Tag Archives: storytelling

The House of Fiction: English Stately Homes


http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/11/country-house-novels-blake-morrison

The above link leads to a feature piece in The Guardian by Blake Morrison about the relationship between the English country house and novels. It points out a recent trend for both bestsellers and box office hits based upon them, from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro to Ian McEwan’s Atonement. And the piece is prompted by the release of next month’s The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst.

I don’t have a great deal to say about the subject but urge you to read the article. It does an admirable job of attempting to explain the continuing appeal of a surely overused setting. Costume dramas on television are mostly far too common and predictable, always set in the same beautiful but samey surroundings. I do my best to avoid them unless they standout for some reason. But novels set in such cavernous buildings, stretching on and on, filled with history and possibility, remain surprisingly diverse. Perhaps because they continue to attract the best of British writers.

McEwan used Atonement to meditate on the very idea of storytelling and writing fiction. He explored youth, love, sex and passion. He touches on high politics and decision making of immense importance, as does Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day. I have always enjoyed Atonement less than McEwan’s other novels, but The Remains of the Day is the best of Ishiguro’s I have read so far.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a book confined to a stuffy setting with the standard conflicts between staff and intrigues between different social classes. But Ishiguro’s book encompasses so many themes, through the narrow lens of his butler’s restrained narration in a grand and important location. Darlington Hall plays host to international conferences but also humorous misunderstandings, battles of professional pride and tender personal affairs.

For me though the crucial features of good novels like Atonement and Ishiguro’s Booker Prize Winner, were not dependent on the setting. Bryony Tallis’ manipulative and naive vendettas could have been as strong and affecting in any home. Stevens the butler could have perhaps worked in a hotel. And indeed it was his job, his life consuming occupation, that made for such a compelling novel, about culture, class and personality. The butler seems to be the perfect mould for a distinctive, humorous and subtle character of great scope and hidden emotion.

Having said this though, the houses and halls did play their vital background roles. It’s difficult to imagine Stevens in any other setting. It’s tough to envisage a symbolic fictional location that could mirror quite as well the themes of appearance, dignity and decay.

There is really nothing wrong with the continued use of stately homes in novels, as long as the story being told is always a different one, reliant primarily on characters, plot and ideas, rather than ready made sets for the drama. You can’t just add water to the stately home to create a bestselling novel. But they provide pretty firm foundations on which the ingredients of a great novel can be built.

 

DVD Review: As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me


Last year Peter Weir made his directorial return with The Way Back, a star studded and old fashioned tale about the possibly true and possibly grossly exaggerated escape of a group of Polish prisoners of war from a Siberian gulag. Its critical reception was mixed, with some praising the film’s ambition and visuals, whilst others bemoaned its fatal lack of emotional engagement.  However a German film, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, beat Weir’s epic to the broad concept by nine years.

Released in 2001 As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, now available on DVD, follows a German officer fleeing from imprisonment on Siberia’s easternmost shore. And for this reason its ethical foundations are considerably flimsier and more controversial than The Way Back’s.

This is saying something because The Way Back was based on a bestseller by Slavomir Rawicz, which since publication, has been disputed and branded a fake from a number of sources. And yet Weir’s film is unlikely to be attacked for historical bias of any kind. The story of Poles and Jews getting one over on their persecutors, be they German or Russian, is a common and acceptable one. Make your hero a German who has fought for a Nazi controlled state and buying into the character becomes far more complex.

Some might say that the way in which As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is told twists and distorts historical fact. We see Bernhard Betterman’s Clemens Forell hug his wife and young daughter goodbye on the platform in 1944 Germany. Then we cut swiftly to Forell being sentenced to 25 years forced labour in Siberia. He is charged with war crimes but the implication is that Forell is being unfairly condemned by corrupt and vengeful Communists. Then there is a long and grim train journey across the cold expanse of Russia, with glimpses of the grim hardships to come. Finally, exhausted from malnutrition and a hike through the snow, they are thrust into life at a camp.

Throughout all of this we discover nothing about Forell’s war record and his potential sins and little too about his political sympathies. He is shown to be a compassionate and brave man though; in other words a typical hero. He treasures the picture of his family and uses it for galvanising motivation that replaces the sustenance of food and drink. It is never explicitly mentioned during the camp scenes and moments of inhumane, cruel punishment but the shadow hanging over the story the whole time is that of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. You can’t help but feel uneasy as your sympathies inevitably gather around Forell in his struggle.

Of course the debate about the moralities of the Second World War and the balance of its sins can hardly be squeezed into a film review. Indeed the sensible view is probably to admit that it’s an unsolvable problem; evil was committed on both sides on an unimaginable scale. Stalin’s Russia was carrying out atrocities throughout the 1930s, long before the worst of Hitler’s cruelties were inflicted and on a larger scale than the Holocaust. It’s impossible to reason with or categorize such statistics of death and horrific eyewitness anecdotes. But this is a film that unavoidably makes the viewer think about such issues and not necessarily in the best of ways.

I don’t object to a story from a German soldier’s perspective. In fact I find it refreshing and necessary to witness an often overlooked point of view. But As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me glosses over too much at times, so that it becomes ethically dubious, compromising and limiting your investment in the narrative. The filmmakers will probably argue they are simply telling the story from Forell’s viewpoint alone. I think this argument falls down because of the film’s other weaknesses in plausibility though.

As Forell slowly makes his way back, first through Siberian snow, then Siberian summers and on through other outposts of the USSR, in a muddled route elongated by the help and hindrance of kind (and not so kind) strangers, we are continually shown glimpses of his waiting family in Germany. These scenes are so unconvincing that they spark the questions about the rest of the film.

The lives of his family are completely unaffected by the war, with only two exceptions; one is his ever present absence and the other a throwaway remark by the son Forell has never met, which his mother labels “Yankee talk”. Presumably they have therefore encountered American occupiers in some way. Forell’s daughter is only ever shown getting upset or dreaming about her lost father. I’m not being callous but the girl was young when her father left and her reaction is so simplistic that it punctures the believability of the entire story. I’m not saying she wouldn’t be absolutely devastated by her father’s absence but she would perhaps have moved on in some way. The possibility of Forell’s wife finding another man is never raised and they never give him up for dead.

All of this, coupled with the chief of security from the Siberian camp pursuing Forell across Russia like an ultimate nemesis, transforms As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me into am unrealistic fairytale. Forell is helped by a Jew at one point but the issue is merely touched upon. The period elements of this film are so secondary that they become redundant, but then the film does not claim to be “inspired by true events”.

 It’s possible to enjoy this film if you look at it as simply one man’s impossible journey back to his impossibly perfect family. At way over two hours long, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is hopelessly brutal at times but somehow snappy too. It’s an engaging enough example of traditional storytelling, despite my doubts, but the only truths to be found are symbolic and stereotypical.

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.

A note on a BBC iPlayer double bill: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and Wall-E


 I can’t work out whether or not I’m a massive fan of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace yet. It’s been recommended to me by several people and I finally watched episode 2, about the illusion of self-regulating ecosystems, and a lot more. On the one hand it’s clearly very different, ambitious and bold, and should be applauded for a rare example of demanding and ideas driven television. But then it also seems simplistic and forced at times, especially when trying to bring the focus of its enormous scope back to its core theme of the influence of machines.

There’s definitely a strong chance that I simply did not fully understand the programme. I am still digesting the theories in my head and the central thrust of its weaving argument. I think my only reservations about it stem from the fact that All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace relies on being an impartial, enlightening and myth busting statement. Clearly though it has its own agenda and world view.

Whilst most of the analysis and arguments are sound, indeed I agree with most of it, I was slightly annoyed at times that a programme attacking deceit was playing its own tricks on the audience. Now and then the tone veered across a line from informative and intelligent to preachy and patronising.

However I will be watching more of the series. Undoubtedly I enjoyed it. Indeed whilst I moan about the programme’s own agenda, it was refreshing that this was something with a worthwhile point to get across. Somehow it encompassed vital but mostly overlooked elements of formative 20th century history, scientific theory, cultural shifts, communes and topical stories like the Arab Spring and even the Big Society.

I’m not going to delve into the depths of the arguments here because even though I have my opinions they will be convoluted and poorly expressed. For the most part though, rest assured, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace talks valuable sense. It is clever. But don’t be intimidated as it’s no bad thing to question the weaknesses of its points either, as there are clearly holes in such an admirably ambitious undertaking.

Aside from the substance, the style is a delight. Weird and wonderful archive footage is mashed together to give a vivid sense of the times, as well as the spooling complexities of some of the theories. The narration is mostly engaging but sometimes repetitive and, as I’ve said, patronisingly simplistic. However one of the good points to take from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is that in the past solutions have tended to be unnecessarily complex in pursuit of unrealistic ideals.

Enough vague waffling about something that, basically, you should watch to judge for yourself. And onto Wall-E, one of just a handful of Pixar pictures I hadn’t seen. Last night, at a silly early morning hour, I decided to finally meet the lovable waste management unit on iPlayer.

Wall-E has everything you expect from Pixar, and more. Not only is it touching, funny and heart warming, with a particularly poignant and understated love story, but it makes political points too. This certainly isn’t the complex, deep level of commentary on offer in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, but rather symbols highlighting contemporary and sometimes controversial problems.

Some themes certainly do overlap with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, mainly to do with mankind’s dependency on technology. In Wall-E the point is predictable and hardly subtle, with robots scurrying round to cater to our every need and humans literally not having to leave their hover chairs. But for children’s animation this is still a film with some brains as well as that required Pixar heart.

The key point Wall-E has to make is about over consumption, with Earth so littered with waste that humans have had to take an extended space cruise. But this 90 minute romp also touches on the power of corporations, advertising, global warming and junk food. We get so fat we can’t stand and so pampered and manipulated that we can’t think.  

The real magic is that all of this is seamlessly stitched into a charming and compelling story though. Wall-E stands out from other Pixar creations because it’s given space and all its sci-fi trappings with which to visually dazzle, and also because the protagonist barely speaks. Much of Wall-E is without dialogue and the wonder of silent movies is recaptured, especially when he’s making use of his extensive collection of human memorabilia and music. Stripping away everything else allows the best of Pixar to shine.

So if you’ve got time on your hands head over to BBC iPlayer for a thrilling and touching journey with Wall-E through outer space, and an intelligent and inspiring tour of our recent past with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

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.

Mystery marketing is no substitute for good filmmaking


Last week the hype for Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, moved into top gear with the launch of a clever and mysterious publicity campaign. On Thursday the 19th of May the official website became active, only to reveal nothing but a black screen and the sound of chanting. By the following morning, the most dedicated and geeky intelligent of fans, had filtered the noises through various ingenious programmes that visualise sound waves, revealing the Twitter hashtag #TheFireRises. To cut a long story short, the more people that Tweeted the hashtag, the more of an image from the film was revealed. Eventually a genius with time on their hands managed to expose the whole picture, giving the world its first glimpse of Tom Hardy’s beastly Bane.

As exciting as all this was for fans eager to learn about the sequel to The Dark Knight’s phenomenal success, such high concept viral marketing is not a new idea. Christopher Nolan in particular should know this, after previous films of his have utilised the growing trend for such campaigns. Most notably, last year’s Inception generated enormous hype with lots of vague waffle about the “architecture of the mind” doing the rounds on forums before any plot details had emerged. The official Facebook page for the film released clues to the whereabouts of Inception merchandise and tickets, sparking races across British cities for the treasure. There was also a special app for the film.

Even The Dark Knight had seemingly legitimate websites, both pro and anti Harvey Dent, calling for support in the Gotham city elections for District Attorney. But the undisputed king of mystery, minimalist marketing is Lost creator JJ Abrams. He produced 2008’s Cloverfield, which was perhaps the first project to truly embrace the public lust for speculation and a hunt for clues. It was promoted with the merest slither of information and talked up as a story that blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction, claiming to be comprised of “found” footage from real home videos. Lost too, made the most of secrets to stir debate amongst fans.

Abrams is the director of this summer’s much anticipated Super 8, which is co-produced by the tantalising team of him and Steven Spielberg, and the trailers have adopted the same old tricks which we’ve come to expect. During the flurry of Super Bowl trailers earlier this year, Super 8 remained the only real enigma amongst a pack of blockbusters, which undoubtedly made it stand out. But there are also drawbacks and limitations to such cryptic and vague promotion.

A few weeks ago a select group of journalists and critics got to see the opening 20 minutes of Super 8. And whilst many of them had positive things to say, those that have already written about their snippet of Abrams’ creation pack their articles with questions and a tone of scepticism as they look to extract the substance from the chorus of theories. Several commentators have said that the uneven blend of a heart warming buddy movie, a scary alien attack and effects heavy blockbuster, doesn’t satisfy the hype.

Without all the frustrating teasing, perhaps the writers would have been more inclined to focus on the film’s positives. How can the product ever live up to unrealistically heightened expectations? The trailers have already been ripped apart, frame by frame, for the slightest of clues. Cinemagoers with regular internet access may have heard of Super 8, but by the time of its release its barebones promotion may have left them either uninterested or so frustrated that they seek out an idiot who has leaked detailed spoilers.  

Such saturation of the web certainly gets people talking and immersed by the ideas of a film. But it’s not a standalone guarantee of a box office hit. For one thing, despite its all conquering swell, the internet still does not reach everyone. Even some of those that use it may not wander into areas dedicated to film or have the time and desire to unravel marketing mysteries. Other media such as television and newspapers remain a vital tool for more instant advertising reach, rather than a slow burn.

There have also been failures that are too reliant on viral campaigns, even when those campaigns are successful. Disaster epic 2012 caused such a stir about the end of the world that NASA had to set up a special page to reassure people. But after it bombed with critics and the public, the big budget project was still a flop. Countless low budget releases think that cheap online methods will assure sufficient publicity but without a breakthrough in more traditional media, most of these languish and pass unnoticed in the cyber shadows, even when they have their merits.

The fact remains that viral marketing often only helps increase the hype for an already much anticipated film. The Dark Knight Rises will be a box office success regardless but the occasional prod from the filmmakers will cause sizzling talk to increase the takings still further. JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg are names that will attract attention because they are accomplished storytellers, not marketing magicians.

In the case of Abrams I would hope that the motivations behind his teasing details and whiffs of mystery are noble; he wants his audience as absorbed as possible by his fictional world and genuinely surprised by its twists and turns. Abrams, Spielberg, Nolan and others know that what matters in the end, after the hype, is the film itself. Get this wrong and the publicity will be a curse rather than a blessing.

Creative Writing: The Handmaid’s Tale and Alice in Wonderland Transformation Mash-up: Part 2


Here is the commentary explaining my creative piece in previous post, which was also a required part of the coursework:

Handmaid’s Tale Transformation Commentary

My transformation is based on the novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Atwood creates a dystopian, totalitarian society in the near future born out of religious fundamentalism and fear. The reader is plunged into this world with no background and merely shown the narrative voice of Offred, until historical notes at the end of the novel offer some outside perspectives on events.

A key change I made for my transformation was to take the narrative viewpoint from Offred and view events and themes of the novel from one of the minor character’s perspective. There was plenty of scope to do this as the narrative is completely focused on Offred’s experiences and descriptions and opinions of characters she interacts with are inevitably coloured by her own relationships with them. For example her impression of the Commander is understandably negative and associated with unpleasant duties.

I decided to write a transformation concerning Nick and also made the decision to avoid the first person approach used in the novel. I also sought to avoid a simplistic change of genre to a dramatic monologue which would merely have Nick explain his feelings and attitudes to the regime.

Despite the conscious decision to avoid a first person narrative the significance of Offred’s narrow and occasionally confused storytelling remained central to my thinking. It seemed to me a vital aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale that Offred began to doubt her own recollections and felt the need to constantly qualify the facts, such was her isolation and desperation. On several occasions she recounts different versions of events, and in the case of the fate of her fiancé she cannot confirm to the reader which is true, as she simultaneously believes them all. Therefore I aimed to create a transformation that explored the idea of reality but also how one person’s story and their version of reality can be insignificant for others.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with its fantastical dream-like narrative and emphasis on nonsense and meaning, enabled me to explore those themes of reality and storytelling. I settled on a reworking of Alice in Wonderland’s opening chapter Down The Rabbit Hole, centred around themes of The Handmaid’s Tale and the motivations of Nick’s character.

My transformation begins with Nick descending into boredom in ordinary circumstances, as Alice does but also as Offred often does in the novel. In fact at the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale Offred offers us insight into the only world she has with simple description of her plain surroundings, “A chair, a table, a lamp”. Atwood often has Offred minutely describe things and then drop blunt “bombshells” that hint at the scale of the totalitarian oppression around her, as Offred concludes the description began above with “They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to”. I tried to mirror this technique early in my piece with the list of ordinary objects, with the exception of a “uniformed chicken”.  Clearly my “bombshell” is more light-hearted than Atwood’s and is more in the spirit of nonsense found in my style model. However it reflects themes of inactivity, detail and true reality raised in the base text.

I tried to create a distinctive idiolect for Nick through my lexical choice despite writing in the third person. I used the technique of free indirect style to convey Nick’s attitudes; “some bimbo would no doubt fetch him.” The word “bimbo” is clearly Nick’s own rather than the narrator’s and reflects views of women looked at in the base text. I continue to echo this theme when Nick “groped around in his mind”. This sordid view of women, and Nick’s cynical attitude towards the complications of life and business, conflicts with the simplistic optimism of the hen, based on inviolable sacred truths. I aimed to reflect the blind simplicity of religious fundamentalism, a constant presence in the base text, with the rhythm of the hen’s speech and her lexis. I have her use simple but grand abstract verbs like “sacred”, “brave”, “freedom” and “wicked”, that for cynical non-believers like Nick are silly or devoid of meaning. For her, like the believers in the base text, nothing is more straightforward than her faith. Her sentences are often just lists of things that to her are simply facts; “That is you and your Commander and your lover”. I also refer to the religious fundamentalism of the novel in other ways, such as the exclamation of “BLASPHEME!” at the end of the transformation and the hen’s belief in “the Book” and preordained events, which comes back to the unifying theme of narrative.

Identity is important in the base text and I try and reflect this in a number of ways. From the start Nick’s waiting leads him to doubt whether his own employment really suits him and then the hen insists on not being mistaken as a chicken, which should also provide humour. I then reflect the importance of possession and identity in the novel as shown through Of-fred and the Commander, with my own Chief Executive in the real world and White Queen and Red Princess Down the Elevator Shaft. Nick is also confused throughout by the hen’s version of his identity, just as Offred doubts what little is left of herself due to other characters’ views of her.

I reflect the dystopian aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale with the debris strewn lobby setting. I also have Nick descend into chaos (as Offred does) via the fall in the elevator shaft; an image that appears in the base text when Offred describes betrayal as “like being in an elevator cut loose at the top”. I suggest that Nick has perhaps been betrayed, with textual references like “She had told him he had a French face”. I show that something has been taken away, as women’s rights were in the novel, with the list of “no guards…” I also reflect the anarchy seen in the novel through the “joyful abandon” of “trash”.

The Tunnel (Der Tunnel)


Film fans love a good tunnel. Whether it be the ingenious method for a daring bank robbery or the claustrophobic road to freedom from a tightly fenced POW camp, they are a vital ingredient of many a cinematic classic. Tunnels are a striking but simple storytelling device, that place the focus of the narrative firmly on the characters of people getting from one place to another, usually against the odds and at a snail’s pace. And what are all stories but snappier versions of the long and slow journey of life?

Sitting just a hay-fever induced sneeze away from surprisingly sizzling Easter sunshine with the windows flung open to the fresh spring air, I doubted my ability to fully inhabit the journey of the characters in Der Tunnel, a German film finally released on DVD on the 25th of April. In the comfort and luxuries of a 21st century room, blessed with the freedom to liberally gulp countryside air, I felt a million miles away from the damp, stuffy, volatile tubes carved torturously through the soil by countless characters in tunnel based films of the past. Not to mention feeling a world away from the 1960s Berlin setting of Der Tunnel.

Berlin is a constant inspiration for superb historical drama. It’s a fascinating city and just a glance at the ingredients that comprise its vibrant whole tells you why it’s so popular for storytellers. It’s steeped in history of all kinds, even before the rollercoaster the 20th century put the place through.  It became a radical melting pot for cultural and political change, ravaged by wars and economic turbulence and enriched by the presence of artists, writers, intellectuals and dancers.

Then with the division of the city via its infamous wall, the eyes of the world came to rest on a stark clash of cultures. When JFK declared himself a spiritual resident of the city he confirmed its status as a symbol of the Cold War, the tense conflict in microcosm. The West stood for freedom and the East for brainwashed or enforced conformity. Whilst Der Tunnel is ultimately pro the West and anti the Eastern regime, it does make you consider such simplifications more carefully. Standards of living do not change magically because of a move, and state intrusion can be replaced by the media. The West is no sure-fire ticket to happiness.

 Of all the tales inspired by the city though it’s perhaps those of suspicious spies and elusive espionage that endure with the widest and most thrilling legacy. Set a film in Berlin and it’s almost guaranteed shorthand for the audience that secrets will lurk and loom at the centre of the plot. Der Tunnel is no exception to this rule. There are a number of features that could be ripped straight from a Cold War thriller, with a manipulative East German Colonel using relationships and blackmail to protect the regime a superb example.

And yet this isn’t a tale of meddling foreigners but a story based on the truth of real Berliners, trying to escape meddling and ideological interference in their private lives. It’s principally the tale of champion swimmer Harry Melchior, who gives up a comfortable and celebrated lifestyle in the East to flee to the West before the wall is completed. He’s unable to get his beloved sister out in time though and he sets about finding a way to “bring her across”, and is joined by others cruelly parted from family, friends and lovers.

It’s a dramatic scene between two separated lovers, one of them also Melchior’s love interest, that really stood out for me from Der Tunnel. One of many emotional moments in the film, this rises above the rest because of superb acting and high drama but also due to the visual presence of the wall: painfully, physically and unavoidably denying the lovers a precious moment together. The tender scenes after this event are also moving, and the standout scene itself certainly has the potential to pluck tears from the coldest of eyes.

At just twenty minutes short of three hours long, I was worried about the wearisome effects of Der Tunnel. Would I need to scramble to the surface for air? In many ways this isn’t very creative or original storytelling, but it’s undeniably well executed, from the acting to the direction. I was engrossed by the lives and loves of the characters throughout. Crucially the tense and exciting climax delivers a classic, satisfying conclusion that’s fitting for such a classic premise.

Blooded


You are a mega-bucks banker, a liberated twenty-something, a first class slut. You’re a whistling milkman, a tearaway toddler, a grieving widow. You’re a freedom fighter utterly consumed by ideological struggle. You’re a madman, a gunman, a best man. You’re an axe wielding gamekeeper in deep, sensuous love with your ladylike employer. You’re a sophisticated stalker, leering like an aristocratic butcher at young girls you view as goddesses; cheap meaty chunks of divine beauty. You’re a prisoner that’s only ever known the reality of four bare walls. You are human.

You’re barely clothed, stripped of decency and alone in the wilderness. You’re unreasonably frightened; terrified merely by nature’s regular and natural breathing. You feel an irrepressible sense of panicky foreboding deep in the truth of your gut. The cold bites greedily at your bare skin, sinking you deep into inescapable agony. You’ve never known anything like it; the never-ending needles of pain, the relentless rattle of your rib cage, the fear. The pain and fear of the hunted as you run for your life. As you run like an animal.

As you read this in the comforting light of your computer screen, chances are you are none of these things. And yet we can all imagine, however slightly, what the existence of a freedom fighter or a widow might be like. We can never truly know until we have lived it, and even then no two individuals will share identical emotions. But as human beings empathy remains one of the handful of characteristics that truly sets us apart from animals and beasts. There’s nothing quite like the sadness of feeling someone else’s loss as if it were your own or the failure of someone close to you to understand your own melancholy. Some may argue in favour of other traits and skills, like language and pure intelligence. In many ways though, empathy is the foundation to all art, the essence and gateway to all storytelling.

Empathy is at the heart of the intriguing central premise to Blooded, a British debut film out on the 1st of April. The release date of April Fool’s Day is fitting given that Blooded is part of the modern phenomenon of “is it truth or is it fiction?” storytelling. It makes use of a documentary/reconstruction format to tell the tale of the kidnapping of a group of pro fox hunting campaigners by an extremist animal rights group in the picturesque, but barren, Highlands of Scotland. Empathy becomes crucial to the story when the mysterious kidnappers release their captives across the wilderness in their underwear, before pursuing them with guns to make them experience the horror of being hunted.  Presumably the horror the foxes feel seconds away from a mauling by the hounds.

It’s certainly a distinctive and controversial concept for a film. The narrative is presented in unfamiliar layers compared to your average feature. We’re introduced firstly to the idea that a group of pro-hunters were filmed by a group of anti-hunters in the Highlands and that the resulting video became an internet sensation. We then meet the “real” pro-hunter personalities that lived through the event in classic documentary interview style. These interviews continue throughout the film through both voiceovers and close-ups. We also have the majority of the action shown to us via a reconstruction of the “actual” events, with different actors than those playing the “real” people. All of this is confusing and disorientating at first. But not in a bad way.

Just because Blooded has an unusual structure and deals with politically sensitive issues, does not mean it’s destined to fail. In fact last year I loved Catfish, a film in a similar truth/fiction style that dealt with current and also potentially dull and alienating topics. The cocktail of unconventional storytelling and thought provoking subject matter can prove a potent and satisfying one indeed. It has the potential to really set a film apart as an original success. Sadly though it’s a difficult balance to strike and Blooded doesn’t quite find it.

It’s a critical cliché to say that a film has an “identity crisis”. But there is no better way of explaining why Blooded’s bold ideas and execution don’t quite come together. The film opens with a character talking about extremism and how it essentially boils down to two sides trying to outshout the other. Watching it initially I couldn’t decide if this speech was meant to have humorous undertones or comment seriously on the issue. This becomes Blooded’s main pitfall.

As the opening of the film developed, I began to think of Blooded as an incredibly subtle mockumentary. The selection of hunting as the central issue seemed to be a swipe at all the modern day life and death disagreements about ultimately trivial things. The self-important tone of the music in the background, coupled with the overly sincere acting at times and some sweeping shots of grand Highland scenery for the titles seemed to say, gently, “look at this sad bunch of tossers who got mixed up in such an odd ordeal over something as pompous as hunting as if it were life’s defining feature”.

The film walked the line so finely between a tone of mocking and seriousness that I thought Blooded had the makings of a truly brilliant comedy spoof during its steady opening segment. Even beautiful cinematography of the stunning Highlands shrouded in mist and fog and sunshine seemed hilarious when viewed in the right jokey light at times. There were some good funny moments which utilised both the reconstruction and interview format to excellent effect. Most notably, when an American girlfriend of the group has shot her first stag, the experienced hunter takes some blood from the creature and wipes it on her face. He assures us she didn’t seem to mind this “Blooding” ritual, only for her to immediately respond in her interview “I resented that immediately”.

As the film progresses however the laughs are increasingly unintentional, as the story morphs into some sort of horror/political comment hybrid. The problem is that the hazy humour hovers over the rest of the film so that none of the “scares” are shocking. The animal rights activists, whilst extreme and clearly nutty to pull off such a stunt, just have too much of a conscience to be truly horrific foes.

Far too much emphasis is placed on the political issue. After watching Blooded, I delved through production notes from the filmmakers about their intentions and witnessed the “is it real?” marketing campaign online drumming up substantial interest. The filmmakers insist Blooded has no political agenda. It’s a thriller in documentary form and is not intended as a mockumentary. Blooded is meant simply as a thought provoking thriller, shot in a distinctive way, with some vague allusions to modern extremism.

Unfortunately for the filmmakers and director Ed Boase, Blooded fails as a thriller. I think it could have worked as very clever and subtle humour, had there been some more obvious signposts. Blooded ends up being controversial for the sake of it. It’s not enough to be simply thought provoking, especially when the entertainment is feeble and vague. The filmmakers must at least have an idea as to what sort of thoughts they want their audience to be thinking.

Watching Blooded with a friend of mine, neither of us could make sense of it. He said that the ending was “weak” as the film petered out and I agreed with him. As with so many films, Blooded tries to be several things at once, with the result that it does none of them well. My instinct on the one hand is to applaud Blooded for trying something different, but a much stronger voice of reason on the other is saying that the filmmakers needed to think harder about what it was they were trying to do.