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

In Memoriam: Kiarostami

Taste of Cherry (1997, Abbas Kiarostami)

The Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami passed away yesterday aged 76. He had been making films almost continuously from the early 1970s up until his final work, Like Someone in Love (2012). He didn’t just direct; he wrote, edited, and produced. When not making films, Kiarostami was known to dabble in poetry, painting, photography, graphic design… Basically, he was one of those bastards who appear to be able to do anything they put their minds to. I hated him. And I loved him.

Taste of Cherry was the first Kiarostami film I saw, and it changed the way I view cinema. Usually, filmmakers who thrill us (Welles, De Palma) do so with their virtuosity – a flashy camera move here, a cute editing trick there; Kiarostami instantly blew me away with what he didn’t do. No conventional shot-reverse/wide-medium-close-up coverage, no big dramatic moments, no simplistic good/bad characters, no easy resolutions, no music… After watching Taste of Cherry, a friend’s immediate reaction was, “You can tell he’s good because he doesn’t give you anything.”

The tale the film tells is so simple you could barely call it a plot: the protagonist, Mr. Baadi, drives around Tehran asking various strangers if they will get in his car to assist him with something. Is he after a good time? Just some company? It turns out he’s looking for someone to help him with his suicide. He plans to dig a hole, get in, and then kill himself. And he wants someone to fill in the hole afterwards. Seriously. It’s so straightforward, yet totally compelling. And the pared-down style, the completely non-bombastic telling of this potentially melodramatic material, only adds to its fascination.

No one but old Abbas could have created this masterwork. Nevertheless, credit should also go to the lead actor, Homayoun Ershadi. He is in every single scene and for much of the film the camera is trained on his face. Yet we never tire of him. Ershadi doesn’t resort to easy actorly tricks. There are no dramatic vocal shifts or mournful gazes to hold our attention or engender our empathy. The quality of the performance is such that we barely notice it.

Taste of Cherry is not an easy watch. This film requires a bit of effort and a bit of patience. Does that mean it’s pretentious to make that effort? Perhaps. But it’s easier to flick through a copy of Heat magazine than to read a great novel. Does that mean we shouldn’t put in the time reading George Eliot or James Joyce for fear that others may see us as jumped-up, affected wankers? And maybe a bit of affectation is a good thing anyway; it means we’re pushing ourselves and our experience.

After watching Taste of Cherry I sought out more Kiarostami films, discovering that he went on a run in the 2000s where he seemed to be reinventing the medium every time he picked up a camera: ABC Africa (2001), Ten (2002), Five (2003), 10 on Ten (2004), Shirin (2008). The only comparable period of sustained creativity I know of is the sequence of films Hitchcock put out in the 1950s.

Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997. In the age of Michael Bay, the fact that an artist like Kiarostami was able to make it into the almost-mainstream should be cherished.

 

Samuel Bowles

 

 

 

The Restless Scholar

An Intimate Portrait of Claudio Van Der Berg, by Sarah Braithwaite

Everyone seems to want a piece of Claudio Van Der Berg right now. And today, it’s my turn to sample the goods.

We meet for coffee in a relaxed place just off the Old Kent Road. The choice of café is apposite – ‘Brazilian Beans’ is artisan yet modest; Van Der Berg exudes an equivalent aroma of quiet quality. Dressed down in jeans and a plaid shirt, he is refreshingly unstarry. On the way in, Van Der Berg signs a few autographs, poses for a selfie or two and obligingly appeases someone desperate to perform fellatio, but, otherwise, keeps himself to himself.

Van Der Berg greets me warmly, makes sure I’m comfortable and insists I call him ‘Claudio’. Or, ‘Claude’. “Or, even just ‘Jerk’,” he quips. Wonderful self-deprecation from a man who has achieved so much at such a young age. After all, we’re talking about arguably the finest Hollywood actor of the last 3 years. And competition is stiff.

I begin our Q&A. Despite a famed aversion to discussing his craft, Van Der Berg never once gives less than most of his attention.

Do you feel under pressure to maintain the extraordinary level you have already reached in your career?

Oh, I’m just a working actor. Happy to be gainfully employed.

You’re known for your intensive preparation for each role…

 I do a lot of research, and have even been known to dip my toe in the waters of the ‘method’. If the results are good, it’s because I work hard for them.

Your new film – ‘The Brooding Enigma’ – is a biopic of the legendary intellectual and part-time SAS operative, Lieutenant Brigadier Sir Trevor Davenport. A man who single-handedly liberated a small African country while on a weekend break from writing the defining political polemic, “Why the Ruling Class is Good for Everyone”. How do you begin to research a role like that? Did you go full-method?

 Haha Well, I didn’t liberate any countries! But I did work as an SAS operative for 2 ½ days. They told me I had the potential to rise up the ranks.

Any confirmed kills? I’m joking.

 I can’t reveal that intel. And I’m not joking.

How about the accent? Coming from Austin, Texas, I would imagine an upper-class southern British accent is quite a stretch. Did you employ a dialect coach?

 [Van Der Berg frowns.]

 I’m my own dialect coach. I was introduced into the world and posed as a member of the upper classes for a few weeks. That way I don’t just pick up the accent but also the subtle details of interaction specific to that social group. I absorb that stuff almost by osmosis.

Hmmm. Fascinating. And the director of this project, Leon Demino, is known for his obsession with historical accuracy.

 Oh, that guy’s crazier than I am! He won’t settle for anything less than perfection. It was a great collaboration. We pushed each other to reach levels we probably didn’t even know we were capable of.

And everything is authentic: the clothes, the locations, the décor…

 It’s insane. Even the underwear I had on was historically accurate.

But there has been a suggestion that some of the weapons your character uses, such as a precision-guided grenade launcher, are anachronistic in that particular period, the late 19th century.

 Well, maybe if you’re being pedantic. But, come on, how great is that scene?

Oh, it’s an amazing scene.

 I know, right? And me using a grenade launcher is an artistic flourish that Demino couldn’t pass up. I’m behind him on that decision 110%.

[He pauses]

There’s also something intensely existential about that sequence.

In what way?

Well…I…I can’t give you all the answers. I’m just planting seeds. Essentially.

Sure. Shall we talk about what’s next for you? Upcoming projects?

Next up is a remake of American Gigolo. Normally I’m very wary of remakes, but this should be far removed from the usual bad cover version. I’m researching that part as we speak.

What does the research involve?

It involves me working as a gigolo. I’m living the part off camera as a working male prostitute. Although, obviously I’m selective when it comes to my clients.

So…sorry to be crude, but you’re getting paid to have sex with women in order to research your next role?

 Absolutely. And I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry – my current girlfriend is incredibly supportive and understanding when it comes to my work. She knows how essential it is that I inhabit the character.

How long will you be doing this for?

 Well, this role is so challenging, I feel it’s essential I carry out this research for at least 6 months. Maybe even a year.

Wow. Good luck with the project.

 Thank you. It’s going to be intense, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it.

 

Sam Bowles

 

NEW RELEASE

Macbeth (2015, Justin Kurzel)

The works of Bill Shakes appear to be ideal cinematic fodder. We’re talking murder, intrigue, passion, revenge, knob gags… And the dialogue ain’t bad either. Yet despite these classic ingredients, over the years very few classic Shakespeare movies have been served up.

There’s Olivier’s Henry V (1944), The Welles Shakespeare trilogy of Macbeth (1948), Othello (1952) and Chimes at Midnight (1965), Polanski’s good-but-not-great version of Macbeth (1971) and, er, that’s about it.

The key issue for a director when adapting Shakespeare is how to make it cinematic. Macbeth is a popular choice because there are loads of murders, the potential for special effects (the witches, Banquo’s ghost), and a big-ass climax (the Burnham Wood to Dunsinane battle).

Justin Kurzel with his new version has gone overboard in trying to prove what a dynamic visual stylist he is. Is it possible for a film to have too many good shots? Macbeth might set the precedent. At first, the huge widescreen images of Scotland are bold and dripping with atmosphere. But after a while they become wearing and repetitive. It’s like going round the Uffizi gallery in Florence; to begin with you’re blown away by the pictures, then, after the hundredth stunning Renaissance canvas, you’re reduced to “Yeah, that’s not bad.”

Kurzel does at least save the best for last – the final ruckus between Macbeth and Macduff, against the backdrop of a burning Burnham wood, is seriously good filmmaking.

What of the performances? Michael Fassbender makes a predictably brilliant Macbeth, pulling off the tough-guy soldier/ruthlessly ambitious politician combo at the heart of the character. Marion Cotillard, however, is a strange choice as Lady Macbeth. While obviously a great actor, it seems counterproductive to cast a French speaker to utter Shakespearean dialogue. Put simply, her speech rhythms are wrong. (French is syllable-timed; English is stress-timed). The filmmakers have also chosen to greatly reduce the role of Lady Macbeth, denying us any depth to the story’s key relationship.

Maybe filmmakers need to give up on straight Shakespeare adaptations. One of my favourite Shakespeare films is 10 Things I Hate About You (1999, Gil Junger), which takes The Taming of the Shrew as its jumping-off-point but turns it into a teen rom-com. I admit this sounds horrible, but it’s actually rather good.

Sam Bowles

MORK CALLING ORSON

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014, Chuck Workman)

Is it possible to love the cinema and not love Orson Welles? It would be like loving Christmas but not rating Santa Claus; he’s the guy who provides the magic. And they’ve both got beards.

The documentary Magician is not Welles-level filmmaking, but it’s a decent overview of the man who lived a fuller life than Charles Foster Kane. The main drawback is its length – only 96 minutes. Separated into chapters covering 10-20 year periods, each of these would have enough material to fill an hour and a half and then some. Welles’ life was not exactly without incident or creative endeavour. The dude just never stopped doing – acting, writing, directing, shagging, bullshiting…and eating. Lots of eating.

Like Harry Lime, Orson Welles had many lives…

You could make a documentary just about young Welles, the Boy Wonder who dazzled the worlds of theatre and radio and thought it would be fun to make a movie.

Or just about just about Welles as an actor, in great roles such as Kane, Hank Quinlan, Falstaff etc. and whoring himself in some often quite dodgy films to finance his own productions.

Or about Old Welles, dressed up like a magician and pulling F For Fake out of his arse.

Of course, the man was a cinematic conjuror. Arguably the best film director of all time. Look at Welles’ filmography – every work is like a first film, in thrall to the medium and its possibilities. Citizen Kane is the one everyone bangs on about but the artistic (if not commercial) hits just kept on coming: The Magnificent Ambersons, Macbeth, Othello, Touch of Evil, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight. Even later on in his life, and to be honest not looking too hot, Welles made F For Fake, one of the great achievements in cinema. But that’s a blog for another day…

Magician is available on DVD from the BFI.

Sam Bowles

The Best Film Added To Netflix this Week

12 Angry Men (1957, Sidney Lumet)

This flick gives me the horn. Big time. It’s almost entirely shot on a single set, yet intensely cinematic. It’s just a dozen blokes talking to each other, yet moves and twists like a thriller. It gives you the chance to feel all liberal and self-righteous, yet it’s also fucking hilarious. And it’s one of the truly hot summer films. Like Do The Right Thing-level hot. I’m loosening my collar just thinking about it.

A young lad from the slums is on trial for murder. The 12 men of the title – women aren’t to be trusted, especially back then in the 50s – gather in the jury room to thrash out a verdict. They take an initial vote and all except one, Juror 8 (Henry Fonda), say “guilty”. Juror 8’s position is initially mocked and derided, but as they go back over the details of the case, a different scenario from the one presented in court (which we have not been privy to) starts to emerge.

The screenplay, by Reginald Rose, is a piece of genius in its exposition, pacing and characterization. Every character manages to make an impact, yet none is painted too broadly. The cast, which includes Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam and Jack Klugman, is borderline immaculate.

This was Sidney Lumet’s first film and I doubt he ever made a better one.

Sam Bowles

Plays vs. Movies

I recently attended a quality performance of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in Stratford. (Yes, that’s right – I’m a wanker.) The experience led me to ruminate on the differences between the stage and screen. My thoughts run as follows…

The audience

At a play we each have a single vantage point from which to observe the action. But we are able to look where we choose within that restriction. When watching a film we get multiple angles but are entirely at the behest of the director and editor as to what we focus on at any particular moment. If you want to spend your whole time in the theatre focusing on an actor’s dodgy wig, the option is there for you to do so. In a film, the angles and cuts will be carefully chosen to minimize your chances of noticing an offending hairpiece. (For example, did you know Sean Connery is wearing a syrup as far back as Dr. No, the very first Bond film?!)

At a play the audience can also have a direct impact on the production. Actors feed off the audience, and the pace, rhythm and tone of an individual performance can alter significantly from one night to the next. A film will never change no matter who is watching. Although, of course, its impact can. Watching a film with an audience can reveal aspects you never knew existed. I was always aware Raiders of the Lost Ark had laughs in it, but didn’t register the sheer volume until I saw it on a re-release. Every scene has a visual or verbal gag of some kind.

The actors

Watching Jasper Britton as Barabas in The Jew of Malta I was struck by the incredible physicality required in playing a character on the stage. Britton seemed to be using every part of his body to produce moments of humour and pathos, sometimes simultaneously. He also elegantly switched between dramatic moments with the other actors and engaging with the audience in asides, drawing us in as co-conspirators.

On film (or TV) an actor can get away with conveying their character and telling the story almost entirely through their line readings. Unfortunately this is what most critics focus on when they look for the differences between a “good” and a “bad” performance. Film actors whose primary attributes are physical get overlooked. Take Keanu Reeves in Speed or The Matrix. None of us would ever rave about the way the man delivers a line, but he is able to hang off the bottom of a moving bus while trying to defuse a bomb and take the audience with him. There are plenty of wildly praised ‘serious’ actors who could not manage that.

Realism

The theatre has an immediacy; the actors are right in front of you, sometimes even interacting with you. This is the thrill of live performance – actors and audience living every moment as one. And there are no second takes. For me, though, the thrill is accompanied by a strange anxiety: what if an actor screws up? Wouldn’t that be horrible? This frequently takes me out of the action and I become acutely aware of the artifice of the situation.

With the cinema there is no such anxiety, and it is joyously easy to get lost in story. We believe what we see on screen in a way we never believe the action within the proscenium arch. Even plays with the highest pretentions at realism are inherently phony. Have you ever cried at a play? I never have. But I’ve cried at even mediocre films. Fuck it, I’ve cried at trailers.

Sam Bowles