Archive for film

The reading blues…

Posted in Books, General Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

A couple of times recently, I’ve noticed people (principally reviewers, I should note) saying that they’re suffering from the reading blues. Well, I’ve been going through exactly the same thing for the last month or two – apart from the books I’ve been asked to review I haven’t, until very recently, actually picked up a book just to read solely for pleasure. I’m still ploughing through a book of short stories by one of my favourite authors, HP Lovecraft – and I started reading it in mid-summer. This is very unlike me – I used to go through books at a frightening rate, reading a couple a week.

I’ve been wondering why I felt a slight ennui when it comes to reading for pleasure recently. Perhaps it’s simply because, on some days at least, I have trouble keeping my eyes open after working a 12-hour day and I just can’t bear the prospect of doing anyting other than going to sleep. Or it crossed my mind that, being a reviewer, you sometimes suffer from ‘book-fatigue’, that having read something all day and making notes about it, the idea that you want to read even more just to wind down is somehow just too unappealing. A third possibility was that it was just me.

So, to read that others have the same problem is heartening, in a way. My dad bequeathed to me a love of books and the written-word that I have carried with me ever since I was able to read (over forty years now and counting), and the thought that I have somehow become tired of them is quite appalling in my book. There are far too few people who read books these days, or so we are led to believe – and I certainly don’t want to join their ranks.

I guess, to an extent, it’s something about the fact that when I review a book I am not only looking at it from the point of view of whether it’s a good story or not, but also from a ‘meta’ aspect as well, ie. analysing the deeper constituents of what the author’s trying to do. Use of language and words, rhythms, the believability of characters and plot, and how it all flows together come into play here. It’s only one step removed from what I did in school when I studied English Literature A-level all those years ago; the only difference, I feel, is that at least I (mostly) get to choose the books I review and they’re all in genres I enjoy reading. I find that sometimes, even when reading ro relax, I default to my literary critic persona almost automatically.

A similar thing happened after my university course – it included a film-studies module. In it, we were taught how to ‘deconstruct’ films, looking at context, subtext, use of imagery, how the camera (angles, movement) was used to help tell the story, use of lighting to accentuate things, etc., etc. I enjoyed it immensely as it allowed me to look at favourite films with new eyes. After a while, however, I found that, whenever I saw a film, either on TV or in the cinema, I just instantly switched into ‘celluloid deconstructionist’ mode – and often it would spoil my enjoyment of the film. There were times indeed when I simply wished that I could either completely forget what I’d learnt or at the very least be able to switch it all off.

I do the same with a book, any book, although I am consciously aware that I am doing it and then I actively try to remember that I am now reading for the hell of it, not reviewing. I just want to read it, not decode the damn thing. So, in some measure, I’ve been avoiding reading books  that I don’t need to review for that reason, even if subconsciously. I have it deeply ingrained into my psyche that books are for enjoyment, and if anything that is likely to spoil that quality looms I make sure that I swerve away from it. Hence the recent bout of ‘reading blues’….

Just the other night, however, I picked up a book, just to read for pleasure, for the first time in months – Tim Lebbon’s The Thief of Broken Toys. I’m still fighting against that urge to read it as if I were doing a review, an urge which is incredibly annoying. I am NOT going to review the book (and that isn’t meant as a slight to Tim, btw) – I just want to enjoy it for what it is, a beautifully-told story. You have my permission to slap me if you ever see an in-depth review of it by me posted anywhere. Hopefully, I’ll start to come out of feeling those blues very soon as a consequence – no reader likes to feel this way. =D

INFLUENCES: David Lynch’s Dune

Posted in Film, General Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Attempting to bring Frank Herbert’s mighty mystico-socio-political series of Dune novels to the big screen has had a somewhat fraught history, to say the least. Back in the seventies, for instance, when I was a teen obsessed with sci-fi literature and art, I was highly intrigued by artist Chris Foss’ conceptual drawings (seen in his Dragon’s Dream book 21st Century Foss) created for Chilean film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed adaptation of the first book in the series, Dune. Bizarrely, he cast Salvador Dali as Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV and also asked Orson Welles to play Baron Harkonnen. As well as Foss, he also brought on board the comics illustrator Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and HR Giger (one can only wonder what the film would have ended up being like with people like that involved). Needless to say, the whole thing collapsed due to extravagance.

Other attempts have also been made by producer Arthur P Jacobs, who asked David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India) to take on directorial duties; and also the late Dino De Laurentiis bought the film rights and hired Ridley Scott (Alien) to direct a version as well, but after just seven months he walked out due to personal reasons and also a realisation that the film would be a massive and lengthy undertaking, something he felt he couldn’t commit to.

In the present, efforts are once more being made to bring it to a cinema screen near you. However, just as in Jodorowsky and Scott’s day, the production appears to be plagued with problems. This time it’s Paramount Pictures who are trying their best to get it made, but already it appears that directors have come and gone even before a single frame has been shot (Pierre Morel and Peter Berg, both named as directors, have both left the production). Pre-production has already begun, with a release date slated for sometime in 2012 (according to IMDb), but it’s now increasingly looking likely that it’ll never see the light of day – with more pressure being piled on Paramount because the option they have will expire relatively soon.

Despite all the difficulties, one director did manage to film Frank Herbert’s novel – David Lynch. However even this version carried on the tradition of having less than a smooth journey from script to screen. Lynch himself has stated that pressure from financiers and producers curtailed his artistic freedom and vision, meaning that when it was eventually released in 1985 he distanced himself from the project. The compromises he would presumably have had to make in order to satisfy the various camps necessarily resulted in a diluted film, a fact that was reflected in the lukewarm critical reception it received.

Since then, like so many other films that were panned on their initial cinema showings, Dune has built up a cult following, of which I proudly consider myself a member. I saw the film before I read the novels and, even though the film was in some respects confusing, I absolutely loved it. I locked into the arabic-influenced mysticism immediately – and the scene where Paul Atreides (played by Lynch mainstay Kyle MacLachlan) is standing in the desert, waiting for the sandworms to appear, and played out against Brian Eno’s haunting Prophecy Theme, positively sent shudders through me.

Even on a superficial level, however, it had everything that would instantly draw me into both Lynch’s vision and the world of Arrakis, politically and socially, that it portrayed. You have internecine intrigue, political and familial struggle between the warring houses of Harkonnen and Atreides, the promise of an all-powerful saviour (the Kwisatz Haderach) who would set things right, linked to the efforts of a religious order of nuns to prevent the birth and maturation of that saviour. Plus it took place within star-spanning societies and hierarchies, worlds very much different from our own. On top of that it starred many well-known names of the time: Kyle McLachlan, Francesca Annis, Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Freddie Jones, Everett McGill, Jürgen Prochnow, Patrick Stewart and Dean Stockwell amongst many others. Each of the actors instilled their performances with an authenticity that brought great depth and complexity to the film.

I have often felt that Lynch’s version has been much-maligned, both then and now. Having subsequently read the novels, I can see how difficult it must have been for the scriptwriter to condense all that convoluted plotting and subtext into a comprehensible screenplay. Even just that first instalment in the six novel series is pretty daunting reading – inter-relationships, personal and political, are extremely complex and weave a tangled web, indeed. Added to that are deeply abstruse philosophical and socio-political themes that are integral to the narrative – is it any wonder, then, that it’s had such a chequered cinematic history.

Forget what the critics at the time said about it – I suggest you hire it out or buy it, watch it, and just let the atmospheres and intrigues seep into the pores of your skin, and enjoy a celluloid spectacle that was both forward-looking for its time and yet redolent of the era when it was made. It’s definitely nowhere near as bad as it’s made out to be.

TV REVIEW: “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss: ep #3”, BBC4, Mondays @9pm

Posted in Reviews, TV with tags , , , , , , , on October 26, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Out of the three episodes, I was least fussed about seeing this one, as I’m not a particularly a fan of ‘modern’ horror films (although, as always, there are notable exceptions). If it had been broadcast a couple of years back, then the story would have been the opposite. Not so long ago, I loved all the slasher movies, the gory bloodbath films and the viscerally bloody cinematic spectacles that both the independents and Hollywood were dishing out. However, these days I am much more at home with the older, more suggestive movies, the ones where imagination plays as much a part of experience as anything that’s actually put on screen (and the reason why my tastes have changed is for another blog).

However, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It did show clips from a few particular ‘modern’ favourites of mine, like The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead, but even these are less reliant on viscerality than they are on implication and psychological horror. The same goes for David Cronenburg’s films, also discussed. Although his films are wetly disgusting, they still have an intellectual underpinning that elevates them above mere superficial gory viewing fare, an aspect that was well brought out by Gatiss.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, adapted from Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, is where this episode started, as it helped to redefine the thinking of film-makers in the wake of its release – it was still a big studio production, though, with adequate financing to help it along. However, it also paved the way for the advent of the modern horror-shocker as we know today. Gatiss rightly then points to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as the film, a thoroughly and unashamedly independent production, that truly encouraged imaginative film-makers to push things further and also make the point that you didn’t necessarily require a big budget to create something special. It also strongly emphasised that you didn’t need to be part of the studio system in order to make films that a) had impact and b) made money – all it required was creativity, imagination and ingenuity.

Fim-making is very different today – CGI has democratised the industry in such a way that the ingenuity displayed by the Romeros, Tobe Hoopers, William Friedkins, David Seltzers and John Carpenters of the world is no longer an essential prerequisite. And that has been to the detriment of the industry ( a view I believe that’s shared by Gatiss). Gatiss decided, then, that his history should end with 1978’s Halloween, although I think that’s jumping the gun a bit (see below). It’s undoubtedlyan influential film, but for all the wrong reasons. Even Carpenter was self-effacing enough to acknowledge that it spawned a legion of cheaply-made, unimaginative excuses to splash as much gore in pointless celluloid catalogues of murder and mayhem (and that self-effacement at least earned him a little bit of the respect back he lost after his comments about Val Lewton). As he said, Halloween was made cheaply and made money – but that formula doesn’t always work out, as many subsequent would-be Carpenters discovered.

Although not mentioned, but which nevertheless I think was very subtly implied, this trail ultimately lead to the infamous slew of ‘video-nasty’ films that emerged in the mid eighties. I’ve seen most of them in my time, uncut, and although many are laughably mediocre, some of them are informed with a mean-spirited nastiness that has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Certainly, even today, the pushing of the bounds of both taste and people’s nerves forces film-makers to enter into territories where there shoudn’t be any need to go.

Having said that, although the point at which Gatiss stopped his history was necessarily a personal choice and in some ways a correct one, as Stephen Volk rightly pointed out to me there have been excellent films [from that same era and*] since Halloween, such as Carrie and Hellraiser for example. Gatiss did reference some newer releases, such as the Ring films, The Devil’s Backbone and The Orphanage, but these are all foreign-made, rather than either American or British. Just why that is, is anyone’s guess, but, for my part, I believe it’s because there’s less emphasis on cheap thrills and more on creativity and artistic sensibilities in these countries. I think that mentions at least of some of the better films of the last two or three decades would have been a good idea, rather than leave one with the impression that after Halloween nothing good has come out of horror cinema, when it undeniably has. Maybe this is where a fourth instalment would have been useful.

Despite  the many omissions, of either notable studios or films, this has indeed been both a meritorious and welcome series. It’s one of the drawbacks, I suppose, of the TV medium, limited by both time and budgetary constraints – there will always be something that will get left out. Overall, however, this has been a useful survey of genre cinema (with the two previous episodes my particular favouroites, on reflection) and I can only hope that somewhere along the line something deeper and more detailed will be attempted. And that it won’t just be commissioned in time for Hallowe’en either.

(*Text amended to reflect the comment made by Stephen Volk below – and my reply)