Monday, April 30, 2012

1000th post: 40 for 40

Today marks my 1000th post on The Agitation of the Mind, as well as my 40th birthday. The gimmick was too good to pass up: I took 40 DVDs, all staples of the collection, and took a screengrab at the fortieth minute. (If you’re wondering why John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, one of my absolute favourite films of all time, isn’t represented, it’s because there’s a fade to black at exactly forty minutes.)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Exit Through the Gift Shop

The last art documentary I watched, Amir Bar-Lev’s ‘My Kid Could Paint That’, started out as one thing (a chronicle of the impact a four-year-old girl’s canvases had on the art world) and turned into something else (an investigation into the authenticity of her work). Ditto Banksy’s ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, except that instead of a precocious four-year-old we have a frankly bonkers French guy.

Before we go any further, a word about Banksy. His identity is shrouded in secrecy, mainly because the public dissemination of his work is done in such a manner as to invite calls from the Old Bill and appearances before the beak. The phrase “art terrorist” is perhaps overused, with anyone whose aesthetic is informed by anti-authoritarianism laying claim to the epithet, but Banksy is the real deal. An art terrorist – in a good way.

At the basest level, the guy’s a graffiti artist. But with style. Irreverent, subversive, often darkly comical, his work is iconic in the proper sense of the word. And you have to give kudos to a man who tagged the West Bank with images of children borne by balloons floating over the wall or the wall itself shattered to reveal idyllic vistas. Oh, and his picture of the two gay cops … still makes me snigger every time I see a policeman stomping around like he’s some authentic James Ellroy badass.

So. Banksy: artist, activist, provocateur, enigma. And – this is my impression, at least – a world-class piss-taker. Again, in a good way. So I’m inclined to view ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ as an elaborate, deadpan, beautifully constructed hoax, the work of a dementedly inspired parodist with a spray-can in one hand and a megaphone in the other, a pseudonymous harlequin in a hoodie gleefully using the tools of one art form to expose the hypocrisies of another.

If, however, the story depicted in the documentary is accurate, then the truth really is stranger than fiction. In a nutshell, ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a US-based Frenchman with a successful boutique and an obsession with filming everything. He films his family, his staff, his customers, random people on the street, and even celebrities. Then he discovers that his cousin is the street artist Invader and follows him as he displays his work publically on the side of buildings and without necessarily getting permission from the owners of the buildings in question. Buildings like, y’know, the Eiffel Tower. 

Through Invader, Guetta meets Shepard Fairey – whose “Obey” series is a brilliant exercise in repetition and whose Obama “hope” poster is a cringe-making throwback to Soviet-era propaganda – and becomes his documentarist-cum-assistant. This is Guetta’s ticket into the street art underworld and he starts having big dreams of creating the definitive documentary on the movement. Due to the transient nature of much of their work (i.e. the predisposition of building owners and local councils to hose off or paint over them), many street artists were happy to have Guetta capture their creations.

Guetta still needed one almost mythic figure to complete his magnum opus: Banksy. Through a series of coincidences that even Dickens might have rejected as contrived, Guetta ends up acting as Banksy’s gopher during an LA visit, and later follows him back to the UK. His presence causes dissensions in the Banksy camp for obvious reasons: being an identity-free enigma and being filmed 24/7 aren’t exactly conducive concepts. Eventually, though, Banksy puts him on the spot and Guetta knuckles down to editing thousands of hours of footage into a 90 minute film called ‘Life Remote Control’. It sucks. Banksy encourages Guetta, who by now has started producing his own street art under the name Mr Brainwash, to go back to the States and put together his own exhibition, leaving Banksy to trawl through the tapes and try his hand and assembling them into something coherent.

This is where things get very bizarre. Guetta throws himself into producing his own show – at a cost of selling his business, remortgaging his house and putting his and his family’s livelihood on the line. The man turns into a reality-challenged egomaniac. He talks Fairey and Banksy into championing his show, an extravaganza entitled ‘Life is Beautiful’. Against all odds, and without doing much in the way of creating art himself (he simply hires people to realise his ideas), Guetta – oh, sorry, Mr Brainwash – becomes the toast of the arty-farty art world and sells about a million dollars’ worth of product.

Now, much of the film’s content is verifiable, from Guetta’s US citizenship to the fact that, helpfully, the ‘Life is Beautiful’ exhibition (stuffed, as it was, full of work that simply borrowed concepts from everyone from Warhol through to Banksy) actually happened. Additionally, Mr Brainwash has his own website, and trailers for ‘Life Remote Control’ were posted on YouTube as far back as 2006, four years before ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ premiered. Incredibly elaborate if the film is a hoax. But not improbable.

You see, ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is about the ephemerality of modern art, the artist as a construct, and the eternal lure – even for practitioners of street art – of snobbery, sales and celebrity. Fairey sold out with his Obama poster. Banksy’s work sells for ridiculous figures while the compilation of photographs of his street (i.e. free) art into a coffee table book with a £20 price tag seems at odds with the mindset behind the work. Guetta, either as willing accomplice or pitiful dupe, is too perfect a foil, too effective a metaphor for the pretentiousness of the art world. I can only take ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ as a j’ (self) accuse.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Avengers Assemble

‘Iron Man’ started it all, coming out of nowhere with the unlikeliest choice for director, and – whaddaya know? – it was pretty damned good. ‘The Incredible Hulk’ delivered a strong first half before degenerating into silliness and tedium with an arse-numblingly interminable denouement which basically featured two screensavers repeatedly twatting each other. ‘Iron Man 2’ wasn’t all it could have been, but featured a couple of stand-out set-pieces and a rollicking performance from Mickey Rourke. ‘Thor’ was hit-and-miss and proved (if ‘Frankenstein’ hadn’t already tipped us off) that Kenneth Branagh is best restricted to quirky low-budget character-driven movies and not mainstream blockbusters.

Then came ‘Captain America’ and – whaddaya know part two? – it was clear that Marvel Studios had got their game on again.

Now we have ‘Avengers Assemble’ (a last-minute retitling lest anyone confuse it with Jeremiah Chechik’s 1998 ├╝ber-flop) and I took my seat with some trepidation. I had two big worries: there would be too many protagonists for whom screen-time would have to be found; and they’d have to face a threat so overwhelming that things could easily get OTT. And, to a greater or lesser degree, both those concerns remain inherent in the final product. But, with so much expectation – and so much riding on it in terms of future franchise instalments – I have to give writer/director Joss Whedon credit for just going for it with such balls-to-the-wall bravado. The man could easily have found himself in possession of a poisoned chalice. As it is, he serves up a generous measure of something that, even if it isn’t the finest or headiest wine, certainly goes down nicely while you’re partaking of it and never mind that it’s a tad forgettable afterwards.

So what’s it all about? Remember Thor (Chris Hemsworth)’s treacherous half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) in ‘Thor’? Remember the Tesseract, that blue glowing thing that looks like the bastard offspring of a drunken fumble between a Rubik’s cube and a lava lamp, from ‘Thor’ and ‘Captain America’? Well, Loki steals it from SHIELD – royally pissing off head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, finally getting to have some fun with the character after all those cameos) – with the intention of using it to open a portal so that his new best buds, an alien race who want to destroy earth for pretty much the same reason that some people climb Everest (because it’s there), can bring a fuckton of high tech weaponry to the party and start some shit.

The Tesseract theft makes for a scene-setting pre-credits sequence, after which Whedon gets straight down to business which a “rounding up the team” sequence. Here, his opening shot is the best with Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, looking hot and kicking ass with the best of ’em), in a perilous situation which she effortlessly turns to her advantage. In short order, we’re then re-introduced to Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, taking over from Edward Norton and doing a sterling job – he really communicates a sense of Banner’s battered but still noble humanity), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr, on cruise control for most of the movie) and Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans, recapturing the pitch-perfect tone of his erstwhile performance). Mismatched and conflicting in terms of their characters, they go after Loki. Then Thor – who has unfinished Loki-based business of his own – comes crashing into the plot and things go haywire.

Whedon has huge fun throwing his antagonistic protagonists together and turning up the heat under the slanging matches and in-fighting. Loki, a grinning nemesis given to Bond villain style speechifying and grotesque flights of egomania, plays them like a piano concerto, even when ostensibly in captivity. Entering its middle act, the film flags a little with the tit-for-tat my-super-power’s-better-than-your-super-power bickering becoming laboured and repetitive. Then Loki’s cohorts bring the fight directly to Fury’s command centre, while his alien backers get tired of waiting and the invasion of earth grows immient. At this point, Whedon changes horses in mid-stream and the in-jokey, fan-boy-friendly storyline segues into a symphony of destruction akin to Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay having a “who can blow up more buildings, trash more cars and conjure more orgasmic explosions” contest in the streets of Manhattan.

It’s not the only stylistic gear-shift Whedon effects. Inspired bits of comedic nonsense (how Loki is finally overpowered is so unapologetically juvenile that it had that audience I saw the film with in hysterics) awkwardly rub shoulders with po-faced serious moments that don’t really have any business in this kind of movie, while Whedon goes for one tub-thumping bit of patriotism too much, particularly in a montage towards the end which evokes (and cheapens) memories of 9/11.

As I said earlier, it’s enjoyable but forgettable. An hour and a half after I got home from the cinema, and I’m struggling to recall certain details. I’m screwed if I can remember what the alien race was called. It sounded like the Chihuahuas. And while we’re on the subject, the scenes on the alien planet are just plain dreadful.

So: better than ‘Iron Man 2’ and ‘Thor’ on points, not as good as the first half of ‘The Incredible Hulk’ but much better than its second half, straggling behind the original ‘Iron Man’ and nowhere near as good as ‘Captain America’. Not an unmitigated disaster, and perhaps as good as it was ever going to be, but with ‘Iron Man 3’ and ‘Captain America 2’ slated for next year and the year after, I’d say the Marvel franchise is a safer bet as individual projects rather than ensemble movies.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Thunderball

The story behind ‘Thunderball’ is arguably more eventful than either the resulting novel or film, so let’s spend a few hundred words on it.

Four years before Saltzman and Broccoli kicked off the movie franchise with ‘Dr No’, Ian Fleming was already looking towards a big-screen incarnation of his protagonist. It was 1958 and Fleming’s friend Ivar Bryce put him in touch with Kevin McClory, a writer/director on the verge of making his debut with a film called ‘The Boy and the Bridge’. Another mutual friend of Fleming’s and Bryce’s – Ernest Cuneo (to whom the novel ‘Thunderball’ is dedicated) – joined the party and the foursome formed a production company, Xanadu Productions.

Taking Xanadu – pace Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the name of Charles Kane’s palatial bolthole in Orson Welles’s ‘Citizen Kane’ – as an elaborate folly, the name couldn’t have been better chosen.

Between the formation of Xanadu Productions and McClory’s ‘The Boy and the Bridge’ opening to public disinterest and meagre box office takings (at which point Fleming’s interest in making a film nosedived), the four men collaborated, to various degrees, on a basic idea involving a stolen plane and underwater action sequences which mutated through about ten different treatments and/or screenplay drafts. In late 1959, with Fleming about to depart on a round-the-world tour for a travelogue commissioned by The Sunday Times, McClory engaged the services of Jack Whittingham, who had two decades’ experience writing for film. With Whittingham on board, a full treatment was completed, followed quickly by a script. Whittingham and McClory’s title was ‘Longitude 78 West’. Fleming approved, albeit with the suggestion that it be retitled ‘Thunderball’.

The script never made it into production. Fleming, who customarily spent two months at his Jamaican house, Goldeneye, where he bashed out that year’s Bond novel working on a 2,000 words per day discipline interrupted only by snorkelling and Martinis, sat down at his typewriter in January 1960 and basically wrote a novelization. When, in 1961, McClory got hold of an advance copy of ‘Thunderball’, to say he was a tad miffed would be putting it mildly. He and Whittingham sued Fleming, initially petitioning to prevent publication. The High Court allowed ‘Thunderball’ to be published, but sanctioned any future action against Fleming by McClory and Whittingham.

Fast forward to 1963, Bond has gone big-screen in a big way, and McClory is suing Fleming for plagiarism. Unwell (the author had only nine months left to live), Fleming acceded to Bryce’s suggestion that he settle out of court. The deal: Fleming retained rights to the novel, subsequent editions to carry the acknowledgement “based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and the Author” (my 2008 centenary edition has this in very small letters); McClory gained the literary and film rights for the screenplay.

This put producers Saltzman and Broccoli in the compromised position of having to bring McClory on board as producer for the film version. The deal they cut him allowed for remake rights, but not until ten years after the release of ‘Thunderball’. In the event, McClory waited almost twenty, producing ‘Never Say Never Again’ (featuring Connery in his unofficial return to the role) in 1983. The script was reworked by Lorenzo Semple Jnr with uncredited additions, on Connery’s insistence, from Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais (the background to ‘Never Say Never Again’ demands its own article); Irvin Kershner directed. ‘The Boy and the Bridge’ would remain McClory’s only directorial outing. McClory spent much of his career trying to kick-start his own rival Bond franchise and in the 90s unsuccessfully pitched a re-remake of ‘Thunderball’, under the frankly rubbish title ‘Warhead 2000’, starring Liam Neeson. It didn’t happen.

The Fleming-McClory/‘Thunderball’-‘Never Say Never Again’-‘Warhead 2000’ saga – spanning one novel, two films, and four decades – yielded enough material for a book of its own, Robert Sellers’s ‘The Battle for Bond’. Almost inevitably, this publication created its own flurry of controversy. The Ian Fleming Will Trust, apparently unhappy at the unapproved use of quotes from Fleming’s private papers, took action against the publisher, resulting in a hastily issued second edition, shorn of the contentious passages and unsubtly marketed as “the book they tried to ban”.

All of which brings us, 700 words into this review, to the film itself. ‘Goldfinger’ had made Bond an icon; ‘Thunderball’ rode its popularity to box office glory. Adjusting its box office take for inflation, ‘Thunderball’ is arguably the most successful entry in the franchise. Marking Terence Young’s return to the director’s chair (albeit for the last time on a 007 production), it establishes a few “firsts” in the oeuvre: the first Bond film to clock in at over two hours, and the first to be shot in Scope (only ‘Live and Let Die’ and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ would revert to 1:85 ratio).

It’s also – at least in my opinion – the first Bond film to feel just a little bit perfunctory. The pre-credits sequence, while reintroducing some of the “modifications” on the Aston Martin DB5 from ‘Goldfinger’ (and seemingly forgetting that it got written off in that film), throws in a jet-pack for good measure, promising all kinds of high-flying fun and games. Yet its mini-story, involving a fake funeral and Bond (Connery)’s revenge on the assassin of his colleagues, plays out in muted colours, without any of the style or urgency of the explosive opening to ‘Goldfinger’, and features a bit of hand-to-hand that’s pretty shoddily staged and edited. This done, it’s on to the plot proper as Bond, convalescing at a health farm, becomes suspicious of a fellow guest. He’s right to be: conspiracy is afoot, and SPECTRE are behind it all. But before Bond can get a handle on things, a meticulously detailed plan is put into operation, an RAF bomber is hijacked, two atomic devices disappear and our old buddy Ernst Stavo Blofield (again unseen, again played by Anthony Dawson) is holding the world to ransom for … one hundred million pounds. (Yeah, take that, Dr Evil!)

The only lead is a French NATO pilot who was onboard the bomber; his sister, Domino (Claudine Auger), is holidaying in Nassau, so Bond convinces M (Bernard Lee) that it’s worth, ahem, checking her out, so it’s off to the Bahamas for a little sun, sea, sand and sex (oh, and a bit of spying, not that you’d notice) while the shadow of atomic destruction hangs over the free world. Unusually for a Bond movie, however, 007 doesn’t get his briefing from M till 45 minutes into the film. Terence Young spends a quite a bit of time setting out his stall, observing the intricacies of the SPECTRE plan – overseen by the suitably villainous Emilio Largo (Aldofo Celi) – with an attention to detail which brings to mind that of, say, John Frankenheimer charting the movements of Von Waldheim and LaBiche’s respective locomotives as if they were pieces on a chessboard in ‘The Train’. It’s easily my favourite part of the film.

When Bond gets to Nassau, commences his dalliance with Domino, starts staking out Largo’s operation and does his best to avoid death at the hands of SPECTRE hitwoman Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), the film settles into a steady plod. It’s never boring, and there are a few scenes which turn the heat up a bit – Bond’s encounter with Largo’s pet sharks; Fiona and her henchmen stalking Bond through a carnival – but there’s no major set-piece, nothing really iconic goes on and everyone just seems to be marking time ready for the big finale: an underwater battle followed by some derring-do on Largo’s hydrofoil yacht. But before we don the snorkel and oxygen tank, let’s cast an eye over the Bond girls.

In the novel, Domino is Italian; the film makes her French in line with Auger’s nationality (she was Miss France 1958, sexism fans). Likewise, Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins’s original draft of the script had Fiona as a flame-haired Irish femme fatale, Fiona Kelly. With Paluzzi delivering the goods in the redhead stakes but not the Gaelic ones, the character’s name was changed to Fiona Volpe, Fiona being – y’know – a traditional Italian girl’s name. In all fairness, though, Paluzzi is pretty awesome and certainly captures the imagination in a way Auger doesn’t.

Adolfo Celi makes for a pretty intimidating villain; he’s ostensibly sophisticated in the way of most Bond nemeses, but Celi’s brooding physicality leaves you in no doubt that, under the surface, Largo is a thug – and a brutally efficient one at that. Speaking of “under the surface”, let’s effect an inelegant segue into the final section of this review (and with another 700 words on the clock since I last hit the word count button, it’s probably high time I started wrapping it up): the sub-aquatic stuff.

Fleming was a big scuba-diving fan and several of his novels feature highly descriptive passages of marine life. ‘Thunderball’ contains a remarkable sequence, sadly not replicated in the film, where Bond swims through the fuselage of a submerged aircraft to find it alive with octopi – “a red-eyed catacomb”. It’s surreal, creepy, and one of the very few moments in the Bond bibliography where the usually unflappable agent seriously loses his cool.

With a budget of $9million – a huge increase compared to the incremental pattern of ‘Dr No’ ($1million), ‘From Russia with Love’ ($2million) and ‘Goldfinger’ ($3million) – the filmmakers invested a hell of a lot in the underwater sequences. Some $90,000 was invested in diving equipment alone, while Largo’s yacht set the production back a cool half million. You know that old saw about how it’s all up there on screen? That’s certainly true of ‘Thunderball’ … perhaps to its detriment. There are five major bits of sub-aquatic shenanigans: the scuppering of the hijacked bomber and its camouflage on the sea bed; Bond’s nocturnal assessment of the yacht; Bond’s escape from Largo’s shark pool; Largo’s transfer of the atomic devices to the yacht; and the harpoons ‘n’ scuba gear free-for-all which occupies most of the last quarter of an hour and seems like a hell of a lot longer. These scenes grow increasingly interminable, as if, having spent so much on them, Young and the producers were damned if they weren’t going edit every goddamn bit of undersea footage into the final cut.

In the climatic battle, Bond and CIA contact Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter)’s American reserves wear red wetsuits; Largo’s bunch of all-purpose bad guys – appropriately enough – wear black. So when you get a shot like this one (he’s a good guy) …

… or this one (he isn’t) …

… things are fine. But there are way too many shots like this one …

… where the screen is full of indistinguishable figures framed in meaningless tableaux. After three or four minutes, it was a case of full fathom five my capacity to give a shit lies. And the appalling speeded-up footage which constitutes Bond’s mano-a-mano smackdown with Largo … let us not speak of it. In fact, let us speak of just two more things:

Early release prints promised that James Bond would return in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, but production difficulties resulted in ‘You Only Live Twice’ being selected as the next instalment and the credit was dropped.

The theme song is by Tom Jones. Johnny Cash actually submitted a song. Johnny Cash. Someone laid it over the opening credits and posted it on YouTube. Here’s the link. If 2,000 words on what isn’t even in my top five favourite Bond movies isn’t enough to make you question your sanity, this just might.