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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

TÉA OBREHT - THE TIGER'S WIFE. NOVEL.

After Midnight's Children, more Magic Realism. And, after The Life of Pi, more tigers. Here is a whole novel based around the relationship between tigers and humans, tigers on the loose, tigers as both threat and symbol of the natural world, in all its brutality and beauty.

Though you need patience with this book. The story progresses from two points in time. The main story is set a couple of years after the Balkan war of the nineties. Natalia, the narrator, is a doctor going into a neighbouring country to organise vaccinations for children there. And in alternating chapters we hear the story of Natalia's grandfather, and his life in the small village where he was born, and his adventures with the tiger's wife, a deaf-mute woman who does everything in her power to insure that an escaped tiger is not killed by the village people.

So it takes a long time to build momentum. There are two stories being told, with different chronologies and a lot of digressions, and so while the narrative is never tedious, it does like to wander off into apparently unconnected accounts of the various local characters in the grandfather's village. It is necessary to stick with the novel to begin to see some kind of connections between all the narratives.

And yet it is questionable whether it is worth the wait. The writing flows easily, it takes no effort to read the book and the stories are rich and deep and detailed, spanning decades, taking in city and country, real and supernatural. Yet there are in truth too many digressions, the narrative going back and forward in time, mentioning this character and that until it is hard to keep track of exactly who is who, and difficult to find characters to care about.

Finally there is a resolution of sorts at the end, an attempt to tie up loose ends. This linking the two chronologies of the story, however, is lacking, incomplete, providing more questions than answers.

Also, the novel can't seem to make up its mind whether the world it describes is just as we see it, or whether it is reality suffused by magic, like in the universe of Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
There is an attempt at magic realism through the character of the Deathless Man, who, as the name suggests, cannot die, yet it is hard to see the point of this bit of fantasy in what is in general a fairly realistic, unsuperstitious perspective. In fact the writer says, on p.310,
"when confounded by the extremes of life....people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening."
It is made clear that the villagers superstitions are just that, irrational, based on ignorance and fear, yet there is also this man who cannot be killed popping up throughout the narrative. It is out of place, this appeal to the supernatural.

So this book is a mixture. The story is too diffuse to be effective, and failed to hold my attention or engage me. And it is trying to have its cake and eat it, regarding the existence of magic and the supernatural. Yet it is well written, rich, with individual characters and narratives that are fascinating in themselves. 

Monday, 25 March 2013

MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN. FILM

Before the Satanic Verses, and the fatwa, death threats and years living under police protection, Salman Rushdie wrote his best novel, and one of the best of the twentieth century, Midnight's Children.

And now he has written the screenplay for the film of the book, and he also narrates the story. And this is the problem. There is too much Rushdie in this film. Rushdie is a novelist, he should have left the writing of the film to a professional screenwriter. This movie was crying out for a new perspective and a different eye. He should have just stayed out of it.

Not that it's a bad film. It is the story of an independent India and Pakistan. Saleem, the central character, is born to a wealthy couple in Bombay, on the stroke of midnight of the day that India gains its independence from Britain in 1947. The truth is, though, that Saleem has been switched at birth with another baby in the hospital, his real parents are two poor street entertainers. So Saleem grows up in relative affluence while Shiva, the baby who Saleem was switched with, is brought up in poverty and deprivation.

More than that, Saleem soon discovers that he has a special power, that of connecting, telepathically, all of the thousand or so children that were born in India around the midnight of Independence day. And all of these children have powers too, magic, invisibility, being able to fly, great strength. It is Saleem that allows them all to talk to each other, to realize that they are not alone with their gifts. They are the Midnight's Children of the title.

It turns out that Shiva too is one of the Children, but totally opposed to Saleem's way of viewing the world. And so the battle between Saleem and Shiva is emblematic of the forces within India itself. Saleem is for cohesion, Shiva - also the name of the Hindu god of destruction - is for conflict, and this is reflected in the history of India and Pakistan at the time, civil war, attempts at resolution and peace, communal violence. The Midnight's Children's Conference is a mirror of what is happening the country itself.

So the story itself is epic and magical and remarkable. The problem is that the film is not any of those things. It is a faithful reproduction of the content of the novel, but it does not in any way capture the wonder and depth of Rushdie's book. The film is muted, toned-down, slow at times. Rushdie himself wrote the screenplay, and it is clear that the film is desperate for a different perspective, for a new way of looking at the story. Rushdie is a novelist, and the film feels like what watching a novel would feel like. It needed someone to really commit to making it into a film, and to taking chances with the story, even if this meant that elements in the novel had to be changed, adapted or left out.

So the film is not bad, but it is lacking. Near the end, Saleem, who has come through what he has come through, and faces into an imperfect world, and an imperfect India, says "the truth has been less glorious than the dream." He is talking about an independent India, and about all the plans and potential that the Midnight's Children had, but he could have been referring to the film itself. It is a mildly enjoyable two hours, but should have been so much more.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

MICHAEL SHERMER - THE BELIEVING BRAIN. NON-FICTION.


Michael Shermer is a psychologist with an interest in why human beings believe the things that we do. This book is a synthesis of his decades of research into why we hold certain beliefs.

The strongest impression I got from this book was that we as human beings have an almost unlimited capacity for believing things that are not true. In fact, truth and facts and logic are very far down the list of things that persuade us to believe something. Shermer takes a number of the processes by which we form our beliefs and examines each one to get to how these work.

The first, and most prominent process we use to form our beliefs is what he calls "Patternicity". As Shermer says, "our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature."

Seeing patterns in nature is a useful skill, and has allowed us to survive as a species. If ancient humans heard a rustling in the undergrowth, it could have been the wind, but it also could have been a sabre-toothed tiger, ready to devour. Taking evasive action was sensible in that case. If the ancient human was right, he had just saved his life, if he was wrong, no harm done.

So we have evolved to connect the dots, to make connections between events that may not hold true, but which make us feel better as we don't like uncertainty. This is how superstitions evolve too, if we are watching our favourite sports team sitting in a certain chair, and the team wins, then our sitting in that chair has had a part in the win, and from then on it becomes "the lucky chair." The process is well understood and demonstrable, and it makes us form false conclusions from the evidence we get.

Another of his main points is that beliefs come first, then evidence. In other words we decide what we believe first, and then work backwards to find the evidence for this belief. And this leads to a very prominent phenomenon that reinforces our beliefs - Confirmation Bias. This is the process by which we interpret facts and evidence so that they confirm our beliefs. So for example, Columbus, when he arrived in the Americas, was convinced that he had found 'The Indies', because that was what he was looking for. Everything he saw, from the people he met to the plants and animals he encountered, he saw as conforming to various travellers' descriptions of Asia. Columbus visited the Americas four times, each time more and more convinced that he had found the route to Asia. That was his belief and he was sticking to it and everything he saw around him confirmed his false belief because he refused to consider that he was wrong.

The book is eye-opening, mainly in the way it points out how much we get wrong, how fixated we get on our beliefs, and how this fixation often leads us to hold on to things that are clearly untrue. The beliefs Shermer examines include belief in a deity, belief in the afterlife, belief in conspiracy theories, belief in the supernatural, belief in alien abduction and political beliefs. In each case he gets his readers to think again, to examine beliefs that are held often without question, to open the mind. It is a sceptic's charter, a reminder to go on questioning even in the face of things that seem obvious and self-evident.




Monday, 18 March 2013

THE LIFE OF PI. FILM.


This is worth it for the visuals. Pi is an Indian boy who is shipwrecked and cast adrift on a life boat in the Pacific Ocean. Bizarrely, a tiger which had also been on the ship, ends up on the raft with Pi. And the majority of the film is concerned with their travails and adventures, the battle between the two individuals for supremacy, and Pi's simple struggle to stay alive.
 
The story itself is extraordinary up to a point, but slowly becomes a little limited. With only Pi and the tiger on screen for so long, it soon became one-dimensional. The message too, such as it is, is preachy. Pi is a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim - at the same time - and the religious references are overt though pretty wishy-washy. According to Pi, the fact that he survived in such terrible circumstances is proof that God exists. Of course his family has all just drowned, and he doesn't explain why God didn't save them.

Still, the film manages, for the most part, to avoid sentimentality. The relationship between the boy and the tiger does change and develop, but they thankfully never become best friends, and the tiger is not deprived of his animal nature. Right up until close to the end there is a danger of him eating Pi, and this keeps the tension high.

And, as I said, the film is visually beautiful. It is in its treatment of the natural world that it is most impressive, many of the scenes are set up like paintings. In the first part it is the colour and vibrancy of India that is most striking, in the second half the life of the sea takes over, and there are truly remarkable images as Pi floats through the Pacific. Two in particular stand out. One is when he gets caught in a shoal of flying fish, the fish slapping and battering him as he stands up to try and get his hands on a larger, meatier fish that has accidentally fallen in the boat. We see the shoal moving, and the fish skimming the waves and then rising out of the water to try and avoid Pi as he stands in his raft.

The second scene is the one with the luminous jellyfish, the sea alive with this eerie green light, even though it is night-time. Pi, momentarily, feels a great joy at this natural wonder he has stumbled over, and the pictures of the phenomenon are really remarkable, the glowing sea creatures surrounding the boat and lighting the sea with their bodies. It is for the visual impact of these scenes - especially on the big screen - that the film should be seen.


Saturday, 16 March 2013

ENDGAME - SAMUEL BECKETT. PLAY

Someone mentioned the word "depressing" to me recently when talking about seeing the Beckett play, Endgame. This is not how I see Beckett's work at all. Sure, he is not Andrew Lloyd Webber, but as long as you are aware of what to expect, Beckett is thought-provoking, hilarious, moving, unique. There is more than just sadness and death.

Though there certainly is an amount of sadness and death in Endgame. It is set in a decaying world, with four characters, all in various states of dishevelment and ruin. It takes place in a small, shabby room with two high windows looking out on to the Earth and to the sea. Ham is the central character, literally, as he sits in his wheelchair in the centre of the room for the majority of the play, and he is joined by his servant, Clov, and his parents, Nel and Nagg, who live in dustbins or oil drums set on the front of the stage.

Hamm is blind and unable to stand, Clov is infirm and unable to sit, the elderly couple are frail and near death. It could be easy to see such a scenario as "depressing". Yet it is anything but. First of all Beckett has a sense of humour about the misery. "There is nothing funnier than unhappiness," says Nagg at one stage.  The exchanges are frequently hilarious. "How will I know if you're dead?" Hamm at one stage asks Clov. "I'll smell," Clov replies. "But you smell now," says Hamm back to him. The humour is juvenile at times, Beckett clearly isn't above a "you smell" joke, but it leavens the sense of despair and pushes the play into the world of the absurd.

It is also a profoundly aimless, futile world, a world where almost nothing happens. "What time is it?", asks Hamm. "Same as always," says Clov, "Zero." A universe where it is always zero o'clock, somewhere where progress is impossible, where nothing moves forward. And yet they joke about it, and talk about it, and moan about it, and look back and look forward, and Clov debates with himself whether he is going to leave or not, and Hamm just wants it all to end. It may be futile and decaying, but it is lyrical and funny and moving as well.

In the production I saw, by the Blue Raincoat Theatre Company, the stage was bare except for the two drums where Hamm's parents lived. The makeup was effective, red for Hamm, white or grey for the other three, making them all look like they were dried out, decaying, or like corpses. And the performances were fully realised, the actors clearly bought into the material, went fully with Beckett's words and ideas and world-view.

My only quibble is that the two characters in the tin drums are underused. Nagg and Nel are a break from the Clov-Hamm duo, they reminisce and tell their stories and are tender with each other, and are a counterpoint to the two main characters. And then they slowly fade out of the action, Clov believes that Nel has died though Nagg lives on, silent and doting, shut into his drum.  And so it more and more revolves around Clov and Hamm, and the question of whether Clov will leave. And I missed the dustbin pair when they faded away, when the play became more intense, and more focused on the pain of Clov and Hamm in the centre, and on their battle. Nagg, in fact, is responsible for my favourite line in the play.

Hamm (to his father): Why did you engender me?
Nagg: I didn't know it was going to be you!

The fading out of Nagg and Nel is not the fault of the production, of course, it is the way the play is designed, but it seemed to me that it would have benefited from using Hamm's bin-bound parents a little more. As characters they are underused, and almost have the status of a gimmick.

That said, it is a curious, fascinating experience, and a profound view into Beckett's twisted way of thinking. It is a play based on a mixture of nostalgia and horror and futility and comedy and devastation. A mixture that is impossible to find anywhere else.


Wednesday, 13 March 2013

JULIAN BARNES - THE SENSE OF AN ENDING. NOVEL.

This is a bite-sized little novel, a novella really, and tells an apparently simple story that slowly develops into something far more complex and dense.  

Tony Webster is the narrator, he tells us about his school days, his three best friends at the time and his first real girlfriend, Veronica, who he met in university. He spends one weekend in Veronica's parents' place in Surrey, where he thinks he is being patronised and ridiculed by everyone except Veronica's mother. Eventually Tony and Veronica split, Veronica starts going out with Tony's friend Adrian, who the group of friends has always seen as the most intellectual, and the most idealistic of them all. There is a suicide, and the group of friends drift apart, and get on with their own lives.

Fast forward forty years, Tony has been married and divorced, he has lost contact with the people from his past, until he receives an unexpected bequest in Veronica's mother's will. From there he feels compelled to dig into what happened in his twenties, and re-connect with his old flame Veronica.

As could be expected from a novel about someone looking back to their youth from the vantage point of their sixties, the book is about memory, and the passing of time. As the narrator says at the beginning, "Time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down." Time seems to have passed quickly for Tony, he tells of the intervening forty years between his time with Veronica and his present in about two pages, it has been a life half-lived, with few details. We get the impression that he regrets not having done more with his life, he regrets his caution, his lack of drive.

There is a lot unsaid in Tony's narration, or at least a lot half-said. He is not quite an unreliable narrator, as he is not totally deluded, but he is at the very least ignorant about a lot of things, and makes many assumptions that are not borne out by the facts. He is, though, aware of this. At one stage he says, "when we are young we invent different futures for ourselves, when we are old we invent different pasts for others." And this is what Tony does. Even after retirement, when he tries to get back in touch with Veronica, he misinterprets everything about her responses to him, even holding out some vague hope of a rekindling of their relationship while all the time she has nothing but contempt for him. He is fundamentally clueless. Veronica herself tells him, more than once, "You just don't get it, do you?" And he doesn't.

The story builds towards a kind of climax, our uncertainty about what has happened in the past matches Tony's, until slowly the truth is revealed. It is a little like a kind of literary whodunnit whose final revelation is temporarily shocking, but which is not expanded on and not really developed. The ending, after so much mystery, is slightly anti-climatic, though this fits in with the theme of the book. What has happened has happened, there is no changing that, and the past is what it is and cannot be reformed or twisted or reshaped just by telling it in a different way.

The value of the novel lies in the journey towards the revelations at the end, and not in the twists themselves. It is a dense book, which would probably be worth re-reading, about someone whose life has disappointed him, though he is incapable of figuring out why, and who is prone to assuming things which are totally untrue. It won the Booker prize in 2011. I find it hard to say that the novel is prize-worthy, it seems too slight for that, but there is something interesting there in what at first seems like a very simple story. The complexity builds, layer after layer, until we have a very compact, tightly packed novel that draws you in and makes you want to know more.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

SILVER LININGS, PLAYBOOK. FILM.

This film is a rom-com. It may have won an Oscar, have two central characters dealing with mental illness, and be quite a lot darker than most films, but it is still essentially a romantic comedy. And that fact is both its greatest weakness and biggest strength.

It is a strength because of the unconventional relationship between the two leads, Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper). They are both suffering from various mental disorders, Pat is bipolar and Tiffany is neurotic and depressed and dealing with the death of her husband. They are both difficult people, both obsessed with their exes in different ways.

Pat agrees to help Tiffany with a dance contest she wants to enter in exchange for her help to get a message to his ex-wife, who will not speak to him. And so their relationship stumbles on, dance practice mixed up with Pat's father's obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles, Pat's  psychiatrist, his over-achieving brother, his attempts to be a useful, reliable human being, and Tiffany's desire to hold things together. They are trying so hard, both of them, to hang on to some kind of sanity, it is difficult not to feel for them both, to be on their side. The longer the movie goes on the more you want things to work out for them.

Yet this is also the film's weakness. The ending is too pat, too easy. The fact that they are both supposed to be in some kind of mental anguish becomes less and less relevant the more the film goes on, until it seems like they are simply getting better on their own, as if depression or bipolar disorder are something like the common cold. Cooper's character Pat is severely distressed in the beginning of the film, and yet by the end he has quickly become almost well adjusted. The ending is a bit of a cop out, it smoothes over what cannot, in reality, be smoothed over, and the resolution comes with too few complications to be believable.

Still, it is very enjoyable. It has feel-good moments, truly hilarious scenes, De Niro, as Pat's father, is back to a role he can do something with, and it has characters it is impossible not to care about. And two things stand out and make the film worth watching. The first is the dance competition near the end. The film has been building to this, and the explosion of joy as the results are announced is worth seeing, and has all the more impact because of the complications of a bet and the presence of Pat's ex in the audience. It is a memorable scene.

The second is Jennifer Lawrence. She is truly mesmerising in this film, when she becomes a central figure the story really picks up, and she pretty much dominates any scene that she is in, including ones with De Niro. She won the Oscar for this, and for once they got that decision right, this quickly becomes her film. She is stunning in her intensity and vulnerability and complexity. It is worth seeing just for her performance.


Sunday, 10 March 2013

DJANGO UNCHAINED & LINCOLN. FILMS BOTH.

I was watching the film Lincoln recently, and couldn't stop thinking of Quentin Tarantino's last movie, Django Unchained. They were released around the same time, and are of about the same length, but are massively different films. Apart, that is, from the issue of slavery.

Slavery is central to both movie, though treated in completely different ways. Django addresses slavery directly, in all its barbarity and sadism and hypocrisy. We see the brutality and the self-righteousness of slave owners, we see slaves being murdered and tortured and whipped, and treated as objects. Nothing is spared. In Lincoln the only black people we see are free, workers and soldiers and passers by. Yet slavery is a constant presence in the film, in the drive of Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones' character, Thaddeus Stevens, to eradicate it, and in the determination of the Democrats to maintain it at all costs. Slavery is why the South seceded and why the Civil War began, and why hundreds of thousands of men died in battle. To me, seeing the films so close together makes them in a way companions to each other, the stark barbarism we see in one and the attempts to end this in the other, brutal realism in Django and the intricacies of the politics of it all in Spielberg's movie. Certainly, for me, seeing Django first helped me understand better the pasion of Lincoln and his allies for change.

Django Unchained shows Tarantino at his best. He is an underrated filmmaker, is brave and unique and verging on genius. In this film, too, like at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds, he shows that no-one else on the planet can film those long, long, long scenes of thirty-five, forty minutes in length, better than he can. Here too, with Leo De Caprio's character, slaver Calvin Candie, freed slave Django and his German ally, Dr. Shultz in Candie's mansion, the scene of dinner and its aftermath feels like a film in itself, the tension builds and builds and builds to an inevitable, bloody climax, the upper hand going one way and then the other. Samuel L.Jackson - almost unrecognisable as Candie's black assistant - adds intrigue and uncertainty. It is riveting and intense. 

Django is a complex film, is subtle and layered and then, regrettably, in the last thirty minutes it goes all Tarantino - murder, mayhem, gushings of blood, and enormous body count. it was as if the director couldn't help himself, he had been holding back all movie and then it all just came out in the final act. An orgy of violence. For me it was a pity, and didn't quite fit with what had gone before.

Lincoln, on the other hand, is entirely consistent in tone right through the film. Daniel Day Lewis predictably inhabits the role, and is the constant throughout the film, principled, controlled, like an avuncular grandfather who is driven by this one goal, this one passion. He is totally convincing as president of the United States, as changer of a country. I quickly forgot it was Day Lewis at all on screen.

And the film does what can't be easy, it makes the parliamentary process of nineteenth century America suspenseful and emotional. Lincoln is trying to get an amendment to the American constitution to outlaw slavery passed in the House of Representatives, and he is twenty votes short. The narrative follows his, and his allies', attempts to gain those twenty votes. That they go about it by unashamedly bribing people is one of the fascinating details of the film. Lincoln himself shows no qualms about what is blatant corruption in the service of a higher goal. Near the end, as each Representative votes, the tension mounts, and it becomes quite moving, with the first black people allowed into the chamber, sitting in the observation seats, and those once fervently against Lincoln's amendment slowly coming over to his side.

Some more knowledge of the history of the time might have helped me grasp the intricacies of the political process better, but the film is compelling and moving. Taken together, Django Unchained and Lincoln complement each other, adding depth to the stories that each one may have lacked on its own.

THIS IS 40. FILM.

Judd Apatow is a big name in Hollywood, for his part in producing films like Knocked Up, SuperBad, Anchorman, Bridesmaids and The 40 Year Old Virgin. This is 40, though, is only the fourth film he has actually directed, and I think it's his best.

His films are often dismissed as simply immature, profane, going for easy laughs. That may have been true at times, but Apatow is a more complex film-maker than that. This is 40, although it's always trying to make you laugh, does examine some serious themes, and does this honestly.

Debbie and Pete, the two central characters, were Katherine Heigl's siter and brother-in-law in Knocked Up, so this makes this film a kind of sequel to Apatow's early movie. They are both turning 40 the same week, and the story is based around how they deal with this, their conflicts, denials, the crisis in their relationship, the good times. It is about their md-life crises, and their respective ways of dealing with them.

It is also fundamentally about family. Debbie and Pete's kids (who are actually Judd Apatow's kids in real life) are central to the story. Also, the couple's respective fathers, Pete's scrounging dad and Debbie's estranged father, both make an appearance. So it is quite a traditional film with a message about the importance of family, despite all the swearing and sex references.

In all I really enjoyed this. I thought it was consistently funny, engaging, it had likable characters and, although there was minimal narrative beyond the ups and downs of a marriage in mid-life, I was never anything other than entertained. The jokes come relentlessly, some stronger than others, but there is no let up. Amid all the crises, it never stops being funny.

The film has been described as "dark", but this is true only in parts and the darkness is always relieved by a joke, a wisecrack, something real from the kids. And it really does say something about what it is like to turn forty, the anxieties, fears, panic, what keeps you going. I don't thing I am in the majority with this opinion, but I think that it is Apatow's best film. 




ZADIE SMITH - N.W.. NOVEL.

I think that anything that Zadie Smith writes is worth reading, even if, like this book, it is a bit rambling and lacks a centre.

The blurb at the back of the book says that it is the story of a city. It is not quite that, but it does attempt to give something of a portrait of North West London, around Willesden, Kilburn, Harlesdon, through a number of characters who the narrative follows.

And yet it is very unfocused, diffuse, hard to grasp. The focus moves from one character to another, characters that are vaguely connected but only vaguely, without ever really following through, without ever really drawing the disparate strands of the story together. There is an attempt near the end to hint that the four people who are more or less central to the book are fundamentally linked, but it is half-hearted at best. This is the great let-down, it is hard to engage with something so shifting, so unresolved.

The strongest part is when we learn about Keisha, who later changes her name to Natalie. This is all about identity, or the lack of it, of losing touch with roots, of this kind of modern deracination, being confused about who you are. Natalie is the centre of the book for me, if it even has a centre, and is the only character who grabbed me in any way. She is complex, conflicted, having it all yet deeply dissatisfied, and profoundly uncertain about who she is or what she wants.

Yet the impact of Natalie's story is diluted by the other, by Felix and Leah, who to me are far less interesting, less real. There are beautiful sentences, insights, jokes, word plays, all the bright cleverness that Zadie Smith achieves so effortlessly. But something is lacking in the novel that was there in On Beauty and White Teeth, a drive, a unity of purpose. A pity.

THE MASTER. FILM.

This was very, very disappointing. It had all the potential to be a great film, Paul Thomas Anderson directing, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in dual starring roles. Yet I was thoroughly disengaged for the majority of the film, had no sympathy for or connection to any of the characters, and really missed some kind of narrative drive. There was almost no go-forward with the story, no progression of any kind.

Joaquin Phoenix's character, Freddy, is an ex-soldier, drifter and an alcoholic. He ends up stowing away on the boat of Lancaster Dodd - Philip Seymour Hoffman - a self styled visionary who believes that he has found the solution to all of humanity's ills through a form of regression therapy that allows people to access their past lives. By the force of his personality he draws a following, and they become a kind of cult, hostile to the outside world, immune to self-criticism. We see, eventually, the "The Master", as he calls himself, is simply making his philosophy up as he goes along.


The exposé of how charismatic people can convince a group of followers that their nonsense is true was interesting, but could have been far more so. Apparently the story was partly based on the life story of L.Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, and there was a massive amount of potential to explore this further. Instead the film just drags on and on and on, and eventually runs out of steam, losing any sense of coherence near the end. I simply didn't care about anyone in this film, or anything that happened to them. That, to me, is its great failure.


The film thinks that it is profound and magical, but is simply flat. The cinematography is beautiful, and it looks great, but after two and a half hours I had simply stopped caring. Near the end Freddy beats up another of the master's critics, something he had done an hour of the film earlier. It was clear that the film had finally run out of ideas, and had given up.


Saturday, 9 March 2013

LIZ MOORE - HEFT. NOVEL.


After reading Keith Ridgway's book, this was a relief. It is a simple book, based around the solid virtue of actually telling a story. Or two stories, in this case.

There are alternating narratives here, both told in the first person. Arthur Opp is the first character we hear from, a man of massive proportions, nearly 50 stone, who hasn't left his house in more than a decade. The second protagonist is Kel Keller, a high school student with an alcoholic mother and a promising baseball career.

The link between them is Kel's mother, Charlene, who used to be Arthur's student. It's not a very obvious link, but it doesn't matter, the charm and humanity of the two protagonists carries the novel. Because we hear their voices, and see inside their heads, we identify with them, have compassion for them, maybe come to understand why they act as they do. It's hard to feel contempt for a person of such enormous size as Arthur when we hear, at various times, the contempt that he has for himself.

The voices are consistent, and the stories progress steadily, and intertwine, and come back to their own path, and then back together again. They are simple stories, moving, with characters that engage. There is no fireworks here, just a narrative that draws you in effortlessly and characters that you can care about. A simple, enjoyable novel.

Friday, 8 March 2013

CLOUD ATLAS. FILM.

The novel that this film is based on is a work of extraordinary breadth of imagination. It consists of six different stories, though all linked through the themes, characters and other ancillary details, like birthmarks. The scope of the narratives is really breath-taking, and the links between them transform the book from just a collection of stories into a real, though unconventional, whole.


The basic theme of the book - and this theme has been retained in the movie - is the strong oppressing the weak, the weak fighting back against this tyranny. It is in every story, though treated in a variety of ways. Slavery and freedom, bondage and liberty. You have these two poles right the way through the film, and the conflict between them is at the centre of the narrative..


What the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer - the directors of the film - have done, very cleverly, is to cinematize the literary version of the story. The visuals are impressive, the makeup is dodgy in parts but spectacular in others, the directors seem more at home with the sci-fi stories but manage them all well.

Where they really succeed though, is in the construction of the narrative.In the book the stories are sequential, you read one, then the next, then the next, whereas the film does a Magnolia and splits the stories up, tells a snapshot of one, and then another, and then another, and so on, so it feels like all the narratives are progressing together. They all reach a conclusion more or less at the same time, so there is this slow, relentless build-up towards a climax. If you can follow what's happening - and having read the book helps - it is a thrilling experience.

I was riveted from the very first scene. It was almost three hours long, but didn't seem half that. I thought it was entrancing. Yes some bits of the book were glossed over, perhaps some of the stories weren't concluded fully, even in three hours there is not enough time to fit everything in. Despite that I found the slow progression of each story, the interlinking of the narratives, the style of editing where actions that took place in one story were immediately mirrored in another, the visual beauty of the film, all of this was a feast for the eyes, the brain, the emotions. A really remarkable piece of cinema.

KEITH RIDGWAY - HAWTHORN AND CHILD. NOVEL.

What a waste of time. This book actually started to make me angry, about half way in, and things didn't get any better after that.


Hawthorn and Child are two London police detectives who, as the novel opens, are investigating an attack on a young man in the early morning. It starts off slow enough, but there is a crime involved, and so you expect some revelations, some investigation, something. But then the novel veers off, it looks at snapshots of other people's lives, almost all of them unnamed, though most of them with some tenuous connection to the eponymous policemen.

And that's it. There is no narrative, no progression with any of the stories, no sense of unity in the novel, just person after unnamed person, some internal monologue, a suicide, unexplained. In fact, nothing is explained, nothing has any meaning, it is nihilist and empty and pointless. A waste of time. There are plenty of good books out there I could have been reading, and I had to burn all these hours wading through this turgid non-event.

More than that, the writing is utterly opaque. There is no colour to descriptions, and in fact almost no descriptions at all. None of the characters is described at all physically, and generally it is hard to tell them apart, especially the two main characters. And most of the sections simply consist of a story about "he" or "she" or "I", and so you are four or five pages in to each section before you know who is who, and what their relationship is to the story. And by then you have stopped caring.

None of the narratives reach a conclusion, none of them fit into the overall story, such as it is, we learn nothing, there is no character development, no resolutions, no point. I kept expecting some kind of effort at unifying the various threads, but there is none. They exist as discrete entities, with no development or meaning. After The Parts, which I really enjoyed, this is a horrible, self-indulgent letdown.

Watching and Reading and Writing

So it's very simple. I'm going to watch films, and write about them. And then read books, and write about them. And that's it. Watching and reading and writing about it.