TV In the first episode of the last series of Friends which began on Channel 4 tonight, the producers appeared to have been using some kind of powers to channel Steven Moffat telents to write something which felt utterly like an episode of the British version of Coupling. All of the motifs where present and correct -- the misunderstandings, the running between rooms, the high concept POV shots and a total lack of scruples when it comes to making their characters appear just awful. It also seemed much, much cruder. Deliciously so.

Whenever someone who doesn't know anything wants to put down American comedy they always make some snide remark about Friends because it has all those beautiful people and how could that be funny. Those morons misunderstand how television works. The reason Friends has been on television for ten years isn't because we all fancy the leads (well that helps) it's because time and again and consistently the scripts have been barnstormingly funny. Shorter lived sitcoms almost always lack something and usually it's a misunderstanding that good actors and good characters do not equal good comedy. You need to give them something funny and surprising to do. The audience simply won't tolerate anything else (unless they watch Everyone Loves Raymond which has finally turned up in the ex-RISE spot on morning Channel 4 and continues to baffle everyone with its blandness).

As always here it's the details which delight. Such as the moment Ross decides to go tell Joey about falling into the arms of ex-girlfriend Charlie and says he as wait moment; as he starts to mutter grandma we realise that little Ross is on duty and needs to be called back to the mess hall. Or Rachel's exclamation that Charlie is 'Really working her way through the group ...' and the moments afterwards when it dawns on her that she's one to talk. Pheobe's boyfriend Mike completely failing with the dirty talk and her sudden rush of takecharginess. Even Chandler and Monica, in their second string mode Get to have fun with shells and hair -- the latter having finally completed her decent into the former's mindset -- in fact he seems to have matured as she's drifted downwards -- this is not the same Monica who was the mature city girl of the pilot.

So how does it fight off claims from some quarters that it's become tired, that all the permutations have been worked through and it should have left town five years ago. That what realism the show had (for a sitcom) has gone awol because of the perpetuation of a situation (would these six people still be living in exactly this proximity after ten years). But to some extent this is quietly being work to the shows advantage. In a rather revealing moment, Rachel reminded us that it's six years since she and Ross dated (I was just leaving college then). They know how long the dynamic has been going and to some extent it feels as though Rachel and Joey are getting together because they realise that they've done nearly everything else. Monica and Chandler got together so why shouldn't they? It's precisely because of the shared memory in amongst the characters and the audience that this episode works so well. I just hope that precisely because the writers know this is the final year they'll throw everything in the air and see were it falls. Without the need to keep anything back for future seasons anything could and should happen.
People Me thinking (during Friends tonight).
"She's nice. Mike's dumping her Phoebe? I know she's a main character but still ... actually Precious is an odd name. And she seems kinda neurotic....actually she seems sort of familiar..."
"... actually this doesn't portray Mike in a very good light. Two minutes after he split up with Phoebe he's being precious for Precious. Who still looks very familiar. She looks oddly like Season One Phoebe. Were they having a clear out of the costume department? No that's not it..."
Later still.
"... I've definitely seen that face before."

For those who are currently asking 'Who?' Let me explain. In these brief few brief minutes British and American comedy intersected. I have seen Anne Dudek in things other than The Book Group, her turn in e.r. for example, but on previous occasions, her look has been entirely similar to Clare, the book lover marooned in Glasgow. But here she was, her hair bleached blonde wearing an extraordinary ensemble and as I found out almost totally unrecognisable.

It was an opportunity to see the differences in acting skills required in sitcoms on either side of the atlantic. Her work in The Book Group was subtle and at times heartbreaking, witness the moment in the first episode when her inability to attract men finally gets to her and she sits crumpled in her hallway. As Precious, when advised that Mike has been cheating on her and with Lisa Kudrow receiving most of the close ups her work becomes huge, her crying fit forced out as though she's trying to make her 'inner voice' heard over the din. US sitcom it seems is about theatricality rather than naturalism. But somehow, in role which frankly could have been played by any one of the hundred actresses which get off the plane in LA every day, she still managed to bring something different -- those expressively sad eyes and lower lip still trembling under the dangly hair and make up to the extent she made Phoebe look like a total bitch, something which has been almost impossible during those ten long years. I only hope that with this and all the film work she still has time for a third series of The Book Group. That wasn't the end, surely?
Film When I saw A Mighty Wind, the audience member sitting next to me munched his way through a box of popcorn and didn't laugh once; but whenever I gave one of twenty or so belly laughs he turned and looked at me as though he thought it was a real documentary and I was ruining his concentration. Quite how he came to this decision with all the fake wigs and beards on display I'm not sure, but Wind is the kind of movie which will polarise an audience. Those who think it's as good as Spinal Tap and those who don't. I'm in the latter camp for reason we'll approach in the fourth paragraph but first I want to say lots of nice things.

I grew up with folk music. Right up until my teens the house would be filled with the sounds of The Spinners, Jackie and Bridie, The Horton Weavers and The Dubliners. I knew some songs by heart (still do) and more than one brings a tear to my eye. What's startling about Wind is how similar the styles are and in that sense I think I probably got more of the jokes than some of the other people in the screening. The pullovers on display on album covers for The Folksman especially were incomfortably close to the early sixties apparel of The Spinners. So when I laughed it was through an appreciation of a culture which was so clearly shared from across the atlantic and how authentic Guest and friends were being. Unlike any other popular music form, folk had a shared cultural language and it's ironic that I noticed this through a film which set out to parody exactly that thing I'm understanding more.

But it's an affectionate parody. Unlike other films of the genre it doesn't go out and set up these characters as losers. We're laughing at them in the same way we might laugh at the foubles of our own friends. Eugene Levy's Mitch might be an extra-ordinary creation, a sort of flowery Ozzy Osbourne channeling the speech patterns of the Dad from the sitcom Alf but his heart is in the right place even when he's telling the new husband of his ex-wife Mickey how he should redecorate his model railway set ("I would love to see this town in the autumn. I think Crabbeville in autumn would look quite magnificent.") to the extent that the final scenes are utterly touching. Our appreciation for the characters is also helped by a watertight chemistry between the actors, as The Folksman, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest look like they've been at it for years (and in fact they have as a side project for Spinal Tap) and The New Main Street Singers obviously have all the horrid dynamics which can be the eventual downfall of most groups. It's an extraodinary commitment to character -- Parker Posy is someone entirely different to anything she's played before and yet she's utterly convincing and never lets the mask fall even when she isn't in the limelight (which is for much of the film).

But yet in my bones I don't feel like it has the longevity of The Is Spinal Tap. Like Best in Show the subject in question doesn't have the same universal appeal as rock music and it has difficulty with being critical when it needs to be. It also lacks a centrality. At times it veers between a straight narrative and full on documentary with interviews, skipping between a kind of first and third person which can be distracting and on more than one occasion pulls us out of the film as we try to work out our point of view in a scene. In Tap, a central figure was doing a profile of a subject which meant there was something for the story such as it was to hang on to. In the final scenes when The Folksman are dashing backwards and forwards to the stage are we supposed to believe a film crew are following them into their dressing room or that we're privy to something they're not? the last thing it needs is a disembodied voice (see People Like Us) but perhaps next time they might consider a narration for cohesions sake.

Which makes me sound like I hated the film. I actually loved it and can't wait to buy the CD so that I'll have a bunch of new old new songs to learn. And the DVD so that I can learn to quote the script, because that's what films like this are ultimately for surely. "To do then now would be retro. To do then then was very now-tro, if you will."
Communities Incidentally, if anyone wants in with Orkut let me know and I'll get your name on the list at the front door.
Plug! In other news, Suw Charman's culture site Clwb Malu Cachu is open for business for all you Welsh speaking needs...
Blog! A very strange thing happened at the FACT tonight. I'm standing waiting for the best seat in their lounge influenced The Box screen when I started small talking with a girl. Based on my previous post about American Splendour it looks like I do this a lot. I really don't. But when the alternative is a book you're not enjoying ... (see some future review). I didn't talk to her long enough to get a name but somewhere in five minutes after I cagely said I was a writer and that this actually meant I wrote a weblog, I was amazed to find she not only knew what they were (which only happens once in a well never), but that she could recommend a good one. And so we find the Eyebeam reBlog a sort of blog of blogs. It's like a Metafilter of old before the world got serious. I wish all small talk was this informative.
Life Now that the Christmas rush has died down and the winter begins it's sporadic meander of confusion into spring I've set about creating a series of 'places' that I can go regularly which aren't work or home. So I've been spending a lot of time in Starbucks and Soul Cafe, at the FACT centre and The Blue Coat Chambers. It's a change of scene, somewhere isolated from the usual distractions which life throws at you, an attempt in a way to find a way of creating the feeling of stillness I'd get during my commuter life. I hated the time which I'd spend traveling but I hardly ever hated the times when I travelled, two hours of the day when I there was nothing to do but read, listen to music or chat to new people. Now I'm slowy getting those times back, even if it's in a lunch hour here a wait for the cinema there. Which reminds me, I should start getting ready ...
Film A translation of Lost In Translation. Just what was the advert director saying? [via AskMe] Also, according to a review at DVDIGN the film only cost $5 million to make. Makes you wonder what other films do with all that money...
Film Watched Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty last night for the first time since its release and I'd forgotten how shocking that moment is. It's not the first time nudity has appeared anywhere and there have certainly been more gratuitous examples, but I think it's the matter of fact way the blouse is removed to the reveal Liv Tyler's breast. Unfortunately this was the second time I'd seen it (the film) without an audience (the other time at the Odeon in '96 was myself and a very creepy old man) but I remember reading at the time that there had been gasps during preview and review screenings, as though a woman had suddenly appeared on screen from from thin air. Liv then sits there for a good five minutes while the artist (spoiler) who eventually turns out to possibly be her father (in Darth Vader sense of the word) draws her and two local boys sit around commenting on what they see.

Here is what I wrote about the film to a pen pal all those years ago (please feel free to throw rocks at my writing style):
"Stealing Beauty - no complaints - see this film. It one of those movies you can watch over and over, like you're visiting friends every so often. Liv Tyler is a babe (which I know is overtly sexist, but sue me) and as this incredible emotional intensity. There seems to be a few of these new actresses around at the moment - like Claire Danes, for example, who somehow have this ability to convince the viewer that they are feeling every word and experiencing what their characters are going through with every pore in their body, in a way that few actresses do - they make Julia Roberts and Demi Moore. You know, the camera does not leave Liv for much of the movie, but you don't care, because she is a pleasure to watch. Oh and every shot could be printed and hung on a wall as art. (PS - doesn't Liv Tyler look scarcely like Alanis Morissette?!?)
Well she did then. I think. Erm ...

Depending on your film tastes it also has an extraordinary cast. As well as Rachel Weisz (who you'll remember I've been noticing a lot lately in The Shape of Things) playing the daughter in this ex-pat enclave which is million miles from Eldorado, we find Jason Flemyng (a couple of years before Paul Bettany stole his career), Joseph Fiennes (playing Will Shakespeare as he always does only this time with blonde hair) and Jeremy Irons in yet another part which he nails and embues with a kind of pathos which only he can do.

The film isn't for everyone. There isn't much of a plot to speak of other than a girl coming to terms with her sexuality amid her Bohemian relatives in the picturesque setting of Tuscany (thanks to Darius Khondji for knowing were to point a camera). Everything really exciting happens in the last couple of scenes; the rest of the time is spent taking the audience's emotions on holiday, suggesting they let this oasis of near perfection washing over them.

It's just a pity Bertolucci's new film The Dreamers looks like a remake of Andrew Fleming's Threesome set in a period with a political edge. But I suspect I'm the only person thinking that so we'll move on.
Drink After the half-concert we visit a Cypriot fast food restaurant because Fani needed fuel before she went home to watch 'I'm a Celebrity ....' I'd already eaten so instead I order a glass of juice which meant I could visit up on the sheer poety of their Zummo Juicing Machine. I'll let Zummo's website sum up the experience of watching the thing at work:
"Now here's an innovation from Zummo, specialists in making fruit juice drinks more and more appealing. The Big Fresh Orange is unique citrus fruit press and dispensing machine that will fascinate your customers as they watch oranges (or lemons, grapefruit or limes) physically being cut in half and squeezed into their glass and the rest is fully automatic.

To watch The Big Fresh procedeure is pure theatre! Thats why we have disigned our machines to become an attractive but compact part of your bar or counter merchandising area. Whether you're operating a club, shop, restaurant or bar, if you want to impress customers with your desire to offer a quality service, install a Zummo machine and watch the sun shine in onyour customer relations.
The clerk filled the top of the machine with this yellowy/green/orangy citrus fruit and when the machine was turned on it pulled the not quite oranges/lemons/anything into some waiting arms which litterally wipped them apart, juiced them and threw the skins away into little bins waiting on either side. In a way which suggests she was trying to sell me one, the clerk told me she'd bought a smaller one for her kitchen at home but that it took ten oranges to fill a glass (which seems like an awful lot) and that it was a pain in the arse to clean (I didn't say it was a good sales pitch).
Life We walked out of our first concert at The Phil Liverpool tonight. In keeping with previous walk outs I won't mention the pianist in question because he was perfectly fine. I think it had more to do with the mix of Liszt and Hummel, the fact that Fani and I were very tired (she's been hammering her college work into the small hours and I've been up since 6:45 for work) and for much of the time bored shiftless. Of the two composers, Hummel seemed more coherent, but without the expected clap break I'm not sure were one composer started and the other ended. So when we realised that we hadn't in fact heard the Chopin as well (this would come in the second half) we decided to cut our losses. Perhaps if we had been more awake we could have appreciated it more, but when you're working through the logistics of what else you've got to do that week and what'll you'll be doing when you get home and not focusing on the music at all, it's probably best to bd a hasty retreat. I will be getting the Chopin we missed on CD (good old Naxos) so that I listen to what we didn't see.
That Day Groundhog booed as he sees his shadow. Sorry everyone, expect six more weeks of snow. Phil still had some time for a bit of political commentary ... "I'm glad I live in this luxurious burrow on the knob, and not in a dirty, smelly, spider hole like a slob,'' said the proclamation read aloud by one of the organizers. ``When I come out, I don't want to negotiate; but to just do my job and prognosticate.'' At least the towns people are as upbeat as they are in the film ... "We couldn't care less if he sees his shadow,'' said Bill Cooper, president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. ``It's a people holiday.''
Life I bought my parents a new video recorder for the living room. The old machine was old and hammered and refusing to play tapes in any kind of reasonable way. Although I appreciate there are splitters available, why is it so damn difficult to wire up a video and a DVD player through the same tv? And then why is it comparatively difficult to explain the use of the new set up to my parents. Either I'm not very good at describing things, it'll take time for the new setup to sink in with them, or the third option that people who produce modern electronics are hell bent on making them difficult for anyone over a certain age. I mean I've messed about with the scart leads all I can, but as far as I can gather, the only way to use the DVD player is to have the VCR on at the same time. That can't be right surely?

create your own visited country map
or write about it on the open travel guide

[Since I've only actually been to five of the countries on the list (and only one of those because I live here), I thought it would be more interesting to choose those places that I've visited via some cultural experience, be it music, film, reading, art or television. The fact that so much of the map is red either means I'm outward thinking or that the world really has become very small and that there isn't a place which isn't accessable even if you can't afford a plane ticket. The BBC's World Service Documentary archive means you can go right now...]
TV This month's 'off the telly' features a good survey of the kinds of books people write about television. It's a careful tightrope between giving what the public want and creating something which might be of interest to someone who might be browsing on the bookshopshelf. It's frighteningly comprensive, including many of my picks (although I think the book about Live TV is better than they say and worth a look), but I would also like to mention the Michael Palin travelogue diaries, this life: The Companion Guide (which is carefully in keeping with the drama it represents), Cunning: The "Blackadder" Programme Guide (which takes the unusual step of covering shows which influenced and were influenced by the series) and my Doctor Who novelisation pick is The Daleks (which pretends that the first story never happened and opens like a noir thriller) ....
That Day It's Groundhog Day tomorrow ... again ... and we'll all be able to see if Phil feels lucky. Personally, if my name was Phil I'd make my way to Punxsutawney to hear my name chanted just like the people at the official website of the event. According to the rodent's own site (which is very professional considering that it's little claws must have difficulty with the keys) the moment when he'll be telling the town whether they can expect six more weeks of snow is being webcast.

Before the film very few people outside America were probably aware of the event, but it's legacy endures and anyone who still hasn't seen it (why?) through a classic bit of scheduling can see it tomorrow night on five at 9pm, y'know actually on Groundhog Day. Today in the The Observer, Ryan Gibley discusses the ongoing appeal of the film and reveals how close creators Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis were from turning a classic into an also ran:
"'The studio argued that the audience would be confused,' he recalls. 'I told them that if we explain it, we trivialise it. Who cares if it's a celestial event or whatever? Harold called me and said, "Just write something. We can always cut it out." I said, "What do you want? A gypsy curse?" That was the most stupid, commercial idea I could think of. He said, "Yeah, just write that."'

Rubin and Ramis both dashed off scenes to placate executives. Ramis's rewrite contained some dimwitted alterations that reveal how close the filmmakers came to squandering their picture's potential. In his version, Ramis created a spurned lover who takes revenge on Phil with the help of 101 Curses, Spells and Enchantments You Can Do at Home. 'Harold's draft also had a lot of adolescent, topical humour,' adds Rubin. 'I said, "You've gotta take all this out, because this movie is going to go on for years and years." Even then I believed it would achieve that kind of longevity. Of course, I've also believed that every screenplay I wrote would get made and that hasn't happened.' "
Personally, due to climate changes, I think Spring will come earlier this year, but perhaps I ought to leave it to the professionals. "You want a prediction about the weather, you're asking the wrong Phil. I'll give you a winter prediction. It's gonna be cold ... it's gonna be grey... and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life."