Archive for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Spats

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2017 by dcairns

We had an inadvertent Sam Rockwell double feature the other week. First I stumbled upon a copy of the 2005 adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s PICCADILLY JIM, in which he plays the title character, sort of, and which I’d been curious about for some time. But you can’t buy the thing anywhere — this was a charity shop discovery. So I immediately satisfied my curiosity, and then we embarked to the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s festive mystery show, which turned out to be THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, with Mr. Rockwell again.

Verdict: Sam Rockwell is a powerful force, if used responsibly. This piece is about the earlier film.

PICCADILLY JIM would make a fine film to test budding critics on. Make them read the book, then watch the 1936 film and the 2005, and attempt to say what’s wrong in each case. The novel isn’t actually prime Wodehouse, but it’s an early example of him starting to hit his stride. The budding critic might dispose of the MGM version swiftly: despite employing a lot of the right sort of people, it’s not funny and every change that’s been made to the original story, and there are many, makes it worse. Why didn’t they just film the book?

In the thirties, one feels, it might be possible to just film Wodehouse. Certainly the best Wodehouse movie by far, DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, was made then, and is fairly faithful. It’s biggest departure is the addition of Fred Astaire song-and-dance numbers, a wholly forgivable infidelity since Astaire hoofing is about the one thing as lighter-than-air as Wodehouse.

Post thirties, it’s become necessary to treat Wodehouse as a period piece, and this seems to add a heaviness that’s ruinous to all adaptations. A lot of people like the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster series, which was honestly faithful to the plots and characters, but I find its plodding pace, sludgy 16mm look, and respectful tracking across drawing rooms or bottles of bath essence, as if in awe of its own production design, so antithetical to the correct frolicsome spirit that I find myself doubting whether anyone who professes admiration for it actually appreciates Wodehouse at all. Which I realise is a bit extreme, harsh, judgemental.

Turgid though J&W is, it’s still miles closer to making a decent attempt at the job than most of the atrocities perpetrated, including the inane, cartoonish Blandings series shoveled out by the BBC. Again, I could defend that one in principle, because it may well have been made by parties who had noticed the problem of adaptation. But their solution — going BOING! a lot — was a dismayingly stupid one.

OK, this is quite a funny image.

Sticking a camera in front of unadorned Wodehouse seems to result in the flat champagne of the Fry-Laurie show. Some level of stylisation seems necessary. But so many attempts at this result in shrill, arch overacting, and distracting visuals. PICCADILLY JIM is almost entirely composed of these things. It’s the first Wodehouse made for the big screen since THE GIRL IN THE BOAT in 1962, which improbably starred Norman Wisdom. It’s written by arch-Tory posh boy Julian Fellowes, between his first big success with GOSFORD PARK and his second, Gosford Park Lite Downton Abbey. He ought to be a reasonable choice, being familiar with and not overawed by the ritzy milieu. And one assumes his enthusiasm for the original author is genuine. (I’d even say that a Wodehouse adaptation that played like GF without the darker notes would be about right — look at how a former Jeeves, Stephen Fry, playing the only broadly comic figure, fits right in and actually “works” better than he does in any other film.)

The director, John McKay, ladles on the stylisation (archness, shouting, cartooniness, distracting visuals). but he has an interesting concept. Wodehouse started in the early 1900s, hit his stride in the 20s, peaked in the 30s and 40s, and kept merrily going until the 70s. The world of his stories changed very little. So what we casually visualise as some sort of vaguely thirties setting is a lot less concrete and specific than that. The PICCADILLY JIM film uses this as an excuse to go all MOULIN ROUGE! on Wodehouse’s ass. Mix up the fashions, turn everything up to eleven, and have someone perform a jazzy version of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! is, in my view, a very terrible thing, a cinematic Srebenica. But this approach, used consistently and moderately, need not have been fatal. Setting the film, like Gilliam’s BRAZIL, “Somewhere in the twentieth century,” makes it interesting to look at. McKay and his designers have the visual chops to produce imagery that’s amusing and pleasing, if you press mute on the sound. But let’s be clear: this is just a decorative layer laid over the story. Decoration doesn’t make things function better, and it can weigh them down.

McKay is less ADHD-chaotic than Luhrmann, but he’s aiming for frenetic from the off, and in search of the chimera of “intensity” he films things too close up and cuts too much. He and his team have noticed that Sam Rockwell moves beautifully, but they try to feature this virtue by cutting to wide shots but then jumping back in immediately. In-out, in-out, for little or sometimes no reason.

There’s some good actors in this. Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander especially (the only really funny one) and Nitin Ganatra seem able to do lightness. They’re not belabouring it. The women all go for Queen of Hearts type acting. Wodehouse does, admittedly, enjoy writing termagants, and the fear of powerful women motivates a lot of his plots. Brenda Blethyn and Alison Janney are just too much.

Frances O’Connor is a more interesting case. Most Wodehouse heroines could be seen as a little boring to play: the interesting girls are more likely to be secondary characters like Corky Pirbright, who can apply their eccentric determination to get the hero in trouble using charm and appeal rather than sheer domination. Ann Chester is a character of this variety, at least as portrayed here. O’Connor is very skilled and gets to do some surprising stuff, and she’s sexier than anyone in a Wodehouse piece has ever been, which isn’t very Wodehousian but is fine with me. But she’s playing it American, which is another level of archness and artifice, so that’s less welcome. Although a real American wouldn’t necessarily be better: Americans working in Britain sometimes manage to act like they’re American impersonators.

The exaggerated costumes by Ralph Holes are fun, but would be all wrong for a Wodehouse film that was actually working. As it is, they can certainly be enjoyed in their own right.

Which brings us at last to Rockwell, who applies tremendous energy to the part, and moves well, as noted. The fact that the film doesn’t work has something to do with him, but it’s not immediately obvious how, because he’s so GOOD, or at any rate fascinating to watch. Dynamic, inventive and kind of aggressive, but not frighteningly so. But Jim starts out as a philanderer (discovered unconscious with three girls at the outset, which isn’t very Wodehouse) and has to be converted by true love. Wodehouse always treats love with heartfelt sincerity: the storm clouds in his sunny stories are all to do with the threat of thwarted romance, and at the end romance is never actually thwarted. And we’re supposed to care.

This film never gives us a reason for Jim to fall in love with this girl after being around so many. Even though O’Connor is glamorous and dashing — the Wodehouse love at first sight never gets a moment to establish itself, and the entire edifice is meant to be built on it. Without that simple, hackneyed thing, all the clever touches and all the stupid touches (plenty of those) are meaningless, have nothing to cling to, and there’s no underlying anxiety to make the farce run — no negative outcome that matters to us is ever imminent. Fellowes even threatens to blow everyone up with a doomsday device, a rather outré development, and I wasn’t remotely worried. He’s found a whole new way to fail at adapting Wodehouse — by being TOO flip and throwaway. And of course, he combines this innovation with all the more typical ones.

Why is Wodehouse so hard to get right? True, his deathless prose can’t be transferred to the screen, but his plots are sound and hilariously complicated, his characters sweet and funny, his dialogue wonderful. But it seems the tone and style of the movie, which must substitute for Wodehouse’s writing, are maddeningly elusive. It’s not a tone anyone does naturally anymore, and the more you strain after it, the more it recedes, like a caffeinated vanishing point.

Nobody’s made a Wodehouse for the cinema since 2005, and it looks like the gap that yawned between Norman Wisdom’s attempt and the Fellowes-McKay stumble may well be repeated.

This would make an instructive double feature with another Rockwell — THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY… in which again, transatlantic casting surprisingly isn’t a problem, but a shaky grasp of tone and story and uneven jokes certainly ARE.

 

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Still More Things That Aren’t Films

Posted in literature, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2012 by dcairns

Seeker! Ken Campbell His Five Amazing Lives is the second biography of my hero Ken Campbell to appear. Merrifield was a friend and collaborator of Campbell’s, so his book has a more intimate rapport with its subject than Michael Coveney’s The Great Caper did. Merrifield GETS Campbell better.

Unfortunately, he’s in bad need of an editor, so that although his book is more in-depth, a good part of its bulk is made up of repetition and meandering. But it was great to get the inside track on Schlatzer’s Bouquet, a production I saw, written by JM, and which doesn’t rate a mention in the Coveney. Still nothing about Memories of Amnesia, though. Did anyone else see that one?

The productions I wish I’d seen are obviously Illuminatus! and The Warp (which played Edinburgh — I can remember the posters — but I was too little then), but his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with Chris Langham as Arthur Dent, the audience pushed around the theatre on a hovercraft, and a flat set painted red and green so that when you put on your tinted glasses it pops out into 3D — that must have been quite something.

Both books are essential for the True Seeker, although artistically Nina Conti’s moving, hilarious documentary Her Master’s Voice is the finest of the Campbell tributes. What’s great is that there’s so little overlap: I think maybe the only story used in both bios is the one about Campbell and friends descending in an elevator.

“Quick, on the floor!” orders Campbell, and they all lie down with their legs up in the air.

Ground floor: the doors slide open before startled onlookers.

“Well, that came down at a hell of a lick!” says Campbell.

***

I thought I’d gotten hold of all Richard Hughes books, and read two of the four, but then I’m in a Stockbridge charity shop and I find The Spider’s Palace. Remarkable that the author of A High Wind in Jamaica (strikingly filmed by Alexander Mackendrick), which has a rather leery view of childhood, should have written children’s fiction — a book of fairy tales from 1931 that seems to anticipate the iconoclastic absurdity of The Goon Show.

In Living in W’ales, the first story, a little girl and a labrador move into a whale, like Jonah and Pinocchio before them, but find the lack of food and bedding a problem…

Meanwhile the whale began to get rather worried about them. He had swallowed them without thinking much about it; but he soon began to wonder what was happening to them, and whether they were comfortable. He knew nothing at all about little girls. He thought she would probably want something to eat by now, but he didn’t know at all what. So he tried to talk down into his own inside, to ask her. But that is very difficult: at any rate he couldn’t do it. The words all came out instead of going in.

A friendly parrot creates a speaking tube out of a snake with the ends snipped off, and the whale interviews his intestinal tenant. The tube also allows him to feed her rice pudding. But then the little girl asks for a bed.

‘She wants a bed,’ the whale said to the parrot.

‘You go to Harrods for that,” said the parrot, “which is the biggest shop in London,’ and flew away.

When the whale got to Harrods, he went inside. One of the shopwalkers came up to him and said, ‘What can I do for you, please?’ which sounded very silly.

‘I want a bed,’ said the whale.

Mr Binks The Bed Man came up and looked rather worried.

‘I don’t know if have got a bed that will exactly fit you, sir,’ he said.

‘Why not, silly?’ said the whale. ‘I only want an ordinary one.’

‘Yes sir,’ said the Bed Man, ‘but it will have to be rather a large ordinary one, won’t it?’

‘Of course not, silly,’ said the whale. ‘On the contrary, it will have to be rather a small one.’

I like this because of the stilted formality, childishness, and the fact that it really makes you picture a whale in Harrods. It’s like the Goons in that it creates word-concepts that recoil from visual imagining.

From As They Were Driving:

‘Now,’ they said, ‘we are not afraid of the Stones, even if they do attack us: the Curious Brothers, and the Spotted Mother and Child, and the Fossil Brothers, and the Plain Brothers, and Mrs Mogany, and the Fierce Man Moffadyke, and all.’

Maybe not, but I’m terrified of them, just by their names. “I can picture all of them,” said Fiona. The book might be too scary for our flimsy modern children. Children in the 30s were made entirely out of snot and knee-scabs, so they could handle anything. Even WWII. In The Gardener and the White Elephants the aged gardener has to fight a vicious rabbit to the death — he throttles it with his bare hands. And in The Man With A Green Face, we get this ~

Nightmare fuel. But, on a lighter note, from Nothing ~

‘Good gracious!’ she said, ‘what a mess these children do leave on the table, to be sure!’

‘What have they left on the table?’ called the cook from the kitchen.

‘Well, there’s a drop of milk,’ said the maid.

That’s not so much to make a fuss about,’ said the cook.

‘There’s also a dead Chinaman,’ said the maid.

‘Never mind,’ said the cook, ‘it might be worse. Has he just died, or was he always dead?’

‘I think,’ said the maid, ‘he was born dead, and was dead when he was a little boy, and finally grew up dead.’

‘What else is there?’ asked the cook.

‘There’s a tooth, and I think it has dropped out of some passing shark.’

‘Dear, dear,’ said the cook, ‘children are that rampageous!’

‘There is also,’ said the maid, pulling up the blind and looking at the table more carefully, ‘unless I am much mistaken, a live Chinaman.’

‘Tut-tut!’ said the cook; ‘what a fuss you do make. And was he always alive?’

‘I don’t know.’

***

Next to this, Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, a parody of the Gothic school written by an actual friend of Shelley’s, seems positively staid, but it does have a couple of good laughs, and the blend of philosophy and bedroom farce is unusual.

Ironical fact: Thomas Love Peacock did not actually love peacocks.

Sing Out

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2008 by dcairns

THE WARBLING GUMSHOE

THE CROONING SHAMUS

THE DESCANTING FLATFOOT

THE ULULATING DICK

Yes, all synonyms for THE SINGING DETECTIVE, but which one?

Songdick

This one. I had a mixture of high hopes and mild trepidation regarding Keith Gordon’s film of Dennis Potter’s adaptation of his own BBC series. The movie sort of fulfilled both.

Gordon is somebody who should really be in demand. He’s bright, gifted, and his films do things that other people’s don’t. Instead, he’s working in TV. Of his films, MOTHER NIGHT is a terrific piece, I’d say the best film adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut novel — and a relatively dull Vonnegut novel at that. Personally, I’d like to make THE SIRENS OF TITAN.

Somewhere in the flat is a copy of his highly-rated war movie, A MIDNIGHT CLEAR, which I must watch. Just added his 1999 noir WAKING THE DEAD to my rental list. So I guess I must have been impressed.

Why was I anxious? In part, because Potter’s series didn’t really follow a clear narrative path, not because it mingled fantasy, reality, memory and fiction, but because the reality part didn’t really round itself off in a satisfactory fashion. What made the series special was the quality of the protagonist’s dialogue, the authenticity of his plight, and the performances of everybody but especially Michael Gambon.

Bob Down

The plot — a crime writer crippled by severe psoriasis (a disease attacking the skin and joints) tries to work through his tormented feelings about life, love and sex. Though he is largely confined to his hospital bed, his mind roves freely through his memories, his pulp fiction, and his fantasies, until all these separate worlds cathartically collide.

Apart from the sheer difficulty of the job of adaptation, there was the fact that Dennis Potter is no longer with us. This gives the adapters a relatively free hand to mess about with his creation, safe from attack from the irascible author. It’s a bit like how, after decades in development hell, A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY was suddenly in production, a relatively short time after Douglas Adams had passed away. While that film isn’t a complete disgrace, there are clearly things in there that Adams wouldn’t have tolerated, and for all everybody’s burbling on about how this was the film Adams had dreamed of, it notably has another writer’s name on it, and some of Adams’ time-honoured gags have been messed about with until they no longer work.

In absolute fairness, I think some of the filmmaking is very good, some of the off-the-wall casting really works, and some of the new gags and story elements are decent enough. But only SOME.

The Dark Corner

Gordon’S THE SINGING DETECTIVE is largely successful. It has Robert Downey Jnr instead of Michael Gambon, which is quite a big change, but obviously Downey is a superb actor so it totally works. One odd thing: since Downey is younger than Gambon, and the movie is being made decades after the TV show, they can no longer flashback to a ’40s world of childhood for the hero (and connect it to a ’40s world of noir fiction and cinema). So the movie is set in the ’80s, with flashbacks to the ’50s, leading to a completely different soundtrack. Some of these new songs are undoubtedly great, but I prefer the original. But I don’t actually mind. It actually took us about 45 minutes to realise this WAS the ’80s, since the music is all ’50s and the film takes place in a hospital environment with few obvious signifiers of period.

Gordon’s direction, along with Tom Richmond’s super-saturated cinematography, is stylish and stimulating, without intruding on the talk, which is the point of the thing. We get cartoony turns from Adrien Brody and Jon Polito as gangster/FBI men, adrift from Downey’s pulp potboiler and wandering through his memories and his reality like Vladimir and Estragon in snap-brim fedoras, with side-arms. The idea is funnier than the writing, maybe, but the “spirited playing” boosts it back up again. We particularly enjoyed the noir characters’ instinctive fear of sunlight and open space:

Bright Light!

Bright Light!

And there’s Robin Wright Penn, whose performance is, in its way, as detailed and compelling as Downey’s.

AND there’s an almost unrecognisable appearance by tiny racist Mel Gibson, who’s shaved his head and donned coke-bottle glasses to play Downey’s shrink. I guess he thinks he’s way too handsome normally to play a humdrum psychiatrist, so he has to disfigure himself. But the result is quite funny, and the performance is genuinely amusing. It might be the best bit of acting Mad Mel’s ever done.

(My friend and fellow director Morag McKinnon served him a burger at the BRAVEHEART launch party. “He’s a wee wrinkly man,” she reported.)

The Passion of the Dick

AND and AND there’s Jeremy Northam, one of the most versatile and unusual players working today. Here, Jeremy performs some intricate and filthy SEX ACTING, for our delectation.

Fiona: “That’s some of the best sex acting I’ve ever seen!”

Me: “I taught him everything he knows.”

Jeremy cher ami

We cut from the shag-shot to Downey’s face, strained in angst-ridden concentration as he imagines his enthusiastic cuckolding by the thrusting dirty Northam and then, doubtless because they’re playing Downey the tape on-set in order to show him what he’s supposed to be thinking about, Downey laughs uproariously. It’s great.

The Laughing Policeman

The original series featured a prominent supporting role for Patrick Malahide’s heaving buttocks, which are pale, wobbly things like unhappy jellyfish. I felt Northam was an improvement in purely aesthetic terms.

The biggest change from Potter’s original is the bit that was probably essential to get the film made, and which I’m still uncertain about. As I intimated, the TV series doesn’t really wrap up into a neat ball. The character’s contradictions and agonies don’t resolve, he recovers from his physical illness and appears to make peace with his wife and, perhaps, himself, but it’s not absolutely clear how he’s solved his psychological problems.

The movie has everything wrap up neatly — a new detail in Downey’s past dovetails with the plot of his book, and he’s able to achieve a Freudian breakthrough with his shrink which is absent, as I recall, from the series. It makes things neater and clearer, but it also turns the story into an ad for Freudian psychoanalysis, which the original was not. It’s the kind of story turn that would have been at home in a ’40s psychological drama like POSSESSED or THE SEVENTH VEIL. This new development arguably works better than the TV show, but I couldn’t altogether love it — it smacks of propaganda.

But this is a quibble, as is the fact that some of the new dialogue is not QUITE a sharp as some of the old dialogue. As memory serves, Gambon’s internal monologue of boring things, frantically called up to stave off sexual excitement as nurse Joanne Whalley applies cold cream to his aching body, was funnier and more un-PC than the version in the feature: for one thing, Gambon named names: John and Yoko were in there, as I recall. Downey doesn’t, and while his nurse, Katy Holmes, is pulchritudinous enough, she lacks Whalley’s down-to-earth reality: you don’t really believe Holmes should be entrusted with anything as challenging as smearing cream around a patient’s penis.

Asides from these nagging little insect-points, I think the film is actually DAMN GOOD.

Am I right?

“Am I not wrong, or am I not wrong?”