Life is a highway…

The joy of watching a film with your child for the first time.

When you become a parent, your life changes beyond recognition. There’s the hazy period when your child is tiny, and you need to keep them alive at all costs and you basically never sleep. Getting washed and dressed each day is a major win. You enter the months where they can now support the weight of their own head, but you can plonk them down somewhere safe and they won’t move, so you can at least put the washing on. Then one day you discover that they can climb out of the small prison you’re so grateful for (ok, playpen) and the quiet times are over. Your child is a fragile, movable object with a short attention span, and you can’t do anything or go anywhere without them.

Many parents, myself included, assume they’ll keep their kid’s screen time down to an absolute minimum. It’ll be all wooden educational toys and healthy organic snacks made from scratch, their Mini Boden clothes remaining pristine throughout. But sometimes you’re so grateful when a five-minute episode of Peppa Pig comes on and you can finally go for a wee, that you quickly hand them another biscuit and cry actual tears. You become so familiar with various CBeebies characters that you almost set a place for them at the dinner table.

One thing I had been looking forward to with my daughter was watching films. Quality time spent together, enjoying her reactions to old Disney classics I’d loved as a child and creating new shared memories. But she wasn’t keen on the idea of sitting still for more than five minutes, let alone an hour or so. This was a bit of a surprise, I’d just assumed it would be there from early on like an innate skill, but it just didn’t materialise.

Even when she was beyond her toddler years and we were starting to have wonderful little conversations, or she was sitting down to draw of her own volition, she didn’t want to watch anything for longer than ten minutes. She’d rather create her own stories with her toys, and that was wonderful, but I also wanted to sit cuddled up on the sofa, watching her face captivated by the magic on the screen. I felt we were missing out.

Then one day on a whim I bought a copy of Disney Pixar’s Cars on DVD. Released in 2006, it wasn’t a particularly recent film at that stage, and it wasn’t one I’d thought about showing her (I was hoping she’d watch Toy Story.) But one day I put it on while making her tea, hoping it would keep her occupied for a short time and, well, she liked it. She liked it a lot. I remember thinking it was unnaturally quiet in the living room, so I peered in and saw her standing there in front of the TV, mesmerised. Tea towel still in hand, I sat down and watched it too.

She made it to about halfway through the first time. Then she asked to watch it again the next day. It’s a fun film and well made (even though it rips off the premise of Doc Hollywood.) The soundtrack is great too. I commented once that I liked a particular song in it, and from then on, every time she watched it and it got to that point, she’d pause it and shout for me to come in with, “Mummy, your favourite song is on!”

One day she finally got through to the end of it. There were tears from both of us. There is an element of jeopardy in the film, but not too much. She’s not good with that sort of thing, it makes her anxious rather than excited, and often even now films go unwatched beyond a certain point in the story. But I just felt so relieved, in my mind watching a film together was an important milestone on our shared journey. My emotions were stirred by that moment, just as much as the film’s sweet ending.

We watched Cars many times over the next couple of years, each time she’d talk about my favourite song or her favourite scene or character (Mater, obviously.) Eventually her tastes shifted, and she stopped watching it so frequently. Then she started making her own little films instead, her imagination sparked by the magic of cinema and storytelling, and now Cars sits on the bookshelf with the other films she never watches.

My daughter is nine now, and her screen time often involves building worlds in Minecraft or watching a few inexplicably popular vloggers on YouTube. But I look back so fondly on those sporadic Cars viewings. It was an important time for both of us. And I still have that song I liked from it on my iPod, a poignant reminder of our first shared film experience.

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Corruption in the ranks – the legacy of Between the Lines

Before Line of Duty, another group of cops fought the good fight to uncover police corruption.

Before the juggernaut of tension and suspense set in the murky world of bent coppers that is Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty, there was another drama that followed those who sought to expose corruption in the ranks.

J. C. Wilsher’s Between the Lines was shown on the BBC in the early 1990s, running for three high quality series and displaying equally compelling levels of drama and deceit.

There are numerous parallels between the two shows, not just the setting. But Between the Lines stands as a wonderful example of early 90s event television and deserves more credit for paving the way for similar shows that followed.

The drama, which ran between 1992 and 1994, was set in the internal Complaints Investigation Bureau of the Metropolitan Police, the unit responsible for policing the police. It starred Neil Pearson, Tom Georgeson and Siobhan Redmond as honourable coppers tasked with investigating their own. Their boss Deakin, an ex-RUC officer played with a sublime undercurrent of menace by the wonderful Tony Doyle, turns out to be corrupt himself.

Pearson plays Detective Superintendent Tony Clark, whose private life is as eventful as the bureau’s caseload. Clark is meticulous and ambitious, but inherently flawed. His private life is awash with mistakes and misdemeanours, a marriage break-up after an affair with a colleague and numerous dalliances. His life and work feel like a ceaseless moral maze.

His two colleagues in the team, Harry Naylor (Tom Georgeson) and Mo Connell (Siobhan Redmond) provide professional and personal support as they navigate the sea of corruption and sleaze. Each character was superbly constructed and played, three-dimensional and complex but inherently human. Despite the challenges of the job and being in each other’s pockets, loyalty and trust were paramount. Clark knew they’d always have his back.

The show had Tony Garnett as executive producer, whose screen CV reads like a roll call of cultural successes across multiple decades, including the Play for Today and This Life. A hit with audiences and critics alike from the start, the third series, which saw the team entering the equally murky world of the secret service and MI5, won a BAFTA for best drama series.

We got to know the characters and their lives, we grew to understand their motivations. Although it was clear that Clark’s was mainly in his pants to be fair. Redmond’s Mo was bisexual. Perhaps ahead of the curve, it felt like a character detail rather than the main focus of the plot. Georgeson’s stoic Harry cared for his disabled wife, the pressure of the job adding to the complexity of his domestic situation.

Clark was the central character, but it was the relationship between the three close colleagues that was at the heart of the show. Amongst the dirt and scandal of the job they had to do, they knew and respected each other, and trusted each other implicitly.

This was a show that carried the weight of intelligent, complex high-end police drama and carried it triumphantly. The intricacies of the plot, the background detail of complex police procedure and the nuances of the relationships were meticulously maintained, even with the continuous stream of edge-of-your-seat plot twists. The tension and excitement of each episode never waned, and the characters gave you hope that despite the corruption, all was not lost. Between the Lines was top quality drama and should be cherished.

 

 

The winds of change have begun to blow

The unwavering power of Lillian Gish in silent classic The Wind.

Do you ever feel like you’re caught up in a seemingly endless struggle against adversity? Are you strong enough to fight back? The Wind (1928) directed by Victor Sjöström, stars Lillian Gish as a young woman pushed to her limits by the unending harshness of the prevailing, remorseless winds in the inhospitable American desert that has become her home.

It’s an extraordinary film, a triumph of endlessly building tension and sensitive melodrama, driven by an exemplary central performance by Gish.

Gish plays Letty Mason, a smart Southern belle who leaves her comfortable existence in Virginia to start a new life in Texas, the harsh life of the pioneers now her destiny. Even from the start of the film we feel the winds of change blowing through as she travels towards an unknown new life.

She is to stay with her rough and ready cousin and his family. There is a wonderful contrast between her delicate beauty and their crudeness. Not exactly feeling welcome, she quickly marries a local man, an unfulfilling and dismal outcome for her. But she also falls for a handsome stranger and things take a further turn for the worse for Letty. The constant wind becomes her enemy as she tries to find a solution to her terrible situation, but she fights back against it.

The Wind is a beautiful work of art. Dramatic yet poetic, truthful and realistic but also incredibly bold in its depiction of the harshness of living in the American desert. Gish owns every scene in the film, the director giving her space and time to build the character. She displays unenviable stoicism as she relentlessly fights against the wind which wants to destroy everything. She is strong, her portrayal of Letty is incredibly physical, but she allows us to understand the mental anguish of her character through a nuanced and delicately balanced performance. We feel her sense of isolation, and her sense of endless fight against her surroundings throughout.

There is so much to the framing of the film which brings power to the story. The depiction of the harsh desert landscape, nature battling against the invasion of the men who try to drive through their changes and modernity. The wind perhaps a metaphor for nature’s determined struggle to fight back.

The Wind is a silent classic, which showcases one of the greatest performances by an outstanding actor at the height of her career. The film is much admired and has been restored in recent years by director and film historian Kevin Brownlow with a new score by Carl Davis.

This film, made in 1928, sits on the cusp of a new era in cinema. The end of the silent age, which was at it the very peak of its artistic power and looking ahead to the sound revolution. Some amazing films were made that year, and this was one of them. It transcends era, its compelling storytelling and artistic merit means it still powerfully resonates now.

 

 

Feelings, nothing more than feelings.

Why The Fabulous Baker Boys always gives me feelings.

Sometimes love is transitory. It can be raw and passionate. You have a deep attraction to each other, you speak with your hands or a glance. The way that person looks at you with such intensity can knock you off your feet. There’s a physical connection between you, an urgency. In that moment the two of you are as one, and when you can’t be together your heart aches. But then it’s gone, floating away like bubbles on the breeze. You both move on, but the memories remain. Now it’s just a feeling. Sometimes of loss, more often of something gained, but at least you felt it.

That’s the kind of love at the heart of The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). It’s a rich, sensual film with a passionate connection between two people who aren’t quite in the right place but find each other at its heart.

Written and directed by Steve Kloves, it stars real life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges as Jack and Frank Baker, who after years of playing together are struggling to make a living as lounge jazz pianists. In a bid to turn their fortunes around they take on a female singer, Susie Diamond, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Her presence revitalizes their career but forces the brothers to re-examine their relationship with each other and their future path.

This is a tale of lives lived in the heart of an anonymous feeling city, tinged with regrets and disappointments. Time is passed ruminating over bitter tasting coffee in cheap diners the morning after the night before. They are people getting by, but not really getting on. They bury their broken dreams, coming together to perform then disappearing again into the seemingly endless night-time.

You can taste the whiskey, smell the cheap perfume covering over the loneliness and broken promises. Love in this life is about finding someone to give you some comfort, an escape, so you don’t have to spend another night alone.  It’s a film full of ambience, of smoky bars and bluesy music and the evocative score is perfect.

I first watched The Fabulous Baker Boys in my early teens, before I really knew about love and relationships. Pfeiffer is fantastic as Susie, all raw sensuality and street sense. She’s sharp and witty and nobody’s fool. We know hardly anything about her, but the feeling she puts into her singing tells a thousand stories.

Naturally I fancied Jeff Bridges as Jack. He is brooding and intense, and I knew even then he was the kind of man you couldn’t trust to do the right thing, but because he has great hands it was probably worth the risk.

The relationship between the two Baker brothers is touching and poignant. The acting is wonderful, with Beau Bridges bringing a delicate, nuanced performance to his portrayal of stoic older brother Frank.

But the scenes between Susie and Jack are electric and really make the film come alive. I love the build-up of sexual tension, with Jack’s intense indifference masking his true feelings for Susie. There’s a touch of obsession about their behaviour, the endless watching of each other and waiting. A spikiness to their dialogue adding to the feeling of wanting and waiting for the inevitable. That intense feeling when you know you shouldn’t, but you really want to.

I also found it deeply romantic, all that doomed love and star-crossed attraction. I hadn’t experienced that kind of attraction back then, but I felt the pull of it. Later in life I felt it, and that gave me a deeper understanding of the nuances of the film.

The New Year’s Eve piano scene, where Susie sings Makin’ Whoopee while writhing around on top of Jack’s grand piano to his seeming indifference, is the iconic moment of the film and it’s wonderful fun to watch. Pfeiffer oozes confident sensuality, it feels as though she is fully in control of her sexuality and reacting to the moment and the music.

For me, the most significant scene of the film is the one after that. The party has ended, the audience have left. It’s just Susie and Jack alone in the empty ballroom, surrounded by streamers and balloons and the inevitability of their attraction to each other. Jack massages her aching neck, those amazing hands touching her at last. The camera focusses on every movement and we feel every soft caress, every shiver as he touches her skin, the warmth of his lips as he begins to kiss her neck and her back. The connection between them in that moment is all-consuming, they kiss passionately as he slips his hands into her red velvet dress.

The passion of the moment is pierced by the inevitable regrets of the morning after. They fight it, but you know if it’s that good it will happen again. You can feel it.

This is a film that tells a simple story of relationships, between siblings and between lovers, with a hefty dose of regret and longing. It’s so beautifully played and paced. We want all three of them to follow their dreams and find happiness, but the feeling that all good things must come to an end looms large as the film nears its conclusion.

The last scene, when Jack waits for Susie in the street, is ambiguous. We’re not sure if they will see each other again. And even if they do, I’m not convinced it would last anyway. As people they seem too broken to be able to heal each other. Theirs is a love that ran deep but brief, but they’ll always have that connection and the memory of the moment, the feelings of love.

I find that premise romantic, it’s just as wonderful as the typical boy meets girl and falls in love scenario, but more evocative because it’s raw and real. It might not be an idealistic story fit for the message in a greetings card, but it’s a living, breathing, feeling love that takes your breath away. We all need that in our lives at some point.

I put it in the river.

Reflections on The Demolition Project at the Leeds Compass Festival 2018.

I found myself thinking about the time I first arrived at the house in Headingley. It was late afternoon in mid-summer. I’d been stuck inside the car for hours as we travelled north. As we weaved our way along the lines of tatty student dwellings, which stood like a motley identity parade, I felt relieved to be there after such a long drive. That house became my sort-of-home for a while, but I didn’t want to be living there. It was chaotic and unkempt, a transitory place.

I hadn’t expected to suddenly be reminded of it almost twenty years later when sat in a draughty market hall. I felt a pang of something in my stomach, something familiar, nerves perhaps? Possibly regret. Whatever it was, it was unexpectedly raw. I hated that house. I looked at the map of Leeds and I wanted rid of it, that was my instinct, to take it away.

This was my reaction as I visited The Demolition Project as part of the 2018 Compass Festival. A collaboration between artist and photographer Alisa Oleva and writer-performer Debbie Kent, the project invited people to reshape Leeds with a few simple tools – a map, a scalpel and their imagination. It posed a simple question, what would it be like if ordinary people had the chance to transform their city instead of politicians or big corporations?

Over the space of two days people were invited to transform their city. In return, the artists asked that participants gave a reason for their change by writing it on a sticky note. There were no rules on what you could cut or change, no restriction on the reasons given.

The event took place in Leeds Kirkgate Market, amongst the hustle and bustle of the city. The biennial Compass Festival aims to bring immersive art into the heart of the community through interactive encounters. By placing this in a familiar public place it became a truly democratic process. It wasn’t hidden in the safe space of an art gallery with an audience already familiar with the script of immersive art. Anyone could pass by, be intrigued and step inside.

Oleva and Kent aimed to open a dialogue about urban spaces and how we define and reimagine our city and live in it. Every transformation of a city begins with the loss of something, another building perhaps or the filling of an empty plot.

I arrived on day two of the project. The image had evolved, with holes punctured as parts had been wiped from the map. There was a blank strip where the Ring Road used to be, the airport had been moved into the centre of town. That was one of the most fascinating aspects for me, the logical movement of places. I expected gleeful demolition, but the careful consideration given to the placement of things was inspiring. Students had moved all the buildings they needed closer together. But Rodley Nature Reserve had been moved from the outskirts to the centre of town for all to enjoy. There was clear logic on display, and some wonderfully creative choices.

The true beauty of the work was revealed when you looked at the sticky notes on the nearby wall. These captured the reasons people had given for their decisions and gave meaning to the gaps created in the map. There were social comments too, removing the glitzy casino for example, or the bland city centre apartments. Another participant had taken away one of the shopping centres as ‘it’s good, but I’m too lazy to work there (I put it in the river).’

But there were several personal and thought-provoking reasons for changes too. The removal of an area of rough parkland near the university because young women felt unsafe walking through it at night. Someone had demolished their childhood home to erase the bad memories it created for their mum. I wanted to explore those anonymous stories further.

When I looked on the map for the area where my old house was, I noticed there was already a hole very close by. I consulted the handwritten notes on the wall. They’d taken another house in that street because it was ‘a cold, damp and dirty house. I love the people who used to live here but have always hated the building. It now gives me the shivers when I pass it.’

It was as if that person had reached into my own memory bank, and I felt a connection. That’s why The Demolition Project worked so well, it provided a platform for a shared understanding of our city and our hopes of making things better.

Look, this one’s got Bruno Kirby in it.

A shared film journey with my brother.

Sibling relationships can be tricky, but I’m lucky to have such a strong bond with both of my brothers. The three of us siblings are unique but united, you can tell straight away we are all related, and not just by the unfortunate family noses.

In the early 1990s I spent a fair bit of time watching films with my eldest brother Tony. He’s seven years older than me, but I’ve always thought of him as one of my best friends, not just a sibling. We are similar in nature and have always been close.

Tony was always kind to me. I was a thoughtful child, writing poetry in the middle of the night or putting my heart and soul into writing a story, and it was Tony I’d show my work to. He was the first customer to visit my pretend library, and patiently listened while I recited all the lyrics to songs on the first A-ha album that I’d written out in my best handwriting.

When he was about 16, he had his first serious girlfriend. Being the intense soul that he was, this was the love affair of the century, and I’d listen patiently as he described his feelings. Have you seen Gregory’s Girl? The scenes between Gregory and his little sister in that film are so similar. He spent all his time with his girlfriend, with evenings in the local churchyard (it was the mid to late 80s, they were goths). So we wrote notes to each other to keep in touch. I even made special postboxes for our bedroom doors. When she broke his heart, I was there for him with all the wisdom an 11 year old girl could offer.

In my early teens, Tony got a job in a record shop. Such a cool place to work and with his staff discount, an excellent source of new music and classic films to bolster my growing collection. The age gap between us meant he moved out of home when he was 21 and I was 14. Our middle brother had moved out aged just 16 so the house was suddenly quiet, but I finally moved out of the tiny box room and into the big bedroom so it wasn’t a bad result.

I’d often stay with Tony in his various scruffy rented terraced houses on a Saturday night. We’d watch endless films and eat takeaway pizza and Star Bars. It would take us forever to choose the film though, ambitiously selecting at least two titles and staying up until the early hours discussing what we’d watched. Often it was based on the random collection in whatever off license / video shop set up he had a card for. Sometimes a tense standoff in the video shop would be avoided with a conciliatory “look, this one’s got Bruno Kirby in it.”

This period in our relationship was when we really hit our film watching stride. Complete freedom. No parents upstairs asleep to worry about, nobody to tell us to stop watching and go to sleep. We watched a lot of 1970s and 80s American independents, many of them from the New Hollywood set. We feasted on films from Scorsese and Coppola, Hal Ashby, Cassavetes, Woody Allen and Altman. We threw in a few randoms, I developed my longstanding love of obscure Australian cinema after we discovered Wendy Cracked a Walnut together in one particular rental place. And Tony remains the only other person I know who has seen The Doberman Gang.

The film that sticks in my mind the most as a representation of this golden time is Scorsese’s black comedy After Hours (1985). Ironically we came across a late night TV screening of it. I think we’d just finished watching something else. Starring the often underrated Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette, it’s a low key Scorsese film, a forgotten gem. It plays out over one night, with random chance encounters and an endless set of unfortunate events that unfold to set the hapless Dunne off course. It has a surreal, dreamlike aesthetic, made more enveloping due to the lateness of that viewing I’m sure. We held that film in high esteem for years afterwards, united in the shared random experience of happening upon it by chance.

When I left home for university, Tony moved south to Birmingham. Our lives went in different directions, but we still remained solid, and I enjoyed trips to see him when I could scrape the train fare together. We’d watch videos in his flat, which we rented from the highbrow video shop in Moseley where he lived. In order to join you had to tell the owner your three favourite films, and when you returned your videos you had to give a detailed verbal review and justify your reading of it.

I moved to London to seek my fortune aged 23. Tony had moved down himself just a few weeks earlier, renting a flat in Ealing. I slept on a mattress on his floor and he helped me navigate the rental accommodation pages of Loot. We returned to the familiar routine of takeaways and video evenings, of enjoying each other’s company and being the best of friends. There was Fincher’s Fight Club, Donnie Darko and one particularly ridiculous argument about The Mexican.

We even made our own film, with him roping me and a cast of friends and relatives into making a feature with him (Easy Money – a detective crime caper sadly only available on the handful of copies he made on VHS.) Happy times.

Our film taste often diverges. He has no interest in the British New Wave, despite my detailed PowerPoint presentations, and my endless lectures on French contemporary cinema largely went unheeded. I don’t think he ever agreed to see a Ken Loach film with me in the end. But there is tremendous common ground to be found, that’s the beauty of discovering cinema together. That connection forged in badly furnished flats and the lengthy discussions about auteurs as we walked the scruffy streets of the city on our way home from the local flea pit. Often now we still communicate in remembered film scenes and dialogue, shared jokes and fond memories of those precious times.

We’ve both grown up and settled down, he met and fell in love with the loveliest woman, but who happened to be Australian, and now he lives on the other side of the world. A million miles away, but still just as close. When I watch a Scorsese film I think of him, I can’t help it.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Why Bill Forsyth’s caper of casual shoplifting and ice-cream is my favourite Christmas film.

We all have a film we love to watch at Christmas. It could be one that reminds you of a special time, or makes you feel all happy and full of seasonal cheer. It could be a film that brings comfort or helps you to surface emotions that you need to get out with a big snotty cry. Or maybe you just like watching Die Hard. Ask someone to name their favourite Christmas film and they usually have an immediate answer.

The film that I return to again and again is Bill Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy (1984). Sometimes overlooked, this gentle mid 1980s comedy tells the story of local radio DJ Alan ‘Dickie’ Bird (Bill Paterson) as his life is turned upside down one Christmas and he searches for meaning amongst the discarded baubles.

Alan has a comfortable life. He has a good job with status, a nice flat and a fancy car. Although his girlfriend Maddy (Eleanor David) has a liking for shoplifting, they are seemingly happy together. But when Maddy leaves him unexpectedly just before Christmas, that comfortable life is turned upside down.

While out for a drive, pining for the departed Maddy, he becomes infatuated with a girl he spots in an ice cream van (a lovely supporting performance by Clare Grogan) and he finds himself suddenly mixed up in the Glasgow ice cream wars. But that could happen to anyone, right?

His job is at risk, his life seemingly threatened too, even his precious convertible car is caught in the crossfire. But Alan is determined to solve the ice cream crisis and get his life back on track.

I love the films of Bill Forsyth. He is a wonderful writer and director, and although his back catalogue isn’t massive, I think each film I’ve seen is an absolute gem. Most people know him for Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, which are both in my top five, but also up there for me is Comfort and Joy. Not only is it a brilliant film, it’s a brilliant Christmas film.

It’s about finding inner strength when things go wrong and being able to re-group and start again. Alan goes on a journey of self-discovery after losing all that’s dear to him, leading him to question what’s important in his life. There is melancholy to it, like many people experience at Christmas, but there’s also a universal message of hope at the heart of the film. It all plays out in Christmas week too.

The characters are so well observed and the acting is impeccable. Bill Paterson is fantastic as Alan, displaying both his pomposity and vulnerability as his journey plays out. His unpredictable radio station boss, wonderfully played by Rikki Fulton, deftly handles Alan and his impending emotional breakdown in the moment, but then as soon as he leaves he’s asking if his contract has a ‘sanity clause’.

It looks beautiful too, with mid-winter Glasgow so picturesquely captured by cinematographer Chris Menges. City vistas in the pale pinks and greys of dawn and dusk, and the details of everyday city life given equal billing. The humour is light touch but brilliant in its detail and cleverness. I feel we are rewarded as viewers for understanding its subtlety and going with the flow of it. And the initial scene with the ice cream van is near perfect in its comedic execution.

As with Forsyth’s other work, Comfort and Joy is a film that surprises and delights the viewer. It’s about the quirkiness of people and relationships, of finding hope, of finding the comfort and joy in life. A warm and generous film, I keep returning to it like a familiar Christmas jumper. Grab yourself an ice cream and watch it this festive season.