Art and honesty: Truth in advertising

Yesterday at the cinema we were treated to a trailer for The Iron Lady. Having seen the film only a few days ago, I was struck by just how dishonest this particular piece of marketing was. The trailer clearly implied that The Iron Lady is the story of Margaret Thatcher’s political career, when the film is (as I’ve noted with great frustration) anything but political. In truth it is a film about a senile old lady recalling a series of newsreel montages.

I don’t pretend to be so naïve as to believe a film trailer is made with the intention of giving audiences a genuine sense of a film, to help them make an informed decision about whether to see it; I’m fully aware that it’s just another marketing tool carefully and conventionally designed to coax ticket buyers into parting with their pennies. But where is the line? Could the distributors of Michael Winterbottom’s sex ‘n’ songs docudrama 9 Songs have edited a trailer containing only live music performances, or only quasi-pornographic sex scenes – that is to say, concealing half of the nature of the film – and claimed to have honestly represented their product? This is effectively what the marketers of The Iron Lady have done.

I’m a wannabe film director. I find, when I think about the challenge of publicising my films, that my ideas fall into one of two categories: art or honesty. The few ideas I have for trailers are works of art in their own right; they (if successful) stand alone but invoke the same emotional responses as the films they represent. These ideas are rare; I’m a wannabe film director, not a wannabe film marketeer. My inclination regarding the films for which I have no such inspiration is to make some sort of mini-documentary in which the filmmakers tell the audience about the film. Here’s what it’s about; here’s why we made it; here’s why we like it. I would love it if all trailers were designed to conform to these categories. (But, of course, that’s not the nature of marketing. Most films are awful, and while I don’t expect distributors to be quite so frank as to admit that, it would probably be difficult to talk honestly about the concept and making of a terrible film without giving away some of its flaws.)

What do you think? Is the truth in advertising more flexible when selling art? If not, how could we ever regulate it? Do you have any other examples – cinematic or otherwise – of brazenly dishonest advertising?


Film review: The Iron Lady

In Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone neatly lampooned the film convention of the montage (“… show us a passage of time / we’re gonna need a montage … show a lot of things happening at once / remind everyone of what’s going on … to show it all would take too long / that’s called a montage …”). I wish someone had played this song to Phyllida Lloyd before she began editing The Iron Lady. I didn’t count the number of montages in the film but I’m confident there were at least 10 – perhaps closer to 15. That’s ten to fifteen lengthy sequences of cobbled-together news footage representing selected events that occurred during Margaret Thatcher’s political career, often without introduction, explanation, or follow up. “To show it all would take too long”, I suppose. To show something, though, would at least be courteous. Including one montage is (arguably lazy but) passable; sitting through ten in a row is less like watching a film than having a list of events read out to you.

Not just a list, though: a checklist. With each 80s newsreel, it feels like the filmmakers are ticking off significant historical moments to cover themselves when someone inevitably points out that a (seemingly biographical) film about the most divisive politician in Britain otherwise steers lightyears clear of any political action. Some viewers – and some of the filmmakers – would counter that this isn’t a biopic about Thatcher the politician, but a broadly fictional piece about a once-powerful woman coming to terms with the loss of her power. If that’s the case, the question rings loud and clear: why is it about (the decidedly non-fictional) Margaret Thatcher at all?

Most of the few non-montage sequences to which we’re treated are shot with bizarre – and entirely inappropriate – horror-film techniques: all canted angles, shaky handheld shots and extreme close-ups. In the middle of one such scene we cut to a shot so up close and out of focus that it’s little more than a blur of fleshy colour, before returning to the scene itself. Is this the editing equivalent of a typo? Or a failed attempt to create an effect? The whole film feels misjudged in this way: there are two catastrophic explosions, the consequences of which are dealt with in no more than 20 seconds; we’re constantly reminded of the huge significance of Margaret’s husband’s absence yet his decline and death is never shown and barely referred to; Thatcher’s declaration of war with the Falklands is shown but the consequences are barely felt by her or the audience in the few minutes dedicated to the subsequent events (and guess what film convention the filmmakers use to present those events…). There’s no plot, no narrative – nothing for the audience to hold on to besides Streep’s performance.

Which brings us to the film’s only saving grace. Those pervasive, infuriating montages are interspersed with scenes of Meryl Streep and Alexandra Roach playing Thatcher as, variously, an aspiring politican, an MP and (most of the time) a senile elderly lady. Streep and Roach both do excellent, compelling impersonations of “the iron lady”, Streep with the help of some profoundly detailed prosthetics (though once or twice you get the impression her face wants to move rather more than the make-up allows). There are also one or two touching moments – Thatcher’s blank dismissal to her daughter during an emotional exchange the most notable – but the film is otherwise completely undone by poor editing, lazy plotting and a naïve refusal to acknowledge that Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is neither her attachment to her husband, nor her senility, nor a series of anonymous newsreels. Thatcher’s legacy is her politics; an element that, along with a plot and a structure, is fatally absent from this film.

Oh, and, for good measure: