Gilbey on Film: Coming your way in 2012

This year's cinematic highlights.

The next two months will bring the customary glut of awards contenders. It's a brave distributor that releases its films into this throng, but the UK outfit The Works will do just that with House of Tolerance, an acclaimed drama set in a brothel in fin de siècle Paris. Bertrand Bonello's picture was named by the New York Times as one of last year's "Don't Miss Movies You Probably Missed" (under its US title, House of Pleasures); the UK finally gets to see it on 27 January.

Elsewhere the schedules are dominated by awards magnets including Steven Spielberg's War Horse (13 Jan), Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus, which was recently celebrated in the NS by Slavoj Zizek, and Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's 9/11 tale Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (10 Feb). Also falling under the hoping-for-silverware umbrella are two films which between them comprise the UK's own mini Michael Fassbender-fest -- Steve McQueen's Shame (13 Jan) and David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method (10 Feb).

Once the tearful winners have been mocked and the voting injustices mourned, it's anyone's guess which films will prevail. Personally I'm hoping for a release for The Eye of the Storm, directed by the excellent Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Six Degrees of Separation) and starring Geoffrey Rush alongside the reigning mistresses of hauteur, Charlotte Rampling and Judy Davis.

Regrettably, 3D makeovers are already clogging up the schedule, with an extra dimension added visually (though not creatively) to defunct, corroded epics including Titanic (6 April) and Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (9 Feb). Re-releases of Casablanca (10 Feb) and La Grande Illusion (6 April) appear to have been spared this technological molestation, for which we should be grateful.

Some of us are still recovering from the shock of 2011, one of the few years since 1995 in which Michael Winterbottom did not release a new film (unless you count the non-UK cinema edit of his six-part BBC series The Trip). The drought ends with Trishna (9 March), an adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles transposed to modern-day India. Connected in name only is the Austrian chiller Michael (2 March). This controlled study of a man who keeps prisoner a 10-year-old boy will be the very definition of a tough sell; to others, Cameron Crowe's whimsical comedy-drama We Bought a Zoo (16 March) will be more deserving of that label. At least Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, from the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is released on the same day.

As Asghar Farhadi's A Separation proved last year, the best films often arrive unheralded by net-casting previews such as these. But we do know that there will be new work from Wong Kar-Wai (The Grandmasters), Michael Haneke (Amour), Bernardo Bertolucci (Me and You), Laurent Cantet (Foxfire, adapted from Joyce Carol Oates's novel about 1950s girl gangs) and Takashi Miike (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney). Meanwhile, François Ozon will adhere to a new government directive aiming to see Kristin Scott Thomas cast in at least 87 per cent of all French films (his contribution is Dans la maison). Currently awaiting UK release dates are Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, Andrew Dominik's Cogan's Trade, Park Chan Wook's Stoker and Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby.

Tim Burton fans get a double-dose this year. First up is the gothic extravaganza Dark Shadows (11 May), with Johnny Depp as a vampiric patroarch. Then it's animation -- and, to be more precise, reanimation -- in Frankenweenie (5 October), a feature-length version of Burton's 1984 short about a boy who refuses to let sleeping dogs lie. Pixar releases Brave (17 August), widely trumpeted as the studio's first movie with a female lead; I know, I know, Studio Ghibli never made such a fuss about putting a girl in the driving seat.

A triple-shot of big-budget superheroism hoopla this year, starting on 27 April with the Marvel extravaganza The Avengers -- sadly nothing to do with Steed, Mrs Peel or kinky boots, but rather a superheroes' get-together which includes Mark Ruffalo's first outing as the Hulk. He's the third actor in ten years (after Eric Bana and Edward Norton) to try to get a handle on the big green lug. Then Andrew Garfield will make his wall-climbing debut in The Amazing Spider-Man (6 July) before Christopher Nolan's third and final Batman gloom-o-rama, The Dark Knight Rises (20 July). Does James Bond count as a superhero? Or is that just a spurious attempt to shoehorn Daniel Craig's third Bond movie, Skyfall (26 Oct), into this paragraph? Next thing you know, I'll be wangling the same privileges for the hairy-footed ramblers of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (14 Dec), the first instalment of Peter Jackson's two-part return to Tolkien.

Of course, by then we'll all be terribly excited about Judd Apatow's This Is 40 (21 Dec), Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (26 Dec) and other lesser-known films on which "Action!" is only now being called.

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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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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