on film

8 May 2012

Many allegorical readings of The Hunger Games have been essayed — most recently by no less an intellect than Stanley Fish in the New York Times today. But no one, as far as I’m aware, has understood the true meaning of the story, at least as presented in the first film. It’s obviously all about southern states’ hatred and resentment of the federal government in the US. Continued →

20 January 2007

Hitchcock’s Music, by Jack Sullivan (Yale)

The most famous moment of film music in history was nearly mute. Beginning post-production on Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock instructed his composer, Bernard Herrmann: “Do what you like, but only one thing I ask of you: please write nothing for the murder in the shower. That must be without music.” Herrmann mused, and scored the scene anyway. After seeing it with music, Hitchcock changed his mind, responding imperturbably to Herrmann’s reminder of his original instruction: “Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion.” Hitchcock, who had been so pessimistic about Psycho‘s prospects that he was considering cutting it up for television, now knew he had something special on his hands. Continued →

6 August 2001

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

In the future, your skin never sags. Your clothes never stain or crumple, your eyes and teeth never look dull, and you never have a bad hair day. That is what life is like, at least, for Dr Aki Ross, the entirely computer-generated female lead of a new film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, made by the Japanese video-game giant Square. We have had talking playthings in Toy Story and velociraptors in Jurassic Park, but Final Fantasy is the first feature film to populate the cinema screen entirely with digital human beings in a digital landscape.

Ross’s cute snub nose and perfect hazel irises have been designed and built on computers, and 60,000 individual strands of hair have been implanted in her scalp and independently animated. Her love interest, Captain Gray Edwards, has the absurdly prognathous jaw of Dan Dare, but at least the computer boffins have also lovingly modelled his enlarged pores and permanent five o’clock shadow.

Final Fantasy is not a completely photorealistic vision — its cast still look like characters in a high-class video game. But the lengths to which someone has gone to create virtual actors has raised fears of a dystopian future when human actors are no longer required. Computer people, Tom Hanks bleated recently, might put real actors out of work. Indeed. Stuff the latest actors’ strike, moguls five years hence might say, we don’t need those overpaid mannequins: we can make some right here on this beige box. We don’t need to feed them, and they’ll be completely docile. And look, this one’s more realistic than Tom Cruise anyway. Continued →

23 July 2001

Tomb Raider, the film

The most disturbing moment in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider comes when Lara (Angelina Jolie) is sitting in her mansion and her annoying comedy butler (Chris Barrie) produces a tomb-raiding itinerary. “Egypt?” she asks listlessly on surveying the papers. “It’s all pyramids and sand…” It is a brave line to situate a third of the way into a wannabe blockbuster: if Lara herself is bored of raiding tombs, why exactly should we care?

Plotwise, Tomb Raider is a rotting corpse sewn together from the gangrenous limbs of Indiana Jones movies. There exists, if you will, a magic stone triangle split into two hidden halves, which gives the holder power over time. An evil member of the Illuminati, Manfred Powell QC (Iain Glen) wants the triangle for nefarious purposes. Since he is a sucessful barrister, Powell operates out of an opulent, gold-and-rose-hued harem, where he hires another mercenary archaeologist, Alex Cross (Daniel Craig), to recover the pieces for him. Lara, of course, wants to stop them, because she wants to use the triangle herself to get in touch with her dead dad (Jon Voight), whom she sees in dreams. Continued →

25 August 2000

Why are there no great films of Nabokov’s novels?

Great literature has always been traduced and eviscerated on screen. Yet the peaks of imaginative writing seem to represent an irresistible challenge for film-makers. Now Dutch director Marleen Gorris, who previously adapted Mrs Dalloway with Vanessa Redgrave, has taken on a book by the 20th century’s greatest sorcerer in prose, Vladimir Nabokov. Many film-makers have tried to mine the wily Russian, and this new attempt revives the question: can Nabokov ever be filmed successfully? Continued →

13 January 2000

The rise of the cultural middleman

When the artistic history of the 20th century comes to be written, one remarkable development will stand out. That is the rise of the middleman. As our culture became ever more mediated, we made the mistake of bestowing the aura of artistic genius upon the mediators themselves. The people closest at hand – musical conductors, theatre directors, DJs – became the objects of the awe and admiration that was rightly due to the creative spirits who built the works in the first place.

The most glaring example of this is the invention of the conductor. In the early years of the 20th century, Mahler and Toscanini battled it out for supremacy in Europe, while Theodore Thomas established in America a new template for the conductor as the permanent arbiter of musical taste with the Chicago Symphony. Soon the conductor was not merely a hired hand whose job was to beat time, but a suffering genius swaying in creative ecstasy on the podium. Toscanini, von Karajan, Bernstein: these were the new musical heroes. Continued →

23 September 1999

The music of horror

What does a vampire sound like? According to Philip Glass, the undead’s aural analogue is a quivering nest of minor arpeggios, pizzicati and dramatic swoops. Glass has written a new score for one of the mothers of all horror movies, Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. Glass is a name in his own right, of course, but in this, he is only the latest in a long line of film composers who have experimented with the music of fear.

Music is especially important in films that are meant to scare us because the soundtrack can slip past the intellect’s guard and act directly on the reptilian brain. Music as a powerful mood-inducer, of course, is an idea that has been around ever since early man started stretching animal skins over wooden bowls and getting off his face on qhat, and in Plato’s Republic, Socrates and Glaucon earnestly discuss the possibly chaotic mental influence of certain musical scales. Continued →

10 April 1998

With the Art of Noise’s Anne Dudley

She doesn’t look like an experimental art-pop terrorist, but then you’d expect them to come in disguise. There could be one sitting next to you right now. The only clue to Anne Dudley’s identity as a founder member of the thrilling 1980s electronic collective The Art Of Noise, when her tall, blonde figure strides into a cosy top-floor London studio, lies in the ascetic, Bauhaus functionality of her clothing. Plain white shirt, slate-grey trousers – the purist colours of a minutely pencilled musical stave.

In fact, no one was ever quite sure who The Art Of Noise were, as they refused – a viciously clever stroke, in the heyday of New Romanticism – to pose for publicity photos. But Dudley has found a quite different fame lately, as the only British artist to be honoured at this year’s Academy Awards, for her musical score to The Full Monty. When the news broke, Dudley was out of the country, but a gang of craven hacks from the Express found out where her parents lived and camped outside their house, harrassing them for quotes. She finds the sudden media interest bizarre. “People always want a soundbite,” she observes, colouring the last word with a subterranean disgust. Continued →