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It’s not easy being green – Shrek reviewed

Sunday, July 01, 2001

‘Shrek’, it’s funny, it’s cute, it’s clever; a modern style fairytale with enough gags to please both the kids and the grown-ups in the audience, it offers an alternative view of dragons, princesses and ogres, topped off with amazing animation. I’m still marvelling over the texture of Eddie Murphy’s fur, and it’s not often you get to write that line.

The film’s very careful to underline the message that you should take people as you find them, and not get caught up in assumptions about perfection. So the hero is ugly, the dragon just wants some love, and the beautiful princess burps and kicks butt.

The evil Lord Farquand is shown to want everything picture pefect, so he banishes the fairy tale freaks in favour of a perfectly manicured, thoroughly homogenized kingdom. There are many digs at Disney thoughout the film, and it’s not hard to read his shiny city as a sanitized Disneyland.

And of course he doesn’t really love the princess, he just wants to marry her because that’s what ne needs to be the perfect king. However, she’s not quite what she seems – he might not be so delighted if he heard her singing voice, and certainly if he saw her after dark.

The ending of the film – which most of the grown-ups will see coming – underlines the notion that it’s not about looks, it’s what’s inside that counts (although they still get the lovely Cameron Diaz to do the voice of the princess), and even though it’s billed as an anti-fairy story, we still get a happy ending.

Along the way there are some great one-liners, including an unimpressed knight offering a paltry bounty for the old man who turns in Pinocchio – ‘five shillings for the possessed toy’, and a pretty good soundtrack – who would have though Leonard Cohen would turn up in a summer animated comedy?

But, and here I’m probably reading too much into a kids’ film, it’s actually not as right-on as it thinks it is. Eddie Murphy still gets to play the familiar black sidekick role, even if the hero’s green and has a dodgy Scottish accent. 

And no matter how much Shrek loves the princess, he doesn’t get to live with her as a beauty, she has to become ugly(ish) before he’s allowed to marry her. The lesson’s supposed to be ‘love conquers all’, but it comes out like ‘ugly people should only breed with other ugly people.’

And despite all the stuff about not making assumptions about people before you really know them, the main reason for disliking Farquand appears to be that he’s short. There are a lot of cheap shots about this, and John Lithgow is largely wasted, except in the great gingerbread man torture scene (which should have been much longer – I was imagining a whole ‘Reservoir Dogs’ scenario in my slightly sick mind).

But despite those quibbles, it’s good summer fare and if you feel a bit sheepish going into a kids’ film without a kid, see if you can borrow one for the afternoon.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSAFilm

Articles Film Square Eyes Television

Dumbing down to move up – TV stars doing movies

Thursday, June 28, 2001

In a ‘Friends’ episode not so long ago, Bruce Willis dances around in his underwear; this may or may not be an image to set your pulse racing, but it showed one thing very clearly – you can be a film actor or a TV actor, but you can’t be both.

Bruce looked constrained and uncomfortable throughout his appearance as Ross’s girlfriend’s Dad, and during this comedy pay-off he just looked ridiculous. And not in a funny way

Bruce decided to take the role of after working with Matthew Perry on the pretty good movie ‘The Whole Nine Yards’, and here the situation was reversed. Perry looked too small and familiar to fit the big screen, so he overcompensated with mugging expressions and wearing a slight air of desperation. Peddling your tricycle really fast doesn’t make you look at home in the Tour de France.

TV stars need to be more approachable and human than their big screen cousins. While Hollywood stars can be portentous and glamorous, sitcom and drama actors have to be sharper, better ensemble players and in some ways more convincing. There’s an extent to which we pay to see Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts be themselves, but when we’re watching Frasier, you’re giving your time to Niles and Frasier, not David Hyde Pierce and Kelsey Grammer.

Bruce Willis is an interesting example, of course, because he first made his name on TV. But the difference between his off-beat, fast-talking slightly manic performance as David Addison in ‘Moonlighting’ and his lumbering, dirty vest figure in the ‘Die Hard’ films is incredible. He realized that a different sort of performance was required if he was to become a movie star. And now he can’t go back.

This divide between film and TV performances is particularly appropriate when you look at the career of David Duchovny. In some ways he’s a natural for a move from TV to films – ‘The X-Files’ is hugely cinematic and has very high production values, and Duchovny himself has the chiselled good looks you’d think would go down well at the cineplex.

But his movie career has been a stuttering affair. Playing the conflicted doctor in the forgettable thriller ‘Playing God’, or the weirdly feeble romantic lead in the ill-judged ‘Return to Me’ have hardly set the screen alight. 

So in his current film ‘Evolution’ he seems to relax and have some fun with his former TV role. With strong support from the excellent Orlando Jones (and slightly more suspect assistance from Julianne Moore) Duchovny freewheels through this nonsense ‘Men in Black’ meets ‘Ghostbusters’ romp.

If you check your brain at the door, there are enough good lines to keep you amused (Duchovny: ‘If I was a giant nasty bird in a department store, where would I be?’ Jones: ‘Lingerie’), and it’s passable summer fare.

Perhaps our David heeded the warning from David Caruso’s move from being a big star on ‘NYPD Blue’ to complete anonymity in dodgy films. Caruso tried to bring his TV intensity and earnestness to movies, but couldn’t carry it off. On the evidence of ‘Evolution’, Duchovny’s not even trying. It’s just survival of the witless.

Posted by David in • Square EyesTelevisionFilm

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Temples of Film

Saturday, May 26, 2001

Sometimes the cinema is more memorable than the film: last week I watched ‘Pearl Harbour’ in a run-down seaside cinema in Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex (don’t ask what I was doing there). It had clearly not been renovated since the 1960s, and as I bought my ticket (for ?2.50) the guy taking my money said, ‘The last film’s not quite finished yet. If you’d like to take a seat.’

Sure enough, the foyer boasted a row of seats. It was beginning to feel more like a doctor’s waiting room than a movie temple, but I figured that the seats were merely window dressing – when all the other Essex filmistas turned up, people would be milling around with their popcorn and drinks, just like anywhere else.

As it turned out, not all the chairs in the foyer were needed. Just three of us were ushered into a room that resembled nothing so much as a school assembly hall. 

Below a largish screen at one end were two small speakers – the only sound system in the place, and banks of wooden seats were upholstered in a threadbare brown velvet. All the filling in the seats had been pushed towards the back, so unless you wedged yourself well in there, it was quite possible to slide off the front in exciting moments, catching a nasty splinter on the way.

I’m sure we didn’t get the sound of the Japanese planes zooming overhead with quite the force that Michael Bay intended, but at least as we left we were met again by the proprietor who said goodbye to each of us personally, as if we’d been round to dinner.

The closest thing to this I’d experienced before was in Manhattan, Kansas, a downhome town on the American prairies, a thousand miles from the sea. There was an old second-run cinema in a converted dancehall, where for a dollar a throw you could watch failed films in an appropriately failing environment.

They didn’t even bother to put up the films they were showing on the boards outside. Instead, as a service to the community, they explained the traffic rules for the T-junction outside the cinema: “ You don’t have to stop, and you can’t turn right”.

The smallest beverage (which was huge) cost twice as much as the cost of the ticket, so I drew some hard stares whenever I visited, since I never bought anything to eat or drink. But once inside the auditorium, some of the glory of the dances held there lingered. There was flock wallpaper, ornate pillars and a grand proscenium arch.

(Not quite as grand as the Castro cinema in San Francisco, with its overblown Art Deco interior boasting murals, chandeliers and an organ that still goes up and down, much to the delight of the local audience.)

Closer to home, the Savoy on O’Connell St in Dublin may be lacking the latest technological developments but I’d still rather go there than to the gaping barns that are the out of town multiplexes. 

So you can keep your cutting edge THX sound and your acres of parking. I’m looking for something with a bit more character, like that door halfway up the wall at the IFC. That way, if the film’s dodgy I can at least watch the cinema.

Posted by David in • Square EyesFilm

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Reheated Leftovers – The Dish reviewed

Friday, May 18, 2001

Early on in ‘The Dish’, the lads running the radio telescope start playing cricket actually in the dish, and I realised I’d already seen the film.

It was called ‘Local Hero’, or ‘State and Main’, or was it a TV show called ‘Northern Exposure’, or ‘Hamish Macbeth’ or ‘Ballykissangel’? Either way, it was clear that I was being manipulated in a pretty crass way, and I settled down in my seat knowing there weren’t going to be any surprises from here on in.

For all those working on their own similar gentle comedy screenplay, here are a few elements to include.

Crucially, you need an outsider who arrives in a backwater place full of whimsical charm. It’s best if the blow-in’s an American from a big city, because then we’ll expect him to be curt and annoying, and it will be so great when we realize he’s actually a nice bloke (by the way, everyone in the film’s a nice at heart, just hang on to that, and you’ll be fine).

Then there’s the outspoken local who has a short temper and a chip on his shoulder and doesn’t like taking orders from the blow-in. But he’ll soon learn that it’s different strokes for different folks, and that deep down, sure, we’re all the same aren’t we?

We also have to have the shy but handsome guy who wants to ask out the prettiest girl in town, but get this, at the start of the film he’s _too shy_. No prizes for guessing what happens by the end, then.  Think John Gordon Sinclair in ‘Local Hero’, Lachlainn in ‘Hamish Macbeth’ or Glenn in ‘The Dish’.

We also need the wise figure who’s a bit too urbane and talented for the surroundings, but he likes it there because it’s out of the way and quiet; he helps the shy bloke, and gets on well with the incomer. This is the Sam Neill character in ‘The Dish’, but the archetype is in some ways Chris from ‘Northern Exposure’. Part of their role is slightly to stand back from the proceedings and tell you what the drama’s about.

So listen carefully when Sam Neil says, ‘Failure is never quite so frightening as regret.’ An easy to digest homily, and (in a cunning device where the two plots parallel each other) it applies equally well to putting a man on the moon, or asking out the prettiest girl in the town. Strewth, these Aussie film-makers are no dags. Ripper.

Which brings me to another crucial element – language and culture confusions. So have the incomer look mystified when a colourful local tells him something he doesn’t understand; you can then reverse this later on as a sign that the incomer has been accepted.

You need to show that the rural community is both remote and a community. A good bit of violent weather underlines that this isn’t’ some safe urban environment, and a big dance or party in the village hall shows the community spirit. You can kill two birds with one stone and have the big dance affected by the big weather, if you fancy it.

Throw in some entertaining secondary characters, like someone stupid but likeable, (or a pompous local politician), and make sure everyone all lives happily ever after, and you’re away on a hike.

‘The Dish’? It’s well done, tender, and served with some relish. But I’ve already had my fill, thanks.

Posted by David in • Square EyesFilm

Articles Film Square Eyes UK

Forever England – Bridget Jones’s Diary reviewed

Wednesday, April 18, 2001

What are the hallmarks of an English person? Ask the English and they might say a stiff upper lip, a sense of fair play and a gutsy determination to get the job done. Ask other people from around the world, and you might get hypocrisy, bad food and imperialism. (Here, in the interests of full disclosure I must tell you that I was born and raised in England, but I’m feeling much better now).

But as the film version of ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ shows us, the real attributes that describe the nation are embarrassment, understatement and friendship.

The film is less a slavish representation of Helen Fielding’s book and more the conclusion to Richard Curtis’ loose trilogy that started with ‘Four Weddings’ and ‘Notting Hill’. Essentially the same premise is observed in all three films – a good-hearted, slightly clumsy, rather under-confident main character gets put through the mill of love before living happily ever.

Let’s look at those attributes – first, embarrassment: as a people, the English are hyper-sensitive about appearances and hate standing out – it’s just so undignified. (On the other hand, there’s something so liberating about just doing what you want to, and not giving a shit, which is one of the many reasons that English people have a grudging but definite respect for the Irish).

So Bridget spends most of the film being mortified in various ways. It’s bad enough that she has to dress up in the outfit her Mum has laid out for her, but it’s so much worse when she overhears Mark Darcy slagging her off, since the rules say that everyone has to try hard to avoid embarrassing everyone else – so even if someone is wearing curtains, it’s very bad form to mention it.

Then she turns up to a garden party dressed as a bunny girl, when everyone else is in civvies, and later reveals her shapely backside to the world while sliding down a fireman’s pole.

But it’s not just Bridget who suffers from this. In the most convincing fight scene I’ve seen in ages (compare and contrast with the Nietzschean self-belief of ‘Fight Club’), the two leading men apologise profusely to disrupted diners as they tumble across their tables during a brawl. You also get the sense that being thrown through a window actually hurts.

Of course, if you’re afraid of being embarrassed all the time, the you’re automatically very suspicious of love because it makes you do stupid things. Which is where understatement comes in, offering a roundabout route to avoid saying anything so clumsy as ‘I love you’. As Anthony Lane in the New Yorker points out, when Colin Firth says, ‘I like you very much,’ that’s ‘Englishman’s code for uncontrollable lust’.

And even getting that out of him is a real effort – it’s not that he doesn’t have the feelings (Colin Firth is excellent at showing himself suprised and uneasily amused at what he feels for Bridget), it’s just that he’s incapable of revealing its true depth.

Of course Bridget undestands this code and uses it herself, ‘If you wanted to pop by sometime, that might be nice,’ is her deepest profession of love for him.

(Of course sometimes this understatement is entirely appropriate. For example, when it allows for one of the few good anal sex jokes in modern cinema.)

The final characteristic on display in buckets in ‘Bridget Jones’ is friendship. Richard Curtis has a very good line in sketching in a set of supportive and understanding friends, who are always there to give advice, and act like a Greek chorus in the proceedings. If you’re constantly embarrassing yourself, and can’t quite say what you mean when it matters, then you certainly need a good set of friends who don’t care about any of that, and will love you even when you serve them blue soup.

So apart from a few missteps – like the excessive use of fake snow in the climactic scenes, the film is a success. Rene? Zellweger masters the same middle class South East accent that Gwywneth Paltrow aced in ‘Sliding Doors’, Hugh Grant shows that he can convincingly cross over to the dark side and use his charm and floppy hair for evil, while Colin Firth reprises his stern but upright Mr Darcy role from the TV version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. He even has the big house (but we didn’t get to see if he’s got a lake round the back).

Of course, Colin Firth’s character in ‘Bridget Jones’ being called Mr Darcy is no accident. Not only did Andrew Davies share screenwriting credits on both projects, there’s another Jane Austen reference thrown in, when Bridget remarks at one point, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged . . . ‘

This depiction of English life, with embarrassment, understatement and friendship playing crucial roles is as much a part of Jane Austen’s world as it is modern London, and seen in this way Bridget Jones comes across as quite old fashioned. 

The rigid set of acceptable social behaviours and expectations that power the humour in ‘Bridget Jones’ is a world away from the good-natured anarchy of ‘Teachers’ or ‘Spaced’, for example. And while it’s only a certain type of modern Englishman who would wear a reindeer jumper with the same degree of pained perserverance shown by Colin Firth, the world would be worse off without them.

Posted by David in • Square EyesFilmUK

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Forgive us our trespasses – review of State and Main

Wednesday, April 11, 2001

In an early episode of ‘The West Wing’, a character remarks, ‘There are two things you don’t want to see being made – laws and sausages.’ It’s a nice line, but I’d add a third thing – films.

David Mamet’s ‘State and Main’ is a satire on movie production, and he shows us underage sex, rampant egos, bribery, towering hubris, incompetence and more scheming than the average GAA Congress.

Of course, this is Mamet’s territory (the nastiness, not the GAA), but his story of a small Vermont town overrun by a Hollywood film is also surprisingly warm and tolerant. There is the usual rapid-fire dialogue and spiky characters, but we also get a sweetly natural romance and more compassion for people’s faults than you might expect.

The performances are excellent. William H Macy plays the director who simultaneously wheedles and cajoles on one phone while berating and bullying on the other. When he’s trying to persuade the shallow starlet (well played by Sarah Jessica Parker) that she doesn’t need an extra $800,000 to show her breasts in a scene, you know he’s lying like a carpet, but for as long as it takes him to say the words, he entirely believes them. It’s not a lie, he argues, it’s ‘a talent for fiction’. And what’s a movie anyway, if not a big lie?

Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, also shines as Annie, the local bookshop owner who falls for the movie’s writer, combining grace and intelligence with a good-natured wisdom.

The scenario is hardly original, and there’s more than a nod to Frank Capra and Preston Sturges – the Mayor of the town is named for James Stewart’s character in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, and just like that George Bailey, a lot of the characters get second chances.

Alec Baldwin (reprising his obnoxious film star cameo from ‘Notting Hill’) escapes the consequences of sleeping with Carla, the underage waitress from the hotel, but Carla was intent on giving him more than a tuna BLT anyway, so they probably deserve each other.

The writer Joe White almost quits the movie but returns with Annie’s help, and also gets two attempts to do the right thing in court. Annie herself gets a second chance at romance with Joe, ditching her ambitious politico fianc?, who’s made so little impression on her that at one point she can’t even remember his name to introduce him.

Her relationship with Joe is one of the quiet delights of the film. Joe has very little choice in the matter, underlined by the way he’s hooked and burned while Annie looks on with kind amusement. 

The small touches show Mamet’s personal experience of life on the set. Nobody gets to finish a conversation without being interrupted by news of the latest crisis, and quality and commonsense are sacrificed for expediency. Crew members run tap water into the stars’ Evian bottles before melting the seal back together with a lighter – a perfect symbol for a shoot: subterfuge and behind the scenes trickery, but it looks like the real thing in the end.

In true comedy style, everything works out fine, and as they finally start shooting the film you see that Mamet has managed a deft maoeuvre with his gentle satire. He’s shown the film people as selfish, unfeeling, arrogant and corrupt, but we already knew that, so he also makes us forgive them their trespasses. 

Movies revolve around the suspension of disbelief, and the process of their creation seems to demand a suspension of normal rules of behaviour. So we give them a second chance to make the same mistakes again.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSAFilm

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Shining Surface, Hidden Depths – review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Thursday, February 22, 2001

‘It looks great, I like the fight scenes, but it’s unbelievable and the story is really thin.’

Heard this judgement on Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’? Yeah, me too. It’s both right and so far wrong that it demands a closer look.

‘It looks great’

No argument there. From the gorgeous Michelle Yeoh to the serene forest scenes, and from the exquisite interiors to the epic scale of the desert, the film positively glows.

‘I like the fight scenes’

Thought you might. This is, after all, a genre movie – a homage to the tradition of martial arts movies, and with The Matrix’s fight choreographer on the case, we get combat that deserves the oft-misused adjective balletic. There’s a grace and precision that mocks the leaden clumsiness of most Hollywood portrayals of swordplay. ‘Gladiator’ might be stirring but most often you can’t tell who’s doing what to whom amidst the sweat and the sand (a bit like ‘Temptation Island’, come to think of it, but that’s another story).

‘It’s unbelievable’

The longer version of this argument goes, ‘It was fine until they started running across the rooftops. And when they’re standing on the branches of the trees? I mean, come on, that could never happen.’ Since when do movies have had to be believable in the strictly limited sense of what’s physically possible? 

It’s the movies. Luke Skywalker can use the force and no-one complains that that’s impossible. The kid who’s going to be King Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone, and that’s fine too, because it’s part of the story.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing. For a Western audience, the milieu of Crouching Tiger is so alien that we try to judge it by the rules we feel most comfortable with – like gravity. It shouldn’t have to work like that.

‘The story is really thin’

This inability to suspend disbelief is also at the root of the last criticism. It’s true that the story is simple, but that’s simple like a folktale, or a myth, and creating this atmosphere in a movie is a remarkable achievement. The big stories and ideas are simple and profound (God sends his only son to die for our sins; Boy meets girl; Why can’t we all just get along?).

These are often driven by the conflict between what want to do and what we must do: love vs. duty, family vs. country, passion vs. fate. The simple stories tell us about ourselves and the values that matter to us. And Crouching Tiger talks of beauty, grace, wisdom, discipline, love and humility – a long way from our more workaday values of logic, efficiency and reason.

So ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ is more than great photography and kick-ass fights. If we look closer, there’s a tenderness and depth you don’t come across very often.

Posted by David in • Square EyesFilm

Articles Film Modest Proposals Television

Mad Max and Englishmen – the British in American film and TV

Thursday, November 20, 1997

The arrival of Dr Elizabeth Corday in ER set me thinking about the fate of English actors in US mainstream film and tv. Firstly, Corday is about as un-English a name as I’ve come across, which isn’t a great start.

Secondly, poor Alex Kingston is hidebound by playing a jolly hockey sticks plummy stereotype. She’s all pearls and spunk, and acts like she’s stepped out of a 1930s film.

Her character is a (worrying) representation of what American tv seems to think English people are like. Likewise, Hugh Grant’s limited success in Hollywood is because he always plays himself – a floppy-haired, Oxford-educated, well-meaning, slightly awkward Brit. Rupert Everett’s return to favour with My Best Friend’s Wedding was based on an entertainingly hammed up portrayal of ultimate English campness.

Most other English actors in the States end up playing these posh twits or villains with funny accents. From Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice to Alan Rickman in Die Hard, it seems English actors are largely denied the right to be the hero. (Daniel Day Lewis is an honourable exception, but round here they’ll tell you he’s Irish.)

Or they’re shunted into period drama. From Shakespeare to Jane Austen and E M Forster, it seems you can’t do better than classically trained English actors. But for anything after 1930, you can forget it.

However, on reflection, they might deserve everything they get, because while English people might be able to act, they can’t do action. When Englishmen try to get tough it just comes across as misplaced sexual frustration – Jeremy Irons with blond crop and singlet in Die Hard III will live long in the memory.

Compare and contrast the fortunes of Australian actors in America. Mel Gibson gets to destroy whole city blocks with wilful abandon, and Sam Neill gets chased by dinosaurs.

The deeply good LA Confidential boasts two antipodean actors among the major roles. Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe punch and shoot their way through the film in a way that would make Hugh Grant green with envy.

The English inability to strip down to undershirts and jump around is so acute that even when it comes to playing English heroes, such as James Bond, they have to look to their Celtic cousins to supply the necessary brio. Sean Connery, the best Bond, is Scottish, and the current incumbent Pierce Brosnan is Irish. They even miss out as extraterrestrial characters – Ewan McGregor worked at sounding like Alec Guinness to make sure that there are no English Jedi Knights in the forthcoming Star Wars movies.

So if the men are reduced to playing toffs or deranged Central European villains, how do English women fare in Hollywood?

Not much better, unfortunately. As better actors but with fewer surgical enhancements than their US colleagues, most end up in supporting roles, where they get the good lines but not the attention they deserve. In the same way as you can’t imagine an English Brad Pitt, Sly Stallone or John Travolta, similarly we see to be lacking the odd Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts or Demi Moore.

However, Kate Winslett is going to be huge after Titanic, and it’s to their credit that English actresses tend not to come from the shallow decoration school of acting – even Liz Hurley has the nous to laugh at herself in Austin Powers.

So if you’re going to be an English actor you can either don tights, develop a floppy haircut or practice a manic laugh. Or stay at home and make your big break in the States on Masterpiece Theater.

(first published as a Modest Proposal newsletter, 20th November 1997)

Articles Film Life Modest Proposals

The Empire Strikes Back vs The Bible

Wednesday, June 04, 1997

Your modest proposer is not normally given to self-revelation, but this week we come to a topic that warrants some autobiography. When I was ten years old my older sister and I went to see The Empire Strikes Back.

I enjoyed the film in a ten year-old way and spent the whole summer playing with an imaginary light sabre (not the dodgy plastic ones you could buy in the shops – they were bobbins).

It was not until I saw the film again earlier this year that I was suddenly struck by the scary thought that my moral view of the world might have been shaped by a 3-foot high muppet with a croaky voice.

Of course, it’s not news that the Star Wars trilogy is steeped in mythic grandeur. George Lucas knew Joseph Campbell’s work on the monomyth, and it’s clear that the reason the films are so powerful is due to the ancient archetypes and tropes they invoke as much as the special effects.

Look at even the most obvious literary, mythic and psychological borrowings. Luke’s journey from farmer’s boy to Jedi knight is a classic medieval quest for identity. Then there’s Luke’s Freudian desire to kill his father, his descent into hell to rescue Han from Jabba, and all those suggestions of incest with Leia. Add the Jesus, Hamlet, Odysseus and Gary Cooper parallels, and it’s a very heady brew indeed.

Critics have long been wise to this, from Roland Barthes to my breathless undergraduate essay about Thomas Malory and Star Wars, but this is of more than academic interest, at least to me.

Sitting in the dark watching The Empire Strikes Back again, I began to realise that in some deep way, I agreed with all of Yoda’s exhortations about the Force. Maybe it’s the way it recalls many Eastern belief systems. The mix of physical and spiritual effort required of a Jedi parallels Buddhist monks learning karate, and the Force binding everything together sounds like Shinto animism to (ignorant) me.

When Yoda says, ‘A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack. . . For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is.  Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us.  Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,’ I found myself thinking that, give or take the odd name, that doesn’t sound too weird.

Against all this, The Bible didn’t stand a chance in my house. It didn’t really speak to me in the language a ten year-old would understand. The merchandising was rubbish, for a start. A 3-inch plastic John the Baptist was never going to be as valuable in the playground as a Boba Fett First Edition.

One scary site, ‘The Force is a Tool of Satan’, acknowledges that Jesus might be losing souls to X-wings and Ewoks, but the Church of England didn’t put up much of a fight in early 80s Buckinghamshire.

It could be worse, I could have taken my moral instruction from ET or Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, but I’m still a bit concerned. However, while she mightn’t admit it, my sister has been affected at least as badly. She’s now a yoga teacher (yoga/Yoda, a coincidence?), and when she says, ‘Be calm, at peace. Passive. Now, nothing more will I teach you today. Clear your mind of questions. Mmm. Mmmmmm,’ I wonder if she knows who she sounds like.

(first published as a Modest Proposal newsletter, 4th June 1997)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsFilmLife

Articles Film Irish Times Technology

Apple’s Mission Impossible

Wednesday, August 14, 1996

Computers in movies have come a long way since the nerdy Matthew Broderick in War Games. In the current hit Independence Day, Jeff Goldblum saves the world by dialing up the alien invaders from his laptop, and in Mission:  Impossible Tom Cruise uses his computer to defeat the nasty double-crossing spies.

With hi-tech movies all the rage, the opportunity for product placement has not gone unnoticed by the computer industry. While Microsoft might look to have the real world sewn up, in the neverland of tv and cinema, Apple reign supreme – and it doesn?t cost them a penny.

On TV, Chandler in Friends, Scully in The X-Files, and the casts of Melrose Place and Beverley Hills 90210 all use Macs, but it?s in the movies that computer product placement really gets big.Steven Spielberg is credited with starting the trend with the film ET in 1982. The lovable alien was seen gobbling Reese?s Pieces sweets, and sales increased by 66 per cent.

Apple was involved in another Spielberg hit, Jurassic Park, and in films such as Forest Gump and The Firm But with Mission Impossible and Independence Day, the company has emphasized their involvement by running a series of tv commercials based on clips from the movies.

?Apple gains the benefit of being seen by millions of people in the hands of celebrities that those consumers seek to emulate,? said Suzanne Forlenza, manager of Film/TV Placement and Marketing at Apple.

?We pay for the production of the TV commercial (as we would any TV commercial we do). In exchange, we get images, special effects, celebrity endorsement, and more, for free. The quality and level of content we are able to use is incredibly high.? she said.

So how much does it cost to have Jeff Goldblum save the world with a PowerBook? Nothing, according to Apple: ?No money exchanges hands at all,? said Suzanne Forlenza. ?We provide the computers requested for on-camera usage on loan, all being due back to us at the end of the filming.?

Apple might has been criticised for not having the business acumen to match their technological innovation, but in this area, they seem to be on a winner.

While they will approach production companies, they are just as likely to have people approach them. ?Frankly, we are absolutely overwhelmed with requests. so we are reacting to satisfying the requests. The good news is we have established excellent relationships throughout Hollywood, so we have first crack, typically, at all the big films,? said Forlenza.

On Mission: Impossible, for example, part of the deal was that Tom Cruise and the rest of the goodies would use Macs, while the baddies were kitted out with IBMs. ?We have a standing insistence that we will only be in the hands of the good guys,? confirms Forlenza.

What makes Apple?s coup so impressive is the amount of money other corporations will pay to get their products in the shot. Laurie Ann Mazur is a writer and social commentator based in New York and co-author of the book Marketing Madness (A Survival Guide for a consumer society).
?Huggies paid $100,000 to outfit the infant in Baby Boom, and Philip Morris reportedly paid $350,000 to make sure James Bond smoked Lark cigarettes in License to Kill.?

Forlenza argues that they save the film money: ?A computer company is able to offer a great deal of value in the computers they provide.  It helps the production save money and offset costs. The less value a product offers, the more dollars they would be charged.?

So both computer company and movie production company are happy. But what about the audience? While it might be argued that using real products in movies enhances the film?s realism, Laurie Ann Mazur is unconvinced:  ?This practice is inherently deceptive – another kind of stealth advertising. When a celebrity endorses a product in a television commercial, viewers correctly assume that he or she has been ?bought?. But when the same celebrity uses a product in a movie, viewers are more likely to accept the endorsement, at least at an unconscious level.?

Tom Muth, a multimedia consultant based in Kansas City, agrees:
?Most people don’t understand that product placement occurs in almost every film, particularly the big blockbusters.?

It?s no surprise, therefore, that it?s becoming an increasingly important area ofmarketing for Apple. ?It?s growing in that computers are becoming standard gear for all types of people in the movies (the doctor, the lawyer, and others) and also in the number of films that have a technology sub-plot.?

So expect to see more Macs appearing at your local cinema. But only in the hands of the good guys, of course.

(first published in The Irish Times, August, 1996)

Posted by David in • Irish TimesTechnologyFilm