Tag Archives: newspaper

Blu-Ray Review: The Silent House


Whatever happened to traditional ghost stories set in creepy old houses? Modern horror has become a competition between filmmakers to outdo each other’s gore or to find the latest and cheapest gimmicky trick (think Paranormal Activity). Rarely do we get creaky doors teasingly opening wide into dusty rooms frozen in troubled times. Rarely are the scares psychological, preying on childhood fears of monsters under the bed and the empty house that sighs forlornly from somewhere in its darkened depths at the end of the street. Rarely do bold, genius storytellers emerge from the ranks of horror directors these days.

Director Gustavo Hernandez is certainly brave. His chiller, The Silent House, is based upon an unsolved murder case in 1940s Uruguay. It is set within a seemingly picturesque, isolated and derelict house in secluded woodland.  It is also filmed in one continuous take.

The effects of this are engrossing. The ambitious and meticulous technique works especially well for horror and has a surprising versatility. The camera essentially becomes a character. At first we feel like main character Laura’s imaginary friend, bobbing along behind her as she looks round the outside of the pretty house and listening in absentmindedly on the conversation between her father and the owner of the house, Nestor. Then later on, whilst still feeling tethered to Laura’s experience, we take up different positions and hiding places. Consequently we see things she cannot. And she sees, and does, things that we miss altogether.

Laura and her father are supposed to be clearing up the messy house filled with accumulated junk. They decide to sleep in the living room on armchairs and make a start in the morning. The owner Nestor has promised to return with food at some point. Laura does not drift off however. She is too distracted by the pounding noises from upstairs. She eventually convinces her father to investigate and then the nightmare begins. 

Light and sound are always integral to successful horror. Here the atmospheric lighting is achieved through candles and electric lanterns mostly. One scene however, in which Laura picks up a camera when the lights go out, is comprised of glimpses of the horror via the flashes of the Polaroid. This was impressive, immersive and shocking. The sound effects are vital to the endless suspense, with the score also eerily winding up the tension to unbearable levels.

The Silent House is an amalgamation of old fashioned scares and modern frights. The setting is full of strange objects, antiques and family heirlooms cluttering the rooms. Multiple doorways leave hiding places everywhere. Later in the story though the scares become nastier, more brutal and unsettling, resembling the darker trend of recent horror flicks. The dialogue is minimal, so we never learn much about Laura. We simply share some of her experience. The shocks and surprises catch you off guard and the twist at the end comes out of the blue.

For cynical viewers, there are of course the usual annoyances of the genre. Why does Laura choose the moments after a vicious attack to become fascinated by bits of junk? Why does she minutely examine paintings and photos when she knows someone is lurking beyond the door? Why does she return to the house after escaping in a wave of fear? Why does no one contact the authorities?

The incredible suspense and the plots holes in this film really got me thinking about the ordeal of the psychopath perpetrating the horror, as well as the victims. At one point (minor spoiler) a body is moved to be propped up in a chair with a doll. How embarrassing would it be to be caught moving the body? The attackers in these films, who are determined to taunt their victims, must be as nervous and jumpy as the audience as they set up their disturbing scenarios in the shadows.

The genuine ambush of the twist at the end explains a lot of these holes and weaknesses, which would be left glaringly and irritatingly untouched by your average horror. The Silent House is far from average though. It is rightly hailed as a “technical tour de force” by The Guardian and its trailers can justifiably claim to offer “real fear in real time”. By avoiding the sometimes messy and often over the top cuts of most modern fright fests, and adopting a refreshing perspective on events, this film really drops you right into the action.

The Silent House is out on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 1st of August. Go for the Blu-Ray version if you really want to appreciate the achievements of the filmmakers, in particular the lighting effects. Also keep an eye out for the Hollywood remake, as the rights have already been snapped up.

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Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood proves that the likes of Transformers: Dark of the Moon won’t save 3D


Last night I watched the last in the series of Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood on BBC 2. I actually watched it on TV! You can watch it here on iPlayer:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b011vmsd/Paul_Mertons_Birth_of_Hollywood_Episode_3/

I really enjoyed it and will be trying to see the first two episodes somehow. This episode chronicled the death of silent cinema, which Merton shows to be at the height of its creative powers when the technology for talkies arrived. Silent films starred ingenious performers, and were shot in inventive, imaginative and inspiring ways. They could afford to make classic escapism for the masses as well as experimental pictures, which also more often than not turned into hits by capturing the public’s lust for the cinema in new ways.

Talkies, Merton argues, brought the quality and the standards crashing back to basic levels. Yes audiences could hear the tinny voices of their beloved stars but they lost much of the magic of cinema when it was silent. They lost the live musical performances accompanying the pictures in theatres. They lost the moving camera angles, zooming in and out to visually dazzle and excite. They lost the cults of intoxicating mystery that grew up around actors, as soon as they heard their ordinary or often foreign accented voices. Instead there was wooden dialogue in front of static cameras. Imaginations were stifled and limited.

It’s impossible not to compare the arrival of the talkies with that of 3D films in the 21st century. In my view it’s obvious that the shift is not so dramatic. Sound is a far bigger leap forward than three dimensions. This seems an odd thing to say; when in theory 3D should mean the action literally happening in front of you. But we know the reality of 3D is mostly gimmicky after seeing the offers of studios in cinemas.

This might suggest that greater efforts are needed to improve the technology, so it’s truly as transformative an experience as listening to sound for the first time in a movie theatre. However Merton’s documentary focuses on the ability of good storytellers to adapt. Irving Thalberg, who died in his 30s, was the extraordinary man at the centre of last night’s episode.

A German immigrant, Thalberg grew up in New York, after being born with a weak heart. He spent long periods of his childhood mollycoddled and stuck in bed through illness. During this time he read classic literature, plays and autobiographies. And followed the fortunes of the film business.

Then he got his big break and headed to Hollywood as a secretary to the head of Universal Studios. He was unexpectedly promoted to Head of Production, because of the qualities he showed his employer, where he established a reputation in his early twenties, before moving to MGM in the same role. His influence transformed MGM‘s studios into a vast dream factory with all manner of storytelling resources on site. He handpicked films for suitable directors, mixing traditional stories with bolder projects. He ensured that before release all his films were screened to members of the public, which led to scenes being re-shot frequently. A modest man, his name never appeared on any posters.

Thalberg’s MGM was at the top of its game when talkies arrived, courtesy of rivals Warner Brothers. But before his death Thalberg oversaw a successful transition to sound, with that same focus on good storytelling. As a producer he called the shots, made decisions in the company’s financial interests, but never compromised a good story.

3D audiences have been declining and champions of the technology pin their hopes on Michael Bay’s third Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon. In press previews the 3D is said to be cutting edge, mind blowing and the best yet. But as this Guardian writer, Ben Child, points out, Bay’s films are so loud and bombastic that they simply become tedious. And the only real hope for 3D is that someone, a great individual of Thalberg’s ilk, can steer a truly great and inventive film project to fruition. One that makes the best of 3D‘s unique assets but one that, above all, tells an unbelievably good story.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2011/jun/10/transformers-dark-of-the-moon-3d

The Shadow Line – Episode 4


After things really seemed to be getting somewhere with episodes 2 and 3, last night (the first time I have watched The Shadow Line as scheduled, 9pm BBC 2) things once again became a blend of baffling plot lines and bad dialogue, punctuated by the odd superb scene. This is one of those programmes so determined to keep us guessing that no sooner are we given a clutch of answers, a bucket full of more questions is splashed into our bemused faces.

The answers come in the form of customs officer Robert Beatty, who was the guy sultry sidekick Honey had a fight with last time. He’s one of these deep cover types working beyond the police, doing things they can’t like he doesn’t give a shit. It turns out that the drugs murdered Harvey Wratten used to get his rare Royal Pardon were already his. Beatty also reveals there was a second requirement for the Pardon; saving the life of a cop. In this case information was given to save him and his family from a car bomb. But it quickly emerges that the bomb was probably planted by Wratten too. So Wratten arranged a get out of jail free card for himself. Well mostly free, just minus millions of pounds worth of drugs.

Obviously Gabriel thinks this is getting somewhere with the case, that he’s been given three extra weeks to save. But it’s difficult to say where this breakthrough leads or what it means and his boss has a problem with that. Even though they’ve got a blurry picture of Gatehouse on CCTV too AND they’ve linked him to a big drug deal, where Gatehouse appeared to be acting on behalf of the vanished but ever present Glickman, who was in turn acting for Wratten because he was banged up. Confused much?

And that’s just the professional side of the police case. We haven’t even mentioned Gabriel’s personal problems. He didn’t have any agonising moments staring at that inexplicable briefcase full of cash this week but the mother of his secret child told him to tell his wife of their existence, who is finally pregnant. This is the cue for just one of many terrible lines in this episode. Gabriel, clearly in a sticky situation, blankly says “I’m in hell” only for the mother of his child to hit back with “No, we’re in limbo”. She then says she won’t have her son growing up in the shadows, which is far too forced a reference to the show’s title.

On the criminal side of the case, Bob Harris is sweating his hairy backside off because one of his supply lines has been compromised by customs, which is how the police know about Glickman getting the drugs for Wratten. How do I know he has a hairy backside you ask? I don’t for sure but I’m judging by the rest of his portly, sagging, ageing body. We’re treated to a scene with Harris and a gay lover, with Harris sporting a pair of very tight pants and awkwardly resting on his side like a beached whale, and the lover wearing nothing at all. He is sprung from a police station by an anonymous benefactor at the beginning of the episode and ever since has been stuck in camp seductive mode. He also gets some terrible lines and provides Harris with the information that apparently Jay Wratten is responsible for the busting of his line.

Jay of course, has been told by Andy Dixon the driver, that Harris killed Harvey. So he has a reason to piss him off. But Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede interrogates Jay and he insists he didn’t do anything. We see very little of Bede this week, apart from when he’s questioning Jay and Glickman’s girlfriend, but Jay does get to pay another over the top, intimidating visit to Glickman’s son. And this is where we see the mysterious, deadly Gatehouse again.

Perched atop a mountain of office furniture, Gatehouse is across the street from Glickman’s son with some very fancy tech for listening to phone conversations etc. Eventually he decides to pop round to the home of Glickman’s son and play the kindly old fashioned gentleman card. Glickman’s sceptical daughter-in-law is won over by his harmless demeanour and Gatehouse gains access to the downstairs loo. After opening and closing the window briefly, he lets himself out. After calling her husband about the visitor, the wife goes upstairs to check on the wailing baby, prompted by the baby monitor. Their little girl is not there.

I was glad when Gatehouse showed up eventually last night because the rest of the episode had been poor. With Gatehouse though you know things are going to be suspenseful and tense and that something is going to happen, even without him doing very much. Here he’d magically whisked the baby outside, simply by opening and shutting a window in the toilet. Surely he must have had help? After dashing about the house absolutely distraught, she finds her baby and then Gatehouse, who chillingly tells her to call her husband “NOW” via the baby monitor. Glickman is then told Gatehouse wants to hear from him.

This episode has time for one more confusing but majestic scene. The journalist, otherwise known as that bloke from Casino Royale, who has been investigating police corruption throughout the series, features strongly in this episode asking people questions without really getting anywhere. Then he’s given the job of city editor at his paper, along with a far from feasible pay rise. Prior to this Gatehouse calls him up for an anonymous meeting but does nothing; not even speaking to him. Instead he gets hold of his home address pretending to be a deliveryman. Then comes the outstanding scene.

McGovern (name of said journalist) rides out of the city in his leathers and into the countryside towards home and his wife, where he can tell her the good news of his promotion. The tension slowly builds as it’s evident something will happen. Then we see a car in the distance on a straight road, with McGovern heading towards it. Both vehicles, bike and automobile, disappear into a dip in the middle of the road. We hear a screech and only the car emerges on the other side. The episode ends with a close up of our fallen journalist, in the middle of a sun drenched road, blood dripping in vivid drops from his helmet against a background of bright blue sky.

Scenes like that are the reason I continue to watch The Shadow Line. Some of them use too much style but most are refreshingly well executed, subtle and classy. This episode was full of irritating performances, including McGovern/Casino Royale man’s intonation that made everything sound like a question, hardly a subtle portrayal of an investigative journalist. It also had some of the worst dialogue so far and perhaps more of it. And the plot development became frustratingly unsatisfying too. But occasionally I am still gobsmacked, even in this mostly bad episode, and I am still intrigued.

With some questions answered new ones arise. Why kill the pestering journalist when he appeared to know very little? More interesting still, why did Gatehouse kill him, when he was investigating police corruption? Do Gabriel and Gatehouse know each other? Perhaps Gabriel simply can’t remember with that bullet inconveniencing his brain. And how exactly did it get there? Was Gabriel responsible for the death of partner Delaney? Can Chiwetel Ejiofor put in a good performance despite increasingly ludicrous plot twists for his character and sledgehammer emotional dialogue? Will Bede and Glickman’s girlfriend get together? Will next week be more enjoyable and make more sense? Will I get to see Bob Harris completely naked?

I’ll keep watching for the answers.

Film news: Dark Peter Pan reimagining to star Eckhart and Bean


Longstanding big names Aaron Eckhart and Sean Bean are to add clout to the cast of a modern retelling of children’s classic Peter Pan. They’ve both joined a project to be directed by Ben Hibon, with the working title Pan, which is set to turn the traditional fantasy tale of Neverland on its head.

Evil pirate Hook will be transformed into a troubled, disturbed and obsessed police detective searching for a childlike kidnapper with a knack for both snatching and dispatching little ones. Hapless sidekick Smee is a chief detective and Hook’s only friend on the force, with innocent Wendy a traumatised survivor keen to help find the criminal.

The role of Wendy will be played by AnnaSophia Robb (Race to Witch Mountain/Jumper). Eckhart will take the key role of Hook and Bean that of sympathetic Smee. Director Hibon, who masterminded the creation of the universally praised animation sequence in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 1, will be tasked with bringing an interesting idea to life, that’s been simmering in the development stages for a long time. According to Empire Magazine the film, once the property of New Line, is being promoted at Cannes by Essential Entertainment with October the target for the start of principal photography.

It might be important for those behind Pan to get their skates on, given that Peter Pan Begins with Channing Tatum is also in the pipeline. This would be a reinterpreted origin story for J.M Barrie’s character, with Hook rumoured to be Pan’s brother. I know which vision of the iconic story I’d rather see successfully realised.

Hibon’s concise storytelling ability and visual flair are evident from his brief touches to the Harry Potter franchise, so he could have exactly the right capabilities to pull off a tantalising and ambitious concept. Eckhart has played a determined and stressed lawman before in global phenomenon The Dark Knight and certainly has the acting chops to be a good, well meaning Hook. The dependency of the film on Robb’s role as Wendy will be interesting, given her less inspiring CV.

Let’s hope this is a clever new slant on the fairytale that does get the backing it needs to grow up and leave Neverland for theatres.

Holy Rollers Film Review: Are stories “inspired by real events” killing creative cinema?


Waiting around on plush leather sofas with the nibbles before the screening of Holy Rollers, one of the laidback critics said; “this must be a young person’s film”. A few of the other veterans nodded and chirped their agreement through mouthfuls of crisps and gulps of Coke. They surveyed us seated young’uns; youthful writers and bloggers seemingly suited to this tale of wild, animalistic New York and Amsterdam abandon, starring modern rising star and Best Actor nominee Jesse Eisenberg. They began a conversation about The Hangover, prompted by Justin Bartha’s role in this movie.

It was a one sided debate that continued as we took our seats; a small posse of expert cinemagoers agreeing that they did not see the appeal or comedy in the outlandish drunken antics of middle aged Americans. For them its garish humour seemed emblematic of the sort of mainstream bile lapped up by the youth of today. Hollywood studios continually plump for safe, unintelligent films and when one of them catches on, they pounce on the premise to produce sequels. The Hangover 2 is on the way this year of course, spiced up with rumours of increasingly daft cameos.

Another filmmaking trend of recent years is the success of “inspired by true events” storytelling. Half of this year’s Best Picture nominees at the Oscars were based on actual events or adapted from existing works. Of the genuinely original creations born specifically for the big screen, one of the most impressive was an animated sequel in the shape of Toy Story 3. The Social Network, The King’s Speech’s only serious rival, represented another growing pattern; the events that inspire filmmakers are in the increasingly recent past. Historical drama like The King’s Speech is an age old staple but the reimagining of stories that were in the news not so long ago is a fresher phenomenon.

What an ever swelling chorus of commentators bemoans about this is that it’s lazy storytelling. The Social Network was undoubtedly excellent and an absorbing piece of art as a whole that captured something of the essence of our time. But it was so dramatised and adapted that it was almost a work of fiction, built upon very loose foundations of fact. Wouldn’t energies be better spent on new stories rather than the complicated and potentially offensive fictionalisation of recent history?

The trouble is that as the Oscars went someway to demonstrating, when films are based on something real and interesting they can prove to be more skilfully crafted and lucrative. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on films like The King’s Speech and The Social Network; they are a valuable, enriching and enjoyable part of culture. But they should not stifle the flowering of completely different and new tales. They should not be made at the expense of thousands of undiscovered, productive and powerful imaginations. They mustn’t kill off the storyteller.

Wow what a rant. You’re probably waiting for me to start talking about Holy Rollers. But this is the overwhelming thing that struck me about the film, and at once the key and limit to its success. It takes a mostly unknown true story from the recent past (1998) of Hasidic Jews in New York smuggling ecstasy into the States from Europe. It should be applauded for shedding light on this remarkable tale and this is one of the pluses of adapting the truth I suppose; otherwise forgotten personal histories are preserved on film. However when aiming for a reasonably faithful retelling, as the filmmakers do here, their execution is constrained and drama can be minimised. Holy Rollers was unavoidably predictable and failed to engage as a result.

For Eisenberg, playing real people is becoming something of a habit. The comparisons between his character here, Sam Gold, and inexplicably likeable Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, are there from the start. Gold is bright but trapped in the unfulfilling monotony of study, much like Zuckerberg, only here he’s training to become a Rabbi. Like Zuckerberg Gold craves an immediacy lacking from his life and is clearly reluctant to embrace his lifelong fate in the prime of his youth. There’s something geeky yet rebellious about him. On the other hand he wants to succeed in the way expected of him. He wants to rise through the community and avoid losing face by truly impressing the beautiful wife arranged for him by his parents.  

His best friend and neighbour, Leon (Jason Fuchs) is more dedicated and accomplished at his studies. Now and then Gold seeks to rebel against his failings rather than stick at it, and eventually Leon’s brother, Yosef (Bartha) is there to offer him a way out and considerable extra cash to impress his family and prospective spouse. He works for an Israeli drug dealer importing merchandise from Amsterdam via above suspicion Jews. At first Leon and Gold go together on the understanding that they are bringing back important medicine. When the truth comes out Leon is appalled and knuckles down to study. But Gold has got the taste for both the money and the lifestyle.

He starts to show his knack with numbers and profit to drug dealer Jackie, becoming more and more integral to his operation. He is intoxicated and confused by the teasing sexual charms of Jackie’s girlfriend, played by Ari Graynor. There are some awkwardly hilarious scenes between Eisenberg and Graynor where both really show their comedy credentials with pleasing subtlety. Gold’s religious upbringing collides with this new world and prevents him from fully embracing the hedonism and the drugs and the sex. His naivety leads to the breaking of whatever bond he had with the girl.

Aside from this intriguing relationship and sub-plot, the unravelling of the narrative is far too clearly signposted. The visual style of direction in the film remains unchanged throughout, becoming bland, dreary and uninteresting. Eisenberg’s performance on the whole is solid and he does his best with some big emotional moments, but they never really ignited my interest. His transformation from a young man stifled by his surroundings into one embracing an illicit freedom, and calmly instructing new smuggling recruits to “mind your business and act Jewish”, doesn’t quite sit right or convince. Having said this despite the similarities to his performance in The Social Network, he does show a slightly broader range and give a good account of his talent. The failings probably lie more with the script.

Bartha’s believability as the volatile Yosef is strong and there is something charismatic and mysterious about his character. But once again the limitations of the true story format prevent us from seeing him develop into anything that exciting. The premise and setting of Holy Rollers may be initially interesting but ultimately the trajectory of the story is all too plain from the beginning. It might be a faithful reconstruction and it has its worthwhile moments, but this is a film that feels sanitised and seems to only scratch the surface of issues that could be explosively entertaining with greater imagination and drama.

Bin Laden may be gone but extremism remains a threat to the Arab Spring’s happy ending


Not a dusty cave but a million dollar mansion. The intelligence has been meticulously gathered, the courier watched, followed and watched again. A highly trained team of professionals swoop in by helicopter and penetrate the hideout, at long last. Shots are fired and echo in the night; of course there is resistance. He won’t come quietly and perhaps they don’t want him to. After an intense fire fight, only deep silence reigns. The bullet battered body is bittersweet treasure. The hunt is over and the operation a success. No American casualties.

President Obama’s dramatic, triumphant but restrained announcement was long overdue. His predecessor had launched a largely misguided military mission across the world, with the objective to wage “war on terror”. Since the daring and devastating attacks of September 2001 though, the primary target has always been the apparent mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. There can be no doubt that his eventual death, and the American managed manner of it, will have widespread political ramifications. The significance of these, particularly in relation to the future threat of Al-Qaida, remain up for debate.

The first consequence commentators are quick to highlight is the boost to Obama’s presidency. Many are already saying that the deliverance of justice and his apparent personal involvement will prove the vital factor in tipping the balance of next year’s presidential election his way. Obama will already be the favourite and confident of securing a second term, mainly because of the meagre Republican candidates standing in his way. Sarah Palin’s ridiculous volatility makes her unelectable, whilst Donald Trump just seems ridiculous. The election will probably boil down to economic performance, as they always tend to do. But for independent voters and the more patriotically minded American, retribution for 9/11 could prove the difference between a Democrat and Republican vote. After all Bush failed to get real results and what would the new candidates offer, besides perhaps more foolhardy wars putting Americans in harm’s way?

The more globally contentious result of Bin Laden’s assassination, for that is what this was no matter how jubilant some people are, is what the future of Al-Qaida as an organisation will now be. Prime Ministers and heads of state are quick to urge “vigilance” and that the battle with extremism is not over. In a statement Tony Blair made this his key message in reaction to the news. Indeed security chiefs have even warned that the world should be on high alert and ready for a backlash; Al-Qaida will be invigorated to act soon through furious grief. But other experts are saying that apart from an initial anger driven response, we no longer have as much to fear from Al-Qaida. They are already a fading force and Bin Laden’s death is the final symbolic nail in their coffin.

Some articles are pointing to the peaceful dawn of the Arab Spring. Across the Middle East and North Africa, supposed Al-Qaida heartlands, revolutions are in full swing that are driven by peaceful protestors calling for democracy. Al-Qaida and indeed other extreme Islamists have failed to hijack the will of the masses in these revolts. If they cannot grasp the initiative and seize control in such turbulent times, what sort of a threat do they now pose? The evidence suggests their strength is severely diminished. Times are changing and this is a new decade of the 21st century.

I am no expert on Al-Qaida and it might be true that the evidence seems to suggest the organisation itself is growing weaker, despite Bin Laden’s encouragement of autonomous cells in numerous cities. I also listen to leaders using the word “vigilance” and can only think how hollow it sounds, how meaningless to the life of the ordinary citizen. I am inspired and awestruck by the historic peaceful stands in support of freedom being made in a growing number of Arab countries. But anyone can see that these peaceful protests are not the end of the story and they certainly don’t herald the end of extremism.

Extremism, by its nature, is pursued by ideologically brainwashed or ignorant individuals in the minority. This has always been a fact, always be known to the reasonable man, but occasionally obscured by reckless, inflammatory rhetoric and foolhardy foreign policy. The Arab Spring is driven by democracy because the majority of Arabs and Muslim share our desires, dreams and aspirations for rights. It’s not a new phenomenon, even if their sudden decision to act has created a shocking domino effect. The uprisings are a cause for immense hope and a huge step forward but they do not signal the end of extremism in these countries. And just because extremists are yet to influence the process, doesn’t mean that they won’t.

The ethical dilemmas of these conflicts and potential civil wars are already plain, illustrated best in Libya where we may or may not provide the rebels with weapons. History shows us what happened in Afghanistan where the people were armed against the Russians only to morph into the Taliban. It is difficult to know where and when the West should get involved for the best outcome. Why not Syria, right on the borders of Israel, when we’ve given support to those championing democracy in Libya?

For me the most worrying thing about the Arab Spring is what happens next, after the apparent victory and the departure of the news crews. If Gaddafi falls, hooray for Libya, but what takes his place? As rebellions ignite and swell everywhere, the outcome of the Egyptian rebellion, one of the most vital and influential countries to be gripped by trouble, is consigned to the past. Why are we not tracking the progress of democratic reform there, ensuring that something worse than a dictator cannot step into the vacuum? Why are we not helping the Egyptians achieve the democracy they covet and fought for?

Ok of course someone, somewhere is doing this job. People at the UN, in our own foreign office, are probably involved in the process. But the story of what happened next to Egypt and any other nation successful in overthrowing a long entrenched dictator is not being told in the news. And it should be. If leaders are serious about vigilance then that must be a part of it, keeping the spotlight on reform and not letting dangerous reactionaries creep in from the shadows. The public and the media should be aware of what’s going on and care beyond the drama and the headlines. I’m not saying Al-Qaida will revive in the thawing of the Arab Spring, but if we stop paying attention we can hardly complain when we find something or someone we don’t like with the reins to power and oil.

Bin Laden’s death is symbolic, perhaps as important as the Twin Towers bleeding smoke, and as Hilary Clinton said today, a time for renewed optimism and hope. It is not a time for barbaric and inflammatory jubilation, but for justice, relief and remembrance. And of course we must keep up that so called “vigilance”. Ordinary folk like us can do something more than being unnaturally wary in public places by keeping up the pressure on our media to show us the ongoing ends to their stories, not just the thrilling battlegrounds and premature triumphs.

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.