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Posts Tagged ‘autobiography’

We have again reached that time of the year when the flow of interesting new releases seems to have slowed down somewhat, although we are still a few weeks away from the onset of proper blockbuster season: mid-budget genre movies seem to be the standard release at the moment. This is just a very long-winded way of saying that there wasn’t anything showing at the multiplex this weekend that caught my interest but that I hadn’t seen or didn’t have plans to see (I am aware this explanation itself is not notably short-winded; sorry).

Normally on these occasions I see what’s on at the two niche cinemas in the area, which can usually be relied upon for an interesting revival now and then. Well, it turned out that the Phoenix was showing The Wild Bunch, which I saw just the other month and didn’t really fancy seeing again so soon (it’s the Phoenix’s turn to be doing a classic western season). Meanwhile, the frequently-surprising Ultimate Picture Palace was launching their latest season with Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror (Zerkalo in the original Russian; The Mirror when it’s in the USA, apparently).

In the UK, at least, Tarkovsky is best known for Solaris (all together now – ‘the Russian answer to 2001‘) and – to a lesser degree – Stalker (a film once described by one of our more low-brow TV listing magazines as ‘three men messing about on a building site for nearly three hours’). Mirror is a different kettle of fish. It may not be a kettle, however. And whatever is in it, they may not be fish. This is that sort of film.

I am always very curious to see what kind of turn-out these various revivals attract – Breakfast at Tiffany’s had a very healthy crowd last month, while a few years ago I went to a showing of Touch of Evil that was practically sold out – showings of Robocop and Plague of the Zombies around the same time were sadly under-populated, on the other hand. Given it was the first really nice weekend of the year, and that Mirror is a little-known foreign-language piece of experimental cinema, I was expecting there to be plenty of space inside the UPP – well, in the end I think there were somewhere around fifteen punters present, although as a whisper of ‘Oh, is it in Russian?’ went round the auditorium as the film began, I suspect some of the people there were friends of the volunteers who run the place.

So. Andrei Tarkovsky. Mirror. Voted one of the ten greatest films ever made in a poll of directors, yet largely unknown to western audiences. How can I begin to impart to you the nature of this remarkable film? Well: an adolescent boy receives hypnotherapy for his speech impediment. A country doctor takes a wrong turn on the way home. A shed burns down. An emigre bullfighter now living in Russia loses his temper. There is a potential slip-up at the print works, but it turns out to be a false alarm. Someone kills a chicken. There are fun and games at the firing range where the boys are training during the Great Patriotic War. Other things happen too.

You know, writing down a synopsis for a film is very much a kind of left-brain activity, a question of cause and effect and logical, material connections between things. Mirror is probably one of the worst films possible to try and summarise in this way, as it is really a right-brain movie, almost a kind of waking dream that attempts to draw the viewer into a kind of complicit trance with it. In the past I have written about how difficult it is to remember any details of experiences you don’t actually understand – the occasion was another impenetrable art-house foreign film, The Assassin, which didn’t so much put the audience into a trance as send some of them to sleep – but it’s not quite the case in this instance, for it’s clear what the film is about: recollections of growing up in the USSR in the middle part of the 20th century. It seems like a safe bet that some elements of this film are at least partly autobiographical, given that various members of the Tarkovsky clan turn up in different roles: the director’s father Arseny provides the voice of the narrator, his wife Larisa plays the main character’s neighbour, and his daughter Olga also has a small role. (While we’re getting all genealogical, we should also note that father and son actors Oleg and Filipp Yankovsky also appear.)

The twist that makes the film that little bit more unusual, and potentially baffling, is that while it concerns itself with two generations of the same family – the main character, Ignat, and his father, Alexei – multiple key roles are played by the same actors: so both Ignat and Alexei are portrayed by Ignat Daniltsev, while both of their mothers are played in their youth by Margarita Terekhova. This is in no way elucidated or exposited, only becoming apparent through the accumulation of tiny details and the fact the same people are addressed by different names in different scenes (the film’s events naturally unfold out of strict chronological order). If you were not in the know or expecting something like this, it might pass you by entirely and just leave you more bemused (as it did me).

On the other hand, it does suggest a reason for the title of the film, which is otherwise not obvious (well, a mirror does appear at a number of moments). The mirror of the title is the way in which Alexei’s life reflects and echoes that of Ignat, and the similarities are emphasised by the casting decisions. As I say, I didn’t actually figure this out while watching the film, which probably did have an impact on my appreciation of it, but that is not to say that I found this film to be a baffling or frustrating experience. Nor was I particularly aware of the very long takes peppering the film (the reason for its appearance in the current UPP season entitled ‘Long Shots’, including films with famously long single takes such as – here’s a coincidence – Touch of Evil). Perhaps I was in that zen state of simply enjoying the film as a piece of art, with some beautifully composed shots and sequences, and some very striking pieces of sound design. I’m not sure this film is transcendentally beautiful in quite the same way as some others I could name, but there is clearly an artistic sensibility at work.

In the end I’m a bit at a loss to really give a coherent opinion about Mirror, given that it seems very likely that there are whole swathes and levels of meaning and significance to this film which I completely missed the first time around. It is a challenging watch; you really have to go with the film and let it sweep you along in its dreamlike way. Fortunately it is well-enough made that surrendering to it is quite easy to do.

 

 

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The problem with a book about Doctor Who, even one written by a former Doctor, even one whose son-in-law is also a former Doctor, even one whose daughter is a Time Lord, and who herself is the daughter of her own husband, is that there are just too many of them (books – not Doctors.)

Apparently, it used to be the case that when people really wanted to praise Jimmy Carter, they would say that he was a great ex-President: by which they meant that he did all the post-Presidential memoir-writing and library-opening, and so on, really terribly well, with a much greater level of success, certainly, than most of the things he actually attempted while resident in the White House.

Being the President of the USA is in some respects a job for life – even after your four or eight years, you get to keep the title, not to mention the security detail, and apparently you keep the right to look at CIA intelligence reports too, not that many people exercise it – and the same is arguably true of being Doctor Who (although ex-Doctors don’t have any access to CIA files, as far as I know anyway).

If I were to describe anyone as being a great ex-Doctor Who (the implication being that their stories may have been a bit iffy, but their deportment since leaving the show to be exemplary) it would probably be Peter Davison. I’m not entirely sure why I would choose him over any of the others, and I’m aware that the implication – that his stories were not quite up to scratch – will be met by the usual frothing at the mouth and snarling from people who genuinely love his Doctor and those episodes.

Hey, it’s not as if I dislike the fifth Doctor’s stories – or perhaps it’s better to say that I like them more than I used to, simply because as I get older I find it easier to appreciate the intelligence and subtlety of Davison’s performances. As I think I’ve said before, he doesn’t always go for the most flashy or theatrical line reading, opting instead for more surprising choices.

The question with any actor is one of which of the traditions of Doctor-portrayals they belong to: giving a genuine acting performance, or simply producing a slightly larger-than-life version of their own personality. (It may be something to do with the nature of the modern series, but it strikes me there’s been a definite shift towards the former.) With Peter Davison there was never any real doubt that he was playing the Doctor, rather than being the Doctor, but that hasn’t changed the fact that as a person he has remained curiously anonymous and nondescript compared to some of the others.

William Hartnell was in the first Carry On film and apparently a bit racist, Patrick Troughton was a naval officer and storied character actor, Jon Pertwee hung out with Churchill and Hailie Selassie, Tom Baker escaped from a monastery and married his assistant, Colin Baker shouts a lot and doesn’t like polls, Sylvester McCoy used to put ferrets down his trousers, but Peter Davison… umm… didn’t he go to public school? Oh, I know: he wrote the theme tune to Button Moon.

To be fair, in recent years evidence that Peter Davison is actually a much more engaging character than his public image might suggest has been piling up: years ago, he was perfectly willing to let himself be kidnapped and vilely misused by Mark Gatiss and David Walliams, turned up on the Harry Hill show at least once, and the no-holds-barred irreverence of his DVD commentaries is quite often more entertaining than the stories themselves.

Davison’s transformation into the ex-Doctor I would feel most comfortable going on a medium-length touring holiday with is complete with the release of his autobiography, Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs. As the actor himself notes near the start, any Doctor Who-related memoir is entering a rather crowded marketplace these days, and there’s always the drawback that the people reading the book will most likely have a firmer grasp on the actual facts of the series’ production than the writer.

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Peter Davison manages to circumvent both these problems simply by being a hugely engaging writer. The fact that so many details of his life are relatively obscure also helps: for me at least, the book scored highly on the ‘cripes, I never would have guessed that’ front, as he regales the reader with the facts of his unexpected ethnic heritage, less-than-glittering academic career, occasional career downturns, and so on. (On the whole he opts for a roughly chronological approach to his memoir, running up to about the late 2000s, followed by a couple of chapters dealing solely with convention experiences and his work in West End musicals.)

Much of the entertainment value is derived from Davison refusing to pass up any opportunity to deprecate himself, although a few faintly scurrilous anecdotes about co-stars sneak in and details of his encounters with Dave Clark, Dave Prowse, John Cleese and the cast of Magnum, P.I. are usually both fascinating and funny. He’s usually very generous, however – that said, the story about Matthew Waterhouse giving Richard Todd advice on camera technique is wheeled out again, while he is evisceratingly harsh about Michael Winner. (The Dark Dimension debacle gets both barrels, too.)

Overall, the book is a disarming read: Davison spends most of it being disarmingly self-deprecating, but doesn’t shy away from moments of disarming honesty when dealing with more personal issues and his various relationships. (Caveat emptor: while David Tennant provides a typically charming introduction, he’s much more prominent in the photo section than he is in the rest of the book.) It’s more than enough to make me excuse the various small factual errors (which year some things happened in, which story came first, some oddly misspelt names) which have crept in. The absence of any mention of Peter Davison’s Book of Alien Monsters is harder to forgive, of course.

I’m almost tempted to say this is a book capable of breaking out of the Who/vet niche and appealing to a wider audience, as Peter Davison remains a well-known face and the book is so much fun – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I. In the end all I can add is that this book has reminded me of all the things I like about Davison, his Doctor and his stories, and made me want to watch some of them again. And that must surely be a good sign.

 

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It occurs to me that there was nothing on the blog to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Trek, but then – other than a few small mentions in the news – it didn’t seem like that big a deal generally. The latest movie doesn’t appear to have made much of a splash (and I’m tempted to add ‘not without reason’), the only UK TV channel to do anything to mark the occasion was CBS Action, and all they managed to scrape together were some documentaries from about ten years ago.

Hey ho. At least news about the new series, Star Trek: Discovery, is starting to trickle out, although breath-holding is not an advisable procedure, Captain, as the show has already been pushed back to early next Summer. News that the show will focus on a ‘minority female’ protagonist is hardly a surprise; the revelation that the programme will a) be set in the proper Star Trek timeline and b) occur about ten years prior to the original series and explore an event from the mythos, probably is. Not, apparently, the Romulan War, the dates are wrong anyway, so what could it be? If that ‘ten years’ reference is accurate it cuts the possibilities down quite significantly.

Well, anyway, my expectations are under strict management (this is the twitchy, burnt-out state to which the likes of Moffat and Abrams have reduced me), but one hopeful sign is the presence as writer and producer of Nicholas Meyer. Whenever Star Trek is spoken of, the name accompanying it most closely is that of Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, and this is only right and proper, but at the same time it was not Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek which became a popular and critical success in the 1980s and gave the franchise its second great lease of life, but that of Meyer, who wrote and directed Star Trek II, for many people (including myself) the best of the Trek movies and a high point of the franchise generally.

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I just recently finished Meyer’s memoir of his career up until 2009, The View from the Bridge, and a curious but definitely entertaining read it is. One of the things Meyer comments on is the attitude of the original Trek crew to the series – how they variously came to terms with the fact that, one way or another, this was the thing they will forever be associated with. Meyer doesn’t seem to consciously think of himself as being in the same situation, but then he goes and organises his book into three sections entitled ‘Pre Trek’, ‘Trek’, and ‘Post Trek’ – one senses his tongue may be ever so slightly in his cheek, but even so.

One senses very little animus towards the series from Meyer, anyway, even though there are many other interesting lines on his CV, some of which the book deals with in some detail – his Sherlock Holmes pastiches, which were hugely successful in the mid 70s, the steampunk time travel movie Time After Time, which isn’t nearly well-known enough nowadays, and various other productions (some of which I hadn’t realised he’d been involved with). Objectively, perhaps the most significant thing Meyer has ever done was the TV movie The Day After, which presented the effects of a nuclear strike on the USA in such sufficiently dismal manner as to make Ronald Reagan start thinking in terms of arms limitations treaties rather than Mutually Assured Destruction. Just think – we might all have ended up as clouds of radioactive vapour, were it not for Nicholas Meyer. And he wrote that scene where William Shatner shouts ‘KHAAAAAAAAAAN!’ I don’t know about you, but I would kill for a CV with either of those achievements on it, let alone both.

This is a professional memoir rather than a personal one, and so Meyer’s domestic situation only gets referred to when it impacted on his career (or vice versa). One commentator thought that the book comes across as ‘slightly grumpy’, but I can’t say I really found this to be the case. He comes across as a guy who knows his own mind, and not really one with the greatest tolerance for idiots, but not really congenitally irascible.

For a book which is mostly likely to get read by people with a greater-than-average interest in Star Trek, I’m not sure there are many great revelations to be discovered: William Shatner ‘liked to be the first man through the door’ (an interesting euphemism), and was ‘no ego, all vanity’ (something I struggled to understand until it occurred to me I could imagine people saying the same about me). The (in Trek circles) famous anecdote about how Star Trek II came to be written in less than a fortnight is retold, along with various other old favourites plus a few I hadn’t encountered before: Ricardo Montalban started work on the film by bellowing all his lines at the top of his voice, and when Meyer tentatively suggested there might be something to be gained from a more moderate approach, the star’s response was ‘Ah, you are going to direct me? Good!’

Much of the non-Trek stuff is just as interesting, although for a book which opens with Meyer reflecting on the intrinsic decency of the majority of the people he has met in Hollywood, there’s an awful lot of material about arguments with the studio and friendships disintegrating under pressure. The only real omission, if you ask me, is any reference to the fact that Meyer apparently did some uncredited work on the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies – the fact that there were script difficulties explains a lot about this movie, if you ask me – presumably because he was friends with Pierce Brosnan and related by marriage to the director. But no mention whatsoever here, which is curious and a bit of a shame.

If one were to take anything away from this book, it would probably concern the dangers of over-familiarity and over-reverentiality. A running theme is Meyer’s near-total lack of awareness of Star Trek prior to starting work on his first movie – ‘the TV show with the guy with the pointy ears’ is his not-especially-shorthand for it – with the obvious conclusion that this served the franchise better than dogmatic fidelity to Roddenberry’s own vision (in its 70s and 80s version at least). Then again, you could probably argue that Meyer’s influence on Star Trek didn’t really extend beyond the Kirk-era movies, and was of variable significance even then: his scripts are all about characters and their choices, they don’t have the reliance on techno-bibble or the slightly laboured sense of This Is Our Theme you get later in the franchise.

It will be interesting to see just how indicative the appointment of Nicholas Meyer proves to be, when it comes to the direction of the new Trek. Personally I think the series could use a bit more zest and wit and Hornblower right now. The expectations bar may have crept up a few microns.

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