Saturday, 19 February 2011

Gimme Some More of That Black Stuff

Will Gompertz, the gormless looking BBC's Arts Editor, ran a report on Tuesday's 10 O'clock News about Tinie Tempah and his urban music fraternity winning big at this week's BRIT Awards ceremony. The report was as much about a middle aged cum middle-class white man like Gompertz trying to make sense of how the very people he ordinarily crosses the street to avoid are now making the most popular and viable types of music white kids are currently bopping to. It must seem bizarre and totally unreal for Gompertz to comprehend how this cultural phenomenon took shape. In a parallel universe Moira Stuart will have done the same report only this time focussing on how black kids are abandoning traditional urban music in favour of rocking to Cradle of Filth records.

Truth is that British urban music is absolutely a part of current mainstream youth culture. Tinie Tempah cuts a modern day Uncle Tom figure, leased out to bland pop acts like JLS and Ellie Goulding in order to provide rap vignettes on their sugar-coated pop confections. Even Jessie J's current number 1 single Price Tag features some black rapper called B.o.B who provides 30 seconds of nonsensical rhymes to accompany Jessie's crap lyrics about the frivolous nature of money and what we really need in life is derivative pop music that makes us want to jig. It's hard to believe that not so long ago major UK radio stations would edit out 'break it down now' rap cameos from pop songs as not to disturb the sheltered children of middle-England who may have been traumatized hearing an angry black man spitting out rhymes.

Things are way different now. Even the wholesome Pixie Lott is allegedly receiving multi-racial loving from tattoo-clad rapper Chipmunk. Black music and black British culture is for sale at knocked down prices, though it's hard to tell how long this interest in urban customs will last as the scene is becoming profusely clichéd.

Pop music has always been ephemeral and urban music's lack of innovation risks middle-class kids throwing in the towel and embracing their fellow white guys with guitars again. It's worrying that British urban acts have sold themselves out so early by featuring on any number of shit pop records like the ones already mentioned and therefore cheapening their own status. In America, gangsta rap artists waited decades before they agreed to cameo on mainstream pop recordings. The problem in Britain is that the urban scene was not properly established before these so-called 'grime' artists shacked up with prosaic pop acts, thus inadvertently denigrated the overall value of British urban music.

British society is unique. Although race is a big issue in certain parts of the country, and more of a significant issue than what Will Gompertz and his ilk may think; the dominant lines of division are more seeded in social class than anything else. Even though the white British working classes have historically been in conflict with ethnic minorities who came and settled in their sacred estates, the former has been forced to exist alongside people of colour primarily because of fiscal reasons. Immigration may have caused civil unrest in Britain but it was affordable council housing that made both white folks and black folks unwilling neighbours. It is within this social melting pot that the new movement of British urban culture has erupted.

For example, Plan B is an underclass white artist who sings ersatz soul music and Dizzie Rascal is an underclass black guy who raps on shitty pop songs but both these young men are opposite ends of the same spectrum. They both come from poverty. They both have been failed by the state. They were both fucked over by an inept school system and neglected by feckless teachers who couldn't give a shit about them. And now both these artists have enviable career trajectories that most struggling middle-class musicians can only dream of. They have capitalised on the national love for inner-city urban traditions and made a good living out of it, although it's arguable just how relevant they and their music will be in the years to come. The point is that, much like what Charles Dickens did in the 19th Century when he wrote harrowing stories about how the other half of municipal London lives, the British urban scene is providing the middle-classes with a snapshot of how the modern underclass in Britain exists. It makes the middle-classes feel insightful and daring, giving them a false sense of understanding, the kind of which they'd never really know about because they, much like Will Gompertz, feel the need to avoid such encounters in real life. In this sense it is disappointing that British urban music has merely become a compromised utility rather than the authentic cultural expression it should be.

Unlike Dizzie Rascal and Plan B, Tinie Tempah is an articulate black man from South London who has been educated to a higher level than most of his 'grime' music peers, though in no way can his state schooling be labelled as privileged. Tinie is a smart guy who worked hard for what he has and he obviously values knowledge. Tinie has even debated at the Oxford University debating chamber, with one Oxbridge student named Louisa Stoppard telling the student union press: "It was cool to have someone who is our own age and who is on a par with people here."

But honestly, is Tinie Tempah genuinely relatable to the privileged masses of Oxford University who have largely enjoyed a purchased education provided by their parents and had the types opportunities only made available to them because of their elevated social standing? Can these people even be allowed to claim any ounce of relation to a rapper like Tinie Tempah? Maybe they can and that's why Princes' William and Harry are huge fans of his, the latter even wanting Tinie Tempah to rap at his brother's imminent stag party. The truth is that people of privilege have no right in claiming they have a positive relationship with British urban music because they are the same bastards who curtailed its progression by previously ostracising the songs from radio and music television playlists. Things may have improved but that is down to the tenacity of British rappers and singers. The British urban music scene needs to fix up and look sharp because by pandering to middle-class acceptance it's doing both them and their music a disservice.

But by renouncing the current love middle-class kids are giving British urban music we may not be appreciating that it is this very acceptance which has made it a powerful cultural force. The attention middle-classes have given contemporary British urban music is exactly why Will Gompertz's reported on it, and in no way was it a negative report like the news features American broadcasters were running on gangsta rap in the 1980s when Ronald Regan's Republican Party went to war with the U.S. urban music scene for corrupting innocent suburban white kids. Things are far too post-modern for anything like that happening in Britain today. Also, rap music is not as political and confrontational as it used to be, which is unfortunate because it doesn't feel as dangerous as what it used to.

Still, without adequate understanding, support and development it is likely the British urban music scene is simply a passing phase that will eventually outstay its welcome. That's a shame because, if they had played it correctly, it could have been revolutionary and not merely a transitory flash in the pan.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Super Bore

Bryan Singer's 2006 movie Superman Returns was a bag of shite. It bored the hell out of moviegoers and was considered a major disappointment by studio Warner Bros. Although the movie grossed in excess of $390 million, that success was marred by Entertainment Weekly's claims that its final budget was more than $350 million, with development costs mounting in excess of $40 million amid money being wasted on expensive pay or play contracts. $10 million was just needlessly spent on Bryan Singer filming a "Return to Krypton" sequence that was excised from the finished film. Warner Bros. further messed up by caving in to Singer's demands not to experiment with test screenings and then allowed him to drop 15 minutes of footage after the filmmaker showed Superman Returns to some 'trusted associates' who allegedly preferred the emotional dramatics of the storyline over exciting action set-pieces.

On its release Superman Returns couldn't even usurp the Pirates of the Carrabin: Dead Man's Chest at the UK box-office; an even worse film that had already been on general release for over a week. Internationally, Superman Returns stalled at $191 million.

Warner Bros. President Alan Horn explained that while Superman Returns was a 'successful film', it "should have done $500 million worldwide." Horn added: "We should have had perhaps a little more action to satisfy the young male crowd." Upon hearing Horn's remarks, Bryan Singer reacted disbelievingly to the studio complaints, saying: "[Superman Returns] made $400 million! I don't know what constitutes under-performing these days.

Warner Bros. is intent on not making any of the old mistakes with their new Superman: Man of Steel reboot and is instead making a whole set of new ones. After taking the project to heralded action auteur Ben Affleck as a follow-up gig to The Town, Warner Bros has settled on exploitation maestro Zack Snyder who last week Sunday cast 'British' actor Henry Cavill in the role of quintessential 'American' icon Clark Kent/ Superman. Alan F. Horn is ensuring that Superman: Man of Steel is a superhero movie that mirrors these austere times by restricting the film's maximum budget at $175 million. There is no doubt that Snyder was chosen to direct Superman: Man of Steel because of his ability to prioritise style over substance, never allowing characterisation to get in the way of exhilaration. For all of Superman Returns' many faults, Singer always put his desire to tell a story before anything else. Alas, Superman: Man of Steel will no doubt be action packed to the hilt but the cultural mechanics shaping this reboot laves much to be desired.

In last Saturday's The Times newspaper, Jonathan Ross wrote an interesting article titled "Why I don't want a sexed-up Superman", in which he discussed DC Comics' latest Superman: Earth One which recasts Superman as a moody teenager searching for an identity and purpose. If that isn't enough, Superman: Earth One presents the superhero as an angst-fuelled hoody-wearing adolescent who is more of a hipster than righteous hero. Dan DiDio of DC Comics has justified Superman: Earth One's teen-friendly reincarnation, saying: "We wanted to tell a story that's hip, sexy and moody."Ross responded by saying: "The appeal of Superman was, and should always be, that he is Earth's guardian ― [He has] instilled in him all the values that America most wishes to be known for ― He is not, nor was he ever, a teenager in a hoody."

Ross is convinced that Warner Bros. Superman: Man of Steel exemplifies Hollywood's dangerous fixation on youth, intellectually paring down dramatic story elements in favour perfunctory effects showpieces that are comparative to modern videogames. He cites The King's Speech as exemplification that even young people will flock to see a good story regardless of the actors' ages. Although The King's Speech was every bit as shit as Superman Returns, Hollywood does seem to have a lazy logic in thinking that young people only want to look at other young people. Superman, Batman and Spiderman have all decreased in age as further film instalments have been let loose. Even the ages of directors hired to helm these franchise properties has reversed, most now being in their 30s.

If cinema does not challenge its audiences then the chances of movies being anything other than standardised norms will be limited. The 1990s was a precarious decade for superhero movies in that studios knew these properties had potential but they often failed to harness them satisfactorily. That changed in the Noughties with the panoply of solid superhero-fare cultivating both commercial and critical success. But with this success we are seeing an overcrowding of these types of films and there's cracks beginning to show. Last month's The Green Hornet was meant to be a $120 million franchise starter that fell way short of its target. Marvel has now had two cracks at their The Incredible Hulk franchise and underwhelmed both times. Last year's post-modern superhero comedy Kick-Ass underperformed even with its low price tag. Also, the continuing pattern for casting non-Americans in hugely American comic book icon roles is likely to eventually annoy loyal fanboys, and the studios efforts to saturate their schedules with standardised superhero tropes will sooner or later infuriate the rest of us. If that doesn't do it then the ad-hoc 3D conversion jobs they utilise on these films will almost certainly wean us off our superhero adoration.

The truth is that if you've seen one superhero movie then you've pretty much seen them all. Nearly all of them predictably stretch from limp beginnings to lame conclusions. Some will stand in protest and declare that I can't possibly include The Dark Knight in this argument but I do include it. Christopher Nolan may proclaim he manufactured a brooding morality tale for modern times but at the end of the day it's still about some prick in fancy-dress who speaks like an idiot.

Last night Zack Snyder gave an interview to Latino Review in which his vision for Superman Man of Steel came across as pretty unformed and muddled. He said: "My feeling about 'Superman' is that I've been a fan of the character for a long time. But the question for me was always, 'What can you do with Superman in a modern world?' And I think the amazing thing that [scriptwriters] Chris [Nolan] and David [S. Goyer] have created, that I'm working on now, and the reason why I was like, 'Yeah, I'll do that,' was that they found that in him. They found the why in him. That's the exciting part for me."

Snyder's statement makes little sense, perhaps proving that Warner Bros. are rushing this project through the finishing line primarily because they will lose the character rights to Jerome Siegel (of Siegel and Shuster) if they fail to release a new Superman movie before the end of 2012. Therefore, Superman: Man of Steel is a legal requirement for Warner Bros., not simply a commercially creative endeavour.

There's no doubt that Alan Horn and Zack Snyder will produce a better performing movie than Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, but is that really an achievement or a necessity? Is the world really in need of more superhero fodder or should we demand that studios work harder to court our appeal?

Friday, 11 February 2011

The British are Coming

On the eve of our National cinema celebrating its brilliance at Sunday's prestigious BAFTA ceremony, below are a few choice statements from renowned global film luminaries commenting on the distinguished art of British filmmaking:

"I do not think the British are terminally equipped to make the best use of the movie camera." Satyajit Ray, Director - 1966


"The English can write and they can act (or at least speak beautifully, which is enough to cripple us with admiration), but they can't direct movies... compared with the motion picture art of Sweden or Italy or Japan or France or pre-Nazi Germany, English films have always been a sad joke. Pauline Kale, Film Critic - 1968

"There is a certain incompatibility between the terms 'cinema' and 'Britain'." Françoise Truffaut, Director - 1966


"The British over use the close-up- they're not a very visual race, at least in our time – they douse their movies with close-ups the way people with defective taste-buds use ketchup." Dwight MacDonald, American Cultural Critic and Academic - 1972


What do those old coots know! This year's BAFTA ceremony is different and will prove history wrong. Colin Firth – star of highbrow classics like St. Trinians 1 & 2, What a Girl Wants, Mamma Mia!, Love Actually and Bridget Jones 1 & 2 – will fly British cinema's flag of mediocrity by winning a Best Actor award for Forrest Gump Goes to Buckingham Palace. Joining him will be Gemma Arterton who'll win a 'Rising Star' award for giving a series of bland performances that could have been as capably pulled off by any number of 'trained' actresses featuring in Hollyoaks. Joining her will be Gareth Edwards who'll get 'Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer' award for making a dull travelogue on his digital camcorder; helpfully embellished with some iffy laptop trickery made on the latest version of Adobe Reader 9.

And they say BAFTA is still important. Listen closely and you'll hear the sounds of Françoise Truffaut spinning in his grave.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Sky is not the Limit

Channel 4's 10 O'Clock Live is a pretty hit and miss affair. The programme tries to mimic the formulae of U.S. political satire shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, but to patchy success. Still, one must give 10 O'Clock Live presenter Charlie Brooker props when he astutely summarised what the world would be like if Rupert Murdoch owned the actual atmospheric sky instead of just BSkyB, saying: "The rainbows will be pay-per-view, the clouds will rain down hate and the sun will be full of shit."

With a net income of £11.7 million and employee base counting 16,500; British Sky Broadcasting is an unfortunate cultural phenomenon of modern British television that uncontrollably sabotages the British viewers' right to watch stuff at a reasonable price. Since BSkyB's formation 21 years ago the broadcaster has secured over 10 million subscribers and radically transformed the face of national viewing by shamelessly charging the rate of a mini-mortgage for watching just about everything that was once available for free. In turn, Murdoch's acquisition of Premiere League soccer broadcasting rights has made the sport prohibitively expensive to watch, and exponentially inflated the salaries of footballers who wouldn't even qualify digging ditches in the streets for free. Even this month's Oscars' ceremony will be off-limits unless audiences shell out for a pricy subscription to Sky Movies just so that that they can see The King's Speech undeservingly nab nearly all the top awards.

Last week saw the launch of another superfluous addition to the Sky fraternity of uninspired channels with the introduction of Sky Atlantic, a channel that seriously relies too heavily on American content with 40% of all programming coming directly from HBO for which Sky paid £150 million in a five-year deal for their entire archive, plus new programming and a first-look deal on all HBO co-productions.

Despite a promotional blitz extolling the greatness of watching Sky Atlantic's American shows that have already been shown on terrestrial channels or have been available online for months, the channel's progress hasn't been shaping up too well. The launch of the seventh series of HBO drama Entourage barely managed to flick the ratings needle with an average of just 18,000 viewers. The last series of Entourage aired on ITV2 averaged about 200,000 viewers per episode, with the final episode hitting 300,000. On its launch night last Tuesday with Boardwalk Empire (directed by Martin Scorsese, reportedly the most expensive pilot ever made at $18 million), Sky Atlantic attracted 438,000 viewers, while Tom Selleck cop drama Blue Bloods drew 225,000. Yet by the end of its first week in operation, Sky Atlantic's top-rating show that day was a re-run of the 10-year-old pilot episode of Six Feet Under, with a woebegone 53,000 viewers.

BSkyB chief operating officer, Mike Darcey, told The Guardian that ratings are much more important to free-to-air broadcasters such as ITV2 that are reliant on audience figures to sell advertising. Darcey added that it is the "column inches" about Sky Atlantic that is more important at the moment as it is about making the overall Sky channels portfolio attractive to subscribers.

Truth is that as a nation we are not fazed by concept of having to pay to watch things that 20 years ago we wouldn't be happy about paying for. Worryingly, last month James Lyons in the Daily Mirror slammed Prime Minister David Cameron for having dinner with James Murdoch (Rupert's son) as the Government considers the final say on whether the Murdochs' £7.5billion to takeover BSkyB is acceptable.

By enabling Murdoch's stranglehold of BSkyB to tighten further there's greater risk of him getting away with broadcasting even more worthless stuff that fills our television screens full of shit. Charlie Brooker has never been more right.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Black is Beautiful

The music video is an art form that isn't celebrated enough. Major Lazer's hit single Pon De Floor - directed by Eric Wareheim and starring Skerrit Bwoy! – is among the greatest music videos ever made and needs to be hailed accordingly. If ever there was a visual paean to the gracefulness of black women then Pon De Floor is most certainly it.