Monday, August 27, 2007

Selling Out

It would be nice to think that all the attention that SBS is getting is only its just desserts for its wholesale introduction of crassness into a service that was once a stand out cultural beacon in the wasteland of free to air television. There was once nothing like it in the world. During those golden decades when David Stratton was presenting both new films of the highest quality and, in parallel, an unrivalled collection drawn from the greatest films of the past, the station represented something unique and precious. It owned soccer and cycling, its documentaries were as the program called them “Cutting Edge”, it gave us international news reporting each night of the highest order and set new standards for subtitling (see below). Then the management let both the key people and the high standards slip away. They thought they knew best but it’s plain to see of course they really have very little idea. I didn’t mind the channel showing commercials between programs but clearly the advertisers did and the old thin edge of the wedge finally destroyed the channel’s credibility for those of us who welcomed its presentation of the world's best movies.

It has taken a simple dummy spit from a newsreader (who apparently from the news reports alleges breach of contract because she wasn’t given enough prominence or wasn’t treated with sufficient gravitas) to start the process which just may bring the whole edifice down around the shambling buffoons now running the place. They claim success by having raising the ratings from an average of 6% to 7.5%. (one article suggested that they had raised the ratings by 25%, an assertion of innumeracy if nothing else.) This group includes Board Members like former Packer operative Gerald Stone and former Howard acolyte Christopher Pearson. Pearson once assured the readers of his column in a Murdoch rag that SBS would not be placing ads in the middle of movies. I haven’t seen, nor had reported to me, any recantation so maybe he still believes that’s the case.

Now SBS is on the back foot. Its newsreader is having meetings with senior management about exit or, most unlikely, re-entry arrangements and its senior management is drawing headlines like “Mary Kostakidis’ walkout highlights how SBS has been hijacked by deluded management” (SMH, 25/26 August). An ominous note from contrarian Paul Sheehan headed “SBS an indulgence we don’t need” (SMH 27 August) should give us all the shivers. What hope is there for it to revert to its more modest ambitions and its unique programming? Probably not much but there might just be a small moment at hand for someone in the political class to rise up and say enough is enough, that management and the governing board have failed and that they all need to move on and take their failure with them.

I mentioned above the work that David Stratton did in presenting the riches of the world’s film heritage for over twenty years. The program was generally called Cinema Classics and I estimate that David screened more than a thousand films in that time. It was a program replete with everything from curiosities like the Mexican Bunuels (just now re-screened at BIFF) to virtually every film made by Akira Kurosawa. If you made a copy of each you would have a library of unsurpassed breadth and quality. Of course we all forgot the films were on and forgot to set the recorder and went out drinking or whatever. But you have the right to expect that SBS would have retained the unique subtitles that it created for each of these works. (Often those subtitles were the first ever to be done of some films. I’m told there are copies of these films circulating, illegally, in quality US video rental stores. Piracy is a crime but cinephilia trucks no such restrictions.) But has SBS preserved this unique material or have its managers, amongst all the other mayhem they've committed, let this resource be lost or destroyed? It’s a question that needs an answer by somebody competent to examine the channel’s activities in recent years.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Action Men

The multiplexes have suddenly delivered a small set of films about men in action that provide some interesting turns. Kevin Costner, Anthony Hopkins, Bruce Willis and Tommy Turgoose all give us some variations on men being violent. Costner's Mr Brooks has so much plot and so many characters it takes an eternity to tell its tale of a nice well-mannered serial killer whose alter ego is the real villain. Thus Costner can be a nice guy, mostly, and its left to William Hurt sitting in the back seat to say, or put in front of us, all those nasty guilt ridden things that schizophrenic serial killers may or may not endure. The conception is cute and if it had been made back in the glory days of RKO it may have been genuinely disturning because Jacques Tourneur and De Witt Bodeen may have worked out a way to keep us guessing as to whether Mr Brook's shadowy accomplice is real or imagined. Much may have been made of the alter ego's impotence perhaps. It has only one moment that one might call Hitchcockian when Costner agaonises as to whether he should save his daughter from prison by devising a murder that will get her out of the suspicions of the police. It doesn't last long. Fracture has a similar Hitchcockian moment, better done and with a bit of oomph when Ryan Gosling as the young lawyer tryinjg to nail ultra smart murderer Anthony Hopkins has to decide whether to abandon his integrity and 'frame' the man we clearly know committed the murder for the murder. It doesn't last that long but the film's plot at least has you wondering how the moral dilemma is going to be resolved and what twists and turns it will take to do so. Otherwise Fracture is just a detective story with tricks aplenty, not dissimilar to a John Grisham story. It is entirely devoid of any sensibility that might suggest that it inhabits anything other than a fairy tale world of good guys and bad guys and princesses who's hand is to be won or rejected.

The difference between both of these films and a genuine crime story is the palpable difference where you get involved in the downj and dirty details of the locales and all the people. Admittedly lawyer's offices aren't conducive to such details. To put it bluntly these two are modern film's equivalents of Agatha Christie and what we, at least I, really desire is the modern film equivalent of Carl Hiaasen or George P Pelecanos. Unfortunately the cinema's one attempt to do Hiaasen, Striptease, was a travesty and as far as I know nobody has even attempted to do Pelecanos. I can see why. The details of their stories, the backgrounds, the encyclopaedic knowledge of locale and local custom are too hard to render in a movie where the main action involves getting you from point A to point AA quickly and with a modicum of violence on the way.

That's why the Die Hard franchise is so effective. It does what it does without any great pretension and is far more inventive about the details of its background than the other films. Of course it's all invented and you wonder how on earth a villain could finance the elaborate scheme devised to destroy America's computer networks. Actually you only wonder that afterwards because while it's happening you get a mountain of often ugly CGI effects showing much near incendiary and visceral violence. The Asian bad girl is a terrific villainess and the kung fu kicking she gives Bruce Willis is very good indeed. You actually dont have much sympathy for him at all while it's happening.

And Tommy Turgoose. Well he operates as a sort of mascot to a group of skinheads in the North of England. The group divides into two - one racist, the other not. The other however still thinks that having a good time destroying derelict aprtment buildings is a good thing and quite forgivable. Through Tommy's eyes he discovers the sub-culture that formed as Thatcher thrashed her way through the Fallkands and bands I've never heard of play something the ads called 80s classics on the soundtrack. It's funny to get a piece about this subject which seems to serve only as nostalgia though the moment when Combo and his racist gang, lead by young Shaun stride out in Leone-esque slow motion has a deal of droll fun to it.