S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 4 January 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 


Live and Let Die

 

[]

"What's the point of living if

you can't feel alive?" This

question is the avowed motto of

twitchy Robert Carlyle and pouty

Sophie Marceau, the post-Commie

Boris and Natasha who pump what

little blood they can into the

heart of the 19th official James

Bond entry, Michael Apted's The

World Is Not Enough. The

villainous duo — who, as

twisted lovers in TWINE, don't

even have the cardboard

chemistry their cartoon

counterparts showed contra Moose

and Squirrel — is as

unsuccessful at reviving the

Bond series as the twosome is in

deploying its dopey plot to nuke

Istanbul. But the couple's

haunting refrain hovers over 42

Up, another Apted movie that

coincidentally was released

around the same time as Bond's

latest outing. Anglophiles and

lovers of joylessly good-for-you

documentaries will recognize the

film as the sixth in a series of

documentaries in which the

director of Continental Divide

checks in every seven years with

some ordinary English people

— all now age 42 — and

ponderously roots around for

truth and value in their lives.

 

Apted's been congratulated on his

ability to work both ends of the

industry. He's routinely

switched between heart-tugging

Oscar magnets like the Loretta

Lynn biopic Coal Miner's

Daughter and feel-OK, VH1-style

reportage like Bring on the

Night, which forced into

theatrical release King-of-Pain

Sting's efforts to craft a

mid-'80s version of jazz

suitable for dental offices and

suburban steakhouse bars. Films

like these are linked not only

by their musical subject matter

and their utter conventionality

but also by their stolid

attempts at inspiration: If

Loretta Lynn can overcome

poverty and wife abuse to make

music her way, if Sting can

overcome a massive ego and a

lack of talent to hire Branford

Marsalis his way, well, life

must be wide open. The World Is

Not Enough and 42 Up may appear

separated by a chasm that would

leave even 007 teetering, but

they're not. Inspiration has

gone sour in the two most

overblown of British film

series, and the fact that they

happen this time to be directed

by the same auteur merely

underscores their decline. As

movies, both TWINE and 42 UP

are about the obligation to soldier

on when there's really no reason

to anymore, both define

themselves through repetition,

and both ultimately testify to

how disposable human life is.

 

It's easy to see how the Bond

films are about that, with

Pierce Brosnan once again

defending an unimperiled British

Empire via body count. The World

Is Not Enough busts out gadgets

so dumb and sex jokes so unfunny

that the Broccoli family would

be better served by inserting

them through audience polls

instead of by putting up former

Saturday Night Live writers in

hotels. Apted may be noted for

his sensitivity with real people

in the Up movies, but the

performance he gets out of

Denise Richards in TWINE belongs

more in Invasion of the Saucer

Men than it does in a film that

cost enough money to house,

feed, and clothe for the rest of

their lives all the dozen or so

people he's dogged from 7 Up

until now. Conversely, this

doesn't stop Richards' Russian

dialog and her instructions on

how to defuse a nuclear bomb

from being a joyless film's

clear highlights. The dreary

emptiness and complete removal

from the stream of life that

characterize The World Is Not

Enough are like travel posters

tacked on the wall at the

Department of Motor Vehicles:

Long scenes of bureaucracy

punctuated by pictures of tiny,

glamorous people skiing while

you wait for someone to start an

argument and a state employee to

explode. It's hard to understand

the entertainment value of a

film that gets zero mileage on

thousands of gallons of water

and a wet Denise Richards. After

nearly 40 years, the Bond films'

producers still haven't learned

a cardinal rule of the cinema:

There is no acting underwater.

 

[]

A film like 42 Up — a sober

documentary about the quotidian

realities of average people's

lives studied across the passage

of time — should be an

antidote to Bondian banality,

yet it bears the exact same

relationship to the documentary

that TWINE does to the secret

agent movie. Because the people

in 42 Up have been reduced to

the level of characters in a

film series, their lives —

no matter their essential

dignity — have been

completely exteriorized. The

possibility of being moved by

Apted's presentation of their

daily struggles is as remote as

the possibility of being

entertained by his presentation

of Pierce Brosnan's James Bond.

Both are boring for the same

reasons: We're witnessing the

performance of a duty, not the

kind of filmmaking anyone could

ever get truly worked up about.

Apted's unstylized reserve,

always conscious of doing these

things the way these things are

done, promotes the kind of

indifference that the British

cinema, at its most professional

and acclaimed levels, has always

fostered in audiences, and Apted

is nothing if not respected and

successful.

 

An exchange between the

off-screen filmmaker and one of

his subjects, a single mother

whose hobby is Karen Carpenter

karaoke, typifies 42 Up: "Is

there a spiritual side to your

life?" asks Apted. "Yes," comes

her reply in its blank entirety.

But what is she supposed to say?

Apted's questions are like that.

We're left hanging on people's

predictable observations of

life's most obvious trials.

Marriage requires work, kids

grow up and make their own

lives, it's sad when your

parents die: These are the

startling insights we're offered

again and again in 42 Up. The

inescapable conclusion is that

people's lives are rather like

one another's, and we're

evidently all supposed to engage

in a big collective hug over how

boring we are. The tiny and

uninteresting ways people

improve each other's lives in

marriage — which are of

interest only to them, and

sometimes not even to both of

them — are somehow supposed

to be profound and heartening.

When Apted asks a woman employed

as a children's librarian why

she continues to work at her job

and she replies, "I like the

excitement," he drives home a

point, and it's something we've

suspected all along: The British

are different from us.

 

[]

Even Apted seems to lose

interest. The camera wanders off

a shot of 14-year-old Suzy,

talking about the hobbies that

help her pass the time, to

follow a dog sniffing at some

shrubs in the background. These

are home movies made by a

stranger. Watching these people

butter toast, we wonder what

exactly Apted is trying to get

at. Listening to them as they

strain to put the ineffable into

words becomes troubling in its

unacknowledged shallowness.

Errol Morris Apted is decidedly

not. Despite the layers of

reserve and concern for the

feelings of others, the Up

movies still manage to feel

exploitative and invasive. This

is the stated reason why a few

of the hand-picked participants

have dropped out of the series

over the years. (Desmond "Q"

Llewelyn — lately grown so

spectral that, in The World Is

Not Enough, he was pushed out of

the frame in favor of an already

bored John Cleese, playing

somebody else with a different

letter for a name —

exercised his own retirement

option, albeit unintentionally.)

Remember the home-movie scenes

in another British movie,

Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, in

which Powell himself plays a

psychologist torturing his son?

Is Robert Carlyle's Bond

villain, a man who's lost the

sense of feeling, the result of

experiments like this one?

 

Critical response to the Bond

movies and the Up films has been

similar. The vague notion that

both series are somehow good and

important in their different

ways can't mask the feeling that

both are just marking time. As

the new entries in each series

get longer — and more

bloated with appeals to the past

— a palpable feeling of

obligation becomes inescapable,

along with the sense that these

movies are roughly one-half hour

longer than they deserve to be.

They have a grim quality, as if

the filmmakers and the actors in

the Bond films and the people in

the Up movies have to do this

whether they want to or not. Oh,

time for that again. The

audience dutifully checks in

every few years to see Pierce

Brosnan and Tony the Cab Driver

punch the clock. At least we

know why Brosnan does it. He

cashes that check knowing that,

in the end, he has an expiration

date just like Roger Moore did.

But what keeps Tony coming back

to sit for Apted and expose his

wife, with her hairdo from a

Shaggs album cover, to the

camera again?

 

[]

Apted starts 42 Up with the title

sequence from World in Action,

the TV show that debuted 7 Up in

the early '60s. Like the Bond

films, it begins with a white

circle against a black screen,

ominous music thrumming as it

telegraphs its own historical

importance. The Up films have

been franchised now; American

and Russian versions have made

it to 14. Bond remains a

commercial juggernaut even

though the series is floating

out there drained of whatever

cultural value it had and devoid

of personality. Brosnan's

attempts to make 007 charming

— like everybody else who's

played the role, he's given up

on being human — can't

overcome the kind of script

choices his masters make anymore

than the people in the Up films

can escape the inevitable

realization that we're more

entertaining at age 7 than we

are at 42. Both series are

rituals we've forgotten the

reasons for; both make us think

movies are a waste of time. They

require a lot of excuses and

good will to hide the fact that

they are dull. Be it an art-film

or cineplex audience, it's

inertia that keeps people

coming.

 

Cocteau said that the cinema is

the only art that shows death at

work. Even in the briefest shot,

time passes — the actor ages

in front of the camera. The Up

films literalize this

pointlessly, and people embrace

their comforting trivialities

for much more than they're

worth. The Bond films try to

ignore mortality by replacing

Bond every few years. Cocteau

also said that, in the movies,

the important thing is to know

how far to go too far. Replace

"far" with "long" and you've got

it. The British series film was

never as self-important as it is

now. Peter Cushing's magisterial

Baron Frankenstein had to be

destroyed, and was; Old Mother

Riley will never rise from the

grave. Where's the cast of the

Carry On comedies when

you need them?

 
courtesy of Slotcar Hatebath
 
pictures Terry Colon