Tagged: Michael Winterbottom

BIFF 2013 #1: The Look of Love (UK 2012)

Steve Coogan (right) with Imogen Poots and Chris Addison

Steve Coogan (right) with Imogen Poots as Debbie and Chris Addison as the magazine editor Tony Power

BIFF19logoBradford has often opened with a new British film and British cinema has been an important element of the festival. On the face of it The Look of Love looks like a good choice. Michael Winterbottom is a celebrated if controversial director, Steve Coogan has done some of his best work with Michael and the subject matter is promising. . . . On the other hand, biopics are notoriously difficult to get right. Writer Matt Greenhalgh scripted one of the best with Control and I’ve admired Michael Winterbottom’s work since I first saw Welcome to Sarajevo on a big screen in 1997. After Wonderland in 1999 I was convinced that he was the most exciting UK director around. Since then I’ve liked nearly everything he’s done and I’ve been dismayed by the failure of most of his best films to get the recognition they deserve in terms of big audiences. I think Winterbottom’s problem has been to find a new writing partner after his successful collaborations with Frank Cottrell-Boyce and his irregular link-ups with Laurence Coriat. Before the screening my main concern was how the notorious workaholic guerilla filmmaker with thirty-odd films to his name would get on with a scriptwriter who had previously worked with first-time feature directors. You can’t really get a better combination of Lancashire names than Greenhalgh-Winterbottom, so I’m sure that they got on at a personal level, but for me the film didn’t work.

Let’s take the positives first. The audience clapped at the end and several people said how much they liked it. The performances in the film were all good and the soundtrack must have cost a few bob with some nice tunes from the 1960s-1980s. After that I start to struggle. The Look of Love tells the story of Paul Raymond, the Liverpool-born ‘failed entertainer’ who became a very successful impresario in the demi-world of first nude shows in the 1950s then strip clubs and his Revuebar in Soho and eventually a softporn publishing empire. His stroke of genius (sorry, there is a pun there which was not intentional, but that’s how the ‘nudge, wink’ world works) was to put his profits into property in the West End. By the late 1990s he was one of the richest men in the UK. But money can’t buy you love – even if you do know the Beatles. Raymond’s family life was a mess, particularly in relation to his daughter who would do anything to please her father. He was seemingly a father who could not really understand the damage that he did.

In the Q & A that followed, Matt Greenhalgh answered a question about what was not in the film (e.g. Raymond’s possible dealings with criminals etc.) by saying that there were too many stories. He also said that he hadn’t done deep research in Soho. Instead, it seems that he latched onto the story of Debbie, the daughter (played by Imogen Poots). He also implied that he didn’t get to tell that story fully, because the film was really the idea of Steve Coogan who wanted to play Raymond. Here is possibly the major problem with the film. Steve Coogan, whose performances in The Trip and 24 Hour Party People I admire, is miscast as Raymond, or rather he can’t or won’t, play Raymond as a ‘character’ in this fiction. He remains Coogan, on a couple of occasions addressing the camera to say “My name is Paul Raymond”, winking at the camera on another occasion and then doing Coogan impressions of Sean Connery later Marlon Brando.

The film wants to tell the story from the 1950s to the 1990s. Raymond was born in 1925 so he was in his late 60s by the end of the film. Coogan does actually look a little like Raymond in his 60s, but he also always looks like Coogan. He’s not really helped by the film’s production design. The 1950s sequences use black and white but from then on, Soho looks more or less the same over the next forty years. You have to guess from the clothes which decade is which. For someone who was once the most audacious director around for devising a unique aesthetic approach, Winterbottom seems to have abandoned the task this time. It’s probably not helped by the absence of Marcel Zyskind whose camerawork has been the basis of that aesthetic since he acted as operator for Robbie Muller on 24 Hour Party People in 2002. (He shot two episodes of the third series of The Killing in his native Denmark in 2012 instead.)

At the end of the Q&A we got the inevitable (and justifiable) question about the film’s objectification of women. Of course, a film about a man who runs strip clubs and a soft porn publishing house has to show something, but the question (from a well-known film studies professor) was why was the film so complicit, so chummy in its representations of Raymond – and why were there no male genitalia to complement the numerous full frontals of dozens of actresses? It’s a fair point, but my feeling is that the film simply didn’t offer anything ‘strong’ to react against. Raymond wasn’t a hypocrite. He didn’t peddle Page 3 or attack women like the Daily Mail does now. He published ‘top shelf’ magazines and ran clubs that made money from the gullibility of men seeking excitement. The acres of flesh seemed to me just dull, but that was what much of that softporn world in the UK was like in the 1970s and 1980s. British representations of sex were at one time mostly comical. If they were sexy it was because of an element of realism – the ‘Readers’ Wives’ aesthetic if you like. It’s ironic that in one scene it’s just possible to glimpse a poster of Joe Losey’s The Servant (a poster for Billy Liar appears in another scene). There is much more eroticism in one look from Dirk Bogarde or a wriggle by Sarah Miles than in the whole of The Look of Love. Having said that, at least the women in Winterbottom’s film looked ‘real’ and not sculpted and plucked like Christmas turkeys. Anna Friel and Tamsin Egerton as Raymond’s wife Jean and his girlfriend Fiona Richmond make the most of what they are offered, but they deserved more. There is a story in here, probably more than one, but they need to be told in such a way to bring out not just the personal relationships but also something about the changes in British social life over the period. If it had more bite the film would be more entertaining and might also generate some debate.

Trishna (UK 2011)

If I was sceptical of the idea of an Indian-set retelling of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, then Trishna removed them successfully. Michael Winterbottom’s third adaptation of a Hardy novel (following The Claim – based on The Mayor of Casterbridge – and Jude) this updates Tess to modern Rajasthan, a province still functioning as a rural community enough alike to nineteenth century Dorset (or Wessex) to make the parallels less of a gimmick and more living and breathing motivations for the characters. It is a place where the kind of passivity that Tess shows in the face of all decisions would be credible – for a Western audience – in a young girl from a poor family. What more local audiences will make of this – and in particular after some of the controversy that Slumdog Millionaire generated – I’d really like to hear.

Being able to see this pretty much back to back with Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, shows how two of the main contenders for current leading British filmmaker approach their work with such an eye for the essences of the story and a desire to make it truly modern. Arnold’s film catches you with how it blends both the language of the novel with modern expressions – without the two jarring and so emphasising how little the essences of people and their passions change. It is embedded in the storytelling through the dialogue – a better claim for contemporaneity than any of the surface glosses (wet shirts, tousled hair) added in order to ‘sex up’ and so update certain Austen or Bronte adaptations. Quite differently, Winterbottom has engaged with aspects of Indian culture to create a world where the girl from the village, Trishna, can believably wish to aspire to be part of a glamour that would usually be completely out of her reach – the world of the Westernised Jay whose father owns the luxury hotels to pander to tourists’ colonial nostalgia and who dabbles in the fringes of Bollywood, his money attractive to ambitious filmmakers and musicians. There’s a very modern dilemma for Trishna. Winterbottom (responsible for the screenplay as well as the direction) allows the narrative to generate other possibilities that the lead character could follow in twenty-first century Mumbai. How she chooses to resolve her situation would be huge spoiler – so I won’t spoil it.

Ossian, Rajasthan

In the Q&A following the screening, Winterbottom and Pinto discussed working with a treatment and exploring improvisations extensively (the dialogue is very loose and naturalistic in line with this) and how many of the characters are non-professional locals in the area around Ossian (a city which is off the regular tourist track – as Jay’s group comments – but which looked stunning in Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography) playing a version of themselves. Pinto spent a long time with the real jeep driver’s family who play her family in the film – and that is tangible in the warm on-screen relationships making their relationship much more central than in the novel. Winterbottom had long eyed that area as ideal for an adaptation of Tess – since he went there for Code 46 (another even more improvisational narrative, with some of the same issues of power and disenfranchisement as we find here).

The music drives the story. From the homage sequences to Bollywood films – where a dance rehearsal in the story breaks out of its frame within a frame to become a brief performance sequence direct to camera – to the Indian movies playing on the television. Better minds than mine will be able to furnish the specific references but it’s a melodrama in the true sense in the way it subsumes the music into the drama. The girls (‘milkmaids’) dance with youthful joy and abandon to the TV sequence, knowing all the moves – by turns sexy, provocative but with a carelessness that is innocent of their seductiveness. (This is at the heart of Tess too). The process of working with Amit Trivedi during the course of the film – so that the original songs were developed during shooting enabling them to be embedded into the story (commenting back on the action as is familiar in this style of movie). The original theme is a lyrical, elegiac melody – imbued with a tone more nineteenth than twenty-first century. Written by Shigeru Umebayashi (who was responsible for just such another affecting score on A Single Man) it returns periodically to overlay the romance.

Winterbottom commented that if Pinto and Ahmed had not agreed to do the film, then it simply would not have been made. This is a very typical publicity puff we’re all used to hearing on the DVD extras, except this time it was more convincing. These two actors are what British stars are made of – embodying an charisma outside their character and a conviction within it. Ahmed, in particular, handled a character combining both Alec and Angel well to maintain engagement with a potentially unsympathetic role. It made me want to see them in a role where their ethnic origin, or their ability to represent those roles, was removed. (Although I see Ahmed has subsequently worked with Mira Nair on an American-set 9/11 related narrative – her handling of such a narrative would be a must-see following films such as The Namesake).

Music has been such as integral part of Winterbottom’s film conceptions – there are the obvious links via Nine Songs and 24 hour Party People; there are the collaborations with Michael Nyman in Wonderland and The Claim; a clip played from Jude reminded me of that haunting folk melodies that convey the melancholy and impending tragedy in that story. In an accompanying screen talk, Winterbottom outlined how that process differs from film to film (not surprising given the wide diversity of material he engages with) and it reminded me what a versatile role music plays in his films.

The Trip (UK 2010)

Rob and Steve – another dinner, some more banter

The Trip seems to me almost perfect – but I’m intrigued to see that it is selling in North America and around Europe and I do wonder what audiences outside the UK will make of it. Actually, I wonder what some UK audiences outside the North of England will make of it.

The concept

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play two characters who are fictional versions of their ‘real life’ selves. They first did this in A Cock and Bull Story (UK 2005), in which they are actors playing in a film production of the famously ‘unfilmable novel’, Tristram Shandy, directed by a fictional Michael Winterbottom (played by Jeremy Northam). The ‘real’ Winterbottom is the ringmaster of this postmodern comedy which proved to be a modest hit. The Trip is similarly a Winterbottom-directed Revolution Films production, again with BBC Films and Coogan’s Baby Cow.

Coogan is sent on a ‘Northern tour’ of gourmet restaurants in the most beautiful locations imaginable in North Lancashire, North Yorkshire and the Lake District. He’s meant to be writing an article for the Observer and had intended to take his girlfriend but they have just split up, so he ropes in Brydon as a travelling companion – but it’s work, “we aren’t on holiday”. In the UK this is a TV series (6 x 30 minutes) but it is also being sold outside the UK as a 100 minute film. Some territories seem to be taking both the series and the film.

Each episode of the TV series features a different location, usually a country house style guesthouse/inn with a dining room or a separate restaurant in the vicinity. There is a continuous narrative in which Coogan keeps in touch with his office, his children and his exes and sometimes a local conquest like the lovely Magda in Episode 1. Otherwise, the main ‘content’ of the show is the banter between Coogan and Brydon between the endless courses of beautifully-prepared food and their trips in a Range Rover between each location.

I confess that the best thing about the series for me is the camerawork and the proper representation of what is the most beautiful landscape in the UK. This isn’t the ‘chocolate box’ imagery of much of the Lakes, although there is some of that, but the much more subtle and mysterious beauty of the dales and the Forest of Bowland (‘forest’ in its original English meaning doesn’t imply trees – it means hunting land). many films and television programmes have filmed in the region, but rarely do they capture these qualities. One of the few exceptions is Whistle Down the Wind (UK 1961) shot in the Ribble Valley by Arthur Ibbetson (who was from Bishop Auckland in Co. Durham and no doubt knew how to handle the light). I’m not sure what Simon Tindall’s background is but he has worked on Michael Winterbottom’s productions for several years. I do wonder if the real motivation for The Trip comes from Winterbottom having some form of mid-life epiphany and remembering his Blackburn childhood and trips into the Dales. The series is filmed in winter and I think that was a good decision. The YouTube link at the foot of this post shows the opening of the first episode and the couple’s arrival at the Inn at Whitewell in Bowland. I know that the landscape isn’t what attracts most viewers to the series, but I wanted to foreground it because I was so pissed off with a couple of London reviewers who moaned because the restaurants weren’t going to be in Manchester or some other urban area. In the UK, Lancashire is often assumed to be dirty and industrial so this is me trying to get my retaliation in first. (These are real restaurants by the way and you can get reasonable bar meals in the pubs and avoid the expensive gourmet stuff.)

What will attract audiences is the banter. Coogan and Brydon are brave actors, prepared to improvise around exaggerated versions of themselves. The exaggerations make Coogan even more paranoid and egocentric and Brydon perhaps more of a put-upon companion, always ready to bounce back like one of those toy figures you can’t knock over. I guess all male double acts are like this and there are one or two elements of Laurel (Brydon) and Hardy (Coogan) at certain moments. In the Q&As from the Toronto Film Festival on YouTube, both men said that they wouldn’t have been happy doing the same thing with any other director, only Michael Winterbottom – and that rings true to me. The jokes are mainly about the assumed characters of the two men and the ‘mimic wars’ are the crowning glory of the banter. I marvelled at Brydon’s skill in taking off Michael Caine, Ray Winstone etc. (there were plenty I didn’t get, however) but then Coogan tops it with a version that is even better. This is where the brilliance of the concept really shows itself. I was left thinking that Brydon is entertaining and very likable (yet also possibly irritating) but Coogan is actually more of a star and more skilled as an actor, even if he is a pillock. How close is that to the ‘real’ Rob and Steve? Brave men indeed and they’ve provided the only TV entertainment I’ve positively looked forward to since the last time Victoria Wood offered something new. Good on yer, Lads!

Here’s a taster if the show hasn’t reached you yet.

The Killer Inside Me (UK/US 2010)

Lou (Casey Affleck) and Amy (Kate Hudson) in a scene that might have been The Last Picture Show

The release of this film made me think of that phrase often used about weddings and funerals in Michael Winterbottom’s native Lancashire – “there was a lot said”. Unfortunately, most of what was said by general commentators in the media focused on the charge of misogyny and gratuitous violence which first arose at Sundance and has dogged the film ever since. The result is that some of the audience who might appreciate the film have chosen not to see it.

But is there anything worthwhile to say about the film as a film and an example of cinematic art? I wouldn’t argue that it is a particularly outstanding film, but it is a good example of the work of a significant team of filmmakers. I’m not going to focus specifically on the violence in the film – I was one of those viewers aware of what would happen, so I just covered my eyes and didn’t watch the two offending scenes when the most brutal moments came. I’m still not sure what I think about these scenes that I heard rather than saw, but I don’t think I missed anything since the brutality was signified very effectively through the sound effects. On the other hand, I’m not going to argue against the director’s decision to include them as part of his presentation of the narrative. Rona is going to offer her thoughts on this.

Plot

For anyone who hasn’t read about the plot of the film, The Killer Inside Me is a close adaptation of a crime novel by one of the most ‘hardboiled’ of American pulp writers, Jim Thompson. The title refers to a young sheriff’s deputy in a small Texas town who commits a series of murders – perhaps rationally to protect himself, perhaps not. As the title suggests, there is a mis-match between the young man’s outward demeanour and what is going on inside his head. This is a classic film noir narrative, set in the early 1950s (which in Hollywood marked the most vicious period of the noir crime film).

Commentary

What makes the film interesting initially is that it is the work of one of the two most prolific and celebrated production teams in British Cinema – here tackling a completely American property for the first time (even if it is actually their third independent US production). Revolution Films, the company set up by producer Andrew Eaton and director Michael Winterbottom, has produced films at an astonishing rate since the mid 1990s with sixteen features (including one documentary) in sixteen years. Many of these films have featured at Cannes, Berlin, San Sebastian etc. winning a number of prizes. Only Ken Loach with Rebecca O’Brien and Paul Laverty comes anywhere near this record. Yet Loach wins out because his films win bigger prizes and usually much bigger audiences. It’s a tribute to Andrew Eaton’s producer skills that Revolution’s lack of commercial success doesn’t seem to prevent them from financing the next production. Presumably there is enough income from ‘ancillary’ sales to balance the books.

I think that there are two reasons why Revolution Films don’t make it with audiences and with mainstream reviewers. The first is that Winterbottom’s choice of subject matter combined with rigorous aesthetic choices and narrative experiments results in films either dogged by controversy or lacking in immediate mainstream appeal. I offer you the film under discussion here alongside A Mighty Heart and 9 Songs on the one hand and films like Genova or Code 46 on the other. So, the films don’t hit big in the multiplex – but if they win festival prizes why don’t they work in the arthouses? Arthouse audiences are often quite conservative in the sense that they like to know what they are getting and Winterbottom confounds easy ideas about auteurs who make the same film over and over. Instead he makes melodramas, postmodern comedies, science fiction, romantic comedy, realist thrillers, westerns, literary adaptations – no film is like the last one and each is also likely to be stylistically different.

I ought to put my cards on the table. For me, Wonderland (UK 1999) was the best British film of the 1990s and The Claim (UK/Canada/France 2000) the most ambitious and best realised production of the past twenty years (well, you try adapting The Mayor of Casterbridge as a gold-rush western and shooting it in an Albertan winter). I’ve seen everything since 1994 apart from 9 Songs (UK 2004) and every one of the films has been interesting in different ways. Overall, however, I’d say that the more controversial and more ‘popular’ subjects have been less interesting than the left-field ones. And that is possibly my problem with The Killer Inside Me.

Winterbottom has said that his main aim was to create a ‘literal’ adaptation of the novel. I think he felt that Thompson had created a unique perspective on crime – from within the mind of the killer. Certainly the narrative is constructed with Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) at its centre and we only see other characters when they meet Lou. The two obvious points to make here are that Lou is the classic ‘unreliable narrator’ and we have no way of knowing how much of what we see is actually fantasy and secondly that this strategy allows Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran to argue that any charges of misogyny should be directed towards the fictional character (and, presumably, Jim Thompson). The creation of an unreliable narrator seems to me to be a valid artistic decision. The second point is more problematic. Thompson is a complex figure as a writer and according to his wife Alberta was . . . “a gentle sensitive man who loved animals and was of course a devoted husband and father” (quoted by Nick Kimberley in the introduction to a compendium of Thompson’s novels, Zomba Books, London 1983). He was writing at a specific moment in American popular culture and from a specific perspective as a struggling pulp writer. The question Winterbottom doesn’t seem to have answered is why adapt the novel now and why feign surprise that many will find the film offensive?

There is undoubtedly a case to be made against Revolution for simply seeking out controversial projects or perhaps creating a self-image such that for productions like A Mighty Heart Winterbottom seems like the most straightforward choice of director. It’s also worth noting that the previous Revolution Films production was the Red Riding Trilogy for Channel 4. Winterbottom wasn’t directly involved with that production as far as I know, but Andrew Eaton certainly was. But I don’t really want to explore Revolution’s history here. Instead I’ll focus on two issues: the aesthetics of the film and its status as film noir.

Winterbottom and aesthetic choices

What you get in a Michael Winterbottom film is something that looks and feels different. That’s obvious in the credit sequence of most of Revolution’s films and here there is some lovely use of typography with a strong country soundtrack. From then on, Winterbottom and his regular cinematographer Marcel Zyskind create very cold and clean images of the Texas oilfields (with some shooting in Oklahoma). If the intention was to look for a ‘Thompson aesthetic’ – the look of Hud, The Last Picture Show, Written on the Wind etc. The print I saw was digital which enhanced the feel of bleakness. Other than this textural quality, I didn’t notice the camerawork and colour that much – because the narrative is so gripping and the plot moves forward so quickly (as in the novel). (I can’t believe the IMDB posters who find the film ‘boring’ or who don’t see any ‘characterisation’.)

The textural feel is supported by the excellent costume design and casting choices. I thought at first that Joyce and Amy were just too beautiful for a small town prostitute and a schoolteacher, but the casting is consistent with Winterbottom’s aim to be ‘true’ to the novel.

Film noir

Now that I’ve read the novel, I’m tempted to think more about the genre repertoires and themes which the film explores. The Killer Inside Me qualifies as noir in a number of ways. Thompson is clearly a pulp writer – though none of his novels were made into films at the time. He did work on film and TV scripts later in the 1950s and 1960s – but mostly in other genres. Perhaps his crime novels were considered too violent? Or perhaps they were too far ahead of popular taste?

The violence towards women features in several noirs of the period. In Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), Gloria Grahame is disfigured by scalding coffee deliberately thrown by Lee Marvin’s violent thug. In Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a young woman is tortured to death. In both films, however, the extreme violence is offscreen (see the clips below – the end of the Kiss Me Deadly intro):

The ‘narration’ of The Killer Inside Me is in some ways similar to that of the William Holden character in Sunset Boulevard, but the theme of the film looks forward to later films such as Psycho. Thompson’s writing style shares with Winterbottom’s directorial style in impatience with spelling everything out. Audiences have to work hard to put together the plot information, but there are plenty of clues. Lou Ford is insane (though US audiences seem to have missed this in many cases). His behaviour is influenced by childhood trauma and he entertains himself with his father’s medical books (the soundtrack also offers us Mahler, Richard Strauss and Donizetti alongside Western Swing to represent Lou’s two worlds). The only elements in the book that don’t appear in the movie (unless I’ve already forgotten them!) are a visit to Lou’s house from a quack psychiatrist and Lou’s use of prescription drugs to pep up his sexual performance. Both of these could be part of 40s/50s noir but the childhood trauma seems like a relatively new reason for the injection of violence into the doomed life of the male protagonist. In earlier noirs, the trauma is often associated with wartime experience. The novel reveals that part of the reason for Lou’s aggression towards the DA Howard Hendricks is that Lou is fed up with hearing about Hendricks’ war experience and the shrapnel lodged in his body. Lou himself is 29, so at the time of the main US recruitment of young men to fight in 1944 he would have been 21. Why didn’t he enlist? Why too is there no sense of the Korean War or the mounting anti-Communist hysteria? Is this again because we are inside the head of an insane man – someone with a sickness that blots out the rest of the world?

Conclusion

I suspect that a closer examination of The Killer Inside Me will prompt some more thoughts when the DVD becomes available. Meanwhile Winterbottom and Eaton have a new project – Promised Land, exploring the Stern Gang, the notorious Jewish guerilla group that murdered several British soldiers and police officers (as well as ordinary Palestinians and two major diplomats) in Palestine in the 1940s before the 1948 war. That won’t be controversial in the US will it?