Thursday, 25 August 2011

Camaraderie of the Building Site

"camaraderie of the building site" - Stewart Lee

I can't believe there is no mention of this quote online. I gave google a go and nothing came up. It's mentioned as an example of a joke being mist-old in his book: How I Escaped My Certain Fate (2010). Hopefully now something will come up in searches about this minor but humorous phrase.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Bobby Fischer Against the World

Bobby Fischer Against the World (2010), Sawako Decides (2010) and Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)

Caught the first Bristol screening of this documentary with a good friend of mine. He said "it's about chess, and therefore was worth seeing". I said "yes let's go". It's been a week of mixed results to be honest, as i've visited the Watershed cinema three times and come away feeling ambivalent each time, disappointed yet pleased. I don't actually watch films very often, and I haven't been watching films avidly since I finished university for the first time in 2008.

This satisfying ambivalence is in part what I like best about film. To some film studies is classed as a frivolous degree, though the same was said of English literature. Though its true that its a popularist form of art and it's primary function is to entertain. Its More engaging to see something new, either at the cinema or sticking a VHS or DVD in and pressing play with an wide array of expectations.

For instance, you might be putting on a classic, or a renowned recent film, you may have no expectations beyond poster art or the blurb on the back of the box, you may have heard negative criticism, or be watching something made by or with people you don't know or don't like. More than anything, seeing something new appeals to those notions of being transported. Often people talk this way about the effect of the darkened cinema, the show, or the journey of a night out. I think this is true of many scenarios, as it is the content that holds you and not the surroundings.

As a side note, its ironic that anti-piracy adverts, and commercials celebrating the 'experience' of cinema underplay or ignore the content itself. Is it against cinema to rent or buy a DVD for instance?

I've gone off on a bit of tangent, since I was planning to talk about a film not film itself. Returning to the Watershed, I saw Sawako Decides, mainly as an excuse to see something I had no idea of, and Bergman's excellent though tragic Sawdust and Tinsel. I can't deny that I have a bit of an infatuation with Japan, that some of my friends consider stereotypically western. While I didn't really enjoy Sawako Decides, nor did the quiet audience I watched it with, I liked it's take on issues of ambition and family. Both of which it appears to suggest, needent be rose-tinted or particularly exceptional.

The main problem I had with the film was its central character, who while searching for personality, never really feels like a character. In addition, the film was stuffed with quirky supporting characters, most of which sporting their own more engaging hang ups. I liked her self-loathing uncle a lot particularly his ability to be responsible when sober and a chauvinist mess when drunk.

Sawdust and Tinsel was better. The story concerns a travelling circus at what looks like the turn of the twentieth century. Barely scraping by the circus is hopeful that their fortunes will change when they find support from a local theatre in the ringmaster's home town. Again I wasn't totally won over, as at times it ran like a stock Bergman tragedy, full of hope and humour in its first act, with a decidedly sad turn in the final act. That isn't to say it was not moving and unique. It has some wonderful expressionist moments in which the digetic sound drops out during action scenes, such as the clown fetching his duplicitous wife from a group of soldiers. Lots of guilt, regret, and barely contained pride, with offbeat uncomfortable men, and beautiful knowing calculating women. Or am I being facetious? Perhaps, though I'd certainly see it again.

Bobby Fischer Against the World then, like I say I saw on a recommendation, and really as an excuse to go out. I didn't have any allusions as to what it would be like. I didn't even bother to check if it was a documentary or not. I like chess though, I haven't played it in a while, but y'know, I know what to do.

The film concerns the titular Bobby Fischer, a exceptional American chess master who came to prominence from a very young age as one of the world's best in the 1960s and 70s. Raised alone by his equally ambitious mother, Fischer took to chess from the age of six and instantly showed a real talent for it. Unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, the commitment he put into chess fostered an anti-social and paranoid disposition within him. Essentially Bobby had a perfect mind for chess but not for ordinary life, as he was often difficult and demanding with his few friends and disparate family.

The film charts his rapid ascent to victory as the 1972 chess world champion in an extraordinary title fight staged in Iceland against the Russian master Boris Spassky. Fischer though turned away from chess and disappeared from public prominence, choosing not to defend his crown and began dropping out of contact with everyone he knew. Hereafter the film details his rising paranoia and cynicism, most evident in his extreme anti-Semitism.

Fischer reappeared in the 1990s completely out of the blue, taking part in a controversial 'revenge' chess match Spassky in Yugoslavia in the midst of the war that was engulfing the crumbling country. Some time later Fischer was infamously arrested in Japan for taking part in the second Spassky match. The matter was resolved when he was granted asylum in Iceland, where he remained until his death in 2005.

Phew! What a difficult life to summarise!

A perfect subject for a film, since it has so many tantalising questions, such as the backdrop of the cold war during Fischer's world championship win. Or his disgusting racism made all the more curious since Fischer was Jewish. Then there's the game of chess itself and the whole make up of a world championship, with it's strategising, mind games and adherence to its own unique traditions and rituals. Perfect opportunity for several films even. Unfortunately, the film suffers from taking a superficial look at it's subject and an hugely inconsistent tone.

The result of these flaws is a film that gleefully recounts Fischer's story in a sensational manner, that is as hung up on the changing image of celebrity and the images the media produces than it is on what it purports to be about, namely the significance of Fischer and his life in context with ideas about sport, imperialism, and psychology. Worse still - and this is cruel to type - but the film shouldn't really have even been released at the cinema. It bore all the hallmarks of a TV documentary, it was even produced by HBO with the BBC. Throughout were gimmicky inter-titles and talking heads (each with their own annoying camera angles and colour schemes).

All I could think of was how much better Senna (2010) had been, since it had dispensed of talking heads and had dispensed of much of Ayton Senna's life to tell a better story. The Fischer film played like they had gathered even bit of footage available had attempted to cram it all in. Scenes in Iceland, from another movie about Fischer no less, felt particularly tacked on, shown him arguing as if this was enough to convey how deluded he had become. In some ways, the comparison between Senna and Fischer makes sense, since the Brazilian was part of a sport determined by audience, one that cannot function without the media, where every aspect is governed by advertising. Even world championship chess pales, a world championship the film makers emphasise was a huge worldwide draw.

The insights of Senna assembled almost entirely from TV footage reveal a man pushing and being pushed by the media-machine in the midst of fighting for formula one world championships. We get a sense of how he dealt with it all, and for the most part was successful in racing and in his private life. Bobby Fischer is instead a man who can't deal with his life very well, and a life of fame only isolates him further. Sure he likes some fame and the money to go with it, but he remains incomplete and trapped. Despite the film conveying his many predicaments, the film never finds a balance to separate him from chess and concentrate on how good his chess was.

My friend mentioned after the screening that the centrepiece of the film, the 1972 title match, wasn't shown as it developed. We aren't actually shown chess. The game isn't shown in a meaningful way. There's the odd move analysed, but little more. To be brutal, it's a film about a chess player that doesn't show much chess and doesn't discuss player away from chess.

In any case, Fischer is a fascinating complex man, I just would have preferred to learn about him in a more subtle manner, either through his chess or focussed on his life outside of the sport.

(as always, i'll polish this entry another day, it's late and I need to sleep)

Monday, 6 June 2011

Sunday, 5 June 2011

I've been looking for this for years...

Cibo Matto - ''Sugar Water'' (Music Video)

... until this evening i'd been unsuccessful, cos I was convinced that it was a Bjork video. The bit with the cat is particularly smart. Michel Gondry seems to be in his element. I'll put together a blog post of a selection of my favourite music vids, a couple of which were also directed by Gondry.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A Man's Words, A Woman's Voice

Try this, Mutual Attraction - a rock-solid slab of mid eighties R&B funk.

Original album version from Turn On Your Radio (1985) Atlantic (US)/Cool Tempo (UK)

Its by Change, who are a relatively little known Italian and American (not Italian-American) studio group. They put out a string of albums in the first half of the eighties, and had some hits on both sides of the Atlantic, most memorably "A Lover's Holiday", "Searching" and "Change of Heart". In all honestly, they'll go down as a only footnote in the career of Luther Vandross.

So why Mutual Attraction? Well, it's been on my mind since I first heard it, the vocal is by Deborah Cooper, who does a fine job, and the song is written by Timmy Allen, who is now best known for writing and producing some of Britney Spears' more treacly ballads. Well what's struck me is the lyric, which for the most part is a totally par Change lyric, concerned with dancing, love and a sensual subtext. Listening a little closer and you'll recognise that its a paean to a man, and is highlighted by lines such as:

"When I first saw you, you blew me kiss, I smiled and laughed it off, I tried to resist, you look so good, so inviting, I can feel a mutual attraction"

Perhaps it Allen's lack of subtlety, or Cooper's yearning vocal, but every time I hear that I think not of a woman addressing a man, but man imagining himself from the perspective of a woman.

Sure there is nothing new about men writing songs for women, or even partners writing songs for one another to sing. Though I think you could almost place "Mutual Attraction" in the same category as Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Quite a stretch? Probably. What strikes me is the mirroring and the switching of subjectivity. The real curiosity of Vertigo is not that the lead character (Scottie/Jimmy Stewart) is obsessed, but rather that he comes to realise that what he has obsessed over is not it appears. Not a real woman, a trap and snare yes, but actually another man's idea of what will ensnare him. The sad predicament is that Scottie has fallen in love with another man's dream.

Returning to "Mutual Attraction", an ironic title perhaps? Isn't Allen 'dressing up' Deborah Cooper? This could be painted as a solipsistic song about a person's - arguably a man's - desire to be desired, rather than to desire for another. This has hardly moved the point along, but i'm left pondering if both possible meanings are nakedly obvious. I wonder what Deborah Cooper thought about it? Was the song written without specifying a gender for the vocalist?

Mutual Attraction (Nick Martinelli Version) - This is the version I prefer

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Chaplin at Keystone

My first piece of work for another website has gone up at 'The Void' ( It's a nice little site that over a few years has built up an impressive catalogue of film reviews.

Its here:

I was given the opportunity to review a new Charlie Chaplin boxset recently released by the BFI. I've never been much of a Chaplin or silent comedy fan, sure I like both, but i'm not too passionate about either. That said, I really enjoyed the films in the Chaplin at Keystone boxset. It was a box that was effectively put together, by that I mean, the quality of film prints and soundtracks were excellent. The liner notes in particular were extremely helpful when flicking through thirty-five films, and saved me the trouble of looking on wikipedia to find my bearings.

So i'd appreciate it if you'd give it a read.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Be Right Back

Sorry for the lack of updates. I've been aiming to post once of twice a month. I won't be posting another for at least another week. This is because i'm finishing up my MA dissertation. Its on three of Hayao Miyazaki's films, my favourites of course, the three are My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away.

So here are my favourite pieces of music from each film:

"Tonari No Totoro" by Joe Hisaishi and sung by Azumi Inoue

"Hareta Hi Ni..." by Joe Hisaishi

"Ano Natsu he" by Joe Hisaishi

Monday, 4 October 2010

Accidental Appropriateness

As if my own remarks hadn't already underlined how out of date I was when talking about limiting film locations in my entry yesterday, Steve Rose has published an article on the Guardian website about the very same thing. In my case I said that I couldn't think of many new films that use the location gimmick, whereas Rose's whole piece pours over the plethora of films that do exactly that. His opening gambit is really his only point:

Single-location thrillers used to be a chance for film-makers to show off their virtuosity in constrained circumstances, like Hitchcock's Lifeboat or Open Water, but now they're just starting to look like a cheap and easy way to get attention.

Anyway, the article is here.

To be fair, I wasn't talking about horror and thrillers which use a single room. I was talking about scriptwriters and filmmakers aiming for economy of place. Die Hard (1988) isn't set in one room, but the skyscraper and the surrounding area contain everything in a tidy fashion.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

This entry is seventeen years out of date, at least.

I am about to ask a lot of pointless questions, and I won't be following them up.

I’ve been thinking about the Die Hard scenario, by this I mean the novelty of a particular space being the site of a hostage scenario. It was a high-concept idea back in the late eighties and early nineties. The Die Hard series played out the ridiculous progression rather well, it went from, Terrorist’s hi-jack a skyscraper, to an international airport, to the city of New York, to the whole of the United States. In each film logic dictated that a New York cop (Willis) could resolve the situation in a slam-bang manner picking off the terrorists with a combination of absurd violence and swearing. I really like the films, although the third one isn’t much good, they shouldn’t have ditched the Christmas theme either, as without what felt like a violent fairytale aspect, they seemed like run-off-the-mill action films.

So Die Hard (1988), which was and is still a very good action film, spawned a slew of imitators, Die Hard on a boat (Under Siege(1992)), on a plane (Executive Decision(1996)), in a sports stadium (Sudden Death (1995)), in a hospital (Hard Boiled (1992)) and so on (although i'm running low on ideas).

The hostage narrative isn’t really much different from the siege or disaster movie, and you could lump films as unlikely as Phone Booth (2002) and 12 Angry Men (1957) into the mix. Essentially any film that is about the location more than the characters could be included. You might say that Phone Booth and 12 Angry Men were all about the characters, I mean the latter especially is a terrific ensemble and real issues as oppose to blowing up a plane with a Zippo lighter. But in all a lot of these films the characters have to be exceptionally ordinary. By this I mean they are exceptional, but they are defined completely by their relation to the location. Sometimes there will be average joes, and other times we will see supervillains/international terrorists (or what have you), holidaying priests, secret agents. But why were these films so popular? And for what reason are they out of favour? In recent years disaster films tend toward numerous locations (2012 (2009), The Day After Tomorrow (2004)), action movies all seem to be structured like globe-trotting bond films. At what size does a location lose its novelty? Die Hard just about held on to this location credibility in the turgid third film with the city setting, before throwing it out gleefully in the fourth film (which I liked better). The latter was a lot more fun, but it resembled the second Terminator film oddly enough. I can’t help but recall the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), which ditches the police precinct for a nearby wood, thus stripping the film of its central novelty. In any case it matters little, the film was lost by that point. How many locations can a film have before all are devalued?

Returning to Phone Booth, which was probably my favourite high-concept film of the last decade, I really loved how everything was arranged by the booth. Larry Cohen's script probably read like an asset and flaw for the producers, since it limits everything, but it kept the story tight, resulting in a perfectly watchable eighty or so minute film. Hell, one of my other faves of the last decade was United 93 (2006), which if it wasn’t based on a true story, probably would have been called a serious die hard on a plane. In both films, the novelty of the location actually enriches the characters, which are the typical focus of most films. So as much as I like the Bourne films, the characters merely trot around Europe from one fight or plot point to the next, with the spaces appearing as little for than convenient backdrops. Of course it helps that these are films about a character with a lack of character. This to me goes back to a real staple of the genre, North By Northwest (1959). This film makes little secret that its central character Roger 'O' Thornhill is empty inside (the ‘O’ stands for nothing, so he says). The locations that stitch together the plot matter little, but in place or a fight, or say another fight, or an interrogation, or a fight perhaps, Cary Grant’s character actually changes and develops positively.

Now i'm not knocking action films (well maybe a little), but it seems ironic that a firm grasp on a few locations, even in an exploitation film, can be a stage for engaging situations and characters. It's also ironic that the further cinema goes from theatre, which generally restricts action to a few locations, the worse a sense of place is conveyed. A big part of cinema has been to break away from Theatre, which I still think is the biggest influence on the medium. Theatre adaptations have been a major part of cinema for much of its existence, in response we get ideas like total cinema, where all elements of sound and vision work in harmony for a kind of full expression. But visual virtuosity and good storytelling don't always come together, and stagey films for all their flaws are often very pointed. Some of the best classic-era Hollywood films are fairly straight takes on theatre. I'm pleased that all of the major adaptations of The Front Page didn't tamper with the locations very much. Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940) manages to be one of the quickest and funniest films and having a stable location really helps keep the audience in touch with the jokes and the plot. Can you imagine it being made in this manner today?

All of which brings me to my initial and stupid question. What is an appropriate setting for a Die Hard-type scenario? I'm in the library at the moment, and I couldn’t help but ponder if it would be ridiculous in a good or bad way. What possible reason could a character hi-jack such a place? I mean for instance Dog Day Afternoon (1975) depicted a bank robbery that fuelled by payment for an operation, so I suppose any scenario is possible. Once people are involved and not their jobs importance anything can happen. Just suppose an old fashioned style robbery of the staff and visitors was conducted but went wrong? Would the book novelty hold up? Or is the flaw of a library that all the floors look the same? What about a post office then? Surely that’s been done, hasn’t there been a film about the IRA 1916 Easter Rising which partially took place in a post office in Dublin? What about a leisure centre? Or a car park? For instance, imagine any location in any bond film, let’s say the multi-story car park in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Had the film revolved around that one location might we have been able to like any of the characters? Surely the Bond films have run out of new locations, isn’t a dramatic reduction the only place left to go? Anyway, there’s no point having a pop at a film series as facile as Bond, the whole point is that they are the same. At its very best it's good trash. But imagine for a moment describing an action film purely by its locations, surely an important aspect. These are just a couple of films I like, Die Hard becomes skyscraper and surrounding area film, The Killer (1989) is Hong Kong film set in posh homes, bars, car parks, the open sea, a church, a small apartment, a hospital. Thinking about this, I’d love to see versions of action films if the script was rewritten to only take place on one set, I wonder if it would make much difference, now that would be real armchair theatre.

To end this entry I’ll list a few places I’d like to see as central forthcoming films, they make have been done already of course. A cafe (i'm starting small), a music studio, a cinema, a bakery, a nail bar, a hardware store, a kitchen, a library, a warehouse, a penguin enclose in a zoo, Lucasfilm studios (preferably a zombie film for that one), a natural spring, a hedge. Maybe that’s enough. I suppose my next post will have to be about films with two novel locations.

(this will be edited for grammar and spelling, and coherence eventually)

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Chic Cheer

I've been listening to Chic all weekend, I don't have very much of their stuff, so You Tube has proven to be a goldmine. One of the real finds was this live recording from 1996 of "I Want Your Love". It was a historic night for the group because they were performing to celebrate the awarding of producer of the year for Nile Rodgers (Guitar). It turned out to be even more important for less jubilant reasons. Bernard Edwards (Bass) had fallen ill that day but insisted on playing, likely because of the trouble the group had gone to travelling to Japan with special guests. He clearly did not want to appear to be letting everyone down. Sadly he died that night from Pneumonia. His death makes this performance the last of its kind as he was co-producer, co-songwriter and co-founder of the group with Rodgers. Few had such a distinctive bass style, that's not to say the group do not continue to this day as a successful live act.

With that in mind one can't help but notice how subdued Edwards looks, but it isn't worth reading in to it too much, especially since he grooves with Rodgers so well in the breakdown. This live take on the song really builds to an intense climax. The horn section and Tony Thompson's drumming deserve to be singled out for credit. Look out for Prince-protege Jill Jones on secondary vocals. So, enjoy this performance live from Budokan.