The new HBO series Game of Thrones recently "concluded" about as inconclusively as it is possible to end. The final episode was almost like the first episode of a show, setting everything up. It is perhaps a testament to HBO's vision and ambition, or perhaps straightforward confidence in the quality of what they are doing. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give the series is that it sent me back to reading fantasy something I don't think I've done since I was a teenager who worried about wraiths, hit points and laughed heartily at Tom Bombadil's nonsense. George R. R. Martin's trick is to keep things normal. Fantasy has never really been that fantastic. For a genre that boasts the vastness of its imagination, it speaks with a relatively limited cultural vocabulary: the setting is a European dark ages, dragons, trolls and whatnots abound and there are always dinky little maps and really silly names. Martin's names are relatively normal, Robb for one and Ned another. He tweaks rather than boldly makes up. King Joffrey is close enough to Jeffrey and all the knights are called Ser. He also keeps things in the background. There are obvious problems ahead in regard to diverging religious belief; the old gods versus the new, but no one sits down and explains this. I was surprised to find out this leanness of exposition was entirely Martin's doing, assuming that HBO screenwriters had lopped a lot of the Lore from the televised version, but the pace and the modern sensibility is right there in the book. Having managed to finished the HBO series and the book at the same time, the book will probably win out, in as much as I can start reading the second volume straight away.
Tarkovsky is one of those heavy weight names. A film maker who as you get further away from him you realize, he was just making films after all. I think it has to do with the general cultural cachet that being Russian gives someone. I've read Nabokov, Bulgakov, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Gogol. The funny thing is when they were writing there was no such thing as Russian cultural cachet. In fact, they had to struggle not to want to be French, or German. Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice is (I think) a comedy, but I can't be sure. First of all, it's in Swedish. It has Vermeer colour scheme, of paleness, fading to whited out apocalypse. There are elements of somberness to it. The title as well points in the direction of agony as does the use of St Matthew's Passion over the opening titles, (catering by Puck Janssen I noticed as I listened to the lamentation of the prelude). But isn't this a film that is really about a literary critic who has to shag the maid in order to save the world from a nuclear holocaust? And isn't that like funny?
In my continued research for a novel (provisionally entitled Amateurs) which features a member of the Hammer production staff as a character, I rewatched Quatermass and the Pitt. The last time I saw this film was on a very small portable television (black and white), which I would position close to my bed to create a big screen effect. I come from a generation where our childhood homes (if they had second televisions) would usually have black and white televisions. There are tonnes of film that I watch (late night BBC2, Moviedrome etc.) in black and white that even today I'm surprised to see were actually in colour. Sometimes, I much prefer my black and white memories to my present day technicolor reality. A friend of mine used to adjust his TV set so he could watch films in black and white. He said that The Shining and Taxi Driver were much better drained of colour.
Quatermass and the Pit is the third film to feature the sleuthing scientist and weird things investigator, a version of Arthur Conan Doyle's Challenger. It has an excellent creepy atmosphere and a ludicrous moment of horror when a workman is possessed by an alien force and suddenly becomes a performance artist interpreting Autumn through the medium of dance. This starts off daft but becomes weirdly scary.
One thing to focus on when watching the film is Barbara Shelley's performance. Shelley was of course a stalwart of the Hammer troupe, a scream queen, but 1967 seems to have been the beginning of the waning of her cinema career. After this film, her credits are exclusively in television. In Quatermass and the Pit, there is a definite sense that she can't be bothered anymore. Everyone in the film has a languid ease, despite the extraordinary events of the plot. The main scientist takes time off from examining the recently discovered alien corpse to flick through an old book looking for similarities. Even in moments when disaster seems imminent, characters react with a slowness that seems bred of not getting enough sleep. But that can't be so because on being confronted with the possible enormity of their discovery, Quatermass explicitly tells Barbara Shelley he's just had a good night's sleep and now he's changed his mind.
So that can't be it.
Normally saying that an actress is sleep walking through a part would be to criticize them, but strangely Barbara Shelley dazed doziness actually adds to the sense that everyone is hurtling towards a horrific conclusion with their eyes half closed.
Many colour films are not in colour at all.
That is to say, they are actually black and white, but instead of black and white they use dark blue and yellow in one scene, grey and red in another and so on and so forth. In other words, colour is always kept to a relatively simple palette.
Watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy for an example of this, or the golden browns of some period films and you'll see what I mean.
Red Desert was the first colour film by Michelangelo Antonioni, a director who had made a misnomer of the phrase Black and White. Watch L'Avventura: it is as colourful in its variety of shade and grain as any 'colour' film. Black and white indeed. With a predictable unpredictability, Antonioni used his first colour film to portray and to some extent denounce the greyness of a newly industrialized Italy. Colour when it comes is often a pollutant. 'Why is the smoke yellow?' asks Monica Vitti's son. 'Because it's poisonous' is her reply.
The fruit and vegetables on the market stand are grey. The trees are leafless and white, the sea is grey. Fog and factory smoke invades scenes making them colourless and flat. Even Monica Vitti's newly dyed red hair, isn't that red.
The King's Speech is a bit like Chariots of Fire, selling a never-never land of Englishness when Englishness still meant something. Above and beyond the nostalgia is a rather thin story about how George VI triumphed over a speech impediment with the aid of his (gasp) Australian speech therapist and to triumph by successfully enunciating a mediocre speech, rather than a terrible one. The final title card telling us that they remained friends for the rest of their lives felt a little too cosy. I liked the distance between them. Geoffrey Rush gave Lionel a neediness that was obvious and Colin Firth had the occasional steel in his eyes, which showed that whatever the vulnerability he felt as a speaker, inside he was still the king. The moment when Lionel jokes about a knighthood, Firth flashes him a look of sudden cold appraisal. I got that feeling as an audience member. We were given an insight into the inner workings of the royal family and, as such, gained the illusion of intimacy, but then there were those moments when we realized they don't want our sympathy. In fact, they might despise it.
The Hammer House of Horror typifies English Gothic cinema, which is at once genuinely creepy, camp and a little bit on the cheap side. As with Roger Corman's films in the US, the low budgets often had pleasant side effects: the recurring sets and locations ended up creating a kind of Hammer universe where story took place. There's a joy in spotting a familiar sofa or henchman. The film I watched last night was Dracula Prince of Darkness. It's got some great moments, but perhaps the most noteable thing is that Christopher Lee doesn't have a single line in the whole film. It's almost as if he's only been partly resurrected. He is an animal presence with blood shot eyes. The only thing that weakens the film is that he is so out-matched and out-numbered. He only manages one victim, poor chap. His final come-uppance also makes him look a bit of a klutz, wobbling about on the shifting ice like a contestant from an old Transylvanian edition of It's A Knockout . I'm going to be watching a few of these as I'm researching a character for a novel who worked with Hammer.
Now I'm quite looking forward to the opportunity.
Watched the blu-ray of the Thin Red Line last night. It has some revealing extras. The deleted scenes feature the notorious Mickey Rourke cameo, although one imagines that there was a lot more cut than just this. Millions of feet of film. Adrien Bordy was particularly upset to see his performance (he assumed he was the star of the film) end up on the cutting room floor, a fact he didn't realise until he saw the film at the premiere. But the film is a choral effect. Everyone adding their voices, but few receiving a solo. The whole film contends, the voice overs are mainly made up of questions and although characters often seem to represent certain points of view, they often contradict themselves. Witt might be a Christian soldier, but the emphasis despite his soulful staring is on soldiering. Welsh (Sean Penn), on the other hand, keeps telling everyone to look after number one, but admits that he doesn't feel numb, and is obviously someone who suffers throughout the film, most obviously at Witt's grave.
One fact I noticed is that a lot of the voice over I had previously thought of as being pronounced by Witt, is actually being given by Train, a young boy who appears at the beginning and end of the film, but simply as a face in the crowd. He is the one who, on the boat, talks to Welsh about his father beating him.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.