Welcome to Hoffa’s Retro Cinema Club, right here on your local Patch!!!
If remakes, re-imaginings, adaptations, and pointless cash-cow sequels leave you feeling empty, if CGI effects just don’t do it for you, if you’re left utterly disappointed by Hollywood’s current talent pool (or lack thereof), then Hoffa has the cure that you’ve been so desperately seeking! What Oprah did for book clubs, Hoffa’s going to do for film clubs! So dust off that Betamax VCR that’s hiding in your basement and follow along as your personal guide, Patch’s very own ‘James R. Hoffa,’ takes you back to film’s past to discover, review, and discuss many of cinema’s hidden gems. Who knows, you may even end up with a new all time favorite!
With the recent national emphasis on green energy initiatives and local discussion of S.C. Johnson and Son’s quest to erect electricity generating wind turbines at its Waxdale facilities in Mount Pleasant, I couldn’t help but to think about our national power grid and the work needed to modernize it for efficient, sustainable, reliable, and cost-effective electrical production and delivery for our coming future demands. Of course, nothing is more representative of our national power grid, or closer to home than the mammoth pylons of steel framework dotting our landscape like superhighways that suspend the electricity carrying cabling nearly a hundred feet in the air.
Needless to say, I’m willing to bet that most of you haven’t given much thought to these ‘giants’ that loom over us as we traverse our daily lives, watching and observing us from afar, despite being so very close and omnipresent. In fact, if you think of the towers as being ‘alive,’ in a figurative sense, and transpose your thought to reflect the view from their perspective, there’d almost be something surreal about the stories that I’m sure they’d have to tell about us. Surely, one of the first things you’d do in modernizing our grid would be in infrastructure improvements to assure for the durability and longevity of these pylons – and that means painting them!
And thus is the setting of director Sam Miller’s dramatic look at a budding unconventional romance amongst working class Britons – ‘Among Giants’ (1998), this installment of Hoffa’s Retro Cinema Club feature film pick!
Ok, I know what you’re thinking - a film about a group of workers that paint electrical towers while falling in love should be about as interesting as… well, watching paint dry, right? But you’d be dead wrong and remised to have overlooked this hidden gem, so let’s take a deeper look at why this film works so very well, shall we?
‘90’s film culture was heavily influenced by an explosion of European product finding mass appeal and financial success amongst global audiences. PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, once billed as Europe’s competitor to ‘Hollywood’ before its eventual sale and merger with Hollywood’s Universal Pictures in 1999, was riding that wave, releasing hit after hit such as 1994’s ‘Four Weddings and A Funeral,’ 1996’s ‘Fargo’ and ‘Trainspotting,’ 1997’s ‘Spice World,’ and 1999’s ‘Notting Hill,’ just to name a few recognizable titles.
Likewise, Fox Searchlight, despite not being anywhere near as large of a player as PolyGram, had just come off a huge and rather unexpected success with 1997’s ‘The Full Monty.’ Given this new found acceptance of European films by American audiences, the British government decided to pro-actively compete for film production and the local employment and economic stimulus associated with such, by offering extremely generous tax credits as well as direct financing via grants from the state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Put these two factors together, and you have the ideal conditions that led to the creation of ‘Among Giants.’
Capitalizing on the success of ‘The Full Monty,’ writer Simon Beaufoy was once again recruited for the task of coming up with a quirky and modern romantic drama. As any brilliant writer does, Beaufoy stuck with what he knows best, centering ‘Among Giants’ in and around Sheffield, England, and focusing on the trials and tribulations of the working class, just as he did with ‘Monty.’ Although this time, Beaufoy gives us a radical change of scenery, as a majority of the happenings in ‘Giants’ take place amid the rolling and picturesque English moorlands surrounding the city.
This story of labor and love follows the daily life adventures of Ray, the ‘leader’ of a small rag-tag group of un-skilled laborers struggling to make it in post-industrial Sheffield, played with vigor by the late Shakespearean-trained British veteran Pete Postlethwaite. The film opens as Ray and his best friend Steve, played by a considerably younger James Thornton, attempt to scale the side of an extremely flat and rocky cliff somewhere out in the moorland. As we later learn, Thornton’s Steve, an avid climber and womanizer, has taken up living with Ray and looks to him not only as his best friend, but also as a surrogate father of sorts. As Steve scales to the top with Ray’s assistance, we see that they are being unknowingly watched by an on-looking Rachel Griffiths, an omen of how their paths will all soon cross, and their respective lives forever changed.
As Steve reaches the top and celebrates his victory over the cliff, the title screen and opening credits begin, allowing us our first introduction to yet another of this film's stars – a simple melodic score featuring warm and lush analog synth pads, cymbals sampled from a drum machine and set on an arpeggio loop, and a moodful electric piano carrying the harmony played by the score’s composer, maestro Tim Atack, who’s previous work is best known to American audiences as the composer and producer of the Des’ree smash ‘I’m Kissing You,’ the love theme from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), which also featured Postlethwaite in a minor supporting role.
Coming off the visceral high of Atack’s score, we’re introduced to the ‘gang,’ comprised of the timid and peculiar Shovel, played by perennial Brit favorite Lennie James, the cranky Bob, played by Andy Serkis, the smart-alec Weasel, played by Rob Jarvis, and the aging and pessimistic Frank, played by Alan Williams. With the exception of Serkis, this entire supporting cast, including Thornton, would later re-unite for Miller’s follow-up, the Emmanuelle Beart vehicle ‘Elephant Juice’ (1999). Through their interactions and dialog with each other, we’re instantly drawn to the likability of this band of knuckleheads, taking interest in their plights, and begin to feel as if we’ve known them for all our lives, as these men could very easily be our next door neighbors or even members of our own extended families.
To keep the gang together and working, Ray makes a deal with Derek, a mid-level manager at a Sheffield power utility played by Steve Huison in a minor role, to have his crew paint a 15 mile stretch of the giant pylons interspersed along the English countryside outside Sheffield in just under three (3) months time before the power on those lines is switched back on. But the power utility is currently experiencing a minor cash-flow problem and doesn’t have Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill reforms to utilize to help contain costs, so Ray and the boys are hired off-the-books, cash-in-hand, freelance style, with "no union bollocks," as is made clear by Derek.
On their way home from the first day on the job, Ray and Steve encounter and pick-up a hitch-hiking Gerry, a wondering backpack toting free-spirited Australian climber, played with convincing ease by relative new-comer at the time, Griffiths. She joins Ray and Steve for a drink at a local pub, where her climbing skills are challenged in a most unusual manner by the competitive Steve. Unexpectedly, Gerry shows up the next day at the gang’s work site, and pitches Ray on hiring her on as a member of the crew in a very unorthodox but awe inspiring fashion. Despite the gang’s reservations about taking on a woman, Ray offers her a job with them.
Although Gerry is at least 20 years Ray’s minor and the philosophical opposite of everything he’s ever known, there’s just something about her that draws him to her. As the rest of the gang leaves the work site for the day, Ray stays behind to chat with Gerry, who plans to camp out on the moors in a tent near the tower they just painted. "How long you been out on the road?'' he asks her. "How long is a piece of string?" is the answer he receives. Ray’s conversation with Gerry leads him to the realization that Gerry just so happens to be exactly Steve’s type, not to mention that Gerry is Steve’s age. But Steve denies any attraction to Gerry, claiming that "it’s different when you’re working," despite neither us as the audience or Ray being fully convinced of Steve’s convictions on the issue.
Satisfied that he has received ‘permission’ from Steve to pursue romantic intentions with Gerry, Ray is still unsure about where he wants to take his newfound relationship, if anywhere at all. In his search for absolution on the matter, he decides to re-visit a past he left behind, when he makes an unexpected appearance at the home of his ex-wife, Lyn, played by Sharon Bower in a minor but important supporting role, and two minor children in the stillness of the clear-skied Sheffield night. Upon being criticized by Lyn for shirking the responsibilities of a steady and regular job to provide for his family and instead favoring just getting by via taking odd jobs just for the virtue of being able to work alongside his friends in the gang, Ray abruptly leaves with a conviction of decisiveness on his face.
Lyn’s nagging had the effect of confirming Ray’s attraction to Gerry’s independent and free-spirited ways, and now he only needs to wait for the right opportunity to find out if Gerry feels the same way about him. Amidst the backdrop of pouring summertime showers, frolics atop giant holding tanks and beneath colossal cooling towers, Sheffield’s finest working class pubs, and the inescapable majesty of the English moors shepherded by the imposing pylons that the crew are painting, Gerry and Ray’s relationship evolves.
And thus is how Beaufoy sets-up this simple but unconventional modern love triangle, or square as it were. ‘Among Giants’ is quite simply a film about the simplicities of our natural existence and the way that we as humans complicate that simplicity with our needs for freedom, friendship, and love. Through these characters, Beaufoy’s screenplay not only shows us the external strife that these complications cause between the players, but also alludes to the internal conflicts that each character is feeling, which are subtlety highlighted by the symbolic visuals present throughout the film.
It’s in these visuals that take notice of Miller’s expert direction, which in the tradition of the legendary Kenosha, Wisconsin native Orson Welles’ critically acclaimed and Oscar winning Citizen Kane (1941), places a heavy emphasis on its aerial IMAX like cinematography, unique camera viewpoints and perspectives, and the timing and use of Atack’s haunting original score, all in setting the atmospherically charged mood and tone of the film. In fact, Miller’s camera work and Atack’s score are so effective in this regard that we begin to feel as if somehow the giant towers and back-dropping Sheffield landmarks have somehow come to life, even if just for the few moments that they’re graced with the presence of our cast of characters. It’s as if the players have somehow become one with their environment and vice versa – a perfect homeostasis if you will. Because of this, ‘Among Giants’ has a wholly surrealistic feel to it, despite it being one of the most honest and true to life films I’ve personally ever experienced.
When combined with the caliber of acting talent on-board, you realize that ‘Among Giants’ is a rare treat indeed, and you easily become fully suspended in Miller’s artistic vision while watching it. As is always the case, Postlethwaite and Griffiths are a pure delight to watch, even if we’re just watching them do nothing more than acting their characters while watching paint dry – they’re just those kind of actors. The lovable nature of the supporting cast making up Ray’s gang perfectly compliments our leads and shows-off the strength of the casting job done on ‘Giants’, as they provide us with counterpoint insights and comic relief in all the right places without ever being over-shadowing or under utilized. After all, "whatever [did] happened to Bachman-Tuner Overdrive?" as Frank asks to lighten an emotionally pivotal scene.
However, the simplicity and honesty of ‘Among Giants,’ despite giving the film its strengths, are also what probably kept it from becoming the international hit that it is so deserving of being. As Miller explores the psychological dynamics of Beaufoy’s story about this quartet of lovers and working-class Brits, he never wavered from the sincerity of the story’s natural outcome in some futile attempt to elevate the marketability of the film. And I for one am glad that the studio allowed Miller to stick by Beaufoy’s script. If CGI effects and a story that is constantly working towards an inevitable climax and resolution are what turns you on, then ‘Among Giants’ is clearly not a film for you.
But, if you’re the kind of person that can appreciate art merely for the sake of art itself, you’ll wholly appreciate the combination and totality of all of the unique attributes that gives ‘Among Giants’ its ‘special magic’ and allows it to stand out from most other films that deal with a similar story line. To this kind of person, ‘Among Giants’ is a genuine cinematic experience that you won’t soon forget!
In its attempt to appeal the film to mass American audiences, Fox Searchlight’s officially produced trailer does a horrible job at accurately conveying the mood that embodies ‘Among Giants,’ which is one of the film’s chief assets. In fact, the trailer is nothing more than a meaningless montage of clips from the film carelessly pieced together and set to Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher, despite the fact that Wilson’s song is not featured anywhere on the film’s soundtrack. Why the studio’s marketing gurus, in all their infinite wisdom, didn’t take advantage of Atack’s memorable score in regards to the trailer is simply beyond me. Perhaps this speaks to the ‘dumbing down’ of our culture, where mass appeal would actually favor Wilson and the lighter tone that his song conveys over Atack’s regally imposing ‘synth’phonic score.
It is for this reason that instead of providing you with the official trailer as an enticing preview, I have instead included a much more representative clip from the film. I apologize in advance for the inclusion of the Greek subtitles in the clip, as my imported Greek DVD copy either has the subtitles hard-coded or Hoffa just wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to turn them off when I created the clip. If, however, you still wish to view the official studio trailer, although I personally couldn’t fathom why, you can view it over on YouTube.
In North America, ‘Among Giants’ was released by Fox Searchlight Pictures only on VHS videotape, enjoyed a short stint on HBO Signature back in 2000/2001, and could more recently be seen late night on the Fox Movie Channel (FMC)* - Dish Network Channel 133, DirecTV Channel 258, Verizon FiOS Channel 232, and AT&T U-verse Channel 792 - next showing on Wednesday, January 18th, at 3:00a.m. EST. The only known DVD releases of ‘Among Giants’ are a Region 2 French import and a Region 0 Greek double-feature disc, together with the film Blood Relations (1988), as owned by yours truly.
However, thanks to the modern miracles of the internet, ‘Among Giants’ can now be viewed relatively pain free and without the need for an ‘old-school’ VCR or air-mail carrier via Amazon’s Instant Video service. And at $2.99 for a 48 hour rental or $5.99 for a purchased download that’s yours to keep forever, it’s a steal over the previously viewed VHS and imported DVD prices, not to mention that the picture and sound quality of Amazon’s presentation is vastly superior to that of the imported DVDs, which I suspect are merely decent quality transfers from a 1/2" analog broadcast master.
Does Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker make an appearance to endorse Derek’s anti-union sentiments? Exactly how long is a piece of string? Will Ray and Gerry’s relationship reach the height of their hearts? Are ominous power plant cooling towers good for anything other than causing a blight on the landscape? Can British people actually line dance? Will Shovel incur an occupational injury that would have OSHA officials steaming? And most importantly, did Steve thin the paint?
For the answers to all of these questions and more, and for a truly unique artistic cinematic experience that you’ll not soon forget, turn off the lights, turn up the sound (preferably on a dedicated home theater system or a decent pair of headphones), and check out ‘Among Giants’ today!
Then, come back to Patch and let Hoffa and others know what you think about this timeless modern British classic and be sure to tune in for the next installment of Hoffa’s Retro Cinema Club!
* - for additional Channel assignments for The Fox Movie Channel, check the Channel line-up/guide provided by your local cable television provider.
Among Giants / 1998 / Color / 94 min. / Dolby Digital / Rated R for language, adult content, sexual content, and nudity.
Film Clip and Poster Art courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, North America. ™ and © 2008 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.