Tag Archives: dead

The Shadow Line – Episode 7


And so we’ve followed The Shadow Line all the way to its vanishing point. But did all the pieces of Hugo Blick’s puzzle fit together into a satisfying big picture? Or was all the build up ultimately a disappointment?

Well depending on where you stand, the big reveal that the whole mess was about pensions might be a letdown. There are few less exciting words in the English language. If pensions were a colour they would be grey. They are grey pounds collected from grey post offices in dreary grey villages by grey haired foot soldiers of the drab and grey retirement brigade. All the talk of far reaching Cold War and government conspiracies on internet forums seems rather laughable now. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting and satisfying to find out that it was all more significant than a pension fund? Doesn’t all that killing seem rather OTT for a secure retirement?

A part of me was certainly a little underwhelmed by the explanation of it all, delivered by the retired Commander Penney on his yacht before he blew his own brains out. He explains to Gabriel, who refuses to let the case drop even after the really bad copper at the top has been found out and given the boot because Petra was hired by him to take out Gatehouse, that Counterpoint was official at first. But then after amassing £70 million through drug deals the authorities ordered it to stop, as its activities were entrapment and therefore useless to prosecutors in the courts. Counterpoint carried on, below the radar and unofficially. It laundered money through its deals in order to fund the pensions for the entire police force.

My initial reaction was; seriously? But by the end of the episode I liked the idea and I was sold on it as a good explanation. The way Blick ties things up again emphasises what this series was about; the lives of both sides of the line, cops and crims, and the overlap in between. Police corruption was vital to the entire series and it was fitting that the solution to most of the questions raised throughout was one of complete self interest on behalf of the boys in blue. More than anything though I liked the Britishness of the pensions answer, in keeping with earlier lines like “typical fucking British car chase”. Blick could have tried too hard for a grand an all important finale. But right until the end this series remained original despite emulating the production standards and story arcs of popular American shows.

So what about Gatehouse? Were the shadows around him illuminated with a little light? Yes, a little. We find out that he’s a MI5 agent and in charge of the operations of Counterpoint in the field. He set up Glickman and Harvey Wratten long ago, and by the end of this episode he’s found replacements for them in Jay Wratten and rent boy Rattalack.

Incidentally Jay, who was completely absent last week, has been cunningly manoeuvring behind the scenes. He put the cops onto his uncle in the first place. As Gatehouse says, he has “hidden depths”. Jay gets some of his best lines in a climactic scene with Babur; “It’s never nice to watch an old man refuse to leave a disco…someone had to bundle him off the dance floor”. For all his camp menace, I think most of us who followed The Shadow Line to the end came to love Jay as a character, slimy pantomime villainy and all.

For Gatehouse the whole thing was about control, as Glickman hinted in previous weeks. The head honchos of Counterpoint thought he might have gone rouge to pocket the money for himself, hence the UV tags, but he was only ever trying to restore the stability of the system. With replacements in place, by the end it’s like he’s hit the reset button on the whole series.

Our two principal characters on either side of The Shadow Line, Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Jonah Gabriel, are both extinguished. Bede is shot in a car in exactly the same way Harvey Wratten was and then officers examine the carnage as they did in the very first scene of the series. Bede knew he was going to his death, he’d been warned and had his own suspicions about Jay, but in a powerful piece of understated acting from Eccleston, he leaves his gun on the kitchen table. His plan to save his wife had failed; she attempted suicide twice and was put into care.

As for Gabriel, it seemed like he could do no more. He might just have to accept the promotion that his corrupt superior Patterson, but perhaps slightly less corrupt in that he only follows Counterpoint rather than pocketing the cash for himself, had given him. But then Gatehouse phoned him. They arrange a meet and Honey accompanies him, after repeatedly assuring him throughout the episode of her loyalty to him.

Yeah it was fairly obvious. Honey has her gun trained on Gatehouse but after some final tying off of loose ends and some chit chat about shadows, Gatehouse flicks his lighter and Honey shoots Gabriel dead. So Gatehouse always wins, Counterpoint is back to normal. Honey seems to feel a bit remorseful but Gatehouse assures her she’ll get over it, presumably in retirement with a nice fat pension.

At times The Shadow Line was atrociously bad, usually in a funny way. At times it tried far too hard to be stylish, with one example of this being a fetish during the last two episodes in particular for a close up of cigarette tips as they were lit. However overall it was ambitious and absorbing TV. I haven’t seen anything like this on the BBC or anywhere else. Hugo Blick should be applauded and I hope he gets the chance to make more things in the mould of The Shadow Line. I shall miss both watching and blogging about such twisty, exciting and quality television.

What were your thoughts on the answers, the pensions and the series as a whole? Did you want more? Would you welcome a second series or a spin-off for a particular character?

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The Shadow Line – Episode 6


This penultimate episode started to bring things closer to the big reveal and end of series climax. However rather than my usual attempt to sort out the threads of the plot, I am driven by a minor detail to starting this week’s summary with a rant about realism and the suspension of disbelief.

Gatehouse, played with quiet menace by Stephen Rea, has been the most mysterious figure in a story arc stuffed full of secrets and deceit. In this episode he finally appeared to meet his match. Anthony Sher’s Glickman, who had that thrilling standoff with Gatehouse last week, uses Chiwetel Ejiofor’s confused Detective Jonah Gabriel, the one with the bullet in his brain, to set the perfect trap for Gatehouse. Both men lie in wait for Gatehouse in the home of Gabriel’s secret family.

After a tense conversation between Gatehouse and Gabriel, Glickman pounces from the little boy’s room (the son’s bedroom not the toilet). He fires several times with his silenced weapon, hitting Gatehouse decisively at least twice. The action slides into dramatic slow-mo as Gabriel’s son runs from his room, getting caught in the crossfire. Glickman shoots Gatehouse to make sure before stumbling from the horrific and tragic scene his trap has inadvertently created. Even in death Gatehouse finds and hurts the weak points of those in his way.

Except Gatehouse isn’t dead. He’ s taken to hospital and Gabriel says the doctors insist he has the heart rate of a twenty year old. I said last week that Glickman seemed to be far more human than Gatehouse despite his similar efficiency, and I was right. Distraught after accidentally killing an innocent boy, Glickman rings Petra, his jilted girlfriend. She meets him in an alleyway to console him. And then she stabs him several times, leaving him to die in a heap.

That was certainly a surprise I didn’t see coming. I had assumed Glickman’s abandoned love was simply to give his character weight and also give Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede a forbidden love interest to spice up his inner battle with his wife’s dementia. But no, it turns out she’s an assassin. Who is she working for? With Gatehouse taken out, we assume he has powerful friends or subordinates seeking swift revenge.

However then she turns up, right at the end of the episode, at Gatehouse’s private hospital room. His only security is a nurse with a fondness for Dairy Milk and an unfortunate knack of dropping her precious snack to the floor as killers lurk outside looking to sneak past. Petra is clearly a cunning and formidable opponent to deceive so easily and completely someone as wary and careful as Glickman. Here she unzips her top to reveal an ample cleavage and a mass of wires clinging to her chest. She proceeds to hook herself up to the immobile Gatehouse, seemingly doing something complicated to swap heart beat readings. She has a lethal injection ready and waiting. As she says aloud “bleep bleep” to make sure she gets the timing of the switch right, Gatehouse rolls over, says “bleep” and kills her like he was just having a power nap.

And so, finally, to my big gripe. Gatehouse has not a single sign of being shot on his body. Blood could be seen spreading around his head and trademark black coat after Glickman fired. He must have been substantially wounded, taking bullets somewhere on the torso. I am quite willing to accept that Gatehouse turns out to be the unbeatable top dog, as he has been all along. I wouldn’t have minded Gatehouse summoning the strength to kill his would be killer, if there had simply been a bandage or stitch or something to indicate the earlier ordeal. We get that Gatehouse is stronger than normal men. But such inconsistency and laziness of detail when shooting a pivotal scene, severely limits the audience’s ability to inhabit the increasingly sensational story.

Most of you are probably thinking I’ve blown such a tiny detail out of proportion. I may have done. But for me things like that have always been important. It is often a trait of men to pick fault in the believability of a story. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the excitement of the scene and all that went before it. And it’s not that I wish everything to be so plausible that it becomes mundane.

Such mistakes leave me with a feeling of annoyance though. This is a huge shame because The Shadow Line has been largely consistent and quality in terms of such details. And all I really wanted to do was commend this episode. Of course, it might be revealed next week that Gatehouse knew Glickman was planning a trap and had taken precautions. In which case this was an even more pointless rant.

What about the rest of the episode then? Well finally we got some satisfying focus on Gabriel’s character. For most of the episode he was the narrative focal point, right up until Glickman’s trap was sprung, adding to the drama, emotion and awfulness of the death of his son. We start by watching him get a brain scan; it seems he’s getting his memory back. His wife nearly loses the baby but then things turn out to be fine. Glickman tells him to follow the money, not the drugs as he said last time. Would have helped if he hadn’t mucked us about wouldn’t it? He tells Gabriel to harass the retired police commander about Counterpoint, which will bring Gatehouse out of the shadows to hunt down his weak point. We learn that the journalist, otherwise known as M’s assistant in Casino Royale, met his maker because he pestered the commander too much.

The police corruption goes higher and deeper than anyone could have imagined. A senior civil servant seems to be pulling the strings as he issues instructions to our crooked inspector at a funeral. He orders the convincing suicide and murder of Gabriel and his family. Does this mean Gatehouse is working for people within the law and government (as he killed Andy Dixon in the same way)? Meanwhile Gabriel finds out he’s a good cop. He didn’t log the operation the night he was shot because he knew there were rotten elements on the police side. And the police were buying the drugs as well as selling them. Baffling.

Other asides: rent boy Rattalack is getting his money from Gatehouse to buy Bede’s drugs. But with Gatehouse almost dead, everyone gets panicky when the money doesn’t turn up. And Bede’s right hand man is going to sell details of the deal. We still don’t know what Counterpoint is or who Glickman’s ex was working for, seeking to tidy up the situation with some slick murders. Gabriel’s wife gets a lecture from his ex, the mother of his dead child, at the boy’s funeral. She basically tells her to get Gabriel out of the mess and that the truth isn’t always worth it. Will he be able to keep a family together even if all the mysteries are solved?

Next week, light will illuminate the shadows. Will everything fit together? Supposedly Hugo Blick plotted the whole series with massive interconnecting mind maps, so it should. And will Jay Wratten, absent this week, go out with a whimper or a bang?

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.

Is Chivalry Dead?


In a word – yes. Certainly the chivalry of old perished long ago. I’m not saying it died with the knights, although an early form of noble gallantry may well have done. I’m talking about being a gentleman. And it’s been many years since it was normal for every single bloke to be “courteous and considerate” towards the womenfolk and indeed each other. Or at least since we were expected to be.

A certain type of classically dressed chap, who is both suave and selfless, reliable and romantic, is now nothing but a fictional character. He may have always been so, in reality. A combination of factors conspired to kill off his desirability though, many of them good things, like greater gender equality. But some of them not so good.

I think a form of chivalry, an evolved romance and respect for women, still has a place in modern life. In the past I’ve been shot down and put in my place for expressing some sort of view on chivalry by female friends and I would not dare to raise the subject with male ones. In recent days I’ve been reminded of the conflict and decided to turn to blogging to try to articulate my thoughts.

So I do think it is possible to still aspire to be a gentleman, even admirable to do so. But it’s become ridiculously taboo to hold such a good natured view. Try an act of classic chivalry and you’re liable to criticism or it’s assumed you’re a fake using it as a means to a very predictable end. Try to criticise a man for being an arse by saying he’s not living up to gentlemanly standards and duties and you’re being sexist. The last bastions of chivalrous behaviour are under attack not just from the loutish disrespect of some men, which are ever present opponents, but also from feminists who seem to view what was once common decency as a slippery slope back to women  being tethered like livestock to the kitchen sink.

I do not mean to sound pompous and arrogant. Of course everyone is entitled to their view. I admit I am entranced by a nostalgia for the past and eras I was never a part of, eager to taste and preserve attributes of times that seemed more honest and honourable, with more to discover and greater purpose to existence. I can be something of a hopeless and foolish romantic at times. I don’t see what is wrong with that; indeed I think it’s refreshing, given that mostly I’m realistic and pessimistic like the world around me.

People striving to capture the essence and best intentions of aspects of the past should not be ostracised. Just because the historical balance of power between men and women has been grossly unfair, does not mean that all the elements of the way women were once treated were wrong. In fact some of the things incorrectly lumped together with the tools of male oppression ought to make a comeback.

If it seems like I am struggling to make my point it’s because I am. The problem is that I can’t really explain or argue my point of view persuasively because it’s something vague I just instinctively feel is right. I don’t have masses of evidence to call upon, just a sense of moral conviction

I can understand why women might feel patronised by certain gentlemanly acts. I tried to rationalise this by saying to myself that I reserve most of my chivalrous compassion for those women that earn it. This is what I’d say to the feminists, I thought. I am simply considerate and caring to good friends, people I know to be nice or those that I love. That is not solely down to gender.

But then I thought, I’d still hold the door open for a female stranger. I might turn my head a little more if they were attractive but that wouldn’t be the reason. Monster or model, most of the time, if I had the opportunity, I’d hold the door. And I’ve done it for men too, more than most people, but there’s no question I’d be more aware of the ladies and they’d take priority. For example if it was busy and at some point I’d have to pass through the door myself, I’d cut in front of a man far more willingly. Why?

For those of you familiar with Friends, Phoebe’s claim that there’s no such thing as a selfless act will spring to mind, when I say that doing something needlessly kind like holding the door for a stranger, makes me feel good. Regardless of whether the pretty girl flashes me a smile or the less pretty one looks grateful, I’ll feel better about my day. To an extent though this would be true if I was holding the door for a 60 year old chap.

Perhaps that goes someway to answering the issue; being a gentleman now can mean being kind and thoughtful to anybody, not just women. The fact remains though that I still feel an inexplicable duty towards “the fairer sex“, an outdated term which could have petrol bombs and bricks flying through my windows. And I still feel passionately that I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about that.

If I’m really scraping the barrel for reasons behind my vague, fluffy and inconsistent philosophy, I’ll resort to my ignorant grasp of science. Could it not be said that it’s simply a natural part of humanity, an evolutionary trait, for the man to be protective? We may have rightly moved beyond the idea of the man being the breadwinner but physical differences alone show he can still be a protector.

Women ought to be the equals of men in everything that matters but they’re still held back by a glass ceiling. Cracks might start appearing in that barrier if we admitted that whilst the sexes are unquestionably equal, they still have undeniable differences.

This isn’t really an aspect of the argument I’m all that convinced by though, I hate the overuse of scientific theory and the constant linking of everything to evolution. I am aware I’m treading on controversial ground and I just needed something concrete to say. I come back to the fact that I just feel strongly about this. Probably all because of misplaced and naive romanticism.

I’ve had conversations with friends about relationships, in which I said something like that the girl shouldn’t have to bother herself with extravagant gifts and presents for her chap. I was met with fierce disagreement, unanimously against me. I see the weaknesses of my position, believe me. I know relationships are two-way and as I said earlier I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what is right for them. I feel very irrational at times holding the view that I do; but nevertheless I hold it.

I think for me it boils down to the fact that I enjoy being romantic and even in friendship I enjoy being supportive and helping out however I can. I like to actively care for people I give a shit about. Shoot me if this is wrong. I know I haven’t put forward any compelling arguments in favour of chivalrous behaviour. But if people are willing to do it and get satisfaction from it too, I don’t see what is so bad about what is essentially kindness and respect.

In an increasingly self-involved culture I think that the ideals of chivalry and the symbolic figure of the gentleman are very British and very necessary influences, that should not be destroyed by misguided taboos.

P.S. I do apologise for such preachy, waffly and poorly expressed writing. I’ll try to deliver something manly and thought through soon-ish

Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 3: Bargain DVDs – Trainspotting and The Wrestler


The big day is upon us. The masculine apocalypse is now. The horsemen will round the corner towards Westminster Abbey any moment, dragging their cargo of the merry middle class and nostalgic Eton boy politicians, right into our living rooms. Oh my god it’s not long until we get to see Kate’s dress!

Shoot me now. I am apprehensive, a little scared even, because I may have been advocating alternatives to the big day but I know I’m fighting an entity so vast that it will inevitably stray into my line of sight at some point. I won’t be able to flee the hordes living and breathing the ceremony like it was their own. It wouldn’t even do any good to flee abroad, if anything they’re more marriage mad than the most devout British Royalist. So I definitely cannot outrun this and in addition I have another problem. I can’t hide from it either, because I’ve already consumed the alternatives in order to point them out to all of you. Blokes, guys and lads everywhere, I hope you appreciate my sacrifice.

We’ve reached the final alternative step and its one I like to think of as the emergency measure. Thor at the cinema requires venturing out and United on iPlayer requires dangerous proximity to internet coverage, but these two films on DVD, available on the bargain shelves of any local high street, merely need a TV. I know, believe me I know, the wedding is on all the channels.  But if you have an even more serious aversion to confetti and vows than me, just pull the aerial out and stick these two very manly films in to play, one after another.

Firstly then a film I’ve been meaning to see for a long while, the Scottish breakthrough piece for Danny Boyle, Trainspotting. Despite all the hype, from critics and friends alike, I really didn’t know what to expect from this exactly. I knew there was drug taking, in all likelihood sex, and an awful lot of accented foul language. I knew it starred an emaciated Ewan McGregor. I knew it would have both fun and filth. I knew Boyle’s playful style would scrawl a signature in every scene. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so hilarious and true to life as it was.

Much of the humour comes from the characters of McGregor’s Mark Renton’s “so called mates”. Johnny Lee Miller, now starring fifteen years on in Boyle’s critically acclaimed Frankenstein opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the theatre, plays a Sean Connery obsessed, seemingly streetwise fellow crack addict. His assessments of Connery’s performances as James Bond and his astonishing grasp of box office data, were particularly surreal for a fellow Bond fan like me, as he helped friends to inject heroin. He turns out to be far less clued up than he pretends to be though. Then there’s Spud, a guy who is very plainly clueless from the start, who lands up throwing his shit all over his girlfriend’s family at breakfast. Don’t ask how. Slapstick perhaps, but I laughed for several minutes.

There’s also Tommy, a guy McGregor’s surprisingly appealing narration informs us has the fault of being honest and not addicted to any banned substance. I assume the visceral poetry of Renton’s narration is so attractive because it is transplanted largely untouched from Irvine Walsh’s novel, which is infamous for its use of Scottish dialect. A scene where Tommy and Spud discuss the pitfalls of their respective women at a club, and the girlfriends do likewise about the boys in the toilets, presumably also has its roots in the book. But it’s wonderfully adapted by Boyle, with subtitles not quite necessary because of the noise and very capable comic acting depicting the darkly funny give and take realities of relationships.

Finally there’s a young Kelly Macdonald, who has since appeared in No Country For Old Men, in her first film. Renton catches sight of her in a club as she’s leaving, with his sex drive rapidly returning as he attempts to give up his habit. He follows her outside, as his narration tells us he’s fallen in love, and tries it on with her. She confidently shoots him down, only to snog his face off in the taxi and subsequently shag him rampantly in her room. In the morning Renton discovers she’s a schoolgirl, and the people he presumes to be flatmates are her parents. It’s the sort of cheeky scene present throughout the film but it centres on deeper, more disturbing truths about youths trapped in a certain limited form of existence.

Renton is undoubtedly trapped by his addiction and his school girl lover is trapped by her age, a desire to break free and be independent. We all know what it’s like to feel trapped; it’s a very human feeling, despite our supposed freedom. Whether you’re a nurse at a crowded hospital running a gauntlet of noses going off like shotguns of snot, a doctor watching patients with crash dummy heads and vacant eyes or one of thousands of the unemployed youths in this country retreading the same old paths, the same old trenches of memory through the earth, with no concept of a future. We can all get that feeling, and recognise it in others.

Ay na donne get all political pal? Keep it light! Ay?

Ah yes I forgot a character. Robert Carlyle plays Begbie, a moustachioed Scott whose job description reads thus: “playing pool and drinking at the bar, until a minor action by another customer causes him to lose his rag and beat everyone shitless”. Begbie’s probably trapped too, but to be honest his character never seemed much more than smashing entertainment. Literally.

The thing about Renton is that he thinks he’s beaten the rest of us buggers trapped in the game of life, chasing after fat televisions and fancy cars. He thinks that by choosing drugs he’s chosen nothingness and some sort of purer, pleasure filled existence. But like every revolutionary he comes to realise he is as trapped by the system as those embracing it. He needs money for his hits, friends for his sanity. Or maybe not friends, as you’ll see if you watch the film.

Trainspotting is a damn good ride through the monotony of modern existence, with eccentric but hilarious and extremely likeable tour guides. It’s more than your average tourist experience because at times it really gets you to think. And as an exploration of drug culture, Boyle’s direction is suitably dirty, bizarre and haunting, but also responsible and not over the top. You’ll flinch at some of the filth, the needles and most of all McGregor screaming his lungs out at a hallucination of a baby. Trainspotting is not simply a mash-up of visual clichés about getting high though, perhaps because it has such a strong grounding in character.

And so we come to The Wrestler, directed by Darren Aronofsky. Now Darren, as I like to call him, is someone I have a love/hate relationship with. First came the love, as I fell head over heels for the sensuality of Black Swan (https://mrtsblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/black-swan/) and then came the hate, when I followed this up with his earlier much praised work, Requiem for a Dream (https://mrtsblog.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/an-open-letter-to-darren-aronofsky/).

One of the reasons I found Trainspotting so refreshing was that whilst it dealt with drugs and it had its strange and psychedelic scenes of intoxication; it did not become the pretentious exercise in filmmaking that was Requiem for a Dream. I will probably be slated for saying it, and it may merely have been the context in which I first saw it (see link), but I really didn’t like that film. I did not see the point to it. Trainspotting seemed to say something far truer about addiction, despite its tongue often being firmly in cheek.

I only bring this up because it all meant that I didn’t know what I was going to get from The Wrestler; dazzling Darren or dopey Darren. The critical buzz around Mickey Rourke’s resurrected corpse meant not a jot, because some of them hated Black Swan and some of them loved Requiem.

I would not go as far as the five star quotes plastered over the cover. I would not call it the “ultimate man film” as FHM did. But it’s undoubtedly a film about a man and ageing, whereas Trainspotting, with hindsight, was a film for boys. Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson is someone trapped by his past, the legacy of his prime, and the mistakes he made during that ripe period of life.

Perhaps Rourke put in such a praiseworthy performance because he could really inhabit his character. He has been there, more or less. Rather than playing a caricature or a gun toting gangster, Rourke is simply a person here; a human being in decline, or as he says in one moving speech “a broken down piece of meat”. At first I didn’t see what all the fuss about his performance was, but then after a few emotional scenes with a potential lover and ageing stripper (Marisa Tomei) and particularly some heartbreaking confrontations with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), Rourke brings Randy to life.

There’s always the danger of melodramatic sentimentality, but the film manages to avoid it, primarily because of the masculine restraint of Rourke’s portrayal. Aside from some brutal wrestling scenes and one careless fuck, this is rather pedestrian territory for Darren after the frenzied, frenetic highs of Requiem and the disorientating dash for beautiful perfection in Black Swan. The Wrestler certainly didn’t grab me and it didn’t inspire the extremes of emotion that Darren’s two other efforts did. It has sporting parallels with Black Swan but lacks the wow factor of that film.

I don’t think there’s necessarily anything that wrong with The Wrestler. In some ways it is refreshing to see a film that shows so many sides of a man’s ordinary life, making his escape from that routine via his passion all the more meaningful. There’s no doubt that performing as a wrestler requires a certain level of very manly commitment to the drama. This film will offset any feminine activities like dusting icing sugar on cupcakes or fashioning paper chains with ease. But it’s so realistic, so dreary and so grim, that this antidote might lead to a dangerous and depressing overdose.

If you watch these back to back, watch Trainspotting last. It’s fun as well as not for the faint hearted. Either film is preferable to pointless precessions though, I’m sure you’ll agree. Never mind God Save the Queen, God save male souls everywhere and best of luck!

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra – yes you read that correctly


I’ll start with a revelation; I paid actual money to own this on DVD. It was cheap, it was on offer, but nevertheless I handed over real currency. Why not just burn a wad of cash instead? The answer is that these days I am so enjoying wearing my critic’s hat that I actively sought out a film on the shelves of HMV that would prove the perfect target for a volley of vitriol on a day of frustration. Yes bad films can be painful to endure, but take a tip from me; write derisively about them afterwards and the whole experience is transformed into the best kind of therapy.

I also thought that given the hordes of superhero blockbusters soon set for release, a great many of which based on cinematically underused characters, it would be interesting to examine a film trying to establish a franchise. And more than likely point out all the areas it fails in, thus advising the big cheeses at Marvel and DC and the like, who all hang on my every word.

Having said this despite day after day of dismalness since I purchased GI Joe, days in which I could have done with a cleansing rant, I could not bring myself to sit down to watch it, knowing that watching the film itself would probably shovel manure onto my already foul smelling mood.

Now though the deed is done. All of GI Joe’s 113 minutes rammed down my eyeballs and willingly into the vaults of memory. My verdict will be far from surprising. As usual it’s simultaneously comforting and disheartening to have my own views almost precisely tally with the summary on Rotten Tomatoes:

While fans of the Hasbro toy franchise may revel in a bit of nostalgia, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is largely a cartoonish, over-the-top action fest propelled by silly writing, inconsistent visual effects, and merely passable performances”

Yes I might be getting it right, but what’s the point in me if I don’t say anything new?

With this in mind then, here are some things that were surprising about GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra:

1)      It’s got a really impressive cast! People pop up from all over the world of film and TV, for even the slightest of roles, and in particular from places kids will love. There’s a Doctor Who being bad (a suitably evil and decent performance from Christopher Eccleston), the Mummy from The Mummy, the villain from Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies as the President, the guy who stops the Mummy in The Mummy, that cool street dance kid, her from Stardust, the serious one from Inception (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s soon to be in Batman too!) and that shouty scientist who saves the world from the inevitability of global warming in The Day After Tomorrow. I can only assume that all the American stars in this loved the toys and all the Brits were paid treasure chests full of booty for their unavoidably sinister accents.

2)      Talking of booty GI Joe has an awful lot of it for a family friendly action story. Dennis Quaid struts around as a General with a stunning beautiful assistant always to hand. Sienna Miller’s cleavage deserved its own recognition on the billboards. Red headed, blonde and brunette beauties are showcased in everything from skin tight “accelerator” suits, to tiny jogging tops or outfits made from 100% leather. Obviously to enjoy GI Joe at all you leave plausibility and realism at home. But there’s something disturbing about all this flesh for a potential franchise based on toys and a film with a 12 rating. It’s like the Playboy bunnies broke into Toys R Us and are teasing you before an orgy.

3)      I enjoyed (some of) it. Maybe it was just Sienna’s constant pouting. But the extended action set piece in Paris was quite creative at times; over the top and overflowing with visual effects for sure, but enjoyable compared to the other numerous grandstand battles.

The most annoying thing about GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra was its endless focus on the back-story of various characters. This is saying something. Most of its irritating faults are obvious; the wooden and unwatchable Channing Tatum, the relentless pointless noise, the other mechanical actors playing cartoon cut outs, the fact that the whole thing is a lifeless mess. Perhaps what was really annoying about the continual flashbacks and diversions to show how the characters all had past grudges against each other, was that it made GI Joe have ambitions that went beyond making noise. Almost as if they thought they were telling a narrative that could be called “engaging” or kick-starting a franchise that could be “successful”.

The very opening scene, with absolutely atrocious French and Scottish accents in the 17th century, tried far too hard to give the characters meaning and seemed redundant in reality. Studio chiefs take note: don’t fuck with history or flit through the past lives of your characters. Even if you’re trying to sell the toys they’re based on.

The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.