Can't we just ban sequels for a few months?

Ryan Gilbey wonders why <em>Despicable Me 2</em> had to be made.

I have no time for sequel snobs but lately I have found myself fantasising about a small breather from the Part 2s and Episode 3s, a brief but significant moratorium on the whole franchise farrago. These thoughts were prompted by seeing Despicable Me 2, a completely redundant follow-up to the perfectly delightful 2010 original. The friction in the first film arose from the mismatch between the professional bad guy Gru (voiced splendidly by Steve Carell) and the three cutie-pie orphan sisters whom he adopted as part of a plan to foil his rival in super-villainy. Knowing that Gru would surrender to his mushy paternal impulses and renounce evil by the final scene did nothing to spoil our enjoyment at seeing his beastly façade fall away piece by piece. The challenge with the sequel is where to take Gru now that his heart has thawed. Despicable Me 2 fails completely to provide an answer, floundering around instead for 100 minutes searching for inspiration. There’s nothing left for Gru to do. How many life lessons can one super-villain learn?

My plan – and I appreciate fully that this would sound to some people like super-villainy itself – would be to arrest all production on sequels for six months. Too harsh? Okay: how about three? Just enough time to give inspiration an opportunity to flourish among the major studios, in much the same way that Glastonbury is sometimes suspended for a year to allow the land a chance to recover from all those hobnailed boots traipsing from the Pyramid Stage to the falafel stalls and back again. One precedent is the Pop Strike proposed in 2001 by Luke Haines, when he called all fellow musicians and consumers of music to down tools for a week. It was never going to work – I’m sure it was never intended to – but it was enough to make audiences think about the presence of music in their lives. I wouldn’t suggest a similar black-out for the whole of cinema, but a hiatus from sequels might give everyone – filmmakers, distributors and audiences alike – room to contemplate a populist cinema that didn’t depend only on known quantities.

I’m under no illusion that this would automatically result in works of startling originality. Sequels are not the only source of complacency. Occasionally they even become towering achievements in their own right, the obvious examples being the second Godfather and Toy Story films or the recent Before Midnight. But that’s rare. What an interesting winter period we might have next year, though, if all sequel production were to be halted in the next few months, thereby clearing a gap in the release schedules for Christmas 2015. I don’t think we could help but feel refreshed by an absence of the numbers “2” and “3” from cinema marquee displays. Children would gaze up at those unfamiliar titles, those celebrations of the zero-recognition factor, and ask plaintively: “What’s that film about, Mum?” And Mother would smile at her wee ragamuffin and say: “I don’t know, sweetheart. Why don’t we go and find out?” Cue twinkly, uplifting music and a soaring eye-of-God crane shot looking down fondly as parent and child seek sanctuary and inspiration in the cinema.

It’s moving, isn’t it? And it’s an especially tantalising project as we look over the upcoming summer releases: The Wolverine, The Smurfs 2, Monsters University (a prequel to Monsters, Inc), Red 2, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Grown Ups 2, Kick Ass 2. And there’s more to come in the rest of the year: Insidious 2, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Paranormal Activity 5, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

But those of us who yearn for a tiny reprieve might look to the box-office figures and despair. Monsters University has taken over $105m in less than a week on release in the US. This year’s Fast and Furious 6 has grossed $647m worldwide – and rising. Iron Man 3 – a highly enjoyable sequel, as it happens – has taken over $1bn internationally since its release in May, and even a lacklustre knock-off such as The Hangover Part III has converted audience goodwill into a staggering $325m. The numbers are against us. But we can dream.

Despicable Me 2 is released 28 June

Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) in Despicable Me 2.

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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser