Out Damned Scott

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

I hate this. I really hate this. I really don’t have the words to begin to describe how much I hate this. I mean, everyone else loved The Martian.

For a decade or so, I’ve wrestled with two dilemmas:

a) is Tony Scott a better director than his brother?
b) is Ben Affleck a better actor than his old mucker Matt Damon?

I’d think I’d have it resolved and that it was Tony and Ben and then I’d see a film directed by Tony or Ben and suspect I was wrong. I realise that Tony died in tragic circumstances and his oeuvre is complete, but he gave us The Hunger and (the best Tarantino film) True Romance. On the other hand, Ridley has two genuine masterpieces: Alien and Legend (not, obviously, to be confused with the recent remake). Tony rarely seemed to hint that his films were anything more than vacuous tosh (although with an African American protagonist surprisingly often), whereas Ridley seems to try for the Meaningful and miss, whilst white washing all too often.

Then there’s Matt and Ben. Meh. I’m a fan of Kevin Smith films. What can I say?

Everyone else has done the jokes already — if you want a character who gets left behind and needs to be rescued, Damon’s your man. You’d think he’d get the message. So, as in the book, Matt Watney (Watt Damon), has been left behind in a sandstorm on Mars and begins to work out how he can survive until the next mission survives. There’s rather more of the crew than there is in the book, softening us up so we actually care when one of them dies.

And then, otherwise, there’s a fidelity to the book. Damon might strike you as being more buff than normal, but that allows for the malnutrition of later sequences and film is much better at given you a tabula rasa onto whom the audience can project emotions than a book in which the author has to tell you what they are thinking. The mission log can be used to justify voiceover, but it isn’t overwhelming.

The fidelity is a problem. Just as it is a bit of a wrench when we cut away from Watney to Earth for the first time, so it is here. The parallel editing is surprisingly clunky as characters wonder “I wonder what he is up to right now?” or “Do you think he’ll work this out?” out loud. For a Ridley film, the cast is surprisingly more multiethnic than of late, although there are a couple of whitewashing. And there’s also, spoilers, some additional sequences at the end to Get All Meaningful. To turn it into a recruitment ad for NASA.

And somehow Damon can pull that odd combination of nothing-special and resourceful man. The NASA team balance that concern and bureaucracy. This is a film — like the book — where the only enemies are the cold equations. The lone astrogating genius perhaps needed to have his performance dialed back a bit, and I was uncomfortably reminded of the Random Pot Smoking Rastafarian in Thelma and Louise. There’s a geeky Lord of the Rings reference in the novel which gets repeated here, with added nuance that Sean Bean is in the scene.

And of course, we know that Sean Bean has to be killed off. It’s what he does well.

So, unbelievably, and I hate this, Scott has produced a reasonable film. I think Moon and Gravity pull off similar situations of isolation with more aplomb, and there are similar moments of massive disbelief suspension, but this might be the first non-crap Scott film since well… well… his Hovis ads.

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Take A Chance On Me

Take a Chance on Me

Risk (Turner Contemporary, 10 October 2015-17 January 2016)

The Anthea Turner — a gallery whose Chipperfield design works better in Wakefield — is committed to always showing some J. M. S. Turner and contemporary art, for which read the past one year’s except when it suits them. They’ve had some great solo shows (Mondrian and Colour was frankly more interesting than the Liverpool Tate show), which are interspersed with themed shows. The second exhibition, about Youth, was amazing, Curiosity had some good items but wasn’t more than the sum of its parts and the Self left me a little cold.

So, Risk. Art which puts the artist at risk or may offend against dominant values?

Well, yes, Ruth Proctor films herself falling off a scaffold onto cardboard boxes (here is the scaffold, here are the boxes), Bas Jan Ader documents the start of his transAtlantic voyage that was never completed, Ai Weiwei gives various landmarks the finger. Meanwhile we have surgery footage of Orlan’s cosmetic surgery, Gregor Schneider’s faintly uncanny film of two neighbouring houses redecorated to be identical, Martha Abramovic leaning back from a bow and arrow pointed at her heart.

But then it’s extended to chance and fate. Gerard Richter scrapes back at his paint with a squeegee, post Minimalists let their art hang according to gravity, Marcel Duchamp drops string and Chris Burden drops steel beams into wet concrete.

And then, brace yourself, Turner experiments to see how different paints dry or soak into paper.

Careful now.

There’s a print of an old life jacket and a reconstruction of an ancient Chinese earthquake detector.

What there isn’t is any Jackson Pollock who also allowed chance into his aesthetic through pouring and dripping or Helen Frankenthaler with her too-wet paint or Frank Bowling’s dribbles. One might object that being open to chance is an abandonment of craft, but presumably there’s a selection process. There’s a film (whose makers I forget) which is a kind of mouse trap sequence, where rolling ball sets off a chain reaction. We don’t see however many versions didn’t work. And we don’t see what Duchamp did with the templates he made from the string.

There wasn’t any art that has been banned or challenged (Mapplethorpe’s photos, Magritte’s nudes might have been interesting, some of the vandalised art show at Tate Britain a couple of years back).

The biggest risk here, of course, is that there is such a show in a multimillion pound gallery in one of the more deprived corners of England — Margate was a Portas town, its twin industries of TB recovery and funfair being undermined by progress. Like Gateshead’s BALTIC, another venue which is curated rather than collected, it could simply do crowd pleasers (such as Grayson Perry), but instead challenges its clientele. It has to risk failure.

With a few exceptions, alas, in this it was a success.

Meanwhile, a ten minute walk, a megabaguette, a thirty minute bus ride and another ten minute walk away there is the UpDown Gallery, which specialises mainly in limited edition prints. ive not caught every show there, but those I have I’ve liked.

Upstairs, ending really soon, is the work of Loukas Morley, a ready-made artist in the tradition of Beauys with the colour sense of Hodgkin. Painting on various types of wood, either circular or rectangular or squaregular, clearly on the flat, he builds up layers of paint and resin, abstract yet active, usually allowing the ghost of the grain below. There are also witty sculptures – a board rubber, plastic lids from spray paints, crumpled metal á la John Chamberlain, a lemon as still life. He has been curated by Cedric Christie in the past and I suspect a cross-influence.

Meanwhile, downstairs, ending really soon, is Martin Grover and his (to be honest, annoyingly titled) The Peoples Limousine. It would be unfair to call Grover (like Magritte) a one-joke artist, even if it is a funny joke. He specialises in fake bus stop signs, wring out variants on the symbols, possible stops and kinds of route. One refer to Talking Heads songs, another to British movies set in London (Going Places: The London Nobody Knows/Meantime & High Hopes/Seven Days to Noon/The Fallen Idol/The Bells Go Down). Yes, it’s arbitrary, but it’s done with wit and charm.

There are also lists of lists, masquerading as compilation albums, depictions of famous musicians (Barry White, Marvyn Gaye) wandering around London or past CarpetRight. And then my favourites: The South London Procrastination Club (Established: not just yet). There’s a hint of the thirties railway destination poster about his more straight forward prints, but any of them should put a smile on your face.

It’s too late for this show — unless you go on Sunday — but keep an eye out.

Out Damned Scot

Macbeth (Julian Kurzel, 2015)

I suspect — because it was my O Level set Shakespeare — that The Scottish Play was the first live Shakespeare I saw; a People Show production, I’m guessing at Nottingham Playhouse, with Bernard Hill and Julie Walters in the chief roles. We imagined, given it was the era of Boys from the Blackstuff that they’d play to their accents — The Scouse Play if you will — but it was played straight. Possibly even Scottish. We may have seen a BBC version, but what stays in the mind was Roman Polanski’s 1971 version with lots of violence and nudity.

And Keith Chegwin.

It was the first film he made after the Charles Manson stuff, the murder of Sharon Tate, and the violence is brutal — it precedes the rape/statutory rape scandal and the murky depths of whether he skipped justice or an unwise plea bargain. It is hard for some to watch a Polanski without the spectre of his life. The Scottish Play is a cursed play. Which is why you should never say “Macbeth”.

Gak.

And there was a Sam Worthington version a couple of years ago and now we have the version which Zack Snyder would direct in the tradition of 300 Spartans, but without the leather shorts.

Shame.

Plays are not films — the filmed play can seem stagy and closed in, but if you open it out you probably have to cut stuff to make room. Chunks of Shakespeare are scene setting, of course, his stages being almost bare rather than Wagnerian epics, so you can trim. The important thing is you can show rather than tell.

Oddly, however, the director felt the need to give us a written prologue that explains that a long time ago, in a country far far away, England was invading Scotland and Macbeth was top warrior. Why have a bloody man tell King Duncan the plot when we can read it?

We also have an invented scene of a burial for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s child. This is significant because at some point MacDuff, whose younglings have been killèd, says (perzoomably of Macbeth), “He has no children” and yet Lady Macbeth suggests that her breasts beasts have given sup. Either we posit that she is on a second marriage or a dead bairn. The two of them are thus grieving for a lost child, which they compensate for by arranging for lots more children to be killèd.

The decision seems to have been taken to play the action somewhat like a western; lots of open spaces and a slow burn (for what is a short and nippy play), although more to the point, none of the actors seem to open their mouths, which are for the most part covered in thick beards. Knowing the original text helps in working out who is speaking.

There are other liberties. Post battle, Macbeth — thane of Glamis — and his mate Banquo run into the three witches, who tell them that Macbeth is going to be promoted and Banquo should be proud of his children. Three witches, the three graces, the Virgin, the Mother and the, er, Other One.

Bloody Terry Pratchett rip-off.

Only, here there are four witches, and a child and a baby. Odd. Makes no sense.

So, Macbeth and his wife live in a simple yurted community with I think a Scandinavian church (or is it a feast hall?) and Shakiecams* follow their plotting to murder Duncan (David Threwfell) and pin the blame on his bodyguards. Then we’re meant to get one of the least funny clowns in the Shakespearean canon talking about brewer’s droop, but that gets cut. There’s some odd business with Duncan’s son Malcolm, which I think has been added, and then everyone buggers off the Bamburgh Castle and a Norman-style cathedral that pushes at the anachronistic. I mean, I suspect it’s about fifty years too early to be possible, and hardly seems likely. Meanwhile, they’ve finally found a tripod for the camera but can’t be bothered with continuity editing.

It’s been a long time since I saw the Polanski version of this and I know some people who would refuse to watch it on principle (and wasn’t there a Orson Welles one?), but however problematic it was, I don’t recall it taking one of Shakespeare’s shortest, speediest plays and making it just a tad dull.

Even if you did get Keith Chegwin.

* Shakiecam. As opposed to Steadicam. But there’s a pun there if you look hard enough. Possibly.

What we want is Watney’s

Andy Weir, The Martian (2011)

So there are exceptions — the Watership Downs and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Clenchers — which get rejected by dozens of publishers and then become bestsellers. And there’s the self-published which become bestsellers when they’ve gone mainstream. One has to admire Andy Weir for his success — which seems to have been ordained even before we learned that Ridley Scott was going to get his mitts on the manuscript.

Lots of books get optioned.

Some writers live on this — hoping the bloody film never gets made.

This time it did, but I haven’t seen it yet.

So, we have an astronaut, Matt Watney, on the red barrel planet, who gets separated from the rest of his crew in a sandstorm and is left behind. Or, since he’s telling us the story in the first person, possibly he’d nipped for a slash behind the yurt and got distracted. Anyhow.

Because he’s never read Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About Too…, he decides to Rebuild Civilisation by planting potatoes and keeping going until NASA can send a rescue mission. He sits there and does all the calculation in a sort of rivet-counting engineer in Heart of Darkness way, but we have not sense of jeopardy because it’s in the first person and it would be really naff to suddenly switch viewpoints and add This is the last of the tapes we found and Watney’s body was found buried under the sand. On wonders a little about the balance of amino acids he’s going to get with rations and potatoes, and surely the lunacy induced by just eating potatoes is higher than the lunacy of being on your own for four hundred days or being forced to watch nothing but seventies reruns and listening to disco.

Oh yes, yet another sf novel where the protagonist know no culture produced after the date of the novel being written.

There’s a certain kind of purity that comes from a tight focus on a single character.

…and then the action suddenly switches to Earth and NASA and what they want to do with it. They begin to anticipate what Watney will do and how rescue him, and set a new deadline for him to survive to. There are convenient other spaceships around to borrow and presumably extra rations for the rescue team and at least now we have a sense of jeopardy because we don’t know what Watney’s up to…

… only we do cut back to him and we aren’t really allowed to think he’s dead for more than half a page. At least once we get to the third person — and sometimes we see Watney from the third person and in italics if I recall correctly, so there is hope that he might die after all. At any point it could all go horribly Pete Tong.

It reminded me of two earlier novels — but not the exoticism of Barsoom or the nostalgia of The Silver Locusts or the ontology of Martian Time-Slip or the social richness of Red/Green/Blue Mars. Rather it took me back to Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, which confuses pedantry with verisimilitude, and Ben Bova’s Voyagers, which has that international glossiness. Every one is competent, there are no real antagonists except the universe itself.

You might argue there are no people.

Hmmm.

It’s a long time since I saw Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but I suspect that was a lot more fun. But this is that reasonable novel that does its job and yes, does keep you reading. But I’ll forget it within the week.