Wednesday, 28 September 2011


Saw this evening. Good film. A grown-up Aaron Sorkin talker. I happen to like baseball. Got addicted when I lived in the US. But it doesn't matter if you don't. Some achievement to pull off a feature film about the analysis of sports stats. There could be Oscars in this.

The Rum Diary expedition

Off, tomorrow, to meet Bruce Robinson at his farmhouse in the Welsh Marches. I think he's going to make entertaining copy. If you're interested in Bruce, check out the book Smoking In Bed by Alistair Owen, a series of in-depth Q&As. Very illuminating about scriptwriting/filmmaking. I had to sign a release promising not to blog about the new film, The Rum Diary, but I can confirm that I've seen it!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Eva Green: Part Deux

Yup, it finally happened. A beguiling mademoiselle. To follow soon.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Waiting for Eva

So, Eva Green. A midnight call tonight will determine whether we're doing a brunch interview tomorrow. I do hope so, Eva.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Withnail & I

Have a rare Bruce Robinson interview coming up. Looking forward to it. Here's the Withnail & I retrospective I did for the Sunday Times in June 2009...

Amongst screenwriters there’s a trusty old metaphor when it comes to crafting a film — act one: send a man up a tree; act two: throw rocks at him; act three: get him down again. If ever a case illustrated this point, it’s Withnail & I, the plot of which goes like this — two out-of-work London actors take a break in the Lake District; they endure mild misfortune; they come home again.

There’s really not much more to it. “Resting” thesps Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann), inveigle Withnail’s well-heeled Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) into parting with the keys to his Cumberland cottage; the dwelling proves more of a dump than their squalid Camden gaff; “I” fends off the gaily amorous Monty. What else? Withnail is nicked for drunk driving. Oh, it rains a lot.

Audiences clearly didn’t know what to make of Withnail & I. After a year searching for a willing distributor, it was released in February 1988. Despite some glowing reviews, it lasted just a couple of weeks before being yanked from the nation’s cinema screens.

Its burn, however, was to prove as slow as a Camberwell Carrot. Rediscovered on video/DVD, boosted by re-releases, this bittersweet comedy has since been embraced as one of the best-loved, most quoted British films of modern times. “Because of its very strange mixture of farce and lyricism,” explains Kevin Jackson, whose BFI study, Withnail & I, remains the definitive book on the subject. “If you hold it up from one aspect it’s a howlingly funny comedy. Hold it up another way and it is a tragedy about the loss of youth and the waste of talent. At the level of craftsmanship some of the lines are as good as Pinter.”

“Withnail” has spawned student societies, myriad internet discussions, a drinking game. Its locations are subject to pilgrimage. When Monty’s “Crow Crag” cottage — actually dilapidated Sleddale Hall, near Shap —  was put on the market recently, its heritage value was touted as being equal to Wordsworth’s home. “I’ve probably been the biggest bore with ex-girlfriends,” laughs Dave Panter, who runs one of the many dedicated Withnail websites. “I’ve always sort of ‘sold’ the film. But I’ve converted my wife. Now she gets it.” (Some achievement. In the world of Withnail, women are conspicuous absentees.)

This year marks Withnail & I’s fortieth anniversary. It was in late 1969 — the year the story is set — that writer/director Bruce Robinson first sent Marwood’s battered Jag up the M1 (Marwood being “I”’s revealed name in the screenplay). The project began life as a novel, bashed out in frustration at the impoverished lot of the unemployed thesp. Though there won’t be celebrations on the part of Robinson. “One of the reasons I don’t like having a lot to do with it is because I’m so angry with the people who own it,” he harrumphed in 2006. It is a recurring refrain, echoed by at least one of the film’s three principals. “I’m still owed thirty grand for directing it,” Robinson added in his memoir, Smoking In Bed. “This thing is playing all over the world. Neither I nor the producers nor the actors have ever received one penny of residuals.”

Wind back to the late Sixties and Robinson was one a band of refugees from Central School of Speech and Drama crashing at a fetid townhouse on Albert Street, NW1. The contingent included Michael Feast, now an acclaimed stage actor; (Lord) David Dundas, later to have a pop hit with 1976’s Jeans On; and a splenetic fop of wastrel named Viv MacKerrell. “Sort of slightly upper class, drunken rather arrogant,” describes Feast. It was MacKerrell who would essentially become the model for Withnail.

Robinson had already made a breakthrough as a film actor — appearing in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet. But life, according to legend, was an Arctic trudge between home, the local café and The Spread Eagle pub where welfare cheques were proffered. “We still had that student mentality,” says Feast. “It was that time, you know, drugs and drink and rock and roll were the order of the day. Personal hygiene and domestic duties weren’t the priority.”

Robinson and Feast had recently taken a jaunt to Cumbria to try and write a script (the Jag had belonged to Robinson’s then girlfriend, actress Lesley Anne Down). “That whole Lake District fiasco, all of that stuff happened,” says Feast, recounting familiar details. “Getting into the field with the bull; the search for fuel; tying plastic bags round our feet; the chicken thing. The cottage was a tip. The farmer — who did have a plaster on his leg — was just looking to make a bit of extra cash from idiot southerners. It was freezing. We were burning bits of furniture. We slept with our coats on. Even ‘We want the finest wines available to humanity’ (one of the film’s most quoted lines) was coined up there. The first night we blew all our money on a slap-up meal in one of those very upmarket hotels.”

Robinson based the Marwood character on himself, and borrowed the name Withnall from someone he once knew, only misspelling it (the pronunciation “Withnall” remains). More than anything, the act of hammering at the battered Olivetti convinced him that writing was his calling. Though he would continue to act in films like The Story Of Adele H, the career switch was vindicated. Under the wing of producer David Puttnam, Robinson’s screenwriting career culminated with an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA award for 1984’s The Killing Fields.

Withnail & I continued to simmer. The novel became “like samizdat”, according to Robinson, passed around amongst friends. By 1980 Robinson had converted it into a screenplay and commissioned Ralph Steadman to produce artwork for it — Steadman best known for his association with Hunter S. Thompson, oft regarded as Robinson’s trans-Atlantic twin.

In 1985 the script found its way to George Harrison, who remarked that the laddish squalor reminded him of the pre-Fab Four’s Hamburg days. Post-Beatles, Harrison had turned his hand to producing, his Handmade Films formed to bale out Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, now riding high on the success of films like Time Bandits. An industry player, Robinson was able to get himself attached as director. In July 1986, almost 17 years after its inception, Withnail & I went into production.

Events are well-known to fans. The novice Grant — whose manic performance soon brought him to the attention of Robert Altman, Francis Coppola and Steve Martin — had beaten the likes of Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh and Daniel Day-Lewis to the part of Withnail. Paul McGann, hot off controversial TV drama The Monocled Mutineer pipped Michael Maloney for “I”. Griffiths was selected for Uncle Monty after his role in another Handmade film, A Private Function — his propositioning of Marwood (“Are you a sponge or a stone?”) lifted directly from Robinson’s own experience of an attempted homosexual seduction by Zeffirelli

In keeping with the theme, most of the film appears to have been shot while Robinson and co. were half-cut — with the honourable exception of the teetotal Grant, though even he conceded to a night of alcoholic abandon, the better to truly experience the “bastard behind the eyes” that blights his aspirin-less character.

The laissez faire approach had been indulged by Handmade’s creatives — Harrison, Ray Cooper (better known as Elton John’s percussionist), the certain “Richard Starkey MBE” that the film’s credits list as Special Production Consultant. It was not, however, to be tolerated by Harrison’s American partner, Denis O’Brien, a former merchant banker who was Handmade’s driving force.

Famously, so appalled was O’Brien at the darkness evident in early footage — in contrast to the anticipated fruity laugh-a-minute British farce — that furious rows ensued, with Robinson threatening to walk. In the end, with the film pretty much written off, Robinson was allowed to do as he pleased, the reason, he claims, that it turned out as well as it did. Though O’Brien exacted his pound of flesh. Robinson had been paid £80,000 to direct the film and a token £1 for the screenplay. He had to shell out £30,000 from his own pocket to finance certain scenes of the film (the road trip back to the capital), which were deemed extraneous by O’Brien.

It is small beer compared with what happened to Harrison. Having not learned his lesson from the management wranglings that had kiboshed the Beatles, the musician-turned-producer had jumped into bed with the wrong “suit”. In 1995 Harrison sued O’Brien for $20m, claiming vast sums had been misappropriated from the Handmade coffers. A Californian court subsequently awarded an $11.7m judgement in Harrison’s favour. But it was too late. Hastened by the US flop, Cold Dog Soup, Handmade was sold in 1994, for a paltry $8.5m, to the Canadian outfit, Paragon Entertainment Group. It forced Harrison into alternative money-spinning ventures, not least, it is said, the Beatles Anthology reunion.

That same year, coincidentally, the Withnail revival had begun, its unlikely champion the lads’ mag Loaded, which saluted the film with its student-friendly Drinking Game, inviting participants to line up the beverages quaffed onscreen, consuming them at the appropriate moments (two pints of cider, two large shots of gin, eight glasses of sherry, a bottle of whisky, as well as fourteen subsequent measures of Scotch, four pints of ale, multiple bottles of red wine and, if you’re really pushing the boat out, a tot of lighter fluid, something MacKerrell is said to have actually imbibed, rendering him blind for a few days). There followed a 1996, “tenth anniversary” re-release, promotions by Oddbins and Stella Artois. Withnail was back… and boozier than ever.

“They’re very welcome to have Withnail but to think of it merely as a film to get pissed by was unfair,” says Jackson. “It was richer than that.” Indeed, for all the bacchanalian festivity, Withnail & I is a film underpinned by tragedy. And would have been more so according to the original ending, in which, after bidding adieu to Marwood in Regent’s Park, Withnail goes home, loads a shotgun with Monty’s prized Chateau Margeaux ‘53 and blows his brains out. Instead, the requiem is for the Sixties itself, the film’s drab grimness in contrast to the usual paisley whirl. “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s, man,” as Ralph Brown’s Danny The Drug Dealer puts it. “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.”

“I was there at the time and I’m still alive too, which some of us aren’t,” stresses Feast. For both MacKerrell, and Michael Elphick (another Central pal, who played Jake the Poacher), effectively drank themselves to death, MacKerrell dying in 1995 from throat cancer, Ephick in 2002 from a heart attack. Feast has since triumphed in his own battles with drugs and alcohol. “The price that was paid by those two was nearly paid by me.” On the soundtrack there are casualties in Jimi Hendrix (overdose) and King Curtis (murdered). And then there is Harrison, who died in 2001, still trying to stay O’Brien’s declaration of bankruptcy.
Handmade, for their part, dispute Robinson’s claims regarding remuneration. In 1999 the company was bought back and newly constituted by CEO Patrick Meehan, himself a former rock manager, who had looked after artists including Black Sabbath. “When Withnail came out it took nothing at the box office,” declares Meehan. “It was a small ‘nothing’ film. It lost a lot of money. It actually didn’t make a single penny. As time has gone on it has become a cult film, but it doesn’t make the money that people think it makes. It might sell 10,000 DVDs (p.a.). It’s not that much. Everybody talks about it, everybody’s seen it, and everybody loves it, but that doesn’t turn into cash. I’ve had this all my life. It’s like these pop groups that had this one hit thirty years ago wondering where all the money is. It’s got to recoup the money that it lost in the first place. And that’s what people just tend to forget.”

Statistics would tend to bear Meehan out. Withnail cost £1.1m to make, and probably about as much again to market. It earned £565,000 at the UK box office in 1988 (compared to the £12m of that year’s comedy hit, A Fish Called Wanda). Add on a combined £418,000 on limited re-releases in 1996 and 2007 plus its American return of $1.5m and it’s still a marginal asset. (For the record, actors don’t make residuals from broadcasts of films on TV.)

As for the fabled Missing Thirty Grand, it was a standard penalty for Robinson going over budget, claims Meehan. “I reimbursed him for that when I didn’t have to. I was actually quite upset. He always said that Handmade had ripped him off, so I sent him a cheque for 30 grand, and he doesn’t tell anybody that… I actually sent somebody to drive up to his (Herefordshire) cottage to give it to him.”

Robinson’s directorial career never did take off after Withnail & I. His next film, also with Grant, How To Get Ahead In Advertising (1989) was a flop, as was his debut Hollywood film, the thriller Jennifer 8 (1992), which was chopped about by its studio, Paramount — so much so that the whole miserable experience had Robinson swearing off directing for good. Despite screenplays for films like Return To Paradise and In Dreams, and an acting cameo in old-rockers flick, Still Crazy (1998), the reclusive Robinson turned his attention to authoring children’s books and a semi-autobiographical novel, The Peculiar Memories Of Thomas Penman.

Withnail & I, though, has fans in very high places and none more so than Johnny Depp. Having tried for years to tempt Robinson out of retirement, Depp has finally succeeded at the fifth time of asking. They have just finished shooting Robinson’s own adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’ s The Rum Diary in Puerto Rico, with Depp as a version of the celebrated gonzo journalist — the late personal friend essayed previously in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. It will be released in 2010, Robinson’s first directorial outing in 18 years.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

So the big question... commas or no commas? Even the movie's promotional material seems inconsistent. I've opted for without. A worthy film, great acting (including a solid performance, once again, by the underrated Mark Strong) and the kind of British character vehicle that has Academy voters soiling themselves. (Although the producers should have hired a decent wigmaster. More joins than Eric Morecambe could ever have coped with.) For all its chilly atmospherics and grim evocation of Seventies London I felt that TTSS was, peculiarly, a thriller with no real tension. I mean, what was at stake? One to admire but not really to love.

The Killing

How disappointed was I with the double-episode finale of The Killing? I never saw the Danish original and so went into this with eyes wide open. I rarely watch TV — not through choice, just no bloody time. A drama has to be exceptional for me to select it as something worthy of long-term commitment. This had seemed like it. Sadly, the show really took its foot off the gas with the penultimate week's episode. Just as the plot was boiling nicely, the makers, mystifyingly, decided to devote an entire instalment to Linden and Holder sitting in a car examining the fluff in their navels, whining about their lives. All tension was dissipated, the pace lost. By the time of the finale you were already playing catch-up with plot points previously teed-up and half-forgotten. The political storyline proved plain silly, ultimately. In my humble opinion...

Monday, 12 September 2011

Lars Von Trier: Married To Controversy

From The Sunday Times Culture section, by Jeff Dawson. Published September 11, 2011

It seems somehow fitting to find Lars Von Trier holed up in a bunker. On the outskirts of Copenhagen, on an old air force base, he springs from the low concrete outhouse that serves as his office, at safe remove from the hangars and nissen huts that nowadays closet his Zentropa studio.

A dishevelled, be-stubbled chap, dressed in crumpled plaid shirt, black jeans and open toed sandals, he leads you from a Danish sizzler of a morning into the cool, dark interior. Greeting you far more enthusiastically than you expect, he bids you sit on one of the facing battered couches between his desk and the remote-controlled helicopter propped up against the wall while he rummages for mineral water.

This was the munitions dump, he explains. See, no windows. Just slits. In the event of an explosion, the blast would be directed upwards, taking off the roof. Damage limitation — a not unfamiliar concept to the anointed enfant terrible of European cinema.

As bad boys go, Von Trier in an immediately likeable one — an entertaining conversationalist and an open book of an interviewee, armed, to boot, with a sardonic wit of extra–sec dryness, without question the source of much of his trouble.

But where, oh where, to begin? For a man whose prodigious talent is matched only by his capacity to outrage — usually with tongue planted firmly in cheek — there was something inevitable that, even by his own provocative standards, Von Trier would one day say something too incendiary. The director has a new film out, Melancholia, though you suspect everything, for some time, will be overshadowed by the press conference he gave in support of it at May’s Cannes Film Festival.

It has been reported to death. But, for the record, let’s recap. “I understand Hitler,” he had declared, a statement he could have brushed off as black humour had he not embellished it with a verbal ramble vaunting his appreciation for Third Reich art and that “Israel is a pain in the ass”, before adding the capper, “Okay, I’m a Nazi.”

There is context to mitigate much of what Von Trier said, including the not insignificant matter of language — his deadpan humour delivered in a second tongue (English), with any residual nuance leached in subsequent translations. But it was a dumb thing to say. In the crucible of film luvviedom, potential career suicide. Von Trier apologised, but to no avail. He was struck off; excommunicated; told to pack his bags and leave forthwith… To take to the naughty step with Mel Gibson.

Today… and this is very Von Trier… he can’t help but wring dark mirth from his predicament. “I don’t know how it is with these Persona Non Grata things,” he says. “I never heard there was a time limit on it. I’m very interested since I might go to Cannes for reasons other than for a film festival. Does that mean that I still have to not go closer than 150 metres of the Palais that is now used for exhibiting shoes?”

But you know that it hurts, for a former winner of the Palme D’Or a spectacular fall from grace. “I have been unpopular in my time,” he says, “but I’ve always gotten over it. This time it was overwhelming.” It is grimly pertinent that Melancholia should be about the end of the world. And set to Wagner.

In spite of the hoo-ha, the film performed rather well, bagging Kirsten Dunst a Best Actress award for her role as Justine, a young bride afflicted with an incapacitating case of depression — the same torpor that visits Von Trier periodically and which has left him with a slight stammer and a case of hand tremors. You could call the film an extreme Philadelphia Story, Justine’s wedding day funk set against the backdrop of a rogue planet (Melancholia) hurtling towards Earth, threatening to splatter not just the lavish country nuptials, but life as we know it.

The 56-year-old director had written the script for Penelope Cruz and had wanted to make it purely about mental illness. Research revealed that mediaeval quacks attributed such things to the alignment of heavenly bodies. “I asked a scientist when would this be possible [a planet crashing into earth]? And he said, ‘It can happen tomorrow,’ which made me very happy,” says Von Trier, referring as much the destruction of civilisation, you fancy, as the vindication of his plot point.

For a man supposedly hawking his wares, Von Trier is actually a bit down on the movie. Or rather, having “a little guilt” about this “Anti-Dogme” opus. Its armageddon CGI and sumptuous visuals fly in the face of the minimalist filmmaking creed (Dogme 95) of which he was a founder.

But then Von Trier was ever the bundle of contradictions — the alleged mistreater of women whose actresses get showered with accolades; the scathing critic of America who has never been there; the plain old Mr. Trier whose aristocratic “Von” is an affectation; the legendary travel phobic who confesses that he’s recently been piloting helicopters… not toy ones but the real thing.

Though there is no greater irony than this — the boy brought up in a leftwing Jewish household, whose mother was in the Danish resistance, and who now finds himself cast as an anti-Semite. “if you saw my home, I have angry Jews looking at me from every corner of the room. It was like I was actually kind of being attacked from the inside somehow.”

A bit of backstory here – though raised as a secular Jew (by virtue of his father), in an ultra-bohemian environment, family holidays spent at nudist camps, Von Trier’s world was rocked at the age of 33. On her deathbed, his mother confessed that Lars’ biological father was not her husband, Ulf Trier, but rather a German, Fritz Hartmann, her ex-boss, whom she’d selected for parenthood on account of his artistic genes — a bit of DIY eugenics.

It prompted a good deal of soul-searching on the part of her bemused son and a brief conversion to Catholicism. The question at Cannes had been phrased around whether the sturm and drang of Melancholia was a flowering of a new-found appreciation of German Romanticism.

Was Von Trier trying to be funny with his response? “Yeah it was a joke,” he says, “I also suffer from the problem that since all these people have come here and nobody says anything, that I have to give them something.” He quotes a Danish writer friend. “The idea was when I said, ‘I was a Nazi,’ all I meant was ‘Come and play with me,’ which I think is the closest to the truth.”

He likens himself to a Hans Christian Andersen character, Clumsy Hans, a slapstick creation upon which Donald Duck was based. “Nobody was there to help Clumsy Hans by saying, ‘What do you mean when you say you understand Hitler?’ Because then I could come with an explanation, because even Clumsy Hans means something when he says something.”

Von Trier lies down and puts his feet up as if on a psychoanalyst’s couch. A bit of white belly pops out between the shirt buttons. France is very touchy about the war, he says, a hostage to political correctness; any intellectual discussion of Nazism should take for granted a horror at the Holocaust, “the worst crime against humanity”; Albert Speer was a great architect regardless of his associations; there are a lot of Jews who are not enamoured with Israel’s foreign policy, which was what he was meant by that particular remark.

Has he had hate mail? No. But plenty of endorsements. “Unfortunately I’ve made the wrong friends. Form Iran I had suddenly some supporters.”

This is not the first time Von Trier has eulogised what he calls, awkwardly, the “Nazi aesthetic”. Recently I read him enthusing about the design of the Stuka. “The Spitfire was a much better plane,” he elaborates. “But the Stuka is what you see in Star Wars”.”

He starts to get a bit unfocused, comparing the Nazis to Disney in terms of their appropriation of other cultures (he hates Uncle Walt for stealing Denmark’s fairytales). “I believe that we are all Nazis, and that we are all Jews,” he opines, suggesting that we each have the capacity for good or evil. “I am a cultural Jew. Even though the sperm might not have come from my father. This is my upbringing. This is my identity. I want to claim that I’m as good a Jew as any Jew.”

There are some who regard Von Trier’s whole career as being predicated on shock. Over the years he has… proclaimed he is “the best film director in the world”; announced himself “a masturbator of the silver screen”, called Roman Polanski a “midget”. His film, The Idiots, discomfited some with its perceived lampooning of the mentally challenged and its full-on penetrative sex (see also Antichrist). John C. Reilly stormed off the set of Dogville in protest at the slaughtering of a donkey live on camera. “If I had one dollar for every time I was talked about…” Von Trier quips.

Need one mention the anti-Americanism of Dancer in The Dark, Dogville and Manderlay which, for all their merits, are rather facile as commentaries upon their subjects — capital punishment, intolerance and slavery. “The American President yesterday talked about being ‘the greatest nation on earth.’ I get extremely provoked by that,” he says. “I get provoked every time I hear Britannia Rules The Waves, but it helps a little bit that Britannia isn’t ruling the waves. Hahahaha.”

Even fans felt that his last film, Antichrist, was just a calculated exercise in revulsion, culminating, as it did, with a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) severing her own clitoris with a pair of scissors. He smirks. “It was Marilyn Monroe who said, ‘If you can’t handle my worst, you don’t deserve my best.’”

The plight of Von Trier’s women always crops up. Bjork never acted again after her experience on Dancer In The Dark. On Melancholia, Dunst certainly gets put through the wringer, as did Emily Watson, Nicole Kidman, Bryce Dallas Howard and Gainsbourg before her. But he refutes allegations of misogyny. “Saying I don’t like women would be like saying that I don’t like giraffes. Which is nonsense,” he says. “I like women and I prefer them to men I must say.” Melancholia’s Justine is semi-autobiographical. “I tend to feel better represented when I’m a she somehow.”

It does not escape notice that Von Trier has a rather aggressive tattoo etched across the knuckles of his right hand, the letters F-U-C-K. “But fuck can be positive and[ital] negative, cant it?” One must take much of this stuff with a pinch of salt. Nicole Kidman once told me Von Trier was a “visionary”. There are few in film as inventive.

In Melancholia, Justine believes “Life is evil.” “I can tell you we are alone in the universe,” chirrups Von Trier. “There is no God.” If he has a true religion (and if one is really rooting for Nazi allegories), it’s his devotion to the rulebook. Dogme 95 was a punkish rebuke to the overblown stadium rock of Hollywood, with its manifesto of stark realism and “vow of chastity” — no props, no music, no lighting. Though, with The Idiots, Von Trier’s only official Dogme venture, he later admitted he’d cheated a bit.

After Dogme, came the ingenious Dogville, and its less satisfactory sequel Manderlay (which he now regrets making), which had their scenery painted out on the floor of a soundstage. His office comedy, The Boss Of It All, was shot using a computerised camera that made conventional directing redundant.

More recently there was his experimental The Five Obstructions in which he got veteran Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth to repeatedly remake one of his own short films under different conditions, an exercise he’s supposed to be repeating with Martin Scorsese. “I haven’t heard from him since Cannes,” he shrugs. “I don’t know I that means if he was not pleased about my performance there. I doubt it because he’s clever and a good guy.”

He’ll be rattling the cage with his next one, The Nyphomaniac, which he’s currently having “tremendous fun writing” based on the sexploits of his female chums. It will be very explicit, he promises, using full-on close–ups patched in from porn actor stand-ins (this being Scandinavia, Zentropa has its own adult film division). “I don’t  think we will have Nicole Kidman in this film, hahaha.”

But now for a ride. Von Trier takes me for a spin in his car — a filthy Saab estate whose mess of an interior is more befitting a bag lady. He wants to play me his new talking book, Finnegan’s Wake. (Rather amusingly “The Great American Songbook” CD has to be ejected first.) The box set cost him three hundred US dollars and he can’t understand a word of it. Can I? No. He laughs. “James Joyce, that fuck.”

The main building of Zentropa is a treasure trove, with its wall of awards and memorabilia, including the prosthetic naked lower half of Charlotte Gainsbourg. Outside are the “pissing gnomes”, the little garden statues upon which the menfolk ritualistically relieve themselves, one of which Catherine Deneuve unwittingly hugged for a photo. Young Zentropans scurry beneath company flags and Marxist slogans, like some of kind of socialist youth camp.

There had been a grim prelude to our interview, the Anders Breivik killings in Norway, about which Von Trier had expressed genuine shock. But when the subject crops up over lunch, in the company of others, he just can’t help himself.

The weather had been glorious.
“It was a good day for it,” he remarks.
Clumsy Hans, I say.
He looks sheepish.
“Clumsy Hans.”

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

London's Burning (original version)

Something I never got round to posting...

Scene: Winter 1940, the rubble of East London, morning after a German bombing raid. Some politicians have visited to boost morale…

Harriet Harbottle (Labour): You know I condemn the bombing unreservedly. But at the same time I also applaud it. Yes it has brought destruction into people’s lives, but so too have some of those whose homes have been destroyed and families killed — bankers, News Of The World journalists, white middle class males, people who send their children to private school… except for St. Paul’s Girls’. It’s too easy to say, “Let’s fight them on the beaches.” Surely it makes more sense to form a robust understanding of the cause of this so-called Blitz?… To reach out to the Nazi community… To go further than “hug a Himmler.”

BBC commentator, Nitwit Robinson: I’m sorry, I must point out we’re not allowed to use the word “bombing”… or “Blitz” for that matter. The corporation feels it might be prejudicial against those Germans currently and illegally interned on the Isle of Man. The preferred term is “English Punishment Missions”.

Ed Millivanilli (Leader, Labour Party): And anti-aircwaft fire is simply a kneejerk wesponse. It’s wong to fire indiscwiminately and wisk hitting vose German planes which we don’t even know dwopped bombs or whose bombs can’t be pwoven to have done any damage. We are judging wivout evidence. Tonight, when ve Heinkels fly over, I would ask Wondoners to turn to ve sky and simpwy shout up togever, “We are all Nazis.” Because, in a sense, we all are.

Spike von Helmet (Führer, British Nazi Association): Ze Aryans is angry, mann. Zey have lebensraum in dem bellies.

Harriet Harbottle nods approvingly.

Robinson: And over to you Prime Minister. Prime Minister?… Quick, a doctor for Mr. Churchill. He’s turned purple.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Tom Hibbert

Just wanted to say how saddened I was to hear of the passing of Tom Hibbert. To anyone who came through Emap Metro in the 1980/90s, he was THE man, an absolute genius of a writer, whom we all wanted to emulate and unashamedly 'attempted' to plagiarise. Hibbert-isms are everywhere still. His "Who The Hell...?" pieces for Q are legend. I was reading one online a minute ago, Roger Waters from 1992. Priceless.

As features editor of Empire in the early 90s I had a few dealings with Tom. As the new-found "Q of film", it was natural that Empire should seek his services as a writer. He was dispatched to interrogate the great and good (Meryl Streep amongst others, if I remember) and always delivered... though never, ever on bloody time. It was a given that, come deadline day, and with the magazine due for printing, there would be a gaping hole where Tom's copy should be. And where on earth was he? Nobody had heard from him?

I recall trying to track him down once after he'd gone typically AWOL with a piece looming and even his wife didn't know where he was. He'd simply driven off, under pressure, only to call in from a roadside phone box up north, some days later, faint and pained, but just in the nick of time. I think you can say he suffered for his art. But he was always brilliant. And FUNNY. I'd often wondered what had happened to him. It's a great loss.

Apt that the Roger Waters piece should crop up. In a way, Tom Hibbert was journalism's Syd Barrett. Shine on.