Time keeps on rippin’

There’s one big problem with Red Riding – and for once I’m not talking about the absence of English subtitles. No, the problem is much more basic, and it’s this: the trilogy starts on the strongest film (1974), continues with what is basically a structural retreat (1980) and ends on a disappointment (1983). Since I haven’t read the novels the series is based on, I cannot tell whether this is a problem with the original material or to what extent the individual directors are to blame – in technical terms, the filmmaking and acting are strong throughout, but they’re put to increasingly lesser use.

I’ve read internauts describe Red Riding as Zodiac meets The Wire. The first part of that description, while limited, is relatively apt: the atmosphere of fear, the trip back to the ’70s and early ’80s, the way the protagonists – journalists, policemen – go mad trying to bring about justice. I can see where the comparison to The Wire comes from, just about; both series deal heavily with corruption. But that’s where the comparison ends, or rather, falls flat on its face. Corruption in The Wire is a cause and symptom of systemic rot, but it’s the system that’s fucked up. In Red Riding, corruption is basically due to Evil, Greed and Villainy(tm). And unlike in HBO’s Baltimore, the Channel 4 Yorkshire’s brand of corruption could conceivably be killed, literally, by putting a bullet in the heads of its proponents, who are vile, horrible figures that are barely human at all. Yes, there may be evil of this metaphysical sort, but in that case it’s doubtful that a shotgun blast to the cranium will make a difference in the long run.

1974 has the best understanding of its noir roots, telling the moody, dark tragedy of a deeply flawed man who, in the end, signs his own death warrant not because of right or wrong, or even because of petty ambition, but because of love – a love he barely understands himself, since he’s so used to getting laid just because of his youthful good looks. 1980, for all its strengths – especially its cast -, makes the mistake of telling almost exactly the same story. Flawed protagonist digs too deep into a conspiracy, ignores warnings and threats, finds out too much and gets killed. There are elements that are different, from protagonist Peter Hunter’s dogged belief in justice (where journalist Eddie Dunford in the first film was a romantic, Hunter is an idealist) to the theme of betrayal, but basically we get a very similar story, told with somewhat less conviction.

The problem with 1983 is that it doesn’t know which story to tell, so it half-heartedly starts three stories but is mostly busy tieing up loose threads. Thing is, when your story is about corruption, there is no such thing as loose threads. The system cannot be healed, not fully, the kindly but creepily ingratiating older man (whether it’s Chinatown‘s Noah Cross or Red Riding‘s Reverend Laws) is only symbolic for the deeply rooted rot, so blowing off his head doesn’t suddenly make everything all right – nor does the cheesy, slow-motion scene of one of our protagonists emerging with the cute-as-a-button blonde abductee girl from the Wolf’s underground lair. We’ve been watching a series of films that at least claimed to be about corruption, and the corrupt men in power are still where they were before… so yes, rescuing the girl is obviously not to be scoffed at (nor, if we admit to our reactionary urges, repeatedly shooting Reverend Laws with a shotgun), but what about the police force? What about the men toasting their crimes while they’re supposed to work for justice? You can provide an ending that is ambivalent – but 1983 isn’t ambivalent so much as amnesiac, forgetting completely what the red thread was going through these three films.

If anyone’s reading this and wondering whether they should check out the series, I would say: absolutely… as long as you stop after the first film, or lower your expectations and forget about thematic consistency. For all its Yorkshire accents and grey weather, 1983 is too Hollywood at heart to live up to the promise of the first film. And there’s no need to see 1980, since you’ve already seen that story, just better. If anything, watch the second and third film for the filmmaking craft that went into both – but accept that you’ve already seen the best, and from here on it’s all downwards.

P.S.: Admittedly, some of my liking of 1974 is due to the plaintive, moving music by Adrian Johnston (of Jude fame):

Johnston could be accused of having one theme only for the film, slightly varied again and again… but hey, it works for me!

To the North – where we mumble as we bloody want!

I’m torn on the subject of subtitles. Of course I like to know what’s being said in films, but often the sound mix favours things other than what is spoken, added to which not every actor enunciates like Sir Ian McKellen. (Though that would be funny; imagine The Wire‘s McNulty intoning “What the fuck did I do?” in that marvellously fruity RSC drawl.) But a) when I’m looking at subtitles, I’m not looking at the actors, and b) so many subtitles don’t discriminate – what is whispered and is supposed to be hardly intelligible is usually presented as crisply as what is spoken clearly. Subtitles – the great leveller of dialogue. (Still – vastly preferable to dubs in 99.9% of all cases, though that’s a different discussion.) There are times when I prefer not to understand everything to having every single word spelled out for me in big frickin’ letters.

And then comes along Red Riding, a Channel 4 produced trilogy of films about murders and police corruption. A beautifully produced series of movies, gorgeous to look at, feeling like someone had taken the best elements of David Fincher’s Zodiac and James Elroy’s L.A. Confidential and put them together. Gritty, dark, complex, compelling.

And then those Yorkshire coppers and criminals open their mouths… and out comes – what? Strange vowel sounds. The occasional half-strangled consonant. Words that sound like the H.P. Lovecraftian equivalent of English spoken through snaggle-toothed, monstrous teeth and lips. Honestly, I was under the impression that ‘oop North’ it was all “All right, luv!”, but I thought they still spoke a recognisable form of English!

And these films live off their dialogue. The intricate plots within plots, the conspiracies and betrayals, are conveyed by speech… and half the time I have no idea whether the characters are talking or expelling phlegm from their throats! To be fair, the second of the three films – 1980, following 1974 – is easier to understand, not least because the worst offenders against clear speech are killed horribly in the first film. But still – even for native speakers of the language, I doubt that understanding those Yorkshiremen and their dark, corrupt doings comes easily.

So, what better than to activate the subtitles. To understand what people are saying. Bliss… except the DVD doesn’t feature subtitles. I can choose between Dolby 2.0 and Dolby 5.1 – but subtitles? Something that would actually help me understand what is going on? Something that would allow me to answer questions of the “So, explain this to me: what the bleep is going on?” kind with some sort of authority. But no – I have a lovely sound system, and all the good it does to me in this case is this: it allows me to hear the unintelligible noises with perfect, hifi quality. Thanks a bunch.

Note to self: next time, check out the German DVD edition after all. Perhaps they’re kind and wish their foreign audiences to know what’s going on. Because, let’s face it: bugger those Southerners if they can’t be bothered to live in Yorkshire!

P.S.: There’s something wrong when Peter Mullan is more easily understood than half the rest of the cast.