Aug 30, 2010

Is Jon Hamm's handsomeness an axiom yet?

Watching him cavort and shimmy, wiggle and jive in the intro dance number at last night's Emmy Awards, his hair bouncing like a Collie's mane, I had fresh reason to ponder the entirely benign, almost freakish gift to the nation that is Jon Hamm's handsomeness. If Roland Barthes were still around he would probably call him an "axiom". How trained Hollywood's beautiful people are, these days, to shove their head into a paper bag at every available opportunity — Johnny Depp, Charlize Theron, Brad Pitt, to name just a few of the worst offenders. Hamm — for whose nascant movie-stardom last night's Emmy's were practically a coming-out ball — is a glorious throwback to the time when stars used to enjoy being looked at, soaking up the limelight the way plants seek out the light, photosynthesising their fame and sending it back out into the ether, redoubled. Today's stars are no less glued to the mirror than they used to be, but they're much more embarrassed by the fact, affecting a matte, brushed-steel indifference to their fame, taking aerosal cans to their own image in extravagant acts of self-graffiti in role after role. It's the sack-cloth-and-ashes approach to movie glamour — shame-faced, apologetic. Maybe it's no surprise that the two male actors who body-swerved this tendency — George Clooney and Jon Hamm — have also come to their careers late, and through TV. Theirs is the seasoned humility that comes from the long, hard slog towards the limelight; which means they still retain a connection to the silken, long-distance allure that movie star glamor has on an audience. Until recently, they were sat there with us in the cheap seats. They know what fame looks like from the outside, and having finally made it to the inside, they're not about to try and booby trap the audience's yearning in a fit of reverse vanity. They will stand there like men, godammit, lungs full, feet planted on the ground, backs braced, soaking up the attention like Kirk Douglas or Burt Lansaster* in their irradiant prime.

* See this impression of Lancaster which Alec Baldwin did on Letterman recently. It's a thing of great beauty, well worth enduring the 20 seconds of commercial for 'Outback' restaurants.

Aug 28, 2010

Time for Brits to reclaim the American revolution

“This is a moment, quite honestly, that I think we reclaim the civil rights movement.”— Glenn Beck

“I hope that Dr. King would be so proud of us, as his niece Dr. Alveda King is very proud as a participant in this rally. This is sacred ground where we feel his spirit and can appreciate all of his efforts. He who so believed in equality and may we live up to his challenge.” — Sarah Palin
I'm not going to beat around the bush: we Brits can't help but feel a little excluded by your July 4th celebrations. There it is. There's not really much for an Englishman to do, except creep around the place looking as inoffensive as possible. It's not like we even count as a minority; we're the original oppressors, the guys you all came here to get away from, the gatecrashers of the American republic — the psycho ex-girlfriends, the bunny-boilers, the Klingons, the one who didn't get the memo. Don't think it hasn't hurt. Don't think we haven't occasionally wondered if maybe the tiniest bit of gratitude might be in order. Oppression is a two-way street, you know! You couldn't have done it without us! And then the other day I happened to be watching the cherubic Glenn Beck on telly — we do so approve of the way that man loves his tea parties — and wouldn't you know it we had a brain-wave. Are you ready? Here goes. We think it's high time the British reclaimed the American Revolution. It's a corker, no? Oh but I know what you're thinking. "But you can't do that!" comes the cry. "The American revolution threw off the irksome yoke of tyranny put in place by you bloodless bastards!" To which I say: Don't be so oppositional in your thinking. Nobody likes a sourpuss. And: mind your language. All we're saying is that the declaration of independence cuts both ways. You think we weren't willing you people towards standing on your own two feet you lazy little blighters? That we weren't tired of collecting all those taxes? (Frankly we were a little amazed it took you so long to figure it out. Taxation without representation? Our way of gently reminding you peeps that maybe, just maybe, the time had come to come to stand on your own two feet, toddle off and find your own system of taxation!) You've read Co-Dependent No More, Melody Beattie's shining beacon of a book which has shown millions of readers, through personal examples and exercises, how controlling others forces them to lose sight of their own needs and happiness? You haven't? Well you should. A marvellous book — if only Melody had published it a few centuries earlier, we'd all have been spared a lot of blood, sweat, tears and lost tea. But it's okay. Let's not go there. The fact is, we were as delighted as any parent when you finally got the picture and shoved off, you little bleeders! It's been great watching you little darlings with your fireworks and your flags and your barbeques every year. So sweet. Hard to stop a tiny tremble in the old stiff upper. But enough's enough. As wonderful as it is to see you finally kick off the training wheels and ride on your little lonesome, the time has come to let old Auntie Britain back into your life! You know you want us, dahlinks! Don't you shake your head like that! Oh you are a one. Let me be clear what we're not asking. We're not asking for control of your ports. We're not asking that you hand over your hard-earned tax dollars (the amount you skinflints pay? It wouldn't keep the Queen in dog food for a week!). No. We'd just like to organise a march or two down the middle of your state capital on July 4th every year. Just a few million Brits, plus our man-servants, all waving flags and banners celebrating George Washington and his secret BFF King George III, the new figurehead of all things revolutionary. We'd sing God Save the King — you can join in the chorus, if you can still remember it — and serve bangers and mash and drink tea. It'll all be so jolly. Just like old times. Except reversed. Now we'd be your guests! Don't bother to let us know what you think, we're already on our way! Here's to the Jolly Old American Revolution, what-what! Long live the King! Toodle-oo! Pip Pip!

Aug 26, 2010

Two men enter, one man leaves

Sarah Palin's novel interpretation of the first amendment to mean "freedom from people disagreeing with my opinions" seems to be catching on. Republican Governor George Pataki and Eugene Robinson just went head-to-head on the Chris Matthews Show over the Islamic Centre. It was a low-down, knock-down fight, the viciousness of which I have not witnessed since Mad Max entered Thunderdome to raucous chants of "Two Men Enter... One Man Leaves!" I hesitate to relate it here. Robinson expressed the opinion that the centre was a good idea. Pataki cried foul — his first amendments rights to freedom from disagreement had been violated! What delicate flowers the Republicans are. I must tread more carefully.

Aug 25, 2010

As astonishing as a two-headed dog

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I've long ago given up being shocked by Fox News, which is supposed to be a lot of fun for people who like news pitched at the intellectual level of a World Federation Wrestling match, but last night's Daily Show left my jaw resting lightly on the floor. For those who didn't see it (see above), Stewart rumbled the cast of Fox and Friends — their leading soap — pretending to be outraged by the fact that one of the people funding the Ground Zero Islamic Community Centre was also a Saudi billionaire with supposedly dubious connections, but omitting to mention that the man they were attempting to portray as a terrorist-loving Satan was Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the biggest shareholders of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Perhaps out of courtesy to their boss — or maybe just to forestall anyone looking into it too deeply — they omitted to name the Prince, or show his photograph. They simply invoked the shadowy spectre of a nameless man with ties to Imam Rauf through the "Kingdom Foundation." The viewer intelligence levels this delicate little pantomime presupposed in its viewers were so snarlingly low, lower even than the supine credulity presupposed by most Fox broadcasts, as to take your breath away. Astonishing.

Aug 24, 2010

Reversible Truth no 39*: Michael Bay shoots action

"Say what you will about Michael Bay, but he knows how to orchestrate chaos. Too often I see people discounting the amount of effort, cinematic craftsmanship and stylistic flair that’s required to successfully pull off insane action beats like the ones Bay produces—and from budding filmmakers no less. The ability to create mass bouts of sensationally-staged carnage is not a talent that many filmmakers possess, and Nolan is proof of that. Despite finding a rather brilliant way to engage audiences in Inception’s action through clever storytelling, it’s clear that Nolan has not yet gotten a handle on how to stage action set pieces such as shootouts and chases. If Nolan has been attempting to cull from the Michael Bay school of action-directing—a possibility that seems almost blatantly apparent now that his affinity for Bay’s work has been made public—he’s still got a lot to learn" — / Film
No, no, no, no, no, no, no. This is so off the mark it's not even wrong, as the physicist said to his student. "Despite finding a rather brilliant way to engage audiences in Inception’s action through clever storytelling, it’s clear that Nolan has not yet gotten a handle on how to stage action set pieces such as shootouts and chases." Does the writer think that car chases and shootouts do not require storytelling skills? If he does he merely echoes a widely-held belief that conflates "action sequence" with "noisy, violent stuff happening." Second rate filmmakers have a vested in interest in conflating the two: noisy violent stuff is a lot easier to shoot than an an action sequence proper. The likes of Bay and Tony Scott, and Brett Ratner would love if we forgot about the narrative skills required to tell a story through action properly. Nolan has nothing to learn from Bay. Still less is there a "Michael Bay school of action-directing". Bay does not shoot action. He looses chaos — a very different thing.

* An occasional series devoted to statements that are not just untrue, but complete inversions of the truth — flip them through 180 degrees and you would have a wholly true statement.

Aug 23, 2010

Pick the fights you can win

"After 9/11, President Bush praised Islam as a religion of peace and asked for tolerance for Muslims not necessarily because he was a humanitarian or knew much about Islam but because national security demanded it. An America at war with Islam plays right into Al Qaeda’s recruitment spiel."— Frank Rich, NYT
It does more than that. It is the only completely certain route to complete defeat. One of the coolest bits of Obama's inaugeration speech was the "you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you," line. Unlike most boasts, this one turned out, upon further reflection, to be exactly true. America will defeat al Qaeda if only because it will outlast them. The same is not, however, true of Islam, which will outlive the United States of America, at a rough estimate, by several millenia. Which is one reason why no government has ever waged war against a religion and won. Picking a fight with Islam is as futile as punching air, or sulking about the ocean.

Extremely Unwise and Incredibly Precious

Oh Dear.

Paramount and Warner Bros. are set to partner on Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: A Novel, with Stephen Daldry to direct two Oscar-winners, Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks. The deals are not yet closed, and it has not been determined which studio will take domestic or foreign (Warners grabbed rights to the book, then brought in Rudin and Paramount). Bullock and Hanks will take on the parents of a brainy nine-year-old vegan/scientist/artist/pacifist who plays a tambourine (recalling the drummer-hero of Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum). He searches for a lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died the year before in the North Tower on September 11, 2001. His father’s parents also recount how they met and married and lived through World War II.

Look, it's touching that Hollywood puts such store in literary novels — seriously, good stories are hard to come by — which is why it's so mystifying that that any self-respecting movie mogul would make a beeline for the effete fabulism of Jonathan Safron Faer, whose name alone recalls several old Steve Martin jokes. How many times do these boneheads need to crack their skulls on the latest NYT bestseller to remember: fabulism, or magic realism, or anything so much as resembling the cute, red-headed offspring of the two, is narrative kryptonite at the movies. Oscar and Lucinda, anyone? Captain Corelli's Mandolin? Everything Is Illuminated? Love in the Time of Cholera? House of the Spirits? Like Water for Chocolate? The Green Mile? Oy. Stay away from the Mysterious Keys! Go for the storytellers, the thriller-writers, the page turners, the plot-drivers, the narrative hard-hats, not the writers with the oblique, come-hither prose styles whose carpet-ride peregrinations and Miracle-Gro family trees aim to evoke the creamy swirls they find in their coffee in the morning.

Aug 22, 2010

Great acting or great casting?

"There’s a famous quote by André Malraux: “A masterpiece isn’t better rubbish.” Still, I thought that good films were just bad movies made better. In other words, I don’t see much difference between a film like Anatole Litvak’s “Goodbye Again” [1961] and my picture “The Soft Skin” [1964]. It’s the same thing, the same film, except that in “The Soft Skin” the actors suit the roles they play. We made things ring true, or at least we tried to. But in the other picture, nothing rang true because it wasn’t the right film for Ingrid Bergman or Anthony Perkins or Yves Montand. So “Goodbye Again” was based on a lie right from the start. The idea isn’t to create some new and different cinema, but to make the existing one more true. That’s what I had in mind when I began making films. There isn’t a huge difference between Jean Delannoy’s “The Little Rebels” [1955] and “The 400 Blows” [1959], either. They’re the same, or in any event very close. I just wanted to make mine because I didn’t like the other one’s artificiality—that’s all." — Francois Truffaut's last interview, excerpted from Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran
I've often thought something similar, but from the point of view of actors. Is Tom Hank's performance in Philadelphia any better, in real terms, than his performance in Bonfire of the Vanities? Critics would tend to answer 'yes' to that question, because they have a certain amount invested in the idea that a film succeeds by virtue of the efforts of those involved. (Otherwise, what is their job about, if it is not to act as teacher handing out end-of-semester gongs?). But in my heart of hearts, and I suspect in Hanks', too, I feel that his performance in Bonfire of the Vanities is no better, nor worse than his performance in Philadelphia. What makes the difference is that Philadelphia works as a film, and Bonfire of the Vanities does not. Or, maybe: Hanks was right for the part in Philadelphia but was not in Bonfire of the Vanities. But in actual terms, through the eyes of the actor, from the inside out, so to speak, I do not doubt for a second that he brought the same skill set, the same level of professionalism, the same brimming Hanksian joie de vivre, to the two films. He was not responsible for the outcome, or to the extent that he was, he was guilty only of making a poor choice of role. I felt this distinctly when I was reviewing movies — the phoniness of grading actors' performances, attempting to discern micro-discriminations of extra effort here, or lapsed concentration there, as if that had anything to do with my enjoyment of the movie. More often than not it had to do with my enjoyment of an actor's presence, rather than of than their 'acting'. Sharon Stone was well used in Casino but I didn't think she was any better in the Scorsese film than she was in Basic Instinct. If anything the Sharon Stone fan in me prefers the Verhoeven movie as far the better way to soak up her sheer Sharonitude. We are at the very foothills of the whole issue of what makes someone a movie star, and how that is different from being an actor — I don't want to get into that — but I do want to point out that, most of the time when critics praise performances what they are really doing is praising the casting. Spielberg, for example, is an exemplary caster, with a reach extended by habitual theatre-going, and a slight weakness for getting first dibs on the Next Big Thing (Damon, Garner). Scorsese is an obsessive caster, returning again and again to the same faces until the audience plans an intervention. Woody Allen casts like someone eating a whole box of chocolates in one sitting. But my favorites are the Coens whose casting instincts are much like their films — dry, sardonic, sly. To have spotted the clown in Clooney, or the sense of threat in John Goodman, or the stoner in Jeff Bridges, takes an unfakeable (and very slightly chastening) instinct for sussing out the subtext of a performer. No wonder actors want to work with them so much.

"One of these days I'm gonna get organazized"



Taken from Steve Schapiro, Taxi Driver, a collection of photographs by the film's unit photographer published in October by Taschen

REVIEW: The Switch (dir. Gordon)

Why is Jason Bateman not a bigger star? My wife and I were trying to solve this conundrum on the subway home after seeing The Switch, a film whose uniformly grudging reviews only minorly dented the film's enticing trailer. In the event, it purred along pleasurably enough, as opposed to inducing an irresistable urge to stick a fork into the side your head, like most romantic comedies these days. Bateman throws up fresh marvels of relaxed observation in every scene, his hair permanently ruffled, brow furrowed, like someone having a hard time waking up to the tiny details of his life. He's the kind of actor you would watch making an omelette. He even does a great drunk, moving slowly and over deliberately, like someone who is trying his best to hide it. The extremity of his drunkenness doesn't dawn on you at once, and when it does you want to whisper: hey.... that guy is wasted. That scene is what jump-starts the plot of the film, in which Bateman plays a neurotic, shut-down, and slightly gloomy best friend of Jennifer Aniston, who, in a drunken blur at a party, swaps semen samples with the good-looking tool she's chosen to be the father of her child. Secretly, of course, he's in love with her. Aniston then disappears for seven years and returns with her son, who turns out — ta da — to have exactly same case of the glums as Bateman. This is one of those plot humps you either resist or roll with. Personally I never tired of seeing the two of them discover some new quirk, or sour mood, or imaginary disease they both had in common. The kid is well chosen: he barely cracks a smile the entire movie. It's rare to see lead characters in a romantic comedy, particularly father-and-son-in-waiting, bond over their cussedness. Critics have been saying that he steals the movie although it's hard to steal what's already yours: he's centre stage for most of the running time. That's single reason the film is going to do badly and why nobody would touch the script for so long, despite its reputation as one of the great unmade films. Aniston pops in now and again to do battle with her Botox and summon up the ghost of perkiness past. Too little use is made of Juliet Lewis as her bead-wearing, boho harpy of a best friend. The picture's biggest laughs go to Jeff Goldblum, a tanned, besuited lizard king offering Bateman sexual advice of dubious reliability. Goldblum's pauses have, over the years, seasoned into things of great precision and comic beauty (from the trailers of Morning Glory it looks like he works similar wonders in that film too). My favorite moment in the entire picture comes during a scene in which Bateman confides in him about his feelings; Batemen hits the peak of the speech; and Goldblum lets his face go all soppy but only for a fraction of a second, as you do when someone starts talking about their grandma. Then it's gone, his skepticism back in the saddle again, eyes darting. You half expect a little forked tongue to flick over his lips. C+

Aug 21, 2010

New York Times grapples with dramatic license

The New York Times' film reporter is shocked, shocked I tell you, to find out that the makers of The Social Network might have strayed from the path of strict, honest-to-goodness, on-your-mother's life truth in their telling of the Facebook story.

"The movie deals heavily with themes familiar to Hollywood, like friendship and betrayal, but makes little effort to explain Silicon Valley or the Facebook phenomenon... The film is also sprinkled with scenes of extravagant parties, and it is not clear how authentic they are. As of this week, Mr. Rudin said, one remaining question was to what extent the finished film would include a scene that depicted Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder who was heavily involved with Facebook’s early history, delivering his dialogue while a pair of teenage girls offer partygoers lines of cocaine from bared breasts"

So the filmmakers chose bare breasts and cocaine over exposition about how computer chips work? How utterly confounding. So unlike those nice boys who run Hollywood, too.

August playlist: Kylie Minogue

1. Get Outta My Way — Kylie Minogue
2. Becoming a Jackal — Villagers
3. Ready to Start — The Arcade Fire
4. Nothing But Love — Brian Wilson
5. Beautiful People — The Books
6. Shut Out the Moon — Spark
7. A Moment Changes Everything — David Gray
8. Swoon (Boyz Noize Summer Remix) — Chemical Brothers
9. So This is Goodbye — William Fitzsimmons
10. Tonight, Tonight — Passion Pit
I'm a little embarrassed about this. As if to demonstrate just how helpless I am in the face of neat hook, Kylie Minogue's Get Outta My Way has arrived out of nowhere and ruthlessly barged aside Rihanna's Rude Boy as my most played track of 2010. It's got a lot to do with the false-bottomed platforms of sound in the chorus, achieved (I think) by having the bass and the synth ascend and descend together, exactly a fifth apart. It gives the song a searing urgency that cuts through the competition like a hot knife through butter. I can't get enough of it. Villagers Becoming a Jackal is the most heartrending track I've heard this summer; I love the McCartneyesque bass that strolls in halfway through the chorus — the aural equivalent of someone whistling with his hands in his pockets. I don't know what the lyrics mean but they really get to me. Something to do with dreamers and windows and unbidden transformations. The Arcade Fire has grown on me; it's a builder; and by the time it gets to the three minute mark, Win Butler's vocals are working their usual spooky synergy with the rest of the band. (Do they record together? I mean at the same time? It sounds like it.) Brian Wilson's cover of Gershwin's Nothing But Love is a genuine slice of heaven, no other words will do. I challenge anyone to find a nerdier song this year than the Book's Beautiful People, which appears to be about higher math, but it's lovely — how Simon & Garfunkel might have sounded it they'd written songs about algebra. David Gray has some tumbling, Stranglers-esque harpsichords that are buried at just the right level in the mix to leave you wanting more. The Chemical Brothers Swoon is hefty and wildly exciting in a way that makes you want to join something — the Moonies, a small guerilla army, something. And Passion Pit's cover of the Smashing Pumpkins Tonight, Tonight is my 2010 end-of-summer anthem.

The Empire Strikes Back as it was meant to be seen


Whoever posted that video is closer to the mark than they may think. As Lucas told me when I interviewed him for my book, Blockbuster:—
“Star Wars is basically a silent film, was designed to be a silent film. In terms of people’s aesthetics, especially critics, they complained bitterly when sound came in, that the medium had been destroyed. [But] the concept of cinema started as a vaudeville show. It started as a magic act. They took the magician off the bill, put up this sheet and they'd run this magical newfangled thing, where you could see things that weren't there. D W Griffith is the father of the blockbuster, in terms of giant huge epic films designed to make a ton of money and be promoted with all the gusto of a carnival sideshow. And that has gone on every single year of the movies."
This was the central thesis of the book: that the last 30 years of cinema have basically been the silent era, replayed all over again, this time on steroids.
“A cinema of moments, of images, of sensory stimuli increasingly divorced from story” in Peter Biskind’s words, “The movies leapt ahead — through hyperspace if you will — to the 80s and 90s, the era of non-narrative music videos, and VCRs, which allowed users to view film in a non-narrative way, surfing the action beats with fastforward.” That’s some leap. As a roll-call of the bogeymen which critics see bedevilling contemporary cinema, it can scarcely be bettered — action beats, VCRs, MTV.... One can almost see the poor moviegoer, twitching and spasming in their seat, as their over-stimulated lobes receive their instructions from the blockbuster power-grid. “The eye and mind are both bewildered by the too sudden and too frequent shifts of scene,” wrote William Eaton in an article for American Magazine entitled ‘A New Epoch In The Movies’. “There is a terrible sense of rush and hurry and flying about, which is intensified by the twitching film and generally whang-bang music,” and who, with Lucas's laser-bolts still ringing in their ears, could disagree?

There’s only one problem: Eaton wrote this in 1914. The new epoch in question wasn’t the blockbuster era, but the silent era, Hollywood’s most energetic boom-time, when the studios ploughed what money they had into luring kids into the newly built nickelodeons to watch delicately-shaded character studies of speeding locomotive trains, such as Empire State Express — a film which not only boasts one of the coolest titles of any silent film, but which blasted audience members out of their socks in 1897: “Two ladies in one of the boxes on the left-hand of the horseshoe, which is just where the flyer vanishes from view, screamed and nearly fainted as it came apparently rushing upon them,” ran one newspaper’s account. “They recovered in time to laugh at their needless excitement.” This is the problem with death-of-film arguments like Biskind’s; they have an uncanny ability to resemble accounts of the birth of film, when the best minds of a generation fathered a squalling brat of a medium, hopelessly addicted to sensation and show, and never happier than when frying the nerves of its audience. Death throes and birth pains can seem remarkably similar. Biskind’s “cinema of moments, of images, of sensory stimuli increasingly divorced from story” is a pretty good description of the very first films, for all silent movies were, by definition, action movies, and many were straightforward thrill rides, unadorned by such fripperies as plot, or characters, or stars. They were made fast, and sold by brand name (“Every day a Biograph feature”), playing out in nickelodeons whose viewing conditions weren’t too far from the modern-day multiplex, to an audience comprised mostly of immigrants and teenagers. “The backbone of today’s business is the attendance of young people from seventeen to twenty-three years of age,” sniffed Harold Corey in Everybody’s Magazine in 1919. “At 23 other interests develop.”

By then, plots had arrived, but only just. According to the Brooklyn Eagle in 1906, the modern-day audience “must have something happening every minute, allowing for no padding with word-painting, following climax after climax.” Anyone who thinks Star Wars invented break-neck pacing needs to check out the early chase flicks of D W Griffith, which flew through the projector as if of their own accord. For The Lonedale Operator, Griffith mounted his camera on the front of a speeding train; and for A Girl and Her Trust, had it placed onboard a car that was racing alongside a racing train, with another car in hot pursuit. How often the modern-day blockbuster, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Terminator, would dust off the same chase movie mechanics first pioneered by Griffiths and leave critics nursing their cricked necks. In the New York Times in 1915, Alexander Wollcott wrote “It is easy to predict that the cut-back, and similar evidences of restlessness, will fade gradually from the screens, to be used only on special occasions.” It didn’t of course, the restlessness spread further, and movies got faster still, slowed only by Griffith’s discovery, in 1916 with Birth of a Nation of cinema’s other constituent dimension: scale. Upon its release 1916, the film’s cinematographer, Karl Brown, noted that “Bigger and better, bigger and better became the constantly chanted watchword of the year. Soon the two words became one. Bigger meant better, and a sort of giganticism overwhelmed the world, especially the world of motion pictures”. All in all, it hadn’t taken long — just under 25 years — for the cinema to discover speed, for speed to give way to size, size to spectacle, hype to hoopla, and “unprecedented splendour of pageantry... combined with grotesque incoherence of design and utter fatuity of thought”, as the Times called Griffith’s Intolerance — the first of the megaflops, as perhaps any film in which the characters pay repeated worship to the goddess Ishtar was, perhaps, always destined to be.

To anyone who has sat through the last 25 years of American film, in fact, the first 25 years offer a strangely familiar landscape, a land of speed-freaks and hucksters, teenage kicks and sensation-merchants, all running to familiar rhythms and following much the same course. “The first newspaper coverage of motion pictures presented them as a technological phenomenon (‘Edison’s marvel’), then as a social problem (‘nickel madness’) and ultimately as an economic statistic (‘the nations fourth largest industry’)”, writes Richard Kozsarski in An Evening’s Entertainment. The blockbuster era would follow much the same course, from the explosive special effects of Star Wars (technological phenomenon), to the worries over Batman’s hype (social problem) to the hysteria surrounding the budget of Titanic (economic statistic). There is even, around the 20-year-mark, a huge technological revolution, forged in the flurry of fresh dollars: the invention of sound in 1927 and the arrival of C.G.I. in 1993. Spielberg and Lucas didn’t betray really cinema at all: they plugged it back into the mains, returning the medium to its roots as one big special effect, punching through the fourth wall, the screams that greeted Jaws in the theatre floating back to the screams that first greeted Empire State Express, as it whistled into the station.

Aug 20, 2010

What did Renner just say to her?

One of the few satisfying things about interviewing celebs is you get to ask miscellaneous stuff that you have personally been curious about — nothing to do with the interview, probably won't make the final piece but while you have them, could they clear up something for you? One of those moments came last weekend when I interviewed Jeremy Renner about The Town (about which my lips are sealed until the embargo is lifted), and got to ask him about my favorite photograph from last year's Oscar's season, showing him and Carrie Mulligan at the Vanity Fair party after The Hurt Locker's win. I've been curious all year as to what Renner had just said to her — she looks like she's about to pee her pants.
"You get the usual suspects when you go to all these parties and these events — they seem to last five months. You kind of get to know them a little bit. They're going through the same experience, most of them for the first time as well, so there's a shared experience and the intensity of just that... Oscar Pride. That was at the end of it. Regardless of whether we win or lose, it was great to win but we were just happy is was fucking over. And I don't remember what we were cracking jokes about everyone was just so stoked, it was kind of done, we could just celebrate, we didn't have to do interviews any more, just, what a great way to end. And she's an angel, she's such a sweetheart. It was one of those moments when.... oh man. I just couldn't believe it had turned out the way it had."

Quote of the day: The Self-Styled Siren

"Excuse me, but your fantasies about being a scientist in a really cool iron suit are not any more serious than my fantasies about Manolo Blahnik. They’re just not." — Self-Styled Siren in conversation with Dennis Cozzalio

Aug 19, 2010

Six reasons 'Hugo Cabret' is a smart move

Martin Scorsese’s new project, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” a 3-D children’s movie, is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel, set in Paris the nineteen-thirties, about an orphan who lives in the Montparnasse station and encounters a toy seller who turns out to be the movie pioneer and original special-effects wizard Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley). Last week, the crew shot in the main lecture hall of the Sorbonne, which he turned into an early movie theatre; at a nearby library (which was repainted); and in the Ninth Arrondissement (about which, more in a moment). A painter says that he noted that the filmmaker was concentrating on twenty or so monitors, needed to supervise the 3-D, and that two cameras continuously film the scenes. Scorsese will shoot, in the Athénée Theatre, a levitation trick performed by the famous magician Harry Houdini…. It’s a crucial scene—the director checked out the location three separate times." — The New Yorker
This may the the first Scorsese movie in a long time I've actually been looking forward to, for the following reasons:— 1) No Di Caprio. 2) No mobsters. 3) Scorsese is an unsentimental director of child actors. He once made a great movie about a a mother and her son, featuring a very young Jodie Foster, called Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. It wasn't his choice: Ellen Burstyn got him hired on the back of Mean Streets. The male-female pugilismaside, it couldn't be less "Scorsese"-like, but he found a delightful skittering slapstick rhythm between mother and son that I have never seen bettered on film (although the father-daughter wisecracking in Paper Moon comes close). I always felt that film hinted at the wide-ranging, ambidextrous career for Scorsese that then resolutely failed to happen. Then he got married to the mob and that was that. 4) Ben Kingsley. 5) Paris. Not only that but Melies' Paris. 6) Kids in 3-D! Directors only self-cancel when they adapt their dream projects or books by authors from whom they were separated at birth — Cronenberg's Crash, Fincher's Fight Club, Spielberg's Peter Pan, De Palm's James Ellroy. You get movies in total agreement with themselves, when what you want an argument, a creative switchback, self-wrong-footing. The best book a director can tackle is the one nobody would imagine him doing in a million years: The Godfather, Jaws, LA Confidential. Regardless of the outcome, it's the healthiest artistic choice Scorsese has made since Kundun.

Aug 18, 2010

Dictionary definition: Prejudice

"2 a (1) : preconceived judgment or opinion (2) : an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge b : an instance of such judgment or opinion c : an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics"
The Codoba mosque controversy couldn't fit the definition more snugly. The proposed Islamic centre is considered an "insult" to the dead, a "descecration" of their memory, etc, only if you first impute to this one Islamic centre the "supposed characteristics" of the group as a whole — namely a proclivity for terrorist activity. If you look at a muslim and see "terrorist" then yes, you are likely, and free, to take offence. If on the other hand, you disaver any such link, then you logically cannot take offence — your outrage has been demoted to mere prejudice. The opponents of the mosque are essentially mounting an open defence of their right to prejudice. Let us make that connection, they plead. Please, let us be outraged. The fact that the prejudice comes to the party dressed as hurt feelings makes it an even harder nut to crack. Attack my argument, they say, and you attack the victims of 9/11. It's quite fiendish. This one will run and run.

Aug 17, 2010

Quote of the Day: Hendrik Hertzberg

"Arguments based on alleged similarities to the Holocaust (or to Hitler or Stalin) should always be treated as guilty until proved innocent. When they are marshalled to make points about things like abortion, taxes, health-care policy, and Nixonian mischief, they should be rejected with contempt.' — The New Yorker

The Revenge of the Nerds

"Hollywood is undergoing is biggest testosterone drain since Charlton Heston sacrificed himself for the good of mankind at the end of Earthquake. Everywhere you look, beefcakes are packing up their nautiluses and being shown the door. The careers of Vin Deisel and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson have sputtered and died. Mad Max is out to lunch. Nobody seems able to sit still long enough to play the Hulk. Instead, cinema screens are flocked with svelte, low-cal metrosexual types like Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey jr and Matt Damon — buff but not ripped, more inclined to hang to window-ledges by their fingertips, than, say, to detonate the building with a improvised explosive device down its lift shaft. The superhero movie has now mutated, not without some ingenuity, into a species of wish-fulfilment comedy in which willowy uber-nerds like Jay Baruchel (The Sorcereor’s Apprentice) and Michael Cera (Scott Pilgrim versus the World) discover they are blessed with superpowers, or second cousins to some lesser-known Greek Deity, to be tutored in their own awesomeness by Nicholas Cage so as to defeat the forces of evil in time to hand in their math homework. I don’t seem to remember Bruce Willis having the same problem.

Partly it’s down to the economics of movie industry, as ever-shrinking audiences skew the studio’s sights ever younger, towards the boyish and Ephronlike. If you thought the first Spiderman a little wet behind the ears, try the new one, British actor Andrew Garfield, a boy so slim Christopher Reeve could have used him as a toothpick. But it also echoes wide economic anxieties; as Reihan Salam argued recently in an article for Foreign Policy magazine entitled ‘The Death of Macho’, today's Great Recession has not only done away with "the macho men's club called finance capitalism," but, with 28 million men out of work worldwide, has also resulted in "a collective crisis for millions of working men across the globe.” Hang on to your cigars, boys. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

America is having a meek moment. After eight years of a cowboy president who strutted the decks of aircraft carriers, firing off one-liners like a first timer at a tough-guy convention — “bring ‘em on”, “dead or alive” — America now has a skinny guy in charge, the skinniest since Lincoln, one who spent much of his campaign reassuring everyone, “I may be skinny but I’m tough.” It could easily be the motto of the new breed of screen heroes as they leap, spin, run and swing across the screen. Even Predators
, the original oily-pecs-in-the-jungle franchise, got rebooted this summer with Hollywood’s leading string bean, Adrian Brody, in the starring role. “If you’re asking me to believe that Adrien Brody can beat up a Predator with his bare hands, then sir, you have gone too far,” spluttered one blogger.

These things are cyclical. In the aftermath of the Vietnam war, movie audiences turned from the outsized heroism of Charlton Heston and John Wayne to scrappy underdogs like Luke Skywalker (“aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”) and Richard Dreyfuss’s rich kid oceanographer in Jaws, scoring points off the bare-chested heroism of the shark-killer Quint — the first summer blockbuster populated with cowards and hydrophobics, nervously checking their appendectomy scars. Spielberg, who once described himself as “a wimp in a field of jocks,” told his actors, “I don’t want the audience to believe you could ever kill that shark.” As the Reaganite eighties boomed, so too did the biceps of its movie heroes. ”The mind is the greatest weapon” insisted John Rambo, before strapping some beefy rocket launchers to his forearms, in case his mind wandered. In the original script of The Terminator, the title character was originally supposed to be a lean assassin: buzz cut, upturned trenchcoat, capable of disappearing into a crowd. James Cameron had been thinking: Jurgen Prochnaw. What he got was 220 pounds of Austrian bodybuilder, who could no more disappear into a crowd than he could perform a pas de deux. “He fills the space, and you have to go with that,” shrugged Cameron.

It was quite a reign they had, these slabs of sirloin, from the first Rambo film, First Blood
, in 1982, through Lethal Weapon (1987), DieHard (1989), and the appropriately named Last Action Hero (1992), although if you had to date the exact moment when these behemoths began their long trundle to the rust-heap, you would probably pick the year earlier, 1991, which marked the appearance of the computer-generated T-1000 Terminator in Cameron’s Terminator 2. A Porsche to Arnie’s Panzer tank, the T-1000 was composed of a liquid alloy which allows it to morph its shape at will, defeating Arnie’s might not exponentially but a-symmetrically, using his own weight against him. It was like trying to punch an ocean, and it portended a whole new world, ruled by bendy new rules of the world favoring maneuvrability over mass, and athleticism over brute force.

As The New Yorker’s David Denby wrote in his review of X-Men:—

“Gravity has given up its remorseless pull; one person’s flesh can turn into another’s, or melt, of become waxy, claylike, or metallic; the ground is not so much terra firma as a launching pad for the true cinematic space, the air, where bodies zoom like projectiles and actual projectiles (bullets say) sometimes move slowly enough to be inspected by the naked eye. Roll over Newton, computer imagery has altered the integrity of time and space.
When Willis wrapped a firehouse around his torso and leapt over the edge of Nakatomi building in the first Die Hard
, he was obeying observable physical laws of cause and effect; maybe not to the strictest letter of the law — how did he know he would swing in through a plate glass window and not go splat into the side of the building? — but the law in its spirit and intention. When Keanu Reeves slows down space-time and neatly sidesteps a bullet in The Matrix, on the other hand, all bets are off.

So, too, are the body-mass ratios of our heroes. This brave, new post-Newtonian universe belongs not to the bulky and beefy but the slim and speedy — to fast metabolisers like Reeves or Matt Damon, burning off the calories in The Bourne Ultimatum; or Angelina Jolie, running up the corridor walls in Salt; or Leonardo di Caprio and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt negotiating the hairpin bends of Inception, a film whose exposition levels alone render it a no-fly zone to monosyllabic grunters like Sly and Arnie. Can you imagine Schwarznegger, whose eloquence stretched to a terse “screw you!” before driving a power-drill into a man’s chest, wrapping his tonsils around the reams of pseudo-scientific gobbledy-gook spouted by di Caprio in Nolan’s brain-teaser? In fairness, many films of Schwarzenegger’s film did toy with the idea that he might be a fictional construct — “You’re whole life has been a dream,” he was told in Total Recall — but his response to that, as to all things, was to shoot them in the kneecaps. Such butchery now bores us. Like Pentagon drone operators, we prefer our kills ‘clean’."

— from my piece on The Expendables for The Daily Telegraph

Aug 14, 2010

Odd couplings: Philip Roth and Raquel Welch

Sorry posting has been a little light of late. I'm in LA, with a whole series of interviews banked up in front of me, like jet planes waiting to land: Jeremy Renner, Raquel Welch*, Mark Ruffalo, Philip Roth... Actually, the world's unrivalled chronicler of sexual satryiasis, Jewish diasporism and handjobs is not sunning himself poolside at the Standard, he is in Connecticut, waiting for me like a crocodile in mud, ready to pounce on the slightest gap in my knowledge of his oeuvre, before demolishing me with a single Cyclopic stare through his eyebrows that sends me scuttling back to Brooklyn. I'm cramming like I haven't since my final year at university, when I read so much I lost the ability to track moving objects, my head bobbing around like a baby's. My curriculum is all shot, however. Sabbath's Theatre.... Ms Welsh's autobiography Beyond The Cleavage.... Indignation..... the making of Fantastic Voyage..... The Counterlife.... fur-lined push-up bras, and.... actually fur-lined push-up bras strike me as a very Rothian invention, although I could never see him signing off on a title like Beyond the Cleavage. The writer of The Breast, who has long stood positioned beneath the balcon formidable of his female characters, like Romeo before Juliet, would never have stood for such a thing.

Miss Welch told me the story behind that poster:—

"I thought: okay no dialogue, what can I do? I thought the only way I can survive this thing is if I don’t just run around but keep in mind from all my dance training. I overdid it a couple of times, ridiculously, but I thought if you whenever you're moving if you have a purpose and use your athleticism and your ten years of classical ballet training then it's not going to just be you bumbling through the scenery. I'm going to movie with authority, I'm going to move with grace and athleticism. And I hope that’s going to give my character something, even though I'm nor speaking. It's your only hope to survive. So I did that. That was actually a jazz move. I just struck it without thinking.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Gary Kurtz

“We had an outline and George changed everything in it. Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.” The discussed ending of the film that Kurtz favored presented the rebel forces in tatters, Leia grappling with her new duties as queen and Luke walking off alone “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns" — Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, L.A. Times

Aug 13, 2010

How 2011's movies look from here

March 11
Jane Eyre — Fassbender, Wasikowska
Red Riding Hood — Seyfried, dir. Hardwicke

March 18
Paul — Rogan, Pegg, Mottola

Rango — Depp, Verbinski

April 11
Your Highness — Portman, Franco, Deschanel, dir. Green

June 24
Rise of the Apes — Franco

July 29
Cowboys and Aliens — Favreau, Craig, Ford

Aug 10
Warhorse — Spielberg

Sept 16
Straw Dogs — Lurie

Oct 21
Contagion — Soderbergh, Damon, Winslett

Dec 9
Hugo Cabret — Scorsese

Dec 21
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — Fincher

Undated
Super 8 — J J Abrams

My Week With Marilyn — Williams

Jackie — Aronofsky, Weisz

Larry Crowne — Hanks, Roberts

That's some swerve

"It is, in other words, classic Precambrian Franzen: a ready-made literary fossil. It’s hard not to be at least a little preemptively bored. And, indeed, the book would probably be insufferably dull if it weren’t for the fact that it also happens to be a work of total genius." — Sam Anderson, New York magazine
Perhaps not "total" then? It reminds me of when I worked at The Sunday Times; they were always running stories with headlines like "Picasso: Genius or Fraud?" as if those were the only two options, and nothing in between. Damien Hirst: Fantastic or a Fantastic Waste of Time? Or, Art: Transcendent or Total Bollocks?

Aug 12, 2010

When did America turn into a nation of victims?

"Where to start with this part-pathetic and part-sinister appeal to demagogy? To begin with, it borrows straight from the playbook of Muslim cultural blackmail. Claim that something is "offensive," and it is as if the assertion itself has automatically become an argument. You are even allowed to admit, as does Foxman, that the ground for taking offense is "irrational and bigoted." But, hey — why think when you can just feel? The supposed "feelings" of the 9/11 relatives have already deprived us all of the opportunity to see the real-time footage of the attacks—a huge concession to the general dulling of what ought to be a sober and continuous memory of genuine outrage. Now extra privileges have to be awarded to an instant opinion-poll majority" - Christopher Hitchens
I'm not sure how to classify the outrage over the Cordoba mosque. It's not quite stupidity, more a reflex inability, or refusal, to examine or second guess one's own first flash judgment, or see it in any but the most sanctified terms. It's a deification of the gut. You can stop any of these folks, ask them to slow down, and walk them through their argument as many times as you like — "Why do you find it offensive?" "Even though your offense rests on a calculated insult to the very moderate Muslims we most need on our side?" — and they still burp up the same response: I just don't like it. As if that gut feeling of hurt overrides everything — logic, law, the constitution of the country they love. I am amazed, too, by the disingenuousness of the news reporters — from CNN, MSNBC — who, in the interests of getting 'both sides of the issue', ask "Is it still too raw?" without realising even by asking that question they have already settled the matter, chosen sides, legitimised the idea that a mosque in, around or near ground zero might in anyway be offensive. My horror is not exclusively at religious freedoms being snuffed out — an abstract semi-detached concern, I'll admit — but because that is the way we will lose. Don't these people want to have Bin Laden's head on a stick? Their behaviour is geared to the exact opposite — clumsy, slapstick self-defeat. 'Sounding off in a satisfying way' has trumped 'winning' as the desired end.

Aug 10, 2010

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Emma Thompson on Audrey Hepburn

"I'm not hugely fond of [My Fair Lady]. I find Audrey Hepburn fantastically twee. ... Twee is whimsy without wit. It is mimsy-mumsy sweetness without any kind of bite. And that's not for me. She can't sing and she can't really act, I'm afraid. I'm sure she was a delightful woman — and perhaps if I had known her I would have enjoyed her acting more, but I don't and I didn't, so that's all there is to it really." — Emma Thompson
I'm clearly more of a fan than Thompson but the thing that has always grated on me is the girlishness; the desexualised, Pannish quality that allowed her to play nuns so easily. I will get into great trouble with my wife for saying this, but I don't think I've ever been entirely happy with any movie featuring nuns. Excepting their use in dream sequences, I've spent most of my moviegoing life in flight from the wimple.

Aug 8, 2010

One reason I don't go to the theatre

"I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama" — David Mamet
People can, under certain circumstances, behave like swine, and yet this is the only subject of drama. Maybe I'm too interested in non-swinish behaviour to be a true fan of theatre. A limited number of characters. In a confined space. In a contracted time frame. The easiest way you have to make that interesting is to endow the characters with more wounding tongues than they ordinarily might possess, amp up the swinishness, bringing long-simmering conflicts out into the open, and so on.... — all the stuff that feels most put-on about the theatre. Mamet isn't just talking about an innate word-view he happens to have. Every playwright seems to hails from the School of Articulate Resentment. His pessimism is formalism in disguise.

Expendables vs. Eat, Pray, Love

"It's as close to a laboratory environment as you can get. For one thing, the two films' subject matter and intended audience couldn't sit on further ends of the gender spectrum... It's also a near-perfect test-tube case because the movies are similar in so many other key respects. Both are mid-budget studio films coming out in the dog days of August. Both were made with the goal of pleasing crowds more than critics. Both pictures are driven by one huge-name star accompanied by a host of smaller ones. And the two are going head-to-head with very little competition. Given all this, the film that wins the weekend will provide a given gender with bragging rights (and perhaps, also, hand a few ideas to demographic-minded studio executives)."— L.A.Times
Close to a laboratory environment — or "a near-perfect test-tube case" — except for one thing: quality. Could be we have a rotten Julia Roberts flick against a top-end Stallone movie. Could be we have a lousy Stallone movie up against the next Pretty Woman. Could be we have two lousy movies, going head to head. Or one that is marginally lousier than the next, or quite a bit lousier than the next, or lousier by a degree that is, in its possible iterations, potentially infinite. Apart from that, yes, it's test-tube perfect text conditions.

Aug 7, 2010

Living the teenage dream, in perpetuity

"This unarguable truth — there is something pure and lovely and raw about teenage emotions — is the driving force behind the Katy Perry phenomenon, which seems custom-made to make the heads of NME readers explode like melons. When The Beatles recorded I Wanna Hold Your Hand in 1963, I Wanna Hold Your Hand was pretty much all your average teenager wanted to listen to. These days, they listen to the music of their generation, but are also familiar with the parent's music, and peripherally catch some of their grandparents, too. Pop tastes come stratified, vertically sedimented, like a layer-cake. With her Vargas girl aesthetic, Betty Boop innuendos and Pop art stylings, Perry is like a single slice of that cake, her lyrics cut with just enough Jagged-Little-Pill realism to satisfy Tween fans that they are not being fobbed off with fluff (‘There’s a stranger in my bed / And a pounding in head” she sings on Last Friday Night, a rousing anthem to binge drinking), while serving as handy storyboards for anyone who wants to turn them into a music video." — from my interview with Katy Perry in The Guardian

Aug 6, 2010

Newsflash! Will Ferrell mean to croney capitalists!

According to the NY Post's Kyle Smith, Will Ferrell has a "message on capitalism" that "interrupts, then takes over, then finally kills" his new cop comedy, The Other Guys.
"Ferrell and McKay introduce an investment banker (Steve Coogan) who represents Evil Capitalism and is even shown shaking hands with George W. Bush (whom Ferrell has said he would refuse to meet with, on principle). The Coogan character not only isn’t funny, but he becomes a bulletin board for Ferrell and McKay to post all of their bitter, half-understood notions about What’s Wrong With Wall Street. Like many idiots in the popular press, they are convinced that the Bernie Madoff scandal is somehow indicative of the way modern Wall Street crony capitalism works (when in fact it was a simple Ponzi scheme that could have happened anytime and has been happening for a century — but is relatively rare simply because of the inevitability of getting caught). The more the movie yammers on about pension schemes and misappropriated funds, the more you check your watch.... it is (for long stretches in the second half) simply a screechy, speechy, huffing, puffing bore."
I love how the right have turned into the left when it comes to movies. First they attack Avatar on the grounds that it is mean to forestry developers, now they go after a Will Ferrell movie because it hurts the feelings of bankers. For this kind of Gradgrindian humorlessness, you used to have to look up ornery old Marxists with essays tucked under their arm entitled Totally Recalling Arnold: Mimicry and Mimesis in the Absent(ed) Future, but now the right are getting in on all the bah-humbugging for themselves, complete with buttonholing parentheses and top-volume adjectives. Screechy, huffing, puffing, yammering. It's interesting what mirrors such adjectival splurges always turn out to be.

The one to watch

"Love and Other Drugs is by far the best romantic comedy I've seen. It's smart, sexy, raunchy and hilarious. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Hathaway works very well, and their relationship is very believable... the cast (including costars Oliver Platt and Hank Azaria) has been perfectly picked... I'm giving it four and a half stars" — early audience review of Ed Zwick's Love And Other Drugs

Aug 5, 2010

How American are American movies?

"The rising clout of international audiences is a sea change for Hollywood. Decades ago, a movie's foreign box office barely registered with studio executives. Now, foreign ticket sales represent nearly 68% of the roughly $32 billion global film market, up from roughly 58% a decade ago, according to Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service. The result is that one of the most American of products is now being retooled to suit foreign tastes. Studios have begun to cast foreign actors in American-themed blockbusters like "G.I. Joe." Scripts are being rewritten to lure global audiences. And studios are cutting back on standard Hollywood fare like romantic comedies because foreign movie-goers often don't find American jokes all that funny." — WSJ
I've been saying this for years, most recently for New York magazine:—
Things began to change with Jaws and Star Wars, summer blockbusters that gobbled up 40 percent of their revenue overseas. But it wasn’t until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the opening up of Asia, that things began to pick up speed. Jurassic Park made over 60 percent of its money overseas, and in 1994, Hollywood’s overseas revenues outstripped its domestic take for the first time. Accepting his Golden Globes for Avatar last month, James Cameron observed two truisms: (1) even the HMFIC serves as second in command to a full bladder, and (2) “What we do is we make entertainment for a global audience.” Cameron's film has made an astonishing 70 percent of its money abroad. Hollywood is no longer America's film industry; it is the world's TV set.
French fears about Jurassic Park constituting the second invasion of Paris had it backward: it was the Trojan horse by which foreign markets bedazzled studio execs. While we all wait for the premiere of the Martin Scorsese-directed Boardwalk Empire, the new HBO series about the beginning of the casino era in Atlantic City during the 1920s, ask yourself this: didn't Hollywood used to do this? I mean, historical national epics of the Once Upon a Time in America variety. They did, of course, but with cinemas block-booked with Iron Man, Spiderman and Thor — films gauranted to go down a bomb abroad — the American historical drama has been left largely to HBO: Deadwood, John Adams, Band of Brothers, Boardwalk Empire. The channel is not just a breakaway republic of Hollywood, it's become our national historian.

Is romance gone, baby, gone?

“I can’t remember the last time I saw two people really falling in love in a movie…. Romantic comedies, the good ones, taught me how to love, or at least instructed me on how to try… Culturally, emotionally, the whole idea of romance is gone, gone, gone. I don’t care how good the novelist, I’ve never read anything that touches Kate Hepburn and Cary Grant in ‘Bringing Up Baby.’... When ‘Up in the Air’ (which I actually liked) came out last year, people were calling Jason Reitman the new Preston Sturges... If the bar were any lower, they’d be calling James Cameron the next Sturges. As for Lubitsch, there will never, ever, ever be another. Ever. A guy like that comes around once in a universe. Proof is that even Billy Wilder, whose motto was ‘What would Lubitsch do?,’ tried but never came close.” — Maureen Dowd, NY Times
I'm no fan of Up In the Air which I thought terribly over-praised and I bow to no-one in my love of Cary Grant, but this is just soppy platitudinizing. The stock of much-loved classics is like the price of milk: it's always going up. You get more nostalgic for things, the further into the past they recede, not less. To say that nothing touches Bringing up Baby is like saying today's bargain prices will never beat the bargain prices of 1939. Of course they won't. They are 1939 prices. Hence the dizzying over-emphases (gone, gone, gone, never, ever ever), as the writer says, again and again, what didn't require saying in the first place. I get that romantic comedies are in a bad waythe cycle that began with When Harry Met Sally in 1989 is now firmly on rinse/repeat — but romance, dead? Gone? Dusted? Huh? I spent much of the nineties being tempted by the fashionable conviction that movie-making was in terminal decline; I even wrote a few anguished, hand-to-brow ubi sunts about the lack of romance/comedy/great scripts/stars in today's Hollywood. Now I think them one of the best decades in American movies, up there with the seventies and fifties. The Bridges of Madison County, I'm not ashamed to say, once ellicited an audible honk from me in a crowded screening room of London's most caustic critics. In Before Sunrise, we got to see a couple fall in love, in real time — a first. The sizzle between Daniel Day Lewis and Madeline Stowe in Last of the Mohicans singed my eyebrows. As for this decade, what about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Brokeback Mountain, Sideways, In The Mood For Love, or WALL-E.? You can't detect a heartbeat in that lot?

Aug 3, 2010

30 YEARS AGO: incredulous, frankly, that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father

It didn't help that I'd been unable to contain myself and read Donald Glut's novelisation of the film before it came out. I can remember reaching the end and feeling utterly hollowed out by the words "I am your Father," disgusted with myself for my lack of patience — that I had thrown away the experience of watching the movie cold for this soapishly banal revelation. That kind of thing happened on Dallas or Dynasty, not Star Wars. The pre-ordination felt claustrophobic — a terrible rescinding of the offer of adventure contained in the first film. For there, the droids had not chosen Luke; they had been looking for Kenobi, and Luke was simply nearby. That kind of happy accident is how we meet the heroes of a hundred fairytales and it whispered with promise. It said that even though you lived in the back -nd of nowhere and knew exactly what Luke talks about when he describes Tatooine as being the furthest from "the bright centre of the universe," you too might, under the right circumstances, be exactly the kind of 10-year-old to get invited along for the ride. No more. For Luke was no longer a farmboy, but the son of a Lord; the saga had been looking for him all along; the Force was now merely a matter of good breeding. I would later read Pauline Kael's point that the Star Wars saga got less American and more European as it went along, and agree with her — I hadn't coughed up pocket money to travel to a galaxy far, far away only to get there and find a red rope across the door: blue bloods only. Snobbery about one's pedigree I could get back home. Not that I saw it in those terms back then. I knew only that it felt profoundly wrong — the hasty elaboration and retrospective self-justification of a bad liar. That's when Lucas lost me. That's when I stopped thinking Star Wars the most important thing that had ever happened to me; and my future as a fanboy fluttered out of existence. Simple loyalty wasn't going to suffice.