Thursday, 29 April 2010

Stories and the internet

New technologies have an effect upon the way we 'consume' fiction (amongst other things), but they also have an effect on the kinds of fictional scenarios that are plausible if stories are set in the present. 'Don't let a mobile phone ruin your movie' is the tagline of and premise behind a still-current series of Orange cinema adverts (which, although they do not 'ruin' my trips to the cinema, certainly constitute a source of irritation).

Mobile phone technology has affected dramaturgy. It is now less likely that someone who finds themself sharing their house with a killer will not be able to get to the phone. Surely they can just reach into their pocket? Thankfully, loss of battery power and failing reception can still come to the rescue, so to speak - but there is a difference, and possibly a thematically significant one, between being cut off from contact with the outside world by a malevolent force on the one hand and failings of technology on the other.

I used my mobile phone at work today to text my good friend James MacDowell to pose an open, film-related question, as I often do. 'Can you think of instances where characters in fictions use internet search engines'. The first one that sprang to my mind was actually from a novel: in George Pelecanos's The Turnaround, a character goes on the internet to research an old local news event. James replied that the old trope in horror movies of characters going to an old dusty library to find out a key piece of plot information appears to be being replaced by them looking on the internet.

As is so often the case with film studies questions, it pays to start with Hitchcock. James's mention of the library made me think of the scene in Shadow of a Doubt where Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) runs across town to the local library - catching the stern, spinsterish librarian just in time, after being reprimanded by the traffic cop for stepping out in front of a car - to read the news of the 'Merry Widow Murderer', putting together a few other things she knows and deducing that it is her beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten). Following this revelation, as a shocked Charlie walks numbly across the library floor, Hitchcock's camera executes a rhetorical flourish, moving up and away from Charlie and taking up 'the high angle of knowledge' (is this William Rothman's term?).

If we were in the twenty-first century and not the 1940s, Charlie would not have to interact with the members of her local community or worry about closing times (much as the contemporary television viewer does not need to worry about getting home in time for their favourite series, and therefore does not necessarily watch it at the same time as everyone else, thus feeling part of a communal experience). She wouldn't have to leave her laptop in her bedroom, thus precluding the social encounters and spatial possibilities that are so readily available to Hitchcock.

As James also pointed out to me, the bookshop scene in Vertigo would probably have to go too, at which point I ceased to be able to think analytically, and could only reply with 'Nooo!' (a response that James admitted was also the way he had thought of ending his previous message). Perhaps Pop Leibel and google are interchangeable to Vladimir Propp, but they are not to me.

Music and lyrics

As part of my ongoing curiosity about web-based information sharing, I am considering signing up to Twitter. So today I thought I'd have a little look at some Twitter feeds. I'd heard Evan Davis mention his on the Today programme. I wasn't compelled to sign up by the tweets themselves (although looking again now, just after the final Leaders' Debate, I can see Twitter working the way it should), but I did like his capsule 'bio' ('Yes, this is the bloke on the Radio 4 Today programme, Dragons' Den and the Bottom Line. These are my views, not those of the BBC.'). I was disappointed that Jay-Z's was run by someone else.

The best one was the tireless Catherine Grant's Film Studies For Free feed. It performed what I take to be one of Twitter's main functions; that is, to provide me with a summary of and link to other things of interest - perfect for a magpie like me. So now I've bookmarked a District 9 article which will help me with the editing of a piece on that movie that I'm working on. And I also couldn't resist 'Jewish band serves up kosher Lady Gaga'! This linked to this page, where you can both hear a Jewish American a capella group recreate chart hits but substitute lyrics that speak to Jewish culture. For example, the chorus to 'Poker Face' becomes 'Can’t eat my/Can’t eat my/No you can’t eat from my/Kosher plate/Hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz' (that last part is a Hebrew blessing over bread, and scans perfectly).

I enjoy the eloquent juxtapositions that arise when something new is added to a song. I love 'One song to the tune of another' on Radio 4, and particularly enjoyed Phil Jupitus singing to lyrics of Aqua's 'Barbie Girl' to the tune of Frank Sinatra's 'Theme from New York, New York'. As Chris Evans recently demonstrated on Radio 2, 'Love Me Tender' to the theme tune of The Archers also works surprisingly well, and might cause one to ponder the clash of cultures that would be represented by The King visiting Ambridge.

Culture clash is also what makes 'Amish Paradise' such a highlight in the output of a man who has devoted his life to rewriting lyrics to humorous effect, Weird Al Yankovic. We have the urban, gangster's milieu of Coolio in our heads, but we hear about the lives of members of a religious community who eschew modern technology.

A similar thing is happening in the more recent Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Zach Galifianakis 'version' of Kanye West's 'Can't Tell Me Nothing', only in this case, there's no lyrical substitution, but instead of an impeccably groomed and supremely confident black man in the music video, we have two rather shambolic, hairy, out-of-shape white men out in the country, miming along to the lyrics (sometimes letting fly some spit whilst doing so). We ought to remember that the fact that the original video is set in the desert, thus avoiding much of the conspicuous consumption of many a rap/hip-hop video, and that Kanye West's appearance is pretty 'conservative' overall, mean that the Oldham/Galifianakis video is not a straightforward lambasting of the excessive trappings of hip-hop culture. It's a bit gentler and stranger than that. And, of course, the joke appears to be partly on Oldham and Galifianakis, who appear to be bringing attention to rather than downplaying their physical demerits. (This said, one bit of the video that never fails to crease me up is the moment where we see a tractor in profile, and its front and rear lifting mechanisms are demonstrated. Surely we're meant to think of the ludicrous suspension on the bonnets of cars filled with girls?)

All this has provided me with the context (or, if you prefer, an excuse) to share something that I've been sitting on for a while. I was originally going to let it stand alone, in a blog entitled, 'Bone Marrow and Giblet: A Travesty', but I will now put it here, with thanks to Zborowski, Falconer, and Lawton - and apologies to Knopfler:
A love struck Romeo
Brings the streets a marinade
Laying everybody low
With the meat sauce that he's made
Finds a street light
Steps out of the shade
Says something like
'You and meat babe, how about it?'

Juliet says, 'Hey it's Romeo
You should've brought me a lamb kebab'
He's underneath the window, she's singing
'Voila, some pudding black!
You shouldn't come around here, marinading meatballs like that,
Anyway, what you gonna do about it?'

Juliet, the pies were loaded from the start
And I bit into a tasty piece of heart
And I forget, I forget, the movie song
When you gonna realise I make the best beef bourguignon, Juliet?

Came up on different meats
Boths were meats of shame
Both dirty - but lean
Yes and the dreams were just the same
And I dreamed your dream for you, and now your dream is veal
How could you look at meat as if it was just another one of your meals?

Well you can fall for brains and liver
You can fall for brains alone
You can fall for streaky bacon
And the promise of T-bone
You promised me everything
You promised me chicken wing, yeah
Now you just, oh Romeo yeah, you know I used to have a spleen with him

Juliet, when we made duck, you used to fry
Said I'd love you like steak and kidney pud
I'd love you 'til I die
There's a steak for us
You know - the venison
When you gonna realise it was just that the time was wrong, Gi-i-i-blet?

I can't do the pork, like the pork on the TV
And I can't make biltong, like the way it's meant to be
I can't stew everything, but I'll stew anything for you
I can'd do anything 'cept be in love with you
And all I do is miss you, and the way we used to eat
All I do is cut the meat, with blunt cutlery
All I eat is brisket, and the rib that is prime
Julie I miss your calf's liver all the time...

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Search engine serendipity

I idly typed 'jobs for bibliophiles' into google yesterday, and it led me to an entry on an interesting website called which I've now started following. Tagline: 'Living large on a small budget'.

I reluctantly consented to and sat through a sales pitch today from a guy trying to sell keywords so that every time someone types certain words into the search engine on their website, our 'product' comes out on top. So much for democracy, or indeed meritocracy.

But then, there are some types of information that can't be controlled, even by political parties with relatively deep pockets. Watching 'Bigotgate' unfold today, beginning with a Sky News microphone that Mr Brown forgot about, and then attracting tweets, blogs, tv and radio coverage, fed by playback-on-demand, I thought again about how the way we share information is changing, and what an exciting thing it is to think about. What is the best way to write about these phenomena? Perhaps the upcoming event 'Where Does History Happen?' will furnish me with some more tools.

Bigotgate may also, entirely fortuitously, provide a boost for an artist whose 'emotionally charged work ranges from the comic to the forlorn', whose only connection to Mr Brown's gaffe is to share a name with the voter he complained about. Google the name 'Gillian Duffy' and you will probably see near the top of your search results a link to, the artist's website.

Such is the communications world we live in: a Rochdale pensioner is generating the sort of publicity money can't buy, or in Mr Brown's case, bury.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

'Small, Striking Moments'

This is the comment I wanted to leave on Girish's latest blog entry, which has the same title as this one, but there wasn't enough space in the comment box!

I've been working on Hitchcock's Rope for some time now. It's a film full of striking moments (like the moment, already discussed by V F Perkins, where a swing door's movement is synchronised with a character's actions, perhaps suggesting complicity between the director and the murderous protagonist).

There are two great moments that sprang to mind after reading this blog. Perhaps I thought of them because they're arresting moments, moments of thought, for the characters as well as for the viewer.

The first comes after Brandon (John Dall) has decided he'll serve party food not from the dining table, but from the chest where he and his accomplice have stowed the body of David Kentley, a supposed 'inferior' whom they had a right (a duty?) to dispense of - according, at least to their Nietzsche-inspired worldview. The moment I am thinking of is the one where Brandon lays the tablecloth over the chest. He is already pleased with his latest 'artistic touch' of serving food from David's grave (as Brandon's ex-house master and teacher, Rupert/James Stewart, will later put it). As he lays the cloth, though, he slows down - both in thought and speech - and these elements of performance signal to us that an additional layer of significance to his act has just this moment occurred to him, during the execution of the act itself: his laying of a table is also a draping of a coffin.

The second is the moment where Rupert's suspicions are finally confirmed by an object. Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanson), the housekeeper, passes him the wrong hat by mistake - David's hat, as confirmed by the initials embossed inside. This is a key plot moment, but after watching a few times, I realised that of course there's a joke, of sorts, in there too: the hat is too small because, as would befit an 'inferior', David's head is smaller than Rupert's!

Two of the most rewarding parts of studying and teaching film for me are working with film sequences - on the page and in the seminar room. I love discovering new things or refining my understanding/articulation by turning moments over, looking at them in new contexts, or just searching for the right phrase to describe something that is happening in a sequence.

And taking all these great moments and observations about them and turning them into a more sustained overall account is often where the hardest work lies. I would add that, as well as the thinking about individual films in a sustained way often beginning with moments, a key rhetorical device in much writing about film is to do the same. One of the most promising beginnings to a piece of film criticism is 'There is a moment in X where...'!