The year of skipping.

TV The slow way. The bizarre tradition of serial dramas and sitcoms is the attempt to mimic real life even though they’re clearly set in some alternate reality; so the ensemble cast of The West Wing, ER, Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, Friends, Babylon 5, even Alias, drift onward on a yearly basis for the length of their run, as we watch five to 10 years in the life of the characters, countless Christmases and birthdays.

There’s no reason for this really – and you can see each series trying desperately trying to fill the time, coming up with decent drama to fill in the gaps between the really exciting stuff. This is the time when most shows fail, because there’s a feeling of going through the motions.
The new Battlestar Galactica doesn’t do that and unless you’ve seen up to the end of season two I’d skip the rest of this post. Every now and then a month will drift by between episodes and I’ve just watched the season two finale on DVD and in a really, exciting audacious move they’ve skipped a whole year in the middle of a scene.

Cylon collaborator Baltar is sworn in as president, the remaining dregs of humanity have been ordered to settle on a planet that can barely support life, he drops his head to the table, there’s a crossfade and a caption reads “One year later”. I don’t like captions. They tend to be quite distracting and too much of a short hand for lazy programme makers trying all too quickly to set the scene when a bit of dialogue, or I don’t know, everything else on screen should suffice.

But this caption was special. This caption made me shout “What?” indignantly. Yet it made absolute sense. Although watching a year’s worth of people settling, dealing with a nuclear holocaust, the fleet being mothballed and the breaking up of civil order might have been pretty interesting, skipping it all is even more dramatic. For one thing it means that these characters and this story which we’ve all become quite comfortable with becomes a mystery again – the character dynamics have moved on and relationships that were settled are now in the air – I mean why, for example, aren’t Apollo and Starbuck on speaking terms? So the chief and Callie are together now? Adama has moustache?

And the truly great thing about all this is that unlike Star Trek: Voyager which did much the same thing over two episodes in “The Year of Hell”, there isn’t going to be a reset switch. There are no helpful temporal anomalies in the Galactica universe, no benevolent nebula, things will never be completely the same again.

Creator Ron Moore and his staff have decided it’s time to move the story on, treat the narrative as a much longer construct, and make it fascinatingly novelistic. People have been saying this is one of the best sci-fi shows ever and watching this past season I’ve begun to understand. This audacious move seals it. I only hope that it isn’t all revealed to be a dream or some alternative reality. That would be disappointing. Roll on the DVD of season three.


TV ITV's new Saturday night sci-fi drama Primeval is dreadfully dated, gloriously misconceived, horribly written, annoyingly acted piece of garbage that's so horrifyingly bad that I found myself actually thinking about tidying the flat half way through. The fact that I went to get a bin bag so that I could empty my bin says a lot about how the creators of the show have fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of all television drama - to the keep the audience member entertained and intrigued enough that they'll stay with it, even during the ad breaks.

I'll leave the real wit to this blog entry and instead offer a quick analysis of what I thought was wrong with it in terms of script and storytelling. The general problem a lack of focus. It was desperate to introduce the premise and all the characters as quickly as possible which meant that, rather than gradually introducing the premise through a gateway character (see Rose in Doctor Who or Gwen in Torchwood), there was instead a premature ejaculation of a narrative with about ten characters and the whole premise largely set up before the second break.

In the best dramas, characters are introduced subtly through behaviour and signals; in this noisy mess everyone was given a name and a job title and back story through infodumps, clunky exposition which did nothing but stop the viewer from becoming engaged with them. About the only character who left a mark was zoo keeper Abby played by Hannah Spearritt. Partly because of her sparky performance, but also since in most of her scenes she was the narrative focus and was allowed space to discover the central mystery. How much better if the opening of the episode had stayed with her and she'd brought the problem to the professor. Instead they simply and co-incidentally ran into each other in the forest and made what looked like a rather sudden alliance.

The show was riddled with useless exposition about these fictional dinosaurs which most audience members will never remember anyway, when really it could have been providing us with reasons to love the characters. Much of the dialogue either made no sense in context or was deeply clichéd. For example, if your were a mother and you went up to your child's room and found the wall missing, I really don't think you'd be telling the tyke to tidy up the mess as you were reaching for the phone to call emergency services.

You need to keep this kind of stuff fundamentally realistic so that the unrealistic resonates more clearly. Personally I knew that all was lost when the chiseled lab assistant was trying to attract the attention of the dinosaur in the school by shouting 'Pick on someone your own size' without a hint of irony. But Henshall's character was prone to big speeches which he simply hadn't earned because we didn't know enough about him - we hadn't been given enough time to get the measure of the man.

Also, by introducing the dinosaurs so early in the episode, in the second shot I think, it suggests an acknowledgment by the programme makers that they're already old hat. You can't throw away moments like that - and not their fault but ITV1 ruined this first money shot by throwing the 'Subtitles' reminder up over it. Even in the second Jurassic Park movie, Spielberg teased his audience until some way into the movie giving us only that small fry dinosaur. He understood that we need to discover the reptiles with the characters and if you notice in those films, we never actually see a dinosaur before the human characters. Here, because we'd already seen the thing, when the group bumped into it in the forest it simply didn't resonate the same way.

But then, the thing generally misjudged its sense of wonder. The really important moment when Henshall's professor, the apparent central character stepped into the past for the first time should have been the central, important moment in the story. In the event it was ruined firstly by giving the initial introduction to the place earlier in the episode to a young child who wasn't central to the story and seems to have been forgotten in the grand scheme of things and by cutting away to the crew on the other side of the portal just as he and we should be enjoying the tantalizing possibilities of what might be there.

Personally I would have found a reason for him to have to wait until another episode for him to crossover, tantalizing us instead with the beasties and whatnot that are coming through, playing on our imaginations of what he might find through there. That way the trip would have really been special, the discovery of the base camp and the skeleton and the photographs something major - they felt rather wasted here. Why did they decide that slagheap was a good idea? I'm reminded of that moment in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when Arthur Dent was all excited about visiting his first alien world, only to be deflated when someone offers the description 'Desolate hole'.

Overall it was just another example of style over substance. Were Jurassic Park is fundamentally about not meddling with nature, although this had a slight suggestion of government attempting to control science it was mostly about trying to get to the next action sequence. Tonally it was all over the place too -- not sure whether it was supposed to be a comedy drama. Alright, I laughed at the moment when Rex bopped to the music in the lift, but that's the sort of thing that turns up in Hanna Barbara cartoons and undermines our ability to appreciate this things as living creatures rather than constructs.

The whole thing seemed to come from a sense of trying to create something by committee based on a mission statement - beat Doctor Who - which on only rare occasions leads to anything good. I'm biased but even the worse episodes of that series had more wit and passion than this farrago. The trailer for next week's episode suggests that the weekly premise is going to be that something appears through the portal and that they have to deal with it. That could get very old very quickly in this day and age.

The Year of Skipping

TV The slow way. The bizarre tradition of serial dramas and sitcoms is the attempt to mimic real life even though they're clearly set in some alternate reality; so the ensemble cast of The West Wing, e.r., Dawson's Creek, Gilmore Girls, Friends, Babylon 5, even Alias, drift onward on a yearly basis for the length of their run, as we watch five to ten years in the life of the characters, countless Christmases and birthdays. There's no reason for this really - and you can see each series trying desperately trying to fill the time, coming up with decent drama to fill in the gaps between the really exciting stuff. This is the time when most shows fail, because there's a feeling of going through the motions.

The new Battlestar Galactica doesn't do that and unless you've seen up until the end of season two I'd skip the rest of this post. Every now and then a month will drift by between episodes and I've just watched the season two finale on dvd and in a really, exciting audacious move they've skipped a whole year in the middle of a scene. Cylon collaborator Baltar is sworn in as president, the remaining dregs of humanity have been ordered to settle on a planet that can barely support life, he drops his head the table, there's a crossfade and a caption reads 'One year later'. I don't like captions. They tend to be quite distracting and too much of a short hand for lazy programme makers trying all too quickly to set the scene when a bit of dialogue, or I don't know, everything else on screen should suffice.

But this caption was special. This caption made me shout 'What?' indignantly. Yet it made absolute sense. Although watching a year's worth of people settling, dealing with a nuclear holocaust, the fleet being mothballed and the breaking up of civil order might have been pretty interesting, skipping it all is even more dramatic. For one thing it means that these characters and this story which we've all become quite comfortable with becomes a mystery again - the character dynamics have moved on and relationships that were settled are now in the air - I mean why, for example, aren't Apollo and Starbuck not on speaking terms? So the chief and Callie are together now? Adama has moustache?

And the truly great thing about all this is that unlike Star Trek: Voyager which did much the same thing over two episodes in The Year of Hell, there isn't going to be a reset switch. There are no helpful temporal anomalies in the Galactica universe, no benevolent nebula. Creator Ron Moore and his staff have decided it's time to move the story on, treat the narrative as a much longer construct, and make it fascinatingly novelistic. People have been saying this one of the best sci-fi shows ever and watching this past I've begun to understand. This audacious move seals it. I only hope that it isn't all revealed to be a dream or some alternative reality. That would be disappointing. Roll on the dvd of season three.

Forgotten Films

All World Cinema (1895 - present)

So far you will have noticed the lack of world cinema on the list and there is a perfectly good reason for this. I simply don't know where to begin. Although I will be mentioning one or two before the month is out, there are simply too many examples of international cinema I'd want to include because to be honest, right now, in the uk, to very small percentage of people, but for a few notable examples, world cinema seems to have been 'forgotten', and the reason is one of access.

As Matthew Sweet explains in this excellent op-ed piece from The Guardian, in an average week there are very few foreign films on terrestrial television in the uk, with the channels sitting on massive back catalogues that really could and should be on rotation even in the small hours. This means that a whole generation of young viewers who like I was could be inspired by the thoughtful, higher quality material that's waiting for them, simply aren't and are all the worse off for it.

The way I feel at the moment, under the rules of this game, the whole entire filmographies of Bergman, Godard, Truffaut, Kurowsawa, Renoir, Tarkovsky, Ozu, Kieslowski and countless others are simply obscured; even the more accessible work of Wenders and Klapisch simply aren't being seen. Well, yes Film4 has the odd thing and BBC Four too, but neither seems to have anything like a strategy on presenting this work, a point that Sweet notes when he lists the range of material scheduled in an average week on terrestrial television in the 1980s.

Plus, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, a lot of this material deserves and often must be seen on the big screen. Since the death of repertory cinema, at least on a national scale, that's not happening. I have Lovefilm, which helps somewhat and can be thanked for allowing me to see the range of movies on this list. But you're left to your own devices and it's really difficult sometimes to know where to go. Yes, you can drop in Bergman's back catalogue but it seems like such a contextless move even with a film book to hand.

All of which is a pre-amble to an addendum to that December list, of really wonderful World Cinema which might not necessarily be 'forgotten' in their own countries but are certainly being overlooked in ours:

At The Height of Summer (2001)
The Cup (1999)
Winter Light (1962)
Blind Chance (1987)
Day For Night (1973)
Alphaville (1965)
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
Stalker (1979)
The Flower of my Secret (1995)
The Butcher (1970)
Sitcom (1998)
The State of Things (1982)
Fucking Åmål (1998) [pictured]
Central Station (1998)
Russian Ark (2002)
The Sweet Life (1960)
My Uncle (1958)
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Babette's Feast (1987)
Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

Links for 2007-02-09 [] - Rmail

    Doctor Who and the Empress of Arachnos (sort of) return for a rematch in new drama 'Recovery': "We get to see Tennant in the nude, having sex and pooing into a bucket. Peter Davison never did that on telly to the best of my knowledge."
  • Forgotten Films

    Loser (2000)

    Mostly disregarded as yet another in a rash of teen films released in the wake of American Pie (possibly because it shares some of its lead actors) and far from being simply the film which features the Wheatus song 'Teenage Dirtbag', Loser is a heartfelt, warm and intelligent romance about two kindred spirits just about holding on to their university dream through the worries that many students have in real life - about finance and accommodation problems inhibiting the ability to study. As writer and director Amy Heckerling (famous for Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless) notes in the dvd sleeve notes:
    "I wanted to do something closer to my experience in college. So I decided to tell the story about the people who don't have the money to buy new things, the people who don't have it all, who don't fit in - the sort of displaced characters, the people that are not invited to the party."
    Obviously I'm going to empathise because I've never really had money and truth be told I can see myself within both sides of the main couple; like Paul (Jason Biggs) I spent most of my first year at university, in halls, trying to work as hard as I could whilst everyone else was partying around me - I ate in the uncool cafeteria food and worked until late in the library. More heartbreaking though is the story of Dora (Mena Suvari) living out of town and commuting to college something I did too for my Masters - although unlike Dora I never found a solution and I'm not sure any of hers would have worked for me (you'll see what I mean).

    The film's treatment of supporting characters could be seen as a wobble - Paul's three frat boy roommates and Edward (Greg Kinnear), Dora's lecherous lecturer boyfriend are fairly stereotypically drawn - but this can be interpreted as a way of underlining the complexity of the heroes - in the same way that the face in a portrait is highlighted because it's more finely drawn than the impressionistic clothing or background. Some have also criticised the film for not being funny enough, but I don't think it's really trying to be -- there aren't that many 'jokes' because it's not that kind of comedy.

    Offering probably Jason Biggs' career best performance, Mena Suvari too is just adorable, demonstrating what loss it's been since her career dropped into bit parts and tv roles. It's also a great New York film featuring Times Square, Greenwich Village, Soho, Washington Square Park and particularly Grand Central Station the floor of which becomes Dora's home away from home. This is the Say Anything of the late-nineties teen cycle and I don't use that description lightly. And it's still available from all good (and some bad) dvd stockists...

    Links for 2007-02-08 [] - Rmail

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  • Forgotten Films

    Late Night Shopping (2001)

    The film so good I've already reviewed it twice. Here and indeed here. There's really no point in me repeating anything I wrote there, just as it would be pointless to leave it off this list simply because I've written about it on this blog some time before. The dvd has been deleted, but there are copies knocking around the Amazon marketplace and sometimes ebay. It was a FilmFour production so it might turn up on the fourth channel or one of its siblings some time.

    Suburban art

    Museums After the success of my visit to the Atkinson in Southport last week, I looked through Edward Morris's Public Art Collections in North West England again and keeping things local decided to visit the Wiliamson Art Gallery and Museum in Birkenhead. I had been before; in the late nineties I was involved in a public sculpture research project and spent many days in the Birkenhead local history library and eventually took a trip to the gallery one lunchtime. Funnily enough though, I don't remember ever going inside - it was some years ago but I have a feeling I visited on a day when it was close and somehow never managed to return.

    The gallery sits in the suburban area of Oxton with houses all around which, like the Lady Lever in Port Sunlight is a really civilized idea. Imagine being able to cross the road if you're at a loose end and being able to look at paintings. According to the book, the original gallery opened in a converted old library on Hamilton Street in 1912 after four years of negotiations between the local Art Club and the local council over funding (which eventually came through extra taxes).

    Like the Atkinson, that original gallery opened with loans from local art collectors but over the next forty years the collection was built through purchases made for small amounts. The particularly clever policy decision was to concentrate on local artists, leaving the international and historic works to the Walker, but through bequests the gallery has built quite an impressive collection that includes Turner and Holman Hunt and Henry Moore.

    That gallery proved popular enough that a decade and a half later, the current Williamson Art Gallery and Museum opened with funding from shipowner John Williamson and his son, which is the building I visited yesterday. The book describes it as being in a Neo-Georgian style, but I would call it gratifyingly municipal, the kind of large brick and column structure you'd expect a Town Hall to look like in Hollywood films set in small town America. Like the one in Back To The Future. Only smaller.

    The entrance hall with its stone floor and high ceiling leads straight into gallery spaces which and oh yes, I'm going to use the cliché, makes it look like a Tardis. It's large and light and airy but also cozy. I like that you can see many of the display spaces straight away, see some of the geography without looking at the guide map. It's fun to have glimpses of the work before you can really see it, like trailers for a movie.

    What's brilliant about the museum is its pleasingly bonkers approach to displays. There are seven permanent display rooms and it's clear that rather than even attempting to compete with other museums and trying to create a exhibit which covers everything, they've taken the decision to go with the strengths of the collection.

    Stepping around the museum, you walk from a room filled with Victorian oil paintings to a selection of Della Robbia pottery to a display of ship models to an exhibition of bird pictures to a history of the local Lee tapestry works to a recreation of a room from a stately home completely with some (as the leaflet says) magnificent furniture including an elaborate suit of armour on loan from the V&A, and then after doubling back a room dedicated to a single painter, Philip Wilson Steer.

    What this means is that you're never bored - there's always something new to see, but unlike most museums and art galleries which always seem to look the same because they're pretty much all telling the same story of human kind, this is simply throwing open tiny windows on sections of that history; it's almost as though someone has come along and chosen sections of a few different museums and randomly brought them together under one roof.

    I'm a bit of a philistine when it comes to decorative arts so although I understand some of the processes I can't really get excited about pottery. The boat models too were wasted on me, although it seems fitting that they be there given who originally funded the enterprise. The tapestry display was interesting from a commercial perspective as they demonstrate how a small business developed to become a leader in its field and inventing many new processes before larger companies and newer, cheaper technologies gained prominence and this factory couldn't cope. As I think one of the news reports on display says, in the end they were too small to compete with the larger companies, but too industrial to work as a cottage producer.

    Inevitably I'm going to talk about the paintings because that's really what I took the trip to see. Enter the Victorian Panorama room and to left on the same wall as the doorway is Medea by Evelyn De Morgan. This is a tallish painting of a young lady in an ornate marble corridor in a long violet gown carrying a vial. She's a scorned woman -- Jason, he of the golden fleece and her lover has left her to marry Glauce, daughter of a king. But, typical man, he suggests at least in the Euripides version of events that she could become his mistress in the future. So in that vial is a poison that will be used to murder the bride to be and well, her own children, because she wants to hurt Jason as much as possible (poor kids).

    Of course it's influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite school and that would automatically draw me in but I loved the execution, the shading on the marble, the detailing on the birds. And even without knowing the story (for reasons described later) I could still see the look of a decision made, a 'job' to do. There is also an accompanying verse printed on the frame:
    "Day by day she saw the happy time fade fast away
    And as she fell from out that happiness
    Again she grew to be the sorceress
    Work of fearful things as once she was."
    Which is from William's Morris's Life and Death of Jason and absolutely captures the moment. Chilling.

    Just as a completely unrelated side issue, you can actually see the painting on this Wikipedia entry for Medea. On the image origin page it states that they're reproducing the painting because "This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. [...] This applies to the United States, Canada, the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years." What I don't understand is that although, yes, Evelyn De Morgan died in 1919 which would put this out of copyright for authoring purposes, on the back of the postcard I bought of the work it clearly says © Williamson Art Gallery and Museum which suggests a contradiction to me.

    Staying in the legendary realm, and the same room, is Pelleas and Melisande by Edmund Blair Leighton, based on a story that appears in a play by Maurice Maeterlinck and an opera by Debussy. You can read the play here and Here is the synopsis of the opera. The painting catches the couple in the moment when he falls in love with her just as she finds the enchanted ring. She's sitting on the edge of the well, cupping her hands as the rings floats into them. He's on his knees leaning forward, hands clasped.

    I love the lush greenness of the glade, the light hitting the ripples in the water, the rapture of the look in his eyes and enchantment of hers. It's particularly disconcerting though that she looks very much like someone I once knew and was quietly in love with - Melisande has long blonde hair and the secret object of my desire was a brunette, but other than it's entirely disturbing. Perhaps every man who looks at the picture sees a different figure or the same figure in different ways, the face suggestive of some long lost love, a source of regret.

    Opposite this and dominating the room is the epic and lengthily titled: Defeat of Kellerman's Cuirassiers and Carabineers by Somerset's Cavalry Brigade at the Battle of Waterloo, a massive canvas that reminds me of similar paintings at the Louvres, giant screens filled with action. The guidebook describes it as 'dashing and vigorous, if rather disorganised' and that's a really accurate description with an almost impressionistic collage of men on horses crashing into one another. This was a significant skirmish in the Battle of Quatre Bras in which the British 69th, 30th and 33rd Regiments of Foot managed to repel a ground assault by one of Napoleon's marshals despite heavy causalities, which makes this a commemoration. And far from glorifying war it shows the brutality of it with all the precision of the best modern journalism.

    I could write about this collection all day but you don't have the time to read it and I don't want to spoil the adventure too much should you ever want to visit. The Williamson is filled with surprises that need to stay that way. But I can't skip to my tiny criticism without mentioning the other core part of the collection on display, dedicated to Philip Wilson Steer, the Birkenhead artist. Painting at the turn of the century, Steer had a fairly flexible style, shifting from very English countrysides to the impressionistic portraits of women that make up the majority of the work on display. The accompanying information indicates that they're collection concentrates on his earlier work - his later achievements can be found in the big nationals such as the Tate.

    Commanding the Williamson's room fourteen is The Muslin Dress, a very pretty painting of a young woman in a white dress resting on a sofa fidgeting with a hat. It's imbued with a stillness and calm, but for all of its summery colours, a tragedy hangs over it; she doesn't just look tired but exhausted, on the edge of emotion. She looks both comfortable and uncomfortable both at the same time, a mess of limbs unable to find a place with what should be one of the simplest spaces in the world.

    It's actually very different to most of the works in the room because of its very fine brushwork creating an illusion of reality. Elsewhere, broad strokes are in evidence, blotches of blended colour favouring movement over pure reality. I bought both of the Steer postcards on sale, Schoolgirl standing by a door and Girl reading a book and although the general shapes are all there the features have been tuned away leaving instead a play of light and shade. It's extremely influenced by the French impressionists but both are also resolutely British, in the fashions and settings. Its confusing but in an intoxicating way.

    The tiny criticism, then. The labeling. Most of anything I know now about these paintings I read when I got home because hardly any of the paintings have information and labels next to them. Now I know that frequently this is how they would have appeared on debut, but they were more enlightened times and my understanding is that more people would have known who Pelleas and Melisande would have been then in much the same way that we can look at the cover of Heat magazine and know who the latest reality tv star is.

    It's just nice to have more context, it informs our understanding of the painting; I wish I'd known then the significance of that ring especially since they seem like a very comfortable couple. It's funny, back in the mists of time I thought about offering my services freelance to galleries that don't have a huge staff to research and write this sort of thing, but I could never work out how to broach the subject. "Dear Sir ... you don't seem to have labels next to your paintings. Would you like me to write them for you?" "No. Sorry, who are you, and what are your art history qualifications?"

    That said, once again I really enjoyed my gallery visit, and once again I saw works that were just as impressive as those found in larger institutions. My comments from last week still stand. When you're able to see these works in small doses in a quieter atmosphere, you're able to see them for the small acts of brilliance that they are. It's not about whether the artist's name is familiar or famous it's about what is in front of you and at the Williamson once again that's radiant.

    Links for 2007-02-07 [] - Rmail

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  • Directionless. Jobless.

    Life Well the cold has largely cleared now except for some winter snivels which means the reality of the situation is returning. Deep breath. At the moment I feel, despite the title of the last post that was about me, rather directionless. I check the job sites every few days, request the odd application form the job description for which usually when sent indicates I have far less experience than is required (and today that meant an understanding of the international slave trade and the ability to speak English, French and Spanish fluently). I knew that once I finished my course I wouldn't have a clue, but it's become somewhat ... endemic ... if that's the word. Any ideas?

    Forgotten Films

    Barfly (1987)

    Today's film is suggested by guest blogger, Gary Hollingsbee.

    For a while I've been undergoing a personal Renaissance: all the stuff that I was into when I was in my formative teen years that in my twenties I thought were childish, like comic books, indie music and Doctor Who, I've been rediscovering like a lot of old friends calling round. For a while I'd been thinking about a movie that really influenced me back then called Barfly and a few weeks ago I found a copy of it. The movie is a Hollywood take on a period in the life of the gutter poet Charles Bukowski. It's directed by Barbet Schroeder and stars Mickey Rourke and Fay Dunaway. It follows a few days in the life of Henry Chinaski (Rourke) - a fictionalized version of Bukowski - who spends his time drinking, brawling and writing poetry.

    At a point in our late teens when we were really considering what sort of lives we wanted to lead, to me and my group of friends this movie was inspirational. We saw something beautiful and noble in the wretched existence of an alcoholic who poured out his soul into poetry. We all wanted to be artists and writers and saw this as an example of how to do it and find honest subject-matter.

    Much of the film acts to explain why Chinaski is a bum. In our celebrity-centred society where so many are desperate for fame, it's refreshing to see that Chinaski doesn't care about what happens to his poetry: it's the actual writing of it that provides a meaning for his existence. Throughout the film he is followed by a private detective (played by Jack Nance, a David Lynch regular) who spends his time stealing Chinaski's writing so it can be published by his agent, Tully Sorenson, played by Alice Krige. There's a memorable scene where she says to him that he's wasting his life, that anyone can be a drunk. He replies: "Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth." She is unable to comprehend Chinaski's lack of personal ambition and tells him that he's wasting his talent:
    Tully Sorenson: You can really write. Why do you live like a bum?
    Henry Chinaski: I am a bum. What do you want me to do? Do you want me to write about the sufferings of the upper classes?
    Sorenson: This may be news to you but they suffer too.
    Chinaski: Hey baby, nobody suffers like the poor.
    At the time I thought this was profound social commentary - and in Hollywood terms, I guess it is. I guess all those years ago, I liked Chinaski's freedom, the way he could choose not to try and engage with the pressures of the rat race, to show the courage and desperation of ordinary hard up people. At the time I was gearing up to go to university and really felt the pressure of conforming to the patterns of a future working life. Now I certainly wouldn't think it offers any guide to living.

    The structure of the movie is circular and begins and ends with Chinaski brawling with his nemesis: the supposedly, good looking bartender, Eddie - played by Sly's brother, Frank Stallone. This antipathy towards attractive men with no personality struck a chord with me as a teen. I couldn't understand why women were attracted to guys with no depth who you just knew loved themselves too much and would mistreat them. Chinaski's comments in the movie about Eddie were almost like a manifesto for me: "[Eddie] symbolizes everything that disgusts me. Obviousness. Unoriginal macho energy. Ladies man...."

    I was also inspired by the way that Chinaski imagines his legacy in a voice-over towards the end of the movie:
    "And as my hands drop the last desperate pen, in some cheap room, they will find me there and never know my name, my meaning, nor the treasure of my escape.
    That Chinaski labours without ever attempting to get his work published or seeking any form of fame, I thought profound. It influenced me then - to the point where I stopped my own attempts at writing and virtually gave up.

    As you can see, thinking about this movie all these years later is something very personal to me. The movie is, I think, not available on dvd. For me this is Rourke's finest performance. After that -- who knows what happened to him but he wasted his talent. Maybe too much like Henry Chinaski.

    You're right it isn't available. There was a region one dvd release but that's been deleted. The cheapest copy on Amazon's marketplace in the UK is £66.29 and in the US, $78.75. Which is a shame because it sounds really entertaining. Thanks Gary. If anyone else would like to suggest a film and even write a couple of hundred words about it, please email

    Links for 2007-02-06 [] - Rmail

  • DVD Times: 6 DEFA Studios Films in February
    A boring title which hides a really exciting fact. "The Singing Ringing Tree" comes to DVD. Not that I've ever seen it (that I can remember) but I'll finally be able to watch a film everyone else has been talking about all these years.
  • News Askew: Old Clerks poster in Oxford Circus
    "Our scooper spotted this blast from the past in Oxford Circus underground station (part of the famous "tube"). They've taken away loads of old advertising posters, leaving even older ones underneath. Check out what was revealed!"
  • Star Trek remastered screenshots
    I haven't watched Star Trek in years but I can't wait to see these. These pages include old and new comparisons.
  • Forgotten Films

    A Thousand Acres (1997)

    It's King Lear set on a farm in Iowa! Based on a Pulitzer novel by Jane Smiley this was produced during that time when Shakespeare was back in the Hollywood vogue. Smiley has said that writing the book was like trudging up a hill. 'Shakespeare both took me by the hand and slapped me across the face.' [source]

    This is reflected in the adaptation that is worth the price of admission simply to see how Lear can be turned into a domestic melodrama and how the introduction of subplots and character beats rationalise the harsher notes of the original story and justify some of the motivations that would otherwise look weird in this context.

    The biggest deviation is that it concentrates on the Goneril and Regan figures (here named Ginny and Rose) with Lear (Larry) becoming a shadowy figure of hatred and betrayal, with Cordelia (Caroline) as his consort. It's not giving anything away to say that no one actively murders anyone at the end over the land.

    Director Jocelyn Moorhouse's previous film was How To Make An American Quilt and the mode here is initially like an expansion of one of the flashbacks from that film, with ravishing cinematography evoking homespun nostalgia. Then there's a sudden unexpected lurch in tone and everything goes Hitchcockian and believe me, you'll be rewinding to try and work out what happened.

    It's not a truly great film. The voice over in particular irritates. This is one of those occasions when one of the characters in the story continuously reminds us of what's happening, when, to whom and how we should be feeling about it. This is perhaps a side effect of the adaptation, attempting to bring the original text to the movie -- sometimes filmmakers can take their attachment to a source text a bit too far.

    But these reservations are almost extinguished by the powerful performances from such luminaries as Michelle Pfeiffer, Jason Robards and Jessica Lange which elevates what could have been a glorified tv movie. Can anyone remember the last, really great film Pfeiffer was in? Hollywood can be harsh to women of a certain age.

    Other small pleasures include watching Colin Firth try out his American accent and actually giving his least Firthy performance ever and spotting a pre-Dawson's Creek Michelle Williams and Elizabeth Moss who played Zoe, the President's daughter in The West Wing in tiny roles as Rose's daughters.

    Plus, this one's still available on dvd for a change.

    Links for 2007-02-05 [] - Rmail

  • Digi-Cream Times: The Seven Ages of Clive James
    "DATES: 1988-1995. FEATS: Talking by satellite to Vitali Vitaliev. Inventing YouTube. Talking by satellite to Mel Brooks. Stormin' Norman Norman Stormin' Norman Schwartzkopf. Discovering Japanese television."
  • Loughborough University: Full-time studentship: Preservation of Computer Games
    A really useful sounding research project and although it's not my thing (I've never been very good at playing them which should be an important part of the job, there must a couple of people reading who would find this fascinating.
  • Manchester Confidential: Big Brother’s big auditions
    Eye witness account of the audition process at Urbis: "From what we saw, the people put through on the day were the ones with the wackiest appearances, the loudest, most annoying personalities and the most controversial views."
  • Nick Robinson's Newslog: Social responsibility
    Since I'm about three thousand years behind in my RSS feed reading I've only just reached the Nick Robinson Curry Missile story. Priceless.
  • Forgotten Films

    The Red Violin (1998)

    This was released in the uk at the same time as The Matrix and sank without trace and at the end of the year I rang Radio Five Live during one of its review discussion to sing its praises and no one in the studio had seen it and probably thought I was mad. Well shame on them. Samuel L Jackson leads an international cast in this stunningly crafted biography of a historic violin as it spans the globe and history, passing through numerous owners during important moments in their lives - so it enters China during the People's Revolution when such instruments and their music were being restricted. It is one of the few films to feature five different spoken languages.

    One of the mistakes in similar portmanteau style films is that the mcguffin which is passed through the cast is largely ignored. In most works, the object, such as a bank note (20 Bucks) is simply a way of linking these miscellaneous stories together. In The Red Violin, the instrument is actually the main character and is never far from the centre of the frame or singing to us in the startling and sweet score by John Corigliano, played by Joshua Bell. When the central mystery of the origin of the violin is exposed, it's absolutely devastating.

    Although the film has won numerous awards particularly in Canada, it really deserves a much wider international recognition, and a rerelease. You might find a rental copy somewhere; the deleted dvd is currently selling for forty-fifty pounds on Amazon, and on ebay a region two is selling for seventeen pounds. But I wouldn't sell my copy for the world.

    Once seen, it's irreplaceable.

    Links for 2007-02-04 [] - Rmail

  • Slate Magazine: The mystery of the "short" cappuccino
    A discussion of my new friend in Starbucks.
  • Meeting Russell T Davies

    TV From flickr: "Met Russell T Davies today outside Torchwood, he's head writer and executive producer of Doctor Who and Executive producer Torchwood. The other bloke is producer or writer can't remember his name though. "

    "If there's no way of getting around something, you've just got to plough through it."

    That's William Russell, Kirsty Young's guest on Desert Island Disks on Friday morning at Nine o'clock. And now on the new look Behind The Sofa, it's time for our afternoon play. Some spoilers abound in this review of the new BBC7 story, No More Lies.

    That's more like it. You might have detected my note of caution when writing about the last couple of stories, but this was really excellent, a perfectly pitched, mind shattering bit of drama that pushed all the right buttons and ended on a brilliant, if not entirely unexpected cliffhanger. Congratulations to everyone involved. But quite why is it so brilliant, given that it deployed a genre cliché like a time loop, featured my bugbear of the Tolkeinesque alien race name and a Hungarian folk song? Well, tain't what you do, it's the way that you do it ...

    The opening of the episode was deliberately disorientating, dropping the listener into what sounded like the second half of a two-part story or the closing quarter of a spin-off novel. I've always like this kind of narrative technique - it grabs your attention and places you in the position of having to imagine whats gone before and in this case, unlike School Reunion, for example, the adventure really was in full swing with only scraps of exposition here and there to explain what was going on.

    With the intercutting between the Doctor in distress in a derelict spaceship and the garden party it seemed as though the narrative temporal order had been broken in the style of the film 21 Grams, a time loop already in full swing, the reasons for the unfolding events becoming apparent at the close of the story. Ho and indeed hum, I thought as I had Vietnam style flashbacks to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Cause and Effect and Big Finish's own Seventh Doctor story, Flip Flop. The only casualty of that war is causality. Or something.

    But we would never hear how the Doctor and Lucie and Nick ended up battling each other on that ship. The adventure instead headed in a completely different direction and for once this series, for very good reasons, my expectations were subverted and I actually found myself being caught up in the drama, really wanting to know what happened next.

    About the only side effect of this do not disturb approach to exposition was that the back story to the Tar-Modowk wasn't entirely clear, their presence as a being slightly bolted on as one more complication in the climax. But on the whole nothing else really disappointed, as the reasons for the creation of the loop and the importance of its ultimate destruction were entirely understandable and by that I mean actually explained scientifically and emotionally. And that's really saying something.

    Although the disintegrating space hulk featured some fairly generic disintegrating space hulk sound design, I could absolutely see and smell the garden party trapped as it turned out to be in an endless cruel summer. It quite rightly sounded as though it had dropped in from a Radio Four afternoon play, obviously helped by the marvelous casting Nigel Havers and Julia McKenzie whose voices perfectly captured a particular time and place and social grouping. I expect this is the same kind of garden party we saw in Black Orchid with a country pile attached.

    Havers was an excellent scoundrel, oscillating from the wild life to love, truth and honesty. Zimmerman was cut from similar cloth to Sebastian Grail from Seasons of Fear, but unlike that Nimon-lover, he had tact, using technology to prolong the life of the one he loved. Evil, sure, but also in love. McKenzie's poignant performance as his love Rachel, helped by some very realistic scriptwriting from Paul Sutton meant that I took her to my heart and her ultimate fate was gut wrenching.

    The music was stirring and distinctive, a violin sound with a Hungarian twang developed from that folk song sung by McKenzie as a centre piece to the episode. I've always been a fan of world music (as my near complete collection of Rough Guide compilations proves) and although I can't admit to getting along with this kind of folk music (I much prefer the French sound) this was quite beautiful and exactly the kind of unexpected bit of business which for me is the hallmark of good Doctor Who (see also the Barbershop quartet in Shada). I could see how it might not be to everyone's taste though and on first listen it did seem to be a bit long, especially since the rest of the story was so intriguing.

    Despite all that, this was also a play for fans of the audios and Doctor Who in general. Liberal use of the cloister bell. The reappearance of vortisaurs with the Doctor acknowledging he once owned one as a pet and then taming one and calling her Margaret (bit of politics). The Doctor mentioned too that he knows what it's like to be forgiven. I wonder what for. Something that happened to Charley and C'rizz or something earlier than that? And bless him Tom Chadbon, playing Gordon, or I can't believe he's not Duggan, with all the comic timing we know and love. With all the talk of him being in the police were we supposed to infer that he really was the man in the mac who dashed around Paris thumping people? I hope so.

    The relationship between the Doctor and Lucie has developed somewhat since last week. As well as the shy boy actually admitting to likes the girl and her inferring it was because of her arse (something he didn't totally deny) he was quite happy to let her fly the Tardis and take the credit for working out exactly what was causing part of the problem. It's not love in the first degree, but it seems right that after spend time together they really shouldn't still be arguing as they did in the opening story. Watching Tegan moan for two seasons wasn't exactly fun and it's good that they've let these two misshapes warm to each other.

    Cleverly, Lucie was far less acerbic and more likeable, showing real sensitivity with Rachel. Another clever bit of writing from Sutton, recognizing that for the cliffhanger to work, we really need to see the sudden appearance of the Headhunter and what she might do the companion as a real threat. For the first time in the series, I really empathized with the girl when she said: "I wonder if I'll ever have that kind of love" Just as she was snatched away -- and we understood why the Doctor cared so much that she was gone, not just happy to be able to wash his hands of her, as he might have been not too long ago...

    Next week: The season finale begins. Delete ... delete ... delete ...

    Forgotten Films

    The Hour of the Pig (1993)

    When Parisian lawyer Richard Courtois (Colin Firth) relocates to a small town hoping to 'bring the law to the people' he expects to find cases involving property disputes and petty theft. Instead is strangling superstition, witchcraft and murder, and animals being tried for the crimes of man. All true occurrences in the era the film is set -- the fifteenth century (the film is based on the case reports of a real lawyer).

    The trickiest defense case to run across Courtois' books is of a pig who has been accused of homicide -- the death of a local Jewish boy. It initially refuses to take it seriously until he slowly begins to realise that there is a conspiracy at play within the town and that the only way to shield himself is to defend the porker to the best of his ability.

    It's a difficult film to categorize. From a Pythonesque opening in which a man and his horse are being hung together because they have shared ... relations ... to a dream sequence that follows in which two naked teenagers dressed at beasts are hunted through a field, the imagery throughout mixes Pasolini with Gilliam evoking the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, mixing apocalyptic visions with a somewhat realistic portrayal of medieval life.

    It is also a quietly reflective and sinister film about how the fine lines between law and politics and religion is forever being crossed and how justice is never recognized independently, that it is the state's yardstick that in the end decides if someone is being tried fairly. It's also particularly pertinent in this time that when a group of Egyptian travelers enter the village they're treated with suspicion and the cause of ills that were already killing the place before they arrived.

    But it's also extremely bawdy. In one scene when Colin has a particularly erotic dream about the seductive Gypsy owner of the pig, he wakes up with a morning glory only to find the inn girl cleaning his room - she takes one look at him and gleefully strips off saying 'Waste not, want not...' Fans of Mr Firth might also like to know that he spends the film either bathing naked or in a silly hat, and some occasions both.

    Performances are lovely across the board, the highlights being Ian Holme's randy but thoughtful priest, Donald Pleasence tired old prosecutor and Nicol Williamson's shifty mayor. There's also Lysette Anthony's daft as a brush maid of the manor gamely parodying all the princess roles she'd played earlier in her career. As her character's father suggests: "I know she brays like a she-ass, but she's got good, sweaty flesh on her."

    Careful which version of the film you dig out though. The version I have is the VHS release from 1995, timed to cash in on Firth's success in Pride and Prejudice; that version isn't out in the uk now but there is a Region One dvd knocking around which has been renamed The Advocate and has apparently had about fifteen minutes trimmed from it - all of the sex and nudity and violence - which kind of makes the exercise a bit pointless and unfunny and I'm sure nullifies the film's thematic elements too.