Intolerance

A recent news story about a woman with Asperger’s who was forcibly ejected from a screening of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly at the BFI for laughing too loudly highlights the problems people with autism and learning disabilities face when going to the cinema and accessing the community in general.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/01/bfi-aspergers-disabled-people-hostile-environment-cinema

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/i-was-dragged-out-of-a-bfi-screening-heres-what-i-hope-it-teaches-people-about-autism_uk_5aec34c7e4b0c4f193215a4d?ncid=tweetlnkukhpmg00000001

Just as an aside, surely The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is at least 50% a comedy anyway. But really that’s immaterial. Are we now judging people on how loudly they laugh?! How far are we going to take this? Maybe an usher with a sound meter?

I find it both fascinating and alarming that one of the punters who objected to the appalling sound of someone enjoying herself watching a film (her favourite as it happens) thought it was ok to shout the word “retarded” at her. Seriously? In 2018? Should that person have been ejected for shouting out something so offensive? I realise this becomes a free speech issue and a whole other debate, but imagine an audience member had shouted out something racist? Or homophobic? Most of us would consider that unacceptable and probable grounds for ejection. But we are still a long way from instant, outright condemnation of offensive language relating to disability.

Some cinemas these days do offer ‘autism friendly’ screenings, but is that good enough? Should someone with autism have to wait in hope that the film they want to see is granted such a screening? Or should they be allowed to go to any film at any time they like? You know, the right the rest of us take for granted.

 

Hearing this story also brought me back to something that’s been bothering me for a long time and it concerns the weekly Radio 5 Live programme ‘Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review’. This has become a cult favourite, and it has value as possibly the only well known review show that gives fairly comprehensive coverage of all the new releases (including documentaries and foreign films, albeit briefly). However, one aspect of the programme doesn’t sit well with this listener – namely, what they refer to as ‘The Code of Conduct’, or more simply ‘The Code’. This has developed over several years and is effectively a series of do’s and don’ts regarding behaviour and etiquette when at the cinema.

This ‘code’ has always bothered me. For starters, Kermode and Mayo have decided to be the self-appointed arbiters of what constitutes acceptable behaviour in the cinema. Now, no doubt there is a slight tongue-in-cheek quality to this, but the listeners who email the show appear to take it 100% at face value, indeed praising audiences for being ‘code compliant’. (Am I the only one who finds that phrase deeply sinister?) They also ask Kermode, or ‘the good doctor’, for his ruling on recent examples of potentially questionable cinema-based behaviour. When did this bloke get appointed Minister in Charge of Cinema Etiquette?? Combine all this with the fact that emailers regularly refer to the show and its ideology as ‘the church’ and it all starts to sound like some bizarre cult disguised as a Radio 5 film review show. (My tongue may be slightly in cheek there.)

But beyond these issues, I fear Kermode and Mayo’s ‘Code of Conduct’ is training people to be hyper sensitive, to become instantly irate at the slightest noise – a sweet wrapper, say – they happen to hear in a cinema. It’s conditioning intolerance. It’s like when you’re driving and the traffic stops – you instantly assume the worst and that the delay is totally unjustified. Often, people talking and making a noise in the cinema is just bad manners and a lack of consideration but we shouldn’t instantly assume this.

A refusal to accept those whose behaviour steps slightly outside what is generally regarded as ‘normal’ by the mainstream of society is a significant factor in people who have disabilities and autism being marginalised in society. At worst it leads to isolation, loneliness and mental health problems.

Of course, I’m not accusing Kermode and Mayo of being responsible for what happened to that young woman with Asperger’s, but if you’re not part of the solution… etc.

I wonder if the BFI is not exactly helping matters either. Celebrating cinema is great but perhaps its whole ‘film lover’s paradise’-vibe is also contributing to a culture where everyone is overly precious about their individual cinema experience. The BFI is the only place I’ve ever heard audiences consistently applaud at the end of screenings (a bit odd I’ve always felt considering none of the screenings I was at had a single member of the cast or crew among the audience). It is reported that some audience members walked out in disgust at the treatment the young woman received. They are heroes. The people who shouted out “bitch” and “retarded” and those who applauded at the woman being ejected are not. They don’t deserve the magic of cinema.

I don’t know about anyone else, but reading this story put me off the BFI, put me of the cinema, put me off cinema audiences. I love films and the cinema as much as anyone, and I don’t like loud audience members, people being on their phones, crying babies etc. However, there is something far more important. Namely: inclusion.

 

Sam Bowles

 

 

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THEATRE WITH CLOSE-UPS

Twelfth Night – ‘RSC LIVE!’

In his recent book ‘The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations’ (Faber & Faber) Mike Figgis briefly touches on what he sees as the fundamental difference between cinema and theatre: the close-up. Taking his cue from a Bergman quote – “Cinema is the ongoing exploration of the human face” – Figgis expands, writing that the medium, “…allows us to explore the human face in minute detail, to give us insight into the complex psychology of a character in a way that could never be possible in the theatre.” Hard to disagree with that. However, Figgis neglects to consider a relatively recent development in our collective viewing experience – the trend of filming live theatre performances and having them beamed into our cinemas.

“Oh, that’s just a fad!” you cry. Or, “It’s just filming a stage production – what’s the big deal?” True, recording stage performances for later viewing is nothing new. But to be able to watch it live, as it’s being performed, does represent a significant change. We’re watching live theatre, but we’re not in the theatre. And yet we are still sitting with our own live audience. When the production is Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s alleged ‘comedies’ (twins, cross-dressing), it’s slightly disconcerting to hear forced laughter both around the immediate audience and coming from the audience within the screen. Almost as if the production came with a laugh-track, like an audience sitcom.

Crucially, we are privy to different vantage points, different perspectives on the action – the drama – to which the audience in the theatre is denied. We don’t get the buzz of the actors being right in front of us, in the very same room, but we get to see more of the actors; an intimate view that even the most eagle-eyed theatre goer could not replicate.

So, we have a new medium, a new form. It’s not quite cinema. And it’s not quite theatre. It’s something different. It’s theatre with close-ups.

Sam Bowles

 

 

History Lesson

Dunkirk (2017, Christopher Pompous)

You know when you go to a museum and they show you a video of a historical event, like the Great Fire of London or whatever? Dunkirk is like the best one of those videos ever made. If the maker had some real talent and was given $150m to play with.

Christopher Nolan has always been praised for his filmmaking facility and interest in playing with story structure. But doubts have been raised over whether his films are too ‘cold’, valuing the technical over the emotional. There are also people who spend their time arguing over whether Nolan measures up to their chosen cinematic deity, Stanley Kubrick. (Maybe one day they’ll grow up and watch some Mizoguchi.)

Dunkirk is Nolan’s 10th feature, and therefore I think we can say conclusively that the jury’s back. And the verdict is inescapable: Christopher Nolan cannot do character. I suspect he’s just not that interested in people. He’s far more interested in what format he’s shooting on.

Sam Bowles

May the (box office) gross be with you…

Rogue One (2016, Gareth Edwards)

If anyone’s available over the remainder of the Festive Season, I’m assembling a ragtag cross-cultural group of heroes for a seemingly impossible mission: to steal the screenplay for the next Star Wars movie from Fortress Disney.

Surely something must be done to stop the spread of this evil empire as it aims to indoctrinate us all in its warped worldview; one where synergy talks and creativity can take a trip to the Sarlacc.

Calm down, I’m not suggesting that George Lucas-era Star Wars was anything other than commercial fodder; Lucas made his billions off the tie-in toys and other merchandise. (It’s hard to imagine the next Haneke having an accompanying set of action figures) But at least Lucas understood entertainment, and his own directing and writing limitations. He duly handed over the reigns for The Empire Strikes Back to different screenwriters and a new director. Lucas then financed the film himself. Yes, The Empire Strikes Back is technically an independent film. As the great film writer Pauline Kael said, Empire could almost certainly “…not have been made with such care for visual richness and imagination if it had been done under studio control.” Rogue One (like The Force Awakens) is a Disney product; very professionally produced by people who no doubt love Star Wars. But it also betrays a fear of not flattering its audience, so there are endless nods to familiar elements from the past.

The Force Awakens was a lot of fun. Rogue One is a bit of a slog. Both have been vastly overpraised. This is probably due to the disappointment surrounding the Lucas produced prequels. The Phantom Menace (and its successors) had such a build up and was such a let down that all these new films needed to do was not be appalling. The collective relief has led to critics and audiences thinking they’re legitimate classics like the originals.

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The big pre-release talk about Rogue One was of a more ‘realistic’ or ‘gritty’ version of the galaxy far, far away. So we get hand-held camerawork and storm troopers decorated with designer dirt. There’s one man to blame for this fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal of fantasy. And his name is Christopher Nolan. It is only necessary that we buy into the situations and are interested in the characters. This ‘realistic’ sheen is just window dressing.

In the film’s defence, we have got something different. We’ve got a fairly tedious pastiche of a WWII ‘guys-go-on-a-mission’ movie with added Star Wars galaxy accoutrements. And in this post-Hunger Games world you’re now allowed to be a woman! (Just as long as you’re white, thin and pretty.)

But compare Rogue One with the films it’s a ‘homage’ to, such as Where Eagles Dare. That film begins with Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood etc. already on the plane ready to kick start the mission. Here we have an interminable amount of exposition about the backstory to the Death Star and the various ‘characters’. It takes an age before the mission actually begins. The director Gareth Edwards (who previously made the bore-fest Godzilla) has proven himself adept at special effects and clunky when it comes to storytelling. Rogue One is not short of action and it all looks very impressive. But there’s no subtlety, no humour, nothing that makes you give a toss about the outcome.

Edwards is also developing a major talent for wasting great actors. In Godzilla it was Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston. Here it continues with Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed and many others. Take Ben Mendelsohn – normally such an interesting, surprising performer (Animal Kingdom, The Place Beyond the Pines), here reduced to playing some kind of Imperial middle manager. But without David Brent’s comedy.

Compare Rogue One with a film from 1977 I still call Star Wars (because that’s its title). Rogue One has many better actors giving more professional performances. Star Wars has significantly more interesting and likable characters. And that’s the key.

There’s also a major issue with the music. John Williams’ scores have always been a huge part of the appeal of this film series. Here we have a different composer, Michael Giacchino, occasionally incorporating bits of the originals. It’s an inevitable disappointment, especially when cues hint at Williams then veer of into something new and less memorable. It’s not really the composer’s fault; he’s been given an impossible job. Consequently, having been so starved of the ‘real’ music (like a heroin addict trying to cope on methadone) the highlight of the film comes during the end credits when there’s a full rendition of the original theme.

So far, the film has been well received, but I suspect its reputation will diminish greatly in the coming years, if not months. Rogue One isn’t bad. It’s just not a whole lot of fun. And I’m pretty sure Star Wars should be fun.

 

Sam Bowles

 

 

 

 

On TV Tonight

Starred Up (2013, David Mackenzie)

In one of many subtly profound but almost throwaway moments in the sitcom Seinfeld, George and Jerry briefly discuss incarceration. Rather than describing how terrible it seems (as you might expect), we get this –

GEORGE: I love prison.

JERRY: It is fascinating.

Of course, when George and Jerry refer to “prison” what they really mean is “prison in movies”. And this is a perfect example of how film can glamourize like no other medium. In reality I doubt I could handle 30 seconds behind bars, but I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve daydreamed about long hours of moody, stubbled confinement; doing pushups and reading Chomsky.

Starred Up is a British prison drama starring hot young thing Jack O’Connell as a violent young offender prematurely moved to an adult institution (he’s been “starred up”). I don’t need to tell you how good it is – the rave reviews are already out there – but I will say this for its success: I never once wanted to trade places with any of the characters.

 

Starred Up is showing tonight, 12.05am Channel 4

Sam Bowles

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Stranger Things (2016, The Duffer Brothers)

Critics (film or otherwise) have a neat trick: they can use exactly the same observations to either praise or condemn. One of their favourites is to point out when a work makes several obvious references to other works. The resulting piece can be cast as either “a wonderful homage” or “a shameless rip-off”.

Netflix’s current hit with viewers and critics, Stranger Things, perfectly demonstrates this. Here we have a programme that wears its influences (mainly 1980s sci-fi films) on its sleeve. The ‘creators’, the Duffer Brothers, want us to feel flattered every time we notice an allusion. Every time we smile and nod in self-satisfied recognition. “That was just like a bit in E.T.!” “OMG The score is so John Carpenter!” “Kids walking on train tracks – Stand by Me!”

As such, Stranger Things could easily be dismissed as a collection of tropes, and in some cases virtually entire scenes, which have been lifted from other films and TV series: Carrie, Close Encounters, Alien, The Shining, E.T., The Thing, Gremlins, The Goonies, Explorers, Stand by Me, Twin Peaks, Eerie Indiana, The Faculty, The Mist, Let the Right One In… Those are just the ones I’ve noticed.

But who decides where to draw the arbitrary line between referencing and plain copying? And does it matter anyway? After all, Quentin Tarantino has made a career out of demonstrating the diversity of his cine-literacy. And he’s made a fair few classics along the way.

Wherever you stand on this, Stranger Things is still pretty damn entertaining. It’s not as thrilling and wondrous as Spielberg. Not as weird and unsettling as Lynch. Not as bold as De Palma or Kubrick. But it is pretty damn entertaining.

Sam Bowles

“Young, dumb and full of cum”

Point Break (1991, Kathryn Bigelow)

I challenge anyone to watch Point Break and not get a little moist over Keanu Reeves. From the second he appears, in the gorgeously designed title sequence, the man just looks so good. Reeves is FBI newbie Johnny Utah, ritualistically preparing for some target practice: stick of chewing gum in the mouth, one-handed rack of his pump shotgun. A tight t-shirt clings to Keanu’s perfectly sculpted chest – an aesthetic object with a heartbeat. It’s raining. It’s in slow motion. This is better than life. This is cinema.

Of course the success of this opening, and the film in general, is not really about Keanu: it’s about Kathryn. Bigelow that is. The only woman ever to win the best director Oscar, for The Hurt Locker in 2009, actually peaked 18 years earlier with this action masterwork. Yes, the plot is ridiculous and the characterization thin at best. But Point Break contains several action set pieces that are shot and cut like an absolute dream; heists, chases and shootouts become pure visceral cinema.

It’s summer in the City of Angels and a string of perfectly conceived bank jobs have been pulled by a gang calling themselves “The Ex-Presidents” – they wear masks of Nixon, Reagan etc. Seasoned FBI Agent Angelo Pappas suspects, for tenuous reasons at best, that the Ex-Presidents are a surfer gang, using the robberies to finance their counterculture lifestyle. Pappas encourages his new partner, “quarterback punk” Johnny Utah, to go undercover and infiltrate the surfing community. There Utah gets into some serious bromancing with enigmatic “surfer guru” Bodhi. Could he be the leader of the Ex-Presidents? Take one fucking guess. Yes, that’s really the plot. And, yes, the Fast and Furious franchise is a major league rip-off.

In another director’s hands Point Break would be just another over-the-top cops-and-robbers flick. Bigelow elevates the material through the force of her singular cinematic vision. The camera style is bold in the extreme and fully justifies the film’s tagline, “100% Pure Adrenaline”. When Johnny Utah is first shown round the FBI office Bigelow covers the action with a technically stunning long take; whip pans glance at people and objects, mirroring the character’s thrill and disorientation at his new world. If this were Brian De Palma or Alfonso Cuarón, the critics would be purring. There’s more –

The heist sequences sweat with energy and intensity. Remember this is 4 years before Heat, 17 years before The Dark Knight. (The Joker and his gang in their suits and novelty masks are strikingly reminiscent of the Ex-Presidents.)

An ill-fated FBI raid on a suspected gang’s hideout erupts into a heart-rate jacked shootout, climaxing in a moment of terrifying tension involving Utah and the spinning blades of a lawnmower.

And then there’s the standout set-piece, a seminal chase sequence: Utah chasing after Bodhi in the aftermath of a robbery. Bodhi leads him a merry dance through alleyways, gardens and strangers’ houses; at one point even chucking a dog at Utah. All of this is captured in glorious steadicam. It’s like Bourne but better; it doesn’t make you want to hurl. And it was fashioned over a decade earlier.

Today, as absurd as it might sound, I find it hard not to feel a touch nostalgic about Point Break. I was 12 when the film was first released to rent on video; 6 months later my brother and I negotiated to “go halves” on a widescreen retail copy. This is back when widescreen was a big deal. I swear that video (yes, I still watch it) looks better than any DVD or Blu-ray I own.

A note on the final scene: Is this Hollywood action film just a tiny bit subversive in its closing message? Like Clint Eastwood at the end of Dirty Harry, Reeves throws away his badge. However, their motivations (and, implicitly, their politics) are radically different. Harry Callahan was a world-weary right winger, resigned to the fact that the pussy liberals in charge would never let him get the job done his way; i.e. break the law to bag the bad guys. Johnny Utah, on the other hand, knows a life chasing criminals is not for him; he’s has been transformed by Bodhi’s alternative worldview, captured in the surfing metaphor – it’s freedom, personal expression, a re-acquaintance with the natural world and more. Earlier in the movie Bodhi tells the other gang members, “This was never about money. It was about us against the system.” Utah isn’t going to start robbing banks, but he’s grown his hair long and rejected the life of a law enforcement official. “Still surfing?” Bodhi asks, having not seen Utah for months. “Every day.”

 

Samuel Bowles