Sunday, 28 July 2013

Caught In A Rat Race, Terminally: Blur and Country House

(originally posted in the UK No 1s of the 90s thread on Gallifrey Base so many thanks to the posters there for the discussion and debate, particularly Manannan of that parish)

Blur’s Shiny Happy People, right down to the lead guitarist very obviously hating every second of the being in that video. I saw them when they played their singles tour in 1999 and Damon at least seemed to regret the decision to play all their singles at that point.

Really it’s the key song in Blur’s career. Sure you can make a case for the initial success of There’s No Other Way or For Tomorrow, the song that Albarn wrote on his parent’s piano on Christmas Day when Food wanted some obvious hits for Modern Life Is Rubbish, or even Girls and Boys or Parklife which established them as an omnipresent Top 5 act. But they’re all about the way up, not the artistic direction. This is the pivot.

On the face of it Blur have everything at this point. They’ve broken out of the indie ghetto – there’s a sackful of Brit awards, Damon’s face adorns the walls of plenty of teenage girls, Parklife made them culturally omnipresent last year and hey, they’ve just beaten their big rivals to No 1 in a massively hyped battle which made the national news. It’s the pick a side rivalry you only usually get with boy bands, not between a load of scruffy herberts with guitars. And the reviews are in for the new albums and again, it’s a knockout win for Blur.

But they’ve painted themselves into a corner. Selling yourself to the public at this level means you’re going to get reduced to caricature to some degree and that’s what happens here. Albarn’s the lad’s mag droog, the pretty boy in the corner cutting everyone down with a witty remark. Which is fun if you’re not on the end of it. Graham’s the human incarnation of ‘piss off’, Alex is the pretty friend who’s hanging with the cool kid to get laid. And Dave is just Dave. They’ve been pigeonholed and that’s going to come back to haunt them.

The song itself? Thanks to the video it’s the indelible zenith of Loaded culture, a Benny Hill style romp with at least one genuine porn star in there and probably a shedload of high quality drugs just out of shot (I defy anyone to tell me Damon’s not off his face during that shoot). If you want to know exactly what was wrong with the triumphalism of Britpop it’s encapsulated in that five minutes. Lyrically it’s Damon at his snidest, a cheap shot at Dave Balfe, and playing up to their cock-er-nee stereotype with an oompah oompah rhythm. But it’s not entirely meritless, the Balzac/Prozac rhyme showing he’s still a smart, witty observer and the drop out to the ‘blow, blow me out’ four part harmony indicating there’s an awareness of how hollow this all is. But it’s still a largely exuberant four minutes that deserved to beat Noel’s chugging, half arsed competitor.

But here’s the trap. Three months later Wonderwall and What’s the Story… have blown Blur away. Because ultimately Noel’s not as clever as Damon but Oasis at this point are all about the communal moment, the simple anthem you can bellow with your mates at the end of a night out. Ultimately it’s more fun to join in than stand on the sidelines and poke fun. In retrospect you can see why Oasis sold by the bucketload and yet why they never particularly appealed to critics. They were a modern Slade, big, dumb, not hugely original in thought or deed but with the common touch. And that meant that Blur lost the war and Damon was faced with a hell of his own making, having Oasis songs sung at him in the street. The schtick of their British album trilogy was now an obvious artistic dead end and the band were faced with either diminishing returns or going away and rethinking everything. One opulent video for album highpoint The Universal aside you can see the band seem to be going through the motions for the rest of the album campaign. So, art or commerce? Artistic satisfaction and sanity or more of the same to the point of fading away?

Noel, of course wouldn’t entertain any notion of art, the money and the drugs meant he never even thought about the choice. But Damon had to and ultimately it sets him off on a far more interesting career.

So, fast forward to the dog days between Christmas and New Year 1996 and Mark Goodier spicing up the end of year charts with a selection of what we’re about to hear in the New Year. And here’s the new single from Blur…

But that’s another story

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Man of Steel, Words of Lead

So, suffering the usual parental culture lag we finally got round to seeing Man of Steel last night.
Let’s start with the prologue on Krypton.  It looks alien in a way which vaguely reminded me of Giger in a way I can’t quite put my finger on – perhaps it’s the spiky, metallic nature of much of the design. The fluid metal communicators, for instance, are things of beauty.  You can see there’s a lot of time and money been lavished on this big opening sequence. It’s a shame that it feels far too long, delaying us from actually getting to the story of Superman himself. With the need to justify the expense of the designs (and probably Russell Crowe’s salary) of the focus of the story is sacrificed right from the start. Much of what this tells could have been done with clever dialogue but no, everything regarding Superman’s background and Zod’s origins is painstakingly shown on screen. The audience is not trusted, not allowed to use any imagination, instead you’re being told to marvel at some pseudo-mythic spectacle with accompanying stilted dialogue. None of the actors are good enough (or directed well enough) to lift the scenes. The deliberate portentousness kills any sense of engagement with what you’re watching and you realise the common sense of Russell T Davies’ decree when running Doctor Who that every story should relate to or jeopardise Earth in some way. There’s just nothing to draw you into the story here, a fatal error symptomatic of the larger problems of the film (those problems being ‘Snyder’, ‘Nolan’, ‘Goyer’ and the combination thereof).
I suspect, given the Comic Con announcement of Batman vs Superman, that Nolan was on board to make sure this Superman was tonally compatible with his Batman. Nolan’s approach to Batman was one which can suit the character as much as say Adam West’s high camp version or Tim Burton’s gothic fantasia does. Batman invites an exploration of what makes someone dress up in a daft costume and fight crime – his origin story introduces a certain psychological complexity into the character.  But as The Dark Knight Rises showed, it’s one which can wear down over a period of time and with a lack of jokes it doesn’t necessarily age well. It’s also completely unsuited to Superman, a character with no real dark side whose motivations have essentially been uncomplicated since the beginning. It’s trying to forcibly introduce a complexity into the character which isn’t naturally there.
Which leads us to the second problem, David S Goyer. Let’s charitably assume that his brief included the necessity of exploring Superman’s psychology. Then let’s uncharitably note that he does that through American art’s most overused trope, the daddy issue. As is the case throughout the film the Earth heritage sequences are well done, mainly thanks to Kevin Costner, one of the few spot on pieces of casting in the film. Costner sells a fairly thankless role in the same way Martin Sheen nailed Uncle Ben in The Amazing Spider-Man and stops you noticing that this actually reduces Superman to the same motivations as every other movie superhero. Costner actually makes them the best part of the film. And I say that as someone who’s never been a fan of Costner.
 Then there are Goyer’s words. It’s terrifying when a big budget Hollywood blockbuster gets made with the following dialogue:
“There’s only one way this ends Kal… either you die or I do”
Read that again. That’s a genuine line of dialogue given to a supposedly intelligent, level headed character. The words ‘only one way’ and ‘either’ are not compatible. The only conclusion I drew is that Goyer doesn’t actually understand what words mean. Also, that Snyder needed to hire a script editor because it’s hard to believe that any remotely competent editor would have let that one through. There might be an argument to say the character in question is psychologically unstable at that point, but it’s so unclear and looks so clunky it would’ve been best avoided. On top of this the characters are constantly given to telling us what to think of them – at one point one of the villains proclaims they have ‘no morality’ – seriously, she might be alien but no morality? There are different types of morality but no-one, perhaps excepting the Marquis de Sade, has ever gone around proclaiming nonsense in that way. And while there are no contrivances as clumsy as the laughable moment in Superman Returns where Lois took her son into the villain’s HQ (seriously, whoever wrote that has no idea of how humans function) there are a few that aren’t far off – for instance, the split ship in the climax simply being a deliberate, expensive and unnecessary delay to the climax of the film which adds nothing to the narrative. It left me thinking that the script needed at least another draft. It’s not all bad though, the notion of Superman’s famous S being a symbol of hope on his home world is the one hint that Goyer might understand Superman. I couldn’t help but feeling the whole film needed another draft to focus it and someone who knows how people talk to write the dialogue.
And so to the final problem. Based on his previous movies I’m not a fan of Zack Snyder at all. Both 300 and Watchmen were overly slavish adaptations which were often visually beautiful and exceptional in reproducing the most striking panels from their respective comics. Leaving aside the fact that I’m not a big fan of Frank Miller and wasn’t inclined to like 300 anyway, I thought the exact reason he was wrong for Watchmen was that he missed everything that made Watchmen the landmark it was. Watchmen essentially asked what the psychology of people who ran round in masks and fought crime would be in real life. Snyder was more interested in the spectacle of Dr Manhattan’s strangeness and Rorschach’s violence on screen Leaving aside that arguably Watchman’s most original trick has been done to death on page and on screen since Snyder’s big weakness is that he’s fabulous as spectacle but bad with people – with Watchmen I felt I was just watching people as moving props in front of some beautiful backdrops. Which isn’t a problem with Dr Manhattan, who’s evolved far beyond us, but is when it comes to convincing us of why Nite Owl and Silk Spectre Junior get it on later in the film. And he has the same problem here. Compounding the faults of Goyer’s script is that everyone involved seems to have been told to play it in approved ‘smell the fart’ style, where everything becomes portentous. It just doesn’t engage, doesn’t let the human element come through and left both my wife and I unengaged and ultimately bored. Snyder’s problem this time extends to spectacle too. With no comic book to draw on he piles on the CGI spectacle to little effect. I’ve already mentioned the pointless second ship that’s just Superman against some CGI metal and achieves nothing but his worst crime is in Metropolis. Zod’s plan inflicts carnage upon the city that dwarfs any terrorist attacks you could conceive. It should be terrifying but it’s essentially CGI wanking. There’s no sense of scale to the destruction, it’s just yet another skyscraper falling over.  There’s no sense of the stakes here, no sense of psychological trauma. And, guess what… all the characters we’ve been introduced to survive and even at the end of the film it seems like a reset button’s been pressed, characters having simply brushed off what’s happened. It needed some acknowledgement.
All these problems come to a head in the film’s climax. As a villain Zod’s been reduced to a humourless psychopath, Michael Shannon having nothing of the presence of Terence Stamp’s original interpretation. We have some grand fight scenes with the characters knocking seven bells out of each other, which is fine and to be expected in a superhero movie. But how does Superman defeat Zod? By outsmarting someone ostensibly his equal? Well no. The planned destruction of Earth is defeated by the self-sacrifice of others and Superman simply breaks Zod’s neck. That’s it. There’s no sense of an epic conclusion, an earned victory. It’s just ‘I’m better in a fight than the other guy’. There’s no real reason to Superman’s triumph but dumb luck. What should be the moment that tells us just why the character’s so great ends up diminishing him, cheating the audience. There’s nothing to tell me why I should be coming back next time to cheer him on. Instead of establishing this version of Superman they achieve the opposite.
Nolan, Goyer and Snyder will apparently all be back for ‘World’s Finest’, the Superman/Batman movie. I never thought I’d say it about a Superman/Batman film but based on this I severely doubt I will be.