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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Last year Peter Weir made his directorial return with The Way Back, a star studded and old fashioned tale about the possibly true and possibly grossly exaggerated escape of a group of Polish prisoners of war from a Siberian gulag. Its critical reception was mixed, with some praising the film’s ambition and visuals, whilst others bemoaned its fatal lack of emotional engagement. However a German film, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, beat Weir’s epic to the broad concept by nine years.
Released in 2001 As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, now available on DVD, follows a German officer fleeing from imprisonment on Siberia’s easternmost shore. And for this reason its ethical foundations are considerably flimsier and more controversial than The Way Back’s.
This is saying something because The Way Back was based on a bestseller by Slavomir Rawicz, which since publication, has been disputed and branded a fake from a number of sources. And yet Weir’s film is unlikely to be attacked for historical bias of any kind. The story of Poles and Jews getting one over on their persecutors, be they German or Russian, is a common and acceptable one. Make your hero a German who has fought for a Nazi controlled state and buying into the character becomes far more complex.
Some might say that the way in which As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is told twists and distorts historical fact. We see Bernhard Betterman’s Clemens Forell hug his wife and young daughter goodbye on the platform in 1944 Germany. Then we cut swiftly to Forell being sentenced to 25 years forced labour in Siberia. He is charged with war crimes but the implication is that Forell is being unfairly condemned by corrupt and vengeful Communists. Then there is a long and grim train journey across the cold expanse of Russia, with glimpses of the grim hardships to come. Finally, exhausted from malnutrition and a hike through the snow, they are thrust into life at a camp.
Throughout all of this we discover nothing about Forell’s war record and his potential sins and little too about his political sympathies. He is shown to be a compassionate and brave man though; in other words a typical hero. He treasures the picture of his family and uses it for galvanising motivation that replaces the sustenance of food and drink. It is never explicitly mentioned during the camp scenes and moments of inhumane, cruel punishment but the shadow hanging over the story the whole time is that of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. You can’t help but feel uneasy as your sympathies inevitably gather around Forell in his struggle.
Of course the debate about the moralities of the Second World War and the balance of its sins can hardly be squeezed into a film review. Indeed the sensible view is probably to admit that it’s an unsolvable problem; evil was committed on both sides on an unimaginable scale. Stalin’s Russia was carrying out atrocities throughout the 1930s, long before the worst of Hitler’s cruelties were inflicted and on a larger scale than the Holocaust. It’s impossible to reason with or categorize such statistics of death and horrific eyewitness anecdotes. But this is a film that unavoidably makes the viewer think about such issues and not necessarily in the best of ways.
I don’t object to a story from a German soldier’s perspective. In fact I find it refreshing and necessary to witness an often overlooked point of view. But As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me glosses over too much at times, so that it becomes ethically dubious, compromising and limiting your investment in the narrative. The filmmakers will probably argue they are simply telling the story from Forell’s viewpoint alone. I think this argument falls down because of the film’s other weaknesses in plausibility though.
As Forell slowly makes his way back, first through Siberian snow, then Siberian summers and on through other outposts of the USSR, in a muddled route elongated by the help and hindrance of kind (and not so kind) strangers, we are continually shown glimpses of his waiting family in Germany. These scenes are so unconvincing that they spark the questions about the rest of the film.
The lives of his family are completely unaffected by the war, with only two exceptions; one is his ever present absence and the other a throwaway remark by the son Forell has never met, which his mother labels “Yankee talk”. Presumably they have therefore encountered American occupiers in some way. Forell’s daughter is only ever shown getting upset or dreaming about her lost father. I’m not being callous but the girl was young when her father left and her reaction is so simplistic that it punctures the believability of the entire story. I’m not saying she wouldn’t be absolutely devastated by her father’s absence but she would perhaps have moved on in some way. The possibility of Forell’s wife finding another man is never raised and they never give him up for dead.
All of this, coupled with the chief of security from the Siberian camp pursuing Forell across Russia like an ultimate nemesis, transforms As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me into am unrealistic fairytale. Forell is helped by a Jew at one point but the issue is merely touched upon. The period elements of this film are so secondary that they become redundant, but then the film does not claim to be “inspired by true events”.
It’s possible to enjoy this film if you look at it as simply one man’s impossible journey back to his impossibly perfect family. At way over two hours long, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is hopelessly brutal at times but somehow snappy too. It’s an engaging enough example of traditional storytelling, despite my doubts, but the only truths to be found are symbolic and stereotypical.
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It’s a familiar theme in the news and it only needs the slightest of sparks to get going. If there’s a murder it means that the killer has been honing his skills on Xbox Live, amassing headshots of spotty American teens on Call of Duty. If there’s a horrifically tragic car crash then the kid’s obviously been getting ideas from the mindless traffic weaving, crude language and pedestrian skittles of Grand Theft Auto and the like. If a young girl is sexually harassed by a young guy, he’s been spending too much time working through the levels of Teach that Girl a Lesson: The Titillating Adventures of Spankatron Part II, or something.
What’s even more infuriating than the casual asides of blame in news stories though, is the supposedly in-depth and professional advice columns on the sort of parenting that can banish the evils of the games console. This type of thing is inevitable written by Dr Terri Praisebut Dontsmother or Professor Lilia Mollycuddleova of the Belgrade Child Tantrum Institute. These Gods of infant psychology will proceed to patronisingly explain the dos and don’ts of video gaming, which will ultimately turn out to be common sense.
Rather than appeal to such things as maternal instinct or the law of the bleeding obvious, these articles will be stuffed with lots of studies about the effects of gaming. Profound insights will stem from their findings, such as the fact that gaming immediately before bed might make it difficult for your child to sleep and that too much button bashing might cause inflammation and conditions like RSI in their hands.
Of course the really contentious question is: do games cause aggression? Our helpful Agony Aunt will usually start by admitting what a hotly debated topic this is, before laying out briefly the two views in the debate. The anti-games view will normally be presented with greater weight of evidence and any postives will be qualified, with phrases like “limited evidence shows that they can improve children’s willingness to co-operate”. Wrapped up somewhere in the waffle, will be the admission that the effect of games depends on the child’s environment, i.e. they don’t do any harm in a healthy and stable home, and it’s the badly behaving parents doing the damage in the poor environments, not video games.
Once in a while a reasonably interesting point will arise from one of the numerous studies being quoted. For example, that playing football based games increases appetite. However rather than seeking any positives in this, like, I don’t know, interest in playing ACTUAL football and getting regular exercise, a new evil shall be swiftly created. Football games = fat kids. So no shooting because that makes murderers and no scoring because that makes gobblers.
Some studies will just be frankly ethically dubious. They’ll casually mention that a group of children failed to do as many sit-ups as they once could. Who is making our primary school kids do sit-ups? Who is callously tracking their progress, as if we were breeding an army? I didn’t do any sit-ups in primary school, at least I won’t have thought of them as sit-ups. Forcing painful and sweaty exercise on our young, as if we were training race horses, sounds a lot worse than letting them dabble with escapism that isn’t The X-Factor or In The Night Garden, now and then.
It should be obvious that video games, like anything else that came before it like TV or comics, should be used in moderation. By anyone, not just kids. It should also be said more often that the greater immersion of video games has its developmental benefits as well as drawbacks. Increasingly experimental and quality narratives and technology, like that in LA: Noire, is simply an advancement in storytelling, not an untameable, corrupting beast to be feared.
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Whilst I was primarily wowed by last week’s opener to the new series, I wasn’t the only one having worries about the abundance of plotlines being introduced and secrets set up. And with this second episode, cracks in Moffat’s genius are beginning to show.
I know I never thought I’d hear myself say a bad thing about the man. But Day of the Moon simply tried to do too much. The really sad and disappointing thing about it is that it’s made of sublime component parts; it just didn’t work as well as it could have done as a complete whole.
The start of the episode was really impressive. All three companions seemingly hunted and gunned down in stunning and iconic American locations by the FBI. The Doctor locked up in Area 51 with a striking beard and strait jacket. Then of course a brilliant escape. It’s here perhaps that the flaws start to show however. Was anyone else baffled by the need for such an elaborate plan? Especially when later in the episode they simply wheel out President Nixon as the ultimate authority in their favour? Ultimately you can ignore the implausibility of our Timelord’s scheme for the added benefits to the drama; the cinematic scale of Americans locations, the stunning CGI shot of Apollo 11, a swimming pool dive from River and a seemingly bearded and beaten Doctor.
It’s later in the episode, around the middle, when the dialogue gets so bogged down with secrets that can’t yet be revealed, that as a standalone episode Day of the Moon begins to unravel somewhat. It’s simply unsatisfying for an audience to have so little payoff on the hints of huge revelations. In many ways Day of the Moon is too similar to the first episode; I was expecting it to leave a great many of the secrets untouched, to wrap up the story of The Silence in suitably engrossing style. In the end the Doctor sees off the terrifying foes rather easily, even if we’re told that this isn’t quite the end of them.
With the concluding two parter of the last series Moffat demonstrated his understanding of the impact of contrast, and there is not enough contrast between these first two episodes. The scenes in the children’s home are too similar to those in the tunnels at the end of The Impossible Astronaut. They have some wonderfully, typically Moffat ideas that are truly haunting, but throw in all the stuff about Amy’s baby and the completely confusing space suit and it’s all too much. These scenes with images of “Get out” scrawled on the walls and markings on Amy’s skin could have formed the foundation to a brilliant episode, but they are overshadowed by random but no doubt significant moments like the woman saying “she’s just dreaming” from behind the door. They also don’t sit right with the light hearted, race against time that’s the rest of the episode.
I’m not saying that I did not enjoy Day of the Moon. I am probably just bitter because it so completely baffled me and I’ll look back on it more fondly with hindsight. There were undoubtedly more than a handful of classic moments, and some brilliant dialogue. But it all just felt rather disjointed and overloaded. The relationships and jealousies between the companions are almost beginning to resemble soap opera. Here’s hoping that next week delivers a cracking and clever story truly independent of the secrets of the series.
Of course I’m not going to sign off without mentioning the Timelord child. Is it Amy and the Doctor’s? That’s the constant suggestion, which means it’s not as simple as it seems. Not that it does seem simple. I’m confused. And I have mixed feelings about it. Whilst Moffat should continue to push the boundaries of the character and take risks, he also could push it too far. One thing’s for certain; it’s worth sticking with the series to find out if its fetish for cliff-hangers becomes misguided or is sheer genius.
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David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham yesterday was an accomplished rallying cry and an impassioned response to his critics. Of all the party leader’s speeches during this conference season there is no doubt that Cameron’s was the most polished and technically the best. He stood out as a Prime Minister and appeared like a leader, completing a transformation from head of the Opposition to the most experienced politician in Britain. He sought to counter Ed Miliband’s claim that Labour were the optimists now with his own stirring note of idealism. However in doing so he once again missed an opportunity to spell out his message clearly to the country, opting instead for reams of empty rhetoric that made excellent sound bites but often contradicted each other.
Most strikingly Cameron again tried to explain what he meant by the “Big Society” and again failed catastrophically to render it a reality accessible to voters. In his haste to counter the new Labour leader’s charge of pessimism, Cameron swung dangerously into the realms of wild over optimism. In the speech he simultaneously claimed that his coalition government was both realistic about what it could achieve in power and optimistic about what government could achieve in partnership with the people. In principle this all sounds lovely of course. Of course government should concede it cannot solve everything by decree and ask cooperation from its people, whilst also setting high standards of achievement. In reality though Cameron has no credible claim to the titles of both realist and optimist. He must choose one or the other to define his leadership. He let the tone of his speech tip into an unrealistic optimism, probably due to that desire to stop the Labour revolution in its tracks. He blasted the “cynics” who would pour scorn on his “Big Society” rhetoric and indeed it was a clever ploy from the Prime Minister to call on the people to come to the aid of the nation, with grand, fluffy, empty rhetoric, and offer nothing concrete. Those who criticise Cameron’s speech for its lack of substance will be easily labelled as non-believers, as statists who do not trust the brilliance of the British people. Cameron therefore tried to lay a trap for opponents of the “Big Society”. But there is a reason I continue to put the “Big Society” in inverted commas, and it’s the same reason voters and indeed Conservatives distrust the policy; good idea in principle, but it’ll never work in practice.
Again Cameron failed to articulate what the “Big Society” would actually mean in terms of government policy, besides him praising voluntary organisations in speeches and urging everyone to go out and get involved. Rhetoric and the lifting of restrictions alone will not drastically change people’s behaviour and therefore the country. The kind of society Cameron claims to want, one that rewards contribution and discourages excessive consumption, simply cannot happen without at least some prompting by central government. It is also confusing that Cameron should place such an emphasis on contribution and consumption, areas that would be better suited to alterations in tax policy, when his government has vowed to tackle the deficit predominantly through spending cuts. On the other hand Cameron did make it clear he wanted a state that was better run, more powerful and within the means of government. Again this is sensible in principle, but shockingly for a government claiming to be the “greenest ever”, Cameron simply refused to utter the word “sustainability”.
To have made sustainability a key theme of the speech would have given it greater direction and purpose and clarity. It should also be made a more important plank of his government’s policy agenda. At the moment it is an area that lies wide open for Ed Miliband’s “new generation” to seize upon and exploit. Cameron’s deficit slashing philosophy, he was at pains to point out, was not simply ideological but a necessity. However the public is already convinced that the cuts, whichever party implements them, will be in some way driven by that party’s ideology. An ideology containing the idea of sustainability would be far easier to justify than the abstract notion of the “Big Society”.
Cameron also hinted at a promise that after the pain there will be rewards. He should have placed much greater emphasis on his long term goals and how action now would lead to sustainable rewards in future, but he was perhaps deterred by the short term nature of the coalition. He was also perhaps put off of any mention of “sustainability” because a truly sustainable recovery, that really could end “boom and bust” as Gordon Brown once rashly promised, would require substantial investment now to ensure growth, energy supplies and long lasting jobs. Cameron is simply not prepared to take the gambles required of the “greenest government ever”. His brush with the backlash of child benefits cuts this week has reinforced to him that it is difficult to justify changes of policy, particularly from those promised in manifestos, to the media and electorate. He will therefore not be seen to spend now, even if that spending is necessary because of what he has previously said. So despite the obvious passion and idealism of his speech, his actions as Prime Minister suggest that Cameron is happy for the “Big Society” to remain a vague enigma, which will inspire some, baffle many and prove largely immune to damaging criticism, as critics will remain unsure as to what it is they object to. And if the Prime Minister was truly serious about lifting the burden of debt from our children then he would also use the shield of coalition to act in the “national interest” now to avert a legacy of unalterable climate change for them to inherit.
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Proper funny people, that is to say comedians, often take the ordinary and un-funny happenings of everyday life, apply their own particular, wry comic twist and sit back satisfied as rows of audience members dissolve in laughter. I imagine that for them the knowledge that they took a dull occurrence which wasn’t at all humorous and made it so, simply by looking at it through their own bulging, witty eyes is the ultimate fulfilment of their “art”. I however have always been fairly satisfied with spotting something undeniably hilarious and jabbing a finger in the general direction of such an event, usually accompanying the gesture with subtle shouts such as “Oh my God that’s so funny!” or simply a worrying, wobbly intake of breath and my lips just about gasping “HA!”.
Take the apparently newsworthy and 100% true story of “Wii-type games linked to sprains” provided by the BBC today and the laugh out loud details that ensue upon closer inspection. The article begins by insisting the Nintendo Wii and other such motion sensitive games technology had started to produce its own “brand of player injuries”. By “own brand” we can assume that they mean someone has actually bothered to confirm what we all suspected; fat, unfit people buy the Wii, thrash around with it in their living rooms for a while and claim it to be exercise and the odd unlucky sod does himself a catastrophically embarrassing You’ve Been Framed style injury to himself in the process. To have your concealed fantasies of amusing, lardy louts unintentionally vandalising their own whopping plasma screens and yelping like puppies dangled from the Empire State building after pulling a muscle returning Mario’s serve, or something, is pretty damn funny in itself. But then you pause and consider the authority behind the article.
The BBC says that “doctors”, yes those highly trained professionals admired and trusted by society, have reported on this. They have not merely met a few times to discuss it or had a small handful of them examine the issue, but convened a ruddy conference in San Francisco on the subject! Or alternatively forced the information upon an unsuspecting, unrelated gathering. The enthusiastic medical professionals tasked with the job of investigating this “phenomenon”, apparently consulted the USA’s “National Electronic Injury Surveillance System”. I mean seriously? This database actually shows that in a five year period 696 video game related injuries occurred, of which, disappointingly, only 92 were caused by a Wii- type motion device. I say disappointingly because the other injuries are things such as chronic thumb ache in overzealous, spotty adolescents hunched over a button mashing session of Gears of War or Call of Duty. The Wii injuries have a more harmful and admit it, therefore more comic potential.
At this point I am reminded of my childhood and adults trying to impress caution on me whilst I wielded some sort of sharp object excitedly. “Careful, you could take someone’s eye out with that!” they would whine. Someone else’s, not my own. And so to the funniest sentence of this weird piece of news…
Wild swings of the console’s remote also accounted for dozens of “bystander injuries”.
Now come on that is funny right? Imagine all the possible scenarios; a husband who has just about talked his wife into a game of Wii tennis inadvertently smashing her in the face, a tottering old nan accidentally swiping away her opponent’s walking stick, sending them sprawling across the coffee table, GAME, SET, MATCH! But then I read to the end of the article. Most “victims” of bystander injuries are under 10 years old. I’ve never been a fan of the Wii anyway when I have tried it. It always struck me that it got away with poor quality games, nothing more than cartoons, in comparison to other consoles because of its gimmicky, futuristic tech. Now I have even more reason to shun it. Quite apart from the fact there is no need to get over excited for the controller to respond, you can just as effectively flick your wrist from the sofa as dive around the lounge, it was fun to lose control and pretend. Now “excessive” force is out of the question in case it becomes child abuse, which just isn’t permitted to be funny. Great.
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