warmed up

Life Having not been away for quite some time, I'm back on the road (well train) again for the second time in almost as many months. One of the virtues of that is having some inclining of what's important in packing. This time I'm making do with just a backpack; I haven't had a chance to write about the bottom end of the previous week's holiday but dragging my suitcase on wheels about an ironically rainy Lemmington Spa was probably the low point of the week (same thing happened in Buxton -- I suspect fowl play from God for the complex relationship I have with him).

My latest backpack does indeed seem bigger on the inside, enough room for three t-shirts, enough underwear, a jumper, toiletries, alarm clock, radio, book, note book, camera(s), well everything. I took extra jumpers and pants and shoes to Stratford, but didn't need any of them. It's good to have some back-ups, I know, but in the end I could have bought clothes if I needed them and that's true here, one of the few benefits of town centres cloning from one another. The approach to belongings spies have, rings true for tourists too, I think.

I've only visited London twice before in this decade and since I seem to have picked up a few new readers recently (hello!), I thought you might be interested to read what happened. As you can see I do go for packed days. On one occasion it was a spare of the moment decision to go for a walk there; the other was a properly planned day. This time, I have everything just about planned out but with just enough wiggle room for any surprises. I won't really be content until I get Monday morning over with.

Thursday, August 25, 2005: "I went for a walk around London yesterday, mostly on the South Bank. So whilst Liverpool was apparently enjoying the loveliest day of the month, I was fighting my way across the Millenium Bridge, trying to hold my umbrella in such a way that the wind would pull it and my off the side into the Thames. It absolutely the worst weather, but that meant I wasn't getting the idealized version which appears in film and television."

Wednesday, September 13, 2006: "I love navigating the tube map - I know it must be a pain if you're a London resident, but finding where you are and where you want to go and then deciding the quickest route with the least number of changes is an exciting challenge - even if sometimes all you seem to be doing is following the arrows down stairs and escalators. The Jubilee line in particular seems close to hades."

(has it really been three years?)

a "not yet" list

Film I have a not list, or more accurately, a "not yet" list, of films which I know to be classics but which I'm deliberately ignoring so that I'll always have something good to watch. This week it was the turn of Ken Russell's crazy Altered States (which I'll talk about another time) and Poltergeist a funny, clever, scary, atmospheric, surprising piece of work that I now know has been imitated dozens of times.

I also now understand the question of authorship which has dogged the production since its release. Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Tobe Hooper is credited as director on the film, but sight unseen it has all of the hallmarks of a Steven Spielberg production, from the small child as point of view figure (especially in the opening sequence which apes Close Encounters) to the overlapping, easygoing dialogue between the leads and the camera work and shock editing.

Seeking confirmation online, I've stumbled across this page at a Poltergeist fan site which collects together raw quotes from contemporary and retrospective interviews, online postings from anonymous sources who claim to have been on the set, describing the working relationship between producer and director during shooting and post-production. It's a fascinating read, if only to see how some people dance about the subject whilst other jive right in.

From a journalistic perspective you could use these quotes to sway the argument either way, but even from the words of official sources, the process of clearly exceedingly collaborative. Paul Thomas Anderson aided Robert Altman on the set of his final film, A Prairie Home Companion, because otherwise the insurers wouldn't under-right the production otherwise. Similar measures occured during the making of Return of the Jedi with George Lucas helping Richard Marquand along with the special effects (as the special features on one of the many hundred dvd reissues explained).

Much the same working relationship can be inferred from this page, with both Steven and Tobe offering direction, shouting action and cut. Neither comes off well, and indeed it sounds like there was a fair amount of infighting with the cast and crew siding with one or other of the men. Here's Spielberg himself:
"Tobe isn't what you'd call a take-charge sort of guy. He's just not a strong presence on a movie set. If a question was asked and an answer wasn't immediately forthcoming, I'd jump up and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of the collaboration. I did not want to direct the movie-I had to do 'E.T.' five weeks after principal photography on 'Poltergeist.'"

"My enthusiasm for wanting to make 'Poltergeist' would have been difficult for any director I would have hired. It derived from my imagination and my experiences, and it came out of my typewriter [after re-writing the Grais/Victor draft]. I felt a proprietary interest in this project that was stronger than if I was just an executive producer. I thought I'd be able to turn 'Poltergeist' over to a director and walk away. I was wrong. [On future films] If I write it myself, I'll direct it myself. I won't put someone else through what I put Tobe through, and I'll be more honest in my contributions to a film."
And he has, though his methodology if the imdb is to be believed has been to simply stop writing (with the exception of a story credit on The Goonies and a rewrite on AI). None of this really matters of course, not after twenty-five years. In classic old Hollywood all kinds of films had multiple directors for one reason or another. What matters is the quality of the work, and as far as I'm concerned Poltergeist is a classic, however it was created.

Brian or Ducky or The Geek, Keith or Cameron

Film John Hughes has died. He was 59 and his heart gave out whilst jogging, which is a horrible way to go. Over the next few days there'll be countless obituaries far better than anything I could write at speed here. For some people of my generation he's a titan, introducing us to the American high school and like the best writers demonstrating that the emotions we were feeling were universal, that there was nothing happening in Shermer, Illinois that wasn't also happening in the hallways of our schools.

I might have watched Grange Hill, but in my heart of hearts it's The Breakfast Club or Pretty In Pink or Sixteen Candles or Some Kind of Wonderful or even Ferris Bueller's Day Off that reflected how I felt about school (or in the case of Weird Science wished I did). I was Brian or Ducky or The Geek, Keith or Cameron and probably still am, but Hughes showed there was nothing wrong with that, it was ok just to be friends with Claire, Andie, Samantha, Amanda or Sloane. They'll come around eventually (still waiting).

"If you're looking for a job in neuroscience..."

that’s pretty much what I was thinking

Film Under Capricorn is a mess. Some French critics (Trauffaut included) thought it to be Hitchcock's masterpiece and there has been some recent critical re-evaluation in relation to his use of long takes and how they express the inner life of the characters with their own spaces (wiki) which is all fine, but it's the first film since Jamaica Inn that I’ve simply wanted to give up mid-stream, uninterested in the characters, the story and impatient about the rotten, slow pacing. If I’m spotting a pattern in Hitch’s career, it’s that when he strays away from something with an overtly suspenseful scenario, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with the material. Much like Rope he uses ten minute takes, except here they feel like ten minutes because they simply don’t suite the domestic love triangle playing out before us. If he was trying to make us desperate for a cutaway but wanting to keep us painfully within the room, he succeeded.

Still, there is some curiosity value in seeing the subject of the formation of Australia turned into a film just over a hundred years after the original events in 1831, and how convicts were essentially being used a slave labour. These people lived in relatively isolation, ships taking months to travel too and from the motherland which is difficult for us modern apes to conceive of at a time when geopolitical information bounces around the planet instantly, and a quick glance at Google News can tell us the hot story in the Antipodean parliament. They wouldn’t have known that Darwin was heading in their direction on the historic cruise that would lead to his theory of Evolution, the Battle of Ostrołęka was happening in Poland and Victor Hugo was publishing The Hunchback of Notre Dame. They might have noticed The Sydney Morning Herald being founded. None of which has anything to do with the film, but that’s pretty much what I was thinking about as Ingrid Bergman went into another one of her alcohol induced fits.

As ever, Hitch knew when he’d produced a clunker and said as much again to a disappointed Truffaut in those interviews. He was apparently riding on a career high and had in his mind the moment when he and Bergman, who was the one who really wanted to do the picture, stepped onto the tarmac at Heathrow into the awaiting photographers, the most famous director in the world and the most famous actress. He’s sheepish about his own vanity and acknowledges that it had a knock on effect on the final product which was begun without a completed script which had elements he wasn’t sure how he was going to deal with them – which was risky considering it was a self-produced independent picture. The film sank at the box office and was repossessed by the banks leading to it being unseen for many years.

in the area

Liverpool Life Kerry Morrison of the Biennial is cataloguing human activity along the local portion of the Leeds Liverpool canal:
"I wanted to get a clearer and more fair picture of how the canal is actually used by people, so I devised a Human Activity Record data sheet – a means to record every activity that passes by me – not just the disturbing, the entertaining, or the eye catching – but the ordinary and everyday comings and goings of people along the towpath."
She talks about finding a potato patch, which is something I remember find myself when I was young and playing about in the area on which the John Lennon Airport was built. Kerry's project will become a fascinating record of social and environmental history.

they're probably what's made me so intensely interested in everything

Life The Observer wasn’t my first Sunday newspaper. That honour goes to The Sunday Times, which I read right the way through my teens. I loved the Culture section and used to keep them, piled up under my bed, the library/hoarders gene already taking hold. But after Hilsborough and a recognition that the paper was being published by the same office as that which shall not be named, I just stopped. And the back issues went for recycling.

By then I was in my late teens and in my sixth form at school. One of the perks was that the newspapers would be delivered to the common room (dontchaknow) and each morning a group of us would try and do The Guardian crossword which is when I first started reading the paper. Despite wavering now and then, trying The Independent for a week or The Telegraph, I always returned. It’s political philosophy wasn’t always something you could agree with, but in everything else it spoke my language.

The Observer, once the GMG had bought it in 1993, became the natural Sunday extension and I’ve been picking it up ever since. Similar to The Guardian, it has an ability to somehow find something interesting to say about something, anything. But as a report on tonight’s Newsnight underscored, it is in fact simplistic to simply call it The Sunday Guardian; there are ideological differences and its tastes are perhaps even slightly more up market, more literary. Yet I’m as passionate about it as I am the daily paper and with the threat of closure perhaps even more so.

I think I can probably say that I wouldn’t be the person I am without having read The Guardian or The Observer; sometimes both can be precocious and do idiotic things, sometimes they get things very wrong, but before the web they were the way I discovered that there was more going on in the world than I could see in my daily routine, theatre, music, art, cinema, foreign affairs, tattle, tittle. Collectively they're probably what's made me so intensely interested in everything, and it’s true to say I learnt more from those pages than I ever did at school.

I’ve become used to sitting in my lunch break on a Sunday and reading the magazine and review sections; Victoria Coren’s column, Mark Kermode’s dvd reviews, Jay Raynor’s restaurant reviews, the film and music features by the Kates, Tims and Miranda Sawyer (sometimes), the longer researched newsier pieces by Simon Garfield or Elizabeth Day glancing on into the Media section to Peter Preston and all of the things which I peek at in between. They’re akin to human versions of the finger in the old lottery ads, pointing to subjects which we readers might find interested in, golden nuggets.

The idea of none of that being there fills me with dread. Yes, dread. Because without The Observer there wouldn’t be a newspaper worth reading on a Sunday or at the very least a paper I would want to read. The Sunday Times is still owned by Murdoch (and we’ll leave the inconsistencies about that statement for another time). I’ve tried both The Telegraph and The Independent having bought them to get whatever dvd was being given away that week, and the former just seemed terribly up itself and the other felt like it was trying to ape the other papers broadsheet and middle market rather than just doing its own thing.

Is it possible to write an obituary for a newspaper? Would it be too meta? The Observer hasn’t closed yet, that decision is still amongst the range of options available to Guardian Media Group to plug the £90 million hole in their profits, so perhaps we can at least describe the paper as being on life support. And I’m right at its bedside, holding its hand, ipod tuned to whatever was trending in the last Music Monthly to keep it cheerful.

if you’re my kind of film fan

Film Before I begin, I should offer a warning. I know that only a small fraction of you will be interested in the following, and only a fraction of those will possibly find it useful. But I wanted to finally put this into words and have it somewhere useful where it can be discussed if required. Some of you will probably wondering about my sanity. I expect someone will probably stop reading the blog altogether. So let’s begin.

On classifying films.

Over the weekend I continued the arduous, not to mention rather boring process of cataloguing my dvds (using Eric's Movie Database) (updated 17/08/2013 - I've since migrated to a Microsoft Access database.  It's more flexible even if it has less search option and information upload).

If you’re my sort of film fan you’ll probably also have hundred potentially thousands of the things, shop bought and recorded from the television (dozens of old video tapes too), so many perhaps that you actually sometimes forget what you actually have. I know this afflicts music collectors too; I don’t collect music and I’ve somehow managed to amass three copies of Pet Sounds.

At some point in the past I had to make a decision as to the order in which I was going to store the dvds. The typical view is either genre or alphabetical order by director but me being me, this didn’t seem very satisfactory. In this post-modern world and having written a dissertation on the subject the idea of slotting films into discrete genres has to me become suspect at best – Star Wars of course being a western and Titanic, a romance.

Alphabetical has its virtues but it isn’t not very contextual. I like to be contextual.

When I was at library school in the mid-90s as well as learning all about now obsolete internet search engines and software (Web Crawler and Dbase 4) we where walked through the main classification systems, Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal, LCC and DDC. The first is more likely to be used in academic libraries, the latter in the public. If asked I prefer DDC – it has a clearer structure and everything has a place (visit the wiki links to discover their wonders).

In other words, thinking about classification systems isn’t something I simply began to do randomly recently. I was trained to, for good or ill. And though I wasn’t thinking about classification systems much for the whole of the next eight years, when I went to film school and was using an academic library again, I began thinking about classification systems again. And more specifically how rubbish libraries can be when dealing with films, mostly treating them as artefacts rather than works of art.

To cut a long story short, I decided to make up my own classification system, something which did treat them as works of art. I decided that to take the guess work out of the genre process and also to contextualise films historically, it was best to use a ….

Classification by year.

Or more specifically:

Classification by the year in which it’s set and put the films in historical chronological order.

Pure madness of course, not least because of the sheer man (or woman) hours involved in finding out the year in which a film is set and making value judgements if its not set in a specific year and then arbitrarily deciding on one.

This is how I’ve classified my dvds.

Films about real events are easy – because they have a specific date or group of dates to work from:

A Night To Remember – 1912
Julius Caesar -- 55

Films set within a decade over multiple years are fine too:

Most westerns – 1880s.

Trickier are portmanteau pieces and films with a decadal flashback structure; I used to call this the Forrest Gump problem. But recently I decided to simply use the year in which the umbrellas scene are set:

Forrest Gump – 1980s

How about films set in two decades? Value judgement time – what does this feel like? Titanic feels like a period piece and has the titular ship in its title:

Titanic – 1912

What if there isn’t a particular year. This is often the case in literary adaptation. But often they’re set in the time of publication:

Tess of the D’Urbevilles – 1890s

Fantasy? Take them out of chronology and pop them at the beginning:

Lord of the Rings – FAN

Films set in the future? If there’s a year or decade, keep to it:

Blade Runner 2019

This becomes tricky with films made in the past but now set in our past. Might as well be consistent:

1984 – 1984
2001 - 2001
2010 - oh

And so it goes on. There are plenty of individual hiccups but in the main, if you can be bothered, this works surprisingly well. Then, once it’s done you can reap the benefits.

Miraculously, perhaps unsurprisingly nearly all of the westerns nestle together, and the war films by theatre, and the costume dramas, and the sci-fi films set in the future and the sword and sandal and biblical epics and the gangster films and the noirs. Films about a period begin to interact with those made then. You can begin to see how historical periods that previously seemed discrete and unconnected occurred in parallel on the same planet, how clever Once Upon a Time in China or Shanghai Noon were in identifying that westerns would have been happening at the same time as some samurai epics and bringing those two mythic genres together.

This should make the task even more arduous, and it has, just a little bit, it's also made it more interesting. And intellectually stimulating.

I have the tv recorded films sorted into boxes, labelled. Fantasy. Pre-history to 1799. 1800-1899. 1900-1938. 1939-1945. 1946-1959. You get the idea. Everything in order, everything contextualised. If I'm in the mood to watch something set in the 60s, there they are. My librarian and cineaste genes lovingly massaged simultaneously.

And now that I’m entering them into a database, more easily indentified, the date of creation replaced by the date of context. The other film history flowing down the page in list view. The shop bought dvds are elsewhere, but now they too can have a contextual date swimming in the matrix. Not something you’d want to do for longer an hour at a time, but the gaming element leads to it sometimes tipping over into two.

As an addendum, you might be wondering where the Star Wars films finally pitched up. A quick hunt about online turns up the Star Wars Chronology Gold which through the careful application of an apocryphal story featuring some time dilation Indiana Jones turns out dates in the late eighteenth century.

Just in case you thought I was being obsessive …

the restrictions of the code

Film Mick LaSalle of GreenCine Daily offers a monumental essay into the lasting effects of the MPAA on filmmaking, and essentially explains why relationships in Hollywood films still persist in generally failing to represent real life:
"The irony of the Motion Picture Production Code is that this supposed vehicle for moral enforcement effectively curtailed the American cinema's moral questioning in whole areas of our national life – politics, religion, sexuality. We can never fully measure the Code's effects on social behavior, though women who came of age during the years of the Code often speak of the despair and loneliness of being surrounded by nonstop images of submission, conformity and surrender."
It's very tempting to wonder how films might have developed artistically had the first flowering of independent artistry been allowed to flourish from its origins in the early 1930s, though it's worth adding that a number of great movies were made because of the restrictions of the code (Douglas Sirk's career?).

other worlds

Acting Simon Callow on appearing in love scenes:
"I was introduced to the actress, there was a brief discussion about how much would be exposed (my bum, her breasts) and how long it should last (30 seconds). The furniture was quickly adjusted and, like a couple of mating dogs, we leaped on each other, our orgasm hailed by the director shouting: "Cut!" Great satisfaction all round, hands shaken, off we went. I never saw the actress again – and indeed, to my embarrassment, I can't quite remember her face, let alone any other part of her anatomy. A typical one-night stand, in other words."
Yes, actors not only help portray other worlds, but live in them as well.

… well it is theatre …


Int. Wooden Church. Day.

I'm sitting in a chair, slightly unnerved by the fact that I seem to have replaced the character of Plainview in the film 'There Will Be Blood'.

Eli Sunday: We have a sinner with us here, who wishes for salvation. Stuart, are you a sinner?
Me: Yes.
Eli Sunday: The Lord can't hear you, Stuart. Say it to him. Go ahead and speak to him, it's alright.
Me: Yes.
Eli Sunday: Down on your knees and up to him. Look up to the sky and say it.
Me: What do you want me to say?
Eli Sunday: Stuart, do you ever finish anything?
Me: Sorry?
Eli Sunday: Do you ever finish anything?
Me: Yes.
Eli Sunday: LOUDER!
Me: YES!
Eli Sunday: Then why don’t you finish History of the Theatre by Oscar Brockett?
Me: What?
Eli Sunday: History of the Theatre by Oscar Brockett. You’ve reached page one hundred and seventy five and stopped. Why?
Me: It was dry.
Eli Sunday: LOUDER!
Eli Sunday: Explain.
Me: I was learning about the history of theatre. I know more now than I ever did about Greek and Roman theatre and the Medieval dramas. It’s just …
Eli Sunday: GO ON!
Me: … I was expecting more anecdotes, more about the plays themselves, something less mechanical, something more than simple descriptions and dates.
Eli Sunday: It's a text book.
Me: Yes.
Eli Sunday: What were were you expecting?
Me: Something more -- entertaining?
Eli Sunday: History is an entertaining story, is it?
Me: … no that’s …
Eli Sunday: History is just there to entertain you, is it?
Me: … well it is theatre …
Eli Sunday: Stuart?
Me: Yes?
Eli Sunday: Stuart?
Me: Yes?
Eli Sunday: Stuart, you said you were interested in reading about the history of theatre. You said that you wanted to fill in the gaps in your knowledge of what happened before and after Shakespeare. And yet you have abandoned your book. The book you were reading, you have abandoned all because you thought the writing was a bit dry is that correct?
Me: Yes.
Eli Sunday: Once again you’re not finishing something you’ve started.
Me: Yes.
Eli Sunday: And so you are a sinner.
Me: What?
Eli Sunday: Say it – I am a sinner!
Me: I am a sinner.
Eli Sunday: Say it louder- I am a sinner!
Me: I am a sinner.
Eli Sunday: LOUDER, Stuart. I am a sinner!
Eli Sunday: I am sorry Lord!
Me: I am sorry Lord.
Eli Sunday: I want the blood!
Me: I want the blood.
Eli Sunday: You have abandoned your book!
Me: I have abandoned my book.
Eli Sunday: I will never backslide!
Me: I will never backslide.
Eli Sunday: I was lost, but now I am found!
Me: I was lost but now I'm found.
Eli Sunday: I have abandoned my book!

I glared at him.

Eli Sunday: Say it... say it!

I mumble.

Eli Sunday: Say it louder... say it louder!
Me: I've abandoned my book! I've abandoned my book! I've abandoned my text!
Eli Sunday: Good. So what are you reading next?
Me: I thought I might have a go at World Drama by Allardyce Nicoll. Equally interesting name and with a rather more journalist style.