The Last Picture Show?

26 11 2009

Sun Pictures in Broome

One of my favourite films is The Spirit of the Beehive, directed by the Spaniard Victor Erice in 1973, in the dying days of the Franco regime. In an early scene, a travelling exhibitor arrives in a small Castillian town in the 1940s bearing a print of James Whale’s Frankenstein. That evening the film is screened to an audience of gaping rustics in the peeling, nondescript building that passes for the town’s cinema. As the two young girls who will be at the centre of the drama puzzle over the meaning of the images on the screen, the dark, empty streets of the town echo with the ghostly crackle of the film’s soundtrack.

I was reminded of this scene earlier this year when staying for a few days in Broome, Western Australia. Even by Australian standards, Broome is remote. Bordered on three sides by hundreds of miles of parched desert, and on the fourth by a wide, blue Indian Ocean that stretches uninterrupted all the way to Sumatra, it occupies one of the last stretches of Australia’s coast to be colonised by Europeans. When the Europeans (and Asians) arrived in the 1870s and ’80s, it was to dive for pearls. Broome was built on a swamp and for much of its history had a reputation as a hard-living, buccaneering, mosquito-slapping kind of town. 

My girlfriend and I arrived at night and, wandering around the sparsely-lit and almost deserted streets, began to hear voices, deep and resonant and disembodied. As we got closer to the centre of town, a flash of neon gave the game away. We were passing Sun Pictures, the world’s oldest operating open-air cinema.

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HBO versus Apichatpong Weerasethakul

19 11 2009

'Syndromes and a Century'

It’s ten years now since Tony Soprano first waddled onto small screens around the world. In the decade since we’ve seen something of a revolution in the way that television shows are made and watched, with programmes like The Wire, Mad Men and Six Feet Under representing a new, smarter kind of television drama. Here in the UK, DVD box sets of HBO shows are phenomenally popular, in a way that could barely have been imagined fifteen years ago.

The HBO revolution is generally seen as having been a good thing for television, encouraging good writing, experimentation and ‘dumbing-up’ in what can be a pretty dumbed-down medium.

What’s less often explored is the impact that HBO has had on cinema. On the face of it, things don’t look good. There’s a widespread feeling among people of my generation that the cable channel has beaten cinema at its own game. Having stolen cinema’s clothes by incorporating cinematic techniques into small-screen storytelling, it has proceeded to create narratives of a length and complexity that cinema simply can’t rival. Most films have two or, at a push, three hours to tell a story. HBO dramas have at least ten, spread out across a season. You only have to dip into Mad Men to see how much pleasure its writers take in delaying, deferring and waylaying the kind of narrative developments that in a two hour film would have to come thick and fast every ten minutes. 

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Happy Haneke

12 11 2009
The White Ribbon

'The White Ribbon'

OK, I admit it: that title doesn’t make a lot of sense. Pun-notwithstanding, there are very few film-makers working today who are less likely to branch out into light romantic comedy than Michael Haneke. In the last decade, with work like The Piano Teacher, Code Unknown and Hidden, the Austrian director has established a reputation for himself as the master of certain kind of austere, serious and confrontational cinema that is about as far from Hollywood schmalz as it’s possible to get.

This week sees the UK release of Haneke’s latest film, The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band), in which he tells the story of a small German farming community plagued by a series of unexplained outrages sometime before the outbreak of World War One. A barn is burned down, a tripwire throws a doctor from his horse, and the local baron’s son is beaten by assailants unknown. The powers-that-be – the baron, the pastor, the doctor – respond to this anarchy with a wave of violent discipline against their social inferiors and the children of the village. These latter will, we realise, grow up to form part of the Nazi generation, and Haneke has spoken of setting out to explore the movement’s roots in the kind of repressive, petty and suspicious community portrayed in the film. 

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‘Mamma Mia!’ versus ‘Persona’: An Intellectual Experiment*

5 11 2009
Persona 1

My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender.

It is often assumed that smart culture is better than dumb culture. Go into a bookshop to buy the latest Thomas Pynchon, and you might get a bit of respect from the people behind the counter. Try to hustle out with the latest Tom Clancy and the odds are you won’t. Likewise, if you go and see an Abbas Kiarostami film, you know that you’ll probably have something to talk about in the bar afterwards. Go and see a Michael Bay film and your conversation might be a little more limited.

But is this fair? Is smart culture really better than dumb culture? To find out, I decided to perform a little experiment. Firstly I watched a DVD of the Abba-themed movie Mamma Mia! then, later in the day, tuned in to Film 4 to see Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. These two films seemed apt for comparison in the dumb-smart stakes. The first is based on a stage musical and has been pretty universally dismissed (and celebrated) as a shallow, feel-good movie, whereas the second is perhaps the most serious and experimental work by a famously serious and experimental auteur.

The Raw Data  

At 6pm, I began to watch Mamma Mia! The film opens with some rather nice shots of a midnight boat trip on a glittering sea. There is singing, almost immediately. The person doing the singing is Sophie, played by the actress Amanda Seyfried, who I’ve never heard of. We see her posting three letters.

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