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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It’s a cliché that you can’t rely on politicians for anything. But as I recently discussed with someone, clichés are clichés for a reason. Most people think that you can at least rely on MPs, particularly party leaders, to be dishonest and always on the lookout for an opportunity to score cheap points against their rivals and amass political capital. However Britain’s recent icy snap proved there are depths the media strategists will not dare sanction for their employers to sink to.
It really is a mystery why no one had the guts or guile to pounce on the targets laid bare by the blankets of white stuff. About a month ago I was reading an article in a hotel lobby in sporadically sunny Spain. Back home the country had already groaned to a moaning, bemused halt under the weight of the snow. This article was in The Times and I forget the identity of the writer, which is regrettably locked behind Murdoch’s News International Paywall. It made the very interesting point that neither leader of the two main parties had utilised a huge moment to deliver defining, resonant messages. The snow touched every single person in the country. It was a destructive but unifying force. The potential for delivering a knockout political blow was immense.
And yet our notoriously backstabbing, corrupt, two-faced politicians did nothing. Well nothing worthwhile. Of course there were the usual gripes about lack of planning and the inevitable shortage of grit. Labour had its half-hearted dig at the government, knowing full well it couldn’t overdo it because the previous administration had been responsible for much of the preparation. Most surprisingly of all, I remember the article in The Times highlighting, was David Cameron passing up his moment to finally win the public’s hearts over to the “Big Society”.
With all the complaints about councils failing to grit icy pavements and elderly neighbours slipping and sliding to serious injury, surely this was Dave’s moment to urge us all to lend a helping hand? This was the closest we were going to get to a modern day Blitz spirit. Everyone was out enjoying the beautiful change, waving to complete strangers, engaging in snowball fights; except those blocked in and cut off. Free those trapped in your area, band together and get by, show the true power that community still had. The Prime Minister said none of this and his chance to convey what his key policy might mean in reality was quickly gone.
It would have been an extraordinary moment for a Prime Minister under fire to show leadership and go on the offensive with a more optimistic message. The distraction from constant protests against cuts would have been welcome and may have lingered memorably in voters’ minds, but instead Cameron chose to wait it out till Christmas for his respite. Ultimately his characteristic caution probably held him back from any such message. It would have been open to ridicule. Evidence, his critics would say, that the Conservatives are leaving you to do it all alone, another excuse for incompetent governance, dressed up as positive ideology. Those criticisms of the “Big Society” might be true and are longstanding, but if Cameron genuinely believes in his policy then why did he have reservations about seizing his best opportunity yet of hammering its message through?
There seems to be an unwritten rule that a crisis caused by natural causes is off limits for use as political ammunition. Even so it is perhaps even more surprising in some ways that Ed Miliband didn’t capitalise on the snow. Miliband didn’t have a readymade policy to bolster like Cameron, but he needs to set his party on a new, distinctive course at some point. As a former Climate Change Secretary he could have pointed out the changing nature of Britain’s climate and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather. He could have been extremely bold and announced that Climate Change would become a central, unifying theme of all Labour policy, especially now that it was proving directly damaging to the UK economy and its citizens everyday lives. However he needn’t have been so specific to achieve an effect, and with his policies still under review a vaguer, flexible approach would have been preferable. He could have simply called for greater provision to deal with such extreme conditions in future and indicated how Climate Change would be one of several of his key priorities, whether he meant it or not. This week Miliband demonstrated he could make decisions and announcements that were at once cynical and correct. Declaring he wished to see the banking bonus tax extended is sensible but he is only willing to commit to this policy ahead of so many others because it wins support. Why then did he not show similar political pragmatism with the snow?
Of course ideally Miliband would have used the snow as a platform, from which to launch a new sustainable set of policies which would see Britain cope better with such circumstances in future and begin an inspiring new assault on Climate Change. Sadly such genuinely motivational and good natured politics is so rare no one expects it. It is reassuring though that some areas, perhaps still considered by some to be acts of God, are still considered off limits for cheap, manipulative political point scoring.
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