Sunday, September 6, 2020

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle interviews cinematographer Christopher Doyle

When the cinematographer Christopher Doyle appeared at the Edinburgh film festival in 2008, he interviewed himself, because, he said, he would ask more difficult questions. Here are some of his answers.
On film school.
“Film school is only good for your sex life.”
On his remake of Psycho with Gus Van Zant
“A $24m art project” and “a celebration of shower curtains”.

On himself.
”The Keith Richards of cinematography”.
On lighting.
”You can’t light the desert.”
A useful Chinese maxim.
“Don’t go through the big head.”
On watching a film in a cinema.
”You start together and you end together and you do something else in between.”
On the usefulness of his answers.
”I may be wrong. The only people I talk to are models.”

Friday, July 31, 2020

Alan Parker, from Nice One Cyril to Midnight Express. "I started making commercials. That was my film school."

November 2003: Recently, Alan Parker was asked to name his five favourite films. He thought about this, felt the reflex twitch towards Citizen Kane, then realised he didn’t have an open mind when he first met Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s masterpiece. Before encountering the wonders of Xanadu, he had read about Kane and understood it to be the best film ever made.
So he thought again and tried to recall without prejudice the movies that had made the greatest impression. He came up with The Godfather 2, "for its wonderful storytelling", One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Bertolucci’s 1900 ("another kind of poetry of the cinema"). There was Raging Bull. And, because he felt he should include a British film, The Third Man. 

The Third Man is interesting, Parker says, because it has such a long prologue. "It’s a really bad construction, actually. Why do you need all that? When did you put that in? The whole thing of Graham Greene writing it on the back of an envelope, I find interesting. A man goes to his own funeral ..." 

Students of Parker’s work may have noticed the reference to The Third Man in his 1978 film, Midnight Express, in which Brad Davis played an American drug smuggler in a Turkish jail. 

"The end of Midnight Express is him coming out of prison. You see him walk away and suddenly you see the Jeep coming, and you think ‘oh, he’s gonna get caught’, and then the Jeep goes past him and then he runs, and that’s the end. In The Third Man you see Alida Valli walking in the cemetery and she walks towards you, and the Jeep is here, and he’s waiting for her, and you think they’ll get together, and she walks on. 

"It’s not really the same scene. It’s the same moment." 

He recalls, too, the feeling he had when he first saw Scorsese’s boxing epic. "When I came out of Raging Bull, I thought: ‘I will never make a film as good as that’. And I thought, I might not make a film as good as that, but that’s why I want to keep doing it, because maybe one day I will." 

One of problems of characterising Parker’s work is his adaptability. A director who has spent half a lifetime trying to work the Hollywood system, his work seems to hover between public acclaim and critical acceptability. His direction of Pink Floyd’s The Wall continues to inform the tyros of MTV. Midnight Express is 25 years old, but there is nothing dated about its theme of American arrogance in the Middle East. Birdy has its moments, as does Mississippi Burning. Angel Heart remains an enjoyably gothic exercise in Southern voodoo, capturing Mickey Rourke and the egg-eating devil Robert De Niro at their most hucksterish. And, if Evita and Angela’s Ashes failed to fully subdue the reputations of their source material, the director showed wit and restraint in another adaptation, of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments. 

Parker’s last film, The Life of David Gale, received a mauling, though its crime seems to have been the fact that it was a thriller with a conscience in a time when meaning has been eschewed in favour of knowingness and special effects. David Gale had stars - Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet - suspense and points to make about capital punishment, but the tenor of the criticism found an echo in David Thomson’s assessment of Parker’s work in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: "He grabs attention, but he has no sustained grip. And sometimes, as with grabbers, there is an undue stress on suspense and intimidation." The director Alex Cox was more succinct, writing that Parker’s work was: "straightforwardly detestable: dishonest, propagandistic, authority-loving crap". 

"I’d be much richer than I am if I’d made the films that they wanted me to make," says Parker flintily. He stands by David Gale. "It’s a really great movie about a very important subject. You try getting that kind of film made, even. Then you get it made and it gets criticised. And every criticism of that film is another nail in the coffin for anyone attempting a serious subject, because the studios go: ‘No way, the critics will kill it’." 

Parker has long been the subject of snobbery, as he came to film-making via a career in advertising. He directed the Leonard Rossitter/Joan Collins commercials for Cinzano and the Wonderloaf commercial, which coined the phrase "Nice one, Cyril". 

"I started making commercials," Parker says, "that was my film school. There was no film industry, so where would you go?" Parker worked at the same agency as David (now Lord) Puttnam and Ridley Scott (director of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator). 

"They said we were not qualified to make feature films, because we came from the world of advertising, of selling things. They were so cruel to Ridley and me. And if you look at the history of cinema of this last 25 years, Ridley is the greatest visual influence on an entire generation of film-makers. The people who wrote about films in those days said he was a vulgarian, because he had done a Radiant commercial. 

"The snobbery in this country is disgusting. From a visual point of view there is no greater film-maker in the world than Ridley. They couldn’t see it. To everyone else, it was obvious. And do you know what? It was so obvious to the f***ing audience and yet, all those snotheads, like Philip French or Alexander Walker, they couldn’t see it. It’s very British." 

Despite making 14 films in 28 years, Parker does not find the process any easier. The area he works in, the medium-budget feature, has almost disappeared. "The middle ground, which is where Raging Bull, and Godfather and Cuckoo’s Nest came from, that whole area has fallen away, because it’s too expensive and it’s too risky." 

Parker says he feels sorry for the first-time film-maker working in Hollywood, going into a meeting "with 20 Rottweiler editors, ready to rip apart your movie". 

"It’s almost like you wanna go: ‘Well, why do you wanna make the f***ing film?’ They miss the whole point." 

The process, he says, has grown progressively more difficult, as the studios excise their memory of the auteurs of the 1970s. "Their argument is, the final cut director, the auteur, has let them down, because they’re not allowed to interfere. So it’s infinitely more fun for them to employ someone new who they can utterly dominate. And they insist that all their ideas are in the film, because they want to go home at night and feel good about what they’ve done. Because they hate to be thought of as bankers. 

"I come from a generation of film-makers who only think of them as bankers. I said to one studio, I don’t want your notes. All I want is your cheque." 

Recently, Parker has had cause to reflect on the collaborative, combative process of film-making. He has just published his first novel, The Sucker’s Kiss, which he wrote while David Gale was "on hiatus", as Hollywood prepared for a screenwriters’ strike. He found publishing people to be more gracious than the studio Rottweilers. But, compared to film, the marketing of books is "amateurish" and the business of publishing is, he says, a bastion of snobbiness. "In London, it’s the last hold-out of people with plummy English accents. Outside of the royal family, publishing is the only place where you hear these people speak this way." 

Creatively, Parker found freedom in the novel. "If I’m writing a screenplay, I keep it as simple as possible. It isn’t a literary work. It’s gotta be succinct and there’s gotta be enough information for all the departments involved to know what they should be doing. The worst kind of screenplay - if you read a William Goldman screenplay, you’d go, ‘Oh, f*** off!’" 

The novel is the finished product. 

"The screenplay is just directions towards the ultimate creative work, which is the finished film. It’s better when it is sparse. 

"I remember reading the first drafts of Shoot the Moon. Bo Goldman had done Cuckoo’s Nest and he’d won a couple of Oscars. Melvin and Howard was the other one, a Jonathan Demme film. But Bo would literally write. ‘A room. Full stop. A chair. Full stop. A man would be very comfortable in this chair. Full stop.’ Not, ‘The evening light trickles through the wooden screen’, but ‘It’s evening’. 

"That’s really what you need. Anything else is patronising to everybody on the film crew from the cinematographer to the costume designer, in what they actually contribute. The great screenplays are very simple." 

The way he describes it is almost Hemingwayesque. "A bit," he says. "Take away all the nonsense." 

In which case, what was it like writing a novel and leaving the adjectives in? 

"I found it such a liberating pleasure, not to think that some - I’m trying to think of a nice word for arsehole - some person in a film studio would be saying ‘Nah. That’s too piss elegant, don’t use that.’ It was nice to get back to the beauty of words." 

Parker has also courted opprobrium by taking on an administrative role as chairman of the UK film council, which distributes lottery cash to British productions. This puts him almost in the position of being a studio banker, telling British film-makers what they should do in order to attract funding. 

"For many years there was a sense that everybody in the whole country had the right to make a movie and they didn’t care if anybody went to see it," he says. "That’s an indulgent notion, particularly when you’re asking for large sums of public money." 

Art movies, which are expected to be less commercial, are catered for by the new cinema fund: "The budgets are much lower. You could perhaps be more indulgent. You don’t have to find an audience but you can be creative. It’s somewhere between the multiplex movie and some video installation at an art gallery. There is a middle world that should be encouraged and catered for, and you can express yourself however you want in that area. That’s of cultural significance and should be funded." 

Parker has, however, been critical of directors whose work was not lucrative. 

"It was when people finished a movie and they’d say: ‘I want the money for my next movie’. You’d go, ‘Hang on a minute, Lynne, or whatever your name might be, you should maybe try and find an audience next time, if you’re gonna ask, not for a hundred grand, but millions of pounds. Don’t you think? And if you really don’t agree with that, then write a novel.’" Referring to Lynne (Ramsay) was, Parker says, "a sarcastic Scottish joke". Back-pedalling, he says he "loved" Ramsay’s Morvern Callar. 

"She’s a great, great talent. It’d be nicer if she found a bigger audience, but she thinks that too. When you’ve got all of the creative accolades, what’s left is to keep your creativity intact and still find a big audience. Now, that’s hard." 

Ramsay, he says, "struggles with being truthful to the language of her country. Maybe audiences elsewhere find that tough to understand, even if their first language is English." He also suggests that a film need not be crass in order to find an audience. "The personal film that is so beautiful, that is so immaculately mine as a film-maker, that no-one else in the world has any interest in it at all - is that valid? Well it is valid for a certain type of film that costs a certain amount of money. To find an audience, but keep the creative integrity intact, like Raging Bull, that’s a much more difficult film to make." 

Sir Alan Parker, we may assume, is still trying. 

Friday, June 26, 2020

A Southern Belle Dreaming of Fidel: the Freewheelin' Jessica Lange

Two days after opening night, and Jessica Lange’s Midwestern drawl has turned into a weary croak. She is, she confesses, “a little worn out. My voice has taken quite a hit. It’s that thing after the opening, your whole body wants to relax, finally.”
The play is Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Lange appeared on Broadway in a production that was mauled by American critics. London has been warmer, but Lange is unable to compare the productions, except to say that the new interpretation is more “precise”. She claims to have “no memory” of the New York performances. “It’s as though it’s been erased.”
And though she thinks the opening two nights have been good, she hasn’t read the reviews. “Maybe at some point down the road. I never read ’em the day after.”
Perhaps it’s the bleariness of the second morning after the night before, but she sounds more fragile than you might expect of a two-time Oscar winner. She admits to first-night nerves. “There’s this absolute dread that comes over me, and then it moves to this kind of self-defeating ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and ‘It’s never going to fly’. By the time you get to the theatre, actor’s adrenaline kicks in, and if you hit it on the right foot going out there, something takes over and you’re swept along. If you miss that, you’re behind. It’s like how they used to speak about Billie Holiday singing behind the beat, which was what made her so unique. But acting behind the beat does not have the same magical effect!”
In New York, reviewers suggested Lange was miscast, but she has her reasons for trying again. “For me the play is about mothering. All the positive, all the negative, all the insanity, all the joy.”
Watching her at work, playing a deluded Southern belle in yesteryear’s ballgown, it’s hard not conclude that until recently Lange would have identified with Tom, the character Williams based on himself. He is a free spirit, trapped in the suffocating embrace of his mother.
“It’s funny,” Lange says, “because when we did the play in New York, my friend Diane Keaton came backstage. Maybe it’s because we’ve hit an age in our lives, and we’re mothers, and we’re raising children… She said it was the first time she had seen the play from the mother’s point of view rather than Tom, and his desire to break away and be free. Maybe that’s it – it presents itself at a certain time in your life.”
Lange’s reflections on motherhood have been prompted by the fact that all three of her children – Shura (by Mikhail Baryshnikov), Hannah and Walker (by Sam Shepard) have left home.
“It hit me hard. Some people I know were joyous: now they could have freedom and do what they want, not be a slave to the school schedule. But,” she laughs, “that kind of gave meaning to my life. Now I’m not so sure what I’m supposed to be doing.”
She certainly doesn’t look like a grandmother of 57, even in her rehearsal clothes; a dark cardigan and jeans, and black lace-up shoes of the kind that might have been favoured by Miss Jean Brodie. Even in mufti, she exudes a sense of coiled magnetism. There is a blur of ink on her hand, a tattoo from her spent youth. I ask how she handled the transition from bohemia to responsible motherhood.
“By the time I had my first child I was already 31. I had really flown through the Sixties in my twenties, and had lived pretty much as hard and rough and crazy as I could sustain. It was time for me to slow down.
“Coming out of the Sixties, it was quite insane. It was completely peripatetic, never living anywhere – literally living on the road year after year. Moving to Spain, then to Paris, and then back to New York, and the whole underground arts scene. Not to mention the power of the drug culture.” She laughs. “There was a lot going on. The ones of us that are still alive, we’re lucky we made it through.”
Drugs, she says, were “just part of life”, and she is reluctant to specify how far her experiments went. “Not as far as a lot of people that I saw come to an end. By the time I hit my thirties I was really ready to have some responsibility. And to have that thing that connected me to life.”
Lange’s rootlessness wasn’t necessarily rooted in the counter-culture. Her childhood was a tour of small towns in northern Minnesota. “My dad was very restless, so we’d stay in some little nowhere place. [Bob] Dylan described Hibbing, which is where he’s from, as a town that was going nowhere. I lived in a lot of those places.
“I remember having a yearning that was so powerful that it was almost like a physical pain. This yearning to get out, to see something, to do something.”
She enrolled at the University of Minnesota as an art student, fell in with a group of photographers, and set out for Europe. In Spain, her group documented flamenco gypsies. In Amsterdam, they filmed the life of a street person. In New York, she burrowed deep in the underground. Then she moved to Paris to study mime under Etienne Decroux. “The first time I saw Paris – that sounds like a song, doesn’t it? – was in May of 1968, when we were coming up from Spain on our way to Amsterdam, and the streets were like, wow! It was most thrilling thing in the world to me.
“The whole city was under siege. It was as close to a revolution as anything I’ve ever seen. So I thought, ‘This is where I want to be!’”
In some descriptions, Lange’s father sounds like Willy Loman, from Death of a Salesman. “He was a teacher, he sold cars, he was a travelling salesman. He worked on the railroad. He was really a brilliant man. Coming out of the depression and World War 2 just completely screwed him up.”
He always dreamed of owning his own ranch. “There’s some great old colour film from the Thirties, of him in Montana, and that’s where he wanted to be. He wanted to go back to Great Falls, Montana, in the wide open spaces.” By now, Lange’s voice has dropped to a whisper. “He never made it.”
She inherited her father’s temper. “The other thing I got from him, which I am extremely grateful for, was his sense of honesty. And cutting through things. You get a little good and you get a little bad.”
When Lange talks about her mother, who died eight years ago, her tone is mournful. “She was just the most beautiful, gentlest, loveliest woman in the world. Never an unkind word. She was amazing.” She clears her throat. “I should have inherited more from my mother.”
In the midst of her European travels, Lange married her photography professor Paco Grande. She didn’t take marriage seriously. “It’s never meant that much to me, the idea of marriage. I’m not married now, but Sam and I have been together for 24 years. So what does that mean?”
Lange met Shepard on the set of Frances, the 1982 biopic of Frances Farmer which earned her an Oscar nomination. She once said “no one compares to Sam in terms of maleness,” but bristles when reminded of the quote. “I hate talking superlatives. There’s obviously something. I’ve been with the man for 24 years. And I’m still crazy about him.”
Shepard’s plays use the West in the way Tennessee Williams used the South, but is less political than Lange, who considers America to be at “at a low ebb” because of the Bushes’ foreign policies.Yet she is no fan of Hillary Clinton. “I know she’s a good stateswoman and she’s incredibly smart. But I don’t think I could support a candidate who supported Bush’s drive to war.
“With Hillary I get the feeling that it’s all politics. I would love to see somebody who was passionate and who was not scared, not always deliberating: ‘Is this the right move?’ But who had some real sense of ethics and wasn’t afraid to go against the fucking focus groups. That’s what’s killing films, that’s what’s killing politics.”
Despite her Oscars - for Tootsie and Blue Sky – Lange’s Hollywood career has been understated.
“Oh, I think Hollywood just got rid of me!” she says with a laugh. “I was never big box office, so they didn’t have much use for me. At least in the Eighties, and for maybe half of the Nineties, you could still do a studio film that was a good movie. But that’s gone.
“Look, I had a chance to do a lot of really wonderful parts. But in 30 years, how many movies have I done? 25? For the most part, I like the work I did. I liked the experiences that I had. But if I could move on to something else, I probably would. I’m just not sure what else I can do.”
Recently, Lange has revived her interest in photography. She beams at the mention of Rene Burri’s photographs of Che Guevera, who she recently described as her hero. “This is the power of photography, isn’t it? The iconography of Che Guevara really has to do with those photographs. I’m in awe of the revolutionary spirit. And what an amazing journey that kid went on. I just always imagine those moments – can you imagine coming into Havana with Fidel? I mean, God! What a thrill! There’s nothing more thrilling than that. A revolution that works!”
Right now, here concerns are more prosaic. She is looking forward to a day off. “Hopefully I’ll get out a bit,” she says wistfully, and walk around. It’ll be nice to get through this week, because then you can start having a life. A little bit of one, at least.”
Before she goes, she pays tribute to the play’s director, Rupert Goold, and to the rest of the cast. “It’s been a pleasure,” she says. “It’s been very good for me, to get me out of my head.”
What, I ask, was wrong with her head? “You just don’t wanna spend too much time dwelling on things!” she says, laughing. “It’s like my father always said: ‘You’ve got too goddamn much time to think!’”

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Elizabeth Wurtzel died today. I met her once, in 2002. I liked her, but had the impression that I was mean to her when I wrote up the interview. I see now that she was harder on herself.

Elizabeth Wurtzel has ordered coffee.
Before it comes, a detour. A few years ago, I was interviewing Spalding Gray, a writer who makes art out of autobiography. He had written a book called Impossible Vacation. He called it a memoir, his publishers called it a novel.
Truth became fiction. Spalding was in a bad way. He told me he had been up all night, contemplating suicide. He was ill, and he didn’t want to be in a crappy London hotel flogging his book, when he could have been in Mexico sampling psychotropic drugs. It felt awkward in that room, him on the verge of jacking it in, me feeling worried, but pleased. It was terrible, this talk of death, but it was great material.
Flash forward. I am in a crappy five star hotel in Edinburgh with Elizabeth Wurtzel, telling her about Spalding Gray. It turns out she loves Gray, and may even be flattered to be compared with him. I am telling her that Gray really did seem to be on the verge of oblivion when I met him, and there was something attractive about someone who could share their intimacies with a stranger. Then, a year or two later, Gray published a monologue about his suicidal urges. Was he merely practising his art when I met him - trying out his story? Where, in this process, was the truth?
Wurtzel has ordered iced water, fresh grapefruit juice, and coffee, with cream, all to be served before her lunch, which will be macaroni cheese with parma ham. We discuss the Scottish approach to service, and she looks almost happy when I tell her that good service is anathema to the Scottish character, and that her order will be brought reluctantly, if at all.
“You know,” she says, “tip stands for ‘to improve performance’.”
Still, she is disappointed when the water arrives without ice, the juice isn’t fresh (“well, fresh from the bar”) and the macaroni is rigatoni. The coffee doesn’t come.
“Do you think that when I asked for coffee they understood that I wanted it now?” Wurtzel asks. Well, I say, the waitress was Australian.
“I mean, is there something we could do to get over the fact that I want it now? That’s why I ordered it now.”
A French waitress is hailed. The coffee is re-ordered, with cream.
Wurtzel swallows a pill, glugs some grapefruit juice. What she says about Gray, and the strange relationship between memoir and fiction, is that, often, the only thing that gets you through the day is the knowledge that you can shoot yourself in the head. “So, I’m not sure that isn’t just a coping method. That you can always get out of this if you want.”
But, I say, how can you believe in something if you are told it by a great storyteller?
“Well, I believe him because I know that I say things like that, and it seems really weird because I could say that to you, and I could be sitting here in front of you, seemingly functioning, and that would sound rather crazy …”
 The coffee arrives. It has a thick crema on top.
“Uh, wait. I wanted just coffee.”
The French waitress explains that the froth is because it has been through the filter. “Oh,” Wurtzel says, dismayed. “Anyway, people think it’s somehow unbelievable or manipulative, the idea that you can be saying these things and sitting having lunch, and feeling this desperate, and that if you were this desperate you wouldn’t be sitting here. But, everyone’s different. I just think, never doubt somebody that tells you they’re having that hard a time. You may well be the person that, for whatever reason, they’re crying for help to.”
She sips her coffee.
“Excuse me,” she says. “This isn’t coffee, and this isn’t cream.” She stops the waitress. “Excuse me. I asked for cream.”
It’s coffee that comes through an espresso machine, I tell her. It has a creamy head.
“Why would you do that?”
It tastes better.
“But I don’t want strong coffee or espresso. I want a cup of coffee. This has been driving me crazy for the last week. It’s like, just use a fuckin’ French press. Use a filter thing. It’s like, how hard is this?”
She sighs, despairingly. I tell her I blame Starbucks.
“How do you blame Starbucks?”
Well, Starbucks has made everyone try to make Italian coffee.
“Why?” Because it’s made with espresso machines.
“No, no, no. Let me explain something. At Starbucks you don’t get this. Coffee looks normal and black there.”
If you have an Americano.
“No. Then there’s something wrong. I know how they make it there. They don’t make it in an espresso machine. This is not coffee. It’s espresso. It’s possibly made with regular coffee beans. And that’s fine. I’m too happy to have it at all.”
We go on this way for a long time, happily talking rubbish. “This conversation has been that of two very stoned people,” she announces. “Do you realise that, and neither of us even drinks? You realise that’s how it’s been. I mean, are you interviewing me, or are we just chatting?”
To relieve the tension, we get back to depression. I suggest to her that her books, which are in the form of confessional diaries, become something else when they are sold. Her mental health becomes a business. There are people who make money from her depression.
“I have to say, nobody’s getting terrifically rich off of any of this,” she says. “It does, though, start to get weird. I saw Prozac Nation, the movie, and there, somebody else is making their truth out of my truth. And many people are making money off of that. And that’s weird. I’d have to say that that might be somewhat ill-advised, if I had it all to do all over again. But, I was broke, so that’s what happened.
“I mean,” she says, “the only person who’s in any danger of suffering any consequences from it is me.”
Elizabeth Wurtzel is sold on her own book jackets as the “Generation X poster girl for depression”. In her memoirs, Prozac Nation and More, Now, Again, she joins the dots between mundane reality and depression. The first is about Prozac, the second is about Ritalin. The drugs change, the depression persists. The underlying theme is loneliness.
“Nothing in this world would ever happen if people weren’t lonely,” she says. By that definition, I say, loneliness is a natural state which everybody suffers from.
“I guess most people attend to it before it becomes a problem, and then therefore they don’t need to do drugs. Some people when they feel lonely attend to it in some reasonable way, and then there are people who wait till they are far too out of control to have anything normal satisfy it and those people need drugs.”
You say the drugs are the thing that made it OK to be you.
“Yeah, well.” She chews upon her not-macaroni. “I think it’s Nietzsche who said that Man’s great problem is his inability to stay alone in his room and mind his own business. That’s really it. From that, all problems come, but from that everything good ensues also.”
Recently, Wurtzel’s attempts to understand her own confusions have led to a degree of indignation. In a recent interview, she mused aloud about the Middle East, and 11 September. She lost her apartment when the Twin Towers fell, and her attempts to describe the numbness she felt as she watched the buildings collapse were greeted with sneers in gossip columns, which accused her of being self-obsessed.
“The thing is,” she says, “I’m essentially quite human. I don’t spend a lot of my time talking in interviews about my views on the Palestinians. I’m not conversant enough about it, anyway. So that’s why I’m particularly angry. My point is that, the only one who gets hurt is me. And usually it’s OK.”
About 11 September, she suggests “it might be about time that a counter-narrative were offered”.
She eyes me warily. “I would never want to be held accountable for anything that I said about 9-11 in the last several months, because my feelings about what happened, and what happened to me on that day, have changed over and over again. I’ve certainly been traumatised by this. I was talking about how interesting it is that, for all that there’s a straightforward line that people who were not there seem to have had, my responses to it are all over the place - including extreme alienation.
“It’s very weird because the one thing that’s been very consistent has been how incredibly patriotic I have felt, but that patriotism doesn’t seem to connect with the idea that we all should have felt collectively violated. I just feel patriotic anyway. I feel that there’s no more incredible country on earth, and the tendency to blame the United States for any number of ills is just foolish and misguided. This weird Noam Chomsky response is crazy. And I feel so certain of that that I wonder why everybody has felt so vulnerable in response to this.”
There is a pause. “I didn’t have a straightforward response, the way a lot of people who were a lot less affected than I was, seemed to have.”
Another pause. “There’s nothing I say ever that I’m ashamed of. If I was afraid of it I wouldn’t say it. I remember saying once about the Palestinians that their intentional cause was terrorism, by which I meant that the first thing they did as a Palestinian nation was the Munich Olympics. I know exactly what I said, and I know exactly what I meant, but you take it in one sentence, and you know what it sounds like.”
More, Now, Again, is a strange book. Its strength, the warts-callouses-and-all depiction of depression and drug addiction, is also its weakness. The life described by Wurtzel, her own, has a frustrating artlessness to it. This may make it more true - reality sprawls - but it is a gruelling read, and less endearing than Wurtzel is in person. It ends hopefully, with the phrase, “Here’s how this story begins.”
I ask her about her recurring dreams. She answers a slightly different question.
“I have a recurring anxiety dream that has to do with the fact that in high school I have to apply to college for some reason, and I can’t get into the college of my choice, and the thing is that I have already graduated from college. Or I’m in high school and I have to take a test again. And then I realise I don’t have to be doing this.
“I haven’t had this so much recently, but there was one also where I was having to get married and frequently I would be in a jewellery store, and there would be all this jewellery that I wanted to buy, but I would have to buy wedding bands. And I would feel like, ‘I don’t want to get married, I don’t want to get married,’ and finally the guy that I was getting married to would explain to me that I didn’t have to get married, I didn’t have to marry him, and it would be such a relief. But I didn’t know that until he told me.”
To lighten the mood, we talk about nightmares. “Yeah,” she says. “It’s such a relief when you wake up and realise that you don’t have to do this thing. It’s such an amazing relief when you realise ‘wow, this isn’t my problem at all’.”

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Succession's Brian Cox on playing Logan Roy: "Hitler was a human being, Mussolini was a human being. Donald Trump, apparently, is a human being."

In a long and varied career, Brian Cox has specialised in flawed, powerful men. He’s been King Lear, Hermann Goring, Hannibal Lecter. He’s currently playing Lyndon Johnson on Broadway. As Logan Roy, the patriarch of Jesse Armstrong’s brilliant satire of the uber-rich, Succession, Cox has arrived at the perfect role. Roy is a media mogul, in the vein of Rupert Murdoch or Sumner Redstone (patriarch of CBS and Viacom), planning to gift his empire to his less capable children.
There’s a lot of Lear, a touch of Ibsen. But Succession is also viciously contemporary. It’s a forensic examination of the one per cent of the one per cent; Citizen Kane with private planes. “Kane suffers from the same thing [as Logan],” suggests Cox, “lack of parental guidance. Family is both destructive and constructive. It can be a force for good, it can be a force for the opposite. Lear has the same thing. At the end of his life he wants to be loved, and he thinks if he gives everything away he will get that love. Logan’s more complicated. He can’t and won’t admit that he wants love.”
For Cox, the initial appeal of Succession was the chance to work with Armstrong (whose credits include The Thick of It and Peep Show) and Adam McKay (Anchorman and The Big Short).
“It’s a great role,” Cox says. “It’s classical. It’s a morality tale and it addresses issues of our time, issues of entitlement, kids who are spoilt, who have no sense of the real world.”
Initial reactions to Succession were muted, perhaps because it lacks an obviously sympathetic character. To call it a comedy is misleading, because the humour is as black as it is unforgiving. The Roy offspring are revolting, nakedly ambitious, motivated only by self-interest.
 “The one thing you don’t do in my job is judge,” says Cox. “You’re always looking for the humanity, because they are human beings. They may be horrible. But Hitler was a human being, Mussolini was a human being. Donald Trump, apparently, is a human being.”
 The character of Logan has evolved. When Cox took the role, it was a one-season deal, with Roy dying at the end. Instead, he suffered a stroke in the pilot episode, prompting the venal power struggle among his children which continues as he recovers. Cox was also pleased to discover that Logan is an ex-pat Scot, hailing from his hometown, Dundee, though he played much of the first series believing the character to be Quebecois. Cox rationalised this by suggesting that the young Logan was one of the many orphaned children who were resettled in Canada at the beginning of the war.
“But of course, then we did this episode,” he says, referring to episode 8 of the second season, where the Roy clan travels to Logan’s birthplace for an awkward celebration of his life. “I’m so proud to have an episode called Dundee, except I was annoyed about one thing. We shot my home, so I was suggesting Broughtyferry, which I thought would be interesting. So in a typical Scottish locations mafia way, we filmed that in Glasgow. I said, ‘The stone is wrong! This would never be Dundee in a million years.’ But they didn’t know any better because half of them were American and half of them were English. They had no clue. But the rest of the stuff was in Dundee with the V&A. Of course, that’s a new Dundee, not an old Dundee. And we filmed down at the bandstand at Magdalen Green, all of that.
“Danny Huston said to me: ‘It’s all very well filming Logan’s background, but what about you? Where did you come from?’ So I took him to Brown Constable Street where I was born, I took him to the church where I was baptised, I took him to the school that I first went to. It was my kind of memory lane thing - it was quite bizarre, it was weird.”
 Otherwise, says Cox, the similarities between him and Logan are few. “The one thing he and I have in common is that we are both fatherless. My dad died when I was eight, so I know what it’s like to grow up without parents. Logan’s mother died and his father obviously faded away. Growing up without a parent leaves you so adrift. You have to develop a moral compass. I have strong memories of my father, and he’s still a strong influence on my life, but he’s mythic.
“I’ve always had that problem myself as a father. I have four kids but I sometimes find them very difficult to relate to. I don’t know what it was like to have a father. I have no idea. So I’m empathetic to the central dilemma of Logan’s life. He has no empathy, he just loves his children, and of course he’s given them everything, which has not helped. He’s pulling everything back in order to keep his empire going, and he feels that they’re not ready to do certain things. Like Shiv (Sarah Snook) is far too impetuous and Kendall (Jeremy Strong)’s so chemically affected in his thinking. It’s a very interesting dilemma about parenting. Who do we get our influences from?
“That’s the mystery. That’s the tragedy of Succession. They’re lost, these people, but they can do a lot of damage in the meantime to the rest of the world. You can see that in Donald Trump. Clearly an abused child, by that father of his. One of his brothers ended up an alcoholic and died a pretty horrible death. And Donald Trump is constantly affirming himself because nobody else will affirm him. The other clown is Johnson, the prime minister of the so-called United Kingdom… the divided Kingdom.”
Trump, of course, is proud of his Scottish roots. “Oh please, that’s such a blight on the horizon. He’s more fake German than anything else. I love my country - a country that greets Donald Trump with a sign that says ‘Go home, cunt’ and a mariachi band.” The question about Trump, Boris Johnson, or Logan Roy, says Cox, is about truthfulness. “They’re liars. It’s about the whole morality of lying. I’m doing this LBJ play, the Great Society, and that’s one of the elements. The little lies that turned into bigger lies, the obfuscation of Vietnam and how it undid all Johnson’s wonderful social programmes.
“I discovered something brilliant the other day. I had a guy come in, he was Lyndon Johnson’s domestic advisor, an Italian-American called Joe Califano, and he was telling me that when he was working for the administration, his kid swallowed a whole bottle of aspirin, and he was out for the whole day, Johnson couldn’t find him and was furious, and when he told him what happened, Johnson said, ‘Right, I’ll fix that.’ And Johnson actually brought in caps for medicine bottle that you couldn’t turn off. “It’s this kind of thing that’s quite fascinating. But Logan is incapable.”
As an actor, Cox has always sought interesting roles, working on low budget films with up-and-coming directors, as well as starring in big-budget bankers like the Bourne series. But, increasingly, long-running TV drama is where the best work can be found.
“I worked with [NYPD Blue/Deadwood creator] David Milch, who, like Jesse Armstrong, is a bit of a genius, an incredible man. Deadwood was such a good show, and Milch has a great brain, the Yale professor who slowly came into drama. The long form is the best form, because it follows the shape of life. TV has rewritten the book. In a play or a film you’ve got a beginning a middle and an end. It’s a three-act piece,. Whereas this is all the middle. There’s a first act, then an endless second act that goes through all kinds of ramifications.
“Martin Scorsese’s been going on about the problem with movies. He’s taken against the big blockbusters, understandably. Not enough stories are getting through - multiplexes have five screens and one screen is devoted to any film, the rest are for The Avengers. Cinema as an art-form becomes more marginalised. Audiences can’t see good films. The thing about long-form television, and the great thing about the advent of Netflix and Amazon Prime, is that suddenly there’s a plethora of stuff.
“It’s a perfect form, and the writers have jumped to it. They can also play with contradiction. A great director once said to me, contradiction is character. That’s what’s great about Succession, there are elements, little sinews of contradiction.”
There is also the matter of language, because as you’d expect from a Jesse Armstrong show which has the Thick Of It’s Tony “Omnishambles” Roche on its roster, the language is exquisitely rendered. “When I meet people,” says Cox, “the first thing they want me to say is to tell them to fuck off, and then to say: ‘Take the fucking money’.
“From the artistic point of view it’s fantastic stuff. But it remains mysterious. The audience has to fill it in, and that’s one of the reasons people become addicted to Succession. It’s enticing. Why would I want to spend any time with these people? Because they’re human beings. We all have that capability to be on the side of the gods or on the side of the demons. Certainly Logan’s the hostage of his demons.”
With the second season of Succession now completed after a finale which blended shoes-off yacht porn with a grim inversion of the Last Supper, as Logan auditioned for a “blood sacrifice” to save his company, many questions remain open. Those final scenes - did Logan orchestrate them as an act of self-harm, or did his lies finally catch up with him? That questions remain. But Logan’s endless second act has certainly taken a dark turn.
“Most authority figures have a flaw,” says Cox, “because what right have they to become authority figures? You get spiritual leaders who really are extraordinary like Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, but dramatically the interest is in the flawed leader. Like Churchill - in my home town they got rid of him because they didn’t like him. He laid curses on Dundee which actually stood for quite a while. But he was an astonishing visionary. Unfortunately, the yin and yang is missing now, it’s all yin-y or yangy. Hence the lack of real visionaries.
“The virtue in Logan,” Cox concludes, “if there’s any virtue - is that he is a self-made man. He’s taken a route. He’s so disappointed in human beings he doesn’t give a toss about them at all. But he’s driven by something else, and he’s mysterious, so you don’t quite know who he is; The big question is, does he love his children? I asked Jesse this, because I sincerely doubted it at one point, and Jesse said: ‘You have to understand, he really loves his children, but the problem is, his children are so disappointing on every level.’”

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Exquisite Good Taste Of Domino Records (From The Moment When The Arctic Monkeys Became A Thing)

Whenever he addressed business seminars on the secret of his success, Tony Wilson, the newscaster and former boss of Factory Records, liked to quote Sid Vicious. Sid was once asked his opinion of the man in the street. “Fuck the man on the street,” he replied. “The man on the street is a cunt.”
For Wilson, the quote had shock value. In a conventional business environment, where every decision is based on the dreary cultivation of statistics trawled from focus groups and questionnaires, it is almost heretical to suggest that the customer could be wrong. But in the business of rock’n’roll there has always been a tension between the business and the music.  Rebellion sells, but it doesn’t offer a sustainable business model. 
Franz Ferdinand (acoustic, Edinburgh College of Art, 2006) 
What to make, then, of Domino Records, the unassuming home to two of Britain’s most exciting groups, Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys? If Franz were celebrated for bringing a level of artistry and intelligent design to pop music (all of it based on the formulation “music for girls to dance to”) Arctic Monkeys are a bona fide phenomenon. A week after the release of their first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Billboard magazine was reporting that it had sold over 120,000 copies on its first day of release, and that demand in the first week of issue was likely to exceed the supply – over 350,000 copies. These numbers make it the biggest selling debut album in history. Definitely Maybe by Oasis sold 55,854 in its first week, while Coldplay’s Parachutes managed 70,000. Even Franz Ferdinand, whose first album was released on a high tide of public enthusiasm, managed only 75,457 copies, when their album emerged in February 2004 to give Domino its first number one.  Only Hear’Say’s Popstars can compare – with 306,631 copies sold – and it had the advantage of months of free marketing on a television talent contest. “It’s been a word of mouth phenomenon that none of us have really seen in music,” Domino founder Laurence Bell told Billboard. “I’m not sure there’s anything we can compare it to. It’s completely unprecedented.”
The Monkeys’ success is remarkable, but has not emerged from a vacuum. Bell compared the young Sheffield group to “the Who fronted by Mike Skinner” (the English rapper The Streets, whose songs are like extracts from the scripts of Shameless), but there is an obvious debt to the Libertines, who developed a scratchy version of English rock which joined the dots between the Kinks and the Clash. The Libertines also developed their own mythology – offering a vision of Albion which existed outwith conventional music business protocols. In a move that was reminiscent of the Clash at their most self-destructively idealistic, Pete Doherty and Carl Barat attempted to promote the idea of a band and its followers being united in a gang. Their vision was less a business, and more a social club. Concerts were convened in pubs and advertised on internet bulletin boards – all of outside the traditional structures of the music business. 
The internet is implicated in the rise of Arctic Monkeys too, though this may have been a product of innocent enthusiasm rather than design. The group’s early demos found their way onto downloading sites, and established their reputation before they had a label or a manager. Bell has commented that the web has changed the relationship between bands and record companies. “They are not so desperate for the record company to magic up the audience,” he said. “They come with an audience.”
Even so, Domino makes an unlikely hit factory. Founded in the South London flat of Bell and his partner Jacqui Rice in 1993, it began as a showcase for American post-grunge acts such as Sebadoh, and singer-songwriters such as Will Oldham and Bill Callahan of Smog. Critical respectability was not rewarded with huge commercial success, as the label was marginalised by Britpop. By the time of the label’s 10th anniversary celebrations in 2003, it would have been easy to interpret as ironic Bell’s announcement that the label was about to enter a “Motown-influenced phase” with “a few more hits”.  He told the internet magazine Incendiary: “We’ve just signed a band called Franz Ferdinand from Glasgow; I think they’re going to do really well. They’re like a sort of pop rock/early Josef K art school band. They’ve got great songs and they’re very colourful and fresh, so I’ve got high hopes for them.” 
A year later, after Franz had won the Mercury Music Prize, Bell explained how he had discovered the group in Glasgow. “There was a feeling that just totally came off Franz. What struck me about them was that the guitarist was wearing a cape, the drummer was wearing a 1930s’ sailor’s outfit and they were very striking. The first five rows were full of girls jigging around and everybody looked interesting.
“They were very hip people, but they had no pretension whatsoever and weren’t afraid to have fun. The look in their eye - that glint - made you just want to join in.”
Stephen McRobbie, whose group The Pastels record for Domino, and who runs the splinter label Geographic Music with Bell, suggests that Domino’s success can be credited to the family feeling engendered between Bell and his acts. 
“Most of what Domino is comes down to Laurence, and he is a person with a fantastically optimistic, bright outlook. He communicates this tremendous sense of enthusiasm. The groups on the label love Laurence and love Domino. For instance, Franz Ferdinand on their bass drum always have a Domino logo. It’s not that common for groups to be publicising their record label like that.” 
McRobbie also suggests that the music industry has become less predictable in recent months. “It’s very difficult for major labels to understand what’s going on, and they never really understood the whole downloading phenomenon. 
“Things have gone really out of control, and it has suited labels like Domino that are smaller and can react much quicker. Domino’s much closer to what’s going on. They’ve got people on the ground who’ll get out to see groups, and they don’t seem ridiculous like A&R people do from major labels - and they do still seem ridiculous.”
McRobbie recalls meeting Bell a few months ago in Glasgow. “We were having a coffee, and he said ‘I’ve signed this group. They’re going to be huge. It’s going to be much bigger than Franz Ferdinand.’” That group was Arctic Monkeys. “He knew it was going to happen. He’s always had this real belief, and he has a level of intensity that he brings to releasing an Arctic Records or a Movietone record. It’s really the same intensity and love.” 
There are obvious parallels between Domino and Alan McGee’s Creation Records, an independent that enjoyed phenomenal success with Oasis and – to a lesser degree – Primal Scream. The notion of a label run by a visionary maverick stretches back further, to Glasgow’s Postcard (hosted by Velvet Underground fan Alan Horne) or Edinburgh’s Fast Product, run by Bob Last, which gave the world the Human League and the Gang of Four. 
“Those labels probably have something in common in that one person triggered each of these things,” McRobbie says. “I know that Laurence’s ego is much smaller than either Alan McGee or Alan Horne’s. He’s got this tremendous love for the music and he believes in the artists. He’s a very different type of person.”
Before Domino, Bell worked for Fire Records, which had taken on his imprint Roughneck Records (most notable for releasing the Lemonheads’ single Different Drum). “Then he was just an enthusiastic kid,” McRobbie recalls. “He’s got that power to understand what will sell a lot, but he’s passed on lots of things that he just didn’t feel very strongly about that have gone on to sell a lot, and it’s quite hard to pass that by at times.”
With the Arctic Monkeys success, Domino moves into a new phase, with new temptations. “It’s been funny to see him on News 24 waving his arms around,” says McRobbie. Previously, when the label enjoyed unexpected success – when Elliott Smith’s songs appeared on the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting, for example – Bell talked about the dangers of expanding too quickly, and then having to lay-off staff as normality returned.  

The response of the more conventional music business is to imitate – so we may confidently expect bands to be clumsily marketed via advance downloading – and when that fails, to wave the cheque book. There are frequent rumours that major labels are circling to buy Domino, though it isn’t clear why Bell would want to part with his company so soon after demonstrating that good taste and honest enthusiasm can trump hype. 
(Commissioned by The Independent in February 2006)

Monday, December 19, 2016

In the fictional labyrinth of The OA (spoiler alert) the cure for death is doing the haka in the style of Pan's People

George Melly (centre) offers insights
 into mortality and munchie science in
krrrrazy Netflix drama, The OA

Bloody noses. What is it with the bloody noses? In every dystopian, faintly futuristic serial, it happens. The blankly beautiful person with the extra powers, the super senses, the wonky circuits, ejaculates but does not coagulate, so the red stuff runs down their pretty face like a sign of overstretched humanity, or effort, or weakness. It happens in The OA (Netflix), a gorgeous, overambitious attempt to take the stuff of teen alienation and dress it in the logic of semi-stoned psychedelic enquiry. You might wonder why it’s always the nose, when other brands of surprising teenage blood are available, but to think about that would be to embark on a more complicated investigation into adolescent weirdness than is currently permitted on the geeky side of Main Street. 
What is The OA about? Death, mostly. There is a girl, a beautiful, blank, blonde girl (series co-creator/writer Brit Marling), who can cheat mortality. The method - and you have to wait six hours to uncover this, so leave the planet now if you don’t want to know the result - is a form of interpretative dance. Yes, no, yes: not since The Kids From Fame sprayed their choreographed narcissism into the ozone layer have the creative arts been bestowed with such magical potential. Frankly, the dance is daft, and there is a moment, which happens to be the climactic scene of the whole series, in which the creators’ faith in the idea that fate can be altered by doing the haka in the style of Pan’s People seems optimistic. Or laughable. The only defence is one of Dada-ist absurdity, like the time George Melly fought off a mugger by reciting a poem comprised entirely of nonsense, delivered with gusto from behind a pinstriped jazz-belly. 
You want some plot, Jock? The OA is about a girl who goes missing, and comes back. She has stories to tell about where she has been. The yarns are about NDAs, or near-death experiences, some of which go further than near. The freaks and geeks of the town inhale these stories, because they play to their overdeveloped sense of preciousness, and the crazy kids are heavily seasoned with the logic of freshly-discovered mortality and munchie science, in which cheese dreams are hyped into night terrors and alienation is celebrated in a way that is absolutely inclusive, because, underneath it all, we’re all geeks, except the geeks, who are secretly great. “Weird is good,” says a doctor in episode three, though the doctor is not all that he seems. The title? (Again, if you don’t want to know, put on noise-cancelling headphones. Teleport to an alternate reality. Do not pass “Go”.) It’s a kind of sound thing, because the girl goes away. Her real name is Prairie. As in open. Because she is.
The first couple of minutes are very good. They are - or seem to be - iPhone footage of an attempted suicide. But after that, you have to ask, how much of this story is really true, because much of is delivered by Prairie, in the manner of a campfire ghost story with fairytale logic?  The soufflé sags in the middle, but mostly it’s generically sincere (“What’s Kubrick?” asks a stoner, after a particularly Big Brother-ish moment of enforced captivity). There’s a lot of self-helpy, therapeutic mumbo-jumbo, and (go back to a previous life if you don’t want to know) a shock. OK. One spoiler. You know that light at the end of the tunnel you see when you die? It’s not a tunnel. It’s a place. 
And now, the dance. 

Serial Box 
Episode two of This Is Us (All 4) was directed by Ken Olin. Ken has done many great things in his creative life, but he will always be Michael from thirtysomething, the soapy (and now unwatchable) drama about peeved middle-class Americans who had it all and were still antsy. In 25 years - possibly sooner - This is Us will be unwatchable, but it offers a reliable roadmap of how mainstream American telly approaches diversity. There are three kids. One is a just-gay-enough stupid white male actor (successful but unhappy). One is a black male commodities broker with a crack addict dad. The third is a female fatty in a culture of judgmental skinnies. There is also a TV network boss, whose thwarted ambition is to be “drifting on morphine”. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sex and violence, stupidity and artificial intelligence: the beautiful numbness of Westworld

Visitors to Westworld were
allowed to dress up as Abba
The geeks, we know, shall inherit the earth. When they do, it will surely look a lot like Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV). That’s not to say that dystopian science fiction is created to a formula, but if you mix sex and violence, stupidity and artificial intelligence, and pack a riddle inside a fortune cookie inside an enigma, you’d have a useful template. Westworld is big and bold and beautiful, and it succeeds in its most important challenge - creating its own reality, albeit a reality in which the true and the false are different modes of fancy dress. The show’s setting is a theme park in which the guests are allowed to act out their fantasies in order to liberate their suppressed urges. It is a place where, ultimately, the viewing audience is invited to identify with the robots who are attempting to unlock the compromises of consciousness; rather than the humans, who are, by and large, locked in an embrace with exploitation, conscious cruelty, and the cheap titillation of their basest instincts. You on the couch admiring Armistice, the naked snake tatooo girl (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal)! That means you too. 
Westworld is something else. It is a story about storytelling - a curiously popular trick in these post-modern times, where the only way to understand a plot is to arrange Post-its on your fridge, or to wallpaper your brain with photos of the characters and draw Sharpie lines between them, like a bipolar detective doodling on the walls of a serial killer’s subterranean nest. 
Westworld was designed to baffle, but - being a long-form serial with the potential to roll on for aeons - the whys and wherefores were never going to be entirely clear by the end of the first series. Still - no spoilers - the final episode delivered. There was, as there had to be, an explosive conclusion, choreographed by Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the park’s director of production line fantasies. The action unspooled like a shoot-em-up, the gratuitous violence made more palatable by arriving in disguise as that popular geek fantasy, feminist revenge, a practise which can also be understood as Hot Chicks With Big Guns. The actual puzzle, the maze that Ed Harris’s prune-faced cowboy was trying too solve, was revealed as a kind of gameboy’s Rosebud, and Bernard, that most human of androids, was programmed to deliver the big line: “Consciousness isn’t a journey upward, but a journey inward, on a pyramid.” Which made sense at the time, but doesn’t now. 
And that’s the problem, really. Westworld is so self-conscious about its self-consciousness, and so dedicated in its pursuit of sensation that it forgets to deliver the thing its characters seek. Empathy. Without that, what you have is loops and levels and cheap thrills, and a different calibre of existential question. Not ‘who feels?’ but ‘who cares?’
There are timeshifts and peculiar coincidences in the attractive US drama This Is Us (All 4) in which three people who share the same birthday are invited to explore the horror of being aged 36. Created by Dan Fogelman (who wrote Tangled and Crazy, Stupid, Love) the first episode is elaborately choreographed, and though it sometimes feels like a collage of emotional cliches, there is a satisfying plot twist, after which everything makes slightly more sense.  “It’s like a bad sitcom,” says one of the characters, comparing the action to the show in which another of the 36 year-olds reluctantly stars. It’s another story about a story, but an elegantly soapy one in which lessons about life, lemons and lemonade are painlessly juiced. 

Serial Box 
Things were never going to turn cheerful in Rillington Place (BBC iPlayer), but the quiet creepiness of Tim Roth’s murderous Reg came fully into view in an episode focused on his young lodgers. Actually, fully into view is an exaggeration. The lighting is never more than 40 watt, and the worst of the bad things happen in the shadows of rooms which are decorated in forty shades of brown. Is Reg charismatic enough to embroil others in his terrible plans? Possibly not. Roth relies on the character’s good manners, nice cups of tea, and his murmured curse, “Oh dear, dear, dear.” In Plain Sight (ITV Player) is set in 1955 and explores a true life murder in Uddingston. The cop is Douglas Henshall, a linear plod with red hair. 
(As published in the London Evening Standard, 9 December, 2016)

Rillington Place: Tim Roth plays Reg Christie as a cross between Alan Bennett and Mr Benn

Alan Bennett (left)
How do you like your serial killers? In Britain, while the crimes are being committed, or prosecuted, we like them with a dose of old testament horror, bordering on titillation. In retrospect, the sensations are numbed, and vile evil is portrayed, often, as a morbidly fascinating puzzle. Rillington Place (BBC iPlayer), is based on the real case of the notorious serial killer John “Reg” Christie, and was immortalised in a film starring Richard Attenborough in 1971. So what’s new? 
Mostly, the innovations are matters of mood and angle. This series presents the events from three different perspectives, starting with his long-suffering wife, Ethel, played as a fearful, passive spouse by Samantha Morton. It takes place in a grimly recognisable post-war London, a place where all the colours are shades of grey and blue, where tablecloths are waxed, and intimate conversations struggle to stretch beyond a dutiful murmur. “Still one sugar?” says Reg (Tim Roth, on returning home after a nine year absence. Reg and Ethel have moved into a miserable looking house, with ominous trains rattling the walls, and a grim garden. It “needs a bit of love and care,” Reg notes quietly. “Spot of elbow grease. We’ll do our own planting. If there’s enough light.” 
Roth’s Reg is a shadow of a man, his face shaded by his hat, his legs foreshortened by a raincoat, his expression masked by serious spectacles. Roth plays him as cross between Alan Bennett and Mr Benn, so everything is understated and polite and logical. At first, the restraint seems strange, as Roth is an actor known for easy violence. With time, the sense of menace builds. It’s a little bit League of Gentlemen. “Do you fancy the pictures?” he says in 1944. “Is that the door? Not expecting anyone?” He would, you think, be hard to love. But Morton portrays Ethel as a woman from a more dutiful age, her morals slowly melting as the horror unfolds. “Be nice to get things back to normal,” says Reg. “Ship shape. Nice cup of tea?” 
The second series of The Missing (BBC iPlayer) ended, as it had to, with a question, and a flash of psychological manipulation. This series has been as hard to love as it has been to understand, though most of the questions were answered in the end, with a suitably tense showdown in the woods in Switzerland. There was a shoot-out, a chase, a cliff-edge; every kind of jeopardy except the plausible sort. As a story, it was perhaps too rich. Mixing the horrors of the Iraq war with a cross-border tale of child abduction might seem like a good idea, but it doesn't leave a lot of room for emotional engagement. It works, when it works, because of the character of the detective Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), who is like Inspector Morse played as a limping Frenchman by Harvey Keitel. 
Similarly, as Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) draws towards the end of its first season, a hierarchy of characters has been established, with the broader existential questions pushed aside in favour of ultraviolence; a carved midriff here, a bit of gunplay there, a surprising head-butt for Ed Harris, who’s had it coming. Still, there is some nagging intelligence at play. The most sympathetic character is Thandie Newton’s vengeful robo-madam, Maeve, while Anthony Hopkins’ Dr Ford is now established as a fully-blown Dr Frankenstein. But then, why did Bernard - newly revealed as a murderous lump of artificial intelligence - say to Ford, “Arnold built us, didn’t he?” He’s probably right. But who’s Arnold? 

Serial Box 
Oh, look, a sexy French cop. In The Passenger (All 4), the latest European import in Channel 4’s Walter Presents strand, the lovely Raphaëlle Agogué plays Bordeaux policier, Captain Anais Chatelet, whose misfortune it is to be in charge of a murder investigation in which the victim is discovered naked in a pit with a bull’s head on his shoulders. Chatelet, as well as being tough and lovely and flawed - she has scars on her arms - is clever, and quite capable of Googling “minotaur”. There is a suspect, and a lot of evidence, but an annoying doctor gets in the way with his diagnosis of “trouble de la personnalité” and other maladies mentales. All is stylish and generic and forgivable, because Agogué has French hair and walks like a cowgirl. 
(As published in London Evening Standard, 2 December, 2016) 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Planet Earth Is Blue, And There's Something We Can Do: Root For The Baby Iguana As It Is Chased By A Racing Snake

Godlike genius: David Attenborough (far left)
David Attenborough has forgotten more about television than most people will ever know, so presumably he knows that he is playing God in Planet Earth II (BBC iPlayer). 
It wasn’t always like this. In his younger days, Attenborough was more of an explorer than a celestial spectre. But the great communicator no longer gets down with the apes. He is primarily a voiceover artist these days, lending honeyed reason to the extraordinary work of the BBC Natural History unit, yet he appears at the start of the first episode of this new series, two miles above the earth’s surface, with grey-hair and sky-blue puffa jacket, looking down. What does he see? He sees “the sheer grandeur and splendour and power of the natural world.” He promises that we will get closer to the animals than ever before. And he cautions, almost imperceptibly, that the planet has changed.
Attenborough is a benign deity, so the warning is largely implicit. The earth he observes is identifiably our own, but the way in which it is viewed is literally wonderful, a rare and appealing thing in these cynical times. In natural history terms, Attenborough is a warm-blooded Reithian. He educates, informs and entertains, and understands that doing the third of these things properly makes achieving the first two much easier. Pick it apart, and you’ll find some traces of Animal Magic in the script. Unlike Johnny Morris, Attenborough doesn’t talk to the animals, and neither do the animals talk to him, but there are flecks of anthropomorphism in his approach. The serrated teeth of the Komodo dragon are, he notes, “as sharp as steak knives”. That crab snacking on the dead skin of an iguana’s back is providing “a welcome exfoliation service”. The chin-strap penguins riding a deadly Antarctic swell at the edge of an active volcano are embarking on a “formidable commute”.
But Attenborough is just the figurehead. Primarily, Planet Earth II is a triumph of photography, and the filming really does exist at the fringes of what is technically possible. How do they do that stuff? Some of it must be down to drones, but the bulk of it is achieved through skill and endurance, and the results are extraordinary. Obviously we can all identify with the pygmy three-toed sloth (pronounced, apparently, to emphasise the “slow” in sloth). But have you ever seen one swim? Lemurs, we know, are cute, but how about those tiny bamboo lemurs? Or the marine iguana grazing on the sea floor? Or the racer snakes chasing the iguana hatchlings? You have to feel for the baby iguanas, especially with the soundtrack emphasising the Hitchcock-like dread of the moment, but the sprinting snakes are incredible. Look at the marching crabs on Christmas Island, 50 million of them, crabbing along, until they’re ambushed by crazy ants, squirting acid in their eyes. The whole thing is amazing, fantastic, beautiful; beyond Disney. Planet Earth II really is television operating at the peak of its powers. 
Stephen Poliakoff's Close To The Enemy (BBC iPlayer) is set in the bombed-out London of 1946, where Cal (Jim Sturgess) plays an intelligence officer charged with turning a German “jetplane man” (August Diehl). A war comic mood prevails, as the action unfurls in a hotel - “a funny old mausoleum" - with cheery prostitutes in the corridors and a jazz band in the basement. There is much ado about stale sponge and toffee apples. Everything is hush hush, until Angela Bassett starts handing out oranges. Alfred Molina arches an eyebrow. You could cut the tension with a plate of cabbage.

Catch-Up TV 
People are asking: is Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) any good? It is clever, flamboyantly so, but watching it is like playing roulette with a pack of cards. This week, the mazy plot moved beyond gunplay and into the zone where those android narratives are created. Thandie Newton’s brothel-keeping android Maeve got to develop her consciousness, but had to appear naked for most of the episode, so it was swings and roundabouts. Here's the (odd) thing. Westworld is about the nature of humanity, but it is also about the dulling of the senses. The ultra-violence and the raping is fine, because it’s a game and the victims are robots in a cowboy fantasy. But does it amount to more than a labyrinthine exploration of guilty thrills? 


Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Crown Is A Slightly Subversive Tapestry About The Royal Family With A CGI Elephant And Enough Coughing To Startle The Fast Show's Bob Fleming

Doctor Who, left, and Her Majesty The Queen
in the Netflix/Lockets drama, The Crown
The Crown (Netflix), like the royal family, is a faith-based endeavour. Dramatically, it poses a challenge, because the story is known, so the appeal of the enterprise becomes a matter of style and costume. Beyond that, it is about impersonation, and the willingness of the cast to test the old actors’ cliche/excuse, about finding the truth of the character rather than doing an impersonation. But what is the truth of the Queen, of the Queen Mother, of Winston Churchill? And how can that be made vital? 
Let’s start with the style, because it is obvious. The Crown is a beautifully constructed edifice. It is a past fashioned from the daydreams of Cecil Beaton. The lighting is subtle, the colours rich. The world looks looks fantastic, rather than real, and everything is in its proper place. The mist that envelopes London in 1952 is, as the wireless announces, a veritable peasouper. The flashbulbs of the nascent paparazzi are pure Weegee. The royal tricycles are a nostalgic delight. The pens are fountain, the dogs are corgis, except when they are the Duke of Windsor’s pugs, when they are dismissed in glassy RP by the Queen (Claire Foy) as being “awfully gassy”. The false notes are few, though the scene where Prince Philip (Matt Smith) hypnotises a stampeding elephant in Nairobi has a jerky quality to it which suggests that a computer, rather than a stunt pachyderm, did the tricks.
But aside from being a brochure for an upmarket Butlins in which the chalets are palaces and the everyday dramas are matters of constitutional importance, what is left? Well, there is a lot of coughing. “Spot of blood in my spittle,” says King George VI to his wrinkled retainer early in the first episode, and from that hack on, he scarcely appears without the drumroll of a phlegmy ejaculation. At one point, the outgoing monarch seems to be toking on medical marijuana, though it’s possible he just enjoyed a mangy gasper. The bloody spew is significant, of course, because it heralds the elevation of Elizabeth to the throne, where - like Victoria in ITV’s Victoria - she will graduate from being a girl overwhelmed, to a soft-feminist cipher in a world of scheming, idiot men.
How is it? Well, if we assume that being the Queen is a bit like being the drummer of the Rolling Stones, with 20 years of hanging around for every five years of activity, it’s true to life. The plot moves at a glacial pace, with half-defrosted royals bumbling carelessly through matters of historical significance while polite, undynamic onlookers mumble rhubarb. The early episodes are dominated by John Lithgow’s rambunctious turn as the failing Winston Churchill, who symbolises changing times from the comfort of his bath at Number 10, where he drinks and smokes and sleeps as London chokes in the smog. The Labour leader, Clement Attlee, is played as a less-decisive version of Captain Mainwearing. Foy, as Her Majesty, is just perky enough, and - though they’re disguised by the logic-defying rituals of the ruling class - there are enough seditious moments to make this velvety National Heritage wall-hanging feel quietly subversive. “They’re all married to Nazis,” says Churchill. “What a bunch of ice-lipped monsters my family are,” sneers the permafrosty Duke of Windsor. 
Like the monarchy, it shouldn’t work, but it does. 
Meanwhile, in the migrant labour robo-satire Humans (All4) the androids are revolting with greater confidence than they did in the first series. 
“As I understand it,” says one, “I feel.” 
“I am also oddly attracted to the word ‘radiator’,” says another. 

Serial Box 

Presumably, in The Missing (BBC iPlayer), there will be a moment when the plot knits together to reveal - rough guess - an army cover-up of a paedophile abuse ring, and - another guess - a case of fake dementia from a suspected abuser. Till then, we’re left with David Morrissey’s pained murmur and the endless mysteries of Keeley Hawes’ face. More annoyingly, the limping French detective Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) has been tested to the point of destruction. Baptiste is the only fully-developed character, everyone else being emotional responses to half-disguised tabloid horrors. He could have been the new Morse, but surviving this cryptic apocalypse, in which he bumbles to the front line in the fight against Isis while dying of cancer, may be a case too far. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Despite The Venom Of His Inner Numskulls, Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror Is Tales Of The Unexpected With iPhones

Kelly Macdonald (right) is a sweary Scottish cop
It’s an odd place, the inside of Charlie Brooker’s head. Reading his journalism, or watching Screenwipe, you’d expect his inner Numskulls to be venomous, splenetic creatures, firing bile through his nostrils and sputum through his eyes. But his television series, Black Mirror (Netflix), is oddly traditional in its approach. Though the six films traverse genres, they share a point-of-view, being somewhat futuristic, and concerned with the malign influence of technology. The soldiers have a chip in their heads that make then see the enemy as horror zombies. The beautiful people rate each other on social media, so they never have to interact with the scum. The kid who fears being shamed on the internet is blackmailed, by text, into doing something unspeakable. Someone invents a system in which the most unpopular people on Twitter are killed by robot bees. (No honey from that hive mind).
The aim, as Brooker has attested, was to create something akin to The Twilight Zone, a fantasy anthology in which each episode was free to wander within the parameters of a certain worldview. Judging by the reaction on (irony alert) social media, Brooker has satisfied his audience. It’s true that Black Mirror shares with Rod Serling’s fantasy series a habit of exploiting wrinkles in normality. But the science is only a slight exaggeration of what currently exists, and the fiction in these computer game narratives seems retro, and conservative in its instincts. It is, more or less, Tales of the Unexpected, with iPhones.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Is it binge-able? Possibly, though watching a lot of this stuff can be a headnip. The final film, Hated in the Nation, in which Kelly Macdonald is a cop on the trail of the evil genius who employs those drone drones to enact Twitter revenge, is the most straightforward, and also contains the line which comes closest to summing up Brooker’s point of view. It’s not entirely publishable, and depends for its impact on the colour of Macdonald’s language. It can be found around 30 minutes from the end. “OK, OK,” Macdonald says, “the government’s a cauliflower. What are we gonna do about it?” Except she doesn’t say cauliflower. 
Anyway, the best film is Nosedive, the social media satire directed by Joe Wright and starring Bryce Dallas Howard, though it’s run close by Shut Up And Dance, a malign Challenge Anneka in  which Alex Lawther is humiliated by the webcam of his computer. Men Against Fire, which adds a technological angle to the socialisation of soldiers, is also quite effective, though it is typical of Brooker’s oeuvre; hiding its craft beneath an arc of ire which is adolescent in its purity. 
In Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope (Sky On Demand/Now TV) Jude Law plays the pontiff as an irritable, vindictive bully who may not believe in God. The show has already won large audiences in Italy, and its sacrilegious elements are (slightly) diluted by the drama’s ability to wrap its absurdity in a cloak of black comedy. Law certainly has fun portraying the pope as a Cherry Coke-drinking rock star whose troubled dreams are only marginally more disturbing than his untroubled waking hours in which he challenges the culture inside the Vatican. He also refuses to be visible, suggesting the greatest artists of recent times - Salinger, Kubrick, Banksy and Daft Punk - were invisible. So he is, you know, fallible. Things perk up in episode 2, where the mafia-like struggle gets underway, and Diane Keaton - the nun who raised the dope Pope - appears wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a joke about her virginity. 

Serial Box 
In Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) the sense of hyper-reality has grown so familiar that it seems fitting when the splatter from a shooting dusts up the lens of the camera. If it’s about anything - and it may be a very elaborate parable contemplating nothingness - Westworld is a kind of existential paintball about storytelling itself. It includes the useful, western-derived phrase “to go blackhat” (play with your worst urges). The Frankenstein figure, played by Anthony Hopkins, lives in a grand house with cyborg servants, but he also like obeisance from his fleshy colleagues. The enlightened cyborgs are the most sympathetic characters, while Ed Harris’s grim desperado inhabits an ambiguous space. “This whole world is a story,” he growls. “I’ve read every page except the last one.” 


Monday, October 24, 2016

In Allan Cubitt's The Fall, Gillian Anderson's Stella Is A Sexy Ventriloquist With Laryngitis And The Killer Is An Oddly Charming Hunk With A Scar On His Six-Pack

We need to talk about Stella. Again. As the conclusion of series three of The Fall (BBC iPlayer) looms, the audience, though bloodied and battered, is almost in a position to take a position on the merits of Allan Cubitt’s inverted murder drama. Curiously, for a thriller which gave away the killer’s identity right at the start, series three has been all about suspense. It has been unbelievable,  but tense. At all times, it has been perverse. Tense, as in: you have the man known as the Belfast Strangler in custody and you don’t restrain him. You send in a gullible nurse to fall in love with him, after a wee chat about his faulty memory, because women can’t help falling for the psycho’s lost lamb eyes. Perverse, as in: you fetishise the killer in a slo-mo shower scene, the better to appraise his ripped, scarred abdominals. And your heroine, starry-eyed Stella with the phone sex whisper, operates as a premium rate fantasist, indulging and encouraging the thing she fears most, almost as if she really wants it. 
And what is “it”? Well, Stella’s fascination with Spector is quite strange, because on one level - actually, on most levels - she seems to be pining for the soft-spoken brute, to the point where it’s not clear whether she wants to be murdered, or just have sex and then sling the man in jail, having first made a meal of getting him measured for furry handcuffs. Stella, we know, is damaged, but brilliant, like all television coppers, but broken in a way that makes her seem like the product of freak-friendly fan fiction, a moralistic sub-section of murder porn in which participants get to have their cake and then be eaten by it.
Can we sum up? Stella’s colleagues are trying to. Stella, one says, “didn’t really use any standard interview techniques. She didn’t offer psychological excuses or minimise the seriousness of Spector’s crimes. She didn’t praise or flatter, She even used leading questions that elicited one-word answers. Almost not like a police interview at all. More like an intimate conversation.” 
Let’s look at Stella’s face. A ventriloquist’s features are more animated. She’s sleeping, perchance to dream of a time when her laryngitis will clear up and this dark, twisted fantasy will end. It will soon, possibly with a bang and a whimper.
Paula Milne’s Him (ITV Player) is Carrie, reinvented as an English boy. That’s odd, because it removes the layer of horror in which paranormal powers are related somehow to the monstrous puberty of an adolescent girl. And, since no one really needs reminding of the crusty contours of male pubescence, this boy, Him (Ffion Whitehead) is a 17 year-old who can make things levitate and do damage just by applying his mind to it, which he does, quite frequently. So far, he seems inspired to acts of supernatural destruction by his disdain for his divorced parents, particularly his merchant banker of a dad, and his evil stepmother who is pregnant with twins. If the horror stays rooted in domestic disgust it may get somewhere. But things look a bit more ominous than that. 
In the Sunday night drama Tutankhamun (ITV Player), the colonial baloney is stifling, but the “undomesticated” explorer, Carter (Irons) has a moustache and a hunch. Will it be enough? Will he develop social skills, and notice that the nice American lady from the museum is in love with him? Or will he wander into the desert to hang with the naked man who lives in a hell hole with diarrhetic bats? 

Serial Box 
Meanwhile, in The Missing (BBC iPlayer) the broken jigsaw plot is beginning to fall into place, though the true nature of the nastiness has not yet been revealed. There is, it seems, a dodgy brigadier, who knows more about the disappearance (and true identity) of the blank-eyed girl. David Morrissey’s soldier, who may be guilty of something, continues to act shiftily. And dear old Julien Baptiste, the dying detective, has decided to cross from his bucket list the bit where he wanders aimlessly into an ISIS stronghold. Not as much fun as he’d hoped, actually. The bits, surely, will fit together. So far, the drama coheres largely by virtue of the charisma of the cast. There is much birdsong on the soundtrack, and a parable involving a flying turtle. 
First published in the London Evening Standard on 21 October, 2016