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by dr andrew cousins

Mark Custard - Film Intellectual

Mark Custard is probably best known for his series, ‘Frame by Frame’ on BBC2. In it he invites filmmakers and actors to review their career by watching a series of clips for their films. He often tries to draw deep psychological meanings from their work. He also regularly contributes articles to ‘Sight and Sound’.
Most television programmes about film are extremely populist and arguably quite superficial. ‘Frame by Frame’ isn’t like that is it?
No it isn’t. I am not interested in simply being another film review show. What I am trying to do is probe what the film maker was trying to do with a particular shot or scene. Or what an actor was trying to convey in a particular part. I am not knocking Barry Norman or Jonathon Ross – I think they do a very valuable job. I think we provide a more intellectual counterpoint to their programmes.

It certainly is rather intellectual. You’re deeply fascinated by the semiotic and psychological analysis of film aren’t you?
For me, films should be treated and analysed in the same way that poetry, prose and art are de-constructed. There is an elitism that exists which says that film is a lesser art form. That is nonsense. Take a film like Babe for example. On one level it is a rather simplistic children’s film about a talking pig but under closer scrutiny it is an essay on the problems of sexual identity and gender roles. In many ways the film is on an artistic par with the greatest works of fiction in literary history. Babe 2: Pig in the City, on the other hand, is a pile of crap.

It’s been argued that films made today are shallow, unimaginative and lacking in artistic merit. Do you agree with that?
No. I do not. Take a film like American Beauty. I think it is superb. What Sam Mendes has constructed is a sharply satirical look at a slice of suburban Americana. He strips away the layers to show the stagnation of middle class American life. He does this through extremely clever use of imagery that I greatly admire. Kevin Spacey is one of the best actors in the world today and his performance is pitched perfectly. Annette Benning takes what could have been a very unrewarding part as a sexually frustrated wife and makes it her own. Also, Mina Suvari is really fit.

Erin Brockovitch shows a single mother reasserting her place in society, which has shunned women in her position up until now. She is a representative of ‘New Feminism’, which states that women can dress and act exactly how they like without worrying about how that image might stereotype them in the eyes of others. Also Julia Roberts looks very good in tight, skimpy clothing, which helps.

Take a film like Traffic. Here we have Steven Soderberg skilfully weaving together different storylines to create a narratively strong, cohesive whole. He even got a decent performance out of Catherine Zeta Jones, which is an achievement in itself.

What about the British film industry? Surely there isn’t much artistic merit in a load of Lock, Stock clones.
Whilst I am distressed by the willingness of British filmmakers to jump onto the gangster film bandwagon there is still some hope. What about Billy Elliot’ for example? Most people have seen it as a film about a boy trying to break the stereotypical barriers of both his class and his passion for dance. What they haven not seen is that it is actually a critical study of the Thatcher government and a call for the immediate creation of a communist controlled worker state. When Billy’s friend puts on make-up and a dress he is actually symbolic of the film’s central premise that capitalism is not what it appears to be. It is a work worthy of Eisenstein.

But what about something like Love, Honour and Obey? That was universally panned on release.
That was initially seen as Jude Law and his mates larking about in a semi-improvised film about comedy gangsters and karaoke. What audiences and critics failed to spot was that the use of karaoke is crucial to understanding the film. It is actually a critique of the superficiality of our consumer-based economy. Not many people are aware that Rhys Ifans has a Masters Degree in Socio-Political Economics. His input into the film was vital.

Aren’t you in danger of trying to over-intellectualise all this? Next you’ll be telling me that ‘Chorlton and the Wheelies’ wasn’t a rather badly animated children’s television series but a plea for racial tolerance!
That is exactly what it was. Chorlton the Dragon represented a kind of ‘everyman’ figure who was thrust into a world in which he was the only one of his kind. Wheelie World represented Britain ruled over by a monarchy-based society. Fennella the Kettle Witch symbolised extreme nationalism and the danger that it can sometimes spill over into racism. It was a very progressive programme for the time. I am very glad you spotted it. Most people do not.

Mark Custard, I think we’ll leave it there.
The new series of ‘Frame by Frame’ will be broadcast on BBC2 in the autumn. Among the people featured in the series will be William Goldman, Sidney Pollack, Mike Figgis, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Harris and Vinnie Jones.

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