Friday, 4 March 2011

Inglourious Basterds: Re-writing History for Fun

Another film re-watched. The second time just strengthened what I had concluded the first time: for me, the most important thing this film has to offer is not the snappy dialogue, over-the-top dramatic style, brilliant performances, whacky assortment of characters or anything else the director is famous for. It's the fact that Hitler dies.

Before Inglourious Basterds I was, although I never noticed, labouring under the delusion that a historical film should accurately represent actual historical events. In fact, I held onto this belief right up until the very shot where one of the "basterds" fills Hitler with bullets. At that moment, watching his face disappear and thinking "wait a minute, I may have dropped out of a-level history but I'm pretty sure that's not what happened", it suddenly dawned on me that, not only was this film not concerned with historical accuracy, but there was no particular reason why any film should be. Unless the film claims to be historically accurate, why should we expect it to be?

In fact, Tarantino put me through a similar experience some years ago when I first watched his early films and found myself wondering why on earth I should expect a film to tell its story in chronological order. Later, David Lynch took me to the next level and made me wonder what reason there is for a film to make any kind of logical sense at all. This, for me, is one of the most exciting things a film (or any piece of fiction in any form) can do: ask why something is a certain way, ask if it has to be that way, challenge your assumptions. Perhaps this is where art and science intersect.

Of course, I'm not suggesting every historical film should throw fact out of the window. For instance, staying with the same subject matter, the film Valkyrie is all about what really happened; the whole point is that the plot to assassinate Hitler failed. So it's all a question of what the film wants to achieve. And I suspect that the real motive behind inglourious Basterds - aside from to tell a damn good yarn and to tell it well - was revenge. No need to be all serious and analytical about it; let's watch a film about the biggest badguy of the 20th century getting what he deserves. Simple, violent moral gratification. And why the hell not?

Now, can anyone recommend another good film that gleefully re-writes historical fact?

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Matrix: 12 Years On

My flatmate recently unearthed his copy of The Animatrix and we watched the first short film on there, "Final Flight of the Osiris". I had seen it before back when it came out, when The Matrix was still sort of a current phenomenon, and I can't really remember what I thought of it then. This time, I found myself led to re-think The Matrix quite a bit. Let me explain...

"Final Flight..." begins with the heroine and hero in a training program of some kind, engaged in a typically acrobatic no-contact sword fight. Blindfolded. Every now and then one of them cuts a piece of clothing off the other, until they are fighting in their underwear. Each sneaks a mischievous glance from under the blindfold. They end up having a kiss and cuddle, but are rudely awakened by the ship's red alert sound. Back to the real world. Aw shucks! But, like the true nerd that I am, it occurred to me to wonder why they were bothering to practice their sword-fighting skills when those skills had been programmed in like cheats in a computer game. Surely their sword-fighting skills are already masterly whenever they're in the matrix (or training programs). Well, well, well. Could it be that this is not a training exercise, but how they choose to spend their leisure time? In fact, given the way things seemed to be heading before they had to go back to the real world, the sword-fighting ballet begins to look like some weird, complex mating ritual. I suppose these dystopian freedom fighters have to find some way to occupy themselves when they're not battling machines, but blindfolded semi-naked sword fighting? Maybe they've been cooped up in the Osiris a bit too long...

Which got me thinking about the original The Matrix. Maybe the whole lot of them were going a little bit peculiar after all those years searching for the one. They all seemed to have developed egos only just able to fit inside the matrix. All those long coats and sunglasses and PVC. And the cool one-liners! After being liberated from the fake cyber-world of the matrix they all started talking like they're in a Hollywood action film. How's that for irony? Actually, I should have said a nineties Hollywood action film. There's a hell of a lot of bad writing in films now of course, but it seems to me that nowadays both good and bad writing strive to be realistic. Like it might be something someone might actually say. One-liners don't cut it these days. If a sparring partner in a martial arts club said "Come on, stop trying to hit me and hit me!" I would laugh out loud. When a character in a modern film says that kind of thing... well, it's cool, but I can't quite take it seriously.

Don't get me wrong, I love The Matrix. I love the premise, I love the film itself and I love the kung fu (especially the kung fu). I just don't think the years have been very kind to it, and I can't shake the feeling that we never really knew those badass bullet-time cyber-warriors like we thought we did...
Image by James Brown.

Watchmen - Who Watches the Film Version?

I recently read Alan Moore's comic Watchmen for the second time, and watched Zack Snyder's film adaptation, also for the second time. Obviously I can't look back on Watchmen without focusing my ideas a little, since it's such a huge and multi-faceted text, so I'm gonna look at the film, and at how well it lives up to the book.

Of course, it's fashionable to be intensely negative about any film adaptation of anything, just for the hell of it. If you're one of those people who, on hearing that another book or comic or whatever is getting the Hollywood treatment, immediately starts whingeing like a baby then I suggest you don't bother reading this, because I think the film of Watchmen is pretty damn good. When I first saw it - in a cinema and full of "it's-finally-here" excitement - I was hugely impressed. The cast is almost perfect; some of those actors even look like the Dave Gibbons's pictures, and both the actors and the writers obviously understand the characters profoundly. With the sad exception of Silk Spectre, the "staggeringly complex psychological profiles" that a New York Times reviewer saw in the book are all present and accounted for.

And more than that, the essence is there: the grimy streets, the distrust and paranoia with which everyone seems to view everyone else, the apocalyptic anxiety, and of course the shadow of the Cold War that gets into every corner of the story. Snyder's film conveys all these things with skill and imagination, never straying too far from the source text but not simply reproducing it verbatim from start to finish. The scene-setting vignettes during the opening credits (set to Bob Dylan's "The Time's They Are A-Changing" - how perfect!) are a wonderful example of this. Even the significantly altered ending doesn't seem in any way unfaithful.

All of which suggests Watchmen the film is a brilliant adaptation of Watchmen the comic. But how good a film is it? Well, I'm not a critic but it's clearly not a bad film. It's well-written, well-acted, well edited, well set-designed, well cast, well lit, well sound-edited, blah blah blah. But those aren't the things that make it really impressive. What makes it really impressive is Rorschach... Dr. Manhattan... Veidt... the giant crystal structure floating around over Mars... the line "I'm not locked up in here with you, you're all locked up in here with me!". Most of all, that essence that I tried my very best to sum up in the paragraph above. In other words, it's technically a good film, but what it really has going for it is... all the stuff that came from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's original text. In a way, unless the filmmakers had been really incompetent or lazy, or had strayed completely from the source text, they couldn't possibly have failed to make a good film. It was Watchmen. It was already great.

That was the impression I got after watching the film the second time. And I was left wondering: "Can an adaptation ever actually be great in its own right?" I'm not joining the "adaptations are pointless" brigade. I'm just wondering how much admiration a group of filmmakers deserve for faithfully reproducing something that was a brilliant, complete and fascinating work of art before they came anywhere near it...

Image by James Brown.


I've decided to start a new blog. This one will hopefully live longer than my other one.

I want somewhere to articulate and share my ideas about works of art and pop culture. Beyond that I am not setting myself any restrictions. Some posts will look at books, some at films, some at music, some even at computer games. Some will be long, some short. Some will be about new works, some about works that are old but new to me, and some will look back on pieces I know and love (or hate).

I hope you find this stuff interesting, since I am having to ignore a little voice that says "writing a blog is the most egotistical, self-centred thing a person can do, Alex, no one cares what you think, go and do something useful". I also hope for some discussions.