Saturday, 29 July 2017

Film Review 2017 - #10 John Carter

John Carter – 10th in the sequence of DVDs ordained for my 2017 viewing by my sons’ Christmas largesse – is one of the most expensive flops in cinema history; indeed, by some calculations, it is the single biggest financial mis-judgment by cinema executives in the history of the world.

The loss is justified: a great deal of money was spent making it; and the result is execrable.

How on earth did Disney – an outfit with a not-to-be-sneered-at track record of success in the entertainment industry – so comprehensively fuck up?

I imagine a meeting.  It is sometime in 2008.  Disney has been going through some corporate turbulence:  its new CEO, Bob Iger, has been in post for less than three years and the company has been busy buying Pixar, doing deals with Steve Jobs and getting ready for a big corporate re-structure.  The wrong people are in the room.  The scale of investment in John Carter (it was the fourth-highest budget in movie history at that point) means that the money men are firmly in charge.

Instead of the guys [gender plural] who make movie decisions with their guts, the decision was about to be made by guys [gender specific] who make decisions with their spreadsheets.

The early lines of the sheet look good:

  • list of classy actors (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Bryan Cranston…) – check
  • based on a fabulous story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the guy who wrote Tarzan – check
  • director with a top-end track record (Andrew Stanton - Finding Nemo, WALL-E and co-writer of the Toy Story movies) – check

Yes, it’s looking good so far.  But wait – what’s this?

“So our thinking is, having analysed the market, that we can position this film by drawing directly on previous successes.”

“Go on.”

“We envisage splicing the following movies together.”  Cue a PowerPoint slide (not reproduced here).  “As you can see, we’re proposing to channel:

  • Star Wars – big narrative space arc, flying things like pod racers, lots of stuff in deserts
  • Avatar – tall funny coloured aliens, strife between the good guys and the bad guys
  • Indiana Jones – swarthy hero who runs around a lot chasing things, mysterious icons etc
  • Gladiator – big fight scenes in a stadium with a baying crowd, hero motivated by a dead wife and kid.”

“Uh huh.”

“These movies grossed $11.2 billion, with an average of approximately $750 million.”

“Go make the movie.”

That’s my theory, anyway: the MBAs got their hands on the tiller, ran it as if it was a purely financial transaction and crashed comprehensively into the rocks.  Lessons aplenty, methinks.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, John Carter is a silly and confusing film with lots of special effects.  The end.

[If there's a photo down here it was added August 2017 as part of blog refresh.  Photo is either mine or is linked to where I found it. Make of either what you will.]

Friday, 28 July 2017

Fairy Tales and the Problem of Men

MarinaWarner – who is generally awesome and, amongst other things, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck in London - writes, in ‘Once Upon a Time – A Short History of Fairy Story', that:

“All the favourite and famous fairy tales today are girls stories… But while the stories’ views of femaleness and femininity have been thoroughly shaken up, assumptions about maleness and masculinity have not been interrogated as enterprisingly – there’s been a general reluctance to address the question, and a general retreat from even thinking about boys and fairy tales, probably because doing so leads into very deep waters about what society expects from young men – and these are proving hard to plumb.”

She goes on to remind us that around half of Grimms’ fairy tales star a young hero; and she suggests that the principal reason for the disappearance of these particular fairy stories is that they became “irredeemably tainted” by the Nazis, who used the stories as “a kind of how-to guide to being hard”.

The consequences of this are simultaneously straightforward and difficult to fathom: young men – young boys – no longer have access to an exceptionally valuable repository of guidance on how to prepare for life; but how can we possibly assess the specific consequences of this?

Warner gives us a clue:

“While the fairy tale genre generally ignores patient merit, it does concern itself with the downtrodden and the ill-used, and a central part of its consolations derives from fate’s twists and turns.  The odds are stacked against everyone, more or less equally, and everything can change, suddenly, without rhyme or reason.  The impenetrability of destiny and the helplessness of humans in the grip of chance count among the sharpest messages of fairy tales, and the exploratory tools, psychoanalytic or other, blunt themselves on their mystery.”

Perhaps, had they been better prepared – had they received these sharp messages when young - there would not be so many furious and dangerous men in the world.

Time to dust down Grimms’ forgotten tales, perhaps?

Monday, 3 July 2017

Film Review 2017 - #9 If...

Released at the end of 1968, ‘If…’ won the Palme d’Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival and has been heralded (by no less an authority than Rotten Tomatoes) as “Incendiary, subversive, and darkly humorous… a landmark of British counter-cultural cinema”.

This all seems appropriate.  The film is weird and wonderful.  Set in a fictionalised English public school, the movie follows a group of rebellious students as they endure the sundry rituals, punishments and humiliations that are part of normal, everyday life in an educational institution of this kind.  The film oscillates between colour and black and white scenes; the various incidents and episodes have a surreal quality, to the point where the boundary between ‘real’ and ‘dream sequence’ becomes blurred; and the highly-stylised characters are engaging and funny and persuasive.  I particularly liked the headmaster, who comports himself as some sort of enlightened philosopher-king despite the brutality and oppression permeating his kingdom.

Wikipedia thinks the film is a satire on English public school life.  I think this is to underplay it.  Satirising English public school life is easy-peasy – it is blindingly obvious that, if you trap a group of adolescent boys far away from home for years and subject them to a regime based on nineteenth century malice, and you throw in the kinds of teachers and adults who would be attracted to work in such an environment, then things are bound to be a bit strange.

What is interesting, I think, is to see the film as a satire on the entirety of English (and I do mean specifically English) culture.  The reality was, and remains, that a simply staggering proportion of the English elite – the judges and lawyers, the journalists and media-wonks, the politicos and financiers – have been educated in fee-paying schools, many of them in schools remarkably like that portrayed in ‘If…’.  It is simply inconceivable that an educational experience like that does not profoundly shape your world view.  I met quite a few of these people at university; I know whereof I speak.  Their notion of ‘normal’ is pretty strange.

So the really interesting question – as far as I’m concerned – is why the rest of us have put up with this for so long.  Pretty much the same set of schools have produced pretty much the same set of young adults groomed to take up pretty much the same jobs in the Establishment for - pretty much - centuries.  Every year they allow a few oiks (mea culpa) close enough to the inner circle to sustain the illusion of social mobility (and, indeed, to remove potential troublemakers from the massed ranks) and, somehow, a truly English revolution has never taken place.

A revolution doesn’t really take place in ‘If…’ either - the rebels are, after all, public-school educated members of the very elite they come to despise – but I found the final surreal scenes of slaughter (including the execution of aforementioned headteacher) enormously entertaining.  I’d probably have enjoyed it even more if the proletariat from the neighbouring village had run in with pitchforks to extend the massacre, but I’m just being greedy.  It’s a funny, political, weird and thought-provoking film, and I’m grateful enough for that.