My Wrongs #8425 – 8249 & 117

Thursday, July 31, 2003 by

Outside represents Channel 4′s umpteenth attempt to create a late night “strand” devoted to cerebral, provocative or simply non-mainstream programming. Aside from being little more than a convenient and thoroughly transparent excuse to push challenging work as far away from peak viewing hours as possible, such slots never seem to last much longer than a couple of months at the most. It’s a hackneyed, tired concept that seldom works in a televisual context, and it is with no small irony that Channel 4 have chosen to fanfare the arrival of Outside with a short film that has its origins in a far more impressive experimental late-night radio slot.

Chris Morris’ genuinely original show Blue Jam, which blended disquieting comic material with a blissed-out montage of ambient dance music, enjoyed several short runs in a post-midnight slot on Radio 1 between 1997 and 1999. Although often mistakenly characterised as a vehicle for willful shock value humour, a lot of the material was actually light-hearted and whimsical in intent. Its strength lay in the laid-back, dream-like manner of presentation, which allowed such alternately baffling and disturbing concepts as animal-to-human cosmetic transplants, David Bowie undertaking voluntary work as a relationship counsellor, inexplicably miniaturised cars, Stephen Hawking being joyridden around a racetrack, and telling the dawn chorus to “shut up” to drift in and out of the listener’s subconscious. One show in the second run of Blue Jam, broadcast early in 1998, featured a staggering 12-minute tour de force; a monologue, set to undulating loops of Massive Attack and Madonna, about a man who volunteered to look after a friend’s dog named Rothko. In possession of the ability to “talk” to his minder, not to mention a rudimentary grasp of legal issues, Rothko dragged the hapless narrator on a destructive rampage through a local park and a christening, pausing only to offer sarcastic putdowns dressed up as “advice”.

Blue Jam was followed in 2000 by jam, a television adaptation that set itself the unenviable task of translating a very non-visual format into a visual medium. Although jam was nowhere near as effective as Blue Jam, partly for aesthetic reasons and partly due to an uneasy reliance on “shock” material, it was by no means without merit and at times the combination of offbeat sketch material, skewed visuals and pulsing soundtrack combined to produce truly remarkable results. Although jam met with something of a mixed reception on its initial broadcast, a recent repeat run drew more favourable reactions, and it was certainly streets ahead of the undeniably poor standalone Brass Eye special that followed in 2001.

Unfortunately, Rothko did not make it into jam despite being one of the strongest items in the original radio series, although subliminal clips concealed within some episodes suggested that there had been at least an attempt to film the sketch. Rumours persisted that a visual version would in fact appear as a one-off special, fuelled by the puzzling failure of the original monologue to appear on the tie-in Blue Jam compilation album released later the same year, but nothing was ever forthcoming. Until 2002, that is, when it was announced that Chris Morris was working on a short film based on the storyline. The result was My Wrongs #8425 – 8249 & 117, produced for FilmFour by the cinematic offshoot of Warp records (whom had earlier released the Blue Jam compilation), which went on to win the BAFTA award for Best Short Film of 2002. A handful of cinema showings and a DVD release later, it finally arrived on the channel where Rothko should really have appeared three years earlier.

Despite its BAFTA-winning status, it has to be said that My Wrongs #8425 – 8249 & 117 is far from ranking amongst Morris’ best work. It pales in comparison to the original radio version of the story of Rothko, which had succeeded mainly on the strength of the evocative and curious choice of descriptive terminology to relate the unseen events. Here there is no narrator to fill in the gaps with such peculiar turns of phrase as “I followed in an anoxic blaze” or “a tiny electric cube of panic”, just an over-literal and largely wordless depiction of the storyline. At best, this is as overwhelming and relentless as the annoying tendency of the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There to mirror every word of its narration with a visual representation, and at worst it veers perilously close to the approach that Morris and company had previously parodied with the “click ting stamps” item in The Day Today. At times, this has very unfortunate side effects and renders some material unpleasant when it really ought not to be. The scene in which Rothko bites off a duck’s head, for example, was amusing when related on the radio but simply grotesque in a visual context. The musical accompaniment, while entertaining and well executed, has been constructed as a deliberate soundtrack rather than a combination of loops from existing tracks and what it gains in dynamism it loses in hazy otherworldly ambience.

The film doesn’t even work that well as a companion piece to jam, with the music and surprisingly straightforward visuals lacking the disorientating punch of the series at its best. Whereas the clarity, vivid colour and cinematic scope are certainly impressive, they don’t lend themselves well to this particular story, which would have benefited from a more hazy and fragmentary visual style. The computer generated effects used to make Rothko appear to talk are particularly ill-fitting. There is no problem with the actual quality of the effects, and they certainly do make it look as though the dog (and later a baby) are talking. However, the film would have carried more comic and atmospheric clout if the voices had been heard over static shots of a blank, uncomprehending canine face. Overall, the effect that was used is disturbingly reminiscent of the video in which rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg “morphed” into a dog using only the wonders of modern video technology, and that’s not an easy comparison to have clogging up your subconscious while trying to take a film seriously.

Such criticisms, of course, are based on how the film compares to Chris Morris’ previous work. Although it can be argued that anyone interested enough to sit through an obscure film in a relatively inaccessible timeslot would probably be familiar with his material anyway, it’s important to consider how My Wrongs #8425 – 8249 & 117 works as a short film in its own right outside this context. It’s certainly a strong film (although some would argue that this is vaguely akin to describing something as being an exciting Travis song, an original Coral single or a profound insight for an I Love … programme), but while it’s worthy of attention and a certain degree of praise, it’s somewhat lacking in the impact that might reasonably be expected of an award-winning Chris Morris project.

It didn’t even manage to stand out amongst the rest of the films shown as part of the inaugural edition of Outside. Barring a self-indulgent and rather tedious documentary on American “outsider music”, which bafflingly claimed that eccentric lunatics operating on the fringes of the music industry had never been recorded until now with a conviction that suggested Wildman Fischer and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy are about to be rewritten out of the rock history books, the other films were at least on a par with My Wrongs #8425 – 8249 & 117. Most notable was the equally bleak (but much less self-consciously “dark”) humour explored in the grimly philosophical Do I Love You? The television critics may have picked out My Wrongs #8425 – 8249 & 117 as the one to watch out for in this bunch, but the real honours should go in equal measure to My Night With Julia – a powerfully honest film about an unexpectedly pretty and charming prostitute which was alternately touching, disturbing, erotic and repulsive, and which allowed its subject to come across with dignity in unpleasant and squalid surroundings – and the Alt-TV documentary The Luckiest Nut in the World. The combination of whimsical yet technically slick humour, dazzlingly original presentation and the drive to explore a serious “point” is arguably the artistic and spiritual heir of what Morris has achieved in his more successful ventures. My Wrongs #8425 – 8249 & 117 was nothing if not unlucky to have been placed next to this.

At the end of the day, though, My Wrongs #8425 – 8249 & 117 is refreshingly offbeat for a present day television presentation, and definitely the sort of project that Channel 4 should be supporting rather than just relying on repeats of Friends. It shouldn’t perhaps have been put on the pedestal that many have tried to elevate it to – mainly, it should be pointed out, before most people had the chance to see it for themselves – but even the legions of underwhelmed Chris Morris fans must grudgingly concede that an underachieving short film on Channel 4 is better than nothing at all – especially in the company of so many other worthwhile efforts. What is truly wrong about the situation – and indeed far more so than any “wrongs” that could possibly be perpetrated by a man and a talking dog – is the fact that they have to be marginalised, bracketed and hidden away where barely anyone can see them. What’s to stop any of the films shown in this timeslot, with the possible exception of My Night With Julia, going out instead of the less inspired offerings that clog up the earlier slots in the evening schedule?

How long Outside will ultimately last for, though, is open to debate. Given that present day Channel 4 even seems to have enormous difficulty in ensuring that a small hours run of new episodes of Family Guy actually goes out uninterrupted, it will be interesting to see how the strand fares in the long term. Sadly, in a world where “distinctive remits” are thrown out of the window at a moment’s notice and new series are given two weeks to do well in the ratings or else, Outside looks likely to join Late Licence and the webcam-wielding 4Later “collective” on the televisual scrapheap.


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