Monday, 8 March 2010

Why The Hurt Locker Matters

This post will probably be less about The Hurt Locker than it will be about Iraq, and will probably be less about Iraq than it will be about me.

The day after I was born, Israeli jets bombed the (French built) Osirak Nuclear plant in Iraq. I was nine when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, and I can still remember hearing the news on TV AM when military action began the following February. The other class in my year would write letters to British Forces in the Gulf, and got a signed photo of a Tornado in return. Yes, I'm still bitter that our teacher never let my class do that. When that war ended, the nice old woman who lived across the road had her bungalow decked out in Union Jacks to welcome her son home. In time, I devoured the memoirs of that conflict; Bravo Two Zero, The One That Got Away (filmed by Paul Greengrass) and Tornado Down. Of course, the conflict didn't end there; British and American forces continued to patrol the skies over the south and north of Iraq, occasionally bombing sites in the country. People who dismissed Blair as Bush's poodle should note that Blair was bombing Iraq as part Operation Desert Fox while Bush was still a failing and flailing Governor of Texas. The continued presence of American troops on Saudi soil was, of course, a major feature of Osama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa against the US.

The 2003 Iraq War politicised my generation like no other event. I moved to London last year, and now my MP is the one figure in British political life that did not only oppose the war, but became a cheerleader for the other side. Seven years after the invasion, we're still there, both physically and psychologically (the Chilcot inquiry rumbles on). After their elections, Iraq is on the front pages of the papers today. So for most of my life my country, and the US, has existed in a state of war with either the government of Iraq or some element of the people of Iraq.

And how many good films have been made about this? A few. Off the top of my head, I can think of Three Kings, Jarhead and now The Hurt Locker. Greengrass's Green Zone is out this week, so I will reserve judgement until I've seen that, but that's not a great showing, is it? Three films in near enough twenty years. Too often films that deal with the subject - I'm thinking of In The Valley of Elah - like The Hurt Locker, scripted byMark Boal, and Stop Loss too - do so not only from an American perspective, but one in which the action takes place at home. To paraphrase from a book I read about Vietnam War films years ago, the tragedy of a film like Redacted is not that people were killed, but that Americans debased themselves by killing them. That said, Nick Broomfield's Battle For Haditha was a decent stab at depicting an actual event, but otherwise unremarkable. A film like Avatar beats us about the head with allusions to the conflict - mentions of "shock and awe" "daisy cutters" and "martyrs" are thrown at us in quick succession just before the final battle, just to ram the point home. Other than that, it's slim pickings if you want a decent modern war film.

Television has served the Iraq War better than film - Generation Kill being a notable example, and the BBC have made a good fist of it with Ten Days To War, a series of shorts about the run up to the invasion, and the three parter Occupation, which dealt with the aftermath of the war.

The Hurt Locker
worked because it didn't wear its politics on its sleeve - it just told a thrillingly tense story of a bomb disposal team in Iraq. Kathryn Bigelow said that "wars dirty little secret" is that some men enjoy it. No Michael Moore style hectoring, no self pity because Americans killed or were killed, just a rollickingly good movie. Given that we're only just seeing films that deal with the 1982 Lebanon War now, it may be some time before we see more Iraq War films, but when we do, let's hope they are more like The Hurt Locker than most that came before it.

Friday, 5 March 2010

On My Ignorance, and Subsequent Enlightenment, of Actors and Acting in Film

Although actors are incredibly important to film, for some reason I’ve spent a lot of my life (approximately all up until January 2010) regarding actors second to the text they occupy. As a youth (I had little else to bother myself with), I always believed that the work of the director was undervalued in public discourse, feeling that its focus predominantly lay on what was before the camera – the actors, or in some cases, special effects – whilst neglecting those that operated behind/BEYOND it.

This was, however, before I had any academic schooling in film, where, pleasantly enough for my tortured soul, the situation was reversed. 2nd year Auteur Theory classes would have one believe that all is director; the actors scarcely putty to be moulded in His/Her god-like hands.

Beginning to admire Hitchcock and Bresson, directors who both explicitly state their actors are nothing more that ‘models’, only strengthened my precondition.

There is, of course, star theory and strands of that sort – but it never seems to assess acting as a technical form, as one would attribute to a camera movement, or a particularly provocative graphical edit. They instead, in my ignorantly limited reading, preoccupy themselves with notions of the actor as auteur (in that one can tell immediately this is a ‘James Cagney film’) or in the marketing of a subject’s specific star persona. What is needed is the mechanical deconstruction of performance – to treat the actor as one would obsess over a pan in the wrong direction (see: Le Crime de Monsieur Lange) or an effective use of light.

There is more emotional weight in one moment of falsetto speech than the rest of the The Royal Tenenbaums. Even Anderson’s cartoon world cannot rob it of its rawness. As Gene Hackman sits on the street’s curb, outside an imploded wedding, with his son, Ben Stiller, a little flicker in the latter’s voice sends all the deadpan that precedes it crashing down into a rubble of melancholy and rebirth. “It’s been a tough year, dad” – his voice breaks, in the way a 13 year old boy’s would, at the start. This second, if that, Ben Stiller ceases to be an actor. He is Chad, the oppressed griever of his wife’s premature death. It is a note, as in one on a piano, that is hit so crisply, yet with such tenderness, that it beats Luke Wilson’s stylicide (I tried to merge the words ‘stylised’ and ‘suicide’ into one) as the film’s most humanly invested instance.

In reflection (as opposed to ‘on reflection’), my gushing for drama may be a coping tactic for an upcoming assignment, a quasi-Stockholm syndrome if you will. For the first time ever I will be dealing with actors as a director, and I’m relishing the idea. And just as when one learns a new word, for that word to then crop up everywhere one looks, I have began to come away from films thinking as much about performance as I have about narrative and technique. Previously, I don’t recall it ever entering my mindset, bar those exceptional performances that one can do nothing but talk about.

However, it is a welcome change, and one I feel a tad idiotic and embarrassed for dismissing so readily before. There is a notable example I would briefly like to mention.

The Lovely Bones, a frustrating film (and one I can imagine even more so for readers of the book), does not excel in acting. That is, at least, I think. I’m still a newcomer to this ‘appreciate the acting’ lark, but on an innocent’s experience nothing really impressed me. But for that matter, little of the film did. Yet on sitting through the credits (another new habit I have picked up to the annoyance of some companions) Stanley Tucci’s name scrolled upwards. “Who was Stanley Tucci in that?” I asked impressed. “The killer” came the reply.

I had lost interest in the film when it premiered about 5 years before its general release. Much of my anticipation had been rooted into other ventures (mainly, the live Monday night war between WWE and TNA starting IMMINENTLY), and had left me very lacklustre about even seeing it. When I did get round to seeing it, I had forgotten the film’s premise and actors. Whilst watching I would pick them up here and there. One can hardly miss Mark Whalberg (who I have always been a huge fan of despite my animosity towards thespians, and he is responsible for my favourite moment in the film – an entire character summed up in his neurotic, but charming questioning of whether developing one roll of film a month, as promised, for his daughter was fair or not), and eventually one realises that that is Rachel Weisz; the grandmother is Susan Sarandon; that is girl from Atonement; I neither care about the actors or the characters for the majority of the supporting cast. Apart from…holy shit is that Chris from Sopranos – it totally is. A friend from work still calls him Spider from Goodfellas. And he has completed the Sopranos. I don’t agree with that, but it’s interesting how one can place an emphasis on an actor as always belonging to a certain role. Well, that, I suppose, is star theory…

I digress…

…I always thought, throughout the film, that the killer was played rather fun. In the way that hideous characters can be fun because they are so interesting, not because I find child rape (a theme that is pretty much absent from the film, it rather focusing on the much more acceptable and public-friendly child murder) fun. He was the atypical loner. He trimmed his roses. He has a retro moustache and Denis Taylor glasses. He made model dollhouses and presented himself as an obsessive, or rather, a perfectionist (a trait he shared with Mark Whalberg, whose hobby was boats in glass bottles, but I never quite worked out this parallel). A complex character, yet so steeped in obvious psychological motives that psychoanalysing him became redundant (besides, who does that anymore, it’s soooo 1970s). One was released from these shackles to enjoy his performance, a rather campy villainous type. Indeed, much of my enjoyment came from not knowing who he was, as an actor, and suppose I must have fully bought into his portrayal – preferring instead to focus on the character rather than thinking “Wow, [insert actor’s name here] is having a lot of fun with this character”.

This is why I was so pleasantly surprised that this was in fact Stanley Tucci. A name and face I’m very much acquainted with – making the prospect of me not realising who it was even more absurd. To me, at least.

From this absurdity I obtained a large sense of bemusement and glee. A grin carved on my face like a loon, I walked through the Bexleyheath Cineworld foyer constantly updating my facial expression. From furrowed eyebrows of disbelief to looking up at the ceiling (there was no sky inside) to find an answer. All this time my companion was providing insights into how the film had differed from the book. Usually, as I did not want to see the film in the first place and submitted only because my preferred choice was The Crazies, I would have been gloating “I told you so”. Although I know that if I had developed an attachment to the book and had gone along to see an unfaithful adaptation of it, I would be in the same state of resentment and annoyance. However, the criticism that “it wasn’t nearly as good as the book” has become such a generic thing to say (despite being completely valid and nearly always right), to those with no emotional involvement with the source text it merely becomes white noise. Yet none of this crossed my mind. I just walked and muttered in disbelief, that that was Stanley Tucci, and I had no idea throughout the entire 120 minutes that it was anyone other than a real character. My disbelief had not only been suspended, but hoisted up into the rafters with reinforced adamantium.

It’s simply such a fresh experience. And imagine that was the case for all film. No billing to gloom over the poster and every actor so lost in character that it is impossible to place them in your head - the task becoming pointless and for one to accept them for what they are, people. Not fictional characters, but also not real actors. People.

Monday, 22 February 2010

The problem with BAFTA

Really, this should be titled "the problem for BAFTA", or "Right winners, wrong idea."

I'm really not sure what to make of last night's BAFTA Awards. On one had, I find it very hard to knock a ceremony that gives the Best Actress to Carey Mulligan for An Education, Best Actor to Colin Firth for A Single Man, and where The Hurt Locker wins Best Picture and Best Director. If that happens at the Oscars I'd be delighted.

My problem with the awards, and the problem the people responsible face every year, is the B of BAFTA. The ceremony tries to do two things; showcase, promote and celebrate British film, and be seen internationally as a serious event and good predictor of who will win at the Oscars. Sometimes, you can't do both.

In Britain, we benefit and suffer from sharing a language with the US; American cultural product finds it easier to get a foothold over here than it probably does in, say, France. Sometimes this is good - we get to watch great American TV and films without them being dubbed or subtitled, and sometimes this is bad - as soon as they get any attention, our best acting talent sods off to Hollywood where they do not face a language barrier (and who can blame them).

A similar French film awards ceremony would have a nice cut off point; any film not in the French language could be excluded from everything except the best international film. We don't have that luxury, and none of the big names that the sponsors demand would turn up if it was solely British film only (what constitutes a British film is deserving of a post in itself). The organisers, then, after moving the date the awards are given out a few years ago, try to pitch it as an Oscar indicator. Fair enough, but if you're going to do that, why have Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer as awards? You cannot claim to be an award of international importance and then hand out a couple of parochial awards as a token nod to your Britishness.

If they want to be taken seriously, BAFTA either need to drop the "B", relocate their ceremony to LA and forget about being British, or they need to go the other way and give only allow films that are British - that is, deal with a British issue, are set in Britain, shot in Britain and have a cast and crew that is largely British - to be nominated. Of course, neither of those things are going to happen, so I'm going to be annoyed by them for the forseeable future.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Vicarious Viewings

There is, for myself at least, a certain thrill when I recognise a location used in a film as somewhere I have visited, or visit somewhere that has been used as a location for a film. Both the visit, and subsequent viewings of the film are enhanced by the experience. Playing the giant piano in FAO Schwarz, like Tom Hanks in Big, was a highlight of a trip to New York (when I got back from that trip, I also compared the photos I'd taken on the Staten Island Ferry to the opening shot from Working Girl). A trip to Prague was enlivened by me committing an arrestable offence (twice!) in the place where, in the first Mission:Impossible film, Tom Cruise and Kristin Scott Thomas are exiting what is supposed to the US Embassy (it's actually a restaurant). Sticking with central Europe, a trip on the ferris wheel from The Third Man is a must on any visit to Vienna (it also makes it into Before Sunrise and a Bond film). Closer to home, a walk through Waterloo Station can't help but make me think of London to Brighton or The Bourne Ultimatum.

All of these moments have one thing in common: I have visited them after the film has been shot, as if I am paying homage to the film. There are other films where I have recognised a location as somewhere I know; here, I have been there before the film was shot.

Last night, I experienced something new: seeing a film on a big screen that included footage shot when I was actually present. This was a new thrill, but not one that was entirely unexpected.

The film was No Distance Left to Run, a documentary telling the story Blur against the backdrop of their gloriously triumphant 2009 reunion tour. At the gigs last summer there were signs at the entrance telling people that filming would be taking place and by entering we were giving our consent for any footage featuring ourselves to be used in some way. I presumed that some video would find its way into some sort of bonus section of a live DVD of one of the gigs. To have been at event that was not only, by some distance, the best gig I've ever seen, but also when some footage for a film that had a (admittedly small) cinema release was, for someone like myself, pretty special.

It will be hard, but I will try to get some critical distance on the film. A mix of archive footage and gorgeous HD, it is funny, sad, dark (Damon Albarn mentions that heroin "muddied" the lives of certain people around the time of the Blur album, a reference, one presumes, to the problems of his then girlfriend, Justine Frischmann) but with a happy ending. One complaint I heard as I left the cinema was that it didn't really deal with the final two gigs of the reunion that took place in Hyde Park. Though moments from them are shown, there is a good narrative reason for this: the crowd singing the "Oh My Baby" line from Tender back at the band at their Glastonbury performance is hard to top as a moment of triumph.

As the tour did, the film rights the record that Blur were the definitive band of the Brit Pop era. Or to put it a little less elegantly, as I did at the Wolverhampton Civic Hall on June 24th last year, "Who the fuck are Oasis?". The 2003 documentary Live Forever, in which Albarn appeared, seemed to have its feet firmly in the Oasis camp (even going so far as to interview a laughable Oasis tribute band). No Distance Left To Run reminds us of the band Blur were. Nobody else had the songs in the numbers they did, nobody else had the intelligence to move away from Brit Pop at exactly the right time (what are Ocean Colour Scene doing now? Are Oasis still going as some sort of Liam Gallagher and friends band?) and find other influences. The reunion didn't feel like it was for the money, it felt more like catharsis for the band.

This has turned away from a review of the film or a meditation on having some vicarious thrill from being where a film was shot into an appreciation of Blur, so I perhaps better wrap it up. The DVD of the film is out on February 15th, and well worth a look for fans of Blur, historians of the 90s, and people wondering why it's a bad idea to invite Will Self to your comeback gigs. It also shows just how well David Walliams captured Graham Coxon in his impersonation in the Blur episode of Rock Profile. Decent music documentaries are rare, and this is one.