Sunday, 6 May 2007

Film news

I went to see This Is England the other day. A very good film. It gets the period (1983) spot on. All the actors are good, particularly Thomas Turgoose as the central character Shaun, and Stephen Graham as the charismatic and violent Combo. I thoroughly recommend it, although there is some seriously racist language and some heavy violence (the latter I found harder to cope with than the language: "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me", or something along those lines). Shane Meadows is a good director, and this piece by him gives some idea of the world that This Is England is set in:

Under my skin: Forget shoulder pads and Rick Astley - growing up in the 1980s was a riot of great music, fashion and subcultures, as new film This Is England shows. Here, director Shane Meadows recalls a youth of ska music, scrapping and a time when people 'still cared' about politics
The Guardian, Saturday April 21, 2007

It's easy to laugh at the 1980s. Many people base their memories on the stuff they see in those I Love The 80s TV shows: massive VHS recorders, Atari consoles and rubbish digital watches, all shown against a backing of Now That's What I Call Music Vol 2. Then there was the way that people dressed: your mum with a deranged perm, your dad in a pair of grey leather slip-ons and your sister with a "Frankie Says Relax" T-shirt and a stack of love bites round her neck.

But my memories have more meaning than that. As a kid growing up in Uttoxeter, Staffs, it was a time of great music, brilliant fashion and a vibrant youth culture that makes today's kids look dull and unimaginative by comparison. It was also a time of massive unrest when British people were still prepared to fight for the stuff they believed in. My new film, This Is England, is about all of these things.
Set in 1983, this is the first period film I have made. A great deal of it is based on my own childhood and I tried to recreate my memoirs of being an 11-year-old kid trying to fit in. It was a time when Uttoxeter, like the rest of the country, was awash with endless different youth tribes. There were new romantics, heavy rockers, smoothies, punks, goths, skins and mod revivalists who were into the Specials and 2 Tone. Then there were those pop culture kids who came into school wearing one green sock, one pink sock and some deely boppers on their head. People often looked daft, but were genuinely committed to their chosen denomination and would wear their identities on their sleeves with immense pride. In a town as small as Uttoxeter, though, there weren't enough people for each sub culture to fill their own parties or clubs, so most weekends everyone would turn up at the same village hall disco and end up fighting.

Like most 11-year-old kids who wore jumpers with animals on, I got bullied by the older kids at school. So I looked for my own tribe to join. It was the skinhead movement that enamoured me the most. I remember seeing 10 or 15 of them at the bus shelter on my way home from school one summer night and thinking they were the most fearsome thing I had ever seen. Even though I was terrified of them, I was instantly attracted to them. To be a part of most of the other factions you had to be a little rich kid. But to be a skinhead, all you needed was a pair of jeans, some work boots, a white shirt and a shaved head. You could be transformed from a twerp into a fearsome warrior in 15 minutes. Skins appealed to me because they were like soldiers: they wore their outfits like suits of armour and demanded respect. There were playground myths that surrounded them and especially their Dr Martens boots. It was feared that a single kick from a DM boot would kill you or at the very least give you brain damage. I can remember kids refusing to fight unless the skinhead agreed to remove his fearsome boots first.

My older sister was going out with a skinhead who took me under his wing and taught me about the roots of the whole culture. He was a nice bloke who bore no relation to the stereotypical racist yob that people now associate with that time. It was him that I based the character of Woody on in the film. I learned from him that skinheads had grown out of working class English lads working side by side with west Indians in factories and shipyards in the late-60s. The black lads would take the whites to blues parties where they were exposed to ska music for the first time. Soon, Jamaican artists like Desmond Dekker, the Upsetters and Toots And The Maytals were making a living out of songs aimed directly at English white kids. This was where the whole skinhead thing came from - it was inherently multicultural. But nowadays when I tell people that I used to be a skinhead, they think I'm saying I used to be racist. My film shows how rightwing politics started to creep into skinhead culture in the 1980s and change people's perception of it. This was a time when there were three and a half million people unemployed and we were involved in a pointless war in the Falklands. When people are frustrated and disillusioned that's when you get extremist groups moving in and trying to exploit the situation. That's what the National Front did in the early-80s. Skinheads had always taken pride in being working class and English so they were easy targets for the NF who said that their identities were under threat. They cultivated a real hatred of the Asian community. In the film, Combo represents the sort of charismatic leader the NF used to turn skinheads into violent street enforcers. Suddenly, all skinheads were branded the same way. But most of the real old skins who were into the music and the clothes went on to be scooter boys to separate themselves from the racism. I always wanted This Is England to tell the truth about skinheads.

As I started to make the film, other themes started to interest me. We had a relatively small budget so we couldn't afford to recreate every last detail of the Uttoxeter of 1983. Instead, I set the scene by using archive news footage at the start and end of the film. Going though footage of the Falklands war really made me think again about the whole thing. As kids, we thought it was like going into a World Cup campaign. It was exciting and we were cheering on our lads to go and do the Argies. But the scenes of soldiers' coffins shocked and appalled me.

In many ways the country was a mess. The miners' strike was massive.... You had all the protesters and unrest at Greenham Common. But remembering all of these things made me nostalgic for a time when people were ready to stand up and say something. People cared about where the country was going. As the 1980s ended we had the poll tax riots which turned out to be the end of an era. Afterwards, it was like the nation lost its backbone. People were bought off. They were given a little bit of land, the right to buy their council house and put a little satellite dish on the front of it. They became content and lost their will to rock the boat.

The big difference between now and the period in which my film is set is our level of isolation. In 1983, people still cared about society as a whole but now they'll keep their mouth shut as long as they've got the house, the job and the car they want. If you were a kid in 1983, you wouldn't have a PlayStation to sit indoors alone with. You got your entertainment from mixing with a variety of different people. While making the film, I realised that all of my fondest childhood memories surrounded human contact: mucking about with mates or going camping. In 2007, people put less emphasis on that sort of thing and more on planning their careers and their TV viewing. As far as I'm concerned, if you're working from nine to five then coming home to watch shows that your Sky box has recorded for you while you were out, you might as well be on a fucking drip.

This Is England is a snapshot of an era and a life that seems very dated now. It's about sticking up for mates and beliefs.

A film almost on release here is 28 Weeks Later. I thought 28 Days Later was in a long line of Horror/Dystopian films the English do so well (compare 1980s nuclear warfests The Day After and Threads; the latter reaches a level of bleakness the American version of WW3 never approaches). A good guide to British horror is provided by Mark Kermode:

A capital place for panic attacks: 28 Weeks Later, the terrifying sequel to Danny Boyle's apocalyptic hit about zombies roaming the empty streets of London, has distinctly modern relevance. But, says Mark Kermode, it joins a brilliant tradition of British horrors that turn familiar sights into killing fields
The Observer, Sunday May 6, 2007

Red-eyed, rage-fuelled monsters; flesh-ripping special effects; murderous military interventions; helicopter-powered mass decapitations - 28 Weeks Later has all this and more. Yet for British audiences, the scariest thing about this voraciously meaty horror sequel could well be the fact that all this chaos happens on London's Isle of Dogs. In director Danny Boyle's innovative 2002 sci-fi shocker 28 Days Later, a catastrophic outbreak of a virus ('Rage') left London's streets deserted, with hauntingly empty scenes of Westminster Bridge, Horse Guards Parade and Piccadilly Circus. Now, in the sequel, Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who made the acclaimed thriller Intacto, revels again in bringing a plague horror home to instantly recognisable London locations.

After the frenzy of the first film, this second instalment finds battle-scarred evacuees returning to repopulate London, among them a father with a guilty secret (powerfully played by Robert Carlyle) and his two children. Assured by the occupying American forces that normal service is being resumed, the family is duly installed in a swish, high-rise apartment in Canary Wharf. It's not long, however, before the Rage virus starts to spread once more through the streets of London. At several moments, the film knowingly evokes the ongoing battles of Iraq, with the peacekeeping forces turning out to be every bit as dangerous and destructive as the insurgent infection they are struggling to contain.

One particularly spectacular scene involves an Apocalypse Now-style rain of fire delivering death from above, the difference being that it's not the jungles of Vietnam that are torched, but the buildings of Canary Wharf. Blending thought-provoking moments with heart-stopping scares, the film is both terrifying and thrilling: a worthy successor to 28 Days Later.

'There's definitely a political subtext to the action,' agrees Robert Carlyle, who was attracted to the project by the heady mix of full-blooded Saturday-night chills and pointed sociopolitical satire. Danny Boyle, who served as executive producer (and occasional second-unit director) on 28 Weeks Later agrees, comparing the film's post-apocalyptic vision of the Isle of Dogs with the Green Zone in Baghdad - a self-contained 'safe haven' ('It even has a pub!'), stranded in the middle of a conflict-riven no-go zone, teetering on the brink of calamity.

Such claims will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the traditions of radical gore cinema, epitomised by George Romero's Living Dead movies, a quartet of films spanning four decades, in which marauding zombies became powerful metaphors for the horrors of racism, consumerism, vivisection and class war. Yet there is something particularly resonant about such nightmarish phantasms when placed within uncomfortably familiar British sites, a juxtaposition which has long been exploited by purveyors of the uncanny.

In the 19th century, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker established Britain as the natural home of Gothic horror - with Frankenstein being first published (anonymously) in London in 1818, and Dracula later bringing its eponymous vampire across the waters from Transylvania to darkest Whitby. When HG Wells wrote his classic tale of extraterrestrial invasion The War of the Worlds, he instinctively understood the eerie appeal of having monsters from another planet land on the outskirts of somewhere as ordinary as Woking. Tom Cruise might have battled valiantly against giant tripods reaping post-9/11 chaos in New York in Steven Spielberg's recent blockbuster adaptation, but Wells's late Victorian novel places its first otherworldly appearance squarely in the soils of Horsell Common, a location renowned for its quaint English beauty. Somehow, these outlandish ideas seemed more credible - and disturbing - when played out against the down-to-earth backdrop of Britain.

As a fan of scary movies, I've long been aware of the appeal of horror on the home front. One of the creepiest experiences of my childhood was watching a TV rerun of Wolf Rilla's black-and-white chiller Village of the Damned, a typically domestic tale of alien terror based on John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckoos. Wyndham had first established himself as a master of strange English science fiction with The Day of the Triffids, famously filmed by Steve Sekely in and around a number of memorable London locations including Charing Cross and Marylebone stations, Piccadilly Circus, and Westminster Bridge.

According to Boyle, it was the opening sequence of The Day of the Triffids, in which a man wakes up in hospital to discover that a meteor shower has blinded his fellow countrymen, which first inspired Alex Garland to write 28 Days Later.

Village of the Damned is altogether less cosmopolitan, centring on a sleepy English village whose womenfolk are discreetly visited by procreating aliens and subsequently give birth to a brood of blond-haired neo-Nazis from space. In Rilla's film, the children are handsome telepaths who can cause people to kill themselves simply by giving them the evil eye, hence the haunting tagline: 'Beware the stare that will paralyse the will of the world!'

This all was worrying enough, but, as a child, the real terror for me came from the fact that the children's stamping ground was Letchmore Heath, a rather twee little enclave which happened to be up the road from my school. This meant that I was being educated next door to the children of the damned. No wonder I turned out the way I did.

And then there was Quatermass and the Pit, the film which convinced me that taking a trip on the underground would lead you into the very bowels of hell. Originally broadcast as a six-part BBC serial in the late Fifties, Quatermass and the Pit was remade by Hammer in 1967 with a ripping screenplay by original writer Nigel Kneale. The plot concerns a string of ominous discoveries (skulls, skeletons, spaceships) during unspecified 'Central Line extension work' at 'Hobbs End' station.

As demonic artefacts are uncovered, a riot of violent madness erupts, climaxing in an apparition of Old Nick himself over the London skyline. The ingenious twist is that this 'devil' is actually a Martian, an intrusive extraterrestrial ancestor from whom mankind has inherited his innate propensity for violence. ('We are the Martians!' concludes our hero.)

According to Kneale, the inspiration for the story came from watching news footage of the Notting Hill race riots in the late Fifties. But it is the sense of the underground as some kind of portal to the underworld which haunts my memories of this creepy classic.

Since then, umpteen movies, including 28 Weeks Later, have capitalised upon the unsettling potential of the tube, a brooding labyrinth which has come to embody the morbid subtextual groanings of horror's repressed psyche. According to the tagline for Gary Sherman's 1972 oddity Death Line: 'Beneath Modern London Lives a Tribe of Once Humans. Neither Men Nor Women ... they are the Raw Meat of the Human Race!' Recently reissued on DVD, this oddly cronky tale of cups of tea and tube-dwelling cannibals has become an established cult classic, and remains (strangely enough) an inspirational favourite of Brit-art provocateurs Jake and Dinos Chapman.

John Landis surely had Death Line in mind when he let his American werewolf in London loose at Tottenham Court Road station. It's here that an unsuspecting passenger is stalked and ravaged by the eponymous beastie, providing one of the most memorable sequences in a film which trades heavily on the frighteningly funny disjunct between quaint English locations (Yorkshire pubs; West End porno cinemas; Tower Bridge; even London Zoo) and lycanthropic fantasy.

It's significant that the long-awaited sequel An American Werewolf in Paris proved to be a total flop, mainly, I think, because once you cross the English channel, who cares whether there's a monster on the prowl? Over in Europe, anything goes; it's only here in uptight Britain that the magic formula of horror and humbug really makes sense.

This geocultural quirk perhaps goes some way to explaining the runaway success of Shaun of the Dead, the bastard offspring of American Werewolf, which was described by its creators as the world's first 'zom-rom-com' (zombie romantic comedy). Humorously transposing the zombie riffs of Romero's Living Dead films from Pittsburgh to north London's leafy Crouch End, Shaun of the Dead struck a chord not only with UK audiences, but also with the American cinemagoers who had previously embraced the picture-postcard portraits of Britain peddled in international hits such as Four Weddings and Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary.

Many UK critics were surprised that this quintessentially English horror-comedy, whose central refrain was: 'Let's go to the pub', had fared so well across the Atlantic. Yet in its heyday, the British film industry was renowned the world over for exporting both comedies and horror films. Indeed, Hammer, whose output ranged from Dracula to On the Buses, was given the Queen's Award for Industry, proving that international cinemagoers have always enjoyed either laughing or screaming at the Brits, sometimes both.

In recent years, there has been an encouraging resurgence of dark-hearted, British-set fantasies which have acted as a cadaverous counterbalance to the endless diet of comfortably middle-class Hugh Grant staples. An adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd's terrifically seditious graphic novel V for Vendetta ran into unexpected controversy when its explosive, tube-bound finale chimed too closely with the real-life horrors of the 7 July bombings. The film's release was postponed (officially for 'other reasons'), but scenes of the Houses of Parliament being triumphantly detonated from below by a heroic latterday Guy Fawkes remained intact, alongside images of anarchists merrily swarming across Trafalgar Square.

One of the most impressive films of last year was Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, a gripping, dystopian nightmare adapted from a novel by PD James (via the legacy of Nigel Kneale) which posits a desolate vision of a near-future world in which human reproduction has become a dying art. Beautifully filmed in battle-scarred, colour-drained hues by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuaron's apocalyptic vision of this grey and unpleasant land charts a grim map of Britain which includes haunting footage of the once-magnificent Battersea Power Station, and climaxes in a Hadean vision of Bexhill-on-Sea which most closely resembles wartorn Bosnia.

Danny Boyle agrees that Children of Men exists within the same tradition as 28 Weeks Later, and points out that both films are significantly directed and photographed by non-British film-makers who are able to observe the strangeness of this land and its culture with the intelligent empathy of an outsider's eye.

'In the end,' says Boyle, 'I think the key thing about Britain is that it's built on this deep, dark ocean of history. There are grassy, picturesque areas of London which you still can't put train tunnels through because they're actually covering plague pits. You just don't get that in America - that dark abyss of the past. And it makes Britain, as a location, very fertile ground for horror.'

Top five homegrown horrors

Village of the Damned
(Wolf Rilla, 1960)

Telepathic kids from hell form an alien fifth column in a quaint English village in this pre-Asbo sci-fi gem, adapted from John Wyndham's chilling 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos.

Quatermass and the Pit
(Roy Ward Baker, 1967)

Demonic Martian relics are uncovered in the London Underground, unleashing a wave of otherworldly madness. No wonder Paul Weller didn't want to go down into the tube at midnight.

The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue
(Jorge Grau, 1974)

Corpses are revived by dangerous new pesticides in this cult Italo-Spanish oddity which capitalises on the creepy potential of Mancunian landmarks Deansgate and John Dalton Street. Weird chills, even weirder soundtrack.

The Wicker Man
(Robin Hardy, 1973)

A British policeman sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl on a remote Scottish island is gleefully burned to death by pagan yokels in thrall to Christopher Lee's sinister Lord Summerisle.

28 Days Later
(Danny Boyle, 2002)

From the deserted streets of London to war-torn Manchester, Trainspotting director Danny Boyle and The Beach writer Alex Garland conjure an apocalyptic vision of Britain ravaged by an outbreak of 'rage'. Things get bleaker in the new sequel.

·28 Weeks Later is released on Friday

PS As those of you who follow me on My Other Channel know, I was warned off Curse of the Golden Flower, since it doesn't have a lot going for it once you stop staring at Gong Li's cleavage (she's a good-looking woman for someone in her 40s, but I don't need to pay through the nose at the cinema to confirm that!). Since then someone else who has seen Curse has told there is only one big spectacular battle scene a la Helm's Deep in The Two Towers (and which dominated the trailer I saw), so I'm rather glad I didn't go now.


Anonymous said...

Good looking? Gong Li is gorgeous.

Anglonoel said...

Sorry, a bit of English understatement there...