Issue number 249 of Interzone should now be both in shops and with subscribers. The issue contains stories by John Shirley, Lavie Tidhar, Sarah Brooks, and Jason Sandford as well as some excellent non-fiction by Nick Lowe, Tony Lee, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Ian Sales, Jo L. Walton and Stephen Theaker. On top of all this you will also find a column by me about superheros and what recent comics history can tell us about the state of contemporary science fiction. This column, entitled “You Don’t Have To Be Your Daddy’s Batman” is the fourth in an ongoing series that began back in the May-June issue… which brings us to the real purpose of this post, making my first Future Interrupted column available online. Enjoy, it even has a Christmas-y theme.
FilmJuice have my review of Declan Lowney’s Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, easily one of the most disappointing films I have seen this year.
Despite his familiarity to and broad popularity with British audiences, the character of Alan Partridge is something of a cult figure; A comedy grotesque born not only from the self-conscious egotism of Steve Coogan but also the subtle brilliance of Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris, two of the most respected and influential writers in contemporary British comedy. Over the years, Partridge has undergone a slow process of evolution from little more than a means of mocking sports journalism to a a more rounded critique of low-end British celebrity and eventually middle-aged masculinity in general. That which began as Motson continued as Wogan and Titchmarsh before concluding as your dad. Given that each turn of the creative handle has injected more history and depth into the character, it is strange to find the beautifully nuanced Partridge of Welcome to the Places of My Life turn up in a knockabout cinematic comedy. Indeed, many of the problems with Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa stem from the fact that the film’s writers keep wanting to produce character comedy in a film set up to deliver broad and accessible jokes. Little surprise that this film seems to have encountered significant problems during the production process:
Most DVD releases contain making-of documentaries that are really little more than advertising designed to convince everyone that actors and crew all had an amazing time making the film. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa breaks violently with that tradition by inadvertently laying bare the film’s tortured production history. The first warning sign appears when Steve Coogan apologises to his fellow actors for the lack of a finished script. From there we move on to talk about on-camera improvisation and some absolutely extraordinary footage in which Colm Meaney appears to be working out his character’s motivations on set while other actors mention the fact that they were frequently given their lines on the morning on which they were due to film the scene. This lack of a clear vision going into the project is evident not only in the sloppy narrative but also the comparative weakness of many of the jokes. Compared to your average cinematic comedy or TV sitcom, this film’s gag-rate is surprisingly low and when the jokes do come they invariably feel as though they could have been improved by a couple of re-writes. In fact, aside from a few good lines and a genuinely funny dream sequence, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is not a particularly funny film. It is not only less funny and less well made than such recent comedies as Bridesmaids, it is significantly less funny than Michael Lehmann’s 1994 comedy Airheads, whose plot is almost identical to that of Alpha Papa.
This is one of those films where you wish you could be a fly on the wall during production meetings as almost every aspect of the film seems to have gone wrong from the choice of locations to the choice of plot right through to the way in which the actors worked on set.
How actors work on set is actually a fascinating question as the rise of Judd Apatow seems to have ushered in an entirely new approach to the production of cinematic comedy. The reason why the trailers for films like Bridesmaids and Get Him to The Greek (both produced by Apatow) feature different iterations of the jokes that appear in the final films is that many contemporary comedies work by shooting numerous variations on the same basic gags. Sometimes these differences will be comedic in nature (different pace, different props, different lines), sometimes they will be technical (different angles, different lightings) and sometimes they will bring out different aspects of the plot or characters, but what all of these differences do is shift the act of creating the film from something that happens in the writers’ heads before production starts to something that happens in the heads of the editors and directors after production has completed.
Given the information contained in the astonishingly candid making-of featurette included on the DVD, it is tempting to conclude that Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa tried to use both approaches at the same time and wound up locating the creative act in the minds of writers and actors as they were sitting on set. Indeed, we see that Coogan and Meaney had a good deal of freedom in creating their parts on set and yet supporting actors were given their parts on the morning in which they were expected to shoot. This suggests that the film went through a continuous process of re-writing in which spontaneous acts of creativity would shape and reshape the characters who were supposed to serve as basis for much of the comedy. This also explains why so many of the gags felt under-written: The writers simply did not have time to finesse them. An experienced director could have imposed order on this process but the producers of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa went with Declan Lowney, whose directorial experience lies mostly in TV comedies like Father Ted. Again, the making-of featurette reveals quite a lot about Lowney’s role as it is full of images of Coogan either directly undermining Lowney or assuming the type of leadership position that you would normally associate with a director.
FilmJuice have my review of Pat Collins’ art house travelogue Silence. The plot (such as it is) revolves around a sound-recordist who is dumped by his German partner. Depressed and more than a little lost, the sound-recordist reacts to his personal tragedy by returning to the Donegal coast in Ireland in order to make recordings of places completely devoid of human presence. However, whilst engaging in this anti-social dalliance, the sound-recordist realises that the sound of silence might yield something more than an absence of arsehole humans… something deeper and more spiritual. As I explain in my review, Silence is essentially a cinematic reconstruction of the experience of watching an art house film. In an art house film, the director presents you with a collection of beautiful images and invites you to reflect upon the thoughts, feelings and memories these images bring forth. In the case of the sound-recordist, the sound of silence summons memories of a childhood spent in an isolated fishing village on a tiny island off the Irish coast. A little while ago, I wrote something about Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (apologies for the fucked-up formatting) in which I argued that the film was an attempt to use cinematic techniques to induce a sort of spiritual experience in the audience:
While there are many films that use evocative imagery to explore the belief that there is something out there that is bigger than ourselves, Stalker moves beyond the purely representative in order to fundamentally alter the relationship between film and audience. Yes… the hidden systems of the Zone neatly mirror the type of magical thinking that underpins most religions, and yes… the perversely benign Room serves as an elegant symbol for any spiritual end-point you care to name, but the film does not simply represent a spiritual experience, it actually compels the audience to have one by encouraging them to seek meaning in the film in much the same way as the Stalker seeks meaning in the Zone and the spiritual seek meaning in the world. This state of forced sympathy with a man who is either deeply disturbed or deeply religious pays off in an absolutely mesmerising final scene in which the Stalker’s daughter appears to move a glass with her mind as a train roars past in the background: Did the Zone actually exist or was it all a fantasy? Did the daughter move the glass or was it the train? Was the daughter gaining magical powers the Stalker’s reward for reaching the Room in the correct state of mind? Did the Stalker’s visits to the Zone alter the DNA he passed on to his daughter? Tarkovsky’s film is so rich and complex that these questions can be answered in any number of ways but which interpretation you happen to choose invariably comes down to a leap of faith no different to that of the Stalker or that of the spiritually minded.
Silence is clearly an attempt to reproduce this same trick by inviting the audience to identify with the sound-recordist and open themselves up to the possibility of a deeper silence. Unfortunately, Silence is let down by Collins’ failure to follow through and show us what this process of reflection and silent-listening might produce. In Stalker, we have the appearance of a dog and the possibility of the stalker’s daughter Monkey acquiring supernatural powers. In Silence we simply have the possibility that the entire thing might well have been a waste of time:
While Tarkovsky perfectly captures the combination of profound understanding and acute alienation that accompanies life-changing experiences, Collins is rather unclear on what it is that his protagonist actually finds at the end of his journey: Is it a sense of community? Is it the understanding that he should never have left his home? All we see is a wind-swept derelict.
It may seem a little unfair to unfavorably compare Silence to one of the greatest films of all time but I see the comparison as a compliment. Many directors reach for the art house tool kit and produce nothing more than a series of pretty images that signify nothing more than the compositional skill of the cinematographer. Silence is not an entirely successful film but it is an attempt to reconnect with an approach to filmmaking that has lain dormant for far too long. Great cinema should not merely entertain or move, it should transform and films like Stalker and Silence should be celebrated for pursuing that transformative potential, even if it is ultimately unsuccessful.
Identity is an ambiguous thing: Some are born without an obvious place in the world and so wander the Earth in search of an identity they might call their own. Others are born with a very clear identity that is imposed upon them at birth and while these people may know precisely where they are, their location frequently turns out to be under someone else’s boot. The dull ache of ambiguity throbs not only in the identities we receive from society at large, but also from the identities we choose to impose upon ourselves. This is a film about identity and how assuming an identity may very well wind up harming those who have that identity forced upon them.
FilmJuice have my review of George A. Romero’s infamous horror/comedy Creepshow. Infamous… not because it’s particularly funny or scary, but rather because it features the film’s writer Stephen King playing a dungaree-clad redneck simpleton who slowly turns into a hedge. Creepshow is something of an odd cultural artifact as, despite having an incredibly famous writer and an incredibly famous director, the film is actually quite shit. Indeed, re-watching the film and scowling my way through its terrible gags and ineffectual scares, I was struck by the fact that this film’s fame owes less to the film itself than it does to its impeccable geek heritage. As I put it in my review:
Nostalgia only ever functions within the confines of a single generation and expecting contemporary audiences to feel nostalgic for comics produced in the 1950s is a fool’s errand. Creepshow may well have struck a nerve with audiences when it first appeared but uneven writing and questionable direction mean that this film is now of little more than historical interest.
The nostalgia I speak of is nostalgia for a range of oddball horror comics published in the 1950s by a company called EC. As I explain in my review, before being wound down into a rump publishing little more than Mad Magazine, EC acquired a huge following by pioneering the combination of comedy and horror at a time when comics were being broken on the rack of public opinion for their supposed role in creating juvenile delinquents. Despite being something of a flash in the pan, the sensibility pioneered by EC was immensely influential on American babyboomers and traces of EC heritage can be found not only in the work of George A. Romero and Stephen King but also people like Stephen Spielberg, Sam Raimi and anyone from that generation who took it upon themselves to direct a horror/comedy. The problem is that, while the ‘boomers clearly loved their EC comics, they drank so deeply from the wellspring and returned to it so often that the idea explored by the EC comics themselves now seem incredibly dated and dull. We’ve seen it before and we’ve seen it better because everyone who ever read an EC comic decided to borrow the idea and make a film about it.
At the time, Creepshow must have seemed like a great idea and given how many 1980s film critics must have read EC comics as children, I’m sure the sense of shared love and nostalgia was universal. However, while nostalgia is an incredibly potent force that excuses many great cultural ills, it doesn’t transfer between generations meaning that while EC comics might have meant a lot to ‘boomers, they don’t mean anything to people like me. In fact, I’m more like to be nostalgic for the work of Romero and King than I am for the work that inspired them. Stripped of its shield of nostalgic good will, Creepshow reveals itself as poorly conceived, poorly written and poorly made.
I got into this question when I reviewed Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell back in 2009:
What most struck me as I sat watching Drag Me To Hell is its quite overt racism. The film’s depiction of the Roma people is straight out of the darkest dreams of the Daily Mail and a tradition of racial prejudice, fear and scape-goating that stretches back at least as far as the Dark Ages. Mrs. Ganush is physically disgusting, replete with disease and foul habits. A vindictive and dishonest creature who needs little provocation before lashing out at honest white middle class people using her sinister gypsy powers. Her family are presented in a similar tone as a pack of ugly, sinister and unsympathetic people playing weird violin music in the basement of a tumbledown old house. I would have some sympathy for the idea that the Raimi brothers – as Americans – have little awareness of the spectre of genocide that still hangs over the European treatment and depiction of gypsies except that, even accepting that this kind of gross ignorance is acceptable, it does not explain why the same kind of racially-inspired, type-based characterisation also applies to other non-White characters.
At which point, Patrick Hudson appeared in the comments and mentioned not only Creepshow, but also nostalgia for EC comics. At the time, I was unimpressed by the suggestion that nostalgia somehow made Sam Raimi’s antitziganism acceptable but since then, my position has hardened even further: Nostalgia does not travel between generations and any attempt to force the issue (as in the case of Olivier Assayas’ recent love letter to the 1960s) is likely to result in a film that makes its creator look either sentimental, simple-minded or politically reactionary.
In a career spanning thirty three years, the Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi produced a total of eighty three feature films. While many of those films have now been lost and only a few have ever been made available to Western audiences, recent years have seen an attempt to reclaim the legacy of Mizoguchi and introduce his work to a new generation of film-lovers. So far, the most visible element of this campaign has been the very visible release of Mizoguchi’s later films by Criterion in America and Masters of Cinema in the UK. Next week, Masters of Cinema are releasing a blu-ray box set entitled Late Mizoguchi: Eight Films 1951-1956. The set includes:
- Ugetsu Monogatari (1951)
- Oyu Sama (1951)
- Gion Bayashi (1953)
- Sansho Dayu (1954)
- Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954)
- Uwasa No Onna (1954)
- Yokihi (1955)
- Akasen Chitai (1956)
My review of the complete box set is now available on FilmJuice. As you might expect for a review of an eight-film box set, the review is kind of long but I think the length was necessary in order to explore not only Mizoguchi’s approach to narrative but also his attitudes to women and how these attitudes to women transitioned over time from bewailing their fate to celebrating their courage and finally to railing at the capitalist system that dehumanises and immiserates them. I personally consider Akasen Chitai to be one of the greatest films of all time as no other film so perfectly captures the ways in which the system bullies and coerces us into betraying each other for personal advancement.
I was actually lucky enough to review some of these films when they were first released on DVD back in 2007:
- My Review of Chikamatsu Monogatari
- My Review of Uwasa No Onna
- My Review of Yokihi
- My Review of Akasen Chitai
Re-reading these reviews just now, it’s interesting to see that while my dim opinions of Yokihi and Chikamatsu Monogatari have not massively changed, my feelings on both Uwasa No Onna and Akasen Chitai have improved immeasurably with time. Akasen Chitai may have impressed me at the time but it also stayed with me and had a real impact on how I thought about both the world and film. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few works that have been celebrated for their politics and their devotion to social realism but nothing in either British or Italian Social Realism come even close to the focus and power of Akasen Chitai.
It is impossible to overstate the enduring influence of existentialism on art house film. Since disentangling themselves from the mainstream of popular cinema back in the 1960s, art house filmmakers have worked hard to create a set of narrative techniques that perfectly capture what it’s like to feel lost and a little bit sad in a world rippling with beauty and potential. This tension between the world’s extraordinary potential and our own failure to make the most of it is what lies at the heart of all existential thought and most art house film. Indeed, these techniques and the moods associated with them are now so common in European and World cinema that their deployment has started to feel more like a professional rite-of-passage than an expression of manifest truth.
Winner of the Best International Film award at the 2012 Edinburgh International Film Festival, Chinese director Mao Mao’s first film Here, Then (Ci Chu Yu Bi Chu) is an excellent example of how to launch a directorial career: As technically brilliant and thematically rich as any conventional art house film produced in the last five years, Mao Mao’s debut proves that he can use conventional art house techniques to tell a conventional art house story about alienation, isolation and the yawning chasm at the heart of middle-class life.