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An A-Z of Film Themes

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M Is for Memory

M Is for Memory

 

As numerous politicians, journalists and public intellectuals have noted at one time or another: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So overused is this phrase, first coined by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, it today serves as a kind of one-size-fits-all for discussions of history; eye-catching, comprehensive, easily stretched to fit whatever happens to be the week’s hot debate – the rhetorical equivalent of Lycra boxer shorts (and about as successful at disguising bollocks). Wrenched from their original context, his philosophical treatise A Life of Reason (1905-6), Santayana’s words now belong to any fortune-cookie aphorist with an opinion to share.

Never one to miss out on the chance of making my work sound cleverer than it really is, I’ll henceforth be referring to this blog as my “Ode to George.” For though it may sound like I’m covering well-trodden ground, and at the risk of condemning myself to a hundred lines of hackneyed repetition, what follows is an essay on film, memory, the past and why we must, vis-à-vis Beyonce, guard against that most terrifying of psychological phenomena, déjà vu.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

For Santayana, memory was a bulwark against stagnation. “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness”, he wrote. “When experience is not retained… infancy is perpetual.” Individuals and societies need memory to develop ethically, politically and socially. Absorbing the lessons of the past was a prerequisite to progress. Santayana had not seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind when he penned these words, but I suspect he would have appreciated the film’s sentiments. When Mary (Kirsten Dunst) recites a snippet from Alexander Pope’s poem “Eloisa to Abelard”, and considers it a celebration of forgetfulness, she is unaware of the destructive impact forced-amnesia has had on her own personal development:

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot

The world forgetting, by the world forgot

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind

Each prayer accepted and each wish resigned

Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) nods approvingly at her recitation. He would do: he’s the mastermind in charge of erasing memories of those unable, or unwilling, to suffer them. And, what is more, he and Mary have had a torrid affair – subsequently deleted from the latter’s own mind-bank. So ignorant is Mary of her past mistakes, she almost falls for the good doctor’s charms again. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is an ironic title, for this film suggests that vicious cycles await the person who refuses to remember.

On the other hand, Santayana may have looked less kindly upon a film like Forrest Gump, whose message is manifest in the line: “My mama always said you’ve got to put the past behind you before you can move on.” Perpetual infancy would seem to be Gump’s overriding charm as he dithers through the “turbulent sixties” and the “selfish seventies”. It is perhaps unsurprising that numerous critics saw in this film a paean to forgetting, a dangerous distortion of history, one which erased the impact of sixties social movements and painted a Disney-like portrait of post-World War II America.

Santayana – and I feel like I’m beginning to understand his taste in movies now – would have seen in Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), the amnesiac anti-hero of Christopher Nolan’s thriller Memento, all the sinister implications of a life of Gumpish forgetfulness. A little amnesia goes a long way here. It is both alibi and catalyst for murder.

Had Santayana lived long enough to become a hip, Zizek-like, rock-star intellectual, he might well have written a book on how Gump and Shelby offered equally unpleasant portrayals of the same phenomenon. Personal ethics, moral choices and progressive politics have all been eroded in a society that promotes forgetting as a virtue. Perhaps he’d have prefaced his study with a line from Eminem:

Kinda feels like déjà vu,

I wanna get out of here, I do

 

Now, where was I?

The sheer volume of public dialogue that surrounds films like The Help, Goodbye Lenin, Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful to name just a few highlights the stake we place in memory. Individual recollections merge with collective politics to form an arena in which our beliefs, values and hopes for the future are contested. Memory is at once ideological and emotional. It is modernity’s conscience.

Indeed, it strikes me as no accident that Santayana’s phrase gained particular clout in the years following the end of World War II. For example, a search for “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” in electronic archives of The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune sees its usage begin in the late 1940s. The first direct quotation I could find in the Times appears in April 1945 in reference to a play called A Place of Our Own. The play’s subject matter was apposite. As the review noted, it used the First World War and its aftermath as a lens through which to explore contemporary concerns. Namely, America’s role on the world stage: should the country remain isolationist and avoid getting involved in world wars, or should it intervene for the sake of humanity? As the full extent of Nazi atrocities became apparent, not to mention the spread of international communism suggesting to some a case of history repeating itself, such questions would only intensify. And so too would recourse to Santayana.

Writing in 1960, self-styled “Mr Conservative”, Senator Barry Goldwater lamented the downward spiral America had endured since the introduction of social welfare programs in the 1930s. The Roosevelt administration’s New Deal legislature, along with a softly-softly approach toward international communism, was, in Goldwater’s view, the reason his country stood at the brink of collapse. “We conservatives do not want to ‘repeal’ history”, he announced. “We just don’t want to repeat it.” His call for a new era in American politics was of course accompanied by the solemn refrain: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Twenty years later, conservatives would forget Goldwater’s ‘30s revisionism and blame the 1960s for America’s international, economic and moral decline.

Those who cannot…

Goldwater’s New Deal bashing is obviously not everyone’s idea of remembering the past. For the purposes of this blog it brings into perspective the paradox of Santayana’s phrase. What does it mean to “remember the past”? As historians have long pointed out, there is a disjuncture between “the past” – that is, what actually happened – and the way in which we tell it. In F.R. Ankersmit’s view there is an “incongruity between present and past, between the language we use for speaking about the past and the past itself.” History is not the past but a narrative used to make meaning. Memory is not the past but its reconstruction. On the back of such ideas, the next stage has inevitably been to ask for what purposes this reconstruction takes place.

We observe how a society, to quote political scientist Michael Shudson, uses memory to “[think] out loud about itself.” 1980s films about the Vietnam War – Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, the Rambo series etc. – say as much about political conflicts of the Reagan era as they do about the war itself. Maybe, as some have argued, they helped support an aggressive foreign policy in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq and everywhere else that had a knock on the door from Uncle Sam during the 80s and early 90s. Films like We Were Soldiers, World Trade Center, United 93 and Rescue Dawn promote individual heroism at the expense of social context, thus celebrating war even as they commemorate its victims. Even silly time-travel capers and comedies like Hot Tub Time Machine and Take Me Home Tonight speak to recent attempts at revisiting and valorising the once-despised 1980s. As western leaders see their cherished free-market ideologies discredited by economic catastrophes – the credit crunch, mass unemployment etc. – a nostalgic look back to the “golden” age of neoliberalism might be just what the propaganda machine ordered. Memory reassures, it invents, it forgets.

While there is some mileage is this approach, there is the danger of dismissing memory as something that is simply made- up – all about construction and fabrication. It turns, as Barry Schwartz puts it, “the study of collective memory into a kind of cynical muckraking.” There are certainly times when I find myself adopting this stance as a convenient ruse to avoid having to deal with memory as anything more than empty nostalgia or ideological conservatism (see, for instance, my earlier post “G Is for Gettysburg”).

Surely, there is more to memory than this. Is it not possible to find a place where past and present are not irrevocably separate, but can co-exist?

When Scotty (Tom Guiry), the hero of coming-of-age film The Sandlot reminisces about his youth spent playing baseball, time folds in on itself. The movie begins in the 1990s present; Scotty, now a baseball commentator, enters a journalist booth. A brief anecdote about the legendary batter Babe Ruth leads straight in to personal reminiscences. Photographs of the Great Bambino give way to family snaps. We are taken back in time. Past and present collide as the adult Scotty narrates over scenes from his own childhood. He explains how he had just moved to a new town and was struggling to make friends. We watch him skulk the suburban streets, eventually coming upon a sandlot where a group of kids are playing baseball. “It was like their own little baseball kingdom or something”, says the narrator.

” When I finally got up enough guts to go out there and try to make friends, I found out that  they never kept score. They never chose sides. They never even really stopped playing the game. It just went on forever. Every day they picked up right where they left the day before. Like an endless dream game.”

A game without beginning, without end – Scotty’s comments are apt, for the “endless dream game” of which he speaks becomes a bit of a cheesy metaphor for life: unceasing, repetitive, circular. Boys come-of-age on the baseball diamond; men revisit their childish selves. The ghosts of past, present and future sit side by side. “The one constant through all the years … has been baseball”, says a character in another baseball-themed movie, Field of Dreams.  And I’d say that the one constant of baseball films over the years, has been the idea that the past and present bleed in to one another. The past is always present just as the present is always past. The ghosts of Babe Ruth and Shoeless Joe Jackson consort with little kids about to begin their life’s journey; adults retrace their childish footsteps around the diamond’s hallowed turf.

I’m not sure how much philosophical gravitas we’re supposed to ascribe films like The Sandlot and Field of Dreams. Their representations are, to put it mildly, nostalgic. But I like the idea of viewing memory as a metaphorical baseball diamond. Travelling in a circle means never leaving your past behind. Wherever you stand, your former selves, experiences and histories remain in view. And, hell, if you get caught in a rundown – baseball talk for being stuck between bases – then moving backward may very well be as essential to progress as, well, moving forward. Quite Santayana-esque, when you come to think of it.

Baseball may not explain the mysteries of remembering, but it’s helped me think through my own confusion – a little bit, at least. The past, in all its complexities, may well be elusive, never to be retrieved. But perhaps enough of it remains for us to learn something from it; to respond to it – emotionally, psychologically, physically, morally.

And if nothing else, the idea of tossing a baseball around with George Santayana has entertained and sustained me on more than one occasion this autumn. It’s become a kind of fake childhood memory: me standing there with a runny nose, cut elbow and muddy shorts waiting for him to throw the ball. George, dressed in jeans and a lumberjack shirt, winding up to pitch. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, he shouts before popping a yakker in my direction. As the sun goes down we’re still out there, absorbed in that timeless ritual, putting memory to rights. Every curveball a reminiscence; every fastball a flashback; every thwack of cork on leather strikes another blow for truth.

THE END

It’s with these thoughts in mind that I want to finish this post, but also prepare for the next. In many ways, my own attempts to explore memory up until now have always been absent one key ingredient: my own recollections. When I look at the 1960s, or World War II or Vietnam in collective memory I always do so as an outsider. Perhaps it is easier to take a cynical tack when your examination is not clouded by personal reminiscences. Thus, next up I’ll be looking at cinematic memory of an era very much in my own lifetime. It’s the first decade that I can really say I was old enough to be conscious of events happening around me. It’s my Sandlot decade; when I grew up and watched the world go by.

N Is for Nineties.

Bibliography

Ankersmit, F.R. “Historiography and Postmodernism”. In Keith Jenkins ed. The Postmodern History Reader (London: Routledge, 1997).

Goldwater, Barry, “A Conservative Sets Out His Credo”, New York Times, July 31, 1960, p. SM16.

Santayana, George, The Life of Reason (London: Prometheus, 1998).

Shudson, Michael Watergate in American Memory: How we Remember, Forget and Reconstruct the Past (New York: Basic Books, 1993)

Schwartz, Barry Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Zolotow, Sam, “‘Place of Our Own’ to Arrive Tonight”, New York Times, April 2, 1945, p. 16.

L Is for Lost Weekend

As far as these rambling blogs have gone, I’ve tried up until now to avoid focusing all energies on a single movie. But for the letter L there was only one subject that sprang to mind. The Lost Weekend (1945) is, in my view, the best-made film ever, which is different from saying it’s the best film ever made. I don’t think it’s my favourite film (this changes so often it might well have been at some point), and though it seems to be pretty well represented in discussions of Hollywood ‘classics’ – as a film noir, as a social problem film, as a film about alcohol (see blog ‘A’) – there is no attempt here at gilding its memory with a coat of ‘all time greatest.’ There are plenty of Sight and Sound lists for that kind of thing.

The Lost Weekend deserves the title of best-made film, I think, because it is a damn tight package. Its themes, its form and its style are so seamlessly interwoven that removing just one frame, cutting one line of dialogue, turning the lights a little bit up or a little bit down, having the actors move slightly slower off-screen or faster on-screen, would topple its dramatic unity like a house of cards.

It’s difficult to explain quite how compact, but at the same time, precariously balanced, The Lost Weekend feels to me. Trying to break it down has been a bit like buying one of those Argos do-it-yourself wardrobes – once you’ve spent hours removing all that infuriatingly close-fitting plastic comes the real question. Can something useful be made of all these bits and pieces?

Anyway, that convoluted Argos simile was the sum total of my sitting around today trying to devise a witty opening paragraph to introduce a film about a writer who turns to alcohol because the muse has failed him. I give up. Let rhetorical constipation beget rhetorical constipation; let The Lost Weekend speak for itself. And if this sober analysis is no match for enjoying the movie in all its boozy brilliance, let it at least be read responsibly.

The fourth film Billy Wilder directed in America, The Lost Weekend is in many ways a perfect companion piece to Wilder’s classic noir Double Indemnity (1944), offering a similar tale of unchecked desires, crime, moral turpitude and a general descent into physical and spiritual turmoil. ‘The moment they met it was murder’ went the promotional tagline to Double Indemnity. The same sentiments might just as easily have been applied to The Lost Weekend. Here is a film that deals with a relationship of sorts, a relationship that leads central protagonist Don Birnam (Ray Milland) to the brink. Only this time our hapless protagonist does not have Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson to contend with; Birnam’s scourge is something else –  just as overpowering, something probably more intoxicating than mere feminine charm. Birnam is married to the bottle.

At the time of The Lost Weekend’s release, Wilder offered a characteristically bad-taste parallel between this lust for booze and lust for women. Noting that, on the back of hit production To Have and to Have Not (1944), the actress Lauren Bacall had gained the title ‘The Look’, Wilder quipped that, after The Lost Weekend’s critical and commercial success, surely Milland would become known as ‘The Kidney.’ And while such glibness does not do justice to The Lost Weekend’s serious subject matter, it does offer an apt allusion to the ways in which it recognises the comedy of drunkenness, the glamour of metropolitan high-life, but at the same time reveals the consequences that having one too many can bring.

The Lost Weekend drags us into the addled mind of a dipsomaniac as he careens from disaster to disaster on a crash-course of drunkenness and despair. In a striking echo of Barton Keyes’ ‘trolley car’ speech in Double Indemnity, Birnam describes his addiction thus: ‘when you get on that merry-go-round, you gotta ride it all the way. Round and round till the music dies down and that blasted thing comes to a stop.’ Like murder, alcoholism in The Lost Weekend is conceived as an incessant journey with only one outcome. Indeed, merry-go-rounds and ‘vicious circles’ become prominent aural and visual metaphors in the film, all signifying Birnam’s fate.

Figure 1: Don Birnham on a hunt for alcohol

From the towering heights of the Empire State to the more humble and anonymous façade of an apartment block, the opening shot presents an array of New York City iconography in one uninterrupted pan (for an excellent scene by scene breakdown see Tim Dirks’s analysis at filmsite.org). Tracking in, the camera reveals that, hanging on a piece of rope from out the apartment window is a bottle. As we shall shortly discover, the bottle contains whisky. The connection between big city life and personal vice is seamlessly conveyed through this shot. If Double Indemnity suggested that Los Angeles glitz and glamour was but a cover for a seedy and corrupt underbelly, The Lost Weekend suggests a similar den of iniquity nestling beneath New York’s impressive exterior.

Birnam is a writer; in his teenage years he seemed to be on the way to glory. He was published in The Reader’s Digest. He was going to be the new Hemingway. But something happened; he dried up, unable to produce decent writing anymore. The camera tracks in the open apartment window and reveals Birnam packing a suitcase. This shot is accompanied by a particularly eerie musical score.  According to Dirks’ filmsite article, The Lost Weekend made use of an instrument called a theremin in order to create the sounds meant to act as accompaniment to Birnam’s state of mind. They certainly emphasise an almost science-fiction-like quality, as if Birnam is not really on this planet. His mind is certainly not on the job at hand. He is supposed to be going on a long weekend in the country with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry), but, as he informs us later, his mind was elsewhere, ‘eighteen inches below’ the window frame to be exact. That’s where his bottle of whisky hangs.

Wick waxes lyrical about the benefits of a weekend in the country: ‘It’ll be good for you Don, after what you’ve been through. Trees and grass and sweet cider and buttermilk and water from that well that’s colder than any other w…’ An irritated Don interjects: ‘Wick, please, why this emphasis on liquids – very dull liquids.’ There’s something more to Don Birnam’s comment than mere riposte. It actually speaks to the way in which language is used throughout the film to explore the duelling states of drunkenness and sobriety. Different rhythms, registers and speech styles heighten the contrasts between characters. Wick’s speeches are stern and platitude-riddled, if often sympathetic. Don on the other hand, and especially when drunk, veers off into sweeping, colourful, statements and pontifications. Indeed, while Weekend offers a chilling portrait of the dangers of alcoholism, it does at times seem to enjoy the fantastical monologues that emanate from lubricated lips.

The film’s second sequence is revealing on this count. After convincing his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) to take Wick to a classical music concert, Birnam is left to his own devices. Ten dollars that were supposed to go to his brother’s housekeeper end up becoming Birnam’s beer tokens as he begins an afternoon’s imbibing. As Birnam enters the off license, the camera lingers behind the whiskey shelf, a secret voyeur into the world of the alcoholic (Figure 1). We never see the proprietor in full profile. He could be anyone; he is but one of many people throughout the film who, while seemingly scornful of Birnam’s alcoholism, are nevertheless happy to fuel this addiction so long as he has money. ‘I can’t stop anyone, can I’, the proprietor says, knowing he’d been asked not to serve Birham, ‘not unless you’re a minor.’ From a less-than-reluctant shopkeeper to a similarly flexible barman, Birnam now moves on to his old haunt, Nats Bar. On the way he greets a well-to-do lady who replies warmly, then whispers to her friend ‘that’s the nice young man who drinks.’ She is one of the hypocritical chattering classes that plague Birnam throughout his drunken escapades.

Entering the bar, Birnam asks the bartender Nat (Howard Da Silva) for his ‘hand in marriage.’ It’s the first  reference to the immense hold that the bar has upon him. ‘Ah Mr. Birnam, why don’t you lay off the stuff for a while’ says Nat, simultaneously sloshing out another jigger of rye. It’s not surprising really: Nat’s Bar is hardly thriving. The only regulars seem to be Nat himself, Birnam and Gloria (Doris Dowling), a wonderful part-comic-part-tragic creation, who’s penchant for abbreviating phrases – ‘why natch’; ‘don’t be ridic’ – serves as a long-running joke, but also as quite a tragic portrayal of a woman desperate to be en vogue and ‘with it’. Her life revolves around the few bucks thrown at her by lonely old men in need of some company. It is through bit players such as Nat and Gloria that a broader slice of city life is carved: like the characters in Double Indemnity, these are men and women not without their scruples and human decency, but who are forced into ‘immoral’ activities for a few much-needed dollars.

Continuing with this scene: once Birnam’s had a few drinks he transforms from an agitated bag of nerves into a relaxed, eloquent and, truth be told, thoroughly entertaining bon vivre. ‘It shrinks my liver doesn’t it; it pickles my kidney’s, yes – but what does it do to my mind?’ Birnam explains: ‘It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m    competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over the Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones.’ The supreme confidence with which Birnam extols the glories of booze is but one instance where alcohol is to some degree romanticised, at least to begin with, as a means of escape from the hum-drum.

Figure 2: The Vicious Circle

Undercutting Birnam’s merriment at this point, however, is the introduction of the ‘vicious circle’ motif, which crops up in visuals and dialogue throughout the film. After knocking back his first whiskey, he asks Nat to leave the circular stains left by the glass untouched. ‘Don’t wipe it way, Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle’, he says. ‘You know the circle is the perfect geometric figure: no end, no beginning.’ This is how Birnam conceives his addiction. As discussed below, one could also apply this circle metaphor to the structure of the film itself. Later on Birnam will refer to being stuck on a ‘merry-go-round’ (noted above), another telling metaphor for his personal struggles. The film’s narrative may be linear, but there is the constant assertion that the hero’s journey is circular.

The film’s first twenty minutes introduce a series of parallels and juxtapositions: drunken looseness vs. stolid sobriety; middle-class morality vs. the capitalist system. The jumping backward and forward between the apartment and the bar emphasises the repetitiveness and circularity of Birnam’s life. The next scene sees him back at Nat’s Bar. He speaks of how he sometimes ‘doesn’t know if it’s day or night’ and how he lives according to what time the bar or liquor stores open. A strange line is spoken here, as if Birnam was comparing his existence to that of a businessman or banker. Nat reminds him of a second bottle of whiskey he’d purchased the day before. Birnam replies: ‘That’s right, I did have two bottles didn’t I. I hid one of them. I’m a capitalist, Nat. I’ve got untapped reserves – I’m rich!’ In a society where assets are everything, Birnam sees himself as, I suppose, a wheeler and dealer – a boozy entrepreneur. Here it would seem that drinking, like The Asphalt Jungle would say of crime, is a ‘left-handed form of human endeavour.’ Society requires one to buy and consume en mass.

A brief argument between Nat and Birnam leads into a substantial flashback. It is Birnam recounting his romance with Helen.

In a vague echo of a scenario Wilder apparently concocted early in his American career for the Ernst Lubitsch directed Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), confusion over clothing leads to Birnam meeting his future girlfriend. In Bluebeard’s the main couple meet in a department store. The man (Gary Cooper) wants to buy a pair of pyjama trousers – he only wears the trousers – but is told that he must but the whole suit. Enter the woman (Claudette Colbert), who offers to go halves and buy the top for her father, who only wears pyjama tops. In a similar vein Birnam has to wait for Helen to exit the theatre to exchange coats. From here a romance begins to blossom. It seems significant that Bluebeard’s, a film about a woman attempting to ‘tame’ her man, is alluded to, for there are parallels between the two films’plots. It is another example of Wilderian self-referentiality/playing with conventions. Double Indemnity had seen Barbara Stanwyck redo her previously comedic role of intelligent beguiler of men (films like The Lady Eve) as evil, murderous manipulator. In The Lost Weekend this allusion works as an ironic commentary on the task ahead for the blissfully ignorant Helen. She, like Colbert, has some taming to do. Only, this time it’s not a millionaire playboy who needs controlling, but a raging alcoholic.

Appropriately, the couple’s relationship takes off thanks to Birnam accidentally dropping his bottle of whiskey. Instead of a night’s drunkenness, he accompanies Helen to a cocktail party where he, in his words, drank ‘only tomato juice.’ Then, after getting cold feet over meeting Helen’s parents, Don gets drunk again. It is clear to see where James Dean took inspiration for his drunken performance at the beginning of Rebel without a Cause. Birnam’s stooping gait, dragged feet, slurred but cutting remarks – all seem prototypes for Dean’s insouciant rebel. Helen appears at the apartment asking for him. Initially, Wick tells her that he’s not there and pretends that the empty whisky bottles are his own. Just as Helen is about to leave, however, Birnam emerges from the backroom and begins explaining himself. ‘What I’m trying to say is that I’m not a drinker, I’m a drunk.’ Birnam proceeds to explain his psychology. There are, apparently, two Don Birnam’s: Don the writer and Don the drunk…

Humour, pathos, rhythm, verbal gymnastics: the speech in the above clip could be something from a Tennessee Williams play. The repetition of certain words, ‘to counterbalance the counterbalance’, ‘the flop suicide of a flop writer’, hammers home the repetitive, incessantly circular existence in which Birnam finds himself. He is talking through and teasing out his own emotional traumas. This speech is the verbal equivalent of the whiskey stains on the bar, or the dissolves used to transition from reality to dream to nightmare.‘I’ve never done anything, I’m not doing anything, I never will do anything. Zero, Zero, Zero.’ So concludes Birnam’s rant. And after this, Birnam and the film itself descend into a dark, shadowy, noirish place, a place difficult to locate. A scene in which Birnham is disgraced at an upmarket bar (he attempts to steal money for his fancy vermouth drinks) concludes the second section. Jeered out of the bar by irate customers he stumbles home once more. Maybe it’s the lonely streets and boarded up buildings of an unforgiving New York City, or perhaps it’s because we’re now entering the black core of Birnam’s withered soul. Either way, things are about to go from bad to worse.

Part Three: the hangover to end all hangovers. Perhaps it’s the recent mega-success of the Hangover films, but it feels to me as if there have been quite a few shit portrayals of boozing lately. Whether we’re watching the Hangover and Hangover II’s overgrown babies wondering where their mate left his willy last night, or enduring another two hours of Johnny Depp’s theatrical mincing in Pirates of the Caribbean, hitting the ale has become a bit of an easy option for comedy filmmakers.  Fair enough, there can definitely be some humour in the un-complis mentus. But too often it is used to cover up a bad script. Not so in The Lost Weekend. Here we see the twisted nausea of a man suffering the hangover of the century. Bedraggled, penniless and in no mood for conversation, Birnam ignores the ringing telephone and heads out to pawn his typewriter. He staggers along the street in search of a shop. The first one he comes to is closed. And the second. Something is not right. Viewed through the shop’s iron shutters Birnam is revealed for the prisoner he is (Figure 3). A prisoner to fate on this occasion, for it happens to be Yom Kippur and therefore none of the Jewish pawn shops are open. Nor are the Irish ones – they have a deal. ‘They keep closed on Yom Kippur and we don’t open on St. Patrick’s.’ The music builds to a crescendo as Birnam staggers through the New York City streets. A series of dissolves reveal scorched, intimidating streets and boarded up buildings – not a place to go in search of charity.

Figure 3: Birnam as a prisoner of his own addiction

Eventually Birnam returns to the one place where he know’s he can find help:

Nat’s Bar. ‘One’s too many and a hundred’s not enough’ says Nat as he pours Birnam one free drink, then unceremoniously kicks him out. Next stop is Gloria’s place. Gloria’s anger at him standing her up for a date the night before leads her to initially snub his requests for money. When he kisses her, though, she melts and produces a five dollar bill. But it’s too little too late for Birnam, who is about to take a trip to the hospital. Bumping into a child, he crashes down the stairs and passes out at the bottom. Fade to a close up on Birnam’s face. More iron meshes signify that he is in another prison, a ward for alcoholics. The last refuge of the bar-fiend, it is a miserable place, inhabited by men who drool and grizzle. A nurse, Bim (Frank Faylen), enters. Bim is exactly the kind of character you’d expect to find, were The Lost Weekend a gothic horror and Birnam had just stumbled on isolated castle in the middle of some European mountain range. But appearing as he does in 1940s New York City, his languid yet chilling diction feels more like the product of Birnam’s twisted imagination than a ‘real’ character. A small smile creeps across Bim’s face as he speaks of the dreaded DT hallucinations. ‘You know that stuff about pink elephants’ he informs Birnam, ‘that’s the bunk. ‘It’s little animals: little tiny turkeys with straw hats, midget monkeys coming through the keyholes … like the doctor was just telling me, delirium is a disease of the night.’ And, of course, he concludes in the most camped-up drawl possible: ‘good night.’

Figure 4: In the Hospital

The dark room, punctured by occasional light slats beaming through the window; a close up on a particularly grotesque-looking Birnam as, off-screen, someone hacks up his lungs. A scream! One of the alkies has started seeing beetles on his pjamas. Nurses and orderlies rush to his assistance and, as they do so, Birnam slips out into the night. By the early hours he’s pacing around, waiting for the off license to open.

The days are passing so quickly now they are virtually non-existant. Birnam starts experiencing his first DTs. A mouse being brutally devoured by a bat on his living room wall pushes him to paroxysm. He screams and screams again. The apartment landlady hears him and phones Helen. Don’s face is true expressionist dynamite – sweating, shaking, eyes bulging – it’s like the film has suddenly gone ten years back in time and we’re in M or something similarly melodramatic and German.

Helen manages to bust in and calm him down. They both go to sleep. Don’s up again a few hours later. It’s proper morning now and he steals Helen’s jacket, bound for the pawn shop. Helen chases him, but by the time she catches up he’s hocked it. She assumes it’s for a drink, but then discovers it was for a gun. Birnam exchanges the very coat that brought them together in the first place, for an instrument of his own execution. As in Double Indemnity love becomes death, romance is translated into destruction. Helen is, however, intent on stopping this tragedy.

After chasing Don back to the apartment, there ensues a final scene that some argue negates the film’s attempts at social commentary. David Thomson, for instance, calls The Lost Weekend’s conclusion ‘a dispiriting compromise’ that ‘could not avoid Hollywood’s sense of a “happy ending.”’ On the surface it would seem that the film attempts to sugar coat all that has come before with a rather superficial reconciliation. Aware that Birnam has hidden the gun in his bathroom sink, Helen attempts to stall him. She asks for a coat, then a scarf, then even offers a glass of whiskey. Once it becomes clear that she knows of his intentions, Birnam attempts to justify the suicide: ‘this is just a formality; Don Birnam died this weekend.’ After a short argument Helen is, of course, eventually able to stop him. Nat the barman makes an appearance carrying Don’s typewriter: ‘I’ve oiled it up nice.’ Everything ends happily ever after: Don announces his plans to write the novel and as a symbolic gesture spoils the last remaining splash of whiskey with a dropped cigarette stub. His dangerous addiction beaten, perhaps.

While I accept Thomson’s point that The Lost Weekend provides a more positive conclusion than that offered in the novel on which the film is based, I’m not convinced that it is an entirely unproblematic ‘Hollywood happy ending.’ In some ways style undercuts content and provides something a little more complex and contradictory. In order to explore this possibility, we need to return to the above noted ‘vicious circle’ motif that crops up in dialogue and visuals throughout The Lost Weekend. We have Don Birnam once again ranting, as he had done with Nat, about his intentions to write a novel (that fact that Nat is the one who returns his typewriter is vaguely sinister in itself – as if his writing career is still under the control of a barman). We then have Birnam’s concluding comments, which are essentially a hark back to the film’s beginning: ‘I’m gonna put this whole weekend down, minute by minute. The way I stood in there packing my suitcase. Only my mind wasn’t on the suitcase; it wasn’t on the weekend … my mind was hanging outside the window, suspended, just about eighteen inches below.’ This speech facilitates a dissolve back to that opening scene. We see Don packing his suitcase once again. Then, in a mirror image of the shots that began the film the camera tracks backward to reveal the whiskey hanging from the window frame. Finally, it pans across to the New York City skyline. The film has come full circle. Surely, given the film’s themes and structure thus far, one could argue that the whole damn process is about to begin again. Birnam may have stopped drinking at present, but the scene implies that another cycle is on the cards. For all the optimistic patter emanating from the mouths of the two lovers, there remains a sneaking suspicion that it will not be long before Don Birnam jumps back on the merry-go-round for one last sup at the jigger of dreams. Just the one.

K Is for KINO

 

 For a little bit of left-wing London history, why not take a stroll down the Gray’s Inn Road. All along this busy Islington thoroughfare, which connects Kings Cross St Pancreas station to Holborn High Street, are traces of London’s political past.

Stop for a pint at local pub The Water Rats and maybe you’ll see the ghost of Vladimir Lenin having a quiet sup with his comrades. The Bolshevik leader was known to frequent this establishment – then called the Pindar of Wakefield – when he visited London in the early 1900s.

Were Lenin to guzzle a few too many ales, start shooting his mouth off and get beaten up by an army of disgruntled toffs, he could at least relax in the knowledge that there was a hospital very nearby. The Royal Free moved to Gray’s Inn Road in the mid-19th century. In 1877, it became the first hospital to admit women students for clinical training, and the only one to consistently do so until 1947, thus investing it with its own political and historical importance.

Continue up the road and look left onto Swinton Street. Here was the headquarters of the Sunday Worker, a communist weekly begun in 1925, and edited by radical politician William (Bill) Paul. A few years later the Sunday Worker would give way for its more famous daily incarnation. And at number 37 Gray’s Inn Road is the old residence of Central Books, the prime store for communist party publications throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Beer, books and bolshevism – if you’re not feeling a little Wobblie by the end of this walk, then bugger off back to your duck pond, mine fuehrer. There’s no hope.

For everyone else, you might be thinking, great, and, if I just had an ideologically sound movie to cap off the day … all would be well. Alas, if only KINO was still around.

KINO, the film arm of the International Union of the Revolutionary Theatre (which had its offices in Moscow), began operations in late 1933. After a short stint at Ormond Yard, the organisation made 84 Gray’s Inn Road its main headquarters. Committed to the distribution of Soviet and other left-wing filmmaking, KINO spent much of its early life fighting local councils for the right to show its product.

Poster advertising KINO

It was always going to be a tough job. This was the 1930s: Great Britain, like much of the developed world, was in the throes of economic depression, unemployment was rife, and fears that Russia’s communist experiment would capture the hearts and minds of British workers created a paranoid political climate. The slightest whiff of communism had politicians up in arms.

When KINO tried to exhibit Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s agit-prop classic Battleship Potemkin, for example, it met with enormous resistance from the London County Council. Bert Hogenkamp’s study of left-wing film of the 1930s, Deadly Parallels, covers these legal skirmishes. Potemkin had been banned in 1928 by the British Board of Film Censors and thus could not be shown in any licensed theatre. But if it was transferred from the standard 35mm film format to the smaller 16mm then such laws could be bypassed.

This all stemmed from the bizarre way in which film censorship and fire precautions had become intertwined in the early 20th century. 35mm film was made of Nitrate and was thus highly flammable. For this reason, anyone wishing to project films had to first have their premises checked by health and safety inspectors. If you failed the test, you could not show films. All 35mm films were sent to the British Board of Film Censors, and most local councils adopted laws which prohibited licensed premises from showing banned pictures.

However, 16mm films were inflammable, and theoretically free from any such legislation. Anywhere could screen 16mm, and it did not have to have passed the censor’s pen.  KINO made use of this loophole and attempted to show a 16mm Potemkin at Mornington Crescent’s Itrose Hall. On this occasion, the council threatened the hall’s owner with legal action, claiming that he needed a music and dancing license to show the film. The screening was stopped.

Again an effort was made to show the film in Hampstead. This time the LCC sent down a fire brigade representative in the hope that testing the film stock would see it go up in flames. It did not, and Potemkin was screened four times ‘to crowded audiences.’ And such battles between KINO and the LCC continued throughout the 1930s. The latter would send stern, but completely unfounded, letters warning cinema owners that they faced prosecution if they screened a banned film. It was then a case of whether or not the owner was sufficiently intimidated to buy the council’s bluff, or trusted KINO’s constant reminders that the LCC could do absolutely nothing.

Ad for a pro-Soviet propaganda film

While all this was going on, it may come as little surprise to hear that other elements of the British elite were taking an interest in KINO. In October 1933, head of MI5 Major-General Sir Vernon Kell sent a lengthy communication to J. Brooke Wilkinson, director of the British Board of Film Censors. Kell, who was known amongst his MI5 colleagues by the deliciously secretive nickname ‘K’, warned of a left-wing film group beginning operations in Great Britain: KINO. Noting that the group had already shown imported Soviet films ‘to workers in the East End of London’ K concluded his letter with reference to communist cartoons and documentaries currently in production.

K and Brooke Wilkinson would correspond throughout the 1930s on the matter of KINO. In fact, according to files held at the National Archives in Kew, the MI5 boss seems to have marshalled an impressive network of informers and correspondents in his search for intelligence on this organisation’s activities.

The records make for fascinating reading. We have detailed descriptions made by undercover policemen of film screenings taking place in various halls and meeting rooms. Take this example of a KINO screening at Islington Town Hall. From 1936 onward the organisation turned its focus on the Spanish civil war, and support for the Republicans. Numerous benefit nights were prepared where topical films interspersed speeches and other performances. One such night occurred in Islington on December 13, 1937. Present at the screening were several political activists including one Leah Manning.

Manning is well-known in particular for her work in rescuing thousands of children from Northern Spain during the war. She was also a former Labour MP for Islington. After the crowd had watched a propaganda film called ‘Basque Children’, which dealt with young refugees moving to England, Ms Manning addressed the crowd. According to the policeman, Manning spoke of British people having ‘given money, help and sympathy to the Spanish workers, but she was bitterly critical of the National government, which she described as a “bunch of bunglers.”’ Manning was furious at the UK’s government’s refusal to send troops to Spain, especially in the wake of Germany and Italy assisting the fascists. ‘Mrs Manning moved her audience to cheers and cries of “shame” alternately as she described how Spanish men, women and even children are united in their efforts to fight fascism, but at odd moments asked her “Why don’t the English people help us, we are fighting for them as well as ourselves”?’ After watching another propaganda film ‘Defence of Madrid’, this successful evening dispersed.

Advert for an anti-Franco film

Alongside undercover police reports, we have letters from concerned citizens about the ‘communist menace’ that KINO seemed to them to be promoting. A letter from one film studio employee, which was forwarded to the security services noted that ‘About three weeks ago I wrote to the Secretary of the Prime Minister giving him information regarding some unadulterated Soviet propaganda films which are being circulated privately’. The author continued: ‘the films they showed were of such a dangerous kind, and the class of men showing them matched the films…I sensed they were up to mischief.’ She offered to play along with KINO and extract more information, an offer politely declined by the police.

So it was that, throughout the 1930s, KINO sought to get their films out, and the secret service looked on. The organisation terminated their activities in 1939. But perhaps with the current political and economic climate as it is, someone will revive its project.  Now, more than ever, seems the ideal time for a KINO comeback.

J Is for Jock

J Is for Jock

 

It’s a well-known fact that progressive politics sound best coming from a butch guy. When Bruce Springsteen questions the class system, or calls for an end to unfair banking practices, or disputes the morality of the war in Iraq, people listen; when a scrawny eco-nerd tries the same thing, eyes roll and television sets are switched off. Another pampered squirt come to tell us how to behave: nothing cripples a campaign like a stereotype fulfilled. The late Macho Man Randy Savage was, and remains,  our most celebrated vegan feminist. On the other side of the coin, I hope Julian Assange doesn’t turn out to be a sex offender, but…

Activists for social justice – keep your yogurt-nibblers out of the spotlight. Let them do the research. By all means let them write the manifestos and design the posters. But for God’s sake, leave the tough stuff to the jocks.

This, I argue, is what Hollywood has been doing for the past ten years or so. The 2000s have seen jocks become the film industry’s prime conveyors of liberal politics. Whether on the football field, the basketball court or the athletics track, jocks have played, fought and cried (and cried and cried) for civil rights, penal reform and economic fair play. All this may sound strange given what we know about jocks. Years of stealing lunch money and screwing cheerleaders have eventually taken their toll. As prodigal sons they have returned – cleansed and chastened – ready to put their bleeding hearts on the line. They may not be particularly subtle. They certainly aren’t radical. But we should embrace these new jocks, for they care. Dammit, they really care.

Cue the rousing music

 

‘They’re Mustangs, Coach. They accepted the challenge.’ (Gridiron Gang).

 

American film has long used the sports field as a crucible within which to examine and resolve ideological tensions of the day. Aaron Baker’s pioneering book, Contesting Identities: Sports in American Film, argues that Hollywood sports films have traditionally promoted conservative values of extreme individualism and white male superiority. The general message, in Baker’s view, is: hard work and dedication will achieve the fabled American Dream. Of course there are a few clauses. If you’re a woman, then avoid nagging your man – don’t complain about his dedication to sports; support him/make his dinner etc. If you’re black you must remain humble and deferential to the white public (e.g. The Joe Louis Story). Film scholar Elizabeth Rawitsch sees in baseball movies like Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) a paean to the ‘melting pot’, where ethnic characters succeed by relinquishing their cultural identities and adopting traits associated with ‘traditional’ (read WASP) America.

When it comes to politics, according to these accounts, the classical Hollywood sports movie is about as limp-wristed as a New York Mets batter. They casually bolster the status quo and shore up all the old class, race and gender inequalities. More recent productions have also come in for a critical drubbing. Since at least the release of Remember the Titans in 2000, it has become de rigour to mock the constant stream of ‘inspirational coach’ movies appearing on the big screen. While the 1980s and 1990s produced the odd Hoosiers or League of their own, the 2000s have turned such pictures into a staple: Titans, The Replacements (2000), Miracle (2004), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Coach Carter (2005), Glory Road (2006), Gridiron Gang (2006), Friday Night Lights (2006), We are Marshall (2007) to name but a few.

I’m surprised by the scorn that has greeted these films, for a number provide valiant (if sometimes heavy-handed) attempts to engage with controversial subject matter. Remember the Titans explores issues no less vexing than affirmative action – the preferential hiring of minorities in the workplace – and public school busing (that is, the transportation of black and white children to unfamiliar neighbourhood schools in order to ensure racial diversity). Unlike conservative commentators, Titans refuses to dismiss the need for such programs. Coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) gets the head coach job thanks to affirmative action. He is hired in front of the more experienced white coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton), but quickly proves he was the right man for the job. A combination of civil rights legislation and communal activism here brings about a gradual coming-together of the races.

Other movies have followed Titans’ lead. Glory Road takes us back to 1965, and college basketball team the Texas Western Minors’ championship winning season. The victory of an all-black Minors team over the all-white Kentucky in the championship final is depicted as a turning point in not only basketball but also civil rights history. With its promotional tagline, ‘winning changes everything’, Glory Road equated basketball success with social transformation. Coach Don Haskins’ (Josh Lucas’) decision to field the all-black team in the final game works as an allegory of affirmative action – the players afforded a headstart in an attempt to counteract the racist basketball establishment. Haskins attacks prevailing views that black players are empty-headed athletes without  ‘the intelligence’ to beat a ‘real team’. The Minors victory puts paid to such prejudice.

It used to be that jocks won on the sports field, but lost everywhere else. Bookish types could sleep sound in the knowledge that their foes’ high-school glory days would soon give way to poor academic performances, low-paying jobs, shotgun weddings, alcoholism – and always that pathetic desire to relive the past. No longer.

Now the sports film’s closing captions tend to read: ‘so and so did not win the championship that season, but [insert positive contribution to society here]’.

In Coach Carter the boys are taught that success need not come on the basketball court. In fact, when their grades drop, they are banned from playing. Education comes first. Many would go on to enjoy successful careers, go to college, become role models.

Winning is not everything; in many of these films it’s nothing.

Gridiron Gang is less concerned with how well the young offenders play ball than with teaching them their own civic value. Football is an escape from gang life and a road to success in other careers. Leaving inmates to rot in prison, says Gridiron Gang, is a surefire route to reoffending. The Express’s main character, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), doesn’t live long enough to really make his mark on professional football. But his contribution to the civil rights struggle is what makes him truly great. Both The Replacements and Moneyball (2011) provide an attack on extreme individualism, emphasising instead the value (spiritual or monetary) of ‘the team’. And perhaps this is the most prominent characteristic to have emerged from all these films. They are always about dialogue, debate, negotiation and communal action. There is no one person with all the answers. The team always prevails. This in itself is quite a departure from the standard Hollywood emphasis on individual heroism and ‘great men’.

Gridiron Gang (image from http://www.bluray.com).

All that said, I’m not trying to promote the sports film as some kind of liberal Utopia. Inequalities still prevail. For all its efforts, Million Dollar Baby seems to be less about calling for gender parity in boxing than about Clint Eastwood’s personal redemption (see the film’s end). Films like Titans and Coach Carter seem to actively play down or even demonise (as in Titans’ racist cheerleader) women’s social contribution. It is really left to smaller independent productions like Girlfight (2000) to provide a more powerful engagement with feminist issues. Therefore, and while the sports film is providing a forum within which to debate certain important subjects, it may be doing so at the expense of others.

There is one last thing that sports films do a lot of – crying. Men and women, but men especially, cry in sports films. All the time. When the team win they cry; when the team lose they cry; whenever anything happens they cry. By my reckoning We Are Marshall features the most weepy scenes. Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) alone cries on about seven different occasions.  Gridiron Gang also puts in a solid performance with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson blubbing at least twice. Even the female-centred sports film remake, Ice Castles (2010), finds its emotional climax with blokey tears (the boyfriend). The new jock is the latest version of the so-called ‘new man’, that softie metrosexual beast of the 1990s. He has all the intelligence and sensitivity of the old new man, but has a muscular physique to boot. He’s the guy that the women in pseudo-feminist shows like Sex and the City yearn for. Brawn, brains and a few noble ideals .

The athlete activist is ubiquitous. We get them in the movies; we’ve always had them in real life (Billy Jean King, Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Max Baer etc). More recently, Olympics sportspeople have become associated with a cause: Jessica Ennis (women in the boardroom), Mo Farah (image of Somalis in UK), Oscar Pistorius (equality for the disabled), Bradley Wiggins (Save the Mods). Jocks dominate the soapbox. And for those of us without the muscles and the stamina, but who still want to get our message across, only one course of action is now possible.

We must contact athletic clubs, football teams, boxing gyms and find ourselves a sporting avatar. I’ve just hired a strapping young boxer, Tony, to take over all my public engagements. For a small fee he will say the things that I want to say against our current government, against the banks, against injustice and inequality. He will proclaim the beginning of a new political and social order.

People will take heed, for he is a jock.

And Jocks inspire a generation.

Sources

Baker, Aaron, Contesting Identities: Sports in American Film (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003)

Rawitsch, Elizabeth, ‘ “It’s Strictly USA”: The Performance and Ethnic Assimilation of Take me out to the Ball Game‘, Journal of Popular Film and Television 39.3 (2011), 124-131.

I Is for Irreplaceable

I Is for Irreplaceable

The BFI’s new Film Storage Centre, Gaydon. (Courtesy of Rob Ewart).

Like many modern businesses, shopping precincts, offices and pedestrian walkways, the British Film Institute’s new archive in Gaydon, Warwickshire, is equipped with a defibrillator. I see these DIY heart attack rescue systems around a lot these days. Inevitable, perhaps, what with us being a nation of car-driving cholesterol monkeys – run by a government whose idea of adequate healthcare sits somewhere between Ikea and Wall Mart. It was only a matter of time before treating embolisms was parcelled out to plucky amateurs and Quincy enthusiasts. Here at the BFI, however, the defibrillator is more than just a life-saving device. Resting in the front office, next to various film preservation machines, it emanates a powerful symbolic aura. For in Gaydon they are literally and metaphorically keeping our filmic heritage alive.

I put this to site manager Rob Ewart as he took me through the centre’s health and safety procedures. ‘Much like this defibrillator’, I said, ‘you’re rejuvenating the old and decrepit – these films would die without you. Rob, you are a Florence Nightingale for sick celluloid.’

He took my compliment in his stride. ‘That’s definitely better than being compared to a Bond villain’. Rob was referring to the umpteen press articles that had appeared in the weeks following the centre’s grand opening. Everyone – everyone – began their articles with the Bond-villain spiel. The fact that the site is in the middle of nowhere, the building is full of mechanical gadgets, and stands where once the MoD kept its nuclear arsenal meant there had to be a few Hollywood-parallels. ‘Clearly, they’ve been watching too many Bond films at the BFI’, declared The Independent. Tim Robey of The Telegraph was more specific: ‘It looks like a Bond villain bunker – the one from Quantum of Solace.’ With its forty-five degree angle slanting roof and clearly defined row of metal chambers it looked to me more like a cross between a half open ping-pong table and The Titanic. But let’s not quibble over silly metaphors; either way it is certainly an impressive piece of architecture.

The new Gaydon site was completed in January 2012 and has since been stocked with more than 300,000 film reels. So well designed is it, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) awarded it West Midlands Building of the Year. And the above picture does not really do full justice to the cornucopia of mechanical wizardry on offer. Take, for instance, its safety features. Rob carries a hand-held device that detects his every move. If he is motionless for more than thirty seconds an alarm will sound. His colleagues will come drag him off the roof, out of the chilled vaults or wherever else he may be, give him CPR (which they are all trained in) and, presumably, make him a nice cup of tea. And this is nothing compared to the building’s complex fire prevention technologies.

Many of the films stored here are made from nitrate, the standard material for all reels until 1952, and is highly flammable. Stories of venues going up in flames after the spontaneous, or not so spontaneous (projectionists in the old days were known to load films with a fag hanging out their mouth) combustion of nitrate reels are the stuff of legend. ‘Nitrate produces its own oxygen’, says Rob. ‘So it’s incredibly difficult to extinguish the fires. The best way is just to let it burn itself out.’ A fire in the archive could have meant a substantial amount of stock being lost. Not anymore. Each vault is protected by thick insulation and comes with its own metal portcullis. ‘If the worst does happen and one of the reels catches fire one of the giant metal doors you saw on the way in will open up and allow a quick burn.’

As we stop into various offices, Rob gives me the lowdown on the new centre. Perhaps its greatest coup is to have at its disposal technology that allows the films to be stored at below-freezing temperatures (the first European archive to do so). This prevents decomposition and means that films which otherwise would have perished now have a chance to be saved. ‘There’s only so much you can do at any one time’, says Rob as, dressed in thick puffer jackets, we march through the chilled area. ‘Our job is to check films for damage, clean them, can them, label them and, more generally, check the building is running smoothly and that all materials are ready to be used by artists, curators etc. We used to aim for about fifty films per day.’

‘Before this new place was built we used to work over there.’ He points out the window toward a row of drab looking bunkers. ‘They were OK, but the temperature wasn’t low enough to fully prevent decomposition. It meant that we had to prioritise. Some films would be dealt with quicker than others.’ Rob also recounts an occasion when a bunker flooded and a few films had to be junked. The new building has alleviated concerns that this could happen again.

Interestingly, under the old system films were often grouped together by director. Thus there was a Charlie Chaplin section, an Alfred Hitchcock section etc. That is no longer the case. Now Chaplin cans sit alongside amateur efforts; Hitchcocks consort with Hammer horrors. Even the names are slowly being removed, replaced instead by a number identifiable only by way of a database. It may be difficult for visitors to identify their favourite movie, but now that all films can be preserved and treated on time there is less need to create hierarchies/ ‘special’ sections. Perhaps for this reason, one might suggest that the new archive is democratising the archival process. No longer is privilege bestowed on certain ‘classics’ or ‘auteurs’. Rather, every reel is anonymous and thus of the same import – all films are equal under Rob.

If, as has been noted, the building is quite difficult to find, this is for a good reason. It houses a number of valuable items. As well as holding original prints of ancient and classic movies (a film of the 1895 Epsom Derby; Scorsese’s Red Shoes restoration; footage of Scott’s Antarctic voyage etc.) it is also currently in possession of several items of famous film and television apparel. I tried on Peter Sellers’ hat from the Pink Panther movies. Fred Astaire’s Top Hat was there, too. Numerous Monty Python props, a full size Frankenstein model, and James Stewart’s clown suit from The Greatest Show on Earth: would you want any old John robber strolling about the place? ‘There’s also the safety worries’, Rob reminds me. ‘If someone lit a cigarette where they shouldn’t there’s still the danger we’d end up losing priceless material.’ So if the site is a little bit secret, it’s not because Rob and his colleagues are plotting to blow up our world. They just don’t want people like me to blow up theirs. I quickly put my tobacco away.

Finally, and importantly, the bats are safe. Hundreds of the little buggers have been living on the Gaydon site for years. There were concerns that the recent building work had destroyed their habitat, so the BFI built a special house for them. Rob speaks of having come face-to-face with bats, badgers and rabbits. ‘I’d never seen a badger alive before working here; only dead ones in the road.’ Within its twenty-one acres, modern technology and nature can, to an extent, live side by side.

Indeed, there is a certain irony in Gaydon’s new function. Where once the site contained enough nuclear warheads to destroy most of the world, now it provides a more benign, conservatory, function. Films, bats and badgers are all protected here. Rob makes sure of that. And he also knows how to use the defibrillator (you remember, the one I mentioned at the beginning).

So, fear not, courageous film historian, educator, archivist, Bond villain – any who travel into deepest, darkest Warwickshire. Your hearts, like the cinematic wonders upon which you gaze, are in safe hands.

G Is for Gettysburg

G Is for Gettysburg

 

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address).

I’m not joking when I refer to our country as the United States of Amnesia. (Gore Vidal).

 

If you’ve cried at the cinema lately and hated yourself for doing so, or endured endless goose-bumps, chills and trembles and wondered why; if you’ve wanted to cheer at a film’s conclusion, even if it was rubbish, then the likelihood is you’ve suffered a dose of Gettysburg Gut. More stomach churning than an Odeon Frankfurter, Gettysburg Gut (or Iconic Speech Syndrome, as the psychiatrists call it) causes a severe emotional response to any form of populist rhetoric: ‘Four score and seven years ago … a government of the people’ – sniff – ‘by the people’ – blub – ‘for the people’. Taking its name from Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, the condition is alleged to be prominent amongst adults, especially fans of ‘quality’ drama. I suffer from it myself.

For a long time I denied my Gettysburg problem; the fact that the slightest hint of ‘four score and seven years ago’ got me so worked up with emotion I could barely think. And I know I’m a sucker for doing so, because Gettysburg (or indeed ‘I have a dream’ or any other famous speech you’d care to recall) has, in the movies, been so twisted and misremembered that it usually functions as little more than a lazy bromide. Or, at best, a homage to democratic values yet to be fulfilled. When Gettysburg kicks in, all is right with the world. God bless Sandra Bullock.

So consider the following words both an apology and a spot of self-administered therapy. Let us celebrate but also interrogate the words that make us feel funny inside. And, most importantly, let us remember, along with Tom Hanks and Kevin Costner, that, when the circumstances are noble, allowing a solitary tear to trickle down your cheek is fine. But no one likes a Californian cry baby.

 

Emanci-mother-fuckin-pator of the slaves’ (Hair, 1968).

It’s highly unlikely that people back in 1863, when Lincoln first gave his celebrated speech, thought that the Gettysburg Address would have so lasting an impact. It certainly was not – as we have been led to believe – an explicit stand against racism and slavery. Publicly, at least, Lincoln was not a strident abolitionist. He would never have been elected president if he was. He campaigned for the United States, for the Union. If preserving the Union meant preserving slavery in some states then, by many accounts, he would have done so. Lincoln’s speech was intended to appeal to soldiers and citizens who had fought for the USA, many of whom were not particularly interested in freeing slaves (or if they were, thought they should all be shipped off to Liberia).

According to the cultural historian Barry Schwartz it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that the Gettysburg Address became central to discussion of racial equality and civil rights. Schwartz charts the rise to prominence of the speech in public culture from the early 1910s, when politicians began to recall Lincoln with more fondness than had the previous generation of civil war veterans. Suddenly, Lincoln was a symbol of democracy, decency, honesty and freedom. Just as important for our purposes, the enshrinement of Gettysburg in the public consciousness occurred about the same time as cinema was becoming a mass phenomenon. As has been the case so often throughout its history, film would rewrite the past for its own ends. Or, to quote the classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’

The Lincoln legend began pretty early on. In films like When Lincoln Paid (1913), The Reprieve (1908) and Abraham Lincoln’s Clemency (1910), the president becomes a noble figure who doesn’t do much more than wander around pardoning naughty soldiers. The association of Lincoln with a Jesus-like sympathy for the wayward continues in the present. It reached an unfortunate peak recently. In the late 1990s, the Lincoln scholar Thomas Lowry discovered a letter in which Lincoln pardoned a Union deserter. The letter was dated April 14, 1864. Lowry decided to change the date to April 14, 1865, the date of Lincoln’s assassination. This made it seem as if the last correspondence written by Lincoln before he was assassinated was a pardon. For ten years, Lowry was able to bask in the unwarranted attention and notoriety he gained from his ‘revelation.’

While Lowry’s criminal tampering with documentary evidence is extreme, his re-writing of history is certainly not an isolated case. Jumping on the back of Lincoln for the purposes of self-aggrandisement can be found in all number of films and political speeches. Frank Capra, the director of such classics as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, liked to see himself as heir to Lincoln’s values. In the latter, he has a little boy read out the Gettysburg Address while his elderly relative smiles. A black man enters the screen and humbly removes his cap. In another film, this might work as a call for racial equality: a demand that the United States live up to the principles uttered by one of its greatest luminaries. In Mr Smith it seems pretty ridiculous. Just moments prior to this scene, Capra presented us with a gaggle of black buffoon-layabouts who sneak off from our hero,  Mr Smith (James Stewart), in order to avoid having to carry his bags. Hardly an earnest contribution to the civil rights struggle.

1930s cinema may reference Gettysburg, but black-white relations were rarely emphasised. D.W. Griffith, director of Birth of a Nation (1915), made a Lincoln biopic in 1930. He cobbles together bits of Gettysburg along with other Lincoln speeches at the film’s conclusion. Thus Lincoln says the ‘government of the people’ in a theatre full of America’s upper classes. The elite address the elite. With Lincoln’s assassination coming seconds after he makes the speech, one could almost say that Griffith is symbolically killing off any lingering hope of an egalitarian, democratic America – a bleak thought for a country descending into economic depression.

Other movies injected the speech with relevance to 1930s geopolitics. The 1934 film Are we Civilized? was a rare American movie to criticise Nazi Germany at this time (see my ‘E for Economics’ blog). While not explicitly referring to Hitler and company, it is less than veiled in its criticism of the Fuhrer’s policies. The film focuses on an American-based newspaper baron who returns to the country of his birth (clearly coded as Germany, yet this is never explicitly stated). In an attempt to convince his former boyhood friends of the error of their ways, the baron makes a heartfelt (if somewhat ham-fisted) speech. He refers to Lincoln while visually we are presented with a handwritten copy of The Gettysburg Address.

From the 1960s onwards, representations of the Gettysburg Address increasingly promoted the speech as Lincoln’s stand against slavery. Schwartz refers to civil rights activists invoking Gettysburg in the early 1960s as well as illustrated copies of the speech, which came with pictures of Lincoln addressing an African-American audience. ‘Has anyone seen my old friend Abraham’ sang Dion in 1968, ‘he freed a lot of people, but it seems that the good die young.’ Going on to say the same thing about John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the song (also covered by Marvin Gaye) presents a civil rights lineage that begins with Lincoln and ends with the 1960s assassinations.

In film there have been some interesting versions of a civil rights Gettysburg. Mel Brooks’ comedy western Blazing Saddles (1974) contains a scene in which the randy southern governor hires a black sheriff for the first time. To begin with he is thoroughly against the idea of a black law enforcement officer. However, the railroad owner, Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) convinces the governor that this could be his Abraham Lincoln moment. With the governor’s ego sufficiently flattered, he begins marching around the office as if he were the President. He even begins reciting the Gettysburg address, but is cut short by his lover who demands he get back behind the curtain and, well, put the ‘score’ back into four score and seven years ago.

Just as interesting is the decision of those behind the film production of Hair (1979) to cut a satirical song about Gettysburg. The song’s ironic take on Lincoln’s role in the emancipation serves as stark contrast to the more sombre treatments we are familiar with in discussion of Lincoln’s life (I’ve heard the actors Jeff Daniels and Gregory Peck, for example, recite the Address in booming tenor voices). Here he is just another white guy making beautiful speeches, while not really doing great deal. The video below offers a recorded performance of the song.

More recently, Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) has Kevin Costner recite part of the speech during his final courtroom summation. This film had throughout attempted to portray president Kennedy as a great civil rights campaigner and thus heir to Lincoln. ‘He did so much for coloured people’ says a black woman after his assassination. That Kennedy did little to further the civil rights cause until the last few months of his life – and even then, he didn’t do much more than express a general support and begin to call for bills to be drafted – doesn’t stop him from being here presented as a symbol of egalitarianism. ‘Do not forget your dying king.’

The civil rights-themed sports film Remember the Titans (2000) features a scene shot at the Gettysburg cemetery. It is here that Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) finally begins to get through to his black and white students. It is here where the racial integration begins. As Schwartz points out, in reference to broader reimagining of Gettysburg, ‘By the last decade of the 20th century, historians began to represent the Gettysburg Address as a prelude to the civil rights movement.’ It might be considered honourable enough of us to want to reinvest this most iconic of speeches with a civil rights edge. And I am not enough of a Gettysburg Scrooge to want to humbug every attempt at presenting Lincoln as a civil rights figurehead (if celebrity endorsements have taught us anything it is that associating big names with a cause is definitely beneficial).

This rewriting of Gettysburg would, however, seem to me to have a negative side. Centuries’ long freedom struggles are telescoped into the rhetorical eloquence of a lone white protagonist. The implication being that whites had wanted equality all along and it was only a few bad apples that had impeded the march toward equality. And is this not the story that is time and again told in civil rights-themed films more generally? In 1950s and 1960s-set pictures like Mississippi Burning, The Long Walk Home, Cry Freedom or The Help it’s always a white person who ‘wins’ freedom for her black counterparts. ‘White redemption stories’ are, as film and American studies scholar Sharon Monteith notes, the standard in Hollywood portrayals of the civil rights movement. So too do they seem to dominate stories about racial injustice at any point in time – whether this be in films about the American Civil War (Cold Mountain), or films about South African Apartheid (Cry Freedom).

Such portrayals, I would argue, come from the same impulse that constructs Lincoln as, in the words of author and sometime Lincoln revisionist Gore Vidal, a ‘plaster saint.’ Vidal’s own contribution to Lincoln literature, his epic novel Lincoln (1984, subsequently a television series, 1988), might, if his critics are to be believed, have its moments of dodgy historical accuracy. But I certainly came away from it feeling more kindly disposed toward a figure who to me had always been McLincoln: a sanitised and simplified cut-out. There was something refreshing in reading the disgruntled President complain to an aid that his Gettysburg Address had just fallen on the audience ‘like a wet blanket’. He is fully aware that a few rousing words alone could not solve the world’s problems. Nor can one individual change the course of history on their own. Sometimes, I wish Hollywood would think along similar lines.

That’s about it. Next up: H Is for Holidays.

Works Cited

Monteith, Sharon, ‘The Movie Made Movement: Civil Rights of Passage,’ in Paul Grainge (ed.), Memory and Popular Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Scwartz, Barry, ‘The New Gettysburg Address: fusing history and memory,’ Poetics 33 (2005), 63-79.

Vidal, Gore. Lincoln. London: Abacus, 1994.

Vidal, Gore, ‘Vidal’s Lincoln: An Exchange’, The New York Times, April 28, 1988.

Sometimes the nobility is more like a film than a film is: F Is for Flying Saucers

F is for Flying Saucers

 

Mark you, my Lords, I was told today outside those doors that an ambassador of 8 ft. 6 ins. with green feet, and webbed feet as well, had asked whether he could park his flying saucer in our car park … some people have treated the whole matter as a joke. (Lord Davis of Leek, House of Lords Speech, January 18, 1979).

It was no joke. Back in January 1979, while Great Britain suffered all the economic, political and social upheaval of its ‘Winter of Discontent’, the House of Lords hosted a debate on the existence of UFOs. In attendance were sixty peers and hundreds of spectators. Opening remarks came from William Francis Brinsley Le Poer Trench, otherwise known as the 8th Earl of Clancarty. The Earl was already a firm believer in the existence of extra-terrestrial life: he had written several books on the subject and had served as editor of the journal The Flying Saucer Review. For Clancarty, little green men were, literally, a religion. In his wacky tome The Sky People, published in 1960, he had proposed that biblical characters Adam and Eve were actually the spawn of an ancient alien experiment. Rather than being expelled – as the bible would have it – from the Garden of Eden, Clancarty contended that they had fallen from Mars and spent the rest of their days wandering the planet Earth. This of course meant that human beings were directly descended from aliens. (Note to future governments: ridding the House of hereditary peers may sound democratic. But are we not in danger of losing one of our great British traditions; what will become of the lunatic Lord, that magnificent product of over-privilege, idleness and centuries of inbreeding? Some things money can’t buy).

Anyway, Clancarty started proceedings with a brief history of the UFO. While noting that reports of strange flying objects had been recorded since ancient Egyptian times, he reminded his fellow peers that the year 1947 saw ‘flying saucer’ become part of the English language. An American pilot called Kenneth Arnold was on a rescue mission in Washington State when he spotted a group of strange objects ‘crescent shaped, flying in zigzag fashion between his plane and the mountains.’ Quizzed by the Press on his sightings, Arnold described the objects as being like saucers skimming on water. From this off-the-cuff remark a new phenomenon was born. The flying saucer was rapidly established as a prominent icon in popular culture. Drawing the attention of filmmakers, writers, artists, public commentators, even government organizations, it also became a kind of heuristic rubric under which a whole range of political, philosophical and religious issues could be explored and debated. Who we are, where we come from, where we are going – such issues have, at one time or another, all been caught under the flying saucer’s indomitable tractor beam. Those present at the House of Lords were but the latest participants in a great cosmic ruckus that had engulfed politics and popular culture throughout the post World War II period. And yet, as Earl Clancarty stood up to address the noble peerage that January evening thirty-two years ago, he was, in his own small way, making history. Here was the first and only time that the British political establishment has devoted an entire debate to the existence of UFOs. It is the humble attempt of this post to honour those present with a short overview of the evening’s discourse.

‘Do noble lords believe in angels’?

From scientific argument to spiritual reflection, the House of Lords debate passed in a manner not far removed from that of a Hollywood film. First came the X-Files-like ‘truth is out there’ argument. ‘The UFOs have been coming in increasing numbers for 30 years since the war,’ declared Clancarty toward the end of his speech. ‘And I think it is time our people were told the truth.’ He even mentioned Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1939 as evidence of the kinds of panic that might erupt were we unprepared for a visit from our otherworldly friends. This reading of the H.G. Wells story has gone down in pop-culture lore as the day when fantasy became an – albeit brief – reality for the American public. Welles’ reporter-like style convinced some that aliens really were invading America. The event was parodied in Woody Allen’s wonderful homage to 1930s and 1940s broadcasting, Radio Days (1987). A woman and man out on their first date together tune in while in the car. Hearing what seems to him to be a serious invasion report, the man stops the car and runs off in terror leaving the woman to fend for herself. Some days later, after realising it was all a fake, the man phones the woman again enquiring as to the possibility of another date. She informs him that the romance is over and, adding salt in the wound, spitefully states that she’s ‘married a Martian.’

Unlike War of the Worlds, however, Earl Clancarty did not believe that aliens were a threat to humanity; quite the opposite: ‘we have not been invaded from outer space. Most incidents have not been hostile. Indeed, it is us, the earthlings, who have fired on them.’ In many ways, his speech was tinged with the kind of liberal humanist sentiment that had pervaded a number of cultural representations in the years previous. From The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), aliens were often depicted as friendly creatures there to help the planet Earth or, at least, to hold a mirror up to the world and its deficiencies. The authorities, the government, they were the real threats to society. As another believer, the Earl of Kimberley (it seems that the hard-core UFO buffs were Earls) argued in response to claims that no evidence had been found of UFOs in the UK: ‘Does the noble Lord not think it conceivable that Jodrell Bank says there are no UFOs because that is what it has been told to say’ (my emphasis). Perhaps Kimberley’s comment was political – he was not a great fan of the then Labour government, and any old excuse to suggest it was involved in a massive alien cover-up would have appealed. But either way, he was drawing on a long history of flying saucer conspiracy theories – CIA cover-ups, alien abductions, Roswell (which became a major subject of conspiracy theorists at this time) etc. – and his cynical view toward authority was very much in keeping with late 1970s public sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic. Forget the alien threat, the real danger was a lot closer to home: inside our dodgy governments.

Alongside various UFO ‘sightings’ in the months leading up to the House of Lords debate, the immense popular success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind played no small role in contributing toward increased public interest in all things alien. Like Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in Spielberg’s celebrated movie, many of the House of Lords debaters envisaged aliens as a spiritual, benign force. On this count, it was interesting to read Maurice Wood’s (The Lord Bishop of Norwich’s), speech on the relationship between Christianity and UFOs. The Bishop began by outlining his fears that the UFO phenomenon – encouraged, as he noted, by ‘the variety of films and programmes on the subject’ – could potentially usurp traditional Christian worship, becoming a dangerous ‘superstition’ in its own right. However, and quite bizarrely, the Bishop then attempted to bring UFOs back in line with Christian thinking. In what had a vague ring of Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider (the Venutian scene) about it, he embarked on a wiggy reconfiguration of Jesus Christ. ‘I believe that Christ has not only a terrestrial, not only a cosmic significance’, he declared. ‘But literally a galactic significance.’ Jesus, it seems, was a space man. With rhetoric that would not have been out of place in a science fiction film, he continued with an appeal for the Lords to ‘stretch our minds to reach out to the far corners of creation.’

Had he been addressing a group of stoned hippies, the Bishop would have likely inspired nodding heads and a salvo of ‘far outs.’ In the House of Lords, however, he was simply greeted with an interjection from Lord Trefgarne. ‘My Lords, will the right reverend prelate allow me to intervene? Is he actually offering ecclesiastical authority for the existence of another race of people in another universe?’ Trefgarne had already made his scepticism abundantly clear in an earlier speech. He was the Dana Scully of the debate, arguing that all UFO sightings could be rationally explained: ‘I do not think the time has yet come when we can view this matter with sufficient certainty to justify the expenditure of public money on it.’ Trefgarne’s reproach sent the Bishop of Norwich on the defensive. He spent the remainder of his speech desperately trying to assert his traditional religious beliefs. A shame really – the cosmic Jesus stuff was far more entertaining. Fortunately, there was another Lord present willing to take discussion to the next level. Harold Davis (aka Lord Davis of Leek) schooled the Lords in some mind expanding Martian philosophy. Davis was the only Labour peer to attend the debate. He was known as a staunch left wing-campaigner and socialist, having visited Russia in 1952 and China in 1955, and made a disastrous ‘peace’ mission to North Vietnam in 1965. With his glowing reports of life under Stalin and Mao, Davis was not particularly popular in with British or American elites. Indeed, if he had starred in a Hollywood science fiction film of the 1950s he would probably have played the alien.

Davis asked what he declared to be ‘the sixty four thousand dollar question. Do noble Lords believe in angels?’ Such questioning did not seem to be facetiousness, but a genuine call for self-analysis/exploration. If one believes in God, or in Jesus, or in angels – or even if one is simply willing to respect others’ belief in such phenomena – then why should UFOs be seen as crackpot hallucinations of a loony fringe? If we cannot say for certain whether they exist, we can at least use debates on their existence to rethink our own beliefs and perhaps even our own prejudices. Davis’ talk reminded me a little of the 1998 film Contact, where a possible alien encounter serves as a forum within which different belief systems do battle and, eventually, reconcile: in this case it is Christianity, embodied by Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), and the scientific beliefs of Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster). For Contact and Lord Davis of Leek, whether aliens exist is irrelevant. Rather, it is how we humble earthlings respond to the suggestion that they are out there somewhere. Do we laugh, or try to cover it up, or turn it into a religious cult, or drop everything for the chance of encountering them? Can flying saucers perhaps have a positive impact on our values, beliefs and psyche, encouraging us to see things from different perspectives; maybe even change the way we think.

It was hard to tell if Davis was being serious when he started off on the Loch Ness Monster. Apparently, some weeks previous he had attended a presentation in the Lords from a scientist who believed in its existence (the Lords sound like they had a hell of a lot of fun back then). But, given the philosophical context for his speech, it was only proper that he mentioned this other highly elusive, yet much sought after, creature? Davis’s speech was about faith. If people believe in these things then it is worth examining why they do so, even if the facts are unforthcoming. ‘If one human being out of the tens of thousands who have alleged to have seen these phenomena is telling the truth, then there is a dire need for us to look into the matter.’ And with a final flourish: ‘We know that poltergeists exist … Therefore, do not be so ready to scoff at UFOs when, in another moment if I catch you talking, you will agree with me that poltergeists exist. This is a serious debate. It deserves study and understanding.’ Thus could the flying saucer shed light not just on alien life, but also serve as a window on the human mind. Klatuu barada nikto, my Lord, klatu barada nikto.

A New Hope?         

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, a band of noble space cadets went out in search of the truth. Lord Clancarty, Lord Davis, the Bishop of Norwich and Lord Trefgarne and several other members of Britain’s elite, revved their jet packs and blasted off on a quest to the stars. A quirky combination of science, fiction, spirituality and pop-culture references, if ever there was an event that emphasised the blurring of boundaries between fact and fantasy, science and speculation, the high and low brow, the academic and the ‘popular’, it was the House of Lords debate. In its wake there was even a short-lived Lords study group devoted to all things alien. For a brief time, at least, the nobility had their eyes turned spaceward. But as 1979 slips further into history, we cannot let these valiant efforts be in vain. We must pressure our current leaders into following in their footsteps.

In one of the many ‘promises’ made by politicians during the run up to last year’s general election, David Cameron announced that, were he elected, he would be ‘entirely open and frank’ on the matter of UFOs. Fielding questions at one of his ‘Cameron Direct’ public meetings, the soon-to-be Prime Minister announced his willingness to discuss the subject and to release any secret files still held by the government. As yet, this is another example of a pledge unfulfilled. The only aliens to be discussed in the House of Commons of late have been the immigrant kind. The only close encounters involve Boris Johnson and his latest extramarital conquests. And flying saucers? Unless you include those hurled in drunken glee after a Bullingdon Club night out, then it’s another intergalactic zero.

We should not, however, despair. Not yet, anyway. This month, as economic woes pile on top of economic woes and the biggest wave of strikes since 1978/79’s winter of discontent are on the cards, economic, social and political conditions for a UFO debate are as fertile as they were when Clancarty and friends stepped up to the pulpit. As another veteran of ’79, Lord Gladwyn suggested ‘One happy thing about UFOs … is that they take one’s mind off the absolutely frightful everyday events.’ I can’t help wondering if things are quite as simple as that. Given that all our current crop of politicians ever seem to think about is how to parlay important social issues into percentage at the public opinion polls, perhaps engaging with an abstract issue – if only for a couple of hours on, say, one of the days they’re trying to claw back as holiday entitlement – might have some benefit. It would force them to make a stand, state their beliefs, not what they think people want to hear, tell the truth, maybe even rethink their ideals and prejudices. It couldn’t make things worse than they already are, anyway.

So Coalition take note: If you can’t tell us if and when we’ll get a job you can at least tell us if we’re alone in this world. The truth is out there, Mr. Cameron. The fate of humanity is in your hands.

A Random A-Z of Film Themes: E Is for Economics

E Is for Economics

With events in Libya currently dominating news reports, the entertainment press has been reminding us of its own Gaddafi-related scoops. Pop artists, movie stars, minor royals – many, it seems, consorted at one time or another with the Colonel and his family. One of the most widely-reported stories focuses on Gaddafi’s third son, Saadi, and the substantial amount of money – $100 million by several accounts – he provided the Los Angeles film production company Natural Selection. Producer Matt Beckerman convinced him to invest in the company during a meeting in 2008. ‘As an avid film fan, I’m extremely excited about this venture,’ said Gaddafi Jr. ‘Working with Matty, and with an industry that I hold close to my heart.’ Rousing words indeed, from a man whose CV reads like something out of The Royal Tenenbaums: professional footballer, captain of the Libyan national team, sometime member of three Italian Serie-A clubs, patron of the arts. Sadly, his Hollywood adventure proved to be a blemish on an otherwise glittering career.

Only two Natural Selection films were actually completed. The Experiment (2010), a remake of the German film Das Experiment (2001), sounded promising: it featured A-list stars Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker and was inspired by the so-called Stanford prison experiment of 1971, a scientific attempt to test human endurance and morality by throwing participants into a simulated prison environment as either guards or inmates (do the guards become unthinking brutes? Do the prisoners rebel or crumble? Was Saadi tempting fate a bit by financing a film dealing with such themes?). But all this talent had little impact. The Experiment ended up going straight to DVD. On the set of Isolation, the other film produced by Natural Selection, a director’s chair marked Kadafi apparently sat – alas, unoccupied – throughout the production phase. Isolation has its world premiere at Los Angeles’ Screamfest next month. So if you’re a fan of low-budget horror, and aren’t on Interpol’s wanted list, then get yourself down there to cheer it on.

The Hollywood–Gaddafi connection is but one of many distasteful anecdotes regarding the film industry’s business practices and economic conduct. While on-screen, films rage against oppressive dictatorships, governmental corruption and financial jiggery-pokery – think The Great Dictator, All the King’s Men, The Godfather, Wall Street, Syriana and The Last King of Scotland, to name but a few – off-screen the industry does not always practice what it preaches. Money soothes the conscience even as it poisons the soul. Once we heed the advice of All the President’s Men’s (1976) legendary informer, Deep Throat, and ‘follow the money’, we are confronted with a treasure chest of Hollywood’s financial indiscretions, underhand activities, and cheeky accountancy. The following post casts an eye over some of these dodgy dealings. Courting dictators, ripping off foreign tax shelters, confusing profit margins, complex costings, fake movie stock markets: Hollywood’s accounts can at times read like a paranoid political thriller, at others like a comedy. They certainly bust a few tired shibboleths. Chuck Norris is not the toughest man in movies; David Lynch is not the most confusing. Both of these accolades must go to those who have time and again engineered some of the most coldly calculating and downright mind-boggling stunts never seen on the silver screen – the money men, the accountants.

 

Business Is Business

We deal with all kinds of political ideologies – democracies, dictatorships, despots, monarchies, left wing, right wing. We do business with everybody. (Jack Valenti, President of the Motion Picture Producers Association of America, 1977)

That Jack Valenti, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood at the time, would feel comfortable, let alone justified, in publicly making the above comment, says quite a lot about Hollywood’s business ethos. His words came after some 45 years of deals with the twentieth century’s most infamous monsters. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Franco might have been railed against in political rhetoric and propaganda campaigns, but, when it came to making a few movie-bucks, there were some willing to go that extra mile in the name of ‘diplomacy’.

Saadi Gaddafi was not the first son of a despot to be schmoozed by Hollywood. In 1937 the American film producer Hal Roach set up a production company with Vittorio Mussolini, son of the Italian dictator Benito. The company, named RAM (Roach and Mussolini), was formed with a view toward cornering the European market. David Welky’s fascinating and very readable account of the American film industry’s dealings with dictatorships in the 1930s, The Moguls and the Dictators, gives an idea of the close relationship that some people in Hollywood were willing to foster with fascist-run countries in order to avoid financial losses. For most of the 1930s, Hollywood endeavoured to stay on good terms with Mussolini (as it did with Hitler and Hirohito). Studio representatives visited Italy on several occasions and hammered out various deals with Il Duce that ensured the continuing profitability of American pictures in Italy. Then, toward the end of the decade, Mussolini Jr. visited the United States in the hope of developing even closer relations between the Italian and American film industries and encouraging film technicians to come and work at Italy’s Cinecitta studios. Things did not, however, go to plan.

From the moment he stepped off the boat at New York Harbour, Vittorio was chased from town to town by anti-fascist campaigners. In Los Angeles, he faced the wrath of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, an organisation formed in 1936 and made up of left-wing industry professionals, Charlie Chaplin being one of the most notable. Declared the ‘fascist princeling’ in the League’s press releases, the young Vittorio was snubbed by many Hollywood figures afraid of being tarred by association. (Interestingly, I don’t recall much of an outcry over Beckerman’s deal with Gaddafi back in 2009. It’s only been in recent months that the industry has distanced itself from this ‘rogue’ trader.) Mussolini’s cause was not helped by the banks, who did not consider Italy a provident investment at this point in time. Fears over currency restrictions and worries that Vittorio’s dad would interfere in the company’s affairs meant RAM was unable to find enough backers. ‘It became obvious that there would be no money in making pictures in Rome for anyone in Hollywood’, lamented Variety magazine shortly after the company’s implosion. In the end it was as much economic as ideological considerations that killed off RAM. Even poor Vittorio’s birthday celebrations – he turned 21 while still in Los Angeles – were scuppered, as most of Hollywood’s great and good failed to attend. As Welky wryly notes, ‘Not even the gaily decorated cake, topped with a fascist soldier … could save it.’

When it came to 1930s fascist dictatorships, Mussolini was always clinging onto the bootstraps of his Nazi counterpart, Adolph Hitler. Throughout the 1930s, Hitler and Germany were on the march. Naturally, Hollywood saw an opportunity to cash in. It is an oft-observed fact that Hollywood made little attempt at producing anti-Nazi films until the very end of the 1930s/early 1940s. While Hitler’s political power was on the ascendant, the film industry’s watchword was appeasement. It is a bitter irony that the majority of the film industry’s executives were Jewish, and yet their commitment to providing ‘harmless entertainment’ for a predominantly Protestant public led them to believe that any anti-Nazi (and, by implication, ‘pro-Jewish’) filmmaking would be economic suicide, and, what is more, would increase anti-Semitic tensions in the United States. Of the major studios, only Warner Brothers attempted to speak out against Hitler in the early 1930s. In 1932, Harry Warner cancelled his company’s purchase of the German film studio UFA after visiting Berlin. Witnessing the anti-Semitism already present in political campaigning and sloganeering caused Warner to rethink his business decisions. Warners also produced some of the first anti-Nazi films: a film that Welky calls an ‘oblique anti-Nazi parable’, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), and, then, the more explicit Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939).

As Welky demonstrates, a combination of executive timidity and pressure from heads of the Production Code – the body charged with ensuring Hollywood films abided by certain ‘moral’ standards – ensured that Hollywood would not do much to broach the Nazi issue until the late 1930s. And a major cause of the film industry’s change of heart later in the decade was that fascist countries had become impossible to do business with. They limited the number of American films allowed into their dominions, placed high taxes on imports, insisted that they be dubbed and slapped a ‘dubbing tax’ on all films (as in Italy), subjected them to rigorous if not ridiculous censorship so as to ensure few films ever made it to cinemas (many in Hollywood believed that German censors deliberately passed only second-rate American movies in order to put the public off American product) and, finally, placed embargos on American film imports. When in 1937 Universal boss J. Cheever Cowdin visited Germany to ask that the censors go a little easier on his pictures, the writing was already on the wall. Cowdin’s bargaining chip was the fact that Jewish executive Carl Laemmle had been ousted and thus ‘Jews no longer ran Universal’. The Nazis rejected his appeals.

In the end, doing business with the fascists became more trouble than it was worth. And this, along with America’s entry into WWII, led to an about turn in industry policy. And, what is more, the production of numerous anti-Nazi/anti-fascist propaganda films. That is not to say, however, that Hollywood had entirely given up on the tyrant dollar.

The Soviet Union might seem a surprising target for Hollywood in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Yet, as Jindriska Blahova has demonstrated, Hollywood put a great deal of time and effort into selling its films to Eastern European countries, countries at this point in time under the control of Joseph Stalin. Blahova’s work is eye opening for the simple reason that little has been said about Hollywood’s attempts to do business with the communists. We read history after history of a post-WWII climate where anti-communist sentiment reigned supreme, industry figures with even the most tenuous link to left-wing organisations were blacklisted or, in the case of Charlie Chaplin, banished from America altogether, and the films themselves promulgated subtle and not-so-subtle anti-communist messages. But, once again, behind the scenes money was doing the talking.

Partly out of a desire to sell their product to every available market, and partly because they feared that the Soviet industry might become a challenger to Hollywood, industry figureheads were keen to get their product into Eastern European cinemas. Doing this required cosying up to the most powerful man in this part of the world, Stalin. According to Blahova, Hollywood representatives did meet with Stalin and reported negotiations with the Soviet dictator to have been a success. In fact, according to one of these representatives, Stalin was so excited about doing business with Hollywood he had a ‘merry twinkle in [his] eye’. Hollywood’s success behind the Iron Curtain would be impeded somewhat by rapidly cooling relations between the two world superpowers, but, nevertheless, throughout the 1940s and 1950s attempts were made to sell movies to this market, with some – albeit limited – success.

Blahova concludes her article by calling for more research to be done into Hollywood’s relationship with other ‘enemies of the United States’: Cuba, Iran, Cambodia, Vietnam, Iraq. Certainly, it would be interesting to see what kinds of documents could be found in state and film archives pertaining to such dealings. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, for instance, Hollywood films were one of the few products not included by the US government in its embargo. While Castro certainly condemned American films, and froze Hollywood-held assets in Cuba, films were apparently still getting in at least until 1961. What kinds of films made it in? Who did the deals? What other unfriendly regimes have been courted by the film industry? North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il is known to be a massive film buff. The possibilities.

But back to the fascists for now. Francisco Franco’s Spain became a prime destination for numerous film producers in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the famous historical, or sword-and-sandal, epics of this period were shot in Spain. At a time when Hollywood’s profits were under threat thanks to a combination of anti-trust legislation intended to weaken the major studios’ monopoly on the film trade and television’s ascendancy as a dominant entertainment medium, the studios put much faith in big-budget, lavishly produced pictures like Ben Hur, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Cleopatra to ‘save’ them from economic collapse. It was hoped that such pictures would become massive ‘events’ for all sections of the American public and thus make mega profits.

Such films were, however, extremely expensive to make. One way in which Hollywood could get the same glossy production values while saving a few dollars in expenses was to shoot abroad. The so-called ‘runaway’ production became a staple of the industry. And a favourite destination for many producers was Spain. It was a mutually beneficial relationship: Hollywood enjoyed low location expenses, technical teams, and a Franco administration willing to provide help and assistance. Spain benefited from investment in the local economy, employment and training for native film crews, and the opportunity to promote itself in pictures that would reach a worldwide audience. As Neal Moses Rosendorf has noted, movies served as an ideal channel through which the Franco government could rebuild Spain’s reputation in the wake of WWII. Attempting to move the country away from associations with fascism, oppression and poverty and promote it as a respectable ally against the communist threat, not to mention a pretty saucy tourist destination, the Franco regime turned, in Rosendorf’s words, ‘The US film industry into an arm of its Ministry of Information and Tourism’. It was hoped that films like El Cid and Fall of the Roman Empire would thrill global audiences while subtly emphasising Spain as a sun-drenched, exotic paradise, perfect for a week or two’s vacation. For over twenty years Franco and Hollywood enjoyed this amiable relationship. El Caudillo opened his arms to Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren and their sword-and-sandal chums; western tourists and British criminals opened their arms to the sun, sea, sand and secrecy available in Spain.

As more research is completed, and new documents emerge, other producer–dictator trysts will likely come to light. No doubt I’ve missed a few, and I’d be much obliged to anyone with further tales of such industrial conduct (please comment below, or drop us an email). Nevertheless, it is time to move on from dictators and to examine other economic shenanigans undertaken by the film industry. From immoral relationships to crafty book-balancing tricks, film accountancy is the next topic on the agenda.

Dodgy Deals

If some of the film industry’s business practices have been morally dubious, others are defined by their mind-blowingly confusing legal work and accountancy. Here are a few economic tricks that have financed movies in the past couple of decades.

1. The German Tax Shelter. The legendary, and highly perplexing, German tax shelter provided Hollywood with hassle-free wonga for many decades. Up until 2005, Hollywood could make several million dollars by transferring token ownership of a movie to German investors. As far as I can fathom – and see Edward J. Epstein here for a far more lucid explanation – if it could be proven that a German media fund owned the rights to a Hollywood film then the German investors were eligible for substantial tax breaks. US studios could make a profit simply by doing the following: sell a film’s rights to a German media fund, but draw up the contract so that you have the option to buy back the rights in the very near future. Now the film is nominally ‘German owned’, and investors in the German company can reap the benefits of the tax breaks. For German investors this basically meant that they could write off 100% of the tax on their investment. They could even borrow some money to invest, yet still write off the full tax amount, which meant their write-off was actually more than 100%. After the investors had taken advantage of the tax shelter, the film’s rights could then be sold back to the US studio at a lower price. Apparently, a studio could expect to make back 8–10% of a film’s budget simply by going through this process. Paramount studios, for example, earned $10 million back on the $100 million budgeted Tomb Raider (2003) and, all told, skimmed $70–90 million from German tax shelters that year.

What is more, proving your film to be ‘German’ did not have to mean proving it was German alone. Since none of the film had to be shot in Germany to be classified as German, you could also take advantage of other countries’ film production subsidies. Thus The Lord of the Rings trilogy took advantage of German tax shelters as well as New Zealand state subsidies that required they shoot the film locally. This combination, along with the selling of LoTR’s international distribution rights, meant that New Line had made back most of its production budget before the films had even reached cinemas. Similarly, in the production of Tomb Raider, Paramount combined German benefits with British tax breaks. The studio shot a few scenes in Britain, hired some British cast and crew and did some more selling and buying back, this time with a British bank. The result was a cool extra $12 million for the Paramount coffers. According to one estimate, such dealings meant that Germany lost $750 million in tax revenues in 2004 alone. It must be nice for German citizens to think that, instead of building hospitals, schools, new roads and social programmes, they ensured Angelina Jolie got her multi-million dollar salary and Gollum’s facial expressions looked human. Providing instant dough for many a blockbuster (smaller productions did not tend to have the international clout or legal resources to take similar liberties), Hollywood’s German tax-break gravy train came to an end in 2005. New tricks were required.

2. Hedge Funds. What with the world’s markets suffering virtual meltdown at the moment, it would be in bad taste to offer any sympathy to the progenitors of out collective overdraft, Wall Street. But all the same, there have been some pretty pathetic tales of hedge funds being out-foxed by crafty Hollywood accountants. Since 2004, Wall Street has made enormous efforts to get a slice of the Hollywood pie. Rather than investing in individual films, hedge funds have tended to finance ‘film slates’, groups of 15–20 movies, and to take a cut of a studio’s internal rate of return. This meant that rather than pinning all their hope to the success of one film’s cinema release, they could expect a slice of a studio’s yearly profits: film, DVD, computer games, selling of international rights, tax breaks, etc. It sounded like a win-win situation for the flushed bankers (this was the glory days of 2004), and they jumped into the movie business with gusto. It is yet another example of Wall Street bullheadedness, for the bankers either didn’t read the small print or did not sufficiently weigh up the consequences of their decision. While the studios were given huge amounts of capital – and at the same time did not have their shares diluted or lose control – hedge funds had to wait for a profitability that, at least as far as the studios’ bookkeepers were concerned, did not come. Various factors ensured that the studios benefited from this arrangement, and that the hedge funds did not.

Firstly, it’s all well and good if Hollywood bundles together a group of ‘safe bets’ (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and ‘based on the bestselling novel’ being a few tags that can hardly help but make money). But this was not always the case. Usually included on the same slate as a ‘sure fire win’ were more risky projects. For example, a Sony slate from a few years ago included films like Stranger than Fiction and All the King’s Men, which were not considered likely blockbuster material – and didn’t make much money. What the studios had discovered was a variation on the much-hated old practice of block booking. Up until the 1950s, films were frequently sold as part of a ‘block’ – thus if an exhibitor wanted to buy Casablanca they would also have to buy a load of other (often crappy) films. It was an easy way for the industry to guarantee it’d make an income, even if the film was bad. Something similar, it would seem, can be said of these recent ‘film slates’. The film studios now had their ‘risky’ or, let’s be honest, ‘crap’ pictures guaranteed before release. If major losses were incurred most of these would fall to the hedge funds. Film critic Mark Kermode recently inveighed against the blockbuster culture that sees bad movie after bad movie produced. I can’t help wondering if this deal with the hedge funds, whereby a film is not treated as an individual asset so much as part of a slate, has contributed toward this spate of cookie-cut garbage. One might even wonder if it was actually in the studios’ interests to release duds in order to artificially push down their earnings and avoid paying out on large dividends. One of the nice pieces of small print in these deals was that the studio could take a 10% distribution fee, which did not have to be shared with the hedge funds. This meant that releasing a crappy, underdeveloped picture might well make sense: the studios could take their fee, and most of the risk of failure at the box office was underwritten by the hedge funds.

This is not the only reason why hedge funds did so badly out of the Hollywood deals. When many of the film slates were set up, there was a general feeling that ancillary markets, and especially the booming DVD market, would ensure a studio’s profitability (and thus ensure Wall Street a cut). But after 2005, the DVD market started to contract significantly. Similarly, as noted above, many of the tax-shelter benefits were cut by national governments in the mid-2000s. Such factors led to the hedge funds getting, to put it mildly, royally screwed over. In the last couple of years they’ve been pulling money out again, and trying to blame each other for things going so terribly wrong. Reading some of the interviews with those involved, one can’t help think that part of the reason for the hedge funds’ downfall was the film industry’s ability to seduce even the most hardened of bankers. Star-struck! That is how some of the bankers come across, desperate to put their money in this industry not because it’ll make big profits but because it means prestige. Perhaps the desire on the part of investors to be seen at the In Places and to hobnob with the stars was as much to blame for their losses as were naughty Hollywood accountants.

3. Profit, what profit? Perhaps the most infamous of Hollywood’s accountancy methods is the ability to hide profits. In order that writers, producers, novelists, etc., did not get their hands on a cut, such mega hits as Forrest Gump, Rain Man, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Coming to America never officially turned a profit. The story of the latter was given novel-length treatment. Pierce O’ Donnell’s Fatal Subtraction: How Hollywood Really Does Business, recounts the court battle between the comedian Art Buchwald and Paramount Studios. After Buchwald demanded a cut of profits for his part in developing Coming to America’s story, Paramount endeavoured to claim that this $350-million-grossing picture did not make a profit. Through what is known as ‘creative accountancy’ the studio was able to fabricate this blockbuster into a loss-maker. While Buchwald eventually won his case, others have not been quite so lucky. Author of the novel Forrest Gump, Winston Groom, was refused a share in profits because the studio once again claimed that the film did not make any. Bear in mind that Gump collected over $300 million in the US alone, and you can’t help but wonder where the hell the losses were made. For some years Groom refused to sell the rights to his second novel Gump and Co, contending that he could not ‘in good conscience allow money to be wasted on a failure’. However, word is that a script has been in development for several years now; hopefully Groom will have arranged a better deal for himself this time around.

Much more could be said about Hollywood accountancy, and I might eventually throw up another few thousand words up on the subject, if only to try to clarify things in my own head. For the time being, however, I’d like to conclude with a brief reference to a phenomenon that has been gripping marketers and economists for several years now. When investors want to know what films are expected to succeed, what films are likely to fail, they might turn to marketing research departments, they might scan Facebook and Twitter. But one of the most reliable predictors of a film’s financial success has been, ever since it started trading in 1996, the Hollywood Stock Exchange.

Stocks and Shares

First things first, the Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX) as it currently stands does not deal in real money. It is an online game, which allows anyone to purchase fake stock in movies, television programmes, stars and a host of other derivatives. You are provided with $2 million in start-up funds when you register. The idea is to bet on winners and see your investment portfolio explode. An individual’s profit margin may not be of any great consequence, but the uses to which HSX – in its entirety as a massive body of speculation – has been put suggest an interesting new direction with regard to Hollywood financing, marketing and exhibition. HSX has been used by marketing research companies and university-based economists as the most accurate way of predicting box-office revenue prior to a film’s release. The company that owns the HSX, Cantor Fitzgerald, sells market research culled from the website to studios and investors alike. If a movie’s shares are selling well on HSX then this creates a buzz on a par to an award nomination or the hiring of a top star. Harvesting its information from numerous different sources, HSX is argued to be the most sophisticated predictor of a film’s success. In short, what happens on this website is affecting how a film, or director, or star, is perceived by the industry and by related organisations.

On the HSX, a movie will receive its IPO (initial public offering) months, sometimes years, before it has even begun shooting. The volume of shares bought at this crucial pre-production stage is already acting as a barometer of what millions of entertainment-savvy customers believe that movie to be worth. By implication, such info could actually influence a studio’s decision as to whether to green light a film sooner or later, how much to spend on its advertising, how wide a release to give it, etc. Of course, how much faith a studio invests in the HSX cannot be empirically proven. But when economists at Harvard Business School and numerous other universities are using it for their own papers on box-office potential, one might at least speculate that this fake stock market has not been taken lightly.

All this is, however, but the tip of the iceberg. Last year there was a move to make HSX a reality. That is, a proposal was made to the US Senate which called for the establishment of a Hollywood futures market. People would be able to buy shares in films, in television programmes, in stars, in directors for real. At present various government bills have ensured that the HSX remains virtual, but the past year and a half has seen much toing and froing on the part of regulatory bodies and government organisations. A move to real money may, in the not-too-distant future, still materialise. This raises the question of whether floating individual films on the stock market would be a good or a bad thing. HSX supporters contend that this new system would provide more support for the industry. Producers would not be forced to shoulder all the risk if a film flopped. Fans of a particular novel or comic book may be willing to shell out a few dollars in order to see a movie adaptation realised. A producer could throw an experimental idea out onto the market and see if the public embraced it. This might even lead to more risky projects being given the go-ahead. In a sense it would be a case of demand leading supply. At a time when various commentators have claimed that Hollywood is pumping out the same old rubbish regardless of whether the public likes it or not, a real HSX might force the industry to follow public opinion a little more closely. It’s even been suggested that more arty or independent films might benefit from this opening of the market. An independent producer could float an idea or a script and encourage investors in that way. Again, certain risky projects might find it easier to obtain financing.

The opposite argument, however, suggests that gambling with Hollywood properties on the stock market would actually cause many projects to flounder and industry professionals to lose their jobs. Far from encouraging the cultivation of more film ideas the industry would be even more confined in the kinds of films it could obtain financing for. Only the safest projects would be okayed, thanks to thousands of angry stockholders demanding a dividend on their investment. Furthermore, what happens if confidence is lost in a particular film and everyone starts selling shares? Would this mean a studio would be forced to swallow a pre-release debt? Would they bother to promote it? Would the film even be completed or would it just be left languishing in pre-release purgatory? These kinds of questions have been asked, though no one has really come up with definitive answers.

So, for what it’s worth, in order to explore a few of these questions, I thought I’d monitor my own behaviour on the HSX for a couple of weeks. I’m no super accountant, and the fact that I’m dealing with pretend money does mean that I have nothing to lose. But, nevertheless, I thought monitoring my own actions on the stock market might serve as a starting point from which to examine the relative pros and cons of trading movie stocks and shares. A rough journal from the past two weeks is published below.

'Greed clarifies.'

Betting on the Market

Sept 1: With $2 million in my pocket, I got started. No friend to the mindless, the vacuous, the childish, no Transformers nonsense for me. Small arty films are the order of the day; I’ll be benefactor to the needy. Ten thousand shares purchased for A Woman of No Importance, a planned adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play, starring Annette Benning and Sean Bean. Another 10K splashed out on stock in indie director Todd Solondz (when he gets back in business the controversy alone will send the shares through the roof). The Mill and the Cross (art and Rutger Hauer – 10 grand); Shame, 15 grand. Top this off with a substantial interest in the high-profile, but widely acclaimed, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and we have a recipe for success. Buy low, sell high, look clever.

Sept 4: Shares purchased in My Afternoons with Margueritte (10,000 at $0.10 each). A sudden burst of patriotism sees me invest in a couple of Simon Pegg films, Burke and Hare and the in-development A Fantastic Fear of Almost Everything. I’m being called for dinner now. Had better log out. Fingers crossed.

Sept 6: Shares not doing particularly well at the moment. Pegg is finished. Will not be spending many more afternoons with Margueritte, down to $0.07. Have bought some stock in Christopher Nolan. Expensive, but at least he makes intelligent blockbusters. Also got myself involved in some US Prime Suspect stock. Should be a sure-fire profit.

Missed dinner thanks to Burke and Hare almost bankrupting me. Pegg – go back to Spaced. Hungry, but quietly confident that tomorrow will see some profits.

Sept 8: Solondz down. Dumped him. Sold all shares in Shame and Mill and bought shares in Gwyneth Paltrow. Maybe all the glamorous dresses she’s been wearing this week will raise her stock price before Contagion opens tomorrow. Woman of No Importance became of no importance to me. I ditched it and bought a few thousand in Straw Dogs. Telling my dad about this purchase over dinner, he looked at me and wanted to know why I’m wasting money on a rubbish remake. ‘Why not invest in indie films, son? I thought you were going to back the underdog.’ Goddamit Dad, why do you have to be so moral all the time? Know he’s right though.

Sept 10: Wasted most of the day on the stock exchange. Things were looking bad all day. Contagion was slipping; Paltrow shite; Straw Dogs dropped a little. Tried to stem the haemorrhage a little with some shares in The Playboy Club, a new US TV programme set in the early 1960s. Will hopefully milk the Mad Men fad. All in all, though, all is not well in my portfolio. Had another argument at dinner. Dad said I’d changed. Asked my younger sister if I could borrow some money for a new suit.

Thank God things got better this evening. At 9am Pacific time, The Amazing Spiderman 2 was IPO’d. I sold everything I owned except the Playboy stock and bought 10,000 shares in the film. Two hours later I’d already made a $50,000 profit.

Sept 12: Hooray for Spiderman. Projections are looking peachy. I’ve made $400,000 profit, and it keeps rising. Am eating a sandwich at my desk now. No longer welcome at the dinner table. It’s probably for the best. I need to keep an eye on market activities. An ‘Untitled Pixar Film with dinosaurs’ goes on the market Saturday. Shares are starting at $80. I’ll use all my profits from Spiderman to invest in this.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my arty films, low budget indies, challenging subject matter and all that. But I’ll leave their financing to others; people with more money than sense, people like Saadi Gaddafi. I’ll take my little Marvel and run thank you very much …

Discontinued due to work commitments and atrocious grammar …

The End.

Next up: F is for Flying Saucers

Works Cited

Blahova, J. ‘A Merry Twinkle in Stalin’s Eye: Eric Johnston, Hollywood and Eastern Europe’. Film History, 22 (2010), pp. 347–359.

Rosendorf, N.M. ‘Hollywood in Madrid: American Film Producers and the Franco Regime’. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 27:1 (2007), pp. 77–109.

Segrave, Kerry. American Films Abroad: Hollywood’s Domination of all the world’s Movie Screens from the 1890s to the Present (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1997).

Welky, D. The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2008).

All other sources are electronically cited in text.

My thanks as ever go out to Seb Manley for proofreading, checking, correcting and generally sorting this ramble out. If Seb was an accountancy trick, he would be a top-end blockbuster storming the international box-office, garnering millions from deals on distribution, television and ancillary rights, making everyone at the studio very very very very rich and yet still somehow in the red. Seb proofreads all forms of non-fiction writing. His website can be found here: www.manley-editorial.com.

A Random A-Z of Film Themes: D Is for Dinner

D Is for Dinner

 

‘Man was not intended to live like a bear or hermit … Man was born for sociability and finds his true delight in society.’ So begins Cecil B. Hartley in his guide to good manners, grandly titled The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette: Being a Complete Guide for a Gentleman’s Conduct in All His Relations Towards Society. During a random web search, I stumbled on Hartley’s monograph, along with a companion piece written by one Florence Hartley and called The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette. Whether Florence was his wife, his sister or even, perhaps, Cecil himself trying to corner the etiquette market, I do not know. But in any case, both these texts have been a massive help in the preparation of this short dinner-themed blog post.

Both books were first published in 1873, and, you may ask, why would Victorian tracts on gentlemen’s decorum and ladies’ carriage be of any use today? If you are asking this then, with all due respect, you are grossly ill-informed. Indeed, I would suggest that you, as Mr. Hartley would put it, ‘evince a shocking want of good breeding’. I shall not be inviting you to dinner again. Please read no further.

Now, with the oafs and oiks banished, you, dear reader, and I can talk plainly. I do not need to tell you that etiquette is back with a vengeance. The internet has reinvigorated the need for good manners. Nowadays, and contrary to Hartley’s pronouncements, we can live like hermits, hunched in front of our computer screens, yet still be in need of excellent social skills. You will likely have read the ‘net manners’ newspaper articles, blogs and websites, all dedicated to ironing out the wrinkles of online social interaction and furnishing us with a little techno-politesse. You will be well aware that one’s first tweet is the modern equivalent of a young lady’s coming out into society, and will duly give it all the care and attention befitting a pretty debutante. You would not shamelessly promote your blog on a VIP’s Twitter account (as I saw one man do on film critic Peter Bradshaw’s) but would have mastered the art of ingratiation – a subtle homage here, a judicious ‘thumbs-up’ there. Of course, you wish to be popular, to be liked; who can begrudge anyone that desire? Yet you accept with all humility, as would Jane Austen had she been around to survey the current state of affairs, that there are too many tweeters in this world who have large followings and, quite frankly, don’t fucking deserve them; why make things worse? Or something like that.

Sir, Madam, you are a credit to the digital age, and it is not to you that I direct what follows. Rather, it is to those who, under cover of anonymity, assault our delicate eyes and ears with insults, arguments and all manner of other hanky-panky. Much has already been written about these scoundrels. To give but two examples, there is a call for internet etiquette to be taught in schools, and a recent blog has offered a short guide to conducting a polite online argument. But what about transferring online chivalry into everyday life? It is my hope that the immense import placed on etiquette on the internet will soon spread to every facet of society. Who knows, we may be standing on the cusp of a new era; or an old era – a return to the Victorian ceremony of yore. With the assistance of Cecil and Florence Hartley, and a selection of motion pictures, I hope that these few words might begin to usher in such an era, instructing the socially inept and ignorant in the ways of that most ceremonial event: dinnertime.

It is easy to sort the well-bred from the vulgar at the dinner table. Before even the first dish is served, a gentleman or lady will be playing her part with panache. Preliminary conversations are of the utmost importance. One should never shout across the table, but nor should one whisper. As Mr. Hartley puts it, ‘Converse in a low tone to your neighbour, yet not with any air of secrecy.’ Dinnertime is not an occasion for amateur theatrics or for clandestine relations. A well-conducted preliminary conversation can be found in this scene from Sliver (1993).

Having watched that impressive set-piece from the 1990s erotic thriller, let us first note how William Baldwin and Sharon Stone find perfect balance between the intimate and the social. There is no sense of exhibitionism in their performance; they do not expect, nor attempt to induce, others to watch, let alone partake in, their ‘game of poker’. Yet, fellow patrons certainly do not feel excluded (witness the elderly couple and the waiter).

‘What about the panties?’

‘The panties?’

‘Yes, the panties.’

Observe the delicate cadences of each character’s speech: the gentleness with which Baldwin enquires after Stone’s choice of apparel; her soft reply and elegant revelation. ‘Remember that a favour becomes doubly valuable if granted with courtesy’, informs Ms. Hartley. Sharon Stone is nothing if not the pattern of all courtesy, removing said panties for the approval of her gentleman suitor. Of course, what follows this scene – the intense sex session back at Stone’s apartment – may be pushing the bounds with regard to acceptable post-meal discourse. Mr. Hartley’s call to always ‘watch that the lady whom you escorted to the table is well helped’ has, perhaps, been slightly misunderstood. Nevertheless, Stone and Baldwin are adequate, if not exceptional, demonstrators of correct deportment at the dinner table. Be intimate, by all means, but never secretive. If the panties are to be removed, then let the act be performed in the spirit of conviviality, not exclusivity: ‘Avoid any air of mystery when speaking to those next to you; it is ill-bred and in excessively bad taste’ (C.B. Hartley).

When dinner is served, one must defer to certain long-established conventions. ‘No dish should be carved upon the table, and that no guest should wait too long for his meat, you must engage a rapid and dextrous carver,’ writes Ms. Hartley. This scene from the crime thriller Hannibal exemplifies what it means to be a ‘good host’. Note how Anthony Hopkins engages his guests in conversation, even while carving the meat (away from the table, of course). A good host or hostess must have the wit and intelligence to stimulate conversation while at the same time ensuring every part of the dinner goes according to plan. I will not rehearse the age-old debate as to whether red or white wine best suits a meal of fried brains, but I will gently scold Clarise Starling (Jodie Foster) for her performance in this scene. She looks like she has had rather too much – ‘Never drink of more than one wine, and partake of that sparingly’ (C.B. Hartley). Furthermore,Hopkins does, unfortunately, make the schoolboy error of serving the gentleman before the lady. But given this dish’s somewhat unappetising exterior he is perhaps just being a little over-chivalrous. As Mr. Hartley advises, ‘It is surely better to err on the right than on the wrong side of good breeding’.

Every dinner table has its own little rules and conventions which you should go out of your way to abide by. One should, as Hartley notes, ‘try to pay respect to such whims at the table of others’. For example, if you are invited to dinner with the family from Dogtooth (2009), be prepared to learn a new mealtime vocabulary. Ma and Pa Dogtooth take quite a protective approach toward parenting: they do not let the children leave the house. In fact, from birth, these children have been shielded from all contact with the outside world. As far as they are concerned, ‘the sea’ refers to an armchair, aeroplanes are tiny plastic things that drop in their garden, and so forth. If you wish to be passed the salt during dinner, you must ask for the ‘telephone’.

Never make a host or hostess feel that you do not appreciate the effort they have made for your entertainment. The girl in this scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) reveals her lack of good breeding by screaming at her hosts. A scream is an unnecessarily excessive rebuttal; if you do not wish to partake of a particular dish then a firm but gentle refusal is sufficient: ‘If a dish is distasteful to you, decline it, but make no remarks about it.’ I myself would question this family’s over-reliance on the chainsaw as method of carving. However, it would be in extremely bad taste to do so in their presence and, so long as they did not eat with the chainsaw as well – as Mr. Hartley reminds us, ‘a gentleman never eats with his knife’ – I would let it pass as a harmless, if idiosyncratic, means of slicing through gristle.

For a guide on how not to do dinner, you could try The War of the Roses (1989). Harsh words and urinating on fish do not make for a pleasant evening in company. This film is, however, an excellent reminder that the smallest act – an ill-advised comment to the table, a strained facial expression during dessert – can lead to dinner party chaos. Work on the small things and avoid the massive cock-ups: this is the lesson provided by Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner.

Similarly, and for all the film’s culinary lushness, I do not find the guests invited to Babette’s Feast (1987) particularly well mannered (apologies for the dubbed version; I couldn’t find it online with subtitles). Watching this film the other day, I suddenly realised how much I was sweating during the prolonged ‘feast scene’. Perhaps I’m just a food fetishist, but its sensuality hits me where Nick Cage gets hit after he’s had a steak in Moonstruck (1987). Babette (Stéphane Audran) delicately crafting each tiny dish, the thick juices pouring from General Löwenhielm’s (Jarl Kulle’s) lips as he munches on chicken carcasses and spinach pancakes – it’s pure sex. Ah, but sadly, it’s rather bad manners. One sees bits of meat on beards, wine-tainted lips, full mouths attempting to converse and chew simultaneously. What is more, only the General deigns to compliment the chef. Everyone else simply bangs on about the weather and God and things far less important than food (during the meal, anyway).

This film is not, however, without its instructive capacity, for Babette is nothing if not a superb hostess, and is fully in command of the codes and conventions associated with gourmet dining. Her baking, her sauces, her wine choices: all reveal a person intent on impressing her guests. And is this not what, after all, dinner is all about? Giving the maximum pleasure to friends, family, hostages, bloodstained teenagers – whoever you have chosen to grace your table.

I have no doubt that if you invited me to dinner your first desire would be to impress. You would hang the expense. Babette spends her entire inheritance – ten thousand francs when that was a lot of money – on ingredients for her guests. When asked why, and reminded that she will now be ‘poor forever’, Babette replies: ‘An artist is never poor.’ This might sound like the kind of wanky reply we expect from only the most poncy of art films, but I really felt as if it was meant in this instance. And it’s not a bad lesson to take to the supermarket as you go to purchase ingredients for our dinner this weekend. An artist is never poor. I await my invitation with excitement.

The End.

Next up: E is for Economics. Good old dry, dull, numbery economics.

Alongside Mr. and Ms. Hartley, I would like to thank Seb Manley for adding much needed charm and dignity to my prose. Polite society has been much taken with Seb’s proofreading abilities of late. If the grapevine is to be believed, he and a Miss V______ have been spied painting apostrophes on one another in Earls Court. And apostrophes are but one of Seb’s many talents. If you’re writing non-fiction and want it to read clearly and grammatically, then check out Seb’s website: www.manley-editorial.com.

A Random A-Z of Film Themes: C Is for Camera

 

  C Is for Camera

Not long after civil unrest swept England’s major cities in August 2011, self-proclaimed guerrilla filmmaker O.D. Gruner sat down to write what he considered to be his masterpiece. Entitled No Man Is an Island, his film depicted the burgeoning relationship between a working-class rioter and a Conservative politician. The two characters first encounter one another in Notting Hill (where the rioter happens to be completing six months’ community service – street sweeping, removing graffiti and so on – and where the MP happens to live). Their initial meeting is frosty to say the least. But as time goes by a friendship blooms. They come to understand one another; they develop a bond. The movie ends with the politician making a speech about how rioters are ‘human beings for God’s sake’ and, in a final act of magnanimity, agreeing to adopt the young man. His biological family could not afford to keep him, anyway.

Receiving plaudits from David Cameron and his political allies, winning several Academy Awards, and drawing its fair share of cringes from other quarters, the film propels Gruner into the public eye. He uses his new-found fame to pontificate on and on about ‘the camera as a tool for public good’ and ‘the filmmaker’s responsibility’. What follows is excerpted from one of the many (most would say too many) interviews he gave during his brief spell as the chattering classes’ cause célèbre.

A Chat with O.D. Gruner (originally published in Film Talk, December 2011)

I had heard from a fellow reporter that O.D. Gruner was a ‘difficult’ interviewee. In journalists’ parlance this tends to mean an arrogant arsehole with very little of interest to say about anything. The man behind No Man Is an Island, a film dealing with the fallout from the England Riots, had become quite a mascot for the political classes. But when it came to actually voicing an opinion on something – on politics, on film, on anything – he was known to be decidedly incoherent. Perhaps that was why politicians liked him so much. And it was certainly why, sat waiting for him at Carluccio’s Bistro, a West Kensington hangout of the over-fed, I started worrying how I was going to turn whatever drivel emerged from his mouth into two thousand words of copy. The bistro seemed appropriate enough, considering what I’d heard about my subject: fussing waiters, crystal carafes, lace napkins – the kind of place you’d invite five hundred or so of your closest friends for a spot of self-promotion. At Gruner’s request, I’d ordered a selection of vegetable canapes, which were now going cold on the table. A brief shuffling at the bistro’s doorway signalled his arrival – forty minutes late.

‘Rudolph, darling!’ Gruner threw his arms around the waiter who had greeted him at the door. ‘It’s been too long.’ Before Rudolph had a chance to reply (and I suspect he would have replied that his name wasn’t Rudolph), Gruner was off again. Swirling from table to table, half ballerina, half pinball, he seemed to know intimately every one of the bistro’s patrons. Or, at least he wanted me to think so. Slapping ‘Paul’ and ‘Roger’ on their backs, cuddling up with Pippas and Martines and cooing mwahs to all those Gwyneths and Michaels sat beyond his lusty reach, here was pomposity incarnate. The whole performance was pathetic. It reminded me of Gloria Swanson’s ‘grand’ entrance at the end of Sunset Boulevard (1950). Descending her mansion’s imposing staircase, Swanson’s character, Norma Desmond, is under the mistaken belief that she is starring in a new movie. The cameras may be rolling, but Desmond is not bound for the silver screen. She is bound for the six o’clock news. In fact, her rampant addiction to movie stardom and desire for public adulation has landed her with a murder rap. The only chariot she’ll be riding off into the sunset in has the letters LAPD printed on its bumper. I wondered if this was a common theme in cinema: an obsession with making movies, an addiction to the camera, leading to some kind of destruction, corruption, even death. ‘I love shooting film,’ says John Cassellis, the documentary-maker hero of Haskell Wexler’s movie about political protest and social upheaval in late 1960s America, Medium Cool (1969). This ‘love’ will lead him on a journey of political and personal awakening, but one with some pretty tragic consequences. Or what about the depressed and jaded director of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), or Filip, the amateur cameraman of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Camera Buff (1979), who finds out a great deal more about the people and politics of communist-era Poland than he bargained for? Tragic drunk Norman Maine tops himself in A Star Is Born (1937/1954). His suicide is an attempt to save his wife’s acting career and a show of disgust toward his own career’s implosion. Watching Gruner, now strutting toward my table with all the modesty of a celebrity rooster, I couldn’t help wishing him a similar fate.

‘The whole world is watching.’ Medium Cool (1969).

Without so much as a good evening, let alone an apology for his lateness, Gruner plonked himself down at the table and surveyed its adornments. His eyes fell on the canapes and he picked one up. Nibbling around the edges, he flashed a disgusted look in my direction. ‘You decided against the spinach ones, then?’ he said, accusingly. I suppose I looked baffled because his facial expression quickly changed into one of pity. ‘Not to worry, I’ll have some brought over.’ He made several hand gestures in the direction of a nearby waiter and then turned back to face me.

‘Now, I know what you’re going to ask, and yes, I did learn a great deal from Ken.’ For the second, and certainly not the last, time in the evening, I was confused.

‘Ken?’

‘Ken Loach. It’s often said…’

It had not occurred to me to note any similarities in terms of filmmaking, let alone political commitment, between Gruner and Ken Loach. What the hell, I thought. Let’s run with it. ‘That’s interesting, so what did you learn from Loach?’ Gruner gulped down the last of his wine and signalled for another glass. At this point he did not seem interested in following up on his initial announcement, so I thought I’d offer him a few suggestions. With films that address subjects ranging from labour rights and organised labour (Bread and Roses; Riff-Raff), capitalism vs socialism (Land and Freedom) and the Troubles in Northern Ireland (Hidden Agenda), not to mention his penchant for having characters literally sit down and debate important ideological issues, Loach really is a director interested in the camera as a political weapon.

Renowned for his hand-held camera work and quasi-documentary feel, Loach is going one step further in his current film project The Angel’s Share (due to be released in 2012) and shooting parts of it on Glasgow CCTV cameras. What kind of effect this will have remains to be seen. But one could imagine it combining formal and thematic traits associated with Loach, such as documentary ‘realism’ and political commentary – a reference to the contemporary culture of surveillance, perhaps. And maybe this was what Gruner was thinking when he mentioned Loach and himself in the same breath, for he too attempts to weave a ‘documentary aesthetic’ into his film. His film begins with real footage of the riots, shot on a mobile phone.

If I asked you to name one memorable image of the events of August 2011, what would you reply? A burning building, perhaps, or youths carrying 52-inch televisions, or an injured young man having the contents of his backpack stolen by a gang of bad Samaritans? Quite likely, the image that lingers in the mind was not shot by the BBC, or ITV or Sky or any other mainstream news outlet. Very possibly, the image was captured on a mobile phone. For a brief moment back in August, Joe and Joline Bloggs of Hackney Wick turned Abraham Zapruder and captured the nights that shook a nation. From Blackberry to blog, these images hit the internet in a flash, and were visually defining events even as they were unravelling. And just as Zapruder’s amateur movie, shot on Dallas’ Dealey Plaza in November 1963, has become, for many, the document of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, mobile phone footage will surely be central to collective memory of the riots. While Gruner is the first filmmaker to make use of this footage in a fictional film, I suspect that there will be many others who will follow in his wake. The question is: what kind of stories will they tell?

‘Back and to the left.’ The Zapruder film.

Since Gruner’s film, No Man Is an Island, is the first to deal with the riots, it is worth briefly reminding ourselves of its plot. The film begins with documentary footage of England up in flames. It then cuts to the riots’ immediate aftermath, where those involved in the disturbances are being sentenced. After this we meet the two main characters: a Conservative MP for Kensington and Chelsea, George Lovelorn; and a young working-class rioter from Croydon, Brad Davis. Davis avoids a prison sentence and is instead given six months’ community service. This takes him to Notting Hill, where, one autumn morning, he bumps into Lovelorn. He is, in fact, scrubbing away graffiti that had been scrawled on Lovelorn’s offices – ‘Tories are pricks’. Alas, each day the same message is written somewhere on the office wall, so Davis finds himself spending more and more time in the company of Lovelorn. What follows is touchy-feely Hollywood gold: a relationship develops between the two men; they come to love one another, platonically of course. Lovelorn ends the film in fatherly mode, agreeing to adopt Davis from his impoverished family. In what Gruner has referred to as his film’s ‘final symbol of reconciliation’, Davis attends Lovelorn’s office on the final day of his community service and finds that the ‘Tories are pricks’ message has not been rewritten. Cue the credits. And cue my questions, for I had many.

I wanted to know why Gruner had decided to begin his film with real documentary footage. Did he see his film as in some way ‘documentary-like’, an attempt to explore and explain the reality of events that had just transpired? Was he trying to make a ‘history’ of the England Riots? To what extent did he strive for authenticity in his representation?

‘I see the mobile phone as inheritor to the Super-8,’ declared Gruner. ‘That is to say, it is the new form of amateur cinematography. With regard to the riots, the Blackberry or iPhone or whatever allowed people to create their own histories of the riots, to capture the events for posterity. They did not need to rely on mainstream news for their information; they could rely on one another. Your friend in Manchester showed you what was happening in Manchester; your friend in Notting Hill replied with videos of events down there. A wave of amateur documentary-makers, amateur newsreaders, even, given the arrests made thanks to these videos, amateur law enforcers, was enabled thanks to the Blackberry. The mobile phone is the ordinary Joe’s BBC, and I wanted to make it clear that what I was making was a history of the people. By beginning my film with real footage taken on mobile phones I was saying in a sense that my camera is but an extension of the people’s camera.’

An eloquent answer indeed, but if this was the case, why had he presented a politician as his film’s hero, and a Tory politician at that? And, furthermore, if this is a film about – as Gruner so Blairishly put it – the ‘people’, why did the film not consider the social and political conditions that, some argued, had made certain ‘people’ riot in the first place? I told him that I thought more needed to be made of the social inequalities that wracked many urban areas and that, if not sparked the riots directly, at least fostered hot-beds of discontent ready to explode at the slightest provocation. I also wanted to know whether he thought the mixing of documentary material and a fictional narrative would affect his film’s representation of the riots. Could his film potentially, dangerously, rewrite history?

‘A filmmaker’s job is not to report facts,’ he replied. ‘The facts are many, contradictory and open to debate. A filmmaker must provide his own interpretation of the past. We directors are not and cannot be required to answer to the same historical standards as historians. We are artists and should be allowed to embellish and interpret as we see fit. Shakespeare’s Richard III was not historically accurate, but dramatically brilliant and emotionally resonant. I do not, of course, compare myself to Shakespeare [here Gruner looked slyly over at a young fan sat at a nearby table and gave her a wink]. The camera does not record – it interprets.’

This was an interesting argument, one well used by directors of historical films such as Oliver Stone (JFK, Nixon) and Spike Lee (Malcolm X, Miracle at St. Anna). But it did lead me to remind him that, just minutes earlier in our conversation, he had referred to his film as a ‘history’. Is he now saying that his film is not history? And, furthermore, Stone and Lee are well known for attempting to challenge ‘official’ establishment histories in their films. Does Gruner believe that his film is doing something similar?

‘Not all history needs to wear its politics on its sleeve. The riots were a tragedy that our country is still trying to come to terms with. I did not want to start making rabid political claims at a time when the wounds are yet to heal (the Conservative politician was a mere coincidence). I intended this film to be a kind of therapy, if you will, to show that, come what may, the human spirit will endure.’

And there he might have a point. Perhaps now was not the time to be making political films about the riots. Maybe the wounds were still too raw. Yet, if he really intended to make a politically neutral and non-editorialised film, why, then, did he choose the riots as a subject in the first place?

‘Now I didn’t mean my film has no politics. I said it didn’t wear them on its sleeve. I would say that my film is political in its call for tolerance and understanding. We must all work together in order to make the world a better place for ourselves and our children. Indeed, as a great man once said, we are in this together.’

God he sounded like a politician…

And so, as our interview drew to a close, Gruner knocked back the last dregs of his Chianti and rose to leave. He looked me in the eye with an earnestness that suggested he was about to conclude on something genuinely meaningful. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I suppose he learnt a lot from me, anyway.’ I had no idea what he was talking about, and told him so. ‘Ken,’ he replied, and winked, then skipped off for a last round of hello darlings before disappearing into the crisp Kensington night. And for all his dickishness as a person – let us not play games, he was a buffoon – I couldn’t help feeling a pang of sympathy for him as he made his jaunty retreat. He was clearly a very troubled and very confused man. The interview had seen him change opinion once, twice, three times, sometimes mid-sentence. He did not seem capable of holding an argument longer than it took him to finish a glass of wine (which, as my tab concluded, was not very long).

Yet I don’t think he intended anything malicious in his movie. No Man Is an Island is, I suppose, nothing if not warm-hearted. In Gruner’s self-proclaimed ‘masterpiece’ is distilled the very reaction and emotions (if not the politics) that I felt back in August. Why couldn’t we just all get along? Why couldn’t our problems be solved that easily? A call for tolerance, a representation of cross-class reconciliation – these are not bad things to have in a film. Perhaps it was me who was being biased, coming, as I did, to the interview with my own views on the political role of the filmmaker and the camera as a tool for public good. Who was I to say how the riots should be remembered, anyway? I had made the critic’s cardinal error of seeing things in terms of my way or the highway. And in these terms No Man Is an Island was always going to be shunted onto the hard shoulder. In hindsight, maybe I should have been more generous toward Gruner and his opinions. Maybe all us people willing to criticise others’ movies should turn the camera on ourselves now and again (like Filip does at the end of Camera Buff) and subject our own opinions to a little more interrogation. Or maybe I was being too hard on myself.

The End.

Next up: D is for Dinner, a recipe for disaster.

As ever, I am grateful to Seb Manley for proofing and correcting my many grammatical errors, and for generally improving my work’s readability. From theses to websites, Seb puts the punch back in punchuation and returns flow to the over-flowery: www.manley-editorial.com.

Works I found helpful when writing this article

Burgoyne, Robert. Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Rosenstone, Robert A. History on Film/Film on History: Concepts, Theories and Practice (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2006).

White, Hayden. ‘The Modernist Event’, in Vivian Sobchack, ed., The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modernist Event (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 17–38.

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