Franz Kafka’s Amerika is a remarkable book for many reasons, not least because when he wrote it Kafka had never actually been to America. In this spirit, I’ll set out a few reasons as to why I can’t get my head round the oeuvre of Stephen Poliakoff (not that I’ve consciously gone out of my way to watch a huge amount penned by the great man himself, you understand).
Close My Eyes: hmmm. I saw this at the cinema years ago – god knows why a film about incest and architecture appealed, but something must have made me want to go and see it.
Alan Rickman plays Sinclair Bryant, a wealthy and powerful stock analyst. Since one of its sub-plots involves the development of Docklands in the early nineties (Clive Owen’s character – Richard – has a rather unfeasible job with a magazine called Urban Alert), I would’ve thought that maybe this would have some bearing on the film as a whole – but it doesn’t. Richard and Natalie (Saskia Reeves) flounce about and end up having a shag, which is a little unfortunate as, a) they are brother and sister, and b) Natalie is married to Sinclair. Oops! But, come the end of the film, Sinclair doesn’t really care either way, which is a bit of a non sequitur. If drama is truly about conflict, then Close My Eyes spends an inordinate amount of time promising a firework display, only to conclude with someone half-heartedly waving a sparkler about. Ho hum.
However, the overriding feeling I took away from it was how ambivalent it seemed about the whole question of wealth. Sinclair Bryant is a very typical Poliakoff character: a vague, strangely benign presence who also happens to be extraordinarily rich. Is this fact significant? A great deal of Poliakoff’s work seems to have a seam of over-privileged clots running through it (Friends and Crocodiles, Shooting the Past, Joe’s Palace, Capturing Mary, The Lost Prince), as if the stories he wants to tell can only be sustained by those with the requisite wealth. I have no idea what this means, or why Poliakoff feels the need to return to this theme time and time again.
Bearing this in mind, I watched an hour of Friends and Crocodiles the other day – I was still none the wiser. Damien Lewis plays Paul Reynolds, a ‘maverick entrepreneur’, who seems to spend most of his time attempting to wind up his many employees (as well as the audience). For instance, Reynolds drives a double decker bus around his sprawling country pile (because, you know, that’s what maverick entrepreneurs do). He then drives under some low hanging trees, freaking out his various hippied-up friends on the open top deck. Hmmm – do I sense a rather pained metaphor trying to break free here?
Later there’s a huge party at Reynolds’ country pile (another recurring Poliakoff motif, which suggests he’s getting full use out of that National Trust membership card) – Reynolds takes it upon himself to invite along a bunch of comedy punks, who gatecrash and run riot in predictable fashion. There is obviously an interesting cultural gap between the more ‘respectable’ party goers (black tied politicians, movers and shakers, Robert Lindsay) and the crowd of rent-a-punks, but the only thing Poliakoff wants to do with this milieu is create little visual vignettes without really bothering to explore any wider conflict.
As above, the dramatic conflict in Poliakoff’s work doesn’t necessarily come from what his characters do – it often arises due to where these characters are placed (be it a stately pile or a yuppied up London circa 1987) or by what they possess. The central characters in Friends and Crocodiles – Reynolds and his long suffering personal assistant Lizzy – seem to bear this out. Their paths meet and entwine over the course of twenty years, but their characters seem so rigidly determined by their immediate environments that we get very little sense of who they really are, which is incredibly frustrating. Similarly, the fact that Poliakoff’s rich liberal elite does not adhere to the usual stereotyping of “piles of money = evil capitalist” is all well and good – but in attempting to find something to put in its place, he comes up rather empty handed.
I lasted ten minutes with Joe’s Palace, which seemed so staggeringly silly I couldn’t be bothered hanging around to see what it might do (not a lot, according to The Guardian). Again, it featured yet another benign rich personage (Michael Gambon this time) who lets a bunch of considerably less rich characters run about in his opulent city house. I didn’t even get that far with Capturing Mary – seeing David Walliams mug his way through the trailer was enough to make me flick through the schedules to see if Kate & Peter Unleashed was on (it wasn’t).
Perhaps this makes me a bad person, but I really can’t be bothered to sift through Poliakoff’s entire oeuvre on the quarter chance that I might turn up something that might engage me. Like Charlie Brooker, perhaps I’m just not intelligent enough to grasp the point (if there is one). Oh well – no doubt I’ll get over it.