Articles Square Eyes Television

Build your own TV station

Thursday, April 26, 2001

TV schedules, who needs them? Shouldn’t I get to decide when I want to watch my favourite programmes? In the last week, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing and it’s been great.

Using the rather low-tech method of an aging VCR, I’ve been creating my own schedule, working my way through series one of ?The Sopranos?, plus all my current favourites whenever I felt like it. Need a bit of Tony S to start the day? I got your episode right here, buddy. Want to watch Simon and Jenny in the ‘Teachers’ stationery cupboard instead of Richard and Judy? Go right ahead.  I don’t think I’ve watched a programme in its own timeslot all week. I feel liberated and in control of my addiction.

And this is how it should be. With the exception of live sport and news, all the good stuff is sitting around on tape at the TV stations, so wouldn’t it be great if we could gain access to a pile of shows all in one go, letting us have at them when we’re ready?

No more missing programmes because you also have a life, or because your video recorder refuses to obey orders. And if you came into a series halfway through by chance, you could go back and watch all the earlier episodes to catch up. If you can’t wait to see how Dr Green’s brain tumour works out, you can watch a dozen ?ER? episodes in one go. I dare you.

And once we’ve got beyond the idea of TV as a push medium, all sorts of opportunities open up. If it’s a pull medium instead, then you’d obviously need a menu structure to help you navigate through the options. And once you have a menu structure, then you can create collections of related shows – a season on particular actors or themes, for example.

And since this menu would be linked to the Internet, then think of the surrounding materials you could provide, with the shows embedded into a range of resources, links and interactivity. TV would become another form of media accessible from the Web, with all the flexibility and creative chaos that implies.

Of course there are moves towards this. TiVo systems allow you to dump your favourite shows onto a hard disk and watch them at your leisure. Tell it that you like Frasier, and it will record every episode on every channel without any further prompting. It also cunningly lets you pause live TV, caching the show to disk – perfect for when the phone rings during a penalty shoot out. Or if you want to take bets on whether Beckham’s going to score with the next free kick, or hoof it into row Z.

And digital TV also offers a limited range of options – movies on demand that start at a range of times during the day, for example.

Look at how Napster and CD burners are changing the way we use music. Now imagine a similar freedom with relation to TV and films. I can’t wait, but in the meanwhile I think I’ll just dash downstairs and watch half an hour of ?The West Wing?. So long as my housemate hasn’t taped over it.

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

Articles Film Square Eyes USA

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