Last night I watched the last in the series of Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood on BBC 2. I actually watched it on TV! You can watch it here on iPlayer:
I really enjoyed it and will be trying to see the first two episodes somehow. This episode chronicled the death of silent cinema, which Merton shows to be at the height of its creative powers when the technology for talkies arrived. Silent films starred ingenious performers, and were shot in inventive, imaginative and inspiring ways. They could afford to make classic escapism for the masses as well as experimental pictures, which also more often than not turned into hits by capturing the public’s lust for the cinema in new ways.
Talkies, Merton argues, brought the quality and the standards crashing back to basic levels. Yes audiences could hear the tinny voices of their beloved stars but they lost much of the magic of cinema when it was silent. They lost the live musical performances accompanying the pictures in theatres. They lost the moving camera angles, zooming in and out to visually dazzle and excite. They lost the cults of intoxicating mystery that grew up around actors, as soon as they heard their ordinary or often foreign accented voices. Instead there was wooden dialogue in front of static cameras. Imaginations were stifled and limited.
It’s impossible not to compare the arrival of the talkies with that of 3D films in the 21st century. In my view it’s obvious that the shift is not so dramatic. Sound is a far bigger leap forward than three dimensions. This seems an odd thing to say; when in theory 3D should mean the action literally happening in front of you. But we know the reality of 3D is mostly gimmicky after seeing the offers of studios in cinemas.
This might suggest that greater efforts are needed to improve the technology, so it’s truly as transformative an experience as listening to sound for the first time in a movie theatre. However Merton’s documentary focuses on the ability of good storytellers to adapt. Irving Thalberg, who died in his 30s, was the extraordinary man at the centre of last night’s episode.
A German immigrant, Thalberg grew up in New York, after being born with a weak heart. He spent long periods of his childhood mollycoddled and stuck in bed through illness. During this time he read classic literature, plays and autobiographies. And followed the fortunes of the film business.
Then he got his big break and headed to Hollywood as a secretary to the head of Universal Studios. He was unexpectedly promoted to Head of Production, because of the qualities he showed his employer, where he established a reputation in his early twenties, before moving to MGM in the same role. His influence transformed MGM‘s studios into a vast dream factory with all manner of storytelling resources on site. He handpicked films for suitable directors, mixing traditional stories with bolder projects. He ensured that before release all his films were screened to members of the public, which led to scenes being re-shot frequently. A modest man, his name never appeared on any posters.
Thalberg’s MGM was at the top of its game when talkies arrived, courtesy of rivals Warner Brothers. But before his death Thalberg oversaw a successful transition to sound, with that same focus on good storytelling. As a producer he called the shots, made decisions in the company’s financial interests, but never compromised a good story.
3D audiences have been declining and champions of the technology pin their hopes on Michael Bay’s third Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon. In press previews the 3D is said to be cutting edge, mind blowing and the best yet. But as this Guardian writer, Ben Child, points out, Bay’s films are so loud and bombastic that they simply become tedious. And the only real hope for 3D is that someone, a great individual of Thalberg’s ilk, can steer a truly great and inventive film project to fruition. One that makes the best of 3D‘s unique assets but one that, above all, tells an unbelievably good story.
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Imagine a world in which Tesco invaded Denmark. That’s right the supermarket, grabbing itself a piece of prime Scandinavian real estate. Imagine television listings brightened by the presence of celebrity game show, Rape An Ape, complete with catchy theme tune. Imagine a political landscape in which David Cameron was a forgotten has-been like the Conservative leaders that preceded him and Tony Blair roams the streets of Baghdad, bearded, greying and haunted by his contorted legacy. These mad and brilliant ideas are all generated by the brain of Armando Iannucci for his hilarious and unique BBC series Time Trumpet. Loving this as much as I did I had no hesitation in snapping up In The Loop from amongst the many varied seasonal offers at HMV.
Released in 2009, In The Loop is of course a feature length, larger scale version of The Thick of It, an enormously successful political satire first launched on BBC4 that has since acquired a cult following. The popularity of the show is not just down to witty and intelligent scripts, but perhaps largely due to the superb and vibrant character that is Malcolm Tucker, political spin doctor. Played magnificently by Peter Capaldi, Tucker is Number 10’s attack dog, unleashed to deal with media storms reflecting badly on government. He spits out line after line of venomous insults, dripping with graphic and vulgar imagery. He hovers around in a frenzy, fretting about the incompetence of others. His swearing is so loud and non-stop that in one scene a passing American accosts him; “Enough with the curse words pal”. Tucker simply replies with a volley of typical vitriol.
In London Tucker is the big cheese, charging about confidently, marching into ministerial offices like he owns the place and intimidating cabinet members. Tom Hollander is an impressive addition to the cast as a bumbling everyman figure, essentially well meaning but conscious of his infant career. He tries valiantly to talk sense to Tucker, only to be bulldozed aside and dominated like the rest. A few too many slightly opinionated responses to interview questions about the developing situation in the Middle East and a “will they/won’t they” war (no prizes for guessing the recent crisis used for inspiration), and Hollander’s International Development minister is dispatched to Washington to quell fears about his resignation and bribe him back on side. Hilariously and accurately he is repeatedly told to stick to the government line, without being told clearly what this is, in fact he is simply baffled by the repeated blasts of explanation from Tucker.
In The Loop is impressive because once things shift to Washington the writers do a wonderful job of creating believable and amusing Yank career vultures too. Across the pond their own inter-departmental war is raging, between those for and against conflict, and no one will overtly announce what they’re rushing around and bickering about. A funny speech from Hollander’s character back home, trying to be ambiguous about the UK’s stance with typical MP speak, has been adapted and taken on by the pro-war Americans, with the cliché phrase “climb the mountain of conflict” isolated.
Tucker tags along for the ride, keen to ensure his mistake prone minister doesn’t balls up again. Hollander is accompanied by his geeky and clumsy new aide, played by Chris Addison, who gives a warm and funny performance. He is surprisingly well connected and becomes crucial to the plot, whilst remaining inept. Drawing his Washington trip he beds an old American university colleague and when this is found out by his British Foreign Office girlfriend on his return, he comically and awkwardly attempts to claim he did it to try and stop the war. Things zip along with laughs in every scene, the stateside action broken up with a constituency visit and an irate Steve Coogan, until the climax of a vote at the UN for or against military action.
Prior to the vote Malcolm Tucker is slapped down by his American superiors. In Washington he is a castrated beast, a joke to the hot shot Yanks. Push aside his vulgarity and the obvious point of the film and the series, to get us to look at the ridiculous and distorted nature of modern political spin, truly engineered and evolved by Blair with Alastair Campbell, and Tucker is irresistibly likeable as a character. He is weirdly brilliant at what he does. And bewilderingly you root for him as he rises from the ashes, despite the immorality and twisted motivation. You don’t mind so much as Hollander’s eventual moral stand is crushed by his masterful scheming. You laugh along and rejoice in his charisma and sheer balls, as he and fellow Scott sidekick Paul Higgins, playing Senior Press Officer Jamie McDonald back in Britain, smash their way to their objectives. In The Loop is an intelligent and endlessly funny Christmas present, but however much Tucker’s insults have you splitting your sides, you wouldn’t want him around the family turkey dinner table.
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