Category Archives: -By Brain

Quite probably one of the worst films I’ve seen…

…or at least, the most SURPRISINGLY bad film.

(Yes, I’m answering the question I posed below, and I’m going to write a review)

This film was so bad that had I spent money I would have wanted it back. With a gift voucher as a goodwill gesture, from God, to make up for the loss of time incurred in the course of my life. At the same time I was completely fascinated, on tenterhooks, not because of the plot but because I was waiting to see whether it could actually get worse.

It was not bad in the way that Showgirls or Boom! is bad. In fact, the experience of its badness was much more akin to watching a piece of bad theatre than anything else.

OK so the film I’m talking about is Matchpoint and it was written, produced & directed by Woody Allen. It starred Jonathan Rhys Myers and Scarlett Johnansson and some other people. That woman who was in Young Adam (I usually like her as well).

I suppose I should say, SPOILERS, for anyone thinking of watching this, but can I just say – don’t? Or rather, DO, but only so I can have someone to talk to about the totally dispiriting feeling that envelopes a person afterwards.

I haven’t watched a lot of Woody Allen films but I have never come away from one before feeling so thoroughly soiled. To make things worse, I watched this film straight after watching Manhattan for the first time (they were shown back to back on the cinefil imagica channel) and it was shocking to think that these two films were made by the same person. What the hell happened, Woody?

As an artistic experience I think Matchpoint ranks up there with that Romeo &J performance we were forced to sit through on the Writing for Stage course (the production where they were sometimes dressed as Fascists, sometimes as Mafia members from Goodfellas, which featured the Italian flag being lowered melodramatically and in complete seriousness onto Tibult’s body).

This film made me at first amused, then bemused, annoyed and finally rather disbelieving as to its utter awfulness. It made Eastenders look like Shakespeare. The actors were quite wooden & completely miscast but above all it was the script & plot which were so bad. I quite honestly wonder if W. Allen made the whole thing as a joke. Watching it straight after Manhattan, which was ok, made it all the more depressing, as there is that suspicion (could he have…? & didn’t anyone say…?) that this film was made in utter earnestness; which means that somewhere between the two films Allen’s artistic sense became completely corrupted, for to have made this film seriously & think it good one would have to be the most doltish beginner. Yes I say that despite never having written or made a film – but it really is because I am so SHOCKED.

I don’t think I am a filmgoer with especially high standards – I do like well written scripts but it doesn’t always stop me watching something if the script is bad. Usually there is some compensating factor. At least. Or if the script is not good, then there are usually times when it at least patchily competent. Even if not, then maybe it is so bad it is funny or at least doesn’t take itself too seriously. For example – I like Bad Girls and Footballer’s Wives. I know they are TV shows but the point’s the same. The plots are ludicrous but they don’t claim to be good in the sense that they aren’t making a claim to high art.

This film seemed to have…pretensions. The main character quotes Sophocles and reads Dostoevsky (I think there is supposed to be a reference to the fact that the plot is a refutation of Crime & Punishment). This despite the fact that there ARE no books in his apartment. So – on certain levels, the film assumes (or attempts to assume) a type of sophistication in the viewer. Yet the dialogue, character & scene development are the most terrible schlock, and worse, the expository speeches the characters make IN EVERY SCENE are extremely patronising.

It got to the point where it was being done so much & so often, even by several characters in the same scene about the same expository point of the plot, that I thought, “how can this not be deliberate? Is it some kind of meta-fuck you?” eg. The scene where the family find out about Nola’s murder, then phone each other up, and we are treated to exactly the same repeated, banal dialogue by each one (‘Terrible tragedy, isn’t it? Yes, it’s a drug murder, apparently. Did you read it in the newspaper? Yes, I read it in the newspaper just now. Did you read it in the newspaper? Yes, I too, was reading the newspaper just now when I saw it and called you at once. Isn’t it a terrible, terrible random tragedy?’ etc etc)
My question (oh, I have so many questions) is, how can the writer of Manhattan and the writer of Matchpoint be one and the same? For IF Woody Allen did NOT mean Matchpoint as a private joke or something, IF he actually thought it was even competent on any level (for it fails on every one; plot, character, dialogue, action, even background, even PROPS and SCENERY, even MUSIC – all of them horribly off-key and distractingly bad in their own way. It even fails on quirks, incidental notes) – then I must sadly speculate that he is perhaps suffering some sort of illness, or at least the debilitating effect of drinking or drugs. Even just while he was making this perhaps. How could he (some would say, genius, but above all original, different, never cliched except in the sense that he repeated his own created cliches) have made this thing, so very stale, so very cliched, so very wooden? It is baffling! I had to keep watching through sheer, perverse wonder, all the way through I was thinking – ‘where’s the punchline?’

And as it dragged on, and on, and grew worse, and still worse, until it became farce yet never lost its apparently straight face. I was left wondering: was this the most subtle comedy ever made? Like an intellectual dog whistle, was the joke too cerebral for me to get? Because nothing in this film made sense – no incident was too small to be without its own annoying ridiculous redundancy. For example – the brother-in-law gets married, to a wife we never hear speak, although she is in a few scenes. In another scene, Rhy-Meyer’s wife mentions in passing that her brother has had a baby with his new wife, yet this fact is never referred to again, nor is the child in evidence, even though we see the family gathered together for family occasions, one of which is the birth of the sister’s baby where they are all toasting this new grandchild etc etc. What are we supposed to think? Was this a mistake? Why mention this extra child at all – it bears no relevance to the plot whatsoever? Just a throwaway comment? Then why did no-one think to mention the odd non-appearance of the said child?

Above all, this sort of sloppy incidental plothole is by no means the only one in the film. Most of the dialogue which doesn’t relate to the main story line –and even much of that which does – has the same odd, throwaway, unchecked feel. It’s not realistic, slice of life, but it doesn’t work as drama either. But so sloppy, so careless, so many loose ends and continuity errors/bloopers! How CAN this be Allen’s work? Which is what makes me think it is a joke…but if that is the case, then the joke must be on the viewers…

The thing which underlines the strange crapness of this film is James Nesbitt’s character, right at the end – the policeman who wakes up having dreamt the solution. Is this some sort of in-joke, because I did NOT get it. Anyone who has seen this film, and knows more about Woody Allen’s films than me, please let me know. Sample dialogue: Nesbitt; “I want to know the truth, but it’s difficult to find out much more without causing trouble for a lot of people.” Another copper; “I know. Well, we’ll just have to hope the answer falls into our laps.”

And WHY did there have to be about 50 different policemen on the case (OK, three or four, but it’s still too many considering this is right at the end of the film, and they only appear for a really short time)?

All in all, then I would say:

best moment of the film: the cameo appearance by that one off League of Gentlemen who played Glen in Nighty Night. He appears for about 0.5 seconds as Scarlett Johnansson’s previous ping pong partner in an aristo country house and is never seen again, nor is any explanation given for his presence (though the scene between SJ and JRM that follows is hilariously bad.) Nevertheless, this guy manages to pack into that 0.5 seconds more character development than any of the film’s “real” characters. I like to think that he had a whole backstory as a mad inbred cousin; if you see the film, watch what he does with his mouth and how he lays the pingpong bat down on the table and you will see what I mean. I am actually not joking about this.

worst moment of the film: everything and everybody else.

UPDATE: After writing this review, I went over to imdb to read some of the reviews there (where it has gotten an unbelievable 7.8 stars) to try & find out what I am “missing” about this film. The reviews seem to be pretty much divided between love & hate, which is intriguing, although I couldn’t find much in-depth analysis of why there were so many plotholes. But I did find one review which said:

“This is a great film. One of Woody Allen’s best. There are many, many people who complain of plot holes in this film. What they are talking about are not really plot holes. They are LIFE holes. The events such as the police not investigating Nola’s (alleged) pregnancy is maddening.

That however, is not a shortcoming of the film, but instead one of it’s strengths. Chris Wilton was a very, VERY lucky killer in that there were many ways he could – and should – have gotten caught. But, due to a seemingly open and shut case, and a lazy police department, he emerged completely unscathed.

In a way, Woody Allen’s manipulation of the audience to an almost angry state over this fact is the mark of a master.”

-so this person is saying that the plotholes are deliberate, and that is WHY the film is good…hmm. I just don’t think so. Although I can see now that maybe that could have been the intention behind them – i.e. that they are there to emphasize the “theme” of the film, which is to do with luck being all and justice being an illusion. If that is the case then this is one nihilistic film and indeed it IS a meta-fuck you. Not only because of the philosophical point being made either. If the plotholes ARE intentional, then I wonder if the rest of the jarring faults are too, including the cardboard characters, stilted unrealistic dialogue etc. If these things are in the film in order to make a point about artifice and triviality, I’m not at all sure that it works. Although, if that was what Allen was trying to do then at least there is a vision there. I’m just not sure what it is, the pointlessness of cinema or some depressive’s view about the trivial and arbitary nature of psychology, even the flimsiness of fiction? I don’t think I buy it.

Why blog?

We’ve not had the internet for a while – laptop meltdown – and I’ve had a little think about this blog; I haven’t written in it since last year… partly because of the internet, but also for other reasons. It’s not because I haven’t been writing, or keeping a record of my time here; my own journal & notes, other writing. But I feel a bit stranger than I thought I would about putting up private journal entries here…mainly because they aren’t really that interesting to anyone but me. Originally I started this to keep in touch with a few people and, mainly, as a way to document my reaction to Japan/keep a record of what I did when for future reference. However, after S started his blog, I felt like that kind of served as a future prompt. I feel that in future years I’ll be able to read that and look back on week by week events. As for my own, personal reaction – i do write that down in my journal, but like I said, its not always interesting (and when it is, I just can’t get used to the idea that my mother might read it).

Anyway – the result of this seems to be that when I do have the urge to write something in a blog post, it’s some comments on a book or film. I’ve tried to stop myself from always posting these since I started thinking “but what does it have to do with Japan etc” but the result is that I don’t post anything…so should I just post whatever is on my mind, although 99.9% of anything fit to print doesn’t have to do with Japan at ALL? Although I have a suspicion I’ll just end up posting book reviews…not that there’s owt wrong with book reviews…

Blog identity crisis alert or what?!

As for keeping in touch with people, it seems that almost everyone I know has signed on to the incubus that is facebook…

Happy Birthday, William Blake

Born on this day 250 years ago. His words = relevant still.

Prologue, intended for a Dramatic Piece of King Edward the Fourth

O for a voice like thunder, and a tongue
To drown the throat of war! When the senses
Are shaken, and the soul is driven to madness,
Who can stand? When the souls of the oppressèd
Fight in the troubled air that rages, who can stand?
When the whirlwind of fury comes from the
Throne of God, when the frowns of his countenance
Drive the nations together, who can stand?
When Sin claps his broad wings over the battle,
And sails rejoicing in the flood of Death;
When souls are torn to everlasting fire,
And fiends of Hell rejoice upon the slain,
O who can stand? O who hath causèd this?
O who can answer at the throne of God?
The Kings and Nobles of the Land have done it!
Hear it not, Heaven, thy Ministers have done it!

and from America, a Prophecy (read the whole thing here):

Fiery the Angels rose, & as they rose deep thunder roll’d
Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc
And Bostons Angel cried aloud as they flew thro’ the dark night.
He cried: Why trembles honesty and like a murderer,
Why seeks he refuge from the frowns of his immortal station!
Must the generous tremble & leave his joy, to the idle: to the pestilence!
That mock him? who commanded this? what God? what Angel!
To keep the gen’rous from experience till the ungenerous
Are unrestraind performers of the energies of nature;
Till pity is become a trade, and generosity a science,
That men get rich by, & the sandy desart is giv’n to the strong
What God is he, writes laws of peace, & clothes him in a tempest
What pitying Angel lusts for tears, and fans himself with sighs
What crawling villain preaches abstinence & wraps himself
In fat of lambs? no more I follow, no more obedience pay.

——–

Roger McGough introduces a selection of readings of Blake’s poetry on radio 4 here.

——–

You can view copies of some of the original plates & illustrations along with poems here.

Strangers who want to talk about macho bullshit, and why they annoy me

When I was younger I went through a spell of bunking off school and going to sit in old mens’ pubs. I would hang out there for hours, nursing half-a-lager (that I bought with my dinner money) and reading a book. Escaping from stuff. I chose these run down, smoky old pubs because my school was in a town centre, and I reasoned that these were the least likely haunts where I would run into any of my teachers.

Watching Stephen Fry’s programme about his manic depression years later, I found out that he used to do the same thing, except instead of smoky old dives he went to the Ritz and ran up huge bills on his father’s credit card.

As often as not, one of the other people in the pub would strike up a conversation. It was usually a man, middle-aged, lonely, sometimes alcoholic. I must have looked young, despite appearing somewhat older than the age I actually was. Predictably, some of these men were just trying to chat me up. But a surprising number of them just wanted to tell someone their story. I heard some extraordinary stories. A man who had spent 17 years in prison for murdering his wife. Another man who said he slept with his mother every Christmas, denying this was abuse, convinced that it was a perfectly normal thing that nobody talked about. It’s always amazed me, how some people are prepared to confide their darkest secrets to a complete stranger. (Or, more worryingly; perhaps these things weren’t their darkest secrets.)

Getting approached by strange men who just want to talk isn’t that unusual, if you’re a woman on her own in a pub or cafe or some other public place, of course. One thing about Japan is that it just doesn’t really happen so much to me here. This is probably due to a) my foreigness and the language barrier b) different social norms and c) the fact that those functions are somewhat outsourced, to the ubiquitous hostess/snack bars. The other thing (getting approached for obviously sexual reasons) happens, but also much less often, and is surely mitigated by the same reasons as above.

There is one thing I’ve always wondered though. Have you ever been speaking to some guy in a pub who, apropos of nothing, decides to start telling you about the ways people can be killed with TWO FINGERS? And then proceedes to go on about it for at least twenty minutes? I must have had this same conversation with various wierdos at least ten times. Once even in a gay pub. Sometimes even with people who seemed fairly normal until they started on about it. It’s been a fairly consistent pub topic for years. I promise, I have never brought up the subject with anyone…nor have I encouraged it. And it’s not that I don’t have ANY interest in methods of murder, it’s just this whole “bare hands, TWO FINGERS!!” thing that gets a bit tiring after a while.

But what is it? Are they just trying to be menacing, albeit in an indirect (and rather ineffective) way? I never got the ‘vibe’ of underlying menace, I must say – it was always more of a “listening to someone on a hobby horse” pub bore/boy scout effect. Are these just men who were rejected from the TA? Or – as I have occasionally wondered – is there, in fact, a secret network of recruiters for a real-life James Bond spy agency, working undercover in seedy watering holes? Perhaps I have always, without realising it, failed the recruitment at the last hurdle – a lack of interest in fatal death grips. Or perhaps there’s just something about my face that says I want to know about such things, at great and excruciatingly boring length. WELL I DON’T.

It’s freezing this morning

Currently wearing: bed socks; knee socks; wool pajamas; a dress; a jumper; the daddy coat; a hat.

The daddy coat is a padded tartan housecoat/smoking jacket sported (usually) by the discerning Japanese pensioner-around-town, which I picked up for a song in the local village store.

Off for a few days

..to Kyoto and then to see a puppet theatre on Saturday. I’ve changed the comments thingy so if you commented before it shouldn’t need to go through moderation. Sara, I’m looking forward to reading your post on TSH! Will it be a thorough defense of the she-wolf Clarissa?

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (in response to Sara Sizzle)

I’ve read this book twice now, and although the second time around the writing seemed flawed, the themes of the book only become more interesting with time.

How can I describe it? At once a thriller/ unconventionally structured murder mystery, it attempts to incorporate some of the themes of a greek tragedy – but it is also shot through with a sort of overlaid, puritanical morality play sensibility. I’m still not sure whether it just fails to pull off the mesh between the two, or whether the fact of being torn between them is the whole point of the book.

Sara Sizzle is very fond of this book, in fact she chose Camilla as her alternative life over any other in history. I found her answer very interesting, because when I read the book, I remember finding Camilla’s character rather a puzzle. At first, she seemed like one of the weakest and least realised characters in the book. I remember finding Henry far more interesting the first time around (not least because I wondered if his name was a nod to Henry James). Of course, the reader is constrained by the narrator’s interpretation throughout – and Camilla remains enigmatic to Richard, therefore we cannot know her. I felt a bit frustrated with the way Camilla was seen/idealised by Richard. Camilla’s motives remain obscure, even more so than the others (I remember thinking that the way her and Charles were portrayed later in the book as having some echoes of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, though maybe it was just the alcoholism).

Sara says, about Camilla, “She gave me the sense that she’s quite dangerous. Seductive, manipulative, able to present exactly what each person wanted to see, needed her to be.” This really intrigued me, because it turned my ideas about Camilla on their head. She turns out to be much more interesting than I had suspected. Sara has in fact put her finger on why this is – everybody sees her differently, and we are never given the insight into Camilla’s perspective that we are given (in a very limited way) eventually about her brother. In a book which is so much about the unknown motives, unguessed thoughts, and –yes, secret histories – of others, of course the character who is most enigmatic is probably the key to the whole book.

It’s interesting that Donna Tartt chooses to make that character Camilla, the only woman in a cast of male characters (not counting Judy Poovey here since she’s not a main character but only serves as an outside contrast). Perhaps she had read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf analyses the part female characters have traditionally played in the history of English canonical literature, and finds them to be often fulfilling the role of mirrors: “Women have served all these centuries as looking–glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” Because yes, we learn about the others through how they react to Camilla, but she gives nothing away herself. The necessary mystery of a mirror means that a careful reader might find endless intriguing possibilities. “For one often catches a glimpse of them in the lives of the great, whisking away into the back ground, concealing, I sometimes think, a wink, a laugh, perhaps a tear.”

Another reason Sara gives for her fascination with Camilla is her youth and unapologetic selfishness: “She studied under one amazing man who taught her that beauty was free to make all kinds of demands…Camilla saw herself privy to rights not all members of society are. She had the guts to be unapologetic. She was strong too, and distant. Like an ice-maiden.” The portrayal of the characters, as seen by Richard, is something which I do think is pretty well pulled-off by Tartt. We can step outside the framing and see them differently, of course – but his detailed analysis of his own reactions to, and admiration for the others (Camilla in particular) is quite influential, considering that the people he describes are murderers. Not only that, but one can imagine quite how those very same characters might be seen very differently by an outside world quite hostile to their culture and values. In a lot of ways, this does get set up in the book, partly by the structure of the ‘ending’ revealed in the prologue, and partly by Richard’s assessment of the way the characters are divorced from the mainstream of the campus atmosphere.

A major question about the characters is indeed their self-centredness and snobbery. One of the main things I think the book does brilliantly is explain the attractions of snobbery. Snobbery/elitism have a bad name in our culture, and for good reason, but it’s intriguing to note that often, our conception of what snobbery is and why it is bad is inherited from Christian notions of morality (not always, obviously, but it’s a relevant point especially in American culture). “The meek shall inherit the earth” does sit rather uneasily with “beauty is harsh” . Christianity owes a lot to greek culture (platonic idealism springs to mind) but as far as I’m aware this attitude to snobbery is not one of them. In fact, you could argue that the biblical fulminating against wealth and elitism might be in large part an historical reaction against the dominant Greek and Roman cultures of the time of the early Christian faith…

As Sara illustrates, one attraction of the book’s portrayal is in the uncomfortable realisation that although it is easy to condemn the elitism, there is also a sense in which we admire it. It’s not amoral so much as differently moral; the characters themselves identify with the morality of the greco-roman divinities, where morality was pretty much a case of appetite and desire: the greek tragedy aspect of the story plays out this hubristic identification. But I think there is a subtle argument going on with the character of Richard, too: he is identified with the puritanical, affectless upper working/lower middle class America; he denies his modest history and remakes himself as ahistorical in order to avoid appearing poor, with the irony that he appears enigmatic himself to the others. He falls in love, as he says, a little with each of the other characters. But he is in love not so much with they themselves but the worlds they represent: he thinks it is their history he falls in love with, but in fact in forgetting his own past he has not escaped it. It turns out his longing is as much to do with money and priviledge as his ‘secret’ low birth (with all the striving for social advancement it hints at) destined in him. And in this, he is as Roman as they come; surely that’s the irony. Richard despises this in himself: he sees it as mean and petty, but of course, they are all at it, Julian the worst of all.

It’s an interesting moment to consider this attraction, in a character who is elevated (in her own mind, and in Richard’s) above the hoi polloi because of natural beauty or a self-belief– because again, the book makes you see that, and want it, and want to be it. Are people like Camilla and the others really different? Is there such a thing as inherent authority? If not then why can we understand or feel drawn to such characters? There is definitely something disturbing, even proto-fascist, for me in going down that road. It rather reminds me of the questions over the teachings of Leo Strauss and the possible connections to neoconservative politics in the Whitehouse. On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t necessarily conflate to power, but is more about the love of beauty. What do you think?