Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The British Transport Films Collection

This hefty box set collects 125 railway-related public information films in nine volumes across eighteen DVDs. With the public information film a thing of the past, the set fulfils several roles: a social document for historians, nostalgia for those of an age to remember steam rail, and a 40-hour nerdgasm for transport buffs. 

It’s also interesting to look at these films as examples of the filmmakers art, since they were all designed for limited runs at cinemas prior to the main feature. You know, back in the day when you got a newsreel, some cartoons and a B-movie as well as the film you’d actually paid your money to see. Instead of the half hour of flashy, vapid adverts you get now. Particularly for cars and expensive European lager. Fuck lager.

Sorry: I got distracted there. Where were we? Ah, yes: public information films. Interesting, as I say, to look at as examples of the short feature. But not interesting enough that I was going to wade through the entire box set (which I borrowed from my dad under the misapprehension that it contained Basil Wright’s classic ‘Night Mail’. It doesn’t.) I watched a few shorts from volume one, and the results were mixed.

If I couldn’t have the poetry of W.H. Auden and the music of Benjamin Britten (what other public information film boasts such cachet? even the sound director was Alberto Cavalcanti, six years off making the wartime classic ‘Went the Day Well?’), I settled for ‘John Betjeman Goes by Train’ (1962). Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of Betjeman’s work – I find it parochial and often trite. Betjeman as host during a short rail journey (Kings Lynn to Hunstanton – not a route that was ever going to steal the Canadian Pacific’s romanticism) is far more appealing, particularly when he disembarks from the train to deliver a short monologue on station architecture or gently remind the audience that Snettisham is pronounced Snetsham and never mind how it’s spelled. There’s a winsomeness to him and touch of eccentricity. Like a favourite uncle. Unobtrusively directed by Malcolm Freegard (he simply lets Betjeman be himself and makes sure the camera crew get some good location shots), this 10-minuter was a co-production of British Transport Films and the BBC. Betjeman was something of a favourite with BBC audiences, and it’s a shame the corporation didn’t send him on more railway journeys. He was far better company than the oleaginous Michael Portillo is today.

‘Elizabethan Express’ (1954) also correlates poetry and railways. Here, the film is narrated in rhyming couplets, and two problems immediately emerge: scriptwriter Paul Le Saux was no poet, and narrators Howard Marion-Crawford and Alan Wheatley rattle off the lines with the clipped indifference of Radio Four newsreaders. There’s no nuance or sensitivity to the words, which leaves the piece entirely reliant on its images. Fortunately director Tony Thomson and his three-man camera team capture some evocative black and white footage, particularly in those scenes which document the cramped, sweaty conditions on the footplate – steam rail is only glamorous and nostalgic as long as you’re a passenger. At 20 minutes, though, ‘Elizabethan Express’ is overlong.

‘Blue Pullman’ (1962) was the most visually interesting feature I watched. Documenting the implementation of a commuter-specific diesel-electric express from trials through to the first day of regular service, the film opens with a series of wordless tracking shots through empty carriages as the Pullman hurtles at 90mph through the countryside. The camera lingers on various pieces of equipment recording vibration and camber on bends. There’s something almost surreal about the train’s emptiness: it’s like watching a weird conflation of ‘The Lady Vanishes’ and ’28 Days Later’. Things settle into a conventional documentary narrative less than halfway into its 25 minutes (again: too long) as technicians discuss the Pullman’s capabilities and expected performance. Most of the contributors are stilted and obviously nervous in front of the camera. Director James Ritchie seems aware and ensures there are plenty of aerial shots emphasizing the train’s speed and distinctive livery. As with all of these films, I can imagine them being of limited interest to general audiences, but there’s no denying that ‘Blue Pullman’ must have looked damned good on the big screen.

With a title that suggests a Peter Davidson era ‘Doctor Who’ episode, ‘Cybernetica’ (1972) was a commission for the Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer and explores the infrastructure of the European railway system and the computerisation of booking systems. Either subject could have made for a decent 10 minute short, and there was no reason for ‘Cybernetica’ to be anything other than visually impressive. Unfortunately, the execution is bollocksed in every conceivable manner. The shoddily filmed opening sequence is architecture porn of the dullest variety. The smarmy commentary by Michael Aspel (an inexplicably popular talkshow host from the 1970s with all the personality of a toilet roll holder) focuses on “three pretty girls crossing Europe” and Trevor Roe’s camera gets its male gaze on and forgets all about those pesky trains. There are occasional cutaways to whirring, clunking mainframes encased in acres of solid plastic that you realise with a sudden shock of recognition are what computers used to look like; but then Aspel starts drooling over the “ghurls” again. The casual sexism is appalling, and I stuck 10 of its 20 minutes before voting with my feet … or at least my thumb on the remote control.

‘On Track for the Eighties’ (1980) was the last of the shorts that I watched. Opening uncharacterisatically with shots of earth movers and heavy goods vehicles, its swift 15 minutes establish British Rail’s freight operations as part of a larger transport infrastructure including road and sea. Footage of hovercraft dates the film more effectively than any of the fashions or hairstyles on display. In fact there are very little of either. Unlike most of these British Transport Films, the focus isn’t on passengers or the perceived glamour of rail travel, but on industry and modernisation. ‘On Track for the Eighties’ was the last of British Transport Films’ occasional “rail reports” series, but one doesn’t even need to be aware of this elegiac fact to realise that what director John Legard captured here wasn’t simply a slick bit of PR but a picture of an industrially-confident Britain taking its last throw of the dice before the axe of Thatcherism descended.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow

The chief pleasures of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ are threefold: 

1. The sight of Tom Cruise playing a shallow, self-interested yellowbelly (at least during the early stretches of the movie) and necessarily emerging with a far more interesting performance than the central casting man of action that the script obligatorily has him morph into by the end;

2. The sight of Emily Blunt playing a pumped-up kick-ass action heroine for enough of the movie that her character’s nom-de-guerre “Full Metal Bitch” is more than earned;

3. The best take on the “protagonist continually relives same day” concept since ‘Groundhog Day’.

Note that “best since” should not be considered a synonym for “as good as”. What makes ‘Groundhog Day’ the exemplar of its particular subgenre is that it takes a hard sci-fi concept and yolks it to a romantic comedy narrative that has absolutely nothing to do with the science fiction genre. As with ‘Pleasantville’, it establishes its high concept bit of metaphysical chicanery straightaway and proceeds with such verve, likeability and imaginative energy that the audience don’t stop to ponder whether the suspension of disbelief has actually been earned. This might sound like a statement of the obvious, but consider how laboriously the likes of ‘Source Code’ and ‘Looper’ hammer home their big conceptual raisons d’etre, continually reiterating the rules and spewing exposition left, right and centre.

‘Edge of Tomorrow’ delivers two or three scenes of exposition dump but does so with brio and economy. One moment in particular (the massive suspension of disbelief bit which explains how an alien thingy can reset time) is done with such a sense of “thank fuck for that, we’ve figured it out, now we can go and twat the fucker” that audience response is less likely to be cynicism and mockery than a genuine gung-ho imperative to go kill alien thingies and then celebrate by adorning their collective bedroom walls with a poster of Emily Blunt in a khaki tee-shirt touting a weapon the size of Big Ben.

Speaking of Big Ben, the film is surprisingly set in the UK and Europe (the trailers made it look generically Stateside). A montage of news reports swiftly sets the scene: some unseen menace has been royally fucking up humanity and casualties are off the scale; however, a recent victory in war-ravaged France has (a) suggested a turning of the tide, and (b) made a poster girl of Sgt Rita Vrataski, a.k.a. Full Metal Bitch, a.k.a. the Angel of Verdun. Hold on to that last moniker: we’ll revisit it in a moment. 

Into the heart of the London-based command centre comes Major William Cage (Cruise), a former ad man now in charge of military PR: his toothpaste-commercial grin and slick interview technique have helped boost recruitment. When his new commanding officer General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) orders him to participate in a frontline amphibious assault on the coast of France in order to portray the glorious fight with even greater immediacy, Cage gets the willies and talk his way out of it. When this fails, he tries to blackmail Brigham.

Bad move.

Brigham’s security staff tazer Cage as he tries to make a run for it. He wakes up to the less than tender mercies of Master Sgt Farell (Bill Paxton, earning himself the Agitation of the Mind “man of the match” award for an absolute pearl of a performance that can only be described as what Clint Eastwood’s character in ‘Heartbreak Ridge’ would have been like if Eastwood hadn’t turned up on the first day of shooting and they’d cast Dirk Bogarde instead) who takes no small degree of pleasure in informing Cage that he’s now a member of a suicide squad.

Outfitted in one of those exoskeleton suits that every sci-fi movie between ‘Aliens’ and ‘Avatar’ has drooled over, Cage and his fellow cannon/alien fodder are dropped onto a beach in France. As you’d expect, he buys the farm pretty quickly. Then he wakes up to the less than tender mercies of Master Sgt Farell who … but you’ll have figured out the reset/restart element of the narrative already.

The beach assault is where ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ simultaneously gets its action movie funk on and becomes rather troublesome. The plus points first: it’s one hell of a sustained set-piece, with a good third of the movie concentrating on how Cage assimilates specific life-or-death details in order to progress further than a few yards inland without dying horribly; the effects are spot on; and the first glimpses of the alien thingies are pure nightmare – a sudden explosion of movement, a suggestion of tentacles, and the attack is all over in an impressionistic blur. Actual definition of the creatures, let alone their hierarchy (which becomes a key plot point), is withheld until much later in the proceedings. Also, the means by which Cage’s endlessly relived day take him in different directions – from callous survivalism as he lets his comrades die to a side-mission in which he enlists Vrataski’s help – are effected by the steady accretion of detail without ever seeming repetitive, which is no small feat.

There are, however, problems. The whole Angel of Verdun/allied beachhead aspects set up parallels with the First and Second World Wars so explicit that the film becomes freighted with a subtext it hasn’t earned, doesn’t deserve and can’t possibly hope to justify. In fact, the longer it goes on, with the sci-fi concept milked for all its worth and the character dynamics degenerating into predictability the closer Cage edges to becoming the hero of the day, the more it seems to cheapen its wartime touchstones.

The other problems are the backgrounding of Vrataski in the finale so that Cage can assume centre stage; the ennui of Cruise morphing into a generic tough guy hero when he was so much more fun to watch as a smarmy propagandist crumbling under an industrial-sized dose of his own medicine; and a final reset/restart that isn’t just a mockery of at least one last-reel act of selfless sacrifice but a narrative cheat.

That it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to watch is some testament to what director Doug Liman and his creative team get right. The early stretches give us the most entertaining Cruise performance since ‘Tropic Thunder’, Blunt hasn’t been this engaged with a role for ages, Gleeson is always good value and can I just repeat myself regarding the Bill Paxton “man of the match” award. In a way it’s frustrating that ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ isn’t a stone-cold classic, because the potential was certainly there. But as with Cruise’s earlier sci-fi outing ‘Oblivion’ what emerges is the ghost of a rigorously intelligent genre outing haunting the edges of the mainstream popcorn movie constraints that guaranteed its budget. The irony is that for its cap-doffing to commercialism, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ did lacklustre business at the box office business. It says something that its DVD cover fixates on the movie’s tagline “Live. Die. Repeat” and consigns its actual title to the tiniest of lettering. Which part of that “Live. Die. Repeat” slogan will come to exemplify its shelf life remains to be seen.

Monday, September 14, 2015

From Up on Poppy Hill

Goro Miyazaki, son of Studio Ghibli founder Hayao, made his directorial debut in 2006 with ‘Tales from Earthsea’, an overly ambitious attempt to weave elements from the first four books of Ursula K. LeGuin’s ‘Earthsea’ saga into a single epic narrative. The result was intermittently awesome visually but a total clusterfuck as an exercise in storytelling. The world-building was confused and the characters ciphers. 

Mercifully, his second outing avoids all those mistakes. ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ (2011) jettisons complex plotting in favour of character development – although, for its first half, this almost threatens to work to the film’s detriment. For a good 40 minutes, all that happens is some students at an academy protest the imminent closure and demolition of their clubhouse. Oh, and a very low-key romance develops between Umi (voiced by Masami Nagasawa) and Shun (Junichi Okada).

Then Miyazaki throws in an impediment to their nascent relationship so hefty that even Shun has the good grace to deem it as “something out a cheap melodrama”. I’ll leave this review spoiler-free; suffice it to say, it’s a plot device that’s been well-worked throughout the ages and is more in-keeping with histrionic psychological dramas than a U-rated nostalgic anime. Its resolution is no less creaky. None of which bodes well …


It’s just so utterly bloody gorgeous to look at. Even when nothing’s happening, as in the long opening sequence in which the minutiae of Umi’s day are observed in such detail you’d think Miyazaki was using a microscope instead of a set of storyboards, the evocation of a time and a place are effect with such visual beauty, in a such a glorious wash of colour, that it’s impossible not to be captivated.

Set in 1963 in a small harbour town, the film makes only one diversion from its self-contained and precisely defined locale for a sequence where Umi, Shun and their friend Shiro (Shunsuke Kazama) visit Tokyo. Miyazaki clearly relishes the juxtaposition, cramming his frames with imagery, energy and movement, bringing to life a metropolis gearing up for the 1964 Olympic Games. A similar sprightliness infuses the scenes of student life, particularly in wryly observed moment where two opposing factions snap from mutual animosity to well-oiled collusion in order to pull the wool over their tutors’ eyes.

The portrayal of Umi – her emotional vulnerability in sharp contrast to her can-do attitude and strong work ethic – suggests that Hayao Miyazaki’s career-long feminist sensibilities have been vouchsafed by his son. Tradition, responsibility and the innocence of childhood – also thematic staples of Hayao’s work – are also present here.

Various flashbacks to the war unravel the story that threatens to keep Umi and Shun apart, with a reference to the destruction of Nagasaki evoking Isao Takahata’s ‘Grave of the Fireflies’. The difference, of course, is that ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ didn’t offset its heart-wrenching account of the human cost of war with a rose-tinted, semi-comedic coming of age story.

And that’s the main flaw of ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’: its primary narrative is too insubstantial to carry the emotional weight of its subplot. I’m not sure, had the campaign to save the clubhouse been relegated to subplot material and the meddlings of fate in Umi and Shun’s past been the main focus, if the balance would have worked even then.

As it is, watching ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ is to sit through a first half that simply requires you to appreciate some achingly beautiful images and then simultaneously wonder where the hell the big melodramatic humdinger came from and face-palm that anyone thought fit to include it in the first place. Without it, the film could have achieved the delightful, heartfelt simplicity and villain-free narrative of ‘My Neighbour Totoro’. Still, this is only Goro Miyazaki’s second feature, it’s a massive leap forward from his first, and (however the current production hiatus at Ghibli resolves) there is still time.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

That thing with the guy in the place

Remember when I relaunched this blog last month (and, uh, yeah, there is some content coming in September, honest), how I mentioned that I’d been busy for much of this year on a fairly big project? Here’s the inside story.

A few years ago, I blagged my way onto a committee that had been set up to honour and the life and work of Nottingham writer Alan Sillitoe (best known for ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’). Chaired by Alan’s son David, who provided the photographs for the terrific 1985 travelogue ‘Alan Sillitoe’s Nottinghamshire’, the committee’s aims were twofold:

- Raise funds towards a permanent memorial to Alan, to be cited in Nottingham;

- Keep Alan’s work in the public eye.

Time passed and we held several events (including film screenings and a benefit concert featuring The Smears and Sleaford Mods) and ran poetry competitions adjudicated by such luminaries as George Szirtes and Helen Ivory. But raising the kind of capital needed for a statue or something of equal prominence wasn’t easy.

In January, David and myself started talking about an anthology. I envisaged it as a 60 page collection of poetry, something that would redress the lack of recognition Alan received for his own verse, something we could sell at events, and something that we could offer as an incentive as part of a proposed crowdfunding platform. David had bigger ideas: a chunky collection of poetry, fiction, memoir, essays, travel writing (i.e. an overview of all the different literary disciplines Alan was capable of), plus photography and artwork.

With the help of poet, occasional Agitation contributor and all-round renaissance woman Viv Apple, we put together a list of people we could approach, from established to up-and-coming writers, and set about asking them for new work without so much as a red cent in payment.

We figured we’d get a positive response rate of about 30%. The actual response was more like 90%.

We figured we’d pull the anthology together and have it to the printers by the end of May. It’s now September.

We learned a hell of a lot about publishing in a very short space of time, and a lot of good people helped us up the gradient of that learning curve.

The result is ‘More Raw Material: work inspired by Alan Sillitoe’ – 52 contributors, including this year’s Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize winner, the lead singer of Sleaford Mods, and writers from the Faber, Bloodaxe, Five Leaves and Nine Arches rosters. Plus some exciting and ridiculously talented up-and-comers.

The anthology is currently being typeset and should go to press very soon. There will be a launch in Nottingham, plus a slate of other events next year. There’ll be a website to support the book, and a “mate’s rate” for Agitation readers. Details to follow.

Obviously, there is still work to be done, and there will be an impact on the regularity of content on Agitation for the remainder of the year. Rest assured, though, that 13 For Halloween and the Winter of Discontent will be going ahead as usual. Wouldn’t be Agitation if we didn’t see out the last few months of the year in a welter of cynicism and depravity!