John Walsh: ‘When did relationships in movies become less important than lifestyle?’

Tales of the City

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Last week I was asked to be temporary film critic of this organ, standing-in for Anthony Quinn, and I jumped at the chance. It wasn't just the prospect of spending two days watching seven or eight new movies in dark screening rooms in Soho, buoyed up by coffee and Chocolate Mini-Rolls; nor just the prospect of being under the same ceiling as Philip French, the Observer's legendary, 75-year-old movie critic, who was around when Truffaut, Godart, Chabrol and Louis Malle were re-writing the language of cinema with the French new wave in the 1960s. No, it was the fascination of discovering the vast range of subjects that British, US and Japanese studios found interesting in 2009.

I presented myself at the Soho Screening Room with scrubbed face, clean handkerchief, spiral notebook and Mitsubishi Uniball at 10am on Monday. The first film, entitled Helen, was about the aftermath of a murder; it wasn't interested in the murder, though, but in the girl playing the murder victim in a police re-construction. It was a short, interminably slow British-Irish drama, in which everybody delivered the flat dialogue in voices like I Speak Your Weight Machines. But at its core was a girl in reduced circumstances, seizing the chance to be become someone else, richer and more glamorous, and suffering a crisis as a result.

In the afternoon, Is Anybody There?, a British film with an Irish director, brought us Michael Caine as Clarence, a retired magician. Much was made of Clarence's glamorous and successful stage career in the Old Days; now in reduced circumstances, he hangs out with a small boy, who is obsessed with death and paranormal activity, and dying to meet a ghost.

The critics joshed each other about the full-house attendance by middle-aged men forHannah Montana – the Movie, starring the 16-year-old Miley Cyrus. The Disney film quickly revealed itself as the story of an interesting duality: a girl in ordinary circumstances who, by the simple addition of a blonde wig, becomes a different person, the rich, glamorous and successful pop phenomenon, Hannah. At the end, Miley/Hannah asks her audience which of her twin selves they would prefer her to be – a real moment of existential angst I felt I'd seen already that day. At least there were no deaths or hauntings.

Which you can't really say about X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which features a mutant haunted by his power to make knives as long as scythes spring from his knuckles at moments of strain. Upset by the violence in which he's persuaded to indulge, while in his identity as an X-Man, he chooses a life of reduced circumstances, simplicity and hot sex with a schoolteacher in a log cabin, until he's forced to re-adopt his rebarbative public persona.

I was beginning to despair of ever seeing a film which didn't concern the tension between an "ordinary" self and a notional alter ego that brings you adventure and/or trouble.

I looked forward to a Japanese movie also on release - surely it would display some different cinematic preoccupations from the British and US models? Some hope. I watched Funuke: Show Some Love, You Losers! and blinked with amazement at its tale of a peculiar family in the Japanese countryside. The beautiful elder sister has harboured dreams of becoming someone else, a movie star in Tokyo, and, constantly thwarted, has become a knife-wielding, incestuous bitch at home. Her immortality is assured, however, because her jealous little sister has turned her into the villain of a manga comic and thereby made her own fortune in the big outside world...

Even before I was halfway through Ghosts of Girlfriends Past - in which a glamorous fashion photographer, played by a smirking Matthew McConaughey, is offered a shot at redemption after being shown the unpleasantness of his public image by several transparent spirits – I was shouting: Enough! Spare me any more films about the glamorous, heroic, kick-arse, effortlessly rich and successful counter-life to which we all may aspire, but which we may have to reject!

When did this become the main, indeed the only subject of movies, from West Hollywood to Wardour Street? When did relationships in films become less important than a glamorous occupation and a fancy lifestyle?

And while you're at it (I continued,) spare me any more of these ghosts and hauntings in every other film. What are we – six years old?

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