Friday, May 28, 2004

Magnificent Obsessions

In an unscheduled intermission from the regularly programmed meditations on films, writing, and writing on films, you’ll just have to tide yourselves over with this.

There’s a red triangle flashing neon in my mind, screaming “KEEP IN LOW GEAR”, but the beast is too hard to get a handle on, and is skidding out of control. I’ve got an inbox groaning under the weight of unanswered e-mails, film reviews pending, friends and family being neglected, the elusive next job still to be found, and a day job that I despise with a virulent intensity, especially as it keeps sapping my ability to do anything else meaningful. Thank fuck we have a 3-day weekend around the corner.

The only thing keeping me going in my snatched moments shuttling between obligations are books. There are a handful of books jostling for space amongst back issues of Empire and Time magazine in my ever-trusty bag, and they all aid in letting me hold onto the slender hair that is my lifeline between this existence and a full-on, Michael Douglas in Falling Down spaz-attack.

On the go at the moment, in no particular order:

Ed McBain’s Sadie When She Died. Slowly filling the gaps in my collection of 87th Precinct novels, and this one’s a corker. Words that crackle and pop across the page, sending you hurtling towards the end, when you just know that the trusty bulls of the 87 will prevail. Class.

Volume 7 of Tokyopop’s manga adaptation of one of my enduring fixations, Battle Royale. Eviscerations, big doe-eyes, high-tech weaponry, and the obligatory panty shots.

Ryan Gilbey’s It Don’t Worry Me. Admittedly, we don’t really need yet another book singing the praises of the 1970s American movie-brats (Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese et al), but this is a passionate and intensely personal look at a decade of great movies, and a nice counter-point to the scurrilous rumour-mongering of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

Lee Server’s biography of the heavy-lidded hipster, Robert Mitchum, Baby, I Don’t Care. Wading through this one very slowly, but it’s worth it, covering his womanising, dope-smoking, ill-advised foray into music, and, of course, his movies.

Right, someone’s on the verge of cracking a whip again. I’m gone.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

All the Write Moves

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” – The Wizard of Oz

My first film-writing gig opened my eyes in a lot of different ways. For a start, talking to other people who did the same thing, I realised that I had seen more movies than most of my peers. Not boasting, just a fact. However, I do believe that to be good at this, it is very important to have a depth and breadth of knowledge when it comes to the history of cinema. I like to think that good film journalists aren’t just critics shouting, “This is good. See it” or “This is shit. Avoid!” like carnival barkers. I think the good ones are cultural commentators who can say something about the art, craft and entertainment of film and filmmaking, with the ability to discuss movies contextually. If you are lucky, you can cast a sliver of light on things that people don’t tend to see or think about, refracted through your own experience, observations and opinions. And if I can impart even the tiniest nugget of the enthusiasm and giddy child-like wonder I feel about the big screen that I love so much, then I’ve done my job right.

“That's part of your problem: you haven't seen enough movies. All of life's riddles are answered in the movies.” – Grand Canyon

Now, here are a couple of dirty little secrets that the hermetically sealed film journalism community probably don’t want you to know, things that I learnt quite soon after my journey into the rarefied world of press passes and Soho screening rooms. A lot of film journalists don’t have the depth of knowledge to do the job well. A depressing percentage of my generation of writers believe cinema began with Star Wars. Even more mind-blowing, the next generation filling the pages of glossy magazines act as if cinema began with Pulp Fiction. This limited knowledge is hampered by the fact that most of the films they have seen have been churned out of the Hollywood meat-grinder. Access to a wide variety of films isn’t difficult, especially with the advent of multi-channel television and the proliferation of DVD.

Most film writers also suck. The standard of writing on the whole is poor. Don’t get me wrong – there are lots and lots of very talented film journalists out there. Sadly, there is a hell of a lot more bad ones. Like most industries, this is very much an “it’s who you know” business, and doors only tend to open if you know the guy on the other side with the keys in his pocket. You don’t succeed in this game by being the best. It’s all about the contacts.

Some film journos are frustrated wannabe filmmakers, who only are only in this game to get access to the talent and PR companies, thinking that they can sneak in the back door of the film industry. They probably can’t. But, damn, they are obnoxious.

Next time: research versus knowledge, “Don’t give up the day job”, and actually sitting through the movies. I bet you can’t wait, can you?

One last thing. Whilst writing this I’ve been listening to Imagination. I make no apologies for this. They were phenomenal. Don’t be a hater.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Do the Write Thing

“Dear Mr. Vernon: We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it is we did wrong, but we think you're crazy for making us write an essay telling you who we think we are.” – The Breakfast Club

The other day an old friend of mine asked me how many times I’d been to the cinema that week.
“Four. But that’s an aberration. Usually I try and go once a week. Why?”
“And how many films did you watch at home?”
“One. I usually watch one or two over a weekend. Why are you asking me these questions?”
“I just wanted to know what qualifies you to be a film journalist.”

As someone rarely short of words, that shut me up. In over four years of writing about movies, no one has ever asked me that question. I didn’t have an answer. But here’s what I tried to say to him then. (It’s worth noting that at the time, I’d already had two pints of cheap beer on an empty stomach, so I’m doing this without the benefit of muddy thinking and a thick tongue).

I have absolutely no professional writing qualifications. And, personally, that works for me. You might be able to teach people the craft or discipline of writing, you might be able to inspire them to want to write, but you either fill pages with words, or you don’t.

“Nobody teaches a writer anything. You tell them what you know. You tell them to find their voice and stick with it, because that's all you have in the end. You tell the ones who have it to keep at it and you tell the ones who don't to keep at it, too. Because that's the only way to get where you're going.” – Wonder Boys

Now, on to specifics. Why film journalism? (I refuse to use the designation “film critic” here. I don’t critique films, although I sometimes criticise them. I’m only interested in writing intelligently, educationally and, on my good days, entertainingly, about cinema.) The film journalism thing was a fluke. I was someone who wrote aimlessly. Scribbled stray thoughts in notebooks. Stole snatches of overheard conversations to use at a later date. Had great ideas for stories, which never went beyond the idea phase.

And then I had the opportunity to write something professionally about movies. So, given this chance to force myself to complete something, something with a deadline and a publication date, that people other than myself would read, I forced myself, with much anxiety and insecurity, to do it. Best thing I ever did.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself…my misadventures in the Screen Trade began long before that day. To be continued.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Reasons to be Cheerful Part 4

Soho in the Summer
Tony Montana and an Ambar
A new film by Almodóvar

New comics on a Thursday
A strong black coffee from a café
And a BMT from Subway

Finger-sucking Leslie Grantham
Something he really should abstain from
Made him look like a right plum

Cheap beer with my homies
Green Park and a light breeze
Sometimes I’m not that hard to please

Reasons to be cheerful