What’s in a name?

Solo (2018, Ron Howard)

You may recall, dear reader, that I have on occasion felt it necessary to voice my displeasure at the output of one Christopher Nolan. This man’s work – specifically the idea that fantasy films need to be ‘grounded in reality’ – has had an unfortunate effect on mainstream cinema. Solo is the latest high profile example; it reeks of Nolanism.

Post the Dark Knight films and their humourless efforts to explain every detail of the Batman myth (how Bruce Wayne got his hands on the Batsuit, Batmobile, gadgets etc.), this sickness has begun to infect other fantasy films, and the Disney Star Wars spinoffs are no exception. In one painful moment in Solo the trend may have reached its nadir. The makers of this crime actually see fit to explain why Han has the surname Solo! Trying to sign up for a flying academy, Han reveals he has no surname and no family. The official desk-bound dude looks off for a second, then decides ‘Solo’ would be apposite in the circs. Cringe-making doesn’t come close.

Does anyone associated with this flick’s production understand the basic workings of fantasy storytelling? These are worlds in which characters have names that conveniently reflect their personalities and status. Offering up a literal-minded explanation for such a moniker makes exactly zero sense. Han Solo is solo because he’s like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, with the same outlook of: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” The name shouldn’t be given to him; it is him.

It’s a standard device, but it’s also one of the pleasures on offer from stories that aren’t in thrall to ‘realism’. So, in the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling has characters with names such as Lord Voldemort, Neville Longbottom, Dolores Umbridge… They’re outrageous. And glorious. And it would never occur to old JK to offer up some contrived justification.

Solo is available on DVD from Disney

 

Sam Bowles

 

 

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New Release

BlacKkKlansman (2018, Spike Lee)

Spike Lee is not a subtle filmmaker. Sometimes this can be an issue. Take the scene in the otherwise excellent Do The Right Thing (1989), for example, in which various characters shout racist epithets to camera. It reminds me of GCSE drama productions.

But, generally – who cares? His great theme is the ongoing problem of racism in America and, unless you’re a complete expletive, there’s not a lot of ambiguity there.

Lee’s latest, BlacKkKlansman, is the best I’ve seen from him since his absurdly underrated masterpiece 25th Hour (2002).

The pitch: 70s Colorado. Black cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington – Denzel’s son) manages to infiltrate the local branch of the KKK via telephone calls. His white colleague Flip Zimmerman (the ubiquitous Adam Driver) then plays him for face-to-face meetings. Based on a true story.

It’s an inherently compelling setup, both because of how unlikely it is and because there is something undeniably fascinating about the KKK and their practices: espousing a disgusting ideology whilst wearing fancy dress – the sinister meets the absurd. (This was nicely satirized by Tarantino in Django Unchained (2013).)

How are the visuals? Lee’s films have always had a great look to them and here he chooses to shoot on 35mm. It gives the images a nice grain and is appropriate to the 70s; he’s not just using film because it gives him a stiffy, like Tarantino or Nolan.

Lee also continues to make bold stylistic choices, and in doing so, shows it’s a natural expression of his personality and distinctive filmmaking grammar. It is not simply something he did when he was young because he was desperate to show off his skills.

Example: the opening scene of BlacKkKlansman is a clip from an entirely different film, Gone With the Wind. It’s an Old Hollywood classic that looks more problematic with each year that passes. The clip is a technically brilliant long-take crane shot travelling across a pile of bodies in the aftermath of a Civil War battle. The camera finally comes to rest on the confederate flag, blowing proudly in the wind. It shows what used to pass unapologetically for mainstream entertainment. And as for Spike Lee choosing to begin a narrative feature film with a clip from a different narrative feature film (which happens to be nearly 80 years old)? Well, I’ve personally never seen that done before. This is genuinely bold stuff.

Lee also employs colour filters, Dutch angles, direct address to camera, and the use of documentary footage to close the film – this rhymes with Lee’s use of the Rodney King video to open Malcolm X (1992).

BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s most well-received film in years, outside documentaries, and it’s heartening to see. If you’re in the mood to be morally outraged, it ticks that box and then some. It’s also properly entertaining.

 

Sam Bowles

 

 

 

Smiert Spionam

The Living Daylights (1987, John Glen)

I was 7 years old and it was my first time in a multiplex, the Milton Keynes something-or-other. There was the overbearing grandeur, the unfathomable concept of multiple screens, and the almost oppressive stench of too much popcorn. I remember a poster in the lobby that told of delights to come, the thrill of the new. I had already seen a few Moores, maybe the odd Connery…but this was a brand new James Bond! Timothy Dalton was his name. And on that poster – he just looked so damn good.

Of course, when it came to a plot that mixes fake defections, real defections, diamonds, drugs and the Mujahideen, I can’t claim to have fully understood all the on-screen action. (I can’t claim to understand it all now.) But it didn’t matter. Bond seemed to know what was going on and that was good enough for me. And what I did know for sure was that 007 skydived, jumped onto a moving jeep, fired a sniper’s rifle, drove a car that fired rockets, and used a cello case as a makeshift sledge. And he did it all with an edge and a conviction quite unlike Roger and his moderately expressive eyebrows…

Misty-eyed nostalgia is one thing, but I genuinely believe this film holds up. When Daniel Craig started playing Bond there was high praise for his interpretation – dangerous, more believable, closer to the novels…and I thought: Does no one remember Timothy Dalton?

 

Sam Bowles

The Living Daylights is showing tonight, 9.00pm ITV4

 

 

THIS FILM IS IMPORTANT!

2001: A Space Odyssey (re-release) (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

Is the narrative of this film really an odyssey? I can’t claim to have read Homer’s epic, but I’m pretty sure Odysseus is trying to get home. 2001, on the other hand, is surely about mankind moving forward, not coming back. I realise I’m hitting high-level pedantry early doors, but if Kubrick is going to set himself up as some paragon of filmmaking – a kind of Star-Child of cinema – we should judge him accordingly. And I fear the title makes little sense (as well as being painfully pretentious).

2001 really is staggeringly self-indulgent – shots and scenes are dragged out to agonizing, inordinate length. You end up passing the time by scanning the images to see if they will reveal some fascinating detail, some hitherto hidden depth. Spoiler: they don’t.

“Oh, you don’t understand! Kubrick is telling his story in a bold and unique way. He’s challenging conventional modes of cinema.” Yeah, maybe. And maybe he’s just got his head up his arse. And before you suggest I can’t handle a slow pace – trust me, I can handle slow; I like Ozu. The difference between the two auteurs is old Yasujirō is interested in those funny creatures whose quirks and foibles appear to be anathema to Kubrick. You know, human beings.

The film certainly is bold in its storytelling and not just in its attempt to give an account of human evolution as brought about by some kind of extraterrestrial science experiment. (Pauline Kael called this, “…probably the most gloriously redundant plot of all time.”) Critics rarely seem to comment on the fact that there are two distinct plot elements, and with no initially apparent thematic link. Indeed, the middle act of 2001 – where AI in the form of chatty computer HAL turns malevolent – is almost like a different film. It actually has a dramatic core for a start. Those viewers used to ‘conventional storytelling’ might find it a bit jarring to have one story start, stop before the end, then another story to play out, followed by a return to the first story. Confused? You will be if you manage to stay awake. According to Paul Duncan in his book on Kubrick, there may be a narrative justification for this – the struggle between humans and HAL rhyming with the clash between ape tribes in the film’s opening, or something. But if you only realise that afterwards, or have to be told, it suggests the story isn’t working terribly well.

Regularly found on ‘greatest of all time’ lists, to this viewer 2001 doesn’t measure up to the other usual suspects: Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story etc. Yes, it’s a seminal piece of special effects cinema; but coming first and being influential doesn’t automatically make you a masterpiece. I wonder if a lot of the folk who praise it so highly saw it when it came out and haven’t got over the initial thrill and rush of overpraise.

This film is very sixties. As well as the Pan Am sponsorship, it comes on like you’ll be fascinated by every detail of imagined commercial space travel. We get it, Stanley – they’d have to eat. Congratulations, you’re a fucking genius.

2001: A Space Odyssey is definitely different and you can’t imagine it being made today (although Interstellar had a pretty good stab at matching its tedium levels). It also stays with you. I think I could sit through it again…but I’d probably need some Kendal Mint Cake.

The emperor may not be completely naked; but at best he’s wearing some sparkly underpants.

 

Sam Bowles

 

Further reading:

‘Going Steady’, Pauline Kael (1994, Marion Boyars)

‘The Pocket Essential: Stanley Kubrick’, Paul Duncan (1999, Pocket Essentials)

 

 

 

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

 

 

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