Monday, June 05, 2006

today : why I rarely to go to the cinema

Used to be that you knew where you were. Used to be that everything knew its place. Used to be that films was films and TV shows was TV shows.

But all that's gone now. The Sopranos, Cracker, West Wing, 24, Deadwood, Spooks and any number of TV shows are now better than most films. Flagship drama on TV now has the big budgets of many films, the production values of films and often the cast of films. Okay, so Hollywood (which now stretches as far as New Zealand) deals wth the cutting edge technology and the really huge salaries, but the technology and the actors spreads to TV pretty quickly. Dr Who now has CGI composites and big film-like sets instead of abadoned china clay quarries and backgrounds made of plywood and tin-foil. It even has its own attendant mini-show for each episode that's like a DVD extra, except it's on TV.

In fact, the thing that TV has is the opportunity to develop, and also the economic necessity of having to remain popular over a period of time in order to sell advertising. Films make their money in a pretty of fraudulent way. You pay for your ticket before you actually see anything. These days, the merchandise floods into fast food joints and supermarkets weeks before the film itself is even released. And so often the hype machine creates an expectation that can never be matched by the actual product. In fact, this happens most of the time. When was the last time you saw a movie that has it's own attendant lunch-box, logo and MacDonalds promotion that was any good? I guess Spiderman 2 was okay, but this is because it was mercifully short compared to some of the overblown two and hour quarter hour sludgefests that are foisted upon us.

The last film I saw was Un long Dimanche de Fiancelles, a film that Hollywood apparently backed but would never actually produce. Like Amelie it was a film full of digital effects, but I hardly even noticed them. As with 'Le Fabulous Destin de Amelie Poulin', the director, Jean Pierre Jeunet, uses CGI as another colour on his palette to slightly alter reality, rather than showily animate it from scratch. There was something about the film that didn't quite work for me. Perhaps it was the tonal shifts, part serious drama, part whimsy, almost wholly French. However it has a strong characterisation, depth of imagination and film-making bravado, a decent plot and a bunch of quite subtle moral and political messages. Most Hollywood fare can be summed up thus: "Americans good, baddies bad and must die. Use CGI as much as possible even though it is really hard to make it convincing, replace story with set-pieces and only ever pick from a small but well known pool of actors." It is no mistake that the only Hollywood film that has recently been hailed as a proper film - United 93 - was directed by a guy who cut his teeth first in news and documentaries and then in longer form TV drama, and uses little or no CGI and no stars.

The standard is so high in the best TV that it is noticeable when it falls. I have just seen the first two parts of the fourth season of Spooks. I was disappointed by just a few things:
1. Two poor attempts at American accents by British actors.
2. One or two plot devices that were sloppy e.g. a secret agent in a tight corner who is given away by his loud mobile phone ringtone and the agents allowing a vulnerable witness (played by guest star Martine McCutcheon who phones in her usual chirpy but feisty cock-er-nee bird with a heart of gold performance) to go free, only to be kidnapped, and, over 90 minutes, THREE instances of secretly planted ticking bombs, each with a highly audible tick.
3. A 'secret' murder that takes place on a balcony in full view of most of London.
4. Unconvincing non-bleeding bullet wounds from the Casualty 'yuk but not too offensive for early evening viewers' false wound manual.
5. Everything happens within sight of 'The Gherkin' - that dildo shaped office building in Westminster.

Which was a shame because as tension dramas go, Spooks is pretty damn good. It's (hyper) reality feels real, it is contemporary and hip, pulls few punches politically and it is populated by really great actors. Okay, I am a little concerned that the entire safety of my country might be the responsibility of about four people, one of whom is either a traitor or on the verge of betrayal, the others who make simple errors like keeping their mobile phones on when making a noise might get them shot. But the mix of excitement and personal and moral crises is hugely watchable. The 10 episodes of the second season (the first run was a tryout of only six shows) was some of the most gripping drama I have ever seen on TV.

In some ways TV has trumped film. The much-vaunted year of political films like Crash, Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck, were in fact retreading ground that's covered by TV as a matter of course. There is little need to go to the movies, especially if you want to see politically relevant, realistic, well-constructed and intelligent drama.


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