Contains spoilers for Hellboy II - The Golden Army
Hmmm – I’m not quite sure what to say about Hellboy II – The Golden Army, which is a peculiar position to be in. Perhaps it’s something to do with the film’s two extremes cancelling each other out in a kind of yin/yang implosion – visually, it’s incredible; screenplay-wise, it’s clunky and illogical. However, it’s witty and at least moves along at a fair old lick, which is more than The Dark Knight did. Strangely enough, the one aspect that Hellboy II and The Dark Knight have in common is a whole load of reflective navel gazing: does Gotham need a masked vigilante? Does the human race really deserve to be saved time and time again by Hellboy and his band of assorted freaks? Will Luke Goss ever consider reforming Bros (for the love of god, nooooooo!)? Questions, questions...
Even if Mark Ravenhill feels that Batman should spend more time punching people in the gob and less time philosophising about it, at least the script was consistent. Guillermo del Toro is obviously too enamoured of his often outré visuals to spend much time worrying about narrative logic or coherent sub-plots. Hmmm – maybe ‘coherent’ is the wrong word. One intriguing sub-plot – about how Hellboy and his chums in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense are called upon to rescue a human race that’s just downright ungrateful – is dropped as soon as another big ass action sequence lumbers into view. There's nothing wrong with the action sequences in Hellboy II - far from it, they're great - but they tend to trample on anything that just happens to be in the way.
Hellboy’s fight with a giant forest elemental – essentially an enormous piece of CGI celery – is a case in point. The visuals are often too strong for the narrative to withstand, so something’s gotta give: the twin annoyances of logic and plausibility are ditched, the idea being that you’re so overawed by del Toro’s newly minted ‘visionary’ status, you won’t even notice. Maybe some more navel gazing could have saved the day, but I doubt it.
Three months after getting shortlisted (and eight months after my application went in), it transpires that TAPS doesn’t want me or my script – which is quite a relief, as it happens. Although I could have applied for funding through Skillset and/or my regional Screen Agency, the last time I looked at the online forms they resembled a Kafkaesque bureaucratic quagmire, so I ran away and hid. Just the thought of parting with £500 made my blood run cold.
Anyhoo, on the road to eventual rejection, something weird happened. The original TAPS notice stated this:
All submitted scripts are read and assessed by a specially assembled reading panel of industry professionals.
A couple of weeks back, the industry professional who had been allotted to read my shortlisted script e-mailed to say that he thought it was “terrific”, and could I send him a few lines about myself? Done! I have no idea what the TAPS protocol is, but the e-mail seemed completely spontaneous and obviously well outside the usual TAPS channels of communication.
Two weeks later, I get a rejection letter. Are the two events related? Who knows? As David Bishop stated a little while back, having a half decent script is perhaps only half the battle. However, there’s an established producer out there who at least liked my script, so I’ll give him a call once the silly/holiday season is over and see where it goes from there.
An interesting article by Xan Brooks in today’s Guardian here on how Shane Meadows’s new film Somers Town has been entirely funded by Eurostar! Wow. It’s an alternative method of film financing that's for sure, but when characters start waving Eurostar tickets at the camera with gleeful abandon, it all threatens to get a bit Perfect Stranger for me – and this comes from someone who absolutely loves Eurostar.
My own experience with product placement might be enlightening for some (or not – you know, whatever). During my mostly hungover time working for a champagne house (for Christmas, each member of staff would receive six cases of the stuff), the odd request from a film production company would come in, only to get mercilessly ignored (champagne is a finite product that essentially sells itself without the benefit of a huge amount of advertising). If we had been interested, there was no way on earth we would have ever allowed the product to be seen in an unflattering light – great for the brand of course, but probably not so great for any film’s narrative. The most intriguing request we received was for a film about terrorism. Hmmm – not quite sure what they wanted a grand marque champagne for (probably something to do with the wrap party), but the ‘brand fit’ was entirely misjudged.
In terms of financing, it’s certainly a novel and interesting route to take, but surely the best organisations to target would be those that have some relevance to the subject matter of your film: if the protagonist is a photographer, try Canon, or Olympus. If he’s obese, try Krispy Kreme doughnuts (yum!). You get the idea...
Contains spoilers for The Dark Knight If an analogy for mainstream cinema is the three minute pop song, then The Dark Knight is a fifteen minute progressive rock epic, complete with harpsichord solo, spoken word interlude and a huge bag of whizz-bang pyrotechnics – with is another way of saying it’s very long. According to my bony backside (always a good arbiter of cinematic quality), its 150 minute running time seemed like five hours – too much dialogue, slow pacing, two endings, scenes that simply go on and on and on. To be honest, I’m surprised that any backside could take it (perhaps there’s a marketing opportunity here for the Chip Smith ‘Numb-o-meter’ – just don’t ask me how it works as I haven’t invented it yet).
So, The Dark Knight. Mark Ravenhill thinks this. On the other hand, John Truby thinks this. In all honesty, I suspect the reason this film has been so stratospherically successful is down to one thing: Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. It really is a tour-de-force, as if Ledger has somehow managed to channel the craziest bits of Jack Nicholson through a dilapidated mental asylum. Not that either John Truby or Mark Ravenhill is wrong, of course: Ravenhill thinks there’s too much dialogue and not enough action, and he’s right; Truby believes that “The Dark Knight proves that a movie can be a huge hit because of theme, not in spite of it,” and he’s right as well. And yet strangely I find myself disagreeing with both of them.
Ordinarily, the more complex a plot, the happier I am, and the series of constant moral conundrums that The Dark Knight throws at you are more than welcome – this is a film that the term ‘blockbuster with a brain’ was invented for. However, this narrative and moral complexity tends to disguise the fact that there isn’t really a great deal of emotional content at the movie’s core. The narrative is technically proficient – perhaps overly so – but within its complexities, something gets lost along the way.
Compare The Dark Knight with Tell No One, a superb French film from Guillaume Canet, adapted from the novel by Harlan Coben. Although the narrative of Tell No One is complex, the central spine of the story is simple, and focuses on Beck’s frantic search for his supposedly dead wife. The Dark Knight has a complex narrative and a dizzying array of themes, the combination of which seem to squeeze all the humanity out of the film.
Interestingly, The Dark Knight is unusual as far as Christopher Nolan’s usual modus operandi goes, inasmuch as it’s told in a linear fashion. The narrative cut ups of Following and The Prestige are nowhere to be seen, mostly because things are complicated enough. However, what the linear narrative does expose here I think is the fact that at its heart, The Dark Knight feels a little empty. Unwind The Prestige and Following and you might even find something similar – that their complex narrative structures successfully disguise the fact that neither of them really entirely manage to engage the viewer on an emotional level. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both great films, but like The Dark Knight, the overall feel is of movies that have been ruthlessly designed, much like a Swiss watch or a formal garden where messy, unpredictable nature doesn’t really have much of a place.
The film’s politics seemed a bit skewed to me as well: mass surveillance of Gotham’s citizenry which is justified by the fact that a single terrorist might be caught at some future point (hmm, sounds familiar); the cover up of Harvey Dent’s crimes due to the fact that the people of Gotham ‘need a hero’. The Dark Knight doesn’t spend too long pondering these uncomfortable questions, which are arguably more interesting than the moral conundrums that John Truby points out.
Anyway, it’s probably pointless arguing with box office receipts in excess of $300 million. Let’s hope that Christopher Nolan does something outside of the Batman franchise next time out...
I saw Blue Velvet when it first came out in 1986 – it was the first movie of that particular ‘type’ I’d seen and, although my friend and I emerged blinking form the cinema asking each other “What the flaming fup was that all about?”, I loved it. David Lynch has always made films that are defiantly ‘arthouse’, but what really distinguished Blue Velvet for me was that it seemed to exist at a crossroads between ‘arthouse’ and ‘mainstream’ cinema. To be honest, I’ve always had problems trying to distinguish between the two anyway (I’ve often asked myself why arthouse films can’t have more car chases, and conversely, why a lot of mainstream cinema has to be so unrelentingly dumb). Trying to put it down to an explanation that mainstream cinema relies predominantly on a traditional three act structure (as Karel Segers suggests) doesn’t really do it for me. If there are distinct differences between the two, they’re far more subtle than that.
Perhaps a major distinction between arthouse and mainstream cinema is the fact that in an arthouse film the dots are not immediately joined up for you. This can apply not only to the film’s narrative, but also to its visual style as well. By not providing an explanation of every little narrative or visual detail, a film can quite easily slip into the ‘arthouse’ camp, where it’s remarkably easy for a seemingly random detail to inspire someone to say, “What’s going on there, then?” (which was exactly the question I was asking myself throughout Inland Empire).
Blue Velvet is a case in point – during the concluding scenes, Jeffrey walks into a scene of torture and carnage in Dorothy’s flat. The scene is not explained via a huge landfill of exposition, so the onus is on the viewer to try and piece the various bits of elliptical logic together (that said, good luck to you if you try this with Inland Empire).
Now take an example that exists at the other end of the spectrum: Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners. For me the most notable feature of this rather daft bit of mainstream fluff was the striking visual of an injured dog: a memorable detail completely spoilt by the fact that it’s ruthlessly explained away. A director such as David Lynch would have felt no desire at all to have done this, which seems to me to form a distinction between the two ‘styles’.
Of course, ‘arthouse’ and ‘mainstream’ are not mutually exclusive. Here’s Karel Sagers again:
The darkest film I have recently seen is PRINCESS, a revenge tale mixing anime and live action. Subject matter: pornography and child abuse... the film was told in a traditional three act structure. Even if you believe your film will appeal to intellectuals only... you will need that conventional story structure. Because today without it you have no audience.
As above, I’m not sure that this is entirely correct. Princess is again a film like Blue Velvet that sits quite comfortably at the crossroads between mainstream and arthouse, which is absolutely fine by me. Given the problems that Tartan Films have been having recently, it might even be tempting to say that the market for arthouse films is in decline – this isn’t because audiences are somehow demanding more conventional story structures, but probably because ‘arthouse’ is in a constant process of being co-opted into the mainstream: perhaps Christopher Nolan’s successes of recent years are particular cases in point. And besides, whenever I hear the over-used term ‘blockbuster with a brain’, it invariably means that the brain has been borrowed from an arthouse sensibility – and there’s nothing wrong with that either.
No one leaves the cinema saying: I loved that character arc. They come out saying: I loved the swordfight, or the bit with the bloated cow, or whatever. The manuals emphasise the flow of a narrative, but it's better to think of a film as a suite of sequences. That's where the pleasure is.
I would actually go a little further than this and state that a single image can occasionally have a lasting effect, and be eminently memorable to boot. No Country for Old Men is a case in point. The pleasures of this film are almost entirely visual (which is a bit of a given seeing as much of the narrative unfolds without dialogue or even music): scuff marks on a linoleum floor, the aftermath of one of Chigurh’s brutal murders; the slow seep of blood across a motel floor; Chigurh checking the underside of his boots after killing Moss’s wife; all beautifully written and executed visual moments, the undoubted signifiers of (overused word alert) a masterpiece.
If only the story mechanics were as well considered.
I’d been warned by a friend that the ending of the film was a little disappointing, and that it didn’t really make much sense. Er, hello? Everything made perfect sense to me, so I can only assume my friend had nodded off at some point. The only thing that irritated me about the film (and it’s a pretty major thing) was that it was brought to you by the crap power of co-incidence, that hoary old screenwriting shortcut/standby. Characters had a habit of simply blundering across each other in a most convenient fashion. One such co-incidence I could probably buy, but when they’re mercilessly piled high (much like the bodycount), you realise that No Country for Old Men is not a masterpiece: it’s an high falutin’ genre film with superior visuals that feel as if they’ve been hijacked from a eminently better, more interesting movie.
Which is a shame, as the Coen brothers get everything else right: a meticulous attention to character, fantastic dialogue, believable relationships – it’s all here. The problem is that it’s wrapped up in a genre that has to rely on some pretty creaky co-incidences in order to keep things moving.
It’s reassuring to know that the BBC is able to flog a show like Spooks to our continental chums, thereby assuring that Auntie has more money to throw at quality drama (and I’m not being sarcastic). Problem is, I didn’t see much of the last series first time round, so now it appears that I’m doomed to catch dubbed re-treads in a variety of continental hotels. So, Spooks – in French (and eventually with the sound muted, as my grasp of French is tenuous to say the least): what can be learnt from it with the sound turned off? (by the way, I was watching this episode).
Locations: the first thing that becomes apparent is that the location budget is not exactly generous. A huge country pile, a cornfield, a cemetery, and the by now familiar Spooks operations room, a dim cubbyhole in which various furrow browed boffins tap at keyboards and look perplexed. Oh, and a smattering of satellites rendered in some pretty impressive CGI (the type of satellites that can be controlled by a laptop placed on the tailgate of a Land Rover – I’m not making this stuff up, honest). A fairly limited locational palette, I’m sure you’ll agree, which is why we need:
Visual Style: decidedly angular, with a big side order of wobble. Every now and again, things would tilt dramatically as if someone had dropped the camera on the floor and had forgotten to pick it up. Either that, or it was a series of high powered kinetic wobbles as a couple of slapheads in rather fetching military fatigues chased our heroes through a corn field.
Dialogue: sorry, all in French! I gave up after ten minutes and turned the sound off.
Narrative: without the aid of dialogue, the narrative was remarkably easy to follow, which has to be a good thing. The head baddie (D(F)uckface from Four Weddings) had somehow received a rather stellar promotion which meant she found herself heading up a sinister terrorist group who had a nefarious scheme for taking over the world via the power of CGI satellites (don’t know why though). What’s more, this sinister terrorist group were nicely headquartered in a huge country pile (surrounded by cornfields, always convenient for a quick spot of running about). After a contretemps with Adam (who is armed with a syringe full of nastiness), Ros gets herself captured by the bad guys. Unfortunately, Adam is captured as well and Duckface proceeds to inject the contents of the syringe into Ros’s neck, despite Harry’s protestations, killing her stone dead. The bad guys make their getaway, but the day is saved by Malcolm, who turns up with his magic laptop. The team gather for Ros’s funeral, but – hold on! – she’s not dead (either Adam was bluffing with his syringe full of nastiness or he switched them). Ros miraculously comes back to life and is exiled to the anonymity of civilian life by Adam. All is well. Phew!
So: did I learn anything? Hmmm - given the fact that Spooks is what you might term 'event drama', I was surprised to discover the paucity of locations on display: a globe trotting budget was obviously not available for this episode, which means that even flagship shows such as Spooks have some severe budgetary constraints imposed on them. And as much as I love writing dialogue, the thing that should come first is the visuals, even if in this episode everything did look decidedly wonky.
Apart from the visual jiggery pokery, watching Spooks with the sound down was tremendously satisfying and actually pretty good fun. I think I might start doing this with Doctors.
The script I entered for the BSSC (Out of Time) this year has made it through the initial cut to round one (along with approximately 2,417 others*). Elinor, on the other hand, has three in, which theoretically gives her three times as many chances of winning as me (closely followed by Martin Adams with two). Drat! And double drat!
Now that's out of my system, congratulations to everyone who made it through. -------------------------------------------------------------- * Sorry, I couldn't be bothered to count them all!
This blog was one year old last Tuesday. Hooray! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to post a picture of a croissant in celebration, so here’s a picture of a cake I made earlier**:Cakes and croissants aside, here’s a summary of the last twelve months:
* I’ve had scripts shortlisted for TAPS and METLAB, plus a load of script reads from people who’ve stroked their goatees and proclaimed, "Hmmm – very interesting, Mister Smith," in a vaguely sinister fashion. On the downside, I picked a fight with Gordy Hoffman, the Blue Cat heavyweight bruiser. For the record, Gordy is an all round good egg and I’m a very sore loser (never play Monopoly with me, as I will ‘accidentally’ knock over the board if I’m losing – you have been warned!).
* Unfit for Print had its first death threat! Double hooray! I upset a support band I reviewed here, who proceeded to leave a stream of badly spelt swear words and incoherent insults in the comments section. I unfortunately removed these due to the many morally upstanding people who frequent this blog (incidentally, I wasn’t the only one who thought they were awful), but even so – a death threat! Good, eh? That’s another ambition ticked off the list.
* I wrote about a band with a lot more presence and talent back in August 2007 here. And – holy crap! – six months later, various members of Slab! piled onto the comments section and turned it into an unofficial message board for the band, which is still trundling on as I type. All this is set to change in the near future, as the band have just announced their new website here (it’s still under construction, but looks pretty sparkly so far). And what’s more, head honchos Stephen Dray and Paul Jarvis are back in the studio working on Slab’s third album after a layoff of nearly twenty years. Triple hooray! Also, trivia fans, Slab’s phenomenally talented ex-bass player Bill Davies’s father is none other than the BBC’s adapter–in-chief, Andrew Davies (Slab! even featured in an episode of the Davies penned A Very Peculiar Practice). Well I never.
* One of the first comments on the Slab! thread was from Tim Elsenburg, who fronts up the banjo-packing laptop pop hurricane that is Sweet Billy Pilgrim. With one fine album up their sleeves, SBP were a real find for me this year – I can only urge you to buy their album several times over and rejoice in the fact that the internet does occasionally offer up things that are truly worthy of attention.
* On a more personal note, I’ve been stalked by Stanley Tucci and Myleene Klass, who has personally attempted to sell me everything from travel insurance to Classic FM CDs. Really, there ought to be a law against it.
* After I had a good moan about them, Marchmont Films re-launched their website – and guess what? It looks exactly like the one before (but without mention of the British Curry Awards)!
Just back from Paris, so I’m glad to see the place is still in one place (unlike myself – god knows how, but I managed to break a toe coming back on the Eurostar last night). The usual cyber-blithering will resume shortly.
"We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness. Leona Helmsley’s dog made 12 million last year... and Dean McLaine, a farmer in Ohio, made $30,000. It’s just a gigantic version of the madness that grows in every one of our brains. We are monkeys with money and guns." Tom Waits