Saturday, 16 August 2008

Can I ask you a stupid question?

The only appropriate and safe answer is "Yes".

Here's why. No matter what the problem is, there's only going to be a couple of questions which will help you get closer to the solution. All the other ones are going to be stupid questions. And let's face it; no halfway sensible person asks questions they already know the answer to, or which they could figure out the answer to by sitting quietly for a second. So if you ask a question, it's because you don't know stuff, and the chances are that you don't even know enough about the subject to know what a good question would be. So the chances are that any question you ever get asked, on its merits, is going to sound pretty stupid. For that matter, the chances are that any question you ever ask is going to be stupid.

If you're unlucky enough to work in a job with easily defined parameters, most of the questions you're going to get asked will be non stupid ones, but they'll all be the same question, more or less; they'll be versions of "can you tell me when the next train leaves/whether this item is in stock/what price extra fries are?". If you're lucky enough to have a job that pays well, it's almost certainly paying you well because it requires you to think. And if you're paid money to think, it's invariably because there are lots of people coming by your shop who find it too much trouble to think about the things that you're being paid to think about. Those people are going to ask you stupid questions.

Rejoice. For two reasons. The first is that your job wouldn't exist if it weren't for stupidity. I've made a good living for twenty five years out of the fact that the world is full of people who don't know how to do things that I know how to do. It's frustrating dealing with the consequences of stupidity, but whenever I find myself wishing that for once people would just get a clue, I remind myself that if they ever did, the first sensible follow-up would be to put me on a farm somewhere. And the second reason to rejoice is that stupidity is neither general nor incurable. There are irretrievably stupid people out there, but the majority of stupid people are specialists. Just as no-one can know everything, no-one can be ignorant of everything. And people can, and sometimes even do, learn.

So when someone comes up and says "Can I ask you a stupid question?" fight the temptation to embroider your reply. It would be amusing to say "Apparently, you can." or "Only time will tell." Lord knows, I've said that often enough. It's tempting to say condescendingly "No such thing as a stupid question.", although I hope I've just talked you out of that fallacy. The simple and true answer is "Yes." With no baggage or condescension, and with the humble awareness that your own turn in the barrel is coming, say "Yes." It won't make you feel much better about the idiocy to come or the mental gymnastics needed to jump over it. But at least it won't make the person asking the question feel like any more of an idiot than they have to.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Because the last thing you want is for the Masons to be mad at you

I have to say that the abiding memory I take away from Wanted is actually the trailer for "Hellboy 2, the surpassingly dumb title". Hellboy will fight the Golden Army this time, because, as John pointed out, the trade name Golden Horde is already spoken for. Not more than a minute after that side of the mouth wisecrack, we were treated to a title card for Wanted, which explained to us that a thousand years ago a society of weavers had set up a fraternity of assassins. "Weavers", I said from the side of my own mouth, "because Masons would have been ridiculous".

The thing is that the next day when I was giving the obligatory rundown to my female colleague, I actually spent more time explaining the trailer for Hellboy than I did on Wanted, your feature presentation. And it was quite simply because although Hellboy 2 will probably be dumber than a bag full of very dumb things, it's brought to you by the man who made Pan's Labyrinth, and more usefully, the man who made the creature effects for Pan's Labyrinth. And the signs are that Guillermo rang up his creature guy and said "Hey, remember the Faun from Labyrinth? Well, this time I've got a TONNE of money." It might be that rare film which is worth watching just for the sake of going ooh ah at the creature effects.

Meantime, Wanted. Brought to you by the same lunatic who brought us DayWatch and Nightwatch. I'm not sure what kind of movies they had in Russia under Communism, but there was obviously something they needed to get out of their systems after communism. Timur Bekmambetov does two things in ways which no-one in the West does. He does grotesques and ordinary ugly people just getting by, and he does action sequences which have absolutely no point other than to be action sequences. When he made Nightwatch and Daywatch he was making films out of some of the most popular fiction in Russia since Tolstoy retired to the farm. The books don't really lend themselves to film - they're full of brooding and doublecross and reflections on Russian pop music and they're short on action. Timur Bekmambetov decided to plug the gap by making some action up. The films are great fun, but if the books had had the same kind of fanbase as Harry Potter, Bekmambetov would have been publicly murdered by a firing squad of demented children firing bazookas loaded with polonium before a baying crowd of fanboys on live syndicated satellite TV. Because, pretty much, he just took the core concepts of the books and threw in as much weird stunt action as he thought he could get away with.

Wanted is apparently based on a comic book, which means he had even more leeway to just throw cool crap at the screen and chuckle to himself.

It opens with a whole bunch of people getting shot in slow motion. We've got so numbed by violence in the movies that we don't really notice the results any more unless someone goes to immense trouble to hammer home the point that getting killed is something more than the punch line to choreography, and for people who find that kind of thing worrying, Wanted is going to be more disturbing evidence of where it's all going horribly wrong. One person get shot in the head in the first two minutes. In short order, four more get shot in the next four minutes. Then the guy who shot those four gets shot in the head from three miles out. Two points to note; although the whole shooty bit is thrilling and cleverly staged, the best bit is that the first person to get shot provides a tremendous sight gag which I kind of saw coming. She's a Hindu, with a small red caste mark on her head. And a few seconds after we first see her, the caste mark seems to light up slightly before we realise that it's not just a caste mark - it's a caste mark which has been lit up by a laser sight. And off we go.

Initial shooting out of the way, we turn to real tragedy; we're introduced to James McAvoy's character and his terrible, terrible, how very like our own, life. He's a cube rat with an overweight malevolent boss and a job which makes dead end seem like an aspiration. His best friend takes advantage of him - not only is he banging our hero's shallow shrill and self-absorbed girlfriend, he's getting him to pay for the condoms. Because no-one in the audience, not even me, has actually shot anyone in the head from three miles away, and everyone in the audience hates their job and thinks their friends stiff them on split restaurant tabs, the quarter of an hour or so in which we see Wesley Gibson's miserable life of non-adventure is considerably more upsetting than all the stuff which went before it, not to mention the hundreds of deaths still to come.

Then enter Angelina Jolie, who shoots up a pharmacy, trashes a sportscar and generally injects a preposterous level of action into extracting Wesley from his life of tedium and introducing him to his destiny. Duh, didn't I see this in Matrix? Never mind, it's sort of fun anyhow. Actually, it's huge fun. Jolie isn't my idea of a great actress, but she has a languid athleticism which is perfect for this role - for as long as she's on screen, she's effortlessly the most compelling thing there. It's a larger than life character, and Jolie is a larger than life actress. She moves quicker than everyone else, but somehow makes it seem as though she's taking her time, and she maintains through almost the entire movie an air of amused detachment. You'd think that in a movie with James McAvoy and Morgan Freeman in featured roles, the compelling acting would be coming from the serious actors - but this is a dumb movie, and in a dumb movie, the compelling performances are going to come from the people who look like they're in on the joke, not the guys who are trying to get into character.

The structure is simplicity itself; naif is inducted into organisation, faces gruelling training, becomes a stronger person, confronts the bad guy, comes to question what he's been told, winds up once more alone. It's been done a hundred times. What makes Wanted fun is that along the way it pulls off some giddy setpieces of pure amoral action. Wesley becomes an assassin, so he has to go killing people. But the killing is an afterthought - the energy has gone into contriving absurd methods of shooting the hapless victims. So the first one has to be shot from the roof of a moving train as it curves past the building in which the target is holding a meeting. The second is in a bulletproof limo, whose only vulnerability is its open sunroof. Wesley contrives to flip his car in a somersault over the limo so that he can shoot down through the roof while spinning through the air and into a perfect landing. It's so audaciously bananas that the cinema laughed out loud. The dead guy wasn't even a punch line.

Having set us up the bomb, it's time to move to the really BIG setpieces, the first of which involves a shoot out on a train. Which culminates in the complete destruction of the train (and I'm watching it thinking a) isn't this stolen from King Kong? Or Jurassic Park 2? b) if this crevasse is that insanely deep, how in the name of God did they build the bridge that's spanning it, not to mention WHY?). Hundreds of passengers get killed, but miraculously the name cast survives, and the film focuses on their problems rather than the worst train disaster in Western Europe since the end of the second world war.

The aftermath of the crash leads to portentous revelations and one big cathartic shoot out at the villain's lair. Which is choreographed as a bastard cross between the Lobby Demolition Scene in the Matrix and all of Shoot Em Up although the body count feels even higher than both put together. It's one long saga of people getting shot stabbed and bludgeoned, and it ends in a Mexican standoff which for some unaccountable reason forgot to have a shout out to the prince of the circular firing squad, John Landis. As shootouts go, it rates points just for having more New York reloads by a single character than I have ever seen before. In the LDS of Matrix, (which is one of my great guilty pleasures) Neo throws away gun after gun as they empty. Wesley doesn't just throw away his guns when they run dry; he finds ever more inventive ways to grab spare guns off other people and go right on shooting with them. The nagging problem is that the people getting whacked are people who we've already seen depicted as perfectly decent types. This is another one of those scenes that makes Wanted a guilty pleasure at best.

And we roll through the climax to the epilogue and closure, and a vague "Well, everyone being all dead and everything, Wanted 2 doesn't seem that likely now does it." But who knows?

John, as is so often the case, has the last word. Mid way through the film, Wesley quits his job and tells his appalling boss what he thinks of her before yanking out the cable of his ergonomic keyboard and stalking out of the office with it. And his ghastly best friend gets in the way with fake congratulations, whereupon Wesley smashes him in the face with the keyboard. And as loose keys and teeth fly through the air, they briefly spell out FUCK YOU. I mentioned this to John afterwards, and he said "Good thing it was one of those ergonomic keyboards. You know, with two U keys."

That's Wanted. It's flashy, and it's fun, but it doesn't really stand up to close inspection.

PS: Much later, I watched this again on DVD, and realised that the second U was one of Wesley's buddy's molars. So I was wrong. As usual.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Mortal Engines

Another genre is fantasy and science fiction. For some reason, the intelligentsia aren't terribly interested in this genre, and you don't see critics weighing in to sanctify some practitioner. This can lead to some pretty weird results at times.

Take Booker prize type novel Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It's "daring" and "experimental" inasmuch as it has six or seven narratives nested in it, starting with a character all at sea in the 1800s and going all the way to the distant future where ignorant savages eke out a miserable existence in Hawaii before realising that they're being studied by a remnant of modernity that somehow survived the cataclysm which brought civilisation to an end. Each narrative gets a chunk, then breaks to be replaced by a later narrative, and then after the middle of the book the cycle reverses, so that it begins and ends with the ship.

David Mitchell doesn't need my approval, what with being successful and published and critically feted, and that's probably just as well. Because what he's written in Cloud Atlas is insanely derivative. The worst bit is the second last narrative, which is all about a fast food worker in a terrible dystopian future Korea. Who discovers that the utopian life promised for retired fast food workers is all a lie, and that instead of being carried away in a ship to happy island, they wind up being killed and minced and turned into happy meals for the fast food chain. Somehow, nobody reviewing this book noticed that this is pretty much the big reveal in a Harry Harrison short story (Make Room, Make Room) and a Charlton Heston movie (Soylent Green). That's probably the biggest steal in the book, but most of the rest of the SF elements are wearisomely familiar to anyone who reads decent SF. Of which there is such a thing. Anyhow, I always felt kind of let down that someone could do that and not get called on it anywhere, but there you go.

While critics have pretty much ignored fantasy and SF except to make passing swipes at the kind of people who read it instead of immersing themselves in accounts of the career and marital disasters of university lecturers, there are two great recent exceptions. The first is Harry Potter, which gets noticed because the cultural arbiters pretty much can't ignore books which make their writer as rich as the Queen of England no matter how bad they are in practice. The second is Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials trilogy actually made critics sit up and take notice of a fantasy/SF hybrid series of kids' books because, well, he takes on God with malice aforethought. His Dark Materials is actually a very good piece of work, right up to the point where the author loses the plot in both the literal and metaphorical senses of the phrase in the final act of the last book. It's all been very good up to there; there's a relentless heartlessness to the plot which makes a welcome change from the mawkishness of the children's books of my youth. Sadly, there's something about attacking God that turns you into a hectoring humourless jerk (yes, I'm looking at you Dawkins and Hitchens) no matter how good your underlying work is.

Still, Pullman kicked down some doors, and let interesting people walk through them in his wake. One is Philip Reeve. Now it's perfectly plain from the presentation of Reeve's books that his publishers hoped he'd be the next Pullman - the type faces and presentation echo the early printings of Pullman (from before he got famous) far more than is strictly necessary. And Reeve can't be unaware of the parallel; there's a little shout-out to "Philip Bellman with his series of atheistic pop-up books for the underfives" which I can't make my mind up about; is it a sly reference to someone he actually likes, or a bitchy comment about someone who got a better film deal? I'd be able to decide if I knew how Irish he was.

Reeve is no Pullman. Pullman's a stronger stylist by far, and his principal work - despite my crabbing about the final act - holds together as a single vision in a way that Mortal Engines doesn't. Mortal Engines reads like one book which spawned three good sequels; His Dark Materials reads like one big book which got published in three volumes.

Reeve is still a damn fine writer. Mortal Engines is set in a future where thousands of years of squabbling over the ruins of a war shattered earth has culminated in a stand off between mobile cities and stationary communities. Now the physics and logistics of such a vision don't bear serious examination for a second, but Reeve is able to write fast enough that a reader doesn't quibble. He's also able to write characters with enough appeal that you're far busier wondering what's going to happen to them than you are picking away at the sustainability of "Municipal Darwinism", the bonkers post-thatcherite philosophy which drives the traction cities in their quest to scavenge smaller cities and fight with bigger ones. A few weeks after I've finished reading the books, I'm coming around to the notion that once you dig into the logic of his books, he's essentially marketing the same dumb notion of sustainable pastoral nirvana as Tolkien did, but that doesn't stop me from admiring the books he's written while smoking that weed.

The engagingly mad and carefully maintained vision of the future is one of Reeve's key strengths in the books - he has his future mapped out and he doesn't cheat. The second, and far more important, strength in the work is that his characters are as fallible, conflicted and vulnerable as anyone you can meet in real literature. We're introduced to one of the central characters, Tom Natsworthy early on, and he's a classic children's story hero, well-meaning, lacking in self confidence, lacking in any self-awareness. In most books, he'd meet a kindly mentor and discover himself before saving the world. In Reeve's books, Tom never really gets his act together, never really develops any self confidence and most importantly of all, never gets himself a kindly mentor. There's very little kindness in Tom's world, and most of it he's having to provide himself. Reeve pairs him off with Hester, a murderous orphan with a hideously scarred face.

In conventional fiction, Hester would die early, delivering a plot lesson along the way and be replaced by someone cute. In Reeve's world, Hester lasts all the way through four books, and gets meaner and unhappier the further she goes. Her one saving grace is her love for Tom. Meanwhile the cute girl who he's been lined up with in conventional narrative terms gets shot to bits in the first book. Reeve is cavalier with characters. If they get in harm's way, they get killed. If Reeve has spent huge energy bringing them to life, that's just too bad. The third book begins with a perfect case in point. A character who's been painstakingly nursed through the second book returns in the third as a key mover and shaker. Just when you've decided that he's going to be the villain of the piece, he takes a bullet through the head in the course of a theft turned hostage taking which is so elegantly set up as a plausible bungle that I was rapt with admiration as a focal character is dragged off in a submarine with nothing to be done about it. Snatching her was the last thing anyone wanted to do, and by a simple set of bad calls (the most important of which was Hester's entirely in-character decision to kill everyone in sight) becomes the only possible outcome. Marvellous stuff.

This anyone can die at any time dynamic is at its most intense in the first book, which sees all kinds of sympathetic secondary characters and villains polished off at unexpected moments. Reeve eases off on the body count in the later books, but he's established his rules and will still happily whack people from time to time to keep the readers on their toes. Amazingly he also gets away with bringing back two characters from the dead without in any way derailing your sense of fair play. He's carefully set up a mechanism of bringing back the dead long before there's any prospect of it being used, and so when it happens there's no sense of "hang on, you can't do that."

The thing which struck me as most notable about the series, however, was the character of Hester. By the beginning of the third book, she's settled down, but tellingly, she's not really liked. She's the dirty harry of the whole series, an implacable enemy and bad tempered friend. Usually, by the time any writer has had a character like that around for a few hundred pages, the character has softened a little, and the spear carriers like the character despite all the flaws we've been shown as readers (read any long running detective series, starting with the Morse novels, to see what I mean). Reeve doesn't bother. Hester's a killer, and the people in her community are deeply uncomfortable around her. They put up with her, but they don't even have that only-in-fiction thing of "Yeah, she's a killer, but the community needs someone dangerous just in case." They flat out don't trust her, and she's uncomfortably aware of it without knowing what to do. That's tellingly perceptive and completely out of the run of conventional narrative in children's - or anyone's - books.

The overall narrative arc unfolds over twenty years or so, and so many people die that it would have been almost a perversion of the narrative for the main characters to make it out in one piece. But I have to confess that when Tom and Hester reach the end of their track it broke my heart more than a little. I've never fought free of my bad habit of looking at the last few pages of a book before I get there the honest way, and so I started into A Darkling Plain, the last - and longest - volume, knowing the worst that was coming. It was still very affecting, perhaps the more so because Reeve is not given to over-writing things. There is a short epilog which unlike most epilogs really does work; I could have lived without the wrap-ups for the other characters, but the bookend for Mr Shrike is ingenious, telling and allows the book to taper to a close on just the right note of loss and redemption.

Friday, 9 May 2008

The Stark Stark Truth

There are annoying rules to being hip. Which is why I usually don't devote much of my time to hipness.

For example, people with pretensions to culture don't read books unless they're literature. From what I can figure out, literature is books about people who are either a) exactly like book critics or b) having a really crap time in an impoverished setting. I'm not basing this on a lot of exposure to literature, because every time I try reading literature I get fed up. So I could be missing something. If so, good, because as nearly as I can tell, the real driving force in literature and culture in general is that it should be the mental equivalent of cod liver oil or cross country running - something which is defined as being good for you precisely because it's no damn fun, and therefore must be improving.

I've said it countless times, and maybe even in this blog; if you want to get an improving perspective on the suffering of the world, all you have to do is pay attention to the world around you. You don't need to buy a novel; in fact, if the world's problems are that interesting to you, you should be spending the money on charities and putting the reading time into running a soup kitchen. If, on the other hand, you're reading a book to get away from all that crap for a couple of hours, why on earth would you want to read a story about middle class angst or third world misery? You've got enough angst as it is. Which is why Harry Potter outsells Booker prize novels, and proper order. I hate both, but at least Harry Potter is openly aimed at taking your mind off things. Booker Prize winning books let you think you're doing something to make the world a better place while in reality you're just taking up space and trying not to move your lips while you do it.

Having established that I'd rather be stuck in a firefight than a reading group, I am now going to pour further scorn on educated people and their weird engagement with popular culture. Most books (and all TV and all movies) are crap. Which is fine. Most crap falls into a genre; detective stories, science fiction, horror, historical romance and so on. There are two special genres which are gender specific crap; thrillers (crap for men) and chick-lit (crap for women). Even as a escapism, thrillers and chick-lit are kind of hard to root for. Thrillers are pointless violence and chick-lit is pointless emotion. Whenever I read thrillers, I do it guiltily and in the clear knowledge that they're going in the recycle bucket as soon as I finish with them.

In genre proper, you opt into a ghetto. In the minds of the intelligentsia, a certain kind of person reads any given genre and they don't read anything else. And within each genre, the intelligentsia bless certain authors as being somehow above their genre, and thus OK, as long as they're read in a suitably detached, ironic and superior way.

This infuriating crap is nowhere more apparent than in crime fiction, where the intelligentsia are forever buffing up their guilty pleasures by anointing some writer as the exemplar of all that is cool in the slum they inhabit.

I've been colliding with this crap on and off since I was old enough to realise that Biggles wasn't a very realistic depiction of anything. So a few years ago I found myself reading Jim Thompson, because the pulpmeister of the 50s was consecrated a while back as a pioneer of noir. The intelligentsia like noir, which it turns out is anything where the good guys don't win. Here we are back at the miserablist tendencies of our cultural superiors. I suspect it comes down to the fact that these opinion setters have rather pleasant lives and value anything which contrasts with that. Anyhow, Jim Thompson is depressing. Really depressing. He's so incredibly good at being depressing that I expect I'm never going to forget the end of The Getaway. For those of you who've only seen either of the movies, the book continues on past our antiheroes getting clear of the posse and devotes its last third to describing the utter hell they consign themselves to instead. Jail would have been a MUCH better plan. And that's one of Jim Thompson's more upbeat books. No wonder he died cruelly young. It probably came as a relief. This was not a man who appeared to think the best of people.

Anyhow, that steered me away from noir for a while. Then last week I thought I'd give it another try and I bought four Richard Stark books. Now, full disclosure is required here. Richard Stark is also known as Donald Westlake, and I really enjoy Westlake's Dortmunder books, which are wry explorations of how a life of crime can go wrong. Dortmunder is a much put upon criminal mastermind, who in book after book has assembled his crew, put the master plan into action (increasingly against victims so unsympathetic that robbing them is less a crime and more a form of public service), and then watched it fall apart for simple yet completely unforeseeable reasons. Each book ends with Dortmunder and his cohorts no better off than they were at the beginning. Like much crime fiction they can be read in any order - Dortmunder never learns, ages or develops, and because he never makes more out of crime than he would out of working in Walmart, he never retires either. Written down like this, it sounds awful. Actually it's great fun. While none of the characterisation in these books is going to keep Tolstoy awake at nights, the cast are deftly sketched in as comic types. They're given the little quirks and foibles that echo the way you'd describe the people you work with to your in-laws; there's no depth to it, but oddly they've got just as much personality as the average acquaintance you don't really know. So it matters to you that they're at hazard, but it doesn't break your heart that they never get out of trouble. In short, they're just lifelike enough to root for and not so life-like as to make it horrible when they sleepwalk into disaster. In a very minor way, this is artistry.

Richard Stark is like Westlake's evil twin. His principal character, Parker, is a man so austere that an actual first name would give him too much personality. He moves from one heist to another, killing his confederates when they let him down, which they pretty much always do. He's the anti-Dortmunder. Dortmunder always uses the same bunch of affable schlubs and goes out of his way not to hurt people. Parker never runs with the same crew twice (not least because it's a rare crew that gets out of a book alive) and holds back from killing people only because the cops pay too much attention when civilians get killed. Mind you, like Dortmunder, Parker has a way of leaving the book no better off than he went in, so he's got that same hamster on a treadmill character.

I bought four books because the critics have been pouring praise on them from a height and because they were slightly discounted. I carefully sorted them out in copyright order, which turned out to be a complete waste of time, because there's no continuity or progression from one book to another.

There's a lot that's good about the books. Stark starts his narrative as late as he can; no time is wasted on set up, and even less on epilogue and resolution. The writing's clean and crisp and no more clever than it needs to be. I read all four in a matter of days. The plotting's clever, and there's an offhandedness to the way things go wrong which rings true. Because the books are all plot, you start to appreciate how much cleverness is needed to keep coming up with plausible incidents enough to fill a couple of hundred pages. Breakout is particularly good - Parker gets caught robbing a warehouse, gets thrown into jail, breaks out, finds himself walked into breaking INTO a jewelry wholesaler as part of the price for the assistance he needed to break out of jail, and then rather beautifully finds himself having to break out out of the wholesaler's when the robbery goes wrong and the getaway is compromised. All of these things unfold with a deceptive inevitability which is completely unforced. It's a fun read, as is Ask the Parrot, when Parker's once more running away from a robbery gone wrong only to walk into something much odder.

The thing is, having read them once I can't see myself reading them again, or buying any more. The cleverness isn't enough. Parker's so austere and shut in that you don't really feel any connection to him. You don't want to know what's going to happen to him next. The supporting cast in any given book either die or wind up in jail or disappear on their own errands. So there's nothing going on there that invites you to come back. It's the reading equivalent of eating crisps. Tasty, but kind of empty.

What's bananas is that the critics praise these books to the skies and they're regularly reissued in the UK in editions plainly aimed at people who don't think of themselves as genre readers, but literature readers. Meanwhile the more genial and enjoyable and involving Dortmunder books are pretty much ignored - the only ones I've got are American printings. They're better books, but the cold and uninvolving Parker is the one which the critics prefer. And I think this comes down to the notion that misery is somehow more improving than fun. Parker's world is horrible and bleak and deadly - and in the minds of critics that somehow makes it more authentic and worthy. But Parker's world is no more realistic than Dortmunder's. In a lot of ways it's less realistic; the likeable schlubs of Dortmunder's gang are ineffectual and loyal to each other out of a sort of confused sentimentality. They're guys who break the law. They're not made out of evil, and they're not particularly good at the evil they do. Their unremarkable greyness rings much more true to me than the bleach-bypass black and white of Parker's world, where everyone is on the verge of selling out everyone else at any moment. The realism and darkness of the Parker books is fatally undercut by the fact that all the characters - and particularly the protagonist - are so empty that it's hard to understand why they bother getting out of bed in the morning let alone plotting their lives of crime.

So that's me off the noir for a while. It's all right as far as it goes, but I'm as baffled as ever about why people think it's an incisive commentary on the real world.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Where was the blood?

I'm still trying to figure out why There Will Be Blood was called There Will Be Blood. Of course, I don't really know why Magnolia was called Magnolia, the difference being that I liked Magnolia and and I only wanted to like There Will Be Blood. In principle, it was a great idea. It had Daniel Day Lewis in it, being an obsessional lunatic. It had burning oil rigs. I was realistic enough not to expect it to have car chases, one of the things without which I believe no film is complete. I was even happy enough to accept this and move on to looking forward to Daniel Day Lewis.

Hmmm. Dan is special. He can get away with stuff no-on else could try. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of the best examples; I actually bought the idea that Dan was attractive enough to get women to get into bed with him just by asking. Not because he was that pretty, though in those pre-The-Boxer days when his nose was still straight, he was one of the best looking men in showbiz. He simply had whatever spark it is that lets an actor get away with anything, including dialogue that ought to make you burst out laughing. Years later he strides through The Last of the Mohicans and makes the film work not just by being the most athletic action man you ever saw, but by being the only person in the movie who can make the dialogue sound remotely like something people might actually say. So, pretty much, my attitude is, if you've got a body of water and you need someone to walk across it, Dan's your man.

And Dan doesn't let me down. Everything else is too weird for words, but Dan owns the film. Actually it's no exaggeration to say he's the only thing in most of it. He's in almost every scene, and when he's not on screen it's only so that he can make an entrance at any moment. He doesn't just have all the best lines - most of the time he's the only person with any lines. There are only four or five other featured characters, and only two manage to get any real screen time. Daniel Plainview's adopted son HW is on screen for much of the movie, but he's almost wordless until an hour into the film and he's struck deaf and dumb only a little later. So he doesn't get much dialogue in. Daniel Plainvview's opponent in the film, Eli Sunday, is the only other character who gets to say more than a few sentences. He actually gets quite long monologues, all of which underline that he's a self-deluding religious lunatic and a deeply creepy person to have around. Between them, Eli and Daniel do pretty much all the talking in the nearly three hours of the movie.

Around about now I ought to be saying that the film is actually a face-off between the greedy, oil-obsessed, manipulative and unscrupulous Plainview and the creepy religiously obsessed Eli Sunday. But the movie doesn't actually stick to its theme. The characters don't interact enough on screen to get a sense of any conflict unfolding between them.

Well, it's a Paul Thomas Anderson film. It's expected to be all over the place. The unspoken deal is that at the end, all the things which were apparently scattered will be brought into congruence again. Doesn't happen this time. The final act unfolds as a two hander between Plainview and Sunday, Plainview on the edge of senility and collapse and Sunday utterly compromised and bankrupt in every way. It's an astonishing piece of work, steeped in hatred and strong emotion and climaxing in death, but it just doesn't seem to connect to the rest of the film. I still don't know what the plan was. I did find myself thinking that it was playing out in a bowling alley because it was no longer safe to let Daniel Day Lewis work in an area with carpeting. Or that it hadn't originally been a bowling alley, but after Dan ate all the carpet, there was no other thing to dress the set as.

Weird movie. It's not that it has an astonishing - and sometimes hammy - performance from Dan at the centre, it's that it's genuinely hard to see what else it's got. No-one else is working at the same level, and it's not through lack of talent - it because they're not given anything else to do. There's just Daniel. Full stop. The first fifteen minutes of the movie unfold in complete silence as Daniel digs his first hole in the ground and makes his first strike, completely alone and with a ton of trouble. He falls down a shaft, breaks his leg, hauls himself back out of the hole and drags himself into town to cash in. And digs another shaft and another. Other people arrive on the scene, and still no voices are heard. The first human voice in the film is at least twenty minutes in, as Plainview introduces himself to a town meeting he's going to try to hustle into selling him an oil lease. And that voice, almost always quiet and yet utterly dominant, is pretty much the only real voice the film allows itself. It ought to be enough, but for me it was not. There Will Be Blood is an extraordinary paradox; an astonishing performance without a movie around it.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Cloverfield: the director's cut DVD is going to be tricky

Thanks to good marketing and my unfounded faith in JJ Abrams, I was kind of looking forward to Cloverfield.

And it's not a bad film, it's just that there's a lot less to it than I was hoping for. Quite where this kind of optimism comes from after three seasons of Lost and the general WTF? inspired by most of Alias after the first couple of seasons, I really don't know.

By this stage in the film's life cycle, I'm not too worried about throwing in spoilers (and let's leave to one side the vanishingly small chance that anyone who cares is going to read this before they see the movie). And anyhow, the film itself doesn't really worry about spoilers; the first thing it tells you is that it's footage found in Central Park. So anyone with an-above-room-temperature IQ has to figure that either no-one gets out alive, or that we don't know whether anyone gets out alive because the camera stayed behind when the possible survivors legged it. So it's not exactly giving the game away to say that the cast doesn't make it. The camera does, but through one of the great marketing ironies of our time, the camera itself is never seen and thus the manufacturer can't get the credit for making a camera which runs forever on one battery, has a perfect night vision mode and has a built in spotlight which can light up the New York subway system without draining the battery flat and survives being in New York when it gets blown up by what is implicitly a H bomb. What the camera can't do is get us to care much about the characters.

Which is what is wrong with the movie, more or less. It's built around a gimmick that not only isn't enough in its own right, but gets in the way of the movie working as more than an experiment. The actors are doing their best, but stuck with the trick of having to talk to the camera with the action behind them, there's not a hell of a lot they can do. Maybe the director's cut will have a mixed media version which opens the thing out a bit, but really shooting a whole movie with one camera (and then post fixing it to look like handycam footage) is a bit like staging a play on a bare stage with a slot for the audience to look in through. It's a nice trick for a few minutes, but after a while it's just getting in the way.

I find myself wondering if the original plan was to piece a bigger film together from a lot of "found cameras" and this got shot down by Abrams and his obsession with characters the viewer can identify with. This is usually a good idea, but it's not necessarily the right way to go here. Partly because the cast doesn't have the charisma to set the characters up quickly enough, partly because the point of view of a single camera isn't really enough to let us get a full picture of the chaos and confusion which is what the movie is all about.

Ultimately, Cloverfield is a clever exercise which doesn't really work as a film, because it doesn't really work as narrative. The characters never really figure out what's going on, and so neither can we, since all we see is what they see. It's clear that a monster is eating New York, but why, from whence it came, and what happens to it in the end are all left hanging. This says something about the human condition, but it's a something which can only be said at the expense of conventional narrative and an engaging movie.

There are thrills along the way; the core cast go off to rescue one of the early characters in a wrecked skyscraper and the rescue is clever; one building has toppled into another and they have to go up the solid one until they get to a point where they can cross over into the tilted stack of the other. Nice idea, fairly well executed. But as I sit here thinking about it, it's like someone got hold of the ideas in The Host and in 28 Weeks Later, and then kept only the bits which would stop you from caring much about what happened next. Which makes for a disappointing movie overall.

But like I say, there are ALL KINDS of opportunities for the DVD to flesh out the experience. Going on the movie itself, I'd say they will leave all those opportunities right there on the floor. Next stop Cloverfield 2? Maybe this time they can find a way to product place the camera.