Monday, October 30, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's show and tell on global warming, is in the best sense an impressive film, both as an urgent and incontrovertibly suasive polemic (though it never comes close to breaking a sweat) and, less expectedly, as a cinematic achievement. I wondered beforehand whether I might prefer to be seeing him do this as a live show, as he apparently has approximately one terawillion times to date; or, equally, whether I might as well wait for the DVD release of what seemed likely to be a tv documentary with a bigger foofery budget. But in fact, both as an argument and as a personal narrative, it's all about scale: the relative scale of images, events, people; the conceptual (as much as perceptual) travel between what is large and in the distance and what is small and held in the hand. So it's important to see the big pictures at bigger-than-human scale, and to look upwards at them. Under these conditions, a sequence of images self-evidently indicating the change in snow and ice levels at various places over the last few years becomes unanswerably powerful; everything anomalous about the current behaviour of our climate is graphically conveyed with exacted simplicity.

Gore and the filmmakers also make smart use of that politician's trick of repeatedly tying the global and the apparently abstract to the local and personal -- returning again and again not just to the person-sized but to specific and exemplary occasions in his own life. Even when the back-and-forth movement becomes obvious, it's irresistible. I'm not sure that Gore's vaunted personal charisma comes strongly through, and the self-depreciating cracks that he sows through the presentation have clearly, with boggling repetition, hardened into what seem more like nuts than acorns; he's at his best when he's neither the ex-next-president nor the regular joe helping you fix your car, but rather the sort of amenable and highly-skilled geography teacher who knows that maybe a couple of people in every class will be turned on by what he's saying.

For my own part, I was certainly inspired to take note of one of the injunctions that pops up during the closing credits, and investigate tree-planting as a way of offsetting my own (actually not too gross) carbon-related naughtiness. But of the first few hits on the topic thrown up by Google, about half were articles criticising the middle-class guilt-propelled rush to such solutions (or absolutions) and questioning their effectiveness. Al Gore may want me to plant trees, but George Monbiot doesn't. (Dude, George Monbiot doesn't want me to do anything.) So, this, ultimately, is the real -- and perhaps the only -- problem with the film: it's hard for it to promote cogent action in such a turbulent field, with no formative consensus supporting it. This is the same news that the Green Cross Code man used to have to break to us at the end of every advert: Al Gore -- pastel (but not Lincoln) green, and not too cross -- won't be there when we cross the road. It's easy to understand why he doesn't want to commit himself to seeking the Deomcratic nomination, but it's hard to see how else this message is going to achieve the necessary order of airtime or leverage in the US -- let alone China.

It's a good job there's not so much at stake in Little Miss Sunshine. In a lot of ways it's rather a cynically imagined and ineptly executed movie: a van-full of indie-by-numbers characters (deluded self-help guru, foul-mouthed grandad, ugly duckling Sundance-friendly kid...) setting off on an excruciatingly implausible road trip. The sharp acting and mostly smart dialogue never quite offset these problems, though there are some gloriously funny moments and on the whole it's easy enough to switch off the critical response and enjoy the journey. Only the increasing tonal vacillation (between tender and pointed character comedy, and outright farce) is fundamentally unmanageable.

In the end, though -- curiously, but not without precedent -- it's precisely the combination of the cool and the clunky that ultimately causes this movie to snag in the mind. At the emotional heart of the film is the relationship between a suicidal gay English professor (Steve Carrell) and his miserable teenage nephew, Duayne, (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence (don't ask why, I could tell you but then I'd have to apologise for wasting your time); these are the two most rigorously controlled performances on the screen and -- by some way -- the two most attractive characters. So when Duayne, in a state of profound emotional distress, finally speaks, it's even more of a moving moment than the filmmakers want it to be; the pacing and placing of that pivotal scene is stupidly botched, but that misfire only serves to magnify the sense of raggedness and suspension, which in turn makes the scene sadder and more troubling than it can ever have seemed on paper. Long after the confectioner's custard of the queasy feelgood climax has passed, the unanswered questions around these characters' predicaments continue to reverberate, a bit like the discarded story of increasingly out-of-hand civil unrest that continues to write itself in the wastepaper basket in Brautigan's Sombrero Fallout. And, in particular, Dano, who I hadn't seen since his extraordinary debut in L.I.E., is incredibly compelling; Duayne has haunted me.

I'd seen the first instalment of Slavoj Zizek's three-part The Pervert's Guide to Cinema on More4 earlier in the year, but missed the other two, and therefore booked early to catch the whole lot, sewn into a single two-and-a-half hour documentary and showing at the ICA. Having only ever heard Zizek on the radio before, I was happily surprised by his screen presence: bright-eyed, bearded, bear-like, and Simply Having A Wonderful Christmastime in his head. (I can't begin to say how much he reminded me of Tassos at moments -- so if you don't know Tassos, you should go see Zizek just for that, really.) I thought his odd, slightly impeded, speech and mannerisms might begin to pall after a couple of hours, but he has that great gift of making you feel that he's merely telling entertaining stories over dinner, while he's actually tying your brain into an irrecuperable sheepshank.

The departure point for the documentary is Zizek's contention that cinema does not show us, or give us, what we desire, so much as actually teach us how to desire. His pursuit of this idea is sometimes fanciful, sometimes confusing, occasionally a bit loopy, but trying to stay with him is immense fun. Amazingly, his rudimentary psychoanalytical reading of the Marx Brothers (Groucho as superego, Chico as ego, Harpo as id) only serves to make them funnier -- which of course is practically unheard of in the history of comedy analysis from Freud through to John Cleese and Jonathan Miller; he also makes Chaplin more beautiful, which will perhaps unsettle a generation for whom the loathing of Chaplin and worshipful hallooing of Keaton is formidably de rigeur. There's brilliant stuff on The Birds and The Matrix, and a thread of less acrobatic but nonetheless useful commentary on David Lynch. There are also some cheerfully excursive passages, such as a rant about tulips (which are, since you ask, "disgusting"). What it all adds up to in the end, I'm not sure, but the real and indubitable pleasure of the experience is simply watching a magnificently agile, provocative, hell-for-leather mind creating new routes through familiar images, to disorienting and exhilarating effect. The Pervert's Guide to Cinema is itself a really good, important, kind, enthralling, oddly enchanting film, directed with immense wit by Sophie Fiennes; the best movie (though admittedly, perhaps, the only one) of its kind since Derrida.

Some films are hard to assess simply because they seem to have been conceived especially for you, like the bespoke radio stations you can grow at Pandora. For me, it's (needless to say) My Own Private Idaho, and (perhaps less obviously, or convincingly) Empire Records or Party Monster. I'm saying, it wouldn't have surprised me if the opening titles of Brothers of the Head had started with the words "Dear Chris...". Conjoined twin teenage boys growing up in a remote part of East Anglia and becoming moulded into a proto-punk glam rock outfit called The Bang Bang? And all this styled as a fake documentary with various talking heads including Ken Russell and an actor playing Brian Aldiss? In other words, as near as dammit to the (sorely needed) Ballard / Cronenberg remake of Velvet Goldmine? Yeah, don't worry about a bag, thanks, I think I'll be wearing it home.

I was therefore rooting for Brothers... long after it became apparent that it was, sadly but perhaps inevitably, kind of a mess as a film. From a few minutes in, the documentary frame is half mishandled and half neglected, too often constraining the film's movements and only sporadically harnessing any of the benefits of tension and alienation that could have been derived. The story is muddled, some interesting things get invoked but never explored, things feel both cramped and diffuse. But I'm still glad to have seen the film, and to know it's there; and I'd be interested to see it again -- in fact I might have done, had it not been and gone within a fortnight. What isn't in doubt is the extraordinary commitment of the twin actors, Luke and Harry Treadaway, of whom a lot is asked: they throw themselves into the whole thing fearlessly and rather magnificently. And unusually for a cod rock-doc, The Bang Bang really do kind of rock. The film may not, in the end, deliver on its sensational promise, but its heart is in the right place (i.e. worn bleeding copiously all down the skin where the sleeve ought to be) and beating pretty ardently. Ultimately what it recalls, for me, is another super-brave and under-appreciated British film from a few years ago, Dom Rotheroe's My Brother Tom: a coming-of-age melodrama that was not just out on a limb but just about to fall out of its tree, both held together and (ravishingly) ripped apart by the stunning off-central performance of the then-unknown Ben Whishaw. High time it got a DVD release, that one.

Equal but opposite frustrations abounded with Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a brilliant idea that quickly foundered from not having the necessary Bang Bang – the courage, in other words, of its apparent convictions. The reviews made it sound like this was a classic example of what I was talking about a couple of months ago, the simple idea effectively executed: in this case, following one player, the Frencher-than-thou Zinedine Zidane, throughout the whole ninety minutes of a match, the camera never leaving him for a moment.

What I’ve just described is almost certainly a brilliant film, but it’s not – by some way – what Zidane actually is. In fact there are endless unnecessary cutaways, often making some facile point about mediatization (so we see extreme close-up shots of the game being carried on tv, or seen through other cameras). The early minutes of the film are particularly fidgety and alienating (to little effect), while other passages are spoiled by deeply unsuggestive quotes from Zidane himself, rendered as subtitles in the most ludicrous retro-futuristic font. It’s only in the stretches when the footage most doggedly and nakedly marks its man that the insights start to flow.

There are some huge pleasures here: not least the dauntingly impressive wall of sound generated by the spectators. (In fact the sound design is the smartest and most daring aspect of the film throughout: though it’s somewhat disappointing to take account of the levels of artifice involved, including the team of four foley artists whose names roll up in the credits.) The music, by Mogwai, is typically preposterous, but by no means jarring. It’s interesting too to watch what’s happening behind Zidane: reading the otherwise illegible dynamics of the match through the reactions of the crowd; catching fast glimpses of team-mates such as Ronaldo and David Beckham, reduced for once to cameos. And above all you get a real sense of the physicality of the game, from which – it’s true – media representations tend to insulate the home viewer. This is not a computer simulation, it’s a punishingly hard job of creative work that these men undertake, and the blood-sweat-and-tears extremity of the confrontations out of which a game of football arises has never been made more palpably clear. (The tagline should have read: "You’ll believe a French dude can spit." Though of course this is not exactly news to Cadinot fans. Insert emoticon here.)

Some reviews have complained that this film belongs in the gallery. It doesn’t – it makes too many concessions to the grammar and tropes of Hollywood and MTV for that. But they’re correct in a sense: behind, and slightly to the left of, the film as it is, is the braver and subtler film that it should have been -- and that film probably would work better in a gallery context. Ultimately what disappoints about this approach is that it will date very quickly. It doesn’t achieve what I imagine was one of its goals: to illuminate the hero-icon status of a player like Zidane. Cinema is better placed than any other form to do this, but will most likely succeed when all it does is hold its subject in the sights of our own critical attention, as Warhol and Paul Morrissey and Bruce Weber (and, yes, actually, Cadinot) all have in different ways in their own documentary-art movies, and as Sam Taylor Wood so brilliantly did in her video portrait of Beckham. Zidane never trusts its medium, or its audience, or the pre-linguistic articulacy of its subject, and so it attempts to illuminate by deconstructing as it goes along. This is what, finally, makes it a fashionable rather than a classic movie. It might want to be, as it says, "a 21st Century portrait", but in its own strenuous gamesmanship, it yokes itself irretrievably and quite exactly to 2006. In ten years’ time it will need updating in a way that Chelsea Girls or Flesh or Chop Suey never have and never will.

[...Yeah, you're right, I'm only bitching because it turns out I'm (according to Google) only the twenty-second person to think of the "Zidane you're rocking the boat" gag that I have now had to excise from the above remarks.]

Finally, let us, as men do, speak frankly about The History Boys.

I grew up loving Alan Bennett’s work and only as I started to think seriously about theatre and about politics did I start to wonder exactly what he was up to and why. To be fair, this movie (I never saw the stage play, though I read the script -- not the same thing at all, of course, but Alan Bennett, who seems to not really like theatre, probably wouldn't thoil to split that hair) is not Bennett’s misfire but Nicholas Hytner’s. But it is a misfire, or rather, a misshape – fake, ugly, crass and pandering – and pretty much everything that’s wrong with it is everything that Bennett now seems to promote.

It was notable, reading the original playtext, that some of it is set out as – not verse, exactly, but the sort of verse-resembling mise en page from time to time employed by some of our better playwrights, Martin Crimp and David Greig and their ilk. This, like the characteristically ornate dialogue given not least to the schoolboys, is a signal that Bennett is aiming high here: not so much to produce art (modesty forbids) as to be properly accounted an artist, or at least a robust and serious writer, rather than the quaint and diffident raconteur into whose corner he’s magnolia-painted himself, the thinking curate’s Victoria Wood or Roy Clarke. Of course he’s never been anywhere near the cosiness of his popular image – though I wonder if in that respect he’s perhaps as frustrated as I am by the tonal rut of his many and various autobiographical writings. At any rate, the purple artifice that runs through The History Boys (in both its formats) is nothing if not achieved. Mindful perhaps of never having come up with a really killer line to secure his place in the dictionaries of quotations, not only does he supply a very adequate submission here, he makes the character say it twice, just to ram it home like the big number in a musical that gets a late reprise so you'll whistle it on the way out. Which is to say that Bennett’s contrivance of unarguable intellectual nicety is so keenly intended here that it sometimes comes awfully close to being ham-fisted. In effort, if not quite in effect, he is as full-on a stylist as Wilde; but where Wilde insists on saying "beautiful untrue things", Bennett too often expresses sentiments which are only briefly or locally attractive and finally reveal themselves to be, at best, not untrue. (A Larkinesque construction of which Bennett might perhaps approve.)

There are many cracking lines here – even when I was feeling most annoyed by the movie, it could still raise a laugh – and some beautifully judged passages. Bennett also has some important points to make, about the role of education in the faithful containing of cultural memory, and about the erotics of pedagogy, both of which are politically radical and, he evidently surmises, best handled lightly. The reason that these potentially driving ideas don’t become genuinely gripping, or admit their own significance, is perhaps partly that diffidence again -- alan-retentiveness, you might say; but it’s also the unbelievably drab and cackhanded visual life of the film. I suppose a secondary school in Sheffield in 1983 is never going to look exactly sumptuous on screen, but that's not quite the point. The problem is the piece hardly ever occupies the capacity of its medium, as it presumably can't have done on stage either. With (offhand) perhaps three significant exceptions -- Forty Years On, The Madness of George III and the adaption of Wind in the Willows: respectively a perfect radio play, a bona fide film (in its stage incarnation too) and a real theatre piece -- Bennett writes plays for television. Brilliantly. Television, of course, doesn't know quite what to do with the one-off play any more, and Bennett doesn't know quite what to do with himself in this respect since the death of his longterm collaborator Innes Lloyd. But check the opening credits again: The History Boys, of course, is a tv play, made for BBC Films. Let me hasten to add that there's nothing wrong with making film-length dramas for tv, with something close to film-sized budgets. The problem is what happens when this is pretty much all that a nation's film culture adds up to. In a week when the Guardian carries an immensely frustrating and poignant interview with Terence Davies -- one of the greatest film directors working in Europe, let alone England -- who can barely get arrested, let alone supported, in the current climate, it is utterly depressing to see such a non-film as The History Boys playing so widely to such an accepting and unexcited audience.

When it eventually turns up on telly, though, it'll be worth another view. There's some really good small-screen stuff: above all a quite exceptionally beautiful and resoundingly truthful one-minute cameo by Penelope Wilton as an art mistress whose interior life is betrayed by the smallest of gestures and expressions. There's a lovely, extended, perfectly pitched scene between florid schoolmaster Hector (Richard Griffiths) and lovestruck pupil Posner (Samuel Barnett) discussing a Hardy poem: the restraint of both Bennett and Griffiths (who elsewhere in the film is, perhaps necessarily, so expansive in his role that you begin to imagine Hector paired, like a set of commemorative bookends, with Monty in Withnail and I, that other old-school fruit -- two characters both stridently celebrated by those vast audiences who prefer their queers absurd and tragic) lets the revelatory undercurrent of the scene carry its own moving pressure. Bennett also deserves thanks for giving Hector a distrust of those who "talk in middle age of the lure of language and their love of words": probably the most subversive message of all to the core audience for this film. (Excepting possibly the unblinking acceptance of almost everyone's homosexuality by everyone else. Which is a nice bit of wishful thinking but not fully consonant with 1983 as I remember it.)

Oddly, though, it's only in the last, fascinatingly sentimental, ten minutes that The History Boys becomes a fully-functional film. This is in part because it's the only bit of the movie that doesn't feel like an Alan Bennett essay cut up and distributed carelessly among actors (just as the published play text looks awfully like it was contrived simply as an excuse to write an introduction to it). But more significantly, there is a sort of gross excess to these last few scenes that is wonderfully candid and attractive, and all the more impressive for not being earned (as compared with, say, Dead Poets Society, which pursues its terminal blub-factor with an atrociously appealing single-mindedness right from the start). The frame is filled, for the first time: not with image, not with ideas, but at least with intent. Nor is the excess remotely camp, which it might easily have been. It's just soft: and its softness is what we, eventually, for all our cynicism, deserve, and can use.

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