Campaign for real whale

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On July 26, the documentary Blackfish is released in UK cinemas. It is one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen. It tells the tragic tale of one specific captive killer whale, Tilikum, a 22.5 ft (6.9m) long, 12,000 pound (5,400 kg) bull who lives – if you can call it living – at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he still performs for whooping audiences. His name comes from the Chinook word for “friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people”, which is ironic when you think for longer than a few seconds about the fact that whales in swimming pools are by definition separated from their extended families. (Tilikum was captured in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, aged around three years old, and has lived in swimming pools for most of his showbiz life. While held at Sealand in British Columbia, his first “home”, he and two other orcas were herded, every night, into a “holding” pool just 20 ft (6.1m) deep and 28 ft (8.5m) in diameter.)

Blackfish was made by documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who did not start out with an agenda. She had, in fact, taken her kids to SeaWorld and bought into the whole corporate myth that these beautiful cetateans are not “forced” to perform their tricks and do so willingly out of a love for their human trainers. (The word “killer” is usually dropped in the official commentaries at these shows.) Having done the same thing myself in 1994, no matter how conflicted I felt at the time about seeing two whales doing tricks for fish at what was then Marine World Africa USA in Vallejo, California, it has haunted me ever since and hardened my anti-zoo stance. I guess I am the choir to which the film could be accused of preaching to, although it’s hard to imagine why any right-thinking person would be happy about large, social marine mammals being kept in prison when they’ve committed no crime.

The orca is an apex predator, but has never attacked a human in the wild. Incidents of whales “turning on” their trainers, however, are more common than you might idly think. The engine that drove Gabriela to make her film was the awful death on February 24, 2010, of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando, which was witnessed, unknowingly, by a whooping audience. The precise cause of death is still murky, but Brancheau seems to have been pulled by Tilikum into the water by her ponytail, possibly in a moment of confusion over fish.

The whales performing on that occasion had been unresponsive and agitated, and only get fish after successfully effecting a trick, so they were especially hungry. Eyewitness accounts differ. Brancheau’s autopsy indicated “death by drowning” and “blunt force trauma”, and noted a severed spinal cord, and “sustained fractures” to her jawbone, ribs and a cervical vertebra.

SeaWorld was fined $75,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration but insists that OSHA’s findings are “unfounded”. The implication, as ever in cases like this, is that human error led to the tragedy. This was the story instantly spun around the death at a Cumbrian safari park of zookeeper Sarah McClay, killed by a Sumatran tiger. The news media ensures that our first reaction to the story is never, “What is a tiger doing living in Cumbria?”

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You will learn more about all this in the haunting film, which provides plentiful context: historical, behavioural, neurological (orcas have a section of brain that even clever old humans don’t have) and, yes, emotional. It may make you cry. I met Gabriela on Tuesday night at a private VIP screening of Blackfish laid on by distributor Dogwoof for representatives of various NGOs and activist groups (you might say a “captive audience” if the phrase wasn’t so inappropriate!) and she is a calm, logical, unhysterical advocate of basic commonsense in this area. Here she is.

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In her film, she speaks to a whole parade of ex-SeaWorld trainers, who confirm that incredible bond between animal and human, but who still question the motivation behind SeaWorld’s entire business model. The marine park chain currently has 22 killer whales in captivity, which remain big box office. For them, it’s all about money and turnstiles. And why wouldn’t it be? They’re a corporation. Blackfish is as much a critique of corporate America as it is of animal cruelty. (You won’t be surprised that SeaWorld refused to put up a representative to speak on camera, although transcripts of their defence at a previous court case speak volumes.)

I refrain from urging anyone to see a film. There may be issues closer to home than Orlando that come higher up your priority list. You may simply think: well it’s obviously wrong that massive whales are kept in a zoo, I don’t need to see a film about it to have my beliefs hardened. It’s not a snuff movie – you don’t actually see any trainers die, but you do see the bloody damage distressed whales do to each other when cooped up, and you do see some unprecedented “behaviours” which rather suggest psychological damage. Poor Tilikum seems mostly to be kept as a sperm bank these days. (He’s “sired” 21 offspring in his time, 11 of which are still alive.)

Artificial insemination is a common practice in animal husbandry, on farms, at stables, in zoos and elsewhere, and it’s done for reasons of conservation as well as commerce. However, you might find the sheer scale of doing it to a killer whale rather disturbing. Maybe that’s double standards, I don’t know, but I love killer whales. When I saw one in Vallejo in 1994 and sat right up against the glass of its viewing pool while it swam past my nose, I felt privileged to have seen it. And then sick that I had seen it in that unnatural setting.

I have a recurring dream which I’ve mentioned before, in which I am close to the edge of a pool in which huge killer whales are swimming. But it’s not a nightmare. I am terrified of falling in, and in awe of the whales, but I never do fall in, and they never harm me. No need to analyse that one, Freudians.

Oh, and I urge you to see Blackfish. Damn!

Raymond reviews: bah!

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Well, I went in to see The Look Of Love with expectations at ankle-height thanks to all the below-par reviews, which ran the gamut from lukewarm to cold-shower, enough to give anyone a winter bottom. A straightforward biopic of Soho porn baron and property magnate Paul Raymond, built, or so it seemed, around Steve Coogan’s desire to impersonate him (which he does well), and regular collaborator Michael Winterbottom’s desire to capture to pre-enlightenment days of London’s former sex district, The Look Of Love turned out to be very good.

Maybe the critics turned on it because it seemed to arrive rather engorged with self-confidence, as if asking to be pulled down a peg or two. (The string of TV comedy cameos – David Walliams, Matt Lucas, Miles Jupp, Stephen Fry – may have added to the perceived smugness.) Both Coogan and Winterbottom are prolific, and much admired, so it’s easy to knock them while celebrating their other triumphs. So, too, with screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote Control, which was feted across the board and given a Bafta, and Nowhere Boy. I actually wondered if I was going to love it after seeing the trailer; it had the hallmarks of being “perfunctory”, as many reviewers maintain that it is. I respectfully disagree with them all.

Aside from David Sexton’s virtual lone voice of praise in the London Evening Standard (well, it is a very “London” film), few could even strain up to a three-star rating. Philip French of the Observer called it “crude”, “shallow” and complained that Raymond’s world and life lacked illumination by a “larger social context”. He also said it lacked “wit … insight and … detail”. Our own Stella Papamichael in Radio Times named Winterbottom “a co-conspirator in Raymond’s objectification of women.” Emma Jones in the Independent reported from Sundance, saying it “lacked soul” and calling it “an interminably dull orgy”, but at least recognised that this was probably Winterbottom’s intention. Tim Robey in the Telegraph, another trustworthy critic, used the words “perfunctory” and “hollow”, not to mention “flaccid”, and wondered aloud what Scorsese would have made of it. (Again, he’s clever enough to spot that a British porn baron’s tale is never going to have the crackle of Boogie Nights or Larry Flynt.)  The Mail‘s Chris Tookey stamped it a “turkey” and called it “unobservant, unerotic and dull,” and went further with “dishonest”. Though only awarding three stars, Empire at least identified its “healthy sense of naffness.”

Maybe that’s the problem, although not a problem for me: it does not make apologies for Raymond, as he rises from “entertainer” to impressario, and makes his money through property and pornography. He is plainly depicted as a cad and a sexual cheat, unfaithful in a sort of industrial manner to his first wife (Anna Friel) and his live-in girlfriend Fiona Richmond (a frequently nude Tamsin Egerton) by decree. Yes, he took a showgirl for his wife. Greenhalgh’s script presents Raymond as a man of natural charisma and wit, but doesn’t deify him; he made his living in a sleazy business in what was a sleazy part of town (“welcome to my world of erotica”), using tits to put bums on seats in theatrical sex farce and disrobed revue alike, always pushing against the boundaries of what the Lord Chamberlain allowed.

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If he was any part of a libertarian or champion of free artistic impression, this is soon eclipsed by his greed for more flesh as he buys into Men Only (whose coke-snorting editor, Tony Power, is skilfully played by Chris Addison, for whom The Look Of Love may provide a more fruitful shopfront than it ever could for the better-established Coogan, whose Raymond does brings to mind an X-rated combination of Partridge and, as per The Trip, Coogan). It’s grubby stuff, mostly, with any glamour tarnished by a combination of 60s and especially 70s naffness (the space-age telly watched by the almost-beaten 90s Raymond after his daughter’s sad death, brilliantly encapsulates the datedness of that metropolitan notion of James Bond cool that only James Bond could pull off).

In terms of the randy threesomes and the magnetic pull of the shag-pile boudoir, you get the sense that Coogan understands this self-destructive cock-led compulsion. The constant refrain of “house champagne” is a nifty way of exposing the cheapness beneath the largesse. (Raymond does keep insisting he’s the boy from Liverpool who arrived in London with “three bob” in his pocket.) If anything, on occasion, Coogan possibly makes Raymond too amusing and suave, in what must be improvised scenes, including impressions of Brando and Connery. (Maybe he was an excellent mimic, but I doubt as adept as Coogan!)

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It’s not life-changing. It is, deliberately, unerotic. And it doesn’t tell us anything new about the history of porn, which was done with more seriousness when Our Friends In The North ventured down south. But at least, for all the flesh on display – including a 70s-appropriate bush of pubic hair that’s foregrounded purely for reasons of nostalgia! – it features a strong, driven, successful woman in Richmond, through whom Egerton rises above the exploitation of her own body and compensates for all the insipid, giggling dollybirds, as they used to be called.

If it has anything to say, it’s that a vast property portfolio, enough money and assets to be named the richest man in Britain at his peak (and before the foreign money took over), doesn’t bring happiness. You’ll still be trying to impress people by telling them that Ringo Starr designed your flat (which Raymond does), and measuring your worth via notches on the bedpost. Raymond ends the film sad and introspective, and minus his beloved daughter (Imogen Poots, who steals much of the film with her rounded, likeable, unspoilt portrayal of a beneficiary of nepotism who rose above it, only to fall victim to cocaine and heroin abuse).

It may sound glib to say it’s a bit of fun, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Winterbottom shoots on the hoof, keeping budgets low, on location (Londoners will love, as I did, the sightseeing aspect), and encourages improv, and while Raymond’s story doesn’t have the innate cool or bangin’ soundtrack of 24 Hour Party People, he may happily file The Look Of Love alongside: a breezy portrait of an essentially naff English success story who charmed his way through a number of scams and left his mark. It’s a bit of a useless title, and it’s a pity Ramond’s estate owned the rights to its intended one, The King Of Soho. What about 24 Hour Porno Person?

The world at war

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Two films at the weekend which I intend to line up for arbitrary comparison because they are both new, both are foreign language and both were premiered at Cannes last year, where they competed in parallel for the Palme d’Or and Un Certain Regard: from Russia, In The Fog, or В тумане, and from Argentina, White Elephant or Elefante blanco.

They formed a sublime, if challenging and counterintuitive double-bill for me at the Renoir, a subterranean refuge from a sunny Sunday afternoon in London’s Bloomsbury. A barbecue and a beer are not the only ways to celebrate the late arrival of spring; you can retreat underground, on your own, and immerse yourself in Russian and South American poverty. Each to their own!

In The Fog first, a long and courageously ponderous fable set in Nazi-occupied Belarus during the Second World War; 1942, to be precise, where the hanging of three partisans sets the scene in an apparently unbroken tracking shot that discreetly turns away from the moment of death and alights upon a cart piled high with bones instead (animal bones, but you get the idea). Such is the skill and precision of relatively new Belarusian feature director Sergei Loznitsa announced. He previously worked on documentaries, but despite the handheld opening, do not expect a story built with the improvised looseness of photojournalism. In The Fog is in many ways a formal piece, in which three central characters move slowly through the forest, their individual backstories illustrated in flashback.

Not much happens. In this regard, I couldn’t help but think of Waiting For Godot. The three main characters seem also to be archetypes, the central protagonist, Sushenya, played by Vladimir Svirskiy, a stoically noble and fatalistic embodiment of the Russian spirit, perhaps. (I am no student of Russian classical literature – this film was based on a 1989 novel by Vasil’ Bykaw – but I’ve seen the films, and I get a sense of the ideological and political forces that shape the national temperament, particularly in times of war or struggle.) There are few laughs to be had – alright, none – this is a fable of death and punishment and separation and hardship. An early scene has one partisan emptying his boots of water and squeezing out his sodden socks, which seems to sum the film up.

Sushenya’s wife, from whose comfort he is taken early on in the film (he also leaves behind the carved wooden animals he made for his young son and the warm bathwater), begs him to take food when he is called in for questioning by two partisans after a fatal misunderstanding. She suggests some lard, or an onion (“Everything tastes better with an onion”); again, this sets the tone of humility and gratitude for only the bare basics of subsistence living in occupied Belarus. It’s hard going. Between the occasional bursts of action, it’s largely men in hats murmuring in a forest. But it feels oddly poetic and certainly measured and sincere, and although the Nazi occupiers are clearly the “baddies”, the internecine conflicts between partisans and collaborators make it morally ambiguous. My favourite kind of cinematic morality.

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For the far more conventional but no less stimulating White Elephant, writer-producer-director Pablo Trapero, who made last year’s memorable ambulance-chasing thriller Carancho (released in Argentina in 2010 but released here last year, and also Cannes-selected), returns to Buenos Aires and to the two excellent stars of that film for a more socially conscious piece about “slum priests”. Ricardo Darín, a big star at home and familiar to international audiences from Nine Queens and The Secrets In Their Eyes, is a likeably crumpled presence with a twinkle in his eyes, here playing what we would call a “community leader” in a shanty town that has grown, like mould, around an abandoned hospital project. (I think I’m right in saying that this is the Ciudad Oculta in real life – it’s clearly a genuine location and the shell of a hospital makes a striking image throughout, a hollowed-out symbol of civic failure and economic collapse – instead of making people better, it houses self-destructive drug addicts.)

We first meet Darín’s Father Julián, a selfless, tireless beacon of commonsense and charity among the dispossessed who live in the slum, when he fetches the younger, Belgian priest, Fr Nicolás (Jérémie Renier) back from a horrific paramilitary massacre at a jungle mission. His own mission is to train up the junior to eventually take his place. It’s a nice touch to show the real-life memorial to Fr Carlos Mujica, shot – and martyred – in 1974; his sanctified spirit lives in Julián, although he cannot perform miracles and make the inevitable drug war go away.

If you’ve seen the Brazilian film City Of God, set in Rio, you’ll know the fatal, bullet-riddled milieu and will not be surprised to see young kids at the centre of it. One school-age addict, Monito (Federico Barga), forms a focus for the priests’ efforts to stem the body count, although their techniques differ: the older priest wants to stay out of the politics of the drug trade, the younger wants to get his hands dirty. Disaster this way comes.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot. The director’s wife and co-producer, Martina Gusman, who was so vital as the flawed emergency-room doctor in Carancho, plays a dedicated but non-Catholic social worker trying to get new housing built, a key player in the conflict between the priests. White Elephant has the same liberal, do-gooder feel as any number of white British or American films about aid workers in Africa, but without the colonial guilt. These slums are local problems on the doorstep of Buenos Aires, and there is something terribly old-fashioned about the Church having to solve society’s ills. The easy banter of the volunteers, and the law-abiding citizens (many of whom must be non-actors) stops it being too earnest or grim, although the conclusion feels a little bit Hollywood.

Still, another important glimpse of life during wartime.

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Spring-Breakers

Spring Breakers, the new sensation from Harmony Korine of Kids, Gummo and Trash Humpers infamy, reminds us once again how different American youth culture is from our own, no matter how hegemonic and irresistible its occupation feels, as our defences fall like pathetic dominoes before exported concepts like prom night, seasons, sweet sixteens, EDM, “Can I get …?” and local elections for police chiefs. Lord, save us from Spring Break. Were this film to be set in this country – or in Ayia Napa, Ibiza or whatever latest fleshpot British sixth-formers and gap-yearers flock to for sun, sex and sexually transmitted disease – it would be called The Easter Holidays. Not quite as alluring, is it?

The very phrase, “Spring Break … Spring Break,” is uttered again and again through Spring Breakers like a mantra, as if it’s Mecca or Oz calling, as opposed to Florida. The film, whose sense of occasion is never in doubt, even if its motives are, depicts a beach babe bingo Bacchanalia, the kind seen in rap videos, or, these days, cameraphone footage, where arse-cellulite vibrates to booming bass, liquid refreshment is siphoned through rubber tubes or simply applied to the skin, and flesh is fancifully fried like a human barbecue. It’s Club 18-30 without a rep in sight.

I have never been on a holiday like this. But you have to hand it to Korine, who’s 40 now: he “gets” what goes on away from prying parental eyes between the second and third semester, and it looks for all the world like the one captured in The Inbetweeners Movie, except without the bidet jokes and the failure to score drugs or have sex.

The music – “Electronic Dance Music” or EDM, the umbrella term over there for house, techno and/or dubstep, so it seems – is key, as it doesn’t just soundtrack these adventures in the skin trade, it provides the pounding, pulsing rhythm of their all-out, non-stop, heads-down hedonism. During their Easter hols, pleasure is their guiding principle and nothing else. If that pleasure might require danger to spice it – cocaine, armed robbery, drive-bys, premeditated murder – so be it. A quick call home to Mom and Dad will cover the cracks. (The wilder this vacation gets, the more demure, innocent and spiritual the calls home become.)

The girls whose story is told in Spring Breakers are played by previously wholesome Mouseketeer types – inspired casting, if you know their CVs, which I’m afraid I didn’t – Candy is Vanessa Hudgens, previously known for High School Musical, Brit is Ashley Benson from Days Of Our Lives, Cotty is the director’s wife Rachel, whose background is less apple-pie, and Faith is Selina Gomez, as famous for being the ex of “the famous pop singer who likes Anne Frank” as being in Disney’s Wizards Of Waverly Place. They are spring broke at the end of term and are forced to rob a Chicken Shack to afford the trip to Tampa, where the action is.

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I’m no student of Korine’s work, but I understand that this is being marketed as his most accessible film. It certainly may appeal on a base level to – presumably – the spring breakers whose hedonism it surely seeks to satirise and critique. I certainly felt, at the outset – and the film is a compelling riot of colour, music and movement – that we were in for a debunking of the moral and intellectual vacuum occupied by moneyed American teens. When the film takes its inevitable darker turn – when the Miami PD turn up, basically – and this particularly thin American dream morphs into a nightmare, I thought I knew what was going on.

But, without giving away the plot (such as it is; Spring Breakers feels like a dream sequence unmoored from hard reality come the final reel), Korine winds up complicit in MTV-gangsta-rap fantasies.There may be a price to pay for earlier pleasure-seeking, but there is little redemption or comeuppance.

Although full of flesh, and dictated by a rhythm of grinding hips and bottoms, it’s not as sexually explicit as you might expect, and Selina Gomez, in particular, does not do as much to shock or scorch her own image, as, say, Benson or Hudgens, but as far as you can tell, very little actual sex takes places. Maybe this is a comment? That the lifestyle is all bump and grind and no sexual congress?

If the film is a comment upon “Spring Break” itself, I would argue that, in the end, it’s not much of one. In its favour, it is visually splendid, however, all bright pinks and pastel oranges (and that’s just the skin tones etc.), and runs on a pretty persuasive energy. And James Franco is, as well as unrecognisable, thrilling in the main male role of silver-toothed charmer Alien, a drug dealer who manages to be appealing as well as repellent. His “Look at my shit!” speech, surely improvised by Franco, is a highlight of the film.

The needles and the damage done

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I hope you are able to see The Place Beyond The Pines without finding out too much in advance about how the story plays out. I innocently read the review by the seasoned and should-know-better David Denby in the New Yorker and found out exactly what happens in it. (I’ve read long-form reviews in UK publications, such as Philip French’s in the Observer, where the writer has expertly skirted around one key issue, so it can be done with discretion.) To be honest, it’s still a fine film, in my opinion. But the less you know the better.

It’s a melodrama, and that’s not anything like a criticism. I would argue that the definitive films noirs are melodramas, and this third feature from writer-director Derek Cianfrance (I never saw his first, but my review of Blue Valentine is here) certainly fits into that approximate genre. It’s also a grand family saga. It has the feel of an old-fashioned American miniseries, something like Rich Man, Poor Man, which older readers may remember fondly.

Because it’s showing at the Curzon, which is a small arthouse chain of which I am an enthusiastic member, I have to put up with the same fairly narrow range of trailers on a loop each time I visit. The Place Beyond The Pines has a striking trailer, in which Ryan Gosling is revealed as a stunt motorcycle rider (as opposed to the stunt car driver in Drive) and the father of Eve Mendes’ baby son, which he wishes to support. The trailer also reveals that robbing a bank is what he does to raise some funds, and that Bradley Cooper’s cop in some way confounds this plan. I commented to my friend Lucy that it gives too much away, but, having seen it, she assured me that it doesn’t.

So … the bare bones of the film – sexy images, by and large, of the main protagonists – are all that we who have seen the trailer actually know about The Place Beyond The Pines. Unless we have read David Denby. I tell you this so that, if you intend to see it, you avoid reading any more reviews (although you’re safe to read on here). The trailer gives away only half the picture. It’s a very clever trailer.

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And it’s a very ambitious film. Indie by nature, it ticks the credibility boxes by casting Gosling in the lead, but casting him opposite Bradley Cooper, who is a much more mainstream star, with cred of his own after Silver Linings Playbook. (Gosling started out as a cool actor in challenging stuff like The Believer and Half Nelson, but his commercial appeal grew, whereas Cooper hit big with broad-appeal movies like The A-Team and The Hangover and has been working hard to improve his licks, which is bearing fruit.) It’s a film about men, and these two are the men it’s mainly about, but not exclusively.

With its diners, carnivals, trailers, auto shops, car lots and 1st National banks, it’s almost a caricature of smalltown America as seen in the movies – as such it takes on mythic properties, and is lovingly shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, whose beautiful work you’ve already seen in Hunger and Shame. Set and shot in and around the former Mohawk settlement Schenectady, it has a realism of place that’s hard to replicate, and despite the melodrama unfolding within it, it lends authenticity to the performances, which might otherwise tip into camp. (Many have likened Gosling’s brooding brute in a white t-shirt to Marlon Brando in his ape-like prime, and you can see where they’re heading.)

I think I bought into the film more than other critics, who’ve variously questioned the length (it’s two hours and 20 minutes, which is long for an indie), the third act (of which too much must not be spoken for fear of neutering its revelations), the paucity of anything much to do for the decent female actors (Rose Byrne is underused, too) and Cianfrance’s lack of control with the material as it expands outwards. I forgive it these sins. It’s bold, high-minded American cinema that isn’t afraid of having a character stop at a crossroads on his motorbike and fail to respond to a green light at the point when he is at a crossroads in his life. Neither is it afraid of visual rhymes – again, which should be savoured without me listing them here – or big themes like fatherhood and honour and, just maybe, the poisoning of the American dream.

Oh, and the music is superb. The score is by Mike Patton, formerly of Faith No More, and its haunting theme, The Snow Angel, pressed into effective service for the trailer, is a pre-existing tune written for a previous film, but no less fitting for it. There are also numbers by Bruce Springsteen, Suicide and Hall & Oates, and some passages by Arvo Part. It’s all put together with maximum care and attention. (And Hall & Oates’ Maneater has a hook in an earlier line of dialogue, it’s not just a hit song for its own sake.)

This and Compliance are my favourite American films of the post-Oscars year so far.

Leak ending

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It wasn’t exactly the Battle of the Blackwater, but there was a brief exchange of fire below the line under this week’s Telly Addict, which was dominated, predictably, by my review of the opening of Season 3 of Game Of Thrones. Although I was careful not to give away any important plot details from Episode 1 in my review – nor to let anything slip in the clips I chose – I strayed, indirectly, into the minefield anyway. This was the pretty angry comment posted by a man called Richard Berry:

Why did the Guardian ensure this video gave a blatant spoiler, even for those who haven’t watched it?

The still image used to advertise the video on the Guardian HOME PAGE shows a character who is clearly alive in season three. The entire plot of series two is that a whole range of others are trying to kill him. Thanks for ruining it.

We don’t all have Sky, and I thought the Guardian would try to refrain from forcing their viewers into the embrace of Rupert Murdoch.

Note that he does not blame me, which is why stepping in may have been a mistake on my part, but it seemed unlikely, what with around 120 comments left under the review at that stage, that anybody involved in producing Telly Addict or responsible for choosing the still that accompanies each one on the page would be following the discussion as vigilantly as I do, so I responded. In my haste, I parried that the offending still was actually from the end of Season 2, which I believed it was. (It certainly features two characters who appear in Seasons 2 and 3, but I have been re-watching episodes from the first two seasons of late so I can’t be trusted!)

Anyway, it turned out to have been from Season 3 after all – from Episode One, in fact. Either way, Richard Berry felt that in revealing that two characters from Season 2 were even in Season 3 was, in and of itself, a spoiler. One of the characters is a principal. It is not out of the question that he might have been killed at the end of Season 2, as a principal was killed at the end of Season 1. However, Sky have been advertising Season 3 with huge billboards in the UK, and these feature the faces of the principal characters, one of whom is in the still the Guardian used. (Is all this obfuscation really necessary? I don’t know.)

Having myself recently re-watched the climax of Season 2 (which revolves around the Battle of the Blackwater), I know that the story does not hinge upon … actually, I now feel too paranoid about spoilers to even discuss it in vague non-detail. After all, not all GoT fans are Sky subscribers, HBO customers or illegal downloaders; although many will have read the books and will know exactly what happens throughout Season 3, and, I think, 4, maybe even 5. (I haven’t looked.)

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I have some sympathy with Richard Berry, as he’s working his way through the box sets, as I have done with a number of US imports, notably Battlestar and Breaking Bad, in both cases behind the actual broadcasts and susceptible to spoilers. I’m currently watching the stirring and addictive Friday Night Lights, on Sky Atlantic, which started showing all five seasons after the fifth had aired and when the whole saga was in the public domain. I made the innocent mistake of looking up one of the lower-ranking actors during Season 1 and found out that he was in all five seasons, so I know he’s in for the duration – a spoiler of sorts, although nobody’s fault but my own, right?

But a vanilla still of two characters, officially released by HBO and Sky, surely cannot be categorised as a “spoiler”. Richard will have to wait until Season 3 is out on box set – at the end of this year no doubt – before he can see it. In the meantime, I expect he’s diligently avoiding any internet sites related to GoT, including Wikipedia. He saw a photo on a newspaper’s website below a caption saying something like “The Week in TV”, assumed it to be from a future episode, and felt that it “spoiled” Season 2. Without going into any plot detail, it was impossible for me to explain to him why it wasn’t a spoiler, because you’re on thin ice the whole time when you’re ahead of someone.

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The spoiler is well-named. “A person or thing that causes spoilage or corruption,” according to the dictionary, or else “a plunderer or robber”. Before the internet proliferated, its most contemporary setting might have been in print publishing, where newspapers still habitually print spoilers to undermine a competitor’s scoop, and entire magazines are launched to interfere with a rival’s plans. (OK! is just about the most successful spoiler title in publishing.)

I wrote about spoilers for the Observer in 1999, but the focus then was movies. I noted that the concept of spoilers was “an underground one”, which seems quaint now. “Nuggets of information made public with the sole intention of undermining the authority of a forthcoming cinema release” were, I wrote, “all the rage, thanks to the Internet, where knowledge truly is power. If you want to know what happens at the end of The Blair Witch Project, just key the title and the word ‘spoiler’ into your search engine, and you’ll soon find the goods.”

I had been commissioned to write the piece because of the forthcoming Sixth Sense, whose twist had the new-fangled Internet aflame. Its twist had, in fact, become a commercial issue, as patrons in America had already started buying a second ticket to re-view the film. “That’s a very important element,” said Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney, in between counting his takings. “People are going back to catch all those things you don’t pick up the first time.” The spoiling of twists is, of course, a one-time-only offer.

I did a roll-call of those 90s thrillers with a twist – The Usual Suspects, The Game, Scream, Primal Fear, Wild Things, Twelve Monkeys, Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge - and it did seem like an epidemic. I also observed that many actually fall to bits once you revisit them armed with the special knowledge gleaned at the end.

An article about The Sixth Sense in 1999 in American magazine Entertainment Weekly was stamped with a warning to readers: STORY CONTAINS KEY PLOT POINTS. This was an early example, I believe, of what we now know as the SPOILER ALERT. As a longtime subscriber to Sight & Sound, whose trademark synopses of new releases inevitably give away endings, I have grown used to the warning. I may as well also confess to being the type of person who reads on when advised not to.

I read the Entertainment Weekly piece right through, not having seen the film, and I went in to see The Sixth Sense knowing the wham-bang ending. I wrote, “As a result, barring amnesia brought on by a blow to the head, I will never be able to see The Sixth Sense the way it was intended.” This has remained true ever since. I am simply a sucker for reading synopses and long reviews, where twists are most likely to be revealed. The warning SPOILER ALERT is a welcome mat to me. (The recently deceased Roger Ebert, perhaps America’s most famous film critic after Pauline Kael, admitted to having been “blind-sided” by The Sixth Sense in the Chicago Sun-Times. Lucky him.)

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When Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game came out in 1992, journalists and those attending preview screenings were asked not to give away the big twist. (If you’re still unaware of this one, it occurs long before the end and has an important bearing on the central relationship. It’s also one of the most beautifully-handled and powerful gasp-moments in modern cinema, the sort you envy someone not knowing.) Because The Crying Game had so many other merits as a moviegoing experience, most kept their mouths shut. Ebert, again, ended his review with the words, “See this film. Then shut up about it.”

Being asked to shut up about a hot new film sends out mixed messages: we, the paying public, are usually urged, “Tell your friends!” Because no matter how sophisticated and well-oiled the Hollywood publicity machine has become, word-of-mouth, and its successor word-of-Tweet, is the one marketing factor that’s truly out of The Man’s control. (Only this week, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller Oblivion was screened to journalists the night before it went out on general release, but that was, I suspect, for a different reason of media control.)

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In 1960, Psycho was publicised with the memorably jolly tagline, “Don’t give away the ending – it’s the only one we have!” Hitchcock actually issued theatre-owners with a handbook, The Care And Handling of Psycho, with half-jokey notices for the foyer reading, “It is required that you see Psycho from the very beginning. The manager of this theatre has been instructed at the risk of his life not to admit any persons after the picture starts.” House lights had to remain down for 30 seconds after the end credits, to allow “the suspense of Psycho to be indelibly engraved in the minds of the audience.” Try maintaining that level of compliance in the iPhone age. (Although Steven Moffat and the Doctor Who team were able to pre-screen the first episode of last autumn’s new series to die-hard fans before transmission and successfully implored them not to electronically blab about the unscheduled appearance of the Doctor’s new assistant. Moffat effectively made it a trust issue.)

Back in August 1999, the Sun filled its front page with the headline, “OFFICIAL: BBC’S LOST THE PLOT”, claiming it had obtained “all the storylines of EastEnders for the next year”. However – and here’s the twist – the paper didn’t reveal a single detail. Readers were asked to vote by phone whether they wished to have their enjoyment scuppered or not. They did not. (I was writing for EastEnders at the time and felt very close to this passing scandal. When Phil Mitchell was shot, none of the writers knew who’d dunit. It was safer that way.)

All the Internet has done is made the sharing of information easier. For diehard fans of a franchise, whether it’s Doctor Who or Star Wars or Game Of Thrones or Twilight or Harry Potter, leaks and rumours and revelations feed their devotion. (I always felt luckier than everybody else in the cinema when I saw a Harry Potter, as I had no idea what was about to happen, not having read a word of the books; whereas the more devoted fans around me must have known every last detail.) Richard Berry and those like him who are one season behind on GoT and who have not devoured George R.R. Martin’s source novels, exist in a permanent time-delay: the story they are following is way ahead of them, and it’s out there, in the public domain, out of the bottle, airborne. They moan a lot in comments sections – a pretty risky place to dwell if you’re afraid of spoilers, in any case – but whose responsibility is it to protect them?

I fully intend to see the new Ryan Gosling film A Place Beyond The Pines at the cinema this weekend. David Denby revealed its surprise twist in his review in the New Yorker. I was initially as annoyed with Denby as Richard Berry was with the Guardian. And then I got over it. Not knowing something that happens isn’t the only enjoyment to be had. If something’s good, it won’t really matter.

It is not until the final frame of Citizen Kane that we learn who or what “Rosebud” is. As Kane’s effects are burned on a bonfire, the camera alights on the answer. Just as no-one heard him utter the word at the beginning, no-one notices the reveal at the end: the secret rests solely with us, the audience. Orson Welles, of course, thought it was a “hokey device”.

You’ve been shamed

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Wow, this is a film with a takeaway message. Compliance is an American. Sundance-stamped indie from writer-director Craig Zobel, who’s pretty new to feature films (and totally new to me), and it’s surely the talking-point movie of the year. I’m going to do everything in my power not to give too much of the story away, as the experience of watching it unfold is devastating, and all the more so for not knowing how far it’s going to go.

Based on true events, conflating a number of hoax calls to fast-food restaurants in America and one particular case at a McDonald’s in Kentucky that went to trial in 2004 (I knew nothing about these appalling “pranks”), it takes place over a day in the working life of an Ohio chain fast-food restaurant, fictionalised as ChickWich. Shot in a real restaurant, with fake livery, Compliance is a realist study in human nature, in particular the worst recesses of it. We begin the day with a meeting of the outlet’s small staff, led by middle-aged manager Sandra (a totally convincing Ann Dowd, who’s played “the mother” in so many films and TV shows you’ll feel you know her already). She’s not a jobsworth in the worst sense, but she’s a franchise boss, and as such exists in deference to a managerial supply chain that goes right up to “Corporate”. She’s already on the back foot for a batch of bacon that’s been spoiled due to a freezer not being closed properly, and she’s not about to break any protocols.

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A call comes in, once the working day is underway (it’s a Friday, it’s a busy day, adding to the stress of Sandra’s lot), apparently from a police officer, Daniels, who claims he has the regional manager on the other line and a customer with him who swears she had money stolen from her purse by one of the counter staff. He describes her as young, female, blonde … and Sandra does the rest, offering up Becky (Dreama Walker – you may recognise her as Zach’s girlfriend from seasons one and two of The Good Wife). We’ve seen some tension between the older, unmarried manager and the young, sexually promiscuous server (Sandra boasted of her fiancé “sexting” her after Becky revealed she has three boyfriends on the go, and Becky and a workmate were overheard mocking her).

From here, the situation builds to a grim, depressing crescendo. (When Sandra reports the story back to anyone, she mistakenly says that Officer Daniels knew Becky’s name; we know that Sandra gave him the name.) Daniels remains on the line while Sandra is instructed to apprehend Becky and take her into a back room where she is to be held until the police arrive. Daniels, authoritative and gruff, flatters Sandra and imbues her with a sense of civic responsibility, as well as subtly filling her with fear: for her own job, for punishment from head office, and for the consequences of standing in the way of a broader police inquiry into Becky. Sandra becomes the willing accomplice in the caller’s crime. It is no spoiler to reveal that “Officer Daniels” may not be an officer at all, and as the “prank” (more of a sadistic social experiment, you surmise) escalates, along with the blameless and cowed Becky’s humiliation, we the audience becomes suspicious and eventually learn things that – in a skilfully constructed script – various characters are not party to.

The acting is naturalistic and all the more haunting for it. I must admit, I had my face in my hands at the more uncomfortable parts. It’s been a while since I was so glued to the screen and affected by what I was seeing. You buy into the fact that this is really happening. Sandra remains calm, and compliant, while other staff react in different ways to what Daniels requires of them, as the phone is passed around, and a busy Friday at ChickWich grinds on. Zobel seems to be offering a critique of fast-food and corporate culture in America, constantly cutting from the back room to actuality of the burgers being chomped down out of their waxed-paper wrappers and shakes being vacuumed up from brightly-decorated pails.

It may seem a soft target, junk food, but Zobel isn’t criticising the individuals who choose to put something called a “cookies and cream shake” into their fat faces, but the system that has mechanised our eating habits into one big battery farm, with ample car parking out front. The music, by Heather McIntosh, is stealthily built from deep, melancholy strings, lending a tragic inevitability to the events that occur, and a poignancy to Zobel’s regular, beautifully-framed stills of discarded cups in puddles, ploughed snow, bent drinking straws.

You won’t see what’s coming. And you won’t guess the way the denouement to the crisis plays out, but it’s not a thriller in the conventional sense. You’ll wish it was a fantasy, but, apparently, it’s not. Even if it was a pure fiction, and had never happened, you’d start to wonder if it could.

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I defy you to see Compliance and not still be thinking about the what-ifs days later. It’s hard to watch at some points, but not because, like other films that seek to shock, it involves seeing somebody having their skull caved in – the fashionable money-shot of our times. The violence herein is not gory, or heightened, it is subtle, insidious, terrifying in its banality, disturbing because of the brightly strip-lit surroundings of a fast-food joint’s unlovely office, and all the more horrific for largely happening away from our prying eyes. Bravo to Walker for an uninhibited performance – this was a brave role to take, especially when one audience member at the Sundance Q&A seemed to imply that Zobel had effectively exploited her and another accused him of (beware spoilers in this link) “making violence against women entertaining.” He hasn’t. This is not “entertaining” in the traditional sense.

Some will say that Becky is weak. But she is young, and she is in fear for her job, and if you accept that she believes Officer Daniels is legit and that his threats are real, you have to wonder what you might do in the same ugly, disorienting circumstances. Go and see this film. It’s difficult to get too specific without spoiling it. (Incidentally, I’d read Hannah McGill’s long and thoughtful review in Sight & Sound - not available online – and knew the whole plot, but as I say, my heart was in my mouth nonetheless.)

Big Mac, lies to go.

 

PS: Do not read this is you haven’t seen the film, but there’s a Wikipedia entry about the real-life prank calls, including the one in Kentucky in 2004 that formed the basis of Compliance. It makes the film more disturbing that it actually happened, not less. Shame on McDonald’s, too.

Austerity measures

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The vagaries of the release schedule and a low-key, post-Oscars weekend at the Curzon gave me two films in two days that depict life on the geographical margins of society. One is set in a remote region of Romania, the other in the Highlands of Scotland, both windswept and austere. Both films are compelling and make capital from the unremitting bleakness of their environment, physical and figurative. I like it when this happens.

Beyond The Hills is Cristian Mungiu’s belated follow-up to the internationally acclaimed 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, which helped put Mungiu at the heart of “the Romanian New Wave”, a movement arguably kick-started by Cristi Puiu, whose The Death Of Mr Lazarescu won at Cannes in 1995 (as did 4 Months) and “put Romania on the map,” as they say. Puiu also made Aurora, which was one of my favourite films released here last year. Every Romanian film I’ve mentioned so far has been bleak, critical, illuminating and vital.

It’s hard to meaningfully sum up a national cinema without generalising wildly, but Romania’s emergence from life under a totalitarian Communist dictatorship clearly coloured its filmmakers’ individual visions, which understandably tend toward the bleak and the realist. The “shock doctrine” that shakes a society out of itself after a seismic change usually refers to a move into market capitalism, and this often looks better on paper to economists – and perhaps to freshly unyoked citizens – than it works out in practice. (Lazarescu and 4 Months were set at the time of the Ceausescu regime and served a cathartic purpose.)

Beyond The Hills, which won Mungiu another laurel at Cannes for his screenplay and for his two lead actors, is set after 1995, as the Euro is referenced, but – I gather – before 2007, when Romania entered the European Union. (One of the characters has just returned from the economically strong Germany, where she has been working, and where she wishes to lure her friend, while a more reactionary priest who has never left Romania denounces the licentious behaviour of “foreigners”.) Certainly, we are shown glimpses of a modern, or modernised, Romania – a smart cafe, a well-equipped hospital, the priest using a mobile phone for emergencies – but the meat of the story takes place in an Orthodox monastery with no electricity, heating or running water, which seems willingly marooned in the past.

Into this sealed world of prayer and candlelit plain living comes Alina (Cristina Flutur) in her conspicuously “outside world” outfit of blue tracksuit top, which sits in stark contrast to the chaste, all-black robes and headgear of the nuns, including Alina’s best friend Volchita (Cosmina Stratan), now a devout and humble novice. While Volchita seems at peace, Alina is at war, with herself perhaps, or her desires? She is not an immediately sympathetic character – demanding, selfish, hysterical, stubborn – but when pitched against the insular, controlling paranoia of the monastery, at times she feels like an avenging angel, albeit a flawed one. Flutur and Stratan deserved their Best Actress accolade at Cannes; they are utterly believable as friends.

The monastic mountain setting immediately recalls the equally austere and precise French film Of Gods And Men, one of my favourites of 2010, set in an Algerian monastery in 1996. It too dealt with a crisis, but one from the outside – Islamic militants. In Beyond The Hills, the crisis is within. It is Alina, who refuses to accept God and descends into selfish, petulant anger at the newly-found faith of her now-lost childhood friend – and, it is implied, lover. This is only a 12A, and nothing is shown, but when Alina first comes to visit Volchita, she asks her to soothe her back with rubbing alcohol, a medical treatment that clearly has sexual undertones, and the pair are shown sharing warmth in bed together. When Alina’s square-peg status erupts into something seemingly demonic, the film takes a dramatic turn, and I’ll reveal no further details.

Beyond The Hills is long (over two and a half hours), slow, and deliberate, and, to borrow Philip French’s astute description, “neutral”. As with Aurora, and 4 Months, when, say, a character leaves a room to fetch something, there is no edit: we wait for them to return. The way of the monastery means that “Papa” (Valeriu Andriutã), the dominant priest, is frequently asking one nun to go and fetch another, and we must wait in real time for that to happen.

You could edit this film down to 90 minutes without losing any of the story beats, but it would be less of a film in so many other ways. The unhurried pace simply points up the urgency of the mounting crisis, and the bungled way in which it is handled, not just by the priest and his nuns – who at one point become a comically incompetent gaggle – but by the hospital staff, and by Alina’s former foster parents. It’s not a film about religion; rather, the deficiencies of the system in Romania. The final shot, which again I won’t ruin, is utterly spellbinding; ingenious in its slow, symbolic minimalism.

Let’s make another visual rhyme out of these two films.

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So, to Shell, which is the first feature of Scottish writer/director Scott Graham, who expanded it from a short of the same name. More hills. This time, the hardscrabble existence is not about tilling the recalcitrant land, nor drawing its water up a well, but serving the motorists who pass through a remote stretch of the Highlands. With fuel, essentially – Shell (another amazing performance, this time from newcomer Chloe Pirrie, who was in the most recent Black Mirror) and her epileptic father Pete (the always transfixing Joseph Mawle) live and work in this jerry-built petrol garage, where he also turns cars into scrap, and theirs is an existence just as sealed-off and meagre as the nuns’ in Beyond The Hills.

Again, in an unhurried, real-time fashion, we get a vivid picture of their life together, their daily routine punctuated with the occasional car or lorry, stopping to fill up, and, in the case of the regulars, to chat. Human contact seems vital to the teenage Shell, who is at ease with Michael Smiley’s stoic, smiley divorced dad, on his way to see his kids, and with Iain De Caestecker’s Adam, a potential suitor who works at a nearby sawmill. But her first loyalty is to her dad. We see her tenderly nurse and comfort him through an epileptic fit on the kitchen floor, immediately setting her up as the carer. She cannot escape because of his needs, and because of her loyalty. (We discover that he literally built the house, although as pointed out by another reviewer, the fading interior decor suggests it hasn’t been tended to much since his wife and her mother left.)

This is a slice of life, just as, say, Aurora was. Life is simply going on, before our voyeuristic eyes. Pete professionally butchers a deer killed by a couple’s car on the road, skinning it in the garage and chopping it up into cuts for the freezer. He seems a primal man, but he is rendered helpless by the regular seizures, about which you sense he feels embarrassed, as his dominance as a father and as a man is lessened by them. That he and Shell’s relationship borders on the incestuous is something that’s subtly and never melodramatically explored as the story unfolds, although “story” is laying too much responsibility as its feet. Drivers come and go, but Shell and Pete stay in place, fixed, pinned, incarcerated by their situation, stripping cars and skinning deer and reducing them to their component parts.

Although the glacial pace and minimalist narrative of Shell are persuasive, this is a much shorter film than Beyond The Hills, and, almost as if the budget ran out, it makes something of a mad dash to the denouement, which is disappointing because of the hurry with which it arrives. I could have watched for at least two hours. There’s also a misunderstanding that ignites the final dramatic twist, and it felt a bit underpowered when all before seemed so deliberate and realistic. Scott Graham is clearly a talent, and he frames the environment with an artist’s eye. You can hear the wind whistling through the drafty house throughout, and the sense of place is intensely affecting. Unlike the Romanian monastery, there is electricity, and it brings news of the outside world when Shell dances with abandon and joy to Walk Of Life by Dire Straits, making you wonder if the film’s set in the past. When Michael Smiley’s Hugh brings Shell back a pair of jeans from the city as a courtship gift disguised as something more paternal, it’s as if we’re in Soviet Russia.

Even though the ending is disappointing, Shell is well worth a look. It’s almost as if both filmmakers are trying to take us somewhere. They certainly both appreciate the dramatic and figurative power of inclement weather. One character says to Shell, by way of small talk, something like, “When’s this winter going to end?” In Beyond The Hills, snow falls and cuts the monastery off even more decisively from “civilisation”.

It was a wet weekend in London, and these films really suited my mood. It’s great to see a British film coming on all East European, though.

There’s been a murder

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This time last Monday, ITV premiered a major new drama, Broadchurch, the first of an eight-part whodunit set in a small, close-knit English community revolving around the death of a child. What I’m supposed to say now is that, on the same night, at the same time, in the same slot, ITV’s arch ratings rival BBC1 broadcast what was the second episode of a five-part whodunit set in a small, close-knit English community, Mayday (shot I believe in Dorking, but never specified as Surrey). Actually, it’s impossible not to the say all of that, because it is factually correct. If I add that both major new dramas were produced by Kudos, the production powerhouse whose reputation was built on Spooks, Hustle and Life On Mars (and with whom I have worked in my capacity as Q&A host and, once, as TV presenter), again you won’t need to hold the front page. These facts are now self-evident, and old news.

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However, I’ve worked up some kind of unifying overview now. I watched Mayday through to its bitter end – it ran over five consecutive nights, which is always a risky strategy, as to exploit boxset-binge orthodoxy you’d better have the goods to back it up – and saw the new, award-winning British film Broken over the weekend, which isn’t about a child murder, but hinges on our grim fascination with children in peril.

Now, the murder mystery dates back to the 19th century in literary terms, with a boom in the whodunit in the first half of the 20th, and has been a fallback option in film since the silents. There is nothing new in a TV serial being predicated on a crime being solved. Indeed, take away the crime and police drama from contemporary and you’re left with a pretty patchy looking set of listings for the terrestrial channels, and a blank screen with a white dot in the middle on Alibi and ITV3.

The publicity for Broadchurch has been very effective, from hoarding to cinema advertising (a brave excursion into the dark for any TV show), making the most of its largely original setting, Dorset’s magnificent Jurassic Coast – which I know well from visits to Billy Bragg’s house and walks along the fossil-filled beach with his old dog, Buster. The limestone cliffs make a thrilling backdrop for David Tenant, Olivia Colman and the rest of the fine cast, plus some police tape. (We are also initially led to believe that the victim, 11-year-old Danny, fell to his death from the cliff.) Chris Chibnall, the writer, who was instrumental in Law & Order UK and wrote the superb single drama United, has lived in Bridport for ten years, which has acted as a template for Broadchurch itself (although filmed in Avon, not Dorset).

With Danny, and the pivotal disappearance of 14-year-old “May Queen” Hattie in Mayday, this was TV drama risking that all-too-common hazard: the news overtaking fiction. Had a boy or girl gone missing in similar circumstances, or been found murdered, it’s feasible that both “major dramas” would have been pulled from the primetime schedules for reasons of sensitivity, or over-sensitivity, arguably. (Ghoulishly, a 16-year-old girl, Christina Edkins, was stabbed on a bus in Birmingham, but this happened on the Thursday morning, and was clearly adjudged to be different enough from the more ethereal events in Mayday, where pagan ritual was certainly implied in the build-up to the reveal of the murderer.)

I guess that “every parent’s worst nightmare” is frequently used as a hook for popular drama because of the fact that children are all too often victims of violence or abuse or abduction. It seems to me – and I’m not an expert – that the “classic” literary whodunits generally involve the murder of an adult, and not a child. But there’s nothing more dramatic than an “innocent” in danger. Why else would the disappearance of Madeleine McCann capture the world’s imagination so? Why else would we all have heard of a place called Soham? Or named a law after Sarah? We live in a world where the spectre of school shootings in America are matched here only by an all-engulfing paranoia about marauding paedophiles, grounded or otherwise.

Broken, directed by Rufus Norris and written by Mark O’Rowe (Boy A, Perrier’s Bounty), hints at this, as a grown man with unspecified mental problems is – in the opening scene, and in the trailer, to be fair – attacked by a next-door neighbour while cleaning his car in the suburban London cul-de-sac the main characters share. This, to borrow a phrase from screenwriting manuals, is “the inciting incident” and it happens almost before anything else has been established, other than a young girl lives on the same street at the childlike man.

I won’t divulge any specifics, as Broken has only just been released, and it’s better if you don’t have too much foreknowledge. But the protagonist is a 14-year-old girl, Skunk, one seemingly much less “adult” than Hattie the May Queen in Mayday (who is played by a 20-year-old actress, and at no stage convinces as a 14-year-old – she plays her surviving twin sister, too). Skunk is played by the actually-14-year-old Eloise Laurence, a real find, and she conveys as much as anything else a sense of sensitive resilience, which is handy, as the street she lives on seethes with resentment and violence. Where Mayday revolves around a creepy forest (the screenwriting manual, or meta-manual, I am currently reading is called Into The Woods, after the Joseph Campbell mythic concept of the dramatic “journey”), where all manner of unsavoury events either occur, or are rumoured to occur – voyeurism, dogging, assault, murder – Skunk’s refuge is a vacant hulk of a caravan in the back of a breaker’s yard. No picturesque woodland or limestone cliffs for her, although this publicity shot suggests otherwise.

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Because Mayday has finished, I will mention some of the specifics of its plot, so if you haven’t seen it, please look away now. Hattie disappears, and her body is not found until over halfway through – there’s a red-herring item of clothing in a lake, but that’s all it is – so the absence of a body absolves the writers of having to deal with the usual, formulaic procedural detail, and one assumes this was a deliberate de-cluttering of the form. It’s clever, as the mystery of abduction is in many ways more potent than the mystery of who murdered her. There’s also a red-herring “sighting” of her, alive, on the news, which again is a simple sleight of hand, and a bit of a swiz. There are plenty of false leads and loose threads in Mayday, which is a shame, as five nights of your life is a big commitment, as I’ve stated. Also, without a detective – except for Sophie Okonedo’s retired policewoman, who doesn’t really count – there’s no plodding investigator to tie up the leads.

Broadchurch, of which we’ve only seen one episode, looks far more conventional, and Chris Chibnall told me it was “aggressively plotted” to every ad-break, and it already shows. I’m guessing Mayday was commissioned as a five-night feast, as one-a-week series don’t usually get commissioned in fives, and it’s an unforgiving brief, as there’s no time for audiences to forget anything, hence higher expectation about continuity and pay-off. It had some really nice writing in it, not least the opening scene in which Lesley Manville’s developer’s wife found out that her husband, Peter Firth, wasn’t in fact walking their fat dog for two hours each night after the dog had been subjected to tests at the vet’s. What an original and clever way of her suspicions that he was “up to something” to be aroused.

Because we know that Danny in Broadchurch was out at night, on his skateboard, when he should have been tucked up in bed – or, at least, the police currently think he was – we don’t yet know what to think about his death. Forensics already shows that he didn’t fall at the point where he looked to have fallen from. So murder is suspected. (Unlike Madeleine, he wasn’t abducted from his bedroom window; we always think of Madeleine now.) In the unnamed village in Mayday, no reporters descend, and the police take a seemingly peripheral role, while the villagers search the woods and threaten lynch-mob justice. In Broadchurch, it’s already all about the media, local and national, and their muddying of the waters of truth.

We fear our children going into the woods, or out onto the cliffs, or, in the case or Broken, into derelict caravans in breaker’s yards. We are told we must always know where they are, but we don’t. Do we mollycoddle our kids and wrap them in cotton wool, and thus leave them unprepared for the big, bad world they will inevitably have to enter? (The symbolic “woods” we must all at some point have to enter, like Campbell’s mythic protagonist.) There are three sisters in Broken who are worldy and streetwise, and yet disruptive and abusive, and old before their time. They bully and they swear and they shout across the cul-de-sac. And yet, through the cleverness of the plot (which, by the way, is utterly depressing in its depiction of ordinary folk), we feel sympathy for them, and their violent dad (Rory Kinnear), as they have lost their mum.

The scene in episode one of Broadchurch where Andrew Buchan, the father, is called upon to identify the body of his son, Danny, is harrowing, and beautifully acted, and will haunt any parent watching. (“He’s only little,” he observes.) I’m not even a parent and I can see the hurt, so acutely is it written and played. We who are not parents are children, so it’s universal stuff.

Sometimes, I wonder if British drama, whether urban, suburban or rural, isn’t just a little bit depressing? Death is so often the driver of the narrative. Violence so often the inciting incident. If a TV series reliant on corpses turning up on a weekly basis, whether it’s the pitch-black Silent Witness, or the more bucolic Lewis, they only use a dead child as a real trump card. It’s obvious why. A dead adult is a tragedy, but at least they’ve lived some of their life. A child? So much life left to live. (How shocking was the beginning of Utopia when an innocent child in a comics shop was gassed to death by hitmen? A trump card played so early! It also had a school shooting that was one of the most shocking scenes I’ve seen on television for years – and stunning for all of that.)

The epic tragedy of Broadchurch. The concentrated, mystically informed tease of Mayday. The painfully raw reality of Broken. A small town, a close-knit community, a cul-de-sac, all “wrapped up in secrets” and bound in police tape. Don’t go into the woods. Don’t go into an alley. Don’t go near that cliff. Don’t go into that comics shop.

Don’t have nightmares.

Bondage: up yours!

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I hope it is not being too melodramatic to state that slavery is a cancer on the history of the United States of America. (Just as it is on any nation that shipped in Africans, or other foreigners, to do their dirty work, pressing them into forced servitude.) That the descendents of those slaves had to wait until the year I was born before they achieved full voting rights is a further stain on a nation that loves to call itself “great.” I speak, of course, as an Englishman by birth – a native of a country that has plenty to be ashamed of in its history, and as a nation in the present day; I also speak as one of the gender which caused most of the trouble, so I speak of this issue objectively and without any sense of moral superiority.

As you may know, Roots, the 1977 TV miniseries that famously addressed the issue of slavery head-on, and it is said, changed attitudes across America, was my favourite programme as a schoolboy. I was so moved by and invested in the freeing of the black African slaves, thanks to Alex Haley’s book (which I chose to receive at a middle school prizegiving), that I wrote many diary entries of the time in phonetic Southern African-American; hence, the notoriously inept compliment from a besotted 12-year-old white English abolitionist, “Roots is mah favourite programme.” (This is all in my own memoir, whose roots have never been contested in court, as Alex Haley’s were.)

The issue of slavery was central to Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), although much of that film’s central story revolved around a Supreme Court ruling. It was however, unflinching in its portrayal of cruelty to African slaves. Its take-home message was: the only good white American is an abolitionist. Spielberg’s Lincoln, already Golden Globe-garlanded and likely to win Baftas and Oscars, is, by coincidence just one of two major motion pictures to address slavery this awards season. The other – quite, quite different in tone and effect – is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (honoured at the Globes for its screenplay, and for supporting actor Christoph Waltz). I saw both films last week – on the same day, believe it or not. And am moved to compare them.

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Lincoln was initially conceived, with screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich), as a Presidential biopic, but in the event focuses on the knotty, nail-biting, filibustering progress through the House of Representatives of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery for good. Taking place over a couple of months, it distils Lincoln’s presidency down to his most far-reaching achievement, which also marked the end of the Civil War, despite seemingly putting peace in jeopardy to many naysayers. The 16th President is brought back to life, with understated authority, by Daniel Day-Lewis, who resembles him physically (especially in great height), and sidesteps his usual showboating, which is apt, as, amid the eloquent barracking of 19th century politics, the President is mostly absent. We see him in back rooms, on the sidelines, manipulating and commentating.

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Venerated by many as one of America’s greatest commanders in chief, he is cleverly lit and depicted in Lincoln as a kind of sepia deity. To many on the left, he was a hero, or a god, certainly a celeb. As he says, in one of his more animated moments, as the President he was “clothed in immense power”, and used it. And then he was shot dead. Revisionism has, naturally, taken place in the centuries since, and some historians enjoy calling him a “white supremacist” whose views on blacks were not entirely progressive. Such rewrites are not important to Spielberg’s black-and-white film. (Actually, even the most hardline Confederate in the Southern states today is probably beyond thinking slavery was a good thing. In that sense, it is a black-and-white issue.) At the time of the Civil War, many in the South felt that their economy would collapse if slavery was banned; perhaps it was less about race and human rights, and more about that age-old American concern of money.

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Few black people appear in Lincoln. There are a couple of kindly servants at the White House (Gloria Reuben – Jeannie off of ER! – and Stephen Henderson), freed slaves of course but still essentially bowing and scraping to a white employer. But Lincoln is not about the plight of slaves, it is of their plight; although it does open on a rare action sequence (it’s mostly talking), in which black Union soldiers are attacked by white Confederates. A powerful case is then made, to Lincoln’s kindly face, by a Union soldier (our own David Oyelowo, off of Spooks) about the inequality of wages, and of the chances for promotion, in the US Army, at which even the Emancipation President is challenged about the woeful limits of his vision for equality, even after the Proclamation. Django Unchained, meanwhile, is full of black people. It takes place two years before the Civil War, and is, of course, a wholesale fantasy. It is probably unkind to compare it to Lincoln, but many will find it more palatable and entertaining, so it’s just as important.

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Django is an African slave, chained and en route through Texas, who is effectively stolen by a foppish German bounty hunter Schultz (Christoph Waltz) at the beginning of the film; he is a prize because of information he has about certain slave owners with a bounty on their heads. The two hit it off, and after offering freedom to Django in exchange for his assistance, Schultz eventually takes him on as an “associate”, an equal. (When Django rides into town, the very idea of a “nigger” on horseback is enough to rile the locals.)

This against-the-grain, black-and-white merger is symbolic of Tarantino’s liberal wish-fulfillment: a white European and a black African taking revenge on evil white plantation owners, riding side by side as compatriots. When Django takes up the whip against one of his former masters, the poetic revenge is literal. The pair are initially driven by money (Django is promised a horse and $75 as well as his freedom), but their combined cause takes on a less mercenary, more ideological and political hue, as they home in on Leonardo Di Caprio’s arch-villain Calvin Candie, not just a sadistic slave-owner, but one who wheels and deals in the gentleman’s sport of “Mandingo fighting”, where black slaves are set upon each other like dogs, or cocks. He is a bad man. Schultz, who elevates Django to the status of the noble hero Siegfried in German mythology, is a good man, but rare among whites in being so.

Django Unchained might once, in the 70s, have been made by a black director, of whom there were very few, but it would have been for the midnight-movie circuit only. Today, thanks to the mainstream profile of Tarantino – Hollywood’s pet cult director, its “house rebel” – it is a major movie, taken seriously by critics and peers alike, and already stamped with award glory (including a Globe for Tarantino’s screenplay). As such, it sends out a powerful message. Equally, it preaches to the choir. If a single member of Hollywood’s royalty did not stand for Bill Clinton at the Golden Globes, he or she was not caught on camera.

Spike Lee has said he refuses to watch it, as for him, the issue is not suitable for entertainment, which this film surely is. It’s up to him, of course, but you might accuse Roots of being simplistic, or melodramatic, or even sentimental, about a serious issue, but it stirred the soul of at least one 12-year-old in England in 1977, and thousands more elsewhere, I suspect. Django Unchained strives for no such educational nobility or legitimacy; it is violent cartoon schlock, whose mischievous humour at one point strays into pure Mel Brooks territory, and in fact, by fantasising a black rebellion against the white oppressor in spaghetti western style, you could argue that it makes a mockery of the true violence done before emancipation.

You could also argue that sending a group of Jewish Americans out into a fantasy Nazi-occupied Europe to kill them (and carve swastikas into their foreheads), as Tarantino did in Inglorious Basterds, mocks the memory of the millions who died in World War II. But it’s hard not to think of Nazis or cruel white slave-owners as “the baddies”, so who’s to dictate whether it’s in good or bad taste?

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On points, I’d say that Lincoln is by far a better film than Django. It may be “boring” to some, but I lapped up its constitutional detail. It may iron out some of the inconsistencies that get in the way of Abe’s deification (ooh, his wife, Mary, came from a slave-holding family – that’s because there was slavery), but I still found it compelling. Tarantino’s film is uneven. It starts well, but descends into a relentless bloodbath; and even though it’s over two-and-a-half hours long, Django’s “journey” seems to jump-cut from character development to comic-book hero-avenger without a great deal of grey area in between. (Oh, and Waltz dominates for two thirds, and then sort of fades into the sidelines. Bad decision.)

That Tarantino wishes he’d been born black seems no longer in doubt. He’s been in trouble before for metronomic use of the n-word, although his previous films – including Jackie Brown, which drew a lot of heat – have been set post-reclamation of the word. Django is set at a time when “nigger” was a word filled exclusively with hate and oppression, and when Samuel L Jackson’s cowed, Uncle Tom-style butler uses it, we’re in very uncomfortable territory. This n-word is not spelled N-I-G-G-A. Perhaps it’s Quentin’s first truly responsible use of the epithet.

I realise I’ve just written an essay. Sorry about that. If I had been writing it for a magazine that was paying me to write it, I would have gone back and edited it.