All posts by Niall Anderson

Faking Bad

Yes, it was great, but what did Breaking Bad actually mean? Niall Anderson has SPOILERS a-plenty.

A couple of weeks ago, this blog published a bit of minor snark about the sudden omnipresence of Breaking Bad across popular culture, using the various tat and t-shirts it’s spawned as a way to look at why the show became the phenomenon it has. What did it say about Breaking Bad that it could generate this minor industry of knock-off secondary merchandise where something like The Sopranos – a very similar programme – didn’t?

My argument, very roughly, was that there was something a bit neat and tidy about Breaking Bad, a kind of clockwork fastidiousness very like that of its central character, Walter White. It set up its premise and its particular aesthetic and then it delivered every week: badassery, heists, good baddies, bad goodies, sudden reversals of fortune and an almost unbroken tenseness. At its freewheeling best, it was like a high-toned MacGyver: a series of audacious stunts and set-pieces driven by a palpable brooding rage. This made for compelling TV and infinite quotability (which gave the show, first, its cult following and then its popular one), but it didn’t necessarily make any of it meaningful. The show also became crueller as it went along, more prone to linger on the damage the characters both inflicted and withstood, but this often seemed like a reflex response to complex plot machinations: it didn’t always feel like there was a real engagement with the idea of pain.

A good ending is one way to put carping ideas like this to rest, to answer the question of what all this mayhem was ultimately for. Breaking Bad had a good ending in one sense – a no-bullshit, no comeback finality that felt both earned and necessary – but in another sense it was just accountancy: a list of figures to be ticked off one by one so everything will add up. The ending wasn’t tidy, but it was certainly neat. Continue reading Faking Bad

Nebbish Say Nebbish Again

Woody Allen takes on the financial crisis? Niall Anderson withdraws his savings.

He'll take your money! RUN!
He’ll take your money! RUN!

An idea for Woody Allen’s next film. An experienced and somewhat notorious director turns up at a film festival to tout his new film. The festival could be Cannes, it could be Venice, but this being a Woody Allen film, let’s make it Tribeca. The director’s new film centres on the step-by-step destruction of a central female character, with her destruction acting at least partly as a metaphor for some wider apocalypse. During the course of a press conference before the film’s premiere, the director muses out loud on his motivations and aesthetic. ‘I used to think I was a Jew,’ he says. ‘But now I realise I’m a Nazi.’ He says it again. ‘I’m a Nazi.’ There are gasps and nervous giggles, and the press conference putters on politely for the next ten minutes, but everyone in the room knows that a storm is coming.

I offer this plot to Woody because, in Blue Jasmine, he has made his first Lars von Trier film. It has everything: English dialogue that is somehow not quite English; insultingly whimsical plotting; the odd fancy-schmancy poetic interlude (just because); and above all a central female character who is insulted and toyed with by fate, before being utterly destroyed because – it turns out – she’s a total fucking bitch.

Cleaving still closer to the Von Trier template, the way in which she’s a bitch is supposed to say something about the failures of our common humanity. But where Von Trier would contrast the neurotic frailty of his protagonist with visions of profligate nature (talking foxes, haunted horses, blood-spunking penises), Woody has to find his own metaphor for the horrors of life. And find it he does: poor people. Continue reading Nebbish Say Nebbish Again

The Worst of All Possible Worlds

The internet is ruining us, discovers Niall Anderson. Also, Jonathan Franzen.

Jonathan Franzen is thinking, so you don't have to.
Jonathan Franzen is thinking, so you don’t have to.

Last Saturday, The Guardian published a lengthy essay by Jonathan Franzen, which it inaccurately decided to headline ‘What’s Wrong With The Modern World’. The headline was inaccurate in two regards: first, because Franzen was trying to introduce the work of German satirist Karl Kraus to a new audience, and therefore merely suggesting parallels between Kraus’s time (the interwar period) and ours. Second, because the essay told you glancingly little about the modern world, but a great deal about the anxieties of Jonathan Franzen. In particular, Franzen seems to have a bug up his bum about the internet. To wit: ‘I confess to feeling some … disappointment when a novelist who I believe ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter.’

Succumbs, eh? Leaving aside the principal metaphorical dubiousness (does one ever deliberately succumb to anything?), the language of disease is always surprisingly close at hand whenever contrarians and conservatives decide to take a look at the apparent social effects of the internet. Franzen’s specific complaints – that the internet distracts people from really important issues; that it induces a kind of phenomenological panic about needing to have an opinion on every subject; that it effectively closes off real communication, even as it claims to open it up – are fairly standard. Indeed, so standard that Saul Bellow was able to write a very similar essay (‘There Is Simply Too Much To Think About’) in 1991, without ever having heard of the internet. Imagine.

To be fair to Franzen, there’s little in his essay that hasn’t occurred to even the most web-savvy and web-friendly individual. Slouched in front of an iridescent screen, pursuing a pointlessly vindictive web-spat with somebody you’ll never meet, who among us has not thought we might be wasting our lives? But there’s a difference between this feeling and the attitude of outright rejection that Franzen seems to be suggesting. And there’s a massive difference between momentary anxieties about online behaviour and a panoptic fear about what it might be doing to us as a species. (Maybe this is why we still have novelists: to worry about the global effects of every email sent in haste.)

In any case, Franzen is not alone. A new documentary released this week by Beeban Kidron, InRealLife, is Franzen’s thesis made flesh. Comprising extensive interviews with six teenagers along with fly-on-the-wall footage of their lives outside the internet, InRealLife is serious, well-intentioned and occasionally genuinely shocking. It also goes beyond mere human interest into genuine ethical quandaries of how the internet turns us all into consumers at a younger and younger age. But for all that, it is wrongheaded, hasty, shortsighted and more than a little bit sensationalist – all phenomena that Jonathan Franzen would like to blame the internet for. Well, Jonathan, I hate to tell you …

Continue reading The Worst of All Possible Worlds

Mostly Shorts 3

Cameo

It’s that time of year again: the time when you go to see a film and are slightly baffled by the sudden appearance of a short extra thing, out of nowhere, before the main feature. The Virgin Media Shorts competition has been running since 2008 and is surely a good thing (£30,000 for the winner to make their next film), but it suffers rather from the niche marketing and poor penetration of short films in general.

This year the organisers have put more emphasis on interactivity. Not only will you be momentarily baffled when one of these films shows up in your cinema, but now you can follow the competition via hashtags, Facebook and probably SnapChat. All the films will also be screened through Virgin Media, with a People’s Champion being chosen by Virgin viewers. This leads, among other things, to the following piece of PR genius: “By voting through their TiVo® set top boxes, customers will choose their favourite of the 13 shortlisted films. The winner will win Virgin Media’s TiVo® service for a year (if they are an existing Virgin Media customer).” Well, yes.

The thirteen nominees are below the jump. One of them – the excellent Niche in the Market – has already featured in Mostly Shorts. Continue reading Mostly Shorts 3

Mostly Shorts 2

The return of an occasional series in which Mostly Film looks at the best short films on the web

shorts

MostlyFilm likes big. MostlyFilm likes small. And given that we’re rather small ourselves, we like to see the things we champion get big: whether that be an individual film or a niche film festival. This feature is basically a one-stop window for the best – or at least the prettiest – of what’s going on in the world of short films and web series: a new artistic world that’s grown extraordinarily fast in the last ten years.

If you’ve made a short film yourself, or have just seen one you particularly like, please email editor@mostlyfilm.com, point us to it, and we’ll see what we can put together. If we get enough responses, we’re planning to put on an event in a central London cinema for outstanding respondents. So if you’re struggling to finish that short film, now might be the time to push it over the line.

What follows after the jump isn’t at all indicative of what we’re looking for; it’s just what’s turned up in our trawls over the past few weeks. More live action stuff this time, though. Continue reading Mostly Shorts 2

A Science Fiction of the Past

Federico Fellini’s Satyricon gets a rare public screening in London next week. Niall Anderson welcomes it back.

Lights! Minotaur! Action!
Lights! Minotaur! Action!

Little dates faster than cinematic representations of the future; except perhaps cinematic representations of the past. Federico Fellini’s Satyricon (or, to use its pettifogging official title, Fellini-Satyricon) is ostensibly set in and around Nero’s Rome, but it couldn’t be more 1969 if it quoted Shelley while opening a big hamper of dying butterflies in Hyde Park.

A rarefied episodic adventure involving witches, cannibalism, mutilation and at least one character becoming a god, Satyricon is so committed to modish 60s estrangement techniques that the viewer is sometimes distracted from what’s really strange about it. Not the nudity, the gore, the jump-cuts, the spikily intrusive score, or the scenes that end mid-sentence; rather the bizarre calmness of the cinematography and a casual scenic beauty that constantly upstages the actual drama. Satyricon doesn’t play these aspects off against each other so much as it keeps piling them on, layer after layer. For all the deliberate dreamlike elaboration of its technique, Satyricon comes across as a very different dream to what Fellini may have intended. Continue reading A Science Fiction of the Past

District 10

Niall Anderson sees Matt Damon scowl his way through Elysium

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was a punky man-in-jeopardy sci fi thing, with good effects and good performances. It had a hundred small ideas that it deployed to excellent if fleeting effect, and a single big idea (that racism is bad) delivered with enough heat that it powered the film without feeling cheap. Lots of people liked District 9. Unfortunately, one of those people was Neill Blomkamp, who has elected to remake it with a bigger budget and more Matt Damon and call it Elysium.

Once again, we’re in the near future (2154) in a racially divided cityscape (downtown LA). Our workaday hero is exposed to toxic materials (radiation here; mutating fluid in District 9) and must fight to save himself. His enemies take many forms – most of them shooting at him – but his biggest enemy is Prejudice. At this point some windswept music will play on the soundtrack, as if emotionally emptied out by the sheer thought of Prejudice. Continue reading District 10

I am the one who knock-offs

Niall Anderson cashes in on Breaking Bad, because, well, who isn’t?

We’ve had cool TV shows before. We’ve had cool TV shows getting called the best of all time. We have had cool, best-of-all-time TV shows that have also been genuinely popular. We’ve had award-winning shows that have grown from cult concern to cultural phenomenon in the seeming blink of an eye. We’ve had, for instance, The Simpsons.

But when last April The Simpsons itself decided to tip the hat to AMC’s critical favourite Breaking Bad, we saw something quite as peculiar as a mild-mannered chemistry teacher turning into a psychopathic drug-lord. We saw an apparently high-minded moral drama being given a lap of honour long before the race was over, let alone won. And we saw, almost immediately afterwards, the rise of the Breaking Bad cash-in.

This didn’t happen to The Wire. It hasn’t even happened to Mad Men. The Sopranos may have inspired a few ‘Bada Bing!’ t-shirts and the odd semi-official ‘Music From’ CD, but the sheer boggling range of Breaking Bad tat is pretty much unprecedented outside of kids’ TV. Does this maybe tell us something about the show? Does it say something about the audience? Let’s drive that RV out into the wilderness of the internet and see who wants to take us for everything except our underpants. Continue reading I am the one who knock-offs

Dismay of the Locust

James Deen! Lindsay Lohan! Bret Easton Ellis! Paul Schrader! Yes, it’s The Canyons. What, wonders Niall Anderson, could possibly go wrong?

The Canyons begins with scenes of boarded-up cinemas in Hollywood. The historic home of movies is now inhospitable to them. A little later, a friend asks Lindsay Lohan’s Tara why she’s cooled off on a particular film project. ‘When was the last time you saw a movie that really meant something to you?’ she replies. The answer is a dodge for all sorts of reasons particular to Tara, but it nicely incarnates both the epic self-indulgence of The Canyons and its ambivalent sadness about the end of Hollywood as dream factory.

Most of the pre-release notices of The Canyons have focussed on its sensational behind-the-scenes aspects: the stunt casting (porn star James Deen; teen-starlet-turned-trainwreck Lindsay Lohan), the Kickstarter campaign to fund it (which didn’t actually kickstart anything), and the unholy alliance between nihilist author Bret Easton Ellis and moralist director Paul Schrader. The most sensational thing about the film turns out to be how exactly it maps to your expectations: The Canyons is, in several respects, a film you don’t need to see. Continue reading Dismay of the Locust