Saturday, November 29, 2008

This is England

Although it doesn't feature on the soundtrack, I couldn't help but hear 'This is England' by The Clash in my head as I sat down to watch Shane Meadows' film; in particular the snarlingly accusatory line "this is England / what we're supposed to die for".

Eight year old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose)'s father does just that: dies for his country in the Falklands War. The opening credits montage establishes the early 80s setting: clips from popular TV shows interspersed with newsreel footage of the social unrest that swept Britain during the Thatcher administration (I was still a couple of years shy of my teens back then but I remember the riots, the heavy-handness of authority).

Margaret Thatcher's presence is kept to a few shots in this sequence and the graffiti'd statement 'MAGGIE IS A TWAT' later in the film, but the legacy of her government hangs over the film like a dark spectre. This is the England I remember from my childhood: a country that was angry and spoiling for a fight, a country where racial epithets were common conversational currency.

Twenty odd years after the film was set (and having swallowed a hefty dose of political correctness in the 90s), the dialogue in 'This is England' is like a smack in the face (Channel 4, who screened it a few nights ago, broadcast a warning about the subject matter and language not just at the start, but during every commercial break). But again, it's just how I remember it. I recall friends of my father joking about "paki bashing"; the N-word was bandied about unashamedly. The National Front had an almost public face back then.

‘This is England’: agitates the mind and the memory.

Shaun, angry at his father's death and having difficulty communicating with his well-meaning but ineffectual mother, is bullied at school and subjected to tauts about his bereavement. Frustrated, painfully young and all too impressionable, Shaun's life takes a turn when he's befriended by a group of older lads, led by the locquacious Woody (Joe Gilgun). Soon he's having a whale of a time plinking away with a BB gun, getting a skinhead 'do, breaking into empty houses and committing random acts of vandalism.

Meadows shows both sides: the insubstantiality of this kind of lifestyle; and the sense of cameradie that comes of being part of a group or a gang; being accepted. Then things take a darker turn.

Woody's mate Combo (Stephen Graham) gets out of prison, having done a three stretch and kept shtum about things that would have implicated Woody, and renews old acquaintances. Combo's yer full-on skinhead, immediately showing up Woody and his gang as a bunch of kids in it for the image. Combo's dangerous, unpredictable and NF to the core. He's also eloquent and charismatic. He becomes a father figure to Shaun.

Combo enters the film at just under the halfway mark and things are never the same again - for Shaun or the audience. Stephen Graham's performance is like watching a snake: you're not all that keen on what you're looking it, but it's somehow mesmerising. His agitprop speech, a queasy bit of white supremastist rhetoric which repels even beholden-to-him Woody, is the dark centrepiece of 'This is England'. Meadows engages with his dangerous and controversial theme, his directorial approach that of a witness, not a moralist. He is intelligent enough not to preach to his audience.

'This is England' tells some unpalatable truths about cultural identity in Britain's not-so-distant past, and as such is not an easy film to watch. But nor is it without humour; and it's definitely not without a sense of tenderness towards its young, misinformed protagonist. After an up-and-down career following his superb debut 'TwentyFourSeven', this puts Meadows at the top of his game.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The ABC of literary adaptations

Give me a hand up while I climb on the bandwagon.

The Alphabet Meme, originated over at Blog Cabins, works according to the following rules:

1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.

2. The letter "A" and the word "The" do not count as the beginning of a film's title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don't know of any films with those titles.

3. Return of the Jedi belongs under "R," not "S" as in Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi. This rule applies to all films in the original Star Wars trilogy; all that followed start with "S." Similarly, Raiders of the Lost Ark belongs under "R," not "I" as in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Conversely, all films in the LOTR series belong under "L" and all films in the Chronicles of Narnia series belong under "C," as that's what those filmmakers called their films from the start. In other words, movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgement to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned.

4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number's word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under "T."

5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type "alphabet meme" into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google.

6. If you're selected, you have to then select 5 more people.

I should ’fess up here: I haven’t actually been tagged. But to quote McWatt in ‘Catch-22’, “Oh well, what the hell.”

Here’s my ABC of literary adaptations. Links where reviews have already been posted, reviews of the remainder to follow in due course:

All the Pretty Horses (Billy Bob Thornton, 2000; based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy)

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982; based on the novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K Dick)

Clockwork Orange, A (Stanley Kubrick, 1971; based on the novel by Anthony Burgess)

Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972; based on the novel by James Dickey)

Exorcist, The (William Friedkin, 1973; based on the novel by William Peter Blatty)

Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999; based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk)

Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946; based on the novel by Charles Dickens)

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The (Garth Jennings, 2005; based on the novel by Douglas Adams)

Innocents, The (Jack Clayton, 1961; based on the novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James)

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975; based on the novel by Peter Benchley)

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Robert Bierman, 1997; based on the novel by George Orwell)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997; based on the novel by James Ellroy)

Man Who Would be King, The (John Huston, 1975; based on the short story by Rudyard Kipling)

No Country for Old Men (Coen Bros, 2007; based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy)

Our Man in Havana (Carol Reed, 1959; based on the novel by Graham Greene)

Prestige, The (Christopher Nolan, 2006; based on the novel by Christopher Priest)

Quiet Man, The (John Ford, 1952; based on the short story by Maurice Walsh)

Remains of the Day, The (James Ivory, 1993; based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro)

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960; based on the novel by Alan Sillitoe)

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007; based on the novel ‘Oil!’ by Upton Sinclair)

Under the Volcano (John Huston, 1984; based on the novel by Malcolm Lowry)

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958; based on the novel ‘D’Entre les Morts’ by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac)

Whisky Galore (Alexander Mackendrick, 1949; based on the novel by Compton McKenzie)

XXY (Lucia Puenzo, 2007; based on the short story ‘Cinismo’ by Sergio Bizzio)

You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967; based on the novel by Ian Fleming)

Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969; based on the novel by Vasilis Vasilikos)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: That Obscure Object of Desire

Starting with the title, let’s ask: the object of whose desire, and how come she’s so obscure? Our, ahem, ‘hero’ and narrator Mathieu (the incomparable Fernando Rey) is the man who’s got it bad. The object (how flattering a term!) is dancer Conchita, and so skewed is Mathieu’s perspective that he sees her as two women. One, voluptuous and sensual (played by Angela Molina) inflames his passions; the other, elegant and cool to the point of icy (Carole Bouquet), continually denies him.

We’re in Luis Bunuel territory, all right.

The usual targets are lined up (Bunuel’s films often come across as the cinematic equivalent of a shooting range): the middle classes* (Mathieu is a wealthy businessman who utilises his contacts in the legal profession to get his way – or resorts to bribery if that fails); the church (Conchita’s supposedly God-fearing mother takes Mathieu up on a financial offer vis-√†-vis her daughter); and the state (the battle of the sexes is played out against a backdrop of terrorist activity).

This is a film that could have been made this year and would have proved scathingly satirical and ridden to box office glory on a wave of controversy. Bunuel made it thirty-one years ago.

Mathieu narrates his saga of desire and frustration to his fellow passengers during a train journey. Present in his compartment – and sly personifications of these themes – are a lawyer (officialdom), a psychiatrist (apposite, given the nature of Mathieu’s obsession and the duality of his perception of Conchita), and a mother and daughter (symbolic of the family unit Mathieu is bastardising in buying off Conchita’s mother). The funniest scene in the film has the teenage daughter brusquely sent out into the corridor as Mathieu describes his night of non-consummation.

Presupposing Steve Martin’s hilarious almost-couplings with Kathleen Turner in ‘The Man With Two Brains’, Mathieu very nearly gets his way. Conchita, furious at her mother’s bargain with Mathieu, nonetheless agrees to live with him but begins treating him as little more than a sugar daddy, sponging off him while holding out against the necessity of intercourse for as long as possible.

Their first night sees him enter the bedroom with Conchita (Molina); she excuses herself to the bathroom and dons a nightgown, leaving it unbuttoned, her d√©colletage exposed. The Conchita who rejoins him (Bouquet) is dressed demurely and allows him the briefest of caresses before saying, “Not yet, I’m not in the mood now.”

Mathieu becomes forceful. Conchita acquiesces, but insists he extinguish the candles. “Don’t celebrate your victory too soon,” she warns as darkness embraces them. Grunting in shock, he stumbles out of bed and re-illuminates the candles. Beneath her nightdress, a silken arrangement of ribbons and bows; quite alluring, but preventative in its design. Or, to put it bluntly, if Ann Summers had designed a chastity belt, that’s what Mathieu finds himself doing battle with.

“I struggled with it for fifteen minutes,” he tells his fellow passengers sadly. “I was incensed … It was impossible to remove it.”

The final bitter joke of ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’ is, of course, that Mathieu never gets his wicked little way. Bunuel’s subject is the concept of a woman for whom one’s passion is unrequited as having two sides: the yin and yang of erotic allure and physical unattainability. Casting two actresses in the same role is the perfect realisation. And in structuring an entire film around a besotted man being denied sex, Bunuel achieves cinema’s most absolute – and phenomenally witty – comment on sexual frustration.

*Not for nothing is one of his most famous works entitled ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise’.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: Great name for a porn star, eh?

It’s a year to the day since I started The Agitation of the Mind and I’d planned on posting a rambling kind of entry yesterday about the hit-and-miss ratio of new material on the site and how I see the blog progressing, then following up with a review of one of the Personal Faves today.

However, a dinner party yesterday evening for my sister-in-law and her partner turned into something of an all-nighter, the conversation flowing, the wine really flowing, and some good whisky doing the rounds just for good measure. That I made it into work today is a feat. That I didn’t get fired owing to the state I was in is miraculous.

So, the rambling kind of entry will have to do as The Agitation of the Mind’s birthday present, and the Personal Faves article will have to wait for the weekend.

’Kay. Let the ramble commence. I’ll get the unfortunately necessary blowing-of-one’s-own-trumpet bit out of the way first:

Outside of blogging, I have published three books on cinema: ‘The Films of Sam Peckinpah’, ‘One Hundred Violent Films That Changed Cinema’ and – don’t tell my mother I wrote this one, she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse – ‘One Hundred Sex Scenes That Changed Cinema’. I wrote that one for the money, honest.

They’re all available through Amazon; the Peckinpah one is the best.

(Parenthetically, ‘Violent Films’ got a write-up on Mr Wonderful’s Review Of Books just last month. Here’s an excerpt: “Being that the author is British, more British films are included in his listings than a jingoistic American might have thought proper. Also, the British author, Neil Fulwood (great name for a porn star eh?) sides with the far left politically in the United States, and oddly expresses more hatred for war than is typically expressed by the actual opponents in a war.” So there you have it: I’m left-wing peacenik limey who ought to be starring in Bareback Mountain 3.)

These books were published between 2001 and 2003. Although I pitched several other ideas – a critique of Steven Soderbergh’s oeuvre, a study of the Ealing films, something on Powell & Pressburger – no further commissions were forthcoming and, beyond the odd poem or review in the small press, I’ve published nothing since.

Four years ago, I tried my hand at a novel. A crime thriller. Had a blast writing it, but the narrative was swamped with backstory and I struggled with the discipline of maintaining a constant output over the weeks and months it takes to complete a 90,000 word manuscript.

Since then, I’ve had three more tries at writing a novel. I fell by the wayside each time. A couple of months ago, I came up with (in my humble opinion) a fucking great idea. I’m not going to say anything about it because I can see no surer way of jinxing myself. I held off commencing work while I thought it through, made notes, got my head around the narrative arc, let the characters develop in my imagination. I also held off because I was apprehensive about starting. I didn’t want to fuck up again.

Last month, however, I started writing and, with only a couple of lapses I’ve kept to a discipline of working on the project for an hour each evening. This, along with the day job, car problems and (amazingly) a still-functional social life, has left me with little time to write for The Agitation of the Mind (although the brief burst of Hallowe’en activity was fun: I enjoyed dashing off those impromptu pieces).

What I don’t want to do is abandon the blog or let it stagnate. I enjoy it too much. So, for the next few months at least (I’m not confident to speculate on how long the novel will take), I’ll endeavour to post at least one new article per week at some point during the weekend. Ideally, I’d like to feature more material than that, so I’ll end the ramble on an open offer:

If anyone wants to contribute an article – long, short, whatever: I don’t mind if you send me a haiku on an epic – on anything cinema related, please email it, in Word format, to with the title in the subject box. Any editing will be with your agreement, and authorship will be acknowledged (unless you want to do the Anon thing). Over to you.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A rare political interlude

Dear Mr Obama

Congratulations on your election victory. The phrase “making history” is often bandied about in the media, usually out of context and always with the tang of hyperbole.

In your case, however, it happens to be a simple statement of fact.

It is not just remarkable because of your ethnicity and comparative youth; the sheer scale of voter turnout is perhaps unprecedented and represents a laudable pro-activeness on the part of the American public. Your victory represents a massive sea-change in American thinking. Your administration has the opportunity to fulfil an equally positive sea-change in American politics.

I will confess to having always been sceptical about politics. Here in my native England, I have never voted for anyone; I have always used my vote as a vote against. Your countrymen, however, have overwhelmingly voted for.

It has long been my opinion that a politician – however progressive and humanitarian their principles and policies – is still shackled to the huge machinery of government and that by ascending to leadership of a party, or of a country, they have automatically received custodianship of a poisoned chalice; have already become compromised.

I think – I hope – that you have the potential to prove me wrong on this.

You also have the potential to re-represent America to the rest of the world (indeed, you have already begun doing this). You have the potential steer America away from the course your predecessor so ill-advisedly set it on.

Good luck and good wishes,

Neil Fulwood