Archive for Ken Loach

Mail Anxiety

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2018 by dcairns

There’s this really interesting dream sequence in THE MARRYING KIND. Your basic anxiety dream, easy to interpret. Disgruntled postal worker Aldo Ray swept some loose ball bearings out of sight at work rather than clearing them up properly, and he’s worried they’ll cause an accident. Under the influence of too many cocktails, he feels his bed turn into a post office conveyor belt bearing him from his bedroom to the post office, which turns out to be an adjoining space —

   

That’s the best bit. The many ball-bearings that come scooting out to meet him are cute, but Cukor’s use of a single shot to travel from reality into dream, and the evocation of that weird spacial dislocation unique to the dream state (see also, Welles’ THE TRIAL, where the back entrance of the artist’s garret opens onto the law court offices; “That seems to surprise you,” lisps the artist, staring glassily).

It’s almost as good as the bed that becomes a car in Pierre Etaix’s LE GRAND AMOUR. Though our dreams typically see us leaving our bedrooms far behind with no hint of how way found ourselves elsewhere, movie dreams seem to benefit from keeping the idea of the bedroom in play — hence all those movies where the hero is in his pajamas to create surrealistic contrast with whatever scenario he finds himself wrestling with, and hence also Polanski’s use of bedroom sounds — breathing, the alarm clock’s tinny tick — to accompany his own uncanny dream sequences.

“If I ever had to do hell in a film,” Cukor told Gavin Lambert, “– no, not quite hell, let’s say purgatory — the New York post office would be the perfect setting.”

Cukor didn’t get to do many dreams, alas. He wasn’t likely to get many films noir, being a prestigious as he was, and the other genre associated with dreams, the musical, just didn’t lead him that way, unless you count his brief involvement with THE WIZARD OF OZ. A DOUBLE LIFE is his other hallucinatory one.

I really like that THE MARRYING KIND is a realistic comedy with a dream sequence. People in realist movies so seldom dream, and yet in ACTUAL reality, we all dream a lot. That’s why I like LOS OLVIDADOS better than anything by Ken Loach, even though it’s more depressing. Bunuel’s poor people still dream, though their dreams, as shown, are even more upsetting that Aldo Ray’s ball bearings.

Oh, maybe worth making a comparison to another Columbia picture —

   

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Histories and Legacies

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2017 by dcairns

Me and Richard Lester. Photo by Sheldon Hall, complete with psychedelic projections. Thanks, Sheldon!

The image above was taken at the symposium British Cinema in the 1960s: Histories and Legacies at the BFI Southbank on Thursday. This was Part 2 of the conference I presented at last week. It was lovely to see Richard again, and meet Neil Sinyard, who literally wrote the book on him, and to acquire the latest edition of said book at a hefty academic discount, and hear more of his stories of his early career. Many of these appear in Andrew Yule’s book The Man Who “Framed” the Beatles, but Richard tells them better.

Academic conferences are strange things — rather jolly, though. I couldn’t believe the obscurity of some of the stuff under discussion. In York, there had been a paper based on research into the completion bond guarantor’s notes on  Joseph Losey’s FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE. In London, there were entries on the Children’s Film Foundation, the production design of IF…., censorship and colour in Hammer films (centering on that naughty studio’s practice of submitting b&w prints of colour films, to disguise the gore) and trade advertisements for Eastmancolor. I was in hog heaven, glorying in the utter abstruseness of this info. I also learned about a few films I hadn’t seen (or, in the case of TWO GENTLEMEN SHARING, even heard of). And I made some new friends.

Also: a stunning 35mm screening of PETULIA.

My idea of academia before attending the conference.

Sandy Lieberson and David Puttnam were interviewed on Wednesday, and Rita Tushingham on Thursday. So it wasn’t all about the obscure byways of the business. Some of the papers were critical analyses, Charles Drazin using Lindsay Anderson’s relationship with his former headmaster as a lens through which to re-examine IF….’s politics. Others were historical, based on archival digging or interviews. There were a trio of presentations based around the public’s memories of cinema-going at the time, looking at sexual attitudes (and behaviour in the dark of the auditorium), responses to the fantasy of Swinging London, and the difficulties of getting to a screen if you lived in the countryside. There was lots on Ken Loach (KES and POOR COW) but I was even happy to hear about that.

My only criticism would be the lack of analysis of the visual, of the craft of filmmaking. There was some of this, and there were a good number of papers which dealt with areas far removed from the art of framing, cutting, mixing, in which technique wasn’t relevant. But in some of the actual discussion of movies, the “close analysis” was confined to the story and dialogue, with the cinematic approach completely ignored. I suppose it’s inevitable when the people looking at films are word people. Richard Lester got in a gentle crack about academia when he said that he had expected that A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, once it had fulfilled its ephemeral pop-culture purpose in 1964, would only be of interest “in, well, frankly, rooms like this.”

(Of course, my paper was on a screenwriter, so I give myself a free pass on this issue.)

My idea of academia after attending the conference.

I’d go again! My odd situation is that, as a teaching fellow at Edinburgh College of Art, I’m not officially expected to do what they call “research,” although I only just found this out. For years, they’ve been asking me to tell me all about my research activities, and I’ve obliged, but none of my filmmaking or criticism really counts as academic research. Can I even claim expenses for my trip? I don’t know. If I can, I’d go to lots of these things! To me, it was just like a science fiction convention, only without the cosplay, and more fun.

 

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.