Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Vale Margaret and David


It is always hard when a favourite television show ends. The characters have become part of your life, you think of them as friends. You know their quirks, their likes and dislikes, and you are attached to their relationships to each other. Knowing you will never seeing them do anything new again is sad.

Yesterday, Australia's most famous film critics, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, announced that their 28-year partnership would finish at the end of this year; they are retiring. For those of you outside of Australia, Margaret and David are very similar to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert; they have a television show called At the Movies where they review the week's releases, each giving a rating out of 5-stars. Before At the Movies, which has been running for 10 years, they had The Movie Show on another channel that ran for 18 years.
They are famous for their inability to agree, though they do not disagree nearly as much as people think they do; they are more likely to like or dislike a film for different reasons. But when they do disagree, it is a joy to watch! Cries of 'Oh Margaret' and 'Oh David' would be traded between the chairs, though it always stopped short of insult. In recent years they added a segment where they would pick a classic and explain why it was so wonderful. These classics are international and Australian classics, and it is rare that they disagree with the choice.

Like any movie-lover, they have their bugbears. David absolutely hates 'shaky-cam,' while Margaret is rarely taken with animation (though she loved the Toy Story series). David also deeply dislikes Lars von Trier. When Melancholia came out Margaret gave it 5 stars, while David could only manage 2.5.
They are incredibly supportive of the Australian film industry, encouraging audiences to embrace local productions and get over 'cultural cringe.' They both gave Samson and Delilah (2009) 5 stars, calling it 'one of the most wonderful films this country has ever produced.' David even praised the handheld camera work, calling it 'an absolute object lesson' in how to use it. The affection for them is so great, and they are so well-respected that for their 25th year together, they had a special show where Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush hosted, and played them. 

Personally, they are one of the reasons I love films so much. I started watching them around 2005, and have absorbed their focus on all aspects of filmmaking. They always make mention of the screenplay, the cinematography, the direction, the director's background, films in a similar vein to the one being discussed; and they have done so with passion and enthusiasm. They were the first to teach me that cinema can be art as well as entertainment, and that the best films are usually both.
Double acts don't come much better!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Based On: A Clockwork Orange


Stanley Kubrick's film (from 1971) is a perfect example of a film adaptation that complements the source material. Anthony Burgess' novel is a vividly described story of 15-year-old Alex and his ultraviolent escapades with his droogs. After one particular incident results in a woman's death, Alex is sent to prison, where after two years he undegoes a new radical therapy, the Ludovico Technique, that will get him released in a fortnight. But what price is his freedom? Is he really free?

Kubrick's films follows the novel's plot quite closely, and asks the same questions regarding authority and government against the rights of the individual, and how the ability to make choices rests at the heart of what it means to be human. The greatest deviation from the novel's plot is the final chapter, which is completely left out. This is because the American edition of A Clockwork Orange thought it too sentimental and exorcised it, much to Burgess' chagrin.

The last chapter alters the trajectory of Alex's character significantly (if you are squeamish about spoilers, you should know better than to read analyses of films and books you haven't experienced!). In the film Alex is 'cured' of his negatively reinforced moral behaviour, leaving the audience with a stare similar to the one we were welcomed with in the film's first frame. In the novel, Alex begins to yearn for a different life, and envisages having a wife and baby son. 

Which ending is better? In my opinion, neither. Though the book may feel slightly too neat, it does show growth and change in Alex's character. Remember, he is 15 at the novel's beginning; he appears to be going through a rebellious stage, and is yet to mature. Film Alex is back to the way he was at the beginning, implying his two-year ordeal has not fundamentally altered him at all. However, film Alex appears to be a few years older than book Alex, maybe seventeen, so perhaps his is too set in his ways. And he does have a clearly defined idea to rebel against: the government, and the cruelty of society he experienced after prison. Why choose to be better when no one else does?

Burgess' novel is told in the first person, and Kubrick keeps that element with Alex providing a voiceover throughout. As in the novel, Alex frequently address the audience with 'O my Brothers,' drawing us to side and sympathise with him. Malcolm McDowell is brilliant in the role. Despite being in his late twenties at the time, he infuses Alex with a youthful exuberance and charisma that endears him to the audience. This is ultimately what makes the film work. Without it, we would be glad that such a violent individual is spiritually castrated; with it we empathise with his situation. 

A Clockwork Orange

'It's not fair! It's not fair that I should feel sick when I hear lovely, lovely Ludwig Van!'

Film has the upper hand over books in its ability to incorporate other art forms into its medium. You can show them or play them, along with the characters reactions; a novel only gives us reactions. In A Clockwork Orange music plays an integral role in the story, and throughout is associated with torture. Alex loves classic music, and its association with the sickness during the Ludovico Technique is the most devastating aspect for him. In the novel all music is ruined for him; in the film only the '9th' (Beethoven's 9th Symphony) is associated with the sickness.

Kubrick litters classical music throughout his film, but it is not always rendered 'purely.' During the famous Ludovico Technique scene where 'Ludwig Van' is playing over the images, we the audience hear it played, but it is on an electronic instrument. I found myself hearing parts that I recognised, but could not get the flow of piece in my head. The effect is deliberately unsettling. We do not get the full blast of the piece until later, when Alex is being tortured by the author.

The author's torture of Alex is payback for an earlier dose of ultraviolence Alex had served the man and his wife in the story; Alex and his droogs beat the man and rape his wife in front of him. In the film Alex sings 'Singin' in the Rain,' kicking the man to the beat of the song. Later in the film, in a move similar to Peter Lorre's whistling in Fritz Lang's M, Alex sings the song whilst relaxing in the author's bath. The author, like Alex with the '9th', has a negative association with the song, and he loses all sympathy for Alex's plight.

Kubrick and Malcolm McDowell's use of 'Singin' in the Rain' has a similar effect on the viewer as it does on the author from the story. Now when I hear the song, I get a strange mixture of Gene Kelly and A Clockwork Orange in my head.

The film and book of A Clockwork Orange are great companion pieces, each enhancing the other. With the novel, you have the full onslaught of Nadsat, a remarkable invention by Anthony Burgess. With the film, you have the music which will forever be associated with the stunning visuals of Kubrick's film.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Great Rom-Coms: When Harry Met Sally

The rom-com is one of the most despised genres of film. The mediocre or bad ones have derision heaped upon them. Their utterly predictable outcome is bemoaned by many; what's the point of watching the film if you know how it will end up? And do not forget the unrealistic expectations it gives people about relationships!

For me, the second point is rather ridiculous: most people are not silly enough to believe that films represent actual life. And while predictability is sometimes problematic, it is not only restricted to this genre of film (in fact most genres are guilty of this because of the very nature of genre). So why is the rom-com often singled out?

Without putting forward a rather sexist response, I can't answer that question. Instead I'm going to talk about the rom-coms I think are great, brilliant, wonderful, perfect, all the superlatives you can think of, and why. First up, one of my absolute favourites:

When Harry Met Sally (1989) details the relationship between Harry and Sally, moving from the first time they meet, when they didn't like each (or at least one of them didn't), to their friendship that eventually tumbles into love. This happens over the space of 12 years (and 3 months!).

Though the main plot is linear, there are two things that are different from most rom-coms Hollywood produces. Peppered throughout the film are 'interviews' with older couples talking about how they met. These characters are not involved in the main plot, and have no tangible connection to the characters. But they are connected thematically, contextualising Harry and Sally's story within the multitude of other couples' experiences. This is not meant to be a representation of how all relationships are, but just one of many different stories that could be told.
These stories do reveal the ending to us, for all the couples are married and many have been together for many years. It is implied that is the result for Harry and Sally. But we don't know the unique story of how they got there.

The second difference is a bit more subtle. The plot plays out in chronological order, but there are gaps in the actual timeline. Between the drive to New York and seeing each other at the airport, five years pass; after that five more years pass before they actually start getting to know each other properly.

Coincidence plays a large part in their relationship. 'Destiny', that old rom-com staple, is not what compels them together; they hardly think of each other in the intervening periods. And, although genre conventions dictate that people who start off hating each other come to like each other, those films are rarely set over such a long period of time, and thus the transition feels forced. When Harry Met Sally allows the characters to change in a more natural way, and are influenced by factors other than each other.

Dialogue is incredibly important for films about relationships, and this film has some of the best lines in film history. Of course, everyone knows the (in)famous 'I'll have what she's having,' but there are many Nora Ephron gems in this script. 'Baby fish mouth' is a hilarious moment, and for me is now a saying; Sally's deadpan 'It's amazing, you look like a normal person, but actually you are the angel of death' is fabulous. Most of Harry and Sally's exchanges are wonderful, but the films declaration of love is perfection:

Harry: I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.

Sally: You see, that is just like you Harry. You say things like that and you make it impossible for me to hate you! And I hate you Harry, I really hate you …. I hate you.

  Great dialogue is all well and good, but Ephron also wrote great characters. Harry and Sally are not bland stereotypes; Sally may be high maintenance, but she is not a shrill, demanding person. Harry is at times cavalier in his relationships with women, but he is also coming to terms with a painful divorce, which has understandably rattled his approach to commitment. They also have small quirks particular to them: Sally orders food in such detail that I assume it often comes seasoned with spit (not on the side!), while Harry reads the last page of the books he reads just in case he dies before the end. These don't affect the plot, but they help flesh out these characters.

The supporting characters are just as well-drawn. Jess and Marie, Harry and Sally's respective best friends, could almost have a film of their own. They are not simply there to offer advice to Harry and Sally but have their own story arc, which involves falling in love and marrying each other, all in the time it takes Harry and Sally to figure out how they feel for each other.

One cannot talk about this film without mentioning its huge debt to Woody Allen's films. I saw this before I saw any of Allen's films, and when I watched Annie Hall I was struck by the similarities: set in New York, smart-talking characters; Sally reminded me of Annie, Harry had aspects of Alvy. This is in no way a bad thing; Allen's rom-coms are some of the best out there, and if you are going to be a bit derivative, take from the best!

It is interesting to note that the film was originally going to end with Harry and Sally not getting together, an ending which some like Rob Reiner, Nora Ephron and Carrie Fisher have said would be more realistic. They may be right, but this approach takes me back to the 'unrealistic' tag thrown at many rom-coms. The film is not a definitive answer to the question 'Can men and women just be friends?' but an exploration of that tension. As the couples show us, everyone's story is different, so an attempt at 'truth' is rather irrelevant.
I first watched this when I was fifteen and I have loved it since. It is not just a great romantic comedy, it's a great, brilliant, wonderful and yes, perfect movie.