“You looking for something, mate?”
“Er, yeah, can you sort me out with season 5 of House Of Cards?”
“Sure, boss, you want some season 9 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, with that? I’ve just got it from my man at the docks – it’s pretty good. Pretty, pretty, good.”
This is a fairly accurate representation of what I’ve had to do to watch quality television whilst living in the cultural backwater of New Zealand in the last ten years. Not only is the country infatuated with one of the dullest sports ever invented, the populace also seems to be content with some of the most mediocre television created. I expect Kazakhstani TV to be more exciting than it is here.
From the endless reality shows and soap operas, to the fact that TVNZ once unwittingly transmitted Thunderball at prime-time on a Saturday night just seven days after it transmitted its 1983 remake, Never Say Never Again, I imagine the programming schedules are drawn up by work-experience kids, or –worse still – programmers who have never left these shores and aren’t aware of how good other countries can be.
We joined the rest of the planet a few weeks ago, and finally got Netflix. After ten years in the wilderness, I’ve finally returned to the act of channel-surfing (although in a slightly different way to broadcast television).
I’ve been waiting months to see the new Psycho documentary 78/52 – the title referring to the number of camera set-ups and edits in Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene. As I’m pretty sure the documentary is still doing the rounds on the festival circuit, I thought I’d have to contact my dealer hanging out behind the local library. Forget it, it’s on Netflix!
Looking to score the stand-up special, Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life? Forget it, it’s on Netflix!
Looking forward to the second season of GLOW? Forget it, it’s on Netflix!
My dealer’s going to go out of business, and might have to resort to supplying the local kindergarten kids with pirated episodes of Peppa Pig.
One of the unexpected advantages of Netflix has been the joy of stumbling upon something unexpected. I got such a great grounding in film from watching films and documentaries in the middle of the night on the BBC or Channel 4, from curated retrospectives of particular directors, to seminal cult films and forgotten classics. I let the programmers shape my tastes.
A recent Netflix find was one of my favourites to watch in the early hours as a teenager – Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz, his fifth and final collaboration with Clint Eastwood, from 1979.
It’s still a great film, from Eastwood’s underplayed, optimistic hero, to Patrick MacGoohan’s calculating prison warden, and having not seen it for around twenty-five years, I really enjoyed it.
It is, however, not a patch on The Shawshank Redemption. Before the genre-bending, narrative revolution of 1990’s cinema, prison films were almost a lost art, a masculine relic of bygone times. Escape From Alcatraz, Papillon, and Midnight Express were the genre’s three high watermarks. What could a prison film do that we haven’t seen before?
Enter Frank Darabont. Originally a horror screenwriter (The Fly II, The Blob, A Nightmare On Elm Street III: Dream Warriors), his 1983 short film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Woman In The Room, led to an ongoing and successful collaboration with the writer. After giving us the greatest prison film of the decade, he followed it up with The Green Mile, the second-best of the genre.
Originally a short story titled Rita Hayworth & Shawshank Redemption from King’s 1982 Different Seasons collection – which also spawned 1986’s Stand By Me and 1998’s Apt Pupil – the premise is simple: an innocent man gets imprisoned for his wife’s murder, and escapes from the prison against all odds.
In fact, it’s a little too simple, isn’t it? But when you consider that this was made in a post Die Hard world, the film’s lack of action is its greatest gamble. If 1996’s The Rock was the prison film made for hopped-up ’90s teen audiences; Shawshank was directed at their nostalgia-hungry parents.
From Morgan Freeman’s career-defining voice-over, to Tim Robbins’ downbeat protagonist, and an ensemble cast of future Darabont regulars, it’s a joy to watch, easily earning its seven Oscar nominations. Ultimately the film went home from the Academy Awards empty-handed, losing against Forrest Gump for its three big nominations – Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The glue that holds Shawshank together is its ethereal score by Thomas Newman, who by this time was well on his way to his 1999 career peak with Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. Newman’s score fits the 1940s/1950s setting effortlessly, and is enhanced by period songs from the (always fantastic) Ink Spots and Hank Williams.
A hidden (behind a poster) gem of my collection, this double LP set is on ‘suds on the roof’ yellow vinyl, and includes a replica of Andy’s ‘blank’ postcard to Red.
Hit: Shawshank Prison (Stoic Theme)
Hidden Gem: Elmo Blatch