Monday, December 02, 2013

Gravity and Sideways... Wine on film


Anyone who has seen and enjoyed Gravity will probably be delighted to learn that a sequel is planned in which Bullock and Clooney are reunited and we get to visit the insides of several more spaceships. Fewer people outside the US have seen Somm, the documentary that follows four sommeliers as they struggle to qualify as Master Sommeliers, but it's good to hear that the producers are planning to make a similar film about students preparing to take their Master of Wine exams. And the makers of Red Obsession, the film about Bordeaux fever in China are, right now, working on a film about the British love affair with half-price California White Zin.

Except, of course, none of this is going to happen, because the people who make films follow a number of basic rules and they all, in some way or another, rely on stories. And you need a good reason and a good way to repeat a story that you've already told. So, it was possible and profitable to produce six Fast & Furious films (and there would soon have been a seventh, if one of the stars had not died in a car crash last weekend) but only one Sideways. The Fast & Furious franchise is like the Grand Prix or tennis season: a series of sporting duels. Like Gravity, Sideways was a one-off story about two people in an unfamiliar setting. Neither film is as original as it appears and - and this is the nub of my argument - Sideways was not necessarily a wine movie any more than Gravity was necessarily a space movie - however mind-blowing the 3d environment in which it is set. 

The Gravity script could easily and credibly be rewritten to place Clooney and Bullock underwater repairing a submarine (you'd get the same kind of physical movements from the actors), or in Antarctica or the Sahara. What is required is a hostile, alien environment devoid of other people. While Bullock, Clooney and the team behind Gravity were making their movie, in another studio nearby, another highly talented of film makers were producing All is Lost, about a solitary yachtsman in trouble in the Indian Ocean. 





As someone  once said, most good stories are a variation on a single arc: Introduce your hero - the protagonist - and stick him up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him out of the tree. (This last part is not absolutely essential; you could finish the movie or book with your hero reconciled to their fate, but you still need to wrap it up satisfactorily). To this point, ideally, part of reasoning behind the story might involve the way that the protagonist has been changed by the experiences they have been through.  Now, if this all sounds formulaic, it is: a formula that has worked in stories ranging from Little Red Riding Hood to Hamlet and Great Expectations. There are successful exceptions to this rule, but they are just that: exceptions.

Of course, there are stories that largely rely on the familiarity of the characters – such as soap operas and the kinds of rambling “do you remember when Cousin Edith lost her hat?” type anecdotes that tend to be recounted by our kith and kin at Christmas. But most of us would acknowledge how tedious the family-and-old-friend tales are to outsiders, and it’s the job of the writers of soap operas to introduce story lines that catch the imagination and keep the interest of viewers.

Which leads me to one of the challenges facing the wine industry. It needs to tell more stories that involve a broader audience than the wine lover equivalent of the friends-and-family. “George was a lawyer before he bought his beautiful Languedoc vineyard” is not intrinsically an involving story. And nor is: “Jean-Pierre took over from his father Michel in 2008 and continues his tradition of making organic wine”. But these are the kinds of “stories” that fill the pages of wine magazines, and that some people imagine might actually interest viewers of television wine programmes.

No, the stories that work, are ones like Patricia Atkinson’s successful book The Ripening Sun which describes how her husband decided to buy a vineyard in France and then more or less abandoned her to deal with it. Chateau Monty got its TV commission because it was about how Monty Waldin, a telegenic young wine writer, apparently risked his savings on his ability to produce a biodynamic wine in France, and to convert a girl with no interest in wine into an effective assistant winemaker. It was not a wine series. The story would have been just as interesting if Waldin’s quixotic venture had involved growing orchids and the buyers he’d had to convince worked in Harrods’ flower hall.

Sideways could similarly be rewritten to suit an audience in Saudi Arabia. Miles might just as easily have been a lover of horse racing and the itinerary of the two friends’ road trip shifted to take in racecourses and studs rather than vineyards. But whatever the focus of his passion, there was in any case no way for that film to become a Fast & Furious-style franchise because the two characters had completed their arcs. One was married; the other had fundamentally changed. In fact, the nearest to a successor to Sideways I’ve seen were the Oz Clarke's & James May's Oz & James Big Wine Adventure programmes on BBC television. These relied on a similar conceit to Sideways: one of the two protagonists was knowledgeable and passionate about wine; the other was not.

The producers played on this by getting Clarke and May to pretend to dislike each other at the beginning of the first series, and by exaggerating May’s philistinism. This made for highly entertaining television but it wasn’t sustainable. By the end of the second series, the two men could no longer pretend that they didn’t get along just fine, and May had, all too obviously, changed his attitude to wine (which was, after all, the arc of his story). So, instead of taking the two men to Australia – as many in that country’s wine industry would have liked – for the third and final series, the producers sent them around Britain and switched the focus from wine to beer.

There are lessons to be learned here – for those with ears to hear them. If people who want to spread the word about wine want to spread it beyond the ranks of those who are already interested, they are going to have to rethink their storytelling. What obstacles did George the banker overcome between leaving his well-paid job and capacious London house and having his first successful vintage? Did Mrs George and the kids really take to life in the Gallic middle of nowhere? Did the villagers really welcome the newcomer into their fold? And was the passing of the baton from Michel to Jean-Pierre really so seamless? Didn’t J-P ever wonder about doing something different?

One reason why these kinds of stories are rarely published is that some of the writers simply lack the curiosity or the journalistic skills to ask the questions that would reveal them. Another is that, as “wine writers” they are too close to their subjects. They lack the hit-and-run culture of really good interviewers who know they’ll never have to meet the target of their scalpels again.

Of course, it’s quite possible – or actually quite likely – that many of the stories really are as uneventful and conflict-free – and, let's face it, dull - as they seem on the pages of the magazines. If that’s the case, they are where they belong – in the friends-and-family section of the media – and a million miles away from ever being set before an audience of television viewers or newspaper readers.





10 comments:

  1. I enjoy Waitrose tastings, but I'm always perplexed about the info they give us on the wines - am waiting for a review that stems from these events in which Kieselguhr filters are mentioned...

    Bit more on the theme here http://www.simonwoods.com/tmi/

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're correct that the Sideways plot was more about the characters and their struggles rather than wine, which was in many ways ancillary to the rest of the action. But that's how many stories are told.

    Is the film Slap Shot, starring Paul Newman, so unique that it must be about ice hockey, or could we tell the same story by placing him on a football field or in a sawmill? A classic example of making the same film in two different ways is by comparing Top Gun with Days of Thunder. Despite slight differences, the films are broadly the same, are they not? That's just the nature of telling a story and making money at the same time.

    But you're right about the journalism behind wine. Sometimes we stick to the same old boring facts and figures. We don't actually learn much about what goes on behind the scenes in the personal lives of those who run the vineyards.

    I'd love to devote much of my time to this, but so far it doesn't seem realistic!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We're very much on the same page here. The trouble is that since most wine writing is produced in a bubble - wine enthusiasts writing for other wine enthusiasts - real storytelling isn't any more necessary than it will be around the Christmas dinner table.

      Delete
  3. Such an interesting post, thank you. I have always felt that Montalcino is pullulating with stories waiting to be told...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Laura, despite my hatred - and I mean hatred - for that movie, I agree that a less fixated film-maker might have pulled lots of stories out of the people he interviewed. I really couldn't care a jot about whether his wealthy Napa owners knew the names of their Mexican vineyard workers. But I would be interested in knowing how they came to be there at all...

      Delete
  4. (Thought) provoking as ever Robert. If one accepts that journalism is writing what someone else doesn't want you to write and everything else us is PR then most wine pieces are basically the latter with hopefully less use of the words exclusive or passion. Non-foodies read Gill just to thrill at his corruscating demolition of a poor restaurant and to see how disgustingly unappetising he can make a piece of fish sound, just as non-petrolheads watch Top Gear to see how insulting Clarkson can be about Mexicans or his co-presenters. Perhaps wine journalism should follow the same path? Pillorying not praise is what interests the non-specialist.

    Your points on narrative arcing chimed with a conversation I had last night with an investment banker at a tasting. He had nearly quit the city to take over a vineyard in Roussillon but with a family to support, a penchant for luxury goods and realising Mosquito Coast is a better film than A Good Year sensibly stayed at HSBC to assist drug cartels' transactions instead. I mentioned how refreshing it would be to see a movie about Jacques, a personable but struggling 5th generation Provencal winemaker, selling his family's domaine in a stultifyingly dull rural backwater and leaving with the cash to fund his MBA at Insead. He then moves to a chic Paris apartment and becomes a wildly successful commodities broker. The end.

    Surely there is a movie in that? Reviews by wine writers would certainly include more vivifying invective than usual at least...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your response Tom and the kind words. When I pop my clogs, one of the short list of achievements I'd like to have taken into account is the number of people I've deterred from investing in vineyards and wineries. I usually suggest that they consider buying a racehorse or yacht - because at least they'd know they weren't actually putting their money into a business that would actually make them any money.

      Delete
  5. Anonymous8:20 am

    Valid points Robert, but I think you overstate the clamour from wine people for more wine on screen. I enjoy catching up with (subjectively) good food & drink TV when it crops up, but don't really care whether it's there or not. And I disagree about Oz & James. I enjoyed it, but also knew wine philistines who liked the show and think 'roading' more regions could have worked well.

    Tyrone: @winesonlyadrink

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As with so many things, including "natural" wine and Parker points, a few people tend to make most of the noise. But I do encounter a lot of grumbling about the lack of general media space being given to wine.
      Where I disagree is over the potential to extend the Oz & James franchise. I don't believe that the relationship between the two "worked" well enough to carry a longer series and it's the presenters who matter more than the places they go to. That's why Michael Palin, Rick Stein or Paul Merton get to make travel programmes while others don't.

      Delete