Christmas viewing

Some shit on telly.


One of the unexpected side-effects of becoming an author is that the urge to pay that much attention to what other people are up to creatively somewhat leaves you, as you get too wrapped up in your own thing to care that much. Consequently, I’ve found myself going to the cinema and renting DVDs less and less, and the only music I now listen to is that of Beverley Craven and Tasmin Archer, as its got a nice feel to it and doesn’t demand much of my attention when I put it on. Actually, that’s not quite true. I also like to listen to Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed, for much the same reasons.

Anyway, for this reason, this Christmas, many of the big film premieres are of things I haven’t already seen, which is something of a first. Due to an enforced lull in my work schedule (welcome in most professions, but not so much when you’re entirely freelance), I’ve found time to catch up on various films I’ve missed over the past few years.

First of these was V For Vendetta, the movie version of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, of which he does not approve, to the point of having his name removed from the credits. I haven’t read the original, but if I had, I am reliably informed, the film version would have appalled me with its cowardly abandonment of the explicit anarchist stance of the main character, V. As it stands, I found myself mildly entertained, enjoying a lot of the concepts and the visuals, but frustrated by the tiresome unwinding of a back-story far too unwieldy for a reasonably short film. Also, the amount of time that’s actually passing in the main story is also often unclear, so that a year went by without me realising it, which was disorienting to the point that I almost stopped caring about what was going on. It would have probably have worked better as a TV series, or even a graphic novel. Oh, hang on.

Next up was Roman Polanski’s version of Oliver Twist. This follows hot on the heels of his return to form, The Pianist, ending a dry spell that includes some of the most embarrassing examples of filmmaking by a major director outside the oeuvre of Woody Allen (Early 90s sex thriller Bitter Moon is so detached from anything even remotely resembling good taste that its own twisted logic takes over, giving it an unexpected integrity, if not dignity). Now that the deviant director’s found the talent that he left down the back of the sofa some time in the late 70s, the idea of him tackling Dickens is quite exciting. Indeed, his singular vision means that all sorts of details contained in the original book but usually skipped over in adaptations are highlighted, while other aspects, such as the identity of Oliver’s mother, a key feature of every other version, are dropped completely. I never liked that side of the story anyway, so that’s all right by me.

Unfortunately, Polanski’s London, actually a set in Europe somewhere (he can’t enter the UK in case he’s deported to the USA, where he still faces an outstanding sentence for incredible naughtiness), is barely populated, and it has the feeling of being filmed at some Victorian amusement park after closing time. Also, none of the principle parts, such as Fagin, Nancy or Bill Sykes stick in your mind in the way that they do in David Lean’s version which, despite Alec Guinness’s dubious fake nose, has to still be considered definitive.

What becomes clear in Polanski’s version is that Oliver Twist is not really about Oliver at all. He spends much of the story being repeatedly kidnapped, and is essentially passive once he gets to London. Rather, it’s Nancy who has to make the hard choices, and is transformed by the events that occur. Oliver’s story is just a passage we follow that leads us to Nancy. It’s really all about her, even though she doesn’t make it to the end of the book.

Terry Gilliam’s derided The Brothers Grimm was surprisingly enjoyable. Although as muddy and awkward as much of his work, it nevertheless was quite spirited, and it reminded me of the sort of thing they used to make for kids when I was growing up – Return to Oz, The Dark Crystal etc. Not a masterpiece, but nice.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, however, was vile, a darker fairy tale than anything the Grimm’s or Gilliam himself could ever dream up, or want to. I’m with Philip Pullman on this one. CS Lewis’ original books are really quite nasty machines designed to manufacture needless guilt in children in the name of a passive aggressive god-bully. If art can be described as lies that contain the truth, then propaganda is a lie that conceals a further lie. And propaganda is what they are. Ok, rant over. Almost.

There are so many things that are stupid in this story. Firstly, the children are transported to Narnia, a land populated by talking anthromorphised animals.  Here, Edmund, one of the children betrays the rest of them to an evil Witch who rules Narnia, something for which he must experience good old Christian shame before gaining their forgiveness and acceptance. At no point, however, do they or Aslan, the talking lion that they bizarrely turn to as a moral guardian, despite him not actually earning this position in any way, consider any of the mitigating circumstances. Firstly, Edmund’s just unexpectedly entered a magical kingdom, and doesn’t really know what’s going on. Secondly, the witch lies to him, and thirdly, every time he thinks about not giving her information, she threatens to kill a fox. Ok, he’s not entirely blameless, but he was under a lot of pressure. If it happened in the workplace he would be let off with a written warning.

The next thing that is stupid is that the Witch then demands the life of Edmund in a sacrifice. Aslan offers the Witch his own life instead and is killed. But then he comes back to life again a bit later because of some magic thing. Which means that he knew that he was going to come back. And that means that he cheated, as his sacrifice was not an equivalent to the one demanded of Edmund. Even Jesus, who is secretly Aslan in human form, believed on the cross that he had been abandoned and faced his death with despair. But Aslan is big crafty cheat, and I don’t like him.

In Aslan’s absence, leadership of the forces of good falls to the eldest boy, Peter, who must lead them into battle against the Witches’ forces. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I was in an army, and about to fight an old-fashioned battle with swords and shit, a pubescent boy who’s just fallen through a wardrobe from another dimension with absolutely no military experience would not be my first choice of leader. Surely there would have been an otter or something amongst the talking animal kingdom that would have been more qualified?

Anyway, Peter’s unsurprisingly rubbish at leading an army, and they almost lose, but then Aslan turns up and everything’s all right again. The Witch is killed, but it’s ok, she deserved it, like Saddam Hussein did.  No pesky trial required or anything.

Finally Aslan makes the four children joint rulers of Narnia. None of the inhabitants mind, which is strange as they’ve just lived under a hundred year-long dictatorship. Wouldn’t they be crying out for democracy? Surely a few months into their reign, the children would be victims of a Romanov-style massacre at the hands of some Trotskyist ferrets.

As for the implications of the children growing up in Narnia, only to fall back through the wardrobe and become children again… I don’t even want to think about it, except to say I’m confident the phrase ‘what the fuck’s happened to my gonads?’ is uttered by someone no more than five minutes after the story ends.

Finally, Superman Returns was dreary beyond belief. I mean, how do you do that? How do you make a film with Superman in it that dull? I hated it so much I actually longed for Nuclear Man from Superman IV to turn up and liven things up a bit. Even Richard Pryor’s misjudged turn in Superman III was at least entertaining on a basic level. This was absolute pish, with Superman and Lois Lane reduced to attention-deflecting holes in the screen that made you realise just how accomplished the performances of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in the original were.

Still, I’ve got Fantastic Four to look forward to. I know it’s not meant to be any good, but at least it looks lively. One day someone’s going to make a superhero film that’s an unarguable masterpiece (although I think Richard Donner’s Superman the Movie comes close). I’d like to see a three and a half hour Silver Surfer movie, in the style of Tarkovsky’s Solaris. And a Doctor Strange movie directed by David Lynch, and possibly starring him as well. Anybody got his address? I’ll send him a treatment and see what he thinks.  In the meantime, I see that Mutiny on the Buses is on again.  Now that’s quality.


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