What I did on my pre-Christmas vacation, Dec 15 2009
By Davis Bunn - December 16, 2009
More Posts by Davis Bunn
October 31, 2011
There is a lot of solitude to the writer’s life. A lot of days when the world is something that happens to other people, like my characters. Such days, I’m confined to the desk, struggling with that all-consuming challenge, the empty page.
And then there are other days. Like the past two.
Four years ago, I was made a member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, or BAFTA. The US equivalent is called the American Academy. The Hollywood Academy, as it is often referred to, is pretty much dominated by the power structure, which means the stars, and even more powerful than the stars, the money. There are a lot of cliques that form around a green-lit project, then vanish when the star fades or the picture is panned, or if the project simply doesn’t get to the screen. As has happened with me. Five different times. In the film trade, there are a lot of people who make very good livings from never actually making it onto the silver screen. I have some trouble with this. Call me overly practical if you will. But I like the idea of actually working on something that has a chance to be seen, and maybe even enjoyed. So I take film work when it comes, but only when it does not interfere with the ‘real’ work of telling stories on the page, where they are seen by the wider public. My dear reader.
BAFTA doesn’t have this same brutal power structure as the Academy. Basically, this is because there is no money in Britain. These are oversimplifications. But it is also true. Oh, there is ample cattiness and back-stabbing and such. But over here it is much more genteel. And there is a real sense of welcoming here as well, especially behind the camera. We’re all struggling to find money and backing, and make the next story, spending pennies where Hollywood throws money around like, well, like Hollywood.
But now and then a British project will get Hollywood financing. And then there can be some real fireworks. There have been a number of such projects this year. More than most. Which has made this winter very interesting indeed.
Starting around the first of December, the BAFTA awards season opens up. This works the same way as in Hollywood around Oscar time, only—you guessed it—without the money. Which means that occasionally, very rarely, the word goes out that there are a few seats available for the BAFTA members at opening events.
Such events fall into three different categories. First, there are the premiers. Sometimes world premiers, but nowadays the big-budget pictures will have official premiers in any number of major markets. This is done because it forms a focal point for publicity.
Then there are what are known as ‘industry screeners’. These are pre-release events, very tightly regulated. Most of the year these are restricted to the critics, and with a few seats available for BAFTA members. The third type only happens in awards season and with big films that have a chance of winning major awards. The studios fly over the stars or the director, sometimes with a writer or producer, and they will show the film, then discuss the project with the audience. I’ve been to a few of these, not many. I always get there early so I can sit on the front row, which leaves me fairly bug-eyed but it does mean I’ve sat close enough to shake hands with some biggies like, let’s see, hmmm. Clive Owen. Matt Damon. Three A-list directors. Like that.
But nothing has ever happened like this year. No. Scratch that. Like this week.
First off, there was this flash email saying that a limited number of seats were available to the premier of a new Weinstein movie called Nine. Not just a premier, the world premier. So I sent in my name, expecting nothing, and whoa. I was one of the few.
Then I contacted a friend who works more in this crazy trade than I, his name is Hy Smith, and another day I’ll have to write about Hy, because Hy, well, Hy is a been-there-done-that sort of guy. Hy is the former senior vice president of UIP, United International Pictures. He handled the worldwide release of, let’s see, the original Cage Aux Folles, all nine of Woody Allen’s first movies including Annie Hall, the last three movies starring Audrey Hepburn, and so forth. So I wrote Hy and said that I had a ticket. And what does Hy do but get me an invitation, as his ‘spouse’, to the party after the movie. At Claridges.
First a word about the party, and then the movie. I know that’s backwards, and to be frank, I don’t care. If you want the movie first, skip down four paras.
Claridges is a hotel. But to say ‘Claridges Hotel’ is to tell the world that you don’t know Claridges. This is the hotel where Queen Victoria stayed when they were remodeling the private apartments at Buckingham Palace. It’s where her cousins, the Czar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, stayed the last trip they made out of Russia before losing their lives in the Communist revolution. And so on. There are two photographs on the entryway of Claridges. Both are of arriving guests entering the hotel. One is of Ian Fleming. The other of Winston Churchill. Welcome to Claridges.
The party is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Oh, I’ve read about these things. But hey, I’m happy to be impressed. I don’t mind gawking. Not a bit. Which is good. Because I did a lot of it that night. Gawk.
Judi Dench was there. And Nicole Kidman. And Sophia Loren. And Daniel Day Lewis. And Penelope Cruz. She was on the cover of every major newspaper the next day because of this number she sang that basically melted the screen. And fifty or so dancers. And Hy then tells me that the PR firm Harvey Weinstein hired to put together this gig—Weinstein was there too—the PR firm also represents the top models and their agencies in London. So they were invited. The place was a swarm of beauty, male and female. Hard place not to gawk.
They also had three bands. Two were good. One was phenomenal. That was Beverly Knight, a UK R&B phenom that has not yet broken into the US market. I’d never heard of her before. My bad. It was kind of nice, though, because she and I chatted after she came off stage, and I didn’t know she was famous, or I wouldn’t have had the nerve to tell her how fabulous I thought she was. We actually had a conversation, which lasted until she mentioned that she had just come off a world tour, and she had one more gig before she headed off to finish the tour. That other UK gig just happened to be at number ten, Downing Street. The private residence of Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown.
Nice chatting, Beverly.
Now then. The movie.
Nine is a musical based around the life and so-called loves of a philanderer. Some people might think that infidelity is a fairly bizarre theme for a musical. It certainly was not what I would call a happy tale. I don’t care to moralize here. This is the first blog I’ve ever written. No doubt in the future I’ll feel a lot more comfortable spouting off about such things. Right now, all I really care to say about the movie is this.
It made me sad.
The power was phenomenal. The artists were at their prime. Daniel Day Lewis is not someone I would have expected to be able to sing like he did. Or carry himself as an Italian degenerate so well I actually felt for him. The music and staging and camera work and lyrics were gut-wrenchingly powerful.
But it still left me sad.
The story centers around the ruling power within the Italian film industry (the movie is based upon the Broadway musical, which in turn was based upon Fellini’s award-winning film Eight and One-Half). This director and cinematic king is scheduled to begin filming his new opus, but and hasn’t written the first word of his script. Why? Because he’s torn his soul apart through his degeneracy. He escapes to a seaside hotel, calls his wife for her to join him because she is both his muse and his guardian, then when she asks where he is, he changes his mind and hangs up and invites his mistress instead. Who is a parasite and is married to a very kind man who simply can’t handle her. But this king of the cinema world has forgotten that it is his wife’s birthday. She finds out where he is and shows up. The king slips away from his mistress, who responds by failing at a suicide attempt. While this is happening, there are a number of other equally sad little vignettes that introduce all the other women from his past—nine in all—including one incredibly evocative number starring Fergie, the lead singer of Black Eyed Peas, as a gypsy hooker who beguiles the king while he was still a lad.
As I said, hardly an uplifting tale. But artistically brilliant just the same.
This leads me on to the second portion of my amazing two days, because while I was in town for that little fiesta, I found myself invited to another event. This one for the new movie by James Cameron. Avatar.
This was what is known as an industry screener. It took place in one of the three largest cinemas in Britain. All three are stationed around Leicester Square, which is a block away from Piccadilly Circus. This area of London really sparkles this time of year. Regent’s Street defies the global warming fervor that has captivated this country, with an array of lights that turn it into a fairyland. For once, the nighttime crowds were welcoming, even when it was so packed I needed twenty minutes to get around the Circus. It has also finally turned cold, after a long wet November and December, with flooding in many regions, including the village where we live. But I wasn’t out in the countryside this night. I was in London, under the fantasy stars of the West End. And this night, almost anything was possible. Including the discovery of a new favorite film.
I was a little afraid going in. After all, my last cinematic experience, the afore-mentioned Nine, was hardly what I would call my cup of tea. And I love film. I devour it. And if there is any one genre of film that I like most of all, it would have to be science fiction. But there is so much bad sci fi out there. And so little good. And what I have seen about computer generated graphic has really left me cold. And, let’s be frank, I thought Cameron’s tale, Titanic, was a perfect example of just how much money could be thrown away in a waste of perfectly good celluloid.
And as Titanic demonstrated to the world at large, Cameron is a man who can truly spend the cashola. Which he did on this film. More than any film in history. So much the people involved stopped speaking publicly about how much had been invested. But the most recent estimates are so staggering they have to be put in their own little cluster here.
FIVE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS.
There was no way any film could justify such an outlay. As I walked to the cinema, I was fairly certain I was going to be a witness to one of those historic acts that Hollywood is famous for, as in, digging a massive hole, pouring in all the cash they can steal and then some, and setting the pile alight.
I was wrong.
In the past, the biggest problems with computer generated graphis have been the facial expressions, the eyes, and the emptiness of movements. The faces and eyes may be based upon real people, but when computer-generated they become dead. That is what the effect is known by in the trade—the dead-eye effect. As in, just lay that movie in the grave and cover it over.
Action has been a problem because the actors are performing to what is called a blue screen, or green screen, or ‘Volume’. The space is empty. They perform, then everything else is fitted around them. And the action becomes as dead looking as the eyes.
James Cameron, I am happy to say, solved all three problems. He spent a ton of money in the process. But I am fairly certain he is going to recoup it all, and set a new industry standard for stories to come.
A word must be inserted here for those readers who are concerned about non-Christian moral structures. If you are so inclined, do not go see this movie. You will be offended. This story is based upon an alternate world scenario where environment green-ness is built up to form a quasi-religious reverence to all growing things.
If you are not worried about this, then all I can say is, Cameron’s perspective works as a story. I was enthralled. I do not agree with what he has done as far as the spiritual element is concerned, but I am personally comfortable enough with who I am as a believer that such things just don’t bother me.
I personally thought the film was superb. More than that. James Cameron has established a new standard for science fiction. His concept is that good.
Avatar explores the hero’s journey of Jake Scully, a wounded former Marine confined to a wheelchair, who is recruited to travel to the moon Pandora. Jake’s role is to replace his genetically identical twin brother, a young scientist who trained for the mission but died just before shipping out. Jake’s DNA makes him uniquely qualified, as his brother’s DNA was combined with that of Pandora’s indigenous Na’vi to create a human-Na’vi hybrid, or avatar. Through his avatar body, Jake is given a new purpose, new challenges, and an adventure that will test him to his limits.
Pandora is a moon with an Earthlike environment that orbits a gas-giant planet in the Alpha Centauri star system. At 4.4 light years away, Alpha Centauri is our nearest stellar neighbor. Pandora is rich in a rare-earth mineral that holds the key to solving Earth’s energy crisis in the twenty-second century. The Resources Development Administration spends hundreds of billions of dollars to mine the distant world. But the encroachment by human activities into the territory of the indigenous Na’vi has created increasing tension between the two species and has set them down a path to war.
Jake’s job, unknown to everyone including himself, is to stop this conflict before it is too late.
The result, especially utilizing Cameron’s breakthrough 3-D, is a truly great film. Highly recommended.