The weird pre-digital Nineties

It seems pretty pointless to try and quantify rates of social change over time, but every now and again I’m reminded just how much the world has changed (at least, the rich democratic world) in the last two decades. I think you see it most forcefully watching film and television from the early Nineties. The clothes are not recognisably outlandish (fashion, interestingly, has changed more and more slowly as the Sixties recede from us), people are using things like spot cream and hair product in a way they don’t in Top of the Pops repeats from the Seventies, the hip attitudes to society and media are all there.

So it’s a recognisable world. But it’s also a completely alien one. I watched Terry Zwigoff’s film version of Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World last night. It’s a fantastic movie, as is the original comic, but it’s also oddly unsettling, because although everyone in it is resolutely modern, they’re also curiously unconnected to any kind of technical network. There are no home computers, no mobile phones. Characters screen calls through answering machines. People get stood up on dates, and can lose track of each other for days and weeks on ends.

None of this is possible anymore.

The really odd thing about this is that Zwigoff’s film was made in 2001, when much of the digital world was already commonplace. Clowes started his comic in 1993 – right in the spot I’m talking about, in other words – and wrote it through to 1997, when the current technological settlement was coming into being. Was it a deliberate choice by Zwigoff to set his film at the same time? It certainly works as an alienating technique. It’s sometimes like watching one of those old Star Trek episodes when they stumble on a parallel Earth which has developed at a different pace.

A final thought: Thora Birch is exceptional in Ghost World. Why isn’t she in everything?

 

Wanna make a movie, son?

Anyone who’s been involved in the creative industries knows there are only two rules:

1. Nobody knows anything (c. William Goldman)

2. Talent and hard work are important, but they’re nowhere near as important as dumb luck

In a world where nobody knows anything, men (it’s normally men) with massive self-confidence will do better than men or women with little self-confidence.

Such men will make flip decisions, trading careers and millions of dollars on a whim, on the basis that the creative industries still need hits, which is just another word for bets, and most bets don’t pay off.

Which brings me to Harve Bennett.

Whether or not you know who Harve Bennett is says a lot about you. If you do know who he is, you’re probably either a pretty hardcore Trekkie, or a big fan of the minutiae of popular Seventies television. I didn’t know who he was, and I was watching Star Trek III: The Search for Spock last night, and I noticed he produced and wrote it. It occurred to me to look him up.

Mr Bennet worked in the programming department of ABC Television in the Sixties, and eventually became Vice-President of Daytime Programming.

Let us pause there. The guy who wrote and produced Star Trek III: The Search for Spoke was a daytime programming executive.

He moved into TV production, working with Aaron Spelling and Universal Studios. He worked as The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and the David McCallum version of The Invisible Man (which he co-created with Stephen Bochco, no less). On all these shows he’s listed as executive producer, which I take to be a form of showrunner.

And then Star Trek came along. This is how Wikipedia describes what happened next:

While working at Columbia Pictures TV, Bennett was also brought to Paramount Pictures to work in their television division producing television series. Only a few weeks into his contract, he was called to a meeting with then top executives of Paramount Barry Diller and Michael Eisner, along with Charles Bluhdorn who was then head of Paramount’s parent Gulf+Western. Bluhdorn, dissatisfied with the results of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was looking for someone new to take over the next film in the series.

According to Bennett, Bluhdorn asked him what he thought of the first Star Trek film and, after Bennett said he found it boring, Bluhdorn asked him if he could make a better picture and if he could do it for less than $45 million (the eventual budget of the first film). When Bennett said that he could, Bluhdorn said “do it” and he was hired.

That’s how the creative industries “work”, folks. An Austrian industrialist who made his fortune from car parts decided a film was boring, asked his underlings (and imagine, having Diller and Eiser as underlings!) and they brought in a guy who’d started out in daytime television, and before the end of the day he was in charge of the most potent sci-fi franchise in entertainment history.

That, as they say, is show-business. And who’s to say it was better or worse than any other way of doing it?

Release windows should be defenestrated

I try and keep things civil and positive around here, particularly when discussing matters which get people really riled up. And nothing gets people more riled up than piracy and copyright abuse. Those who create content - particularly writers, I find, who work on their own – get seriously upset by piracy. Copyfighters, on the other hand, get seriously upset at content creators who get seriously upset, because they, like, just don’t get it, man (I am summarising their argument).

A few months ago I got involved in a bit of a Twitter shriek-match with a former colleague, the renowned Roo Reynolds, over his somewhat, shall we say, breezy attitude to using Chrome extensions which block advertising inside online video. From memory, he was using this on 4oD material, and because I worked at Channel 4 for a while and have friends there and generally think Channel 4 is a good thing, I climbed up on my high horse and indulged in a little supercilious brick-throwing, which he took in relatively good heart. My point, if it could be said to be anything at all, was that those of us who have some knowledge of the content creation process have some responsibility to try to model good behaviour. And Roo, I felt, was modelling bad behaviour.

This is obviously pious and priggish bullshit, but I still hold a saintly line on this stuff. I don’t download stuff outside the legitimate paid-for or subscription channels. I don’t watch movies in their entirety on websites whose servers are clinging to some non-jurisdictional rock in the Indian Ocean. I don’t pirate books, or audiobooks, or TV plays. I don’t even pirate Game of Throneseven though HBO and Warner Bros. seem to be playing some kind of weird mindfuckery with me by making it as hard as possible to watch it through legitimate channels that don’t involve a bloody great boxset or a subscription to Sky Atlantic.

Which brings us to Upstream Color. For those who don’t know, Upstream Color is the latest work from the genius brain of Shane Carruthers, the man who brought us Primer and screwed our cerebellum for a generation. I still haven’t seen Upstream Color, and here’s why.

Not in the UK, man

Not in the UK, man

It’s not available in the UK. “Distribution agreements” are blamed. A film made by a man who was born into the digital age, whose very concept of storytelling seems to be embedded in non-linear, networked concepts, has made a film that I cannot see even though it’s been available in other places for months.

I mean, really. It’s enough to make a man stick a stuffed parrot on his shoulder and join a single-issue political party. Come on, guys. Let me see this film. Screw release windows and distribution arrangements. Stop trying to maximise every ounce of revenue by squeezing drops of cash from micro-sliced windows. Just put the thing out there and let me bloody well buy it.

Note: the film may be available. I may have got this wrong. But I’ve searched and searched and haven’t found it. If you know where I can get it, please let me know. 

Note 2: I am not interested in any mechanism for viewing this film that doesn’t compensate the creators. Priggish, I know. But there it is.

The strange ground between theatre and cinema

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham LincolnI took my Mum to see Lincoln yesterday with, I must admit, a fair bit of anxiety. I’d had that feeling since first reading about the film. Spielberg directing, Day Lewis starring, the Good Angel of America as the subject: it had Self-Conscious and Ponderous written all over it.

The feeling deepened when I read David Hepworth’s post on the film, in which he argues that the film would have worked better as TV mini-series:

I couldn’t follow half of what went on in it and it’s not long since I read the book it’s based on. As if conscious of the byzantine complexity of the plot, which is acted out in the smoke-filled rooms of Washington in 1865, Spielberg’s film is topped and tailed by a prologue and epilogue which seem to have been parachuted in from children’s TV to make up for the fact that the audience is historically illiterate.

Well, I’ve pretty much telegraphed where this post is going, haven’t I? I loved it. What’s more, my Mum loved it – in that rapt, unmoving, super-attentive way only those who are in love with a film can sustain for more than two hours.

But this was odd, because Lincoln is pretty ponderous, in some ways. It opens just after Lincoln’s re-election as president, with the 13th Amendment on the floor of the House and looking certain to fail to reach the required two-thirds majority for a constitutional amendment. The film doesn’t tell the story of Lincoln’s life before these events, or even the story of the Civil War itself. There is some exposition of these matters, but not nearly as much as you’d think. The narrative engine of the film is the political chicanery needed to get the Amendment passed; the moral compass of the film is the tussle between those who think the war with the South should be ended immediately (which would make the Amendment less likely to pass) and those who think the abolition of slavery is paramount. There aren’t good and evil characters, but there are heroes and cowards, and here heroism is reserved for those with a clear-eyed view of the murky complexity of society and a readiness to compromise themselves in the short-term to get things done. The key line in the film for me was “it’ll do, for now,” and I won’t reveal who says it, but when they do… Well. Reader, I wiped a tear.

It’s not a dynamic film. There are few broad sweeps and landscapes. There are a lot of dark rooms and chambers and small groups of men (nearly always men) talking to each other, sometimes shouting.

It shouldn’t work, frankly, and yet it does.

I think that’s because the film occupies that odd land between the cinema and the theatre. Other films have been in the same twilight zone. Twelve Angry Men springs to mind. I always find them compelling, in a way that television can never be compelling. The size of the screen and the faces is part of it. The light and the music is another. The presence of other watching strangers is another. The mild hassle involved in getting to see it is yet another.

All these things give the thing a weight and an inherent importance that television just can’t achieve. When the thing’s done well, it doesn’t have to show epic landscapes. An intelligent man talking about important matters in a well-lit room using well-crafted words can have all the drama you need.

How to behave as a creative person: Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh’s one of my favourite film directors, but before I read Vulture’s interview with the guy I never really knew him. The catalyst for the interview is Soderbergh’s upcoming 50th birthday, the point at which he’s said he’ll give up directing feature films.

I’d always had this image of Soderbergh as this all-powerful auteur who wafted around the studio lots of Hollywood saying ‘this year, I fancy doing something different.’ But the way he tells it his career is one long sequence of happenstance, and he accounts his success not to talent or luck, but to being a decent person:

On the few occasions where I’ve talked to film students, one of the things I stress, in addition to learning your craft, is how you behave as a person. For the most part, our lives are about telling stories. So I ask them, “What are the stories you want people to tell about you?” Because at a certain point, your ability to get a job could turn on the stories people tell about you. The reason [then–Universal Pictures chief] Casey Silver put me up for [1998’s] Out of Sight after I’d had five flops in a row was because he liked me personally. He also knew I was a responsible filmmaker, and if I got that job, the next time he’d see me was when we screened the movie. If I’m an asshole, then I don’t get that job. Character counts. That’s a long way of saying, “If you can be known as someone who can attract talent, that’s a big plus.”

via In Conversation: Steven Soderbergh — Vulture.

I’m sure there’s a lorryload of false modesty in that, but I do recognise the picture he paints of the chaotic nature of any creative undertaking, particularly one that’s as mixed up with commercial concerns as filmmaking. But ‘don’t be an asshole’ isn’t a bad way to choose to live the creative life, I think.

Logic v. believability, or why Pixar wouldn’t have made Prometheus

Have you seen Prometheus?

If you haven’t, you really should.

And you should stop reading this now so it doesn’t spoil it for you.

Go on, clear off. Enjoy the movie!

Bye!

Three characters in Prometheus, each looking in a different direction

So, have you seen Prometheus? Yes?

Wasn’t it terrible?

Here’s some guys explaining why:

If I had to sum up what these guys are saying – and what made me maddest about Prometheus – it would be this: I can suspend disbelief. I can believe all sorts of strange things – I can believe that little people will walk across a realm to destroy a ring, that an ancient Time Lord can care about the human race and regenerate periodically, that somewhere out there is a killer alien species which can impregnate itself into other creatures and then emerge to destroy them.

I don’t have any problem with that stuff.

What I can’t tolerate is stories which don’t obey the logic of the worlds they themselves have created; that set themselves free from the cause-and-effect they establish for themselves. In my book The English Monster something impossible happens, but I hope and pray that its impossibility is at least believed, and that the logic of the story after the impossibility is obeyed.

This is where Prometheus fails. Basic story logic fails time and time again, and not because the story demands it; because they couldn’t be bothered to fix it. Need aliens to leave a star map to their secret military installation? OK, do so – but explain why. Otherwise it’s just a lazy neglect, and do you know what? It says to me we don’t care if this makes sense or not, but it’s beautiful, isn’t it?.

Wouldn’t have happened at Pixar, if these amazing story tips are anything to go by. Such as:

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

That one rule – that one single rule – would have made Prometheus a really great movie. Likewise, the Prometheus screenwriters don’t follow Joe Hill on Twitter…

As a final thought: the lack of believable motivation in Prometheus is perfectly summed up in that still at the top of this post. Three characters, all looking in different directions: why? One character looks pissed off, despite fulfilling all his career ambitions: why? The android is looking with enormous sinister intent at the main female character: why? Suffice to say none of these questions are answered in the film. It’s not a story; it’s like an anti-story. I seriously, seriously pray that Ridley Scott doesn’t take the same axe to the reputation of Blade Runner, because even Philip K Dick loved that movie.

 

Marley’s women

To the Ritzy in Brixton during rain-soaked yesterday, to see the Bob Marley documentary. It’s a lovely piece of work, a little long, but soaked in genuine love for its subject. In fact, its adoration is a little heavy at times, but there’s a useful counterpoint to it in the film itself, in the shape of the remarkable women in Marley’s life.

As we know, there were a lot of women in Marley’s life, from the girl down the street in Trench Town to the daughter of the dictator of Gabon (both of them are interviewed). But time and again there are women in the film who either tear up a little at his memory (like the extraordinary German nurse, now in her 80s, who looks like a little girl again when she recalls his time in the clinic in Bavaria) or who look at the adoring filmmakers (most of whom, I’m guessing, were middle-class Brits with an extensive collection of vinyl) with a raised eyebrow and a knowing smile, not saying what they are thinking: “He’s a God to you, but to us he was a man, and like all men he was on occasion a pratt.”

Rita Marley has a half-smile throughout the film, as if in possession of secret knowledge that makes the whole film a huge joke.

Rita Marley

 

Cindy Breakspeare, the former Miss World who became Marley’s girlfriend, described evenings on 1970s English trains frantically scrubbing off make-up in time to meet Marley in the accepted Rasta fashion, hair covered and no make-up.

Diane Jobson, Marley’s lawyer, is the most sardonic of all of them, still with her hair covered and still without make-up, saying of the assassination attempt on Marley and the subsequent concert and adoration: “What more do Jamaicans love than a man who just survived a gunfight?”

And finally, the achingly beautiful daughter, Cedella Marley, who makes a poignant contrast to her brothers Ziggy and Jacob. They tell male stories of Bob the footballer, Bob the runner, Bob the competitor; she aches of abandonment and resentment, unwilling to understand a father who adopted a world but left family after family behind.

The film has some cheesy but still powerful stuff over the closing credits, showing people from dozens of nations singing Marley songs. As we filed out, I took a look at the audience. Black and white, old and young, male and female. Cedella notwithstanding, you can’t say the guy didn’t make a difference.

Actor! Actor! « Niall Anderson on actors writing novels

A lovely piece by Niall Anderson, which somebody with a chequebook and the remnants of a media business should republish and pay him for. This on Dirk Bogarde’s novels, for instance:

Read enough of them, though, and you begin to notice a certain recurring theme: that rich people can have it hard, too. You also begin to notice a recurring character. He is male and eternally middle-aged. He is English, sexually ambiguous, and in self-chosen exile. He may or may not write an annual bestseller. (He might also, at this stage, start to remind you of someone.) Shortly before the novel begins, something will have happened to him that has allowed him to figure out the complete meaning of life. He never overplays this, or expects other people to understand such dearly-bought and dreadful knowledge; nevertheless, everybody who comes to him – that is to say, everybody else in the entire novel – leaves with a sad sense of having met a man who just knows.

via Actor! Actor! « MostlyFilm.