Biopics: The True Story

July 18, 2010



A short way into the new film Gainsbourg—just after the animated opening credits in which Serge Gainsbourg swims among chain-smoking fish, but before he is menaced by a four-armed anti-Semitic caricature which has torn itself from a Nazi propaganda poster—it strikes you that this may not be your run-of-the-mill biopic. This year has already brought one example of the way in which this time-honoured true-life genre is being shaken up: that was Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, starring a seemingly-possessed Andy Serkis as Ian Dury. Poised for release are films about Howard Marks (Mr Nice) and Joan Jett’s early days (The Runaways), as well as a second Coco Chanel movie (Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky).

All of which makes it laughable that the genre was given the last rites a few months ago in a Newsweek story (“Are Biopics History?”) which complained that “in the last five years, the biopic has begun to feel as dusty and outdated as the set of Encylopedia Britannicas in your parents’ attic.” This is rather like declaring Usain Bolt to be on his last legs at the very moment that he steams across the finishing line. The mistake Newsweek made was to take its biopsies of the biopic from the mainstream alone: moribund works such as Amelia, Invictus, The Young Victoria and Creation (not all of which are strictly biopics, which should span a life, so much as true stories). Small wonder the biopic looks cadaverous. Hollywood certainly doesn’t know what to do with the genre, other than throw awards at it: fifteen of the Best Actor or Actress Oscar-winners of the past 20 years got their trophies for playing real-life figures.

Peer over the edge of the mainstream, though, and it’s evident that the biopic is where the most experimental filmmakers come to set up shop these days. Much of the chutzpah of Gainsbourg comes from its source material, a graphic novel by its writer-director Joann Sfar, who is the latest artist to use the biopic as an entrance into cinema. Marjane Satrapi co-adapted her own graphic novel, the autobiography Persepolis, for the screen. The photographer Anton Corbijn (Control), and the artists Steve McQueen (Hunger) and Sam Taylor-Wood (Nowhere Boy), have all made their debuts with biographical studies, while four of the five films directed by the painter Julian Schnabel (including Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) have been biopics of sorts.

The crown prince of the post-modern biopic—or the po-mo bio, if you will—has to be Todd Haynes. First he populated his 1987 featurette Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story with Barbie dolls, and not just because they don’t tend to ask: “What’s my motivation?” Then he made a Bowie biopic manqué (Velvet Goldmine) before casting seven actors (including Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere) as aspects of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Probably the most radical of modern biopics is François Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, which breaks the Canadian pianist’s intense life into concentrated fragments, leaving the assembly to the viewer. Not far behind is 24-Hour Party People, notable for a scattershot structure befitting its subject (Manchester’s Factory Records), and a heightened self-awareness dictated by its hero, the late Tony Wilson. Typical of its flagged-up fabrications and post-modern tomfoolery is the moment when Howard Devoto (of Buzzcocks and Magazine) turns up to denounce as false a scene we are in the process of watching.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, an old hand at the genre after writing 24-Hour Party People, Hilary and Jackie (about Jacqueline du Pré), Saint-Ex (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) and Pandaemonium (Coleridge and Wordsworth), thinks the free-form biopic can be the truest kind. “The structure of a film is incredibly conventional,” he says, “but life isn’t like that. So you can chop up the life to fit the structure. Or you can do what I prefer, which is to throw the life up against it and make the structure collapse.” He singles out Walk the Line as an example of how not to make a biopic. “That really shrinks Johnny Cash, doesn’t it? Here was a man who struggled with the cosmos, who cared about being justified in the face of God. And what the film gives you is a guy who had some issues with his father. If you want to celebrate the complexity of a human being, you’ve got to bust it all open, and I hope that’s what 24-Hour Party People does.”

When François Girard began writing Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, he recognised the pitfalls of the genre. “There are many traps,” he reflects. “The main temptation is to try to cram everything about a life into one film. What you need is a radical idea or perspective; if you decide to show the whole journey, you’re condemning yourself to staying only on the surface. Evocation, rather than being descriptive or exhaustive, is the key. Evoking a territory is preferable to trying to cover it all.”

If you want a measure of how unorthodox Girard’s picture is, try this: it’s a biopic of a pianist in which we never actually see the subject’s fingers touch the keys. “That’s part of its genius,” observes the actor Colm Feore, who plays Gould. “You see me fondle pianos, talk about them, even prepare to play them—but I never actually do. One problem, of course, is that in my life I occasionally get invited to play a little something at the induction of a new syllabus at the Royal Conservatory. I feel like saying, ‘Have you even seen the film?’” It was for entirely practical reasons that Girard kept performance off-screen. “I didn’t know how to show Gould’s distinctive playing style, so I decided not to show it at all. How would you get, say, an actor today to play tennis on film like Rafael Nadal? You couldn’t. My advice for anyone planning to tell Nadal’s life story would be: Stay away from the tennis court.”

Whereas conventional biopics tend to be organised around a shopping-list of biographical incidents, the po-mo bio aims to capture an essence, even if it’s at the expense of objective truth. “I couldn’t care less about the truth,” Sfar said recently. “I love Gainsbourg too much to bring him back to the realms of reality. [The film] is full of lies, because I love lies.” Think also of Cobb, Ron Shelton’s largely straight-shooting biopic, which departs from reality when the baseball outfielder Ty Cobb is watching a montage of his career highlights at a Hall of Fame dinner: while the other guests applaud his sporting triumphs, Cobb can see only a showreel of lowlights from his violent, alcohol-fuelled rages. Or Shadow of a Vampire, which imagines that the actor Max Schreck didn’t have to put in too much research to play a bloodsucker in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. This fast-and-loose irreverence, which has its roots in Ken Russell’s bad-taste 1970s biopics such as Savage Messiah and Lisztomania!, is fast becoming irresistible to modern filmmakers, as is the artist-viewed-through-the-prism-of-art approach seen in Mishima, Kafka, Love is the Devil (about Francis Bacon) or the completely fictional Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.

Oren Moverman, who co-wrote I’m Not There with Todd Haynes, relished the freedom that comes with a freewheeling structure. “Biopics can get hung up on authenticity, but our film is constantly lying—it’s clearly not a truthful representation of Dylan. His name isn’t even mentioned. I can appreciate the frustration of someone who complains that they don’t learn anything about Dylan from the film, but that’s actually true to the experience of trying to understand Dylan; it’s what Dylan himself would want.” Moverman is now writing a film about Kurt Cobain, which will address the musician’s life, rather than just the suicide that inspired Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. “It’ll be raw and chaotic, which is what Cobain’s life was like, but it’s more linear than I’m Not There; it’ll take you from A to Z. People know the shortcut version—he took a lot of heroin, wrote ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, became the biggest rock star in the world and killed himself. Those known things about him are to me the least interesting.”

“What matters more than anything,” Girard insists, “is to be faithful to the spirit of your subject rather than to the facts.” Colm Feore witnessed first-hand how this brought Thirty-Two Short Films… closer to the core of Gould. “I remember talking to Gould’s father after he’d seen the film, and he said: ‘How did you know about the ice?’ He was referring to the shots that bookend the film, with Gould walking in this great white nowhere. I said to the old man, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘That’s what Glenn loved to do—to wander on the ice at Lake Simcoe. He’d just take the dog and go.’ François and I looked at each other in amazement because we had no idea. François had known that he had to bring Gould out of the inner void somehow, so the artist in him came up with that. He was so in tune with Gould that he intuited this truth.”

Cottrell Boyce cites Girard’s film as one of his favourite biopics, as well as an influence on his own Hilary and Jackie. “What’s great about Thirty-Two Short Films… is that it tells you a lot about Glenn Gould, it celebrates his music, but it basically concludes that everybody is a lost continent and no one’s got the map. It’s that Citizen Kane idea of people being unknowable. You can’t ever really fathom someone—you can only enjoy them. It’s important for biopics to challenge the idea that there’s a fixed interpretation. I mean, there might be a definitive truth about the partition of Poland, but not about a human being.”

The Darjeeling Limited

November 16, 2007

Sight & Sound, December 2007 

Watching Wes Anderson’s most recent work, you would be forgiven for thinking that the control-freak heroes of his delightful early features, Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998), were actually scathing self-portraits rather than inspired comic creations. There was no shortage of eccentricity in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), but it was of the most studied kind, played out according to a strict menu of themes, camera movements and absurdist character traits. Watching these films was like being suffocated slowly and lovingly by the cartoonist Gary Larson. 

The opening moments of The Darjeeling Limited inspire cautious optimism in anyone still holding out for Anderson to recapture his initial zest. This new picture comes with a self-contained 12-minute prologue, Hotel Chevalier, in which young Jack Whitman receives his ex-girlfriend in a Paris hotel room production-designed to within an inch of its life. When the film proper begins, announcing our arrival in the Indian city of Jodhpur with a burst of the antsy title music from Satyajit Ray’s Jalshagar, and the kind of ungainly, long-lens zoom outlawed since the early 1970s, the culture shock is immediate and encouraging. A businessman, played by Anderson regular Bill Murray, is left on the platform while his train, and the movie, depart without him; the hopeful viewer will infer from this that the director is leaving behind his familiar formula, as represented by Hotel Chevalier and Murray, and heading for pastures new.

Such conjecture is premature. Anderson may have acquired two new co-writers (Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, who plays Jack) and relocated to the Indian subcontinent. And the usual pop songs are now outnumbered by musical excerpts from films by Ray (Teen Kanya, Charulata) and Merchant-Ivory (Shakespeare-Wallah, Bombay Talkie) that mark out The Darjeeling Limited as a movie about movies about India. But in film-making terms, he’s too busy with his nose in a guide book to go sightseeing. The main characters—Jack and his brothers, Francis and Peter, travelling across India after a year’s estrangement—imitate Indian customs, and spout blandishments like “I love the way this country smells—kinda spicy” and “The people are gorgeous.” It’s difficult, though, to see how Anderson’s film is any less superficial in its appraisal of India.

Much is made of the idea of borrowing and appropriation, from that patchwork soundtrack to the belt that Francis gives to Peter as a gift, and then snatches back, three times in the course of the picture—“Indian-giving,” as Peter calls it. But Anderson is guilty too of taking from India those elements that serve his own format, when he might instead have differentiated between the Whitman’s blinkered perspective and his own. Jack enjoys a fling with Rita, the train’s stewardess, which conforms so rigidly to the specifications of Anthony’s romance with the Mexican Inez in Bottle Rocket (brief, exotic, twee) that it could be the same script with the names changed. There is a rare brush with raw emotion when the brothers fail to save an Indian child who falls in a river. But all is not lost. The boy’s funeral becomes the catalyst for a flashback to the day their own father was buried, so it’s nice that something structurally useful could come out of that arbitrary death.

The Darjeeling Limited isn’t just complacent, though it is that: the stock elements employed by Anderson for more than a decade—slow-motion shots set to 1960s British pop, former writing partner Owen Wilson as a melancholy loser, robotic tracking shots that glide sideways for comic effect, excitable whip-pans—have never felt less inspired, or more like a safety-net. But the recurring image of the Whitmans hauling their luggage through deserts and far-flung villages feels hypocritical. The joke is that these decorative bags—tan suitcases designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, and so tenderly photographed that they should have been billed above the title—only hinder the brothers, just as their grudges impede their spiritual progress. In the final shot before the end credits, the characters accept as much, symbolically shedding their baggage, emotional and physical, as they sprint for the train (“The past is over,” their mother has told them).

How strange that Anderson has failed to heed his own message. In making yet another film about dysfunctional families with dead or unreliable parents (as in everything since Rushmore) and competitive, independently wealthy siblings (The Royal Tenenbaums), without showing the most modest advance as either a comic stylist or a dramatist, Anderson is evidently encumbered by his own cargo. Louis Vuitton it may be, but the overriding sensation here suggests the endless revolutions of a baggage carousel.

Brick Lane / Jesus Camp

November 16, 2007

New Statesman, 15 November 2007

http://www.newstatesman.com/200711150041

Don’t go to see Brick Lane expecting to learn anything about Brick Lane. Even if you’ve read Monica Ali’s engaging novel and wandered around its east London setting, you still can’t be certain, until a scene in nearby Liverpool Street station at the end of the picture, that this adaptation hasn’t relocated the story to one of the UK’s other Brick Lanes, in Llwydcoed or Old Leake. Small wonder this is such a timid film, when it can’t even display allegiance to its own title.

That vagueness has nothing to do with the protests by the Brick Lane Association that diverted filming away from the street itself (there are always studio sets, or other streets) and everything to do with a general failure of nerve on the part of the production. Take the portrayal of Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), who as a girl in a Bangladeshi village is married off to the older Chanu (Satish Kaushik), and despatched to an East End estate. In the novel, she daydreams about “ice e-skating”, likening it to the way her mind skates off of its own accord. And Ali pursues that idea to the last page, when Nazneen launches herself on to an ice rink; it’s a lush, romantic image tailor-made for cinema. But the makers of Brick Lane know better. Out goes the ice-skating metaphor, and instead we see Nazneen flat on her back, making a snow angel – lying down at the very moment in the story when she finally stands up for herself.

It wasn’t wrong to jettison the first third of the novel, which focuses on Nazneen coming to England. But the director, Sarah Gavron, never gets a handle on the remaining material. It’s hard to see why Nazneen is missing her village when Gavron applies the same vivid colour scheme to both the Bangladesh flashbacks and the present-tense London scenes. What is there to pine for when one location looks as inviting as the other? And she instructs Chatterjee, her lead actress, to register childlike wonder whenever she leaves her flat, apparently forgetting that Nazneen has been in London for 16 years. It makes no sense for her to tour familiar streets in a state of dazed surprise, unless she has a bad case of jamais vu, or an addiction to powerful painkillers.

The core of the film, like the book, is Nazneen’s relationship with Karim (Christopher Simpson), who employs her as a seamstress. Simpson and Chatterjee generate a rapport, although it’s mildly exasperating that their so-called affair is treated with such coyness. Given the available evidence, Nazneen and Karim aren’t guilty of much more than a few come-hither looks and some inadvertent frottage.

In every respect, Brick Lane is a shadow of its source material. I was sure the film would show some guts once it turned to the post-9/11 hostility toward Muslims. But all that happened was that everyone started talking as though they knew they were characters in a film about multicultural Britain. When Chanu announced: “Things are getting bad out there,” I had to stop myself from replying: “Out there? You should see the view from where I’m sitting.”

The documentary Jesus Camp, which opens on 23 November, is the perfect remedy for the distant tone of Brick Lane. I defy anyone except its subjects – creepy, emotionally abusive zealots from the religious right, and the children who fall under their spell – to watch it without feeling livid and distressed. The most disturbing footage comes from the “Kids on Fire” summer camp, where youngsters are indoctrinated by the minions of George Bush, who are bent on removing divisions between church and state. A cardboard cut-out of the president is wheeled out, and proves more charismatic than the real thing. (It can probably pronounce “Abu Ghraib” correctly, too.) There isn’t a scene here that doesn’t induce shudders, from 12-year-old Levi confessing that non-Christians make him feel “yucky”, to Rachael, a lonely nine-year-old who dreams of running a nail-bar where she can preach her anti-abortion message to a captive audience.

Into the Wild

November 16, 2007

New Statesman, 8 November 2007

http://www.newstatesman.com/200711080034

On a list of people and places to which I would turn for advice, Hollywood ranks even lower than the careers officer at college, who assessed my questionnaire (likes: the arts, dislikes: confrontation) and decided I was ideal prison warder material. Most of my classmates received the same suggestion. It must have been a slow year for HM Prison Service.

I’ve never met anyone whose path was altered by lessons learned from a Hollywood film, but still the industry persists in offering unsolicited counsel. Overworked studio executives are forever green-lighting pictures that tell us to spend more time with our families; for many of the sons and daughters of LA studio brass, the only evidence that daddy or mommy loves them is the release of another guilt-ridden film in which Jim Carrey or Tim Allen learns to play catch in the backyard.

Coming a close second in the “To do” list foisted on us by Hollywood is the insistence that we should shake off our cloistered, complacent lives – presumably while still spending more time at home – and march off into the great unknown. (I tried that once. I ordered a mochaccino instead of a latte. It didn’t work out.)

This hypocrisy has resulted in some preachy film-making (American Beauty, Regarding Henry), and I was fully expecting to add Into the Wild to the inventory of self-righteousness. The raw material is certainly there for a full-blown lecture on how we’ve lost touch with what really matters: university graduate Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) responds to his icy, affluent parents’ offer of a new car by donating his $24,000 of savings to Oxfam and trekking off toward the Alaskan wilderness. On his travels, he meets a pair of plaintive hippies and an uninhibited Danish couple, among others, and is propositioned by a teenage waif with an acoustic guitar. Typical – you venture into the middle of nowhere and you still can’t escape sensitive singer-songwriters who want to be Tori Amos.

Happily, the film soft-pedals the life-improving subtext. It has been adapted by its director, Sean Penn, from Jon Krakauer’s book, which turned the real Chris McCandless into a folk hero among young males with non-conformist leanings. Others are of the view that he was a narcissistic twit. What’s encouraging about Into the Wild is that it accommodates both readings. There is romanticism galore in the photography, which is eye-catching without transcending the level of travelogue. On the other hand, Penn knows how to pull us up sharp: “King of the Road” plays on the soundtrack right before Chris experiences the disadvantages of being a boxcar hobo. But if I had to put money on where Penn’s own sympathies lie, it would be with the idea of Chris as a gap-year messiah. “You’re not Jesus, are you?” someone asks the lad, before Penn tips his hand by filming him on a mountaintop in a crucifixion pose.

There’s more idolatry to contend with in the frequent glimpses of people gazing fondly at Chris, in case we’d forgotten how adorable he is. Admittedly, there are worse ways to spend a few hours than staring at Emile Hirsch. His feral good looks – he’s like a boy-band cutie in the throes of a lycanthropic episode – hint that the “wild” of the title applies not merely to the landscape. He’s also adept at mining Chris’s ambiguities, and underlining his youthful arrogance. It’s unusual for a US film to feature a lead character who is virtually unknowable, even borderline dislikeable. But Into the Wild largely succeeds in telling Chris’s story without advising us too explicitly how to feel about him, or how his experiences are applicable to our own lives, which is fairly wild in itself.

Penn’s last film, The Pledge, showed him to be a film-maker of immense grace and control. Into the Wild is a more skittish piece, as befits its subject; with its abbreviated scenes and jumbled chronology, it is as disrespectful of convention – and, occasionally, as indulgent – as its hero. But I couldn’t help thinking that Chris would have reached Alaska more quickly if he wasn’t afflicted by that widespread condition known as slow-motionitis, where the sufferer becomes unable to go for a stroll or take a shower without life slipping into lyrical half-speed.

Hollywood, year zero

November 16, 2007

New Statesman, 8 November 2007

http://www.newstatesman.com/200711080030

For those of us too young to remember the Vietnam War, our understanding of that conflict cannot help but be filtered through a showreel of iconic images and sounds – the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence from Apocalypse Now, the Russian roulette tournament in The Deer Hunter, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as used in Platoon. If we’re really unlucky, we may find Sylvester Stallone as Rambo stumbling around in our subconscious, too.

The invasion of Iraq, with its escalating anarchy and swift fall from public favour, is commonly compared to Vietnam. But the manner in which film-makers have handled Iraq, from no-budget documentary crews all the way up (or down) to Hollywood studios, couldn’t be more different. That they have approached the subject at all provides the most obvious contrast. If you wanted to see an American film about Vietnam while the war was still raging, you were limited to occasional gung-ho action (The Green Berets) and sporadic counter-cultural protest (Medium Cool). Any other commentary was delivered obliquely, with reference to bygone conflicts – Korea (M*A*S*H) or the US massacre of Native Americans (Soldier Blue). The smell of napalm in the morning was lost on the breeze by the time Apocalypse Now launched its assault on America’s conscience.

Conversely, modern audiences who want to see a film that doesn’t concern the current war will have their work cut out for them over the next 12 months. I even came across a blogger who claimed Knocked Up was an allegory about Iraq: an American gets himself in a terrible mess (for unplanned pregnancy, read the invasion of Iraq), but sticks around to sort it out. The “A” word (abortion) stands in for the equally taboo “W” word (withdrawal). Well, I’m convinced.

It’s been a slow start for Iraq-watching cinema-goers, with only the excellent documentary Iraq in Fragments and the Hollywood thrillers The Kingdom and Rendition venturing into this territory. But brace yourselves. Causing a downturn in popcorn sales at a cinema near you soon are: In the Valley of Elah, in which a soldier goes missing after returning from Iraq; Brian De Palma’s Redacted, which won the Silver Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and is based on the real incident of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl raped and murdered by US Marines; Stop Loss, about a soldier refusing to return to Iraq; and Grace Is Gone, with John Cusack as a man comforting his daughters after their mother is killed in action. (Cusack also co-wrote the forthcoming War, Inc - a black comedy partly inspired by Naomi Klein’s article “Baghdad Year Zero”.)

Then there are films that address Iraq and the “war on terror” indirectly, among them Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, a star-studded precis of the arguments for and against war. And that’s before you tally up the documentaries, including the award-winning No End in Sight, which exposes the shortcomings of the post-invasion strategy, or docudramas such as Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha, a reconstruction of the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians by US soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of a military vehicle.

All this activity looks impressive on paper. But the rash of Iraq films feels too late, if not exactly too little, given that more than four years have elapsed since the commencement of hostilities. The turning point between the film industry adopting a “Don’t mention the war” stance – remember how daring it felt when Michael Moore spoke out against the invasion during the 2003 Oscar ceremony? – and then countenancing any script with the word “Iraq” in its pages, came when the public mood changed palpably. Matthew Michael Carnahan, who wrote The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs, said recently: “In 2003, when [the war] looked like a cakewalk, a lot of people at Universal were like, ‘Oh, I don’t know about this.’ But by the time that Lions for Lambs was out there, there was no problem. It’s perfect timing right now, where people are starting to publicly question the war.” Had the occupation been a resounding success, it’s safe to assume that A-list stars and major studios would not be lining up to criticise the state-sanctioned slaughter of civilians.

The question of why today’s film-makers are focusing on the war when their Vietnam-era predecessors were disinclined to do so is easily answered. It isn’t just the weight of public opinion – Vietnam had its vocal antiwar protesters (though not as many as Iraq does), as well as the draft, which literally brought the war to America’s doorstep. But while television and newspaper images from Vietnam were available, there simply wasn’t the proliferation of unchecked evidence made possible by the internet. What we hear and see from Iraq may be censored and sanitised, but the truth is out there – it just happens to require a few clicks of the mouse, rather than the remote control. In this climate, cinema has to work hard to compete with accounts of the war available in soldiers’ blogs, and on YouTube and its ilk, or else risk appearing obsolete.

This helps explain the rise of the docudrama, which falls between fact and fiction, aspiring to the authenticity of the former and the imaginative reach of the latter. Battle for Haditha was one of many war-themed efforts at this year’s London Film Festival, where escapism was hard to come by. Like Redacted, it comments not only on the complexities of Iraq, but also on the means by which we absorb (mis-)information. Both films eschew a singular perspective in favour of a mosaic-like storytelling style. Broomfield splices together interviews, news excerpts and vérité-style footage, cutting between soldiers (played by real-life former marines), civilians and the terrorists who plant the bomb.

Redacted is even more unorthodox in its distribution of emphasis. De Palma, whose 1989 film Casualties of War told a near-identical story set in Vietnam, relies heavily on his characters’ video diaries as they plan their attack on the teenage girl. We also get scenes from an imaginary French documentary about Iraq; excerpts from online video blogs and YouTube-style sites; and, most daringly, De Palma inserts (fictional) footage from an extremist website celebrating the killing of US troops.

The level of invention is so impressive in Redacted, and its rebuttal of Hollywood’s narrative model so uncompromising, that it pains me to say the film is rarely convincing. Questions of truth are bound to be on the mind of any film-maker tackling Iraq. But it’s surprising that even the docudrama has not laid to rest entirely the old Hollywood fraudulence. This manifests itself in Battle for Haditha in a terrible, Titanic-esque score that undermines every scene in which it is heard, while in Redacted, the supposedly ordinary grunts keep delivering obviously scripted lines like: “The first casualty of this war is gonna be truth.”

I believe the problem lies in the inability of the Iraq films to capture the uniquely ramshackle nature of the war itself. Broomfield and De Palma certainly try, but even they reach for the old cinematic conventions that they should be resisting. No one can predict how or when the war will end, so any film made now can only feel tentative and provisional – characteristics that sit unhappily with cinema’s tendency toward reassurance and closure. A film can capture a moment or achieve longevity, but unless its makers are possessed of great prescience, it can rarely be up to the minute. This truism applies as equally to Redacted as it does to, say, Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo: whatever mood or trend was prevalent during the scriptwriting stage is likely to have changed or burned itself out by opening night. Even with a tight budget and a quick turnaround, a film can rarely get from green light to cinema screen in much under a year.

But it will be intriguing to watch this new sub-genre go through its various permutations. It’s worth remembering that between those late-1970s pictures regarded as definitive comments on the Vietnam War, and the equally influential late-1980s throwbacks such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, there emerged a brief but popular wave of action pictures that restaged the war with America emerging triumphant this time – Rambo: First Blood Part II, Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action and others all recycled the same plot about rescuing PoWs left behind in Vietnam. Although the Iraq film is currently in its sensitive, Coming Home phase, we may yet see action heroes despatched to Baghdad to whup some Iraqi butt in years to come. The Kingdom is halfway there – you can sense the army fatigues it’s wearing under that well-pressed liberal exterior.

Only the commercial fortunes of the current Iraq-based dramas will dictate whether more get made, and what form they take. Recent war films (Days of Glory, Letters from Iwo Jima) have without exception been box-office flops. And industry analysts, citing poor business for A Mighty Heart as evidence that serious-minded releases are unpopular, have offered a gloomy prognosis. But that’s Iraq all over. At least Hollywood can cut and run when the going gets tough, its only casualties being a few slashed expense accounts and bruised egos.

Superbad

November 16, 2007

Sight & Sound, November 2007

http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/review/4070

Recent US comedy has been dominated by the ‘Frat Pack’, presided over by Will Ferrell. His 2004 vehicle Anchorman The Legend of Ron Burgundy in turn spawned a new gang led by actor-writers Steve Carell and Seth Rogen, and writer-director Judd Apatow, all of whom collaborated on The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) and the current Knocked Up. This generation – for whom Vanity Fair will surely find a hip new tag just as soon as it dispatches Annie Leibovitz to photograph them for a fold-out cover – has an air of geeky self-deprecation that makes their films less showbizzy than those of the Frat Pack, and arguably funnier.

Superbad, co-written by Rogen and produced by Apatow, is a raucous party movie best enjoyed with a crowd. Although Rogen appears as a feckless police officer, the picture is dominated by three plucky young actors (Michael Céra, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who play high-school graduates Evan, Seth and Fogell, gearing up for a last party before college. Seth and Evan will no longer see one another when the latter departs for prestigious Dartmouth while the former attends a state college; Seth’s resentment simmers away throughout the film, though for now he has his sights set on sex. If he provides the booze for a party being held by Jules, the object of his affection, then he reckons he’ll get to sleep with her. This is where the drippy Fogell comes in: having secured a fake ID under the ill-fitting pseudonym McLovin, he is the key to Seth’s plan.

The movie treads identical ground to American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed and Confused (1993), but what distinguishes it is a post-Porky’s sensibility that simultaneously satirises and celebrates pre-PC smuttiness. Rogen and his co-writer Evan Goldberg wrote for the US series Da Ali G Show, and their semi-autobiographical Superbad script shares a lopsided perspective with Sacha Baron Cohen’s work. Just as last year’s Borat movie exploited for laughs the kind of xenophobic prejudices that we have largely abandoned or repressed, so Superbad draws its humour from the inexperienced heroes’ chauvinistic assessments of sex. Seth tells Evan that women “pride themselves on their dick-taking abilities”, and likens a woman’s nipples to “babies’ toes”. Adults are hardly more sophisticated. Officer Michaels, played by Rogen, admits that police work is nothing like the forensics-heavy procedure CSI had led him to expect. “When I first joined the force,” he laments, “I assumed there’d be semen on everything.”

Honest goodwill, fond observational detail and Greg Mottola’s exuberant direction make the picture nigh on irresistible, but there are some missteps. Like the similarly overlong The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Superbad is padded with longueurs that would have played better as DVD extras. The film never really recovers from a mean-spirited scene in which Seth dances with a woman who leaves menstrual blood on his trousers; it’s the only point at which the film-makers seem to subscribe to Evan and Seth’s view of women as alien and frightening, rather than mocking it.

And while it seems churlish to question one of the most pleasurable aspects in Superbad, you have to ask where the film’s 1970s bent fits in with the lives of modern Californian adolescents. Evan and Seth’s reference points are haphazard: they wear T-shirts emblazoned with the image of Richard Pryor or Bruce Lee, and freely drop the Beatles and Orson Welles into conversation, yet don’t seem interested in much more than computer games and internet porn. There is 1970s funk on the soundtrack, wonderfully groovy opening credits and a title which borrows that decade’s slang, but Superbad is a period piece in spirit only. It’s as though the script was updated at the last moment, but word never quite got around.


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