Saturday, December 13, 2008

My Childhood Just Flew By

Sight & Sound magazine has just released its end of year issue, which includes critics' favourite DVDs. On my hypothetical list would go Bill Douglas's 1970s childhood trilogy of films My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home (shot over eight years). Released this year on DVD for the first time by the BFI, the films bear a superficial resemblance to other, perhaps more famous, childhood trilogies such as the Terence Davies Trilogy (shot over seven years), Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy (shot over five years) and Truffaut's Adventures of Antoine Doinel (actually four features plus a short, shot over twenty years). What most of the films do have in common is an economy of style and poetry not often seen in the cinema nowadays.

Set in a mining town in Scotland just after World War II, the largely autobiographical My Childhood films chart the poverty-stricken, deprived and frankly depressing childhood of Jamie, played with scary conviction (he doesn't look as if he's acting) by Stephen Archibald, who would die in real life of drug-related causes aged 39. He never acted in any other films.

The bleakness of Douglas's vision would be unbearable if it wasn't for the moments of humour and poetry. The austere black and white industrial locations, and the sometimes stilted, bizarre, awkward performances recall Lynch's Eraserhead. The characters frozen, as if posing for a photo, are stylistically reminiscent of Buffalo 66. The poetry recalls the Jean Vigo of Zero de Conduite. The films as a whole hark back to an age when images rather than dialogue were used to tell a story and show emotion.

The films are short – which is a blessing (they're not easy viewing). The first, My Childhood, is 46 minutes; the second, My Ain Folk, 55 minutes and My Way Home, the most positive of the films, which offers Jamie a possible way out, is 71 minutes. Together they are only slightly longer than, say, The Dark Knight (152 minutes – see below) but whereas the Batman film has the emotional depth and imagination of an X-Factor contestant, Bill Douglas's trilogy is a wholly original, emotionally-draining but ultimately uplifting cinematic treat.

Around this time I was also watching another trilogy of films – Aki Kaurismaki's worker trilogy – also fairly depressing (well it is Finnish), with minimal dialogue (are there even 20 sentences spoken in Match Factory Girl?), minimal acting, and also short, clocking in at just over an hour each, but with elements of (so deadpan you're not sure) humour and poetry and image-led story telling where the audience has to use its imagination.

I had the misfortune to finally get around to seeing Christopher Nolan's much over-hyped sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, recently voted (presumably by 12 year olds or those with short memories who can't remember any films older than the last month) on the IMDB as the best movie ever. The concensus on the Dark Knight is that it's, er, Dark. In fact, it's the Darkest ever Dark Batman film – until the next one. This one is said to be more in tone with Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel which came out in 1986 (hence the similar title?). 1986 was over twenty years ago. Isn't it time to get over this whole Dark thing? Tim Burton's Batman film was made just a few years after Miller's Batman, in 1989. This too was meant to be Dark. Well, The Dark Knight is a whole lot darker. Is it just me or have we got Darker as a planet since 1989? How Dark are we going to get? The night can only get so dark, then the sun rises. In The Dark Knight, The Dark is synonymous with violence, corruption and, er, nighttime. That's the core of it: The Dark Knight is Dark because a lot of it is set at night. Go figure.

The Dark Knight is way too long at 152 minutes (a film, unless you're Béla Tarr or Jacques Rivette – and let's face it, you're probably not – should not be over 90 minutes; whilst I'm at it... a novel not over 350 pages; an album no longer than 45 minutes – anything more and it's wasting time). There's too much fetishising of gadgets (Morgan Freeman is like Bond's M and Bruce Wayne could be Bond). There are too many cliches. It's all been done before. It's an example of a film that should work in purely visual terms but relies on dialogue and an over-plotted narrative – in other words, it could be a TV movie. Look instead to, say, Sin City (or Popeye for that matter) for an original comic book adaption.

Mark my words, in years to come, the bright-pop-art-tongue-in-cheek-camp-comic-book-like Batman TV series from the 1960s will look darker than anything Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan had to offer us.

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