Tag Archives: cinema

Why basing a movie on a media tycoon is unlikely to win you an Oscar

Is The Social Network the new Citizen Kane? They certainly have one big thing in common – both probably should have won big at the Oscars, but didn’t.

Citizen Zuck

This blog has written before about the great difficulty of making the internet dramatic, whether as theme or plot device (http://wp.me/pR2Nu-c). But the genius of The Social Network was that it defiantly wasn’t the movie I feared it would be – a eulogy to/apocalyptic vision of the world created by Facebook. To paraphrase Zadie Smith’s great review, it was written by the wizards of 1.0, not 2.0 hipsters, and concentrated on the compelling central figure that a movie mogul can present.

As a result it inhabited the same territory as Kane – they are both the story of young men, with masses of talent and ambition to change the old order, who are transformed by the experience of building a media empire. Both stories hinge on a craving for love, that warps into a craving for attention. Both mix the adrenaline of triumph with the tragedy of megalomania.

In fact there are scenes that are pretty similar, and character dynamics too. Swap the dusty newsroom of the early twentieth century for the glossy funk of a San Francisco nightclub and there is not a lot different between this:

And this:

The Oscar reward of both of these movies ended up focusing on their screenplays – both, in another similarity, fictionalised accounts that were pretty close to the bone. In the Social Network’s case, this is hugely deserved. Personally, I find the screenplay of Citizen Kane one of its least appealing aspects – whereas the failure to recognise the brilliance of the direction is more of a mystery. After all, shots like this were not common in cinema at the time…

But when it came to the big gongs, both fell short. In the case of Citizen Kane, this has generally been laid at the door of William Randolph Hearst, whose influence in Hollywood was huge and who was not amused at seeing himself in Kane. There have been few whispers about similar influence by Mark Zuckerberg, so I’m not going to invent a conspiracy theory here (but, maybe…?)

Certainly the competition for Best Picture this year was unusually hot. Citizen Kane on the other hand lost out to John Ford’s turgid exploration of the politics of Welsh mining culture, How Green Was My Valley. Heavy-going stuff.

When you look at the movie that did win this year, however, you see an interesting parallel. The King’s Speech, like The Social Network, uses as its dramatic backdrop the rise in power of a new medium – in the case of the King’s Speech, the radio (again written of before in these pages.)

There is something intangible about The King’s Speech that somehow makes it much more Academy appropriate. It is much easier to feel comfortable with the heroic struggle of a man to rise the the challenges of using the medium, rather than being the person who creates it. Quite simply, it is much more straightforwardly heroic – and the Academy loves heroes.

Media tycoons on the other hand are not viscerally lovable characters. Both in fiction and in real life, they tend to be egotistic, obsessed by attention and a strange kind of power. At the best they are complex heroes – and my feeling about The Social Network is that whilst it is a sceptical movie, it is not a cynical one. It felt a little sad…but to me ‘Zuck’ felt like a better man at the end of the movie than the start, which makes him at least a kind of hero. Which obviously cannot be said of Kane.

And in someways his journey to self-discovery, happening as it did in the full glare of the world during a period of adolescence, is what gives this movie its strange power.

But one suspects that giving a body like the Academy a movie about a media tycoon to judge is never going to end well. One suspects they are somehow more comfortable with another kind of movie media tycoon – the straightforward villain. Not that this performance by the otherwise excellent Jonathan Pryce really troubled the scorers…

But I still think The Social Network is the most compelling movie I have seen in a long time. It is great in all those conventional ways – script, humour, music, emotional core etc – but it is also a movie that encapsulates our time in a way that is far more compelling than the ‘Facebook movie’ I feared would have done.

And for me, this is specifically because of the difference in its treatment of the very same subject matter that helped make Kane such a landmark film. The media tycoons of our age may be geeks craving social success, they may be megalomaniacs just like all those other grizzled veterans  – but they are also young guys who really want to create things that people love and that haven’t existed before. And that doesn’t make them villains – in fact it makes them imperfect but compelling heroes.

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Filming the Jump: #1 Sunset Boulevard

When the movies went from silent to talking, who got left behind? How did it change the movie industry for the people in it? How did the change in the medium affect the world? That is the single-minded obsession of a film of obsessive, singular greatness – 1950’s Sunset Boulevard.

One very scary lady

The melodramatic black hole of a performance by Gloria Swanson in the lead, and the obvious symbolism of the title, draw you into a speculation on the end of something. But it is important to remember that at the core of this film is also the beginning of something – in fact of what you would normally consider the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’.

The era of Norma Desmonds’s seclusion after all is the era of Bogart, of Gone with the Wind, of Howard Hawks. This was an era where the script and the dialogue was king, where people went to the movies to hear people talk, and where the dialogue comes so thick and fast that it feels (perhaps rightly) like audiences at this time weighing their ticket price vs the volume of words and making their judgements accordingly. Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Lauren Bacall…all not only great actors but phenomenal when judged on words per minute…

Sunset Boulevard is thick with distaste for the world of words that seemed to have been unleashed by the new age of movies – and by implication, TV too. Its lead, lent almost-sympathy in the dramatic trick of making him narrate from beyond the grave, is profoundly unsympathetic as a word-churning writer. In fact writers across the board seem like a pretty tawdry lot, pumping on second-rate variations on formula, filled with plausible verbiage.

The chattering fast talk of journalists and writers alike is thrown into sharp relief by the Norma Desmond’s dramatic delivery and physical expressiveness. The intense drama of her declarations of affection are played off against the facile verbal fencing of the writer’s love affair. And the most powerful character, Butler/Director Max, is a man of very few words.

It’s also a movie in a grand tradition of pieces in which ‘I love you’ is held cheap. There is only one person who seems to mean it when they say it, if for all the wrong reasons – and that’s Norma Desmond. Particularly when she has it engraved in gold.

What we can feel in this movie is not so much a harking back to the golden days of the silent screen – much as you hanker for them as Buster Keaton flits across the screen – as an underlying unease about the world of chatter, of too many words from too many people signifying too little. And this was in 1950. Project this forward to the modern age of ubiquitous video, and you begin to get a sense of how much psychological pressure and acrobatic effort is placed upon the human mind by this deluge of words.

To end with a huge diversion – this line of thought leads me to reconsider what I consume with my ears, just as I do (sometimes) what I eat. On this subject, a great talk from the ever great TED. Maybe it is worth considering how to ration the chatter that we absorb every day – and to weigh and ration each word as people did when they first saw the Jazz Singer…and consigned Norma Desmond to a slow death of madness.

Fittingly, Sunset Boulevard also has two lines of dialogue, terse and perfect that are amongst the greatest in cinema.

“Mr De Mille? I’m ready for my close up.”

and, most appropriately…

“I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

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when mickey mouse met stravinsky – whatever happened to innovative cultural fusion?

today it is 70 years since the launch of fantasia, in which walt disney reinvented classical music for a new generation through mickey mouse and a lot of hand drawn animation.

it is an incredible film. we are fortunate to live in an age of incredible animation that has produced the first 45 minutes of wall-e, and the first five minutes of up (still the most emotionally satisfying exposition of character that i’ve seen in years.)

but despite the technical wizardry, incredible heart and storytelling craft of the pixar gems, nothing quite matches the insane bravery of making a film which was essentially a music video to bach, stravinsky and tchaikovsky, in which the boundaries of hand-drawn animation were broken several times every day during production. it is a great example of the incredible innovation that comes from combining two seemingly irreconcilable forms of culture – with spectacular, transformational effects.

i’ve just finished re-reading, for the fourth time or so  i think, ‘easy riders, raging bulls’ by Peter Biskind. if you haven’t read it, it is a phenomenal examination of the reinvention of hollywood in the early 1970s. i recommend it highly…if you haven’t got time, here is a snippet of the accompanying documentary to whet your appetite.

again, what is remarkable about this period, in which hopper, beatty, scorcese, coppola, friedkin, lucas and spielberg rewrote the rules of cinema, is not extraordinary technical progress, or even extraordinary originality, but an incredible facility in blending together generations, cultures and styles. in particular, each of these directors in their own way was obsessed with applying the cerebral style of the french new wave to new, pop culture genres – the western, the gangster story, the detective story – again changing the medium in the process.

this of course isn’t limited to movies. it underpins many other fields – like the stages of bob dylan’s progress, particularly the seminal moment when he linked the traditional folk music of the american midwest to the electric ryhthm and blues of new york – in itself an innovation so powerful that large sectors of the transatlantic folk community wanted to lynch him. which he took with his usual wacky humour.

there are a million other examples, from the distant and elevated (ancient rome meets renaissance florence) to the recent and humorous (clueless merges beverley hills 90210 and jane austen’s emma.) but i can’t think of any recently.

i have a couple of thoughts on why this might be, both of which are coloured by the marketing world that i operate in.

the first has been the inexorable rise of the mash up. bringing together different times, different cultures through music and images, is almost too easy now, too commonplace. it has become the province of the joke, or the statement of cool, rather than the statement of art. (though this, featuring snow white, feels quite magical to me…)

the second, i think, is related to the world of marketing. at its best, modern marketing is very good at focusing on the authentic, the pure, the ‘usp’. this kind of focus is what i see in some of the braver films of recent time – where the fashion has become the ‘redux’, the ‘more original than the original’, rather than the skewed retelling for another age. at its worst, modern marketing is all about having as predictable a set of demand as possible – which you get by creating sequels, or creating genre pictures – which may not necessarily break the mould of cinema, but do provide much more predictable box office (crucial to an industry with huge marketing and infrastructure costs in advance of release, and small profit margins.)

this film made perfect marketing and commercial sense...

but more generally it feels like we have reached a place culturally where we are uncomfortable with the idea of reinvention, or remixing, as a serious artistic statement. and as a result it feels like we are in a somewhat conservative place – at best lots of slavish devotion to original text, at worst lots of repetitive, formulaic product.

maybe it would be nice to see things being mixed up a bit again…?

i’ve acquired lots of new readers recently, which has been very exciting. thanks. if you are enjoying what you’re reading, you can subscribe on this page, or add me to your reader if you are a pro. or just drop in from time to time. thanks!

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technological progress – good or bad?

there’s only one way to find out…FIGHT!!!

this was the closest i could get to working out the moral of the story of Iron Man 1, which i had the pleasure of catching most of on flights to and from Toronto. the trailer is here. if you can’t immediately deduce it from this trailer, the hero of Iron Man is an engineering genius who is deeply conflicted about the effects of technological innovation. not immediately obvious from all the it where he making everything blow iup.

(though the problem with flying to Canada is that all the passenger announcements are in English and French, which means they last twice as long, which means to don’t get much viewing time on a 1 hour and a bit flight. so technically i’ve missed the last five minutes of Iron Man, in which I am sure that everyone who survived became a better person and further adventures were broadly hinted at.)

Iron Man just about pulled off the ‘deeply conflicted about progress’ approach, despite being primarily an intense and weirdly anachronistic love letter the arms industry, because it featured robert downey junior, who could make a traffic warden quirkily loveable.

he had also made a very convincing positive case for innovation and technological process in sherlock holmes actually. which if you haven’t see it is certainly better than you think it is, dare i say it maybe not even in spite of guy ritchie but because of him. even this movie culminated in some strange meta-morality about chemical warfare (and a fight atop the Tower of London) but generally the moral of Sherlock Holmes was that invention, innovation, and, well, thinking, is good.

maybe somehow this is easier when a movie is set in the past. ie – technology that got us from victorian london to modern london is good, anything further is a bit dubious. it seems to be morally brave at the moment to suggest that technological progress is good. if Iron Man was brave in anything as a movie. it was in at least having the courage to be conflicted, and not downright dismissive, towards technology.

much more par for the course nowadays is avatar. described, quite aptly, as ferngully in space, it made without a trace of irony the case that advances in technology were inexorably and irrevocably destroying hand craft, spirituality and cultural diversity. which considering the fact that avatar will probably make $3bn in all formats by the time it is done and has created a scenario in which a dog smelling its own bum could break through the $1billion barrier as long as it was in glorious 3D.

i should point out that at the time i quite enjoyed avatar, much in the way that i would enjoy, say, a ballbearing hovering in space thanks to the power of magnetism. it just wasn’t a very good movie. of course james cameron being who he is, i can’t link to any avatar footage, because it is locked in a cavern under the sea. but you can listen to the destruction of ‘hometree’ if you like…

but, at the risk of being preachy, i come back to my central point. i am glad Iron Man didn’t make arms dealers look like heroes more than was absolutely necessary (though, the character being who he was, it was quite necessary.) but i would love to see some optimistic explorations of the technological future. the 1980s was full of them, from the ridiculousness of Top Gun to the chaotic good heartedness of Back to the Future.

maybe now, in a time of fuel crisis, and oil leaks, and post-recessionary economies, and financial crisis, and the surveillance society, would be a good time to start creating some good dreams about what technology could accomplish. and i tend to believe that the movies are a pretty good place to start.

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time to go back to the future

these are negative times we are living in. conservatism is up, investment is down. innovation is drying up, and even apple are reduced to trying to make us want stuff we clearly don’t need. the future is a bleak wasteland. i’m excited.

why? because it seems like it is always intense discomfort with the now that creates our most exciting leaps into the future. but it always seems to be preceded by an desire to look backwards. i remember the same thing happening when i was young, in the early 1990s – and it seemed to be follow by an avalanche of innovation – cultural, technological, everything. i think the same thing happened in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and looked what happened then.

i think now we are in the phase of looking back. of collecting our thoughts. of trying to rediscover our identity – where we have come from. what we NEED is for our leaders – artistic, business, political, technological, to start telling a compelling history of that past, of how we arrived where we are. because i think it is only when you get that sense of perspective, that you start feeling optimistic about the future.

where did this though come from?

firstly from reading a biography of lincoln, ‘team of rivals’ (much recommended by me and by Obama, another man who really needs to get people excited about the future again.) lincoln’s genius was to simply tell the american story, in a way that was simple and accessible and almost mythical, but made people instinctively excited about the potential of the future. david cameron sure as hell ain’t no lincoln. the way things are going, neither is obama.

david cameron sure as hell ain't no lincoln

but mainly it comes from one of my favourite scenes in the movies – the mall scene in bill & ted’s excellent adventure. definitely one of the formative texts of my world view (sadly.)

here it is, in al its glory. see beethoven discovering synthesizers. joan of arc discovering aerobics. and socrates trying to get laid.

beethoven discovers synthesizers

this scene reminds me that however drab the current moment might seem, it is so much easier to see the potential in the things around us when we have just a little perspective.

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where is my total recall ‘instant beauty’ TV channel?

in which it is obvious that only the bad bits of Total Recall have come true, and that if people will listen to birdsong, they will definitely watch Eyjafjallajökull erupting

you may not remember Total Recall quite as well as I do, but one of the scenes that sticks most in my mind is one where sharon stone and arnie argue over the tv remote. she wants to set the tv (which, this being the future, takes up much of the apartment wall) to an incredible sunset, arnie wants to watch rolling 24-hour coverage of industrial unrest on Mars. she of course turns out to be an evil conspirator in the wiping of his memory, but i was with her on the channel choice.

ok, if we can't agree what to watch, i'll just shoot it.

what spurred this journey into the sci-fi adventures of the 1980s was watching this quite stunning time lapse video of the eruption of the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano by Sean Stiegemeier…reminding me that this event was not just an inconvenience to aviation, but one of the most spectacular and beautiful phenomena in the natural world.

why, oh why does my TV, with its several thousand channels, not simply have one that i can visit to access beautiful, real imagery of the world whenever i want it. in this always-on, on-demand broadcast world that we live in, why does every single channel assume that what i want to watch is a ‘programme’, preferably lasting half an hour and with the pre-recorded sound of ‘humans’ laughing forcible inserted into it.

i don’t know if it still exists, but when digital radio was getting started in the UK i know they were experimentally transmitting a station called ‘birdsong’ (you can guess what the programming schedule looked like) – and it was strangely very popular. in fact various online services were launched off the back of it. check it out. it will make you happy.

http://www.birdsongradio.com - ok, you can have enough of it, but it's nice

surely there is a gap in the market for a broadcasting equivalent? possibly funded by an advertiser or a collective of advertisers with a stake in travel, beauty and inspiration? all you would have to do is to collect what exists already, from all around the world, and put it on the big screen.

i would watch it, at least for a moment, every day of my life.



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