The problem with director-composer affiliations

Image courtesy of tragnark.com

Image courtesy of tragnark.com

As Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has recently seen it’s UK cinema release, it seemed like an appropriate time to bring up the issue of soundtracks in film, mainly because it was watching Lincoln that sparked this chain of thought.

Spielberg has, for many years and many films, sought the composing credentials of John Williams, known for his iconic and instantly recognisable scores on the likes of E.T, the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park franchises, and the more recent War Horse and The Adventures Of Tin-Tin.

In fact, every film Spielberg has ever directed since 1974’s The Sugarland Express – bar Twilight Zone: The Movie and The Color Purple – have been scored by John Williams, the latest being Lincoln, for which – among the many, many award nominations the film has received, John Williams is up for an Oscar and a BAFTA for Best Original Score. But, at the risk of committing cinematic sacrilege, the score is certainly the worst part of an otherwise fantastic film.

Film scores should enhance the film; carry you along, heighten emotions, immerse you and highlight important plot points. If they are later recognisable, then great – but they shouldn’t attract undue attention in a way that inhibits how you watch the film. Even if a song is used that you already know – Perfect Day or Atomic in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, for instance – they were chosen to perfectly capture the mood at that specific point, and already knowing the songs has the advantage of the viewer being able to relate on a more personal level to how the song is being used in the film. I think it also shows an understanding that the filmmaker really knows their audience – an important factor as they’re the ones, after all, who have just parted with their cash in order to watch the film.

And so, this is my beef with Lincoln. John Williams’s work is so distinctive, and so  synonymous with much of Spielberg’s more schmaltzy work that it just doesn’t have a place in Lincoln. The whole point is that Abraham Lincoln was a low-key, understated yet brilliant man, and Spielberg does well not to over-elevate him. Grand violins aren’t his style, and when they kick in it’s so incongruous that I was instantly put to mind ‘Oh, and there’s John Williams’, taking away from the drama of the scene.

When you’ve put so much effort into giving your audience a new and memorable experience – I like to think this is what filmmakers are going for – why get lazy with your soundtrack? The same goes for the Tim Burton and Danny Elfman partnership (the constant Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter casting is a whole other argument). It’s a situation probably not helped by the fact that film funding is more and more reserved for ‘sure things’, hence the plethora of sequels, prequels, sidequels and any other way you can possibly squeeze every last drop out of a franchise – and, of course, the established directors are also lucky enough to get a look in, and maybe it’s letting them get lazy.

But other than that, Lincoln’s great.

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Everyday – Michael Winterbottom

John Simm and Shirley Henderson in Everyday

John Simm and Shirley Henderson in Everyday

One thing to consider regarding Michael Winterbottom‘s – the director who is responsible for Steve Coogan-heavy films such as 24 Hour Party People and The Trip – latest film, Everyday, is that it’s title is likely to correspond with how often you’ll think about it for a week or so after watching it.

Originally aired on channel 4 on 15 November last year, the film will soon receive an airing on the big screen when it is released in selected cinemas on 18 January. Shot over a five-year period, the film follows Karen (Shirley Henderson), the mother of four young children – played by four adorable and very talented real life brothers and sisters – as she struggles to hold her family life together when her husband Ian (John Simm), serves a prison sentence. This involves working two jobs, making sure the children have all brushed their teeth, taking them to school and finding the time and money to go to the prison inside visiting hours.

As the title would suggest – this isn’t a film for anyone whose sole cinematic interests revolve around alien invasions, vampires, or old men getting repeatedly shot and never quite dying. There’s no dramatic prison break, no psychic children, no heightened court cases. Winterbottom doggedly focuses on the banal, which is ultimately where Everyday‘s charm lies and why it has the power to resonate for such a long time afterwards.

Instead, it targets the average adult. Anyone who has had to battle strong wind and heavy rain while trying to fit yourself and several children on the school run, anyone whose only opportunity for sex has been in the few minutes it takes for your children to sit quietly and have an ice cream. It’s in these non-extraordinary events that Winterbottom has managed to capture such a difficult situation, where love and family ties are stretched to their limit; if Ian wasn’t in prison, every day would be easier.

The situation seems to be made all the worse by the fact that the family doesn’t have a car. There are frequent scenes of long walks through the country, battling the elements, sitting bored on public transport. It is even uttered “It’d be nice if we had a car.” There could be several points of significance to this, one perhaps being the appearance of another man in Karen’s life. His role is only revealed towards the end of the film, until then he is little more than a presence at a few meal times, but he is a man who owns a car and Karen experiences the benefits that come with it. This can be related to her wider position; if she were to leave her husband for this man, her life would be made easier in so many way. Yet she keeps toiling and chooses the well-meaning but fairly feckless Ian, who clearly does not comprehend all that she has been left with in his absence. When he chides her for being late for a visit – despite having travelled for hours with all four children – it’s a wonder she only leaves it at shaking her head in exasperation.

But this is what Shirley Henderson has pulled off with such aplomb – making her stressful, balancing act of a life so believable. It’s grinding and it’s thankless, but she does it. She does it because she has to, and it’s a great example of what can be achieved from one woman’s sheer strength and independence – a feminist strand not generally touched on in Winterbottom’s comedies. What is perhaps surprising is that, once Ian is released – or even during his day releases – she doesn’t begrudge the fact that he walks into the finely-tuned dynamic she’s had to work to make, where she – and only she – is the head of the family.

There are so many more questions that this film could pose – so subtle are they that, as mentioned, they’ll probably only occur to you hours or days after watching it.

It’s a life-affirming, intelligent watch that shows the strength and importance of love and a nuclear family at a time when so many are broken up under much more futile circumstances. Certainly something to think about.

 

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The Ides Of March – George Clooney

Ides Of March

The Ides Of March. Clooney vs Gosling in a battle of rugged manliness.

Despite Ryan Gosling plastering himself over cinema screens in recent weeks (as well as the internet – mostly being feminist and being cute with puppies) having starred in Crazy, Stupid, Love, Drive and The Ides Of March within a few weeks of each other, I have only just got around to seeing the latter despite all three making it onto my ‘to see’ list.

There were several things that struck me while watching the film.

  1. You’d have to find significantly uglier actors if you were to do a British version. The US can feasibly have a George Clooney in the running for President now that they have Obama – whose camera-loving looks would be perfectly at home in Hollywood. Dave Cameron and Ed Miliband…not so much.
  2. Even in this day and age, if you’re a female who chooses to be sexually liberal, things aren’t going to turn out too well for you, as Evan Rachel Wood’s character Molly Stearns reveals.
  3. Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to be an intimidating yet brilliant presence in pretty much every film he stars in.
Without giving everything away, The Ides Of March follows the Democratic campaign of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney, who also wrote and directed the film), with his political spin doctors Paul Zara (Hoffman) and Steven Meyers (Gosling).
While everyone else seems weathered to the wiles of politics, Steven is shiny and new, playing the press to his advantage, writing crowd-pleasing speeches and solving problems all in good faith, remaining totally loyal to Governor Morris, whose campaign and integrity he totally believes in.
Cue Molly, a smart-talking, hot intern who proves to be a distraction – and then some – and sparks the unravelling of Steven’s life, disproving the ethos he had believed, that ‘nothing bad happens if you’re doing the right thing’. An honourable notion that seems devastatingly naive in the circles he runs in.
In what can probably be described as the worst day ever, Steven’s life falls apart as he, and the audience, are shown how and why the world of politics continues to be such a messy place. Backstabbing, secrets and corruption are rife, and Steven finds himself stuck in the middles of it all. What he must decide is whether he is going to toughen up and play along, or opt out.
While there isn’t actually much ‘action’, what goes on illustrates how everything is backhand – everyone is calm on the surface, never letting on their plans or thoughts for fear of it being used against them. It’s a lonely existence.
Clooney brings a brilliant self-important, fast-talking Governor, whose charm takes in everyone around him. Hoffman settles into his paranoid, world-weary, fierce political aid all too easily. But, Gosling, wow. Even the look in his eyes seems to change as his innocence is lost, his face toughens somehow. He is utterly compelling.
One scene in particular, in which Clooney’s direction must be praised, is fantastic. During a press conference, in a noisy room full of people, Governor Morris receives an unexpected phone call. As the talking fades, the phone’s vibration increases to an almost unbearable level. The camera pans across the crowd to reveal Gosling – the only person with a phone staring unblinkingly into the lens. A shivers-down-the-spine moment.
The only thing that doesn’t quite add up is Molly. Here we have this beautiful, confident, intelligent character who plays a huge part in the unfolding drama, but very little is revealed about her. Is this to show the still male-dominated world of politics is largely unconcerned with women? How little interns are thought of? I’m not sure, but she left my friends and I exiting the cinema saying “But, really?”
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Commutants

We’ve all seen them, sallow-skinned, dead behind the eyes, walking at a pace far beyond the capacity of any normal human being. They were once humans, but now they’re going to work, and have become commutants.

London Underground train

Commutants appear blurred in photographs

The change seems to happen somewhere during the long escalator descent – the added air pressure squeezes out any humanity, leaving only an angry, desperate wish to get on the nearest train as soon as possible. The fact that there is not any room is irrelevant – they must get on that train, even at the risk of losing an appendage from the closing doors. Even if another train is scheduled for two minutes’ time. It is not an option.

The other morning I witnessed a commutant walking briskly in front of me, when one of her shoes fell off. Such was her determination to get to a train, she only allowed herself to hook her toes back into the offending shoe and carry on at an equally brisk hobble. It is The Fear that drives her.

I don’t believe The Fear relates to being a couple of minutes late for work, because, when back at ground level most commutants afford themselves the time to go and pick up a double-shot skinny latte and a croissant. No, I think The Fear is that of Waiting.

As a newcomer commutant myself, I have not fully completed the transformation – I still apologise whenever I bump into anyone – but have found The Fear to be very contagious. I have already adopted the brisk walk, but sometimes that is taken over by other commutants running – a strange lolling movement whereby a large bag or suitcase is hurled around to try and encourage a sense of momentum, something they only do when forced.

Why are they running? Should I be in more of a hurry? I walk faster. More people running, knocking my bag off of my shoulder as they go – The Fear takes away any worry towards other commutants. I break out into a half-hearted jog, now a full-hearted jog, I mean it now, I want to get to where the commutants are going, but I want to get there first. I elbow, scratch and jostle my way onto the platform.

Five minutes until arrival. I could have walked. Such is The Fear of a commutant.

The Skin I Live In – Pedro Almodovar

The Skin I Live In

The Skin I Live In - Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya

On leaving the cinema after watching Pedro Almodovar’s latest cinematic art-piece, The Skin I Live In (2011), I found it hard to believe that leading man Antonio Banderas was the same person who donned the Zorro mask and leant his voice to Puss in Boots in the Shrek franchise. I had only known him to be dashing, funny and harmless. Now, I wouldn’t want to trust him with anything sharper than a plastic knife.

Almodovar, the infamous Spanish director responsible for several classics of European cinema such as All About My Mother (1999) and Volver (2006), is known for tackling topics that are often shied away from, such as sexuality and gender, themes which are blurred and feature heavily in The Skin I Live In, as well as exploring the separation of the mind from the body.

In a non-linear structure, the film tells the story of Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a successful plastic surgeon who is pioneering face transplants for burns victims. It quickly becomes apparent that there is something a little off about his live-in patient, the beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya) whom is constantly under surveillance and locked in her room. A dark story unravels to reveal Robert’s traumatic life, riddled with loss, madness, obsession and violence.

There is a repeated use of uncomfortably close-up shots, which are as invasive as the procedures Vera regularly has to endure, as well as striking imagery of injury and some of the most messed up sex you’re likely to see. But what really makes this film is the understated, sinister characterisation by Banderas, and the structural switches between the past and present. Not only do the recurrent memories of the past illustrate how Robert is plagued by them, but they slowly seep information in such a way that when the past and present are finally linked together, there is a fantastic twist, and you will spend the remaining minutes hoping it’s not true.

A beautifully executed movie, that you will not be able to stop thinking about for days afterwards.

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Niche Blog Strategy

My niche blog, Beat The Static, was set up with an aim to inform people about alternative music. This was going to be done by writing articles to showcase new music; bands, releases and tours, with a mixture of EP, album and live performance reviews. This has remained the same throughout the time the site has been running, and I have also included relevant interviews, tour dates, and general music-related news, as long as it relates to relatively unknown up-and-coming artists.

In terms of the social media tools I said I was going to use, I made use of Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Google Maps. I have not used AudioBoo because in the niche posts there has not yet been an instance where it seemed particularly relevant, but I have used SoundCloud in my Capture Cardiff post. I also added use of Facebook as a means of advertising new blog posts, which has been fairly good at directing traffic.

Twitter has been the most effective by far as it brought a lot more traffic to the site, encouraged re-tweets, and was an easy way for new bands to get in touch and ask me to review their work. This happened a lot more than I was expecting, which was a nice surprise and quite a compliment that people had read the posts and were happy enough with the writing that they wanted their band to be featured as part of it.

Quite a few users have viewed my Flickr stream to see extra photos of live performances, particularly those related to Swn Festival, as there were a lot of extra images of the various bands that were playing. I think making an extra effort to provide more images in future would be beneficial.

I could perhaps have increased traffic on my blog further by getting involved in posting in more forums, as I didn’t really stick to this part of my original strategy. The reason behind this is that many of the relevant music forums were for users who were discussing specific topics, and it would not have been appropriate to repeatedly advertise new blog posts – it possibly could have annoyed users rather than encourage them to click on the link!

What seemed to be the most successful way of increasing traffic is when a band or artist that I had featured retweeted a link to the blog post they were featured in. This worked particularly well with ‘Interview: Jolly Hollie’, as he used Twitter extensively to target specific people to the post – the post was tweeted more than 20 times – and luckily he has a lot of media contacts after publicising his charity work.

Another strategy that has shown to be important is choosing when to post a new article. Just from observing the amount of people who are using Facebook and Twitter at different times of the day, it seems that posts that are first advertised in the evenings – particularly Sunday evening, when a lot of people are working at their computers and are unlikely to be out – have been much more successful than those posted earlier in the day.

The most number of hits I received on a single blog post has been 123 views (so far) on ‘Brand Spanking New: Eureka Stockade Album Review’. This is partly through the post title being SEO friendly, as people have found the review as a result of searching for the band name – also, as the band are still relatively unheard of there are not many other blogs that feature album reviews. The band also helped by re-tweeting the article to their followers, and this was published on a Sunday evening when a lot of people are online.

The least successful have been the general news articles, like ‘Ethan Ash, iTunes Single of the Week’. In the future I would leave out posts like this altogether as it does not really deliver anything original.

I have continued posting on my blog and it is still growing in terms of the number of hits each post gets, and new bands getting in contact with me, so I do feel that the strategy I have adopted is working, albeit a little slower than some others. For the future I would perhaps include a more interactive aspect to the blog, eg. reader polls, and giving more encouragement for people to leave comments, as there have only been a handful so far.

In addition, while I have been tagging and linking to external websites consistently, I would perhaps make more of this in the hope that other blogs in the same niche would link back to mine.

Link to Capturing Cardiff: Chapter Arts Centre Celebrates 40th Anniversary (course blog). This shows where I have used the most tools in a single blog post to support the content; Soundcloud, YouTube, links, Twitter, a picture slide show, and Twitter to advertise the post.

Link to Brand Spanking New: Eureka Stockade Album Review – most successful blog post. The Tweet count shows where it has been shared several times through RTs.

Link to Ethan Ash; iTunes ‘Single of the Week’ – least successful blog post. In retrospect, this really is not up to the standard I would aim to uphold now – it is too short, too much like a piece of PR, says nothing about the song itself, and has a boring image to accompany it.

Words: 893

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Capturing Cardiff; Chapter Arts Centre Celebrates 40th Anniversary

Chapter Arts Centre

Chapter's defiant message shows it's going nowhere

Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre, is internationally renown for exhibiting an eclectic range of cultural offerings, and will be celebrating its 40th anniversary in April 2011.

To celebrate four decades of showcasing films, plays, performance art, live music and art exhibitions, Chapter have commissioned Norfolk-based artist Gemma Correll to paint a mural across the wall in the bar to tell the story so far.

The piece, stretching across most of the back wall in the bar covers all of the major events to have taken place in Chapter between 1971 and 2011. Whilst in the middle of painting it on December 10, Gemma estimated it would take a total of 16 hours to complete.

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There is a lot of history to fit in; Gemma has documented Chapter’s journey from the building once being home to Canton High School, the memorable pop concert that was held to raise money for the refurbishment, as well as referencing the positive reaction Chapter has had; being hailed “one of the best small cinema spaces in Wales”, and major events and exhibitions, like Luna Park.

A woman who was instrumental in opening Chapter Arts Centre, Christine Kinsey, recounts what had to be done to bring about the opening.

“Bryan Jones, Mik Flood and myself first discussed the idea of setting up an Arts Centre for Wales in Cardiff in December 1968. As visual artists and writers we recognised the lack of facilities for communicating our art at that time.”

A pilot programme called ‘Pavilions in the Parks’ was run in Newport and Cardiff in 1970, which consisted of a month-long programme of events featuring visual artists, writers and performers, which was free for the public and generated awareness and publicity.

Christine also worked with Steve Allison to organise the massive 12-hour long concert, headlined by Pink Floyd, and featuring Black Sabbath and Quintessence to heighten awareness and raise money for the centre. While it was hugely popular, the concert only just managed to cover costs.

Luckily, arts centres were a popular new concept at the time, and this meant that the City Council and the Civic Theatre Trust could be contacted for support. Chapter received help from the City Council and the Arts Council, and grants from sources such as the Gulbenkian Foundation. Once the cinema and bar were open, the centre became much more sustainable.

Despite the recession and the Government’s latest cuts to arts funding, Chapter’s figures for 2010 look encouraging.

  • 750, 000 recorded visits
  • 375, 000 customers at the caffi-bar
  • 54, 000 gallery visits
  • 52, 000 participants at classes and workshops
  • 1, 920 film screenings
  • 1, 000+ meetings
  • 430 theatre performances

Marc Roberts visits, performs and works at Chapter. He has been frequently visiting the centre for over 20 years.

Speaking to Marc:

Unfortunately, not all art institutions in Cardiff are faring so well. Cardiff School of Art and Design announced they will no longer be continuing the sculpture pathway in the Fine Art course, and some courses have been stopped altogether.

The changes have taken place as a result of the cap on student numbers, from the current 1377 undergraduate students to 1000 by 2013, and a reduction in funding to Higher Education in Wales.

Professor Gaynor Kavanagh, Dean of Cardiff School of Art & Design, says, “The decisions were taken at the highest level, in response to demands that are external and beyond our control or influence. They were profoundly difficult decisions to take and none have been taken lightly or without a lot of thought.”

It is maintained that the resources will be retained and that current students will not be affected, but they are not so sure.

Hollie Allen is in her second year studying sculpture, she says, “We are a huge department and it shocked me when I found out it was being cut, due to the fact we are integral to Fine Art.”

Although Hollie will be able to complete her course, after doing her foundation course and undergraduate at UWIC with an aim to go on to the MA Sculpture course, she is no longer sure she wants to remain at the institution. “I also feel that we won’t be looked after and they have mucked us around as we go towards the final year of the degree.”

Many students feel the same, and held a student protest in Cardiff on December 14, surrounding Vice Chancellor Anthony Chapman’s office chanting “Save our school.” There was also a reading of an online petition with 800 names on it, speaking out against the cuts.

A number of other reactions have been voiced by students on social media outlets, a selection of which have been collected together on Storify.

While changes in the arts community seems to be inevitable, it is not all bad news. Speaking to Lauren, who works in the Chapter Arts gallery, she was encouraged by things such as the empty shops project. Such an initiative would not have been set up in good economic times, and positively impacts creativity.

Lauren, from Chapter Arts Centre gallery:

As for Chapter, it has made it through all times of uncertainty in the last 40 years, and there is no reason why it should not survive this latest hurdle. Chapter’s Director, Janek Alexander, commented, “Fundamentally Chapter has survived because it meets a real need and because artists and the public have responded so positively to the opportunities Chapter has created.”

Although change in difficult times is inevitable, Cardiff’s art scene can remain vibrant providing the public continue to support it.

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