I read the news today, oh f**k

In Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters, the great Swedish actor Max Von Sydow channels Bergman as Frederick, the older, existentially curmudgeonly artist. When his younger partner Lee (Barbara Hershey) gets home from an illicit liaison one night, she discovers him in a characteristic funk, having watched a “very dull TV show on Auschwitz.” He continues:

More gruesome film clips, and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question “How could it possibly happen?” is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is “Why doesn’t it happen more often?”

This line has never left me. It’s the wrong question. Why doesn’t it happen more often? Even if it was placed in the mouth of a fictional pretentious grump to satirise him and his sort, I detect Allen’s own voice in this declaration. It’s also a clearly loaded statement, as it was written by a Jew.

The reason I bring up this minor diatribe from a mid-80s Woody Allen film (one of his later, funny ones) is that I keep repeating that line over and over in my head. Our holocausts come in shorter, sharper blasts, with more imaginable numbers of casualties, but they really do seem to be happening more and more often. The toxic dust has barely settled on the previous attack or atrocity before the next one flares up in another part of London, or another part of the country, in a street that looks like every other street, except for the police tape and the news vans and the community spirit.

As I type, a “Day of Rage” protest is taking place across the capital city I happen to live in. That’s not its official title, it’s something to do with the Queen’s Speech, which this year came on a the back of an envelope. But barely a day goes by without me feeling some degree of rage about something or other. We’re having a heatwave in the South of England, too, which reminds me of the mid-80s Siouxsie and the Banshees album Tinderbox, one of whose standout tracks was called 92°, a reference to the temperature on the Fahrenheit scale at which human beings go mad  (“I wondered when this would happen again/Now I watch the red line reach that number again/The blood in our veins and the brains in our head”).

You wonder if the heat got to the dumb-f*** Islamophobe from Cardiff who drove his hired van into Muslims at prayer in Finsbury Park, North London. I mean, who does that? And why don’t they do it more often? Well, in fact, Frederick the fictional character, they now do. I can’t remember a time when I was more nervous about hired vans. (I was like this about planes flying overhead in the months after 9/11.)

These surges in negative cosmic energy, often leading to death or injury, and always leading to panic and overreaction, are not Holocausts. Instead we have major incidents, geographically labelled, and thrown into the 24-hour news cycle like it’s a tumble drier: Westminster Bridge, Manchester Evening News Arena, Borough Market, Finsbury Park Mosque. It’s the cumulative dread and the speed at which they line up that really take the breath away. I feel breathless as a kind of default setting in this escalating age of catastrophe. One death toll rises, when another, new death toll is started before the previous one has been finalised. (We have no idea how many people perished in Grenfell House, other than it’s more than we are being told.) I guess there’s no better word for what many of us feel in these special circumstances than terror. (The terrorists have won, by the way, whether they come in networks or cells, as martyrs or “lone wolves”. But maybe the tide will turn and we will win in the end.)

London skyline

I have lived in London since 1984. I arrived in the city full of hope and dreams. Those hopes and dreams have long since migrated away from London. It’s too crowded. It’s too divided. It’s too vulnerable. Also, it’s full of high-rise buildings that do have safety features, like sprinklers, because they are soulless stacks of glass units sold to foreign investors, who generally don’t even live in them, and who can blame them? Who would choose to live in a tower? If you take an overground train into Central London and pass the Thames, you can no longer see the Thames. All you can see is ugly, protruding glass and metal tubes. They block out the gorgeous old buildings on the other side of the river, and monstrosities nicknamed things like “the Walkie Talkie” and “the Cheese Grater” stand testament only to the excess testosterone coursing through the pinched veins of male architects who have no intention of living in them. (Grenfell Tower is not like these buildings.)

ToweringInfernoDanLorrie

I have a longtime fascination with disaster movies, in particular those made during the genre’s first cycle in the 1970s, when glamorous movie stars were half-drowned for our delectation and amusement. It was interesting to me that one of Grenfell Tower’s luckier residents – ie. one who got out with his life – spoke of wrapping his children’s heads in wet towels before they fled their flat. This is more than likely something learned through watching dramas about fires. I will never forgot Robert Wagner’s philandering PR Dan Bigelow adopting the wet-towel survival technique in The Towering Inferno – fruitlessly, as it happened, as the fire had got out of control due to corners cut with wiring and safety features, so he burned to death, while his lover, Lorrie (Susan Flannery) threw herself out of the window. The Towering Inferno was critical of cheaply built skyscrapers, and showed the dangers, but this was Hollywood fantasy, not the news, right?

Huw

When Huw Edwards sat in total silence at his large, round, glass desk last night, unaware, due to a technical issue, that News at Ten had started and filled the air with silence, it was a blessed relief. For four silent minutes and eight silent seconds, with no news. And no news is good news.

We may soon have to start planning moments of silence in advance, maybe every Thursday. There’s a daily need to stop and think and remember those who’ve suffered.

I’m sick of all the violence, and the hate, and the murder, and the name-calling, and the corporate greed, and the municipal incompetence, and the political dismantling of the public sector and the good it does for ordinary people when properly funded and looked after, and I’m sick of people in government being terrible at their jobs, whether it’s looking after the economy or having an empathy at all or knowing what the inside of Lidl or Aldi looks like. Some Tories are clearly just cruel, and uncaring, and mean. Some are merely useless at their jobs. Many of them are both. One of them, Theresa May, is what Frankie Boyle described her as on his New World Order show for BBC Two: “a f***ing monster.”

I hate it when politicians accuse other politicians of politicising terrible atrocities, the kind that happen on a weekly basis currently. Tragedy is political. Terror is political. Neglect is political. And greed is certainly political.

I am not on the Day of Rage, but I’m having one privately. I rage at 22-year-old men who are disaffected and bored, just like most 22-year-olds, but who choose to vent that disaffection and boredom by taking innocent lives. I rage at people who see harm done by individuals from one religious group on individuals from various religious groups and surmise that it’s all the fault of just one religious group, because a man or a woman with thin, purple lips and a tumour growing inside their soul said so in a newspaper opinion column, which, if written by a different man would see him accused of hate speech. I rage at the disparaging term “snowflake”. And I rage at members of UKIP still being asked onto BBC political discussion programmes, despite having no MPs. They made this mess and I would rather they f***ed off while the rest of us got on with clearing it up.

I have no answers. I’m like the beautiful short-sleeved bowling shirt bearing a Chinese dragon design worn by a contestant on a recent Pointless and met with admiration by Alexander Armstrong. He said, “It asks more questions than it answers.”

But let’s keep asking them. The right questions.

 

 

++++++STOP PRESS+++++

One national newspaper has found a way of cheering us all up! By ignoring all the terrible news and offering combined monarchism, voyeurism and objectification of women.

Sunbot21June

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Funny Monet

Well here’s a pleasant surprise: a good Woody Allen movie. I contextualised my position on Woody in my review in March of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, which may well be his worst ever film. You can read that again here, if you want to understand my disappointment in full. Needless to say, like many others, I used to love him, and fell out of love with him when he started to make films outside of New York. It’s like the old Jewish joke he tells in Annie Hall: the food here is terrible … and such small portions! As a rule, Woody Allen films are now terrible … and they arrive at a rate of sometimes two a year!

Well, I’m relieved and delighted to report that the chatter is true: Midnight In Paris is a return to form. Not a fully fledged return, but a wander in the right direction. There are three things that make it work:

1) Owen Wilson. All my all-time favourite Allen films have Woody in them, in the lead, playing the screen version of himself. However, as he’s aged past the point where he can any long “get the girl” without the rest of us squirming and mopping our brows, he’s had to try out a few surrogates. John Cusack was good, Kenneth Branagh less so, Josh Brolin and even Larry David a disaster. But in Owen Wilson, he’s found himself. Here, Wilson plays a writer (of course, which other profession is Woody interested in?) who becomes inspired to write his novel on a visit to Paris. He’s clearly in a toxic relationship with Rachel McAdams, whose parents are overbearing, Europhobic Republicans, and whose attraction to Michael Sheen’s pompous pseud marks her out as a shallow waste of space. But beccause Wilson plays it puppydog innocent and eager to please you root for him without thinking, hey, he’s asking for it. There’s something about Wilson’s round, imperfect face and his shaggy mop that brings you onside from the first glimpse. If Woody decided to always cast Wilson from now on, I’d be more than happy.

2) The idea. Yes, it’s a moderately-high-concept Woody Allen film. Because the story involves Wilson going back in time to Paris in the 1920s when the clock strikes midnight, and much of its humour revolves around the literary, musical and artistic icons he bumps into in the sort of cafes and salons that still exist in modern-day Paris, Woody gets to indulge his own love of a prelapsarian golden age when American greats like Hemingway, Porter and Fitzgerald rubbed shoulders with Europeans like Picasso, Dali and Bunuel. Woody has always had a symbiotic relationship with Europe, and Midnight In Paris sort of encapsulates that mutual admiration, but in a genuinely funny conceit. So it’s not an all-out period piece like Sweet And Lowdown, Bullets Over Broadway or The Purple Rose Of Cairo, but it hints at all three, and that’s a good thing.

3) It’s not set in London. As proud as we are to have him in our great capital, Woody Allen does not understand the way people speak here, and as a result, he’s made his worst films here: Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream and Tall Dark Stranger. And maybe it’s more irksome when an artist idealises a place you actually know inside out? (He does it to Paris, naturally, especially in Midnight‘s opening montage, but then again, he once did the same for Manhattan and he didn’t even have the excuse of being a tourist!) Either way, any city that tempts him away from London is good news.

More context for my enjoyment of Midnight In Paris: I’ve seen an awful lot of violent films of late. Good and powerful films, but 18 certificate brutal. I was so looking forward to turning up to the Curzon and seeing a 12A certificate that would be guaranteed free of violence. Especially impact-based violence. The fact that it was a funny film, and I mean a film that made me laugh out loud often – not least when Wilson meets Dali (a show-stealing Adrien Brody cameo), Bunuel and Man Ray and explains his time-travelling conundrum and they find it perfectly commonplace (“Of course, but you’re surrealists“) – meant that it was just the tonic. This is not a revolutionary piece of work. It is not “important” in that sense of the word. But it was important to me yesterday afternoon. It provided cultural and comic relief. It was lovely to be sat in a pleasant arthouse of an afternoon and sense that others were getting the gags about Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald and Picasso and Gertrude Stein and Gaugin … frankly, most Woody Allen fans would. But Woody Allen fans are akin to those who support a local football team who used to be in the Premiership and now struggle on a regular basis to find their old form, and yet, you support them doggedly anyway, and take no pleasure in their downfall.

In contrast, last night I caught up with the opening episode of Romanzo Criminale, which represents Sky Arts getting into the BBC4 game by importing a subtitled drama series, this time from Italy. It’s set in Rome, in the past – the 1970s – and presents anything but a tourist’s-eye view of the city. A brilliant antidote, once again. I’ll write about it, and FX’s forthcoming French import Braquo, soon.

Who killed Woody Allen?

Woody Allen became my favourite filmmaker in 1982 when I saw Take The Money And Run on TV, followed, thanks to a short BBC season, by Bananas, Sleeper and, if memory serves, Love and Death, after which I devoured every one of his films that was available to rent or buy. Each time I saw a new one, it would become my favourite: Manhattan, Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Stardust Memories. Come the mid-90s, I had caught up, having paid good money for what had built into my Woody Allen video library. (In 1988 I wrote a play called Play It Again, Woody, in which a Londoner obsessed by Woody Allen tries to work out his becalmed love life with the help of an apparition of Woody Allen. It was performed twice in front of a paying audience. I played Woody Allen.)

I bought books on him. And I mean, every book I could find. I considered Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery, and even Bullets Over Broadway – in which my hero did not appear, his surrogate being John Cusack – if not quite as good as his 1970s classics, certainly worthy and more mature additions to the canon. Everyone Says I Love You was not brilliant, but it had Woody in it, and it was, at least, a brave experiment with the musical form, and Sweet And Lowdown, a confident period piece, seemed to suggest he still had something unique to offer. As the 20th century drew to a close, I was still glad that Woody Allen made a film a year. I know.

In 2001, when I finally got to meet and interview Woody for Radio 4, he remained my hero and it was a 40-minute experience, in a room at the Dorchester, I will never forget, pretty much the high point of my time interviewing filmmakers and actors for Back Row. The film upon which this interview hung was The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, which wasn’t his best work and I knew it. But this was immaterial, as it didn’t get released in the UK, so we ran the interview anyway, as a free-standing treat. After this, I’m afraid things went downhill very rapidly.

Woody Allen lost his mojo, and I mean completely lost it, around 1999, and I fear we may never see it again. In one sense, this doesn’t matter, as he has left us with a legacy of at least a dozen works of towering, unforgettable, peerless genius, plus around eight or nine further great, entertaining films. (Incidentally, I don’t prefer his earlier, funny films, I prefer his mid-period existential ones.) But in another sense, his decline does matter, as each dud he produces damages the string of glories he once produced. On a much smaller scale, Ben Elton did this.

Woody remains an American auteur, a prolific and vanity-free forger of cinema, and an enthusiastic Europhile; he has carved his own unique niche in Hollywood.

But he should stop now.

Or at least take a long break until he’s got a script that’s really worth making into a film. Because his latest, released this week (unlike his 2006 work Scoop, which wasn’t released in the UK at all), You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is even worse than Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, and I didn’t think that possible. It’s his fourth set in London, and if anyone, or anything, killed Woody Allen, I fear it is the city I have lived in for 27 years. It may be an urban, multicultural, English-speaking cultural hub, just like Woody’s own New York City, but he doesn’t understand it. And he certainly doesn’t understand Londoners. Or hear how they speak. (Gemma Jones, in his new film, keeps asking for something to “sip on.” She means a drink. Who uses the phrase “sip on”?)

All you really need to know about Tall Dark Stranger, other than don’t go and see it, is that it’s one of those compendiums in which a series of domestic stories is told concurrently, gently linked, and loosely gathered around a theme, or motif. In this, it’s faith, sort of. Or that’s what Woody says. (Mind you, in the current Sight and Sound, he claims that Match Point is as good as Annie Hall, which, may God strike me down, actually suggests dementia.) What you also need to know about Tall Dark Stranger is that it is so bad I found myself clutching my own head by the final act. The man in front of me at the screening sank down into his seat in agony, his head lolling to one side. The woman next to me laughed, once, but at the film and not with it. Although Woody does not appear in it, he has no surrogate, in that the token expat American, Josh Brolin’s failed novelist (about time Woody had one of those, eh?), is a boorish, unattractive, unfunny idiot, there, it seems, simply to offer medically-trained opposition to the thread involving Gemma Jones’ visits to Pauline Collins’ psychic.

If the spirit of Woody is here, it’s in Anthony Hopkins’ elderly Lothario, who, after a late-mid-life-crisis divorce from Jones, moves into a bachelor pad and marries Lucy Punch’s seemingly stupid, certainly one-note prostitute/actress. (Unlike Mira Sorvino’s prostitute/actress in Mighty Aphrodite, she doesn’t win anyone round with her force of personality, merely by her push-up bra and short skirt and youthful age.) I’m not going to go into any more plot; the film doesn’t deserve it, hinged as it is on unlikely male fantasies such as a beautiful woman stripping down to her underwear in a flat, even though it looks out onto other flats, including the one belonging to a man she has already spoken to through the window. (Later, the scene is mirrored when another woman strips down to her underwear in another flat opposite. Thank heavens attractive women are this dim, eh lads?)

This film is painful not just because of the flimsy story – hey, I never used to mind the fact that Woody’s films tend to be about couples having affairs, but it’s amazing how quickly that palls when the going is this rough – it’s painful because it’s a waste of such great screen actors, who collectively fail to rescue Woody Allen’s appalling, lazy dialogue.

Brolin is poor – and his hair is preposterous. But Naomi Watts, Antonio Banderas, Jones and Hopkins give it their best shot, and are defeated. There is such a paucity of jokes, you wonder if it’s actually a comedy at all. But if it’s not a comedy, it’s certainly no drama. A roll-call of fabulous British and Indian actors – none of who you can blame for agreeing to be in a Woody Allen film – spout written bollocks: Philip Glenister, Christian McKay (who has about two lines), Ewen Bremner, Anna Friel, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Anupam Kher, Frieda Pinto. It reminds me of Harrison Ford’s fabled remark to George Lucas while making Star Wars: “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.” (Johnny Harris, so magnificent in London To Brighton and This Is England ’86, gets a small part as a man in a gym – even he can’t do anything real with it.)

I fear that Woody is now so cocooned by yes-people, nobody would dare to criticise. And if I were an actor, I daresay I’d keep my mouth shut too. Honestly, on the evidence of Tall Dark Stranger, I think I’m now a better writer than Woody Allen.

And if the words don’t strike you as lazy, what about the glaring mistakes in the action? We see a character open their fridge in the kitchen and take out a cool beer, but the fridge, in the foreground, has no light on inside it, which rather suggests it’s a prop fridge and not plugged in. Did nobody see this? At a casino, Anthony Hopkins is seen peeling off £50 notes and handing them to his stupid girlfriend, who promptly lays them down on a roulette table, mid-game. I’m no gambling expert, but aren’t you supposed to pay for, and use, chips? Brolin’s writer has his second book with a publisher and keeps ringing up the publisher to see what he thinks. Does he not have a literary agent? A male character gets so drunk on Irish coffees he almost makes a pass at a female character, having just driven her home!

It’s bloody awful. If it was the first film of a new filmmaker who’d managed to convince a cast of prominent actors to appear in a low-budget film set in London, you’d just about let him off. But this is Woody Allen. Woody Allen!

The cover story in Sight and Sound, intelligently researched and written, and even eloquently argued, by Brad Stevens, is headlined In Defence Of Woody Allen, and finds “intriguing patterns” in his latter European films. The one intriguing pattern he doesn’t find is the one where Woody Allen goes all shit.

At the screening yesterday, at Warner Bros, the nice PR made a joke in her introduction about the assembled critics’ mauling of last week’s big Warner Bros release Hall Pass: “I hope you’re all in a better mood this morning!” Well, if we were, my guess is that You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger put paid to that.

Buried treasure

I wasn’t even looking for it, but I found the interview I did with Woody Allen in 2001, broadcast on Radio 4’s Back Row in 2002, languishing on a cached page within the labyrinthine BBC website for a programme no longer on air. It’s not the very best sound quality, but you can listen to it via RealPlayer here by clicking on Listen to the interview.

It was my last edition of Back Row as presenter, as I had just been commissioned to write eight episodes of Grass with Simon Day for BBC2 and couldn’t possibly fit that in with my new teatime job at 6 Music, so Back Row had to go. This was a sad decision for me. I loved my two and a half years at the helm of the weekly film show, and during that time had interviewed many, many fascinating and famous people, from Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Kevin Costner to old timers Ernest Borgnine, Robert Altman and Ronald Neame. But Woody had been my hero since I was 18 and it was a great honour to spend 40 minutes of quality time in his company, covering not just the film he was here to promote, The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, but his whole career and worldview.

The irony was, at the time of broadcast, Jade Scorpion had still not found a UK distributor, but we ran the interview anyway. Anyway, have a listen, if you’re interested. What you need to know is that at the beginning of the interview – we were side by side on a sofa at the Dorchester Hotel – Woody’s body language was such that he clearly didn’t trust me: he was turned away from me and was looking at the carpet. As my questions progressed and he realised a) I knew his work, and b) wasn’t about to ask him about his knotty private life, he gradually turned round to face me, and by the end of it, we had eye contact and he genuinely seemed relaxed, and was having fun. (We had lapel mics, so his answers were audible from the start.)

My successor on Back Row – which has since been rebranded The Film Programme – was, of course, Mr Joe Cornish.