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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Here’s how I expected Jackass 3D to play out:
Annoying American Moron 1: You ready for this man?
Annoying American Moron 2: Yeah dude, ready as I’ll ever be.
Annoying American Moron 1: Ok man brace yourself.
Annoying American Moron 2: Oh Christ dude wait up…
Annoying American Moron 1: 1, 2…here it comes man…3
(Some form of speeding projectile crashes into Moron 2’s private parts)
Annoying American Moron 2: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!
Annoying American Moron 1: Bulls-eye man!
Dimwit Onlookers: Hahahahahahahaha awesome!
(Close-up of throbbing impact area, rendered an unappealing, dangling reality by the magic of 3D)
Repeat scene to fill film.
This still isn’t a million miles from several scenes in Jackass 3D. Needless to say their painful, sickening stunts are more inventive and impressive than my example, but imagine my surprise when I didn’t find the American morons annoying. Imagine my even greater surprise when I left the cinema thinking of Jackass 3D as the finest example of 3D technology I am yet to see and a film that gets back to the exciting core of the genuine movie experience. My previous experience of the Jackass franchise had me fearing a series of painful experiments on the man vegetables, but this turned out to be so much more than that.
Firstly then the use of 3D. Jackass 3D’s title sequence is nothing less than a visual spectacular that leaves other films I have seen through the Elton John style magic shades in the dust. Avatar resembled a video game most of the time for all the ranting and raving about the uniqueness of the experience, and for me there was miniscule wow factor in watching a poorly conceived game I couldn’t even play. Similarly Alice in Wonderland was an arty, surreal cartoon and Toy Story 3, despite its brilliance in other areas, an animation. There’s still a feel of artificial computer generation to the wonderfully distinctive action sequences.
In Jackass however there’s no sense of fakery or techno tweaking to the visuals; just silly, outlandish, dangerous, exciting stunts, performed by real life humans, in exquisite, vivid detail in front of you. The title sequence is full of colourful and crazy costumes and sets. Best of all it’s a slow motion compilation of a series of outrageous set pieces that brilliantly use 3D. A ceiling fan is decimated, smashed to smithereens by the head of a flying moron. Paint balls fly out of the screen at you. It’s all obviously purely performed and crafted to justify the 3D of the title, but a film like Jackass, with no conventional requirements like plot, gets away with it. And the reason it all looks so spectacular is because someone could afford to just play with 3D for once, rather than make an ordinary film and chuck a few gimmicky effects in somewhere.
Whilst the rest of the film comes nowhere near to the 3D wizardry of the opening, apart from an explosive, debris strewn end, it has its own charms. And when 3D effects do occasionally pop up throughout, they are all the more impressive and appropriate for being shots of real things: plumes of water leaping from the screen, a party popper inflated by on-demand fart reaching out of the screen towards you. When the 3D effects aren’t deployed though this is still an enjoyable film, finishing just as you start to become mildly bored by it all. Well perhaps enjoyable is a poorly chosen word. Certainly watching a room full of men puking after drinking the “sweat suit cocktail” and a man propelled skywards in a porta-loo full of shit, is far from enjoyable. These scenes have the whole room collectively groaning and looking away, chuckling with embarrassment and suppressing the gag reflex.
Other scenes are genuinely enjoyable and funny, such as the opening “high-five” gag in which various members of the Jackass team are floored by a giant hand, and the “electric avenue” tazer gauntlet challenge. Again the entire cinema gasps and giggles at the pain. And much of the humour here comes from the irresistible on-screen camaraderie of a group of idiotic, thrill seeking guys having a good laugh. They’re rarely as irritating as I feared; you’re sucked in by their games and the sight of full grown adults clinging to the joys of childhood.
Frankly it seems stupid to dwell on what Jackass 3D isn’t. It obviously lacks the conventions of an ordinary movie. It won’t be for everyone. But by being different it gets back to the core of what movies are about. Going to the cinema should be a group experience in which rows and rows of people are provoked into a reaction; an ooh, an aah, a chortle or a scream. Good cinema sparks conversation afterwards. Jackass 3D shocks the audience. It ticks all the boxes and by properly exploring 3D technology, finds itself at the cutting edge of filmmaking. Most of all though, it’s damn good fun.
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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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Room – Emma Donoghue
In A Strange Room – Damon Galgut
The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobsen
C – Tom McCarthy
The Long Song – Andrea Levy
Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey
Ironically, given all the talk about the omission of quality humorous writing such as Ian McEwan’s Solar when the longlist was announced, the shortlist is now being hailed as the funniest in years. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen is seen as a properly comic tale, whilst the others have their elements according to the judging panel. All the hype around the shortlist is the surprise dropping out of both The Slap, the biggest selling book on the longlist and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. In truth neither of these omissions surprises me. I have read both books and enjoyed both but neither deserved to win. The Slap is an entertaining read that is well written at times but suffers from a number of fatal flaws in characterisation, narrative structure and content that meant it could never be a worthy winner. David Mitchell’s latest work is weaker than all his previous ones and it would therefore had been odd had this one finally got him a win. He struggled with the switch to a third person narrative viewpoint, over indulged when it came to including his historical research in the story and lost some of the originality and flair so synonymous with his earlier novels. My money is on C by Tom McCarthy (despite having read none of the shortlisted titles!) as I am most desperate to get me hands of a copy of this.
I was going to attempt a funny short story to go with this post, but that may have to wait until my moods shift. Stay tuned if interested I suppose.
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Tagged 2010, Andrea, Andrew Motion, Booker, C, Carey, Christos Tsiolkas, Damon Galgut, David Mitchell, Emma Donoghue, expression, Finkler, funny, Howard, humour, In a Strange Room, Jacobsen, Levy, Longlist, love, man, McEwan, Parrot and Olivier in America, Peter, Prize, Question, Room, Shortlist, Solar, technology, The, The Long Song, The Slap, theme, third-person, Tom McCarthy
I’ve seen A Single Man twice and I am pleased to say it lost none of its impact upon a second viewing. The first time I watched it I was shocked at how I connected with it emotionally. It was the sort of heart squeezing link I only usually make with a piece of music or a poem; it was less a film than a piece of art saying something, expressing something, profoundly true about existence.
Of course for many critics the idea that this film was a glorious piece of visual art, a stimulating feast for the eyes, was simultaneously a strength to be applauded and a glaring weakness deflating all worth from the project. I had previously only come across the director and co-writer Tom Ford as the man who designed Daniel Craig’s suits for the Bond reboot Casino Royale. Whilst the tux was suitably suave my lack of expertise in the area meant I withheld judgement on Ford as an artist and a filmmaker until after the film. Those who knew better than me talked knowingly of Ford’s accomplished designing abilities and the inevitable shiny gloss of beautiful high fashion that would be evident in every frame of A Single Man. However critics also questioned the designer turned director’s ability to make his first film something more than a 90 minute perfume ad.
There are moments that feel a little too polished. In particular a flashback sequence in black and white that pictures Colin Firth and his dead lover sunbathing on an impossibly rocky, empty hillside. The Guardian critic picked out this scene as one that felt too crisp, too artificial and more at home in the fashion world than the realm of gay, grieving George’s story. I was inclined to agree but perhaps I was being too harsh. Having seen the whole film twice and loved it both times I am certainly more than happy to overlook an artificial feel to what was after all a dream sequence.
Besides those critics too focused upon the abundance of style in A Single Man may be missing the whole point of the story. Colin Firth’s bereaved, suicidal character comes to see that life is greatly lacking substance; style wins the day. Be it the style he hides behind for his neighbours, colleagues or students, George the lecturer deals mostly in the triumph of style over substance. His substance used to be Jim, his long term lover, but this was taken from him. The film charts a single day in this single man’s life, showing us mostly the tedious motions of his stylish act, with occasional glimpses of substance through the excellent, restrained performance of Colin Firth. That essence of suppressed British emotion so often seen in trashy romantic comedies finally finds its perfect place here in a gay man pondering the meaning of life. The film climaxes with a kind of answer to this question, as through an encounter with a student who reminds him of youth, George comes to treasure the handful of meaningful moments, when all seems clear, that really do make the veneer of stylish everyday nonsense worthwhile.
So first time director Tom Ford must be praised for pulling off such a story. He should not listen to those who criticise the stylishness of his film as it simply irresistibly oozes the essence of an era I absolutely love and as discussed above, the sheer beauty of every frame adds to the meaning of the piece. He also co-wrote the script which seems to be a sensitive adaptation of Isherwood’s original work and is just the right length; this is a man capable of fine tuning the components of storytelling not just the image in front of a camera. Colin Firth’s performance, along with those supporting him, is also completely believable and compelling. Most films with a voiceover inevitably disappoint but this one pulls it off, largely due to Firth. A Single Man is certainly not a gripping, edge of your seat film experience but it is a compelling story beautiful enough to hang on your wall. If you could do so you would, for every time you see it you will ponder the nature of the human condition profoundly and re-examine your life.
To Sherlock then, a new version of the classic Holmes and Watson partnership, that updates the sleuthing to a modern day London setting. This time-leap transformation has not really been explored by filmmakers, perhaps out of respect for the characters’ grounding in Victoriana, or perhaps because it couldn’t be done well.
But if anyone can do it surely Steven Moffat, head writer of Doctor Who previously discussed on this blog, could! In partnership with fellow Whovian script writer Mark Gattis, Moffat has set out to introduce Holmes and Watson to a new generation via a new crime fighting era. The idea for the series came about during journeys to Doctor Who’s Cardiff HQ. In the title role Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor I have long thought would make an excellent Doctor at some point, plays the brilliant, socially inept mastermind of detection. The music for the series is composed by David Arnold of Bond film fame. All these things meant I couldn’t not like this programme!
I did of course love the first episode, A Study in Pink, perhaps all the more for being able to note Moffat’s little tweaks from Conan Doyle’s original story that united Holmes and Watson for the first time, A Study in Scarlet. However as with A Single Man the style was sometimes more impressive than the substance. A Guardian review has already noted that the plot was thin for this first episode, despite some wonderful Moffat-esque twists such as Mycroft appearing to be Moriarty and most importantly of all the spot on characterisation. Martin Freeman’s Watson is just the right balance between war veteran and ordinary man, avoiding the bumbling screen Watsons of past adaptations. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is marvellously distant, methodical and brilliant. The Sherlock influences on Dr Who were apparent whilst watching this and vice versa. I do hope Benedict gets a shot at being a Timelord. For now though I shall enjoy his interpretation of another one of my favourite characters and hope that this promising opener was but a taster of better things to come.
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