Ideally I like to write my reviews shortly after I’ve watched a film, as I’m doing now. First impressions are important right? I think recording that instant reaction can be valuable, especially for readers dithering over whether to see something. Of course taking more time to chew over the substance of a movie can also have its advantages. It might help me to get my head round it and make some more insightful points. But somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get my head round Memento.
The protagonist of Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce), certainly couldn’t make it as a film reviewer. And I’m not saying that because it’s a particularly difficult task with insurmountable challenges. In fact normally I’d take the view that anyone could do it and that’s what makes cinema so engaging in the first place. But Leonard is not just anyone. For him remembering the plot of the most transparent Hugh Grant picture would indeed be an insurmountable challenge. There’s an advertising slogan that reads “Impossible is nothing”: this is literally true in Memento. It would be impossible for Leonard to write a review because he would remember nothing about the film. Not even Hugh alternating between “gosh” and “golly”.
Leonard suffers from a rare condition which basically means he can’t form new memories. I say “basically” but if you watch Memento it’s rapidly clear that his day to day existence is not a simple matter. Repeatedly Leonard tells us, via voiceover or mysterious conversation, that through his mastery of routine, instinct and a system of writing down “facts” as they happen, he has conquered his inability to save memories to the mainframe of his brain. But as the story progresses things that seemed certain prove to be far from it. Leonard’s quest to find his wife’s killer, and the man who whacked the talent of remembering from his skull, gives even the most ordinary encounter life and death importance. If Leonard draws the wrong conclusion from something and writes it down for future reference, he could end up on a path that causes him to kill the wrong man.
With last year’s hit Inception, Christopher Nolan reminded us that before his skilled reinvention of Batman for the mainstream he had a reputation as an experimental narrative trickster. Inception was his first film since The Prestige, which had twists and turns aplenty in the plot, to tell a daring story free of the Gotham city universe. The hype for the “dream heist” thriller was hysterically huge. I and countless others positively salivated at the sound of the concept. The possibilities of such an idea were endless. Sadly the film is one of the most overrated of recent times. Whilst good it did not compete with the whirring of imaginations kick-started into life by the premise.
Memento is much better than Inception when it comes to realising a tantalising idea. This is despite the fact that Nolan’s relative inexperience as a director is evident in a handful of lacklustre shots; one drab and overlong focus of Pearce strutting away into a building stands out. The acting isn’t always brilliant either, with what seems like half the cast of The Matrix on show and in hit and miss form. The script however is superb, bouncing themes and tension around the scattered narrative structure. I was never bored. And I never knew what was going on.
As well as being extremely gripping and exciting, Memento has its other strong points. Leonard as a character is an engrossing figure, complete with those striking memories in tattoo form (which Steven Moffat recently adapted in Doctor Who for the monsters you forget when you look away). He is trying to make sense of his life, in one sense with nothing to go on but also with endless notes and information he’s amassed for himself. We’re all trying to settle on a purpose and the excess of notes could be an interesting symbol for information overload in the modern age. Clearly Memento has its insights on memory given the driving force of the story but it also comments on the nature of fact and perhaps the notion of history. Leonard insists he only collects facts and this ensures no one takes advantage of him. But his “facts” are manipulated. And what’s the point in revenge if he can’t remember it? Is it enough that “the world still exists when I close my eyes”, as he says?
Memento gave me a headache. I may have had one before sitting down to watch but after having the pieces inside my head jumbled about until my brain moaned in pain, it didn’t help matters. Nonetheless I enjoyed it. The overwhelming strength of the film is its originality. The execution was certainly there, which is why this was Nolan’s breakthrough picture. But the real genius lies with the idea behind the story. And the script was based on a short story by Christopher’s brother Jonathan Nolan. Perhaps he is the real mastermind behind the family’s success and the endless plaudits should be more evenly shared.
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“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Hearing a wise, sombre voice of experience gently intone these lines every November is always disarmingly moving. And so it was today at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month. Even the date has a twisted, bizarre symmetry and significance. You cannot help but feel refreshingly tiny and naive, as part of something greater, a unified more meaningful whole. You cannot help but feel guilt for getting so caught up and needlessly emotional about your trivial everyday concerns.
I arrived at the village war memorial in the church grounds a good half an hour before the silence was due to begin. So I crossed the road and sat down on a damp bench. From here I could watch the folk of various hues arrive and take their places. From what I remember of last year’s silence, which was rain soaked, the turnout was poor. Today however, despite a definite wetness to the agitated air around us, a sizeable crowd gathered. It was a disappointingly predictable bunch, consisting of the elderly, the vicar, the handful of children from the local schools compelled to go by their teachers. I was the only youthful attendee besides a young couple who also preferred to hover at the edges of this familiar crowd.
Of course many did not attend because they were at school or work and observing silences of their own and it is right that they do not greatly alter their usual daily routine, as the sacrifices were made in order to allow the continued existence of everyday life. But it was disheartening to know that acquaintances of mine, with nothing better to do, had stayed at home. My generation’s lack of a sense of history is depressing. And even if the stay-aways did bow their heads in a private moment of reflection, which is of course fine, it is a shame they could not make the trek to a public event to prove to the older generations and doubters that the youth of today are not so very different, and just as capable of respect. Whether or not we would have coped so well with the challenges faced by generations tasked with terrifying world wars on the continent, is another matter.
I am sometimes of the opinion that donning the respectful poppy too early can detract from the overall message of Remembrance. The overwhelming poignancy of the moment itself should be preserved and anything that diminishes its intensity is a threat to the longevity and colour of the tradition. However it is obvious in a modern world that the British Legion requires a good deal of time to build the profile of the day, to raise funds for those it still cares for today and to educate those youngsters completely unfamiliar with the concept. It is just sometimes a shame, purely from the point of view of a historian, that the vibrancy of reflections on the two great world wars of the twentieth century is endlessly diluted. Whilst the sacrifices of servicemen and women in modern conflict are just as worthy and brave, the motivations behind these conflicts are often more dubious and they do not cast the shame shadow as the two major conflicts. As well as remembering the cruelly cut short lives of soldiers and military personnel, the key message of Remembrance Day, it always seemed to me, was that never again would war be permitted to swell to such terrible, destructive size. By annually reflecting and re-examining the memories, we as a nation would never forget and strive for a peaceful world.
I have often felt adrift and without a purpose in this twenty-first century world of ours and it was easy to daydream in my younger days of living in a previous era; exotic times of unity and meaning and excitement and daring. But glancing at the faces of those so obviously personally touched by catastrophic events, I was reminded of why I should feel lucky. For the sort of national unity, togetherness and purpose felt during the world wars was forged from extraordinary hardships, and the dreams of people then are our realities today. We owe it to them to make the most of what was won for us and dream up our own inspiring visions of advancement. No doubt many are put off from attending a “service” at a memorial due to the smattering of religious attachments. Personally I do not find any sort of contradiction in respectfully staying silent during the prayers, bowing my head whilst others choose to say “Amen”. I found some of the rhythms and imagery of prayer adding to the tears welling in my eyes. Most of all, regardless of faith, the torrents of unified mourning, respect and sadness needed a focus, which the vicar and his Bible provided, at times. Powerful beyond words though were the lines, mumbled by all:
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them
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I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.
First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too. It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.
I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.
I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.
The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.
Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.
If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.
From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.
Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.
The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.
The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other. What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality? Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.
I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.
These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.
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