The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

King Kong 1933

King Kong 1976

King Kong 2005

In older, darker days I had occasion to watch Peter Jackson’s King Kong on DVD with a pal who was familiar with neither the 1933 version, nor the arch, sneery 1976 John Guillermin remake, of both of which I am quite fond. I had been encouraged in my evening’s viewing choice by two facts: a) I knew Jackson was a fan of Kong and was therefore unlikely to tit about with it too much, and b) it is a story, I thought at the time, with an unkillable structure.

The original is a great three acts. Half an hour getting to Skull Island, half an hour poncing around with the natives, half an hour of climactic NY carnage.

Well… After two hours of Jackson’s oceanic scene-setting and purposeless penisaurus-fighting my friend turned to me in a state of what sounded like suicidal ennui and said, “Has it nearly finished?”

Yes, I assured her. We are in New York now. The end is nigh. All Kong has to do is climb the Empire State Building and get shot off. It was beauty killed the beast. Blah, blah, blah. End credits, and we will say no more about this.

At which point there was a shot of the Manhattan skyline with the Empire State Building a teeny, tiny feature in the far distance.

God’s tentacles, I thought. There could be at least another hour of this. And indeed there was. Another bus-pushing, monkey-sliding, patience-pummelling hour.

I was reminded of this at the end of Jackson’s most recent movie The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey when, after almost three hours of wandering around, our vast ensemble cast looked from the top of a mountain towards the distant object of their quest.

It was really, really far away.

And I had already become quite vague about what it was and why they were going there. Probably I will find out over the next two years.

If I’m spared.

Two years…

The Hobbit

What happens in the Hobbit is this: Tim from The Office pulls his funny faces and does a series of double-and-a-half takes whilst enduring a home invasion instigated by Gandalf the Great Intelligence. The interlopers are fifty-seven gnomes, each of them brilliantly characterised. There is Irish gnome, Scottish gnome, fat gnome, ugly gnome, comparatively normal-looking gnome, twofold gnome and all the other gnomes.

They are planning on, oh I dunno, fighting a dragon who has stolen all their gold, for some reason. They do some comedy business with the eating and the burping and the singing of their little gnome song and doing a little gnome dance about the washing-up.

Having tidied up they trot off on their quest taking Tim from The Office along as their burglar. Despite his not being a burglar. For some reason.

It turns out that there are Klingons who are cross with the gnomes. Everyone fights each other for a bit with a sword named after their favourite album track by Wolfstone, and the gnomes escape through a hole in the ground. Or something.

I was asleep for parts of this film. Perhaps I should make that clear.

Anyway the hole in the ground leads to a magical pixie palace, home to the actor Kevin Elrond.

Also, and this is quite exciting, the magical pixie palace is where you will find the only female character in the whole film. Actually there may have been a buxom female Hobbit briefly, and there was definitely a pixie flautist, but this is the only female character to actually have a name and a purposeful place in the narrative, making Middle Earth a place of tokenism even more embarrassing than the Star Wars universe.

Her name is Gladys and there she is all glowing and ladylike on a literal pedestal.

“Ne-Ne Na-Na Na-Na Nu-Nu,” she explains, and off our gnomes fuck on the next bit of their pilgrimage.

There is a lengthy stop off at Mola Ram’s mining and shouting enterprise. Things pick up here momentarily as Hare from Burke And Hare turns up to do his epic 3-2-1, Ted Rogers-style riddle business.

“I am useful for driving. In me you’ll go far. I have wheels and an engine. In fact I’m a car.”

 

“Are you a car?

 

“No. I’m a bin. And here’s Norman Collier to explain why…”

 

Thinking about it, this might have been one of the bits I was asleep for.

During another bit of sleeping I had an idea for a movie involving the two blue wizards that are mentioned, and whom I have assumed to be Betty Blue and Blue Emmanuelle. Also instead of them being wizards one is a nun and the other is a nurse. And instead of being set in a fantasy feudal land it is set in a women’s prison. It’d be a great film.

Back in the real movie there is another fight with some Klingons and, as with every other fight in the film it looks like the gnomes will win because they have a tactical nuclear wizard in their arsenal. And indeed this comes to pass since what is even more invincible than a tactical nuclear wizard is a tactical nuclear wizard with the out-of-office number for the emergency flock of giant eagles.

Really? Eagles again?

So our brave gnomes are bravely, randomly rescued, and now there are only twelve short months to wait for the middle bit of this, what we might as well call, story.

It’s beautiful to look at is The Hobbit, in that nothing-is-real, Captain Zep Super Space Detective/Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow kind of way, but is that all we get now? Gnomeo & Juliet versus God Of War III? Is that the best we deserve? Pretty lights shining on a wall?

I just can’t find anything interesting enough in this to think or write about.

It is fabulous that Jackson has managed to smuggle some eccentric bits into a product-shifter movie this trans-global (Doctor Who’s hedgehog hospital, for instance, is a fleeting joy), but it is a sign of how numb we have become, how utterly harrowed and broken, that this fraction of a film is looked on as some sort of high watermark of legitimate adult entertainment.

It is for children. Not particularly inquisitive children at that.

If you want a three-hour movie about characters changing over the duration of a journey why not try Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker? Not only is it a brilliant film but it also has the twin advantages of an actual ending and a fascinating, insistent line of philosophical enquiry. You will not find a PS3 game of Lego Tarkovsky’s Stalker and that is indicative of something.

Wake up.

Scooby-Doo Meets Batman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In his fascinating book Thinking, Fast And Slow Daniel Kahneman explains our current understanding of cognitive processes by invoking two metaphorical systems, System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is a fast, intuitive jump-to-conclusions system which assumes truth, and is predisposed to make connections, ascribe agency and so forth. It is a low cost thing is System 1 and it is running all the time.

System 2 is an effortful system, exerting the kind of deliberate, analytical thinking that is required when impressions, inclinations and feelings alone won’t do. It is the process from which we get beliefs, attitudes and intentions. It costs though, metabolically, so it is really only called on when required. And in Kahneman’s terminology it is “lazy” which, I think is a way of saying it acts until the exact moment it doesn’t need to anymore, then it stops.

As with everything in adaptive evolution the workings of cognition are shown not to be the noble striving towards an ideal of efficiency. They are the results of an “Ah fuck it, that’ll do” default.

If a genuine, actual God exists and this is his creation then he is my kind of guy. Botched jobs that will barely do, walked away from; and paths of least resistance all the way.

System 2 is not called upon that often because the broadly understandable, associative worldview that System 1 cobbles together in its charming, scatty way is generally unharmful. System 1 is blind to subtle, biasing things like suggestion and priming effects because, mostly, it doesn’t need to be aware of them.

If nothing else at least this provides Derren Brown with a way of making a living.

When System 1 does come across something obviously contextually unfamiliar it nudges System 2 for validation. There is an identifiable shift up from the one system to the other. This loss of cognitive ease is simple to observe. Kahneman uses the sentence:

“When something cement does not fit into the current context of activated ideas the system detects an abnormality, as you just experienced.”

The converse also holds true. If something doesn’t seem anomalous then System 1 blunders blithely on.  Kahneman demonstrates this by asking a simple-to-answer question:

“How many animals of each kind did Moses take into the Ark?”

The answer is so easy that the majority of people don’t spot what is fundamentally wrong with the question. System 1, not detecting an associative disruption, has given the answer. System 2 is still tucked up in bed with a cup of hot chocolate and a Sudoku book.

Kahneman’s book is excellent, and there is a lot more too it than my piffling simplifications suggest. We are not quite as spiffing as we fancy ourselves to be and, as the book goes on to explain, we consistently make bad statistical choices because of the way we’ve developed.

There are economic ramifications I am given to understand.

A Nobel Prize got awarded they say.

I enjoyed the book greatly. It taught me a lot of new stuff as well as reinforcing a lot of previously ill-informed notions I had about why we think the way we think, and why, unless challenged, we believe the things we believe. It is all rooted in the physical, experiential, verifiable world too.

For the most part, I came to understand, when I am watching films I am running System 1. There are bright lights flashing on the screen.

Good.

Thing follows thing follows thing follows thing. It is rare that my cognitive ease is unsettled to the point that I think “Hang on a minute, though…” and when it does this is usually the result of a purposeful action on the part of the film makers.

Some film makers are good at exploiting a sense of unease by subtly altering what you expect to see. You can see it in the way John Carpenter has things happening in the corners of the widescreen frame in Halloween for instance. Or Philip Kaufman’s ruthless exploitation of the tilted topography of San Francisco to fill the backgrounds of his Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers with visual non sequiturs.

Others are less good. Ed Wood’s reputation as the cinema’s worst director is well founded. The clumsiness of Plan 9 From Outer Space, its lurches between night time and daylight, its mismatching of stock footage, its swooping tonal changes all make it quite difficult to watch. System 2 is getting constant digs in the ribs from System 1. That all costs you. The raising of your blood pressure and the dilation of your pupils has to be fuelled by something.

People have different thresholds.

I wasn’t irked particularly when the Raiders franchise “nuked the fridge” in Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Many people were.

Similarly I did not have a problem in this year’s The Dark Knight Rises when the Gotham City Police Department emerge from their prolonged entombment, fit, healthy, muscular of arm and shiny of buttons to fight Bane and his forces.

“That could never happen,” was the complaint, as though there was no precedent in magical realist literature, fantasy films or comic book writing. It is, at the very worst, para-consistent with what has gone before rather than outright inconsistent. And not even that I think.

It’s a thrilling sequence in a film that is one of the least compromised blockbusters I’ve ever seen.

2012 has been a year notable for films that have come freighted with heavy expectations but which nonetheless have not disappointed.

I adored the colour-saturated Magnificent Seven-for-nerds that was The Avengers. It was so much nimbler than I thought it could possibly be. Similarly I was agog at Prometheus. I think time will be as kind to that film as it has been to Blade Runner, which was also not well understood on its initial release.

The Amazing Spider-man was not to my taste. The revision of the Peter Parker character into a cool, sulky pseudo-outsider made the story considerably less interesting to me, but it is, I now realise, a film that is not intended for me any more than the Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games or Sex And The City films are. It has its own audience, and that’s good.

So what a relief that The Dark Knight Rises, fourth in the queue, was a tour de force too. It was sensible of the studio to give Christopher Nolan a free rein with it as a hobbled compromise would have been too much to bear.

Still though it must have taken some balls for them to release, under the mantle of a summer blockbuster, the movie he presented them with. Nearly three hours long, furiously unconventional in its depiction of the passage of time and without its central character for huge stretches, this is a challenging piece of work.

What can we say about Batman?

He is an archetype of apparently limited flexibility. The only child of philanthropic billionaires he witnesses their murders as a young boy. In adulthood he is compelled to fight crime, seemingly as a result of this early trauma. He dresses as a bat. The reason he gives is that criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot.

His relations with the Gotham City Police Department are ambiguous but he has a mutually respectful friendship with the Chief of Police Jim Gordon.

Occasionally he has had a partner called Robin. The first Robin, Dick Grayson, later became the superhero Nightwing. The second Robin, Jason Todd, was murdered by The Joker. The third Robin, Tim Drake, grew up to be the superhero Red Robin and his replacement, Stephanie Brown, was killed in action almost immediately. The mantle is currently worn by Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son by Talia al Ghul from a storyline that I had previously thought was non-canonical. And if, when you hear the name Damien, your first thought is of The Omen rather than Only Fools And Horses then you are the sort of person that I would like to be.

Batman once had his back broken by the drug-engorged villain Bane, but he got better. Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend at the time had magic healingy-wealingy powers or something.

There is an ensemble of allies. There is a colourful spectrum of antagonists.

In his time Bruce has been killed. He has been imprisoned for murder. He has been sent back through time. He has been to the Moon, to distant galaxies, to Hell, and to Scotland.

DC, the company which publishes the Batman comics is astute about the character. He, at least in their main line of comics, is most generally played as the obverse of Superman. The dark night to Superman’s yellow sun. It is a very tidy conceit.

Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are both orphans, but they appear to have reacted differently to their situations. Superman’s affable, monogamous simplicity is a stark contrast to Batman’s glum, polymorphous complexity. A reason for the equivalence of their origins is simple artistic thrift. They both started out in their own comic books at about the same time (Batman in a 1939 detective comic, Superman in a 1938 action comic) with audiences that were separate and distinct. Fear of the loss of one’s parents must have been quite a thing to the kids growing up between world wars. An origin story is just an origin story. No wonder there were similarities.

You can read too much into the moral dualism the characters seem to present. Ooh darkness and light. Ooh the Manichaean struggle at the heart of all men.

Well, yes. But, more to the point, no. It’s just a fucking comic.

In the wake of Frank Miller’s transgressive 1986 comic series The Dark Kight Returns in which Bruce Wayne has succumbed to the ravages of age and Clark Kent has become the puppet of a right wing US President, there was a move towards seeing the expression of something political in comics. Perhaps something profound about twentieth century sexuality too.

Sadly though this doesn’t seem to have amounted to too much. There are now visionary comics writers who receive more attention than they otherwise might have done, but they are still the tiny exception.

Some of Miller’s subsequent work has been a bit thuggish and misogynistic, and The Dark Knight returns seems less and less important the further away we get from it. If Miller has left an enduring mark on Batman at all it is only that there are more stories about youth gangs now and fewer about Bat-Mite or Ace The Bat-Hound.

There have been sideways Batman stories too. There was a series of Elseworld graphic novels in which the Batman story was played out in the Victorian Era, or the Wild West, or against Dracula, or as if Bruce Wayne was Green Lantern. All jolly good but the point is that the parameters are very limited. There are few things of any philosophical worth you can get from Batman.

The point of it is how do you present what there is?

The Tim Burton movies were not that different from the two Joel Schumacher movies that followed. Both directors are more concerned with what happens of the surface of your retinas rather than anything a bit deeper into your head.

This isn’t so very bad in itself I suppose, but I prefer something a little less like a toddler tantrum in a migraine factory.

Christopher Nolan’s three Batmans are infinitely more measured. It would be a stretch to call them adult, but they do at least address the notion of change over time, both as growth and decay. They are also scrupulously directed and cast, and there is a perspicacity at work that you don’t always get in the genre.

There is no shortage of Joker stories in the gargantuan Batman oeuvre, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard his malignant nature more intelligently observed than when, in The Dark Knight, Michael Caine’s Alfred calmly intones, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

There is an uncommon weight of conviction in that.

Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises stand as examples of mainstream cinema that do not underestimate or patronise the audience. There’s a stateliness to them that Christopher Nolan can be proud of, and I am glad that I have lived to see blockbuster entertainment start to move away from the ubiquity of the “defy authority, destroy property, take peoples’ clothes off” paradigm.

And if you know what movie that came from then you are my kind of people.

Anyway, when I sat down to write I hadn’t intended to talk about any of  that puffin-guff, but it wasn’t possible to get to Scooby-Doo Meets Batman without the set-up. Because Scooby-Doo Meets Batman is a complicated prospect. It is not a film to be watched lightly.

It’s not even a film at all if we’re going to apply rigorous taxonomy here. It’s two episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies: The Caped Crusader Caper (1972) and The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair (also 1972).

Purists need not worry. This is classic era Scooby-Doo. Fred, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy are all present and correct. It is free from the contaminating paw marks of Scrappy-Doo and Scooby-Dum. There is even the classic misspelling of Casey Kasem’s name on the credits.

It is proper.

In addition the same tight team of thirteen writers (only thirteen!) worked on both episodes so the narrative consistency is high.

Second half first. The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair is the less confrontational of the two episodes. It is logically robust. The clues are all there from the start. When (SPOILER ALERT!) Mrs. Baker is revealed to be the counterfeiter and we learn that her disappearing house actually turns upside down as camouflage, and that’s why everything was stuck down, we slap our heads in exasperation at our own nincompoopery. It is like Poe’s purloined letter or Chesterton’s postman. It was right in front of us. How could we not see it?

System 1 thinking, Daniel Kahneman would tell us.

If The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair has a problem it is that the antagonistic matched binary systems of Batman and Robin/The Joker and Penguin feel ancillary to the story.

My suspicion is that they were added late as an understandable commercial reaction to the success of the first story, The Caped Crusader Caper, because that is where the art lies in this endeavour.

Its story starts quite simply with the Mystery Machine gang meeting Batman and Robin in a forest. The dynamic duo are in pursuit of The Joker and The Penguin who have kidnapped an inventor called Professor Flakey. Scooby and his pals have already been terrorised by a dryad and Batman quickly works out that this fits exactly with The Joker’s modus operandi. Dressing up as a dryad.

They go to the dryad place… Cave. It’s a cave I think.

There follows some hurly and some burly, a lot of it quite hard to follow. It’s a good job those thirteen writers were on hand or the whole thing could have got out of control quite quickly. It all leads to a climactic scene at the Gotham Rubber Factory where Professor Flakey’s secret invention is revealed to be a flying suit.

Well, he says it’s a flying suit. Fans of The League Of Gentlemen will recognise it as part of Daddy’s Medusa machine. (The safe word is Juliet Bravo.)

It is here though that the story becomes an art-terrorism affront to meta-fiction because the rubber factory, in addition to its primary function of being a place to hide mysterious inventions, also makes big novelty balloons for parades.

It makes five of them to be exact. Big balloons of Father Christmas, Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear, Batman and Robin. And that’s when my highly revved System 2, which had been running like a cooling fan on an over clocked computer for a while, started frantically looking round for some sort of System 3 thinking, just to deal with the complete defiance of narrative congruence.

Father Christmas isn’t real. I know this. He sort of is compared to Scooby-Doo, but for the most part in our reality Santa and Scooby have equivalent degrees of fictiveness. However, in Scoob’s world Santa is fictional (presumably) whilst Scooby is real. And in Scooby’s world Batman and Robin are also real, but in addition to being real in that world they also share the fictional (balloon identity) status of Santa, Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear.

Small wonder that nine short years later Jean Baudrillard was driven to write Simulacra and Simulation.

I quite like the feeling of apprehension that this brought about in me. There is something dismayingly true in The Caped Crusader Caper about how we interact with fictional constructs which themselves interact with fictional constructs. For something made in 1972 it seems to me to reflect clearly the very contemporary concerns of the deconcretisation of the world and the dissolution of what used to be quite sturdy boundaries.

It was well worth the three quid I paid for the DVD.

Not quite, but almost entirely unrelatedly I was playing Monopoly by myself on my iPad recently. I do this because I am very important and clever and sexy. I was the car and my computerised opponent was the top hat, effete fool that it is.

At one point the top hat landed on the same property I was on and I felt a little warmth and camaraderie. That’s nice for everyone, I thought. On the same square at last. They can have a bit of a chat.

Then I realised that that was silly, because cars and hats can’t talk. Then I remembered that they weren’t even a real car and a real hat. They’re just little metal representations of a car and a hat.

Then I remembered that they are in fact computer renderings of metal models of a pretend car and a pretend hat and that’s the world now. We used to hit actual things with other actual things and now we don’t.

It is an interesting time to be alert.

CLICK HERE FOR “Sketches of Scoob”:   Batman

(Oh. And it’s Noah, not Moses.)

Fifty Shades Of Grey/The Amazing Spider-Man/Jaws

 

 

 

By accident once I was an internet troll.

What happened was, I was watching TV when unexpectedly, a comedian, oooh let’s call her Zita Zudner, came on and did some stand up. Now I like a funny woman and, as a youth, had had a massive crush on Ms. Zudner. The passage of time has not been generous to either of us but Zita had clearly put a lot of money and effort into combating the second law of thermodynamics and, to my reckoning, she was not looking well on it.

Being new to Twitter at the time I thought it would be best to alert my couple of dozen followers to my reckon, and I tweeted something about Zita looking “funny”.

I could adopt a defensive posture here and say that the tweet was more about my reaction to something than the thing itself, but let’s not fuck about. It was an unpleasant and unnecessary thing to say.

What happened next was that Rita Rudner, excuse me Zita Zudner, tweeted me back with a derogatory comment about my appearance on my Twitter avatar.

A couple of things occurred to me at this point.

Firstly, she isn’t a follower of mine. I hadn’t used her @ name. The only way she could have found out about my tweet was by searching for mentions of her name on Twitter at which point, you could argue, she’s bringing grief upon herself.

Secondly, ungallant though it undoubtedly was, my opinion was an honest one expressed semi-privately. What I think of Zita Zudner’s appearance is, actually, none of her damned business.

Thirdly, I am quite aware of how I look thanks, but my job involves sitting alone in a dark room, rather than standing up in front of an audience of millions and going “Look at meeeeeeee!”

But that’s all self-serving twaddle.

I was in the wrong. I’d had it coming. I apologised to her and I deleted the tweet.

From this I learned, quite late in life, that I am the sort of person who isn’t comfortable saying stuff behind someone’s back that I wouldn’t say to his or her face. Also, that anything I say outside my own head I am effectively saying in public.

And there ended my brief, inadvertent trolling career.

It brought home to me that offence is a funny thing. Easy to give without meaning to. Easy to take when it’s not necessary to. After a recent spell of deploring the crudeness of some online communication, and feeling personally affronted when people failed to agree with me, or expressed reasonable opinions that didn’t chime with mine I decided that I wasn’t living very healthily.

I resolved to live and let live. To express my opinions honestly but positively, and to allow other people to do the same.

This resolution didn’t have a name, but if it had had a name it would have been Project Pollyanna.

I’ll be honest with you. It’s not really going all that well.

A couple of things have arisen recently which have taken my idealistic resolve way past its elastic limit and left it dangling and broken, like a dangly broken metaphorical spider web or, possibly, willy.

These things are Fifty Shades Of Grey and The Amazing Spider-Man. And incidentally if you are my Mum you should ignore the Fifty Shades stuff and skip straight on to Spider-Man, though you won’t really like that much either I’m afraid.

Hello Mum, by the way. How are you? Well, I hope. Love to Dad.

Fifty Shades Of Grey, then. Hastily rebranded Twilight fan fiction with Edward and Bella becoming Christian and Anastasia, it has made the move from marginalised freak-text to covertly read Kindle-porn to socially acceptable bookshop purchase in a minuscule span of time.

Holy Crap! That tie!

Like Emmanuelle in the seventies and 9½ Weeks in the eighties this is a work whose content is principally sexual which has moved into the mainstream. This is remarkable when it happens as, speaking very broadly, sexuality is a difficult thing to discuss openly in Britain for various longstanding cultural reasons, most of which are to do with the class system and the weather.

Sexy old sex. To save you the trouble, I have investigated sex, and I am here to report back to you that it is really, really, really nice.

It’s nice if you have it by yourself. It’s especially nice if you have it with someone you like and who likes you back. It’s pretty much all you could hope for from a means of reproduction. It remains quite a private thing though, which is why the rare crossovers into the mainstream are so interesting.

By all previous standards Fifty Shades Of Grey is a bizarre work to have gone through the normalising process. The width of its reach is ambitious and it embraces a lot of sexual activity that I would previously have described as niche.

The anal intercourse, the fisting and the BDSM are all explicitly placed in a consensual context, sometimes off-puttingly so. There is a cock-wiltingly large amount of basic safe sex education and contract law to get through, for instance, before you reach any actual consummation. So the morality of the work, insofar as that actually means anything, is not up for debate with me. The book (and I should make it clear here that I have only read the first of the trilogy) has established a fantasy setting and then a rigidly structured system of consent within that.

I have a liberal tendency to arch an eyebrow at anything which consistently portrays a woman as submissive, but the book is about a sub-dom relationship, so it is what it is. I’m going to leave that alone.

Fundamentally I believe that author E.L. James deserves applause for being so unflinching, clear-eyed and smirk-free in the way she has presented us with this. The question for me is not “Why would she write such a book?” That doesn’t matter. It’s already been written. The question I’m interested in is “Is it any good for what it is?”

And my answer, which is an opinion rather than a statement of absolute fact is: No. No it’s not very good at all. In fact it’s awful.

With any depiction of sex the way it is presented is key to how involved I can get with it. In the case of visual pornography, and God bless the internet here for rendering a lot of things see-able that were once not so easy to see, it doesn’t take much to change what was a scene of lovely people having lovely sex into a grisly meat puppet show. Focus too tightly on any act and it stops being sexy fun-times and it starts looking like somebody whacking a raw pork chop with another raw pork chop.

It is the same with written porn or, if you are of a delicate turn of mind, erotica. The fun lies not in the acts being described so much as in the way they are described, and this is where Fifty Shades Of Grey repeatedly trips over its own spreader.

E.L. James has next to no descriptive powers. Time after time metaphor fails her.

As a much younger man I worked my way (and worked is not the right word really) through the Beauty series by Anne Rice. The Claiming Of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty’s Punishment and Beauty’s Release are strikingly similar in subject matter to Fifty Shades Of Grey, but set in a feudal, fairytale world. Also Rice (who published these under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaure) has worked hard at the craft of writing and can put one word after another without making your brain fall out of your nose.

During one febrile passage as our bound heroine Beauty is watching something quiveringly erotic happen to someone else she describes a feeling “like a grape bursting between my legs” which in seven words instantly outclasses anything in Fifty Shades Of Grey.

E.L. James, in whose hands sex always seems to be a sprint to the climax, only has one way of describing an orgasm: shattering into a million pieces. Really? Is that what it’s like for girls?

This descriptive failure doesn’t just apply to the sex. The characters have no characteristics. They exist through their choices of car, clothes, food and music. One scene in which our protagonist’s pal Kate is giving a graduation speech unfolds thus: “She takes her time, not intimidated by a thousand people gawping at her. She smiles when she’s ready, looks up at the captivated throng, and launches eloquently into her speech. She’s so composed and funny, the girls beside me erupt on cue at her first joke.”

What is the first joke? We never find out. We don’t know because the author doesn’t know. She wants you to know that Kate is confident and funny so she tells you that Kate is confident and funny. End of.

So lame is the exposition that you can only really gauge how you should be responding emotionally by the vocal cues Anastasia gives you. Holy shit. Holy crap. Holy cow. They are the special phrases that tell you this is an exciting bit.

It’s maybe a bit optimistic of me to expect too much from the writing that is holding the porn together, but I do need some sense that the author is a human being who has met and interacted with other human beings in an adult way. This is weak, solipsistic drivel. It’s the kind of misdirected, self-obsessed inward-looking piffle you’d expect from a dizzy adolescent in possession of a new and exciting head full of brain soup.

Not for adults.

Millions disagree.

Good for them.

By contrast Spider-Man has never really set itself up as an adult entertainment. Even in the Marvel continuity of four-coloured heroes and gaudy galactic pantomime-dame villains Spidey is considered a bit bratty and juvenile.

That’s his thing in essence. Insecure kid gets power, has to learn to use power responsibly. It’s the story of everybody’s transition from childhood told by adults who know from experience what they are talking about.

It’s hard to be unfamiliar with the approximate shape of the Spider-Man origin story: a guy gets bitten by a radioactive spider and develops spider powers. It’s not a concept to trouble the old brain-banana too much, but even if it were we have had three perfectly good Spider-Man movies in the last ten years. People saw those. We remember. So the decision to make this year’s The Amazing Spider-Man yet another retelling of the origin story is one to make you throw your hands up in despair.

What’s the difference? In place of Sam Raimi’s panel-aware ebullience we have Marc Webb’s stumbling, self-conscious coolness. Instead of a plot where things happened and people exchanged information with each other using sentences full of words we have a drizzly, chaotic nocturnal trudge towards a cocked ending in which two major plotlines are left in midair. It’s insulting. The plot that there is is held together by an embarrassing amount of coincidence. And, for an origin, there isn’t half a lot of opaque back-story told through flashbacks.

The killer though is the casting of Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. I don’t doubt his sincerity and people more perceptive than I am have seen great things in what he’s done in The Amazing Spider-Man, but it eludes me. A lot of the problem is beyond Garfield’s control. As he is written here Peter Parker is an unbearable tool, self-seeking, petulant and way too cool to actually enjoy anything. Remember Tobey Maguire’s unfettered whooping as his Peter Parker exulted in his new powers? Well forget it. You won’t be getting any of that here. Just lots of pouting punctuated by some below-par computer game CGI.

Still, he is very thin. And he’s got that hair that you like. Not you. Those other people. Not the forward-facing Justin Bieber hair. The Hewligan’s Haircut prehensile hair like off of that Twilight guy.

In twenty years time we will find that way funnier than we find the mullet now.

I am so tired of this superabundance of sulky, inarticulate films pandering to sulky inarticulate teens. Yes, yes, yes. You are special. Nobody understands. Life is unfair.

Didn’t movies used to be more fun than this?

Hood hair

Apparently they did.

As part of its 100th anniversary celebrations Universal have spiffed up Jaws and given it a cinematic re-release prior to its appearance on Blu-ray later this year.

Due to some pretty barbaric parental negligence back in 1975 I never got to the cinema to see Jaws and this year has been my first chance to experience it on the big screen.

Obviously age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its infinite variety. It is a perfect movie and I have little to say about it.

The first half of the film is exquisite and I appreciated more than ever that beautiful, yammering, Altmanesque seventies technique of overlapping dialogue. It’s not such a big step from Jaws to Popeye. Not really. But once you get into the second half of the film and it’s just three men in a boat the movie becomes something else, some kind of cinematic ur-text.

The lines of the plot are so sharp and the space in the film so clear that you can pretty much project anything you want on to it symbolically. I don’t think there is an intended metaphor in the film. I even think the Freudian reading of Quint, Brody and Hooper representing the id, ego and superego is taking things far too far.

It is pure film.

If all the movies in the world disappeared I would miss each and every one of them, even the ones I don’t much like.

If however I could keep The Maltese Falcon, 2001 A Space Odyssey and Jaws then I’d be OK.

Festive Films 9 – Prometheus

There isn’t much mystery to Alfred Hitchcock, As naked exhibitionists of the inner self through one’s work go, only John Norman, author of the astonishing-but-not-in-a-good-way Gor series, comes close to Hitch I reckon. They are amazing, the Gor books. Slave porn disguised as fantasy they are written nonetheless in such a mimsy, short of breath way that arousal, even if the text wasn’t so ethically troubling, would be borderline impossible. 

Norman can refer, for example, to a woman being hit (and there’s a lot of woman-hitting going on) ” just below the small of her back”. Run that phrase through your brain a couple of times and you realise that there is a much shorter way of describing the area of the body which is just below the small of the back, and the action of hitting it. Much shorter indeed. Maybe he was getting paid by the word. Certainly if he was getting paid by the idea then his bank manager would have been calling him in for a chat.

Maybe they just don’t have a word for “spank” on Gor.

Anyway, despite Hitchcock’s clarity of motivation and identity in all other spheres of his work, it is still completely mysterious why in the name of God’s blue thunder knob he chose to set Psycho round about Christmas time. Every December I remember this and I dig out Psycho for another watch, and it’s always great but I never get close to an answer. There’s the caption right at the start of the film: Friday December the Eleventh. It never gets mentioned again. Nobody talks about it. There are no Christmas trappings in evidence. Why, Psycho, why? Maybe it’s Hitch’s Christmas ghost story. Or maybe it’s just because he was a big, fat, awkward blancmange of polymorphous perversity who liked to make people uncomfortable.

That’s often the answer to Hitchcock questions, I find.

Still though Psycho is a good one to have in the bag for when people ask what your favourite Christmas movie is. And it’s certainly a lot less emotionally harmful than, say, Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday or, as doctors call it, The Pancrea-tiser.

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Friday, December the Eleventh: Psycho time

A brand new addition to the Christmas panoply is, I am delighted to find, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, his festive prequel to Alien.

Now. I like Alien. I like it a great deal.

When it was released in 1979 it was successful, but I seem to remember it wasn’t particularly favourably reviewed. There were specific complaints that it was just a haunted house movie in space, or an uncredited remake of 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space (beyond space being, in this instance, Mars).

Looking back now, this is inconceivable. There is so much in Alien that it’s hard to know where to start talking about it. Firstly, in reaction to the explicit criticisms of its structure, I really like the stripped down Ten Little Indians format. It’s involving, and the character acting is such that I consistently become quite affected by the deaths.

In addition to this though there is a ton of uncompromising stuff in there about the physicality of sex and birth, and about how relationships between parents and offspring work. It’s a fiercely unsentimental film, and that exposition of what life actually is once you take off the recently-acquired evolutionary doilies of self-consciousness, morality and rationalised emotion, that was not the common currency of cinema at the time. It still isn’t really.

Thirdly, and this is the bit I like best, Alien is a witheringly political look at the inefficacy and lack of justice inherent in a profit-oriented work environment. From Parker and Brett’s disgruntled engineers up to Dallas’s compromised captaincy, that horrifying capitalist stratification is played beautifully. And it’s deeply encouraging to the small S socialist in me to witness the way the ranking system dismantles itself under threat and the professionals start working together as people. It’s a film which is less nihilistic than a lot of people assume. It is ultimately quite generous in its depiction of the human species.

There have been sequels. James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is as good a movie follow-up as has ever been made. A dramatic inversion of the first film it makes humans the invading force and inciters of the action. It brings the parental theme of the first film to the fore, making it more specific and offering explicit statements about motherhood. You would need someone less unsalvageably blokey than me to tell you how successful these statements are, but what I can do is vouch for the peerless-ness of the action sequences.

Cameron’s forte lies in  making films of utter mechanical majesty. He is less good with the kissing and cuddling. This is why the sinky bit of Titanic is better than the dancey bit, and why the whole of Terminator 2 is endlessly re-watchable and the domestic banter of True Lies isn’t.

David Fincher’s Alien3 (1993) secured a less enthusiastic audience than the first two films, but I found its astringent monasticism to my taste. More so certainly than the fancifulness of Alien Resurrection (1997) which might just about cut it mustard-wise as a Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie, but as Alien 4 is frankly unacceptable.

In brackets I should mention that there are also two Alien Versus Predator films. The first one is marginally less catastrophic than the second. Prometheus (thank God) renders both of these non-canonical. We can move on. There is nothing to see here. Literally nothing to see in fact in the case of AvP: Requiem which, for ninety interminable fucking minutes, consists of little other than badly rendered CGI monsters fighting each other in a swimming pool in a power cut. I’ve eaten salads that have more narrative complexity than that.

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The news that Ridley Scott was making a prequel to Alien was not met with uncomplicated delight, in my head at least. He is, for me, a problematic director. I think, up until now, he has only really made two good films: Alien, which is beyond good, and Blade Runner which is great, but completely broken at story level. It’s almost like we’re following the wrong characters for most of the duration of Blade Runner. It would make much more sense if the central characters were Eldon Tyrell and J. F. Sebastian, and the Deckard/Batty/Rachael thing was a sub-plot. Yes? No? Just me then.

These two bon fide marvels aside, what actually is Scott’s career? Legend, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator have their fans. (Not me.) I quite like Kingdom Of Heaven, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster and Body Of Lies.

But: White Squall, GI Jane, Black Rain, Someone To Watch Over Me, 1492, Hannibal? Really?

A Good Fucking Year? Robin Fucking Hood? Really really?

(And sorry completists, but I haven’t seen The Duellists or Matchstick Men. I know. What am I like?)

So love of Alien and qualms about Ridley’s choices abounded, but there was also in my recent memory a deplorable example of how badly a well-intentioned prequel can misfire. People other than me have written well about Matthijs van Heijningen’s precursor to The Thing, also stupidly called The Thing, and how its wretched digital haecceity should be clicked and dragged to a huge Trash icon in the middle of the Antarctic.

Here for instance is m’good friend Andygeddon’s blog on the subject: http://andygeddon.com/2011/11/13/the-thing-2011usa/

John Carpenter’s version of The Thing (1982), itself a remake of a 1951 film, was a master class in siege narrative. A brilliant, layered, litotes-infused depiction of paranoia and lethal trust failure.

Van Heijningen’s prequel however is a lamentable fannish misfire, so concerned with ploddingly joining the pre-existing dots in numerical order that it completely neglects to bring anything new to the party. Christ, it doesn’t even bring most of the old stuff. And because the end of the film is, by its own definition, the start of Carpenter’s film there is literally no surprise. It’s the grim cinematic equivalent of watching someone who isn’t very good at Sudoku puzzles doing a Sudoku puzzle.

Ridley Scott’s decision to revisit a past triumph is not completely unprecedented in science fiction. As they reached their later years novelists Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein both started to reconfigure their work into vast, self-contained units. Heinlein had a head start as a lot of his stuff was written as a consistent future history, but even he had to introduce dimension-hopping immortal characters to make it work. His later stuff is quite hard to read. It’s a melancholy, quixotic spectacle, a writer gleefully including himself as a character in his own stories. And there was a burgeoning fixation on breasts too which was a little uncomfortable to be in the same room as. Number Of The Beast (1980) is a 512 page book 509 of which seem to be about nipples.

Isaac Asimov cheated a bit in his oeuvre-consolidation by using the time travelly men from The End Of Eternity to jam together a number of series which were quite all right by themselves but which buckled when forced into close proximity.

So in summary the auspices for Prometheus were not good: Scott’s own debatable career, the lack of wisdom inherent in the process of prequelising in the first place, and the tragic precedent of aging authors revisiting the scenes of past triumphs.

And yet, and yet, and yet… The trailers looked so cool. The cast was full of proper actoring people.

Then it opened a few days ago and, despite my best efforts to avoid reviews, I began to become aware that people were disappointed. Star ratings were posted where I could see them. Critics ignobly stampeded over each other, competing to be the first to deride in sneer-o-vision.

I heard someone use the word “Meh”.

I hate “Meh”. It’s completely fucking meaningless. It’s a definition-free word for people who have VERY IMPORTANT disdain to share but who lack the necessary articulacy. “Fuck language,” they presumably think, “With all its fancy words and shit. I’ma use me a phoneme to impart my VERY IMPORTANT opinion.”

Fuck.

Anyway, I went to see Prometheus in 3D today. 4D if you include time.

It was very good.

I’m going back to see it in 2D on Tuesday and I am right looking forward to it.

The negativity I am hearing (and yes, I did mean to use the present continuous there – it’s rhetorical see) is completely confounding.

What has happened is this, I think. A significantly large bunch of professionally paid film critics have become complete idiots. They have taken to reviewing their expectations of a film rather than the actual film itself. This is less damaging to a movie like The Avengers (or Avembers Assengle as it is known in the UK) where earlier films have provided enough momentum to squash the point-missing critics, but it’s instant death to films that are opening cold like, say, John Carter.

I liked John Carter. I wouldn’t make claims for any abiding artistry or anything, but it was a pleasant callback to the blockbusters of my early adulthood: Conan, Dune, Flash Gordon, Superman, that kind of thing.

But it got completely, mercilessly kicked to bits before it opened to the public, and it never stood a chance after that. Some critics, like Mark Kermode, are still jumping on the pieces. This is quite sad. Most folk I know who have seen John Carter think it’s OK. Not a happy-ending massage from Victoria Coren in a platinum bikini perhaps, but definitely a step up from shooting political dissidents in a football stadium, which is where a lot of reviewers went with it.

This “I can snark snarkier than you” attitude is quite tiring.

Whilst the critics are busy with their meh-ing what is happening in Prometheus is this:

Archaeologists at the end of the 21st century have interpreted prehistoric images from around the globe as depictions of pre-civilisation alien visitations. Perhaps more than just visitations. The inference drawn is that these visitors created humankind. They are dubbed the Engineers. There are enough astronomical data in the carvings to pinpoint where in the cosmos the Engineers came from. A ship is crewed and the crew dispatched to see what they can see.

There is obviously an element of inevitability to the film’s denouement because it has been sold as a prequel to Alien and we know where Alien starts.

Where Prometheus scores highly in comparison to the The Thing prequel is that the inevitable points are reached quite surprisingly. The planet the ship arrives at, for example, is not evidently the planet in Alien, though aspects of it start to look familiar quite quickly. The last fifteen minutes, in which loose ends start getting tied up with some celerity, are emotionally very compelling. I had my hand over my mouth and had to sit and gather myself as the credits rolled. I was the only one though.

The rest of the audience (couple of dozen of them that there were) scarpered as soon as the credits started. They didn’t seem particularly taken with it.

What were they expecting exactly?

The original Alien is 33 years old now, fifty percent further away from us in time than It! The Terror From Beyond Space was from it. If you see what I mean. Cinema has moved on and expectations of plot and spectacle are different now I guess. But I am bewildered by the nay-sayers. To my mind Scott has turned in a thematically consistent, visually beautiful, thought-provoking companion piece. Am I missing something that other people are seeing? Am I seeing something that isn’t there?

Here is what I liked about Prometheus.

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SPOILER ALERT! That man from Loofah wears a hat in some scenes in Prometheus!

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SPOILER ALERT! Sean Harris has got some sort of funny hairdo or something in Prometheus!

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SPOILER ALERT! The man from Shadow Line wears some sort of space glasses in Prometheus!

Scott is a thoughtful director and he is working with a very competent script. This is not a simple story about conflicting forces. It is a film whose principal concern is one of ontological enquiry.

One of the themes of the film, made clear in the title, is that the exercise of curiosity is an irresistible urge in us, but that the obtaining of knowledge comes at a price. The knowledge the characters are seeking relates to the origin of mankind with a view to shedding light, stolen light, on our place in the universe and our purpose.

If we have one.

This compulsion to dig deeper and to understand more about our creation, regardless of all negative consequences, is contrasted with the glibness with which we humans treat our own creations. The central antagonist in the film is not, uniquely for an Alien movie, a rampaging xenomorph. It is David the robot who catalyses the events of the second half of the film. With his inclusion in the dramatis personae we now have three layers of parenthood: the Engineers who made humanity who, in turn, made David.

Much drama is eked from the relationships between parents and their children, harking back to the original Alien’s unspoken suggestion that parents and offspring are, ultimately, in opposition to one another.

The passing of old orders is very much in evidence in the film too, and at least one character is motivated to find the Engineers as a bid for apparent immortality. The possibility of an afterlife is debated on a few occasions also.

It is possible that these themes are what attracted Ridley Scott artistically to the project, and he does seem infinitely more engaged with Prometheus than he did with, say, Robin Hood. But I’m just guessing. They are certainly the concerns of a man in his later years: mortality, legacy, usefulness, achievement. What might come next, if anything.

The confronting of the issues is not half-hearted either. There is an admirable bluntness to the answer of what happens after you die.

“There’s nothing,” exclaims one character on the very brink of extinction.

“I know,” consoles David the robot who is uniquely placed to, in fact, know. It’s like the desolation of the end of Ken Russell’s sublime Altered States when William Hurt’s character returns from a hallucinogenic trip down through his own molecular structure only to announce that the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth.

Even that isn’t the end of it though, and Prometheus finishes with the start of a spiritual quest, taking the end of everything we know as its first step.

This is a Christmas movie in a way that seems quite purposeful. If it is mere set dressing then it is highly weird set dressing. It is referenced specifically several times in the dialogue, and visually in the literal Christmas tree they have on the ship. The topology of the tree is even reflected in the constantly developing green Pyramid Scan that the ship’s crew run as they map what they find. Does this festive trappery mean anything?

The Christmas thing is about the bestowal of gifts I think. Life is, initially at least, that which we are given and, however vigorously we pursue an explanation of its cause and intention, it is just life. As with our Christmas presents, how much we like it, and what we do with it is entirely up to us.

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VUE Cinema extra features included: Wallet-damaging personal expense; an overwhelming sense of existential dread; compulsory commentary from the ten year old boy sitting next to me. He made pretty heavy weather of the chocolate he was eating too, though in fairness to the lad that may all have been part of the 3D experience. He was eating a colossal Toblerone which is the least two dimensional chocolate known to man.

In related Doctor Who news: The female protagonist played by Noomi Rapace is called Liz Shaw.

Imagine that. Liz Shaw.

http://www.weylandindustries.com/timeline

Tree Of Life, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Drive, Melancholia

There is a moment towards the end of Lars Von Trier’s unorthodox, inquisitive horror film Antichrist (2009) when Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors.

It is an incredibly upsetting sequence. I was pre-aware that the scene was in the film because, regrettably, some reviewers can’t keep their damn yappy mouths shut yet it was still one of the most distressing things I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen. I watched it with my hands over my face peeking through my fingers.

The second time I saw Antichrist it was less of a big deal. It was still a deeply dismaying sequence but (as with the infamous Reservoir Dogs ear-slicing scene in which no ears are sliced) a great deal more of it had taken place inside my head than in front of my eyes. On the second viewing it was easy to see where the edit is from Charlotte Gainsbourg to a jobbing porn star, and again where the edit is between actual genitalia and a prosthetic special effect. My suggestibility got played the first time around. Second time, however, I was looking rather than seeing.

It is still a scene of great impact, but it is not the whole film. It is a very tiny part of the film from which (in isolation) you cannot infer a great deal about the rest of movie.

Antichrist is different in this respect from, say, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, which I once heard referred to by a ticket-buying customer as “that film where that boy cuts his own arm off”. In the case of Antichrist the DIY clitoridectomy is a justifiable development of the film’s central ideas. For an hour and a half Von Trier has been asking questions about human nature. How do we reconcile our deep, selfish physiological needs with our apparently higher intelligence and morality? What does it mean when we seek pleasure in the face of grief? How in control actually are we in our post-lapsarian, civilised world? To what extent do we have some say in the way the world is? How in thrall are we to basic biochemistry?

In the case of 127 Hours you are watching a film whose central question is: When is the boy who’s going to cut his own arm off going to cut his own arm off? And the answer is: In about 127 hours.

(Parenthetically, I am sorry that this sounds rude about Danny Boyle. He seems like a genuinely lovely man and his films Sunshine and 28 Days Later are good, provocative genre pieces. Others in his oeuvre I find a bit confusing. Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, The Beach. They have the jumbled narrative through-line you’d expect from a seventies episode of Seaside Special and the philosophical shallowness of Tarby’s Frame Game. There is nothing remotely wrong in making a film whose sole raison d’être is spectacle I suppose. Sometimes I like a bit more is all.)

Having the view then that Von Trier is at least up to something worth thinking about with Antichrist I then found myself asking whether or not the explicit level of the scene was necessary. The best I could do was to accept that it is Von Trier’s work and he can express himself however he likes. I’m no expert on dramaturgical necessity and I concede the high ground to those who say they are. But to me it did look like he had overdone it a teensy bit.

There’s a scene in Talladega Nights in which villainous French racing driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, coasting) puts some money in a jukebox in a redneck bar and selects a jazz track. The truckers and hillbilly types recoil as though they are under physical attack and round on the Frenchman saying that no one plays jazz in the bar.

“So why is the song on the jukebox?” he enquires.

“We keep it on there for profiling purposes,” the barman explains.

I wondered a little bit if maybe Von Trier had put his attention-grabbing scene in for similar reasons, to identify and isolate people who weren’t engaging with the film on anything other than a superficial level. Certainly I’ve never had an enjoyable discussion about Antichrist with anyone whose opening conversational move is “Oh, is that the one where…?”

Yes it is the one where… Also many other things happen, but that is the one you have fixated on. This is going to be a boring conversation.

Is it quite a new thing, this reduction of everything to its tweetable, textable minimum? I don’t remember people going on about the one where the giant ape falls off the Empire State Building, or the one where the woman gets a bit of grit in her eye. How about the one where the guy wakes up with the horse’s head in his bed? That’s starting to sound plausible. The one were the boat rolled over on New Year’s Eve? The one were the swarm of bees swarmed? The one were the inferno towered? Let’s say it started, but started slowly, in the seventies.

These days (he says, waving his walking stick at a passing new-fangled whippersnapper) it’s all fucking shorthand. All of it. Quick hits. No substance.

So, inter alia, Doctor Who reduces to ideas rather than stories. The girl who waited. The madman in a box. Timey-wimey. Wibbly-wobbly. Please don’t be scared. There’ll be no patient examination of character or motivation, no careful, consistent extrapolation of what happens subsequent to a set of initial conditions. Just a frantic succession of shiny novelties each shinier and more novel than the last like some ghastly, high-speed, colour-saturated Generation Game conveyor belt.

This is not the fault of Steven Moffat or any of his team. They still turn out peerless entertainment of a wit and quantity I find staggering. They just have to do it within a structure that doesn’t allow for audience patience or intelligence, even though the audience in this instance palpably has both.

Not Moffat’s fault then, but it is the fault of each one of us who has allowed our national intellect to dwindle to this level. The level at which any developed, analytical thought processes are seen somehow as “gay”, and the word “gay” is seen somehow as an insult.

Harry Hill’s TV Burp was poking fun this weekend at a BBC4 programme I haven’t seen. In the extracts shown Jonathan Meades appeared to be talking about a period in French history during which it was difficult to question matters of faith because there was a cultural predisposition towards accepting precedent. Things that had gone before had an undeserved authority just by virtue of having gone before. I am simplifying (and possibly misrepresenting) Meades’ assertion grotesquely, but my point is that he was using the English language effectively to make a point that was easy to apprehend.

This was intercut with Harry Hill pulling silly faces and culminated in Hill saying, effectively, “What ARE you talking about?”

Hill is a qualified doctor. His writers are generally bright, satirical, observational people. This, though, was militant thick-ism. One of the few remaining refuges of didactic TV was stormed and one of its blinking, bespectacled occupants was dragged out into the courtyard for an unnecessary kicking in front of a howling Saturday night crowd.

Do the fans of Take Me Out and Red Or Black really feel threatened by the knowledge that somewhere, someone is having consecutive, related thoughts?

Such educational TV as is allowed on the main channels tends to be pretty puny fare.

I have been watching episodes of Planet Earth on Blu-ray lately and whilst there is a part of me that is grateful to be able to see this footage of frankly amazing things in a way I never could on my own resources there is a slightly bigger part of me that winces at the presentation. A troop of baboons (or flange of baboons as we Not The Nine O’Clock News rememberers say) is depicted living in isolated heights in Ethiopia. Their daily routine is described fascinatingly (by David Attenborough, who is reading the script but surely, surely had no hand in writing it) and all is well until dusk when some predatory foxes appear. My problem with the presentation is that the musical cues and portentous narration clearly prompt the notion that the baboons comprise a happy community and that the foxes are somehow evil.

This is a perception of ecosystems that most school children and even the writers of The Lion King would regard as being a bit on the embarrassing side. The foxes and baboons exist in a stable relationship. Without the baboons the foxes have nothing to eat. Without the foxes the baboons will over-proliferate and run out of vegetation. It’s not a question of goodies and baddies or victims and perpetrators. Morality – and let’s not even start on whether or not morality actually exists other than as an expedient survival trait – morality plays no part in this at all and to suggest that it does, explicitly in the language of the narration and implicitly in the use of music, is completely unhelpful. Counter-educational even.

Another failure of Planet Earth is that you can watch the episodes in any order. Any order at all. Doesn’t matter. This suggests to me that it’s not really a learning experience the way The Ascent Of Man or The World At War were. This isn’t a course of study in which each episode builds on the previous one. This is simple spectacle. You ooh and you aah and after it all you know nothing you didn’t already know.

Let’s talk about Brian Cox for a minute. Not that one. The other one. Professor Brian Cox is great. He’s a real scientist with real degrees and a real job at a real particle accelerator. But I bet all the money in my pockets that that is not the reason he gets to present every single fucking thing on telly to do with what we used to call natural philosophy (back in the 1600s when I were a lad).

I bet the Professor Brian Cox list of ranked attributes goes like this in TV people’s heads:

1) He is very pretty.

2) He used to be in a band you know.

3) He’s got a gentle northern voice like Simon Armitage or Jeremy Dyson.

4) He knows a shit load of synonyms for the word “big”.

5) He is a scientist.

Not his fault, and as with Steven Moffat on Doctor Who, his ability can only roam as far as the broadcasters’ expectations will let it and the broadcasters’ expectations are insultingly low.

So he is allowed to front programmes on the wonders of the universe and the audience sit and gurgle and feel like they are being educated, but as the credits roll, what can the audience tell you about what they have seen? What knowledge do they now possess about the solar system? What do they understand about the structure of the universe?

Find a Brian Cox fan. Ask her (or him, could be a bloke) how far away the sun is. What order the planets go in. How many stars in the galaxy? How many galaxies in the universe?

If you like ask what the difference is between astronomy and astrology, and then reflect on how educational this educational programme has actually been.

Want embarrassment? Want embarrassment on a squirming, toe-clenching, wishing yourself inside-out kind of scale? Then watch a “science correspondent” trying to explain the Higgs boson at teatime.

It is known as the God particle, they may intone as if that means anything at all. If you are very lucky (or it’s Newsnight or something) there may be a graphic of E=mc2 in a futuristic font wobbling behind the luckless BBC arts graduate who is having to read all this crap off an autocue until a proper story about princesses or politicians turns up.

Higgs boson? We live in a country where the average person (whilst enjoying a frame or two of snooker) has no knowledge of Newton’s laws of motion. Nor do they wish to know, because gad they might end up on the ducking stool.

It’s OK not to know stuff I suppose. A bit unnecessary given the easy availability of information in this era, but OK if you’re happy that way. But I have higher hopes of people than that. We are an amazing species but we are currently selling ourselves short. As a society we in the west, particularly the UK, seem to undervalue complexity, demonise it even. Superficiality, distraction, vanity, coarseness and a remorseless pursuit of the base run amok.

Learning, thinking, teaching, tolerance, empathy and compassion all feel like they are in retreat.

Or maybe I’m getting old and cranky.

But that’s not likely.

Happily I have recently watched or re-watched four movies from last year which completely undermine my argument:

Tree Of Life – Terence Malick’s transcendent movie requires a conscious act of surrender on the part of the viewer. If you think you aren’t going to enjoy it then you really aren’t. Find a bit of faith however and you may find your way of living changed. A woman’s life of being is contrasted with her husband’s life of doing. It’s spirituality versus temporality. Except it’s not a fight. And at the end, Malick seems to suggest, aren’t we all doing the best we can with what we’ve got anyway? A humble blockbuster if such a thing is possible.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Somehow, without the novel’s or BBC TV adaptation’s length (and indeed with out even their commas in the title), this movie version of the well-liked spy novel seems to miss nothing out. It’s a master class in tight scripting and disciplined acting. Huge plot details are told with mindbogglingly delicate flourishes. Director Tomas Alfredson distinguishes between two potentially confusing timeframes for instance by having a neat bit of business in an opticians with Smiley choosing new glasses. Old frames = flashback. New frames = present day. And a minor change to the character of Peter Guillam (an on fire Benedict Cumberbatch) brings out some barbaric truth about the seventies, all shown rather than told. Quiet, powerful and overwhelmingly affecting.

Drive – Nicolas Winding Refn’s contemporary tale of a movie stunt driver who moonlights as a criminal getaway driver is closer thematically to his previous film the epic, stark-staring-mad Valhalla Rising than I would have thought possible. And like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy it is a dramatically convoluted action movie that expresses itself through the twin media of stillness and silence. I’m still not quite sure how it manages it. Ryan Gosling’s brilliant negative-space style of acting asks a lot of the audience, but please go with it. He is superb at the disjunction that comes from a desire to be civilised in conflict with the basic impulses we need to keep us alive. The guy is acting with his autonomic nervous system! It’s very impressive. Stellar support and a killer soundtrack too.

Melancholia – In which Lars Von Trier shows us what George Pal’s 1951 movie When Worlds Collide would have been like if it had concentrated less on the mundane matter of worlds colliding and more on the thrilling prospect of the inability of depressed people to get worked up about it. This is worth your time if only because of the extraordinary lengths Von Trier seems to be going to to make you hate it. Hey, he’s only the director. He’s not the boss of you. Also this is hilariously, almost sarcastically, far away from his Dogme 95 manifesto in its intricacy of composition. Beautiful, cultured, ugly and extremely defiant. Nice one, Lars.

Festive Films 8 – Eyes Wide Shut

My mind was on other things in 1983 and I missed Nicole Kidman’s breakout performance as Judy in BMX Bandits. I’m sure it was very good. Her subsequent body of work has certainly been diverse enough to impress. She’s often fabulously accessible, but there is occasionally a glassy impenetrability to her that is utterly alienating.

 

Tom Cruise however has always been a bit enigmatic for me. There’s a surface plausibility in a lot of his work, but the more I see of his real life persona the more convinced I become that he is nothing but surfaces. The complex three-dimensional stuff of personality seems completely absent from him. Check out his hard-eyed stare. Listen to that bizarre pulsing honk that passes for laughter. It’s like his sinister Thetan overlords described laughter to him verbally, but never actually got around to playing him a recording. I get the impression every time I see him interviewed that he might crack at any minute, his human-form disintegrating into a mass of thrashing scientological tentacles.

 

How odd then it seemed for the cultured, aesthetically minded Stanley Kubrick to cast them in what would be his final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

 

 

Cruise plays Dr. Harford (not to be confused with Steve Martin’s character Dr. Hfuhruhurr in The Man With Two Brains, tempting though it may be), a secure NYC doctor with a beautiful wife, winsome child and apartment of vast Kubrickian space. He and the missus (Kidman) attend a Christmas party thrown by one of his patients. During the party Harford is called discreetly upstairs to attend to a naked woman who has overdosed on drugs. Whilst he is dealing with the practicalities of this and being sworn to absolute secrecy his wife is downstairs being wooed by an exotic stranger.

 

Later at home she talks to him about this and about an earlier sexual fantasy involving infidelity. This sets off a train of thoughts in Harford which leads to him seeing things he has been previously blind to and experimenting with things he has never even considered before. One of the set pieces is an eerie masked orgy at a country house, the password for entry being Fidelio. Geddit?

 

 

This is all closely based (in a script by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael) on Arthur Schnitzler’s story Traumnovelle, or Dream Story and, though I am surprised to see myself type this, it is exceptionally good.

 

Kubrick was a hard-working director (the shoot for Eyes Wide Shut was a record-breaking 400 days), but his insistence on having everything just so, this meticulous attention to detail which, to the outsider looking in, resembled nothing so much as an Ahab-like monomania, was in fact a mighty artistic strength. Whatever you think of any of Kubrick’s oeuvre you have to admire the constancy of vision. There is no happenstance or compromise in his movies. Just Kubrick.

 

Stephen King was not impressed with Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining. Unsurprisingly. King’s original, and excellent, book is all about confinement whereas the Kubrickian interpretation of it is as much an exploration of physical and temporal space as 2001 was. It’s a complete inversion of the story. Jack Nicholson’s character Torrance doesn’t slowly go mad. He’s mad from the outset, but the four-dimensional sepulchral volume of The Overlook Hotel gives him the means, finally, of expressing it.

 

That wasn’t what King was exploring in his novel at all. He loves narratives where the physical constraints are tight (Cujo, Gerald’s Game, Misery). But when you (and by “you”, I mean “I”) look at the King-sanctioned mini-series remake of The Shining directed by Mick Garris you realise that Kubrick had apprehended the deeper truth in the story.

 

Kubrick died after completing the edit on Eyes Wide Shut, but before its release. The perception at the time was that the film, regarded as an atypical folly in an otherwise estimable body of art, had killed him. The few supporters the film had said that this was untrue. That Kubrick had willed himself to live until the film was finished to his satisfaction.

 

It took time, a decade at least for me, for the film to find its place.

 

We, the consuming hoard, were not helped at the time of its initial release by the way the film was sold to us. An erotic thriller? Je crois que non.

 

Erotic thrillers are called things like Lethal Instinct 3 and Basic Obsession 4. They feature hemispherically-chested ladies called Misty or Amber being investigated by Captain Detective Police Lootenant Brick Pistol (almost always played by Randy Spears). That is emphatically not what this is.

 

This is the work of a man at the end of his career (and not in a borderline senile way like the ghastly boob-fixated late novels of Robert A. Heinlein). It is the work of a man who knows by now that people in relationships are strangers to each other ninety percent of the time (which, incidentally, is why Cruise and Kidman comprise such a casting coup). It is also, in a similar way to Scorsese’s neglected gem After Hours, a celebration of just how much detail there is in life that we miss just because we are not looking for it. A world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour and all that.

 

The things that seem at first viewing like handicaps (the glacial pacing, the stilted repetitive dialogue, Cruise and Kidman’s brittleness) are all strengths once you buy in to the film’s oneiric lack of rhythm and to the theme that we are, each of us, sleep-walking through life with only brief moments of wakefulness.

 

After Kubrick’s death Steven Spielberg assembled A.I. from various notes and drafts of scripts that Kubrick had left behind. I’m quite fond of A.I. but Eyes Wide Shut is a far more fitting epitaph.

 

 

 

Festive Films 6 & 7 – It’s A Wonderful Life & Meet John Doe

In the wise words of Mr. David “Dave” Bowie: Ch-ch-ch-chaaanges. Dur di dur di dur. Changes. Tum ti um. Something or other like time can change me, but I can’t trace time. Dooby dooby doo. Hunky Dory.

Change is awful.

And that’s not just me saying that, it is also the Managing Director of the last UK High Street bookshop chain standing, Waterstone’s. His name is James Daunt, which would be pretty good if he was a dragon-fucking Nord in Skyrim (“I used to be an adventurer like you. Then I took an arrow to the knee.”) but is positively ace given that he’s just a peevish man who works in a shop.

Daunt is reported to have said of his most high profile online competitor Amazon, “They never struck me as being a sort of business in the consumer’s interest. They’re a ruthless, money-making devil.” Defending the high street model of retail he elaborated, “The computer screen is a terrible environment in which to select books. All that ‘If you read this, you’ll like that’ – it’s a dismal way to recommend books. A physical bookshop in which you browse, see, hold, touch and feel books is the environment you want.”

My two issues with that last statement are firstly that a computer screen is actually quite a convenient and cosy way of shopping (and the coffee is way cheaper), and secondly, please don’t fucking tell me what I fucking want, you patronising prick.

And no lollygagging.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/james-daunt-amazon-are-a-ruthless-moneymaking-devil-the-consumers-enemy-6272351.html

I was a bookseller for Waterstone’s from 1993 to 2008 and it was a great job. During that period however retail changed drastically, and by the time my branch closed down, largely a victim of a vast branch of Borders teleporting into town, the notion that a building made of bricks with a bunch of speculative stock in it was somehow better than the whole of the internet was already looking a bit Last Millennium.

The big branch of Borders also closed down not long after to my chagrin. Competitors they may have been, but they were good and a lot of their staff were fine, knowledgeable booksellers.

So my home city has, effectively, one bookshop now. It’s a branch of Waterstone’s that used to be an Ottakar’s. It’s a lovely branch in fact with a phenomenal set of booksellers. If you’re ever in town tell them Feexby sent you and Toby and Terry might put on their special show for you.

Anyway I happily buy all my books there when possible, but there are times (like two o’clock in the morning) when this just isn’t going to happen. And at times like that it’s hard to have a bad word to say about Amazon.

I don’t find Amazon ruthless. If anything I think they are quite service-orientated. I once had to return a damaged DVD out of a huge box set and their returns procedure was magnificent. I’m sure they are out to make money, but they do it in a way that suits me just fine. Also their recommendations aren’t dismal. They are pretty well executed. They are certainly better than any of the staff recommends cards I ever wrote in my bookselling days.

The internet isn’t going to get switched off any time soon. This change has happened. Sorry you don’t like it Daunty but shouting at a tidal wave is just going to get you soggy.

What was that for? Oh yeah. The creeping horribleness of change.

It turns out you can’t buy It’s A Wonderful Life anymore without getting both the original proper version and the “colorized” version too. This happened also with my bewilderingly comprehensive Laurel and Hardy collection and to be absolutely straight with you, I don’t like it.

Colourisation isn’t quite painting bunny ears on to the Mona Lisa, but it ain’t far off. Can we not just leave stuff the way it was made? This isn’t good change. This is bad change. I don’t know anyone who prefers the colourised versions. And whilst I’m astride this hobby-horse: Filmmakers, please don’t digitally remove cigarettes from cartoons; please don’t get all coy about racial attitudes in films made eighty years ago; and pretty-please stop trying to shoe-horn an extra dimension in to movies that were previously quite happy being flat.

What is left to be said about Frank Capra’s enduring Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life, the black and white version? Well not too much by me, though it surprised me once again this time round that, for a film whose reputation is that of the ultimate feelgood flick, you have to get through a lot of misery for a pretty perfunctory ascension.

Jimmy is happy

Jimmy is unhappy

The movie is over two hours long but it isn’t until the 100 minute mark that George Bailey, played with awkward amiability by James Stewart, finally gets round to attempting the suicide that is alluded to in the opening scenes. He has gone through a lot by this stage, but is dissuaded from the final sanction by a bumbling learner angel who shows him how wretched the world would have been if he’d never been born.

Bailey repents. Reality reasserts itself. There is a Christmas miracle of overwhelming neighbourliness, and it’s all rather wonderful if a little rushed at the end. The fromage factor is high, but the sincerity of everyone involved carries it with grace and dignity. The lesson we learn is that the best things in life aren’t things.

I’m not sure about the theological aspects of the story though. Heaven seems to allocate its agents with an appalling disregard for their ability or otherwise to do the job. Also the angels in discussion at the film’s outset are depicted as spiral galaxies and everyone knows that spiral galaxies are just made up things used to inculcate obedient behaviour in children.

Five years prior to It’s A Wonderful Life Frank Capra had directed another seasonal heart-tweaker, Meet John Doe (1941). This has Gary Cooper as its lead, and (personal opinion klaxon) I have to admit that I find him quite a deadening presence in a film. To counterbalance this though the female star is the magnificent Barbara Stanwyck. You know me and my taste in women, mad and beaky.

Mad as you like. Beaky too.

Stanwyck plays Ann Mitchell a columnist facing the chop from her newspaper in the name of progress. Many of the film’s themes have an amazing contemporary resonance like this. The opening shots of the movie are of the old paper’s sign “A free press means a free people” literally being drilled to bits and replaced with one saying “A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era.”

Pissed off at her redundancy Mitchell writes one last column, a faked letter from “John Doe” in which this fictional character threatens to commit suicide by throwing himself off City Hall on Christmas Eve as a protest against the social injustices in the country.

The editor becomes convinced that there is profitable mileage in this. He retains Stanwyck and together they recruit a bum from the streets, down on his luck baseball player Long John Willoughby (Cooper), to play the part of John Doe.

As a result of his ghost written columns and radio appearances John Doe becomes a legend. Grassroots John Doe groups espousing neighbourliness (a consistent Capra theme) spring up. Willoughby starts to believe his own legend and Mitchell falls in love with the character they have both created. The rational Jiminy Cricket-like conscience character played by the lovely grizzled Walter Brennan is increasingly sidelined.

Things take a turn towards the dark though when it turns out that the newspaper’s proprietor is planning to take the John Doe movement and turn it into a political third party. Willoughby can’t stand the thought of this idealistic movement being prostituted thus and tries to thwart the scheme by exposing himself as a fraud. He fails and, alone on Christmas Eve, decides to commit suicide. This act (prevented by Ann who genuinely loves him now) convinces the people that the principles of the John Doe movement are worth preserving even though they sprang initially from fraudulence and greed.

The manipulative newspaper proprietor is left powerless at the hands of the people. Apart from a single lurching, unwelcome allusion to the death of Christ this is rousing stuff. A sparky depiction of how the juggernaut of political ambition can fail before the apparently feeble forces of moral correctness. I love this. It’s not that far away from the denouement of Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, or the Stackhouse Filibuster episode of The West Wing. Or the ideologies of Wolfie in Citizen Smith. (Not really that last one.)

I don’t see this on many lists of Christmas films, but there should clearly be a place for it in the pantheon.

Right message. Right time of year. And, like Die Hard, it ends with Beethoven’s Ode To Joy from the end of the ninth symphony.

Freude, schoener Goetterfunken!

Festive Films 5 – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

At the very end of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, just before they switch us off, detectives “Gay” Perry van Shrike and Harry Lockhart (Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. respectively) address us, the audience, directly exhorting us to stay for the end credits. “If you want to know who the Best Boy is, it’s someone’s nephew.” They also apologise to all the good people of the Midwest for having said “fuck” so much.

It’s that kind of film. But, whilst meta-fiction, self-awareness and fourth wall fiddling can be a bit annoying if you aren’t in the hands of a Calvino or a Diderot or even a Grant Morrison on a good day, the writer/director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang pulls it off with aplomb. Several plombs in fact.

"Don't forget to validate your parking"

And whose hands are we in here? Shane Black whose previous Christmas form as scriptwriter includes the finely tuned action movies Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout (the second of which has been splendidly blogged by my pal Andygeddon here http://andygeddon.com).

Whilst doing a bit of Christmas shoplifting for his nephew’s present petty crook Harry Lockhart is rumbled and pursued by the police. Seeking a hiding place behind the nearest open door he blunders into a casting call for a movie. The film-makers mistake his over-wrought demeanour for genius-level acting and he is flown to LA. Here he is buddied up with P.I. Perry van Shrike for “detective lessons”, and in the course of a routine bit of surveillance the two get tangled up in a murder case of mind-mangling complexity: The Case Of The Dead People In Los Angeles.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was Black’s first film as director. His second will apparently be Iron Man 3, due for release in 2013. Hooray, say I. This Marvel tendency to recruit celebrity directors for their superhero event movies is paying off incredibly well for them. Kenneth Branagh’s Thor has established a very healthy precedent.

Black has acted too, most noticeably with the cartoonish muscleman ensemble in Predator (1987). But it is as a sharp, cynically inclined writer that we know him best. He can structure a plot elegantly, and he has a great ear for wise guy dialogue.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is way smarter than your average thriller. And it is comfortable enough with itself that it can wear its homages lightly. The beginning of the film (“My name’s Harry Lockhart. I’ll be your narrator.”) is a shot of Robert Downey Jr. filmed up through a pool in an impertinent nod to the start of Sunset Boulevard. The film is also aware enough of its genre predecessors to specifically acknowledge its literary antecedents: the story is divided into chapters called Trouble Is My Business, Lady In The Lake, Little Sister, The Simple Art of Murder and Farewell My Lovely.

At the same time as swanking his erudition around though, Black isn’t afraid to get stuck into base gags about bodily functions. At one point Harry becomes disorientatingly aware of a body in his bathroom whilst he is (ahem) mid-flow. In an impeccable bit of slapstick comedy business Downey Jr. manages to piss accidentally all over the corpse and then fret about whether or not the authorities will be able to identify him through his urine.

He has similar detection issues later in the film when a dog makes off with his recently severed finger.

There is also a running gag about adverbs, and one of cinema’s better “spider in the bra” routines.

Spider in the bra! Spider in the bra!

It’s a tight, sarcastic, funny affair, densely written and played wickedly by Downey Jr. and Kilmer who, at the time, were two of Hollywood’s badder bad boys. Michelle Monaghan’s character is far more than the usual desultorily written pretty-girl. Her role has real substance and she’s got the stones to keep the boys in their place.

Wit, warmth, action, a well thought out plot and an obvious affection for writers, writing and the written. I commend this festive treat to you without qualification.

Festive Films 3 & 4 – Silent Night, Deadly Night & Black Christmas

Where do you stand on the controversy controversy? Do you pronounce it controversy or controversy? I mix it up about 70/30. Well, more accurately 69/29 because occasionally I take it off-road Mexican style and make the final vowel sound last as long as I can. Controverseeee.

Right. Do we all have our entrenched “controversy” positions sorted out? Excellent. Then let’s start an angry dialogue on all available broadcast and social media with weapons-grade invective. Well I say dialogue, but that’s not really the right word because we won’t be listening to anyone else’s point of view and adjusting our own according to what we hear. Nah, we’ll just be shouting out our own opinions with all the sanctimony and self-righteousness we can muster until our faces turn a festive shade of red and the veins in our temples are throbbing to the tempo of The Little Drummer Boy.

Anger is such a cheap commodity.

On an entirely related matter I think Jeremy Clarkson is a gormless boor with a rhetorical arsenal of about three tricks. But that’s just my opinion. Others are available.

His employers (the Beeb, The Sun, The Sunday Times and Penguin) pay him to be a contrarian and a controversialist, so is it a massive surprise when he says something incredibly offensive about striking public sector workers on live telly? No, I’d have thought. And happily we are all grown-ups here. We roll our eyes and we move on, surely.

Not really.

As I type we are 48 hours past the actual remarks themselves but they are still fermenting away in the UK news bucket. Thousands of people are spouting off. Many of the ones most vocally involved have had to go to the trouble of looking the clip up on the internet to find out exactly what it is that they are so offended by. Did he go too far? Have we all lost our senses of humour? Who is it OK to shoot again? I lost track during all the shouting.

I have worked in both the public and private sectors and I am currently self-employed. I have three separate and mutually contradictory opinions on the matter of public sector pensions. That’s a lot of opinions for a small brain and it has become quite confusing. Perhaps I’ll just shoot everybody and then get about the more serious business of cramming mince pies into the food hole in the front of my head.

This keeps happening. Frankie Boyle alluding to kids with Down’s syndrome in the course of what was admittedly a very dark comedy routine. The depressingly basic debate between the fans of Richard Herring and those of Ricky Gervais about the rightness or wrongness of the use of the word mong as a term of abuse.

Somebody says something. Someone takes exception to it. And so degraded are the processes of discourse currently that before you know it you have vast armies standing on hills shouting at each other, comparing each other to Hitler and seriously talking about people getting shot.

Enough with the bipolar flight to the extremities. There’s a whole fertile middle ground of non-judgmental personal responsibility just waiting to be explored here.

For instance.

I blocked someone on Bookface once because they posted a string of jokes using the racially charged P-word. I don’t think it was necessarily wrong of them to use the word but it would definitely have been wrong of me to tolerate it.

Antithetical points of view. A parting of the ways. Number of people shot: zero.

I remember Charlie Brooker once writing very perceptively about his own involvement in a similar situation. As I recall it he’d written a piece about the televised US Presidential debates in 2004 which ended with an invitation to, I think, either John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald to involve themselves. Unfortunately this article was published with a flourish on the Guardian’s internationally accessible website. The result was that Brooker was bombarded with a shocking quantity of hate-filled and murderously angry transatlantic emails some of which he published.

I sided then, and side now, with Brooker on this one, though I can see how offence was there to be taken. But once I’ve done that how can I then complain about Clarkson crassly doing the same thing albeit from the other end of the political spectrum? I can’t really.

Sometimes silly people say silly things and that’s all that’s happened.

Peace on Earth, good will to men.

Before moving on entirely from controversy let us tarry just a little while to gawp at the rank, festering, open wound of a film that is Charles Sellier’s Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984).

The plot is this: traumatised as a child by the murder of his father and rape and murder of his mother at the hands of a criminal in a Santa suit young Billy grows up to be a psycho killer triggered by the sight of people having sex at Christmas.

The movie has some lingering notoriety based on the hostility that greeted its original release. The outcry was centred on the unacceptability of having a psycho dressed as Santa, though the outcriers seem to have been entirely unfussed by the release of Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil four years earlier.

Silent Night, Deadly Night wasn’t even put forward for BBFC certification until its eventual 2009 DVD release, nevertheless it has a reputation for being a video nasty. As with so many of the movies that were on the Nasty list it’s hard to see now why people were so exercised by it. Tasteless it may be, but its capacity to pervert is minuscule.

Tastelessness isn’t the worst of SNDN’s shortcomings. It is pedestrian, drab and disastrously unthrilling. Bearing in mind that it culminates in an axe-wielding Santa confronting a nun in a wheelchair in an orphanage full of kids the movie is surprisingly light on jeopardy. The acting is poor. The tone is uncertain. The moments of competence, like John Wayne’s knees, are few and far between. In fact it was only when I tried finding a few shots to screen grab that I realised just how badly mounted the whole exercise is.

Best I could do is the not very legendary snowman decapitation sequence. Try not to have nightmares.

Naughty!

Mindbogglingly there were four sequels, none of which I have seen. I am led to believe that SNDN 3: Better Watch Out! stars Richard Beymer and Eric Da Re from out of off of Twin Peaks and was directed, heart-breakingly, by Monte Hellman who made the awesome Two-Lane Blacktop in 1971. Can this be true?

Several orders of magnitude better, but still not awfully good, is Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974). Clark would go on to direct Murder By Decree with Christopher Plummer and James Mason as Holmes and Watson investigating the Jack the Ripper murders. I remember it fondly, but it is several decades since I last saw it. He also directed Porky’s in 1982 which wiser men than me have found merit in. I found its bawdiness a bit wearing however.

Black Christmas has a couple of ticks in the credit column. It’s an early entry, possibly the first, in the calendar horror sub-genre which would really take off after Halloween four years later. It also has a fine cast including the sultry Margot Kidder (soon to be Lois Lane in the Superman movies and sole good reason for watching The Amityville Horror), and Keir Dullea star of not only 2001 but also of Noel Coward’s brutal “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow” put down.

The story is a slender bit of urban mythologizing: girls disappear one at a time in a sorority house over the festive period. There are anonymous phone calls which may or may not have something to do with it. It’s a bit twistier than you might expect but dull to look at and shrill to listen to.

There was a remake in 2006 about which I cannot speak with any authority at all.

Festive Films 2 – The Apartment

Get a thing all back-asswards elbow-wise, bang on and on about it, change my mind and then have to start all over again. That’s my métier.

I just, as a young man, did not “get” Shirley MacLaine. At the time I was getting into cinema she had just starred in the transcendent Being There which I loved, but in the same decade she was in the easily resistible Terms of Endearment, Steel Magnolias and Cannonball Run II.

It was hard to see what all the fuss was about. And let’s not even start on the occultism and spirituality.

But as with Elizabeth Taylor, whose appeal also initially passed me by, I eventually had to execute a clumsy, public volte-face.

Liz I had written off as a gaudy, pie-damaging barrage balloon. Then I saw her in Giant and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and things began to make more sense.

(And at this point I really must recommend a Google image search for Giant. What a lot of big things there are in the world!)

As with Liz, so with Shirley. The kooky dame in the bad films became somebody else entirely to me once I saw her throbbing bruise of a performance as the elfin, vulnerable, scrappy Miss Kubelik in The Apartment.

Scales. Eyes. Damascus. All of that.

The Apartment was Billy Wilder’s first film after the box office behemoth Some Like It Hot and expectations must have been pretty high. The Apartment certainly performed very respectably in financial terms and won a fair few Oscars as well. Nerds will already know that it was the last black and white film to win the best picture award until Schindler’s List thirty-three years later.

So it packed them in OK, but I wonder what contemporary audiences made of it. As this image of the poster shows the movie was sold as a comedy, but the bleakness of some of the story’s content must have induced at least a bit of dissonance in the people watching it. In this respect it reminds me of the bludgeoning campaign a few years ago for Slumdog Millionaire in which the film promoters enticed would-be ticket-buyers with the promise of a feelgood, singalong, family romp. The car-battery torture sequences were under-emphasised.

Wilder was never deterred by the seamier side of life. The Lost Weekend is as excoriating a depiction of alcoholism as you could wish for. Ace In The Hole still has a lot to teach us about the nature of the relationship between reporters and the reported. And Double Indemnity remains a spectacular illumination of the weakness of men in the presence of beauty.

Even high-concept comedy Some Like It Hot starts with what appears to be the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

There is certainly an underlying sardonic wit to a lot of The Apartment, but the actual events depicted in the plot (sexual harassment, workplace bullying, attempted suicide) are not themselves that funny. It’s a bit of a stretch to call it a comedy.

Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter (C for Clarence, C for Clifford) better known as Buddy Boy, an insurance company worker who allows his apartment to be used by his office superiors for extramarital liaisons. The downside is that he frequently can’t use his own home and that his neighbours regard him as an indefatigable party monster. The upside is that the favour he has curried with his bosses secures him professional advancement.

This all changes when Baxter realises that the lift girl (MacLaine) he is infatuated with is being ruthlessly strung along by his boss Mr. Sheldrake (played with sinister, avuncular brilliance by Fred MacMurray).

How much are we prepared to sell ourselves for? This seems to be the question that the film (scripted by Wilder himself and long term writing partner I.A.L. Diamond) is asking. Baxter’s own personal enlightenment and subsequent Scrooge-like conversion follow as a result of seeing Miss Kubelik’s unshakable moral rigidity in action.

It’s dead good like, and I am always an emotional wreck by the time the movie’s justly famous last line rolls up.

That this works so well is secondarily dependent on the scalpel-sharp writing and the eminence of the supporting cast, but the principal strength, the axis about which all else revolves, is the utterly brilliant performance Jack Lemmon turns in.

The guy was a genius. I still can’t believe we lost him over ten years ago.

Lemmon’s reputation is chiefly as a comic actor, and this is understandable. His lightness of touch in this, Some Like It Hot, The Odd Couple and countless others is the stuff of master-classes, but I’m convinced he only had that comic authority because of the magisterial straight acting ability he possessed.

His performances in The China Syndrome, Days of Wine and Roses, Missing and Glengarry Glen Ross showcase this pretty convincingly. Hell, he’s even the standout in Airport 77 (sharks on a plane) as far as I’m concerned.

It’s crucial to the success of The Apartment that we love Baxter unconditionally despite being able to see how much of a supine twit he is being. Nobody could carry this off the way Lemmon does. Neither could anyone else be quite so accomplished doing the business with the hat: “it’s what they call the Junior Executive model”.

The Apartment was made a short five years before I was born but, Canaveral and Castro references notwithstanding, this feels like an artefact from another era. Seven years after The Apartment was made Bonnie and Clyde was released and Hollywood power shifted to a younger cadre, generally less concerned with narrative complexity and ambiguity of character.

Lord knows I love the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation, but this kind of film is where my main allegiance lies.

If you are emotionally tough enough for the pummelling you have to take to get to the end titles you will find the pay off well worth your time.

A fabulous film, Christmas-wise and otherwise-wise.