most gruesome, painful and occasionally unexpected ways to sate the baser appetites of their younger audiences, surely the best advice is, “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!”