Monday, 27 December 2010

Travels in the Scriptorium [2006] by Paul Auster

Having finally finished War and Peace I've decided to read lots of short books in quick succession to get my yearly quota up. I'm a newcomer to Auster and decided now is as good a time as any to break into his ever growing bibliography with Travels in the Scriptorium, a compact post-modern experiment running to 130 pages.

I'm a sucker for tricksy novels and self reflexive narratives and, as much as it is a cliché, I do enjoy authors writing themselves into their own novels, with Kurt Vonnegut's repeated personal appearances being a particular favourite. However, what I didn't realise when I started the novel is that all of the characters in the book are drawn from previous Auster novels, apart from the protagonist Mr Blank. This put me at somewhat of a unusual position whilst reading the book as I began to ask myself who are these minor fleeting characters with their mysterious vaguely alluded to histories and backstories. In such an allegorical book I started to read in to each character, trying to pin some sort of emotion or association on to them. This proved to be something of a dead end, as after finishing the book I found out that they were old Auster characters, and then everything fell in to place...

Mr Blank, an old man, finds himself in a bare room, apparently locked in, with no idea of how he got there or where he is. In the room there is a bed, desk, some paper and several manuscripts of half written stories. He is visited intermittently by people who obviously know him personally and have been had their lives seriously affected by Mr Blank's actions. Mr Blank guesses that he sends these people on 'missions' much like a spy master, often to unsafe or dangerous locations. He spends the day thinking about his position in the room, promising to himself that he will work at unlocking its secret, but never managing it due to a number of distractions.

A great deal of the novel takes the form of Mr Blank reading through one of the manuscripts which takes the form of an unfinished alternative history novel written by John Trause. Apparently John Trause (and anagram for Auster...) was a character in the New York Trilogy, Auster's breakthrough collection - again something I missed in my ignorance. Mr Blank is tasked to complete the manuscript himself, to come up with a middle and an end to the story, a feat of 'imaginative reasoning' designed to test his 'emotional reflexes'. Auster uses this subplot to toy with the concepts of clichés and literary forms in which the reader is comforted by a familiar plot structure (much in the same way that I'm constantly compelled by Westerns and film noir, even though they all roughly follow the same trajectory). At one point, the labels on all of the items in the room are switched somehow, and Mr blank has to re-order them so that everything makes sense. I'll admit, this section of the novel lost me, as I'm not too sure of the symbolism behind the labels and their sudden randomisation.

The novel then is a (obvious?) metaphor for the process of writing and creation. Do we have a duty of care towards are creations? Are their stories ever finished? Do their fictional lives give the author a legacy, a kind of life on the page that will continue after the author dies, one that endless repeats itself each time it is read anew? And if so, how much thought, how much life, should the author instill in his characters?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Lolita [1962]

Nearly finished Kubrick's filmography now - just Killer's Kiss and Eyes Wide Shut to go.

This was brilliant, early, restrained Kubrick, just as he was about to turn into brilliant, later, over-the-top Kubrick. I've never read the book, so couldn't compare the two, but the screenplay was written by Nabokov anyway so it has to be authentic.

Famously shot - again - in Britain, Kubrick does a decent job of pretending to be in middle America, except for the exterior scenes of pebble dashed detached house that are unmistakably English. Never mind.

James Mason was astonishing. He must have relished this role, something to get his teeth into with Humbert Humbert's particular brand of desperate depravity. I love James Mason at the best of times (and agree with Eddie Izzard that God MUST have Mason's voice) but he was a real treat to watch here, veering from aloof and respectful, to cunning and manipulative. You feel at once sickened and sorry for the man, given that happiness could be his except happiness is in the shape of a young - too young - girl.

Seller's play Quilty, and when you booked Seller's you really got Seller's. The Rough Guide to film states his performance  had "all the nuanced subleties of a Looney Tunes cartoon". Harsh, but true. Regardless I like Sellers and never have a problem with his over the top performances, often finding his desperate gurning and mania can veer into something truly pathetic... in a good way.

Kubrick had a particular fascination with casting comedic/manic actors in his films: the sergeant in full metal jacket, Jack, Alex, all 3 versions of Seller's in Dr Strangelove, Leonard Rossiter in Barry Lyndon. Its easy for accusations of coldness to stick when one's film career has a vein of unhinged characters running through it, but Sellers brought an unearthly third party into Humbert's solopsism which was entirely necessary to the film.


The Servant [1963]

Interesting yet slightly underwhelming class drama, directed by Joseph Losey. Remember reading a great article in Sight & Sound about the Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter collaborations and this seemed to stand out for its potential. Great dialogue alright, and many awkward, absurd moments (particularly the bizaare ball game Bogarde and Fox play together towards the end of the film) that set the film apart from its contemporaries, but it was mired by too much 60s zaniness, especially the debauched ending. Brilliantly directed though, confined angles and hidden viewpoints all in one house. Bogarde was great as well.

Night and the city [1950]

Why didn't anyone tell me that this film revolved around the London wrestling circuit of the 50s? A tense thriller it wasn't - Richard Widmark, normally so venal and terse, was flouncing around like a bratty teenager and I couldn't help but laugh at the wrestling scenes. Bear hug him Gregorius! Silly film.

Lift to the scaffold [1957]

Disappointing Louis Malle film, made me realise why Malle is so often disregarded. A slightly contrived premise, but nevertheless one that could work with enough suspence: Jeanne Moreau gets her lover to murder her rich husband, he forgets to clean up the scene of the crime and returns, only to get stuck in the lift when the building is locked up for the night. Mostly revolved around Moreau (who I often find dull and underwhelming anyway) wandering around the city reflecting on whether her lover has ran away at the last minute. Also contained a ridiculous side plot focuses on a young couple who steal the lover's car and get into various kinds of trouble. Didn't make me pine for more.

My Night At Maud's [1969]

First Rohmer film, and one that I have been waiting to watch for years. Managed to catch it at the Manchester Cornerhouse's Sunday Matinee which is always worth keeping an eye on.

Jean Louis Trintignant is a wound up Catholic with something against Pascal, and he has to stay the night in Francois Fabian's bed - only he has promised to remain celibate until he marries the pretty blonde who he has been checking out at Sunday Mass.

Pretty weird set up, but an enjoyable film nonetheless. Unrepentantly intellectual, I'll admit most of the discussions on Pascal went over my head. However, after a bit of post film explantion from S I started to understand the plot's analogies with Pascal's wager: Trintignant saw that he had everything to gain and nothing to lose by devoting himself to marriage with the pretty blonde, but I'm not quite he was convinced of this, especially considering the brief coda to the film when his memories and regrets seemed to wash over him like the nearby tide.

A beautifully photographed film (courtesy of Nestor Almendros, who also shot Days of Heaven - one of my personal favourites), every frame seemed to evoke repression (cold landscapes, icy streets) or clarity (simple interiors, the warmth of the church) - a reflection of Trintignant's emotions? Trintignant again displays his mastery of repressed urges: not as creepy as The Conformist or Three Colours: Red, but a calm, gentle and assured performance.

Heavy on the dialogue as it is, one never feels short changed by the film - this isn't a staged script, but a demonstration of how discussion and spoken thought can be cinematic when done properly.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Thoughts on Heroes

The heroes of Ride The High Country - these old, decrepit men doing a dirty job in a thankless world - seem far more real, far more sympathetic than today's crop of superheroes and supermen. Why is this? Am I alone in finding modest, self reliant outsiders far more charismatic and engaging than Spiderman, Jason Bourne or any of the cast members of Avatar? Here's my two penny's worth...

The events of the first sixty years of the 20th century showed us that the actions of one man can't explain the events of history (something Tolstoy mentions repeatedly in War and Peace, which I'll get around to blogging about when I finally finish it...). Two world wars, the depression, the cold war, Korea, Vietnam - all were monumental occurrences that where the backdrop to all forms of art from 1900 - 1960. Yet, it seems to me at least, that the protagonists and heroes of popular film in the first half of the century always seemed to be concerned with more personal, intimate forms of heroism. The effect on human lives of these seemingly immovable, unavoidable shifts in history is far more engaging and illustrative of the human condition than any story of some all powerful super-human fighting machine, who not only saves himself and the girl but manages to keep the course of history running smoothly, never letting it invade the lives of the little people down below.

What I find remarkable is that the popular entertainment of the time - westerns, noir, even musicals - embodied this feeling of personal heroism and victory and remained immensely popular.  You can still find such films today, but they tend to be small independently produced affairs with very little distribution. The audience, it would seem, has tired of modest heroism. (Either that, or, star struck by the spectacle of increasingly preposterous CGI and galactic heroism, audiences flock to the next blockbuster which inevitably costs ten times as much as a small picture like Ride the High Country to produce. Subsequently the next big film has to be hyped up as much as possible to generate revenue and ticket sales, with all that time and money being invested in relatively few films. I think I'm digressing from my original point....)

This could go some way to explain the decline of the western form (as well as noir and musicals - who can save the world with a dance?). The West is a hermetic landscape, very little changes, and if too much is changed then it ceases to be a western. No cowboy could save the world - the most he can hope for is to end the rule of a ruthless cattle baron or local hoodlum. But then, couldn't we? Corporations and politicians have been brought down by ordinary individuals. Gangsters and criminals have been stopped by local heroes. These things can and do happen and when represented on screen or on the page they provide so much more fulfillment and entertainment than a vacuous metal suit flying through the air.

Ride The High Country (1962)

Like most Peckinpah films Ride The High Country was concerned with men of action unable to come to terms with a changing world. Much like The Wild Bunch it was set at the beginning of the 20th century when the West had been won and law and order were becoming regulated. The opening scenes neatly sum up the changes as Joel McCrea rides in to town, only to be hurried along by a uniformed policeman and nearly ran over by a 'horseless carriage'. The West is starting to mythologise itself:, demostrated by Randolph Scott,  dressed up like Wild Bill Hickock and running a fixed shooting gallery. The two heroes are all but relics, trying to make a dollar any way they can.

The film was shot 7 years before The Wild Bunch. As such there is not as much glorious, vibrant violence in the film and the story is a more recognisable western - two heroic riders, one young greenhorn, riding through the high country to a dangerous big payoff. The themes and motifs that make you feel comfortable are here, but there is a definite sense of loss and unease at the way things now are. The mining town scenes are ingrained with dirt and hedonism, the treatment of women is harsh and misogynistic. Peckinpah always leaves a bitter taste after his scenes with women - was he merely showing us what it would have been like, or were his misogynistic characters a sign of a deeper contempt in the director?

Definitely one of the more thoughtful westerns with a script loaded with nostalgia and questions of morality and heroism. Scott's old timer is still drawn to money, especially after decades in the wilderness, his sentiment of 'You can't take pride with you to the grave' contrasting sharply with McCrea's statement that all he wants is to "enter my home justified". Its also a very beautiful film, shot in a big, wide, heavily wooded country and filled with memorably dramatic scenes of nature - especially the windswept, hillside shootout.

There is a lot to Peckinpah. Indeed there is a wealth of literature to read up on, most of it raising very valid points. One of the more pithy and to the point examples is Christine Gledhill's appraisal of the film in The Cinema Book (BFI, 2007):

"The question [Peckinpah] poses is, how can the traditional code of the western survive into an era when the certainties that underpin it have been eroded?  Individual morality has been replaced by corporatism, greed and cynicism [...] in Peckinpah's films, the white male hero is subjected to a series of ordeals, moral and physical that test to the full his ability to retain his integrity and sense of self. Typically, Peckinpah's heroes cannot adjust to a world that has overtaken them. There is no community that they can relate to, only, if they are lucky, a few kindred souls, doomed like them to assert their defiance in acts of heroic resistance."

A nice explanation. But I was wondering what she meant by "an era when the certainties that underpin it have eroded". Does she mean the era represented in the film, or the era of the audience? This started me thinking: has our perception of the hero changed, or have the movies simply stopped showing us these modest men and women? Read my next entry....

Monday, 22 November 2010

Leningrad Cowboys Go America [1989]

The Leningrad Cowboy's are Russia's tightest, least known band; Vladimir, their manager, takes them to tour America; they discover rock and roll and drive across the country trying to get to a gig in Mexico. Oh - and they are carrying the coffin of their dead/frozen guitarist (guitar gripped rigid by rigor mortis). On the way Jim Jarmusch sells them a car, and Vladimir swindles the lot of them whilst drinking a lot of budweiser.

A great little film, and obviously a little weird and precious. There are some wonderful visual gags (see the cowboy's nailing their winkle pickers back so that they can put their foot on the accelarator pedal) and the music made the film. Kaurasmaki has a unique perspective on cinema, one that has developed from oddball movies like this to the more restrained, contemplative recent films such as The Man Without a Past. I look forward to seeing more.

The Parallax View (1974)

Part of Alan J Pakula's 'Paranoia Trilogy' (along with Klute and All The President's Men). The plot focuses on Warren Beatty's reporter and his attempt at uncovering a shadowy organisation that seems to specialise in political assassinations. The opening scene sees  popular (democrat?) Presidential candidate being shot in the Seattle space needle by one of the waiters. The shooter runs up to the top of the needle and then manages to act falling off the edge really badly....

Obvious allusions to Bobby Kennedy are present, but it doesn't detract from the immediacy of the shooting which really does make you jump in your seat. Although the film was released 6 years after Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr's murders it still successfully conveyed the sense of confused panic that pervaded the 70s: a feeling I felt recently when watching Olivier Assayas's Carlos.

The film was a gift for the DOP - loads of widescreen exterior scenes with forbidding modernist architecture, and dimly lit, labyrinthine interiors.

Warren Beatty played a good roaming journalist trying to uncover the reason why all of the witnesses to the initial assassination have died in suspicious circumstances. This involved a lot of snooping through drawers, talking to psychoanalysts with chimpanzees on their lap, getting into one hell of a contrived bar room brawl and subsequent car chase, and then more snooping around in imposing office blocks...

I'm not sure it's the minor masterpiece that some hold it up to be. Much of the atmosphere of the film was simply that - atmosphere: no payoff. And for as much as I enjoy ambiguous scenarios I would like to have had a little more insight into why the Parallax organisation were killing people, and who, if anyone, employed them. Without any rigorous intellectual questions the lack of further explanation of the plot does feel like a kop-out. Antonioni could have made it better.... In fact he did with Blow-up and The Passenger.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Network (1976)

Another mid 70s American film. There's something about that grainy, washed out film stock and the convergence of fading Hollywood stars and young upstarts that really appeals.

Network is a much talked about film, mainly due to the frenzied rages of Peter Finch's doom-mongering newscaster Howard Beale and his cry of 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!' He's fired from the network due to failing viewing figures, but after he announces he' going to kill himself on air the figures start to climb. The network, desperate for the share of the audience eggs him on, puts him on prime time with a blank canvas and the nation becomes hooked on the ravings of this late middle-aged man who has got sick of the bullshit.

Then there is leather faced William Holden who plays his old boss and the only person who seems to have his interests at heart. He's having a fling with Faye Dunaway's ambitious programming director, who in turn takes advantage of Finch's rants and put him centre stage on the networks listings.
Robert Duvall puts on his bombastic, face rubbing act and really attacks the screen with his bullish network chief. An opportunist with some killer lines ("That's a big fat, big titted hit!") Duvall is the best thing in the film next to Finch.

Paddy Chayefsky won the Oscar for his screenplay and deservedly so. Its a stagey, overwritten and unrealistic script, but one that is suited to such an outrageous scenario. You could never accuse Network of realism. Insider jokes abound: especially funny are the programme pitches Dunaway has to sift through every morning, most of which involve a "crusty yet benign older man working with a brilliant, beautiful woman. S pointed out that this could equally be said of Dunaway and Holden - whether this was deliberate irony or just sloppy writing, I couldn't help seeing their relationship as the weak link, a magnet to get ticket sales at a time when Faye Dunaway was a big box office draw. 

Lumet excels at this kind of picture, withdrawn and observant, allowing his actors range to express themselves (or overact) and somehow managing to make great entertainment out of a bunch of cold characters. An enjoyable and highly prescient film, it seems that there has never been a time since its release that Network could not be held up as a mirror to the current era's television addiction.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Ride Lonesome (1959)

One of Budd Boetticher's series of westerns starring Randolph Scott and written by Burt Kennedy, Ride Lonesome  is a fine, lean piece of film-making with dialogue as tight lipped as a desert parched cowboy. A typical plot - silent, mysterious loner tracks down a murderer with a bounty on his head to take him back to Santa Cruz to hang, whilst all the while trying to lure the murderers brother into a showdown in revenge for the killing of his wife.  But then you never watch a western for its plot do you?

The action is fast and quick, much like the 50s B-movie production. Burt Kennedy's script is a killer, full of that mid-century American machismo that seemed designed for the movies. Randolph Scott barely moves a muscle throughout the film, keeping his conversation to a minimum, his eyes set on the horizon:

"You mean you’d kill each other over a bounty? Like two dogs fighting over a bone?"

"You could say that."

There's no justification for his actions, no-one tells him he's going to far when he strings up the juvenile murderer and goads his brother on, the one scene were he seems to enjoy himself.
A great film, minimal and restrained and all over in 73 minutes - I'd like more please.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Cross Fades: Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) & Mulholland Dr. (2001)

(Cross fades is to be an irregular feature where I critique and compare similar films or books, and hopefully it will become more frequent as I get my act together.)

I happened to order both of these films from sofa cinema within a short period of time and through no conscious choice, but their similarities and shared themes are striking.

Celine and Julie is my second attempt at Jacque Rivette after Paris nous apartient which was a great surprise when I first watched it. Two women who seemingly meet for the first time strike up a bizaare friendship centred on make-believe. Their lives become increasingly interlinked, leading to some scenes were they live each others life for a brief time without anyone noticing – Celine dons a ginger wig and meets with Julie’s lover; Julie performs Celine’s magic stage show and breaks down in front of a pair of cigar smoking agents. The pair act out their lives as if it’s all a big joke, chasing each other across Paris, inventing wild stories to each other about their day. This sounds wearying, but its all done with a deft light touch and its all very charming for the first hour or so.

Then the pair stumble upon an empty house and events take a strange turn... Listen:

Celine and Julie play the role of a maid in the house, and the house is inhabited by two sisters, one widower and a small child. They play out an over the top melodrama in a constant cycle, Celine or Julie playing the maid and helping the action move on. When they leave the house they are dazed and incoherent and can’t remember any of this. Accept there’s a boiled sweet in their mouths, and when they eat it the memories return and they can recount their adventure.

However, they can only remember small sections of the drama each time, so they have to keep returning to the house to learn more about the story. You see, the child gets murder at the end of the play, but neither Celine of Julie know who committed the murder.

The rest of the film involves the couple solving the murder by piecing together the fragments of the drama into a whole, and then entering the house together and attempting to rescue the child.

This sounds pretty serious, but you won’t think it is when you’re watching the film. There is no atmosphere of foreboding or terror like Mulholland Dr, instead everything is taken in it’s stride. Celine and Julie enjoy the adventure, they concoct in-jokes about the inhabitants of the house and they never question why this is all happening. The house scenes themselves are shot in such brightly lit conditions that it seems almost uncomfortably real, anti-cinematic. The camera is reserved, framing each shot simply and cutting between scenes very quickly. Rivette’s direction throughout is great, not flashy in the slightest but confident enough to keep you from getting bored and moving the action on – quite important for a film were nothing really happens for 3 hours.

The film is a giant metaphor for the experience of watching and engaging in the cinema, and as such forms a nice companion to Mullholland Dr. C & J enjoy the experience, go back to the house to experience it again, get to know the lines, interpret the characters actions, invest their emotions in the drama and eventually manipulate it to their own means. The meta-narrative ‘film-within-a-film’ story is ripe for interpretation and is a favourite of high minded critics and film buffs (David Thompson described it as “the most innovative film since Citizen Kane”). The last 5 minutes after they exit the house are great, the boats gliding over the water being akin to the final shot of geese flying over a lake in Paris nous apartient in its thought-provoking beauty.

However, it is a flawed film and one that is perhaps something of a sacred cow due to its  self-reflexive nature. It is too long. At just over 3 hours long the film had many scene that could easily have been cut at no detriment to the finished product. The breezy silliness of the protagonists started to become irritating towards the second hour, especially the screaming and playground rhyming banter that they converse in exclusively in the last 20 minutes. Brevity seems like such an underrated concept, but its shocking how many at films with seemingly low budgets seem to sprawl out to 3 hours. So much for Hitchcock’s mantra that the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.

Mulholland Dr was exactly what I expected from David Lynch, which is a strange kind of praise. It stems from my being greatly disappointed by Blue Velvet which is thought was made by Dennis Hopper and seriously flagged whenever he was off screen. Prior to watching Blue Velvet I was expecting Lynch's films to be murky, labyrinthine and unsettling, but Blue Velvet only met the latter.  

Like Celine and Julie..., Mulholland Dr concerns two women who happen upon each other unexpectedly and increasingly rely on each other to interpret events around them. Betty, an ingenué in hollywood trying to make a break, takes on the cause of Rita, the amnesiac she found in her Aunts shower one day. Rita was involved in an accident and she is trying to find out who she is and why she was involved in the accident.

The film is littered with red herrings and false starts, leading the viewer down roads that never go anywhere. This could be due to Lynch originally writing the film as a TV pilot for aseries he had in mind. Purportedly he was knocked back on the proposal and decided to turn the story into a film, keeping most of the multiple strands in the plot. The feeling of 'forces at work' that this generates throughout the film is great and it has to be said that Mulholland Dr has one of the best atmospheres in a fim that I have experienced in a long time. Everything is messed up and potentially symbolic, much like Celine and Julie... excet this time there is a real sense of dread running through the film, especially when the duo discover a disgustingly putrid corpse decomposing on a motel bed that looks strangely familiar... 

From there on the film breaks down and starts again, gradually revealing itself through flashabcks to show us what has happened, why people are suddenly calling Betty 'Diane', and just how warped an obsessive mind can become. 

I really enjoyed it, felt genuinely spooked on several ocassions and found my opinions on the film changing rapidly as time went by. I thought the early Betty scenes were pathetically sentimentally and corny, but at the end of the film you realise they were supposed to be. An extremely subjective film, the direction changes depending on the character involved and their current state of mind.

Again, much has been made of Mulholland Dr, mostoy due to its focus on the seedy side of Hollywood and perceptions of reality, a subject that is integral to cinema. However, a word of caution - try not to read too much into this film. Enjoy it for what it is, let it flow over you - you'll still get it. Its not hard to understand whats happened at the end of the film (it may be during the film, but thats part of the fun), but I think there is a danger of exposing multi-layered films like this as quite superficial if they are unwound too much.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

After a long wait I finally got to watch Barry Lyndon, Kubrick's stately Thackeray adaptation that followed the controversial A Clockwork Orange. Another 3 hour film (what have I done to deserve this?) but strangely enough, despite its slow pace, a film I didn't feel overstayed it's welcome. With a few exceptions the film moved along at a good pace, which can, I assume having never read it, be attributed to Thackeray's source novel. 

Kubrick is often criticised for his impersonal, distanced and cold treatment of his protagonists, never penetrating beneath the veneer or exploring the 'why' of their actions. Strangely, the Bildungsroman form of the film suits Kubrick's style down to a tee, with an entire 20-30+ year period flashing by in 3 hours. You never have the chance to emote with Barry or find out why he is so fly-by-night, but I never got bothered by this, instead getting whisked along by the picaresque adventures of Barry.

Ryan O'Neal is generally held to be miscast as Barry, a barrel chested all-American playing an Irish gentleman made good, but I couldn’t see the problem with his performance. He manages the frustrated, proud young man and the distanced, self-satisfied lord of the manor very well, all using the same technique – by saying and doing very little. Whether this is a masterclass in restrained acting managing to emote inner repression, or just a 'model' actor not doing a very good job at expressing himself I can't say. I can imagine Kubrick was very pleased with the performance.

The shots are beautifully composed, painterly even, with a definite feel of Constable and Gainsborough landscapes to the outdoor scenes – lots of running water, trees overhanging stone walls, horse and carts. Kubrick does a great trick of zooming slowly out from a small detail to reveal a perfectly framed countryside scene, the closest he gets to a swooping period drama camera. The interior shots are remarkable for their lighting, which is all done by candle light (Kubrick reputedly developed/pioneered a special lens for his purpose)..

Where the film does fall down is in some very tedious, overly long scenes with little tension, especially the final duel scene which made me yearn for a Peckinpah style bloodbath to get over the monotonous build up.The film is also fairly predictable, not helped by the narrator who leaves you in no doubt that you are watching a filmed book, as opposed to an adaptation.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Written entirely in a post-apocalyptic, reverted vernacular Riddley Walker proves to be a slow read for a book of just over 200 pages, but such close reading of the text, slowed down as you are by the bizaare slang and allusions peppered throughout, only heightens the impact of the novel. A cliche, but true: you get lost in this book.

Here's a taster of Riddley Speak for the uninitated - the first line:

"On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen."

Obvious first impressions will remind you of A Clockwork Orange, but the language of Riddley Walker is not that of a refined and stylised language, but rather a language of loss and forgotten civilisation. A catastrophe in the past, most probably a nuclear war, has left the world thinly populated and in a state of almost stone age ignorance. Superstition is rife and whatever society there is left interprets their surrounding via the creation/destruction myth of 'Eusa'. This quasi religious legend forms the backbone of a kind of local government, who maintain power and influence by travelling between villages and performing 'Eusa shows'. These shows take the form of a call and response puppet show, where various episodes from Eusa's story is performed and interpreted to fit in with local event, thus allowing the 'Prime Minister' (pry mincer) to spin his events to suit his purpose.

This is the background in which Riddley's tale unfolds, and as I already mentioned, you do get lost in the dirty magnificence of the book. Folk tales, religious philosophising, dirty jokes and a bizaare geography all collide to create a very real world and a rather frightening one at that. Its easy to see the laughable, almso qauint side of distopian fiction, at the bad mindedness and pessimism of the endevour to create a world gone bad. But I could see Riddley Walker happening - humanity would likely survive in some form or other after a major calamity and mankind would need rules and stories to make sense of the world, just as it does today.

Looking at it realistically one must come to the conclusion that Riddley is obviously deluded, that his visions and his personification of Punch are just the imagination of a simple, restricted mind. However, Hoban never lets you take such an objective view of his protagonist - as you read the novel you are overwhelmingly part of Riddley. As such his 'connexions' and 'tels', his inspired Punch rants - seemingly unearthed from a cultural unconsciousness - are real, almost magic or spiritual. Hoban is showing us how a religion is formed in an ignorant world where any answer is better than the unknown. An inspired passage in the middle of the book has the Goodparley character explaining how the unknown word "Saviour" actually refers to salt, as salt is "savery". Such strained associations seem perfectly reasonable in Riddley Walker, where great mythic importance is given to innocuous events or items, simply because some kind of connection can be made between them.

Riddley Walker is a wonderful book, still fresh and vivid, exciting and inspired. Hoban's afterwords and explanation of the genesis of the story (The Legend of St Eustace in Canterbury Cathedral) and his formation of Riddley Speak (the book took 5 years to write, and Hoban claims to have forgotten how to spell after finishing it) are fascinating - try and get hold of the anniversary or expanded editions to read these sections. This is my 3rd Russell Hoban book - I highly recommend the equally lonely, searching Fremder for nother excellent read - but Riddley Walker blows most books out of the water for imagination and audacity.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Bonnie & Clyde (1967)

Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde takes off from the first frame, taking the viewer with it, and doesn't come back down until the the last scene when we come crashing back to Earth, just like the rag doll corpses of our heroes.

This film shows us so much. Thinking back on it now I am astounded at how perfect it was in telling its story without actually telling us anything. An example? The opening scene: Bonnie, naked, pouting in front of a mirror, writhing on her bed and banging the head board with her fist. Immediately we know she is yearning for more, a way out of her dead-end life, her dead end town, her sexual frustration. A lesser film would need an explanatory conversation, a voice-over even: "I was sick of this life and boy did I need a good lay".

Then Clyde walks by, sharp in a tailored suit and fedora. Does this film need a 'cute-meet' as Billy Wilder would say? No, a glimpse of Bonnie through a window suffices for the story to begin.

They rob a grocery store and take off into the country. Upon parking (no pun intended) Bonnie pounces on Clyde but is cast aside. You see Clyde can't get it up - its never explained why this is so, and it certainly doesn't look like a conscious effort on his behalf. Its like their exploits in general: the bank jobs keep adding to their excitement, their driving gets faster, more erratic, their murders more frequent, but there is never a big payoff - where is this all leading to? You feel that if they actually got round to finally having sex then the killing spree might end. But there isn't any climax to this film, just a short sharp let down, the deafening roar of machine gun fire ripping us out of our reverie.

Too many articles focus on how Bonnie & Clyde changed American cinema, a history lesson through celluloid. You could sit through this film and really study its impact on the industry and write a thesis about how the 60s and the bloodletting in Vietnam at the time were as much a part of the film as the dustbowl. But that would be to miss out on what is such a vital film, such entertainment.

You can immerse yourself in the beauty of it, at the nostalgia of the back projection in the cars, at the golden hues of Burnett Guffrey's cinematography, at the chemistry between the two leads - Warren Beatty's goofy smiles, Faye Dunaways childish, glowering moods - the attention to detail (see those corn crops they're running through when Bonnie goes missing? They're poor crops - it's the depression after all), at the whip-crack humour and bawdiness of it all.

Of course there is so much artistic licence in the film - this isn't reality. Bonnie & Clyde apparently met at a friend's house, far less romantic than a glimpse on the street; according to most accounts Bonnie never got into the thick of a fire fight during the life-span of the gang; and the character of Hamer was never captured and humiliated by the gang before he finally managed to gun them down. All this is interesting trivia but pointless criticism. Bonnie & Clyde isn't reality, even though its intensity and passion make us feel that it can only be real life we are watching. Bonnie & Clyde isn't reality- it is pure cinema.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Ikiru (1952)

Some back story:

For a while S & I have been working our way through the 'they shoot pictures, dont they' top 100, partly out of interest, mostly out of a sense of ego-fuelled duty (can you call yourself a cineaste if you haven't seen Le Règle du Jeu? Unlikely. Now we have - and it was overated). We knew we wouldn't like all of the films we watched, after all it's a ranking of opinions, but we hoped to really fall for the majority of those on the list. There were revelations (M - amazing; L'atalante - subtle and brilliant), disagreements (The Searchers - didn't find S; The Magnificent Ambersons - not so magnificent for S) and disappointments (Les enfants du paradis? Rio Bravo? and I was really looking forward to Rio Bravo). Then there was Kurosawa, and I still can't decide on how I feel about his films...

Ikiru was the second film after Kurosawa's European breakthrough Rashomon, and it's the 5th Kurosawa films I've seen so far (Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Kagemusha and Ran being the others). It tells the story of a civil servant, Watanabe, who is nearing retirement. At the beginning of the film Watanabe is diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. He has devoted his life to his monotous work, refusing to remarry after his wife died and instead raises his son from a distance whilst continuing to plug away at work, never standing out, and earning the nickname 'The Mummy'. The film tells the story of how he comes to terms with his nearing death and his desire to finally make a difference to someone.

The film is well shot with some great crowd scenes when Watanabe is taken on a night out with his "own personal Mephistopholes". The final scene of Watanabe singing in the snow is, regardless of its renown, beautiful. The majority of the film takes place in interiors: homes, bars, offices. You geta real feel of claustrophobia throughout the feel, as if Watanabe's enaring fate is closing in with the walls and piles of office papers. Yet I couldn't quite accept this film and never felt as if Kurosawa showed us anything.

What do you learn about Watanabe? That he should have remarried, that he is a figure of fun at work, that his son resents him. Do we learn anything about why he took this route in life? Well, no. Other than a sense of 'duty' to his son and a desire not to appear needy or special, Watanabe only ever seems to stare forlonly to the left of the camera whenever he is confronted with an unsettling truth. Boy do you get sick of that face...

The film would be a good half an hour shorter if we weren't forced to sit and stare at that face every 10 minutes. And this is were my frustration with Kurosawa can be summed up - where is the subtlety? Where is the ephiphany? I always expect him to be better than Ozu due to his reputation and his subject range, but in terms of an effecting drama about old age and mortality Tokyo Story blows Ikiru out of the water.

Watanabe decides to push through the children's playground proposal - fair enough. But you could see it coming a mile off. The film really lacked any real character progression - Watanabe's world was shattered by his diagnosis, he felt sorry for himself for the vast majority of the film, he got took on a picaresque tour of the city and spent a lot of time with a young women from the office - did he learn anything from them? I never felt that he did. The decision to back the playground wasn't influenced by any of his recent experiences, it was just the first paper on top of the pile.

I liked this film, but it failed to deliver on its promise. I like Kuroswa, but he fails to deliver on his promise.  This is why I can't place him: his films promise everything, but ultimately show us very little.


Welcome to Screen Pages, a blog devoted to film and literature.

I watch a lot of films and I'd always like to read more books. I hope to collate all of my thoughts and opinions on film and literature in this blog, so that I can remember exactly why I dislike John Updike, or exactly what film noirs I've seen so that the niggling sense of deja vu I get every time Robert Ryan smirks that smirk or Gloria Grahame gets fresh I can remind myself that it is because I have already seen the film; not because they are all merging into one formulaic, shadow-filled 90 minutes.

So without further ado...