Gilbey on Film: slight returns

Ken Loach and Woody Allen are back, but their movies display familiar flaws.

In this week's NS I'll be reviewing Ballast and Submarine, two films from first-time directors. Coincidentally, this week also brings new movies by a pair of respected veterans -- Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Ken Loach's Route Irish.

Between them, Allen and Loach have been directing for cinema for a combined total of 89 years. They made their film debuts within a year of one another. Allen's first directing credit was for What's Up Tiger Lily?, his 1966 redubbing of an existing Japanese spy movie, with his first original picture, the mockumentary Take the Money and Run, arriving three years later. Loach moved to cinema from television (a medium to which he has returned consistently ever since) with Poor Cow in 1967.

Both have seen their critical and commercial fortunes fluctuate, and it's instructive to consider their new films through the prism of the sort of expectations (high or low) engendered by artistic longevity. Only those who have never seen anything by Loach or Allen can possibly come to their latest work without years of hardened preconceptions. The consensus with Allen, at least in Britain, is that he has long been in decline -- depending on how charitable you feel, that decline began with The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), which Allen considers to be his worst movie, or Small Time Crooks (2000), or maybe even Mighty Aphrodite (1995), which began a run of calcified, often downright nasty pictures interrupted by the occasional encouraging fluke (Deconstructing Harry, Sweet and Lowdown).

It's interesting that US critics, notably the New Yorker's David Denby and Richard Brody, have taken an admiring view of the London-set pictures made since 2006 -- Match Point, Scoop (which never made it to UK cinemas), Cassandra's Dream and now You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. These are generally regarded in this country as a collective nadir in Allen's oeuvre. Part of the problem may be that UK audiences can't see or hear past the inauthentic cadences and phrasing, and the tourist's-eye view of London. But it's also the case that the moral quandaries and symmetrical dilemmas set up by Allen the screenwriter are poorly served by Allen the director.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger has an elegant construction -- four intertwining plots spark off one another, with each one resolved (or not) in its own deliciously ambiguous ending -- but it's hellish to watch under-directed actors, so stiff with one another that they might have been introduced mere seconds before Allen called "Action", left to flounder on screen. Brody tweeted this week that the film "is not comic romance but noir: it ends with the suggestion of three or four murders to come" -- a brilliant (and accurate) observation, but one which says more about his skill as a critic and interpreter than Allen's as a dramatist or communicator. It's fitting that Allen's recent work should be so strong on structure and so unconvincing in execution, since he directs like someone who never leaves his typewriter. He can't hear how real people speak, and he doesn't see when his actors are bogus.

On the other hand, the few instances of vitality in the new picture come from some of the cast -- in particular the brilliant Lucy Punch, who's stuck with one of those roles (the vulgar, unsophisticated and embarrassing younger woman) that Allen writes in bile, not ink.

It's been the case for a while now that distributors consider it prudent to omit Allen's name from the posters for his own films (see Whatever Works and Vicky Cristina Barcelona), making him the marketing department's equivalent of "the Scottish play." The only way they can get audiences in to see his work is by pretending he wasn't involved; if he can only be persuaded to hire another director to shoot his screenplays, we might be getting somewhere.

Loach's latest film, Route Irish, is no less stilted than Allen's, but its awkwardness arises from a different source. This is Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty in thriller mode, with lots of exposition to convey while sustaining a paradoxical atmosphere of realism and improvisation. There has been no protracted decline in Loach's work; he's still exhibiting the same strengths and shortcomings that he always has. In Route Irish, which concerns a private security contractor in Iraq who investigates his best friend's death, or Hidden Agenda (the director's 1990 retelling of the Stalker affair), the demands of genre compromise the freshness that is one of Loach's defining characteristics.

The best of his work has a verité immediacy that spills off the screen, as befits a director adverse to the artifice of film-making. "If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would," observed Trevor Griffiths, after collaborating on the 1986 film Fatherland. "He wants the actors to just be themselves so that everything looks as though it has just happened." On Carla's Song, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle the barest bones of preparatory tips for his character: "Your name's George and you drive a bus. Maybe it would be a good idea if you learned to drive a bus."

That process, designed to insulate freshness, starts to break down when what we see on screen becomes subordinate to plot. Route Irish raises some important questions about the carte blanche formerly afforded to private contractors in Iraq. But in the fusion of Loachian authenticity and the conspiracy thriller format, both come off looking bruised.

To take an example, the scene in which the main character extracts information from the villain (and Loach's film is as rigid in its moral delineation as any Hollywood blockbuster) by subjecting him to an improvised bout of waterboarding in a Liverpool lock-up is both thematically right and dramatically ridiculous. In other words, the symbolic justification for the scene doesn't make it any more plausible. Loach and Allen don't have much in common, but it's striking to note that their new films share a fatal flaw: the failure to translate ideas into drama. They're good on paper, but dead on screen.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times