Saturday, 1 October 2011


Having recently finished watching Chris Morris’s bizarre quasi comedy-slash-surrealist nightmare, I find myself wetting the bed more frequently. For those not in the know, Jam was a darkly disturbing channel 4 sketch show from 2000 in which every conceivable taboo is confronted in ever shocking and absurdist ways. Though I still find myself struggling to decide if Jam is a groundbreaking piece of horror comedy or pretentiously vulgar, there’s no denying that I find it utterly fascinating.


Unlike his previous efforts, Morris seems less interested with delivering punch lines than subverting our most basic understanding of how we define humour. Though undoubtedly strange, both The Day Today and Brass Eye were clear in their objectives: to make people laugh. Jam on the other hand virtually abandons any semblance of a traditional sketch, trading structure for long drawn out sequences intended to amuse not by the incongruity of the set-up and the punchline but by the content as a whole.

Okay, so far, so surreal, but the way in which Morris tells his “jokes” may suggest that this isn’t actually a comedy at all. Though the odd scene may trigger a smirk, to describe the program as anything even remotely close to hilarious would be hyperbole of the highest degree. Personally speaking, I found myself smiling more out of fear and confusion than a genuine feeling of well-being. And well-being is something of which Jam is in short supply. Even the most mundane pieces that manage to sidestep controversy (which are few!) still manage to invoke in the viewer at best an attack of deep sadness, at worst an almost physical revulsion. The scenes blend into one another with hypnotic ease, as all the while an ambient soundtrack coupled with dutch tilt camera angles and the like unsettle the audience to ever more insidious depths.



Yet the question remains, what is the real aim here? Is it to demonstrate that certain subjects, such as rape, incest and abortion have no place in the world of comedy? If so, it would hardly be a fair hearing, considering how needlessly excessive the skits are in delivering the goods, which often have at their core a very simple idea that is unnecessarily twisted into something terrifying. Is it an analysis of insanity? A Kafkaesque look at how utterly peculiar the modern world really is? Perhaps it’s challenging us to think about comedy in new ways? To learn a new code in joke-telling? Or maybe it’s nothing more than a blank canvas, a postmodern celebration of nothingness from which we are invited to make our own interpretations. Indeed it could be just another piece of avant garde detritus trying to be profound by daring to broach difficult subjects. It’s certainly a convincing interpretation, but somehow likely the wrong one. There’s something self-assured about Jam and so consistent that it feels far too simplistic merely to categorise it as shock entertainment. It goes far deeper than that. Or maybe that’s just what they want you to think...

Sunday, 18 September 2011

My Literary Canon

During a radical spring cleaning of my computer's documents wherein files of little worth found themselves jettisoned into the digital cul de sac that is the recycle bin, I came across a frenzied, year-old attempt at crafting a novel. The plagiarism of Palahniuk minimalism aside, it's not an altogether terrible read, though where exactly it was headed I have no idea. The last few paragraphs were just ideas for later sections of a story which, like Kafka's The Castle and Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, will never be completed.

Anyway... here it is for you to enjoy or despise, whatever comes naturally.

Sometimes, lacking hope is the greatest aphrodisiac we have. Losing hope keeps us hopeful. The eternally recurring building, bombed and salvaged from its own wreckage. The childlike joy of losing ourselves, only to be found again, stronger, more resilient.

                _______ was an undiscovered nihilist. Her sojourns into the world of abandon were offset by an unfounded trust in human kindness. That instinctual faith in morality. So naive.
                _______ believed love was the answer. Why not? Her parents divorced, just like her brother and his wife. Her ex beat her and fed her drug addiction. Love is a many splendored thing. Like hospitalising your teenage girlfriend with the aid of gravity and a flight of stairs. Or clogging her nasal lining with Colombia’s finest whilst her heart ricochets inside her rib cage like a particle accelerator.
                She’d wake up the next day, tubes protruding from her frail body, machines converting her breaths into beeps. In her mind’s eye she’d see him, coming at her with a clenched fist, a rolled up newspaper. A broken bottle. It wasn’t his fault though. He couldn’t help it. He had a bad childhood. He didn’t finish school. He said you should mind your own fucking business the next time you ask about that blonde bitch who keeps calling at 3am.
                Being a regular, she began to notice the looks on the nurses faces. That head shake of unbelievability. The sorrowful eyes, pleading with her to please, let me help. But they didn’t understand. One doesn’t give up on true love just because their jaw occasionally connects with their partners fist, dislocating the inferior maxillary bone with permanent damage to the inferior alveolar nerve. As we speak, the shattered remnants of her premolars slide down her alimentary canal. She tells herself that’s love, massaging the swollen lump above the zygomatic bone.
                So each time he arrived with that pathetic look on his face, begging her to take him back, she’d say yes. There wasn’t a single bruise a box of chocolates couldn’t fix. A four letter word works faster than medicine. Flowers conceal dried bloodstains.

Years later, she’d find herself on the receiving end of a Nazi apologist hell-bent on resurrecting the third Reich. ‘Hitler gassed Jews because he loved his country,’ says this National Socialist, carving a swastika into the top of the bar. ‘He shot his wife to keep her from harm.’
‘Yeah well,’ she’ll say. ‘Cupid has a lot to answer for.’

                Lying in that bed, she wondered if this was as good as it gets. Right here on this ward, beside victims of domestic violence and attempted suicides, ______ felt right at home. Burning through nasal cartilage was a small price to pay. Surrounded by death and suffering, the sterility of her life now had meaning. Perhaps getting low was the new high.

                All the religious studies in the world don’t mean shit once you realise God is about as real as the tooth fairy. The Easter Bunny gives eggs. God delivers plagues.

                Her parents had it all planned. She’d grow up, get married, spit out a couple of little ones, maybe five or six? That’s the woman’s job they said. Only ______ had a different spin on things. For her, marriage was a tumour. The death knell before children arrived. Why define yourself through others, she’d say. Between offspring and a cemetery, she saw very little difference.

One night she found herself face down in a pool of vomit. Unquestionably hers, seeping into the turquoise green carpet she’d always hated and he always promised he’d replace with something less moody. A soft cream colour would complement the violence. Perhaps a bluish tint to lessen the impact of a ruptured artery. Domestic disputes can be solved with pleasant furnishing.

Happiness is overrated. Getting what you want is boring. Popularity becomes a past-time. A lover just fills your days. Some people go golfing. Her hobby was maintaining a pulse. Sure, being your partner’s punching bag was hardly ideal, but at least it showed he cared. A collapsed lung means more than a pair of shoes.

Good spirits were like a trap. Whenever she let her guard down, they’d return. But optimism was a lie. Like a Rottweiler with a ribbon. A peodophile with a smile. Genocide in 3D. Behind the veneer, life is always a struggle. Her perfect little life tried to cover that fact. Whenever her serotonin levels went for a top-up, she’d counteract them with a depressing movie. Self-harm just for kicks. A brief visit to the maternity ward browsing for miscarriages usually did the trick.

                I used to be an undiscovered nihilist. My brief sojourns into the world of abandon were offset by an unfounded trust in human kindness. That instinctual faith in morality. So naive. 

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Tangled (PG)

For several years now, the good folks at Disney animation have been racking their brains trying to figure out how exactly Pixar is continually able to capture that elusive lightning in their box office-busting bottle. Obviously strong storytelling and exceptional artistry are significant factors, but whereas Pixar can reinvent itself with each new adventure, Disney is forever anchored to a near century-old heritage. As a result, the manner in which it must evolve in order to remain relevant with modern audiences is a delicately orchestrated balancing act; should the changes be too great, they’re accused of abandoning tradition to make a quick buck; change too little and you’re branded a one trick pony. It’s an unwinnable feat and one in which the cynics take great pleasure. Yet even the most sceptical of viewers would find difficulty in lambasting Tangled, a film that marries the old with the new in a manner which hasn’t been explored since Toy Story (1995).

Ok, I admit this isn’t the first time I’ve proclaimed the glorious return of Disney. Not that The Princess and the Frog (2009) was a disappointment, but it was slightly safe. For all of it's 2D charm, the film lacked gusto, choosing instead to nestle in the comfort of it's (more successful) 90’s forebears. It's successor, however, is far more daring, with one eye on the past and one set firmly on the future. Even with every conceivable superlative at hand, adjectives simply don’t do justice to how astonishingly good this film really is and if it doesn’t quite surpass Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007) – repeat viewings may be in order – it’s certainly the finest thing from the Mouse since 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove (and I do not say that lightly!)

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to see the marketing material, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Tangled as a Shrek-lite, pop culture laden mismatch of anachronistic gaggery and capricious pastiche which ten years from now will be about as timeless as an episode of Baywatch – or a Dreamworks cartoon. Thankfully, aside from a slapstick musical set-piece and the one (frankly hilarious) instance of breaking the fourth wall, there’s not a shred of post-modernism in sight. This is the real deal; a classic fairytale, albeit with a shiny new coat of CG paint, but one which nevertheless flaunts its old school charms with such pride as to make even Enchanted (2006) look mean-spirited. Sure, the naysayers will condemn Tangled for being more of the same, but Disney will always be damned if they do, damned if they don’t and for the first time in years, here’s a studio that no longer cares what you think.

Rapunzel, easily one of the most three dimensional (har har) heroines in the Disney canon, is simply one of the most satisfying female leads in history. Period. Like Megara and Mulan (2008) et al, Rapunzel is more than just a damsel in distress, but she’s also captivatingly sweet, echoing Ariel’s youthful curiosity without the neediness and naivety that often made that particular protagonist so frustrating. Clumsy but self-mocking, strong-willed but independent, there’s a real endearing quality to the way in which she suffers her plight and this is in no small part thanks to the casting of Mandy Moore whose whole American teen vibe gives us the first genuinely hilarious Disney Princess. Of course we also have an hilarious Prince in the form of Flynn, the devilishly handsome thief who steals Rapunzel’s heart along with the film’s funniest lines. And then there’s the villain, Mother Gothel; a wicked blend of Scar’s faux affection and Lady Tremaine’s overbearing dominance, best exemplified in the musical number “Mother Knows Best”, a sequence filled with such sinister undertones as to out-bitch Cruella De Vil.

But what’s this I hear you cry? Aren’t all these just tired conventions of the Disney ‘toon? Perhaps, although even that argument would be an over-simplification. No, the real wonder of Tangled is the nostalgia it stirs in viewers old enough to remember with fondness a time when animation was more than just the moving joke book it’s now become. Even Pixar, for all their memorable moments, have failed to impinge on the emotional extremes of The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995) and countless others. Tangled represents the first real attempt to recapture the maturity of traditional animation and the result is magical; yes it’s deliriously funny, but it’s equally as moving. Admittedly the tunes are a bit of a disappointment, coming as they do from legendary composer Alan Menken, but the shock of seeing CG characters break into song is such a delight you’re unlikely to care.

And I haven’t even mentioned the visuals! Subsurface scattering for realistic lighting and those painterly patents first put to use in Bolt (2008) are here milked for all their worth; every shot is bathed in such soft iridescence that it resembles less a collection of pixels than a painting in motion. The animation itself is breathtakingly beautiful, the real standout being Maximus the horse whose canine sensibilities and stern demeanour are infused with the type of overt theatricality rarely seen outside of a Goofy cartoon. High praise must also be given for the technical pioneers behind Rapunzel’s luscious locks; hair is notoriously difficult to pull off in CGI but the way in which our hero parades it around screen is almost a dare, an invitation for rival studios to try and do better – an intimidating provocation indeed, as this is inarguably the prettiest film thus far to have emanated from a hard-drive.

It’s ironic that after so many years of chasing the equation for box-office success, Disney should feel most comfortable doing what it does best; fairytale romance, dastardly villains, loveable sidekicks, singing, dancing... or as Walt himself so cleanly put it, for every laugh there should be a tear. It’s a mantra which serves Tangled well, a film which makes no apologies for being sweet or sentimental. The sign of a studio which has finally learnt to let down it’s hair.


If you enjoyed this you may also like...  

Aladdin (1992) *****
The Little Mermaid (1989) ****
The Princess and the Frog (2009) ****