Sunday, July 27, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: From Russia With Love

The formula the franchise was built upon is virtually evident in the first Bond film, 'Dr No': exotic locations, glamorous women and a megalomaniacal villain with a fully kitted-out secret base.

The third instalment, 'Goldfinger', would truly establish the formula: exotic locations, glamorous women, a megalomaniacal villian with a fully kitted-out secret base and a shedload of funky gadgets.

Essentially then, the four Gs: guns, girls, gadgets and globetrotting. Plus the megalomaniacal villain lurking in his ever more gargantuan secret base (hollowed out volcanoes a speciality).

By the later episodes, it got so that Bond's profession (espionage) was almost an afterthought. Let's face, the man doesn't exactly go undercover; and unless blowing the bad guy's secret base to hell can be classed as clandestine activity, he doesn't do much spying either. The usual sequence of events boils down to: M tells Bond that something dodgy is afoot, normally tipping him off from outset as to who the bad guy is; Q gives Bond some funky gadgets; Bond walks into bad guy's favourite casino/golf club [delete as applicable] and announces himself as "Bond, James Bond" (told you he doesn't do undercover); Bond cleans out bad guy over the card table/roulette table/links [delete as applicable], pissing him right off; Bond dallies with a couple of beauties, at least one of whom is duplicitous; Bond gets caught by the bad guy, who invariably explains in great detail his plans for world domination before either (a) locking Bond in an easily escapable broom cupboard conveniently situated next to the armoury, or (b) suspends him over a pool of sharks/piranha [deleted as applicable], a low-burning night-light under the taut rope; Bond utilizes funky gadgets courtesy of Q branch, effects an escape, foils the bad guy's plans and blows the fully kitted-out secret base to smithereens.

'From Russia with Love' - the second and for my money the best of the Bonds - does things a bit differently.

There's no secret base. There's no megalomaniac seeking world domination; here we have a triumvirate of villains - the Machiavellian Blofeld, the spitefully cunning Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and the brutally efficient 'Red' Grant (Robert Shaw) - and their plan is twofold: the theft of a Russian decoder, and the disgrace and demise of Bond. In order to achieve the former, they manipulate Bond into acquiring it for them.

And how does one go about manipulating an agent of 007's calibre? Piece of cake - dangle a pretty girl in front of him. Step forward Tatiana Romanova (Daniella Bianchi); a beauty queen in real life, but not the typical Bond girl to be sure. She's just as much a victim of manipulation as Bond. Tatiana is pretty much the innocent victim in all of this, and Bianchi, though limited as an actress, certainly imbues the the character with a human element.

Thanks to all the intrigue, the intricacy of the plotting and the delightful idea that Bond - every inch the uber-mensch in all his other outings - is basically being fucked with from start to finish, 'From Russia with Love' feels like a proper espionage thriller. It has the cynical brilliance of a le Carre novel. Double-dealings abound. Betrayal lurks at every turn. Director Terence Young keeps the tension racked, most notably in the cat 'n' mouse Orient Express sequence, climaxing in a vicious bout of hand-to-hand combat between Bond and Grant (the means by which Grant gives himself away - ordering red wine with fish - remains a classic bit of Ian Fleming snobbery) - a powerhouse scene, jarringly shot and edited. The seeds of Bourne-style visceral action cinema are present here.

The Grant/Bond fight is only one of a number of striking set-pieces: the theft of the decoder and the attack on the gypsy camp are standouts. Likewise, the extended finale - Bond's duel with a helicopter ("I'd say one their aircraft was missing" - surely the only Bond one-liner to reference a Powell & Pressburger film), followed by a speedboat chase - generate tension and excitement without recourse to blowing up a fully kitted-out secret base. And let's not forget that nasty little coda featuring Rosa Klebb and the kind of footwear you can't get at Clarke's.

'From Russia with Love' is probably the only film in the series where you could have a protagonist other than Bond - you could slide George Smiley or Bernard Samson or one of Graham Greene's world-weary and morally compromised anti-heroes into the lead role - and it wouldn't harm the film at all, wouldn't detract from its status as a first rate 60s spy thriller. It's the most un-Bond of the Bond movies ... and, paradoxically, that's what makes it the best.

There's a Bond-fest going on over at my other blog, Guilty Pleasures; the first five Connery outings are under consideration in the first entry.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Normal service will be resumed

Apologies for the lack of new material on this blog, and its scurrilous sibling Guilty Pleasures, lately. I started a new job last week, which accounts for some of the inactivity; my partner has heard that she's being made redundant, hence my mind has been elsewhere; and over the weekend I developed conjunctivitis, which has left me ill-disposed to staring at a screen - be it a cinema screen, TV screen or VDU - for long periods.

Medication has been prescribed, there are plenty of films begging to be watched and, hopefully within the next week, The Agitation of the Mind will return.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Happening

Whoa! A week long hiatus on The Agitation of the Mind. This can only mean one of three things:

1) I've won big on the lottery and been spending the last few days haemorrhaging money on fast cars and even faster women (clue to unlikelihood: Paula wouldn't let me);

2) The commissioning editor of Sight & Sound, stumbling upon this blog, has liked what he's seen and retained my services as staff writer on his august publication (clue to unlikelihood: well ... check the next issue);

3) I really - REALLY - don't want to write about 'The Happening'.

Hands up everyone who guessed 3.

Hands up everyone who really doesn't want to read about 'The Happening'.

Hands up everyone who knocked off reading this article two sentences ago and has gone down the pub/cinema/rental shop.


Nah, can't leave it.

'The Happening' is a film that doesn't have a twist ending, isn't a fairy tale, and is free of the turgid trickery of 'The Village'. Yet it's the single worst thing M Night Shyamalan has ever made. Why?

1) There's no suspense. The (intended) enigma of the first half - is what's happening a terrorist attack, or something else? - is undermined by the fact that the film-makers were talking it up as an ecological horror movie six months before it opened. Also, the resolution comes down to one of the characters saying little more than "Hey, what if it's the trees doing it?" Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

2) It's not remotely scary. The litany of suicides becomes soul destroyingly repetitive after the first ten minutes. Thereafter, Shyamalan tries to conjure terror by frequently cutting away to shots of grass blowing in the wind, or the wind rustling through trees. The virus/infection/thingymajig is carried on the wind, you see. Thing is, wind is invisible. This is a movie. As in short for 'moving picture'. Do you see the problem here?

3) It's reminiscent of Hitchcock's 'The Birds', but without the birds. Which is kind of like doing 'Alien' but without an alien. Or 'Debbie Does Dallas' sans Debbie. Also, 'The Birds' is only a partially successful movie: the first half is lousy, the second terrific. Shymalan achieves an inverse homage here: the first of 'The Happening' is average, the second half appalling. Subject of which ...

4) The film doesn't just fall apart in the second half, it kind of stops, looks around, realises it's lost and kind of wanders around dazed until the closing credits roll.

5) The whole and-then-the-threat-just-passed finale is tres 'Signs', as is the small-group-of-survivors-holed-up-in-a-rural-locale scenario. And doesn't that sound like a certain George A Romero film?

6) Not content to fob us off with the and-then-the-threat-just-passed-and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after-and-the-lady-got-pregnant-and-they-were-a-happy-loving-family ending, Shyamalan decides he wants to have his cake and eat it, and delivers a "shock" ending in which ... ooops, the happening happens again. Well, fuck me sideways.

Okay, I've just spent twenty minutes of my life that I'll never have again typing this - which, added to the running time of the film, clocks in at about two hours, and I'm still pissed off at James ("I'm the king of the world, woof, woof, woof") Cameron and Michael ("666") Bay for the three fuckin' hours apiece they owe me for 'Titanic' and 'Pearl Harbor', the only two movies that have had me cheering on, respectively, a large chunk of ice and a squadron of Japanese kamizakis.

Please, Mr Shyamalan, make a good movie next time. You deserve better than this kind of write-up.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Lady in the Water

The court is in session here at The Agitation of the Mind. In the dock: 'Lady in the Water'. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you will be asked to consider a film that many people flat-out can't stand. The prosecution have piled up a welter of evidence. The defence are relying on playing devil's advocate. You will hear much in the way of opinion and theorising. I would ask that you keep one question uppermost in mind during these precedings: does 'Lady in the Water' deserve the hate?

Before we hear from the prosecuting counsel, a brief opening statement:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, 'Lady in the Water' is a feature film written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It concerns the discovery of a narf (a type of water nymph) named Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) in the communal swimming pool of an apartment complex called The Cove whose janitor, Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti), has slid into the anonymity of his dead-end job while he deals with the aftermath of a personal tragedy. Story's job is to locate "the Vessel", a writer whose work will bring about positive social change but at the cost of his own life, and inspire him to persist in his work. Others, including "the Healer" and "the Guild", will play their part in assisting Story's safe return once she has found the Vessel. Her task, however, is endangered by scrunts*, vicious beasts which blend, chameleon-like, into the long grasses surrounding the complex. Cleveland, motivated by the tragedy in his past, elects to help Story, but first has to determine which of the The Cove's residents fulfill the roles of Vessel, Guild and Healer .

Right, then. Case for the prosecution:

1) Shyamalan casts himself as the Vessel. This is essentially a Christ-like role and is therefore indicative of gross egomania on Shyamalan's part.

2) One of The Cove's residents, Harry Farber (Bob Balaban) is a movie critic and Shyamalan takes pains to paint him as a prissy, pedantic and humourless individual. This is indicative of contempt on Shyamalan's part for gentlemen of said profession, and sour grapes over negative reviews of 'The Village'.

3) The film is burdened with an incomprehensible narrative.

The prosecution calls the following expert witnesses:

Antagony & Ecstasy, who has testified that M. Night Shyamalan is an affront to art.

Brandon Fibbs testifies that it is Shyamalan's first misstep as a film-maker.

Kevin Koehler at Pretentious Musings discusses evidence that this is a director's love letter to himself.

Case for the defence:

Your honour, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I do not have a case to make for 'Lady in the Water' as a lost masterpiece, an overlooked gem, or a classic-in-waiting that is begging for re-evaluation. The film, as its creator has insisted all along, is a fairy tale. I refer to Mr. Shyamalan as the film's "creator" with good reason. As writer, producer and director on all of his projects - as a man who has yet to helm an adaptation or direct someone else's script - he personifies perhaps more than any other mainstream American director the auteur. This, I believe, exacerbates the severity of the first charge levelled against him.

Before turning to the three main areas of the prosecution's case, let us briefly consider the film's subject matter. We have already established that 'Lady in the Water' is a fairy tale; it is a mistake, however, to consider the milieu (the action never moves outside of the apartment complex) as the real world into which the fairy tale elements (quite literally) surface. 'Lady in the Water' is not realistic and is not meant to be realistic. It is a movie full of movie characters; I believe that such subtext as exists here is a send-up, by Mr. Shyamalan, on film-making and film theory, an irreverent and satirical deconstruction of established narrative tropes and structural requirements.

As regards the charges against the defendant:

1) Shyamalan as messiah/egomaniac. Given that Mr. Shyamalan had demonstrated, from 'The Sixth Sense' up to and including 'Lady in the Water', a commendable talent for drawing notable performances from first-rate casts, and given that there has never been a shortage of highly talented actors who want to work with him, he could easily have cast someone other than himself as the Vessel. Why did he choose not to? Moreover, Mr. Shyamalan has always come across, in both on-camera and print interviews, as articulate, perceptive and intelligent. Surely he would have had some inkling of the controversy that this self-casting decision would result in. And yet, ladies and gentlemen, he cast himself. Why? It is my considered opinion that Mr. Shyamalan's role in his own film is a satire on the auteur theory, and both an acknowledgement and refutation of any criticism that, as an auteur, he risks isolationism in his approach to film-making.

Furthermore, he is not the only director to cast himself in a showy and narratively important role. We call Mel Gibson, director and star of 'Braveheart' (a role which allows him to progress from romantic lead to action hero to martyr); Orson Welles in 'Touch of Evil' (seldom has a director filled the screen so completely with himself; and what of Marlene Dietrich's breathy "He was some kind of a man" epitaph?); or how about Woody Allen, star of a good couple of dozen of his own films - would Allen's nebbish protagonist copping off with a radiant Diane Keaton in 'Manhattan' be dismissed as wish-fulfillment if it weren't for their brief real-life relationship?

And doesn't the whole issue of director as actor depend on whether their performance is any good or not? Shyamalan is a low-key but quietly charismatic actor. Now look at, say, Quentin Tarantino's flashy, motormouth appearances in his own work - as Jimmie in 'Pulp Fiction' or the bartender in 'Death Proof'. A small but worthwhile consideration, I think.

2) The movie critic character. It is easy to see why Bob Balaban's portrayal of Harry Farber is something of a red rag to a bull. But pause should be given to consider a couple of points. Firstly, Balaban is terrific. He takes a potentially one-note role and turns it into a tour de force of deadpan comedy. A lot of things get overlooked in critical treatments of 'Lady in the Water': just how good Balaban is, is one of them. Secondly, Harry is not just a movie critic, he's a movie character. Ultimately - and again, this simple fact is often conveniently overlooked - 'Lady in the Water' is a movie movie. Let's establish a quick definition.

Tarantino once said something to the effect that while 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Pulp Fiction' were movies, the 'Kill Bill' duology (is that the right word? did I just make it up? whatever) were movie movies; that if the characters from 'Dogs' or 'Pulp' decided to go and see a movie, then 'Kill Bill' was the kind of movie they'd go and see. 'Kill Bill', therefore, is a movie that exists solely within the perameters of movie logic, where a vengeful woman can take a samurai sword aboard a plane as hand luggage, where the aesthetic can bend elastically to Eastern cinema and the whole "heroic bloodshed" subgenre or to the expansive vistas of the spaghetti western purely at the film-maker's whim. Shifts from colour to black-and-white are acceptable, as well as non-linear chronologies, hyper-stylisations and basically an entire bag of cinematic tricks. And Tarantino is feted for it. What do we make of this, ladies and gentlemen? It seems that Tarantino is permitted to make movie movies while Shyamalan isn't.

'Lady in the Water' is a movie movie. Harry is there to highlight this - cueing Cleveland's gradual understanding of the narrative he's found himself complicit in - as well as sending the whole thing up. Harry reminds us, right up to his stand-out final face-off with a scrunt - that this is just a movie.

3) Incomprehensible narrative. Or is it? It's an offbeat narrative, sure, but - hey! - Shyamalan's telling an offbeat story. And, once more, he's doing so in a deconstructive manner. He takes traditional narrative requirements and turns them upside down. For instance: a character is called up to decipher something; the resulting message gives the protagonist another piece of information, therefore the plot advances. In, say, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', Harrison Ford directs a beam of sunlight onto some arcane markings on a dusty stone floor; in 'The Da Vinci Code', Tom Hanks blathers on about the Fibonacci sequence and gets his head round a couple of infantile riddles. How the codes/clues/messages are worked out is unimportant: these scenes are about (a) making the hero look cool because they figured it out, and (b) moving the film's narrative from point A to point B. So when, in 'Lady in the Water', a little kid divines a hidden message in the colours of a cupboard full of cereal boxes, not only is it no less arbitrary than in either of those other films, but Shyamalan is actually admitting, satirically, how arbitrary such narrative devices truly are. This brings us back to the fact that it's just a movie. It does what a lot of movies do - and has no more complex a narrative than most movies - it just does these things in a deliberately deconstructed manner.

But doesn't all of this make 'Lady in the Water' an exercise in anti-film-making? Maybe so. But I must admit, having recently watched it for the third time, that I find 'Lady in the Water' a relatively entertaining film. It's not without its flaws - there is too much of the hushed, portentous dialogue that stymies 'Signs' and 'The Village'; there is a directorial heavy-handedness in dealing with 'meaningful' themes; the healing scene just plain doesn't work - but it has its share of pleasures, not least a terrific cast obviously having fun with their movie movie characters. Christopher Doyle's cinematography nails the slightly off-kilter atmosphere crucial to the non-realistic movieness of the film. After the solemnity of his earlier films, the playfulness of 'Lady in the Water' is a pleasant change; and - best of all given the flogging-a-dead-horse inclusion of it in 'The Village' - there's no frickin' twist ending.

Finally, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, here, at random, are a few mainstream films I've seen in the two years since 'Lady in the Water' opened, all of which, I think you'll agree, are egregiously bad examples of film-making: 'Next', 'Ultraviolet', the aforementioned 'Da Vinci Code' and the piss-awful 'Wicker Man' remake, none of which I'd waste my time on with a second viewing. And yet Lee Tamahori, Kurt Wimmer, Ron Howard and Neil LaBute received none of the vitriol that was directed at Shymalan for 'Lady in the Water'.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the decision is yours. But I for one do not believe that 'Lady in the Water' deserves the hate. It's just a movie.

*And depending on your knowledge of low-brow colloquialisms, you might raise an eyelid at how ill-chosen the name is.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Village

On 20th August 2004, I took my seat in Nottingham's UGC (now Cineworld) for a screening of 'The Village'. My mood: high anticipation. I'd rationalised 'Signs' as one of those occasional dips in quality that all artists are entitled to, and was confident 'The Village' would prove a return to form. There had been plenty of advance publicity. The trailers were creepy as hell. The cast was to die for: William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody ... Oh,yes, I was looking forward to this one!

An hour and three quarters later, as I wrote in my maiden post as a blogger, I stumbled out of the cinema mumbling vehemently. I felt that I had to get on my soapbox and sound off.

That soapbox was MovieBuff, my first blog. And here I am, four years later, in my third incarnation on the blogosphere, revisiting one of the most disappointing, dispiriting experiences I've had a in movie theatre (perhaps only rivalled by 'The Departed', Scorsese's flabby, tired, by-the-numbers desecration of the taut Asian thriller 'Infernal Affairs', and - yes - 'The Happening'). But let's remain in the past for a moment. Here's the rest of the article I wrote on 'The Village':

I will not spoil the film for those who have not seen it. The obligatory twist ending will remain under wraps (one clue: ten minutes in, a snippet of dialogue betrays a specifically modern context). Suffice it to say that the final quarter of the film turns everything that has gone before on its head, revealing more than an hour's worth of sumptuous and beautifully acted film-making as little more than obfuscation; a cheap parlour trick.

It doesn't help that trailers and advertising site the film firmly in the horror genre. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first full appearance of the creatures in the woods (or the creature, singular; only one of them actually shows up) provoked disdainful giggles from most of the audience. The revelation as to their identity elicited groans.

M Night Shyamalan is too intelligent a director, too consummate a craftsman, for 'The Village' to be dismissed as a bad film. Nonetheless, this hasn't prevented me from wanting to wallop him and ask for my money back. There are many good things on display: the quality of acting is uniformly high, the cinematography gorgeous and the music atmospheric (the acclaimed American violinist Hilary Hahn features prominently on the soundtrack). The frustrating thing is that these elements are bound up in the first three-quarters of the film; once Shyamalan reveals his hand, the audience is forced to dismiss all of these things as a con job. In short, the payoff kills the movie stone dead.

All that remains is the poignant and bravura performance by Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of director and former 'Happy Days' alumnus Ron Howard). Her star-making turn can only be compared to seeing Kate Winslet for the first time in 'Heavenly Creatures'.

Ms Howard's glittering career starts here. Sadly, so does the M Night Shyamalan backlash.

Fast forward to a couple of hours ago. I'd made the decision from the outset to rewatch all of Shyamalan's films in order. It was, I felt, the only way objectively to assess the man's career to date. Between me and Paula's respective DVD collections, we had all of his films ... except 'The Village'. And I wasn't going to shell out for a copy, even a cheapie off eBay. I asked around and finally a colleague gave me a lend.

I squared up to it. I had a bottle of wine to hand. I consoled myself that there was a big pile of ironing to be done while I was watching it, so at least the evening wouldn't be wasted. I told a deep breath and slid the DVD into the player.

"Cannot read disc."

You're never supposed to use the deus ex machina in fiction. It's a nice little added bonus, then, when one happens in real life.

One day, I'm sure, I'll see 'The Village' again. If, on that day, I realise that I was wrong all along and it's a masterpiece awaiting rediscovery, then I'll revisit the Shyamalan-a-thon and publically admit it.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


To everyone who lambasted M. Night Shyamalan for egomania and self-importance over 'Lady in the Water', I would say this:

Watch 'Signs'.

For all that Shyamalan wrote himself a role in which he functions as MacGuffin, messiah and hero by default in 'Lady in the Water' - or, as Tim at Antagony & Ecstacy puts it "cast himself as Christ" - a case can be made for that film as satirical comedy. My reading of 'Lady in the Water' has always tended to the film as anti-film, a deliberate subversion/parody of structure, narrative and film theory ... so why not go the whole hog and indulge/mock the egocentricity inherent in the auteur theory of film-making?

But this is a discussion for two posts in the future ... and can't you tell that I really can't be bothered to write about 'Signs'?

The more I think about it, I realise this Shyamalan-a-thon delineates, like Jacobean tragedy, into three acts:

Act One: Shyamalan as the next big thing ('The Sixth Sense', 'Unbreakable')

Act Two: in which a sense of disappointment emerges ('Signs', 'The Village')

Act Three: the torch-bearing mob demand our beleagured hero's head on a film canister ('Lady in the Water', 'The Happening')

It's almost scary, how cleanly - clinically, even - a six-film career bends to the three downward points of this critical arc. But having said that, I'm quite looking forward to my role as Ye Olde Critick in Act Three, mainly because I don't believe that one of these particular films quite deserves the hate while the other isn't quite hated enough.

And yes, I'm prevaricating again. Because I don't want to write about 'Signs'. Even 'The Village' is freighted with a certain significance, given that it prompted my earliest efforts in blogging. But that's a story for the next post. Right now I'm going to get 'Signs' out of the way. Over and done with. Filed, archived, boxed up and -

Oh, for fuck's sake, Neil, just write about the movie already!

Okay: 'Signs' is about a preacher, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), who loses his faith after his wife is killed in a car crash (driver: M. Night in his obligatory cameo role ... makes his Christ-like role in 'Lady in the Water' even more ironic, given that he's pretty much playing the devil, or at least one of his minions, here); and about how God gets said preacher back on the home team by having aliens invade earth, wreak havoc and almost kill his son.

Now, a drama about the loss of faith or the reaffirmation thereof is one thing (even though I'm an atheist, I don't deny the dramatic potential of such material); but not when it's a flashback to the agonisingly slow and lachrymose death of Hess's wife that gives him the clue he needs to defeat the alien*; not when the means to defeat the alien is laboriously set up in any number of earlier scenes and is as arbitrary as the invaders' death by the common cold in H.G. Wells's 'War of the Worlds' ... shit, if you're going to come up with patently stupid ways to kill martians, at least go wild like Tim Burton did in 'Mars Attacks' and have their heads explode at the sound of Slim Whitman records - at least be funny!

And in some of its earlier scenes, 'Signs' almost succeeds in becoming (an intended) comedy: Joaquin Phoenix in particular, as Hess's brother Merrill, a could-have-been baseball star now merrily idling his life away, provides some fantastic moments. And speaking of Phoenix's performance, 'Signs' again demonstrates Shyamalan's facility with actors: Gibson does probably his best work, while Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin are a million miles away from the standard annoyingly-cute-kids-who-you-secretly-wish-would-die-horribly so beloved of Hollywood. Breslin already shines, four years before her astounding portrayal of the beauty paegant obsessed young girl in 'Little Miss Sunshine'.

Too, the film looks good. DoP Tak Fujimoto exploits the rural setting to impressive visual effect. In the director's chair, Shyamalan crafts several tense set-pieces (his Hitchcockian ability to create suspense has yet to be deployed to its fullest: I'd love to see what he'd make of a thriller or a murder mystery). His decision to keep the aliens offscreen as much as possible pays dividends: early glimpses come courtesy of shaky hand-held camcorder footage; even the final, full appearance of the vengeful alien is staged so that it is mostly seen in reflection.

'Signs' had a lot of potential to be a bloody good film. It damn near makes it in several places.

And yet ... and yet ...

The humour dries up and is replaced with hushed, "meaningful" dialogue; the uber-talky mid-section locks away all the carefully orchestrated tension from earlier in the film and concentrates, instead, on a cinematic equivalent of navel-gazing; the self-important reverence of the finale - and specifically of the final shot - leaves me feeling that the film-makers have purposefully denied the audience enough emotional or cerebral room to engage with this film should they, like me, be of the opinion that there is no god.

*I use the singular because the vanguard of the alien invasion has buggered off back wherever they came from at this point and just one grey-skinned Roswell-boy remains - this renegade is out for revenge given that the preacher chopped his fingers off in an earlier scene (I guess it says "forgive thy neighbour" not "forgive thy cosmic visitor", but still: such behaviour from a former man of the cloth!)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Interrupting the Shyamalan-a-thon ...

... which, frankly, I’ve been procrastinating over. I watched ‘Signs’ last weekend and have been implementing blogging-avoidance strategies ever since – and with only the pompous seriousness and house-of-cards twist of ‘The Village’ on the horizon, my motivation isn’t just ebbing but doing a pretty good impersonation of a fully-fledged drought.

But, still … interrupting the Shyamalan-a-thon:

Kudos to the BBC for last night’s ‘Imagine’ documentary on Werner Herzog. A joy to see Alan Yentob, who frequently puts himself at the centre of the programme (he all but elbowed the – admittedly reclusive – Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami out of the picture in last week’s programme), getting put in his place by the great director. “As a German living in Hollywood – ” Yentob begins, only for Herzog to correct him on two counts: he’s Bavarian and he lives in LA, not Hollywood. There is a difference.

The documentary itself was a bit scattershot, trying to reference too many of Herzog’s films (he’s made over 50) during its 60-minute running time; nonetheless, a through-line emerged of Herzog as a chronicler of the extreme, be it extreme conditions of filming (‘Aguirre: the Wrath of God’, ‘Fitzcarraldo’) or extreme personalities (Timothy Treadwell in ‘Grizzly Man’; Klaus Kinski in every film he made for Herzog); a man whose themes, concerns and images resonate down a four-decade filmography; a man attuned to the physicality and landscapes of the locations he shoots.

The payoff was fantastic, Herzog recounting a legendary incident during the filming of ‘Aguirre’: with ten days of principle photography remaning, Kinski, in one of his archetypal bouts of mania, had packed his belongings and was ready to zoom off in a speedboat. Herzog assured him he’d be shot before he reached the first bend in the river.

Dispelling the myth that he’d spent the film directing Kinski from behind a shotgun, Herzog recalled, “I didn’t have a gun in my hand when I told him this, but he knew I meant it.” (Incidentally, Herzog speaks in a very precise manner, his tone of voice always reasoned and calm; there is not a trace of hyperbole about him.)

Yentob, briefly speechless, responded, “And you seem like a gentle man.”

“I was very gentle with Kinski,” Herzog replied, “I gave him a choice. I would not have shot him without giving him a choice.”

Wunderbar! A large glass of Riesling was raised to Herr Herzog at chez Fulwood last night.