I can’t imagine anyone not liking this delicious, whimsically baroque confection, which is like an old hand-tinted postcard found between the pages of a library book of a holiday once taken by a forgotten relative.
The hotel in question is a lovingly rendered wedding cake of an edifice somewhere in mittel-Europe before the Second World War. It sits between the Alps and villages of the fictitious Zubrowka, part-Polish, part-Hungarian, part-German. A title card announces that Wes Anderson based his tale on the writings of Stefan Zweig, but it feels closer to Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’.
By the 1970′s the hotel has fallen on hard times, as indicated by the horrible orange decor and the warning signs on everything. Here, a young writer (Jude Law) is befriended by Zero (F Murray Abraham), who tells the story of how he came to inherit the hotel from the original, legendary concierge – and so we are whisked back to the hotel’s heyday. Ralph Fiennes is on delirious form here as Monsieur Gustave, unctuous, imperious, camp, exacting, and shockingly sweary. It’s a gem of a performance that lights the whole film, and for once, Wes Anderson’s weak spot – blunt dialogue – has been nicely sharpened.
M Gustave has taken Zero under his wing as a lobby boy – the odd Americanisms jar slightly for the location, but no matter – and requires his help. Madame D (Toilda Swinton) has died, leaving him a priceless painting which the family, headed by Adrien Brody, is determined to keep. He hires ludicrous proto-Nazi Willem Dafoe to get it back, and with the clockwork motor of a Bertie Wooster plot fully wound, the fun begins. With lawyer Jeff Goldblum and Chief of Police Edward Norton acting as a neutral zone between M Gustave, Zero, his pastry chef girlfriend and the forces of old-Europe evil, the battle of wills (and a will) involves chases – rendered by models rather than CGI – deceptions, trains, ski lifts, a jailbreak and the occasional shock of violence. All we lack here is someone impersonating a general.
I love the idea that the police know they can track M Gustave by his cologne (‘Lair De Panache’), and that a guard won’t check a cake for a file because it’s simply too pretty to ruin. But beneath the institutional delights of the hotel, its staff and their stories is a melancholic truth; that ultimately it’s the greater forces, the reclassification of borders, the approaching war and the march of time that will sort them all out. Anderson has long been fascinated by the end of happier times, and here he has found a perfect fit with the nostalgia for a Europe now largely lost. (But not entirely, if you’ve been to parts of Austria, Germany Switzerland or Poland, where these streets and hotels still exist).
While it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, every frame of the film is filled with humorous asides created simply for your delight. Anderson used to homage Hal Ashby; now he’s homaging Peter Greenaway, but with such a lightness of touch that the whole film feels one beat away from turning into an operetta, bouncing along on Alexandre Desplat’s balalaika score. I was also reminded of the grand hotel in Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’, which had the same musical quality.
It’s not surprising that one of the film’s central images is of a very fancy cake; it will give you the same rich sense of pleasure. I carried on smiling for hours after.
I’ve written on the subject in the past because I love dark humour (the articles are somewhere in this site’s basement), but knowing how you enjoy lists I thought I’d try to come up with a definitive choice of filmed black comedies. Let’s assume that ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ and ‘Kind Hearts & Coronets’ are givens. Also not mentioned here is ‘Target Sauvage’ in which Jean Rochefort plays a hit man training his successor, recently remade in the UK, or ‘The Man On The Train’, in which hit-man Johnny Halliday and Rochefort change places.
Many black comedy lists make the mistake of thinking that just because the story involves death, it’s a black comedy, but no, it’s a cynical mindset that infects the characters. Here’s my list.
1. Black Flowers For The Bride (1970)
Angela Lansbury and Michael York star in what has been described as ‘the film with the largest number of unsympathetic characters on record’ by someone entirely missing the point; that it’s a very black comedy about a malicious social climber working his way, Gormenghast-like, through a castle. The keywords for the film on a DVD website are: scheme, ambition, manipulation, con/scam, blackmail, sex, upward-mobility, killing, family. It’s rarely seen now that black comedy is the state in which most of us are forced to live, but it deserves to be brought back for its witty script.
2. Death Becomes Her (1992)
An early CGI movie in which the effects have not dated, but it helps that the script is hilarious. Maddie and Helen (geddit?) are locked in a lifelong hate-relationship with their plastic surgeon trapped in the middle. Shown a fountain of youth that comes with a warning after they drink (‘NOW a warning?’ screeches Maddie) it showcases the comedy timing of Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis, and is a gem of poisonously smart writing. The divas age and fall apart, subject to the Tithonus effect (the lover of Eos, gifted/cursed with eternal life but not the appearance of eternal youth). I love the moment when Streep snaps at the wheezing Willis ‘Can you just not breathe?’ The coda is hysterical and hateful.
3. The War Of The Roses (1989)
Hard to like but still hilariously mean-spirited, it’s the viciously out-of-control divorce comedy that was too close to the bone for many. Why does Kathleen Turner want to divorce Michael Douglas?’ Because every morning when I wake up and see your face lying next to me, I want to smash it in,’ said Turner. Told by the lawyer, and dark through to the bitter end, it’s beautifully colour-coded in red and green. The Cohen brothers’ ‘Irreconcilable Differences’ tried to pull off the same trick and failed.
4. The Ladykillers (1955)
Is Katie Johnson the devil? She makes a baby cry in the first 30 seconds of the film and slowly destroys the band of crooks who invade her house without batting an eye. But as ever its the details that count. Johnson wielding a mallet on the plumbing system, Sellers dropping into his unctuous voice, the grimy King’s Cross backstreets…Graham Lineham actually improved on the script in his brilliant stage version, which featured Johnson’s parrot, described as looking like ‘a starving baby in a sock’. Shame about the Cohens’ remake, which simply didn’t work.
5. Shakes The Clown (1991)
The Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies, Bobcat Goldthwait is a filthy drunken scary clown terrifying his way through the smart set’s children’s parties – can the love of a good woman save him? Probably not. Copied by Reece Shearsmith – in the way that telly rips everything good off – for the TV series ‘Psychoville’.
6. Bad Santa (2003)
It’s a no-brainer, really. Billy Bob Thornton doesn’t give a toss if you’ve been naughty or nice, you’ll suffer either way. Despite dwarf-punching and all-round disgusting behaviour, the US trailer managed to make this look like a feelgood comedy. Actually, it IS a bit feel good. Okay, take this one out.
7. After Hours
Martin Scorsese’s dire warning about the bad things that can happen to you in just one night in NYC resonated horribly with me when I virtually duplicated the plot myself in tension-wracked NYC. Griffin Dunne just wants to get home, but the subway fare went up at midnight and everyone he meets is utterly insane. I know New Yorkers like these people, especially the overly wound-up women who seem stuck on Transmit without any Receive. It’s a mercy Marty didn’t go with the original Edvard Munch ending (which is on the DVD extras). ‘All I wanted was a date and now I have to die for it?’
8. Calvaire (2004)
A has-been night club singer working old homes (and not averse to sleeping with fans for money) breaks down in the country and is rescued by a farmer who decides he’s the spitting image of his dead wife – this confirms every worst fear I ever had about the countryside, and more, down to the jaw-dropping scene at the local bar when everyone starts to dance. There’s black, and there’s this Belgian comedy-horror.
9. ‘Tango’ (1993)
Victor is a skywriter. While he works, his wife has an affair. One day, while being made love to, she looks out of the window and sees that the smoke over her house is not her husband’s handwriting – he took the day off, and catches her. Now it’s time for the wife to take a flying lesson, without a seat-belt.
10. In Bruges
Colin Farrell, stranded in one of Europe’s most absurdly pretty towns, a virtual parody of what people imagine is European, looks out and sighs, ‘Bruges. What a shithole.’ Unfortunately, this lament was picked up by stag weekenders heading there, who printed it on T-shirts. The result is that the Mayor of Bruges is very upset. A stunning dark script from Martin McDonagh, the writer of ‘Seven Psychopaths’.
So, if we remove ‘Bad Santa’ there’s a space for you to add a movie.I’d probably plug the gap with ‘Delicatessen’, except it has a heart-warming edge to it.
Today, a bit about Shoreditch, home of the legendary Shoreditch Twat (see above).
Shoreditch was once known as the cradle of British drama, because it was the first parish in England to possess a theatre. In 1576 James Burbage built his stage – Shakespeare supposedly minded the horses here – and there’s a plaque that marks the spot of the theatre, which was still there when Peter Jackson’s book appeared. But what of it now?
In the 1860s, at a cost of £200,000, Baroness Burdett-Coutts built the Columbia Market for poor Eastenders as a place where they could shop cheaply. It never succeeded and ‘stands today, cathedral-like in its grandeur, the shabby ghost of a monumental failure’. I know it was let as workshops for a while, but what happened to it after that?
The Geffrye Museum opened its doors in 1914 (although it was built in 1715 as alms houses) to show the development of furniture. Well, that’s still there, and every Christmas they decorate the rooms beautifully.
The stained-glass windows of St Augustine’s in Yorkton Street are unusual because instead of showing madonnas and crucifixes they are filled with little scenes of everyday life, like kids playing makeshift cricket outside a pub – still there?
Question: Which London bridge has a chimney on it and why?
Forgive the plugs this week, but you can always skip this post. The updated Film Freak paperback has got off to a flying start and here’s what the critics have to say about it so far…
‘Film Freak is a homage to pre-digital cinema, an elegy for the vanishing London of almost half a century ago, and a tribute to friendship, gonzo-style. Two thumbs up for this triple-billing.’ – Financial Times
‘What lifts Film Freak out of the realms of amusing recollection and into another league altogether is that, in its own peculiar way, it’s a love story. I was so smitten with this book that I read it through from cover to cover in one sitting. At times, I found myself laughing loudly and lengthily. Above all, though, I was moved. There have been a lot of books about grief recently, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a stark and affecting description as this. It’s a dazzlingly funny and evocative book conjures up a world before corporate suits took over. It’s also the most tender and genuine story of a bizarre and complicated relationship. Anyone who loves film and brilliant writing should invest in this slice of British Culture.’ – D Mail
“***** This is the sort of book that should be prescribed as a pick-me-up on the NHS. Film Freak is gold-plated writing: uproarious, then dark, and surprisingly moving. Above all it’s a fabulous evocation of a London and a way of life, now almost gone forever.’ Mail On Sunday
‘As a master storyteller, he slips deftly from fiction to fact: I’ve rarely read a better analysis of the movie business. This is a beautifully written and often hilarious book.’ Sunday Express
‘An entertaining behind-the-scenes account of film culture in the seventies. A wistful perspective on a time when real creativity was possible. His book is a charming rummage; he finds stuff to treasure even deep down in the celluloid junk heap.’ – Telegraph
Infomercial over – thank you!
More from Peter Jackson’s books of London oddities, in which we try to find out whether there’s anything left of the things he mentions that could once be found in and around the London streets. The books were written over half a century ago, and I thought the chances of locating them were pretty slim until the first post in this series yielded results. So let’s try again…
In the Haymarket, the double-fronted shop of Fribourg & Treyer sold snuff to the gentry from 1720 onwards. They sold to Beau Brummel, Napoleon and George III. Jackson says the shop can still be seen. Yes, it’s there, but now it’s selling tourist tat and has not been restored – just badly painted over.
The London Watergate was built in 1626 for boats to land at Charing Cross. ‘The stairs are still there, buried under the gardens, and the Water Gate itself has not changed its appearance to date’. Has it?
George VI was a gambler, and having lost a fortune at a cockfight, pawned his watch at the Castle Pub in Farringdon. In gratitude, he allowed the pub a licence to also be a pawnbroker’s shop – the only one in the country. But the original three brass balls can still be seen in the pub. Well, the pub’s still there but the interior has that ubiquitous stripped-back look of a thousand other venues. Does it have the balls?
‘The Intrepid Fox’ has just vanished for the second time. The pub started out in Wardour Street, then got shunted to the back of Centrepoint, and has now fallen victim to Crossrail. But the original pub owes its name to Charles James Fox, and there was a mural in the pub depicting his mistress, who won him votes by downing a yard of ale and smashing it in the fireplace, before giving every man a drink for a vote. The pub’s gone, but is the mural still there?
And the question: Where in London can you see a mosaic of Greta Garbo in the floor?
While last night’s Oscars were on I watched three movies back-to-back, something I haven’t done in a long time because juxtaposing films throws into relief what you love and hate about each, in the same way that viewing films at say, Cannes, makes you feel entirely differently to seeing the same films in your multiplex. This is the week that the US charts has been topped by a purportedly serious but ludicrous film about Jesus called ‘The Son of God’, and a film about a children’s game of plastic bricks which has sold more tickets than all the Oscar winners put together.
I like stories – it’s a curse, as I admire films without them even more – but I do demand a sliver of logic (even ‘Upstream Colour’ has a logic of sorts) and I prefer an oddball failure to a surefire hit because it tries and falls slightly short, instead of aiming low and pleasing. So I opened the box of loose unseen DVDs I have, a mixture of discs from BAFTA, films I’d bought and forgotten about, and stuff I’d been given. The result was – odd.
First up, ‘Prisoners’ with Hugh Jackson and Jake Gyllenhall, all logic, no humanity, a well-made but funereally slow wallow through Midwestern violence, vigilantism and Christian retribution,which made me start to think there was something wrong with American towns. In it, two little girls go missing in a permanently rainswept locale, while good sheriff Gyllenhall (all twitches and tics) repeatedly arrives too late on the scene and survivalist (is that even a word?) father Jackman kidnaps a mentally handicapped boy and repeatedly tortures him for information.
It’s a film that feels informed by Guantanamo Bay with its references to the sensory-deprived victim, but that’s where reality ends as the small town appears to be a hotbed of pedophilia and murder, with no less than five serial killers knocking around it, plus plot sections swiped from ‘Se7en’ and ‘The Vanishing’. What upset me most about this very well reviewed film was that the ending flipped the film on its head, appearing to justify torture as a means to an end and dignify the avenging survivalist. In amidst the crucifixes, guns, snakes and smashed bodies is a solid thriller if you don’t think about the implications – but it’s hard not to.
Next came ‘A Magnificent Haunting’, from Italy. Pietro is a baker, an aspiring actor who discovers that his rented house is occupied by the ghosts of a theatrical troupe who vanished during WW2. Only he can see them, but are they real? We wonder when we discover that Pietro has a less than stable attitude to relationships, and may be imagining things. But the actors, still in the theatrical garb they wore on the night they vanished, want to help him, and coach him for auditions.
This is a slight, affecting charmer (the scene where Pietro takes them outside for the first time is genuinely touching) that barely bothers to tie up its loose endings and is all the better for it. The logic here is like life’s – fractured and loose at the best of times. Is it all in Pietro’s mind? What will his cousin do about being pregnant with another man’s child? Will he get the job? It really doesn’t matter, because the moral is that he’ll continue to dream, and that will get him through life. There’s a surreal sequence in a sewing machine workshop, and a delicious score. The film is lavishly shot and performed with great appeal, but seems barely to exist on critical radars.
Finally, ‘Thor: The Dark World’, which didn’t just jump the shark but kick it to death and tear its head off. The plot, a virtually identical remix of the first film in different locations (largely set in London for no reason at all) has Loki being sidelined while some modelling clay representing the essence of the nine universes or some such toss causes the god endless trouble. There are also elves, the smashing to bits of my home town Greenwich, a visibly embarrassed Stellen Skarsgaard, the increasingly annoying Natalie Portman (who gets to faint twice and be thrown at a man’s feet) and assorted green-screen non-sequitors involving anti-matter warps, spaceships and Thor having to catch the tube at Charing Cross when we know he can fly.
It’s as if even Marvel lost interest in the film, which hinges on Portman and Skarsgaard twiddling iPads to de-align the portals of the interplanetary ming-mongs or some such Dr Who-like rubbish, but at least it accurately reflects the silliness of the comics when DC seems unable to inject its superhero world with anything approaching fun. And the Marvel universe is a coherent one, aligning its planets very nicely – but please let’s not pretend this is a good film, or even something for over 12s to watch.
So, three different stories consisting of two huge hits and a tiny, tiny comedy. One of them has stayed on in my mind.
For your delectation, a slender book in my possession, priced 2/6d, Peter Jackson’s ‘The London Explorer’ contains more of his wonderful oddities about London from the author of the much-loved ‘London Is Stranger Than Fiction’ column that used to run in the Evening News. Here are Jackson’s remarks on the district of Clerkenwell. Remember, these books reprinted the columns in the 1950s, and I have a horrible feeling that most of the oddities presented in them have now been smashed to bits by the developers.But I thought I’d dip into the two volumes over the next few weeks, and as we have a few Londonheads out there, you might be able to provide some clues about what happened to the things mentioned in the strips. So let’s get a bit interactive here.
After each post from the books, I’ll pose one of the questions taken from Jackson’s pages. If you already own these wonderful books (still cheaply available secondhand) don’t answer! And one day I’ll compare the facts in the books by going around London and seeing what’s still there. Until then, here are some parts of Clerkenwell that may or may not still be there…
Clerkenwell is named after a well, referred to in 1174 as the site where scripture plays were produced. It was built over in 1857, forgotten, then rediscovered in 1924. The book says ‘it can be seen by applying to the library in Skinner Street’.
Clerkenwell is the site of the ‘famous Exmouth Street daily book market.’ Yes, it was until six years ago, when the hundred year-old market vanished with the last sale of the stall holdings.
Clerkenwell is the home of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, and the circle of stones in the road outlines the nave of their priory church, destroyed by Wat Tyler. ‘It can be seen through the railings of St John’s Church’. Not any more, it can’t, because the church was bombed in the war. But is the ring still there?
Clerkenwell has an old stone tablet which tells us ’4 Furlongs 205 Yards From Holborn Barrs Down Holborn Up Snow Hill Cow Lane and Through Smithfield’. Well, Snow Hill is still there but Cow Lane has gone, and Smithfield is about to be redeveloped. What we need there is a real market for fresh meat and fish, not more ‘retail opportunities’. Is there tablet still around?
And the question: Why are there stone pineapples on Lambeth Bridge?
At first I thought this was another ‘Look how dumb students are’ article – US teachers gave blank maps to a class and asked them to fill in the countries – but what surprised me in some cases was just how well these kids did do. They got the big countries right, and it was in the sorting order of the smaller European countries that they got tangled – as well all have done. When I came back from Latvia it was amazing how many adults asked me what Eastern Europe was like, and I had to explain that I’d been in the Baltic.
I also wonder, if they conducted the same exercise here in the UK, just how badly our own pupils (or their parents) would embarrass themselves. In the polynational US, where it is a matter of pride to identify your origins, students are able to pinpoint the countries of their ancestors. And I do think it’s hard to understand the relationships of the principalities, states and nations of Europe. What was interesting was just how many kids left Germany entirely off the map. For the rest of the results, see the full piece here.
The cover is soft and silky, the innards have a new extra libel-cleared chapter – and the paperback is out now! In fact, I’m reading extracts from it all over town at the moment. What started out as a labour of love turned into something oddly different, and I’m thrilled that it’s doing so well. Who knew there were so many Film Freaks out there?
I had intended to write a book about English film, but I found it hard to do so without discussing the ways in which we saw them, the times, ages and locations, in short the circumstances of viewing certain films. And then it turned into a story about a very offbeat relationship. I’m still not sure that it delivers what I had intended, but last night I made a bookshop owner cry. He’d just finished the book and was caught out by the tragic ending. So is it a film book or not? You tell me.
Here’s a taster from one of the chapters on one Mr James Bond…
‘You know the thing I hate most about the Bond scripts?’ Barbara Broccoli told me. ‘Passageways. In every Bond script 007 and the villains walk or run up and down tunnels and corridors, so we have to design and build them, tile them, then put in the flooring and the lighting, and they’re always the first thing the director cuts out.’
Barbara was feisty and smart and took no prisoners. We needed to win her over a little. ‘Here,’ said Jim, ‘I noticed you’re a smoker.’ He handed her a gift, a portable ashtray that folded into your pocket. She loved it.
On shoots you can’t smoke or call out on your mobile, especially if there are electronically-detonated explosives on the set. An 007 film has the reverse problem to most films – they need to prevent publicity, not encourage it, because so many hacks are fighting to get information that you have to keep it under control. Everything was done to keep the plot under wraps, from coding the scripts and never letting them out of head office to banning all outside communication during shoots, and yet information sometimes leaked out from unscrupulous employees bribed by the press.
We had worked in different capacities on several Bond films, and were now producing one hour documentaries that usually aired on Boxing Day. Jim and I were fascinated by the size of the production, an army on the march headed by the producers at Cubby Broccoli’s old company, Eon, who negotiated deals at government levels. Want to borrow a Stealth Battleship? Ask the French Navy. Want to film at a satellite station? Get in touch with Nasa. Locations were scouted and stunts planned before scripts were finalised, so that if one location was not available in time for shooting, it could be offlaid into the next film.
In the basement of Eon’s HQ was a treasure trove worthy of Bond himself; a huge set of electronically-operated shelves that opened to reveal everything about Bond, from gadgets and toys to scripts and scores. Sorting through the material was like being a child again.
The Bond films were famous for shooting their stunts in camera and not relying on computer graphics. Effects and model sequences from Derek Meddings and Chris Corbould were among the best in the film world. One of the stuntmen, Wayne Michaels, pitched an idea; he said he could bungee-jump from a helicopter and release his cord close enough to the ground to step onto it, but this seemed a step too far even for Bond, and the plan was reluctantly put on ice. However, the stuntman made a record-breaking jump from a dam in the opening sequence of ‘Goldeneye’, with the help of a small GCI cheat – a crane that allowed him to be suspended away from the sloping dam wall was digitally erased.
The stuntman Vic Armstrong had become the go-to stunt co-ordinator and second unit director for blockbusters. He was the kind of guy dads admired, talking you through the physics of stuntmanship, then jumping from bridges, riding runaway trains and motorbikes, crashing through walls and getting blown up. I remember watching him climbing into a helicopter camera-rig after a night of rabble-rousing, getting ready to film cars careening around hairpin bends from above. One of the crew told him his eyes were bloodshot. ‘You want to see them from my side,’ he said, taking off. Who wouldn’t want a dad like that?
Any further examples?