Monday, 29 December 2008

Staunch Women

The best thing about the internet is that it doesn't take you where you want to go.  Whatever you're doing, whatever you want, it wants to guide you someplace else.  Whether being sidetracked by the mind-bending lateral thinking of a Google topic search, or being assured by Facebook that you that you Might Know Some People You Actually Don't, the internet is awash with happenstance guilty pleasures and the lost hours they leave in their wake.  So, beset with insomnia and finding myself somewhere between a waking nightmare and total brain-freeze, I washed up on the shores of Grey Gardens.  I don't know what I typed into Google to get there, or how I found myself watching it, but I soon realised it was a place I was always meant to find.

If Grey Gardens feels like a place I'd already visited, then perhaps that is subliminal memories of an ill-advised jaunt to Fire Island off-season about ten years ago.  Few things compare to the bleakness of an empty holiday resort, and thinking back, the windswept peninsulas and artlessly unfurnished spaces we shivered through for three days before leaving in defeat aren't a million miles away from Little Edie's world.

For the uninitiated, Grey Gardens is an early fly-on-the-wall documentary, charting the decline of Edith Bouvier – cousin of Jackie Kennedy – and her daughter, also called Edie.  By the mid-70s, the pair had fallen from high society to dire poverty, living out their days as reclusive grand dames in a decaying Long Island beach house, surrounded by faded dreams of showbiz and mangy cats. And there they argue, make up, argue, make up... all whilst singing a medley of vaudeville songs in quavering tones. It's as potent a metaphor for faded glory as one is ever likely to come across.

Yet, in spite of the squalor and hopelessness of their circumstances, the Bouviers possess a curious quiet dignity.  Amidst the self-delusion, regret and recrimination, one gets a sense of two people who are genuinely proud of their own eccentricity, and in spite of their protestations, the Edies are utterly co-dependent. For all their amusing asides, it's a quietly moving love story.
To the viewer, Grey Gardens itself seems like a place which lingers in the common consciousness – that strange old house every town seems to have tucked away somewhere, where the windows are broken and the people don't seem quite right. Here the voyeur gets a privileged peep behind the closed doors, welcomed as a guest into a forbidden kingdom. And, dare I say it, for a moment, it's a world that's almost persuasive.

As easy as it is to find a campy glee in Little Edie's squawking ruminations, there's a heartfelt weariness to her words that haunts the viewer long after their smiles fade. Is it a cautionary tale about idle privilege, or a stark reminder of how heavily a desire to cling to memory can weigh on the future? As Little Edie says: "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present – know what I mean?"

Thursday, 25 December 2008

It's Christmas!

That will be all.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The Christmas dream

Michael Parkinson's wife promised me that it would taste delicious, but alas now I'll never know.  After a fruitless afternoon of traipsing around various Marks & Spencer branches in London town, the mythical Christmas pudding cheesecake remained a fleeting dream.  Even the sight of an empty shelf with a lonely price sticker demanding £12.99 for the privilege wasn't enough to deter me.  Something deep and primal told me that this cheesecake had been made for me.  it was something new... something better that the world had denied me.

Failing to locate an overpriced dessert that probably tasted revolting was my Christmas culinary dream...  small potatoes indeed compared to Nigella Lawson, busy lecturing the nation in Nigella's Christmas Kitchen (BBC2).  As someone who cooks as little as possible, I'm fascinated by cookbooks and cooking shows.  Not, you understand, so that I'll be inspired to cook, but because -- like the Christmas cheesecake -- they represent a better way of living that seems at once attainable, yet tantalisingly out of reach.   Throughout the proceedings, Nigella acts like someone drunk on her own brilliance, which might explain her slightly slurred speech and shaky grasp on the English language.  Luckily for her, she sounds very posh, so you spend most of the experience mildly beguiled whilst she trills made-up words and reminds us Just How Hard It All Is.  At one point, she even shares a handy invention called the to-do list.  "You will be eternally grateful," she later demands without much irony, finishing off her potatoes.

But it's not all hard work.  For when Nigella isn't reminding us Just How Hard It All Is, she's busy reassuring us that she's Just One Of Us Really.  To this end, she frequently tells us how much she likes a drink, leading up to a particularly memorable sequence where she shuffles through her kitchen in a dressing gown, hand poised at her temple, feigning a morning-after hangover.  Alas, she doesn't have the courage to go for full post-bender Amy Winehouse hair and Joker make-up here, instead reverting her Stepford wife poise after a couple of shaky steps.

Yet, for all my carping, it's hard to dislike Nigella, and I can't fully understand why.  Perhaps it's the fact that she seems a stone's throw from full-out barking madness...  "Fragrant bath water is ready... I'm now going to get the baby to pop in it," she grins maniacally, busy drowning a turkey in a bucket of chives.  Maybe I like her just because the recipes actually look genuinely delicious.  I can't pretend my imagination stretches as far as the sensation of gingerbread stuffing or semolina-laced roast potatoes, but like that mythical cheesecake, I know they have to taste better than the world I live in.

And that's the true meaning of aspirational television.  A glimpse into somewhere that offers us more.  Try and hate her though you might, who can honestly say that they wouldn't want to live in Nigella's world -- all autumn tones, attractive long-lens blurring and heartwarming Peggy Lee songs?  

No wonder she's so smug.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

First Draft Pending

I'm three days late on the deadline for my latest script, with about 500 words out of 10,000 on the page. And, typically, as the night wears on and I continue to avoid opening that Word document and starting, I find myself on the internet, trawling for distraction.

And so, thanks to the wonder of BBC iPlayer, I've just watched this week's episode of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe, which featured some of Britain's greatest television writers talking about the tortuous business of writing a script. What a brilliant, inspiring piece of television... a solid 50 minutes of bona fide genius, spoken with authority, passion and zero pretension.

One of the most heartening things was hearing Graham Linehan talk about the need to be ready to write -- that the process happens in its own time. The more and more I write, the more I believe that's true. Deadlines are there, and you should be absolutely sincere in trying to meet them, but deep down there's a tug of war between when the boss needs pages and when your ideas are fully-formed enough to emerge.

So, at the moment I'm grappling with the problems of stone ghosts in a Maine winter and growing old and disappointed... I know what the story is about, the characters, the tone, but yet something's missing -- the bit that I really need to start making it happen. There's an Unknown Something that I know belongs there -- has to be there -- but is somehow out of reach. The most frustrating part of any creative process is knowing that you're always at arm's length from What It Should Be -- that crucial, devastating difference between what you want to say, and what you end up being said.

But in the meantime, this story remains faraway. So here I am at 5am, tapping out words and hoping that in the back of my mind, the answers are working themselves out. I think that Tony Jordan summed it up perfectly tonight, saying that he likes to have written, but hates writing. There's something so quietly reassuring about knowing that, no matter how accomplished you become, that bit never gets any easier.

Anyway, back to it...

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Color Me Green

Here's my latest guilty pleasure, the new DVD release of Family Portrait -- a special colorized edition of an early episode of The Munsters. The classic horror sitcom has been decked out in undead hues in a tester for converting the whole series to colour, and the results are very convincing.

I love this show dearly.  Fred Gwynne and Yvonne DeCarlo's peerless screwball performances sing on the screen and the fast and furious mix of whimsical wordplay and sight gags stand up brilliantly four decades on.  Make no mistake, this is a classy little number.

So, here's the debate... to colorize, or not to colorize?  On the cons side, the original show was filmed in black and white, with impeccable photography echoing the golden age of Universal horror.  On the pros side, the original unaired pilot was filmed in colour, and plain cost-cutting was the only reason for making the eventual series in black and white. Indeed, one of the factors in The Munsters' cancellation was the increased costs of it transferring to colour for a projected third season. Added to that, the show made a very graceful transition to colour for its big screen spin-off, Munster, Go Home!, presented in eye-popping Technicolor with a groovy Mario Bava-esque vibe.  Considering all that, maybe there's a genuine case for colorizing The Munsters?

So, anyways, back to Family Portrait...  Purist grumblings be damned, Mockingbird Lane looks delightful in colour.  The new version has been tinted with an appropriately 60s palette, faithfully reproducing that mad oh-wow-we've-finally-got-colour-and-we're-gonna-use-it-godammit attitude that make everything from Batman to Star Trek such a kitsch joy to modern eyes.  Sure, it's not tasteful, it's not restrained, but it feels authentic.  If The Munsters had made it to colour, it would have looked like this.  

What's particularly interesting is how little the addition of colour affects the show's tone.  The Munsters always felt like a live action cartoon, with its broad slapstick and knockabout antics, and that quality feels more noticeable than ever before. Herman looks resplendent in his bile green pallor, and the masterpiece Munster house set can be enjoyed in a new level of detail.  

We're not talking defacing a great work of art here... this is a fun experiment and a neat aside for a grand old piece of television.  If you get the chance, check it out.