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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I can’t work out whether or not I’m a massive fan of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace yet. It’s been recommended to me by several people and I finally watched episode 2, about the illusion of self-regulating ecosystems, and a lot more. On the one hand it’s clearly very different, ambitious and bold, and should be applauded for a rare example of demanding and ideas driven television. But then it also seems simplistic and forced at times, especially when trying to bring the focus of its enormous scope back to its core theme of the influence of machines.
There’s definitely a strong chance that I simply did not fully understand the programme. I am still digesting the theories in my head and the central thrust of its weaving argument. I think my only reservations about it stem from the fact that All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace relies on being an impartial, enlightening and myth busting statement. Clearly though it has its own agenda and world view.
Whilst most of the analysis and arguments are sound, indeed I agree with most of it, I was slightly annoyed at times that a programme attacking deceit was playing its own tricks on the audience. Now and then the tone veered across a line from informative and intelligent to preachy and patronising.
However I will be watching more of the series. Undoubtedly I enjoyed it. Indeed whilst I moan about the programme’s own agenda, it was refreshing that this was something with a worthwhile point to get across. Somehow it encompassed vital but mostly overlooked elements of formative 20th century history, scientific theory, cultural shifts, communes and topical stories like the Arab Spring and even the Big Society.
I’m not going to delve into the depths of the arguments here because even though I have my opinions they will be convoluted and poorly expressed. For the most part though, rest assured, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace talks valuable sense. It is clever. But don’t be intimidated as it’s no bad thing to question the weaknesses of its points either, as there are clearly holes in such an admirably ambitious undertaking.
Aside from the substance, the style is a delight. Weird and wonderful archive footage is mashed together to give a vivid sense of the times, as well as the spooling complexities of some of the theories. The narration is mostly engaging but sometimes repetitive and, as I’ve said, patronisingly simplistic. However one of the good points to take from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is that in the past solutions have tended to be unnecessarily complex in pursuit of unrealistic ideals.
Enough vague waffling about something that, basically, you should watch to judge for yourself. And onto Wall-E, one of just a handful of Pixar pictures I hadn’t seen. Last night, at a silly early morning hour, I decided to finally meet the lovable waste management unit on iPlayer.
Wall-E has everything you expect from Pixar, and more. Not only is it touching, funny and heart warming, with a particularly poignant and understated love story, but it makes political points too. This certainly isn’t the complex, deep level of commentary on offer in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, but rather symbols highlighting contemporary and sometimes controversial problems.
Some themes certainly do overlap with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, mainly to do with mankind’s dependency on technology. In Wall-E the point is predictable and hardly subtle, with robots scurrying round to cater to our every need and humans literally not having to leave their hover chairs. But for children’s animation this is still a film with some brains as well as that required Pixar heart.
The key point Wall-E has to make is about over consumption, with Earth so littered with waste that humans have had to take an extended space cruise. But this 90 minute romp also touches on the power of corporations, advertising, global warming and junk food. We get so fat we can’t stand and so pampered and manipulated that we can’t think.
The real magic is that all of this is seamlessly stitched into a charming and compelling story though. Wall-E stands out from other Pixar creations because it’s given space and all its sci-fi trappings with which to visually dazzle, and also because the protagonist barely speaks. Much of Wall-E is without dialogue and the wonder of silent movies is recaptured, especially when he’s making use of his extensive collection of human memorabilia and music. Stripping away everything else allows the best of Pixar to shine.
So if you’ve got time on your hands head over to BBC iPlayer for a thrilling and touching journey with Wall-E through outer space, and an intelligent and inspiring tour of our recent past with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.
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I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by the term “event television” at first. Apparently we don’t have much of it over here. Whereas they have loads of it over there. Here of course is, well here, and there is America, the US, the United States, the land of the free. I suppose now they can call themselves the conquerors of terror. Nevertheless, whatever our inferiorities on the hunting down madmen front, I thought it was a harsh and unfair assessment of our television schedules.
Course no one reads schedules anymore though, no one sits down to watch anything at the allotted hour. We’re all addicted to endless self gratification. We get up to have an iPoo, flush it down the iBog and wash our hands with interactive iSoap, ambling into the kitchen through the iDoors that open with that Star Trek noise, to sit down to our perfectly timed iToast. Then we float to work on our iMagicCarpets, reading an article about the latest iPod on our iPads. When we’ve got a spare moment we’ll catch up with our favourite shows, saved straight to our favourites automatically on iPlayer. Or we check out some new comedy, whenever we want, on 4Od. Thankfully ITV is pretty much forgotten online. Someone told me there was an itvplayer, but I didn’t believe them. What would be the point?
Anyway back to my point. Even if we did read schedules we’d just shout “SHIT!” and toss them down somewhere. But it’s ridiculous to say British TV lacks events. The Royal Wedding was an event that the whole world, especially the Yanks, wanted to see. And they couldn’t replicate it even with their superior budgets and 22 feature length episode series. Quite often BBC Sport will show some horses jumping about the place and that’s actually called Event-ing! How can things get more eventful? Even ITV has the odd football match. Football matches are events, I’ve been to some. And just because baseball has more interesting bats than cricket, and the Super Bowl is so good people watch it for the adverts, does not mean British sport is any less diverse and eventful than American ones.
I eventually discovered that “event television” refers to the scale and quality of drama, as opposed to sport or documentaries. American imports like The Wire, The Sopranos and Lost have become cultural staples in recent years on this side of the pond. Meanwhile good British drama is of the costumed variety. Only wrapped in frilly frocks will British drama make it from here to the bigger apples on the other bank. Other countries don’t care about our storytelling unless it’s Downton Abbey (there’s a persistent rumour that ITV made that!). Everyone wants the classy execution and paranoia driven plots of American drama though.
Being the dinosaur that I am, I haven’t watched any of the American series I mentioned above. I couldn’t possible tolerate the colonies beating us in terms of quality. I’m quite content to chuckle along dreamily to a familiar episode of Friends but that’s because such a programme has no far flung aspirations. It’s simply crude and silly humour.
In all seriousness though, I may not be familiar with The Wire and other renowned US drama but I have seen the higher production standards of American creations and the flaws of British drama are plain. Part of the reason Doctor Who is being so lovingly welcomed back is that it’s one of just a handful of shows capable of “event television”. Off the top of my head I can only think of Spooks as another show, not dependent on a typically BBC period setting, capable of generating awe inspiring thrills and twists for the duration of a series.
The controller of BBC One recently refused to authorise a second series of Zen, about an Italian detective played by Rufus Sewell, on the grounds that the channel had too many detectives. I believe this decision to be a mistake. Zen was not “event television”, its pace was too pedestrian, but for British audiences in particular it filled in some of the weaknesses of TV drama. It was filmed on location in Italy and set in the present day. It had sophistication, a strong cast and good scripts. It might well be true that crime as a genre in this country lacks impact because there are too many identikit competitors, but Zen genuinely stood out. It was certainly superior to Luther, which will continue.
The latest addition to Britain’s list of crime based programmes is The Shadow Line, which for what it’s worth, is on every Thursday at 9pm on BBC Two. It arrives with the bold claim that it’s bringing that elusive “event television” quality, to these shores. And this is no import. It’s written, directed and produced by the man behind Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff, Hugo Blick. It’s unquestionably his brainchild and therefore primarily his problem if the bold claims disintegrate into disappointment. It’s frequently compared to The Wire in all the hype, which was of course fairly meaningless to me.
At first glance The Shadow Line is at least interesting for taking an alternative angle and a refreshing approach. It’s about a murder investigation from both sides of the law. It requires you to stick with it for its seven episode run for secrets to be revealed. Its opening scene, however, has the potential to alienate the undecided viewer. Far from going out of its way to hook you, it drops you into a rather sparse and moody scene. Two policemen discover a body in a car, with the more experienced man quickly assessing the grim situation. He has a cold and detached manner that’s slightly unsettling and mutters under his breath as he recognises the victim with multiple gunshot wounds. The rookie with him is clearly naive. The old timer declares that they’ll be leaving this one for someone else to deal with.
It may be a slow burning and confusing set up but it was enough to draw me in. The realism to the dialogue and the detail of the camerawork is some of the best in the episode. Sadly The Shadow Line doesn’t always walk the line of successful “event television”, straying into the shadows of OTT stylisation a number of times. Not all of the acting is good and the script sags at points and tarnishes its excellent features with the occasional god-awful line of dialogue. The most memorable example is when a “tough female detective” decides to dress down an ordinary cop following procedure a little too closely with a speech about the first syllable of “country” and “constable”.
These lapses let down what is otherwise a promising episode. The characters range from the rounded to the farfetched. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph is a front man for heroin dealers, running a flower and fruit company built from scratch with his own cash. He has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s and is more sympathetic than any other character. He’s trying to unpick things from the criminal side, and is clearly more powerful than he’s letting on. On the side of the (clearly corrupt) law, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is a detective with a bullet lodged in his brain. He can’t remember anything about the assignment that got it there, or the suitcase of money in his wardrobe, which is a well handled climax to the episode. Both of these leads do a good job and get some good lines, with Eccleston coming out of it particularly well.
The Shadow Line has so many influences and so many paranoia driven secrets that it could be too much. Its emphasis is also so firmly on looking and sounding classy that at times it simply looks ridiculous, and will come across as arrogant and up itself. But I’ll keep watching because it’s a bold idea with good looks, that now and then, does feel like top notch telly. And “event” telly at that.
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Where is the optimum position to sit in the cinema? Actually that question is better put as, where is your favourite place to sit? For we probably all have differing, individual preferences. There are those that like to sit at the back of everything; the bus, the classroom, the theatre. There are those of a nervous disposition who like to have their seats adjacent to the aisle. Personally I prefer to sit against the wall in the upper middle section, usually away from others with a decent sightline, like the lonely uninteresting enigma I am.
But then perhaps where you sit also depends on the company you’re keeping that evening. If you’re on a hot date, somewhere close to invisible in the depths of darkness at the back, but within thrilling proximity of the projector, is a must. If you’re on a cooler date a discrete but ordinary and satisfactory view is preferable. With friends you want to bag a whole row for yourselves and avoid separation.
I’m the sort of person that requires exceptional circumstances to tolerate lateness. If I’m in charge of some sort of trip my contingent will be there early, with time to spare. I’m only late if I’m not bothered about said event, or if I’m trying to appear nonchalant and lose track of time. My point is that I’ve never timed my arrival badly enough to have to sit in the very front row of the cinema.
Arriving to see Paul it seemed my friends and I had plumped for this unknown space, the very front row, in order to give the appearance of being social. Of course it’s not as if, as decent human beings, we were going to have satisfactory conversations in the middle of a film, but that’s beside the point. Half way through the trailers however a handful loped away from the group for better seats. Leaving me in the front row, with others too embarrassed to surrender and back out of a commitment. Great.
I was thus anticipating a couple of hours of awkward discomfort, followed by a sleepless night due to chronic neck pain. And months of costly chiropractic bills. Which result in my financial ruin. I would drop out of university due to the endless agony and money worries. I’d then lose my car and find myself marooned at home. Scratching my constantly irritated neck in the shower I would slip, crack my head open and start losing unhealthy amounts of blood. I’d manage to drag myself to where my car used to be, but then remember I didn’t have one and die in a messy heap on the drive. All because I sat in the very front row; repeatedly contorting my neck and twisting my head from side to side, as if I were watching tennis, in order to see what was going on in a scene.
Before the end of the trailers though, I was beginning to view my predicament as an exciting opportunity for fresh perspective on the movie experience. Firstly there was extensive, ample leg room. I nudged a friend and performed erratic, normally dangerous, kicking movements in the air to demonstrate this. Perhaps what truly opened my eyes to the perks of the front row however was the trailer to Your Highness. Yes it looked like it might have the potential to be an amusing spoof, but more importantly Natalie Portman’s scantily clad features were rendered larger than life. I mean it was better than 3D.
When Paul the alien first appeared he loomed out of the screen at me. Even prior to this as loveable duo Pegg and Frost wandered in awe around a Comic convention, my proximity meant I felt as part of the crowd as they did. In the opening scene the alien crash landing seemed to happen right in front of my face, maybe because it literally did. The money ploughed into 3D is all well and good; but why not just make wider cinema screens with one endless front row, for the truly interactive experience?
Despite my obvious fascination with the novelty of my viewing position, I eventually lost myself in the film and forgot my surroundings. Because Paul is good enough to lose yourself in. I was really surprised by how much I liked it. Most critics have concluded it’s a poor offering from Pegg and Frost, far inferior to Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. Many thought that the marrying of American and British humour was uneasy and un-funny. I would agree that Hot Fuzz and Shaun are better films. But Paul is the most accessible movie this British comedy duo has ever made. It’s warm and affectionate and very, very funny at times.
I thought that far from hindering the film, the mix of American acting talent and humour with British comedy and perspective, gave this film something different, compared to the likes of Fuzz and Shaun. One minute you’d have a very British joke about tea, followed by some edgier comedy about creationism or physical, bumbling stuff from the pursuing FBI agents. None of it was groundbreaking but I laughed out loud several times. And there are some lovely touches for fans of sci-fi, with the appearance of a certain Ms Weaver and a recurring joke about the three tits given to a monster by Pegg’s illustrator.
There’s also a recurring gag about Pegg and Frost’s characters being a gay couple, which is nothing new to us Brits. Whilst this is predictable and not greatly funny, I didn’t find it an annoying recurrence but an endearing one. And if Paul has predictable moments it makes up for them with some really surprising twists at the end, even if they come alongside things you’ll see coming a mile off.
What about Paul himself then? Even for me, from my close up vantage point, the CGI looked pretty believable and flawless. I actually preferred Seth Rogen’s voice to Seth Rogen’s voice plus his body. As funny as he is he can also be irritating. I loved the concept of an alien influencing and absorbing our culture and it allowed lots of sci-fi related, more sophisticated gags alongside the obvious visual ones. Paul even mimics Rose hilariously from Titanic as Pegg draws him. I found Frost’s standard performance of a pathetic loser more touching in Paul than any other Pegg/Frost film, because of the way he can bond with both Rogen’s voice and the CGI Paul’s mannerisms. Pegg was the most impressive thing about the recent Burke and Hare, but here his acting is rather one dimensional and generic.
A supporting cast of Yanks including Jason Bateman and Glee’s Jane Lynch add flavour to the mix. But overall Paul is rather simple. This doesn’t make it bad. There is great to joy be found in the comic delivery of Pegg and Frost, and the fusing of thoroughly British funnies with American reactions in an American setting. The final, ordinary line of the film, hilariously delivered by Frost, sums up Paul: “That was good wasn’t it”.
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