What does the passing of film-trailer voiceovers say about our relationship with the big screen? It’s a question our Culture editor… a man on a quest… would go to the end of… this column to answer.
This month’s Conversation features a film director and an illustrator talking about how the mood, atmosphere and story of a movie can be relayed by its promotional poster. Many such works of marketing material collected in Nicolas Winding Refn’s book The Act of Seeing tell the viewer precisely what they’ll witness when they watch these more-than-saucy B-movies. And then what they’ll feel: mostly shock, maybe horror, possibly a twinge of shame. Such didactic promotional collateral is a thing of the past along with the movie-trailer voiceover – but whatever happened to Voiceover Man?
You know who I mean: the dramatic, gravel-voiced American vocal artist with the drawn-out delivery who told you “he was a cop… on the edge”, and that “it was all over…until they wanted him… to do one last job”, and probably “in a world… driven by violence/hungry for peace/searching for heroes”. These words would be laid over shots of Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis leaping unharmed from explosions, jumping from a crashing plane while delivering a pithy one-liner or firing a weapon without flinching. In many ways it was an era… for telling people exactly what was going to be in the movie.
There were three kings of the movie trailer voiceover: Don LaFontaine, Don Morrow and Hal Douglas. They were a trio that enjoyed a practical monopoly on everything from action movies such as Die Hard and Lethal Weapon to powerful dramas such as Philadelphia and romantic disaster movies like Titanic. But mostly they were about Sly and Arnie and Mel and Bruce busting out of jail and blowing stuff up. Just like the deliberate straplines on film posters, the hard-selling voiceover hammered out the storyline of the movie with absolutely no wriggle room nor need for interpretation.
We live in a different time now: more subtle and more savvy. Out-and-out action movies still exist but they’re done as feature-length festivals of irony in which former catchphrase-happy beefcakes endure a final course of steroids for… one last job. The most recent example of the voiceover being used was for The Expendables, which allowed the action heroes of the 1980s a chance to once again bury themselves up to their knees in shell casings while chomping on a cigar. One last pinch of salt, seemingly: Expendables 3 blew (up) in cinemas last year.
Maybe we are so familiar with the leitmotifs of genre that we don’t need to be told, via a smoky baritone, that we’ll be aroused by sex or horrified by violence. It was a time for voiceover heroes, God rest them, now that we live in a world where the pictures are allowed to do the talking.
Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, is W David Marx’s exploration of Japan’s adoption and reinvention of the classic US style of Ivy League schools in the 1960s. It reads like a novel that packs centuries of history and culture into a narrative about the birth of said Ametora (slang for “American traditional”). Vans founder Kensuke Ishizu picked up the preppy fashion during a trip to Princeton and brought it to Japan. In 1964 whole groups of men dressed in button-down shirts were swept off Ginza’s streets by police; today the style has come into its own. A riveting read.
For city-dwellers, open fires are something of a rarity. But reading native Norwegian journalist Lars Mytting’s A to Z on “chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way”, you’ll consider setting up a stove in the centre of your apartment. In Norwegian Wood Mytting delves deep into the Norwegian psyche and unravels the secrets to becoming the ultimate DIY Viking with the best stack: you want to build an “upright and solid pile” of firewood and stay away from the “everything in a pile on the ground” kind of guy.
Since 2013, actress Camille Cottin has been amusing French households with her sketches, now aired on Canal+’s Le Grand Journal. Playing the starring role of Connasse (which translates roughly as “bitch”), her goal is to shock. Encounters with her victims are captured by a hidden camera.
Cottin’s character hit the big screen earlier in 2015 in Connasse, Princesse des Coeurs (The Parisian Bitch in English-language markets). The setting for much of the adventure is London.
In the film, “Camilla” crosses The Channel with the goal of marrying into the royal family. Everywhere she goes she causes a fracas, offending the sensibilities of her British victims. The result: plenty of chortling back in France where poking fun at Les Rosbifs is a national pastime.
Comparisons with Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno have been numerous and the film’s producers can congratulate themselves on the numbers at the box office; more than half a million people across France queued up for a ticket during the first week.
Cottin fell foul of the UK authorities during filming, most dramatically when she scaled the gates of Kensington Palace in an attempt to woo Prince Harry. The closest she got to royalty was a short stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Frank McAllister is a Brit born in South Africa who is distantly related to Boer leader Piet Retief, from whose legacy of defeat in a Zulu bloodbath, McAllister feels he might not have quite escaped. He surrounds himself with new love, family and money but can they insulate him from history? The master of the erudite soft touch, Cartwright is on masterly form.
Rushdie’s rich, bejewelled narrative plays with the Middle Eastern legends found in One Thousand and One Nights and takes up with jinn – fairy creatures of smokeless fire – and Dunia, who is their princess. From 12th-century Arab Spain to contemporary New York, the ride features levitating gardeners, babies that can seek out corruption and an enthralling, uncanny web of human and spirit desire.
While other writers were drawn to the Spanish Civil War or the crumbling of the British Empire, Joseph Roth wrote about the scene closer to home: cosmopolitan, ill-fated central Europe. Hotel-hopping helped him draw the most dazzling portraits of armies, royalty and barmen. An exquisite time capsule.
In a fresh collection of short essays on re-reading, the venerable James swats away concerns for his (very) ill health to muse on the eternal themes: life, death, art and love via the words and deeds of Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway and Game of Thrones as if he’s dashing off a holiday postcard. Charming, spry and essential.
In a nasty near-future, a couple sign up for a scheme providing a stable suburban life if they spend every second month in a prison cell. Familiar Atwoodian themes abound: dystopia, imprisonment, subjugated women, weak men and looming despair. A misery fest, you might think, but Atwood’s genius lies in her ability to inject charm and humour into the bleakest stories. Bad people doing bad things in a bad world – but brilliant as ever.
Dark Argentinean political thriller about a woman, Ariana, who seeks revenge when the man who raped her many years ago runs for president. The show has been described as a Latin-American version of House of Cards.
Ariana became pregnant after being gang-raped, with young mayor Rafael Valmora among the perpetrators. She comes out of hiding 17 years later to exact revenge when he seeks high office then falls in love with Agustín Larralde, a low-profile politician who helps her reclaim her child.
Entre Caníbales was created by Juan José Campanella, who won an Oscar in 2010 for best foreign-language feature The Secret in Their Eyes. It stars Natalia Oreiro as Ariana, Joaquín Furriel as Valmora and Benjamín Vicuña as Larralde.
The 60-part drama launched on Argentina’s Telefe in May, before rolling out across Latin America via Fox Life. Telefe and Sony Pictures Television are hopeful of securing global deals.
Zach Condon, Beirut’s songwriter and main protagonist, loses the Byzantine arrangements and showy globe-spinning-musical-magpie thing to make a wonderful, simple indie pop album. Condon was so young when he toured his first three records around the world (to big rooms and loud acclaim) that it must have taken a proper face-slap in the mirror to persuade himself that being good is better than being different. No No No, recorded over a freezing fortnight in New York, is a bright-eyed display of brilliance in just nine songs; what a charming little firework display.
Mr Vile is in the form of his life. The Philly honeychild hit prime Vileness on his last LP and he’s quickly followed it with this lo-fi belter. The songs seem to have no structure but then you leave the room to realise you’ve been singing three Vile choruses all day. Sonic Youth’s Kim Deal wrote of Vile, “A boy/man with an old soul in the age of digital everything.” Don’t be fooled by the name: Vile never sounded so wholesome.
Frankfurt will host its 67th book fair; how did it begin?
The story dates back to the 17th century, shortly after Gutenberg. Censorship forced the book trade to relocate from Mainz to the free city of Frankfurt, where it stayed for hundreds of years and ultimately evolved into today’s fair with 180,000 trade visitors. Worldwide there’s no equivalent that attempts to cover all aspects of storytelling and it’s presumably also the largest cultural festival.
Are books, with their rustling pages, here to stay?
They will stay. Ebooks are already in decline and sales have almost stagnated in North America. Paper has its advantages, especially considering that many regions around the world often don’t have the technological prerequisites needed for ebooks. Only in the scientific field have electronic readers asserted themselves; their market share lies between 13 and 14 per cent.
Why did you select Indonesia as the 2015 guest of honour?
Indonesia is fascinating with its 250 million people and 15,000 islands, a multitude of colours and languages; it’s a place where stories are told by word of mouth, through dance and puppet theatre. Exciting young literature has developed that’s political and critical. We’re bringing the stories, the dance and the music to Frankfurt.
Finally, what will set this year’s fair apart?
It will be a very political fair, especially in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo. Many writers will meet to discuss the issue of censorship and how to deal with it – whether it’s exercised by governments or terrorists – and how to attain freedom of expression. There’s also a great spirit of optimism: the technology is here and the business models are in effect, now the question is how these developments have affected society and where it’s headed; self-publishing is one answer. The Book Fair is a mirror on the global state of affairs: it’s an opinion-forming marketplace and it’s about telling stories. For this, Frankfurt is inimitable.