My Robot Occupation Movies #3 – Life Is Sweet

Third in a series – Imagine for a moment that the world has been invaded and occupied by an army of robots, and you could only grab a handful of DVDs before you were incarcerated… what would they be?

It was the 90s, and poster budgets were smaller then...
It was the 90s, and poster budgets were smaller then…

“Mum! Mum! You have to see this!”

Have you ever watched a film that was so uncannily like your own life that you were convinced that the film-makers were monitoring and recording your every move? For me, LIFE IS SWEET was that movie.

I’m not talking about the events in the story, but all the way through there were little character moments that chimed so precisely with the world I lived in (still living at home with mum, dad and sister, in a house too small for us all) that once I finished watching it, I rewound the tape, dragged my mum and sister into the room and made them watch it too.

They did so, with wide eyes and open mouths. One scene in particular had them screaming with recognition…

We were used to seeing a sort-of hyped-up reflection of reality in soaps on TV, but they were always done in such a rush, with such a sense of melodrama, that it was hard to take them seriously. But Life Is Sweet is a Mike Leigh movie. The actors spend weeks, if not months, working on their characters, rehearsing and refining them through improvisation. It’s a fairly unique method of film making, but gives the dialogue a naturalistic rhythm that would look impenetrable on the page.

To say that this film was a major influence on my early writing, especially my first play, would be a massive understatement. It gave me licence to write characters that sounded like people I knew.

Leigh gets a lot of flack for being patronising to his audience, characters and even the working classes*, but in Life Is Sweet, and the better-known SECRETS AND LIES, I saw truthful representations of ordinary people I recognised, and the trials they faced. Not epic struggles against monsters or aliens, but just people coming to terms with life in an ordinary suburban world. I’m learning that story is all about characters discovering who they are, reconciling the conflicting parts of their own selves. If you can pull that off, whatever the setting, you’ll have the ingredients of a great drama. And Leigh’s films have this in spades.

*Though I only ever see this criticism from middle class journalists, so…

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My Robot Occupation Movies #2 – Psycho

Second in a series – Imagine for a moment that the world has been invaded and occupied by an army of robots, and you could only grab a handful of DVDs before you were incarcerated… what would they be?

Psycho_(1960)

Psycho was the first film that I ever studied in any kind of depth. Up till then, films were just films to me. Good, escapist fun, but nothing I ever thought about in any kind of academic sense. I’d seen Psycho on TV. My dad, just leaving the house for a night out, saw that it was on, ‘Psycho. You’ll like that,’ he grinned, leaving me alone in the house and possibly scarring me for life.

It was unlike anything I’d seen before. I’d enjoyed horror movies with my friends, but they were always in glorious technicolor, never black and white. This one felt slow and talky, and there were only a couple of murders. To this teen, it was okay, but I preferred a bit more claret with my horror. But, that aside, there was definitely something odd about it. It made me think, for a start, which no other horror movie had achieved so far.

Then one of our teachers announced that he would be running an after-school film club and Psycho would be our subject. By now, I’d seen a few more of Hitchcock’s movies and was aware of Psycho’s importance, but I hadn’t seen it since that original TV viewing.

Well, we took that baby apart. We analysed everything: shot composition, shot lengths, the importance of light and shadows, the motif of birds – Crane, “Eats like a bird”, Phoenix, the positioning of the stuffed birds in shots – the abundance of reflective surfaces throughout, and even the colour of Janet Leigh’s underwear before and after she steals the money.

And the shower scene? Took it apart shot-by-shot. All 3 minutes and 50 cuts.

From then on, I would never look at movies in the same way. It made me aware of symbolism, motifs, music, casting, lenses, lighting, sound – all the building blocks of a movie. And, most of all, it had me hooked. Movies were now my thing. More than music. More than books.

Not long after that, my friends and I made a short movie for a national schools competition. Fresh off our Psycho experience, we thought we knew it all. Of course, the end result was mostly dreadful, but there was one scene where dozens of kids came charging out of their classrooms into a hallway (our film was about a revolution in a school), and seeing that cut together – the doors crashing open, the feet pounding, the kids running – was the first time that anything we’d done actually looked like a movie. The stuff we’d learned watching Psycho had, for a few seconds, paid off. We can do this, I realised.

Despite ripping its guts out, Psycho is still fun to watch. My sister and I still talk about it (it’s one of her favourites too), and its power hasn’t been diminished by the 1998 remake, or the poor sequels (though Psycho II isn’t that bad!).

The original was on TV just this week, and I subjected my 13-year-old daughter to it. She talked over the shower scene, ‘That’s what you get for using all my hot water!’, but stuck with it till then end. And now she’s asking questions… That’s what the movie does. Provokes dark and disturbing thoughts. Some have been explored in documentaries, films and books, not least Stephen Rebello’s excellent Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho, but the mysteries of the human frailties of jealousy and murder will always remain. So let’s leave the last word to the master himself…

My Robot Occupation Movies #1 – Blade Runner

My son is at an age where rating things is all-important. The most common question I get from him after we watch a movie is, ‘How many stars would you give that?’ This in turn has led to an extended ‘What’s your favourite movie?’ conversation.

Well, he’s got me thinking. Just what are my favourite movies? And why? So, over the next few blog posts I’ll be putting these thoughts into some kind of order. So, imagine for a moment that the world has been invaded and occupied by an army of robots, and you could only grab a handful of DVDs before you were incarcerated… what would they be?

These have to be the movies you simply couldn’t live without. They don’t have to be the best films ever, just the ones that mean the most to you. The ones that tell your own story.

So that’s what I’m going to do. And I’m going to start, as all good stories should, in the middle somewhere…

I first saw Blade Runner at my friend Kristian’s place. It was his birthday, and I’m guessing we were 11/12 years old. The room was full of boys expecting a kind-of Indiana Jones in the future. That’s what the VHS cover art promised, and that never lies, right?

In stereo!
In stereo!

What we got was something that split the room. Most of the group found it boring. Just me, Kris, and another kid called David Snell thought it was cool, though if you asked any of us to explain it, I doubt we could have managed anything more articulate than “There’s this bloke who has to hunt these robots – no, replicants! – and there’s a cool bit where this guy gets his eyes gouged out, and it was all very dark…”

But then the Marvel comic adaptation started appearing in the back of my weekly Return of the Jedi comic, and the story started making more sense. I read this again and again, then rented the movie, and there was definitely more than first met the eye with this film.

Too late for my GCSE English (and probably just as well) I found a film tie-in copy of Blade Runner in my local second hand bookshop. Only it wasn’t a mere tie-in, this was an original book by some guy called Philip K Dick (snigger). This would surely answer all my outstanding questions! Oh boy, was I wrong. Dick’s incredible book, with its meditation on identity and reality, just brought a million more questions flooding to my brain.

Then, on my 18th birthday, I went alone to the Odeon on Shaftesbury Avenue to see the legendary director’s cut (yeah, I know how to party!). To see that grand opening on the big screen with Vangelis’s score turned up to 11 was just amazing, though – to be honest – I missed the much-maligned voice-over. And to fully understand the whole meaning of the unicorn footage, I had to read Paul M Sammon’s excellent book FUTURE NOIR.

Since then, I’ve bought various VHS and DVD special editions and box sets. It’s bloody exhausting trying to make sense of this film. I’m now not convinced that Deckard is a replicant. That whole backstory now feels like Ridley retconning, and I still miss that voiceover.

My wife has yet to see the film all the way through without falling asleep. I have younger colleagues who can admire the film, but wouldn’t rate it as a classic, and I firmly believe that this is because you had to make the journey with this film for it to have its full impact. From first viewing, to comic, to book, to more books, director’s cuts and final cuts, to box sets with little dinky toy Spinners in them.

It is imperfect, but its riddles will never fully be resolved, and that’s one reason why I love it.

Here’s the orignal trailer. In keeping with the film’s history, it’s terrible:

PS. My friend Kristian also introduced me to Mad Max 1 & 2, various horror movies, and Firefox, and for that I shall always be grateful.