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The Big Chill

The Big Chill features one of my favourite screen funerals. The assembled guests are gathered in an old fashioned small town church. There’s crying; Glenn Close consoles the mother of Alex, the deceased, as the minister intones the order of service, where the burial will happen, where the reception is going to be held. He’s almost comically sombre. Cut to JoBeth Williams making her way to the organ at the front of the church as the Minister continues: “And now, Karen Bowers, an old college friend of Alex’s, will play one of Alex’s favourite songs…”

She sits at the keyboard, sighs, open up the rests and then – in monotone – the opening bars of The Rolling Stones’s ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ incongruously pulses out. Cut back to the congregation, to his friends, and they’re smiling, William Hurt giggles and suddenly you know everything you need to know about them, their friendship and their connection to Alex. The music continues as we watch the coffin being loaded into the back of the hearse. Then, as the guests leave to attend the wake, the organ gives way to the original track, the lyrics in this setting are laced with irony: “I saw her today at a reception…”

thanks to Google Street View

Life In 2003, I revisited the three places I lived as an undergrad in Leeds. Now, thanks to Google Street View, since the little car apparently took these photos last summer, I can see what they look like five years later.

First year: Macaulay Hall , Beckett Park Campus:

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The car didn't quite drive that way, but it's the building in the centre. Sometimes we'd have seminars there and I could attend in my slippers.

Second year: 69 Richmond Avenue.

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That window at the front was my bedroom. Notice the To Let sign. I wonder if this still a student house, or it just means it hadn't been secured by anyone for the summer.

Third year: 38 Harold Walk.

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My bedroom this time was behind the window on the top right. The wall between me and that bathroom was basically made hardboard and I could hear everything. I think the block paving outside is new.

Is it possible for you to do the same? Perhaps we could start one of those meme things.

Just for fun, I look for the University of Manchester (where I was a post-grad). The photocar must have visited Oxford Road on a wet Sunday at the crack of dawn:

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I love that even so, there's still at least one student crossing the street.

y'know for kids

Music Having already gone a little bit country, Jewel Kilcher continues her genre odyssey with Lullaby, y'know for kids. Features her rendering of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. As you'd expect, it's on the Fisher Price label. Can't imagine where she'll go after this, though her ballroom dancing related accident will keep her out of action for a while. Something piano based?

applications for mobiles

Music Quick round up of Spotify related links:

Cambridge News now publish a playlist connected to their What's On Guide -- who's gigging in the area, stuff they've reviewed etc.

Simon Wilson in Money Week reflects on what Spotify could mean for the music industry and why they should get behind it.

Music Ally reads between the lines on the recent job adverts and guesses that they're developing applications for mobiles.

Google Street View

Liverpool Life Now that Google Street View has reached Liverpool, I thought it would be fun to revisit some of the old posts on this blog and try to find the places I was describing. I've put the results up on Liverpool Blogs, for a change.

largely unwatched on my PVR

TV Ian Jones offers a perfectly reasonable assessment of Comic Relief Night:
"They believe every Comic Relief Night must have “a Peter Kay in it”. Preferably the man himself, even if, as in 2005 and 2007, he’s not actually live in the studio. Or, as was the case this year, even if he’s not actually done anything new at all, but is still “in it” thanks to a caption that introduces stand-up Jason Manford with the patronising statement “is he Peter Kay’s son?” and a clip from a DVD that was released in the shops a few years ago in which Peter talks about filming his appearance for the 2005 fundraiser which viewers are reminded was “the most famous Comic Relief video ever”."
I still have the whole thing sitting largely unwatched on my PVR. I don't know if I can face it. I miss the ramshackle early days when the comedians were actually in the studio and there was some attempt at being cutting edge. At least Dame Edna Average isn't taking up whole hours anymore.

"You've got the touch... you've got the power... yeah!"

Music Stan Bush submitting new version of The Touch (one of the greatest rock records of all time) for the Transformer's sequel. Here's the original. Isn't that great? You probably had to be there.

middle brows

Ihavenoidea Graham Linehan comments on the Sunday Express's recent front page atrocity which essentially said that the survivors of the Dunblane massacre were 'shaming' their dead classmates by having a life and doing the sorts of things teenagers tend to get up to. Just when you think the middle brows can't sink any lower they invariably do.


Legal Wow, um, huh. DC Comics is dead. Does that mean Marvel Comics has won?

cultivated a fair few grudges

TV I've cultivated a fair few grudges across the years, and I'm less embarrassed about some more than others. But none of them really come close to Tucker Carlson, who five years ago when presenting a CNN discussion show called Crossfire was on the receiving end of Jon Stewart's verbal lashing, one so clever that it turned Carlson's own audience against him and its said ultimately led to the programme's cancellation.

Carlson recently appeared on CNN and its apparent he's not entirely forgiven Stewart yet. In fact, he says that partisanship was behind The Daily Show's recent interest in CNBC which led to the Jim Cramer interview. The Huffington Post have a transcript and clip of the meltdown in which Carlson seems to keep changing his mind on what his own personal politics is depending upon the point he's trying to make.

In talking about this, the presenters of "Reliable Sources" do not let him rest and harangue him, agreeing pretty much with Stewart's approach and his message -- that journalists need to be doing their job properly -- exactly what Stewart was saying all those years ago on Crossfire. The only defence Carlson seems to have is exactly the one he had five years ago -- Stewart had one of the few John Kerry interviews and didn't ask him any tough questions. Well no, because Stewart isn't a journalist. And he's pissed off that some people in the US actually calling themselves journalists don't seem to be be either.

Thank god for the BBC.

televised theatre

Theatre Following on from my perennial rants about we savages in the provinces missing out on West End theatre, Picturehouse at FACT, presumably after the success of their opera screenings, will be showing the National Theatre's new production of Ted Hughes's Phedre starring Helen Mirren live on some big screens at the end of June. I'm assuming that the aesthetic will be like televised theatre with close-ups to emphasise the action.

it's probably one of the reasons I graduated

Film Kristin Thompson’s Storytelling in the New Hollywood is the kind of book you wouldn’t ordinarily encounter unless you were studying film either as new craftsman or from an academic perspective. It’s essentially three hundred and nineties pages explaining how film narratives work across a range of genres and types of story, how they keep our interest between the opening and closing credits, how scenes dovetail into one another and why characters interact the way they do. That's where I encountered it and even though I was a relative layman, I came away with a new appreciation of the work that goes into a crafting a film beyond the costumes, sets and special effects. That all of that’s worth naught if the script fundamentally doesn’t work, and I'd suggest that it's probably one of the reasons I graduated.

For decades scriptwriters have been taught that traditionally a film must have three acts. Both experts Syd Field and Robert McKee agree that a film opens with a set up, then a middle portion where most of the action occurs and a wrap up and each section is divided by some kind of transitional moment, most often a plot point. Screenwriters these days generally defer to this three act structure and in the main its agreed that the set-up and climax each use a quarter of the duration and the mid section a half. One obvious example (and the one that Thompson offers) is Speed which literally has three sections: the lift sequence, the bus, the train. Typically, when a film is having problems, one excuse is that the third act isn’t work, a joke made in Altman’s The Player and taken to post-modern extremes in Jonze’s Adaptation in which Charlie Kauffman deliberately seems to sabotage the film by inserting a terrible third act because the fictional version of himself also can’t find a proper ending.

Though Thompson doesn’t disregard this out of hand, she offers a viable, and having reflected on this for a while, watertight alternative. She says that in fact the majority of films have four portions/sections or near equal duration. She says that nearly all of them contain a set-up which introduces the main character(s) and their goal(s), a complicating action where the impediments are enunciated, a development section in which the character(s) come to terms with their lot and a climax in which everything is resolved and goals are reached, followed by an epilogue and that these are separated by turning points that send the story off into a new direction. Time out these turning points and they’re almost equidistant from one another across the film with about a five minute margin of error (Doctor Who fans will already see in this, as I did, why the old four episode story model worked so well -- and how the best stories didn't just have a cliffhanger at the end of episodes one to three, but one which sent the story off in a new direction. The Deadly Assassin -- good. Most eighties stories -- bad).

Effectively, she’s splitting the Field/McKee middle act in two and saying that in a lot of cases a film changes tac at the ‘mid-point’. So in Jaws, the set-up introduces Sheriff Brody and the problem of the shark attacks. The first turning point is the town meeting where Quint offers to kill the shark. The complicating action is the appearance of Hooper and the decision to keep the beaches open whatever and the next turning point is the town agreeing to give Quint the jog. At this mid-point the film changes into a shark hunt, the developing action is the guys at sea and getting to know one another, and the next turning point is them bonding and deciding one a plan of action. The climax is them carrying that out. The film’s about two hours long and each of those turning points happens every half an hour.

She offers a couple of qualifications to take care of shorter or longer films which don’t obviously split into these four sections. Some shorter films retain a three section structure, omitting the complicating portion. In When Harry Met Sally, the set-up is Harry meeting Sally across the years, the turning point is them agreeing to be friends. The development action is their friendship tipping over into something more, the next turning point is them sleeping together, and then the climax is them falling in love. Longer films tend to have five sections, with an extra development section stuffed in somewhere. Her example is Heat – to cut a looong story short – the extra development section is the extended heist; she also notes that most of the turning point action happens to Bobby De Nero’s character – you can usually tell who the ‘main’ character is in a film if all of the turning points happen to them.

Believe me, when I first read the extended version of that I wasn’t able to look at film the same way again. Because, it’s true. With a few more exceptions – mainly were the writer and director are being deliberately obtuse – every film pretty much fits this structure. Grab a calculator. Think of a favourite film, find out the duration, divide it by four, think about when the story moves forward and there you have it. To an extent it’s natural. As Thompson says they have to be written this way in order to keep the audience’s interest and I’d also argue that the reason some so-called art house films can be a trial to watch is because they’re all setup and climax or even setup and complicating action. At the back of the book the writer offers evidence that the reason some films are ‘bad’ is because one of these sections is over sized – an opening or climax is rushed and the middle of the film is too long and it’s just boring.

She applies this model to ten films of increasingly complexity including Back To The Future, Groundhog Day and Hannah and Her Sisters. Each is described in detail pointing out the nuts and bolts of the writing, the structure of the script and most specifically where the turning points are. Under her rules it becomes apparent that Groundhog Day is actually far more conventional that it appears, unusual only in that the antagonist is the situation rather than a specific person. The book was published in 1999 so she missed the head-fuck that was 21 Grams, but I hope she’d come to the same conclusion I did – that there’s a single story thread that runs through the film with Sean Penn as the lead character, with all of the turning points turning up as expected, with flashes back and forth dangling off and Watts and Del Torro as supporting characters.

The discussion areas I found most invaluable at college are about ensemble films, which have multiple protagonists; the rules are relaxed slightly with these though the turning points in each of their stories all happen in roughly the same five minutes and are often unified with a party scene where they all appear or as I noticed in a lot of these things with a montage sequence. And the more characters and stories there are, the longer the film, because they all have to be satisfied and satisfying to watch. There are short cuts that can be taken (if you’ll pardon the expression) but that would lead to a regurgitation of the rant about Love Actually that constituted one third of the final chapter of my dissertation. But it has to be said that it's through this book, my admiration for Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia grew; watch how he deals with all this in the central hour by slowing down the 'temporal duration' or in other words, shows us an hour's worth of story even though just half an hour passes within the world of the film.

The upshot of all this, once you’re aware of it, is that no matter how ghastly a film is, you can at least gain some ‘entertainment’ from trying to work out how these sections time out and what the turning points are and even try and predict what that next turning point is going to be. I was sitting through the horrible remake of The Women this morning, which is the kind of film in which a character only exists to be pregnant so that it can end with a birth and has the audacity to have Candice Bergan who plays Meg Ryan’s mother warning her daughter never to have botox even though Ryan’s face no longer moves naturally. One of the gags is that, like its predecessor there are no men at all in the film, but what that leads to here are scenes which seem to be happening in an alternate reality where the streets of New York are only populated by women. All the indications in the advertising too suggest this is going to be a Steel Magnolia’s style ensemble piece when actually it’s all about Ryan’s character’s marital problems.

The set-up introduces the women, the lifestyle and the turning point is Ryan finding out about her husband’s affair and deciding not to tell him. The complicating action is her meeting the new object of his affections (Eva Mendes who’s the best thing about the film but I probably would say that wouldn't I?). I guessed the next turning point -- her telling her husband that she knows and the potential divorce. The developing action is her rock bottom and losing control. The next turning point is Bette Midler telling her to pull herself together and decide what she really wants and the climax is Ryan opening her fashion house, becoming an independent woman and then deciding to give her husband a second chance now that she’s paradoxically become an independent woman. Annette Benning’s character might have a lot of scenes but she doesn’t really have a story of her own; her job being on the rocks and the betrayal are just so that Ryan’s character lacks a friend to talk to and someone to show that she’s being not a great mother, in other words make her look and feel more rubbish. And sure enough, in a film which is 110 minutes long, a turning point happens every twenty-six minutes with a short epilogue of six minutes that includes the credits.

The fact that I can offer this kind of analysis demonstrates how clearly Thompson puts forward her thesis; though some of the writing could be overtly analytical and usually is in similar books, that isn’t the case here and even I was able to grasp her technique. It’s worth noting too that the opening chapter doesn’t just set up this analyses but all puts it in context by exploding the myth that the seventies brought new storytelling ideas and transplanted a kind of European flavour to Hollywood. That was only reflected in a fraction of the films on release and rarely in the successes. The top grossers, Love Story or The Godfather still relied heavily on this kind of classic storytelling, though she's quick to underscore that fundamentally there isn’t anything wrong with that, since it doesn’t always lead to simplistic mush like The Women but is also the backbone to something as psychologically complex as Silence of the Lambs. In the end, as with all art, it’s not just the technique that counts but how it’s used.


TV Indecision 2008 Forever describes some of the reaction to the Stewart/Cramer smackdown. Something I've not seen mentioned is the way that Stewart pulled up archive clips to knock holes in whatever defence Cramer was trying to formulate. I wonder if this would work on UK tv. Imagine Jeremy Paxman interviewing Gordon Brown and having a raft of these handy and ready to go if the Prime Minister contradicted a pledge he'd made earlier -- the impact would be rather heavier than what usually happens which is the journalist reading out the quote only to be told its been taken out of context.

Yes, I know.

TV The Sci-Fi Channel rebranding. As 'SyFy'. I don't care if they fund Battlestar Galactica. They can sod off right now. More at Topless Robot. Yes, I know.


Film I've decided that I rather dislike James Corden and Mathew Horne, mostly because they have the smugness of a mid-80s Hale & Pace. But I'd still very much hoped that Lesbian Vampire Killers would turn out to be good, if only because Paul McGann's a co-star. Oh dear:
"Let's get one thing straight. It's not drivel because of its lesbian titillation. It's just drivel. The Beavis and Butthead mentality is just another reason to loathe it, like Page Three of The Sun."
The rest of the review is at SFX. I liked Beavis and Butthead.

refreshingly outrageous

Books Elizabeth Wurtzel recently visited New York University and spoke to students about the pharmaceutical industry before giving to their student blog one of her refreshingly outrageous interviews. On Octomom:
"What is that about? What does that say? She’s had octuplets, and six others. I think the doctor who implanted her with these octuplets should be forced to have sex with her for the rest of his life. They should make a sex tape. That would definitely solve things."
She's turned into Pheobe from FRIENDS.

this isn't safe for work

Radio Did he realise at the end of the record? At the end of the show? In the car home?

Yes, unbelievably, this isn't safe for work. Depending on where you work, obviously.