Bear good

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I pity any film up against The Revenant at this year’s big awards. Not because I personally think it is an unassailable piece of filmmaking – although, incidentally, I do think that – but because it has that prevailing wind behind it already, the one that saw films as diversely deserving and undeserving as Shakespeare In Love, Gravity, Terms Of Endearment, The Artist, Amadeus, Kramer Vs Kramer, Gandhi, On The Waterfront, From Here To Eternity, West Side Story and Ben-Hur win big, and across the board, leaving all comers in their jet-propelled wake. As I always state for the record at awards season time: I prefer to be surprised on Oscar night (and Bafta night, and Golden Globes night), but a consensus can sometimes build, whether it’s within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or the British or American Academies. If The Revenant does what I expect it to (and what it has already done at the Globes, with the big three in the Drama category all nabbed: Picture, Director, Actor), then its nearest rivals may find themselves heading for the exit, pursued by a bear.

I don’t often do this, but I have seen The Revenant twice. I saw it twice in the space of four days. I was so enraptured by its broad canvas, its artistic vision, its sodden tactility, its elemental power, and its on-the-hoof, let’s-eat-the-snow-right-here acting, I had to return to see how it felt when I knew what was coming. I have to tell you, foreknowledge is no witherer of its strange, ugly-beautiful magic. The only hope for the other big nominees is in the female categories, as the women in The Revenant do not get very much to do, it has to be said.

Put away the Bechdel test. It meets the first criterion: it must have at least two women in it. But not the second two: the women must talk to each other, about something besides a man. The film’s principal cast list contains two women: Grace Dove, who plays Leonardo Di Caprio’s deceased Pawnee wife, and Melaw Nakehnk’o, who plays Powaqa, the kidnapped daughter of an Arikara (“Ree”) tribal chief. The first is seen only in wordless flashback, where she is shot dead by a British soldier; the second is glimpsed being dragged off to be raped by a French trapper, then rescued by Leo, but empowered to exact her own poetic revenge on her abuser. You might applaud that outcome, but it takes Powaqa being enslaved and sexually assaulted for it to happen.

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I make no claims for the feminism of either the fictional or fictionalised 19th century menfolk in this western. Will Poulter and to an extent Domnhall Gleason play male characters with a moral compass, but by and large the American and English protagonists are a bunch of cavemen in furs with muskets and Bowie knives. Tom Hardy essays another venal baddie to add to Alfie in Peaky Blinders and both Krays in Legend; he is Leo’s nemesis, and very much a loner, out for himself, with no crumpled photograph of a sweetheart in his man bag. This is a rough, tough world of hunting, shooting, fishing, whoring and breaking things (in which sense: how very like our own Conservative cabinet). There is a fine tradition of independent and able women in westerns, but they tend to be subjugated in what is a deeply patriarchal world.

The Revenant makes no retrofitted liberal concessions to modern thinking, and in a way, why should it? These are violent men, raping the land and natural resources of indigenous people for profit. From this testosterone-stinking malaise, Leo’s Hugh Glass is as close as a Guardian reader as you could hope for: a principled man who married a Pawnee and had a “half-breed” son with her, risking disenfranchisement and worse for sleeping with the enemy. But his Pawnee empathy gives him a spirituality – and a drive to survive – that his peers perhaps do not possess. Their mistreatment of him forces him to live for revenge. The world of The Revenant brutalises even the most open-hearted. It’s like a war movie that’s really an anti-war movie; it can only be such by showing that war is hell.

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Aware of all of this, I was surprised at the vehemently negative response of trustworthy Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr. In a piece at the weekend, she unleashed these sentiments (having seen The Revenant before Christmas). Kicking off with objectively fair images of what’s in the film (“Ritualised brutality. Vengeful blood lust. Vicious savagery justified by medieval notions of retribution”), she then moves to undermine what is a serious film by calling it “the hottest blockbuster of the season … and yours for around £10-£15 this weekend at your local multiplex”. I assume she knows that not all films at your local multiplex are romantic comedies or Pixar animations. She quotes male critics (alright, too many national newspaper critics are male), who have praised the film’s “revenge, retribution and primal violence” and “unthinking, aggressive masculinity.” However, I don’t see this as a binary issue of male versus female, violent versus non-violent, blockbuster versus arthouse.

She does: “I’ll summarise the plot for you: man seeks revenge, man gets revenge. That’s it, basically, for two and a half hours, though there is a brief reprieve when you get to see Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a grizzly bear.” She counts the women onscreen, as I have done, but she misses out the silent squaw in a ruined encampment whom Will Poulter’s character feeds and leave alone, daring not to alert his aggressive “partner” Hardy to her presence. (She does not speak either, but the Native Americans we see seem to be men of few words and many thoughts.)

“The woman is not actually raped, of course,” Cadwalladr faux-complains. “She’s faux raped. Because this is what we call acting. And because The Revenant is what we call entertainment.” Who is calling The Revenant “entertainment”? It’s a fair question. It’s not the first noun I’d reach for. It’s an experience, maybe even an endurance, but was I “entertained”? By the spectacle, the scope and the thrill of the escape, certainly. But it’s tough going, this film. It’s not like a fairground ride, with sanitised ups and downs, it’s a slog. A wet, dirty, infected, sore, painful, blood-stained and spit-flecked assault course for the senses. It’s not boring, but it’s not a showbiz spectacular and there are few jokes or dance routines. To call it “entertainment” – as I rather suspect people in marketing aren’t even calling it – is to make a spurious point.

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I like Carole Cadwalladr’s writing, but she freeforms after this, saying that we “choose to pay to watch women being pretend raped rather than watching women being actually raped for free.” I’m not sure that’s a conscious choice for me. “Even the ending is ambiguous, and leaves many questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Nobody rides off into the sunset,” she correctly observes (in the Observer), thus undercutting her own sneer that The Revenant is “entertainment.” Oh dear. She speaks, disapprovingly, of a “well-oiled publicity machine of the type that fuels an Academy Awards clean sweep”, as if The Revenant isn’t entitled to pitch for recognition by its industry peers. Some Academy members may be disengaged enough to be “bought” by studio enticements, but most of these old, white men will only vote for a film because they liked it, now matter how old, white and male they statistically are. Many of them will still have freewill.

She mocks how “gruelling” the shoot is known to have been, and how “authentically” the actors “suffered”, belittling even that aspect with the aside, “They got a bit cold, apparently.” (Hey, either they suffered or they didn’t. If they didn’t, then the acting is even better.) The cinematography is “gorgeous,” she concedes, but, in conclusion, “the whole thing is meaningless. A vacuous revenge tale that is simply pain as spectacle. The Revenant is pain porn.”

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Putting a word before “porn” is a cheap trick. I should know, I’ve done it on numerous occasions. Certainly there is power in seeing pain acted if it’s done well, and it is done well. But is it pornographic? Leo’s mauled by a grizzly and bears the weeping scars, but this is clever makeup, aided by clever acting. (“Porn,” in the true sense, is sort of not acting, isn’t it? Otherwise customers would demand their money back.)  By the time she compares the artificial, acted violence with real violence, as seen in Isis videos, I was as lost as Glass. That Isis “lift” the techniques of Hollywood to make their nihilistic, barbaric point is not the fault of Hollywood. More people get killed in Gone With The Wind than in The Revenant. When she concludes that Isis “has seen what we want, what we thrill to, and given it to us,” she seems to want to make viewers of fiction feel in some way culpable for Islamic State. “The Revenant isn’t responsible for this,” she then points out, going back into the ring one more time to call a film she didn’t like “tedious” and “emotionally vacant.”

I found it to be otherwise. I would not argue that it’s a violent, masculine, macho film with little space for the input of women. But it is possible to watch it, with its sexual assault and brutal feuding, and not “enjoy” it in the way Carole Cadwalladr implies that we all do. (Unless she just means all men. It’s still inaccurate, if so.)

“Don’t pay £10-£15,” is her entreaty. Do, if you want to see an amazing piece of high-impact, naturally-lit, visually poetic cinema, is mine. And then you will have your own opinion.

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Whatever | June 2010

Whatever | The Great Volcano Inconvenience
God help us if there’s a war

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Wanda Jackson, the 74-year-old First Lady of Rockabilly, was stuck in Germany and couldn’t make an interview on my 6 Music show; the comedian Sarah Millican had to cancel an Edinburgh preview I had tickets for at a North London theatre pub because she was unable to fly back from the Melbourne Comedy Festival; and my asthma was slightly aggravated for a few days. Welcome to my Volcano Crisis.

It all started when, in the early hours of Wednesday April 14, Shetland Islanders detected the smell of rotten eggs in the air. By the next day, like an errant child, Britain was “grounded”, as the sulphuric cloud of volcanic ash caused by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland started pluming across Europe. The Great Volcano Inconvenience had begun, and nothing would ever be the same again …

Until the following Tuesday, when a BA flight from Vancouver touched down at Heathrow, the skies started to refill with metal birds and Sky started to fill with scintillating footage of ordinary people coming through arrivals halls looking a bit inconvenienced. Willie Walsh, union-intolerant CEO of British Airways admitted it would take “weeks” to resume normal service, but promised, “we will make every effort to get our people back home,” as if perhaps he really was airlifting refugees or troops, not running a £8.9bn business for profit.

During the Six Day Inconvenience, 95,000 flights were cancelled and an estimated 150,000 Britons trapped on holiday. I am not without sympathy for those who missed weddings, or lost money, or, in the case of the Kenyan flower farmers, had to sit and watch tonnes of roses bound for our Tesco Metros and BP Connects rotting under the Nairobi sun, but for the majority of us, it was lovely. Not a single plane In the sky for the best part of a week. As Stuart Jeffries hymned in the Guardian as he lay on the dewy grass at Kew amid magnolias and witch hazel, “The sky is filled with good news. One of the world’s busiest flight paths, that normally sullies much of west London with howling jet engines from 6am, is silent.”

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What prelapsarian paradise was this? On the Thursday, ITV suspended all adverts for the 90 minute duration of the first leaders’ election debate, merely adding to this surreal glimpse of a frankly more agreeable world. The word “chaos” reigned. Not actual chaos, just the word. Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles was stuck in New York. The Cribs, Delphic and Frightened Rabbit failed to make Coachella in California. Whitney Houston discovered that there is a lower ebb than appearing in the Bravo reality show Being Bobby Brown when she took the ferry from Holyhead in order to make a gig in Dublin. The Iron Man 2 world premiere was switched from the Westfield Shopping Centre in London to a presumably less rubbish Los Angeles. My friend Stuart Maconie, stuck in Venice, switched into travel writer mode and provided Twitter followers with a witty, illustrated commentary on his journey back to Mark Radcliffe by train, via Milan, Zurich and Paris (“Erstfeld station. The Didcot Parkway of the Alps”).

Come Saturday, when constant plane noise over my neck of London usually taints the summer’s first glass of rose on the patio, I’d stopped feeling guilty for enjoying the respite. A hyperventilating media and our glad-handing politicians had combined to turn the ash cloud into a new Dunkirk (“no-fly misery”), with Gordon Brown promising warships and the Daily Mail fortuitously selling World War II In Colour DVDs off the page. We Brits do not have a lot to be proud of these days, but we still have “pluck” and “resilience”, a myth reliably peddled in any self-started crisis. We certainly showed some world-class queuing with bags at Calais and Santander in our darkest hour.

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The clamour to present the Six Day Holiday Extension as some kind of duty-free 9/11 masked the real story: our perverted view of cheap and easy air travel as a basic human right. (Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, one telegenically stranded celeb, was rare in admitting that the experience of having to endure five unplanned days in Mauritius had made him realise that flying is “a privilege”.) I’m not the planet’s most assiduous green but I have read a lot of books on environmental matters, including a couple of particularly terrifying ones on peak oil, and it doesn’t take a genius to foresee a foreseeable future where there’s not actually enough fuel to support our decadent devotion to economic growth and stag weekends in Prague.

The Six Day Chillout – quickly blamed on overreaction by the “health and safety” brigade – was an unprecedented and glorious glimpse of a post-Ryanair world. Like the “marooned” holidaymakers, it was all brought home for me in the words of Samson Lukoba, legal and ethical trading manager at Oserian, a vast floral factory perched on the shores Kenya’s Lake Naivasha: “The British, they want flowers every day, even just for their houses, not necessarily for special occasions.”

This was a special occasion. As if choreographed by James Lovelock, whose Gaia theory it so beautifully illustrated, April’s volcano – or “vilecano” as it was anthropomorphically christened by the silly old Mirror – showed us a world in which we must eat tiny bags of dry roasted peanuts and get deep vein thrombosis at home. And grow our own bloody flowers.

Published in Word magazine, June 2010

Writer’s blog, Week 49

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I know. It’s been a while. It’s been more than a while. A gentleman discerning enough to use an avatar of Mark E Smith asked me via the medium of social media the other day what had happened to my blog. He surmised, correctly, that I have been too busy to keep it up. The truth be told, this year has been one of working harder and earning less, a pattern clearly replicated across this whole stinking world. Although I’ve not been writing here, I’ve been writing. And although I’ve not been writing in the desired form of a script that has been made into a television programme, I have been scriptwriting. It used to be known as development hell, although it’s hardly a hell, as you do get paid a stipend to write a script, even if it never gets past the stage of being words on a screen. (Actually, I always print my scripts out to read them, as they don’t seem real until you are holding them in your hands. If they exist physically, you can pretend they’re being made into television.)

In the accompanying picture above (what would nowadays be called a “selfie”, although these were invented long before the camera-phone), I am sitting in a hotel room in Aberystwyth in Ceredigion, West Wales. The hotel is the Belle Vue and it’s right on the front. Here is the view from my window last night when we checked in at around 7.30pm after the five-hour, one-change train journey from London.

AberPM I love the sounds of waves crashing and seagulls cawing. Because I spent pretty much every summer holiday as a boy in North Wales, I feel very much at home in this country. I’ve spent more time in North and South Wales, though, and less in Mid-, and it’s my very first time in Aberystwyth. If you’ve been following the story, you’ll have probably guessed why I’m here. The groundbreaking Welsh/English detective noir Y Gwyll, or Hinterland, is set and shot in Aberystwyth. I am here, in a landscape you could not make up, in weather you’d usually have to put in afterwards, to effect what’s known in the trade as a “set visit”. That is, I’ve been invited to visit the set, which in this case, was an actual barn near a farm just outside Borth, where a temporary production base had been established under a gazebo.

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I did take some pictures of the filming of a scene involving Richard Harrington as DCI Tom Mathias, Mali Harries as DI Mared Rhys and another actor as a farmer, but these may be embargoed, as series two of Y Gwyll won’t be airing on S4C (in Welsh) and then BBC Wales (in English and Welsh) until autumn 2015. There’s a one-off special on S4C on New Year’s Day, which is intended to sate fans of the show in the interim. (If you haven’t seen it – and you really should – it’s a case-of-the-week crime-solver that has its own broader arc about Mathias’s past, so you can dip in and it will still work.) I’m sure you’re aware that the show’s trick – which it didn’t invent, but is rare – is to film every scene with dialogue twice, once in Welsh, once in English (and some Welsh, where applicable), thereby literally doubling the work of the cast and crew, but in the process doubling its marketability in an international TV market, something that’s clearly working for them, having sold it to Denmark, Holland, Belgium, the US and Canada (on Netflix) and countless others. Not bad for a show set in Aberystwyth.

On our windswept arrival last night, Tash from the PR company (in charge of delivering me to my destination) and I repaired to a bar and cafe – highly recommended locally – called Baravin. While the cast and crew are filming, some based in Aber, others in Borth, many of them far away from hearth and home, this magnificently sited venue seems to be a magnet. It faces out onto the seafront and serves artisan pizzas, draught beer and something called an “espresso Martini”, which sounded like a terrible idea at the beginning of the evening, but a good one at the end of it.

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At Baravin, we met Richard Harrington, Mali Harries (both of whom I appear to have known for years, or at least that’s the impression I got from the warm way they greeted me) and producers the voluble Ed Thomas and more quietly spoken Gethin Scourfield. We had a tremendous evening with all four. I didn’t take my dictaphone out, but we chatted about the show, and the way it’s produced, and it’s all “colour” for the feature I will write to coincide with transmission of series two in about ten months’ time. Our hosts provided plenty. Richard is dark and authoritative onscreen (if you’ve not seen Y Gwyll, you may remember him from Spooks), but in real life, he feels hewn from the same rock as his namesake Burton. An elemental figure, I of course blame him for talking me into an espresso Martini.

You sensed he was up for going after-hours, but the rest of us were knackered and opted for ending the evening when the bar did. (His co-star and producer/director were not even drinking.)

It being Wales, where the stars are visible in the sky, and a promenade, where the sea puts you to sleep, I slumbered hard, woken only once at 4am when two young women who had gone after-hours sang a modern pop song under my window from the pavement below. I could only admire them.

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Tempted out for a pre-breakfast walk along the front to the pier this morning, I felt blessed to witness the murmuration of starlings, who shot out from under the Royal Pier and filled the sky. I don’t think my non-iPhone really captured the glory, but you can’t blame me for trying, presented with that. This may be a writer’s blog, but I’m painting a lot of this with pictures.

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One full English/Welsh inside me, and we were off to the set. This is me, pretending to be a vital cog in the Y Gwyll machine, sitting on a plastic chair under the gazebo, watching a monitor and wearing some headphones so that I can hear the Welsh and English words being said by the actors into the microphones. I am well wrapped up against the cold. It would have been pathetic of me to even admit to myself that I was feeling the cold, as I was only on set for half a day, and these dedicated professionals do it for twice that long, every day, for weeks on end.

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This photo depicts me and S4C Drama Commissioner Gwawr Martha Lloyd, whom I have met before, showing our frozen appreciation for the arrival of on-set catering in polystyrene boxes wrapped in tin foil and cling film. (For the record, I am holding two portions of main course and dessert, only one of which is for me.) After about five hours of being among the elements, it was the thought of getting into a warm car and being driven to a warm train station where a warm train awaited that was keeping me alive.

Ten hours on the train there and back, but 20 hours spent in the salty, reed-filled embrace of Aberystwyth and Borth, getting a boyhood Proustian rush from the Welsh signs, the stern, symmetrical, chapel-like Welsh houses and the sight of endless sheep. Ceredigion really is “Hinterland Country” now. If you know the first series, you will literally spot houses and bridges and garages you’ve seen on telly in real life. This is a show that, unlike so much geographically faked TV fiction, lives and breathes its authentic, living, breathing environments. Gethin and director Julian Jones let us accompany them on a location scouting trip to Borth where we trod infinite dunes and were almost literally run off private farmland after a wrong turn.

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An unusual day in a writer’s life, and a rewarding one, whose printed fruits exist only in the future.

Media storm

TA126It should, by right, be all about the weather on this week’s Telly Addict, as that has dominated our screens since Sunday, but I’m more interested in fictional death and destruction, in the form of: Boardwalk Empire, which returned for its opulent fourth season on Saturday to Sky Atlantic and proved another masterclass in class; Poirot, the pre-afore-penultimate mystery on ITV ie. there are three more to go (featuring the return of Philip Jackson’s Assistant Commissioner Japp!); and a brand new, horribly-titled surgical drama, Monday Mornings on TNT (showing here on Fox), which has already been cancelled, so enjoy its finite ten episodes while you can. Also, on a non-fictional front, Iceland Foods: Life In The Freezer Cabinet on BBC2 (already reviewed, by me, in print, at length, in the Guardian Guide), and on the comedy front, my close showbiz pal Matt Berry’s new vehicle, the very silly Toast Of London on C4. Be careful out there.