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Sunday, 18 December 2011

'Every Time a Bell Rings an Angel Gets Its Wings': A Tribute to the Greatest Christmas Film of All Time



Well, it's a week before 25th December, and as convention dictates I must do a Christmas Special blog post. As this is the first time I've done something of this kind I didn't have to rack my brains especially hard to find the perfect subject for such a post - a tribute to Frank Capra's 1946 classic, It's a Wonderful Life, and surely the best festive film ever made. It's a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly one of the most beloved Christmas films of all time, and I've yet to meet anyone who has seen it and doesn't love it. If any such person exists, I don't want to know about it. This post won't be arguing for Wonderful Life's position as top Chrimbo flick - I think that's already pretty well established. Rather, I'm going to systemically and objectively discuss just why It's a Wonderful Life is just so fucking lovely, and amongst the films that can and will make me cry like a baby every single time I watch it. I'm going to have to include some pretty major spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film before, I urge you to see it - it's on at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle and probably elsewhere, and it's readily available on DVD. Nevermind if you're one these cretins that don't like 'old' films (the subject of a future post, to be sure), if you have even the slightest degree of humanity you will surely love It's a Wonderful Life. I can't explain why without ruining the experience, but in this season of goodwill and friendship, just trust me on this one. Watch it.

So on with the show, and the reasons why It's a Wonderful Life really is wonderful. At the top of the list is the fact that:

1) It has Jimmy Stewart in it
How good is Jimmy Stewart? Ooh, about this good.
James Stewart was, and remains, one of the best screen actors to have ever lived. Second, perhaps, only to Gregory Peck, Stewart imbued his roles with a profound and quiet dignity, playing the smart male alternative to the more conventional machismo of the John Waynes, or the sophistication of the Cary Grants of Hollywood. And it is dignity that is the key word of Capra's classic, never moreso embodied than by Stewart's George Bailey, a man torn between his dreams and his responsibilities. For my money, Stewart never had a role more suited to his physique, his mannerisms and his skills as an actor. George's transformation from a brash, charming and idealistic college student, into a desperate family man driven to the edge of suicide is made utterly believable by Stewart's performance, and creates a deep and lasting pathos for the character.

2) Christmas is barely present
Like all the best Christmas films (Gremlins, Die Hard, The Hudsucker Proxy), It's a Wonderful Life doesn't actually feature Christmas as a story-telling device. Most of the film isn't even set during Christmas, and that the final act is set on Christmas Eve is almost incidental, serving more as an emotional underscoring of the themes in the film, rather than the central focus of the story. Undoubtedly, the iconography of Christmas plays a large part during the alternate-reality sequence and the final scene, but they're in the service of the wider narrative arc, providing the natural setting for the conclusion of the films themes of friendship and community. To contrast, something like Chris Columbus' Home Alone, while having none of the complexity, depth or emotion of the former, features similar themes of family and isolation, but uses Christmas as a specific narrative device; to get Kevin McAllister's family to leave him while they go on a Christmas vacation. The Christmassy feeling we get when watching It's a Wonderful Life is all the more powerful because it's not emphasised from the outset. It almost sneaks up on us, slowly building until that final scene where George's friends finally come through for him, while his daughter tinkles away on the piano playing 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing'. The swell of emotion at the end of the film is genuine, not because it's about anything inherently Christmas, but because that scene is the culmination of the relationships that we have witnessed George forge and maintain throughout his life.

3) It's more subversive than you might think
While the main thrust of the story is about George's journey as an ambitious young man, It's a Wonderful Life contains some quiet, yet quite strong political and social commentary. Firstly, George's failed attempt at escaping the small town of Bedford Falls reflects contemporary American anxieties over the suburban lifestyle and increased material consumption. As a child and college student, George vows that he'll 'shake of the dust of this crummy town' and travel the world, but as circumstances conspire against him, he gradually finds himself less and less upwardly mobile. A very large part of It's a Wonderful Life is an examination of life's unavoidable descent into entropy, from the naive, energetic optimism of youth to the quiet desperation of adult life, culminating in the moment when George decides to kill himself. Despite the warmth we feel by the end of the film, It's a Wonderful Life is largely a dark, satirical look at mid-twentieth century American life, and could even sit alongside other bleak masterpieces like Death of A Salesman, or Richard Yates' novel Revolutionary Road.

More to the point, It's a Wonderful Life takes a pretty big swipe at big business and the rise of corporate America. Don't believe me? Senator Joe McCarthy, who headed the hysterical anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, hated the film, objecting to its portrayal of Henry Potter as a ruthless and amoral profiteer. One of the major themes of It's a Wonderful Life is the conflict between community and individual profit. The Dickensian Potter, the film's villain, makes his fortune by buying out smaller business and charging extortionate rent for substandard property. It is only George Bailey's family run business, Bailey's Savings and Loan, that stands against Potter's town-wide monopoly. Where Potter's rampant, individualistic avarice threatens to destroy the community of Bedford Falls, George sacrifices his own personal ambition for the sake of the community he grew up in. At the heart of the film is the depiction of someone defying, and inspiring his community to defy, corruption, profiteering and unbridled greed. It's a Wonderful Life shows the small, grubbiness of these things in the face of human community.

4) It's simply a beautiful film
Christmas Eve with George Bailey and friends.
From the cinematography, the performances and the use of music, to the silent re-introduction of falling snowflakes that signal George's return to his own reality, It's a Wonderful Life is a beautiful, beautiful film. As we watch George grow up and become world-weary we witness the decline of Bedford Falls, and when, haggard and soaked, George returns to his dilapidated home we see a bittersweet reinvigoration of the town as they rally to his support. I cannot think of another film that feels so full of goodness, is so unabashedly wholesome, or is so full to the brim with feeling, without resorting to sentimentality, mawkishness or cynicism. The film peppers itself with the key moments in George's life that will later come in to play when he wishes his life away, and yet those moments feel natural and compelling in and of themselves, as snapshots of the ebb and flow of a person's life. As a result, when Clarence explains to George's dismay that his brother never saved his brothers at arms, 'because you weren't there to save him', we feel the loss that George feels, because we too were there when as a boy George saved his brother from drowning. Just as that moment in George's life is ripped from him, it's ripped from us, too, and it hurts. We are shown, not told, that Clarence's words are true: 'Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?' Even the smallest person touches dozens of lives without realising it, affecting the world around him in a tapestry of relationships and friendships that he himself barely glimpses. It's a Wonderful Life goes straight to the heart of the nature of a life lived in one community, ultimately touching and altering the lives of people that George has never even met. And finally, when George returns home to his friends and family to find that they have raised the money that his bumbling uncle left at Potter's bank, we weep, just as George weeps, as he reads Clarence's send-off, that 'no man is a failure who has friends'. Every year friendships bloom and others wither, jobs come and go, people move away, people die. Every year I watch It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, and every year that last phrase seems to take on new meaning, reducing me each time to an ever-more embarrassing pile of emotion. As the spectre of failure (whatever that means) seems to loom greater with each passing year, Clarence's note becomes increasingly powerful. It's a Wonderful Life is the perfect Christmas film because watching it at Christmas marks the end of another year in our lives, with Clarence's words as the epigraph. No man is a failure who has friends.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

"Along come these left-wing militants who blast everything within a three-mile radius with their lasers": Why the concept of over-analysis is a stupid myth and doesn't exist.

This fortnight's / month's post is on a subject dear to my heart, and one which surrounds a popular myth that has bugged me for years: the position that certain films, books, music and popular entertainment weren't meant to an analysed in any serious way, and any attempt to do so is a futile and pretentious enterprise, practised by only the most self-indulgent of navel-gazers. I put to you that this viewpoint is not merely misguided and narrow-minded, but that it is self-contradictory and demonstrably false. Yes, dear readers, tonight I defend that most unpopular and derided of creatures: the film critic. Incidentally, this one is a bit of a rant.

Spongebob Squarepants: Disproving the myth of stuffy academics
Firstly, let me begin my blasting the popular conception of art criticism. Since this is a blog about films I'll limit myself to that medium. The image of the critic distanced from both popular opinion and reality, jollying himself to the meta-academic pleasures of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, sat in his ivory tower while he misses the more earthy, blue-collar pleasures of Joe Dante's Gremlins, looking down his nose at anything that resembles a blockbuster, is as old as the hills and is still extremely pervasive. Whilst I'd agree there is an element of snobbery amongst some schools of criticism (Halliwell's Film Guide, I'm looking at you), the vast majority of popular critics that I read are as open to American blockbusters as they are to Scandinavian social realism and Italian arthouse cinema. Even amongst so-called bonafide academics, there is an extraordinary rejection of snobbery: one of my university supervisors, who has got a PhD and academic publications and everything loves Spongebob Squarepants and Batman: The Animated Series. The notion that 'high' critics don't engage with 'low' art in any positive way is nonsense and needs to stop.

This leads me on to my main target - the (frankly, idiotic) mantra that some films were never meant to be 'over-analysed'. This is something that I have heard repeated over and again from intelligent, normally open-minded individuals, and it has to stop. Firstly, let me start with the word 'meant'. This is misleading because is presupposes that the mantra-chanter somehow had access to the inner-motivations of the film-makers when they wrote, directed, filmed and edited their work. You might well think that Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was never meant to be watched as anything other than entertainment, but, how exactly do you know this? Did Bay consult with you beforehand, wringing his hands over whether he is an artist, or entertainer (as if those things are mutually fucking exclusive to begin with)? No? Well then sit the fuck down. More to the point, the intent of the artist doesn't bloody matter. In scholarship / criticism / whatever, there's a rule called the Intentional Fallacy, which, in short, states that 1) We can't ever really know the intentions of an artist so there's little point in trying to decipher them, and 2) there will inevitably be meanings and subtexts in any piece of art not necessarily consciously inserted by the artist. Did Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster consciously invoke Christian iconography when they created Superman? Maybe, maybe not, but it's damn well there and you'd be a fool to deny it on the basis that the creators didn't intend it to be there.

Gremlins is only fit for entertainment, you say?
Fuck you.
So that's one word polished off. Let's move on to the next one, and the real meat of my argument: 'over-analysed'. Like it or not, we analyse things everyday. If you're not particularly bothered about the cultural significance of Roy William Neill's Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, or how Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is really about the voyeuristic nature of cinema and the objectification of women, that's fine with me (though I really do think you're missing out if you don't care just a little bit), but don't call the discussion of these things something they're not. What, I think, people usually mean by 'over-analyse' is that whatever film review / article / opinion they're griping about, a review of the aforementioned Gremlins, for example, has exceeded the analytical limitations they would like to see set for that particular film. Let's say you disagree with my opinion that what makes Gremlins interesting is the way it constantly breaks the fourth wall in a way that reflects the delightful, dangerous and hilarious anarchy that the eponymous Gremlins embody. Perhaps you don't like my writing style, or you favour the opinion that the Gremlins represent something other than anarchy, which is all fine and dandy. But, and excuse me while my prose briefly devolves into splenetic fury, exactly who the fuck put you in charge of how far I'm allowed to analyse a film, or whether that's how I should derive pleasure from it? Do you like Gremlins? Well, bad luck chump-change, because you've just analysed a film. Yep, that's right, even deciding whether or not you like something constitutes analysis, since presumably you've come to your decision based on, you know, the component parts of the film and whether they add up to something that pleases your pink little brain. To return to my carefully considered question, who (the fuck) put you in charge of deciding when I should stop analysing Gremlins, or Superman, or my fucking Campbell's Tomato Soup if the mood should strike me?


There is no such thing as over-analysis. You can analyse something well, and you can analyse something badly. You can make your points in a measured articulate way, or you can ramble incoherently. You can make complex ideas clear and accessible, or you can obscure simple ideas with impenetrable prose and a contempt for your reader. You can look at every facet of one frame of a film, or you can discuss the movie's big themes. You can make a value judgement based on a historical or purely aesthetic basis. You can hate a film because it's pretentious and self-indulgent, or because it's violent and over-crammed with unnecessary CGI. You can take whatever opinion of a film that you like, but you can't accuse critics of over-analysis because it's nonsensical, and this silly, embarrassing fallacy of taking criticism 'too far', whether it's for The Three Colours Trilogy or Uncle Buck, has got to stop. It's just bloody stupid.

Monday, 31 October 2011

When The Autumn Moon is Bright: Why Horror is Universal

The older I get the more I like Halloween. I like the parties and fancy dress clothes, carving pumpkins is definitely more fun than putting up the Christmas tree, and there's a delightfully knowing tackiness to the whole affair. And so in that spirit I have decided that this fortnight's post will be about the horror films that Universal Studios produced throughout the 1930s and 40s. While Warner Bros. were busy with gangster films like The Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties, Universal Pictures was creating its signature genre with a spate of horror films based on nineteenth century gothic fiction and folklore, with early examples including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Man Who Laughs (1928). Influenced by the menacing shadows and distorted angles of the German Expressionist films of the silent era, the Universal horror films in turn influenced horror iconography throughout the twentieth century, and are largely responsible for our modern perceptions of the classic Halloween monsters. Universal Pictures is a major studio nowadays, but in the early days it was best known for producing B movies. They were made quickly and cheaply, often with the same roster of character actors and stars appearing in each new film. However, with talent on board like director James Whale or the intense Boris Karloff, many of Universal's B-horrors rose above their roots as exploitation pictures. The Universal horrors have become so iconic that we are familiar with their imagery without necessarily being familiar with the films, or even from where that imagery originates. When we think of the Frankenstein monster and of Dracula, we invariably think of the Universal versions of those monsters, and it is largely the Universal Frankenstein series that is to blame for the modern confusion between Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. This post is a beginner's guide to four of the most popular and enduring films of the Universal monster canon, and the three that I personally find the most fascinating and compelling. Incidentally, all of these little summaries contain SPOILERS.




The Wolfman

Lon Chaney Jr. is having a very bad hair day.
Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot, the unfortunate man who is cursed with the sign of the werewolf, in George Waggner's 1941 film that draws inspiration from European myths and folklore about lycanthropy and supernatural animal transformations. Although the wolf make-up looks primitive by today's standards, and the scenes with Larry as a werewolf are only mildly violent, Chaney Jr. cultivates a wonderful sense of pathos and frustration as the tortured but decent Larry Talbot, and is supported by a wonderful cast that includes Claude Rains (who also starred as the eponymous Invisible Man) and Bela Lugosi, who most famously played the evil Count Dracula. The pacing of the film is superb, developing Larry as an everyman before finally condemning him to his fate as the wolfman. The relationship between Larry and his father, played by Rains, is well developed, with his father convinced that Larry is merely suffering from a schizophrenic delusion that he is a werewolf. The 'no-one believes the hero' horror cliche is played remarkably well here, and what is particularly great about it is there is genuine ambiguity over whether Larry really is a werewolf, or merely insane. When, as a wolf, Larry attacks his victims, it is usually by strangulation, or other decidedly non-wolfish means, and when he is killed (by his own father, no less) after a final rampage, his body 'returns' to normal before anyone has a chance to see him as a wolf. Even his father remains suspiciously quiet, allowing the villagers to believe that a real wolf attacked Larry before he had a chance to intervene. Although the sequels dispensed with the ambiguity by having Larry resurrected by moonlight, I think the alternative reading of the original Wolfman stands up, and makes for a much more interesting film.

Dracula
Strange, powerful and iconic: Lugosi as Dracula
Adapted from Bram Stoker's classic novel, the 1931 Dracula, directed by Tod Browning is part of the first wave of Universal sound pictures. Browning's film simplified Stoker's film by keeping the action in England and reducing the number of characters, but succeeds in adapting the eerie, uncanny atmosphere of its source. Compared to the other two films I'm discussing, Dracula feels a little wooden and stagey, with most of the scenes consisting of characters talking to each other in rooms. However, this is counterbalanced by Bela Lugosi's unnerving performance as the eponymous vampire, some incredible sets depicting Dracula's castle, and a great supporting cast including Dwight Frye as the lunatic Renfield. The film is loosely faithful the novel, but its brevity and less ambitious globe-trotting streamline Stoker's novel into a pacy and tense picture. Lugosi's Dracula is the iconic screen incarnation, with the widow's peak, east-European accent and sweeping cloak all a product of this film, and now indelibly associated with the character. Fascinatingly, there exists an alternative, Spanish-language version of Dracula that was filmed simultaneously on the same sets with a Spanish cast. In the days before dubbing was perfected, English-language films were sometimes re-filmed in different languages for the foreign market. The Spanish-language version of Dracula has become famous because, incredibly, it is superior to the original version. When they were filming, the Spanish crew would come in after the Americans, watch the day's footage and actively try to better it. As a result, the direction is far more fluid and less stage-bound, the sexuality of the female characters is less restrained, and it has a longer running time. Carlos Villarias plays Dracula in this version, and although good, he is no match for Lugosi. Despite the technical superiority of the Spanish version, Lugosi's Dracula will forever remain the iconic vampire of cinema and pop culture.

Frankenstein
It's alive! Boris Karloff gives life to Frankenstein's creation.
Perhaps the only other monster to rival Dracula in terms of recognisability is the Frankenstein monster, and again, it is the Universal studio interpretation of the character that has lodged itself firmly in the popular cultural zeitgeist. The flat top of the monster's head, exaggerated brow, and electrodes through his neck are all products of the Universal film, but are now as inseperable from the character as the widow's peak is from Dracula. Frankenstein, masterfully directed by James Whale and released the same year as Dracula, is often criticised for reducing the intelligent, articulate character of Mary Shelley's superlative novel to a lumbering, dumb brute, and for only loosely following the novel's events. But Boris Karloff, under layers of make-up, invests the monster with surprising and disarming pathos, sensitivity and subtlety. Besides, we all know that criticising adaptations on the basis of their faithfulness is a rocky position. Incidentally, that Frankenstein the novel has a tradition of adaptation, borrowing from and referring to previous works of literature, makes, I think, the film one of the most interesting of the Universal horror stable. In many ways, the film pays tribute to the experimental nature of the novel, playing with and reinterprating the characters and their relationships. The transgressive nature of the relationship between Henry Frankenstein and his creation is subtly hinted at in the first film, only to be expanded on in the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein.

Bride of Frankenstein
To a new world of gods and monsters: the eerie Bride.
Bride is one of the few sequels in the Universal canon that not only matches its predecessor, but actually betters it. The audacious opening positions the film directly as an adaptation, but is only slightly more faithful to the novel than the original film. It also introduces the new character of Dr. Pretrorius, who has created life through alchemy, in contrast to Frankenstein's scientific approach. Pretrorius convinces Frankenstein to create a bride for the monster, and while Pretrorius does not exist in the novel, his presences allows the film explores the conflict between the natural and the unnatural suggested in Shelley's work. More importantly, the strange, slightly predatory and very homoerotic relationship between Drs. Frankenstein and Pretorious is made all the more interesting and poignant given that Whale himself was both homosexual and working within the restrictive and homophobic strictures of the Hays Film Code. The final scene of the film, not present in the novel, is a brilliantly executed, and is by turns a tense and tender sequence, the impact of which is visible in Danny Boyle's recent, otherwise faithful, stage version of Shelley's novel which refers explicitly to Whale's film in a sequence that mirrors the final scene in Bride.

These summaries are by no means an exhaustive account of the horror films produced by Universal Pictures in the 1930s and 40s (I'm still working through the library myself), but I hope they give a sense not just of the series itself, but from where we draw much of the iconography of this season. The films that Universal produced during this period have given us imagery that remains popular and recognisable, but if we return to their source, also give us some incredibly rich, nuanced and, yes, frightening cinematic experiences.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Baby Mine: Why Children's Films Are Brilliant

Disney matures: The Lion King
Last month, the 1994 animated feature The Lion King was re-released in cinemas (pointlessly 3D-ified), topping the box office and re-establishing itself as one of Disney's greatest feature films and one of the most enduring children's animated films. Last year, Toy Story 3 was the most successful film at the box office in 2010, and one of the highest grossing films of all time, and from Saturday 22nd October, the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle upon Tyne are hosting a season of films to watch before you're 13, ranging from classics such as The Wizard of Oz, to modern films like Toy Story and School of Rock. Evidentally, children's films are popular with adults as well as their offspring, and the extraordinary success of Toy Story and The Lion King demonstrates that there is a considerable adult market for films aimed primarily at children. I wonder what makes children's films so popular amongst adults, and whether the joint factors of nostalgia for the films we watched as children, and the necessity of joining the kiddies at the cinema fully accounts for the tremendous popularity of children's films amongst grown-ups.

Incidentally, if you've somehow avoided seeing The Lion King, Bambi, Toy Story, The Land Before Time et al, then you might want to consider leaving the following paragraphs alone, as they are going to be SPOILERIFIC. You might also want to consider watching them, as they're fucking class.

The Problem of Nostalgia
I might argue that nostalgia explains the popularity of these films, and certainly it explains a lot. For those who saw The Lion King at the big screen as a child (as I and many of my peers did), who could resist re-visiting not just Mufasa's death, but also all the memories that came with that moment back in 1994, when the Sega Mega Drive reigned supreme and Freddoes were still at the correct price of 10p? This certainly plays a very large part of my love The Lion King, amongst other films from that era, but that can't be the only thing that draws me back after 20 years, can it? The buffalo stampede is a truly powerful cinematic moment, regardless of what age you see it at. Although nostalgia is important for our affections for children's films gone by, I suspect there is more to our collective love of them than merely looking through rose-tinted spectacles. I recently conducted a highly unscientific survey on favourite children's films (by which I mean I asked some of my friends on Facebook what theirs were), and I found the results quite surprising. Rather than, as I suspected, the films that were chosen as adults being the same as the favourites they had as children, they were almost uniformly different. In other words, as people grew up, their favourite children's film was not dependent on what it was when they were six. I think there are several ways to interpret this. Either that kids' films are getting better (I don't think so), that they are more consciously aimed at adults (partially, more on this later), or that what we look for in films changes as we get older, and that this also applies to children's films. Either way, nostalgia isn't playing as large a part as we might expect.

The most popular films for the 'children' were predictably divided between Disney classics such as The Jungle Book and The Lion King and 80s adventures like The Goonies and Labyrinth, whereas the favourite films for those same people as adults came mainly from new kids on the block Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Even more interestingly, the adults' films were almost exclusively animated, and far less varied than their choices as children. I realise that there are complex reasons to do with what we're exposed to as children, and what we choose to watch as adults, not to mention the utterly un-rigorous nature of my 'research', but nevermind all that, as I think my assertion still stands that mere nostalgia isn't sufficient explanation for adults' enduring love of children's films. 

Grown up children
So as grown-ups, I think, we're picking films that speak with an adult perspective on childhood. Most of them  deal with loss, death, and symbolically, the end of childhood. These are themes that centre around childhood, but it doesn't follow that they are themes exclusively for children. Don Bluth's 1988 The Land Before Time, for example, is a film that features anthropomorphic talking dinosaurs, but it not only deals with the loss of a parent, but also the subsequent feelings of denial, despair and acceptance that accompany bereavement. Transposed into live action, we might expect the next Ken Loach or Charlie Kaufman film to explore such issues. One person justified his choice of The Land Before Time as both his child and adulthood favourite: 

the whole film is about children not having adult support and having to deal with their problems as a team [...] I also love the way it tackles the issue of racism: 'three horns never play with long necks [...] These are obviously the reasons why it is my favourite film as an adult. As a child I liked it because it was just fucking mint.
As an adult, he's made an intellectual decision for his love of the film, whereas as a child, it was more intuitive: because the film was 'fucking mint'. You might think as an adult he's simply rationalising his choices as a child, and this probably holds some water - I certainly do this all the time - but the important thing here is that The Land Before Time works as both a film for adults and children, and crucially, for the same reasons. Both audiences know how painful the prospect (or even reality) of losing a parent is.

Why Pixar Nailed It in 2010
Dreamworks: Big on stars, low on story
I think what makes for a great children's film is that it doesn't become boring, or seem less emotionally complex as we grow up. Rather, it actually becomes more satisfying, exhilarating, and even painful the older we get. And importantly, the message is essentially the same for both the adult and child, which is why most of  Dreamworks' Studio's output fails as great children's cinema. Shrek, for example, mainly appeals to children through a cast of goofy, funny characters, and it appeals to adults through ironic pop culture references and big name stars, but there is very little emotional connection between the two audiences. The adults are not transported back to childhood, and the children are not challenged to think like adults, in the way that the protagonists of The Lion King, Bambi, or The Land Before Time are. In contrast, this is why I think Pixar's recent hat trick of Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 is so astonishing. Both Wall-E and Up, I'd argue, are barely even exclusively children's films; they're viewed as such because they're animated, produced by Pixar, and both have caricatured, cartoonish characters. But they undoubtedly push the emotional complexity of traditional children's cinema, and moreover, they appeal to adults not through lame in-jokes but through the fact that their  characters and stories are just as compelling for grumpy old bastards as they are for the bright-eyed enthusiasm of youth.

Andy makes his ultimate decision one last time
And this brings me to Toy Story 3. For my money, this is one of the best films of the last ten years, and was certainly the best mainstream film of 2010. It not only achieved that rarest of qualities, the not-disappointing second sequel, but also succeeded in surpassing both its predecessors. Moreover, and this is partially why I find it so fascinating, it managed to be a children's film that was squarely aimed at adults, and I can't think of one other film that does that. Even the great Studio Ghibli, for all their beauty, mystery and wonder, have yet to pull off the magic trick that Pixar did with the third Toy Story. They knew that the children who saw Toy Story 1 and 2 the first time around would be twenty-something adults in 2010. And boy, did they nail us with those final scenes. When I saw it at the cinema last year, children happily munched away on popcorn while grown men and women audibly sniffled, and remained awkwardly motionless in their seats. As garbage-compacted doom seemingly closed in around Woody and Buzz, it was our own childhood experiences that we witnessed careering towards the scrapheap. Pixar were consciously invoking nostalgia for these characters, but in doing so seemed to elaborate on the themes already hinted at in the previous films.

The impending death of the toys was the death of childhood, and their temporary salvation mirrored the audience's child-like revisiting of the world of the films, and implicitly their own childhoods, after a decade. The incinerator sequence, as far as I'm concerned, and without hyperbole, is one of the greatest dialogue-free scenes ever filmed. The sigh that Andy's mother lets slip when she realises he's leaving home is just as heart-breaking, and the bittersweet coda as Andy gives up his toys is deceptively dark. One of the only criticisms I and others initially had was that the toys weren't killed at the end, and the literal deus ex machina that rescues them at the end was a minor betrayal of the impending fate that was so skilfully woven throughout the rest of the movie. But really, to have killed the toys would have been too dark for a children's film, and besides, they have already faced and accepted their own mortality. Whether or not they are actually killed is really a moot point and, I'd argue, would alienate the child audience. Essentially, Toy Story 3 is able to have its cake and eat it by giving us a happy ending without sacrificing the reality of the scrap-heap that the toys are inevitably headed to. This is not something that adults' films can do without appearing mawkish, sentimental or lazy. Great children's films appeal to both kids and grown-ups, which is a claim that very few great adults' films can make. It is only in children's films that the death of childhood can be properly explored, and so the best children's films achieve a maturity that is rarely seen in grown-up cinema.





Tuesday, 27 September 2011

'Ray, face it, Ghostbusters is over'. Why Ghostbusters 3 is a Really Bad Idea and Won't Work.


Ivan Reitman's 1984 film Ghostbusters is due for theatrical re-release this October. For whatever reason, call it luck, call it fate, Ghostbusters is one of the most successful and beloved comedies of the 1980s. The chemistry between the three leads of Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray is as rare as it is perfect, the script is almost flawlessly paced and hilarious, and with the possible exception of Groundhog Day, the incomparable Murray has never been better. Its sequel, 1989's Ghostbusters 2, while widely regarded as inferior, still draws big laughs. The impact of Ghostbusters remains phenomenal, with lines from the film very much a part of the pop-cultural lexicon, and the theme song, Ray Parker Jr.'s Who Ya Gonna Call, is undeniably one of the most iconic and recognisable in cinema history.

Who Ya Gonna Call? Ray Parker Jr. and the film's cast
In 2009, Ghostbusters: The Video Game was released across all the gaming platforms. Set two years after the events of Ghostbusters 2, the game features an all-new story, co-written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, who both wrote the screenplays for the films, and sees the return of most of the major actors from the movies. Since the release of Ghostbusters 2 over twenty years ago, there has been much speculation over a possible third film, and the 2009 video game certainly re-ignited popular interest in seeing the old team suit up again for one more outing. Clearly, the Ghostbusters franchise is still going strong, and as the box office sales for the imminent re-release will suggest, the fan anticipation for a third film is high. So why such a pessimistic title for this week's post? Well, there are several reasons why making Ghostbusters 3 would be bad. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. *** SPOILER ALERT *** If you don't know about 'the cameo' and would prefer not to have it spoilt, you should skip section 1.

1. Bill Murray's reluctance to participate
This one's an easy one, but it's also probably the most important. For the last three years or so, where a new film has seemed increasingly likely, Murray has flip-flopped on whether he will appear in the third movie. He famously dislikes Ghostbusters 2, and has said several times that he would only appear in Ghostbusters 3 as a ghost. I can understand Murray's reticence to return, especially since he doesn't like the second film, but a Ghostbusters film without Bill Murray would be like Indiana Jones without Harrison Ford. The trio of Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd and Murray are essential to the franchise, and to remove any of those elements would be to remove a vital component of the formula. Murray clearly likes Ghostbusters; these days he tends to pick his projects carefully (Garfield excepted) and wouldn't have returned to voice Peter Venkman in the game if he hadn't seen some pleasure to be had, nor would he have delivered one of the funniest and affectionate cameos in cinema history in 2009's Zombieland. Despite this, Murray clearly does not like the idea of a third Ghosbusters film. What does this tell us about its quality?

2. The concept
Even if we don't take Murray's word for it, the movie concept itself throws up a few warning signals. However we deal with it, the Ghostbusting foursome will have aged more than twenty years since their last cinema outing. They're going to be older, fatter and less capable than ever, but this doesn't have to be problematic. One of the central jokes in the original films is that the team are consistently out of their depth: the Ghostbusters are comprised of tubby science nerds and workshy layabouts playing at being superheroes. Making them older would just underscore a major premise already established in the franchise. But the concept of Ghostbusters 3 has less emphasis on this, and more on the old 'busters passing on the mantle to a younger team. Again, this does not necessarily spell disaster, but not only is this a rather tired concept for belated sequels (see Shia LeBland in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Tom Cruise in The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese's inferior 1986 follow-up to The Hustler), but it kind of misses the point of the original films. Ghostbusters wasn't successful just because proton packs are cool (though by God, they are), it was because the dynamic between the central characters worked so well. Capturing that again with a different crew, whilst not impossible, is already setting the writers (also new) an uphill struggle.

3. They've already made the third film
Well, not literally, but the third Ghostbusters story has already been told in the form of the 2009 video game. The original concept for Ghostbusters 3 was for the team to go to Hell, with the title being Hellbound: Ghostbusters 3. This concept was incorporated for significant portions of the recent game, and Aykroyd himself has even stated that the game is 'essentially the third movie'. If we do consider it as such, the game is probably the third best 'film' in the franchise, but it is undoubtedly worthy, and manages to balance the tricky business of nostalgia for fans of the original while still creating a compelling story and retaining some of the creative and comedic magic of the films. After the success of the game, do we really need another Ghostbusters story? I'm inclined to say that we don't.

4. The time has just passed for a third film
In science, we always look for the simplest answer. Here, perhaps it is simply that, as great and iconic as Ghostbusters is, maybe it is best left well alone. The first film in particular captured lighting in a bottle with a hilarious script, an incredible cast and a great concept, and it's incredibly unlikely that the same magic can be repeated. Ghostbusters 3 could certainly be very good, but it can't have the same magic formula that the first, or even the second film had, and will always suffer as such. 2001's Evolution, also directed by Ivan Reitman, is effectively an homage to Ghostbusters, and even features a cameo from Aykroyd. But at the same time it is able to be its own thing, because it isn't Ghostbusters. Is it is good as Ghostbusters? No, of course not, but it isn't trying to be. The same could be said more recently for the superb Zombieland. In light of comedies like these, Ghostbusters 3 seems increasingly unnecessary and irrelevant.

5. Who ya gonna trust?
I will end here with a simple rhetorical question. Dan Aykroyd, who, bless him, actually believes in ghosts, and is somehow even dorkier than his on screen character Ray Stantz, thinks Ghostbusters 3 is a good idea. Bill Murray, who is possibly the coolest man on the planet, doesn't. Who are you ready to believe?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

I Preferred The Book: What Makes for a Good Adaptation?

Can an adaptation ever match the original?
Right, so on Sunday night I saw the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights, starring Laurence Olivier and directed by William Wyler. I saw it at the Star and Shadow cinema in Byker as part of their Great British Romance season, which you should definitely check out here. The immediate murmurs amongst I and my companions was that it was very good, but lacked the intensity of the novel and watered down Heathcliff and Cathy's overall nastiness. However, I wonder if this necessarily makes the film a poor adaptation. Sure, the movie lacks the thematic complexity of the novel, but does that make it a bad film? Similarly, should we demand that adaptations remain doggedly faithful to their source material? Can we judge adaptations simply as standalone films in their own right, or should they always be evaluated against the shadow of their literary source material?


These are tricky questions, but in short, I think the answers are ‘no’, ‘of course not’, and ‘it depends’. Plenty of great films are relatively simple in theme, and the nature of the medium demands a narrative economy and efficiency not usually necessary in literature. David Lean’s epic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, for all its near four-hour running time, and grand, sweeping visuals, has a remarkably single-minded and linear plot. Because of their relative brevity, the stories that films tell usually need to be clear, short, and to the point. Even mainstream films that challenge linear storytelling, such as Pulp Fiction or Memento, or that baffle us with interminable plot twists, like Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, still follow relatively basic stories. Literary novels have the advantage of being able to be as long as they need to be, as opposed to the lengths of feature films, which are determined by convention, the expectations of audiences, and the economic demands of cinemas. Where authors can fully explore their characters over dozens or even hundreds of pages of description and development, directors must point to character motivation and depth in just a few key scenes. The best directors do this throughout the entirety of a film, but even the longest films are restrictive in comparison to the resources of time available to authors. This inevitably creates conflict when long novels are re-formatted into the relative constraints of filmed story-telling. A simple story, however, is not necessarily a poor one. For the record, the novel Wuthering Heights is definitely better than the film. The novel, I think, has more cultural value as a vital component in the Victorian Gothic tradition, and as a moment in the history of women’s writing, than the film does as a very respectable Hollywood romance. But, crucially, the novel isn’t better because it has a more complicated story.

This leads me on to faithfulness. Almost without exception, how faithful a film is to its source material is the benchmark by which adaptations are uniformly judged. Given the rather glaring differences between film and literature, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense, yet people will crow at the slightest deviation from the original material. My favourite example of this is in the transposition of High Fidelity’s setting from London to Chicago, which elicits howls of derision from the novel’s (invariably British) admirers. Why this is such a betrayal of the novel’s central theme of commitment and neuroses continues to elude me. I want to know why audiences frequently demand that the exact same story be re-told in a different medium, when some of the least successful adaptations in cinema are the most faithful to their sources. 


The Golden Disappointment
Chris Weitz’s severely disappointing  2007 The Golden Compass, remains doggedly close to the plot of its source, the lauded children’s novel Northern Lights. Practically every scene in the book found its way to the screen, the special effects did justice to Pullman’s descriptions of daemons and warrior-Polar bears (yes, that is as awesome as it sounds. If you haven’t read Northern Lights and its sequels yet, crawl out from under your rock and get them read, they’re fucking class), and yet somehow, the heart and soul of the novel was utterly and completely absent from the film. There is an impatience to The Golden Compass’ narrative, hurriedly rushing towards each scene in a vain attempt to keep up with every plot point in the novel, instead of focussing on a few of its central themes and relationships. In contrast, Thomas Alfredson’s dark, disturbing and heart-breakingly excellent Let the Right One In excises not one, but two very substantial sub-plots from its source, allowing the film to focus squarely on the central romance between Eli and Oskar. In contrast to the novel, the film is intentionally ambiguous about the origins and motivations of two of its characters, which further complicates the future of a third, and all because it tells us less, not more, of the story. This is an example of an adaptation bettering its original through narrative economy. Where The Golden Compass simply tries to retell the same story that Philip Pullman already had, Let the Right One takes the novel as a starting point to tell its own story. There are numerous examples of this approach to adaptation. Ghost World does a fine job of taking a very minor character from the graphic novel and uses him as the basis for an entirely new story. Furthermore, Dune, whilst clearly an unmitigated failure, fails as a bad film and not as a bad adaptation; no one could accuse David Lynch of a lack of original vision.

So should we judge films based on other works as standalone movies or as adaptations? As with the above example, it’s certainly difficult not to view the American remake Let Me In as a poor man’s (or idiot’s) Let the Right One In. Moreover, it’s impossible not to watch film adaptations of Hamlet as part of a tradition of adaptation, rather than a singular work in its own right. These, however, I believe are the exceptions that prove the rule. The film Wuthering Heights does not reflect either the thematic complexity of the novel, and it does not explore the historical and social context in which the novel was written, but nor should we expect it to. We watch, for example, James Whale’s 1931 version of Frankenstein as part of a series of horror pictures that Universal Studios produced in the 1930s and 40s, and so should we watch Wuthering Heights not as an adaptation of a gothic Victorian novel, but as an example of Golden Age Hollywood romance. It is only on their own terms, and in their own contexts, that adaptations can be very successful, important and beautiful films.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Organise! The Story of One Man's Obsessive Journey through Film

The organisation of one's media collection of choice is a tricky business, particularly for the obsessive individual. After one's film collection reaches a certain size, the organisation of DVDs (or Blu-rays) seems necessary in order to keep track of all the delightful goodies that have accumulated over the years. This also applies to a music collection, an obsession no better commented on than in Stephen Frears' High Fidelity (currently occupying space number 213 on my DVD shelf), in which Rob, the owner of a record store, rearranges his music collection in autobiographical order as a way of recovering from a nasty break up. I can personally recommend re-ordering your stuff in this way as a glorious tonic for all sorts of crises. Curiously, I have never encountered anyone who organises their book collection as obsessively as Rob does with his records, or I do with my films. Perhaps it has something to do with the relative newness of the medium of film, or the primacy of film and pop music over literature as the dominant cultural outputs in modern society.

As High Fidelity's Rob would certainly attest, at one point or another the obvious and frankly amateurish alphabetical method of DVD organisation will simply no longer cut the mustard for the obsessive collector, and a more obscure method of organisation must be adopted. For example, one associate of mine  asserts that organising films by studio is the way to go. Certainly, not only is it aesthetically pleasing to see all the little 'Warner Bros.' and '20th Century Fox' logos all lined up together, but also, you get a sense of the kinds of films that those studios produce. For the film obsessive, this is a fine way to organise your movies. However, it is not quite sufficient. Nor is organising by director, actor, or other single creative entity, as the titular alphabetic pandemonium ensuing from placing Raising Arizona (written and directed by the Coen brothers) before The Birds (directed by Alfred Hitchcock), is simply not an acceptable aesthetic proposition. Even worse, the logical conclusion of such a filing system would mean splitting up film series that were not always made by the same people, for example, Alien (directed by Ridley Scott) and Aliens, (directed by James Cameron) or Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner) and Superman II (Richard Lester). No, no, no, this aesthetic violence will not stand.

My solution, therefore, is to return to the classic alphabetical system (by title), but cross-referenced by director, cross-referenced by franchise, cross-referenced by studio, and if I'm feeling particularly sexy, cross-referenced by producer. Or, to put it less like a madman, my DVDs are allowed to sit in eye-pleasing alphabetical order but only on the strict condition that they take into account the main creative force or forces behind the film. No, wait, that still sounds mad. Right, listen: we start with letter 'A', so The African Queen might come first. But then we look at the director, which in this case is John Huston, so he gets to have his films The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre next. They still nestle happily under 'A', like disc-shaped cuckoos fooling their surrogate mother alphabet, whilst simultaneously satisfying their own urge to cluster with their directorial kin. So now we've put Huston together, we can move on to the next film in alphabetical order, let's say Alien. This is followed by Aliens, even though they were made by different directors, because splitting up a franchise would be fucking mental. When the franchise is complete, then, and only then, do we return to the director, so we now get Blade Runner (Scott), and then The Terminator (Cameron). Are you following me? Excellent, then I'll continue.

Usually, a director is the main creative force behind a film, directing, as you might expect, most of the major decisions that are made during the film-making process. However, sometimes other entities, like writers, producers or even studios are as, if not more important. A good example of this would be the Disney studio. Films made by Disney are one of the most recognisable, and iconic, types of movie in the world, transcending the usual distinctions of genre, director or actor to become, simply a 'Disney Film'. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single director or writer from any of the myriad Disney films I've seen, but we all have a clear understanding of what a Disney film is. In my catalogue de films triomphante, it makes far more sense to group Disney films together and more or less disregard their directors. This leads to other, lovely little crossroads where creative auteurship is not so clean-cut, like the spate of gangster films that Warner Bros. produced in the 1930s, or the classic Universal horror pictures such as Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, and Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff and directed by the legendary James Whale. These groups are fascinating (no honestly, they really are) because, while they belong to the horror and gangster canons that Universal and Warner Bros. studios fostered, they also belong to the separate, but contiguous, canons of their directors, writers and stars, not to mention the stylistic canons of their historical periods. It's good to be a bit obsessive about how you organise your movies (and music and books, for that matter) because when you are all these little connections are forced to surface. They pull at each other and fight for dominance. They all demand attention like two interminable, simultaneous itches, and it's essentially impossible to satisfy the demands of each. What is particularly fascinating about films is that the creative process is such a collaborative effort, perhaps more so than in any other artistic medium. Organising your films properly is a way of revealing that lovely big, aesthetically pleasing, cacophony of order. The process exhumes the collaborative, thematic and historical links that tie films together in a great big, interconnected spiderweb of cinema. Plus, it's an evening, ain't it?