Daily Archives: September 21, 2008

Somers Town Part 3

Tomo and Marek

Tomo and Marek on a spree

A viewing finally allows me to return to discussion of Somers Town and its funding as well as comparing notes with Rona’s Edinburgh Festival review. On reflection, I think that the film is light in narrative terms – certainly in comparison with Shane Meadows’ earlier successful films. However, the film has the potential to work well with audiences and I think it is very interesting as a ‘text in circulation’.

I saw the film on a digital print which meant that it appeared on the larger of the two main screens at the National Media Museum. (One of the problems associated with digital prints is that they can’t be moved between screens.) A relatively small audience rattled around in the theatre, but they seemed to enjoy the film. Applying the Mark Kermode test, the film must be a genuine comedy since I laughed out loud on several occasions (Kermode admits this is rare with most mainstream comedies). This bodes well for the three events I have coming up.

I suspect that the first problem facing Meadows and scriptwriter Paul Fraser was the basis on which they would expand the initial idea from a 9 minute short to a 70 minute feature. I have no expertise as a scriptwriter, but it seems obvious to me that it isn’t just a question of lengthening scenes and adding events and sub-plots. Just as a short story is a different form to a novel, a short film is a different form to a feature film. What is apparent in Somers Town is that the Thomas Turgoose character, ‘Tomo’, has no back story. All we know is what he reveals in a cafe conversation – that there is no one for him in Nottingham. Is he running away from a violent father, from simple boredom, from a criminal past or something else entirely? Or is the line in the cafe just part of a con to get sympathy. I don’t remember any specific clues. Of course, there is no reason why he should be anything else other than an enigma, but this would be less of an issue in a short film. In a feature we expect to learn a little more about characters and Somers Town inverts our usual experience. Tomo is the enigma and Marek, the migrant ‘other’, is someone with more background. Marek is, in some ways, a typical character with a father who works hard and drinks hard and who is capable of violence when provoked. (Or perhaps I’ve just been unlucky in the few Polish films I’ve seen recently, all of which which feature heavy drinking.) The third young character, Maria, is a kind of magical/mythical creature – the perfect fantasy girlfriend. There are only two other significant characters, played by Kate Dickie and Perry Benson, both of whom are ‘helpers’.

In terms of style, the obvious references are to the 1960s and both French and British New Wave films, not least because of the black and white cinematography. Here’s Shane Meadows on eyeforfilm.co.uk:

“I went to London – I’d not really shot outside of the Midlands before. I was very excited but when I actually started taking photographs of the various locations, because there was a massive range of buildings from a massive range of times we ended up with a huge variation in colour. So I started to worry that it wasn’t going to look great. I had some of the photographs converted into black and white and suddenly it started to look like the same place rather than this mish-mash. Around St Pancras there’s so much development going on, there was any colour of plastic sheeting – it was like any image was going to be a patchwork quilt of colours – so black and white film was able to temper that design and to get the best out of the area.”

The connection to Paris suggests several potential French comparisons – perhaps to Truffaut’s slightly younger characters in 400 Blows (1959). As far as British cinema is concerned, there is a reference to The Knack (1965) in the Sight & Sound Review by Mark Sinker – prompted by the the scenes in which Tomo and Marek push Maria along in a wheelchair (in The Knack, Rita Tushingham is pushed along on a brass bedstead). I’m not sure about this, the trip down to St Pancras in 2008 from Nottingham seems a lot less of a shift of culture than coming down from the North in the mid 1960s. On the other hand, there is still a charge in the suggestion that London is a different place and as another review (can’t remember by who) put it, Somers Town is a welcome alternative to the view of English working-class life offered in a London-set film such as Adulthood. The Knack was clearly an attempt at a form of social satire (from the play by Ann Jellicoe) and 400 Blows was a powerful film about youthful alienation. Somers Town seems much lighter. Partly, this is because of the final sequence – the ‘money shot’ for Eurostar, I guess. I don’t want to spoil the film for potential viewers, so let’s just say that the ending is possibly a fantasy (which does take it back to The Knack, perhaps.)

The release pattern of Somers Town has been quite interesting. Presumably, the distributors, Optimum Releasing, thought that despite the success of This Is England in ‘breaking out’, Somers Town would struggle to find an audience beyond specialised cinemas. As a consequence, the film opened on 62 screens in the UK with a steady screen average of just under £2,000 for the opening weekend and No 13 slot in the Top 15. Week 2 saw a 37% drop and Week 3 a 43% drop, but this was mainly because the screen count dropped to 39. In retrospect, I think that the film probably exceeded the expectations of Optimum and that if they’d managed to keep it at 50+ prints in a wider range of multiplexes they might have had a bigger success. Even so, £400,000+ after 3 weeks is a good return for a low budget film. The UK Film Council is also probably feeling quite pleased since it awarded Optimum £140,000 to boost the print count to 62.

The other interesting aspect of the release was that Arts Alliance, the company which supplied digital projectors for the Digital Screen Network in the UK, funded a digital print of Paddy Considine’s Dog Altogether (17 minutes) to be shown before Somers Town on the same programme. The short was presumably available to any programmer with a digital screen (though not all seem to have taken it). Arts Alliance is also connected to the City Screen chain of cinemas, so I presume that they took it if they had a digital screen available. I’m pleased that the National Media Museum did take it as I hadn’t seen it before (it has appeared on Channel 4 and is available (to UK and Ireland PC owners – not Macs, boo!) on 4OD. The two films together make an 88 minute programme which I think is OK (I think other cinemas tried to find other suitable shorts). It’s great to see short films used in this way – they are important in introducing new directors and they need to be seen in mainstream cinemas, not just on TV or at festivals. There was only one problem with this particular combination – the certificates. Dog Altogether is a 15 Cert short (it deals with a character’s struggles with violent behaviour) but Somers Town is 12A. This must have caused a few headaches for cinema directors and front of house staff.

Dog Altogether is an appropriate partner for Somers Town in the sense that Paddy Considine is a long time collaborator with Shane Meadows (performing lead roles in A Room for Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes and he acknowledges Meadows help:

However, in tone Dog Altogether is much darker and I’ve heard of several complaints from audiences expecting a light comedy and not happy about seeing something else. This used to happen in the days of the ‘full programme with supporting feature’ when inappropriate B features would appear on the bill with A comedies – there is mileage here in research into how audience tastes have changed (i.e. audiences are perhaps now less tolerant of the unexpected – or perhaps feel that they have paid specifically to have seen the single title, whereas previously they paid for ‘a night out’.

I’m collecting clips and useful websites, more to come later:

Here’s Thomas Turgoose being interviewed about the film:

http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1757643372/bctid1759735473

For all things Shane Meadows, the best source is http://www.shanemeadows.co.uk/

Here is the interview on ITV’s This Morning featuring Shane and Thomas Turgoose discussing how Tomo was cast for This Is England:

A couple of YouTube clips while we wait for the DVD release. The first is a Sky ‘bitesize clip’:

This one is a video package from Associated Press – a good example of the material available to TV stations and other media outlets from agencies:

These are ads directed by Shane Meadows, so Somers Town isn’t his first ‘sponsored’ film:

The official website: http://www.somers-town.com/

An article in Campaign Magazine about how the advertising agency Mother Vision started off the Somers Town project.

Co-producer on the film was Barnaby Spurrier and Tomboy Films

There are not many women in the UK who are award-winning cinematographers, so check out Natasha Braier’s website.

Check out this Finnish blog for an interesting quote linking Shane Meadows and François Truffaut!

And here is a possible Truffaut stimulus film, Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers). This is the first part of a two part short film:

I think this film shares not only a narrative idea (boys attracted to an older girl) but also a light tone.

Here is the UK Film Council chart for the week of the film’s release.

Die Welle (The Wave, Germany 2008)

Herr Wenger gets started on 'Autocracy'

Herr Wenger gets started on 'Autocracy'

Die Welle has received good coverage in the UK media for what is a ‘specialised release’ in the UK (i.e. only a few prints on release). However, it was slagged off by both Bradshaw in the Guardian and the academic turned critic Sarah Churchwell on BBC2 Newsnight Review. For me, they both make the mistake of judging the film as an art object and not what it is – a solid, mainstream teen movie (or youth picture as I would prefer).

The first thing to be clear about is that this is that very rare beast in the UK – a mainstream German picture, from one of the main German film companies. Usually, we don’t get to see the big German comedies and action films, presumably on the grounds that it is too expensive to dub them for the multiplex and that the arthouse audience won’t like them if subtitled (as per Bradshaw). This is unfortunate as it deprives us of German popular culture as study texts for film and media studies.

The plot of the film is derived from a German best-selling novel, in turn based on events in a California high school in the 1960s when a teacher decided to teach about fascism by putting his students through a programme of inculcating discipline, uniformity and commitment to the group. In the film, the self-selecting group of students who opt for a Project Week topic on ‘autocracy’ find themselves with a popular and laid-back teacher, horrified that he’s been given the topic to teach and that his preferred option ‘anarchy’ (he has been a real anarchist) has been given to the most conservative teacher in the school. Faced with a class expecting something new, “Not the Third Reich again, man!”, he quickly decides he needs a new idea.

The narrative, as befits the youth picture genre, is compressed into a week, Monday to Saturday. Things happen very fast in the youth picture. Another convention of the youth picture is that there are plenty of characters, all of whom are ‘typed’ in some way because there isn’t time to make them into ’rounded characters’. (Apart from the teacher, there are at least eight or nine important student characters.) Watching some critics grapple with this is amusing, but also frustrating.

The filmmakers obviously want to reach the 15-24 market and they have adopted a muscular and very American style. It’s in ‘Scope and features some fast cutting matched to a rock soundtrack as well as the usual array of computers and software that perform tasks at an astonishing speed in highly visual ways. If only students could design webpages and logos at this speed – but this is a genre movie.

I have two interests in the film. First, amongst all the Americanisation, what is distinctive about German popular culture, since we see it so rarely? I gleaned a couple of things. In the play with types it is important that one sympathetic character is a rather good-looking young Turk and another character is identified as an Ossi. I don’t have much of a problem with typing, but the rather cynical/dour young woman who represents the ideologically pure hippie dissenter was a mistake, I think. The main distinguishing feature in the school, apart from the wealth of many of the students and the quality of the school building, was the choice of water polo as the sport in which the ‘jocks’ display their macho prowess (the central teacher character is also the water polo coach). This is a welcome riposte to the American football of Hollywood teen movies (American ‘football’ is one of the few sports that leaves me completely unmoved). I always think of the famous water polo match between Hungary and the USSR in 1956 (recently the subject of a Joe Esterhazy-scripted movie) as being an indicator of a different sports outlook in Central Europe. The water polo is linked to another aspect of Die Welle, which is the location of the teacher’s home on a houseboat moored on a lake near the school. Summer, lakes and forests take me back to the German textbook we had at school for O Level. I’m sure we followed a German family through the Summer from school (do German schools start early in the morning in Summer?) to the holidays.

The second interesting aspect of the film is, of course, how it deals with fascism. Here the film is quite astute. It may be ‘simplistic’ and ‘naive’ as the critics make out, but the filmmakers have thought about a teen audience and how they might be engaged. There are aspects of fascism which are not just attractive, but seemingly morally pure – the possibility of inclusivity, the eradication of differences caused by wealth etc. The teacher uses these aspects to draw in students. One visual signifier of this is the uniform. The whole uniform scenario works very well – not least because it is so visual, but also, in a UK context, because the return of uniforms happened a long time ago and it will be interesting to see what UK teens think of the film in this respect. There are some great scenes and I really enjoyed the burning of Nike and Adidas sportswear in favour of the simple uniform the students adopt – an attack on German and US capitalism as part of a ‘new movement’. The revelation of the evils of fascism is much more effective when it can be seen to be seductive and reasonable as well. I also thought the film handled the conflicting emotions around romance and commitment to the cause very well.

I think the film does run out of steam in the third quarter and I felt the ending was a mistake in some ways, but overall, I think this will work well with its target audience. It certainly bears comparison with Hollywood and it’s good to see an entertainment film that tries to take on board ideas. I don’t think teen audiences will feel patronised by the film and even if they don’t like it, I’ll be interested to hear what they have to say.