Yes, you read that last paragraph of the introduction right: there are fourteen of us going up to Edinburgh this year, an all-time record. Of those fourteen, Charmian and Eve are travelling up by car as usual, and three of the others are arriving later in the week for various reasons - The Cineaste because of an unfortunate family illness, Linda because of weekend work, and Lesley because she's wrapping up a holiday touring round several countries whose names end in '-stan'.
Which leaves nine of us travelling on the Flying Scotsman route by train this morning. There's an initial panic when it transpires that the reservations for our carriage have been confusingly split between three entirely different cars, but it appears to have been done in a sensible fashion and we all get to sit together as originally planned. The carriage itself is a fairly tatty old affair, with only the provision of a laptop socket and wireless internet to indicate that we're not living in the fifties. (And GNER's wireless internet service isn't all that much to write home about really - I give it a try just to see how well it works, and with all the interruptions caused by tunnels and mountains and that, the download speed averages out at only a little above dialup levels.) What with the reservation problems, the grubby train, the inadequately stocked buffet car and the half hour delay in arrival, we come to the conclusion that now GNER have lost their franchise for the East Coast line to National Express, they don't really care any more. By the end of their term on the route, expect their staff to be actually walking along the train and slapping passengers across the back of the head as they go.
Oh, I suppose it isn't that bad a journey really. For the most part it passes without incident, apart from the excitement which apparently breaks out during my one and only trip to the loo. Notice to young children: if you decide to spend a long train journey repeatedly playing the first twenty minutes of Shrek on your DVD player at full volume, running up and down the train yelling, and kicking the seat in front of you every few seconds, try not to be sitting directly behind The Belated Birthday Girl. Unless you enjoy having her shouting in your face and entertainingly freaking out your mum, of course.
We arrive in Edinburgh to the traditional accompaniment of torrential rain, and check into our accommodation - once again, the good people at Napier University have done us proud, and our flats are all ready and waiting. We get even wetter popping down to Sainsbury's for the neccessary supplies, and then the proper business of the week begins.
That business begins earlier for The BBG and me than it does for everyone else, because we've recklessly booked our first show for just after 6pm, even though we didn't check into our flats till four. That first show is at the Assembly Rooms, which is a slight disappointment - I still cling to my concept of Fringe Karma, which states that Edinburgh shows performed at small obscure theatres are better for you than ones performed at the megavenues. Returning to the Assembly after two years away, you do wonder just how it got such a stranglehold on the Fringe over the years. The cafe bar is still small and cramped (and for some reason has a team from London radio station LBC taking up useful space in one corner): the queuing arrangements for the various theatres are still utterly confusing (though we did manage to make our first celeb spot of the festival, Rodney Bewes, while standing in that queue): and the sound from the shows in rooms around you still leaks into the one you're trying to watch.
The latter has been a problem at the Assembly for decades, but Best Western is the first show I can recall where the director comes on stage at the start to apologise pre-emptively for the racket coming from the performance upstairs. Rich Hall - for it is he - warns us that 'a dance troupe of questionable immigration status' will be jumping up and down repeatedly on the ceiling for most of the play we're about to watch. As it's all set in a motel, he suggests we imagine that they're particularly noisy residents in another room: but as The BBG astutely points out afterwards, one of the major plot points of the play is that this is a motel with virtually no people staying in it...
The motel in Best Western is in the middle of nowhere, run by Del and her pregnant daughter. In the middle of the night, a man called Early checks in, closely followed by his son and daughter-in-law, closely followed by a man from the government who wants to buy up the motel and tear it down to make room for a new highway. Over the course of the next couple of days, these six people will get together in a variety of unexpected ways. Relationships will be formed, broken, re-formed and re-broken. And several TV sets will be shot.
Writer-director Rich Hall is, of course, best known both as a standup and as spoof country singer Otis Lee Crenshaw. In the latter role, he's depicted redneck America in an entertainingly amusing fashion, but has occasionally touched on something a little deeper: if you ever get the chance to hear his song Trailerland, there's a surprising vein of melancholy in there. This second play of his operates in similar territory, and for its first half does it rather well, playing like a reasonably good Sam Shepherd tribute band. There are finely drawn characters, well played by an unfortunately unnamed cast (apart from former Python associate Carol Cleveland as the motel owner Del), and some beautiful moments of real trailer trash poetry popping out of the dialogue: Early justifies leaving his ex-wife with the line "I got old, you got ugly, guess we're even". This being Rich Hall, even when people are tearing each other's hearts out, he can't stop being funny.
Unfortunately, after a promising first hour, Hall doesn't seem to know how to wrap things up. The rot sets in with the introduction of a seventh character, one who fails to fit in with the other six so much that you can only assume this is Hall writing a part for his girlfriend or something. From that point onwards, the plot more or less falls apart, and descends into cheap irony and bad melodrama. Which is a shame, because for that first hour this has the potential to really be something special. There's certainly enough promise there to keep me watching how Hall's career as a playwright progresses.
A small vignette of London life from about a week ago. We're on a tube travelling into the West End, and three guys are standing by the door talking just a little too loudly about the movies they've seen lately. The recent big dumb commercial hits are discussed - Die Hard 4.0, Transformers - and, sadly, they seem to think we're living in a golden age of cinema as a result. "But you know the one I really want to see?" says one of them. "That new Tarantino film. The one with the girl with the leg." And The BBG and I look at each other and smile ruefully.
For those of you who don't know the story: earlier this year, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaborated on a double-bill tribute to the classic days of exploitation cinema, Grindhouse. ('The girl with the leg' actually features in Rodriguez's section of the film, a zombie horror called Planet Terror.) Trailers for it appeared in UK cinemas, and a release date was set for June, two months after the film's US debut over the Easter weekend. Unfortunately, the US box office for Grindhouse was shockingly poor, and it was more or less gone from cinemas within two weeks of its initial release. It appears that nobody in America wants to see a pair of lovingly crafted pastiches of bad cinema - and because of that, the rest of the world isn't being allowed to see them now. The idea of Grindhouse as a double-bill has been erased from history, and rumour has it there won't even be a DVD, meaning that the only way you can see the films as originally intended is to trawl the internet for a copy filmed off a cinema screen during its opening weekend.
Rodriguez's Planet Terror, along with a series of fake trailers made by guest directors like Eli Roth and Edgar Wright, is thus currently unavailable for legal public viewing. Meanwhile, Tarantino's section of Grindhouse - Death Proof - has been extended by twenty minutes in the cutting room, and will only be available in this form from now on. While Planet Terror was a spoof of eighties gore-drenched horror, Death Proof is some sort of confused amalgam of road movie, serial killer thriller and chick flick. It stars Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike: as his name suggests, in his heyday he worked in Hollywood as a stunt double, or at least that's what he tells people. His glory days are long behind him: nowadays, he's reduced to hanging around in sleazy bars trying to pick up girls with stories of the TV shows he used to work on, and getting irritated when it turns out most of the girls weren't even born when those shows were made. But here's a useful tip for you ladies: if Stuntman Mike offers you a lift home from a bar, you may want to investigate other modes of transport...
Somewhere on my hard drive at the moment, I actually have a dodgy copy of Grindhouse, complete with Dutch subtitles for that classic European video bootleg feel. At some point, I may get around to watching it and seeing where the twenty minutes of extra material has been added for Death Proof: I suspect it's probably in the earlier part of the film, where there are several scenes where the characters referred to in the titles as The Girls hang around in bars trading Tarantinoesque lines with each other. And on the evidence of Death Proof, I suspect that losing twenty minutes of those scenes is no loss at all. Now that we've seen him do it a few times, the cadences and rhythms of a Tarantino script are utterly familiar, and they no longer excite you the way they did the first time you saw Reservoir Dogs. It's obvious that he's a great listener, and gleefully assembles things he's heard other people say into unexpected ways. But, for example, when Zoe Bell says in response to a perceived sleight "I resemble that remark," it doesn't tell us anything about her character: it tells us that Quentin heard someone say that once and thought it sounded cool. (He may have heard Zoe Bell herself saying it: he may have heard it from an old Hilda Baker sitcom. This being Tarantino, both are equally possible.)
For about eighty minutes, I was coming very close to actively hating Death Proof: it takes Tarantino's ear for dialogue and turns it into just another overworked cliche, padding it out with endless tacky references to characters, lines and music from his earlier, better films. And then, in the film's last half hour, it all turns around. Firstly, it becomes apparent that those first eighty minutes exist almost solely as a life support system that allows the film's climax to exist - which is fair enough, given that this is a homage to exploitation movies, which frequently use huge amounts of padding to take the One Brilliant Idea they have and stretch it out to feature length. And secondly, we finally get to see what Death Proof's One Brilliant Idea is, and it's a doozy. That last half hour may be one of the best things Tarantino has ever filmed, and turns the movie into a great big love letter to his leading lady. (You could argue, of course, that Jackie Brown and Kill Bill ended up being exactly the same thing.) By the time we hit the outrageously abrupt freeze-frame ending, and the riotously perky Serge Gainsbourg end credits, we're ready to forgive Tarantino anything... well, almost. Eighty minutes of dullness followed by thirty minutes of gloriousness don't make for an entirely satisfying cinema experience, not really. You hope Tarantino's got something a little more substantial up his sleeve as a follow-up.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Nick - I had seen Mark Watson do a 20 minute Edinburgh preview a few weeks ago and he was brilliant, but I am not sure what happened with this show. The first 10 minutes talking off stage to the audience was again brilliant, and he included the 20 minutes I had seen in the preview. But the rest of the show had worrying comedy longeurs. For a comic who has aspirations to follow in the footsteps of Ross Noble, he came off worst right at the end when heckled by a member of a hen party. MW retorted "where have you been for the last hour?" She replied quick as a flash, "where have you been for the last hour!", which summed up the show.
The Belated Birthday Girl - I'm a bit of a fan of Tarantino's work, counting Pulp Fiction as one of my Top 3 Films. So I was rather pleased when it was announced that Death Proof would be in this year's festival, and it was one of the first no brainers on the booking list. Of course, what I'd really wished was that the festival would somehow get Grindhouse to show us, but, knowing that was never going to happen, this was still a fairly exciting second best - a new film from Tarantino doesn't come along very often, after all. When I found that it was billed as a gala, I even entertained vague hope that Quent himself would grace us with his presence, so we could ask him if he thought it was OK to watch Grindhouse obtained in less than legitimate ways, given that no legitimate ones existed. Although I never held out much hope he'd show, a gala should have someone, and I admit to being slightly disappointed when an unfamiliar Zoe Bell was brought out on stage. Zoe introduced the film saying that "most of you probably have no idea who I am, but hopefully you will by the end". And by the end, as good as Kurt Russell was as the rather scary Stuntman Mike, Death Proof is Zoe Bell's film.
Unfortunately, it is a film of two halves, in more ways than one. The first half, set in Austin Texas, where we first meet Stuntman Mike and a first group of Girls, is the most overt homage to the old grindhouse films of Tarantino's inspiration, with a visual style so consciously 70's that the use of mobile phones and MP3 players has a deliberately jarring effect. This is where Tarantino has removed frames, repeated frames, made all sorts of awkward jump cuts, to make it look as though the film has been used and abused for years. The story sets up the character of Stuntman Mike for the second half, a similar tale, set with another group of women. In this second story, the filming is more modern and there is none of the ironic tattiness and cheese of the first half. Although there are a lot of very close parallel scenes, in this second half it mostly all works, leading up to a terrific climax. But the cheese and irony of the first half is a bit too much, and although the first half is essential for the second half to work, it needed to be done better. I have a feeling that if Tarantino had set out to make Death Proof as a standalone film he would have made different choices in the first half. And maybe the first half works better in the context of Grindhouse. But as it is, even though the second half more than redeems it and makes it one of the better releases of an admittedly poor 2007, Death Proof is easily the weakest of Tarantino's films to date.
Personally, I would love for Tarantino to move away from all his ironic raiding of his cinematic influences and his own back catalogue (oh - and constantly referencing your own back catalogue gets a bit tired when the thing is so bloody small - and I say that as a fan). I want another Reservoir Dogs or Jackie Brown: films which were wonderfully fresh and original, while making clear and unashamed use of their influences. I don't care too much whether it's Inglorious Bastards, or some other project he's never touted publicly. But no more irony: just make a damned film.