Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Oddities of Da Biz


Hi, really pleased to meet you — gotta run
Fifty interviews a day, three hours of charming fans: who'd be a movie star?
Toby Moore observes film PR in action

SCENE: Luton airport. A night in July. Private jet lands. A fleet of eight Mercedes-Benzes idles on the bitumen. Visiting president? Condoleezza Rice dropping by to meet the Prime Minister?

Neither of the above. This was how the American actor Ben Stiller, his co-stars and sundry retinue arrived in Britain from Berlin to promote the animated movie Madagascar.

It was a typical arrival for an A-list star. As well as motorcades, Hollywood’s version of shuttle diplomacy routinely crams seven major cities and European film festivals into as many days; the sort of punishing schedule that Colin Powell used to make as Secretary of State when five African countries and one European in six days was a typical tour. EDITOR’S NOTE: EXCEPT THAT MOVIE STARS ARE IMPORTANT!

They like Luton, too. The airport has a secure, isolated section for private jets; a squat, unremarkable building with its own customs and check-in desk far from the main terminal. It promises the sort of privacy you want if your eyes are red, champagne has flowed and the make-up artists left their bag of tricks in Thessaloniki.

One truth is that the publicity game for, say, Tom Cruise is now played for range, not depth; an intense burst of presence in a country before a vanishing. Cruise may have seemed ubiquitous over the past few weeks promoting War of the Worlds. But in fact he was in Britain for no more than 24 hours.

It is not uncommon for stars to spend even less time, as little as half a day, before flying off to swoop in to Paris or Berlin or Madrid on the next leg of their promotional tour. Not surprisingly, a golden requirement of publicists is to make the visited nation feel singularly important to the visiting star. A grand illusion is created so that a presence lingers, one that seeks maximum media interest for minimum celebrity movement. It requires the sort of planning that wouldn ’t disgrace a military campaign.

Getting the talent on a daytime chat show is fine, but what you’re really thinking is: ‘How long are we going to waste in the car getting there and back?’ ” explained one experienced film publicist. “You may be looking to fit up to 50 interviews in a day, so that sort of thing’s important.” EDITOR’S NOTE: OH HAPPY WORLD WHERE THESE THINGS LOOM LARGE. (SILLY BIZ, HOLLYWOOD, EH?)

Cat Halbsy works for Premier PR and specialises in film launches. Aged 27, she is a veteran of the global publicity shuttle. A typical day for the “talent”, she says, will begin early. She will have gone out to the airport to meet them. But clients like Samuel L. Jackson, who usually travels alone on scheduled flights, will have already been met at Heathrow by an airport “special services” greeter to guide them to an express passport control.

Depending on the time they’re coming in, we try and get a slot on GMTV or BBC Breakfast, usually around 8.20,” Halsby explains. “This means getting the talent up by 7, 6.30 for women to give them time for make-up and so on.”

The older stars are best, she says. “It’s the young ones who are the real divas, who sometimes get carried away by all the glitz.” Or lose self-control. EDITOR’S NOTE: FOGIES ROCK! (WELL…NOT ROCK SO MUCH AS RULE?)One was recovered from the shrubbery in Hyde Park, “stoned”, says Halsby. They still managed to get him ready for his interviews and only one journalist spotted the tell-tale signs of a night on the town.

Apart from Parkinson or Jonathan Ross, the early morning programmes are likely to be the only live events on the schedule, something sent for approval to both the star and the studio weeks before. “It’s very detailed, it has to be because they have to agree to all the outlets; that’s how we cover our backs as well. They’ll sometimes pull out of various outlets for personal reasons.”

This is code for a past bruising.

But normally the pattern is familiar. “We set up what are called ‘junkets’ in the hotels. These are where you bring the film talent, usually to Claridge’s or the Dorchester, and it’s like a production line of print, radio and television journalists coming in for the whole day.”

These junkets last for six to seven hours, some of the interviews are “round tables”; reporters from several countries sharing a 20-minute slot. Nerves get brittle. Dutch and Australian journalists actually came to blows in front of Courtney Love after one of them dominated the interview.

Television crews fare little better in the speed-interviewing stakes and are typically given just eight minutes to film an interview: in America it is just three minutes. EDITOR’S NOTE: ON THE ONE HAND WE COULD BELITTLE THE A.D.D-ING OF SOCIETY. ON THE OTHER HAND, HOW MANY MOVIE STARS HAVE MORE THAN 3 MINUTES-WORTH OF THINGS TO SAY? (IF THAT)

“If we have enough time, we’ll try and set aside an hour for a big interview for a broadsheet, say. But these are usually set up much further in advance, sometimes done in America before the star comes over,” says Halsby. Similar strict times are allocated for regional radio and media. They are also invited to a collective press conference. There will also be a photocall at some point during the daylight hours. Lunch breaks exist, but only on paper. The late afternoon is spent preparing for the premiere and at least an hour on the red carpet.

Big stars are now spending more time meeting the public at their London premieres. This is no coincidence. Fans go “ahh” and want autographs. Tom Cruise is famous for the time and energy he spends on the red carpet, shaking hands, shouting into mobiles and having his photo taken.EDITOR’S NOTE: BEATS LEARNING HOW TO ACT. His three hours at the premiere for Collateral last year left just a few minutes for the waiting press and set the gold standard. It was a shrewd move.

The studios cottoned on and are now telling their talent to do more of that because they saw the result,” said one publicist. “The media coverage was perfect for Tom Cruise, lots of photos the next day.

The advantage for the stars is that, although shaking hands with hundreds of people and being ‘on’ is pretty tiring, they don’t have to worry about headlines or probing questions. OK, Tom got squirted by that Channel 4 crew in the press line. But the general view in the business is that he came away from that encounter well. He was angry, but not embarrassed, and he said what anybody might have said.”

After the hand-shaking, stars often skip seeing the film and go to dinner. But even this is work. The meal is usually hosted by the movie’s distribution company and it is probably an offer you can’t refuse. After the meal there is the premiere party. Stars are expected to turn up and stay for at least an hour, Halsby says.

Sometimes there is time for fun. But not often. Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen of the Dreamworks studio, is famous for wanting treats built in to the PR timetable. But even moguls get defeated by the clock. A trip on the London Eye for the human stars of Madagascar had to be abandoned because they arrived so late.

Charles McDonald, partner in the publicity firm McDonald and Rutter, whose clients include the directors Mike Leigh and Anthony Minghella, says the key to publicity, especially with smaller films, is matching client to outlet.

The truth is that time is getting more and more limited and you’ve got to work out how effectively you use that time,” MacDonald maintains. “That’s where our skill comes in. In an ideal world, you’re given reasonable notice of a campaign, a couple of months, to set things up and you can take it from there.”

Still, it all sounds rather effortless: the limos, hotels and talking about yourself. “Five-star hotels and being chauffeured everywhere seems quite an easy ride, but they all say the worst bit about their job is publicity,” McDonald insists, admitting that this might seem “a bit astounding” to anybody else. “But by the time you’ve done 200 interviews and been asked the same sort of questions, it gets pretty wearing, the same thing over and over again. All that comfort doesn’t count for much.”

The rest of us would certainly like to think so the next time nobody sends a limousine or private jet to pick us up for work. EDITOR’S NOTE: OR THAT THE WORST PART OF ONE’S WORK IS TALKING ABOUT YOURSELF 200 TIMES. (I’M SURE IT’S TIRING, BUT IT BEATS NEGOTIATING WITH RADIO STATIONS IN BFE TEXAS, I GOTTA SAY).

The flight Signature Flight in Luton, which is part of a multi-national handling concern, will arrange private jets for film stars. Most contracts are organised in advance by film studios through American charter firms

The base On arrival in London, top hotels for star junkets remain the Dorchester, Claridges and the Mandarin in Knightsbridge. For stars looking for somewhere more modern, the Soho and Covent Garden hotels are popular

Stepping out On down time from their promotional duties, the London Eye is a big lure for film stars.EDITOR’S NOTE: FORGIVE MY NON-STAR SAVVY….WHAT IS THE LONDON EYE? A traditional tour of Buckingham Palace, however, remains a favourite. A hit play, preferably one starring famous people, is often demanded. Some Girl(s) fills both criteria: it is written by an American (Neil LaBute) and stars David Schwimmer from Friends

Favourite restaurants Nobu, J Sheekey and The Ivy. The modestly priced and vegetarian Gate, in Hammersmith, is also on the visiting celebrity circuit, with Gwyneth Paltrow a regular

Top shopping destinations are Harvey Nichols and Harrods; stores that remain open after hours to cater exclusively to film star clients

No second fiddle
Short films play a vital role in Pixar's success.

Showing short films before features doesn't have much currency these days. Once an essential part of the cinema-going experience, shorts are now generally considered a liability.

" They just don't sell popcorn," says Osnat Shurer, executive producer of the Shorts Group at Pixar, the phenomenally successful animation studio responsible for the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc and The Incredibles.

"It really does take commitment from a company to make them, because people tend to see shorts as a taste of something bigger: `Here's chapter one of the novel I want to write.' And shorts require (production) resources that are not going to pay back, so business-wise you really have to commit to it."

Yet shorts remain an intrinsic part of Pixar's creative output, with each of its feature film releases coming with a short attached. Pixar DVDs often have additional shorts on them as well as the theatrical ones.

"Pixar proved itself with short films," Shurer says. Indeed, John Lasseter, co-founder and creative guru at Pixar, honed his craft on computer-generated short films, and won an Oscar for his 1988 film, Tin Toy.

As well as being a standard part of the Pixar entertainment package, short films also serve as valuable creative exercises.

"With the short films, we try out new technology and use them to train new directors," Shurer says. "Also (we break in) other lead production people.So, on One Man Band, we had a first-time director, a first-time lead animator, a first-time production designer."

The latest Pixar film, One Man Band will precede the feature Cars, directed by Lasseter. The hilarious five-minute film tells of a little peasant girl who has to choose between two competing buskers who desperately want the coin she was going to drop into the piazza fountain after making a wish.

The first performer to get her attention is an old hand who's been working the location uncontested for ages with his drums and trumpet. On the verge of extracting the coin from the little girl's hand, another performer suddenly appears.

With mandolin and a little keyboard, he lures her over.

Thus begins a battle between the two for both the coin and to prove who is the better musician.
Andrew Jimenez, who directed and wrote the film with Mark Andrews, bravely chose to tell the story without words. Aside from drawing on the obvious influences of silent movie greats such as Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Jimenez says he wanted to tell a story with music.

"A lot of what led to creating the story was that Mark and I share a love of music, and with me that love is primarily for film scores," he says. "We thought of the music as dialogue. One of the unique things about One Man Band is that a film composer usually comes in at the very end to write the music.

"Here, our composer, Michael Giacchino (who worked on The Incredibles EDITOR’S NOTE: AND DOES THE MUSIC FOR “LOST”, I BELIEVE), came in from the very beginning. We were still figuring out the story and he was writing themes for us. He really became our third partner in crime in the creation of the story."

Jimenez, 33, worked as a digital artist on The Iron Giant for director Brad Bird, and went over to Pixar with Bird to serve as codirector of photography on The Incredibles. He cites Bird as being a big influence on the decision to keep words out of One Man Band.

"One of the things Brad said to me for the longest time was, 'If you can show it and not say it, then don't ever say it.' You can convey so much more and the audience will get so much more out of it," Jimenez says. EDITOR’S NOTE: WRITING 101. SHOW ME, DON’T TELL ME!
"They can see the character thinking it through; you'll see them react to something, and the audience can put themselves in there and imagine how they might feel. When you just say it with words it's just not as interesting." EDITOR’S NOTE: ESPECIALLY IN A VISUAL MEDIUM, IT’S REDUNDANT.

Of course Jimenez hopes audiences will love the film, but its primary objective, he half-jokes, is to impress Lasseter sufficiently to be able to direct his own feature film.

"Absolutely. I love telling stories. Whether it's writing, directing or being a director of photography, one of the neat things about the animation art form is that it's all these little different pieces of art being put into one, and that's the main thing. That's what I want to do at Pixar, and if the big guy likes it, that's not a bad thing!"

Being immersed in a creative hothouse environment such as Pixar helps keep the juices flowing, he adds enthusiastically.

"I went to film school, but I actually have learned more just by hearing John Lasseter and Brad Bird talk about animation.

"To be in their house working with them on any level is just what we want. While making One Man Band, we'd show them the film, and they were both so smart about lasering in on that one thing. `This isn't working right here.' That helped us immensely."

August 1, 2005
Robert Conrad Takes His Slingshot to SAG
By Alex Ben Block

From the '60s through the '90s, Robert Conrad was the consummate television tough guy. As the star of half a dozen series, including the hits "The Wild, Wild West (1965-69) EDITOR’S NOTE: YUMMY YUMMY YUMMY. FORMATIVE AND YUMMY. and "Baa Baa Black Sheep" (1976-78), as well as several dozen TV movies (many of which he also produced) and a handful of features, he was quick with a quip and even faster with his fists as he set things right and cast a spell over every pretty lady in sight.

A former boxer and martial arts master, the Chicago native is vividly remembered for a series of battery commercials he did in the late 1970s. He was the guy who put a battery on his shoulder and dared anyone to knock it off.

Today Mr. Conrad is semi-retired, still recovering from the devastating effects of a 2003 auto accident that led to his pleading no contest to drunken driving charges and serving time under house arrest. He broke his skull and has been left with nerve damage in his neck and spine. He doesn't have full use of his right hand, for now.

Even at 70-something, he still talks tough, only now it is about overcoming his physical ailments. Some of his physical problems, he added, are also the result of doing many of his own stunts over the years.

His career has made him wealthy. He could stay retired in his longtime home in Bear Valley and enjoy life with his wife of 22 years, LaVelda, nine children (from two marriages and an early relationship) and 20 grandchildren.

Instead, Mr. Conrad has thrown himself into a new battle, to become the 24th president of the 120,000-member Screen Actors Guild. He said he is not associated with either of the two factions that have polarized the union, but rather is in it to bring all sides together as a first step to rebuilding the power and clout of SAG.

"I'm very serious," insisted Mr. Conrad in his first in-depth interview on his candidacy. "I have other things to do with my life than to subject myself to criticism, which I know is coming. I think the ultimate goal of getting a better, stronger union is more important than me personally."

There is no question Mr. Conrad is the dark horse in this election, which will be decided in late September. His opponents are "Falcon Crest" star Morgan Fairchild, spiritual successor to outgoing President Melissa Gilbert and now leader of the Restore Respect group, which controls the New York board and by a slight margin the national board; and current board member Alan Rosenberg, who is married to actress Marg Helgenberger and leads the Membership First group, which controls the Hollywood board and wants a much tougher stance in negotiations with producers.

Ms. Gilbert, after winning three elections to serve two terms, announced last month she wouldn't run again. During her four years in office she supported three major referendums, all voted down. She was involved in contract negotiations that produced some increases in pay and medical but failed to get gains in the key areas of new media and DVD.

In parting, Ms. Gilbert said, "There are rifts that may very well be irreparable."

Mr. Conrad doesn't agree. "She had four years," he said. "If you can't do it in four years … maybe she was a little too accommodating."

Mr. Conrad has never been a guild board member but has been active at times, usually supporting conservatives. He has a production company and negotiated numerous deals over the years and knows the players, even if some of those he knows best are no longer in power.

He wants to return to what he calls the glory days, when the union was run by James Cagney, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston and others who in his memory brought a majority of members together.

"This is one of the most powerful guilds in America," said Mr. Conrad, pointing to the union logo. "It says, 'actors united.' Obviously, based on Gilbert bowing out and two candidates coming in representing factions, we're not united."

His issues include a better living wage for actors who work, continuing medical insurance for actors who no longer qualify for coverage in terms of income, a fair share of DVD revenues (which he said are currently "pathetic"), higher residuals from cable TV, a stronger stand on runaway production, safer conditions for stunt people and greater enforcement of SAG jurisdiction around the globe.

He thinks some actors, especially stunt people, should be able to retire at 55.

He's against a SAG merger with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists. He wants more aggressive negotiations but will remain flexible. He wants to charge more to join SAG, and would support a dues hike to strengthen the guild's position.

Mr. Conrad, a self-described political independent, said he has the backing of the entire Teamsters Union, though he was unclear about what that union might do to support him. He is not advocating a link between SAG and the Teamsters, though he would like to see some mutual cooperation.

He'd call for a strike only as a last resort and if the resources were there to do the job. "You don't strike unless you plan on winning something really significant," Mr. Conrad said. "You don't threaten to strike, because that arms the opponent. What you do is negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Then at a particular time, if you're not satisfied with the progress, then you strike and stay out as long as it takes to win."

One point he comes back to again and again is the need for more respect for SAG and for actors. "Actors aren't getting a fair share of anything," Mr. Conrad said. "I don't want it to be sour grapes. I've been in this union and this guild when we got respect and were treated properly and were well compensated, when the daily [minimum wage] was something you could live on and the weekly was something that you embraced. That's not today."

He plans to run a low-budget campaign, what he calls "groundroots." He will spend some of his own money on the campaign as well. His primary plan is to appear at SAG forums and debates alone or with the other candidates in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

If elected, Mr. Conrad will move into a townhouse in the L.A. area, closer to most of his family. He loves being with his family. And to him, his fellow actors, stunt people and others in SAG are an extension of his family.

He's ready to be a tough guy on their behalf. "I'm only 5 foot 8 and I only weigh 165 pounds as of this morning," said Mr. Conrad, "so I'm not the world's meanest guy. But I do walk around believing I'm David (as in David and Goliath). And I am biblical. I've got the slingshot. If you treat me nicely, I'll treat you nicer. If you're rude to me, put your headgear on. Here it comes." EDITOR’S NOTE: THEY SHOULD FILM THIS AS A REAL REALITY SHOW. SOUNDS WAY MORE ENTERTAINING THAN A LOT OF THE STUFF ON THE SLATE FOR FALL! (AND THINK OF ALL THE STAR POWER)!

It's sugar, spice, everything nice for in-flight films -- so don't expect 'Red Eye' on your red eye
Peter Hartlaub
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Let outsiders judge our culture based solely on the films playing on airplanes and they might assume America is made up entirely of 14-year-old girls. EDITOR’S NOTE: SHUDDER……

But even though the choices for in-flight movies can seem phenomenally boring (now playing on a 17-inch screen shared by 20 people at an airline near you: "Hitch," "Fever Pitch" and "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous"), there's something comfortably numbing about the medium. With a crazy guy running over ducks at a car wash in Campbell and gangs infesting rural Santa Rosa, the last fun-for-the-whole-family utopia may soon be available exclusively at a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet. EDITOR’S NOTE: WHO RAN OVER DUCKS? (GUESS THIS WAS AN LA THING).

When your feet are planted on firm ground, the movie box office is dominated by war-mongering, sex-addicted, explosion-obsessed actors including Angelina Jolie and Vin Diesel. But make no mistake, Sandra Bullock rules the stratosphere. EDITOR’S NOTE: THIS WOULD BE ENOUGH ALL BY ITSELF TO MAKE SOME PEOPLE WANT TO FLY. (THERE ARE WORSE PEOPLE WHO COULD BE RULING UP THERE, RIGHT?)

Looking at eight random passenger airlines -- from United Airlines to Amsterdam-based KLM -- seven have played "Miss Congeniality 2" within the past month. Airplane movies seem to run heavy on guilty pleasures, including many films adult males are too embarrassed to see in a theater, even though they secretly want to go. How many other 35-year-old men out there soaked in the pleasures of "A Walk to Remember" for the first time on a 747 bound for Chicago?
Ashton Kutcher, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Lopez also fly high when it comes to the turbulence-free world of airplane movies. Passengers heading from San Francisco International Airport to Boston on United this week will get the visual comfort food of "Madagascar" on the trip east, and "A Lot Like Love" on the way back home. Among the movies Hawaiian Airlines is featuring this month are "Monster-in-Law" and "Guess Who."

Viewed closely, the film choices seem as obvious as the muted colors on the seatback upholstery and that horrifyingly optimistic what-to-do-in-case-of- a-water-landing pamphlet. Whether it's an extra pillow or the choice not to show movies that feature national landmarks exploding, the point seems to be the same: Keep everyone's blood pressure from going up. The new thriller "Red Eye," opening this weekend, features a homicidal killer who terrorizes a passenger. It takes place almost entirely on an airplane, but will never appear on one. EDITOR’S NOTE: AND DO WE BEGRUDGE THIS? WOULD YOU WANT TO WATCH THIS ON AN AIRPLANE? (OR POSSIBLY ANYWHERE?)!

This became even clearer after speaking for a half hour with Rob Brookler, public relations manager of the World Airline Entertainment Association. Brookler describes an industry with many specialized companies serving different airlines, where dozens of people spend hundreds of hours choosing and editing in-flight music, television reruns, magazines, short features and movies.

Since the very first in-flight movie aired on a TWA Boeing 707 in 1961 ("By Love Possessed," starring Lana Turner and Efrem Zimbalist Jr.)EDITOR’S NOTE: A TRIVIAL PURSUIT QUESTION WAITING TO HAPPEN IF EVER THERE WAS ONE……, the skies have always been friendly, presenting what has to be the world's longest- running program of films that doesn't feature a single onscreen plane crash.

"What they're looking for is wide appeal," Brookler said. "You're not going to see a horror movie on in-flight exhibition. You're not going to see something that is primarily sexual in nature." EDITOR’S NOTE: THERE GOES THAT MILE-HIGH-CLUB WARM UP THING.

Many airliners offer live satellite TV or some form of video-on-demand, but Brookler said the classic in-flight movies -- where the whole cabin watches a feature film on a handful of communal screens -- won't disappear any time soon. High-tech setups don't always make sense on small planes that are only making two or three hour trips. And some aircraft have a life span of close to 30 years, making it too costly to retrofit all of them.

"The airline industry isn't exactly flush right now, so it doesn't happen all that quickly," Brookler said.

Brookler said airlines usually get movies two or three months after theatrical release and just before the titles show up at video stores (a time period known in the industry as the "airline window"). U.S. Airways spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said airlines don't just import the most popular movies in theaters.

"We have to be conscious of the fact that it's a captive audience," Kudwa said. "There are going to be children. There are going to be customers with sensitivities to violence and strong material."

Once the rules are established, figuring out which movies are going to get picked isn't very difficult. PG-rated films, almost anything with the aforementioned Bullock and movies with a dog as a lead character are all locks. EDITOR’S NOTE: MEANWHILE, FIDO IS SUFFOCATING OR HYPERVENTILATING IN THE CARGO HOLD. (POOR FIDO…….)

(Next time you're on a plane, and you want to impress a comely traveler who just sat next to you, dazzle your companion with in-flight movie knowledge. Even with a rudimentary memory of release dates, you should get at least half of the movies right without opening that throwaway magazine that contains the listings. In about 90 days, for example, the money answers will likely be "Sky High," "Must Love Dogs" and "March of the Penguins.")

While many of the movies on different airlines are identical in name, the process of choosing in-flight entertainment is far more complicated than you think. With a cabin full of already edgy frequent fliers, even seemingly benign movies are carefully edited to appeal to the widest crowd possible.

Brookler said each airline handles editing differently. While Virgin Atlantic runs full theatrical versions of movies, almost everyone else makes changes for content and time. Airlines that focus on travel through Europe are more forgiving when it comes to sex, but tone down violence. Airlines in Asia and the Middle East take the opposite approach. And everyone had to scramble after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Images of the Twin Towers were rampant through a lot of programming, including 'Friends' and a lot of New York romantic comedies," Brookler said. "And the logistics were difficult. There are individual casettes on literally thousands of aircraft."

Since then, things have settled down a little bit, although it will still be hard to find any mention of terrorism in an in-flight movie. Not that it's going to be a big problem next month, which features another lineup of visual Valium for the whole family. EDITOR’S NOTE: OOOO….GOOD PHRASE. ‘VISUAL VALIUM’!

Looking at the few airlines that post advanced schedules, "Herbie: Fully Loaded" and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" are already on the horizon. And when it comes to controversy, there's not a cloud in sight. EDITOR’S NOTE: AMEN AND HALLELUJAH. ONE OF THE FEW ARENA WHERE I’M ALL FOR SELECTIVITY AND A WEE BIT OF CENSORSHIP.

'What is it about Jane Austen and the movie screen?'
By David Baddiel
IT IS A TRUTH UNIVERSALLY acknowledged that every few years someone puts out a new film or television version of a Jane Austen classic.

Latest in the line is Keira Knightley,EDITOR’S NOTE: NEVER A BAD THING. pouting her way through Elizabeth Bennet’s witticisms in the new Working Title version of Pride and Prejudice, out in cinemas next month.

God knows how many screen versions of P&P have been made: sometimes it seems like those first ever filmgoers must just have finished rushing out of the cinema screaming “It’s a train! Coming straight through the wall into the room! Quick, flee for your lives!” before a producer said: “OK. What about Prince Albert as Mr Darcy?” EDITOR’S NOTE: JUST TO PROVE THAT NOT EVERYONE HAS THE FACILE WIT OF THE QOTD?

Of her other novels, the only one not to have been made into a film is the unfinished fragment Sanditon, and the biggies — Emma, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility — have all been made and remade nearly as often as P&P. I wondered briefly about Northanger Abbey but a quick delve into Google reveals a 1986 television adaptation starring Peter Firth, thus establishing the now familiar rule that there must always be someone called Firth in a Jane Austen adaptation. EDITOR’S NOTE: AND GOD IS IN HIS FIRMAMENT (FIRTH-A-MENT?) AND ALL IS RIGHT WITH THE WORLD.

What is it about Jane Austen and the screen? Recent outings have tended to play up her modernity. The new Pride and Prejudice, like Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park in 1999, is being touted as a grittier, more realistic, and, by implication, more radical version of Austen than is normally conceived, which is fine, as long as everyone bears in mind that Jane herself was in no sense whatsoever a radical, and most certainly not, however feminocentric her outlook, a proto-feminist.

The word that crops up most often when her heroines are discussing what they require in a man is propriety, which at the point at which she was writing was a word in transition.

In the first edition of Dr Johnson’s dictionary, published in 1755, the meaning of propriety is defined as “peculiarity of possession; exclusive right” — in other words, ownership, a word not very far away from its sister word, property.

A glance at the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that the first meaning of propriety, in fact, is still “the fact of owning something”; it is only the seventh meaning that is given as “conformity with good manners”, a meaning that first came into usage in 1782, in the work of Austen’s greatest influence, Fanny Burney.

So by the time Pride and Prejudice is written in 1814, bourgeois ideology has forced itself into language, and propriety has come to mean two things simultaneously — correct social behaviour, and ownership of property: essentially, of a great big f***-off country estate.

And this, if you’ll excuse the scholarly diversion, is the combination of characteristics in a male suitor that all Austen’s heroines are searching for. EDITOR’S NOTE: AND THIS IS A BAD THING?

The reasons for Austen’s particular suitability to film lie elsewhere, not in content but in form.

The most obvious reason for the peculiar malleability of her narratives into film is that they more or less created the template for the genre we now call romantic comedy: a woman and a man meet, and have to overcome a series of obstacles before they can get married and live happily ever after.

Of course, she is not the first writer to use this narrative — it’s in Shakespeare, and before — but in Austen, you see tropes still incredibly common in the genre: the man and the woman not liking each other at first, even though their attraction is immediately obvious to the reader/viewer (When Harry Met Sally); discrepancy in their social standing (Pretty Woman)EDITOR’S NOTE: UGH. I’M STILL EMBARRASSED BY HOW MUCH I LIKED THIS MOVIE THE FIRST TIME I SAW IT. (SHAME ON ME! EVEN NOW….WHIMPER…..) ; one of the two main characters nearly deciding to marry someone else (Four Weddings and a Funeral);EDITOR’S NOTE: AH YES….ANDIE MCDOWELL. PITY. etc, etc.

If only there had been flea-markets in the Napoleonic era — rather than just flea-infested markets — for her characters to wander through in a montage soundtracked by Maroon 5, she’d essentially have nailed every romcom trick first.

All this, plus pretty costumes, houses and countryside, and a smattering of literary gravitas on top, and you can see why studios continue to commission Austen adaptations. EDITOR’S NOTE: IT ALL WORKS, EH?

But there is another, subtler, reason for her connection to the screen. Austen was, in my opinion, the first modern novelist in English. And her modernity lies principally — as perhaps modernity always does in art — in her understanding of perspective. She is the first novelist expertly to control the distance between narrator and character, and thus to be able to impart information to the reader about her characters without bald statement: her work, in other words, has the deadpan-ness, the transparency, of the camera.

And then in Chapter 41 of Emma there is, I think, an extraordinarily important historical moment. Most of Emma is seen from Emma Woodehouse’s perspective, and Austen controls the reader’s objective understanding of events, away from Emma’s generally misguided subjective interpretation, through sophisticated use of irony. But Chapter 41 is actually seen through the perspective of her eventual husband, Mr Knightley: during which he sees Emma’s potential alternative suitor, Frank Churchill, indulging in a clever bit of coded messaging to another woman. He tries to tell Emma this, and of course she won’t have it: but the use of this other perspective allows the reader to know what is really going on. He — and therefore we — see things that the main character cannot see, that are happening, both literally and figuratively, behind her back.

What Mr Knightley’s perspective provides, in other words, is a different camera angle; it’s the first ever cut to another point of view, the first ever widen, the first ever reveal on action. EDITOR’S NOTE: WHAT A MARVELOUS SPIN ON AUSTEN IN THE MOVIES. NEEATO!

Anyway, I think I’ve run out of space. Jane, is that a wrap?

David Baddiel’s latest novel, The Secret Purposes, is published in paperback by Abacus


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