Monthly Archives: January 2012

Stewart Lee: The “If You Would Prefer A Milder Comedian Please Ask For One” EP

Here’s an unexpected treat for fans of the deliberately obtuse and/or audience alienating and/or smug and/or only-worthwhile-comedian-working-in-the-UK-today Stewart Lee: a bitesize follow-up to the painstaking, fascinating and laceratingly self-critical and honest deconstruction of his stand-up act that was How I Escaped My Certain Fate. That book presented transcripts of three of Lee’s recent shows, together with copious footnotes providing really quite penetrating explanations and analyses of the material, and this new slim volume follows exactly the same formula, this time taking as its subject his 2009/10 set If You Would Prefer A Milder Comedian Please Ask For One. This is a welcome update: for one thing, by this time Lee’s profile had been significantly raised due to the screening of his BBC series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle and his live audience had thus been swelled by people who might well have not been so savvy with his frames of reference and distinctive non-ingratiating MO, and for another this show contains what is probably Lee’s most infamous, and also one of his funniest, routines in which he exposes the laziness and cant inherent in the laddish banter of Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond. Interestingly he directs most of his theatrically exaggerated, but undoubtedly real, bile at the stoogeish Hammond rather than the obvious target Clarkson, but his point is made with devastating clarity and no small degree of risk of misinterpretation. If you haven’t seen the routine, you should YouTube it immediately. The footnotes in How I Escaped… were often as compelling as the shows they were annotating, and the same applies here – I particularly enjoyed the sections where Lee describes his deliberate sabotaging of his own material. As in the parent book, the transcript is prefaced with an essay detailing the circumstances of its creation, and you also get an article previously available online in which Lee gives a typically measured and non-apologetic justification for his non-complimentary referencing of superstar comedian Michael McIntyre. As a sidenote, the cover design of the book is very pleasing: the photo is a re-staging of the one on the cover of The Specials’ 1980 EP Too Much Too Young, which is also where the underlining and exclamation marking of the word “Lee” is drawn from. Looking forward to further installments greatly.

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Shame: about the face, and other areas

Can I tempt you with another arthouse movie about miserable people with hopelessly dysfunctional private lives? Shame is the second film directed by Steve McQueen (the Turner Prize winning artist, not the motorbike-bestriding film star) and it’s as uncompromisingly bleak as his debut Hunger, which took as its happy subject the dirty protests in the Maze prison by IRA members and the hunger strike and eventual death of Bobby Sands. Hunger surrounded a remarkable 15 minute head to head sequence between Sands and his priest with a set of slow, virtually wordless tableaux of the prisoners, their cells and their guards that typically featured prominent detailing of shit-smeared walls and urine-beswilled corridors. It was all actually quite beautiful, albeit in a remorselessly excremental way. Shame is a couple of steps closer to the mainstream, and even boasts a script co-written by successful dramatist Abi Morgan that gives some reasonably sustained chunks of dialogue to its actors but in some ways it’s even more depressing than the earlier film, in which you could at least divine some motive for the misery the characters put themselves through.

Michael Fassbender, who played Sands in Hunger and looked like he hadn’t eaten for months, is lead character Brandon, who holds down an ill-defined but well-paying job in an office in New York, and seems to divide his free time between having meaningless sexual encounters and consuming absurd amounts of pornography via internet, videos and magazines. After a while it becomes clear that he spends much of his time at work indulging in the same activities, though none of it appears to bring him much pleasure or fulfillment. His frustrations are exacerbated by the arrival at his flat of his flaky and troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), whose problems don’t interest him and whose presence disrupts his cycle of no-strings sex and incessant masturbation. Conflicts follow, as does an attempt to forge a more conventional relationship with a co-worker, but the unflinchingly austere style of the film doesn’t lead one to expect a happy ending.

Shame is actually remarkably watchable given its decidedly non-feelgood theme and characters, although McQueen does sometimes seem to favour his carefully worked out compositions too much over giving the audience some reason to care about the damaged people he’s putting on screen. There’s a consistent wintry, if not downright sterile, cast to the cinematography that nicely complements Brandon’s lack of empathy with humanity in general, and the streets of New York can rarely have been depicted as so impersonal and unwelcoming. There’s plenty of sexually explicit scenes in the film, but all of them show the act as functional and joyless – this is definitely not one for the dirty raincoat brigade. You’ve got to wonder what negative theme McQueen will take on next – pride, maybe? Myopia?

The Artist: encore, encore

It might be a sign of the increasingly depressing times that the two most straightforwardly enjoyable and entertaining films I’ve seen in the last few months have both been love letters to the early days of cinema and its power to uplift the spirit of the downtrodden masses in an age of economic hardship. Both Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (which I’ve gushed about here) and The Artist, written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, are set in the early 1930s and feature key sequences showing audiences being enthralled by the exuberance and panache of silent movies, and both films succeed in relaying that excitement and emotional involvement to the modern audience. The approaches taken by the two film-makers are however strikingly different. Whereas Hugo is eventually revealed as an intimate family-themed tale that’s presented via unapologetically modern means (computer generated imagery, 3D, impossibly vertiginous and supple camera moves in places), The Artist is on the surface played completely straight: black and white, academy ratio-ed, a slightly gauzy picture quality and nothing on the soundtrack bar a surging and melodramatic orchestral score. As it turns out, it’s definitely more sophisticated than its outward appearance and simple plot might lead you to suspect, and there are one or two highly effective convention-breaking touches that the director couldn’t resist dropping in, but for the main part there’s nothing here that an audience member from 1932 would find notably avant garde.

The story concerns George Valentin, a handsome and ebullient leading man whose pride and secret lack of self-confidence prevent him from rising to the challenge of the advent of talking pictures, a challenge that his former fan and now top box office draw Peppy Miller has overcome with considerable success. It’s a deliberately hackneyed rise and fall narrative, but one of the chief delights of The Artist is the gusto and skill with which the film lets its audience in on the joke of the well-worn grooves it’s riding while simultaneously affording them a great deal of pleasure and emotional engagement nonetheless. This is no mean trick, and it couldn’t have been achieved without an absolutely meticulous attention to detail: the leads are perfectly cast, and given the absence of dialogue their physical appearance had to be spot on, and is (Jean Dujardin is square-jawed and immaculately groomed as Valentin, and Bérénice Bejo could be straight out of a news reel about the flapper phenomenon), cars and clothes and buildings are entirely authentic, and the dramatically lit, high contrast photography is just beautiful. Even when familiar actors like John Goodman and James Cromwell pop up the illusion remains intact, as their craggy but wise faces fit right into the feel of the piece. I didn’t spot a false note anywhere (though I did notice a large section of the score of Vertigo underpinning the film’s climax),

The Artist is a real delight, for once a film that does deliver on its promise of being different from your run-of-the-mill cinema experience. Given its subject and form this is definitely one to see on the big screen.