Kill the Giggler

Short Fridays #8 – ‘The Birds’ Trailer

I love trailers. Absolutely love them. Back in the early days in the internet (when I was 13-14) viewing trailers was pretty much all I used the web for, besides reading Ain’t It Cool News and sending lovelorn MSN messages to rightly disinterested and uneasy teenage girls. I downloaded the grainy Quicktime trailer for The Phantom Menace along with everyone else. Same with Fellowship of the Ring.

I can’t help but feel that trailers have lost a bit of their luster for me in recent years – the accepted wisdom is that now trailers give away too much of the film, yet I really don’t think that’s the case. If anything, older trailers are just as bad if not worse about giving away plot details. Check out this After Hours trailer – or rather, don’t if you haven’t seen the film, because it’s beat for beat basically the entire film. Granted, After Hours doesn’t have much of a plot, so it isn’t the end of the world – but how about this trailer for Chinatown? THE END OF THE TRAILER IS ALSO THE END OF THE FILM. Old horror films are particularly bad, with Carrie and A Nightmare on Elm Street both being guilty of showing every single murder that takes place in their respective climaxes.

I think the problem with modern trailers is not that they give away too much – it’s more that they are more transparently prepared by a marketing company, as opposed to the film-makers. There are some notable exceptions – the recent Muppets trailers have a lot of fun with trailer tropes, and David Fincher puts some really good trailers together, with the fantastic The Social Network trailer recently blowing minds. (I have a friend who has seen upcoming The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trailer and reports it’s similarly awesome, with another great cover of a classic song…)

On the whole though film-makers seem a lot more reticent to become involved with trailers, which is a shame because it is basically a chance to make another little short film, with just as much potential for imagination and craftsmanship as there is in their feature length counterparts.

Someone who understood this totally was perhaps the greatest and most influential of all directors, Alfred Hitchcock. In this wonderful trailer for The Birds, embedded below, Hitchcock himself delivers a monologue on the history of birds that is both hilarious and dripping with sarcastic menace. There is only a couple of seconds of footage from The Birds itself at the very end, yet it’s still a wonderful advert for the films whilst also being a great short. Also, despite its irreverence, it is actually a great compliment to the film itself – it casually brushes off and pre-empts an unanswered mystery in the film that could have proven to be a sticking point for audiences, who might have left the film asking “Why did the birds attack?” Hitch’s typically sardonic response, issued in the form of this fantastic trailer, is: “Why wouldn’t they?”

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Short Fridays #7 ‘The Cat Came Back’

The Cat Came Back screenshot

I’ve inadvertently been establishing a loose theme in some of the film articles I’ve been writing in the past week. First there was last week’s look at La Cabina, and how that and Forklift Driver Klaus played not insignificant roles in accelerating the mental deterioration of eighties insomniacs watching late night Channel 4, then there was my lengthy (some might argue unnecessary) digression on Demolition Man in my Julia’s Eyes review and how its early evening screenings on ITV in the nineties left me mildly traumatized as a kid.

This is almost certainly a combination of rose-tinted specs and de-sensitization, but the days of truly weird and scary TV seem to be over. It’s been along time since the halcyon days of La Cabina, and even something like Jam was over a decade ago now. It’s a shame, because that feeling of pure WTF is one that only films screened on TV can really give you.

There’s an anecdote about Charles Bukowski that I’ve always liked: on installing his brand new cable television, the first thing he switched on to “happened to be Eraserhead. I said, 'What’s this?' I didn’t know what it was. It was so great. I said, 'Oh, this cable TV has opened up a whole new world. We’re gonna be sitting in front of this thing for centuries. What next? So starting with Eraserhead we sit here, click, click, click — nothing.”

Depressing end to that story maybe, but imagine seeing Eraserhead and, for a fleeting second, thinking that that is what all future TV would look like? Magical. And scary.

Anyway, this brings me to The Cat Came Back, a very weird animation that used to broadcast rather incredibly as part of children’s programming blocks in the nineties – either in between kids programmes of before a family film like The Three Musketeers. On re-watching it, I’m convinced it must have been edited a bit (the ‘What the ffffffffff…’ surely would never have gone out at 11 AM), but on the whole it’s exactly as I remember it – utterly horrifying.

The set –up is similar to a lot of Looney Tunes cartoons – irritable person or animal is pursued and tormented by cute yet malevolent person or animal. But where the Looney Tunes cartoons are anarchic and hilarious, The Cat Came Back is actually genuinely unsettling.

A big part of this is the scribbly, hyper-caffeinated art style by Canadian animator Cordell Barker, which has more in common with indie cartoonists like Bill Plympton and Don Hertzfelt than Walt Disney and Chuck Jones. But it’s the sheer dread that’s infused throughout the whole cartoon that is the most affecting thing about The Cat Came Back: the cat’s dead, unblinking eyes as he methodically destroys every single thing in our unfortunate hero’s life, the droning, haunted repetition of the chorus, which turns a novelty song into something existential and terrifying, and the ending. My god, the ending. *shudder* The pure, unfettered horror of those closing moments are not something that should rightfully be exposed to tender, developing minds. It makes the ending of The Mist look like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

For all I know the BBC might still be showing this on Saturday mornings, but if I’d have to guess I’d say they probably aren’t. They really need to, though, so if anyone from the BBC is reading this (they’re not), pull your fingers out and start blowing some minds by putting this on after/before Fireman Sam once again. And if you can’t get the rights, just screen Rejected instead. Either or, really.

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Short Fridays #6 – ‘La Cabina’

In honour of the fact it's Friday 13th (and as such a time traditionally reserved for misfortune and unpleasantness), and also as an accompaniment to Cigarette Burns’ special screening of creepy Spanish horror Who Can Kill A Child? at the Rio Cinema tomorrow, here’s the 1972 made for TV short La Cabina, another fantastic and unique bit of Spanish weirdness that managed to achieve a minor bit of notoriety in the UK when it was shown on TV in the eighties.

Much like Forklift Driver Klaus, the first entry in the Short Fridays series, La Cabina would be shown in the wee hours on Channel 4 seemingly at random with little in the way of advance promotion. While it’s obviously great that all these films are freely available on YouTube now, I do envy insomniacs in the eighties who would stumble upon them late at night with just the right level of susceptibility: sleep-deprived, mentally and emotionally vulnerable, looking to be soothed and relaxed by the idiot box and therefore perfectly positioned to be utterly freaked out by them.

Also similar to Klaus, La Cabina makes a point of not showing its hand too early – it lulls you into a false sense of security, making you think you know what you’re watching ut really you have no idea. Of course Klaus takes its big left turn into OMGWTFBBQ laugh-out-loud Evil Dead –style insanity, whereas La Cabina’s approach is very different.

This slow-burn style of horror is becoming increasingly rare, as most modern entries tend to start big and noisy and scary and just stay at that level for ninety minutes. I watched The Birds the other day and was staggered by the first hour, in which barely any birds appear and the tone of the film is more screwball comedy-cum-romantic drama, with no indication of the horrors that are about to befall its pristine characters. I suppose the closest modern film to trick you in this way is Takeshi Miike’s Audition, and we all know how much of an effect that had on people.

No more should be said on La Cabina. It’s long, but it's really a superbly made film, and well worth your time. Turn the lights out, sit back, and thank God for the invention of the mobile phone…

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Short Fridays #5 – The Day Today: “It’s Fine”

Apologies for the lack of action on the blog over the past few weeks – I’ve been hard at work on various secret projects (read: Portal 2 and playing Frisbee) so I’ve neglected you. Sorry about that. There is lots of stuff that I have written which you will be able to read soon hopefully.

For this week’s Short Friday it’s a bit of a first for the column that sets a precedent you may or may not be comfortable with: it's a comedy sketch, from a sketch show. But it is a self-contained mini-film in its own right, and it's from The Day Today, and saying The Day Today is a sketch show is like saying The Godfather is a men in suits go bang-bang film.

I would probably go as far as to say that The Day Today is the only television show I’ve ever seen that I could confidently describe as ‘perfect’. Six half-hour episodes. Every single frame of those six episodes of them incisive, executed with a level of detail that I haven’t seen equaled on television before or since, and funny. Really funny.

Let’s just pause for a moment to look at a selection of some of the things the writers and performers of The Day Today have produced since the show ended.

TV first:

Brass Eye, Jam, Father Ted, The IT Crowd, Black Books, TV Burp, Friday Night Armistice, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, The Trip,The Thick of It, I’m Alan Partridge, Knowing Me: Knowing You

Then in film:
Four Lions, In The Loop, 24 Hour Party People, and A Cock and Bull Story.

So that’s pretty much every great British television comedy made in the past 15 years (The Office and Peep Show are the only notable absentees), and unquestionably four of the best British films of the past decade.

Here’s the thing – as fantastic as all of the things I’ve just mentioned are, everyone involved in The Day Today has probably never topped it. That’s how fucking good it is.

Anyway, I was reminded by this particular moment of the show (a skit based around the conceit that in times of crisis, the government will provide an emergency broadcast of a morale boosting film) recently because I've noticed that there’s been a real apocalyptic feel about the news this year. We’ve already had at least four enormous natural disasters, a nuclear emergency, dictators slaughtering their own people, a genuine democratic revolution, crippling public service cuts, the revelation of the total corruption of the biggest conglomerate in the world (and likely corruption in our police force), the spectacular death of the world’s most wanted man, general unrest, rioting and disquiet all across the world, and we’re not even halfway through 2011.

Maybe I’m more sensitive to the news and its implications for the world than I used to be, but it really does feel like this is a year where God or Jebus or whoever has decided to stop arsing around on the pinball tables in heaven, roll His/Her sleeves up and take care of some business. As a result, I couldn’t help but watch the bunting-heavy recent wedding celebrations, (entertaining thought they were) and see it essentially as an extended version of this sketch - England coming together in a flurry of pomp and circumstance during troubled times to unite in 'the brotherhood of flags.’ Eveything’s OK. It’s fine. Look at Harry’s shiny medals, and Kate’s pretty dress, and Pippa’s shiny arse*. Everything’s great!

There’s nothing wrong with a big morale-booster, of course – but if we’re going to have one, before we all slide inexorably into the violent wasteland of the post-apocalypse, I’d prefer it was produced by Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci. Then at least we could have one last belly-laugh before we start harvesting our newborns for energy and precious minerals.

Anyway, congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge! May your first child be a healthy, protein-rich child!

*New band name - I call it

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