Sunday, December 30, 2007

Nice Things

1:The annual "best of" I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue goes without saying. Sadly, the clip show missed out the years best double entendre:

"In the eighteenth century, the rich folk of the town donated money to pay for alms-houses to shelter the poor, the crippled, and the impotent. On the day they were opened, many thousands of the poor and the crippled turned up. But the impotent couldn't come."

2: I saved the double length Christmas Theme Time Radio Hour to listen to on Christmas day. Dylan's selection of music remains eclectic bordering on insanity. The whole joy of Theme Time has been the way it draws my attention to music that would not otherwise enter my field of vision. (Under what other circumstances would I listen to Tammy Wynette? Or The Streets, for gods sake? Or even have known that such a person as Washington Phillips even existed?) Highlight of the Christmas edition was Bob's recitation of Longfellow's "Christmas Bells". But doesn't the poem actually say "black accursed mouth"?

3: On Christmas Eve I watched Jean Luc-Picard and Withnail pretending to be Scrooge and Bob Cratchett in A Christmas Carol which, if the truth be told, I also watched last year and intend to watch next year as well. Unlike most film versions it leaves in the dark-stuff and the wierdo-Dickensian sentimentality, including the two children called "Ignorance" and "Starvation" who crawl out of the skirt of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Best moment is the bit of business when Scrooge doesn't know to take his hat off in church -- although Picard's voice is too beautiful to play a villain. A lady in the Guardian pointed out that Dickens didn't "invent" Christmas, as we're sometimes told -- after all, the child Scrooge is sad to be left at boarding school over Christmas, and as a youth he's pleased when his boss throws an office party. But Dickens did popularize the idea that Christmas was something that a single family could celebrate "just once a year" -- rather than a twelve day festival of Olde Englande in which you said "hey nonny-no" a great deal. Did you notice that the one thing which isn't mentioned is present-giving? Scrooge sends Cratchett a turkey for Christmas dinner, of course, but there is nothing about sending toys to Tiny Tim, and the adults at Scrooge's nephew's party play games, but don't seem to exchange gifts.

4: Not that there is anything wrong with hey-nonny-no-ing, of course. Thanks to the wonders of Listen Again, I have spent Monday evenings in 2007 discovering that Morris Dancing can be sexy.

5: The week before Christmas I got around to seeing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford which is one of a very few films (it reminded me a lot of The Godfather in this respect) which has the depth and intensity of a grown-up novel. People complained that it was slow moving; but it seemed to me that there was no way you could have made it shorter. It relied on your spending three hours with the characters until you thought you understood them: by the end, I think you knew, without being told, why Bob Ford killed his friend and why his friend let him. Except for a slightly overdone scene when Ford, preparing for the murder, tries to take on the role of Jesse James, there was none of the psychobabble and exposition which often passes for "characterisation". Someone frivolously complained that the title of the film gave away the ending, but actually, the opposite was true. I'm no student of Westerns, so literally, the only thing I knew about the story is that Bob Ford, it was a fact, shot Jesse in the back while Jesse hung a picture on the wall. In the movie, he was dusting it. I assume that, through not knowing the rest of the story, there were a lot more ironies and resonances that I missed.

6: Did I mention that my "film of the year" was This Is England ? Anyone who grew up in the 80s, and anyone interested in the "what-does-patriotism-mean-in-multi-cultural-England" question needs to see it; but it's really a character piece and probably makes sense if you've never heard of either Roland Rat or the National Front.

7: Cranford came to an end just before the Christmas holidays – one of those historical costume dramas that only Aunty Beeb bothers to make nowadays. An old lady loses all her money while she still owes the butcher ten shillings. Everybody rallies round. Judy Dench acts without making it look as if she's acting. There's no bonking, no wet-shirts, and nothing explodes. Well, actually, the steam train explodes, but that results in the poacher's son getting an unexpected legacy. It is a Victorian novel after all. I have never read a work by Elizabeth Gaskell,but that failing will shortly be rectified: this is probably the best compliment you can pay to an adaptation of a novel.

8: I still haven't formed a definite opinion of I'm Not There , and probably won't until I have seen it at least twice more. Clearly a significant, important film. It consistently, almost perversely avoids saying anything obvious: the sound track to "Bob Dylan" meeting "Woody Guthrie" is "Blind Willie McTell" rather than, say, "Song for Woody". The best thing about it is the way in which it expects the audience to think for itself.

9: The Extras Christmas special unexpectedly eschewed (I've always wanted to use that word) farce and offered a clever and touching piece of drama which was actually quite an intelligent meditation on the current fad for "celebrity." The brainless community has complained that it's a bit rich for Ricky Gervais to be making TV shows about walking away from fame when he's got movie contracts coming out of his ears. But surely that misses the point? Gervais said on Desert Island Discs that he's horrified that young people want to be famous – not famous for anything, just famous. He said that what makes a film star happy is the sense that he's made a good movie: the red carpet is just an added extra. He, Gervais, presumably regards his success as the reward for having made comedy shows which he is proud of. So the point of Extras is not that "fame is bad" but that Gervais's on screen avatar has gone after fame as and end in itself, and therefore made himself miserable. Not the most original message on earth, but worth repeating, I would have said.

10: I even giggled a bit at the ****ing To the Manor Born reunion gig, although really, the BBC shouldn't have let such a fossilized bit of 1970s church-hall farce out of cryogenic storage

So at 8pm on December 25th, I think we should all have been able to smile ruefully and say "Well, OK, Russell: you may think that we are all cretins with the attention span of hyperactive eight year olds, that we need ever point of characterisation spelled out and underlined, and that it's okay to set up emotional situations and not follow through with them, but, hell, there are plenty of other people out there who are prepared to treat us like adults."


Salisbury said...

Re: Extras: I'm not sure it's correct to point to Ricky Gervais' pot calling Andy Millman's kettle black. But it is a confused show. After all, Andy has stood up for himself (season 2, episode 1) in situations where most of us would fold like a tablecloth. Yet here we're supposed to accept that he has no integrity until the end of the Christmas special. Of course in real life people do waver back and forth and don't really change, but this is drama, and unless you're very clever drama is best when it takes the audience from A to B.

Gervais never quite seemed comfortable taking the David Brent out of Andy, and so--after a lovely first season--we got a show that didn't know whether it wanted to be about the idiotic or the awkward: one person's story or everybody's story.

Ironically, Extras has been at its best when doing the things it is ostensibly not about: as broad comedy it can be hilarious; as serious TV it hasn't quite worked out what it's being serious about.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Of Gaskell's novels, I've only read North and South, which is basically Pride and Prejudice with a class struggle thrown in. It's worth a look, but judging by that novel alone I'd say Gaskell is in the second tier of Victorian authors for good reason.

Gavin Burrows said...

So it’s that time of year already, when all the retrospectives come out? Just in case anyone might be interested, here’s mine.

I think you’re absolutely right about Jesse James and was also a big fan of This is England, but I had to stump for a favourite of 07 I’d prevaricate between Inland Empire, The Lives of Others and Control.

I’m maybe a bit more agnostic over I’m Not There than you, though I am grateful it was more than another straightforward tedious biopic. Despite the fact that (as you say) you really do need to see it more than once, I’m thinking of cranking something out about it.

Nick Mazonowicz said...

I don't think it's a bit rich for Gervais to make a comedy show about someone desperate for fame. I do think it's a bit rich for him to attack people for being obsessed with the minutae of celebrity and then spend most of the show making jokes which depend purely on people's knowledge of celebrity minutae.

And I also think it's a bit rich for Gervais to attack broad farce with 'When the Whistle Blows' and then have a scene as painfully contrived as the 'Wriggley Scott' scene.

Lirazel said...

Mrs. Gaskell's other novels are a bit too melodramatic for lasting fame,(and it sounds as though bits of them may have been lifted for this Cranford,) but Cranford itself is both delicate and sturdy. The fact that it features ladies of "a certain age" also has its appeal when one is such an age oneself.

I also very much enjoy her Life of Charlotte Bronte, though it's not the last word in definitive biography. It's difficult to write well about an admired friend.

Gavin Burrows said...
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Gavin Burrows said...
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Gavin Burrows said...

For what it's worth, I finally did write something about I'm Not There!