The Films I've Watched This Year #17

Books Yes, well, no, I didn't, not really. This week's been a hermitage week and so to make things extra specially different to usual, I decided to read some books instead of watching films across themed days. Monday was music, Tuesday was theatre, Wednesday was television, Thursday some film and Friday has been what it has been.  As well as the Arden edition of A Jovial Crew which I reviewed the other day, the other items were Hanif Kureshi's diary about the making of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid from some Granta edition, the RSC's King Lear for kids and the documentary and performance content from The Shakespearean London Theatres (SHALT) project's YouTube channel which I know all stretches the definition of what a book is but I needed a break after bashing my way through an actor's autobiography.  You'll see which.  Back to normal, back to work, after today, though frankly it's going to be difficult.  The whole thing has been blissful.  Though I probably do still need to take a week away.  I haven't had a holiday since 2009.

There's something quite discombobulating about reading a nostalgia piece which is just slightly outside of your field of reference especially when it's from someone who would then go on to be squarely within that nostalgic margin. The first half of Louise Wener's memoir Different For Girls covers her teenage years, which weren't spectacularly different to most people, recording the top 40 from Radio One with a finger poised on the pause button to cut out the DJ, having to choose between moonboots or a Human League album due to budgetary considerations (I did much the same with computer games and Kylie Minogue) and attending a David Bowie concert. Except for most of us these are steps towards become workers in the customer service industry. For Wener, they were the research and inspiration for becoming a pop star and ultimately led to her becoming the lead singer of Sleeper.

Which leads to a second half which is the very definition of "a think piece about a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom" and entirely aware of it (one of the chapters is even called "Almost Famous").  After noodling around in venues for a while, Sleeper are eventually signed to a record company for a horrendous "slave" deal and then find themselves on the crest of the wave they called Brit Pop trying desperately to break an America that doesn't understand them and touring Europe as interrelations within the band fall apart due to Wener breaking up with the guitarist then becoming involved with the drummer.  How much of this is news to fans of music from the period I'm not sure, but as with Sheryl Garrett's Adventures in Wonderland, it's a useful way for me to fill in a gap in my own history, of a period in cultural history I entirely missed because I was still listening to Debbie Gibson tunes and shit.

Wener's trick, and what sets it apart from what you might expect from a rock biography is that she writes about the whole thing in the same way, approaching Saturday jobs and presenting Top of the Pops with the same brutal honesty.  All the while she's entirely cognicent of her and the band's own limitations and that for all their hard work, they'll never quite reach the heights of Oasis or Blur but that to an extent they don't really want to.  Wener has a surprising awareness of how it all what went wrong, that the horror of touring and publicity left little room for finding a proper inspiration for the third album which was mostly written on autopilot and recorded with a different bassist and although it included the odd good song that led to some critical plaudits, was always going to disappoint especially as the Brit Pop cycle was coming to an end.  Middle level bands like Sleeper and Shed Seven would be the casualties and as soon as the first single tanked, they knew it was time to cut their losses.

One of Wener's big disappointments was that the band wasn't subversive enough that they weren't the sort of group like L7  or Hole, who'd do naughty things on The Word.  Nicholas Cook's Music: A Very Short Introduction is exactly that in book form.  Instead of offering what you might expect to be a short history of music, Cook instead decides to metaphorically throw the whole notion of musicology under the bus, listing in some detail and plenty of relish its failings as a discipline and how, in deliberately calcifying it through an elitist approach that deifies composers and patronises laypeople, is ultimately hurting our appreciation of music and Western classical music in general.  People familiar with the treatment of other cultural institutions will find suitable comparisons here.  Just as the editorial history of Shakespeare's texts has always threatened to engulf the purpose of the plays through discussions of his intent, so dozens of editions of Beethoven and Chopin's scores have led to wildly differing appreciations of what they were attempting to do.

Nonetheless, Cook has managed to offer a few nuggets to this layman.  As well as the news that Beethoven's 9th is argued over with as much rigour as Hamlet's various editions, there's the elucidation that the difference between Mozart and Beethoven is that the former's work favours the individual, whereas the latter is interested in the overall sound and so consequently are less arguably less enjoyable to play.  There's also a certain confirmation of how unfair we tend to be on pop stars who can't sing live, failing to notice the distinction between pop and rock music, each designed for their own particular set of purposes but neither really "authentic".  As Wener's book demonstrates, she and her guitarist effectively manufactured Sleeper by putting an advert out for a bassist and drummer and when they were signed, they hung around in the studio for six months working out their "sound".  Just because there were more voices in the creation of The Spice Girls, the process wasn't that different.

More brutal honesty in Simon Callow's Being an Actor.  Subsequently updated many times, this version I read this week is the first edition, published in 1984 covering his years in drama school, through his jobbing period and mix of critical acclaim and drubbing on the stage of the National.  He's till flirting with television (his appearance as Raymond Craft in Crown Court isn't mentioned) and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls is still ten years away.  Most of it's about what you'd expect, the period as a youngster when he submerged himself in a persona called "Simon Callow" whom he later realises is a bit of an asshole, through realising that he can act before deciding on several dozen occasions that he's going to be found out to entirely failing to join Ken Campbell's Science Fiction theatre because he realises they're all completely mad.  It's impossible to read without the great man's voice in your head.  The latest edition's available as an audiobook.  That must be a time.

As with all this week's books, the best moments are when the writer breaks from expectation and heads into emotional dangerous areas, and in Callow's case that's his disembowelling of not just his own technique but how it's impacted by poor direction.  There are thrilling passages in which he remembers rehearsals by the moment as directors with controlling tendencies simply want him to do it their way then can't really understand why, at the end of the rehearsal process, the production has no life to it.  Sometimes he simply gives himself over to it then takes the negative notices on the chin, sometimes he fights against it, but the there's a general sense that he prefers directors with flexible visions, willing to collaborate and who understand, or at least agree with Callow, that an important part of the process is realising who this character is that he's playing and how for a story to work, they almost have to exist in a way which makes the text and that story inevitable.  Phew.  In the main though, most of his acting chums are marvellous.

Jeffrey Stepakoff's memoir, Billion Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing actually follows a similar trajectory of college dawdling before deciding on a career and then success though without quite the level of self-doubt, largely because once he's on the gravy train of working on US network television as a writer, although some of the shows he works on were so cancelled they didn't even receive UK distribution (C-16 FBI? Hyperion Bay?).  Mostly it's a manifesto, written in the moment when traditional scripted fiction television found itself in the quagmire of having to justify its existence in the face of "reality" television, which as Stepakoff notes was just as scripted and in much the same way but had producers and editors thinking up storylines and hoping the dialogue would come.  Across the decades he covers, he tracks the period when writers were kings and development contracts led to million dollar paychecks even if shows never made it to air to, well, not.

As the title hints, it's Stepakoff's attempt at offering a an Adventures in the Screentrade for television writing, and arguably it's when he's actually describing the process of writing and what it's like to be in the rooming churning out these scripts that the book pings not least the horror that was producing Dawson's Creek once Kevin Williamson had left.  As he says, the first season is a golden thirteen episodes of television, some of the best teen drama every produced.  But it's a complete story and after that there wasn't a motivating element so it simply became soap opera, which is an interesting distinction, which Stepakoff acknowledges, but it did leave us viewers, as it meandered onwards, wondering quite what to make of it (as these posts from this blog while it was transmitting attest).  His argument is that when Pacey and Joey kissed it saved Dawson's Creek because it made the show about something again, which is arguably true but also led to it becoming horribly maudlin and even Proustian at times even after Busy Philipps joined.

Robert McKee would presumably describe the kiss as an "inciting incident" and it certainly was that though for the whole thing to really work in metanarrative terms it should have occurred at the end of the first season.  But McKee's Story doesn't much cover television other than to suggest what not to do in a film screenplay in terms of character and structure, though he also suggests they're one in the same thing anyway.  He does that a lot, tells the reader not to do something then a hundred pages later offers some examples of when it's perfectly ok or when it works, that, although he doesn't ever specify this, there are exceptions that disprove a rule, which you would think is problematic in a book which is supposed to be offering rules for writing a film screenplay.  No wonder Charlie Kauffman's character of Charlie Kaufmann in Adaptation is so bloody confused and manic by the end.  What is a screenwriter supposed to do when a four hundred page writing manual essentially boils down to two words,  "avoid cliche"?

In offering reasons why I finally read Story, Adaptation would be one.  Another would be so that I can say that I have, even though to say you've done something is no reason to actually do it.  Museums and archaeological sites are filled with tourists who've little to no interest in what they're seeing but are ticking the Mona Lisa or Stonehenge off a list (annoying the shit out of the people who actually do want to be there in the process).  Having spent the best part of a day working through the thing, I certainly wouldn't say I was equipped in any way to write a screenplay, though perhaps it shouldn't considered a failure in that regard since I wasn't going to write one anyway.  I do wish I'd glanced at it in 2006 when I was writing my dissertation though, since the section about multiplots, what I called hyperlink films, would have proven invaluable even if I think he misses the point by just saying they're a bunch of subplots without what he calls a "central plot".  In most cases, they're either a group of "central plots".

None of which is to say he didn't offer some insights.  He agrees with me that all films need some kind of mystery and intrigue and that too much exposition all dissipates rather than increases interest.  I'm always especially grumpy when films begin with back story, often with main characters as children since more often than not this doesn't provide much that couldn't be best served by simply showing the characters as adults, though as McKee notes if its a natural part of the story's structure, for example, The Last Emperor or I'd argue in Your Eyes, it's perfectly fine.  There's also an excellent section explaining why some films feel flabby in the middle - it's because the writer is letting duration dictate the plot rather than the other way around and is inventing incident that has nothing to do with what the protagonist wants.  Oh and he also led me to realise that Joss Whedon's way into scripting The Avengers was to make Nick Fury the central character and make all of the turning point actions about him.

Through a Glass Darkly
The Act of Killing

McKee also led me to finally watch what is my film of the week, Ingmar Bergman's bleak chamber piece about the spirituality and mental illness, which the script consultant for Barbie as the Island Princess (no, really) uses to demonstrate how character motivations work within a scene.  As with all films which treat the viewer as an adult, it's impossible to really discuss after a single watch, so tightly woven are the themes and so subtle the acting.  McKee describes a water motif which I missed completely, so involved was I in the story, though as he says the very best films stand up to multiple watches for just these reasons but also that it's important the symbolism is so overt that it becomes amusing (apart from the occasions when the symbolism is being particularly forefronted for a reason) (see what I mean?).  The real magic was in how I watched the film.  Having realised I needed to see it before reading a section of the book but not owning a copy, I checked Amazon Prime Instant and there it was with eleven other Tartan releases.

The modern world continues to astound me.

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