Saturday, March 29, 2008

Green at the gills

I take a morning constitutional. In doing so, I usually buy some cheap, tacky sweet substance. Rowntrees' Fruit Gums. Lucozade. The other day I Tango'd myself. At the end of the circular walk I pass a recycling centre, with an orifice into which the socially-conscitneitous can insert drinks cans. I went to do so, and then...

The 18th HGV in as many minutes roared along the narrow B road that bisects my village. These vile machines are aggregates carriers, plying to and from two brick/cement works nearby, often on journeys connected with the absurd redevlopment of the 'Celtic Manor' golf course, a horror whose traffic is slowly destroying the historic town of Caerleon. I looked at the can in my hand and thought: 'why bother?'

Most public discourse in the UK built around dissembling - from the folderol parroted by the backhander-pocketing pillocks of civic disgrace that are sweeping Newport into the gutter of chavviness and gimcrack anonymity to the garbage that the Ryder Cup at the Celtic Manor will somehow create 8 million jobs within a few seconds. Green issues are much the same - here was I, gullibly conscientious with my tiny attempt at environmental goodwill, an example Mr Brown and co contionually exhort us to set and yet here was a road choked with roaring juggernauts dutifully attending the destruction of more acreages of virgin countryside.

It's as cheap a con as notices adsvertising 'real ale' outside pubs who don't stock a drop of it, the phrase 'your call is important to us', the insertion of the word 'gourmet' on menus when gastronomes would only enter into a contract with the 'chef' on the promise he paid them and provided a bucket. As Paul Fussell writes in BAD (1991) we live in the Age of Publicity - the Age of Disinformation, not of Information.

But to interfere would be to interfere with business, the ultimate heresy for New Labour. And worse, to ionterfere with the road transport business, that accursed boil on the backside of British social and economic life since the 1950s. After all, the fate of the planet might be important, but loosening the shackles on hauliers, cowboy and choirboy types alike - takes precedence. They are, as those obscene 'Fuel Protest' clowns of 2000 realised, 'the lifeblood of the country' - because the destruction of the rail and canal networks has allowed the development of social and economic infrastructure to make this status secure.

I used to like lorries - the scalloped lines of the face of Fodens, and of Scammells - one cab designed by none other than Pininfarina - of AEC's Ergonomic cab. Now they are not only toxic avengers, they don't even look attractive. They have, in the words of the song, crashed the gate doing 98. I say let them truckers rolll, 10-4! And we have.

I stood, foolishly, the crushed can in my hand, and watched another four barrel by.

Then I put the can into the recycler. Fuck 'em. Anything to fight back.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Why? There's always a why.

'The Whole Goddam Mutha's Gonna Blow' may never have been said in a movie. But it does climactic shorthand for any number of musclebound disaster and crimefighting'epics', the latter usually featuring Steven Seagal leaping from an exploding oil refinery, volcano, etc. In slow motion.

So now you know. All 2 of you.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Battleship Potemkin

“Myth,” the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote, “is language.” Insofar as that language develops exponentially over time, so do components of a story, and can be individualized as ‘mythemes’. But, what Levi-Strauss only hints at, is that at the kernel of myth is – however murkily, and however mediated – a truth. It becomes a primal means of language to describe history and the present and the human condition.

If film is a language, Sergei Eisenstein’s brief, urgent masterpiece uses myth as its logical centre but has also become a myth in itself. And, as Levi-Strauss posits, at the heart of both is truth. The truth of brutal struggle against oppression, and in the film’s afterlife and Eisenstein’s memory, the truth of its furious, bracing genius.

Eisenstein’s reputation is largely unassailable; the only quibbles are about what was his greatest film (Strike (1925)? Potemkin? Alexander Nevsky (1938)?). Briefly setting aside the politics (to totally separate this from Eisenstein’s vision is dissimulation of the worst kind), Battleship Potemkin is a visually stunning essay in the montage techniques pioneered at Mosfilm by Lev Kuleshov in the extraordinarily bizarre ferment of creative energies unleashed by the Bolshevik October Revolution, which gave the world visual artists such as Tatlin and Malevich, composers Shostakovich and Roslavetz and the theatrical innovators Stanislavski and Meyerhold.

The film is a straightforward bellow against oppression, with a rising of matelots on the eponymous ship against their Imperialist bosses in the signature year of 1905, the year of the failed Russian revolution that first Kerensky and then Lenin set out to avenge.

It’s in your face. Of course it is. But it’s an embrace you don’t mind. The grotesquely-treated sailors take control of the ship, the port city of Odessa mobilizes its poor and hungry who are shot down by Tsarist battalions in one of cinema’s iconic moments – and it is here that myth takes hold. Apart from a stream of superbly composed images, devised on the hoof in partnership with conematographer Eduard Tisse - there is the still-stunning Odessa Steps sequence, the tumbling baby carriage, the smashed specs of the screaming babushka, the jump-cutting from this to that agonized figure, hard-pedalling of the dehumanizing banality of evil – even 80 years on, this grips like a vice. The savagery, for 1925, must have reduced cinema audiences to silence, but the harsh contrasts of light on the steps lent film an entirely new language, and thus the visual patois of the last century. The massacre never happened – although Tsarist troops did commit atrocities in the town. The triumphant peroration as the squadron of ships sent to destroy the Potemkin join in its revolutionary fervour is another myth, as naïve as the Socialist-Realism of smiling peasants with huge shiny biceps atop collectivized tractors. And yet, while it is a great big clenched fist, it retains its own individual, inimitable beauty and integrity.

The American cultural critic Garry Wills railed against the ‘fist’ approach of Hollywood blockbusters, telegraphing images and creating its own mythology but Eisenstein – no matter how one views the USSR – did this with good taste and a visual language that simply had not been invented until he did so. Not by Méliès, not by Griffiths. There are period references – the florid gestures of the players, for example – but Eisenstein reinvented the cinematograph in the same way that George Martin reinvented the recording studio.

Watch carefully. Kuleshov and his pals were schooled in revolutionary idealism and their experiments in montage technique were aimed at measuring emotional response in viewers. This is not to diminish the extraordinary pacing of Eisenstein’s cutting from the face of a sailor to a terrified Odessan – the continuity of Hollywoodian visual narrative, still so familiar today, was cut to ribbons, as vital scenes (the slash of a sabre, for example) were reduced to nanoseconds – or the beauty of his sometimes homoerotic dwelling on military hardware. It’s easy to see why Goebbels admired this visual language, as it prefigures his vision of stahlende Romantik – steely Romanticism, as a metaphor for the elemental struggles of the 20th century. But Eisenstein is no totalitarian patsy. Far from it. Indeed its very success – it was an international sensation, not just among communist or even leftist critics and audiences – helped create cinematic myth, in the same way as Citizen Kane (1941), or Triumph of the Will (1935) or Psycho (1960). It used a form of mythology to create its own.

In the last years of his life, Eisenstein stood in ever-increasing isolation, accused of formalism, or the deliberate promotion of style over revolutionary content, and while Nevsky was a masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible (1942) remained a tantalizingly unfinished monument to Stalinist nationalism. Other great Soviet directors followed him through the Party mill – Tarkovsky got into the crap too, and even Elem Klimov, whose 1985 WW2 film Come and See is widely considered to be the most harrowing war movie ever made, never quite made it past the commissars. We should be grateful that Eisenstein’s pre-eminence entered western consciousness before Stalin’s dead hand regimented USSR cultural life. This is not just one of the greatest films ever made, but, along with Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, Joyce’s Ulysses and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, one of the defining cultural works of the past 100 years. Potemkin is a myth. But as with all myths, there’s truth in the reasons for its fame.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Withnail and I

The best of times, the worst of times

Has a movie ever consigned so many catchphrases to posterity?

‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake! Are you the farmer? Stop saying that Withnail. Course he’s the fucking farmer!’

This writer distrusts cults and sensations, and even more those loved by students (don’t get me started on The Smiths, for example). But if one memory of my sister’s largesse will abide, it’s when she sat me down to watch this almost sickeningly funny film.

‘Scrubbers! Scrubbers!’

It IS funny – quite apart from the tragic-comical way in which struggling thesps Withnail (Richard E Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) scrape what can’t really be called an existence, let alone a living, there’s the strawberry-faced outbursts of scandalously camp Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), the coffee-house confrontation in Penrith, all of which are time-capsule jobs for British cinematic historians.

‘I mean to have you, boy…even if it must be burglary…’

But Bruce Robinson’s script and direction have another dimension, that of time - remembered, passed and wasted. The verminously scruffy dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) recites his own lament for the end of the 1960s (the setting is the autumn of 1969). Thereafter, in the teeming rain of Regents’ Park, Withnail bids farewell to Marwood - who has finally found work - and thus to a part of his sagging, defeated life. For Robinson, this is also a monument to a past become unthinkable in the Britain of Thatcher and monetarism into which the film was released; a 1960s that was not all Jane Asher, Carnaby Street and mod ensigns.

‘I feel like a pig shat in my head…’

It’s the film’s quality of tackling temporality, often concealed by the belly-laughs, which is what elevates merely a great British comedy into a classic movie, one which – unlike, say, Brassed Off (1996) or The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) – can resonate with audiences from Camden Town to Kuala Lumpur. Even if the bits we remember are the bits everyone remembers.

‘Look at him, Withnail! His mechanism’s gone.’

The signature piece featured on the soundtrack is Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower as the heroes motor up an empty M1 in a ruined Jaguar D-type. This is a neat analogy – popular culture at its most inventive, dynamic and inspiring.

Le fabuleux et al

Amazing Amélie

Pre-Iraq II, Time magazine ran a cover story rationalizing the ‘freedom fries’ line - WHY FRANCE IS DIFFERENT. Interestingly, the cover star was Audrey Tautou, which was a pic ed’s nice take on softening the editorial frog-bashing. This was indicative of the unarguable fact that nobody could quite rationalize - beyond Tautou’s indescribable beauty - what made Amélie (as it was known in the anglophone territories) such a sensation in spite of its unashamedly atavistic celebration of a dying Frenchness, right down to Amelie’s clogs, the Catholic notion of charity, the Proustian notion of nostalgia.

The premise is simple - a bright but offbeat girl embarks on a mission of charity for the lost and marginalized of Paris, and acts as an avenging angel to the harsh and horrid. But Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sly trick was to use the swashbucklingly brilliant technique that made Delicatessen (1991) and La Cité des enfants perdus (1995) such breathtaking pictures and place it in the service of a humdrum urban France in a social transition as laboured as a slow panning shot.

Few living directors have a better sense of visual dynamics than this maverick; how could the commander of Alien: Resurrection (1997) make a sweet, oddball love story in Montmartre into an international hit? That he did will perhaps be the ultimate monument to his genius. It should be.

Mathieu Kassovitz had known infamy in France for his role in the classic of racism La Haine (1995) makes his presence as Amelie’s love interest all the more poignant.

Amelie’s France never existed. But Jeunet’s gift is to make a watertight case that it did, in a visual language that combines lingering facial shots with biff-bang pop-video jumpcuts. Stunning, ravishing, you know the drill. It’s a sensation; one of those films you always promise yourself you’ll see. Don’t put it off any longer.

(c) Picturenose

The Apartment

Bad day at the office?

Thank your luckies you’re not CC Baxter, Jack Lemmon’s resentfully downtrodden clerk in an NYC corporation, who has become so cowed by the predations of his boss and the insecurity of his position he allows his superiors use of his flat to have it off with their mistresses. He’s 9 to 5 – they’re cinq-a-sept. Baxter’s immediate overlord, Sheldrake, is a nauseatingly complacent rat played to oleaginous perfection by Fred MacMurray whose attempts to ingratiate himself with Lemmon’s character amount to no more than using the insulting and hated nickname ‘Buddy Boy’ to a man he is doubly exploiting.

Wilder’s offices are striplit hives of paper-pushing drones, reminiscent of King Vidor’s wage-slaves in The City (1927), as regimented as a galley’s navvies. There is a curious, anodyne beauty about the interiors as much as there is of a New York of brownstones and rain, as later essayed by Woody Allen in the likes of Manhattan (1979).

The script – by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond – concentrates on the claustrophobia of interiors and how two people in a room can be continents apart. Not that Baxter wants to be anything but as close as possible to Shirley MacLaine’s lift attendant Fran Kubelik; MacLaine, her unfeasible legs aside, plays Fran as a plain, mousy, downtrodden wench, whose only common ground with Baxter is hatred – of her job, of her corporation, of her life. MacMurray spurns her, she attempts suicide chez Baxter, and the halting, touching empathy – not love – that grows between them is one of cinema’s most affecting romances, culminating in MacLaine’s madcap dash to be with a desolate, broken Lemmon. In this inky-black comedy of cynicism and hopelessness, of alienation and quiet desperation, the glow of human warmth finds a way through, as feeble as an usherette’s torch in a cinema’s gloom – but it’s there. Wilder rarely surpassed this miracle of a film, and few pictures have ever deserved their Best Picture Oscar more.

This is comedy as weepie, and the more the years pass the faster the tears come…