These Aren’t Films

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More things that aren’t films…

Donald Westlake’s Kahawa, about a coffee heist (!) in Idi Amin’s Uganda, is a rip-snorting adventure yarn, more serious and brutal than the author’s usual light capers. It could make a great movie, like Jack Cardiff’s DARK OF THE SUN, but I guess LAST KING OF SCOTLAND “did” Idi Amin for a generation at least. Don’t get me started on the narrative failings of that movie. Except maybe to note that in order to facilitate the hero’s eleventh hour escape, Amin personally drives him to the airport, before having him suspended in the duty-free section by guards who then wander off so he can get rescued (Overdubbed line: “He will still be here when we get back.”)

Westlake of course machine-tools his plot to perfection, but also throws in more convincing local colour and local horror. I suspect the darkness infected his subsequent thriller, The Comedy is Finished, in which, basically, Bob Hope is kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. It sounds like it should be wickedly hilarious but it’s bleak, intense, gory and profane.

Favourite line in Kahawa deals with a British diplomat meeting a charming African girl: “Then I’m delighted,” Sir Denis said, smiling down upon her from his greater height and age and sex and race.

Favourite line in The Comedy is Finished describes a naive revolutionary trying to explain how the world works: He was trying to make a necklace, using some real pearls, some fake pearls, and imaginary string.

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“Look at him. Look at Geoff Wode.” Morrison’s WITHNAIL obsession burns on.

Enjoying Grant Morrison’s comic book Annihilator, drawn in lambent cosmic hues by Frazer Irving, but what the hell has happened to the last episode? It’s an apocalyptic black comedy in which a Byronic rake from beyond our reality abducts a dying screenwriter whose brain tumour may be a corporeal manifestation of a black hole in another dimension. The comic book industry is weird, in that release dates apparently mean nothing, so the gap between penultimate and final episode has now gone on longer than the series ran when it was actually appearing.

Also good: Nameless, an occult thriller in space that excels whenever it gets really distressingly trippy. There’s a quite straight narrative about a killer asteroid filled with Lovecraftian horrors but the story keeps disintegrating under a barrage of repulsive and terrifying imagery — it’s the sense of What The Hell Is Going On? which makes it scary. Chris Burnham’s art has always had an affinity for the grubby and icky, and Morrison exploits it with glee.

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It’s ridiculous that Hollywood hasn’t managed a Morrison adaptation yet, but I fear his stuff is too smart. Whereas anytime Mark Millar coughs into a hankie they buy the screen rights.

The BBC’s adaptation of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell certainly has cinematic scope. I never even imagined it would make a good adaptation as I devoured the book, but Peter Harness has the skill to shape it into tight episodes without leaving out the crucual moments or dwelling too long on the diversions. The cast is absolutely splendid, with pitch perfect lead perfs from Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan (cast very much to type, but brilliant at it). My mate Brian Pettifer is delightful in a supporting role, and week by week we await the appearance of Niall Greig Fulton (of CRY FOR BOBO and LET US PREY and NATAN) as John Uskglass, the Raven King.

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I want to specially mention Claudia Jessie out of the excellent cast, because I’m afraid nobody else will — she plays the small role of Mary the maid in the Strange household. In her stand-out scene, she’s quizzed by her mistress (breathy, magnificent Charlotte Riley) about something she may have learned from her beau — so first she has to ask about her beau. It’s like a bottle is uncorked and slowly tipped: Mary starts to reluctantly admit that she is attracted to this young man, and then it all spills out in an embarrassing erotic confession — she can’t help it, possibly nobody’s ever asked her about her love life, and suddenly she finds she NEEDS to tell. The actor not only nails this, she makes it her own, and then she exceeds expectations about what might be done with such a scene. The show is full of such grace notes. (Does Claudia self-google? Hi, Claudia!)

A confession of my own. When I read the book, Fiona was very ill with depression: she had vanished into herself so that only a tiny wisp of her life force remained visible, like the wick of a candle. I became fixated on the character of Mrs. Pole, sold to the fairies by Mr. Norrell, half her hours spent in the alarming palace of Lost Hope, her waking days an exhausted, distracted blur, unable to even speak of her plight due to an enchantment. I very much needed Mrs. Pole to get rescued. When Fiona got better I gave her the book to read but I’m not sure I explained why, asides from its excellence, it was important to me.

The book and show use magic not as a straight allegory but in all kinds of allusive ways. Ultimately it’s a feminist novel about the excesses of men granted too much power. The fairy victims who cannot even tell of their sufferings could be seen as abuse victims, who find they cannot accuse their persecutors (“There is a rose at your mouth,”) and must instead babble meaninglessly when all that matters cannot be uttered. But the richness of the work lies in how it can be read all sorts of ways.

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I picked up a library edition of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s The Fantastic Four; Marvel Masterworks, and had the odd sensation of finishing a strip I must have started forty years ago. And I was reading it with a mixture of awe for Kirby’s punchy, wacky visuals — William Blake on steroids — and shock at Lee’s scripting. In reality, Kirby wrote the stories straight onto the page, in the form of pictures, and Lee’s job was literally what a lot of people think comic book writers do — he filled in the speech balloons. Actually, his verbose, stilted and inane dialogue, while on the one hand a perfect complement to the characters’ epic pose-striking, and a way of breaking up the space opera solemnity with occasional slangy zest, could be compared to an act of vandalism. Underneath all those unnecessary captions is MORE ART, damnit. Every time Reed Richards opens his prolix, stretchy yap, more penmanship is obscured. I know Kirby always left space for speech bubbles (thereby telling Lee who was talking and how much), but Lee always goes that extra wordy mile to cram as much guff in as possible. Hilariously, Ben “the Thing” Grimm’s contributions are usually to tell everyone else to shut up.

Also hilarious: the maniacal despots. The first two strips in this volume BOTH feature evil rulers bent on conquering the world with their hypno-rays.

I like how Kirby always drops in a clue to some mysterious new crisis developing elsewhere while the foursome are in the midst of their present adventure. Even when this week’s galactic punch-up is brought to a successful finish, a further cliffhanger is on the boil, forcing the fanboys and true believers to grab the next issue, even if it does take them forty years to get around to it.

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Slightly ashamed to be looking at Marvel’s Agent Carter, but my excuse is I’m preparing a 1940s fantasy project of my own. First episode contained a pleasing in-joke (above), and one excellent exchange. Carter, disguised as a blonde, enters the office of a villainous night-club owner.

“Is this a bad time?”

Him, grinning, “We won’t know that until afterwards.”

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10 Responses to “These Aren’t Films”

  1. ok I’ve also been waiting for the appearnce of Nial but I may well read the book on the basis of that review!

  2. Barbet Schroeder was the one who “did” Amin most thoroughly in his documentary about him. At one point you can see Amin seriously pondering whether or not to have Barbet killed.

    “Marvel” comic is the worst thing that has ever happened to te cinema. Back in the day Alain Resnais (who said the strip “The Heart of Juliet jones” taught him how to edit) was going to collaborate with Stan Lee on a project. Alas it was never made. Lee is still around but Resnais is gone.

    And the CGI Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy makes me physically ill.

  3. The raccoon overacts badly.

    I enjoy lots of the Marvel stuff but there has to be some kind of saturation point, surely?

    It’s weird and sad that none of Resnais and Fellini’s comic-book projects happened, and instead the Marvel universe becomes a retirement scheme for directors whose first features showed promise but didn’t catch fire. Television is clearly a better refuge for those guys, but neither one is a director’s medium. We need a third option, which used to be indie cinema but that doesn’t seem to pay anymore.

  4. It’s getting increasingly difficult to get indie films theatrically BOOKED anymore!

  5. Now Amazon is making deals with independent film-makers like Jarmusch and Gilliam.

    I am quite sure that these superhero movies will saturate in the next two years, I am quite sure that the upcoming Superman-Batman movie will tank for instance. The moment for that, if it ever existed passed a long time ago and it just won’t work.

    I have been reading more books lately than I have done ever. Got a bunch of stuff I am funnelling through. Virginia Woolf, Gombrowicz and Calvino especially. Cosmicomics is awesome (and an inspiration for Gilliam’s Munchausen I think).

  6. I should try Calvino.

    The DC franchises have really struggled to get going, whereas Marvel seems like an unstoppable money machine, for some reason. Their plan, culminating in a two-feature Avengers extravaganza a few years from now, seems genuinely dystopian.

  7. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was turned into a noir graphic novel by Martin Rowson, which in turn was made into an opera with music by Stephen McNeff and a libretto by Andy Rashleigh. What I want to see is the film of the opera of the cartoon of the poem, with a novelisation to accompany it.

  8. The book of the film of the opera of the comic of the poem, you mean? That would almost DEMAND a comic book adaptation to bring it full circle, while neatly snipping the poem out of the loop altpgether.

  9. Grant Morrison is a big fan of obscure British TV weirdness too. When our East Kilbride roundabouts intersected briefly years ago we used to reminisce about the great lost (pre-DVD) programmes; Artemis 81, Out of the Unknown, anything and everything Nigel Kneale. He told me once about a bizarre dream he had about a secret cabal of subterranean urban werewolves. I wonder if he ever did something with that.

    You do wonder about the rational of why one comic is adapted for film while so many seemingly perfect graphic novels are ignored. I would have thought that Gaiman’s Sandman series would be perfect material for a serial.

  10. …Artemis..8..1…. will be referenced in a post later this week, oddly enough.

    So far as I know, Morrison’s work had never exploited the troglodytic lycanthropes idea.

    A feature script of Sandman was prepared shortly after Gaiman’s comic became a hit, but never saw the light. I think it can now be read online — don’t know if it’s any good, but the writers were fans.

    Looking forward, a bit childishly, to the 2000AD documentary screening at Edinburgh Film Fest next week.

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