Archive for February, 2013

Just seventeen (you know what I mean)

16 February 2013
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If I were ever on one of those programmes where you have to choose a single Beatles song, mine would be I Saw Her Standing There, the first song on their first LP, Please Please Me, recorded fifty years ago this week. For me the song is both urgent and suggestive, the moment English rock ‘n’ roll stopped talking with an American accent and acquired its own voice. Lennon recalled having little to do with it, but McCartney’s version, later, was that he started it and he and Lennon finished writing it together one afternoon in the front parlour in McCartney’s house. A collaboration seems more likely. If the rule of thumb on Beatles’ songs is (I’m indebted to my brother for this) that McCartney songs go up and down and Lennon songs go along, I Saw Her Standing There definitely goes along.

The shift from American to English can be seen in a change Lennon made to McCartney’s original opening lines. McCartney’s version was, “She was just seventeen/Never been a beauty queen”. Lennon changed it to the more provocative, “She was just seventeen/You know what I mean.” The new line is at once both direct and indirect. Direct: English doesn’t get much more direct than five one-syllable words. Indirect: the listener is drawn complicitly into the world of the the singer. They have to know the code.

In his companion to the Beatles’s songs, Revolution in the Head, the late Ian MacDonald explains how the song’s lyric signalled a cultural shift in gear.

“[I]t called the bluff of the chintz-merchants of Denmark Street with their moody misunderstood ‘Johnnies’ and adoring ‘angels’ of sweet sixteen (the legal age of consent). By contrast The Beatles’ heroine was seventeen, a deliberate upping of the ante which, aided by Lennon’s innuendo in the second line, suggested something rather more exciting than merely holding hands. But the clincher for the teenage audience was the song’s straight-from-the-shoulder vernacular. Its hero’s heart didn’t ‘sing’ or ‘take wing’ when he beheld his lady love; this guy’s heart ‘went boom’ when he ‘crossed the room’ – a directness of metaphor and movement.”

The picture at the top is from the website Beatles Autographs, and is used with thanks.

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The secret of Groundhog Day

9 February 2013

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It turns out that Groundhog Day is twenty years old this month (going by its US release) and The Guardian has an engaging article by Ryan Gilbey, who has just written one of those natty BFI guides to the film. I’m a fan (how can you not be) and I’ve written about Groundhog Day before, but Gilbey has an interesting take on why it has become a classic – and gone into the language.

1. The writer ruthlessly expunged all references to the 1990s.

[Scriptwriter Danny] Rubin urged [Director Harold] Ramis, with whom he shares a writing credit, to expunge any nods to the 1990s: “You’ve gotta take all this out,” he said, “because this movie is really going to go on for years and years.” Compare this with Judd Apatow’s films, which are peppered with gags about early-21st century celebrity culture. … our descendants in 2063 will have no trouble understanding Groundhog Day when they download it on to their frontal lobes.

2. The film refuses to explain how TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) got trapped in Groudhog Day:

There is no magical fairground machine (Big), no mantra (Shallow Hal), no curse (What Women Want). … Rubin was urged to write a Gypsy-curse scene explaining the loop, which Ramis wisely never shot. The mystery has only fortified the film’s magic.

3. Or any explanation of how long he is there:

It could be 10 years or a thousand, however long it takes him to memorise the personal histories of Punxsutawney’s townsfolk, and to become, among other things, a pianist, an ice-sculptor and a doctor (“It’s kind of an honorary title,” he shrugs).

4. The film has a classic redemptive story structure. I’ve written about redemption stories here before, and the article suggests that Groundhog Day borrows here from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

There’s more. It’s just plain clever in the way it disregards many of the Hollywood conventions. Terry Jones enthuses, for example, about the way it subverts structure.

“Normally when you’re writing a screenplay you try to avoid repetition. And that’s the whole thing here, it’s built on repetition. That’s so bold. The way they get through it is to short-circuit everything, so just when you think something is going to happen that you’ve seen before, the film gets to it before you and changes or abbreviates it in some way.

And the artist Gillian Wearing compares Groundhog Day to films such as L’Avventura and Last Year in Marienbad. She tells Gilbey:

All those films reinvent structure and create a new conceptual framework that makes you understand them. They share an almost surrealistic vision, and they pose philosophical questions.

In short, Groundhog Day succeeds because it is, says Gilbey, that rare creature: “an art film in mainstream clothing.”

The picture at the top of this post is from What The Movie, and is used with thanks.