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Some Alternate Views of Yorkshire (Red Riding)

May 19, 2009

I watched Red Riding : 1983 last night and though initially disappointed with it, I am still processing some of the ideas in it.  In the mean time, I thought I would put up a post linking to a couple of interesting pieces that touch upon Red Riding as well as a few other things I have been thinking about of late.

So yes, this is something of a links round-up.  Sue me.

First Up, a post by Charles Holland at Fantastic Journal about the visuals of Red Riding : 1974.  As in my piece on the film, Charles singles out not the film’s literary characteristics but rather its trippy cinematics and its use of architecture.  However, unlike my piece, which saw the modernist architecture as the foundations of a bold new world, Charles sees it as tacky suburban modernism.  As someone who really really likes modernist architecture I’m not sure that I agree but Fantastic Journal is an architecture blog and so I am happy to accept that my view of 1974′s architecture may well be completely unrefined and naive.

jdhouse

What really stopped me about Charles’ piece though was this paragraph :

Red Riding looked fantastic. This sounds at first a banal observation, but such visual complexity is extremely rare in British TV and film making. In fact a lot of the criticism of the series seemed to hinge around a suspicion of this richness, as if it were proof of deficiencies elsewhere. There is a bias towards words over pictures in our logocentric culture, a preference for the supposed clarity of language over the ambiguities of images.

Over the last six months or so, I have been trying to educate myself about cinema not just as a means of story telling but as a visual art medium in its own right.  This is partly what my Cinematic Vocabulary posts are all about.  A week or so ago I went to see J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek and I thought it was an absolutely stunning film.  Evidently, among SF critics, my view is something of a minority.  Abigail Nussbaum called the film “dumb” and Adam Roberts says a number of inteligent things as well as “Fuck.  Off.”

Startrekposter

The objections to the new Star Trek film seem to be a) that the plot doesn’t hold together under scrutiny, b) the film does not pontificate on moral matters in the same way as previous films and c) that the plot focuses more upon characters and events than upon social and political processes and institutions.  I realise that I am being slightly uncharitable in my boiling down of two good and analytical posts into two sentences but my feeling upon reading both posts is that the criticisms are correct but also in some way tangential to a proper evaluation of the film.

I think that both Abigail and Adam’s posts display a certain degree of logocentrism; a desire to engage with the bookish elements of the film rather than the cinematic ones.  Similarly, I think that Adam’s point about social institutions displays what can only be called videocentrism in that he castigates the film for failing to do what only TV series have successfully done in the past.  TV series that were not only less visually-oriented than Star Trek (2009) but which also had a much larger temporal canvas upon which to sketch out details.  The Wire and Deadwood had tens of hours in which to build their worlds, Star Trek had maybe 30 minutes.  I think a similar critical bias can also be seen in the SF community’s reaction to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007); a film that was visually complex and meaningful brought down by a load of concerns about plot devices.

Now, I don’t think that plot, characterisation and politics are unimportant in evaluating a film, but I think that they are only part of a wider picture that has to include engagement with the cinematics of the piece.  Charles Holland is quite right that a lot of critics tend to distrust the images of films.  They prefer to talk about scripts.  This is most obvious with something like The Wire where some critics compared it to a novel.  Really? A novel?  You mean it’s actually as good as Narcissus in Chains (2001) by Laurel K. Hamilton?  my my… hasn’t television matured as a medium.

We can also see this bias in the attitude that visually impressive blockbusters are somehow stupid despite their visual artistry.  Would a book be described as stupid but also incredibly well written?  I’m not so sure it would.  Not in such a knee-jerk manner at least.

parallax_view

Second Up, is a post by Mark at K-Punk.  Mark looks at Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and relates it not only to Red Riding : 1980 but also to the current political climate in the UK.  Mark expresses frustration with people’s inabbility to look beyond the human scale in politics.  So rather than looking at institutions as corrupt or corrupting, we humans tend to want to point the finger at individuals within these institutions despite the fact that the institutions themselves are constructed in such a way as to remove responsibility and power from individuals. : It isn’t the worker it’s his manager.  but the manager was only following orders from the CEO and the CEO was only acting upon the instructions of the board and the board only vote once a year anyway and are reliant upon what the CEO tells them.

This dovetails quite nicely with one of my recent posts about individualism in politics and film as I reach almost the exact opposite conclusion to Mark : I don’t think that institutions exist as causal agents.  What causality they possess is dependent upon the human agents that compose them.  In the wake of the groupthink that lead us into Iraq, the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes and the current climate of curruption among the British Police and Politicians, you’d think we’d have a handle on how to deal with collective responsibility.

Oh wait… we do.  I’ll let Uncle Orson have his say, from The Stranger (1946) – click on the 5:50 mark :

4 Comments
  1. May 20, 2009 12:13 pm

    I need to spend some time with your cinematic vocabulary pieces actually, they’re much more ambitious than most blog entries – which is entirely a good thing.

    As soon as I finish my current two all nighters in the same week frenzy at work, I’ll try to spend some time with them. Not stuff I think for casual browsing, and the same can be said of this entry.

    So, after that surprisingly content free comment, I guess what I’m saying is interesting stuff and I’ll think on it and comment once I have properly.

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  2. May 20, 2009 4:22 pm

    I would produce more Cinematic Vocabulary Pieces than I do but it’s sometimes quite difficult to find particular scenes on YouTube and I’ve struggled with the technology which might allow me to put them up myself.

    I could stick to screen grabs (VLC allows me to take screenshots) but I think it’s best for readers if they have the scene to refer to.

    For example, I watched the Laurence Olivier film of Henry V and there’s this hideous scene effectively attacking the Irish (turning a character who is eager to fight in the play into a grotesquely maudlin coward) and I wanted to look at that but I have yet to unearth the scene.

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  3. May 21, 2009 10:35 am

    Johnathan – finally I return from my long sojourn to reconnect and find much to interest me at Ruthless Culture.

    Fascinating reading your response to the Red Riding Trilogy. When I watched all 3 back to back in March I think I was caught in a weird zone between my hopes for the series, a virulent advertising campaign by Channel 4 (who desperately needed a credible hit as they were under government review) and the experience of having mainlined all 4 Peace books over the previous 2 months.

    Time and distance as not altered my initial feelings too greatly, though I think I veer towards feeling the series ambition was perhaps greater than the actual experience of watching it. I detailed my initial thoughts here in March – http://richardkovitch-thedrift.blogspot.com/2009/03/channel-4s-red-riding-trilogy.html – and reading that now think I pulled my punches a bit. The area I would emphasise now would be the following observation.

    “for all the trilogy’s aesthetic confidence and ambition, it never quite expresses itself as an epic television drama, certainly not when compared to the likes of ‘Our Friends In The North’ or Jimmy McGovern’s best work. Indeed, you could make a convincing argument that the Trilogy does not simply dwell in the terrifying geography of darkest Yorkshire in the 1970’s, but in the shadow of Cinema itself. This is television as made by filmmakers, and both its considerable strengths and occasional weaknesses can be located in this mindset.”

    Indeed, this is the series major flaw when viewed with hindsight – I have a strong memory of the series visuals, very little sense of an emotional experience. In short, it impressed me technically, but I was not moved. When contrasted with the great dramas of the US (The Wire, Mad Men) or UK (Our Friends In the North, Cracker) Red Riding feels like slim pickings as far as a TV experience goes, even if it packs much cinematic flair.

    I think this is why The Wire works as TV on such a different level. Where as traditionally Cinema is something that you experience outside the comfort of your home, TV always inhabits your front room, and as such there’s a scrutiny perhaps about what sort of characters you allow your self to spend time with (hundreds of hours in certain cases). I notice you revolted against the suggestion that The Wire is like a novel but I think for once this is a charge that can be made, at least superficially. Indeed it’s a charge I have made myself. http://richardkovitch-thedrift.blogspot.com/2008/07/down-in-hole-wire-and-why-popular.html. Certainly in the way The Wire assembles a vast array of characters and to explore both personal and social issues it is a modern day relative of Dickens or Balzac. Indeed the first script was written in the style of a novel, not the traditional format for a TV screenplay – http://leethomson.myzen.co.uk/The_Wire/The_Wire_-_Bible.pdf Of course, The Wire is specifically a TV drama, not a novel, and functions differently when presented. It doesn’t demand the viewer envisage as a novel might, nor does it shun certain televisual advantages – sound design, for example, the novel cannot access.

    To link this then to the Red Riding Trilogy. Perhaps the fact the Peace books were so rooted in being novels (and elliptical, often incoherent ones at that) hindered the transition to TV greater than anything. The decision to drop 1977 remains a major problem, and no cutting around it can salvage the damage to the plot. But more than this the medium of TV fundamentally demands character (in its direst form, mere personality will do) in a way film is often liberated from simply due to its greater strengths as a visual medium. As you correctly dissect, Red Riding was devoid of genuine 3D characters, save perhaps for Paddy Considine, Sean Bean, which is why 1980 feels the strongest as time passes. This, then, remains my lingering frustration with the Red Riding Trilogy.

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  4. May 21, 2009 11:20 pm

    Hi Richard, great post :-)

    I take on board entirely what you say. I didn’t so much revolt against calling The Wire a novel, what I revolted against was the suggestion that novels are better than TV and so comparing mere TV to a novel is some kind of praise. As I pointed out, there are terrible novels.

    I also agree about Red Riding failing to deploy into a proper TV series. Possibly because I didn’t watch them on TV at the time I didn’t see them as a TV series at all. 1974 looks like a film, as does 1980. 1984 looks and feels a lot more like TV though. So I don’t think it’s a failing of the trilogy that it fails to work as great TV, I think the films work as great crime films.

    I think 1980 feels the strongest because it is nice to look at AND it gets across character and plot whilst also dealing with the Yorkshire Ripper. However, I think that 1974 is so unique in its visual ambition that it really is the one that has stayed with me the most.

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