Sunday, 20 November 2016

Dystopia: Not a place I want to visit

I was sitting in a pub a few nights ago and the subject of favourite comedy films came up. And as we chatted, various candidates surfaced and were discussed ... Withnail and I, Groundhog Day, Life of Brian, Airplane, This is Spinal Tap, Beetlejuice, Home Alone, Galaxy Quest, Dumb and Dumber, Blazing Saddles, There's Something about Mary, The Jerk, Carry On Screaming, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Trading Places, Dr Strangelove, School for Scoundrels, The Three Amigos, Way Out West, Return of the Pink Panther ... and many more. And I was struck by the fact that almost none of the films we discussed were made in the 21st century.

Was it possible? Has there really not been a great comedy movie made in 16 years?

We racked our brains. 'Dodgeball wasn't bad', said one person.

'But is it destined to be a classic?' I asked. 'It's 12 years' old now - do people look at it in the same way as they look at The Blues Brothers or The Lavender Hill Mob? Will people still rave about it in 20 years' time?'

'Fair point', he said.

'The Men in Black films were quite funny,' said another.

'They were', I said. 'Though the first one was 1997.'

'The Naked Gun films?'

'1988 to 1994.'

'Ah! What about Napoleon Dynamite?'

'Yes, and Anchorman?'

They had a point. 2004 was an exceptional year for comedy films. It also gave us Sean of the Dead, Meet the Fockers, Mean Girls, The Incredibles and Team America: World Police. But barring this anomaly, has there been a genuine future classic since?

In January this year, Time Out magazine published its list of the 100 best comedy films of all time. There were just 17 post-millennial pictures included: Borat, Hot Fuzz, Superbad, School of Rock, Old School, The Royal Tenenbaums, Best in Show, In the Loop, Elf, Zoolander, Bridesmaids and Four Lions, plus the 2004 films already mentioned (The Incredibles didn't make the cut). How many of those could be called classics? Some, I would say, but not all.

The Top 5, incidentally, were Groundhog Day (1983), Annie Hall (1977), Life of Brian (1979), Airplane (1980) and This is Spinal Tap (1984) at Number 1. All made within a seven year period.

I kind-of assume that the list was composed by people younger than me because there were just a handful of black and white films and they were by big hitters like Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers. No mention of classic British comedies such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico, I'm Alright Jack or Whiskey Galore! for example.

Now, to be fair, there's no right or wrong answer when it comes to deciding a list like this but I still stand by the fact that over 75% of the entries came from pre-2000 films. And even if we have had a few good 'uns since, the number of broad appeal hilarious comedies does seem to have dropped dramatically. Meanwhile the number of films set in some kind of dystopian, horror-filled post-apocalypse future Hell seem to be increasing exponentially.

How many more zombie movies do we need? How many more young adults do we need to see fighting to survive Hunger Games and Maze Running adventures? How many more alien invasions, earthquakes, floods, transport disasters? I'm fed up with it.

How about a little levity? I want to go to the cinema and roar with laughter at a new Trains, Planes and Automobiles. I want to be cheered by something with the cosy feel of Towed in a Hole or The Music Box. I want to hoot at terrible puns and bad jokes like I did with Young Frankenstein.

Am I really the only one who misses a gut-bustingly funny feelgood movie?

A few weeks ago (here) I wrote a similar whingeing tract about comedy in publishing. There's a real dearth of good mainstream humorous writing at the moment. Maybe that's why there's nothing to be made into good comedy movies?

The world is miserable enough without paying to see more, surely?

Oh and my Top 10?

10 - There's something about Mary (1998)

9 - Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

8 - Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

7 - National Lampoon's Animal House (1978)

6 - Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

5 - Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

4 - Withnail and I (1987)

3 - Trading Places (1983)

2 - This is Spinal Tap (1984)

1 - Way out West (1937)

Not a post-millennial among them.

Friday, 4 November 2016

The smokes you can't buy

What links the feature films The World's End and Hitchcock's Psycho? And what links them to Dick Van Dyke, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X Files? The answer, surprisingly, is a packet of fags.

The cigarettes in question are Morleys. And you can't buy them in any shops although you may find the occasional packet turning up on ebay for prices in excess of $150. And that's because Morley is a fictional brand used in film and TV to avoid problems with product placement or litigation. The packs you can buy are former props.

Morleys have a long and noble history. Here's a young William Shatner breaking open a packet in the classic 1963 The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. 

And here's Darrell finding a box of Morleys in a recent episode of The Walking Dead

That's at least 50 years of media appearances. The first I've been able to find is in the psychiatrist's scene at the end of Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960. They then pop up on TV in an 1961 episode of The Naked City. The following year they appear in an early episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show in January 1962 as chocolate cigarettes given to a child, bizarrely. From then on, they were everywhere.

The original pack featured just the name and a horse logo but they soon morphed into something resembling the well-know Marlborough brand (often called 'Marleys').

There are hundreds of films and TV shows that feature Morleys but they really came to public notice with The X-Files when they became the brand of choice for the mysterious 'Cigarette Smoking Man'. Then Spike smoked them in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And Simon Pegg's character smoked them all the way through The World's End.

So there you go. Arguably the most ubiquitous prop in TV and movie history is a packet of tabs. And Morleys aren't the only fake brand to have popped up across a range of shows. Quentin Tarantino films feature Red Apple cigarettes, Heisler beer has appeared in shows like Weeds, My Name is Earl and many others, Oceanic Airlines has appeared in shows like Lost, JAG, Fringe, Chuck and goes all the way back to an episode of dolphin-based TV show Flipper in the 1960s.

But perhaps the most regularly used fake item is a phone number. The area code 555 was reserved by phone companies for books, movies and TV shows. It's a good solution to the problem of a fictitious number becoming real one day. I wonder if there's a British equivalent?**

Have you noticed any more?

Oh, and if you like the whole 'surprising connections' thing, do consider getting hold of my first two books - Joined-Up Thinking and Constable Colgan's Connectoscope. Both contain chapters where every fact is connected to the one before it and the one after it. The facts also connect to facts in other chapters and even between the two books! Both books can be obtained from the usual online outlets (see links on the right of this page) and bookshops.

** Just an hour after posting this, a splendid chap called Tony Evans pointed me towards this link. How useful for writers and TV/film makers!