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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

Stop Making Sense

I count as one of my greatest achievements that a reader of my previous blog, Pilrig 74, once asked me to list my top 20 films. Knowing that I had a reader put a spring in my step for several months. Then I got down to the task in hand.

My difficulty then was (and remains today) that I struggled to name 20 films, let alone 20 that I like, but I came up with seven which [drum roll] in reverse order ...

7. Sir Henry at Rawlinson's End (1980)

Written by professional eccentric Vivian Stanshall, I have no idea what this is about. I watched it once 15 years ago and truth be told I'm still working up the courage for a second viewing. Filmed in black and white when technicolour technology was available, so, like Anton Corbijn's photographs, it must be good.

6. Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Giuseppe Tornatore's masterpiece. You'll laugh, you'll cry, it'll change your life. Malèna (2000) is good value too.

5. Anything French (1895 - 2023)

The great thing about French films is that if they are crap (and they often are) you can just say 'Oh well, that's the French for you'. Particular favourites are The Hairdresser's Husband, Eric Rohmer's Tales of the Four Seasons, that one about the bloke and the canoe, and anything with Emmanuelle Béart in it. Even - or especially - Nathalie ... (2003). Yeah, I'm that shallow.

4. Do The Right Thing (1989)

Set in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year, this film makes having a colour telly worthwhile. I say this because I once watched it on a black & white set and it just wasn't the same. Spike Lee at his very best and knockout performances from John Turturro and the late Danny Aiello. And that's the double-truth, Ruth.

3. Back To The Future (1985)

There have been many attempts over the years to portray time travel and all the palaver that entails but Robert Zemeckis's film beats them all. The fact that the 1980s setting is now peculiarly dated detracts from neither the fun nor the power of love. For added space-time continuum freakery, I can recommend flicking between ITV2 and ITV2+1 when the film is being broadcast, it will flip you out.

2. Carry On At Your Convenience (1971)

If this list were compiled purely on the number of times that I'd watched these films then Convenience would be number one. A comedy set in a lavatory factory? What's not to like? And no works day out that I've ever been on comes close to W.C. Boggs & Son's staff day trip to Brighton. It was the first and last time the Carry On franchise explored the political themes of capitalism and the trade union movement.

1. Withnail and I (1987)

The first time I saw Withnail I thought I'd never stop laughing. I still think it's extraordinarily funny, but on subsequent viewings I've come to realise that the tale of two unemployed actors is also unbearably sad; pathetic, in that word's true meaning. Arguably it took 31 years until his performance as Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me? for Richard E. Grant to better his performance as Withnail, alongside Paul McGann's "I". The late Richard Griffiths will forever be remembered as Uncle Monty. Holidays in the Lake District have never quite been the same since.

Having only a top seven leaves quite a bit a wiggle room, indeed shortly after publishing that list I added Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995), her re-working of Jane Austen's 1816 novel Emma, transported from Surrey to Beverly Hills and starring Alicia Silverstone.

But the biggest omission - I don't know how I could have forgotten this - is Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme's 1984 film of a Talking Heads concert at Hollywood's Pantages Theater. It has been described as the greatest concert film of all time, when it was first released one of my friends saw it on seven separate occasions, a lightweight I only went twice. There's nothing particularly clever about it, just that it kicks off with only David Byrne and a beatbox on stage singing a stripped back Psycho Killer. Then with each song, an additional band member, more equipment wheeled on, until half-a-dozen songs in, full band on stage, pumping out Burning Down The House. And, of course, the big suit. A spellbinding 88 minutes.

And now, 40 years on, it's been remastered in 4K and is in cinemas this week. I can't recommend it enough and won't think less of you if you only see it once.


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