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Stuff I’ve Been Watching: March/April 2008

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Charles Burns

Stuff I’ve Been Watching: March/April 2008

Nick Hornby
11 Snaps

FILMS WATCHED:

  • The Simpsons Movie
  • Juno
  • This Is England
  • Unnamable
  • I’m Not There
  • And When Did You Last See Your Father?

FILMS BORROWED FROM POSTAL DVD LIBRARY:

  • Midnight Cowboy
  • Downfall

At first I was afraid. In fact, I was, indeed, petrified. “Stuff I’ve Been Watching”? Are they sure? Even… this? And that? And if I own up, will they still let me write about stuff I’ve been reading? Or will the stuff I’ve watched count against me, on the grounds that anyone who watches either this or that is highly unlikely to know which way up you hold a book? I should admit straightaway that “this” and “that” contain no pornographic content whatsoever. “This” is likely to be, in any given month, a football match between two village teams battling for a chance to play in the first qualifying round of the FA Cup; “that,” on the other hand, could very well be a repeat of a 1990s quiz show—Family Fortunes, say—broadcast on one of the U.K.’s many excellent quiz-show rerun channels. This isn’t all I watch, of course. There are the endless games between proper football teams, and the first-run quiz shows, but I’m not embarrassed about watching them. Like many parents, I go to the cinema rarely, because going to the cinema means going without dinner, and no film is worth that, really, with the possible exception of Citizen Kane, and I saw that on TV.

As luck would have it, however, I have been asked to write about stuff I watched in December, and in December I watch screener copies of movies on DVD. I am a member of BAFTA, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, which means that at the end of the year, every half-decent film that might have half a chance of winning an award is pushed through my letterbox. For free. The DVDs are piled high on a shelf in my living room, new films by Ang Lee and Paul Thomas Anderson, adaptations of books by Ian McEwan and Monica Ali, and they look… You know what? They look pretty daunting. Stacked up like that, they look not unlike books, in fact: already some of them are starting to give off the same slightly musty, worthy smell that you don’t really want to associate with the cinema. Every year, some of them—many of them—will go unwatched. We’re getting through a few of them, though. (And please welcome the first-person-plural pronoun to this column. Books are “I,” but movies are “we,” because that’s how they get watched. Any views expressed herein, however, are mine, unless I manage to offend somebody in Hollywood with power and wealth, in which case that particular view was hers. She won’t care. She’s only an independent film producer.) So, from the top…

Just before Christmas, I was browsing the biography section of a chain bookstore, hopelessly looking for presents, when, suddenly and bewilderingly, the color drained out of the book jackets: they had all turned sepia or white. I was almost certain that I’d been stricken by a rare medical condition until I realized that I had reached the section reserved for the genre known in the U.K. as the “misery memoir.” These books, all inspired by the enormous success of Dave Pelzer, seem to deal exclusively with childhood hardship and abuse, and have titles like Please Daddy, Put It Away; the jackets are white or sepia, apart from a washed-out photo, because Pelzer’s books look like that. Anyway, in this chain bookstore, these memoirs had all been bunched together in a section called “Real Lives”—as if Churchill or Katharine Hepburn or Tobias Wolff or Mary Karr had lived unreal lives.

I was reminded of the “Real Lives” section when I was watching This Is England, a British independent film by the talented young English director Shane Meadows: there is a similarly hubristic claim to authenticity in the movie’s title. Is the country depicted really England? Like, the whole of it? I’ve lived in England all my life, but I didn’t recognize Meadows’s version. He’d say that this is because I’ve spent my time in the soft south of the country, and he’s made a film about the gritty north, and that’s fair enough, although I’d be resistant to any argument that his England is more real than mine. What concerned me more is that some of the details on which any claim to authenticity must rest felt a little off to me. Why did the characters all have different regional accents, when the film is set in one depressed suburb of a northern English city? Were young no-hoper English skinheads really listening to Toots and the Maytals in 1983, or would they have stuck to their Madness and Bad Manners records? And did they really have instant access to the mythology of Woodstock when they were teasing their peers about clothes and haircuts? This Is England is a semi-autobiographical film about a twelve-year-old falling in with a dodgy crowd around the time of the Falklands War, when Margaret Thatcher’s repulsive jingoism got roughly translated by some disenfranchised working-class kids into the violent and racist language of the far right. It’s never less than gripping, not least because Meadows gets exemplary performances from all his actors, especially thirteen-year-old Thomas Turgoose as Shaun. Any film that ends with the one black character being kicked half to death by a psychotic skinhead is always going to be hard to adore, but I’m glad I watched it.

We watched… Actually, I’d better just check something. Hey, Spree! Do the same rules apply to movies as to books? We still have to be nice? Or say nothing at all? Yes? OK. So, we watched a film directed by a famous director and starring famous people, and—as film agents say—we didn’t love it. (Top tip: if a film agent ever tells you that he or she didn’t love your novel or script, then you might as well kill yourself, because you’re dead anyway.) This particular film was about unpleasant people doing unkind things for increasingly contrived reasons, and though that’s pretty much the dominant Hollywood genre, this one felt particularly phony. It was gloomy and portentous, too, which is presumably why it’s being pushed through letterboxes during the awards season.

I did, however, love Todd Haynes’s clever, thoughtful, frequently dazzling meditation on the subject of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, which, as you must surely know by now, stars Cate Blanchett as one of six actors taking on Dylan’s various incarnations and personas. If you’d decided not to see it because it sounded gimmicky or just plain daft, then you should think again: I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it, obviously, but I’m positive that you won’t dislike it on the grounds that Cate Blanchett and a fourteen-year-old black kid called Marcus Carl Franklin are being asked to interpret the career of someone who doesn’t resemble them physically. On the contrary, one of the film’s many triumphs is that you never question it for a second—or rather, any questioning you do is on the filmmakers’ own terms and at their behest, and as a consequence this helps you to engage with the endless complexity of both the material and Dylan himself.

None of these characters is called “Bob Dylan.” Blanchett is Jude, the electric speed-freak Don’t Look Back–era Bob (and her sections are occasionally reminiscent of Pennebaker’s shaky handheld documentary, when they’re not borrowing from Richard Lester or Blowup); the character’s name is suitably androgynous, and of course contains an echo of that famous 1966 taunt, which comes in handy when the moment arrives. Franklin plays a folksinger called Woody, who rides trains with hobos and carries around a guitar case bearing the familiar legend THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS. “It’s 1959 and he’s singing about boxcars?” a kindly woman who has taken Woody in and fed him asks witheringly, right at the start of the picture. “Live your own time, child. Sing your own time.” This is a pretty good example of how Haynes has externalized and dramatized all the internal conversations Dylan must have had with himself over the last fifty-odd years, but it also pro-vides the quest for all the characters: what and where is one’s own time? Richard Gere’s Billy the Kid is lost in a Pat Garrett/Lily, Rosemary Old West full of robber barons and the disenfranchised poor, and Jude, the most “modern” of any of the versions available, ends up running back into his/her own head. Meanwhile Heath Ledger’s Robbie, living in the here and now, splits painfully, Blood on the Tracks style, from Charlotte Gainsbourg. So what use is the here and now, if all it can do is break your heart? Haynes has enormous fun with, and finds great profit in, the iconography of Dylan—there’s so much of it that even a casual shot of a young couple huddled together against the cold, or a jokey montage scene showing Ledger bashing into a couple of dustbins while learning to ride a motorbike, teems with meaning. It’s the best film about an artist that I’ve ever seen: it’s meltingly beautiful and it has taken the trouble to engage its subject with love, care, and intelligence. What more do you want? Even if you hate every decision that Haynes has taken, you can enjoy it as the best feature-length pop video ever made. Who wouldn’t want to watch Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg making love while

“I Want You” plays on the sound track?

There were two visits to cinemas this month, a family outing to see The Simpsons Movie, and a rare adults-only evening out for Juno. I can tell you little about The Simpsons Movie because—and I’m not big enough to resist naming names—Mila Douglas, five-year-old best friend of my middle son, was scared of it, and as her parents weren’t with her, it was me that had to keep taking her out into the foyer, where she made a miraculous and immediate recovery every time. Scared! Of the Simpsons! I will cheerfully admit that I have failed as a father in pretty much every way bar one: my boys have been trained ruthlessly to watch whatever I make them watch. They won’t flinch for a second, no matter who is being disemboweled on the screen in front of them. Mila (who is, perhaps not coincidentally, a girl) has, by contrast, clearly been “well brought up,” by parents who “care,” and who probably “think” about what is “age-appropriate.” Yeah, well. What good did that do her on an afternoon excursion with the Hornby family? From what I saw, the movie was as good as, but no better than, three average Simpsons episodes bolted together—an average Simpsons episode being, of course, smarter than an average Flaubert novel. It could well be, though, that I was sitting in the foyer listening to Mila Douglas’s views on birthday-party fashion etiquette during the best jokes.

By the time you read this, there’s probably a Juno backlash going on, and smart people are describing it as too cute and kooky for its own good. Well, I’m stuck in 2007, and in 2007 we still think that Juno is charming and funny and that Michael Cera is a comic genius. Juno also features the first but almost certainly not the last cinematic reference to a quarterly magazine based not too far from Believer Towers. We at the Believer are used to being talked about in the movies—there was a surprisingly well-informed conversation about our decision to take advertising in Live Free or Die Hard, and an affectionate spoof of the Spree in Alvin and the Chipmunks. It’s about time our poor relations caught up.

I’m in the middle of watching And When Did You Last See Your Father? as we speak—I stopped last night just when I got to the bit about fecal vomit, but I’ll watch Jim Broadbent die of bowel cancer this evening, if my morale is high enough. This movie was produced by a friend, directed by another friend, and stars a third. It was adapted by a neighbor from a memoir written by a guy I see from time to time and whose book I admired very much. What do I think of it so far? I think it’s brilliantly produced, directed, acted, and written, and the source material is fantastic. Also, it’s really good.

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