One of the best things about working in and around film programming, at least for me, is that I’m consistently put in the situation in which I have to consider (and sometimes reconsider) films in the context of other films. Various things bring this about. Sometimes, a curator selects a group of films that all consider the same topic, or are all from the same country or time period, or that all use Technicolor or rotoscoping or CinemaScope, or that are all by the same director, feature the same lead performer or come from the same production house.
Then there are times when I’m at a film festival and see eight films a day for 10 days and they all start to collide with each other in my memory. Or there are just films I happen to watch at around the same time and somehow they are forever connected in my mind (my favourite example of this, should you happen to be interested, is the odd pairing of Bernard Rose’s ‘Paperhouse’ and Martin Donovan’s ‘Apartment Zero’ [both 1988]).
As it happens, the UK Cinema Showcase films that are screening this weekend are a good example of this. ‘How’, I thought, ‘am I going to talk about three animated shorts about the hilarious hijinks of Wallace the bumbling inventor and Gromit his hyper-intelligent beagle, and a movie about aliens crash landing in a London housing project – all in the same breath?’
Well, I’ll tell you. One of the really clever things about Nick Park’s claymation –besides the fact that his films are really, really funny (along with the Wallace & Gromit films, I also highly recommend ‘Chicken Run’  and every single one of the ‘Creature Comforts’ shorts) – is the way he takes familiar tropes of genre cinema and mimics them with astonishing precision in order to get the comic effect.
In ‘The Wrong Trousers’, for example, pay close attention to the sequence in which a suspicious Gromit plays gumshoe, shadowing the sinister penguin Feathers McGraw. Every action, every change in lighting, every element of the background is taken straight from a 50s noir detective story – but here, because we know what’s going to happen, fearful tension is replaced by side-splitting laughter.
All right. So how does that make the Wallace & Gromit shorts a good double-bill partner for Joe Cornish’s hugely popular ‘Attack the Block’? Well, in many ways, ‘Attack’ is also a send-up of cinematic traditions. It uses a familiar story structure – for the sake of brevity, I’d say the granddaddy of this narrative is H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ – film versions were made by Byron Haskin in 1953 and by Steven Spielberg in 2005 – in which aliens attack Earth and are eventually destroyed through quite simple means (this was played up for full-on comedy in Tim Burton’s ‘Mars Attacks!’ ) – and finds comic moments in that familiarity.
That said, there’s a whole lot more to ‘Attack’ than just plain funny – it succeeds as a solid sci-fi thriller, it’s well-written and features some really good performances. And, like any science fiction movie worth its weight, its also a smart social critique of its time. For further reading on ‘Attack’, I recommend you go here and here.
You can catch the Wallace & Gromit shorts and ‘Attack the Block’ as a sort-of double feature tomorrow (Friday, 31 May) at 4:00 and 7:00 PM – or catch ‘Attack’ tonight at 7:00 PM and the shorts on Saturday at 4:00 PM. All screenings are at the Museum of Islamic Art. Click here for details.