Gilbey on Film: Sidney Lumet

The American New Wave and rubber-ducky explanations.

Sidney Lumet died on April 9, aged 86. Having already established a career in television, theatre and cinema, he stood apart from the American New Wave iconoclasts like Scorsese, De Palma and Coppola, even as he directed films that would help characterise that movement -- his two collaborations with Al Pacino, Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), in particular.

Among the qualities that differentiated him were the patience and watchfulness that could make possible films as concentrated, and as meticulous in their analysis of suffering, as The Pawnbroker (1964) and The Hill (1965). A Bout de soufflé was the film to be mimicking around this time, but there was nothing Godardian about these pictures; Lumet was Old Hollywood, and if the popular line is that he fell into step with the young blades, it seems more plausible that his concerns and preoccupations happened to coincide for a few years with the counter-culture. There was always the feeling that he was going his own way. Occasionally he would catch a mood; more often not. So what?

He experimented and got it wrong sometimes -- in his excellent, honest book Making Movies he identified and lamented the contradictory impulses at play in his 1974 film of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, how self-defeating it was to put so much labour into trying to make a film feel light and fun.

His early pictures, which also included 12 Angry Men (1957) and Long Day's Journey into Night (1962) must have looked unfashionable, even stilted, by the time Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde were running rings around Hollywood in the late 1960s. In the introduction to his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind asserts that Lumet was a "journeyman" director who was a beneficiary of the American New Wave -- it "brought out the best" in him. Well, a director can also be an opportunist; there's no shame in that. And doubtless the lenient climate in Hollywood in the early 1970s made possible those films with Pacino.

But a journeyman? Unfair, I think. Lumet trod a lot of water. But he walked on it too. The films I go back to are The Pawnbroker, The Hill, The Offence (1971), Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City (1980), Running On Empty (1987) and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007). (I also have a soft spot for his larky 1986 thriller The Morning After, in which Jane Fonda plays an L.A. soak who wakes up next to a corpse, and there are some exceptional passages in the 1982, David Mamet-scripted The Verdict.) Wouldn't you forgive an Equus (1977), a Deathtrap (1982), or even The Wiz (1978), if it meant you got a Dog Day Afternoon?

There's nothing controversial about naming that film as your favourite of Lumet's work. Admittedly, some will prefer Network (1976), but that seems to me overrun by the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky's hectoring moral pronouncements, and pleased with itself in a way which is untypical of Lumet. In Dog Day Afternoon, the power feels unforced, and any commentary entirely implicit. The shifts from farce to thriller, from love story to tragedy, are so deft that even after many viewings, you still can't see the joins. The picture also shows Lumet's characteristic alertness to space, and how it affects the audience (see also 12 Angry Men, The Offence and the otherwise lacklustre Deathtrap). The carnivalesque street scenes are beautifully played off against the claustrophobia of the bank and the barbershop. Most of all, the picture has a very seductive spontaneity and naturalness entirely at odds with the tension of its scenario. The absence of any score at all (most conspicuously in the shocking final scenes) is only one of the ways in which Lumet refrains from manipulating our reactions.

In Making Movies, he wrote very eloquently of his preference for allowing his characters to live in the moment, without presenting a loaded case for the defence on their behalf:

"In the early days of television, when the "kitchen sink" school of realism held sway, we always reached a point where we "explained" the character. Around two-thirds of the way through, someone articulated the psychological truth that made the character the person he was. [Paddy] Chayefsky and I used to call this the "rubber-ducky" school of drama: "Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that's why he's a deranged killer." That was the fashion then, and with many producers and studios it still is. I always try to eliminate the rubber-ducky explanations. A character should be clear from his present actions. And his behaviour as the picture goes on should reveal the psychological motivations. If the writer has to state the reasons, something's wrong in the way the character has been written."

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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Pokémon Gone: why the summer’s most popular app lost over 12 million users in a month

Four ex-players of Niantic's record-breaking game explain why they stopped trying to Catch ’Em All. 

Drowzees. That’s the short answer. The tapir-like psychic Pokémon wiggles its short trunk and stubby yellow fingers all across the land, meaning anyone on a mission to Catch ’Em All inevitably encounters hundreds of the critters. Wherever you go, whatever you do, they are waiting. They are watching. And they are part of the reason the biggest US mobile game ever has lost 12 million users in a month.

According to a report by Bloomberg, based on data from Axiom Capital Management, Niantic's Pokémon Go has seen a rapid decline in the number of users and user engagement. The game has dropped from nearly 45 million players in July to just over 30 million now.

Of course, like Team Rocket in a hot air balloon over Cerulean city, Pokémon Go had a long way to fall. After the initial frenzy and hype, it makes sense that the next set of headlines about the game would be exposing a decreased number of downloads and active users. No one can keep up chart-topping and revenue-grossing world records forever. But why has it faced such a steep and rapid decline?

The most common answer is that it was all a fad. Brenda Wong, a 23-year-old social media manager from London explains this is why she stopped using the game. “Like most fads, the interest slowly died over time. Life caught up with me and I started playing less and less,” she says. “Maybe it's sad that I now prioritise saving my battery over hatching an Ekans. Maybe.”

This partially explains the decline, but it isn't the whole story. Another argument is that the app is buggy, but considering it managed to maintain its popularity after multiple server crashes in July, that doesn't hold up either. Sure, Pokémon Go is being constantly updated and yes, it does drain your battery – but these aren’t the fundamental issues with the app. The fundamental issue is this: the game just isn’t very good.

Feeling drowzy

This is where the Drowzees come in. Although there are a 150 Pokémon to catch, most users end up catching the same species over and over, as there simply isn’t a wide enough range commonly available (hence any memes you might have seen about Pidgeys and Rattatas). The other main aspect of the app, battling in gyms, has no real endgame and gameplay is mostly aimless.

“I don't have the patience to wade through all the crap Pokémon that are everywhere in order to eventually hope to find something I don't already have,” says Alex Vissaridis, a 26-year-old graphic designer from London.

“I used to play Pokémon Go pretty religiously. I used the App Store hack to get it from the US store before it was released in the UK. I'd turn it on as soon as I'd leave home in the morning. I'd go on PokéWalks by myself, too, around the local area. I swear I've played it when I'm supposed to be out with friends, you know, socialising. The novelty's worn off now, though.”

Vissaridis’ complaints echo those made on one of the largest online communities of Pokémon Go players, reddit.com/r/pokemongo. Despite remaining loyal to the app, the 806,175 Redditors on this forum frequently suggest ways the game could improve, and bemoan its features such as the lack of meaningful player interaction, no daily log-on bonuses, and a lack of other in-game incentives.

“I'm level 21, and once you get to level 20, the XP points you need to level up are astronomical, and where it used to take a day of solid use to go up one or two levels, it now takes about a week or so. I can't be bothered anymore,” says Vissaridis.

These little town blues

For some users, the game is even worse. Pokéstops are locations in the game where players can pick up items and gain points, and they are found at real-world places of significance. This means users in rural areas, where there isn’t a monument or museum every five metres, are at a disadvantage. There are also fewer gyms – the places where you battle – and fewer Pokémon in general.

“I downloaded Pokémon Go the minute it came out in the UK,” says Amy Marsden, a 22-year-old student from Lancashire. “My friends and I would go off on bikes and try to catch Pokémon, which is probably the nerdiest thing I've ever done in my life. In the end, living in a small town was what killed Pokémon Go for me - there are only so many Pidgey and Rattata a person can take before the game just becomes boring.”

It's just a load of Pokéballs

Daniel Jackson, a 25-year-old journalist from Scotland, also became frustrated by the mechanics of the game. “The novelty wore off when I realised how shallow the experience is. There's not very much to do,” he says.

“I think it would be far more interesting if each species lived within a radius that it roamed around, rather than appearing in a location for a set amount of time before vanishing. I think being able to genuinely hunt for them would have been more engaging.

“When my kids were with me over the summer holidays I was able to convince them to get out more. They usually act like they're allergic to grass and air. So although it was a bit of a disappointment I think the concept is sound and that when it's eventually done well, location-based gaming could become an industry in itself. There are so many possibilities.”

The possibilities are indeed endless, and developers Niantic might still redeem themselves and the game in one of their frequent app updates. Despite Pokémon Go's rapid decline, it's also worth remembering that the app still has an incredible 30 million users. As far as mobile marketing goes, Niantic really did Catch ’Em All. Now they just have to figure out how to keep them. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.