I was saddened to learn of the death of Tony Scott. This was mainly because a man had decided to take his own life, leaving friends and family bereft. The circumstances surrounding his death, the causes of his leap from a bridge, are still unclear, and speculation is not my business. I didn’t come here to eulogise Scott’s work, nor even to defend it. If you do want to read an eloquent and spirited case for the artistic value of his films, look no further than Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s stirring appreciation. I have little that is terribly positive to say about Scott’s – I have always find his style so pronounced and his angular, dyspraxic cutting so distancing, that I rarely warmed to a Tony Scott film. Continue reading
[#2: Ealing's Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949)]
The second Spectacular Attractions podcast is now available for download (see link below). I’m finding the editing a little easier now, but perhaps need to work on my microphone technique a little more. At least this one is a little less stilted than last week’s edition, so hopefully this will eventually blossom into an impressive bit of pod.
This episode discusses the classic Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, directed by Robert Hamer in 1949. You can read the full post here, or download the podcast and take it with you wherever you’re going:
Chris Morris was one of my cultural heroes. I pored over recordings of On the Hour and his shows for Radio 1; The Day Today and Brass Eye were watertight satires of the language of news media. Blue Jam (plus its televisual progeny Jam) proved that comedy could be beyond edgy – it could be terrifying if you listened to it in the dark with headphones on, a truly groundbreaking, nightmarish hybrid of horror, ambient music and sketch comedy that might have been known as his crowning achievement if it hadn’t been deliberately hidden away in a late-night slot so that it could squat menacingly on the border between dreams and waking. Morris can, without exaggeration, lay claim to having helped change the way the makers of news media regard themselves and speak to us. His mockery of the self-important gigantism of newsy rhetoric was so precise, so powerful that it became difficult to deal in such bombast without irony, and his refusal to give interviews or answer to his critics even during the most frenzied moments of his censorship wrangles only added to the mystique and bolstered the credibility of a man who had opted out of second-tier commentary on his work: if there was almost no studies of Morris’ work, it wasn’t because it wasn’t important – it was such a lucid, categorical body of satirical essayis, that it needed nobody to step in to explain it. Did I mention that it was all really funny? Because that usually helps. I didn’t think so much of Nathan Barley, his collaboration with Charlie Brooker, not because it didn’t have some great jokes, but because it made fun of a certain kind of vacuous media twat that was so self-evidently objectionable as to require no further comment. It was fun to mock Nathan and his idiot ilk, but the show had none of the necessity of his earlier shows that slipped inside the news format and bent it out of shape from within.
Here endeth the hagiography. I just wanted to say that I really wanted to like Four Lions. I wanted it to be the next stage in the glittering career of an artist I had long admired. And I did enjoy it. And it does mark a new Morrisian age. But I have a few reservations.
A Matter of Life and Death is called Stairway to Heaven in the USA. This change of title seemed to us to illustrate a fundamental difference between the English and the American mind and outlook. We had been pleased with our title. I believe the suggestion was mine. I loved the old melodramatic phrase which crops up in every thriller written during the last century, in every European language: and I liked the play upon words, for in our film it really was a matter of life and death that was being discussed, so Emeric [Pressburger] and I looked a bit blank when the film was finished, and two young, excited New York lawyers, Arthur Krim and Bob Benjamin, who were determined to take over the film business and use our film as their spearhead, came rushing down from the projection room, into the studio and said to us: “Boys, we’ve got a wonderful title for your film.”
“We have a title already, Arthur.” (This was Emeric.) “A Matter of Life and Death, don’t you remember?”
But this was 1946. Arthur and Bob brushed question and statement aside. “You can’t have ‘Death’ in the title,” they screamed. “We’re going to market it as Stairway to Heaven! What do you think of that?”
What did we think of it? We had all of us survived a war with the greatest and most fanatical power in the world, and won it. In the last twelve years, sixteen million human lives had been sacrificed to overthrow one man and his lunatic ideas. The words “life and death” were no longer the great contradictions that they had been. They were just facts. Out of this enormous holocaust, Emeric and I were trying to create a comedy of titanic size and energy. Two worlds were fighting for one man’s life. It was indeed a matter of life and death. And now we were told that we couldn’t have “death” in the title.
I don’t recall that Emeric and I argued very much with Arthur and Bob. They loved our film and said so, and they were so proud of their inspiration and so sure we would be glad of this soapy title for our film. We had become rather anxious about Arthur Rank’s and John Davies’s promises and hope for world distribution, and it was exhilarating to know that these two young enthusiasts were going to start their career with our film. After all, there was a stairway in our film, a moving stairway, and it did lead to another world, even if it were not Heaven. Throughout the film, we were careful not to use that mighty word. And now these young Americans were juggling with it, as if it were a Hollywood musical.
Emeric made one last attempt to persuade them.
“Arthur, you say that no film with ‘death’ in the title has ever been a success, but what about the famous play which they made into a successful film also: Death Takes a Holiday?”
But Bob and Arthur were ready for him.
“That’s the very reason it was a success. Don’t you see, boys? Death takes a holiday – obviously there’s not going to be any death in the picture!”
Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: William Heinemann, 1986
You may have missed Irish directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s debut feature film, Helen last year. Plenty of people did. I just caught up with it on DVD, and while it’s not without its flaws, it’s certainly the kind of work that I wish was supported more often in the UK. Told at a stately pace in an understated, almost fussily deliberate style, Helen is the story of a teenager in care, who is brought to question her own sense of identity when she is picked to play the part of a missing girl in a police reconstruction of her final movements.