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Getting time and place right in film and television August 20, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

This review of Atomic Blonde is interesting. Not because it suggests the film is good – anything but, though I bet I’ll see it sooner or later, but because it fixes on one aspect in passing…

But the outer framework is unforgivably shabby: a threadbare espionage plot mounted on a mass of embarrassingly clunky 1980s period detail. They stopped short of having Boy George attempt to run Charlize over with a Sinclair C5. But I’m betting it was a close-run thing.


All these people move through a version of 1989 that looks to have been designed by somebody who once heard somebody talk about a Duran Duran video, but who has never actually seen one. The music would be poundingly obvious – Nena, Falco, Depeche Mode – if it weren’t so often plucked from the wrong end of the decade. And the fashion? Who was still wearing a Boy T-shirt in 1989?

Striving for realism in film is fascinating. It has to be done but it feels often like a pointless task. All film is a construct – but even moving beyond that recently watching a range of period dramas such as Taboo, Parade’s End and even SS-GB (though that’s not quite a period drama, or is it?), it struck me how difficult it can be to recreate an historical time visually. The sheer pressure of detail is almost overwhelming. Granted with Taboo one suspects (like Deadwood before it) that that was less of a pressure since there was a fair bit less stuff around. Parade’s End is moving into a time period where there’s simply more objects and so forth. SS-GB more again. Yet I’d bet few here remember the 1940s. What was it like? What was the fabric of place and context like? This pack of cigarettes, is it anomalous, an anachronism? That piece of furniture? Too soon? That accent, that turn of phrase? Dated even then or unlikely to have been heard.

22.11.63 is another show that seeks to capture a period. I’ve huge reservations about the way it went about it though. The book was a marvel – late period King that was like early period King, and even its narrative byways were fascinating. But while on paper I should like the TV adaptation something about it doesn’t gel. I think for me two things stand out. It should be about time travel, but it kind of isn’t and lapses into being a thriller about a guy who just happens to know a bit more about a likely assassination attempt on Kennedy rather than someone who feels like they are genuinely from the future. Secondly the distortion of the original narrative and the introduction or rather changes to some characters prominence. Thirdly there’s the knuckle headed approach the protagonist takes at times. As to capturing time and place, well yes, this it does reasonably well. And yet, to take an example, are those cars a fraction too shiny? After all I remember 1973 in Ireland and I’m pretty sure cars were a lot more beaten up. And so it is with that past, it’s photogenic, but too photogenic.

And what was 1989 like? Small wonder that those making Atomic Blonde go for the path of least resistance, picking on the almost parodic elements to make the case that this is indeed 1989. What’s odd is that there were many television shows and films from then which could be used as source material for a relatively realistic looking depiction of that time and place. But then it sounds like this film is falling prey to that dynamic of depiction where London is no more than the sum of tourist parts etc.

Actually, for my money the best recreation of the past I’ve seen recently was in Zodiac, which I finally caught up with – and I’ve other thoughts on that film in regard to other aspects of it. The sense of place and time, in a way the mundane aspects of it, were done perfectly. This was a lived in depiction. Maybe it was easier, there’s a lot of the past in the present when we go looking for it – buildings, facades, interiors, probably furniture, about. 1970 isn’t that long ago. But still, getting its right, that’s the trick.


1. Michael Carley - August 20, 2017

I remember somebody saying the big mistake in a lot of dramas was having all the cars from the same year as the show was set.


WorldbyStorm - August 20, 2017

Yeah, and if you’ve seen 22.11.63 it was obvious that cars were reused in shots – say they’re driving down a street in Dallas, the same green car will appear twice heading in the same direction of travel and then in the opposite direction half a minute later.


Michael Carley - August 20, 2017

Something similar happens in Bullitt, but for different reasons.


2. roddy - August 20, 2017

The only show to get it’s cars ,lorries etc correct for the period was 1960s themed “Heartbeat”. The old vehicles and 60s music was an excellent combination.


3. Dermot O Connor - August 20, 2017

One thing that sticks in my head from when I moved to LA in the early 90s was the number of ugly clunkers from the 70s still floating around, often driven by some blue-haired old woman. A friend of mine saw one of these with a faded ‘Nixon/Agnew’ bumper sticker still on it. This was before hashtag-irony, it was legit.

By the 90s, anything from the 50s or 60s would be a cherished vintage, but the 70s box shaped detroit clunkers were still being used, and most of them looked like crap, well maintained or not. There was a ‘cash for clunkers’ program in the 00s that took a lot of them off the road; when you do see one now (which is rare), it’s usually been well cared for and is in good shape.

That’s the kind of small period detail that you’d be unlikely to find in a current movie set in the 90s (“Quick, get me some cars from the 90s”, etc). In the King book / TV series, I did wonder about the non-presence of beaten up cars from the 40s or early 50s, which should still have been floating around, especially in the small towns.

PET PEEVE: use of late 90s and present day corp-speak in period shows. E.G., ‘GOING FORWARD’. I’ve noticed so many of these linguistic anachronisms – but these really blatant ones take me out of any period show. There was one SF show set in the sixties, and someone used that god-awful phrase.

“Hey, that’s not fit for purpose”, I thought.


Michael Carley - August 20, 2017

“Safe space” appears in Jimmy’s Hall.


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