Tag Archives: book

Page and Screen: Thinking about kids? Don’t read We Need To Talk About Kevin this Mother’s Day


Mother’s Day (or Mothering Sunday, according to my traditionalist Dad) is when we celebrate the unsung heroes of society. Mothers are the underappreciated glue holding together such fundamentals of everyday life as law, order and excessive cleanliness. There is no higher calling than motherhood. Political leaders, from Stalin to Cameron, have recognised that a good mother, providing a solid foundation for a good family, is the perfect platform for a great nation. Who do men beg for in their darkest hour? Not their wives, but their mothers. Whose betrayal pushes Hamlet to the brink of madness? His mother’s. And who saved the day in the last Doctor Who Christmas special? You guessed it, the mum.

In the build up to Mother’s Day, the commercialised clutter clogging up the high streets is physical evidence of the cult of motherhood. The perception is that this is the one day of the year that we openly show our gratitude to the women who brought us into the world. Lionel Shriver’s now well known book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is bold enough to suggest that mothers are often showered with too much praise and attention. In fact, it is largely about the way society continually worships its mums and the burden this places on ordinary women who don’t fall completely in love with the role. The novel has a controversial reputation and this is just one of the big ideas within its pages with the potential to shock.

I’m yet to see Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Shriver’s novel and would be interested to hear your thoughts below readers, because inevitably the hype around the book has focused on the high school shooting that the narrative grows towards. I feel that the themes relating to the violence raised by the story are secondary to other issues Shriver illuminates with her writing. For me the most convincing parts of the book, where both Shriver’s style and substance were at their best, was early on, as central character Eva contemplates having a child and then finds the experience of birth and early motherhood underwhelming and depressing. In an article for The Guardian last year, Shriver claims to be happy with Ramsay’s “thematically loyal” version of her book. But the marketing has focused on Ezra Miller’s angry and angst ridden adolescent, rather than Tilda Swinton’s struggle with motherhood, and one of my friends was horrified that ordinary looking John C. Reilly was chosen to play handsome husband Franklin.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is at its most horrifying when Eva feels totally trapped by her son. She is certain that her bawling infant harbours feelings of resentment and hatred towards her. The book actually becomes less and less frightening as we get closer to the shooting itself. Teenage Kevin is brooding, spiteful and distant, and his mother has come to accept their detachment somewhat. The preceding enforced attachment is far more chilling. In general the characters and ideas are more engaging and powerful early on; in fact the book runs out of steam as we slide towards the atrocity, with the twist at the end not proving revelatory enough to make up for this.

Shriver’s phrasing, imagery and dialogue are all exemplary at times, but occasionally the format, of letters to her absent husband, feels artificial and forced, leading to clumsy writing lacking in subtlety. I was fascinated by Eva as a career woman, gripped by the debate she had with herself about becoming a mother. Perhaps Shriver is at her best during these sections of the novel because juggling a successful career is what she knows well. Eva was pressured into motherhood and it’s appalling to witness her regrets and pure disgust at herself for feeling nothing towards her own offspring. How many mothers feel compelled to have kids because it’s normal, because of peer pressure? How many find themselves chronically disappointed afterwards? The book concedes its originality when it loses sight of this disturbing observation, resorting to painting Kevin as some sort of evil, devil child, ought to wreck his mother’s life.

I am essentially saying that the scariest idea in We Need To Talk About Kevin is not emotionless kids and teenagers suddenly killing their classmates with arrows. It is in fact the notion of something you have great expectations for turning out to be crushingly disappointing. What if that first kiss is just an awkward clash of tongues and intermingling saliva? What if the FA Cup final ends 0-0? What if the sex on your honeymoon is someway short of ecstasy filled spiritual union? As film fans, we perhaps know this fear better than most. Imagine watching Raging Bull or Citizen Kane and thinking nothing more than “meh”. With adaptations, the fear is especially acute. What if, when I finally see Ramsay’s adaptation, she has failed to capture all the things I’ve mentioned above that I liked about this book? But this fear is perhaps a vital part of the thrill of watching adaptations, and life in general. The knowledge that you might be disappointed just makes it so much better when you’re not.

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Page and Screen: Libraries vs. Cinemas in Fahrenheit 451


In 1966 England won the World Cup. And firemen stopped
putting out flames with water, to start them with kerosene to burn books.

Francois Truffaut’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s classic
20th century novel Fahrenheit 451 was released in 1966. It starred
Julie Christie in a dual role and Oskar Werner as main character Montag.
According to IMDb, Truffaut wanted Terence Stamp for the lead role but the
British screen legend was uneasy about being overshadowed by his former lover
Christie. Truffaut and Werner, with his thick Austrian accent on an English
production, had fiery differences about the film’s interpretation of Montag’s
character. It’s not surprising that there was passion on set because there was
a great deal within the pages of the book.

Bradbury’s book is the tale of Montag, a fireman whose job
it is to burn books. In the world of Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which
book paper catches fire) the state has banned the owning and reading of books.
Indeed in the film Werner is shown “reading” a newspaper or story consisting
entirely of images, without even speech bubbles. Why the ban? Books are “the
source of all discord and unhappiness”. Materialism, based on equality, is
encouraged, as opposed to the competing lies and raised expectations sold by
authors. Montag’s wife is reliant on state sponsored drugs and spends her days
in front of state television. She barely speaks to him and all are ignorant of
impending war.

Bradbury was a master of science fiction and he churned out volumes of beautiful and imaginative short stories, as part of collections like The Martian Chronicles. But Fahrenheit 451 merely has elements of sci-fi. For the most part its world is uncomfortably close to our own.

Truffaut’s adaptation has a fairy tale quality, and indeed
the novel is somehow magical. It is an incredibly intelligent book, packed with
literary references and joining the likes of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous
Huxley’s Brave New World, as one of the great prophetic dystopias with powerful
warnings about society. But it is not at all patronising and far more uplifting
than both of these books. It lays out its moral arguments more passionately and
poetically and tells a breathtakingly absorbing and thrilling tale, laced with
beautiful metaphors. Orwell and Huxley’s books were urgent and thought
provoking but lack the vibrant colour given by Bradbury’s imagery of flames.
Bradbury could also be funny rather than drab and his ideas were grounded in the realities of modern culture.

In short then, Truffaut had an enormous task to match a book
which simultaneously had pace, power, poetry and passion. I was therefore
surprised by how much I enjoyed his adaptation. It lacks the book’s excitement
and indeed many of its qualities but its opening scene, six minutes
uninterrupted by dialogue, is suitably atmospheric. The film as a whole evokes
the experience of reading and the worth of literature through the relatively
new medium of cinema: not an easy achievement. By quoting from great works as Bradbury often does the film benefits from some of the novel’s rhythm and can show the mesmerising effects of fire, leaving pages “blackened and changed”, shrivelling up like dying flowers.

All in all it was an entertaining watch, faithful to the book’s message, even if it was not “the most skilfully drawn of all science fiction’s conformist hells”, as Kingsley Amis described the novel. It was inventively shot and hauntingly scored. And its wonderful final scene got me thinking.

In it the “book people” are wandering in the woods by a lake. They are all reciting or learning a book. The book people commit a book to memory and become that book. So when Montag meets a pair of brothers, one is introduced as Pride and Prejudice Part 1 and the other as Part 2, a woman is Plato’s Republic and a shabbily dressed man Machiavelli’s Prince and so on. In effect the community of peaceful outsiders are a human library.

But aren’t we all libraries really? We may not have devoted
our lives to the word for word memorisation of our favourite books but our
opinions and outlook on the world are shaped by them. The impressions and
traces of good and great books we read can truly change us, inform us and
enlighten us, as well as entertain us.

Equally us film lovers are archives of all the movies we’ve
ever seen. Some of them will be forgettable but should we get a jolt to remind
us memories of even the poorest film will come flooding back. Others made us
stretch new emotional muscles or were so terrifically dramatic we had never
felt so alive and full of possibility.

The copy of Fahrenheit 451 that I own contains an
introduction written by Ray Bradbury for the 50th anniversary
edition in 2003. He describes how he wrote the novel on a typewriter in the
basement of a library, darting up the stairs now and then to do rapid research
and pick randomly inspirational quotes to sprinkle into the narrative. His love
of libraries is evident and he calls himself a lifelong “library person”. I
couldn’t help but think that a cinema or movie theatre could never give birth
to a work of art or vital piece of culture in quite the same diverse and
autonomous way.

Of course some fantastic films have their beginnings in
great directors being inspired by other great directors in a darkened cinema.
Last year Christopher Nolan’s Inception was seen and adored by millions, with
the director freely admitting influences as varied as James Bond, Stanley
Kubrick and the Matrix trilogy. There’s no doubt that I would prefer to spend
an afternoon in my local cinema than my local library. Both are arenas of
escapism but both are changing.

At the cinema 3D may or may not breakthrough as the next big
wow factor for audiences. Box office figures continue to remain high and
records were broken throughout the global recession. People will always flock
to the multiplex to give themselves up to the immediacy of film. They want to
be transported to another world in moments.

Libraries are undoubtedly in decline. In the UK local
libraries are understaffed, underfunded and short on stock. The coalition
government is happy to snatch away even more support for them for tiny savings, despite promises about getting more children to read from Education Secretary Michael Gove. Children’s author Patrick Ness used his Carnegie medal acceptance speech to launch a stinging attack on the policy.

As a child I got into reading because of the ease and
assistance of a library. Its poor range of choice wasn’t good enough as I got
older but I might still use it now if it were better equipped. In any case
libraries are a vital stepping stone into independent reading and education for
youngsters. The grander buildings full of history and knowledge have the
potential to be truly magical gateways to new novels, screenplays, election
campaigns or God knows what. Libraries empower the imagination and the
intellect. But so do cinemas, just in a different way. Both can keep us
entertained and thinking, as Fahrenheit 451 proves. Both deserve to thrive.

Films that remind you of people – Amelie


Sometimes you really wish you could forget someone. Not because you want to but because you feel like you have to. People are forever telling you to “move on” from them, as if they were a shifty beggar in the street wasting your time. They have condemned you to the rubbish dump of their lives, so you should do the same. Whatever you manage to salvage from the wreckage of them will only remind you of the way things were before the crash, in a time you cannot travel back to. It’s time for a new stage of your life, minus them.

There are days when it feels like you might be able to do it. There are loads of things to live for, more pluses than minuses dotting the horizon of the future. But the thing is life has a knack of throwing reminders your way that jolt you back to her, to him, to them, to there. Oh look, memory sneers in a stage whisper from the shadows, it’s the bar you spent all night talking in, the river bank where you first kissed or the station she used to get off at. Even when you’ve succeeded in blanking them out from familiar places, their memories surprise you in other ways.

“This was our song” is a phrase you often hear from the devastated dumpee, just before their face melts in a cascade of noisy tears, possibly years after the breakup itself. Then there’s the novel that becomes ostracised on the book shelf because of a strange connection you are suddenly seeing these days within its pages. Even their favourite paper or magazine can give you a slap in the newsagents occasionally.

Some of the worst offenders are films. There will be the trashy romantic comedy given inexplicable significance because it happened to be your first date. There will be films that divided you and films you wished them to see. And there will be some favourites of theirs you never found the time to watch.

This was the case for me as I finally watched Amelie in its entirety. I had seen bits of it but never the whole thing. I knew that the music was fantastically whimsical and enchanting. I had watched an uplifting scene via YouTube in which Amelie spirits a blind man along a street, vividly describing everything in a whirlwind of sensuous movement. I knew it was French and starred Audrey Tautou. And I knew it was one of the favourite films of someone I wish I could forget.

In a way I was desperate to hate Amelie. I knew what it would be like because I knew the people that liked it. I was hoping that it would try too hard, alienate me with its quirkyness and annoy me with its arty farty simplifications. There were times I felt a little like that. But mostly I loved it.

Why did I hope that I wouldn’t? It was hard at points to be enjoying it so much because they enjoy it. How much easier it would have been to be repulsed and to have found another tiny reason to take another minute step forward and away from the past!

Amelie is about being alive, feeling alive and dreaming. It’s about the smaller things, so particular and peculiar that they must be real, containing a touch of magic that makes life worthwhile. It is extremely funny and eccentric, fresh and unique.

It’s the eccentricity that I thought might annoy me. I thought that Amelie might have been quirky for its own sake, as so many films of its ilk are. But Amelie’s comedy is crucial to its success. It is almost self mocking at times with the ridiculous and random nature of its details.

In the opening twenty minutes I fell in love with the narration. Normally voiceover is catastrophic and awful. Perhaps Amelie’s is so charming and intoxicating because it is French. Or perhaps it is that at once meaningful and light hearted tone, which doesn’t take itself too seriously. Amelie feels like a novel throughout its enjoyable beginning which explains her tragic yet amusing childhood. Characters are brought to life instantly because of their odd habits and Amelie herself has baffling, childlike musings about the world which add to her appeal.

I was disappointed when the narration became less frequent throughout the film, which is extraordinary given my usual distaste for voiceover. I loved the musicality of the voice, the specific details it would come out with and the telling but mysterious insights we’d instantly learn about characters. Most of all I loved the way it seemed to mock any work of art trying much too hard to stand out.

But the retreat of the narrator brings Amelie herself to the foreground. The wonderful lines from the narrator are replaced by some witty and surprising scenes of dialogue. The visuals and sounds of the film grow and grow until modern day Paris seems like a wondrous place, with deserving and interesting souls to be saved on every corner.

I expected Amelie to be preachy, perhaps patronising or too desperate to be different. I wanted to dislike it for my own good. But in the end I am glad to have seen it. I liked it because it’s good, not because of any associations it has with anyone. I thought it was unique and it made me feel alive and full of possibility, regardless of what others think. It’s a beautiful and beguiling film that reminds us how life can be so too, with dreams coming true, big or small, out of nowhere.

Page and Screen: Flaubert’s cinematic Madame Bovary


Gustave Flaubert’s mid nineteenth century novel Madame Bovary might not appear all that remarkable if you read it today. At the time its focus on the limitations of marriage, along with its abundance of controversial ingredients like frequent and shameless adultery and suicide, made it a scandalous work of fiction. No doubt it would have been derided as deliberately explicit and shocking filth, masquerading as art, as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be around a century later. But today Flaubert is seen as the first truly modern novelist because with Madame Bovary he composed a recipe of ingredients that would be followed by countless storytellers, both on the page and the screen.

Read the blurb of Madame Bovary and its plot will resemble that of a lot of Victorian era fiction. The story follows Emma, a country girl living a simple life, whose charms captivate the young doctor who comes to treat her ailing father. The doctor is Charles Bovary, already a widower from an unsatisfying marriage. He and Emma marry and she becomes Madame Bovary. They move to the provincial small town of Yonville, where Charles takes a job. Holding such an important position in the intimate community, Charles and his wife become the centre of attention, be it from the atheistic chemist across the street with a high opinion of himself or the regulars at the inn. Emma quickly feels stifled by the rural and dreary existence, as well as her husband’s doting. She conducts two affairs, one with young clerk Leon and another with experienced seducer Rodolphe.

One of the ways in which Madame Bovary became a blueprint for the modern novel was its focus on the character development of Emma. It is often hailed as the first psychological novel because of this. Flaubert uses free indirect style to explore and articulate both Emma’s emotions and thoughts, be they gloomy, gleeful or giddy with romance. The technique allows the author to zoom in and out, at once using his own words and those that the character might use. Already we can see how this book not only inspired the form of later works but foreshadowed the methods of the filmmaker; sometimes sticking close to a character’s viewpoint, sometimes offering a broader overview of their actions and sometimes not seeing their actions at all.

Madame Bovary is cinematic in other ways too. Its entire structure is epic in the way that films often are, telling the story of a whole life, beginning at Charles Bovary’s school. In the early chapters we form an opinion of Charles as an ordinary but kind enough man, only to have this interpretation contrasted with Emma’s later bitterness towards him because of that very unsatisfying and indifferent kindness. This is another way the book is cinematic; it is constantly changing viewpoints amongst an ensemble cast. Despite the often intense focus on Emma’s romantic desires for meaning suppressed by bourgeois convention, we also regularly view Emma from the perspective of her lovers or the town chemist or some other figure. Cinema is constantly showing us how its main characters are seen by others to broaden our understanding of them.

Emma’s outlook on life is unquestionably romantic, some might say naive and neurotic, but it’s certainly passionate. However Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s masterpiece of realism, written to atone for what he saw as the excesses of his previous work The Temptation of Saint Anthony. One way in which the book achieved this realism was with its down to earth subject matter. Flaubert based the story on a marriage breakdown of the time and peppered it with themes from everyday French life, many of which still resonate today.

This was a novel about reality in which the main character read novels of escapism. This was a novel set in a simple setting that climaxes with Emma’s debts spiralling out of control, as she drowns in the luxuries purchased to sustain a dream life and fill the black hole left by her emotional emptiness. The ingredients are recognisable from everyday life but Flaubert ramps up the drama, just as producers, writers and directors do with films today, and storytellers have done for years. Grand language such as “she awakened in him a thousand desires” may match Emma’s desires for romantic fulfilment but is always counterbalanced by Flaubert’s realism. Throughout the novel, whenever Emma reaches a peak of ecstatic fulfilment, the decline begins shortly afterwards.

Much of Flaubert’s realist genius, diehard critics argue, cannot possibly translate from French to English without acquiring an air of clumsiness and familiarity. As James Wood points out in How Fiction Works, a sentence with magnificent and finely crafted rhythm in Flaubert’s native French, loses much of its magic in English. And if the translator tries to replicate the essence of the original too hard, he creates something laughable. “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait” becomes “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him” or if trying too hard “The notion of procreation was delectation”.

However Flaubert’s talent for precise and detailed description does translate and this is perhaps the most cinematic element of his realist style. Chapters will often begin with snapshots of detail or even lengthy passages really setting the scene of a particular room or place, sometimes incorporating a character’s mood and sometimes not. It might seem like an incredibly basic rule of storytelling, almost a childish one, to “set the scene” in this way, but Flaubert does so much more than just describe something. By selecting his details with the utmost care and deliberation, but seemingly effortlessly, he tells us everything we need to know about a scene.

At times he can do this incredibly concisely, with just a few telling details. One chapter, in which Emma has slipped away from Yonville to begin a love affair in the larger town of Rouen, begins like this:

They were three full, exquisite days – a real honeymoon.
They were at the Hotel de Boulogne, on the harbour; and they lived there, with drawn blinds and closed doors, with flowers on the floor, and iced syrups that were brought them early in the morning
”.

From our 21st century vantage point it’s very difficult to understand what upset the French so much when Flaubert was so tactful about his descriptions of sex and affairs. Very rarely does he resort to even explicitly describing a kiss.

Elsewhere he uses detail to paint lifelike pictures of minor characters, some of which, like this one, are never seen or mentioned again:

There, at the top of the table, alone among all these women, stooped over his ample plateful, with his napkin tied around his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, drops of gravy dribbling from his lips. His eyes were bloodshot and he had a little pigtail tied up with a black ribbon. This was the Marquis’s father-in-law, the old Duc de Laverdière, once the favorite of the Comte d’Artois.”

We can imagine a camera passing over a character such as this in a film, picking out the specific details Flaubert highlights, adding life to a scene and then moving on. Such descriptions have a quality James Wood terms “chosenness” whereby the author picks out a bunch of details that, together, give the most accurate and lifelike feeling of a person, place, object or action. This process is artificial, sometimes combining details from different time registers but writers like Flaubert make it appear natural. And film directors and editors do exactly the same thing. For example, when establishing the feel of a carnival, the editing process will cut together things happening at different times into one easily digestible chunk for the audience to swallow the best impression and mood of the scene.

Flaubert laid the foundations for new types of writing and storytelling that could marry the intentions of a realist and a stylist. It paved the way for novels that felt more journalistic with almost completely passive descriptions of people and places, from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, packed with lists of brand names. Isherwood even makes this statement early on in Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Then later on this passage mirrors even more closely than Flaubert a reel of edited film:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk jugs”.

The children cannot be “in tears” all of the time. Isherwood has perfected the technique that Flaubert pushed out into the open, for all writers to follow as a guide. James Wood sums up the passage far more succinctly than I could: “The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems a “slice of life”, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet.”

It’s easy to forget that films too are intricate, vast and complex operations. Action scenes that burst into life spontaneously in shopping centres or even a stroll down a street in a rom-com are intensely choreographed. The plan laid out for the modern novel in Madame Bovary, and for writing detail in particular, has left us with as many terribly overwritten books as good ones. And even awful films are carefully managed. But the artificiality of cherry picking the best moments in life and stitching them together can be art at its best; art telling little white lies for a grander, more meaningful truth.

In the mood for a romantic comedy – a distracted review of True Grit on DVD


I always eagerly watch the trailers before a film. The best snippets of releases that are “coming soon” can be tremendously exciting. There is also an art to making good and great trailers, with the best of them standing apart from the movies they promote or making a crap film look irresistible. Many movie buffs appreciate this. But more often than not I’ll be watching something with someone urging me to skip to the film we’re actually watching. When I’m fortunate enough to be in control of the remote, I always insist on watching the trailers, even when I’ve seen them dozens of times before.

The first trailer of quite a few before the menu screen on the True Grit DVD, was for Morning Glory, starring Rachel McAdams. I’m mildly interested in seeing this at some point because of a rather different comic role for Harrison Ford, the strange appeal of the breakfast show subject matter and the feminine charms of McAdams. She is cultivating a line in cheeky but likeable performances, with a turn in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and the news that she’s been cast as Lois Lane in the 2012 reboot of Superman. There’s also a shot of her rounded rear that does the film’s appeal no harm in my book.

Next up was the Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher rom-com No Strings Attached. I’ve read a lot about this movie, including some pretty hilarious but ultimately unflattering reviews. I’ve seen the trailer more than once. It’s part of a trend of stories trying far too hard to be modern, about “friends with benefits”. In the 21st century what is wrong about a man and a woman, who know and trust each other, having casual but enjoyable sex on a regular basis? Well the rom-com likes to point out that love is the big stumbling block; it always gets in the way when you least expect it. I mean it’s frankly just an inconvenient and inconsiderate emotion. We all ought to hate its lies, its deceit and its inevitably devastating consequences.

And yet it always conquers all. Even those like Portman and Kutcher’s characters, avoiding love like the plague by making sex a satisfying physical transaction, get bitten eventually by that pesky love bug. Cinemagoers too are always infected because soppy idiots fall for the obvious, predictable, signposted, cliche and crappy happy ending.

Today I must’ve been after a happy ending. I wasn’t really in the mood for Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar nominated True Grit. I was inexplicably captured by the trailer to No Strings Attached, which as I’ve said I’ve seen several times before and I’d long ago concluded I wasn’t bothered about seeing. Perhaps its my persistent crush on Natalie Portman’s pretty and sexy features. Perhaps its simply my starved and hungry libido. Or perhaps it’s a longing for the perfect emotional satisfaction of the romantic comedy.

Whenever there was a lull in the action of True Grit and I was no doubt supposed to be reflecting on or contemplating the rugged wild west landscape or the moral terrain of the story, my mind drifted into daydreams prompted by No Strings Attached. I don’t think a trailer has ever disturbed my enjoyment or concentration of the following film in quite the same way.  

I pondered again and again what would happen to the relationships I had with people now, how friendships would shatter, grow or change beyond recognition. I planned imaginary grand gestures and pictured the romantic epiphany when I realised that yes, she was the one. I imagined myself living a busy, varied and satisfying life. The social groups that encircled it would be populated exclusively by young and attractive people, and some of them, perhaps just one or two, would care about me. And I’d have lots of sex. In short: I surrendered to fantasy.

What does it mean to be a romantic nowadays? At times I am happy to embrace the label and at others I am disgusted by it, depending on my mood or the particular definition. Is Mattie Ross, the heart of True Grit, a romantic? Some might say that’s nonsense given her realistic and often pessimistic outlook, with a tough maturity well beyond her 14 years. But she is also idealistic about bringing her father’s killer to justice, about the intentions of the law, and indeed her naive and childlike distinction between evil and good men, proven simplistic by her choice of hero.

Maybe it’s the peculiary romantic, noble and heroic ideas of Ross that helped my wandering mind off track. It could equally be of course that the isolation of True Grit prodded my loneliness into creating deluded distraction. The Coens have certainly crafted a film with darker and deeper depths than the 1960s typical John Wayne outing.

True Grit can also be surprisingly warm though. Mattie Ross is a character it’s impossible not to invest in and care for. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn as a cold and hardened gunslinger at times, and a hilarious layabout drunk at others. There’s some wonderfully teasing interplay and banter between him and Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf. And the dialogue at times evokes the homely West so vividly that you want to take a trip there away from the boring variety of British dialects by comparison.

True Grit is as not as “fast paced” as some of the quotes on the cover would have you believe. But it’s not a dreary, arty take on the Western, as many attempts at the genre are these days. Its runtime is agreeable and its characters playfully portrayed. There is a fairly snappy climax with some good action and shocks. And Hailee Steinfeld’s performance as Mattie is a truly remarkable breakthrough. The plaudits have mostly been lavished on Bridges but she is the real star and the glue holding True Grit together. Damon is good too.

It wasn’t a masterpiece of filmmaking. But then I was barely paying attention. I know should be talking in depth about a film that chose to adapt a novel’s true nature rather than remake a Hollywood classic badly. The Coens usually make great and intelligent cinema. So perhaps it was majestic; I was simply in the mood for a cruder and more direct, perhaps even a crap, tugging of my heart strings. Is that a crime?

I suspect it probably is.

 

Page and Screen: The Big Sleep


Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep, the first to star PI Philip Marlowe, was ready made for the big screen. It had a zippy, twisting and engrossing plot, propelled at pace by short, sharp chapters that feel like scenes from a movie. It is full of characters that are enigmatic, living in the shadowy underworld of Los Angeles, but they all jump out of the page at you because they are so flawed and real. Appropriately, the whole thing plays out in and around Hollywood. And perhaps best of all, Chandler’s dialogue is quick and witty, containing cool and sophisticated one liners that are easy to transplant straight from a book to a script.

The classic film version, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and directed by Howard Hawks, was released in 1946, just seven years after the original novel. Its place amongst other classics in a widely recognised Hollywood hall of fame is justified. It adds elements the novel was missing and brings screen legends like Bogart and Bacall together to successfully bring the charismatic Marlowe and feisty Vivian Rutledge to life. But it is also a largely faithful adaptation and owes its source material a huge debt.

What is the general story of The Big Sleep then? It is too complicated to properly explain briefly. Chandler’s original plot negotiated a weaving path between webs of blackmail, secrets and lies, fuelled by Hollywood excess. Essentially Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood who has two “wild” daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivien (Bacall), each with their own scandalous weaknesses. Carmen is being blackmailed by a dodgy bookseller doing something illegal on the side and Vivien’s estranged husband, who the General was fond of, has gone missing. Marlowe quickly unravels the blackmail but bigger problems continually turn up, leading him further and further into a tough investigation of gangsters, gambling and girls.

Elements of the original plot seem even more complicated on film because of the need to tone down Chandler’s frank portrayal of sex and drugs. For example Carmen is blackmailed because of naked pictures of herself but in the film she is wearing some kind of Oriental robe. Carmen’s attempts to seduce Marlowe, and therefore her dangerous nature, are also less overt in the film.

The best lines of dialogue are lifted completely unaltered from Chandler’s prose. There are far too many to quote. Almost all the dialogue in the book is slick and crucial to the irresistible noir style. The film’s script, by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, sticks as close as possible to the novel’s dialogue as well as its intricate plot and is consequently one of the best and most quotable in cinematic history, line for line.

The character of Marlowe comes to life because of his smooth talking street smarts. But this doesn’t mean that other characters are deprived of scene stealing lines. Even minor characters, such as a girl working in a fake bookshop called Agnes, get the odd gem. When Marlowe disarms her and asks “Did I hurt you much?” she shoots back “You and every other man in my life.”

Not all of the novel’s charisma could make it from the page to the screen. Despite an excellent performance from Bogart, accurately portraying Marlowe’s mannerisms and speech as the reader imagines them, it’s impossible to transfer the brilliance of his first person narration. Chandler gives Marlowe an incredibly strong voice and not all of the great lines in the book are spoken.

Marlowe’s nature as a detective means that he rapidly describes his surroundings vividly and unavoidably the film lacks the colour of these delicious chapter set ups, because it is in black and white. Marlowe also internally sums up other characters. We cannot see these first impressions on film. Despite the glamour of Bacall and the other actresses in the production, we’re denied such delicious and spot on imagery of the women as this; “she gave me one of those smiles the lips have forgotten before they reach the eyes”. No actress could express such subtlety. In the book we also learn a little more about Marlowe’s own state of mind and emotions, again through wonderful writing; “I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets”.

One of the changes the filmmakers did make was to intensify the relationship between Bogart’s Marlowe and Bacall’s Mrs Rutledge. The plot remains essentially the same, with some scenes tweaked and others, like a fairly pivotal one towards the end, omitted altogether and explained elsewhere. However Bacall’s character appears more often than she does in the book. The change in her character was probably for commercial as well as narrative reasons. Cinema audiences wanted to see a love story between their two big stars, not an unorthodox, cold and professional Detective teasing but ultimately knocking back a beautiful lady, as Marlowe does in the book.

Indeed the inclusion of the love story does fundamentally change Marlowe’s character in some ways. He is robbed of an ingredient of his allure as he is no longer a troubled but brilliant and determined loner when he admits that he loves Vivien. But it makes The Big Sleep work better as a standalone story and is considerably more satisfying than the end to the novel, which explains things but doesn’t exactly resolve them.

It is inevitable that the adaptation has its differences to the source material. And it is also essential that changes were made. I may miss Marlowe’s narration from the page and even the excitement of Chandler’s written action, compared to the film’s set pieces which are over in a flash. But the film gives me the unrivalled onscreen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, which sheds light on and makes the most of the flirtatious relationship from the page.  It might even reveal new truths in Chandler’s story, whilst lacking others. Overall though it’s clear that both the novel and the movie are sublime; clever and gripping, sophisticated and cool. Entertainment at its best.

Short story: The Lonely Tree


This is just something I rattled out, slightly in the style of Murakami:

This is the story of a boy, who was not yet a man. It’s the story of his first love, his first heartbreak and the tree that fell on him.

It’s the fashion to have summer romances but the boy was allergic to everyone’s favourite season. It made his eyes red and his nose stream.  In fact he had always thought that girls were allergic to him. It wasn’t that he couldn’t speak to them or that they didn’t like him, but that they couldn’t love him. More than anything the boy wanted to know love. One winter, when the air was crisp and the nights chilled, he thought that he did.

He couldn’t believe his luck. A childhood crush, the cleverest catch around and a friend he cared for deeply rolled into one package. Her smile locked his worries away and out of reach for hours. Being with her he felt as if he wasn’t alone for the first time in his life. Hearing from her was, surprisingly, almost as good. Making her happy filled the void of purpose in his life. His existence no longer felt empty. Simply put: she made him happy.

Fate had never looked so kindly upon him before and deep down he knew that her favours would be brief. But while it lasted nothing else mattered. Or rather, everything mattered more. Her dreams enriched and expanded his own, her energy and life gave them colour. He was filled with enthusiasm and a drive he did not know he possessed. He felt like a better person and fully himself for the first time.

Looking back on it he supposed the relationship would seem a short lived folly to onlookers, and this angered him. Nothing had ever meant more. At least to him. The boy had never realised just how important intimacy, close friendship and the joy of caring for someone was to happiness. When it ended, for no reason besides that she didn’t love him after all, things reverted to normal. Only more so.

He wondered if that happiness had been an illusion and whether he had truly known love. He felt catapulted back to square one. He did not know what to think or feel, knowing for certain only that he was empty again. And he was alone. The dreams that had grown to new heights in her company were now mere weeds, smaller than the clumps of green nothingness at the foot of the tree in his garden.

The tree watched as the boy moped and rolled around like a pig in his misery. At first the tree felt sympathetic towards the boy, as no one knew better than him what it was to be alone. Trapped in his hollow shell with no friends to speak of, and no means to speak, the tree longed for contact of some kind. He knew everything the boy was missing and more. And then the tree realised how selfish the boy was. And how much harder it was to be a tree.

As the spring rapidly shifted into summer the boy felt every concrete trace of his love fading away, swamped by the passing of time. With each day he felt more and more like he had no right to feel anything at all. All he had left were the memories and hopes in his head. He missed so much; far too much for words, he told himself.

On a blue morning with a blazing sun and abstract strokes of white overhead, the boy had an epiphany. Well it was that day at least that he admitted to himself a truth that he had felt for a while. He said to himself: “Love is enough for me”. He knew that, for the right person, he would sacrifice all the goals and ambitions he had thought essential to his well being, satisfaction and success. He acknowledged that, during his time with his first true love, he had enjoyed and derived immense contentment from even the harder things. He was glad to be there when she was upset, happy to calm her down, even if he was only a slight comfort. Caring for someone important to him, as important as that, was all he could ever need.

He remembered reading a novel in which the main character believed there were only three chances of finding your soul mate. He pondered whether for him, “soul mate”, meant someone worthy of his absolute care. Plunged back into sadness and despair by the thought of having lost someone he could lose himself in and devote himself to, he ran into the garden, blinded by fierce tears. He crouched down in the dirt, sniffling as the pollen swarmed up his hostile nostrils. He pressed his back against the trunk of the tree. He stared at the world around him, confused and crying.

By this point, the tree was seething. The tree didn’t know how he knew all about what the boy was thinking and feeling, but he did know, and it made him angry. The tree did not know he was capable of anger. The tree could not think, had no brain and nothing at all to account for the melancholy consciousness brooding within his gently swaying frame. The wind blew lightly across the garden, flicking the odd leaf and stroking the odd stem. The tree felt a shiver of cold. The tree felt.

The boy was gradually coming out of his panic, descending into a depressed paralysis. The loveliest, brightest petals of the most vibrant flowers looked bleak to him. His mind’s eye conjured a symbolic bonfire of his dreams in the corner of the lawn. If he could be so easily tempted from them, what chance did he have of achieving such grand plans? What did they matter anyway? Forcing his head up from its slouch on his knees, he felt the bark in his hair and decided there was no point to any sensation at all without someone to share it with.

The tree was fuming with anger from its roots to its summit. It could sense the boy’s sadness. His self involved and ungrateful emotion wasn’t just saturating the air around the tree now, but squirming and writhing against its flaky skin. The tree couldn’t stand it. It was determined not to take it anymore. It wouldn’t be buffeted by nature or ignored by men today.

The boy sighed deeply, turning his face into the breeze and relishing its cold wipe. He felt the gusts get stronger and firmer in waves, as if someone were stirring the air with an enormous food blender. Pulse after pulse slapped against him. The sweat under his arms went from hot and sticky to icy and damp. His spine creaked as the tree trunk rocked a little against him. His back stood firm easily like a castle wall against the minute thrusts.

The tree was summoning all of its energy from its very furthest extremities, even the roots beyond the garden wall. The tree was straining every part of its being in pure and untamed rage. The tree was alive and a part of nature but for the first time ever it was wild. It did not have muscles to tense or bones to move but it had life and the tree channelled every last ounce of it into its rage. It didn’t know what it was doing or understand the consequences. All it knew was how wrong the boy was, how angry it made the tree feel. It was trying to teach the boy a lesson, on behalf of trees everywhere.

The boy continued to feel little swellings at his back. Small pressures, surely caused by the wind, made the entire structure of the tree wobble a fraction. Leaves that had been noisily rubbing in the flower beds slowly stopped. The bending blades of grass rested and stood upright. Gradually, the trunk seemed to be moving faster, almost pushing out into the boy, like something was stuck inside. The tree rocked more and more as the breeze died away to an unnoticeable whisper. As the branches began to rattle, the boy noticed properly for the first time the firmer and firmer touch of the trunk. He glanced up towards the sky, through the canopy of crisscrossing browns and greens, only to shrug away again with a sob.

The boy’s indifference only enraged the tree still more. So that, as the swaying grew quicker and quicker, the consciousness that had formed inside the tree disappeared, becoming something else entirely. Now the tree was just movement, just energy, just purpose. All of the life the tree had ever known became focused on the boy and ending his ignorant and cruel soul. The tree had never known what a soul was; would never know. It did not know whether or not the boy had one. It only knew that the boy had to be stopped. He had to be taught that at least he had tasted love, known happiness, shared warmth and feeling. He had to be shown that at least he could dream, chase dreams and possibly live them. There were always those lives that did not live, always those with truly no hope left; always lonely trees.

There was a crack. And the trunk threw its full weight at the boy, who scrambled too late from his pity. Falling branches pulled away the light and the blue from the canvas of the sky, bringing only dark.

Like in films, the boy came to gazing at sheer whiteness. Nothing else. The colour white was the afterlife? Appropriately empty he thought. And then he remembered. The tree.

He had often dreamt about his funeral. A song lyric drifted into his mind – “the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”. The dreams in which he was dead were some of the best he’d ever had; terribly self indulgent fictions in which all the figures and characters of his life turned up, gushing praise and regrets. All the girls and friends he’d ever wanted poured their hearts out. He was great after all.

There was no one here he really wanted to see. The strip lights buzzed and whirred, stuffing light down his retinas. The whiteness turned out to be the roof tiles. A steady beep and blip passed the time like a clock ticking. His heart was liable to suddenly conk out. He was hooked up to a monitor like on telly. His parents were here.

They didn’t believe him about the tree. When he was well enough to argue, they argued. They accused him and lectured him. They warned and scorned him. His mother ranted about the hardships of life, bemoaned his ignorance. Even his father shouted. He wasn’t allowed grapes, hadn’t been for years, so someone, probably his mother, had brought biscuits. His father had eaten most of them during the interrogations.

If he’d been able to text, he might’ve texted her, would definitely have texted his best friend. She hadn’t come to see him, even when he’d asked his parents to try to organise it. He was still alone. But something felt different. His skull was cracked, his spine weakened, his legs bruised, his right ankle broken, toes misshapen, right thumb fractured, left hand in plaster, nose crooked, face scratched, knees cut, wrists sprained and buttocks sore. But he felt stronger.

When they took him home he realised what it was. The tree hadn’t been dealt with yet. Its big, bulky carcass, torn in two and smashed in a heap through the fence, reminded him how bad he had felt. It reminded him that he’d realised he just wanted somebody to love. A universal truth, some might say, theme of many a song, but for him it was deeper, all his other wants were trivial and only to love was what he needed and what he craved.

Those trivial dreams might have been exposed as mostly meaningless, but somehow the tree had taught him they were still important. Months in a hospital bed had forced him to write again to pass the time. So that’s what he would do. He would write more and more, hopefully better and better, churning out any old nonsense. He would write to forget, write to remember, write to move on, write to preserve, write from the heart, write from the mind, write in the night, write in the day and write to lose himself. He would write because he could. And to touch, now and again, on truths that made everything worthwhile.  Even the lonely trees.