Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Bottle Rocket

Sometime in late 1999 I found myself facing the prospect of job loss for the very first time. My job as medical librarian had come to an abrupt end due to the closure of my department by the asshats who ran 3M. So one December morning I took myself round the job agencies of Nottingham in order to find a job (wasn’t successful as it happens – the next job was so awful, I decided to quit to do my MA in Cinema Studies instead) with the promise of an afternoon at the Broadway Cinema as a treat for my efforts. The second film I planned to see was “The Straight Story”, because I’d liked David Lynch ever since I first saw “Twin Peaks” on my crappy back and white TV and I was amused at the prospect of him making something approximating a family film. And the first? Something I’d read about in the paper called “Rushmore”.

 

Let’s get “The Straight Story” out of the way first. Of course it’s great and it contains one of my very favourite scenes in cinema ever – the one above if you’re interested – which I always used when teaching film and, in retrospect, probably made me wonder whether my brain was wired up in a way where I should study cinema in some way. But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here about “Rushmore”. I can’t locate the exact moment in the film that it happened, but certainly it became very apparent very quickly that “Rushmore” was going to be something extraordinary. If I was to hazard a guess I’d say it was the opening montage of Max’s clubs to the Creation’s “Making Time” – exactly what kind of madness was this film going to be?

 

Up until that moment, if I’d ever idealised about making a film it was going to be along the lines of “Gregory’s Girl”. It’s still my very favourite film of all time because of the performances, the writing and the absolute love of the characters – it basically sets itself the task to be the ultimate film about teenage love and manages to say everything (and more!) about it. I adore it and would be proud to make anything that made someone feel even the tiniest iota of the joy that this film brings me. But it’s almost entirely about the content… Bill Forsyth would go on to make at least two films (“Local Hero” and “Housekeeping”) which would be visually interesting, but “Gregory’s Girl” really isn’t it apart from the moments in the park late in the film. But “Rushmore”? Somehow this Wes Anderson bloke had managed to peek inside my head and find a way to put it up on the screen.

Mainly this was through the music. I’ve always sort of heard music visually – not synaesthesia as such, but more using it to soundtrack the images in my head which I’d then end up mentally editing to fit the music. Being a solitary type, as soon as I had a Walkman I was taking it off for long walks and somehow mentally fitting what I saw to the music and using it as an adjunct to the stories I would be working on in my head. I always thought I was a little mad for doing this, but suddenly here was a film maker pretty much using the music as I did – and in fact constructing the images to the music in exactly the same way as I had been imagining doing. When I listened to the soundtrack that I had rushed out to buy in between the showings of “Rushmore” and “The Straight Story”, I realised that what I remembered of the film was about 80% the music and how Anderson used it. And visually the way he framed the images, the care he put into setting up the images almost as if on a stage, the way in which the camera seemed to glide through shots both fluidly and statically. This was how I’d do it. This was exactly how I’d dreamed of doing it.

And much as I loved all this, I also knew that the film was fatally flawed especially in narrative terms. Much as I love Max’s theatricals and how they sort of bring out his fantasy world into the real world, the film sort of stumbles too much with them as if it doesn’t know how to fit them into the narrative. And every film Anderson has made has been in some way somewhat lacking as a story – but visually? Textually? Musically? Sonically? Perfect. Which is why watching “Bottle Rocket” for the first time was such a revelation.

 

Something that has always fascinated me is the juvenilia of artists and writers – those moments where you can see the talent they’d become in the midst of something where they’re still struggling to find their voice. Perfect examples of this for me is the works of the authors Scarlett Thomas and Jonathan Coe. The former’s crime novels and “Popco” are fun but ultimately flawed books and it’s not until “The End of Mister Y” that she really manages something extraordinary. And similarly the leap from his first three novels, which are always interesting but a little flat, to the masterpieces of “What a Carve Up!” and “The House of Sleep is a massive one (sadly, Coe falls flat with the awful “Rotter’s Club” where at least Thomas’ flawed but challenging “Our Tragic Universe” is trying something a little new). Similarly the leap from “Bottle Rocket” to “Rushmore” is incredible.

“Bottle Rocket” is like a tentative demo – similar tropes, scenes and set ups to what would follow but just not quite there. The camera is a little restless and never seems to settle for long enough; the edits are too quick; you never know the characters quite enough; the music is almost right for each scene but just not quite there; James Caan’s Mr Henry is like a rough draft of the roles Bill Murray would make his own. The ghost of what to come is just there in every scene. And that’s both fascinating and endlessly encouraging to me. To see someone who I consider a great artist, for all their faults, trying to find his way as a film maker but not quite getting there is just what I need as encouragement. I’m not saying I’ll ever be someone as talented as Anderson (or Coe or Thomas) because it’s very, very unlikely… but I can try.

Three years ago I was still beating myself up for not finishing anything and now I have three comics and a novel to my name… that they’re not quite there yet is by the by. Going back to Nottingham, people who followed me on livejournal will know that about seven years ago I got about 80% of the way through a novel about one Warren Bond but gave up. I’ve long since decided that Warren’s natural home is going to be through one of my comics. It’s going to start off as a heavily fictionalised version of my life in Nottingham and initially use the peg of second hand record shops a la “High Fidelity” before jettisoning it to focus on the characters themselves. I want to make you think I’m telling one kind of story, and then veer it off into something wilder without you really noticing the join. I want to tell stories about the people who neither belong to cultures or subcultures, but those who fall in between the cracks… the lonely, the shy, the inarticulate, the boring.

But I’m not able to tell that story yet – partly because music is involved heavily in what I have planned for Warren, Hector, Dave and Jen and I can’t work out how to do that in graphic terms… and partly because I’m just not skilled enough yet to tell sequential stories. Odd little short stories and ideas punctured by illustrations? Oh yes. But something of heft and weight? Not yet. This is why “Whatever Happened to Cosmo Mandinsky?” has never materialised despite being promoted on the back of the first issue of the Common Swings (it’ll probably end up being the dry run for whenever I try Warren… my first attempt at a proper, sequential art narrative). But will I give up? I hope not. Because things like “Bottle Rocket” show to me that even people I deeply, deeply admire don’t come out as fully formed talents. They take their time too. I just need to learn patience…

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