Dying Afghan children
The BBC have reported that 40,000 people are living in makeshift camps in Kabul with only basic shelter and little food or clothes after fleeing fighting and insecurity. So far, 40 children have frozen to death.
This is Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, the country which has received billions of dollars in aid and contains thousands of NATO troops, supposedly there to help the Afghans and to win their hearts and minds.
What kind of world are we living in where so much money has been thrown at a country and so many, supposedly well-meaning people, are stationed there, yet we stand by impotent, while 40,000 people live in desperate straits and 40 children freeze to death?
It’s the sheer waste, hopelessness and futility of it all that gets to me. All those lives – Afghans as well as westerners – lost for nothing. It was a war we were never going to win and now we are talking to the Taliban.
Once the NATO forces are gone, it will be as though nothing had ever happened, except that generations of Afghans will grow up with an innate hatred of the west.
The Profligacy of Hollywood
Many of my regular readers will know that that one of my ‘Hobby-horses’ is the obscene amounts of money that are thrown at Hollywood movies, and their subsequent efforts to fight piracy and extract obscene amounts of money from the movie-going public to recover their profligate spending.
The crux of my argument is that it simply isn’t necessary to throw so much money at Hollywood producers and at the mega-stars who deign to appear in their mega-movies. So many wonderful movies have been made in recent years by independents, using excellent but less expensive actors, on a fraction of the budget that the major studio-produced films costs.
If the film production costs were drastically reduced, then the costs of DVD’s could also be reduced and piracy would become much less of a problem as most people would be happy to pay what they consider to be a ‘reasonable’ price to watch one.
I was interested to see a headline the other day, which was a quote from one of the greatest living Hollywood actors – no less a personage than ‘the method actor’ himself, Dustin Hoffman. And what did he say? He said: ‘All the first-rate writing is on television now’ – which of course is so true, along with most of the first rate direction, production and acting.
I have downloaded so many movies – all of which have been highly rated – that when it comes to deciding what to watch, I hardly know where to start; but it seems that when I eventually choose one, I am often disappointed. By contrast, if I choose to watch one of the countless highly rated TV dramas or mini-series, I am rarely, if ever disappointed.
The difference is chalk to cheese. The movies cost a small fortune and are often mediocre – the TV dramas are done on a fraction of the movie budgets and are always highly watchable.
I do understand that the medium is not quite the same, in as much as with the mini-series, TV has much more time to develop stories and characters; but you could just take a single episode of Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire for example, and it would beat most feature movies into a cocked hat.
Although some readers might not agree with me, I always recall a double-episode of ‘House’ a couple of years back. It was set entirely in a psychiatric unit where he was undergoing voluntary treatment from his Vicodin addiction and none of the regular cast – except House himself – appeared in these episodes. The two hour drama was so riveting that it could have easily been released as a feature movie. In many ways, it was reminiscent of that wonderful movie: ‘One Flew over the cuckoo’s Nest’ but of course it was more relevant to the 21st century and today’s audiences.
What we like and dislike in our TV movies is always subjective and no two people will enjoy or appreciate exactly the same thing; but whether we like them or not, we can still appreciate the production, the acting and other values that go into the making of a good TV drama or a feature film.
Some might say that Dustin Hoffman would make a comment like that, wouldn’t he? – Given that he recently ‘compromised’ his super-stardom by deigning to appear in the TV mini-series, ‘Luck’.
But it is becoming increasingly the case that many Hollywood greats are turning to television, as they realise there is a revolution going on in the entertainment business and many of the best movies are now made for the home ‘flat screen’, and not the neighbourhood ‘silver screen’. Hoffman is by no means alone in this regard – Pacino and Scorsese for starters are two notables who have gone the TV route; now I ask you – can you get much greater than that?
The interview with Hoffman was quite interesting – especially when he explained that it was such a pleasure working for an organisation like HBO, who essentially let the creative process take its course with little or no interference or control from the HBO pay masters.
In contrast, he explained that these days, you would often be confronted with committees of executives on the film sets of Hollywood blockbusters, approving every aspect of the production as they were being shot. This is hardly surprising, considering the obscene amount of money at stake, but it doesn’t exactly lend itself to the creative process, does it?
Quite by coincidence I watched two dramas recently on very similar subjects; one was made for cinema and the other was a television production. The subject was the First World War.
The first was the movie ‘War Horse’ directed by no lesser personage than the great Steven Spielberg. I had read much about this movie prior to watching it, most of which was very positive. There were those who criticised the movie for being a bit too much of a ‘cheesy’ tear jerker, deliberately playing on the emotions of the audience, but that sounded fine by me as there’s nothing I like better than a good cry!
Now don’t get me wrong – War Horse is a good movie and by and large I enjoyed watching it, but I did feel a little let down, considering all the hype and the incredible pedigree of its prestigious director.
Frankly, it was rather corny. As most of you probably know, the film follows the fortunes of a horse, from its early days in Devon to the battlefields of France, but it wasn’t the story matter that I found corny; it was the way that story was told that to me, was full of stereotypes, hackneyed clichés and dialogue that went out decades ago.
It was bad enough with the stereotypes down in the west country – from evil landowner, to crippled, alcoholic father, to long suffering wife and mother, to introverted horse loving son, to unsympathetic, mocking friends and, of course, to the brave and oh so valiant horse, who continually surmounts the insurmountable to save his skin.
I’m afraid it got even worse in the French battlefields. The British ‘Tommies’; be they ‘salt of the earth’, rank and file, cockney ‘cannon fodder’, or be they ‘hooray henry’ officers, they were all teeth-jarring stereotypes.
But at least they spoke their own language.
When, as the story progresses, our equine hero is captured and put work by the enemy Hun, lo and behold we find that every member of the German army speaks perfect English – albeit some of them with painfully trite German accents. Similarly, the poor, suffering French Grandfather and his cute, starving, horse-loving granddaughter, (shades of Dicken’s ‘Old Curiosity Shop’), who both speak English with such broad French accents that I could hardly understand a word they were saying.
I thought that this business of having ‘the enemy’ speak English in war movies went out in the 1970’s, when we had such excellent war movies as ‘The Longest Day’ and ‘From Here to Eternity’, where the use of subtitles made the Germans and Japanese credible people in their own right, rather than just ‘johnny foreigner’ stereotypes. Does Mr Spielberg think that the standard of literacy has fallen to such an extent that he can’t trust his audiences to read English subtitles?
Overall, it was quite an enjoyable romp, but to the extent that it also had pretensions to be a serious commentary on the horrors of the 2nd World War, I’m afraid to this reviewer, it fell woefully short. Sure, some of the battle scenes were horrifyingly realistic and spectacular, and some of the special effects with the horse were riveting – especially when the poor thing was entrapped from head to foot in barbed wire – but overall, I have to say I was a bit disappointed. Mind you, it did succeed in extracting a tear or so from me in the closing, weepy scenes.
I can see where The War horse would make a thoroughly readable book, and can even imagine it being a great stage musical – which I understand it is. But to this reviewer, the celluloid version somehow lacked that ‘special something’ that is essential in a great movie.
War Horse cost $66 million dollars to make which, considering it didn’t feature a single Hollywood superstar, seems to me like a hell of a lot of dough.
I have no idea what The BBC TV movie, ‘Birdsong’ cost to make, but I doubt it was a tenth of that amount.
‘Birdsong’ is a 3 hour drama, based on a best-selling book of the same name and is about the horrors of the 2nd World War, interspersed with a lingering, tragic love story involving the lead character.
Many of the trench warfare action scenes are very similar to those in the ‘War Horse’ battle scenes, and having watched to the two productions so close together, I cannot help comparing the two efforts. I have to conclude that the BBC has done incredibly well on what must have been an infinitesimal budget compared to Spielberg’s. I am not saying that the BBC war scenes were better, but they more than stood up, by comparison.
Apart from the horrific scenes of trench warfare – which are so essential to any tale of the 2nd World War, the BBC effort was, in this reviewer’s opinion, vastly superior.
The characters were more finely drawn and more believable and we were far more comfortable with listening to the French characters speak English, as it is clear that they were all highly educated and the story required that they spoke English for the benefit of their ‘English guests’, and they even occasionally lapsed into their own tongue, (with appropriate sub-titles), when the occasion demanded it.
Sure, Birdsong is a slow moving piece of drama, and may lack some of the ‘commercial’ impact that a ‘War Horse -type’ of movie might provide, but it certainly has its tense, dramatic moments; both in the trenches and in the French châteaus and boudoirs. Indeed the hero – or some may say anti-hero – comes back, seemingly from the dead, -on no less than two occasions, and surely there was enough blood and guts, loss of life and dramatic moments to satisfy most viewers.
Maybe I am wrong in comparing these two efforts, but to me they have so much in common. They are both of similar length (2 ½ hours vs 3 hours); they are essentially both love stories; the first, a man’s love of a horse which no longer belongs to him, and the second, a man’s love of woman who doesn’t belong to him; and they are both stories which are set against the background of a terrible war, amongst the horrific battlefields of the Somme,Verdun, and elsewhere.
BUTT…BUTT…BUTT…I don’t give a hoot!…