For this week's instalment of our regular film feature, Maxwell Tait tells you why terrific new documentary Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan is the film you need to get you through Dry January. Plus, two more sozzled films that would fail a breathalyser test.
A lifetime of pints with the Diego Maradona of music - Shane MacGowan
“We’re better when we’re sober,” Shane MacGowan confesses regarding The Pogues live performances, “ — but it’s not as much fun, so we get drunk”.
Shane has a drink in front of him. The present tense here can be interpreted quite literally — whenever you may be reading, it is most likely accurate. Though now slouched in a wheelchair since falling and breaking his pelvis in 2015, the iconic singer from The Pogues remains clearly recognisable from the unforgettable impressions of his early days. Less clear is his speech; sometimes it’s patronising when subtitles are used for someone speaking English, it’s in everyone’s best interests here. He puffs on his e-cig, it’s LED butt glows green. The Irish star might not look as good as he could for a man in his early sixties, but getting hung up on that would be missing the point of a career never preoccupied with glossiness. And I would argue that he looks pretty good for someone that has eaten a Beach Boys record.
MacGowan will always remain divisive simply because some people cannot look past the alcohol; the same people that, if you stumble on your way to the toilet halfway through your first drink, will dismiss anything that you say for the remainder of an evening as hollow drunk-talk. There’s probably a further crossover with those that are confused by the use of narrators in ‘Fairytale of New York' (a great moment to dig out the band’s Owen Jones-endorsed response to Laurence F*x’s censorship squeals). To those that he has earned the respect of, he is comfortably among the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, with an embarrassment of classic numbers. Even those less fond of him would struggle to argue against his undeniable literary understanding, his lyrical wit, or, at the very least, his part in a cracking Christmas tune.
Crock of Gold is not a film that suffers from limited scope, and director Julien Temple succeeds in fitting a comprehensive history of MacGowan into its runtime, beginning with his formative years spent between Tunbridge Wells and Tipperary. We see Shane’s Beano Magazine exploits punctuated by a cartoon-cast of aunts and uncles, soundtracked by the constant skip of Irish folk, and doused in stout from the age of six. But London is where the singer honed his edges; here MacGowan’s dissatisfaction with the capital reacted with the arrival of punk in the mid-seventies. His time spent within this scene gave his take on Irish folk music the freshness and vigour required to command attention, and sharpened the barbs that would define his character for the rest of his career.
It’s familiar territory for experienced documentary maker Temple, whose previous films on MacGowan’s contemporaries Joe Strummer and The Sex Pistols make him a solid choice as the singer’s mediator. Like those previously put to screen, MacGowan is a huge character to have to ‘do justice to’, and Temple paints a vivid portrait that captures the sheer colour of MacGowan (blue, as we learn when he recounts painting his entire naked body on a speed trip). With the quality and quantity of anecdote available here, even the worst filmmaker would struggle to misfire, but the film does its own share of heavy lifting. The glorious patchwork of visual techniques charmingly illustrate the stories being told, and the number of different-aged voices of MacGowan we hear gives the film a spiritual, nonlinear-time quality, as well as forcing an appreciation for the scale of the editing process.
There’s tons of fantastic archive footage throughout of interviews, exploits, and thrilling performances. The film knows when to break up the informative; every now and then you just need to drop ‘Streams of Whiskey’ or ‘Sally MacLennane’ to get pulses going. A regrettably inevitable misstep towards the end allows Bono onstage to try his luck at ‘A Rainy Night in Soho’ karaoke, but this is quickly rectified by Shane duetting with Nick Cave. It’s the music that really connects artist to audience in a film like this, and it makes you feel a little sympathy for new David Bowie biopic Stardust failing to acquire the rights to include his work.
Industrious, excessive, and gifted, MacGowan is unquestionably the Diego Maradona of music (even if in the year where The Pogues played no less that 363 gigs, he suffered the burnout of Alexis Sanchez). He might feel that the title of poet does his musicianship a disservice, but his way with words make it an utter joy to accompany him for two hours, across powerful meditations on faith, death, and, most importantly, drink — as well as superb putdowns, like how Yeats couldn’t handle a bit of anarchy because he “didn’t like getting his foppish clothes messy”. There is obviously a very important subtext of addiction at play, but about his vices and struggles, MacGowan is open, grounded, and sincerely candid. At one point he asks if he’s being filmed — “where’s the camera?” — but you get the feeling that it wouldn’t make a difference. Wonderful, wonderful company.
Another Round (Vinterberg, 2020)
When four schoolteacher friends find themselves in a middle-aged rut, they decide to embark on an experiment inspired by a Norwegian philosopher’s eccentric theory: that humans achieve optimal performance with a blood alcohol content of 0.05%. The latest film from Judd Apatow, Another Round has the director assemble a familiar cast, with Seth Rogen, Channing Tatum, Craig Robinson and Paul Rudd starring in this Hollywood remake of Thomas Vinterberg’s winner of ‘Best Film’ at the 2020 BFI London Film Festival.
Well, that's what will be written in a few years time. Crystal ball to one side, Another Round (or Druk, to give it its superior Danish language title) sees Dogme 95-alumni Vinterberg reunite with Mads Mikkelsen, the duo that gave us acclaimed drama The Hunt. In a superb performance from Mikkelsen, Martin and his three fellow-teachers maintain a constant buzz via breakfast wine and vodka-filled water bottles, and, as a result, begin to deliver impassioned, inspirational lessons to their classes. It’s genuinely as accurate a portrayal of the profusion of feelings induced by alcohol as you’ll see; the inclines, the declines, the intensity, the melancholy. You can’t avoid a hangover forever though, and inescapable consequences soon arise.
It is deeply sad that the film should have been Vinterberg's first collaboration with his daughter Ida, who tragically lost her life at 19 in a car accident during the early stages of production. That the director was brave enough to complete Another Round is commendable beyond words, and he has channeled a great deal of emotion into this powerful and original testament to living life to its fullest. But, whilst remaining rich and affecting, it’s still really funny at times — it makes you laugh and cry in very quick succession, and, all things considered, that’s exactly what Vinterberg intended.
Another Round is currently scheduled for a UK cinematic release in Spring.
La Ciénaga (Martel, 2001)
Lucrecia Martel’s debut feature La Ciénaga, or to give it’s English title, The Swamp, is aptly named. Ironic that one of the freshest filmmakers of this century emerged with a work of such potent decay. We join a middle-class extended family group at their faded holiday-home in rural Argentina; the adults are fused to their poolside loungers, next to the stickiest table of glasses and bottles you’ll see. Their neglected children discharge rifles in the adjacent woods, the indigenous house servants are accused of stealing, the pool is truly squalid (Martel: “the idea of having a cube of water just for a few people is like having a slave”). Everything always seems to be rattling or rumbling, someone always seems to be bleeding, no one really seems bothered?
This is only touching the surface of La Ciénaga, an elusive and intoxicating work of filmmaking genius. We’re often uncertain of sources of sounds — we hear noises that have no on screen representation. The frame constantly goads the audience, cutting off characters at the neck, and making deliberate omissions with claustrophobic close-ups. Some films withhold no information from their audience: at its best, this results in a focused, cohesive work that runs like an intricate machine; at its worst, it’s like a social media user that holds nothing back, updating you on every run, every breakfast, every relationship, nothing to the imagination. But Martel rejects this, creating an idiosyncratic environment that has you certain that things are happening without your knowledge — be it action occurring outside the frame, or pivotal affairs unfolding outside of the scene entirely. We’re like Andy in Toy Story, if his toys were drunken, dejected, petit-bourgeois Argentinians. It's a fascinating technique that Martel has built on throughout her immaculate filmography.
A prickly, anarchic form is fitting for the godless world of La Ciénaga. Equal parts challenging and striking, it's a film that sweats through you like a hangover. Not for light viewing, then, but if you’re looking for something to remind you how exciting and ambitious filmmaking can be, La Ciénaga is most certainly it.
La Ciénaga is available to stream on Amazon Prime.