BFI COMEDY GENIUS: Pineapple Express (2008)

Written by Thom Marsh

So, let me tell you a little about The Showroom; a simply delightful independent cinema in Sheffield, where you can get a large Vimto (that’s right, Vimto) and a large popcorn, and still have change from a tenner for the bus home. I mean, that alone is an experience in itself. Now, I must point out as a born and raised Sheffield lad I’ll always have a soft spot for our city’s independent venues, but the experience The Showroom provides is second to none. It may not have the largest screens in the world, and there are no cup holders for your Vimto, but it’s a real hub of culture, and its cosy theatres provide the most relaxed viewing experience you’ll ever have. It’s a venue I frequent regularly, for new releases, old classics and Q+A sessions – I caught a brilliant screening of Planet Of The Apes there just a couple of weeks ago as part of a philosophy season. I couldn’t think of any other cinema I’d rather find myself in for a season of ‘Comedy Genius’.

Which is exactly what I found myself doing on Tuesday evening as The Showroom kicked off the season with their first of four strands: “Stoner and Cult Comedy”. First up was a screening of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s cult hit, Pineapple Express, a film celebrating its 10th birthday this year. I’d love to call this film a classic, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. In an age where attitudes towards cannabis are relaxing, and the negative connotations often related to cannabis are slowly fading, this film really hasn’t aged well at all. In fact, whilst I’m at it, I just want to point out how much I hate the label “Stoner Comedy”. It immediately dictates what you’re going to see in the film; you’re gonna see some friends smoking cannabis, one or all of them is going to do or say something stupid and the “adventure” unravels from there. From Half Baked to Harold and Kumar Get the Munchies (which is set to close the stoner side of things at The Showroom on Saturday 10th November), I just find the entire genre relies far too heavily on negative stereotypes, and the worst thing is, it’s perpetrated by the cannabis smoking community itself.

James Franco said it best when he told Seth: “that’s why your films get nominated for Stoneys and mine get nominated for Oscars”. It’s true, although there are certainly outliers to this. Think Kevin Smith’s Clerks (and the sequel, for that matter). It may not be labelled as “stoner comedy” outright, but for me, is the epitome of what the sub-genre should aspire to be. These films should make us think deep psychological questions, like whether or not the guys working on the Death Star would have let personal politics come in to play when taking on the contract. What I mean to say is, we should expect more than lazy outdated stereotypes.

Whilst parts of this article may feel like an attack aimed at Seth Rogen’s work, I assure you it’s not. In fact, the 2011 film 50/50, starring Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is absolutely fantastic and shows cannabis use in a more positive light. All in all, I feel if I’d have been asked to write this ten years ago, I’d have written a gushing article about how funny and “with the times” it was – 5 stars, no doubt. However, as a fully matured adult (no one can prove otherwise), I’d have to give it a 2.5, maybe a 3. If I was really high watching it.

Nonetheless, it was a fantastic evening and a fitting celebration for a film which remains solid entertainment. I’ll be covering the rest of this strand of the comedy season, with Friday next up on Saturday 3rd November (yep, Friday on Saturday), followed by Dazed and Confused (Wednesday 7th November) and Harold and Kumar on Saturday 10th November.  

For more information, and details of the various workshops and Q+A sessions ongoing throughout the comedy season, click here.

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Marco van Belle

Marco van Belle is a journalist turned film director, tasked with putting together a low-budget feature with all the quality of a cinematic blockbuster. To make a film which shows no hint of the electively tight pursestrings, one which wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen, is an impressive feat in itself. But to do this, whilst tackling the classic tale of ‘Arthur & Merlin’, is quite simply magical. 

Interview by Jakob Lewis Barnes

Q. You were an award-winning journalist not so long ago, so what made you quit the day job and become a film maker?
A. To be honest, it was always my intention to work in film. I have been in love with cinema since I was about four years old, a real child of the 80s and the VHS era. Working with and interacting with film is a real passion, and I actually spent three years at drama school with the intention of becoming an actor.
Q. Arthur & Merlin is a story which carries a very literal legendary status. Did you feel any pressure because of the heritage of this story?
A. Since finishing the project, yes! But at the time, I just felt privileged to be handed the opportunity to add to the vast canon of works surrounding this story. There was of course the normal filmmaking pressures, but we approached the familiar story and went down the route of the origins of it all, which allowed us a kind of blank slate to work with.
Q. Celtic tales such as Arthur & Merlin inspired Tolkein as a young an, but who influences your cinematic vision and techniques?
A. Growing up in the 80s, I obviously adore the work of people like Spielberg, Lucas and Carpenter. But I wouldn’t say I was directly inspired by their work. There are elements I like, yes; sound, imagery, design and editing. But I try not to enforce any personal style on a project, the story is crucial and you have to just kind of take a back seat and let that shine through.
Q. With a low budget and high expectations, did you ever have any doubts about making this project work?
A. Not to blow my own trumpet, but I do feel like I’m pretty good at maximising the potential of a budget. From my work on various short films, you quickly learn to think very laterally and strategically – “Here’s the project. What do we want? How do we make it work without throwing money at it?”. There are of course, unforeseen circumstances which get in the way. One day I took the crew to a lovely field I had scouted out, but on arrival the whole place had been invaded by bullocks. Nothing quite tarnishes the perfect location like mounds of bull crap.
Q. You filmed scenes in my beautiful homeland of Sheffield. I obviously understand the attraction, but what exactly drew you to these locations?
A. For myself and a great portion of the production crew, South Yorkshire is right on the doorstep. When a beautiful place like the Peak District is so close, it does make the decision an easy one. It’s such a timeless setting, and perfect for some of the scenes. We did have to venture outside of Yorkshire for about two thirds of the production, simply out of script necessity.
Q. Do you believe that we will see more low budget films achieving the kind of success that Arthur and Merlin has enjoyed?
A. I think it’s important to remember that the ‘Arthur & Merlin’ project isn’t about setting a precedent in terms of budget. We haven’t done this so people can turn around and say “they did it on a low budget, now you should all do it on a low budget”. This is just a pilot venture, a bit of a challenge. But I think we will see more good looking films, made with a low budget, yes.
Q. Finally, what words of wisdom can you offer to anyone hoping to become a filmmaker?
A. The honest answer would be “DON’T”. It’s weird because it’s so difficult but at the same time it’s very easy. Just make stuff, there is no excuse not to. Admittedly, the first five years of work you produce might be crap. Your family and friends will say it’s great but it’s crap and it’s a long process getting to a good standard. You have to treat it as a second job and make lots of sacrifices, and if that is too much hard work then it’s not for you.

Find out more about the film at: www.arthurandmerlin.co.uk

Follow Marco on Twitter @Marcovanbelle
Follow the film on Twitter @AandMfilm