Tuesday, 4 November 2008

James Bond, Licensed to Act! - by Keith Farnan

As the latest adventure is released, comedian Keith Farnan, takes a look at the blond Bond's acting credentials.

The Scene: A dark interior - dusty, sinister, without a single shaft of sunlight. Suddenly, a figure, dressed in black, smashes through the roof to the floor. Raising himself slowly, carefully - calling into play every actorly instinct - the imposing Daniel Craig stands up. Covered in dust, he carefully surveys the scene before him - a chaos of colours arching across the walls and the floor - papers, sketches, notebooks strewn across the ground. It’s like the den of a Blofeld gone to seed. From across the room, a strange and evil- looking figure opens the door. Our hero directs his flashlight at his face. This is it, the moment of confrontation. And the villain utters the most horrifying thing imaginable! “Take off your clothes and come in here. You can have whatever you like!” Off our hero goes for a memorable night of homosexual debauchery with one of the most famous artists of the 20th Century!


This isn’t the way it’s meant to go down, if you’ll pardon the overwhelming and very deliberate pun. But this was the way it went for Mr. Craig, in one of his first mainstream cinematic outings, Love is the Devil: Study For a Portrait of Francis Bacon. Playing the lover/bit of rough to one of the maddest painters of the 20th century may not have been a pre-requisite to don the tuxedo and utter the catchphrase, “the name’s Bond…etc…”, but this and other similar acting forays certainly enabled Craig to make the super-spy franchise his own in Casino Royale.

Initially stoking the critical fires of the Bond geeks to the point that they set up CraignotBond.com, Daniel Craig has gone on to smash all doubts with a potent portrayal of Her Majesty’s secret weapon. The inside word is that his intensity is upped a notch in the forthcoming Quantum of Ridiculous-Title-But-What-Can-You-Do. We are talking serious acting chops, and not the kind Odd Job dispensed in Goldfinger. But how could the MysteriouslyQuietBondGeeks.com not have seen this coming?

Although it is hard to engage any sort of Stanislavski-like acting training, while a laser is being pointed at your double O’s, it’s not like Bond ever had to previously show any form of emotion whatsoever. He simply needed three particular expressions. Action expression, lady expression and delivery-of-a-terrible-ham expression. In fairness, Pierce Brosnan extended this by one, with his Outraged-I’m-being-treated-this-way-by-a-female-M expression.

In terms of competing with the other Bonds, Craig is street creds ahead in the indy acting stakes. Although Timothy “Worst Bond Ever” Dalton, had a string of serious roles, it failed to translate into anything remotely approaching suave, and well, you couldn’t see him for the trees. Connery - he didn’t need to act, he was just Sean Connery. Brosnan plodded around in Remington Steele, and Roger Moore came from the similarly Teflon- coated TV acting school of The Saint. I don’t actually think Lazenby had acted in anything before he came to be Bond. In fact, I think he was a tree. Frankly I think I could probably do one more tree reference but that would be three Tree jokes. And you can only deliver three tree jokes with a dry martini, a raised eyebrow and a slain henchman at your feet.

Besides the Francis Bacon’s bit of Sausage (Yes, I had to do that), Craig had already staked his reputation with earnest real-life portrayals of Ted Hughes in Sylvia in 2003 and Perry Smith in Infamous, the excellent adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood three years later. (It’s the one you didn’t see because you had already watched the Oscar winning Capote the same year.) Each of these roles gave Craig the edge he would need to hop into the tight blue trunks and stride out of the sea like Neptune. Ted Hughes could not have been more of a womaniser, more of a charmer, and he was so very incredibly English in that robust, Yorkshire, How's-your-Hovis-trouble-a-t'mill sort of way. He also caused the well-educated and intelligent Sylvia Plath, no less, to put her head into an oven. The only disappointment is that Plath put her own head into the oven without any prior shootout, knife fight or Bond zinger. “Do you expect me to write poetry?” “No, I expect you to die!”

In Infamous, Perry Smith’s strength was in his ability to emotionally manipulate Capote, but the deadly art of seduction was surely honed in the low budget kitchen sinker, The Mother. Craig plays a handyman who has a bit of DIY with his girlfriend’s Mother, who’s also a grandmother. This has to be seen to be believed, not because of the scenes of amour, but for the beard sported by Craig (no, not that sort of beard. A proper one.) He broke the boundary on a blond Bond - how about a beardy Bond?

In line with the modern actor/artist/thespian/producer/director/Jack-of-all-Trades, Craig has just released the independently produced Flashbacks of a Fool, apparently a film made for a friend. Thank god there was actually a reason for him to do it. Besides the wonderful cinematography and the realisation that the budget was spent on lighting, there is nothing but a vacuous script inhabited by a bemused Craig. Playing actor playboy Joe Scott, he has flashbacks, and yes he is a fool. So it is a Ronseal of a film - it does what it says on the tin.

It is commendable that Craig wishes to keep his acting career intact with the Bond Juggernaut in tow, but surely the highly anticipated Defiance will do enough for him in that respect as it portrays a trio of brothers fighting to protect Jewish Refugees from Nazis. Based on a true story, Craig stars alongside Liev Schrieber and Jamie Bell as three Jewish brothers whose family has been murdered by the Nazis. Not exactly sexy stuff. The other recent Bonds, Dalton and Brosnan in particular, seemed to want to immediately eschew any glamourous roles post-bond. This didn’t stop Brosnan making the slick remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, but Dalton camped it up in Hot Fuzz as a hilarious panto villain opposite Simon Pegg.

So here we go then, the next Bond. In the ultimate battle between the Bond Franchise and himself, it seems Daniel Craig has the acting chops to carry it off. Let’s just see what happens when Bond turns up at the Tate Art Gallery to the opening of Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition: “Take off your clothes and come in here. We’ll cover you in formaldehyde.”

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Interview: Mental health film and arts festival

Emma Lennox talks to the festival's film programmer, Belinda Arthur, and discovers that film can have both damaging and therapeutic effects.

It's the launch of the 2nd annual Mental Health Arts and Film festival and the sleek open spaces of Easterhouse performance centre, Platform, is buzzing with a milieu of people of different vocations. Usually when health care meets the arts it is for community based projects on a small scale, but the word 'community' is banned here today as the organisers emphasis the nationwide involvement for a rapidly growing festival. Soft rockers Idlewild have just unpacked their instruments for a two song acoustic set in front of camera crews and photographers and announcements have been made to promote the hundred plus events happening across Scotland between 1-19 October. “Things seem different today, not like yesterday...” croons lead singer, Roddy Woomble, and the lyrics to their 2002 hit You Held the World in Your Arms suddenly metamorphose into the progressive message that the festival is trying to inspire. As care workers and journalists flock towards the musicians for autographs and interviews, I'm in the corner of the cafĂ© with Belinda Arthur, lead film coordinator, having a in depth discussion about Bambi.

Bambi's all about dealing with grief,” she tells me in all seriousness, before adding “in a way it should have an 18 certificate because of the stress it causes.”Arthur has an unending enthusiasm for raising awareness of the mental health plight, but at times, and perhaps for her own well being, this is balanced with moments of self conscious, tongue in cheek wit. The point she is making, however, is significant: films have an effect beyond entertainment, and Arthur hopes to address this with a programme of cinema which breaks through psychological boundaries. Arthur's job has been to consider the movies which fit the criteria for exploring and de-stigmatising mental health issues. It was a tough selection process, and to help, Arthur coordinated a panel of film programmers from the Edinburgh Filmhouse and a consultant psychiatrist in London. Sadly everyone's favourite orphan deer didn't make the cut, but Finding Nemo and Madagascar did. “Those films weren't my choice,” she admits ruefully, “but without being too schmaltzy about it they involve fundamental life lessons and values which helps kids to learn and articulate their feelings. The only thing is that Disney kind of over moralises,” she notes with an air of dissent, “Finding Nemo's ok, but I think I would rather have Bambi.”

Children's films aside, the programme is a diverse mix of feel good faire and hard hitting social drama. There are two musical biographies; Johnny Cash in San Quentin (1969), and Joy Division (2008) both of which portray the lives of the troubled musicians and their influential careers. Ken Loach has a showcase of two films from his distinct back catalogue; the Greenock set Sweet Sixteen (2002) and landmark BBC film Cathy Come Home (1966) which led to the formation of the charity Shelter. Recent releases Lars and the Real Girl (2007) and Little Miss Sunshine (pictured, 2006) bring some quirky silliness to proceedings whilst driving home a message of acceptance. “Unlike any other film festival we've got a real ethical responsibility,” Arthur explains, “and that's what's distinct about us. We're trying to give out a real positive message. Every film we choose goes through a really rigorous process to make sure that we can contextualise for discussions afterwards.”

It's not just a question of being politically correct, Arthur and her panel have had to look at cinema with heightened awareness of the broad spectrum of individual and political problems caused by health issues. Depression and anxiety are just two forms of mental illness which affects one in four people a year according to a National Statistics report in 2001 and a Samaritans 2002 report reveals that the UK has the highest rate of self harm in Europe at 400 per 10,000 of the population. It's an invisible plight, but it profoundly affects all communities in both personal and social aspects. “Basically I haven't been to the pictures in the last year without thinking, 'is there a mental health angle to this?” says Arthur of her mammoth task of finding films with the right tone and expression. “We've had real, serious arguments over it. But it was interesting because we had a multitude of opinion; some people had the knowledge of dealing with mental health directly, or working in social services, and some came from an academic film background. We'd all fight about what's exploitative and what's not.”

Arthur's biggest motivation, she tells me, is tackling stigma, “a lot of people say that it’s more affecting than the affliction itself,” she states, but aren't Hollywood movies more of a hindrance than a help? “Most films have made things worse,” Arthur is quick to agree, “just about any horror movie has a psycho in it and they've all been labelled as nutters or crazy. Its absolutely horrendous, but the trouble is they're so popular” In recent years trends of 'psychopaths' have taken more exaggerated characterisations, whilst using terminology that is pseudo scientific. Among the paranoid schizophrenics and bi polar protagonists is Heath Ledger's Joker in the second highest grossing film of all time, The Dark Knight. Batman couldn't kill an ill man though; instead he tells the Joker he wants to lock him up in a padded cell forever. “Maybe we can share one,” quips the Joker, “They'll be doubling up, the rate this city's inhabitants are losing their minds.” Nobody expects a comic book adventure with super villains and millionaire heroes to be sensitive to real life problems, but the joker's “why so serious?” brand of insanity certainly adds to popular misconceptions. “I don't want to be the person to burst people’s balloons,” says Arthur, perhaps aware of being unpopular, “but we’re on the side of those experiencing something distressing, to try and encourage them to get help. We’re not here to make it easy for people who are prepared to continue to stigmatise.”

Other films which have incurred Arthur's categorical wrath are films which construe a connection between mental health and crime and she shoots down my own suggestion of the James Stewart classic Harvey (1950), for inferring the magic is real in the denouement. “We’ve avoided the obvious with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” adds Arthur “I’ve got real issues with that film.” The 1975 Jack Nicholson hit, directed by Milos Foreman depicts exactly the kind of padded cell Batman hopes to incarcerate the Joker in and it's the depictions of the inhabitants which Arthur protests. “If you were sitting in that audience, feeling really at the end of your tether, and you see people portrayed as dribbling and inarticulate or in blank catatonic states, you'd naturally be less inclined to look for help.” What's on screen can foster negative reactions but identity has always been a powerful motivator in cinema for the audience to connect to a story. A positive comparison between the viewer and characters can have a cathartic effect. “It's the same when you listen to music and you think, oh my god that's what I'm going through.” says Arthur, revealing “when I was young and tortured I would listen to the Smiths and think, oh man, someone else knows how I feel! That's what I think you get with watching films, that kind of recognition.”

For Arthur, the context of the screening makes all the difference and the Mental Health Festival is keen to provide open spaces for discussion. “It's still about what happens after, rather than what the films actually say.” Arthur explains, “it's about the meaning that people take away from it, for them to learn something, or hear people talk about something that they've never talked about. We try and be a forum for them to do that.” Since last year the film section of the festival has increased from six events to thirty with filmmakers and charity organisations on hand to discuss the finer points of the portrayals in post screening talks. There's still scope for expansion and with a topic as endlessly fascinating as the human psyche, Arthur is full of potential ideas. “I would like to do a series of films as 'reel therapy' So maybe next year we do five or six films that are absolutely renowned to make your heart sing. That's for when the festival grows in confidence.”

After all the viewing Arthur has done with other people in mind, I'm keen to find out what film makes this self confessed film buff jump for joy. It turns out to be a black and white classic, notorious for its eye watering, punch in the gut conclusion. “I watched Brief Encounter the other day and even though it's really emotional, I just sat there with a huge grin on my face,” she says, her face beaming just at the thought of it “Even at the end, when they separate, it's just beautifully acted, beautifully shot, everything about it's just...” Arthur gesticulates, eager to express her love of the cinematic experience, but is lost for words. In a way she has just summed up the medium which perplexes the senses but can touch the mind in inexplicable and powerful ways.

For more information: http://mentalhealthfestival.dreamhosters.com

Friday, 10 October 2008

Diana ain't The Duchess -by Carmody Wilson

A society beauty born into the world of wealth, privilege and the very real possibility of an arranged marriage, Georgiana Spencer was just a regular girl of the upper class in Regency England. In her lifetime the war with Napoleon raged, England lost America to Independence, Jane Austen wrote (endlessly about garrisons of soldiers but nothing of the actual conflict, God forbid,) and the fifth Duke of Devonshire went searching cradles all over England for a wife. The film version of these events, The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes as the Dueling Devonshires, is based upon Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the book by Amanda Foreman. The 5th Duchess was an interesting woman and a pioneer in the way she wore her politics and peccadilloes on her sleeve, and the film does a fine job of showing Georgiana as a woman out of her time in many respects, but what is interesting about the woman and her portrayal in the film is how she has been positioned as a Georgian Diana, Princess of Wales. This leads to some exciting possibilities.

It’s easy to see where this trend started: Georgiana was a much-loved royal by the members of the public who had to endure the humiliation of a cheating husband, and threw herself into the image-edifying activity of good public works. There were scandals, affairs, and intrigues in both Diana and Georgiana’s lives, and both contain characters of surprising strength despite habitual fragility. But the framing of the film as an eighteenth-century shadow-play of the plight of the Princess of Wales is a mistake, and unfettered by these comparisons, the film tells a much better story.

Georgiana Cavendish was certainly fascinating. Whig tongues wagged as Georgiana made great speeches in support of the opposition leader Charles James Fox, and some even went so far as to whisper that the lady was in fact conducting a torrid affair with the hirsute, debauched politician. The film shies away from these allegations, not least because Fox was a distant Spencer cousin, steering focus instead toward Georgiana’s more camera-friendly love affair with Charles Grey, the future Prime Minister (played by Dominic Cooper). Things get a little more complicated for Georgiana when she fails repeatedly to bear the anxious Duke a son, and she seeks refuge in the friendship of Lady Elizabeth Foster. Unfortunately, the Duke also seeks refuge in Lady Bess and no amount of pouting and making saucer eyes makes him return to the bony bosom of his poor wife.

Knightley’s performance is admirable, and gives The Duchess of fame a flesh-and-blood feel. Fiennes is the definite article as The Duke who expects to get what he wants and sees no reason why he shouldn’t. Fiennes as the Duke is actually a sympathetic character here, in spite of being cast too easily as the villain. He succinctly captures the emotional remoteness that his breeding and class have hammered into him, and he is no more a tyrant in the film than any other man of wealth was in his time. He struggles to care for a lively and vivaciously political show-stopper wife, and cannot accept her inability to bear him a son (which she eventually does, but things have broken down too far for any romantic reconciliation at this point, to say the least) It’s a film that gives a real feeling to the social constraints that the wealthy of both sexes were limited by but accepted. When Georgiana sacrificed a life with Grey to be the dutiful Duchess, she didn’t sob to journalists about what she had done, and when the Duke made it known that he was having an affair with Lady Bess it wasn’t through a taped conversation about desiring to be her menstrual implement.

Nevertheless, this had lead the film’s promoters to tack on the tawdry comparisons to Georgiana’s ancestor, Diana Princess of Wales, in their flogging of the Duke as an uncaring philanderer and the Duchess as a woman of the people. The tagline “There were three people in her marriage” adds to the cheapening of the subject matter but leads to fascinating possibilities within the film: what if Camilla had actually lived with Charles and Di, and gave birth to Charles’s children, like Bess Foster had? The toothy toffs would be unleashed upon the world as sons of privilege, partying wildly, receiving military commissions, eschewing education for earthy edifications…obviously no parallel reality there. Let us ruminate then on the possibility that Martin Bashir be the modern-day Richard Brinsley Sheridan, bringing the princess/duchess’s pain on marital peculiarities out for public consumption, this time through Panorama and not School for Scandal? Then James Hewitt, or latterly Dr Hasnat Khan, could be the sympathetic Charles Grey character! He’s a polo-playing heart surgeon who wrestles on reality television whilst grappling with his memories of his royal true love! This could be a dynamite film, Hollywood, are you listening? But wait, who in history, could match Paul Burrell’s special brand of sycophantic devotion? In the interests of keeping the promoter’s view of these indistinguishable heroine’s lives on a parallel track there may need to be a little historical filmic fudging-a devoted footman! Paul Burrell was a footman! The Duchess of Devonshire surely had them around! It would be so easy to put the character of, let’s call him Barkley, right there into the story! He would soothe Georgiana when she learns she has born yet another girl, whispering into her hair that “it looks like a boy, and is as beautiful as you are!” He could wave nosegays in her face when she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful, and bundle Charles Grey into a blanket in a carriage down Piccadilly when she needed male comfort of a less obsequious sort. The possibilities are endless. Diana and Georgiana’s lives were just the same! And surely if The Prince of Wales had an illegitimate child with a servant, as the Duke of Devonshire had, this child would be spirited away to some second-rate public school and given a job as the Gardening Expert in The Tattler without even a hint of nepotism! Happily Georgiana did not meet as violent an end as The Princess of Wales, but for the sake of the fantasy film we can create a breakneck carriage race down Pall Mall with the Duchess sobbing into Barkley’s shoulder about her diminishing privacy whilst Reynolds, Gillray and Rowlandson ride pell-mell alongside, sketching frantically. Gillray’s horse cuts too close to the Duchess’s carriage, and… sod it, her drunken carriage driver cranks the whole thing into a tree. Cut to a wig landing on the ground, and mass hysteria.

Clearly this train of thought thrillingly cheapens the lives of all involved, but it especially does no favours to the film, which stands on its own as a lushly imagined, emotionally restrained historical epic about an ordinary, albeit titled and wealthy, woman born into extraordinary times. The Duchess is full of politics, both personal and parliamentary, and though there is much to say about the social situation of women during Georgiana’s lifetime, the film features them without losing focus on the main prize. It was her power to inspire that had the public and the privileged so eager to know her. If all this comes down to is a paltry tie-in with a modern royal, so be it, but don’t judge the film by its poster.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Nairn and the cinema of nightmares

A cinema travelogue by Emma Lennox, who tries not to have a personal epiphany on her magical voyage to the much hyped Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams film festival.

Standing bedraggled in an empty street in Nairn, 16 miles north of Inverness and five hours from home, I looked at the pretty flowerbeds of the coastal Highland town and despaired. It was horrifyingly quaint. The sky was pressing upon my brow with burgeoning clouds and my head still ached in rhythm to the rails. I wondered why I was here; caught between the darkened heavens and gable ended homes. It had almost been a subconscious decision; whispers of a happening had blown around for months and sure enough, here it was; the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams; an experimental day dream from the minds of Hollywood actress and local, Tilda Swinton, along with cinema know all, Mark Cousins. I had arrived for the tail end of the eight and a half day festival, to muse in the glowing projection of art, thoughts, ideals and beauty. But now the idea felt incongruous to the reality. Nothing as grungy and bohemian as an auteur's ego should be exposed in this austere setting. Children in identical blue sweaters spilled onto the streets beside me, a pre-fab house passed by on the back of a lorry ominously trailed by an ambulance, silently intoning us to bring out the dead. It was like the Truman Show; everything had its place and even life and death came pre packaged. The only litter on the streets was me; a lonely, disturbed journalist in the land of Oz, I skipped down the street to find the Ballerina Ballroom of dreams.

It was a Friday night and as the temperature dropped, the pubs prepared for the dead end drunkenness that fuels small town life. The Ballerina Ballroom was located at the end of a gauntlet of pubs, chip shops and bookies and already a long queue had formed. The locals were easy to spot; they had smaller versions of themselves attached to their hems and they smelled of home baking and village fairs. There were rumours that tickets had been selling out daily and it was in the grip of this fear, the gut churning thought that the dream would shatter before it even began, that I raced a complete stranger to the end of the line. I was a selfish urbanite, but there were others; they were the ones with square eyes from too much staring at laptop screens on a lonely night. They were the jittery ones lost without the intravenous media culture of multiplexes, DVDs, downloads, downpours, ipods, iphones, iporn, youtube, myface, needless, wireless, dot com pirates of the 21st century. This was a society where no citizen was more than half an hour from watching Singing in the Rain at any time, any place, and yet I had travelled 193 miles to watch it for the fourth time in an emaciated building gilded with the beard of a fortified William Shakespeare. The festival website said 'let's hope it rains after the screening!' because the organisers wanted us to drown in Gene Kelly's smile and wash the technicolor into the streets of Nairn.

The critics had been raving; everyone loved a fairytale and this was a kind of Disney wonderland without the vermin. It all began with a beautiful, androgynous princess (Swinton) who was visited by a long haired angel (her 8 ½ year old son, Xavier) proposing the question ‘what did people dream like before cinema was invented?’ This was her answer; a showcase of classic cinema, curated by chivalrous industry friends and around £25,000 of her own fortune. Visitors came from all corners of the kingdom and beyond, bringing gifts of baked goods and their own chairs. This kingdom was known as Ramshackle, but it was a special kind of bank rolled, industry approved, professional Ramshackle. A sweet story, but I wasn’t convinced this pyjama party really answered any questions. Swinton and Cousins’ festival was born out of the dream to commune with outsiders in cinematic appreciation, to bond through collective consciousness. Was it possible that who you watched with effects how you see? Perhaps, but if dreaming was their metaphor, I couldn't help but reflect that at night we dream alone.

If only I had remembered to pack my naivetĂ©, then maybe I could join in on the childish spirit they were trying to invoke. Unfortunately I had buried it at the age of 9, in a small cardboard box under a cherry blossom tree, next to the remains of my dead hamster. But middle aged Mark and Tilda seemed to be under the illusion that being a child was fun. Eight and a half, they claimed, was the best age to discover cinema, it just so happened to tie in with the title of a Fellini classic. I remember spending my days as an eight and a half year old, longing to be eighteen and a half. There was always an uneasy feeling that I was missing out on the good things in life, things I couldn't yet comprehend like war and periods. From my vantage point at the wrong end of the queue I could see a small town square where children were playing in the remainder of the dusk light. They were flinging themselves like lemmings off the walls above some dustbins. “Don't jump from there, or I'm telling ya, you'll die!” shouted one girl to an older boy. Death, she had threatened. It all seemed so serious; their little faces were deep set in joyless expressions of determination, they were only ever moments away from broken friendships, heart breaking taunts and years of insecure angst. This was not the freedom that adults imagined a child's luxury to be and yet the older a person became, the harder they would kick and scream to return to this blissful state of torment. Swinton and Cousins had created a selection to show off the vivacity of cinema to children, because they wanted to witness the birth of their cinematic intellects. Splice together my earliest film memories, however, and you would witness a terrifying, psychedelic montage of pink elephants, blue meanies, laughing dragons, flying monkeys, melting faces, and walking carpets. This was a cinema of nightmares, its images were created to scar and trick the mind. The best filmmakers like Fellini, Godard, Bergman, were the ones who could disconcert and manipulate their audience. They didn't make comfortable, pretty pictures, they wanted to change our perceptions and take us to dark places. Was Ramshackle ready for this dawn of darkness?

The festival wouldn’t have survived in the urban sprawl of the mean cities. Nairn was once the 'Brighton of Scotland' and the town still remained opulent yet dilapidated with dishevelled buildings and helter-skelter pillars and scrolls. The wealthy Victorians were ostentatious types and there was maybe something of their kitsch pride left in the Ballerina Ballroom's pomp and programming; The Singing Ringing Tree, The Adventures of Sherlock Homes, Murder Most Foul and Dames all conformed to a nostalgic kind of whimsy. It was a strangely empty and impractical notion on which to create a film festival, or to base any part of life around. Whimsy was warm and friendly, it could hold my hand, but it wasn't going to shorten my bank statement in my time of need. It couldn't smooth my furrowing brow, or filter my email inbox, or find the right change for the bus, or expand my shortening life, or peel an orange in one, or dry my sodden shoes. Just what exactly had whimsy ever done for me, or anybody else, except sell a few mobile phones and promote impossible lifestyles? I decided whimsy should be looked upon with suspicion, like the spindly legged gentleman who cries 'lollllleeeeee-pops' in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. By the time I reached the front of the queue, Singing in the Rain had sold out. And as I skulked back to my floral, doll's house abode in petulant thought, it didn’t rain, it drizzled.

The Ballroom queues had a life of their own and another had appeared when I returned to retry for the 9:30 screening, this time it took the shape of a two pronged tongue. The artist/writer John Byrne squeezed through in tight waist coat and clipped goatee. He looked exactly like a portrait of John Byrne, by the artist John Byrne. The sense of occasion was palpable. The great tongue licked its lips and finally I entered the dragon and purchased a ticket. I had never imagined before what a highland opium den would look like, but this seemed to fit the picture. Chinese lanterns hung in rows of glowing red orbs, the walls were black and pink and the occasional lightening strike tore across them. A third of the floor was covered with the bodies of lackadaisical cinema goers, stretched out on scattered cushions. When the main lights were extinguished a spot light hit the wall and lulled above our heads. Inexplicably Morrisey's strangled voice filled the air with the Smiths' There is a Light That Never Goes Out and Swinton and Cousins were on their knees beside the screen, swaying gently to the music. So this is what it had come to, I thought as the film finally began, cinema was a legal high. All these kids on cushions were getting mashed on 1950s song and dance. Gotta dance, make 'em laugh, no, no, no, yes, yes, yes, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you. Gene Kelly's great swinging arms pirouetting his body, as he contorted gravity with magnetic limbs and his immaculate smile. Everyone was clapping and cheering like it was vaudeville and special ballerina umbrellas spun in unison when the title track reached its climax. What a glorious feeling, I'm haaaa- pee again. When the camera took its final swoop and bow the crowd dissolved into whoops and excitement. The image flickered and died and the show was over. It was nice, it was pretty, I walked down the high street, through the midnight brawling drunks, with a smile on my face.

By morning pink fuchsias had been uprooted in flaccid, drunken rebellion, their decapitated petals scattered into a floral carpet, and trodden into the ground by the ever earnest Ballroom queue. The last film I was to see before my adventure was over was a short animation about a diabolical train journey entitled Mrs Tutli Putli. I felt a shiver of excitement when the children were asked to leave the room. Get out kids, it's adult time, I didn't do all this growing up just to baby sit your fragile little minds. I sat between a poet and a copywriter, “yes I do make a living from it” the poet said, because I had forgotten to ask. Mystery trains, ghost trains, strangers on a train, brief encounters, wrecks, disasters, passion and steam, the railway laid picaresque lines in the motion picture, but Mrs Tutli Putli never arrived at a destination, hers was a transformative journey. I thought about it on my own train ride home. How did people tell stories before travel was invented? Travelling, like cinema, was about the parable of the self, it was individualistic and ego centric. We could dream of coming together but the journey we had to face alone. Poor Mrs Tutli Putli, and her great, sparkling empathetic eyes, I could still see her searching the empty carriages of the high jacked train in the dead of night. The bad dreams had returned. What if I was to suffer the same fate as Mrs Tutli Putli? After watching the 17 minute short, I wasn't exactly sure what that fate was, but it was dark and disturbing; a deeply unsettling synthesis of inner terror and existential angst. She was alone, but in the presence of living movement, propelling her onward and altering her physicality.

Through the train windows I observed unharvested fields and overflowing rivers of the penultimate Summer days, fit to burst and give way to the sodden afterbirth of early autumn. The farmers were out with their contraptions, ready to pierce their livelihood through the heart. We travelled through the towns and I saw the imperial vestiges of the Victorian dream, its rusty girders like giant hands gripping the rail stations of Inverness, Perth and Stirling. Finally we arrived into the post industrial hubris that was Glasgow, with its shattered buildings and techno spaces. I felt safe. I was back in the gruel of civilisation, and back to watching comfortable nightmares on my 15 inch laptop.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Fictional Writers

"All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand." George Orwell

Writer's block should be a black hole for the arts but for movies it's when the ideas stop flowing that the story really begins. Here, Montage investigates films featuring those most fragile souls, the writer, whose on screen portrayals allow us all to wade the creative quagmire. Writing is not a visually exciting activity but take a closer look and there may be something mysterious stirring in there, breaking old boundaries and opening up social, psychological and philosophical discourse. Authors, however, are hardly pleasantly identifiable creatures, so how engaging are these movie versions of the age old creative stump? And does the bigger the struggle, the better the art make? By applying a scientific marking system these reviews correlates struggle with achievement in order to see how the movies adapt this unadaptable creative jinx.

Adaptation (2002)

Director: Spike Jonze

Screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman

Fat, bald, old, sweaty, repugnant Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) is struggling to adapt an orchid based novel in his pseudo- autobiographical, ouroboros narrative. There is nothing clever about describing Adaptation, because Kaufman so carefully writes exactly what he's doing into the screenplay. Some critics might say he's self indulgent, narcissistic, pathetic, and that he can't write, but they would only be quoting him directly. Kaufman explores the pain of adaptation; the writer's guilt of thieving from beauty and life, and suggests that creation is an act of destruction of everything you hold close, including yourself. It's all done with enough wit and self deprecation to distract from the literary onanism and Kaufman has another trick up his sleeve; a maguffin in the form of a conflicting twin brother, Donald (also Nicholas Cage). Donald is full of vitality, optimism, success and Hollywood industry jargon. He also proves Adaptations most mutable character, bringing the endless rumination to a poignant conclusion of self worth. But the car chases and killer crocodiles aren't fooling anybody, as Kaufman takes the sublime into the ridiculous and pins a climax on the tale in erroneously grand style. He knows we know, however you can just about see him wink through the type font.

Writer's success: One Screenplay (produced, award winning)

Writer's futility: 6/10

Film: 7/10

Ask the Dust (2006)

Director: Robert Towne

Screenwriter: Robert Towne

Adapted from a novel by John Fante

With the star power of Colin Farrel and Salma Hayak, it's surprising that Ask the Dust disappeared into the Californian desert as rapidly as it did. Based on the superb book of the same name, it is written by Bukowski's favourite author, John Fante. Arturo Bandini, (Fante's alter ego played by Farrel), is an autobiographical mix of naive hope and worldly bitterness in one strangely endearing character. The novel is a simple anxious tale spun from writer's block and unrequited love for good measure and is characterised by Fante's lyrical and bone dry humour; “an idea floated harmlessly through the room...it only wanted to help me, dear little bird. But I would strike at it, hammer it out across the keyboard, and it would die on my hands.” This is a writer's tale for writers, so the adaptation should have been safe in Hollywood screen writing veteran, Robert Towne's typewriter. Many passages of text are imported directly into voice over, but Towne's direction fails to capture the aimlessness of the novel. The director isn't daring enough, and in the resolution Fante's cynicism is replaced with Hollywood romance, which sadly only blunts the acute struggle of the fantastic and self pitying Arturo Bandini.

Writer's success: two short stories (published), one novel (published)

writer's futility: 3/10

Film: 5/10

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Director: Billy Wilder

Screenwriter: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder

Adapted from a novel by Charles R

The Lost Weekend, based on the novel by Charles R Jackson was both progressive and symptomatic of its time. The narrative, which revolves around Don Birnam (Ray Milland) and his five day binge, was the first mainstream movie to approach the subject of alcoholism with any sophistication. The writer's block suffered by Birnam, however, was an adaptation from the original character device centred on a homosexual encounter. Hollywood can only take one taboo at a time, it seems. In terms of creativity, alcohol is Birnam's nectar and his poison; he explains “It pickles my kidneys, yeah, but what does it do to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar...” Unfortunately Birnam is completely unable to start his alcohol inspired novel, 'The Bottle,' managing only to complete the title page (in Hollywood writers start from the beginning). It culminates with Birnam's imagination revolting against him and torturing his soul with caustic futility. What is horrifying isn't the strange, small creatures that Birnam hallucinates, or the sound of the loopy theremin on an unsettling soundtrack, it's the sight of a grown man, screaming at the top of his lungs in soul destroying terror.

Writer's success: one short story (published), one suicide note.

Writer's futility: 10/10

Film: 10/10

Barton Fink (1991)

Directed and written by the Coen Brothers

Inspired by the Coen brothers own writer's block whilst completing the screen play for Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink is an example of uninhibited writing anxiety. The narrative is a rogue's gallery of typical Coen brother grotesques; manipulative, overbearing power merchants, warped, drunken has-beens and smart mouthed police detectives. Playwright and 'man of the people', Barton Fink (John Turturro) doesn't escape parody either, he is a self righteous, arrogant moron, whose masterpiece screen play, when eventually finished, is a plagiarised mess of his hit play, (tapping into an age old writer's fear that there's only one good idea in their heads).

The Coen brothers create this cautionary tale of selling out with fire and brimstone subtlety. The 1940s time period allows some satirical swiping at Hollywood's anti-originality strangle hold on the arts, in particular its treatment of writers who have flocked there with burning ambitions. “Jesus, throw a rock in here and you'll hit one” informs Fink's director on the presence of scribes in the room, “and do me a favour, Fink, throw it hard.

Barton Fink is an envisioned hell of the tormented mind, personified by next door neighbour/ friendly psychopath, Mad Mundtz (John Goodman). This is the Coen's torture writ large across the screen and proof that a blocked imagination can unleash demons.

Writer's success: One play (produced, 4* in Herald), one script (forever unproduced)

Writer's futility: 8/10

Film: 8/10

The Shining (1980)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Screenwriter: Diane Johnson, Stanley Kubrick

Adapted from a novel by Stephen King

Beware the abode of the blocked writer, for within madness lies. And it doesn’t get any more crazy than Jack Nicholson, complete with happy hysteria, trying to bash someone’s brains in. Jack is Jack Torrance, a novelist, who packs his family up to the snowy Colorado mountains to become caretaker in residence at the closed Overlook Hotel. Stanley Kubrick wastes no time in establishing the foreboding tone; searing violin strings and violent percussion punctuates the most ordinary establishing scenes with impending doom. Kubrick coldly isolates each individual sound in the silent hotel, from Jack’s bouncing tennis ball, to young Danny (Danny Lloyd)‘s trundling tricycle wheels. Everything is a sinister distraction to keep the writer in terrible limbo.

The adaptation of Stephen King’s horror makes many alterations (controversially according to the author) and one of the new inclusions, besides corridors of blood and Johnny Carson impersonations, is Jack's writer’s block. Jack also has problems with alcohol but it's his frustration which first fractures his mind and leads him back to the bar. As the stedicam floats around the hollow hotel Jack’s decent into psychosis seems all the more slippery and perverse. It’s only when wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) discovers Jack’s manuscript, a repetative story about a boy named Jack, that we see into the darkness. As the pages fall through a terrified Wendy’s fingers, the same sentence appearsing again and again, it’s as visually disturbing as the contents of room 237. Not only is her husband a murderous fiend, he’s a horrible writer.

Writer’s success: one sentence (approx 10,000 times)

Writer’s futility: 10/10

Film: 10/10

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe - Review by Robert Duffin

Director: Chris Carter
Screenwriters: Chris Carter & Frank Spotnitz
Running Time: 104 mins
Certificate: 12A
Released: 1st August

In the early 1990s writer Chris Carter, inspired by the report that 3.7 million Americans claimed to have been abducted by aliens, created the television phenomenon that was The X-Files. The rest as they say is history, and after nine seasons and one cinematic outing in 1998, the show has been forever cemented in popular culture. The famous theme tune, the slogans (“Trust No One”, “The Truth Is Out There”), “Spooky” Mulder, the sceptic Scully, and it even spawned a Brit Pop track from Welsh rock outfit Catatonia. Yet The X-Files was very much a product of its time, tapping into the ‘90s cultural obsession with all things supernatural and government conspiracies, fed by the rise of the Internet. In a post-9/11 world audiences are still intrigued by the workings of a shadowy government, but terrorism and security have overtaken aliens and flying saucers.

The TV episodes could be categorised in two ways: the “myth-arc” episodes, dealing with the alien/government conspiracy, and the “monster-of-the-week” episodes. X-Files: I Want To Believe is of the later, and it sees Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), 6 years after the end of the series, being drawn back into the world of the FBI to investigate an unusual murder. Unfortunately the title is something of a misnomer as this feels like anything but an X-File. Psychic paedophile Father Joseph Crissman (a horribly miscast Billy Connolly) is having visions of the murder victim and is leading the FBI and our favourite rogue agents closer to the perpetrators. This mostly involves some really yawn inducing police detective work (include Amanda Peet’s Agent Dakota Whitney sniffing a used swimming costume and exclaiming ‘Chlorine!’ like she just found the cure for cancer) and some laborious dialogue scenes between our protagonists as they get angsty over faith and belief.

While the easy criticism levelled at TV-adaptations is that they feel like extended episodes of the series, it’s all too true here. Unlike the ’98 film which was incredibly cinematic (if narratively burdened by being a stop-gap between seasons), this feels like a cheap and rushed production, no surprise given it’s been written, produced and lensed in the last six months. Worst of all though is that this is clearly the worst X-File ever written. Psychic phenomena was dealt with better in the excellent episode ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’ with Peter Boyle from season 3, and the tension between the belief systems of Mulder and Scully is better examined in just about any episode you can pick at random. Fans and non-fans alike agreed that “monster-of-the-week” was the way to go, but this distasteful story of Russian scientists/sex abusers pales in comparison to classic stories like Squeeze (stretchy liver eating Eugene Victor Tooms) or Home (surely the most shocking scripted drama to be aired on TV).

Repugnant jokes and ludicrous assumptions about paedophilia aside (sexual abuse leads directly to homosexuality, apparently) it’s just left to wonder what the point of this was. With a mythology so tangled even Duchovny and Anderson can’t explain it, clearly there was no desire to bring closure to the TV show, yet it seems Carter was not willing to indulge fans in some nostalgia either. The locales are foreign to viewers, no Mulder’s apartment, no Syndicate, no black oil, no scary eye-less aliens, no Cigarette Smoking Man (okay, he’s ‘dead’ but it would have been enjoyable), finally, no fun in having these characters back whatsoever. Carter has recently claimed that a financial success will see Fox produce a mythology led film about the much-mooted alien invasion that was at the centre of the final season. However given this film was released the same week as The Dark Knight in the U.S. should ensure that the X-Files are once again boxed up and left on the shelves in the deepest, darkest basement of the FBI headquarters where they belong.

WALL.E - Review by Robert Duffin

Director: Andrew Stanton
Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton
Running Time: 98 mins
Certificate: U
Released: 18 July

The following review was originally published in the print edition of Montage at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2008.

Some have split hairs over the inclusion of a film like WALL.E in the programme of a 'festival of discovery'; after all Pixar are hardly desperate for a distribution deal. However even the staunchest critic cannot fail to have their heart melted by the adventures of Earth's last robot. Abandoned on the planet that has seen the effects Al Gore warned us about, WALL.E is an exquisite comedy of manners, accented by dazzling visuals that reach a new level in the history of the craft. A robot protagonist, who communicates only in the blips and bleeps of legendary sound designer Ben Burtt, could have been a patience tester. Yet WALL.E is constructed with the nuts and bolts of humanity, a desire for companionship battling with Woody Allen-esque social dysfunction. Director Andrew Stanton and his team of animators have achieved that rare feat; a film that perfectly balances stunning visuals with a heartbreakingly intimate relationship at its core.

Man On Wire - Review by Marjorie Gallagher

Director: James Marsh

Running Time: 118 mins

Certificate: 12A

Released: 1st August

The following review was originally published in the print edition of Montage at the Edinburgh Internation Film Festival 2008.

Why would a man want to string a wire between two of the tallest buildings in New York City and walk across it? No safety net, no nothing. There is no why, it’s living on the very edge of life according to Philippe Petit, who did just that in 1974 and captured it all in this fascinating documentary Man on Wire. As soon as he read about the construction of the World Trade Centre Petit knew it had been made just for him. There's documentary footage of Petit as he walks between the spires of Notre Dame and across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, whilst onlookers gape in horror on the streets below. But this is nothing compared to his piece de resistance. Using footage, surreal stills and staging reconstructions that play out like a 1950’s heist movie, James Marsh creates a documentary that is endlessly fascinating and entertaining.