Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Bill Douglas Weekend

Below is a wee piece I wrote for Scottish Socialist Voice last week.

Later this month, Craigmillar Arts Centre will be hosting a weekend of events to commemorate the life and work of Bill Douglas, twenty years after the film director’s death. The planned events include an art exhibition, cinematic artefacts, and screenings of his own films and those of local children.

Born in the Lothians mining village of Newcraighall in 1934, Douglas was brought up in abject poverty. He found respite in the cinemas of Musselburgh and Portobello which he managed to enter by exchanging jam jars or sneaking in through the fire escape.

National Service saw to his permanent escape when he met and bonded with Peter Jewell over their mutual love of cinema. The two would become lifelong companions with Jewell supporting him in his burgeoning film career and acting as an advisor in all his major works.

On leaving film school in 1971, Douglas set about shooting My Childhood which would form the first part of his Trilogy, perhaps his most celebrated work.  Set and largely filmed in Newcraighall and Edinburgh, the Trilogy is based on Douglas’s own childhood. The Observer film critic Philip French described it as a “bleak, almost physically painful picture” adding “I believe this trilogy will come to be regarded not just as a milestone, but as one of the heroic achievements of British cinema.”

The Films of Scotland Committee did not share this foresight, refusing funding on the basis that it failed “to project a forward-looking country.”  Douglas had no time for simplistic sentimentality- the Trilogy is full of digs at a kitsch idea of Scotland that never existed for him- the embarrassment of the boy whose trouser legs come down while he’s wearing a kilt; the cosy cottage with an alcoholic granny; the public school boy who mocks his pronunciation.

His next film took some time to come to fruition due to funding issues and his own perfectionism.
Comrades would be shot in colour with a stunning countryside backdrop and sharing much in common with the Trilogy: the stillness and stripped back dialogue; the focus on the painful minutiae of poverty; and the subtle and moving performances.  “There is so much to be read in a person’s face,” Douglas said. “I use the camera to read that face and it will speak volumes if you will listen to it.”

While Douglas himself stated that it was not the politics and historical significance of the Tolpuddle martyrs that interested him so much as the characters, the closing speech, written by Douglas and delivered to the viewer in a style reminiscent of the end of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, gives us an insight into his values.

“Has not the working man as much right to protect his labour as the rich man has his capital? [...] let the working classes of Britain, seeing the necessity of acting on such a principle, remembering that union is power, listen to nothing that might be presented before them to draw their attention from the subject [...] then no longer will the interests of the millions be sacrificed for the gain of a few, but the blessings from such a change would be felt by us and our posterity even to generations yet unborn.”

He wrote a further three film scripts which he was unable to go on to produce, including one for Confessions of a Justified Sinner. With his untimely death twenty years ago, Scotland lost one of its most imaginative and significant contributors to cinema.

Place of Dreams-The Bill Douglas Weekend is being held at Craigmillar Art Centre, 58 Newcraighall Road, Edinburgh on 29-30 October.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Sisyphus writes

Deary me, it's been an awfy long time since I've put anything up here.  It's certainly not for want of things to write about but getting it down on electronic paper has been another matter.

A few months ago I had enough of coming across various DVDs and thinking 'I've been meaning to watch that for ages'.  I decided to do an audit of my unwatched DVD collection and found there were about 150 of them.  I then compiled a list and put them in a rough order of preference to try and make some sense of the task ahead of me (I have also noted their length, whether they're borrowed, and whether my OH wants to see it too). 

The problem is that no sooner do I watch a DVD than I seem to acquire another.  My lovefilm list, for example, stood at about 120 in June.  A few months later and it's grown to 148.  That's over 6 years worth of rentals (before adding anything else that will come out in that time).

I've certainly increased my film-watching considerably this year, but this has only served to highlight how little I have seen and know.  When I come across a new director or genre that's intrigued or excited me then I've gone to try and track down more.  A frustrating, expensive but thoroughly rewarding pursuit.

This has left NPP sadly neglected which is a shame.  However, I have recognised that I am never going to catch up with all the films I want to see and need to be comfortable with that.  As such, instead of trying to cram another film in that spare couple of hours, I will endeavour to return here.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011

I get quite excited this time of year.  I'm usually on holiday (just back from two weeks in France on this occasion), it's my birthday (although that is becoming less exciting- the novelty wears off after thirty odd years), and I get a curious sense of optimism about the forthcoming football season (probably subconsciously justifying the purchase of a new Hibs season ticket to myself) .  However, no small part of this excitement is from the genuine anticipation I feel when the programme for the Edinburgh International Film Festival is launched.  The EIFF, which kicked off today, has had a fair amount of criticism over the last few months (more later) but none of that stopped me from picking up the programme on the first day and setting about my system for determining my cinema viewing for these next ten days.

I have a system for lots of things.  When I cook, I like to cut my vegetables in a certain order and in a particular way. I get irritated when my system for the laundry is ignored by my partner. It's not an OCD thing- there's a logic behind it all. 

My system for deciding what I'll watch during the EIFF has evolved over the years and is now a great deal more straight forward than it once was.  

Stage 1- I read through the programme and mark the ones that sound interesting

Stage 2- I have a second read though to see if I might have missed anything and begin the process of prioritising.  East Asian action films and most things with a strong political theme usually have a very big asterisk next to them.  At the same time I try to work out which films are likely to get a wider release further down the line.  I don't normally mind waiting a few months to see them and my fondest festival memories have come from watching things I would have been highly unlikely to have caught otherwise (I'm thinking of films like Boy, Baraboo, Komma, Murk, Next Door, Left Bank, and Au Revoir Taipei to name a few).
Me and my system

Stage 3- I type out my initial choices dividing them into an A list and a B list.  The A list will comprise the ten or so things I want to see most with the B list acting as a subs bench in the event of time clashes, work commitments, or lack of availability.  In a World Cup or European Championship year then I also have to avoid fixture clashes.

Stage 4- Buy the tickets.

My excitement notwithstanding, it was hard not to notice the reduced number of features this year.  I found my ten easy enough but that's not great.  I normally have a list of fifteen or sixteen I have to whittle down.  Then there's the lack of any ticket deals which is hugely disappointing.  We'll know in ten days time whether the new direction has worked.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Miscellaneous videos

A couple videos have come to my attention in the past week so instead of writing a proper post I thought I'd just share them with you instead.  Far more entertaining, I'm sure you'd agree.

First up are some deleted scenes from Airplane!  Surely these didn't get past the script editor.

Next is an alternative ending for The Wicker Man.  Say what you like, it still looks better than this.

Finally, with the forthcoming DVD release of Black Swan (my favourite film of the year so far) it gives me an excuse to post two videos I found particularly interesting around the time of its cinema release.  This first one points out a few of the visual effects, many of which may have passed you unnoticed.

Second is this one from the BBC explaining a little about Swan Lake itself.  So interesting, Inge's gone and bought me tickets to see it in June and I'm genuinely looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

DVD Review: Blame it on Fidel

When it played at the EIFF a few years ago I remember being less than impressed by the description of Blame it on Fidel in the programme (how I make my EIFF choices will be covered in a future post- I bet you can hardly wait).  As a result I decided to give it a miss and so I only got round to seeing it fairly recently.  It tells the story of a young girl, Anna, growing up in early 70s Paris whose parents embrace radical socialism.  The subsequent adjustments to their lifestyle- behavioural and material- naturally have a marked impact on her.

I think I was put off for two reasons: firstly I was fearful from the promotional comments that politically I would find it annoying.  I imagined a film full of gross caricatures of left activists, an over-simplification of ideas, and difficult to like characters.  To an extent this assumption turned out to have some justification.  Their house is soon full of barbudos who come out with such statements as "Mickey Mouse is a fascist" and "your child is a reactionary" while Anna and her brother feel themselves more and more neglected as a result of their parents' newfound priorities.

My second concern was given the subject matter and the fact that first time director Julie Gavras is the daughter of lefty director Costa-Gavras, that this could turn out to be a tad self-indulgent and that the lead character could be an unrealistic and overly sympathetic representative of her younger self.  On this I was most definitely wrong.  If anything, it's actually difficult to like the child at all to begin with given how spoilt and selfish she is at times.  As the film proceeds, however, we see an impressive level of complexity conveyed as Anna wrestles with her surroundings and education.  The scene where she puts into practice the lessons she's learned in solidarity is both touching and amusing.  It's in this more fundamental story, how children process and assimilate information and how ideas and experiences shape our perceptions, that the real interest lies and there's certainly enough here to make me look  forward to Gavras's next film, due out later this year.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

New Poll: Diabolical Attempts at a Scottish Accent

Well I enjoyed the last so I thought I'd give another poll a bash.  Before explaining what it's all about though, here are the results of our last poll- your favourite film set in Embra.

Greyfriars Bobby- 2%
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie- 0%
Restless Natives- 20%
Hallam Foe- 5%
Shallow Grave- 12%
Trainspotting- 40%
The Illusionist- 20%

Congratulations to Trainspotting- a worthy winner.  I don't think many of us will be surprised by the result; I caught it on telly last night and was as struck by its energy and relentless pace as the first time I saw it.  Interestingly for a comparative newcomer, The Illusionist picked up a very respectable 20%.  I was also pleased for the more than respectable showing of Restless Natives.  Was it the Big Country soundtrack?  Was it the cityscapes of the less scenic areas of Edinburgh?  Was it the way that it deals with the unfulfilled desire for adventure that lies in all of us?  Or was it the ongoing plug in the banner of this page?

So what next?  Well, in keeping with the Scottish theme I wanted to look at an area that has long bugged me- piss-poor attempts at Scottish accents.  This is a very personal issue for me; growing up in Englandshire I had many an annoying day as school mates took the piss out of my accent.  When I would then hear an atrocious Scottish accent on telly or at the pictures then it felt like a continuation of the piss-take.

There's a few good examples, but which is the worst?

Harrison Ford
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Best Line- "Wer her ta say tha tepistrees!"

I know it's not to be taken seriously but this really is poor.  Harrison Ford's 'Lord MacDonald' seems to have arrived in Austria via South Africa and possibly Russia.

Christopher Lambert
Best Line- "Em Canner Mclewd af tha Clen Mclewd"

Fish in a barrel but he had a more convincing highland accent in Greystoke- the Legend of Tarzan.

Mel Gibson
Best Line- "Freeeeeeeedom"

I quite like this one actually but I am under the impression I'm in the minority.  I have more problems with his hair extensions.

Jessica Lang
Rob Roy
Best Line- "Though I love his honour, 'tis but a shadow to the love I bear him."

Could have had my pick from this film but have plumped for Oscar winner Lange's Norwegian inflected effort.

Robert Duval
A Shot at Glory
Best Line- "It was me who had his dorrterr stohlen from him"

Hands up who actually saw this.  I thought as much.  Watch the trailer and I'm sure you'll agree that he merits a place on the short list, even if he is overshadowed by a performance from young Ally McCoist so bad that he somehow convinced me he wasn't a jokey womaniser.

Honourable mentions to Mike Myers in Shrek, Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire and James Doohan in Star Trek.  If you can come up with better suggestions early on then I may be inclined to add them.

Cast your votes!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Normal Service Has Resumed

Apologies for the delay in posting my humble thoughts on all things film-related in sunny Embra.  I won't bore you with the reasons for the unplanned hiatus (although you can find some of my interim work contained here and here) but I'm now back and raring to go.  Or at least as much as I am ever raring.

Perhaps the first thing I need to get sorted is a new poll.  I'll do that later in the week but any suggestions?  I'm also about 20 films behind in my reviews so I'll need to address that in the next couple of weeks too.  

One of my most recent viewings was of the low-budget Scottish feature The Inheritance.  Made for just £5000, it got me thinking how easy it is nowadays for any numpty to produce a short film (see below for evidence).

This is obviously due in part to the ubiquity of cameras, either on our posh mobies or my own defunct Flip micro.  Equally as important, however, is the availability of easy-to-use editing software that requires neither the budget nor expertise that previously made film-making a more elite pursuit.

It was only a matter of time before people far more talented that me demonstrated the real potential in all this. There's now even an iPhone Film Festival accepting submissions, some of which are really quite impressive. Have a look at some of them at  I might hold off on submitting mine for the time being.