Cast: Denis Lawson, Lindsay Duncan, Norman Beaton, Don Henderson, George Baker
Come, come back to 1986, when the BBC, seemingly in a bilious reaction to the height of flag-waving Thatcherism, threw up a strange four-part fever dream of a show, a stylised class-war thriller aimed at the heart of a sick establishment. Shown once, it caused a bit of a fuss, and then was promptly shelved and never broadcast again, only to linger half remembered in the minds of a generation. ‘Remember Dead Head? What the hell was all that about?’
Denis Lawson, giving his best cockney snide, plays Eddie Cass, a booze-addled, whining toe rag who accepts an offer of a grand, simply to transport a hat box from one London address to another. But things go awry, the hat box is found to contain a severed woman’s head, and from that point on, Eddie seems to be the focus of a cruel game played by the powers that be, pursued, seduced, humiliated and tortured, up and down the social scale from one end of the country to another, until he finally determines to find out why.
Starting with a scene in a pub filled with smoke, Howard Brenton and Rob Walkers’s Dead Head flags up its anti-naturalistic colours from the get go – The Third Man (1949) via O Lucky Man! (1973), filmed on video and 16mm, and with a dry ice budget to kill for. The cast are significantly costumed rather than simply clothed, and characters and situations shift alarmingly as comedy is followed by pervy sexuality is followed by menace. This is a world of smacked-up debutantes and gun-toting SAS frogmen, emerging from rivers mid foxhunt. The upper classes are crazed and debauched, and their shady protectors are capricious and chaotic.
It’s flawed, of course, it’s built on sand, a series of vignettes that barely hold together. The third part loses momentum as it takes an awkward turn into subsidised theatre-group dynamics; the plot relies upon coincidences and illogical leaps; and of course the 80’s pop video stylings have dated alarmingly, but this, for my money, only adds to its nightmare charm. And the bare-faced audacity of the punchline is positively Pythonesque.
Lindsay Duncan vamps and fatales like it’s going out of style, Norman Beaton, Don Henderson and George Baker pop up along the way, and Simon Callow pretty much steals the second episode as a cracked spook of divided loyalties: ‘Once, for professional reasons, I joined the rather nasty little gay scene in Moscow.’ Really, Mr Callow? Highly recommended.
Prisoners of War/Hatufim, the 2009 series written and directed by Gideon Raff, opens in the moment when the release of three prisoners of war is secured in tense, high-level negotiations. Seventeen years after the army reservists were taken prisoner in the midst of the Israeli-Lebanese war, the men - two alive, one nothing more than unidentifiable remains - are set free as part of a prisoner swap. During the years of their captivity, the men became icons in Israel, with their youthful faces, frozen in time, appearing on billboards and banners everywhere. But the men, brutally beaten and tortured during their imprisonment, are now shadows of their former selves.
They are reunited with their families at the airport in a perfectly executed scene, fraught with tension. Nimrod (Yoram Toledano) has a passionately loyal and devoted wife, Talya (Yaël Abecassis), who spent 17 years fighting for his release, sacrificing her own life in the process. Nimrod also has a rebellious daughter who has an addiction to sleeping with older men, and a son he’s never met, who is about to be called up for military service. Uri (Ishai Golan), on the face of it, returns to nothing: his fiancée, Nurit (Mili Avital), beautiful, and demonised by the Israeli media and public for her lack of faith, gave up hope of his returning alive, married Uri’s brother and had a son. But the real mystery in Hatufim surrounds the fate of the third prisoner, Amiel, who leaves behind a distraught, grieving sister, Yael (Adi Ezroni), to try and come to terms with the death of her beloved older brother.
The men are given only a day after to spend with their families, before they are ‘debriefed’ at a special facility by Israeli intelligence agents, who believe not only that the men are hiding information about Amiel, but that they may have been ‘turned’, posing a threat to national security. Rather than being treated as victims, the men are suspects, interrogated and spied upon by their own government, even after they are allowed to finally return to their impossibly alien homes.
It’s a slick, gripping series, with some terrific performances, especially by Toledano and Golan. Made while Gideon Shalit was still being held captive by Hamas, the series was also prescient, and must have been incredibly resonant when it aired in Israel. But the problem with Hatufim is the sense that Raff tried to make it mean something to too many people. The promise of a tense, political thriller contained in the first episode never quite materialises; instead, Hatufim develops into more of an emotional, sentimental drama as the prisoners, racked with complex feelings of guilt, seek to re-connect with their families. Many of the episodes contain moments that dissolve into unsettling tearjerkers. Even the storyline involving Iris, an intelligence agent who ‘befriends’ the vulnerable and damaged Uri in order to gain information, turns into something of a love story. This melodrama can sometimes seem like a distraction from the most compelling and mystery-tinged elements of the series (while it’s hard to know just what to think of the storyline involving Amiel’s ‘ghost’).
Raff does a brilliant job evoking the problems that POWs face when returning to their families after captivity; it just feels at times that Hatufim is never sure if it wants to be a domestic drama or a thriller. In the end, it’s hard to shake the feeling, after watching the final scene of the first series, that the entire 10 episodes leading to that moment are nothing more than an elaborate set-up, a teaser, to the most compelling storyline in Hatufim. It’s only then that we get a glimpse at what really happened to Amiel. Series two is promised for later this year.
Unparalleled in scope, The Story of Film: An Odyssey marks the completion of a labour of love for writer and filmmaker Mark Cousins. Five years in the making and covering six continents and 12 decades of cinema, it is, as Cousins describes, a ‘love letter’ to the medium. The origin of the project was Cousins’s best-selling book of the same name. One of the few truly indispensable film publications of the last decade, the book showed how filmmakers are influenced both by the historical events of their times and by each other.
Opening with a quote from Lauren Bacall proclaiming that ‘the industry is shit. It’s the medium that’s great’, Cousins determinedly avoided any discussion of the industry per se, showing no interest in box office, marketing or any other part of the hullabaloo that goes hand in hand with any art form that is also a business. In doing so Cousins, whose past activities include a celebrated stint as the Festival Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and presenting the late, lamented Moviedrome, produced an invaluable guide to some of the forgotten treasures of cinema and some of the figures whose work has been obscured by what is unarguably a Westernised history of filmmaking. Those unfamiliar with the cinema of central Asia and Africa will find themselves particularly surprised by the great and often unsung contributions the two continents have made to the film lexicon.
Unspooling over a 15-part series, The Story of Film argues that innovation is at the heart of movie history (the contention that ‘money doesn’t drive movies, ideas do’ are the words of a romantic purist but we should forgive him for that) and extends the central thesis of the book to reveal the true and frequently forgotten global pioneers of filmmaking. As an opening salvo Cousins declares the history of cinema as we understand it to be by its very nature ‘exclusionist and racist’. Revealing how these incredibly influential figures drove cinema forward, Cousins films each section of the story in a different country, visiting many of the key sites in the history of cinema, from Hollywood to Mumbai, from Hitchcock’s London to the village where Pather Panchali was shot. Cousins’s globetrotting gives a potent, illuminating and often rather moving reminder that, though fictive, movies are very much a product of the real world and therefore reflective of our hopes, dreams and aspirations. Cinema, as Cousins points out, is pivotal in shaping how we feel, love, look and hope.
Anyone familiar with the pioneering Scene by Scene series will recall that Mark Cousins is an exceptionally skilled and intuitive interviewer and the ‘cast’ of The Story of Film is mightily impressive. Stanley Donen, Kyoko Kagawa, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier, Claire Denis, Bernardo Bertolucci, Robert Towne, Jane Campion, Wim Wenders and Claudia Cardinale are just a handful of the legendary filmmakers, actors and writers that offer insightful commentary over a series of extended interviews. The use of archive clips is extensive, exemplary and quietly inspiring and while the programme presents an illustrated story of film it also manages to be a particularly accomplished and technically adroit piece of filmmaking in its own right.
Since the disappearance from our screens of programmes such as Moving Pictures there has been little air time given to a consideration of cinema that extends beyond celebrity tittle-tattle and a cinematic border that ends with the Hollywood hills. Invigorating and intelligent, The Story of Film is also remarkably accessible and entertaining and should fulfil the absolutely imperative task of engaging younger, inquisitive minds as well as more seasoned academics. Touring numerous international film festivals, the series gets a prime-time Saturday evening slot at 9:15pm on More4 from September 3. Make a date, and don’t dare break it.
Directors: Agnieszka Holland, Simon Cellan Jones, Anthony Hemingway
Creators: David Simon, Eric Overmyer
Writers: David Simon, Eric Overmyer, David Mills, Tom Piazza
Cast: Steve Zahn, Kim Dickens, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, John Goodman
4 disc set (10 episodes)
Having spent the best part of two decades creating cop shows - albeit two of the best ever (Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire) - David Simon seems to have found himself with something close to a carte blanche as to what to make next. Avoiding self-indulgence, he used this situation to tackle some of America’s most traumatic and controversial moments of recent years. Thus Generation Kill (2008) and Treme (2010-11) depict the ‘War on Terror’ and Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath respectively. These intelligent realistic dramas are shows that needed a bankable name behind them, and in television (quality television at least) the writer/creator is the name above the title - the star. Of course the actors must be outstanding, and Simon provides us with a great ensemble cast including New Orleans natives John Goodman and Wendell Pierce (The Wire‘s Bunk) and many non-professional local actors such as Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who was so memorable in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke. But it was the guaranteed quality of Simon’s writing team that got these projects green-lighted.
Treme is an area in New Orleans right by the French Quarter. Largely populated by African-Americans, it is undoubtedly of great cultural importance, containing Congo Square, the birth-place of that great American art form, jazz. As my pre-Katrina tourist guide claims, ‘there aren’t many reasons to wander into the Treme’, and certainly not after dark, but compared to The Wire‘s Baltimore housing projects the Treme depicted here is something short of a fallen Utopia. Despite the mould, crumbling houses and missing neighbours the sense of community is a thing to behold. And of course, the great authentic New Orleans music is everywhere - played by locals for the locals away from the Bourbon Street tourist traps and ‘titty-bars’.
The series opens with the first ‘second line’ (marching brass band) parade since the storm. It might not be Mardi Gras but these smaller parades are an almost weekly event in New Orleans. It illustrates how important the music is to the people, who randomly join in the parade as it marches to its conclusion at a local bar. At a time when many Americans were asking whether the city was even worth rebuilding, this depiction shows why people love New Orleans and why it is worth preserving. It certainly appears to be a city unlike any other in America - there are still the highways cutting through the city centre, and I’m sure fast food chains (although we don’t see them), but even the failing Tower Records store has an arrangement with local musicians. It is also a city with a real sense of its own cuisine beyond a differently shaped pizza or local brand of frankfurter.
Where The Wire attempted to contextualise the police procedural - with each season focusing on schools, city politics, the press, etc. - Treme goes even further, to the point where the background takes the lead. This loosely connected bunch of characters represent the different aspects of New Orleans culture - a jazz trombonist (Pierce), a Creole/Cajun-food chef (Kim Dickens), a writer and lecturer (Goodman), a stoner DJ (Steve Zahn) and Clarke Peters (The Wire‘s Lester Freamon) as the chief of a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians. Much of the culture is merely shown with little direct explanation - for instance, who are the people organising and paying for the ‘second line parade’? And the curious world of the Mardi Gras Indians - an African-American subculture that involves dressing up in the most elaborate native American costumes - is left in part a mystery.
One of the great things about HBO television shows has been the space allowed for both plot and character development that the 90-minute cinema release can never hope to equal, and this is certainly the case here. The plots largely focus on rebuilding and attempts to return to some pre-Katrina normality - cleaning up homes, repairing roofs, trying to find a job or a gig, saving a business. There is no overall story arc to encompass these fragments - each story works its own way towards its own conclusion.
There is also room for some blatant political comments with John Goodman’s character’s interviews and YouTube rants. He explains how the flood was caused by negligent work and poor maintenance of the levees (‘this is a man-made catastrophe, not a natural disaster’). George W. Bush’s decision to view the disaster from the window of Airforce 1 flying overhead is ridiculed in Zahn’s musical satire (‘Shame on you Dubya’). The frustration with the federal government’s response can be seen everywhere - ‘Buy us back Chirac,’ asks one carnival float of French-costumed New Orleanians.
But taking up even more screen time is the music. The plot takes a back seat while we watch yet another great musical performance. From traditional to modern jazz from blues to rhythm and blues - real musicians such as The Rebirth Brass Band, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint (who recreate their post-Katrina New Orleans recording sessions), Dr John and Steve Earl all have cameos. As an English reporter suggests, New Orleans music may have lost some of its international importance, but locally it is still the beating heart of the city.
The series has flaws but pretty minor ones. The dialogue can be difficult to follow - peppered with New Orleans accents, jazz musician in-jokes and obscure references - but at least the characters are not speaking in the military acronyms of Generation Kill. At times the writing is too good: there are too many good lines, too many profound statements for it to be truly realistic and authentic. And there seems to be just too much integrity in the main characters. But the meandering pace is perfectly suited to the subject matter, and the moments of high emotion and drama are beautifully handled with great understatement.
Free from the need to sneak good writing into a cop show formula (Homicide), Simon delivers another of his epic Tolstoyan depictions of intensely personal stories and their socio-economic and cultural milieu. The Wire is widely recognised as one of the all-time great TV shows and with a few more seasons at this standard Treme could equal this status - as long as you like jazz.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews