Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Film Club Reviews #5: Ten Thoughts Inspired By: Happy-Go-Lucky

happy-go-lucky: adj carefree, easy going, blithe, casual, devil-may-care, heedless, improvident, insouciant, irresponsible, lighthearted, nonchalant.

1. Just think of the ways it could've gone wrong, the cheery lie it could've been, ticking all those lovely Oprah buzzwords along the way; feelgood, life-affirming, heart-warming. This is the danger you invite when making a film 'about' happiness of course. Isn't happiness shallow and delusional? Isn't the greatest art edgy and dark, gazing unflinchingly into the existential doom of it all? Happy films, by contrast, are for undemanding children and maiden aunts, those for whom life is merely a series of illustrated Hallmark slogans.

2. Notice, however, the subtle but crucial difference between happy and happy-go-lucky. One's a fleeting emotion, the other's a state of mind. One's something you aspire to, the other's a question of character. Poppy is thirty, no boyfriend, no kids, no mortgage. She lives with her best friend Zoe in a rented house, works as a primary school teacher. She's managed to avoid most of life's responsibilities up to now while retaining her independence of spirit. How can she carry this on into her 30s and beyond? Isn't it inevitable life will wear her down, that her youthful exuberance will wane? The film seems to ponder her on the cusp of all this. It's both a love letter to and a kind of elegy for a way of life that soon may disappear forever.

3. ''I think the bravest thing you can do in the world today is be happy...The people I most admire are those who’ve got the guts to face life, and deal with it, and live it completely down to their toes, and not escape anything....''

Bjork could be defining Poppy's world-view there. It's brave to be happy in a world that's trying to break your spirit every day, as long as you face life honestly that is. Being mindlessly happy, ignorant of life's complexities, unfairness and drudgery is, on the other hand, the delusional refuge of a prize ninny. Poppy isn't like that, although a lesser actress might have failed to find the moments of soulful doubt needed to offset the irreverence, those brief glimpses of wistful acknowledgment that let us know how hard it really is to keep this blithe optimism going.

4. ‘‘Real happiness comes from things that deserve gravity. There’s no punchline to those things. Moments of happiness aren’t light-hearted. If you watch people fucking, it doesn’t look like they’re trying on a joke.’’

It's a commonplace default position for many would-be intelligent people to view optimism and happiness as a kind of dereliction of duty, a failure to take THE TRUTH seriously. And they have a point of course but maybe there's a counter-argument to be made, as in the quote above by Kristen Hersh, that only taking dark subjects seriously is a pose, a crutch for immature minds. Maybe it's only the truly serious who appreciate what a grave business happiness can be, the pursuit of it, the experience of it, the preservation of it.

5. Don't get me wrong here, though. I enjoy being as grumpy as the next man. I'm not suggesting all the shiny happy people march on the Heartbreak Hotel and burn it to the ground. Oh no, far from it. I worked in a shop once where we had to endure some management consultant from the States trying to instill into us this idea of PMT, positive mental attitude. I couldn't imagine anything worse, still can't. It a fatuous lie, a way for the bosses to keep us in our place, happy with our lot, dreaming the American dream as our souls calcify. Being cynical, angry or fed up are all vital human emotions, it's just they're not necessarily better than the happy ones, don't automatically occupy the moral high ground.

6. I read a few years ago about a survey of American poets which found that the vast majority of them had never learned to drive, completely at odds with the general population. Poets, of course, are renowned for retaining a more childlike view of the world, necessarily seeing it as if for the first time. These two things then, retained innocence and refusal to learn to drive, are surely connected.

Notice we first see Poppy merrily riding through the city on her bike. She's never learned to drive either. But then her bike is stolen and finally she gives in, decides it's time to learn. It says a lot about the position cars have in our society that they've become so linked with our ideas about growing up. Your first car is a milestone, an initiation rite of passage, one of the first wrungs on the ladder of adulthood. Anyone who reaches their 30s and still hasn't learned to drive is viewed with, at best, bemused incomprehension. But instinctively some people avoid them because they don't want to climb that ladder, are perfectly happy where they are thank you very much. They don't want to grow up, or at least not in the way every one else does.

7. So Poppy starts driving lessons with a ball of barely suppressed rage called Scott, whose flimsy grasp of sanity rests on his belief in his abilities as a driving instructor. But Poppy doesn't take him seriously from the start, openly incredulous of his rules and rants. Poor Scott gets more wound-up with every lesson, bellowing En-ra-ha! at every turn, infuriated by her refusal to take anything he says seriously. Here, in fact, her blithe indifference is close to mockery.

It's a mark of the film's emotional intelligence that when Scott inevitably loses it, pulls Poppy's hair, explodes in an irrational, hate-filled rant, we kind of feel sorry for him. It doesn't negate how thoroughly wrong he is, how paranoid, racist and damaged he is, to see the bullied boy he once was/still is, how once we let grievance and self-pity in, it can eat us alive.

8. All this is funny of course. In fact, it's easy to imagine the Poppy/Scott scenes as a 30s screwball comedy set-up. Uptight, life-shy instructor has his world turned upside down when carefree hieress Poppy jumps into his car (by accident of course). Happy-Go-Lucky could be an exercise in seeing how a screwball heroine would cope in the real world. Carole Lombard, say, or Katherine Hepburn, could have played Poppy with that blithe indifference to consequence that is the hallmark of the screwball actress. Which would make Scott the kind of shy doofus usually played by Cary Grant or Gary Cooper, except with bad teeth and panicked eyes. This is what it means for men like this to really have their lives invaded by feminine chaos. Rage and fear are the secret subtext of all screwball comedies.

9. Poppy is concerned about the happiness of others. She's compassionate, wants to help people like the young boy in her class being bullied at home. It's a desire that can make her stray into areas she shouldn't, though, like her encounter with the homeless man. Coming home on her own at night she hears his mutterings and goes to investigate into a dark, deserted clearing behind some buildings.

It's crazy, halfway unbelievable, and ultimately mysterious. It's the heart of the film really. One of those rare scenes that don't tell you what to think. What does it mean? Is this her possible fate? The fate of all good-hearted people, to be broken by life, hiding in the shadows from the rubber knocker man?

10. Mike Leigh's created some annoying women in his career, a gallery of wittering, over-mannered characters going all the way back to Alison Steadman's iconic turn in Abigail's Party (1977). And Poppy could have been another one, to rank with the nadir of this tendency, Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman's epic competition to see who could out-quirk the other with headflicks and facial tics in Career Girls (1997). Seriously, I still wake in a cold sweat some nights thinking about it. But thankfully, the brilliant Sally Hawkins managed to take in all the usual Leigh characteristics while still creating a living, breathing human being, an intelligent woman determined not to take life too seriously, to laugh at it, take the piss, despite being perfectly aware of how truly serious it really is.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Great Character Actors #1: Stephen Root

In the fine tradition of character actors since time began, Stephen Root's name will mean less than nothing to most of you but his face should be instantly recognisable. One of the most prolific of actors, he's guest starred in pretty much every TV show of note in the last twenty years, as well as having an increasingly busy movie career. In fact he's become so ubiquitous that the IMDb site is encouraging people to play 'six degrees of Stephen Root'.
A regular favourite of the Coen Brothers, he first came to my attention as the blind radio station owner in the blissful Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? sporting a humdinger of a Southern accent, full of musical cadence and casual bigotry.
Everything else about his appearance is equally spot on; the way he uses the cane, the missed tuft of hair standing up at the back of his head, the way he raises an eyebrow to listen better, the perfectly captured facial expressions of someone who's never looked in a mirror, unselfconsciously rocking his head back and forth, moaning to the music like he's on his own in a dark room. It's a brilliantly observed cameo, every detail real but adding up to something more than just realism, something eccentric and comic, a performance, not to mention a lesson in the fine art of scene-stealing.

Then he was mild-mannered Gordon Pibb in greatest slapstick comedy of all-time Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Gordon's a sweet soul forever taken advantage of, one of life's true worms who finally finds his inner rage thanks to the mighty transformative powers of dodgeball.

He's not just a comic actor though. As Eddie, the reclusive gay vampire in True Blood he created, in just a few short scenes, one of the shows most memorable characters, embuing him with soft, Southern vulnerability and the watchful intelligence of the truly shy, emmitting levels of sensual loneliness that linger in the mind long after he's killed. This is a man not empowered by being a vampire but left helpless by it.

And finally, there's probably his most famous role, certainly the one that's created a genuine cult following, borderline autistic office drone Milton Waddams in Office Space. What to say about Milton? He's a perfectly observed comic creation; the voice, the glasses, the muttered, stuttering delivery, all inspired and all delivered with spot on comic timing. But he doesn't even have to speak. Every time he appears, just sitting there, doing nothing, he's funny. Which is, I suppose, at the heart of what makes Root such a fine actor, technical ability and attention to detail allied to an immersion in character so complete he can make you laugh doing nothing at all, just existing.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Last Five Films You've Seen #1

Ok, what were the last five films you saw? Not just the best ones, not just the latest cinema or DVD releases, but also the ones you casually watched on TV when your brain was on standby, the films you rarely admit to seeing or simply forget to mention because they're too obvious or old or badly made.
It's an interesting exercise. With our list-obsessed, best of, worst of, hyped-up anticipatory culture, many fine movies get left in the margins, many average to bad movies might as well never have been made, while the vast history of world cinema lies beneath the surface of our attention, getting vaster and more ignored by the day as we merrily jet-ski our way through end-of-year lists, award ceremonies and teaser trailers towards a brighter tomorrow.
So, an old movie you discovered on TV, a recently-maligned blockbuster you caught up with, a DVD someone lent you, something you downloaded or even one you saw in a film club. They're all part of the rich pageantry of cinema. Here are the last five I saw:

1. White Mischief (1988):

Frightf'ly British tale of posh types in 1940s Kenya having affairs, cross-dressing and being fantastically decadent, bitchy and stiff-upper-lip about it all until the shooting starts. As one society gossip says of dashing womaniser Charles Dance: 'They say he can't get on with women, so he gets off with them instead!' Also has Gretta Scaachi looking amazing in a succession of fantastic 40s outfits and even better out of them, John Hurt wearing a funny hat and Sylvia Miles masturbating in a morgue. What more could you want?

2. National Treasure (2004):

Surprisingly enjoyable nonesense in the Da Vinci Code vein, but better than that lazily inept bore-fest. Of course, low expectations can sometimes be a film's best friend, and it's true I assumed this was going to be awful. To my surprise I found myself enjoying it, for the first half at least, as it sped along, tongue firmly in cheek, Nicholas Cage underplaying his oddball character nicely and Diane Kruger very appealing as the love interest sucked into the adventure. It outstays its welcome, too many protracted stunt and chase sequences, but as a family film, you could do a lot worse.

3. Inglourious Basterds (2009):

The usual from Tarantino; killer scenes, choppy structure, vivid performances. While Christoph Waltz has (rightly) gained all the plaudits for his turn as Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, there are equally fine performances from Diane Kruger (again), as German actress Bridget Von Hammersmark, Michael Fassbender as British agent Archie Hicox, Daniel Bruhl as German war hero/movie star Fredrick Zoller and Mélanie Laurent as Jewish cinema owner Shosanna Dreyfus. All are superb. So what if the basterds side of the story is a bit half-backed? Wouldn't it be churlish to find fault in something so cine-literate and entertaining? Yes, it would.

4. Everlasting Moments (2009):

Perfect example of the vast unseen world of cinema. This fine Swedish film's director, Jan Troell, has been making films for more than forty years, garnering five Oscar nominations along the way, and yet I'm sure I'm not alone in having never heard of him before. Everlasting Moments is the kind of immersive, emotionally complex saga European cinema used to make as a matter of course, and is, in its own quiet way, a masterpiece.

5. Office Space (1999):

Great comedy from Mike Judge that didn't set the world on fire when it came out first but has since gained a well-deserved cult status. The special tedium of office jobs is mined for comedy gold. Great cast, lots of quoteable lines and a major plot idea stolen from Superman 3. Also Jennifer Anniston's only good film. For everyone whose dream in life is to do nothing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oscar Nomination for Secret of Kells!

Just got the news that Kilkenny's own Cartoon Saloon have been Oscar nominated for The Secret Of Kells. I was only talking to its director Tomm Moore at the film club last week. I didn't realise at the time the film was on the long list. It's a phenomenal achievement for an independent, feature-length animated film. I remember doing an article at the time of a fund-raising launch they had in Dublin nearly ten years ago now. That's ten years ago, people. I mean, fuck James Cameron and however long it took him to do Avatar. What the guys at Cartoon Saloon did was real perseverance and determination. And they had the sense to understand that all the technical wizardry in the world isn't worth bupkiss if you haven't got an interesting story to tell as well.
And now those ten years have been worth it and they're getting the recognition they deserve. It would nearly make you believe there's some kind of justice in the world after all. All we need now is for them to win it. But to be honest that's unlikely. It's up against some stiff competition this year with Coraline, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Princess And The Frog and Up the other contenders. But you never know, stranger things have happened. Good luck to them anyway.

The Third Pill

Someone sent me this scene from Slavoj Zizek's The Pervert's Guide To Cinema recently. The part I like most is the idea of 'the third pill', one that would enable someone to perceive 'not the reality behind the illusion but the reality in illusion itself.' I like this idea. I've just finished writing a novel where the central character is always on the lookout for those moments in life when the cinematic enters the everyday, or when the cinematic is revealed already existing inside the everyday. I now realise he was looking for the third pill all along. Or he was looking for Slavoj Zizek all along.