Back to bass

It is February 1977. I am eleven years old and my family have moved from Rochdale, Lancashire to inner city Birmingham. But we haven’t just moved from a small town to a big city. We’ve crossed other borders. We’ve moved into a more socially diverse place. We’ve moved from Britain’s homogenous past into its multicultural future. I’ve left a school with one black pupil on Friday and, on Monday, walked into a school where black kids are the majority.

Straight away it is the music that grips me. Althea & Donna are high in the charts and Rasta girls are skanking to its beat on tinny transistor radios in the playground. Then we have a school disco and the black kids demand to have some of their own music for a change, so the school let them organise it. A group of ex-pupils bring their sound system into the assembly hall on the night, filling it with giant speaker cabs that throb bass at spine-shuddering depths. Rasta boys take turns on the mic, chanting over dubplates, dreadlocks whipping the air around their heads.

I stand at the side, watching it all, shaking with excitement, not sure if I am allowed to dance to it, not sure how to if I am.

I fall in love with reggae that night. It is a love affair I never grow tired of. I sleep around with other sounds – punk, funk, classical, jazz, drum and bass – but I always come back to reggae. It’s the bass.

Babylon is the film that takes me back to that first flush of love for dub. And for fans of great British movies, Christmas has come early this year, because Babylon is finally out on DVD after years of neglect.

I’ve had a bad video recording of it since Channel 4 last broadcast it in 1990, and I accidentally taped over most of it years ago. There was a VHS release but it preceded the BBFC and copies are as   rare as rocking horse shit.  There was also a dodgy Italian DVD release, which was better than nothing, but when there are so many really bad Brit movies out on DVD, it’s always been a  bloody crime that this film has never been widely available.

It’s a  simple tale of a bunch of kids preparing for a sound system clash, but it’s also an uncompromising examination of racism in all its forms that never sacrifices character and story for the sake of politics, or even at the expense of the music (even though it contains the most stunning musical climax of any film I’ve ever seen courtesy of the almighty Jah Shaka sound system and Aswad’s Warrior Charge).

It’s more than just a film about reggae music. To me it’s the inner-city Britain I grew up in. When I see Blue, Beefy and Spark (even Ronnie the reggae-loving white kid) I see the kids I grew up with, trying to make their way out of the frying pan of the Winter of Discontent and into the fire of Thatcher’s depression with just their fragile friendships and their love of the music to give them hope.

Screenwriter Martin Stellman also wrote those other classic slices of gritty British realism  Quadrophenia, Defence Of The Realm and For Queen And Country, and there is a clear thread running through them and on through the years to the films of Shane Meadows today.

This is an important British film and hopefuly this new beautifully remastered DVD release will cement its place in British film history. Buy this DVD now.


Angus Taylor’s review at Britmovie.

A team, a road, a prize…

There are people in the world who believe that film and television fall into two distinct camps: on one side is the noble documentary and its upstart sibling the reality show. On the other side there’s all that made-up stuff. But as a fiction writer who worked for years in factual TV, I know that the best documentaries mimic fictional story structures. And nowhere is this more obvious than Man On Wire, which is a heist movie pure and simple.

To call it a documentary is to do a disservice to one of the most exciting, funny and moving films of the year.  Yes, it recounts a real event with the testimony of everyone who participated in it, backed up by a thankfully rich supply of stills and film footage. But what it achieves is way beyond the traditional confines of documentary, and it’s all down to how it apes one of the most popular fictional genres.

Philippe Petit is the French high-wire artist who achieved global fame on 7 August 1974 when he broke into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre, sneaked up to the rooftop undetected, and suspended a cable across to the North Tower. At 7.15 in the morning he looked down at the quarter-mile abyss below and stepped off the South Tower, onto the cable, into history.

It was a ‘heist’ six years in the planning, and performed with the help of a colourful supporting cast who, luckily for us,  had the foresight to document every step of the way with photos and film footage, way before the advent of mass market video cameras.

As a screenwriter, though, what interests me most about this film is how it utilises elements of the heist genre to achieve its effect.

I seem to be citing him every week, but if you’re talking about genre it’s now impossible to ignore Blake Snyder and his 10 Story Types. He would class Man on Wire firmly as a Golden Fleece story type. It has a road, a team and a prize. And it sits very comfortably in the ‘Caper Fleece‘ sub-section with movies like Topkapi, The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven.

Leading the team is a man with a mission, an obsessive who will risk everything and everybody to achieve the ‘fleece’. Petit is a Jason, a Charlie Croker, a Danny Ocean. He dreams up the caper when he sees an artist’s impression of the Twin Towers two years before they are constructed, and knows instantly that this will be his ultimate wire walk. It is as if they are being built solely for him to perform this act.

He assembles a team of accomplices who share his vision, each with a specific skill, each with a fatal flaw (the permanently stoned one is a particular highlight).  They plan out their operation meticulously and put it to work, and everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

In the end, it’s a miracle that they pull off the job… but of course, the job turns out to be not what they all expected. In stories like this the prize is never really the prize. They always discover something else, something about themselves.  And when Petit steps out onto that wire, something happens that none of them expected. They realise they have helped create not a mere stunt but a work of art.

Even thirty-four years later, the emotion for those who took part is overwhelming. They break down in tears just at the tantalising moment of trying to define what it was they created.

It is a beautiful and moving documentary, for sure. But for me Man on Wire stands as one of the most entertaining movies of the year, and possibly the greatest heist movie ever.


People are strange

Alfred Hitchcock once famously predicted that in the future there would be no more need for movies: audiences would be hooked up to electrodes that would give people jolts of various emotions: suspense, fear, sadness, love. He was wrong. We just started making movies that replicated that process.

We see this most obviously in the big genre staples like action/adventure, thriller and horror. Many of which play like a piano-roll of random key notes with a few cardboard characters to make them seem as if they’re actually about human beings.

It’s an easy trap to fall into when making a slasher movie. But The Strangersis a noble attempt to avoid these pitfalls.

[I’m going to discuss the ending of this movie, so if you haven’t seen it yet…  SPOILERS AHOY!]

The Strangers is not a bad movie. It is, for almost its entirety, the best slasher film you’ve ever seen: wonderfully subtle, chillingly eerie and scary as fuck without resorting to too much ‘BOO!’

One of the problems with setting up a horror movie is that first act of maybe twenty minutes where you have to set up your victims and give them enough humanity so that we care about them surviving the ordeal ahead. If you don’t set them up strongly enough, we don’t care about them. But we want to get to the scary action stuff quickly.

You can go the Teaser route and show the killer in action somewhere else and then cut to the Ordinary World, so we’re waiting for the two to collide. It’s a good technique and it’s used almost universally.

But writer-director Bryan Bertino chooses a different tactic. He gives us an ordinary couple, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, but keeps us guessing as to what’s going on between them. They have returned from a wedding party to a remote country home. It appears to be his father’s place, not their own, but this is never explained. The beauty of the opening act is that there is no clumsy info dump to explain everything to us. It’s just this couple and some sort of problem between them that is never fully stated but appears to be a marriage proposal that has been rejected.  The subtlety of it is extraordinary. It’s almost arthouse.

Then comes a knock at the door. It’s a young woman, her face in shadow, asking for someone they don’t know. It’s creepy. She seems a bit weird. She goes. And then the horror begins.

There’s definitely a zeitgeist thing going on here that any Daily Mail reader will recognise. Much like the recent French film Ils (Them),   in which a middle class couple are besieged by intruders from the underclass, these speak to our elemental fear of our homes being terrorised.

I’m not a real aficionado of horror, but we all have a sixth sense for genre. We know at a very deep level what we expect to happen in a certain kind of movie – even if what we expect to happen is the unexpected.

Genres make a pact with the audience. You can bend them and play with them, but you betray them at your peril (or occasionally to bizarre success – but that’s another story).  But it’s clear that where a certain genre has to deliver most is in its ending.

And that’s the only place where this brilliant film falls down.

For the entire movie, this couple are stalked and terrorised by three masked strangers (it’s kind of creepier that two of them are women) in a series of subtle but very chilling set pieces. And all the time your mind is racing: why? Who are they? Do they know the couple? Is the masked man actually Scott Speedman exacting some terrible revenge on this bitch who’s just rejected his marriage proposal? What’s the answer?

But, of course, in the end, there is no answer. It’s utterly random. They are three Manson-esque killers who have chosen this couple to terrorise before driving off to find their next victims.

All of which is fine, except that’s not the ending we’re promised. And we’re not even sure if they have killed the couple at the end despite stabbing them both. Liv Tyler wakes up screaming when she’s discovered in the morning, and Scott Speedman definitely blinks (I’m sure I saw it).

So the credits roll and you sit there thinking ‘Wait. There must be more. There must be some cathartic clue to give me a sense that I’ve been watching a story and not just a sequence of random electrode-delivered scares.’

But the credits roll on and on forever, and the usher stands there waiting for you to leave so he can clean the place. And there is no final scene to give you some meaning.

It’s probably the whole point. But I wish it didn’t feel so much like it was made with a sneer. Because this film, but for its ending, had all the makings of a modern classic.


Do the rite thing

What were you doing in the summer of ’94? I was making the long journey from England to Hungary in a clapped out Mitsubishi with two Hungarian students and no leg room for three days as we sped across Europe praying the car would hold together and listening to tapes of Tom Waits and Bill Hicks non-stop. I was going to live with a Hungarian girl, and teach English to Hungarian kids, and write a Hungarian novel and make a totally new Hungarian start in life. But it didn’t work out like that.

Perfect summers rarely work out how you want them to.

For Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) the summer of ’94 is all about selling weed from an ice cream cart in New York, listening to the latest hip-hop from Biggie Smalls and chasing that beautiful girl (there’s always a beautiful girl).

It’s also about becoming parent to his fucked up parents and therapist to his fucked up therapist.

The Wackness is a rites of passage dramedy   that shows us NYC before it all changed and mayor Rudy Giuliani got tough on crime. But it’s not about making political points or celebrating the mean streets as they once were. It’s about what it’s like to be that beautiful girl’s summer fling, knowing that as soon as the holidays are over you’ll be relegated back to the substitutes’ bench. It’s about the uncool kid learning that he can transcend cool.

This makes it sound way too worthy. The Wackness will have you chuckling away for the full 90 minutes, not least due to Ben Kingsley’s manic turn as Dr Squires, a screwed up shrink who trades sessions for weed and gives advice like ‘Fuck a Black girl. I never got to fuck a Black girl.’

Writer-director Jonathan Levine spent two years getting the script to the point where it was ready to take to Occupant Films, who then put him through six months of intense rewrites. It shows because, despite its slacker feel, the script is lean, tight and very sharp.

It’s a major new contribution to the Rites of Passage genre with an excellent twist on the mentor-disciple relationship as Shapiro starts to ‘cure’ Squires.

It is anything but wack. In fact it’s rather dope.


Luke Shapiro’s Dope Show

Here’s another thing for screenwriters to think about. Movies aren’t just marketed through ads on the side of buses these days. There’s this thing called the internet and if you want to get your message out there you’ve gotta get viral.

The Wackness resorted to a very cool marketing campaign in which they forwarded Youtube links to critics ahead of release, putatively promoting an archive cable show presented by main character Shapiro.

It’s nowhere in the film, but it’s something that character might have done. Great idea.