‘A Very British Scandal’, fancy soap, or that’s what an author is

Bettany and Foy in A Very British Scandal.

Anyone who’s done an arts degree will at some point have found themselves cornered by a post-teen as they enthusiastically exit their class on post-structuralism, to excitedly present you with your very own copy of Foucault’s, ahem, seminal essay, What is an author

Which, if you take the trouble to read, you’ll be quietly flummoxed by, as you try to figure out what all the fuss was about.

Fortunately, we’ve all grown up and moved on from that. And similarly, you rarely hear anyone these days referring to the so-called auteur theory. Which is just as well, as it doesn’t exist – try ordering a copy for yourself. 

A Very English Scandal.

What there was was an essay by Francois Truffaut published in a 1954 edition of the Cahiers du Cinema, titled A Certain Tendency in French Cinema. There, he simply said that, given that, obviously, the author of a film is its director, the study of cinema ought to be organised around a pantheon of great directors. And that the least successful film by a great director was always more interesting than the best film from a mediocre film maker. 

Today, the general consensus is that cinema, again obviously, is a director’s medium. But that television is a writer’s medium. Which brings us to A Very British Scandal

You’d be forgiven for imagining that this were a sequel to A Very English Scandal, from 2018. As, clearly, this is exactly what the BBC and its producers want you to think. But it isn’t. 

A Very English Scandal was written by Russell T Davies, who’s one of, if not the most talented writer on these shores. He came to prominence with Queer as Folk, which he made for Channel 4 between 1999-2000, and for then re-invigorating Dr. Who for the BBC, which he did as its showrunner between 2005-10.

But it was with A Very English Scandal, for the BBC in 2018 (reviewed earlier by me here), and It’s a Sin, for Channel 4 in 2020, that Russel got to demonstrate quite how gifted a writer he is. 

It’s a Sin.

And the problem with A Very British Scandal is that Russel had absolutely nothing to do with it. It was written instead by Sarah Phelps, who spent most of her career as a senior scriptwriter on EastEnders

So if all you are looking for is the BBC’s answer to The Crown, this is the show for you. It’s plush and incredibly fancy soap, where the sumptuous budget has been spent on costumes and locations rather than on script or story. 

And in fairness, so impressive are the central performances from Claire Foy and Paul Bettany, who manage miraculously to make two extraordinarily unpleasant individuals appear almost sympathetic, that’s it’s easy to momentarily get lost in the frocks and stately homes. 

But it’s impossible not to compare the two series if you’ve seen them both. And where A Very English Scandal is fleet of foot, dripping with irony and constantly surprising, A Very British Scandal is leaden, pedestrian and entirely, indeed consistently predictable. That’s the difference a real writer makes. And that’s what an author is. 

Still, that distinction seems to have completely eluded our friends from across the water, if the reviews in The Guardian and The Independent are anything to go by. So bully for them. They got away with it. 

So if you want to escape the real world and wash it all away with beautifully packaged and incredibly expensive soap, by all means enjoy A Very British Scandal. But if instead you’re inclined to fire up those cerebral synapses, get yourself a copy of A Very English Scandal and wallow in its decadent joie de vivre.

Here’s the trailer to A Very English Scandal:

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The Many Saints of Newark, damp squib of the year

The Many Saints of Newark.

Like so many others, David Chase only ever ended up in television because he’d been unable to get any of his feature films off the ground. So after the stratospheric success of The Sopranos, it was inevitable that his next move would be to make a feature. 

Which he duly did, with the blink and you’ll miss it Not Fade Away, from 2012. So for many people, this year’s Sopranos’ prequel feels like his real move from the small to the silver screen.

So it’s ironic, if, again, inevitable, that The Many Saints of Newark should end up being so demonstrably a work of television.

To begin with, it’s not even a David Chase film. He got Alan Taylor to direct it. Which is fine, Taylor’s a talented director, as his genuinely charming feature Palookaville (’95) demonstrates. But why, when you finally get to call the shots, would you let somebody else direct your baby?

Palookaville.

Chase has clearly become so institutionalised after decades in television, that that’s the only way he now knows how to work. So instead of directing it, he’s its showrunner.

And television is what he gives us. It’s basically a slightly bloated, 2 hour, extended pilot episode. And it needs all that time to introduce us to the many characters we’re going to be meeting over the course of what are presumably the next 10 or 11 episodes. 

But it does have what appears to be an all-important spine. The meat of the drama centres around the rivalry between Dickie and Harold, over who gets to rule the turf. Which is further heightened by the fact that the former is white and the latter black, and it all takes place in the midst of the race riots of 1967. 

And, for the first hour or so, that tension threatens to build. But then it stalls. And then it’s left casually hanging. To be resolved come the season finale, in who knows how many future episodes’ time. 

The Sopranos.

The real problem here is that this kind of inconsequential, flabby second hour would never have been allowed sit at one of the story meetings, had this been put forward as an episode during the actual Sopranos

It’s only because it’s so confidently directed and slickly packaged, and because so many of us watched it through pairs of impressively rose-tinted spectacles, that nobody’s plucked up the courage to call the film out on its almost complete lack of actual drama.

Never mind. It looks fabulous. And we’ll always have the television series to fall back on.

You can see the trailer for The Many Saints of Newark here

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Squid Game, another shaggy dog story from S. Korea

Squid Game

There is a famous Hollywood adage which states that the audience only ever remembers the final reel. In other words, it’s all down to the ending. And the dizzy hysteria that Netflix‘s Squid Game was first greeted by on its arrival has now been tempered by a general sense of disappointment with its ending. 

And, without in any way spoiling it for anyone who’s yet to sample its delights, here’s what the problem is.

Squid Game, as pretty much everybody knows by now, is about two things. On the one hand it’s a quest, as hundreds of individuals set off on a journey to win it. And of the hundreds who set off, only one can eventually emerge triumphant. The catch being, once you’re eliminated, you are literally killed. 

So on the other, it’s about the sort of society that produces the kind of desperation that its citizens are prepared to go in pursuit of a prize knowing they’re almost certainly going to get killed in the attempt. It is then a critique of the kind of capitalist society that South Korea exemplifies. 

Oldboy

And the it, the prize they’re all questing after? A big bag of money. Which then poses a conundrum. Given that the series so clearly looks down on capital, what are we to make of the person who eventually wins it? The one we’ve presumably been rooting for, when all he or she has been doing it for is money? 

Clearly, it’s a story that demands a revelation explaining why it was that they were all put through all that. It needs, in other words, some sort of genuinely surprising and meaningful twist. And, in a word, Squid Game comes up short. 

Anyone familiar with Korean cinema will not be terribly surprised at this. We’ve been here before, most notably with Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. Which is what used to be called a shaggy dog story. Which is a joke that goes on and on before finally failing to deliver a punchline. The joke being at the expense of the listener for having wasted their time waiting for one – for the ultimate shaggy dog story, see my review of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige here.

The problem being, neither Oldboy nor Squid Game, or for that matter The Prestige, are intended as shaggy dog stories. Rather, they just get blindly intoxicated at the prospect of forever increasing the tension by continually raising the stakes. 

They know the reaction that this will produce in the audience, and it thrills them. And they refuse to acknowledge that at some point, that audience is going to demand some answers to all the questions that that tension has so impressively generated. 

The Prestige. Seriously?

Surely, they reason, if you’ve just watched all nine hours of a 9 episode television drama, and 8 ½ hours of it has been that engrossing, you’re not going to mind if that last half hour leaves a bit to be desired?

Alas no. Because, as with all clichés, this one too is true. It really is only ever the last reel that the audience ever remembers. And that’s what we’ll all remember about Squid Game. That, and the inexplicable hoopla that its arrival was first greeted with. But that as they say is another story. 

You can see the trailer to Squid Game here:

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Burn! Marlon Brando’s favourite film

Burn!

At the beginning of the 1960s Marlon Brando’s life and career took a turn. As Karina Longworth documents on her meticulously researched and compelling compulsive Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This, here, Brando was a unique phenomenon.

On the one hand, he was the first ever Hollywood, and therefore global, celebrity. There had been Hollywood stars before, but their creation had always been the result of a carefully calibrated plan concocted by the studios in cahoots with the press. Brando’s fame was of a different sort and at another level entirely. He generated an air of hysteria and of frenzied mania that was shockingly new.

And on the other, and even more remarkably, indeed uniquely, his fame was the result of his talent. Before he became the global celebrity of the 1950s, Brando had taken the craft and art of acting to pieces and re-constructed it as if from scratch.

A Streetcar Named Desire

His performance, on stage in 1947, and then on screen in 1951, in Tennessee WilliamsA Streetcar Named Desire floored everyone who witnessed it. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael was famously embarrassed, having witnessed what she took to be an actual break down. Only later realising that he’d been behaving like that deliberately.

He got his first Oscar nomination in 1951, for Streetcar, a second in ’52, for Viva Zapata!, a third in ’53, for Mark Antony in Julia Cesar, and a fourth, which he finally won with, for On the Waterfront, in ’54. That’s a working-class thug, a Mexican revolutionary, a Shakespearean hero and a wannabe boxer from the Bronx, each of whom he seems to effortlessly inhabit and actually become.

But after his directorial debut, One-Eyed Jacks, was unfairly overlooked in ’61, and, even more crucially, after then being blamed, again unfairly, for what was seen as the fiasco of Mutiny on the Bounty a year later, Brando became thoroughly disillusioned with the whole business of movies and of acting. And what followed, between ‘62-‘72, were what he later came to call my ‘fuck you years’. 

He now started to devote more and more of his time to the social cause closest to his heart and the issue Hollywood seemed most determined to ignore; racism. He marched with Martin Luther King and attended vigils and protests with native Americans at Wounded Knee. While the films he chose to appear in seemed to have been selected with the express purpose of wilfully derailing his career. 

Last Tango in Paris

But amongst the succession of impressively awful films he made during these years, he quietly snuck in a couple of gems. He starred alongside Elizabeth Tailor as a gay army officer in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, in 1967. And two years later he made Burn!, Gillo Pontecorvo’s follow up to his seminal The Battle of Algiers, from ’66.

Like that earlier film, Burn! is viscerally anti-imperialist. But where the Battle of Algiers had been neo-realist in style, with non-professional actors in what at times could be mistaken for a documentary, Burn! is in glorious technicolour, and has an epic sweep that’s framed by an Ennio Morricone score. And it stars Marlon Brando.

Significantly, it’s Brando’s favourite film of his and one that, shock horror, he seems to have been actually proud of. And this despite the massive falling out that he and the director had during its making. 

Brando had stormed off in protest at the treatment of the Columbian natives who had been playing the extras. And when the film bombed subsequently at the box office, its producer, Alberto Grimaldi, took Brando to court. 

A year later, the producer’s cousin, one Bernardo Bertolucci, suggested a solution. Why don’t they offer to drop the case if Brando would agree to star in Bertolucci’s next film for the bargain basement fee of $250,000? They’d even throw in ten percentage points of the gross, to sweeten the deal? After all, 10% of nothing won’t cost them anything, and in those days foreign language films were completely irrelevant, box office wise. 

Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Last Tango in Paris went on to become the 7th highest grossing film in north America in 1973 and Brando became so wealthy, he was able to sink into what was effectively early retirement in the 1980s. 

In Burn!, Brando plays an unscrupulous imperial adventurer, who arrives on a Caribbean island with a plot to oust the Portuguese and replace them with the British crown. So he manipulates one of the natives to lead a rebellion, only to betray him to the all-powerful sugar beet company which controls the region’s economy. 

Just as he would in the Godfather and Last Tango subsequently, Brando delivers a gloriously ambiguous performance. He’s so casually calculated and his nefariousness is cloaked so charmingly that it’s very hard to know whether to cheer for him or for his Marxist adversary, who we are clearly supposed to be rooting for. 

Like the Battle of Algiers before it, Burn! is mercilessly anti-imperialist and unashamedly champions the black cause and the native culture that will soon be justly liberated. Thrillingly, it’s one of the most openly anti-white and pro-black films you’re ever likely to see.

And it’s a measure of Brando’s intellectual rigour that it is his performance as so repellent a character, albeit a complex one, that remained the performance he was most proud of. And, of course, of his gargantuan self-esteem issues. 

You can see the trailer to Burn! here

And the trailer to the Battle of Algiers here.

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2 new films, from Denmark and Harlem, and a short from Belfast

Movie poster for Another Round.
Another Round.

Another Round is the latest film from Danish film maker Thomas Vinterberg. Vinterberg was, together with the more combustible Lars von Trier, one of the co-founders of the Dogma 95 collective, a ‘movement’ that managed to be at once fecund and puerile in equal measure. His 1998 film, Festen was by far and away its most successful production.

Another Round is a relatively high concept film and challenges you, knowingly, with what seems to be a perfectly reasonable, indeed a logical idea. Four male, provincial teachers facing up to their fast-approaching mid-life crises decide to conduct an experiment. They’ll spend every day moderately inebriated to see what effect it has on them. 

After all, drinking is only bad for you in excess. And everyone knows how much more confident, loquacious and amusing we all become after those first few swift ones. All one need do, surely, is drink forever in careful moderation.

The film engages winningly for the first hour or so, not least because of Mads Mikkelsen’s powerful central performance. But inevitably, the film runs out of steam in its final third when Vittenberg opts for both a moral and an anti-moral ending, that is to say an ending that is both Hollywood and anti-Hollywood. Which, necessarily, ends up being neither.

It’s a film you’ll not be sorry to have taken the time to watch. But neither is it one you’re likely to sit down and view again in, say, 5 or 10 year’s time.

Summer of Soul

Summer of Soul, on the other hand, is a film you’ll joyfully revisit every single time you’re offered the opportunity. Over the course of half a dozen weekends in the summer of 1969 a park in Harlem hosted what amounted to a black Woodstock. 

30-40,000 almost exclusively black New Yorkers were treated to a dizzying spectacle of outlandish sartorial exuberance and effortless musical sophistication by the likes of a teenage Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and the personification of peerless cool, Sly with his Family Stone.

It would have been nice to have been surprised to learn that this footage had lain around ignored for the last 50 years. But that of course is very much part of the story that the film tells. Now re-discovered thanks to the diligence of The Roots’ Questlove, he and his editing team have produced what is quite simply one of the great music docs. Never have two hours flown by so quickly nor quite so pleasurably. 

Nina and Sly in Harlem.

Short films are so reliably disappointing that I only very reluctantly sat down to watch Rough because of the word of mouth that preceded it. How refreshing occasionally to be proven wrong. 

Immaculately scripted, impeccably performed, it’s everything that a short should be, and delivers an ending that is both deft and quietly moving. Written and directed by Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn you can (for the moment at least) see it on the RTE Player.

You can see the trailer for Summer of Soul here:

And the trailer for Another Round here:

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