Six Damn Fine Degrees #12: A Fish Called Wanda

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

One of the ironies of life is that John Cleese, responsible for some of the most (in)famously absurd sketches in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, is more renowned for his work on comparatively unadventurous, straight comedies, two of them being Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda. And yet, it’s no accident that both are revered: they’re deliciously funny and incredibly mean-spirited, yet brimming with an inimitable charm nonetheless.

Continue reading

E, S, A, R, I, N, T, U, L…

In the hands of a different cast and crew, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) could have been bad – or worse, it could have been absolutely nothingy. Of course the real-life premise is memorable and impressive – locked-in syndrome, being a prisoner inside your own body – but making this work as a magazine article or even a book is very different from making it work as a film. Without a keen directorial vision, this would’ve turned into the worst kind of movie-of-the-week.

I’ve never seen any other films by Julian Schnabel (the sheer silliness of his name may have kept me from watching his earlier work), but based on this film I’m definitely going to keep my eyes open for Basquiat and Before Night Falls. The movie isn’t overburdened by directorial flourishes, but Schnabel has a strong sense of the visual, in the real scenes as much as in those that take place in Jean-Do’s imagination or are inspired by his words. Talking of which, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir (the film could be described as a sort of making-of of the memoir, but that would be far too banal a description for what Schnabel achieves), strikes a deft balance between the visual and the verbal. It hums with the energy of words – Jean-Do is filled with language, even if his condition doesn’t allow him to express them easily. Each word is a battle, each phrase is a war – at least at first, but one of the refreshing aspects of the film is that the women who help the man express himself are all French beauties of the Emanuelle Seigner type (and one of them looks like a Gallic dead ringer for Naomi Watts), and Jean-Do is the kind of man who falls in love, at least a bit, with every woman he sees.

The lightness that the film has, derived equally from Bauby’s ironic tone (he isn’t afraid of laughing at himself and his situation) and Schnabel’s visual idiom, doesn’t detract from its darker side, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. The horror of Jean-Do’s situation makes especially the first twenty minutes almost unbearable at times. Schnabel doesn’t need to emphasise this – he shows, quite simply and unflinchingly.

I’ve only just finished watching the film about an hour ago, so my first impression is still fresh and might change. However, throughout the movie I kept thinking of another film, this one by Alejandro Amenábar: The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro), also a true-life story, based on the struggles of a Spanish quadruplegic fighting for his right to die. Both films are centred on men who have been taken prisoner by their failing bodies; both men are full of life, yet have been deprived of the ability to life as fully as they desire; and both The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Sea Inside use similar imagery, especially the ocean and seaside. To some extent they feel like a French and a Spanish take on similar issues and would make near-perfect companion pieces.

Isn't the resemblance uncanny?

On a different note: we’ve added another HBO series to the already considerable list. It’s called Wome, at least if you ask Michael Palin:

And like so many HBO series, it’s got a pretty cool title sequence. Enjoy!

Hey, soldier! Leave that kid alone!

As usually, I was late to the party. Everyone ranted and raved about Children of Men when it came out, so I got the DVD almost immediately when it came out. And then it lay around for ages, was moved from one flat to another… and last Saturday we finally thought, “The value of a DVD lies in watching it, not having it,” as Confucius said. Or Yoda. I forget which.

Now, having seen the film, I’d say that the raves were warranted… if the reviewers left the cinema roughly two thirds into the film. The first hour or so of Children of Men is the most compelling, most chillingly credible cinematic dystopia I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the most breathtakingly well shot films – just how on earth did they shoot some of those long takes?

For a long time, Children of Men succeeds in making a horrific vision of the future all too credible by taking our present-day world and extrapolating. None of the over-the-top gadgetry of other near-future films. (While I’m embarrassingly fond of Strange Days, that millennial melodrama does look extremely dated. That film was right, however, in assuming that whatever entertainment technology will be the next best thing, it’ll largely be used do commodify violence and porn. Now let me go back to play GTA 4.)*

I also like that the film doesn’t provide lots of explanations and exposition. It throws its viewers into a world where the youngest child is 18 years old, where people have become almost indifferent to small-scale terrorist bombings but can’t stop crying over the killing of a Brazilian teen just because he happens to have been the last baby born. Where “Rah, rah, we are the best!” chauvinism has become the norm. And every one of these developments has its roots in our present day. Eighteen years of a slow, ongoing apocalypse will do that to you, I guess. But none of this is dwelled on. While watching the first hour of the film I never felt like the film was trying to tell me something in six-foot high, bolded letters.

But then the film becomes more heavy-handed. We get images that are clearly inspired by Abu Ghraib. We get grimy ethnic refugees in wartorn Bexhill. And to me at least, it all looks less like an extrapolation of our current world and more like editorial comments on current conflicts. Yes, the beginning of the film also commented on our present-day world, but it did so much more subtly, in the background. There’s a richness to the scene-setting that is more convincing and more complex than the in-your-face correspondences of the last 30, 40 minutes.

It doesn’t help that while the first hour of the film focuses on dialogues and characterisation, it ends on what is mostly running and shooting. At least the main character doesn’t become an action film hero (there’s a gorgeously funny escape roughly at the half-way point which plays refreshingly different from what you’d get in a Hollywood action film), but still, there are only so many variations on the theme of running away and being shot at .

Sadly I’d heard so much about the key scene where the guns fall silent at the sound of a baby crying, so when it came it didn’t strike me the way it struck many viewers. The Bexhill transition had taken me out of the film so much that the scenes of awe-struck ‘fugees staring in almost religious rapture at the first baby in 18 years, with the occasional poor sod in the background being shot while gawping, struck me as almost Monty Pythonesque – “Oh look, bab-eurgh!” “Look at its widdle fing-blam!” Or perhaps I just had a phase last Saturday of being a callous bastard… or perhaps it was that I didn’t quite buy the Uncanny Valley CGI Baby. Earlier scenes – the amazing sequence in the car, or Michael Caine’s final moments – got to me much more.

(Yes, I am evil.)

In some ways I think I’d reacted better to the film if I’d known less about it – but even then, I would have felt disappointed by the abrupt shift in tone. The moment that Peter Mullan’s cartoon character Syd turns up is the moment that the film sharply turns into something different, and much less compelling, than before. I came away feeling that I’d seen the beginning of a masterpiece and the end of an okay dystopia. I just wish I’d been able to finish watching that masterpiece before someone spliced a decidedly inferior film, though one strangely starring the same actors playing the same characters, into the reel.

*Actually, I haven’t got the equipment to play GTA 4, so I’m stuck with lower-tech virtual snuff. Poor widdle me.

Where hearts were entertaining June

“I think we lost him.” That is still one of the most chilling final lines of any movie I’ve seen. (Another very effective last line, and one of my favourite, would be: “Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘The World is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”) And whatever else you may think about the film, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil has one of the most effective endings in film history.

On the whole, I like films the way I like my sharks: single-minded. (Okay, that wasn’t exactly the most successful simile this side of Metaphysical Poetry.) Films that are trim, lean, effective. I also like the sprawling epos, but if a film is messy – if it’s jam-packed with ideas and images that in the end don’t really lead anywhere – I tend to lose patience.

Brazil is a big mess of a film. Terry Gilliam isn’t exactly a disciplined film-maker, and Brazil is one of his least disciplined movies. There are dozens of scenes, incidents and characters that seem to be in the film because it seemed a good idea at the time. It’s garish, cartoony and unfocused – very much like its central character, really. Nevertheless, for me it’s the best, most affecting dystopia on celluloid.

Part of this is Gilliam’s success at using a handful of characters and actors to anchor the film in some sort of emotional reality. Yes, so many of the characters remain flat cartoons that are there for a joke or to make a point (which usually kills a film’s credibility for me), but then you’ve got Mrs. Tuttle’s anguished “What have you done with his body?” or Michael Palin’s greatest creation, Jack Lint… or Sam Lowry, Jonathan Pryce’s funniest, saddest part ever. The forlornly happy look on his face at the very end, after he’s “escaped”, still breaks my heart. And the interrogation scenes are still both funny and frightening (although I could do without the “pinball prisoner” scene).

Would the film be better if it was more focused, if Gilliam had been less sprawling, running off in several different directions at once? It’s impossible to say – a streamlined, single-minded Brazil would be an entirely different movie. Sufficient to say, though, that Brazil remains my favourite Gilliam film, even after a dozen viewings. And its happy ending is the saddest ever filmed.

Just make sure not to watch the “Love Conquers All” edit, unless you have an unhealthy fascination with watching road accidents as they’re happening – or if you can dissociate yourself enough from what you’re watching to observe, clinically, how a different edit can change a film into a grotesque mockery of itself.

Oh, and while we’re at it: one of the most fascinating (Un-)Making Of documentaries must be Lost in La Mancha, which documents the disastrous production history of Gilliam’s take on Don Quixote. If you ever want to see a mad ex-Python as unwitting King Lear, or if you have any interest in how films come about, check it out.