Tom Sutcliffe: LA never did deal in reality, I suppose

The Week In Culture
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The Independent Online

If you stay to the very end of Clint Eastwood's film Changeling you may notice something odd about the busy 1920s Los Angeles street scene over which the closing credits run. There's something a little fishy about the people and – if you look for long enough – you should be able to work out what it is. They're not real at all, but strolling computer homunculi, their gait and manner just a little too smooth to be real.

They look as if they're running on rails – like the trams that trundle down the avenue – and if you watch carefully, you'll see the same ones come round more than once, sometimes mirror-imaged to conceal the doubling, but in several cases exactly repeating the movements of the citizen who rounded the corner 30 seconds before.

This hardly counts as a criticism, naturally. Eastwood's film has been praised for the way it evokes its 1928 setting, and it's true that it's intriguing to see Los Angeles in the days before the American car industry managed to get the public transport infrastructure ripped out, when the city still had a kind of liveable human scale.

And in most of the long shots the blend of real city and the virtually recreated one is all but seamless. But even so I found something eerie in the way those little mannequins seemed to connect to a larger sense of the ways in which the film had failed. They niggled a bit, like a seed stuck in the teeth, and I wanted to work out why they seemed exemplary of something, not just a film buff's curiosity.

It wasn't the baring of the illusion itself. All cinema is illusion, after all, and anyone watching a period piece knows the illusion has been heightened even further. So, while there are moments in the film where I found myself thinking a little sardonically about the just-bought perfection of Angelina Jolie's clothes, their pristine sense of having come straight from the wardrobe mistress, that wasn't really significant enough to worry about. Eventually, I realised what it was. The thing that really exposes those street scenes as a computerised artefact is that the little figures are empty of psychology. They never hesitate, they never look around in uncertainty and – most telling – they behave as if they aren't aware of anyone else on the street. They have a task to perform and they perform it.

And thinking about that, I realised that it was also true of a disturbing number of the human cast members in Changeling. There's been some talk of Jolie garnering an Oscar nomination for her role here, and it's certainly true that she drops a tear as fetchingly as any Hollywood actress. But I couldn't help but feel they looked like accessories rather than an expression of emotion. Her response to the almost unimaginable torments of first losing a child and then having a substitute foisted on her was eerily devoid of texture – particularly at the points where you felt friction was most likely to occur. And though numbness would be one consequence of such agony, it's hard to believe it would be this numb.

The more minor characters were in even bigger trouble. When Jolie's character is committed to a mental institution, every single staff member she encounters has been cut from the same template – a Nurse Ratched model of brutal institutional sadism.

There isn't, in these encounters, a flicker of human grey – of empathy or confusion or self-doubt – only the black and white collision of Victim and Unfeeling Perpetrator. Everyone is moving on tracks, in short – going through the motions of lifelikeness so neatly and predictably that it isn't like life at all. It's just a simulation.

Giggles with Mr Eliot

I went to the Donmar's production of The Family Reunion last week, a curiously satisfying experience. By which I mean not that it's curious that one should be satisfied by an Eliot verse drama, but that it satisfies in a curious way – at one moment thrilling you by its penetration of thought and language and at the next putting you in serious danger of an uncontrollable classroom giggle. As an example of the first, the cliché "to earn my living" is at one point turned in such a way that it questions what a person might have to do to merit their own existence, rather than just a salary. An example of the second is the magnificently enigmatic invocation "May the weasel and the otter be about their business". Or – and this surely qualifies as one of the most grandly mystifying lines ever to feature in a West End play – "The dead stone is seen to be batrachian/The aphyllous branch ophidian". It means "the dead stone is seen to be toady/ the leafless branch snakey", and I'd love to know if any drama can better it for determined opacity.

The realm of self-righteous offence has expanded further with the news that the BBC is under fire for having broadcast the inaudible noise John Barrowman's (left) genitals make when exposed to a microphone. The offending articles weren't described and can have only had an adverse effect on listeners who tried to imagine them, which is their problem, not the BBC's. I don't want an apology, but I would love an explanation of Barrowman's clarification – "I didn't take the whole thing out, but I got my fruit and nuts out." If the fruit and nuts were out, what was left behind? And what would Humphrey Lyttelton, late grand-master of the filthy mental image, make of this new anxiety at the BBC? His account, in one broadcast, of how Samantha was going out for an ice cream with an Italian friend and looking forward to "licking the nuts off a large Neapolitan" would now, presumably, be accompanied by an instantaneous expression of regret.