Archives for August 2011

Cowboys & Aliens” — Jon Favreau

Cow­boys, and Aliens! Ged­it?! What a fan­tas­tic idea for a film! You take two of Hollywood’s most suc­cess­ful gen­res and mash them up! On the one hand, you have one of the old­est and most icon­ic of Hol­ly­wood gen­res, the west­ern. And on the oth­er, the clas­sic means of reflect­ing the present by pro­ject­ing into the future; sci­ence fic­tion. What’s more, both gen­res take them­selves fan­tas­ti­cal­ly seri­ous­ly, so mix­ing them up like this makes the inevitable humour that’s sure to fol­low all the more deli­cious! But here’s the killer; they’ve writ­ten all the jokes out!!! How fan­tas­tic is that?! They’ve tak­en the whole premise for the film, the very idea for mak­ing it in the first place, and turned it on its head! Instead of play­ing it for laughs, they play the whole thing com­plete­ly straight! Brilliant!

I don’t like to go out on a limb here, but I con­fi­dent­ly pre­dict the birth of a whole new genre; the Sur­prise Pack­age, or the Miss-match. After all, why stop with an unfun­ny com­e­dy? What about an un-scary hor­ror film? So instead of all that bor­ing gore and any of that irri­tat­ing ten­sion, we spend the whole film focus­ing in on the teenage romance? Or alter­na­tive­ly, we con­cen­trate on what it would actu­al­ly be like, if you real­ly did have to come to terms with the fact that your teenage girl­friend had been decap­i­tat­ed by a homi­ci­dal, axe-wield­ing man­ic in a Hal­loween mask. You’d end up in ther­a­py for weeks, and as for your end of term exams, for­get about it. Almost cer­tain­ly, you’d have to repeat the whole year, which would be an absolute dis­as­ter.

Or what about a sex-free porn film, where every­body keeps their clothes on? When the plumber arrives in the first scene, we spend the rest of the film find­ing out pre­cise­ly how it is that he fix­es the plumb­ing. So when it comes to him thrust­ing his plunger deep into her hole and spray­ing for all he’s worth, we’ll get a detailed shot of her sink and his actu­al toolbox.

I’m not quite sure exact­ly why, but I haven’t as yet got around to actu­al­ly head­ing out to my local mul­ti­plex and watch­ing Cow­boys and Aliens. But believe you me, I can’t wait! An hilar­i­ous, side-split­ting com­e­dy, but with­out the jokes! Genius!

Washed Out — “Within and Without”

From the moment that Ernest Greene’s vocals kick in on the open­ing track on With­in and With­out, his first album prop­er under the moniker Washed Out, you know exact­ly where you are. It’s the same ter­rain mapped out by Pan­da Bear on his most recent out­ing, Tomboy, the fol­low up to his just­ly laud­ed third album Per­son Pitch, from 2007.

Pan­da Bear is the guise Noah Lennox adopts when he’s not per­form­ing as one of the core mem­bers of Ani­mal Col­lec­tive, New York’s post-punk, indus­tri­al noise mer­chants. Their break-through 2009 album, Mer­ri­weath­er Post Pavil­ion was pro­duced by Ben H Allen, and it was to him that Greene turned when he was look­ing for some­one to pro­duce this, his debut album.

It’s not so much that you can join the dots between Mer­ri­weath­er, Tomboy and With­in and With­out. After all, Pan­da Bear has a very dif­fer­ent feel to the work that Lennox does when per­form­ing with Ani­mal Col­lec­tive. Where the lat­ter stim­u­lates and excites, the for­mer calms and balms. It’s more a sense that what you have is a group of very dif­fer­ent peo­ple who are all nonethe­less extreme­ly com­fort­able in one another’s com­pa­ny, and who all move to sim­i­lar beats.

Once you get beyond that open­ing track though, it’s not so much the East coast that you find your­self in as it is the Mediter­ranean. And the clear­est echo you hear is that of Groove Armada’s seduc­tive refrain “If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air, quaint lit­tle vil­lages just here and there”, which hummed across the whole of south­ern Europe for three or four sum­mers through­out the mid­dle of the last decade.

I’ve no idea where Greene and Washed Out go after this. It’s not so much that that whole Chill­wave sound has already come and gone. It’s more the sense that as a genre, it’s inher­ent­ly self-con­tained. Rather like a Waltz, it’s a joy to lux­u­ri­ate in when it’s done well, but there’s only so much you can take in one go, and it’s hard to imag­ine where any­one can take it subsequently.

But we don’t have to wor­ry our pret­ty lit­tle heads about that now. All we need to do is lie back, close our eyes and feel the waves lap­ping at our feet, as we sink into the sand on a for­got­ten beach in an as yet undis­cov­ered cor­ner of the Aegean. Expect to find at least one of these tracks turn­ing up on the next Hôtel Costes ablum, when­ev­er it is that the mag­nif­i­cent Stéphane Pom­pougnac gets around to com­pil­ing it.

Last Year In Marienbad” – Alain Resnais

Peter Green­away once remarked that Alain Resnais’ first three films were the three most impor­tant films in the his­to­ry of cin­e­ma (he went on to poach Resnais’ cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Sacha Vierny for all of his films so, if noth­ing else, they are all immac­u­late­ly craft­ed.). The third of them, Muriel (‘63), final­ly appeared on dvd last year and, truth be told, it hasn’t aged ter­ri­bly well. The Brecht­ian delin­eation of e d i t i n g, f i l m i n g, a c t i n g etc that would even­tu­al­ly lead to the tedi­um of the Dzi­ga Ver­tov “move­ment” is, alas, all too evi­dent. But his first two films, Hiroshi­ma, Mon Amour (‘59), and Last Year In Marien­bad (‘61) real­ly do jus­ti­fy that heady acco­lade. And the lat­ter has just been re-released, both by the peer­less Cri­te­ri­on (, and on a brand new print.

Marien­bad is an exquis­ite­ly craft­ed, unashamed­ly ellip­ti­cal piece con­sist­ing of a series of mer­cu­r­ial scenes that appear to be staged at an exclu­sive spa in the heart of Europe. There, a man insists to a woman that they “met” there the year before. But every­thing that we see calls into ques­tion his ver­sion of events. She was in black, or per­haps it was white, stand­ing there on the stairs, or was it on the veran­da, last year, in Fred­eriks­bad, or maybe it was Marien­bad. The details, that is to say the truth, of what actu­al­ly hap­pened is irrel­e­vant. All that mat­ters is that his ver­sion of the sto­ry is the one that prevails.

To begin with, he pur­sues her, try­ing to impose his ver­sion of their shared past. But after a while she begins to remem­ber. But her ver­sion of their past is very dif­fer­ent to his and flat­ly con­tra­dicts it. And when a sec­ond man appears, pre­sum­ably her hus­band, his ver­sion of events is fur­ther called into ques­tion, not so much by any­thing the man says, but by the sheer force of his presence.

In many ways, Marien­bad has a com­pan­ion film in Antonioni’s Blow Up. There, a pho­tog­ra­ph­er wit­ness­es an event which he cap­tures on film. But no-one will believe him when he tries to con­vince them that any­thing has tak­en place. And when the only evi­dence that any­thing did hap­pen, his pho­tographs, are stolen, he has to chose between accept­ing the false real­i­ty that the rest of the world is insist­ing on, ie that noth­ing took place, and the real­i­ty of what he knows to be true, but that no-one else will accept.

Both films take that philo­soph­i­cal peren­ni­al and turn it upside down. If a tree falls in the for­est and there’s no-one there to hear it, it doesn’t mat­ter whether it makes a sound or not. All that mat­ters, both films sug­gest, is whether some­one remem­bers – or more­over, decides to remem­ber – that it made a sound. Even if they weren’t there to hear it, indeed, if there’s no tree there in the first place, if some­body remem­bers hear­ing the sound that it made, then that will even­tu­al­ly become that event’s his­to­ry. For what is his­to­ry, whether we are deal­ing with the events of the Sec­ond World War, or the shared events of a bro­ken mar­riage, oth­er than a bat­tle of wills in which two sides try to impose their own mem­o­ries, their own his­to­ries, at the expense of the oth­er? Can we ever point back to an objec­tive real­i­ty, or are all mem­o­ries sub­ject to the prism of our vision?

Every­thing that the man says in Marien­bad makes it abun­dant­ly clear that it’s not the details of his ver­sion of events that mat­ters to him, that is to say the facts. All he is inter­est­ed in is estab­lish­ing that it will be his truth that pre­vails, his will that tri­umphs. The art­ful­ly for­mal, increas­ing­ly stylised lan­guage that Resnais uses to con­tin­u­al­ly call into ques­tion that ver­sion of events sug­gests that per­haps all objec­tiv­i­ty is an illu­sion. Every­thing that we know is just a set of mem­o­ries that we’ve decid­ed to con­struct. And all truth is for­ev­er dis­tort­ed by the mir­ror that we view it in.

As mon­u­men­tal as Marien­bad is, rather like lis­ten­ing to Wag­n­er’s Ring, or read­ing Ulysses, you need to be in a cer­tain frame of mind. And if you are look­ing for an eas­i­er entrée into Resnais’ work, then you should prob­a­bly start with Hiroshi­ma, his dev­as­tat­ing­ly intense yet epic essay on love. Or bet­ter still, begin with one of his more recent films like Pri­vate Fears in Pub­lic Places (’06), from a play by Alan Ayck­bourn, which is rel­a­tive­ly con­ven­tion­al but no less dis­tin­guished. But when you can, you real­ly ought to have a look at Marien­bad. And prefer­ably in the cinema.

Alan Yentob’s BBC series “Imagine”

Alan Yen­tob has been the dri­ving force behind the BBC’s cov­er­age of the arts for decades. In the 70s he was instru­men­tal in steer­ing Omnibus onto our screens, and in the 80s he was respon­si­ble for what was effec­tive­ly its replace­ment, Are­na. The for­mer pro­duced a just­ly famous David Bowie pro­file, Cracked Actor, and the lat­ter the even more cel­e­brat­ed 3 hour Orson Welles por­trait. But it was after he was made Con­troller of BBC2 in 1988 that he tru­ly left his mark, when he gave the sta­tion what amount­ed to a com­plete overhaul.

One of the many pro­grammes that he intro­duced there was The Late Show, an arts strand that aired five nights a week from Mon­day to Fri­day at 11pm. Inevitably, as seem­ing­ly with all attempts at seri­ous arts pro­gram­ming, it was qui­et­ly shelved in time. But you can still see its dying embers every Fri­day night with the usu­al­ly reli­able Late Review, which most­ly sticks to its BBC2 remit, and only occa­sion­al­ly slips into BBC1 mode by offer­ing up Ched­dar instead of Roquefort.

In ’93 he was made Con­troller of BBC1, a pro­mo­tion in their eyes, and in 2004 he was appoint­ed as over­all Cre­ative Direc­tor for the whole of the BBC. But every now and then he pops up to front Imag­ine, the lat­est series of which con­clud­ed last week on BBC1, where inex­plic­a­bly it resides.

As ever, a series of inti­mate and reveal­ing por­traits across the artis­tic spec­trum were each giv­en depth and scope by vivid­ly describ­ing their sub­jects in terms of the time and place of their life and work. This season’s high­light was the mir­ror edi­tions on John Lennon in New York, and Har­ry Nils­son. The for­mer pro­vid­ed won­der­ful­ly sur­pris­ing insights into a fig­ure we thought we knew, and the lat­ter into a man large­ly and unfair­ly overlooked.

Nilsson’s first album prop­er, Pan­de­mo­ni­um Shad­ow Show (’67) show­cased his beguil­ing abil­i­ty to com­bine hon­eyed vocals with appar­ent­ly effort­less song-writ­ing, which he then lay­ered using his unique mas­tery of the evolv­ing mul­ti-track record­ing tech­nol­o­gy. The results man­aged to be both mon­u­men­tal and inti­mate and would even­tu­al­ly pro­duce the ulti­mate torch-song anthem With­out You. Both McCart­ney and Lennon were bowled over, and he joined them in Lon­don a year lat­er in ’68 to become yet anoth­er unof­fi­cial fifth Bea­t­le. But it was the release of the icon­ic Mid­night Cow­boy in ’69 which saw Nils­son cat­a­pult­ed into the stratosphere.

The film’s pro­duc­ers com­mis­sioned Nils­son, Dylan and Joan Baez to come up with a track for the film (Nils­son offered up I Guess The Lord Must Be in New York City, which was a hit on his next album, and Dylan gave them Lay Lady Lay.). But while they were wait­ing to decide which track to go with, they used Nilsson’s then cur­rent sin­gle Everybody’s Talkin’ as filler. And they became so used to hear­ing it while they were watch­ing the rush­es, that that in the end is what they went with.

Nils­son and Lennon clicked imme­di­ate­ly, both of them fuelled by an anger born of aban­don­ment. Nils­son had been dis­card­ed by his father when he was three, and almost inevitably he did exact­ly the same thing to his son when he was three in ‘73. And when a dis­graced Lennon was dis­patched to LA that same year, the dam­aged soul mates descend­ed togeth­er into a vat of alco­hol and drugs in a futile attempt at oblivion.

Ever since John and Yoko had arrived in New York in 1970, they’d been hound­ed by the Nixon admin­is­tra­tion who’d made per­sis­tent attempts to have him deport­ed. When Tricky Dicky was returned into office with a land­slide in ’72, Lennon lost the plot. And in a drunk­en rage at an elec­tion night par­ty, he dis­ap­peared into a next door room with who­ev­er hap­pened to be at hand, and betrayed a mor­ti­fied Yoko. Loud­ly. But this being Yoko, she didn’t actu­al­ly kick him out per se. Instead, she sent him off to Los Ange­les to think about what he’d done. So when Lennon arrived in LA in ‘73, the most lone­ly, for­lorn and unwit­ting bach­e­lor on the West Coast, he went off the rails. And for two years he and Nils­son left a trail of destruc­tion behind them.

Even­tu­al­ly Lennon snapped out of it, sobered up and dragged him­self back to New York where he was even­tu­al­ly res­cued by a dole­ful Yoko. And on his 35th birth­day on Octo­ber 9th 1975, the legal attempts to deport him were final­ly if improb­a­bly over­turned. That very night, their son Sean was born. And for the next five years Lennon became a devot­ed and dot­ing house hus­band, until fate­ful­ly decid­ing in 1980 to return once more into the record­ing stu­dio and the pub­lic light.

Both episodes were riv­et­ing, and as ever, the entire series once again embod­ied every­thing that an arts strand ought to aspire to. Every once in a while the BBC reminds us that, what­ev­er about the orga­ni­za­tion as a whole, there are some things it does that con­tin­ue to ren­der it peer­less. And Imag­ine, its dread­ful, Blair­ful title except­ed, is a cel­e­bra­tion of every­thing that BBC2 stands for at its bril­liant best. Which is hard­ly sur­pris­ing. Its ethos was mould­ed large­ly in Yentob’s image.