What comes Before? – in praise of Linklater, Delpy and Hawke

I shouldn’t be writing this. I have a script to finish and despite a good day battling with it yesterday I remain significantly behind schedule; plus I am going out for dinner with my friend Kris tomorrow night which means my writing time is further constrained (although for good reason; Kris is always excellent company and despite the fact that we clearly can’t drink as much as we used to do, this never stops us from having a damn good try) and therefore I SHOULD NOT BE WRITING THIS.

But I am. To quote the Sweden-based musician and producer Dr Alban’s hit from 1992: it’s my life. (I’m not sure Dr Alban’s medical credentials stand-up to scrutiny – if you are stung by a wasp or contract a wasting disease whilst throwing scandinavian shapes in the heat of a Stockholm flesh-pit it is probably advisable to call 112 and not wait for the now distinctly middle-aged and seemingly unqualified “Dr” Alban to bound up in a pair of ridiculous shoes and offer you a plaster). I am minded to write a blog entry when I really don’t have the time so to do for one simple reason: I want to wax lyrical, I wish to proselytise, I wish to exhort you to watch the beautiful and brilliant work of Richard Linklater; in particular I want you to scrap all plans for the coming weekend, settle down on the sofa and watch all three of the “Before . . . . ” films on DVD.

I am sure you know all about these films already but if you’ve been reading the Daily Mail for the past fifteen years then let me give you the tiniest amount of context. The three films, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and (finally?) Before Midnight are each set over a single day and feature two characters: Celine, played by Julie Delpy and Jesse played by Ethan Hawke. In the first film the pair meet on a train and decide to spend the night together wandering around Vienna. The subsequent two films explore their relationship at roughly ten year intervals.

before-sunrise-movie-poster-01-396x600

I saw the Before Sunrise during my first year of university. The campus film society would weekly screen films in a large physics lecture hall. The seats were terribly uncomfortable although you could take advantage of the “writing shelf” (a term I have invented for want of a better description of the wooden surface on which young physicists would lean and scribble pictures of infinity) for hosting your snacks and drinks. The atmosphere was sterile and unbecoming but it was cheap and very near a bar so you could have a few pints both before an after a film with relative ease.  And so it was that one cold evening my friend Sam and I were in search of entertainment and we decided to see this film “Before Sunrise” that neither of us had heard of. This was one of our better decisions. The film was a revelation: two young, attractive and clever people wandering around a beautiful European city just TALKING (alright there is a bit of snogging and sexy fumbling but it amounts to very little) and very little else. This was a humane, funny and utterly convincing portrait of a relationship and one portrayed without pretension or filmic film-flam. I loved every second.

This clip says everything you need to know:

The acting is that scene is sublime. I like to think that I rushed back the next night to the lecture hall and watched the film for a second time. However, I don’t think this can be true as films were only shown once a week but whatever the truth, I do remember telling everyone who would listen (and many that wouldn’t) that it was a masterpiece and they should see it. Hopefully some did.

Ten-ish years later, Linklater directed Delpy and Hawke in the sequel, Before Sunset. This time the two characters meet in Paris and much the same thing happens as before, i.e. they walk around the city and talk. But the conversation is different this time; it is pricklier, older, each of the characters being a little more bruised and battered by experience than in the early flush of adulthood explored in the first film. Linklater’s direction is once again flawless, much of it composed of long takes in which he maintains a two-shot from the front or behind and lets the characters just talk. It is beautifully simple. Beautifully simple and very hard to do as Chris our DOP on High Tide will attest – although to be fair to Chris the pavements of Paris are, I’m sure, rather easier to navigate with a Stedicam rig than the paths of Rhosilli or Port Eynon.

Before Sunset also has one the very best endings of any film ever. That’s right, EVER. And if you don’t believe me then ask Professor Rob Stone PhD and he’ll back me up. And he knows a LOT about film. And has met Richard Linklater. So there.before_sunset

Earlier this year, Linklater released the third part of the now-trilogy Before Midnight. I won’t say too much in case you want to do the sensible thing and watch all three in sequence, suffice to say that Jesse and Celine are now another decade older and their conversations (this time in Greece) reflect another ten years worth of living with all its concomitant scars, ticks and ingrained insecurities. And it is another masterpiece. Linklater’s direction reaches another level altogether, not least in the fifteen minute shot that takes place near the beginning of the film. Fifteen minutes, one static camera mounted on the bonnet of a car, no cuts, no edits and our two characters talking. If this sounds hateful and pretentious then let me assure you that it is precisely the opposite; if it sounds dull then you should probably look elsewhere for your filmic kicks, and probably read a different blog.

It is not hard for me to understand why these three films have so consistently moved me over the years. It isn’t simply because I quite fancy both Delpy and Hawke (come on, they are LOVELY) but also, I am sure, because I saw each at roughy the same age as the characters portrayed and in each film and they really could have been, at times, talking about my life (to return to “Dr” Alban territory). This may sound trite but for all the wonder of far-off fantasy, of dragons and spaceships, of car chases and exotic cities lit up against the night sky like a billion fireflies, the stories that pitch themselves closet to your own heart are often the most profound. They are the ones that remain when others have faded. They are the films that become yours.

Great writing, superb acting, brilliant direction, for Jimmy and me the “Before” trilogy is everything to which we aspire as filmmakers. And we are very grateful they exist.

film-poster-before-midnight

Right, I must get on. I really must.

 

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Trichlorophenylmethyliodsalicyl or, the Stinging Weasel

I have a toothache. Not that you are in any way expected to care but there we go, it is true. To counter said toothache I have taken the only two sensible courses of action available to medical science: I have necked a tiny red orb of neurofen (the hardcore stuff that you can only score from a pharmacist) and then gargled with a dilute mixture of TCP and liquid nausea. So I am feeling a little queasy and clouded and, rather like a rudimentary cartoon character, I have a haze of TCP-fumes lingering around my face that I suspect are probably flammable. Please don’t get too close. And don’t offer me a fag.

I do wonder if I should provide a brief gloss here for readers who are not familiar with Britain’s Favourite Liquid Antiseptic (my capitals, I have absolutely no idea whether this is true – I suspect it is must be in the top three though). TCP or, as it is known colloquially in bars and clubs, The Stinging Weasel or, even more colloquially, trichlorophenylmethyliodsalicyl, is British attitudes to healthcare in liquid form. If you fell over in the 1980s whilst playing swingball or scrabbling to buy shares in a newly privatised utility company then your mother’s immediate response to the injury would be as follows. 1 – Say “it’s just a scratch” and then 2 – Liberally apply TCP, in quantities roughly proportionate to the severity of the injury; so if you’d grazed your bare forearm on some barbed wire as you snuck into a field to play football or bother the sheep then perhaps one capful would suffice or if you’d lost your leg altogether then maybe you’d need up to three capfuls. It is magical stuff and in a country when even most GPs will greet most medical complaints with a two pronged strategy of “have a glass of water” and “perhaps a couple of paracetamol” then TCP represents our first line of defence against the big bastard of Real Life who comes at us brandishing a bewildering arsenal of weaponry. Slice open a British child of the 70s or 80s and they will bleed TCP (and then of course please patch them up again and tend to their wound with Dettol Savlon TCP).

I have just spent over three hundred words writing about TCP. I could write a many more but I think I should probably move on. Although my research paper “TCP – Chasing the Stinging Weasel” will be published next month in The Lancet.

There is no way to link from liquid antiseptics into some Long Arm Films news so I won’t even attempt to contrive one. I will just let you know that after many months of having a rubbish website we now have one that isn’t rubbish. Actually forget litotes, we now have a REALLY QUITE LOVELY website. You can view it by clicking on this link that I have handily provided you here in text form. 

And if you are averse to leaving one site to look at another here is a picture of the homepage. Which through the magic of binary coding is also a link to the site.

Screenshot 2013-10-23 22.12.34

It contains all the same information as before but it looks a lot sexier. (And ladies (and men), can you find the hidden picture of Jimmy reclining, Roman Emperor-like, in a bath with a not quite sufficient amount Matey bubble bath to cover his modesty? – We call this feature “Where’s Willy?” – sorry, sorry, sorry, blame the TCP). Anyway we think it looks great and if only the BASTARD DNS settings would stop resetting themselves at our domain host, thus preventing the URL masking from working properly (first world tech problems) then I would be as happy as a cow. Three days ago I didn’t know DNS settings were actually a thing. Now I hate them with dark, treacle-like intensity. Still, if you’ve reached the end of this paragraph and still not visited then you can type http://www.longarmfilms.co.uk and you’ll get there.

The still on the homepage (see above, at length) is from our feature film High Tide starring television’s Melanie Walters and Sam Davies. The rushes from the shoot are still with Dan in his edit bunker at the posh end of Swansea but I am pleased to say that last weekend I was able to see about fifteen minutes of edited footage. Now I know this will seem like I’m dancing from foot-to-foot in front of an enchanted door whilst waxing lyrical about the unbounded joy within but then telling you to bugger off because there’s no way you’re coming in. It may seem like that. Possibly. But I am afraid that I really can’t show you any of it yet. I’d get into all sorts of trouble with the producers, not to mention Jimmy who, when he’d hauled himself out of his bath, would go ape-shit (as we used to say in the late 80s) and kick my ample Devonshire ass from here to a week on Thursday. But please believe me when I said that I was very pleased with what I saw. Okay, enough dancing in front of imaginary doors.

I’ve just finished reading a book by David Mamet which was passed in my direction by my lovely friend Viv (thanks Viv). It purports to be a book revealing the ‘truth” about Hollywood – it is called Bambi vs Godzilla by the way – but it actually consists of Mamet mumbling on like a grumpy wizard about the various people who have pissed him off during his many years making films. He also uses incredibly arcane vocabulary (vocabulary that makes the word “arcane” seem as straightforward as “dog” – I do have some interesting chat about the etymology of “dog” actually but I’ll save it for when we are next in the pub together and I can bore you with it then) – I had to use a dictionary several times (shamefully in app form on my phone rather than a dusty tome pulled from a creaking shelf) – here’s one from page three – PICAYUNE, and on the next page MALFEASANCE and then EXCULPATORY .  .  and so on. However when he’s not having a pop at bastards or showing off that he has a wider vocabulary than God, he does write provocatively and with passing brilliance about filmmaking and creative processes in general. The book ends, appropriately, with a discussion about effective endings to films. Let me quote from Mamet briefly:

Stanislavski wrote that the last ninety seconds are the most important in the play. Hollywood wisdom casts it thus: Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around in the last ten seconds and you can live in Bel Air.

That’s Hollywood as in filmmaking capital not as in Paul and his salt and pepper hair – just to clarify for British readers (this is James writing, not David Mamet).

Perfect endings are hard to come by. If they have been overly-signalled then they arrive with thudding predictability; if they come out of absolutely no where then they can be greeted with a collective OH COME ON from the audience. Followed by violence in the stalls. If they are too weird then they can leave an audience feeling betrayed – I still grumble about the final episode of Twin Peaks. I gave up SO MANY hours to this show, I loved its oddness, its unsettling and confusing multiple plot strands, I embraced Twin Peaks and then it ended without any answers but with a dancing dwarf in a maze. I love you David Lynch but I also HATE you.

Mamet makes some excellent choices about great endings. Who could argue that the final line of Some Like it Hot is anything other than perfection? I am therefore going to end this blog with two suggestions of my own.

1. Big Night (1996) dir. Cambell Scott and Stanley Tucci.

I think I have written about this before but two Italian-American brothers open a restaurant. They cook. They fall out. And then THIS happens.

Understated brilliance showing the wonder of what you can do when telling a story in pictures. And talking of brilliance:

2. Back to the Future (1985) Dir. Robert Zemeckis

There are only rubbish versions of this on youtube so you are going to have to picture the moment in your brain. Come on, you’ve all seen it.

Marty and Jennifer are about to climb into the big truck thing when POW! Doc Brown arrives in the DeLorean telling them they’ve got to go the future to save their children. Marty enquires politely that how will they reach the necessary speed for time travel because, verily, the road is too short. Christopher Lloyd, a genius, earns every cent of his fee for the film by saying (altogether now):

ROADS? WHERE WE’RE GOING WE DON’T NEED (pause) ROADS!

Bosh! Filmmaking perfection. Oh balls, I’ve found the clip now.

Admit it. It was even better in your head. If you saw Back to the Future in a British cinema on its release then the air would have been thick with popcorn, TCP and the stale odour of an overly-forced conclusion to a blog entry.

It’s time for my next shot Doctor, it’s time for my next shot.

The worst line I have EVER written (plus a few more candidates)

Hello world. I can’t be long. I have dinner in the oven and an evening of scriptwriting ahead of me so I really mustn’t linger over this somewhat unplanned addition to the annals (double “n”) of blog. However, I thought you may be interested to know, or even if you’re not you may at least like to pretend that you are for the duration of this sentence, that this week I wrote the worst line of dialogue ever. Yes, that’s EVER. In the twenty or so years I have been writing scripts and articles and poems, I have never arranged lexis from the English language in a more absurd, grating and fundamentally horrible construction (although that last sentence runs it pretty close).

I would point out that this defamation of my abilities as a scriptwriter is not a symptom of an ongoing existential crisis, of doubt and self-loathing plaguing the blackening vaults and caverns of my soul. Not a bit of it. I actually think I’m okay. No, this assertion comes from my lifetime friend and co-owner of Long Arm Films, Mr Jimmy M Hay.

So what’s got old big balls (as I NEVER call him) so flustered then? I suppose I’d better show you. I wouldn’t normally publish lines from an unfinished script on, of all things, the internet but given the ferocity of Jimmy’s ire then I am going to make an exception. I am not going to give you any context, suffice to say that I am working on a short film script that we will be shooting in February next year. Ready then? Here goes:

Screenshot 2013-10-13 17.48.08

So there you are. I had a long chat with Jimmy on Friday. Here are some of the highlights:

“No one speaks like that. No one!”

“No one wants to hear anyone speaking like that. I’m all for upsetting our audience but people will HATE YOU for writing a line like that”.

“It’s the WORST type of intellectual nonsense. Anyone with a brain will HATE you for sounding so pompous and anyone without one will have NO IDEA what you are going on about”.

“It sounds like you’ve been watching the West Wing and then had a MASSIVE BRAIN INJURY before then sitting down to write a script’.

“What does it even mean? WHAT DOES IT EVEN MEAN?”.

I am not an expert on conversation analysis but I am pretty sure Jimmy has his reservations ……….

I am of course reappropriating history for an easy laugh or two in a hastily dashed-off blog post (and you would not expect me to do anything else I am sure); Jimmy actually liked the idea behind the script and indeed liked quite a number of the lines I’d written. (Although he was similarly grumpy when I used the word “omertà” instead of “silence” – he said lots of bad words when describing his thoughts on this example). This is Long Arm Films in action. This is collaboration. There are very few people at whom I would smile and nod when they called me a “pretentious wanker” but Jimmy is one of them. That’s why the partnership works. That’s why when you see High Tide or indeed this short film we are currently scripting you won’t hear ANY lines like the one above.

However, before I tend to the potatoes and in celebration of the apocryphal quotation ascribed to Harrison Ford when talking to George Lucus about the Star Wars screenplay – you can type this shit George, but you sure as hell can’t say it” – I now give you a list of EIGHT lines that will never find their way into a Long Arm script as long as Jimmy still lives, and all the best guesses suggest that he’ll outlive me by a number of decades.

ONE: Supposedly Polly, this is the incarnation of your inherent fears of dominance manifested in a series of irregular and erotic ways.

TWO: Man the lifeboats! Simon is incandescent with bulbous rage and what’s more the wind is getting up more than a little.

THREE: Gah! Damn this sense of foreboding. I can feel it in both my fingers AND my toes.

FOUR: Love’s fickle finger wheedles its way inside me for a second time this fortnight and a third time in this somewhat ill-catalogued section of non-fiction.

FIVE: What would Chaucer do?

SIX: You went to Crystal Palace. You went to Arsenal. You did it the hard way. And the hard way is the only way in my mind. There are other ways of course but the only way remains the hard way.

SEVEN: Byddai’n hapus iawn I gwaithio gyda pawb eto.

EIGHT: That this is the grammar of the broken. (Yet another line from the aforementioned script, rightly castigated by Jimmy).

In other news, my Portlandia obsession grows more profound. And this is why:

I hope all is well in your world. Oh balls, look at the time. Must get on with the spuds. As Martin Scorcese ALWAYS says. He does. It actually gets a little tedious. Always the spuds Marty, always the spuds . . . . sigh.

Faretheewell.

Netflix and the dulling of basic human function (via the joy of Portland, Oregon)

Good evening world. I hope all is well wherever you may be. I hope you’ve been able to put aside, even just for a moment, your fears about chemical warfare, the shutdown of America by a cabal of right-wing fuckwits, the ongoing horror that is the editorship and indeed readership of the Daily Mail or your lingering disgust at that moment yesterday when two, count them, two separate people barged in front of you in the queue for the talking till computer things (I remember when you were served by a human being; call me a daft, middle-aged nostalgia-twat but I found that experience just a little bit more pleasant) in Marks and Spencer, and have had a lovely day doing something at least fairly agreeable. I ate a sandwich, fell asleep beneath a yellowing autumn tree and then looked at some pumpkins (not a euphemism). All in all, something of a triumph as far as Sundays go.

pumpkinsPumpkins: a range of varieties from around the world and already condemned by the Daily Mail as “Marxist” and “Britain-hating” and therefore should be stripped of all benefits and sent back to the Americas post-haste.

I am also somewhat chipper to be to bring you a few nuggets of Long Arm news; none of which are particularly life-altering in their magnitude but should reassure the many of you that gave us some money that we have not just spent it on pants and then hoped that you’d forget about the film if we didn’t talk about it for long enough.

So here goes:

1 – Jimmy represented Long Arm Films at the Welsh BAFTAS on the arm of television’s Melanie Walters. He had a good time but sadly did not make it into the official photographs of the evening that you can find on BAFTA’s website. This may be due to the fact that he went all “Emperor’s New Clothes” in his wardrobe choice. However, he did drink a lot but not enough to keep up with Mel who abandoned him at 3am and then branded him a lightweight on Twitter the following day. A good night for LAF.

2 – The edit of High Tide (starring of course the aforementioned Ms. Walters) continues in the very safe hands of Dan the editor. He seems still to be happy in his work and he is making some very positive noises (just like the one you make when you’ve taken a first bite of a dish that you’d assumed would be no more than mediocre but actually turns out to be lip-smackingly lovely, that kind of noise) about how it is looking. This of course means he is yet to tackle the hours and hours of footage that we shot with two cameras during the party scene. At this point in the editing process, Dan will turn from affable gentleman to crimson-eyed demon and curse the name of Long Arm films in a series of imaginative and deeply offensive constructions, his diabolic voice rattling the slates and Vietnamese noodles across the Uplands with a good chance of being heard in Mumbles if the wind is blowing favourably.

Enough Swansea references.

3 – We have gone into pre-production on two NEW short films that will be shot early next year and then released in the run-up to the premiere of High Tide. The first will be a new short by Jimmy and me but the second will be written and directed by High Tide DOP and all-round good egg Mr Christopher Lang. This will be the first Long Arm production written by someone else. We are very excited about both films; it will be good to be making something again and we’re delighted that the first Long Arm non-Gillingham / Hay film will be in the safe and steady hands of our pal Chris. I will reveal a bit more about each of the two short films as we get closer to the shoot, including casting and a few hints about the plots of each.

4 – We had a something of a breakthrough on our second feature film script this week. And, in a first for Long Arm, we weren’t engaged in a round of pitch and put when the breakthrough happened. I must be coy (and sensible) and not reveal the plot of our as-yet-unwritten second feature-length screenplay on my blog but I can say that it is interesting, provocative and unexpected. And the Daily Mail will HATE it. Which can only be a good thing.

Away from Long Arm and back in the domestic realm, this week I’ve realised (the grammar of which suggests that I have, like baths, weekly revelations; this is very far from the truth) that sleek modern technology may look sexy, shiny and Helvetica Extra-Fine but frequently it does not solve many of humanity’s fundamental problems, and god knows we have a few of these, but just shifts them to new contexts. Take for example, the utterly anodyne ritual of choosing a film to watch on a Friday night. You’ve had a long week, a couple of drinks after work and you’re in the mood for a decent film. In the VHS days, you’d have to traipse to your local rental shop and stand beneath near hospital-level intensity white light and scan the plastic racks for a copy of Heathers or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Short Circuit. And this was fine, if a little hard on the eyes. At least it got you out and maybe you could pop into Spar on your way back for some Bombay mix, a bottle of cheap red and a packet of durex.

Now things are different. Things are EASIER, he writes in ironic capitals. Now with on-demand services streamed to your television the trip to the VHS rental shop has gone the way of socialism and milkmen. Now you can sit on your sofa and choose from a near-infinite selection of films and television programmes from around the world. But such infinity serves only to nudge you towards madness as you are terrorised by overwhelming choice; it is an endless box of chocolates stretching out past familiar stars and out towards deep space; it is a bar stocked with all of your favourite ales that breaks through the side wall of the pub and continues for miles along the A303 towards Honiton. And faced with such unquenchable supply of product your ability to be decisive goes the same way as socialism and milkmen. You have infinite choice. But you can’t choose. This is the torture of the digital age; the dulling of those instinctive faculties that kept our ancient ancestors alive and, cruelly, prepared the stage for our eventual, inevitable and ignominious exit.

ANCIENT GILLINGHAM 4500BC – Shit! There’s a mammoth. Wow. It’s really big. Despite our dearth of basic refrigeration facilities that could keep the family going for like ages. What shall I do? I shall HUNT IT. NOW! COME ON! Eat spear my hirsute, elephantine adversary!

MODERN GILLINGHAM 2013AD – Shit! There’s a mammoth. Wow! It’s really big. Although you know what, I’ve seen bigger. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of mammoths. And I’m a bit tired. What shall I do? Well, I QUITE want to chuck my spear at it, but I don’t know if I can be bothered. I mean, I want to chuck my spear at it AT SOME POINT. But maybe not now. Maybe I’ll wait and see what else comes along. I’ve always wanted to hunt mammoth but I just wanted something, I don’t know, a bit funnier on a Friday night  . . . .  .

Thank goodness, Neolithic tribes didn’t have Netflix otherwise NONE OF US WOULD NOW EXIST.

However, despite all that bluster I am very grateful to Netflix for introducing me to Portlandia which has made me very happy indeed this weekend. It is a sketch show set in Portland, Oregon (which seems to be like a large-scale, American version of Totnes, a reference which although limited in its accessibility is nevertheless pin-sharp accurate) and, at a time when nothing on television makes me laugh anymore, it is very, very funny. I love everything about it. This is the opening of the first episode:

And if you don’t love that then we can no longer be friends. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Portlandia features regular guest appearances from Kyle MacLachlan who I first encountered in late-night Twin Peaks sessions (ON VHS!) with Mark, Bob and Rupert in Shepherd’s Bush. But that is another story. However, let’s end with a bit of David Lynch genius and dig up from the digital top-soil MacLachlan’s first appearance in the aforementioned Twin Peaks in what must be one of the greatest introductions to a character ever. And I mean that. Take it away Agent Cooper: