Archive for Dick Pope

Art isn’t just some guy’s name

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2015 by dcairns


We watched two fairly recent films in a row — I know, shocking, right?

MR. TURNER suddenly became the film everybody in Britain had to see, and our local Filmhouse did a roaring trade. I think the success was similar to that of TV movie The Gathering Storm — you have a well-known actor playing a well-known figure who is redolent of Britishness, and it somehow becomes a perfect storm. The Albert Finney Churchill impersonation was held together by a strong story. MR. TURNER had lovely cinematography — more gorgeous than I would ever have guessed Mike Leigh of his cinematographer to be capable of — begging the question why they don’t let their contemporary films look beautiful — but no story at all.


What, in fact, is MR. TURNER about? The extremely depressing final shot seems to argue that it’s about, at heart, the painter’s exploitative relationship with his housekeeper and mistress (Dorothy Atkinson, with some striking physical comedy work). It might be about the fact that each was the most important person in the others’ life, a thing which was never acknowledged for reasons of class. But if that’s what the film’s about, we’re faced with the problem that a good 80% of the action takes place far removed from this spine of the story. I liked Turner Snr., but his declining health is a different narrative altogether. Turner’s relationship with the cash-strapped Mr. Haydon has nothing to do with anything else. Turner’s suffering at the hands of the critics, who are unreceptive to his increasingly impressionistic work, would seem like an important element in a biography of the subject, but emerge very late in the runtime and vanish again, having had no certain impact on anything.

As usual with Leigh, a better approach I suppose is to simply ask if the scenes are interesting and not worry whether they are all necessary or add up to a coherent whole. TOPSY TURVY is the only other Leigh film I’ve both seen and liked, and it gains structural rigour by being about a theatrical production. It then jettisons that rigour by trundling on past its natural ending for about half an hour, leading into Gilbert & Sullivan’s next production. What Leigh gains from this is a deeper portrayal of the theatrical life, a never-ending cycle of fresh projects that must be laboriously brought into being. What he loses is a definable shape, a clear arc that lets the audience understand where they are in the story at any given time — most films follow these structural rules simply to reassure the viewer with a familiar set of beats. I don’t think he’s necessarily wrong to reject that.


In the case of MR. TURNER, a lot of the scenes are interesting. There’s some pleasing rhythmic interplay, some outrageous hamming (Joshua McGuire as Ruskin revives the grand old British tradition of the silly ass) and the grunting, shambling figure of Timothy Spall is curiously compelling. For some reason, the movie feels the need to punish us with some unpleasant sex and a horrible ending. That’s where I can’t go along with it. If it’s just a bag of bits loosely themed around a famous artist’s life, it doesn’t earn the right to be upsetting and/or icky.


THE MONUMENTS MEN is an equally handsome film, from handsome director/star George Clooney, who continues to show promise but doesn’t quite resolve his skilled team, charismatic cast, and intriguing subject matter into a really good movie. The music persistently tries to persuade us we’re watching THE GREAT ESCAPE, trampling all over the actual tone of the scenes, which are often quite a bit darker than a jaunty march would suggest.

Not too dark, though — a consistent and strange error of Clooney’s directing career is the allowing of scenes devoid of drama to make it through the development process. No tension or conflict, just chumminess. Decidedly odd when you have movies about the McCarthy witch hunts, a supposed CIA assassin and game show host (I admit I haven’t seen the ones about politics and football). I think because the story focuses on the good guys, who are all in agreement more or less, the potential conflicts with the Germans, the Russians and the American brass who don’t see the point of risking lives for paintings and sculptures, get fairly short shrift. As an actor, Clooney ought to know that you don’t have a source of tension in a scene you don’t have anything, but like a lot of enthusiastic amateurs he keeps ignoring what he does know.


I think there’s also too much intercutting, and the script is sloppy in its willingness to feed us information any old how: a narration, letters home, radio broadcasts. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov genuinely don’t seem to understand what drama is, or they think it’s OK to suspend it for minutes at a time while everybody stands around and tries to show how much they care.

But that all makes the film sound terrible — in fact, because the cast are all so affable and the basic set-up is intriguing, it’s a sometimes frustrating but generally diverting watch. It’s just not everything it might have been. Clooney is smart, talented as an actor, has good taste, and I’m certain he’s a nice guy — reluctance to allow drama to really boil over is often a trait of nice people — he just needs to take the gloves off, I think.

Shots of Scots: Topsy yvruT

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2009 by dcairns


Shirley Henderson and Kevin McKidd in TOPSY TURVY. Two remarkable Scottish talents, and apparently delightful people too.

After I complained that MiKe Leigh’s films typically leave me cold — cold and irritated — my good friend Comrade K., the Cobble Hill hierophant, advised me that I should really give TT a try. I was slightly reluctant to do so, partly because Comrade K. has a vexatious habit of being right, and one does hate to surrender a cherished prejudice, and partly because I have no great affection for the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.

But these objections couldn’t really do, since if I enjoyed the film I could hardly count myself to have lost out by the experience, and it’s one of my precepts that one shouldn’t be overly influenced by a film’s subject: if I worshipped Gilbert and Sullivan, that still wouldn’t make Leigh’s film good, and so the fact that I’m mainly indifferent to them can’t make it bad. And if I liked their work any better at the end of the film, I could count the thing a success on that level, and a life-enriching one too.

From quite early on, I could see why K thought I would like the film — several of my objections to the usual Mike Leigh thing were overturned by the period setting. I never liked the way Leigh places broadly theatrical performances in real-world settings, without any visual stylisation to make them seem at home. The weirdness of the approach should appeal to me, maybe, but it never has. Well, the Victorian setting takes care of that, pretty well. Another, related objection is that I have found Leigh’s films mostly lacking in any kind of visual pleasure. TOPSY TURVY has plenty to feast the eye upon, in terms of sumptious costumes and settings, and Leigh’s work with his regular D.P. Dick Pope rises to the occasion at least somewhat. They at least film a lot of the theatre performances flat on, giving them a sense of symmetry and design. Symmetrical composition  can be the dumbest, crudest way of creating a sense of visual style (see Greenaway for a real one-trick-pony) but by alternating these shots with the usual loosely composed stuff they trade in, Leigh and Pope do get some variety into it.

The other thing I hate in Leigh is his use of music. That’s sorted here, because even if I’m not a big G&S fan, I can’t really argue that their music isn’t an appropriate choice for a film about G&S.

Moving from this grudging appreciation, we come to more positive stuff yet — I noticed, initially with some dismay, that Leigh frequently presented scenes, especially early on, in which there was no dramatic conflict or tension at all. A lot of these scenes were just introductions to minor characters, with a bit of humour perhaps, but very little discernible point. But then I had to grant that this stuff was rather entertaining, and that as the story went on, each scene revealed a structural purpose that had been hidden. and in these days of over-plotted, crudely structured blockbusters, a cunning structure is an especially appealing thing. If Leigh was keeping me entertained without plot or conflict, then that was pretty clever of him.

It’s also a very clever period film: the historical detail is nicely integrated, without that sense of it being served up for our delectation by a swooning, drooling window-dresser (like those Comrade K. calls the Ivory Merchants). There’s a lovely phone call scene, for instance:

Which leads to one of the great pleasures, the dialogue, which isn’t modern, but isn’t too horribly formal either. The elaborate politeness of some of it is very useful in heightening one of the film’s main themes, the delicate task of collaboration between over-sensitive, egotistic artists. One of the ironies of my disliking Leigh’s stuff generally is that I usually like the actors he uses, just not when they’re in his films. But nobody here rubbed me up the wrong way. Allan Corduner was terrific as the sickly and oversensitive Sullivan. Jim Broadbent was magnificent as ever, in fact even more so than usual, as Gilbert. Prickly, grandiloquent, often near-intolerable, he nevertheless inspires a good deal of affection in the role, perhaps because he’s Jim Broadbent. I laughed out loud at an exchange with Pidgeon, his servant (Kenneth Hadley), as they hang a samurai sword on the wall.

“Would that be Spanish or Italian, sir?”

“Neither, Pidgeon.”

The fact that Gilbert sees no need to actually enlighten his servant contains a world of information about class relations, without any of the heavy-handedness I find in contemporary Leigh. Of course, we do learn something about what makes the character so awkward, by meeting his mad parents. His father, played by esteemed relic Charles Simon, will not touch an electric doorbell for fear of instant death, while his estranged and bedridden mother, Eve Pearce (another Scot), looking like an emaciated bird of prey, warns her daughters, “Never have a humorous child.” These two grotesques take us from the world of G&S and into one more congenial to me, that of Mervyn Peake.

So far, so good. My biggest criticism is that the film is overlong and drawn-out. The central dramatic problem, which is established early on but grows with admirable indirection, is the clash between lyricist and composer. This conflict is resolved by Gilbert’s conception of The Mikado as an operetta to replace the piece Sullivan has rejected: from here it should be a speedy journey to the more-or-less happy ending. But we’re only half-way through the movie.

(Incidentally, in the charming material dealing with Gilbert’s discovery of Japanese culture, there are two surprises. Firstly, Leigh bodges the notorious “Gilligan cut” — the moment where we cut from a character swearing he shall not, under any circumstances, do something, to a shot of him doing it — which is unexpected incompetence from a comedy director. I mean, the Gilligan cut is pretty hoaky, and I don’t think you should necessarily do it at all, but if you’re going to do it, you have to DO IT. Secondly, Leigh tries a psychological track-in on Broadbent as inspiration strikes. It works, and it’s a rare moment of independant camerawork for Leigh.)

Much of what follows is amusing, but it could all be rendered redundant by a good ellipsis or two. The story of the production of The Mikado isn’t really a story. The story of Gilbert and Sullivan’s creative partnership and how it overcomes a crisis IS. So I was a bit disappointed by the flabby denoument. The loose construction of the first act had proved to be a cunning ploy, concealing smart design, but I couldn’t see any equivalent merit in the last act. The music was nice — some of those songs are VERY good — but nearly everything that happened dramatically was off the main spine of the story.


In spite of this, I found the film at all times enjoyable, and would recommend it to anybody who normally has a problem with Leigh, as I do. Perhaps a big part of the trouble is the lessons Leigh has learned from the British cinema around him, rather than endemic in his ability as a filmmaker. But it’s certainly hard to imagine the kind of films he might make if he’d been born elsewhere.