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Hype Springs Eternal – the coming of The Lord of the Rings

Saturday, May 26, 2001

It’s now less than a month until the first film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy opens here, and the amount of attention it’s getting is staggering.

Last weekend, pretty much the whole of the Sunday Times magazine was given over to an analysis of the film and the books, with interviews, plot synopses and a Middle-Earth A-Z to help those who have forgotten the differences between Faramir and Boromir, and couldn’t tell Weathertop from Helm’s Deep.

The Tolkien family are reported to have gone into hiding to protect themselves from the onslaught of fans looking to discuss Saruman’s motivation, while the Internet is groaning under the weight of all manner of speculation. People have already made up their minds about the casting without the inconvenience of seeing the film (myself included – no way is that weedy weasel Viggo Mortensen going to be a good Aragorn, and where’s Russell Crowe?).

I’m revelling in all this myself, and an old copy of The Fellowship of the Ring has been dusted off in preparation for the film’s opening. Everyone I talk to appears to be as sad as me, and I’m hearing choruses of the following hearfelt refrain: ‘Oh, I can’t wait. It’s going to be _so_ good!’

This is all good clean fun, but I’m a bit worried in case my enthusiasm has peaked too soon.  There’s a real danger that the experience of the film itself just won’t be able to support the weight of hype that’s being piled up on it. I’m a little afraid that even re-reading the book will make me realize that it’s not as great as I remember.

But as we know, anticipation is the greater part of pleasure, so even if the film sucks (which I’m pretty sure it won’t), we should still thank it for the weeks of building excitement it’s produced. However, we’re seldom that generous, as shown by the vituperative ill-will on display after The Phantom Menace opened.

There are some stories that are taken so much to heart by their readers that people view it as a personal insult if representations of it fall below expectations. It might have been George Lucas’ idea, but Star Wars is such a part of our lives by this stage that we’ve wrested ownership of that environment for ourselves. How much more so have we claimed The Lord of the Rings?

So enjoy the hype and speculation, and use the arrival of the film to revisit the books and your memories of the books. If you’re new to the whole Tolkien thing, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. However, if you have a thing against hobbits and dwarves, then it’s going to be a long Christmas, especially if you don’t like Harry Potter. Best start on the brandy butter and hot whiskey now.

Posted by David in • Square Eyes

Articles Film Square Eyes

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

Articles Sport Square Eyes Television

Bowled Over – TV sport

Friday, May 25, 2001

My summer is shot to pieces: just when I thought I was regaining some control over my time with the end of the football season, televised sport has claimed me entirely again with the knockout combination of cricket and cycling. These events go on all day, for weeks – I am so screwed.

It’s my curse to be fascinated by sporting events that take a long time – sometimes I wish I was more into the 50m freestyle. First there’s cricket. I know this is something of an acquired taste – for example, try telling an American that the games last five days, have frequent tea breaks and can still end in a draw – but it’s something I was born to.

In the summer holidays from school, I’d drag the TV half out the door to the garden so I could watch Test matches while sitting outside. And of course I’d turn the TV commentary down so I could listen to the ball-by-ball on Radio 4. I’d wake up at 10:30, just in time to have a shower and settle down with my breakfast for the opening overs.

And even though nothing very much seems to be happening, there’s always some delicate drama being played out to keep you entertained. A dull spell of negative bowling and straight bats can be redeemed either by a flashing cover drive, or by some bewildering discussion of bowler’s body language.

(If one of the fielders has just dropped a difficult catch, the bowler might put one hand on his hip and stare ruefully at the offender – ‘giving him a teapot’. If it’s a particularly easy catch that gets dropped, then both hands are on the hips – ‘a double teapot’.)

Having been out of range of cricket coverage for three years (during which time baseball served as a very good substitute), I’m back just in time for England to be hosting both Pakistan and Australia this summer. The home team are pretty good at the moment, which is going to take some getting used to.

If that weren’t enough, there’s a great of cycling that also requires my attention. Eurosport rightly has its detractors – although its curling coverage is second to none – but they’ve got more lycra than a DuPont warehouse. 

The early season Classics are one-day races, so you don’t feel too bad devoting a few hours of your time once a week to watch unpronounceable Flemish riders perform superhuman tasks on muddy cobbles. But now the Giro d’Italia’s started we’re into the realm of long stage races.

The Tour de France demands the ultimate commitment both on the part of the participants and the viewers. Three weeks, over 150km every day – that’s a lot of television. I work from home, so despite my best intentions, the TV’s always calling me.

Fortunately, the quality of the commentary on Eurosport is so bad that your attention can stray during a long flat stage where there’s not much happening. With luck, these stages will coincide with good days at the cricket, so I’ll be able to see Goughie skittle out the Australians in time to switch over and watch Lance putting the hammer down as he drops the field on the Alpe d’Huez.

Of course, with this gargantuan consumption of sport, I’ll be an etiolated specimen by September, only seen vertical in the rare dashes round to the Spar for more Kettle Chips. But every now and again I might even think it’s worth it.

Articles Film Square Eyes

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 Square Eyes Television UK

The real deal – Faking It reviewed

Friday, May 11, 2001

There was a great moment in this week’s ‘Faking It’ (Channel 4, Tuesdays), when Alex, the frightfully posh, 5’6”, gay student from Oxford University, looked straight to camera and said in his new bouncer brogue, ‘I AM a doorman’. He wasn’t faking it any more.

The format is brilliantly simple – take an unlikely candidate, give them four weeks’ training in a new discipline, then set up a competition where experts try and spot the imposter. So we’ve had a classical musician taught to be a club DJ, a painter and decorator taught to be an artist, and the fey student taught to be a bouncer.

There are echoes of any number of other shows (anyone remember ‘In At the Deep End’?) but the show triumphs by getting real people rather than journalists to undertake the challenges.

For the first 15 minutes, the audience is convinced that it will never work. Sian the musician asks the cool DJ if you follow sheet music while working the decks, and Alex arrives at an estate in Hackney wearing a Barbour jacket, tweeds and a tie. Different sort of estate, mate.

But the intensity of the work then involved is immense – the fakers live with their teachers and have to transform their appearance, their accents and their back-stories as well as learn the craft they’re supposed to be faking.

Watching Sian emerge as a club kid was fantastic – the scene when her movement coach has her dancing round the room shouting ‘Coxie took the ROOF off last night!’ will live long in the memory. And Alex going to the barber’s for a number 1 complete with Nike swoosh shaved on the back of his head was the start of an amazing transformation.

The teachers deserve a great deal of credit. They offer support and encouragement, but they also offer friendship and are completely delighted when their charges fool the experts. ‘It’s like seeing your little brother take his first baby steps,’ marvelled Chris, the huge kick-boxer that looked after Alex.

If the mentors get a lot out of it, then the effect on the fakers themselves is amazing. At some point during the preparation, the fakers get so into their new life that they stop faking. They still have to concoct a plausible set of lies, but when it comes to performing their new skill, all of them actually mean it.

Sian’s growing sense that she genuinely enjoys this new form of musical expression was borne out by the set of decks sitting behind her when she was interviewed at home after the test was over.

And Paul felt early on that his immersion in the art world chimed with something that he’d sensed was already in him. He had something to say in his painting, and watching this self-discovery was deeply impressive.

Being a bouncer might not be so creative or obviously fulfilling, but even this got Alex in touch with a part of himself that he scarcely knew was there.

There’s also a class angle that makes the program very British. Sian and Alex were decidedly posh, and part of their training was to lose their plummy accents. But in the course of the four weeks, the bonds they built up with their teachers show an impressively healthy attitude on both sides to take people as they find them. 

Paul didn’t have to lose his Scouse vowels, but he did have to learn a new vocabulary (his use of the word ‘serendipity’ in the final test was masterful), and also a new way of thinking about himself.

You might expect ‘Faking It’ to be merely a diverting hour’s TV which tells you a little about a range of professions, and lets you laugh at an amateur making a hames of it. Instead we get to watch brave people learning valuable lessons about themselves and about the good people who take them under their wings. ‘Faking It’ is for real.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUKTelevision

Articles Square Eyes Television UK

Those who can’t – Teachers reviewed

Friday, May 04, 2001

Earlier this week Tony Blair announced to the world that he needed glasses for reading, and would be wearing them in public from now on. He explained when it was he realised he couldn’t go on bluffing in his speeches any more. 

In one address he had got to a line which went, ‘There’s been a huge increase in problems of drugs, social exclusion and crime amongst teenagers.’ But instead of ‘teenagers’, he said ‘teachers’. He doesn’t need glasses – he’s just been watching Channel 4 on Wednesday nights.

After the earnest school-based dramas like ‘Hearts and Minds’, ‘Teachers’ instead uses the staff room as a basis for comedy and character, not posturing and politics. So a real teacher might not often smoke dope with their pupils, or get down and dirty in the stationery cupboard, but so what? I’m not sure how many Boston lawyers see dancing babies or have sex with complete strangers at carwashes, but we don’t criticize ‘Ally McBeal’ for not being realistic (in fact, recently, we criticise ‘Ally McBeal’ for just being crap, but that’s another story).

‘Ally McBeal’ and ‘Teachers’ both give us ensemble playing and fantasy elements (brilliantly done in ‘Teachers’, by the way) and they both show us that people in apparently responsible jobs are just as unreliable and flaky as the rest of us. In fact, they act just like big kids.

In the legal profession, authority is hedged about with smart suits, mad hourly rates and all the trappings of the judicial system. Teachers might appear a bit more lowly, with their poor wages and clapped out cars, but parents entrust their little darlings into their hands every day, and might expect a bit of maturity.

Not when you’ve got Egg as your leading man. A while ago Andrew Lincoln played a teacher in the costume drama ‘The Woman in White’, and it looked all wrong – all I could think about was him in ‘This Life’ lying in bed moaning about something while Millie fussed around getting ready for work.

So it’s good to see him back where he belongs. Lincoln’s mastered the portrayal of charming but feckless young men who are fighting against growing up and all that it entails – responsibility, commitment – that stuff he’s supposed to be teaching the kids, of course.

Hanging out with his two fellow teachers in a sty of a flat, going to the pub straight after classes, and scrambling around at the last minute to get stuff handed in, Simon is still a student at heart. Just in case we haven’t sussed that, he still rides a bike.

This creates the perfect opportunity for the fun and frolics we saw in the early episodes, especially when Lincoln is supported by tight writing, a good cast, smart direction and a class soundtrack (pun absolutely intended).

But in the last couple of shows, the writers have wisely decided to try and force the character to grow up a bit. Simon’s problem is that he has no problem being self-centred and unreliable, but he does have something of a conscience. So when he finally realizes that his laziness can cause problems for other people he likes (namely his best friend Susan), he gets all confused and uncomfortable. Like someone’s given him a huge bag of sweets and he’s discovered to his horror that he doesn’t actually want to eat them all in one go.

What I think is happening (and here I could be completely wrong) is that the stage is being set for Simon to wise up enough to stop his juvenile fantasies about Jenny, and prove himself worthy of Susan, who’s conveniently just left her man, and is far and away the most likeably together character in the show.

As if to underline his character arc, Jenny’s been softening, Brian’s been wanting to ditch his tracksuit, and the mute secretary’s begun to speak. Things will get worse before they get better – big fight between Simon and Maggie of course – but underneath all the swearing and juvenile humour, I think there’s some old comedic conventions about to fall into place. Can you say ‘happily ever after’?

Posted by David in • Square EyesUKTelevision