Archive for February, 2002

Wednesday, February 20th, 2002


Perusing a law journal I recently came across the story of a client involved in a potential court case who was about to take legal advice and settle the matter for a reasonable sum. However at the last minute he informed his lawyer that he wished to take the case to court after all – because, he’d decided, that’s what Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator would have done. He wouldn’t have backed down. He would have fought. And won. So he didn’t back down. He went to court. He fought. And he lost. What a fuckwit.

A sad but true story, much as it’s sad but true that Gladiator was voted one of the top five best films ever made. Gladiator is not among the five million best films ever made. It is ludicrus, preposterus et turgidus ad nauseam. The words “Biggus” and “Dickus” reverberate silently throughout the movie, and, like the hapless Centurions in The Life Of Brian when faced with Michael Palin’s Caesar, one finds it hard not to burst out laughing.

The story. After Maximus has proven himself a decent General in one of the nicest proto-Fascist colonialist armies you could hope to encounter (unless you’re one of the Barbarians incinerated by them) he finds himself sold into slavery and his family slain as Commodus (Joaquim Phoenix), son of kindly philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius, murders his Father and takes over Rome. Meanwhile, Maximus becomes a gladiator in Proximo (Oliver Reed)’s stable. However, he has sworn revenge . . . Gladiator fails to convince on every level. The much-vaunted computer-generated replication of The Coliseum might as well have been knocked from old Fairy liquid bottles and a tin of battleship grey paint. Director Ridley Scott’s attitude towards the fight scenes is similar to that of the US Army in Afghanistan – fond of remote, state-of-the-art gadgetry but squeamish when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. Such sequences are obfuscated by the sort of excessive fast-cut editing and grainy slo-mo the producers of The Premiership like to use to ruin the ‘Goals Round Up’ section.

None of which can save the scene in which Crowe beats off a tiger chewing his neck from being the funniest since Adam West fended off the rubber shark in the Batman movie. The tone set by the principal adversaries is inadvertently, perhaps unavoidably camp, like the straight guys in Up Pompeii. Those names, for a start. “Commodus” would surely have had Frankie Howerd swivelling his eyes to camera, especially when the Senate harangue him about the lack of basic sanitation in the Greek Quarter. Ooer! As for “Maximus”, well you’re not complaining are you, Missus? Crowe’s gruff vocal intonation makes him come on like a Gladiator-o-gram at a hen party do, deep and hoarse as if from having overdubbed for one European film too many. Phoenix is a mincing mass of speech impediments, a sure sign of his weaseliness, especially when complaining of “Thqwabbling Thenators Who Cwy ‘Wepublic!'” And doubtless ‘Welease Wodewick!’.

Of course, Gladiator is not intended for laughs. With its leaden ambience, unremitting moroseness and incessant, wordless New Age screeching courtesy of antipodean GothLisa Gerrard we are supposed to feel properly immersed in gravitas profundis (et Oscari nominatus). Yet the film’s central message is deeply confused. It seems to want to have its Bread and eat it. Maximus lectures against the bloodthirstiness of the mob yet panders to them with bouts of violence far bloodier and violent than the actual citizens of the Roman Empire ever witnessed (deaths in gladiator bouts were actually infrequent). Perhaps the film’s real message is one of seething masculine frustration. It’s effeminate, silver-tongued connivers like Phoenix, Derek Jacobi and the chap in the ridiculous ginger wig who prevail while strong, musclebound, silent types like Crowe and his compadres, forever breathing hard through their nostrils, are enslaved (though all it takes to keep them captive, curiously, are a couple of geezers who look like stand-ins for the late Roy Kinnear in the old Go To Peterborough adverts).

Gladiator’s most contemptible gaffe occurs when the mob give the thumbs up sign indicating they want Maximus to live, whereas, as any retired Latin schoolmaster would wearily tell you, the thumbs up sign would have meant the opposite. You suspect the filmmakers knew this but left in the mistake knowing they would otherwise confuse their target audience – i.e. legions of folk as calamitously misguided as our courtroom friend, forced to pay out costs on a case he could easily have settled just because he was dumb enough to watch and admire Gladiator.

Friday, February 1st, 2002

The Shawshank Redemption

Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, this appallingly entitled movie was initially faintly praised by critics. Roger Ebert gave it a polite 3 1/2 stars, others lazily regurgitated the production notes’ guff about its depiction of the triumph of the human spirit. Labouring in at 142 minutes, it did mediocre business at the box office.

It stars Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne, a young New England banker imprisoned for murdering his wife. His opening years in Shawshank are made the more harrowing by a series of sexual assaults. However, he keeps his spirits afloat through his friendship with prison fixer Red (Morgan Freeman). He also falls in with Bob Gunton’s corrupt warden, whom he helps operate a financial scam. However, the warden turns against him when Dufresne finds a fellow inmate who can prove he was jailed unjustly.¬†All this time, however, Dufresne has been planning his escape, chipping away for 20 years at his dungeon wall with a tiny rock hammer until finally . . .

Shawshank took on a gigantic afterlife on video, doing extraordinary business by word of mouth, going down great not just among the Bridges Of Madison County reading types but jaded Tarantino-ites and the sort of hard-bitten cineaste cynics often most vulnerable to the cheapest sentimentalism. The Duchess Of York rather liked it too. By 1999 it was topping all-time greatest list polls – It was number 3 in Channel 4’s recent Top 100 movies. What was once regarded as a respectable but ponderous vehicle for Tim Robbins’ wobbly bottom lip, then, is now hailed as a cinematic milestone, as opposed to the long, po-faced, self-important streak of excruciatingly contrived, suffocatingly corny nonsense it actually is. One of Shawshank’s great masterstrokes is supposedly the casting of Morgan Freeman as the film’s narrator Red, an Irishman in the original novella. However, the casting reveals director Frank Darabont’s misty-eyed, insidiously quaint attitude towards “Blackness”, more fully revealed in The Green Mile, his derided follow-up to Shawshank. The casting of Freeman isn’t bold political correctness but intended to add a folksy, Uncle Remus-style warmth by association to Robbins’s Dufresne, who otherwise would be exposed for the cold, calculating, remote white fish he is. Freeman doesn’t actually break out into a chorus of “Zippedeedoodah” during his narration but it often sounds like he’s about to.

The fuzzy il-logic of Shawshank extends to the prison community. Shawshank apologists claim the film is partly an indictment of the evils of incarceration yet the inmates Robbins surrounds himself with must be vindication for the nasty warden’s methods because a more amiable, mild-mannered bunch you could not hope to meet (the homosexuals excepted, of course). Why, as lifers they must have committed some terrible deeds but judging by their on-screen behaviour they could slide meekly back into society tomorrow. When Dufresne subversively broadcasts Mozart to the prison yard they stand stock still in appreciation, rather than yell “someone turn that fuckin’ fairy-ass music off” like you imagine some jailbirds might. Moreover, this being an American prison in the Forties/Fifties, their lack of racism, lack of knowledge that such a thing as racism exists, does them extraordinary credit.

Shawshank is a world unto itself, where in 20 years no one seems to age more than six months, where when Dufresne describes a field as “like something from a Robert Frost poem” he can rely on his fellow con knowing what he’s talking about, where life hangs together by a series of ghastly, improbable coincidences, where you can escape through a hole in your cell wall and somehow tack back the poster than concealed it for several years neatly in place behind you.

Dufresne’s escape is far less a monument to Hope, more one to the belief-beggaring negligence of the Shawshank authorities. I’ve seen more convincing prison breaks in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Yet this is the catalytic event upon which the film’s supposedly immortal quotes and strap-lines hang – “Get busy living or get busy dying” or “Fear can hold you prisoner – hope can set you free”, lines so thoroughly cleansed of substance they insult even the intelligence of middle America. With its tinkling, lachrymose soundtrack, grandiose manipulation (culminating in Robbins’ barf-worthy Christ-like pose when he escapes) and utter disregard for the rules and limitations of the world we actually live in, Shawshank is an especially crass piece of Hollywood hokum whose slowness has been mistaken for gravitas, its sentimentality for sublimity. I cried. “Why didn’t they send him to the chair in the first ten minutes?”, I cried.