Archive for Ken Loach

The deplorable in pursuit of the unwatchable

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2012 by dcairns

Apparently one of David Cameron’s favourite films: Lindsay Anderson and David Sherwin’s IF… made under the Eady Levy, a scheme to promote British cinema which was abolished by Margaret Thatcher.

So, our glorious leader David Cameron (“He’s a CUNT!” shouts Fiona whenever his bulging-sausage face besmirches our cathode rays) wants the National Lottery to support “commercially successful pictures that rival the quality and impact of the best international productions.”

Of course, anyone caught making a film which supersedes the quality and impact of the best international films will become an immediate pariah and have all funding withdrawn. Nothing like aiming for the middle.

And also of course, by “impact” Cameron means box office. There IS a debate to be had about whether film should be funded purely as a profit-making concern, or at least partly for artistic, cultural reasons like every other art form supported by the Lottery…

David Cameron.

(On the principle that politics is showbusiness for ugly people, who would play Cameron in the film of his life? If Thatcher can have a hagiography like THE IRON LADY, why shouldn’t Cameron get his own, THE TAPIOCA LUNGFISH? I see a 40’s era Ray Milland — more attractive than Cameron, which is the way movies do it, but smarmy and just a little too chubby to be trustworthy. Of course, you’d have to CGI-erase the charm, self-awareness and humour.)

Cameron points to THE KING’S SPEECH as the kind of blockbuster we should be seeking to make more of. As the producers of that movie could tell you, it nearly didn’t see the light of day because none of the potential funders saw it as a blockbuster. It did eventually receive support from The Film Council, which Cameron abolished.

Since nobody, apparently, can predict what will be a hit, Cameron’s battle cry is a bit like saying “Can everybody please buy more WINNING lottery tickets.” In fact, it’s exactly like that.

There are, in fact, ways to increase your chances of box office success. I will list them –

(1) Pick a subject already known by, and interesting to, the public. Screenwriter Terry Rossio (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) calls this “staking out a piece of mental real estate.” The easy way is to acquire a hot property like Harry Potter or Warhorse, but that takes money. But Robin Hood, the Loch Ness monster and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are copyright-free. And, as Warners in the ’30s knew well, any topic which sells tabloid papers can sell movies — as long as you add the magic ingredients of story and sex appeal. This takes talent, of course, an imponderable quality often, apparently, hard for executives to recognize.

(2) Use a familiar genre and/or clear tone so that the public can clearly grasp the kind of pleasure on offer. Convey this in the title, poster and trailer. (Note: if your title is LESBIAN VAMPIRE KILLERS and your film is NOT about lesbians who kill vampires, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.)

(3) The above depends on the filmmakers actually knowing the kind of pleasure on offer. In the days of British Screen, I could never work out if anyone involved in HOUSE OF AMERICA or THE LOW DOWN actually had a clear idea what form of pleasure they were attempting to provide.

(4) And that’s about it. Stars, and a massive publicity campaign could help, but those cost money. Controversy is free, but the mechanisms of the funding process exist to prevent genuinely divisive films ever happening.

That’s entertainment!

If Cameron had actually proposed something like the above, I might have semi-agreed with him. But following the above plan wouldn’t result in all our films being successful, or even defensible. SEX LIVES OF THE POTATO MEN, which became, perhaps unfairly, the whipping boy for those who wanted to bash the Film Council, had two hot TV stars and a clear genre and tone, though it was clearly following the gross-out comedy trend at rather an extreme historical distance. And it actually aroused some controversy, although not a very helpful kind: it was all, “this film is dire, horrible and unfunny, how did it ever get made?” Not all publicity, it seems, is good publicity.

The fear is that everybody would end up making movies patterned after the Hollywood majors’ rather limiting set of cookie-cutter patterns. But this certainly needn’t be the case. Would following the ideas above limit the kind of work we made? Not if it were accompanied by an understanding that a successful industry should make the biggest possible range of product. Trends change so fast in cinema that an attempt to concentrate on one particular genre, budgetary scale or group of stars will result in almost instant obsolescence.

Ken Loach has put forward the radical notion that we should try funding a wide variety of films, some of which would find commercial success. He’s actually right. I usually get the impression that Loach despises everything that isn’t his kind of dreary social realism, but at least he admits the need for more than one flavour to be on offer. An American producer at Edinburgh Film Fest in the 90s said “You only make about four kinds of film in the UK. You have your Merchant-Ivory period dramas. You have your boysie gangster films. You have Ken Loach social realism, and you have what I call “social realism lite” — the BILLY ELLIOT kind of films.”

Since then, not much has changed except the options have shrunk. In the wake of LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, everyone who had a naff gangster script decaying in their slush pile hastened to vomit it up onto the screen, alienating the audiences who had been starving for a bit of GET CARTER type energy (the empty but stylish GANGSTER NO 1 and the rather more interesting SEXY BEAST arrived just too late, after all the goodwill was gone). The Ivory Merchants and their heritage cinema withered owing to galloping sciatica (with THE KING’S SPEECH scoring a hit partly because it was a kind of entertainment we hadn’t seen for a while). And social realism in both its sterile forms seems to lack the ambition to actually tackle the major political themes of the day.

In addition, we’ve seen some attempts to reinvigorate the moribund British horror film and the British comedy — the colossal success of THE IN-BETWEENERS MOVIE on UK screens harkens back to the days of George Formby, or Hammer’s big screen versions of popular sitcoms — a small film can be a big hit in a purely local way by pitching at an audience it knows to exist. Meanwhile, Optimum and Ealing are raping their back catalogues and remaking everything that used to work, on the basis that if they flip the coin enough times it’ll come up heads — but they haven’t grasped that this is one of those polyhedronic dice used in Dungeons & Dragons and heads is only one of about a thousand facets.

What’s largely missing, except in a minority of the horror and a few non-generic exceptions, is any actual ambition to do anything good. The remake guys may fool themselves into thinking that by recycling something that once had vigour and passion and blood in its veins, they’re continuing a tradition of quality, but that’s true only in the sense that chinless, twelve-toed products of in-breeding represent a continuation of their once-proud race. By remaking something that was perfectly good to begin with, you are (a) setting yourself up to fail (b) confessing your lack of imagination (c) staining the memory of the original and (d) hitching your wagon to something which was heading in the right direction forty years ago but is no longer a reliable indicator of the current zeitgeist.

In their largely brainless way, the remake whores have latched on to point (1) — mental real estate. Except they really are kidding themselves if they think the title BRIGHTON ROCK has any hold upon the film-going public of this country today. Instead of traducing the best stuff in their back catalogue, they should be looking for promising ideas that were fumbled the first time — movies where the bad choice made decades ago can help you locate the right approach, where the topic or the name of the author or the title or the genre gives you a commercial hook but you’re actually seeking to improve something rather than copy it. And the good news, if you take that approach, is that the Canal+ library and the other back catalogues contain far more unsuccessful films than they do classics. You’ll be spoilt for choice!

Or, you could emulate the best films of the past by refusing to emulate, and striking out into fresh territory.

The Story Ends

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 21, 2011 by dcairns

Last week, Mark Cousins’ epic series The Story of Film ended. Next year, Mark goes on tour with it, so watch in case he comes to your neighbourhood. I wrote about the series when it started, and promised to return to it.

Much of my original review was taken up with nitpicking over the early episodes’ factual errors — apparently many of these were due to the wrong edit being transmitted, which was very unfortunate. I’m glad to report that as the show went on, these lapses lessened considerably in severity and frequency, although they didn’t completely go away. TOP GUN wasn’t edited on a computer, could not have been at that time. And THE BIG LEBOWSKI was made in 1998, NOT during the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein appears in the dream sequence because the film is a period movie, not because “the war was on and the Coen brothers wanted to reflect that.” As always, the problem isn’t so much in the mistake, but in its knock-on effects. The Coens come to seem like realists with a social conscience, anxious to inject some political commentary into their light entertainment film — in fact, they’ve always been so keen to separate their films from contemporary reality, they set their film seven years in the past for no real reason. I think that tells you a lot about them, and it’s all different stuff from what you’d infer from the erroneous line.

My biggest criticism has been the use of VO in general — Billy Wilder’s rule that you should use narration only to convey things the audience can’t see or hear otherwise would have been a good one to follow here. Instead, time and again, Cousins describes exactly what we’re looking at. Sometimes this is actually fine — it focusses us on what we’re supposed to notice for the sake of the documentary’s overall argument. But too often it’s exactly as redundant as it sounds, and it not only gets in the way of appreciating the movie clips, it takes up time which could have been spent telling us what we need to know.

There are those who don’t like the quality of the voice-over, and Mark’s voice — “He does that questioning rising intonation, but he does it in the middle of a sentence!” complained one irate friend — but it doesn’t bother me. It’s such a personal and idiosyncratic view of film history that it wouldn’t make sense for anybody else to do it. And I like the voice. (I’ve heard some good impersonations, from Stephen Fry and Adam & Joe. I can’t do the voice, I can only do the walk.)

The last couple of episodes suffered from the fact that recent cinema is much harder to gain a perspective on — LA HAINE is a good film, but is it part of a particularly important movement in modern cinema? Or is it just a good film? If so, why include it, since you can’t possibly include every good film? But there are great encounters with Sokhurov, Roy Andersson, Jane Campion. Even Ken Loach, whom I don’t much like, has a great bit on his approach to editing (remind me to talk about this sometime) — he’s rarely asked about technique, as if “realism” were just a product of pointing the camera at ugly stuff.

The best stuff is in the third quarter, the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties. The multinational perspective offered is genuinely unique in TV history, as we get not only Hollywood and Europe, but Japan, Hong Kong, Africa, Iran, Brazil… the series’ spine is the idea of film as a bunch of memes transmitted through time and across continents, and this helps binds the disparate threads together. But what it doesn’t necessarily create is the STORY promised in the title… since it would of necessity be an open-ended story, one with an insanely long cast of characters and more major incidents than can easily be recounted, where the sensational is at constant war with the significant, crafting a story is a tall order.

Cousins’ enthusiasm is his main driving force, and sometimes it gets in the way, spilling over into unhelpful and woolly superlatives about “the brilliance of the medium,” but when he suspends judgement he’s at his best — the aforementioned critique of TOP GUN avoids the expected slams directed at the film’s right-wing inanities, and instead details, rather deftly, the actual visual and aural qualities of the thing itself.

The Rise of the Petty Gesture

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on May 31, 2009 by dcairns

Ken_Loach

“Oo-er,” titters the comely Loach.

A brouhaha is brewing at Edinburgh International Film Festival, and typically I only find out about it via the internet. Nosing around at David Hudson’s The Daily @ IFC.com, where he was kind enough to link to my review of GENUINE, I read his piece on the EIFF story, and followed the link to the Independant’s coverage of it, and thence to filmmaker Gary Sinyor’s letter.

Here’s a summary for slow readers or slow connections, to save you following the links. The Israeli embassy paid $300 to the EIFF to help filmmaker Tali Shalom-Ezer, a graduate from Tel Aviv, attend the festival along with the film SURROGATE. Socialist Unity, a Palestinian campaign group protested the grant. The festival’s managing director, Ginnie Atkinson rejected the protest, saying that it would be dangerous to “politicising a cultural and artistic mission” would set a dangerous precedent.

Enter Ken Loach, threatening a boycott of the festival if they didn’t refuse the grant. A boycott by whom? By him and his pals, as far as I can see. 

Ginnie reacted: “Although the festival is considered wholly cultural and apolitical, we consider the opinions of the film industry as a whole and, as such, accept that one film-maker’s recent statement speaks on behalf of the film community, therefore we will be returning the funding issued by the Israeli embassy.” 

I know and like Ginnie, but I would accept filmmaker Gary Sinyor’s characterisation of this as “caving in.” As Sinyor pointed out, Loach has not been elected by anybody to speak on behalf of the film community (a fairly disparate and fractious bunch), and any such community would presumably include himself and indeed Shalom-Ezer, who did not agree to this decision.

Proving himself not above the odd petty gesture himself, Sinyor then wrote an open letter to the EIFF, requesting them to strike his name from their records (he won an award there in 1992 for his no-budget feature LEON THE PIG FARMER), saying “If I could cut the award in half and send half back I would.” Which makes me wonder, why can’t he?

Over at The Scotsman newspaper you can find a depressing debate going on about who’s more awful, the Israeli government or Hamas, and who’s more awful, the EIFF or Ken Loach. I’m more interested in analysing the thinking behind the threatened boycott and the responses first, because it seems like that’s the issue at hand.

Loach has declined to answer Sinyor’s letter, because he apparently does not “respond to personal attacks.” This seems a shame, because he’s not being attacked personally. Sinyor has said he doesn’t agree of Loach’s stance, which sounds like a call for a debate. Since spending £300 of Israel’s money does not seem like that significant an act, I assumed that Loach was jumping on the issue in order to start a debate and raise awareness of the very real problems in the Middle East, but apparently no, he doesn’t want to talk about it. 

Sinyor and Shalom-Ezer have accused the festival of racism, in typing all Israelis as warmongers along with their present government. But that strikes me as naive too. Loach started off by saying clearly that Shalom-Ezer was personally welcome at the festival (nice of him; but again, it’s not really his call) and this was an attack on the present Israeli government, not on all Israelis. And of course you CAN boycott an entire nation without being racist. The sports boycott of Apartheid South Africa wasn’t an attack on all South Africans, indeed it was for the benefit of black South Africans, although it was recognised that some would suffer unfairly because of it. But there can come a point when you have to say NO, we just can’t have any dealings with you until you sort this out.

The question is, can we make that case stick for Israel? Sinyor deftly points out all sorts of ways in which Britain is not morally superior to Israel, including our participation in the invasion of Iraq. This seems to me like a golden opportunity for Ken Loach to step up and make a case, but he declines to. The atrocities committed in Gaza by Israeli forces are under-reported in many parts of the world, and Ken could get a bit more discussion going. 

Furthermore, Shalom-Ezer makes the point against Loach, “He has created a situation in which going to see SURROGATE means supporting the state of Israel. He has made this connection.” Since Shalom-Ezer does not support Israel’s militarism, this does seem a bit unfair. To justify that injustice, you would really have to use this £300 dispute to actually SAY something.

 Both Loach and Sinyor are at least arguing from clear positions, however, but I’m not clear about the festival’s stance. In agreeing to return the money, they repeated their desire to stand apart from politics, but then they say that they’re giving it back because Ken Loach has spoken. That doesn’t seem a very principled stand, and I’d like to hear more of their thinking. What’s reported in the press just doesn’t make sense. One has to hope it’s as inaccurate as usual.

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