Director: Paul Push
I found this incredibly obscure British indie feature on a market stall and picked it up out of curiosity. A near-future satire about a Britain where smoking carries the death penalty? It could be a forgotten gem.
I try to give everything I watch a fair shot, to look for some redeeming feature, but never in my life have I suffered through such a pile of tedious, self-indulgent, amateur rubbish as this. Paul Push is evidently completely in love with himself and convinced that he is some sort of multi-talented artist who can take the world by storm whereas in fact he is a talent vacuum who should never have been allowed on either side of a camera. The fact that, seven years after this debut film, he and his movie remain completely unknown should tell us something about how successful his ‘David vs Goliath’ attempt to take on the film industry has been. And deservedly so.
So here’s the basic set-up behind this piece of pure vanity film-making. In 2019, smoking anywhere in the UK has been made illegal and carries one of two possible sentences: death or life imprisonment in a forced labour camp (talked about but never shown and in fact blatantly contradicted by what we see on screen). An armed police unit called the Air Intelligence Regiment is called in to deal with anyone lighting up a fag while an illegal pro-smoking organisation called the Smoker’s (sic) Co-operative of Underground Militants, er, does something. You see, that’s AIR vs SCUM - and that’s the level of ‘humour’ on display in what may be the most unfunny comedy film ever shown to a paying audience. In fact, that’s the full extent of the humour. Characters have tortuously contrived names which would be funny if they were actually jokes - Sue Sidle, Manny Akl, Phil Graves - and that’s it.
These are what Ken Campbell calls jokoids - things that have the shape of a joke but aren’t actually funny in any way. Maybe ‘Phil Graves’ can be classed as a weak joke because at least there are people called ‘Phil’ and ‘Graves’ is a real surname. But Sidl and Akl aren’t. And there are No Other Jokes. Not bad ones, not flat ones, not unfunny ones, nothing. Does that make this a serious drama? No, because as GK Chesterton once said, the opposite of ‘funny’ isn’t ‘serious’, the opposite of ‘funny’ is ‘not funny’. Or in this case, ‘not funny in the slightest - what the fuck is this?’. Which is probably not something that GK Chesterton ever said but then he never had to sit through anything as inexcusably awful as Breathe Safely.
Paul Push himself stars as Detective Inspector Gym Fitt (see the problem?), apparently in charge of the AIR. Push is well over six feet tall, not quite as muscular as he thinks he is and has a mass of curly black hair which is alternately tied back in an embarrassing ponytail or left to hang in what can only be described as a frizzy mullet. The basic plot is that Fitt and his men arrest a series of unamusingly named SCUM operatives. And, um, that’s it.
There is no plot. There really is no plot. It’s just a series of people smoking and being arrested by Paul Push (a man with a dress sense as bad as his haircut) backed up by a bunch of anonymous water pistol-toting goons whose only concession to a uniform is to all wear something dark and a baseball cap. There’s not even an attempt at a plot, seriously. I was looking for one but as each smoker is arrested, we simply move on to the next. There’s no intrigue, no mystery, no police procedural, just one or more people puffing on a fag and then bang, the door opens and the extras run in. This goes on for about 40-50 minutes.
Well, if there’s no plot, what about the characters? Again, there aren’t any, just DI Gym Fitt. A handful of other characters have one or two lines but this is really just Paul Push filming himself. I’ve never seen such vanity. Most of the first half of the film is to-camera monologues supposedly filmed for use in court (the unseen, uncredited Bill the cameraman has occasional lines) and with a digital clock in the corner of the screen which doesn’t change. So this is just Push, alone, on screen, uncut, doing a tedious monologue and the only - mark, the only! - entertainment value comes from his inability to remember the crappy lines that he has written for himself to say.
There’s a game to play here: how many sentences into each monologue do we think he will either trip up over the words or pause while he tries to remember the next bit. Play this game if you ever find yourself forced to watch Breathe Safely because, bloody hell, there’s no other possible way to enjoy this video that doesn’t involve actually breaking it in some way.
Push is rarely off-screen - and when he is, he does voice-overs. So basically we have three sorts of scenes: Paul Push doing to-camera monologues, multi-actor scenes where Paul Push has virtually all of the dialogue to the extent that these are sometimes monologues too, and scenes with other actors that Paul Push narrates. This vain bastard even gives himself an entirely gratuitous scene in a locker room, dressed only in his white pants, posing like he’s God’s gift to women. I recently heard TV critic Charlie Brooker use a description of somebody which would apply perfectly to Paul Push: “a man who probably masturbates to videos of himself masturbating.” (I wish it was my own line, but I can’t claim the credit.)
The idea of a future society where smoking is a capitol offence has potential for satire, for political ideas to be raised about health, society, freedom and responsibility, for comedy even. But Paul Push manages none of this. He doesn’t even attempt it. This pathetic waste of ferrous oxide and plastic is so devoid of anything approaching story or characters that it’s actually impossible to tell where Push’s sympathies lie. Given that the man calls himself a ‘one-man bandwagon’ (I’m not sure he understands what ‘bandwagon’ means) and that he claims to be in the Guinness Book of Records for the most credits by one person in a film (totalling 39 allegedly, although his name certainly doesn’t appear more than about ten times in the actual on-screen credits) you would think that Breathe Safely would be one of the most auteurist films ever made, an undistracted journey into the mind of its creator. But that creator is so busy fantasising about himself in tight white pants that he never actually indicates whether he is pro- or anti-smoking, rendering the whole inept mess of a film pointless.
The box claims that this runs 90 minutes. I didn’t time it but in any case only about two thirds of that is the film itself. After all the SCUM smokers have been arrested, there is about 15-20 minutes of clips from the film accompanied by a voice-over (courtesy of Mr Push) telling us what happened to each and every one. For some reason he feels the need to tell us the exact date when each was sentenced and/or imprisoned and/or released - in fact the whole film is full of precise dates in 2019 or 2020 as if the audience has to somehow keep being reminded that we’re in the near future - and he repeats about a dozen times the phrase “AIR forced labour camp”. Basically there’s a dozen or more smokers and pretty much the same thing happened to each one but on slightly different dates so we have to list each one separately.
Then it’s still not over because there’s another 10-15 minutes of out-takes (none of them even vaguely amusing of course) accompanied by some of Mr Push’s ‘songs’. Because as well as being a crap writer, crap actor, crap director and crap at about 30 other things, he’s a crap singer, crap musician and crap song-writer. These off-key, tuneless warbles over dirge-like synthesisers can only be classified as ‘sub-New Romantic’, a phrase which (probably not coincidentally) also applies to Paul Push’s clothes and haircut.
And then there’s a good five minutes of credits after that, listing scores of extras, dozens of thank yous and about eight different cinematographers because the one thing that Paul Push can’t do is hold the damn camera himself.
The opening of the film carries a 1995 copyright date, the closing credits say 2000 - which is quite appropriate because when you finally reach the end of this mind-numbing shite you really do feel like you’ve been watching it for five years. Nothing happens, it happens quite slowly and it happens over and over again. And it doesn’t happen because Paul Push is trying to make some sort of artistic statement, it happens because this is 90 minutes of wank made by a bloke who has apparently never seen a real film and can only guess at what one is supposed to look like.
A number of oddities stand out among this pile of garbage. In one of the few things written about Breathe Safely on the web I found a claim that it was shot on 35mm and there are certainly credits to Panavision plus one of the out-takes appears to be a genuine end-of-reel, run-out-of-film cock-up (I can’t believe Paul Push is creative enough to fake an end-of-reel cock-up because, well, he’s not creative enough to tie his shoe laces in a bow as far as I can see). Now 35mm film usually costs money (the same article mentions a budget of one million pounds which is plainly nonsense) although one doesn’t normally actually reach the end of a reel; one switches to a new reel and thus leaves a load of ‘reel ends’ which is evidently what Push had.
No shame in that, plenty of other indie films have been shot on reel ends. But all the others had plots and very few of them had the writer/director forgetting his own lines.
Maybe Push managed to get the reel ends for free but surely Panavision would not have lent him a camera for nothing (and some of the film does look like video but that could equally be 35mm shot by someone with no clue how to shoot it). And there’s no evidence of any other money being spent here. The actors all look like they are wearing their own clothes (which is why I ascribe the awful dress sense to Push and not DI Gym Fitt), most of the sets and locations look like people’s homes or workplaces and a ‘surveillance camera’ in one scene is clearly a domestic camcorder tied to a tree with a bit of string.
Mention of the sets and locations brings up two other curious aspects of the film. There’s a court-room scene so Push had access to either a court-room or a mock-up of a court-room and there is one to-camera monologue which is actually filmed outside 10 Downing Street! Not the fake 10 Downing Street at Granada Studios that most TV companies use but the real deal, as proven when the camera turns to show us the gates leading onto Whitehall. That’s extraordinary and although someone called ‘Marcus’ is thanked, I’m still trying to work out how a complete amateur managed to get permission to film in one of the most security-conscious locations in Britain (albeit this was obviously before 9/11). You can see the coppers in the background and senior civil servants coming and going through the front door. It’s just bizarre.
Also bizarre is a big credit to The Big Issue which makes it look like this is actually a Big Issue production. You can’t help thinking - and I don’t believe this is unkind - that whatever budget Paul Push spent on this crap would have been put to much better use helping the homeless.
The video sleeve claims that the film was selected for six film festivals including ‘The Raindance International Film Showcase’, a phrase which generates precisely one Google hit - on paulpush.com! The tape itself has been released and distributed by... Paul Push. That may be further vanity but it’s more likely that not even barrel-scraping labels such as Film 2000 would touch this rubbish. So it seems that Mr Push actually paid for a a BBFC certificate (it was certified 12 in February 2001), paid for the tapes to be duped and the sleeves to be printed and then hawked this bollocks around Britain, shop by shop.
I should just mention the sleeve since ‘video sleeve designer’ is one of the 39 credits that Push claims (in a series of text screens that appear before the movie too fast to actually read - and of course you can’t freeze-frame VHS). The sleeve is an inept mishmash of images from the movie thrown together with absolutely zero understanding of layout or design. It also features, in tiny little 8pt type that renders the claim meaningless, the following marketing copy: ‘Monty Python and Naked Gun meets George Orwell.’ The only parts of that sentence which are not self-evidently wrong are the words ‘and’ and ‘meets’. I don’t believe that Paul Push has ever read any George Orwell and I frankly doubt if he has ever seen Monty Python or The Naked Gun. Or indeed anything that wasn’t his own reflection.
Push claims on his website (which has not been updated since 2001) to have also self-released a soundtrack of his own unmusical non-songs and a self-published novel called You Wanna Buy?, to form the basis of his next film which thankfully never appeared. The video also mentions a book of Breathe Safely, combining an account of the making of the movie with the screenplay (there was a screenplay?), but this seems to be just bluster, not so much an advert as an empty threat. The video also advertises - dear Christ! - Paul Push underpants and it’s not joking. I think that’s what he’s modelling in that repulsive locker room scene. In fact there’s a whole range of merchandise on the website, though the e-shop is sadly closed so you can no longer buy Breathe Safely T-shirts, sweatshirts, posters, baseball caps, mouse pads, wrist rests or the 2001/02 Breathe Safely calendar which “comes with extra month stickers”(?!). None of this stuff was ever produced by the look of it - the T-shirts and sweatshirts just have Breathe Safely images crudely photoshopped onto them - but how arrogant/insane must Paul Push have been to think he could sell this stuff? Did he honestly, really think that anyone would want to shell out 13 quid for a sweatshirt with the video sleeve design from his film? In the name of God, why would anyone do that? The man must have an ego the size of Mont Blanc.
I can honestly say that Breathe Safely is, without a doubt, the absolute worst thing I have ever sat through. Camp Blood, Incubus, Star Crystal - these may be terrible films but at least they’re films. Breathe Safely is a non-film, an anti-film. Quite apart from the lack of plot, story, message, structure or characterisation, the star/director’s masturbatory obsession with his own image and voice and the tuppeny-ha’penny production design, mention should also be made of the supporting cast whose acting varies from excruciating all the way up to below-average. They’re not listed on the IMDB and I certainly can’t be arsed to copy all those names off screen but a search for the film’s title reveals that comedian Danny James, a Pat Higgins regular who was in Hellbride, KillerKiller and TrashHouse, plays one of the AIR officers. Perhaps he’s the one whose face is digitally fuzzed out in one scene, or maybe that’s somebody else. Whoever it is can at least stand proudly as the only person to come out of this movie with his dignity reasonably intact.
Imagine that: a film so awful that one of the featured extras asks to have his face digitally fuzzed out to protect his identity. What does that say about Breathe Safely?
Also in the credit block are actors Jonathan Reason (Informatica, The Krays), Simon Parr (Urban Ghost Story) and Sean Neill (24 Hours in London). The three credited editors - each of whom apparently had Paul Push leaning over his shoulder - are Hament Patel, Paddy Bird (Suspect Nation, Nova) and Glenn Hyde (Ripping Yarns, Doctor Who, Hitchhiker’s Guide!). Among the many credited cameramen is Alvin Leong who shot Demonsoul and Witchcraft X for Elisar Cabrera.
The only thing that prevents me from proclaiming that this movie has no redeeming features whatsoever is the sound. The sound is good. Well, not good but adequate. Which, compared with the writing, directing, acting, design, editing, photography, lighting and video sleeve layout, makes it seems potentially award-winning.
Oh, I must mention a really horrifying scene in a board-room (with everyone crammed on one side of the table so they can all be in shot) where DI Gym Fitt explains that they are going after three SCUM activists, a Dutch guy named Jan something and and a father and son named Ponsonby-Foulkes. Push/Fitt actually does an impression of each of these, an honest-to-goodness impression, as much for the camera as for the extras. Not only is this excruciatingly embarrassing, even by the staggeringly low standards of this film, but it’s pointless because we haven’t met these three characters. We do eventually see the Dutch guy - who has one line - but the posh English father and son are never mentioned again.
Then - then! - Push/Fitt does an impression of Groucho Marx, because one of the team is called ‘Groucho’ Marx. Groucho is not exactly a difficult impression to pull off but this is the worst Groucho impression ever. He just talks in an American accent. He doesn’t sound even vaguely like Groucho. This is followed by a very brief scene of the actual ‘Groucho’ Marx character (never seen or mentioned before or after) in a corridor and although the actor in question neither sounds like Groucho nor looks like him (Groucho was not bald!) he nevertheless is recognisably trying to ‘do’ Groucho, which Push certainly isn’t.
The only purpose of this diversion is for Push to show off his talents as an ‘impressionist’ - his website actually includes that term as one of the many used to describe him. He even has MP3s of himself praising his own film in the voices of about a dozen or more different famous people, from Tony Blair to Pierce Brosnan. Sadly, none of these actually play so we’ll have to miss out on Paul Push’s amazing non-talent for sounding entirely unlike someone else.
I think what has happened here - and it would actually be quite tragic if only Paul Push didn’t come across as such a tosser, to be honest - is that this man had the idea that if he did everything himself he could beat the film industry at its own game. You don’t need to toe the line, you can make your own independent film, get it into festivals, distribute it yourself and make your mark that way. What Paul Push either forgot or ignored was the simple fact that this can only possibly work if the film you make is good. Not just adequate and certainly not something which inarguably establishes a new definition of amateur hour. It’s not enough to buck the system, you have to buck the system with something that the system wishes it could do. If Breathe Safely had been an ultra-low budget version of Reservoir Dogs or El Mariachi or Clerks or Lock, Stock - something demonstrating an inate understanding of cinema and an artistic flair - then it could, maybe, if the fates were with it, just possibly have broken through the system. Heck, if it was even as good as The Planet it would have got somewhere.
But this is a film that looks like it was written and directed by an eight-year-old. It is completely devoid of even the basic requirements of cinema, except for being feature-length (and it’s not even really that if you ignore the long end credits, the gratuitous out-takes/music videos and the mind-fuckingly tedious recounting of what precise date every character appeared in court). It doesn’t have a three-act structure, it doesn’t even have a one-act structure. It has no structure at all. There’s no beginning, no end and what middle exists serves no narrative purpose. And let me stress that this is not Paul Push being pretentious. This is not something like Numb which has no discernible plot because the film-makers were deliberately too obtuse to make their plot clear. Breathe Safely was intended to be an action-comedy but it has no action and certainly no comedy, meaning it could be the first film in history to be nothing but a hyphen.
Part of me seriously wonders whether this is all some elaborate hoax. Did someone I know fake this unbelievably awful film and plant it on a stall in Leicester market, knowing I couldn’t resist buying it for 50p? Is it a test to see how bad a film I will actually watch? Or is it real? Does Paul Push actually exist? There’s no mention of him anywhere on-line apart from his own website and various e-tailers and databases listing this film, but then presumably Paul Push is a pseudonym, a jokoid pseudonym.
This man is out there somewhere, possibly still with the same awful, anachronistic New Romantic wardrobe and tied-back frizzy mullet. If he ever, ever, ever attempts to make a film - or indeed any sort of artistic endeavour - again, he must be stopped. (It is also worth noting that in May 2005 Paulpush.com was included by the technicians’ union BECTU among companies with “alleged failures to properly observe obligations to members.”)
Do not under any circumstances be tempted to watch this film. If you see this tape on a market stall, buy it and destroy it. On a scale from A+ to D-, I am forced to give this...
MJS rating: G