Saturday, 24 September 2016

IT’S STILL THE SAME OLD STORY


So, here I am, at my nineteenth article for this site, having not decided on what to write. I have future subjects in mind, with facts and ideas percolating away, but nothing screaming to be written this very minute. However, I will have a good word with myself about having something really good for next time.

In making a film, this is not possible at all. Aside from hoping to contribute to the art of storytelling, people at all levels of the film business, from actors to crew to cinemas, depend on you for their livelihoods. If you cannot start principal photography with a good script or, even worse, an unfinished script, you risk the anger of too many people to contemplate.

Bearing in mind how most films are adaptations of stories from another source, I will draw on an essay I wrote in 2013, upon the release of zombie film “World War Z.” Based on a novel by Max Brooks, son of Mel, the maker of “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles” and Young Frankenstein,” the script for “World War Z” was written by one person in 2008, and rewritten by another over the following couple of years, before shooting the film began in 2011, with a budget of $125 million.

The final budget grew to $200 million, more than the combined cost of producing all of Mel Brooks’ film. The reason was the seven weeks spent reshooting the entire last third of the film, after realising this part of the story, and the ending, didn’t work. A third writer was contracted to rewrite the script, but other commitments meant a fourth had to finish it off.

I haven’t heard much about “World War Z” since its release. A sequel is planned for a 2017 release, having made enough at the box office to warrant one, but spending millions of dollars on a film shouldn’t leave you trying to remember it.

To beat this cycle of events, a film producer needs an insane amount of luck, like Warner Bros. did with their winner of the 1943 Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. That this film’s script is often held up as one of the best ever written belies the bat-shit nature of its conception.

It starts with two brothers, Julius and Philip Epstein, adapting a one-act play no-one wanted to produce. They then went to write a short film for the director Frank Capra, while Howard Koch was brought in carry on. After a month, the Epsteins resumed their work, but Koch wasn’t told. Finally, the weekend before shooting began, a meeting between the producer, director and the writers, concluded there was only sixty pages of usable script, and no ending.

The rest of the script was written once filming began – with the villain part thought to be too small, another writer, Casey Robinson, was drafted in to the mix. Once the lead actor, thinking his character was too weak, suggested a flashback sequence to fill in the gaps, the result was a contest between all the writers to find the best scene. The ending was worked out on the day it was shot, the director working out between the actors, using what script they had, as to what the most logical conclusion they had. The final line, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” was written by the producer, and recorded by the lead, Humphrey Bogart, a month after finishing the scene.

So, yes, “Casablanca” is a brilliant script, and also why I usually write only when I have a plan.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

SOMEONE LEFT THE CAKE OUT IN THE RAIN


I have previously written here about how the fabric of the country will unravel with the threat of no more cake, because few other places would even consider it. However, this may help me to determine why so many people became worked up this week by the prospect of a television programme simply moving from one channel to another.

The facts of the story, helped by my never having watched it, are that “The Great British Bake Off,” a televised baking contest, will move from BBC One to Channel 4 for its next three series. This is because the company that made it for the BBC, Love Productions, itself seventy per cent owned by Sky, was offered more money by Channel 4 - at £25 million per series, they offered twice what the BBC were willing to commit, and four times its existing rate. With the deal completed without the input of its stars, its presenters will not be moving, and a question mark hangs over the judges, meaning Channel 4 may have bought the most expensive tent on record.

This is a business deal, plain and simple, over the biggest programme on TV, between two companies that rely on both ratings and revenue – Love Productions got first from the BBC, but not enough of the second anymore, so they went elsewhere. It has also happened often enough with imported shows – the fees Channel 5 agreed for “Neighbours” almost pay for the show to be made in the first place.   


The clue to the anger among viewers was the widely-reported but poorly-written petition hosted by the site 38dregrees.org, which talks about the show being a British institution, just like the BBC, and an escape from the commercial breaks that will ruin it when it moves to Channel 4. The show also, apparently, recognises diversity, and sets the tone for the country, and anything that meddles with this should be resisted.

Basically, the petition requested the status quo to be upheld. It was not aimed at Channel 4 or Love Productions, for the deal they made, or even at the BBC, for refusing to pay more than they did for “The Voice” before that show moved to ITV. It didn’t ask any of them to reverse any decision they made, and it doesn’t tell them what will happen if their request is ignored. There wasn’t any even any grumblings over art, or culture, having a price in a marketplace, like bread or, well, cake. This petition came across as a button to click that said, “I don’t like it either, but I’ll probably get used to it.”

If anyone really wanted to do something, they should develop a new idea for a TV programme – with sewing and pottery already taken - take it to a company, and see if the BBC wants it as a replacement – “The Great British Bake Off” originally ended up on BBC Two, in 2010, after many other channels rejected it. If it is accepted, and it becomes successful, you can then decide whether to go with the prestige, or the cash.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

WE’RE NOT GONNA SIT IN SILENCE


Well, there was me thinking the most important parts of a pair of headphones were put in your ears. Instead, I have heard people moan that, if they next upgrade to the iPhone 7, they can’t plug in their existing pair.
Apart from going wireless, they could use the headphones Apple provide with the phone – a fact seemingly lost on the most annoyed of people - or use the limp-looking adaptor also bundled with it, possibly put there to head off the complaints. Some people really needed a reason to feel screwed: so, because Apple made something a tiny bit fiddlier, they are being outright hostile to you?
Phil Schiller was mocked online for his use of the word “courage” when explaining why Apple removed the iPhone’s headphone jack but, when you are head of marketing at the biggest consumer electronics company on Earth, and you tell people why their habit of a lifetime probably should change, you have to be sure you’re right.
As someone who, for the last twenty years, hasn’t left the house without a radio or MP3 player, I have untangled enough headphone cords, and had them pop out of my ears after catching them on things, to know there must be a better way.
Having said that, the only reason I still tether myself to my source of anti-silence has been the cost of a decent pair of Bluetooth or wireless headphones, by a reputable brand. That will only change when more people buy them, either by showing why they should have it, or by forcing them to shift over.
Even then, headphones are only as good as their connection, and relying on technology as old as wax cylinders really shouldn’t be tolerated by now. Last month, when I had problems with the sound on my MP3 player cutting out, it was because the contacts that line up with the jack had become dirty. This time, it wasn’t a pulled wire, but in an age of USB and Lightning inputs, should my David Bowie listening be interrupted by bits of grit?
Sony introduced the 3.5 mm headphone jack in 1964, fifteen years before the first Walkman. It was a scaled-down version of the 6.25 mm jack, first introduced in 1878 – yes, one hundred and thirty-eight years ago! - for use in telephone exchanges, as seen in old film footage of people in roller skates, plugging cords into giant walls of holes. However, the bigger jack is still used enough for me to have an adaptor bundled in with a pair of headphones I use at home.
No amount of bass boost, neodymium magnets, or digital whatever, are going to make a bit of difference, unless you can guarantee none of that sound can be lost. That can only happen once we have jacked in the jack, or something like that.




Saturday, 3 September 2016

I'LL BE YOUR MIRROR




I cannot comprehend how the Pop Art-ist Andy Warhol ate the same lunch for twenty years – like Albert Einstein, or Alfred Hitchcock, who always wore the same clothes, I can only guess a standard lunch of condensed soup (usually tomato) and Coca-Cola means you save precious seconds that can be spent thinking how to produce the perfect screen print of Marilyn Monroe, or of an electric chair, or something.

Having just eaten this lunch before writing – I had cream of mushroom – I feel that fewer than three hundred calories does not feel like enough to sustain you until dinner, and the soup really needs to be eaten with something. It might fill a hole in your stomach, but not much more.

However, this was not why Warhol, whose career as a commercial illustrator for newspaper and magazine advertisements led him into fine art, chose to make his name by painting the cans and bottles that he saw every day. With a chance to submit works to a gallery, and a need for to distinguish his work from more polished artists, like the comic book-style canvasses of Roy Lichtenstein, or British artists like Peter Blake (he of the “Sergeant Pepper” album cover), a friend suggested Warhol should paint a subject already familiar to people.

The final work, literally named “Campbell’s Soup Cans” (1962), consisting of thirty-two paintings of every flavour available at the time, including Manhattan clam chowder, caused a sensation, mostly from people not sure what to make of it, or outrage over seemingly too much effort used to paint a picture of such an easily available, manufactured object.

Pop Art is based around taking images from popular culture, often changing their context and meaning as a result. The more ironic the use of a banal or kitschy item, the more success the artist may have - the reason a five-year-old can’t do it is because they wouldn’t know why they should. It was a journey not many people had taken, or would want to take, but in our era of unmade beds and sharks in formaldehyde, gallery audiences nowadays are much more receptive.

While I see the elevation of mass production into fine art, what I also see how we can rightly take mass production for granted. Without various factories, processes and conveyor belts, consider how much effort it would take to produce a can of condensed soup, and a bottle of cola, from cooking the soup and mixing the drink, through to forming a metal can, blowing a glass bottle, and illustrating the labels.

In the book “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol,” whether he wrote it or not, Warhol, an immigrant from what is now Slovakia, stated what made the United States great was how it “started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest… the more equal something is, the more equal it is.” Whether you spent tens of millions of dollars on his paintings of soup tins and Coke bottles or, in my case, £1.68, the meaning of what you see is the same. Democracy, especially in art, means no special treatment for anyone, and levelling the playing field, however that is done, means someone had to take a big step first.

Originally intended to be sold off as individual canvasses, the gallery owner bought all of “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” and they are now kept together by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For Andy Warhol, having had his first successful art show, he could concentrate on pictures of what he enjoyed the most – soup, Coca-Cola, money and celebrity.