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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What if? It’s a big question in all of our lives. What if I’d told her? What if we’d stayed together? What if I’d got that promotion? What if I’d worked harder in school? What if I had had just one more day with her and the chance to say goodbye? If we’re not careful we can get snowed in by “what ifs”.
We have to keep our heads down to escape drowning in never-meant-to-bes or choking on could-have-beens. The possibilities that we spotted passing by out of reach haunt us as regrets. The second chances we never even noticed are too numerous to contemplate and tease us occasionally in our dreams. Let the “what ifs” talk too loudly and their chatter overpowers the everyday routine. Let them grow too tall and even the little things are given dark significance in their shadow.
Sliding Doors is a film about the little “what ifs” bunching together in mundane ordinary life until they have enormous individual consequences. When it was released in 1998 it was greeted by a mixed critical reception but it has since gone on to gain a dedicated following. It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as fashionable young Londoner Helen, complete with believable English accent, who is fired from her job at a PR company. She heads for home via the tube. The film follows two separate paths through her life; one in which she gets the train and one where she fractionally misses it, unable to squeeze through the sliding doors of the title.
The actor Peter Howitt wrote the script and directs a very grounded take on the idea of parallel universes and an alternate reality. The concept could have been lifted straight from sci-fi but Sliding Doors watches more like a meditation on the nature of fate, albeit with an uplifting rom-com tinge. One Helen, the one that gets the train, finds her boyfriend shagging his ex in her bed, only to fall for a handsome stranger. The other is delayed again and again until she arrives home late and unaware of the affair. She therefore carries on her life as normal, working flat out to support him as he “writes a novel”.
The plot is not all that clever, despite the engaging concept of two storylines running in tandem, and the dialogue is not especially witty or sharp. The real strength of Sliding Doors lies with the overlapping lives of rounded, likeable characters, well realised with accomplished performances. Paltrow is accessible rather than whiny in the lead role. John Hannah is convincingly charming and funny because of the way he says things, rather than what he says. John Lynch is a great actor, as he proves in the upcoming Ghosted, and he doesn’t come off badly here despite playing the cheating Gerry, who is often just left to look bumbling and British on the end of a full on feminine bollocking. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays mistress Lydia as a caricature but she serves a purpose and Gerry’s mate Russell (Douglas McFerran) down the pub is hilarious as the sensible one.
None of it is sublime, even the characterisation is simply above average for the genre. The acting is very good but not career defining. That said I really liked Sliding Doors. Its commonplace tone makes it all feel like it could happen to you. There are some slightly surprising twists in the climax and I was a little moved and amused in places. Its parting message is somehow both more resonant and bearable than most romantic comedies. Some things are inevitable. And there’s always hope.
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Do you think you could hack it behind bars? If you’re a Daily Mail columnist you probably dispute the fact that prisons even have bars anymore. They’ve all been replaced you see, with tasty sticks of rock more in keeping with the dangerously liberal, comfortable satellite TV approach to treating filthy criminals. Being locked up is preferable to a five star hotel. Prisons are merely lavishly furnished warehouses for feral beasts that will be released back into the wilds of society unchanged. The fear factor has gone.
Bring back that shit yourself punishment and all of Britain’s ills will be cured. All this claptrap about human rights and civil liberties has been diluting the taste of our justice system since the 60s, so that it’s nothing more than a bitter sip of lemonade. Prisons should punish first and foremost, to act as a deterrent to the bad apples on the nation’s tree. When they fall they need to be crushed into a pulp and left to rot as an example to others; so the argument roughly goes.
Of course films are not the place to look for a frank and faithful look at the realities of prison life. Just because I’m put off a casual mugging by the possibility of gang rapes such as those in The Shawshank Redemption, doesn’t mean that actual perpetrators within the system encounter such things or that they are deterred by them. Cinema is a place for drama, tension and excitement. But a certain mould of gritty British drama always seems to capture something true about the cooped up existence of convicts, whatever the exaggerations.
In the case of Ghosted, the debut film of writer/director Craig Viveiros, the principal truth is that for many men, the haunting consequences of their crimes are punishment enough. There is also a heightened but believable look at the community of prison life, with its rival factions and dominating personalities pulling the strings. And much of the dialogue is insightful but understated, with main character Jack musing that, if nothing else, empty hours in a cell day after day give you plenty of time to think.
Jack (John Lynch) is a sensible prisoner, keeping his head down and away from trouble, serving his time. He is approaching the end of his sentence and desperate to get out to see his wife. But at the start of the film she fails to visit him and blanks him when he calls. Just as freedom is within sight his marriage collapses, destroying his hopes for a life on the outside. Gradually we find out more about Jack, eventually getting confirmation that his young son is dead. He burns most of his pictures of him because “sometimes the reminders are too hard in here”.
With just months until Jack is free, a new inmate arrives in the shape of young Paul, played by Martin Compston of The Disappearance of Alice Creed fame. Paul is immediately welcomed by the manipulative Clay, who is described on the marketing material as a “wing overlord”, which sounds like an all powerful evil super villain, but in reality just means a nicer cell, a mildly lucrative drugs racket and the odd fellow prisoner to bang. After the initial niceties Clay starts to use Paul, so Jack steps in and gets him moved to his cell.
This puts Jack in the firing line, resulting in some tense standoffs. The balance of the prison politics is disrupted and Clay is humiliated more than once, prompting him to get revenge. But despite the palpable sense of threat, the really interesting part of Ghosted is the relationship between Jack and Paul.
Jack is the heart of Ghosted and Lynch relished playing him, praising the creative talents of newcomer Viveiros: “It’s been a long, long time since I read a script that’s centred absolutely one hundred per cent on the characters”. In return the director praises his cast who “pumped blood into the story”. Both men are right.
Ghosted is well acted, with even the thugs coming across as something more than just two dimensional bad guys; they have their vulnerabilities too. But Ghosted is also well written and confidently directed so that it does not feel like a debut. Some of the scenes in which Jack and Paul open up to each other, often simply discussing old memories such as when Jack was in Brazil or when Paul was in care, are exemplary examples of characterisation rarely seen in today’s commercial world of cinema.
Ghosted is released in cinemas on the 24th of June and will be available on DVD from the 27th. See it to support a quality British drama with an all star cast, which simultaneously pays tribute to classic prison stories and approaches the issue from a new angle. Try to spot the emotional hammer blow of a twist at the end.
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Yet again I am late with my thoughts on the latest episode. I’d actually been putting off my standard pre-blog second viewing, for two reasons. On the one hand I was so blown away by the unexpected cliff hanger that I didn’t think I would be able to say much besides “what will happen next week?” in various different ways. On the other, I was disappointed with The Almost People.
I should qualify that statement by explaining that when it comes to Doctor Who, even a below par outing is a must see event I can always derive satisfaction from. A bad Doctor Who episode is merely relatively poor, compared to the greatness of other episodes, and still one of the best things on telly.
Why was I disappointed though? It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact reason. As the Guardian series blog points out, the shocking and momentous twist at the end would overshadow whatever came before it, no matter how good it was. But The Almost People was certainly not as good as it could have been and not as good as the promise set up in The Rebel Flesh. In fact there were some shockingly bad elements.
As I said in last week’s piece, Matthew Graham’s script was inconsistent. After watching The Almost People for a second time, I liked it a lot more and appreciated the extremely intricate and clever plotting. All of the character development ploughed into the Gangers, for Jimmy and his son, Cleaves and her blood clot, even the Doctors shoe swapping, made more sense once you knew that this was all part of the Doctor mulling over Amy’s impostor. The Doctor still gets the odd good line; with Matt Smith making most of the disappointing ones look good too with a varied and vibrant performance. Re-watch it and see the burden of worry about where the real Amy is on his face, way before we find out.
However Graham’s script also contained such truly awful lines as “who are the real monsters?” and “It will destroy them all”. And whilst you can see the idea behind the development of the Gangers far more clearly after a second viewing, it doesn’t always come off, with stereotypical northern Buzzer not convincing at all as he moans “I should have been a postman like me dad”. Then there’s the terrible acting, which I touched upon last week, even more noticeable this time. Cleaves and Jennifer in particular are woefully portrayed.
So despite a lot of potential, with intelligent moral dilemmas and frightening psychological horror, this double bill never really grabbed my attention completely. Until the climax that is. With the rather random and forced CGI monster out of the way and the ridiculous farewell hugs when the beast was supposedly breaking down the door, the Doctor becomes grave and ushers Amy and Rory into the TARDIS. He had a reason for his visit to the factory with the flesh. Amy has not been with them for some time.
But how long? She must surely have been there for the Doctor’s death at the beginning of the series? Did the swap take place during an adventure we saw on screen or another in between time? It would seem a bit of a cop out if it just happened somewhere along the line and we’re not given a precise explanation as to when.
There are endless other questions, and knowing Moffat, the majority will be left unanswered. We are promised that next week’s A Good Man Goes to War will see the unveiling of River Song’s true identity though. And the trailer shows us that the Cybermen are back, but once again, knowing Moffat, they’re unlikely to be the real masterminds behind it all. Who impregnated Amy? Was the Timelord child from the opening two parter hers? The Doctor shouts something about not using a baby as a weapon in the trailer, to mysterious eye patch midwife Madame Kovarian, so how exactly does she do that?
After this disappointing pair of episodes following the superb The Doctor’s Wife by Neil Gaiman, doubts resurface, for me at least, about trying to do too much with the story arc. In overlaying so many secrets, which are often tagged onto the ends of episodes, Moffat risks devaluing the standalone stories and turning the increasingly strained relationships within the TARDIS into soap opera. I’m sure that A Good Man Goes to War will be an improvement on The Almost People, if only in terms of the quality of the dialogue. But hopefully, with some real answers, Doctor Who will also begin to get back to just telling damn good stories every week too.
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The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.
Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.
Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.
As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.
The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.
All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.
If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.
The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.
Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.
Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.
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A week ago today I saw Burke and Hare at the cinema. Now ordinarily I wouldn’t dream of waiting an entire week, allowing my first impressions, insights and musings to rot and fester, before decanting my thoughts into review form. That would just be unprofessional. Even more amateur than my usual efforts. However in the case of Burke and Hare I knew before, during and after the film that it would not be a memorable experience. Burke and Hare is predictable stuff that can be neatly categorized and classified. It is, as one reviewer says, “packed with the cream of British comedy talent”. You cannot help but regard it as waste though that the cream should resemble the squirty, mass manufactured variety rather than a rich, full and substantive treat.
The only strong lasting impression that Burke and Hare had on me was to increase my desire to go to Edinburgh. I have technically been before, as a four year old, but have no tangible recollection of the visit. It would be too generous though to claim that the film was solely responsible for my urge to head north, as it was an idea formed in my mind previously over the past few weeks, founded by reading about the city, strengthened with some lovely shots in David Tennant’s recent drama Single Father and rounded off with the agreeable atmosphere of the place presented here.
As I’ve said, Burke and Hare is predictable. It starts off pleasantly enough with Bill Bailey humorously introducing us to the premise, but not that humorously, and he sums up the film too. The problem is that it barely steps up a notch from this gentle beginning. It watches like a who’s who of British comedy and television and thus falls into the trap of lots of British productions by feeling like something more suited to the small screen. Rarely did I think a scene warranted the scale and noise of the cinema and there were only a handful of others with me, showing that the public must have reached the same pre-emptive judgement.
However I hope that Burke and Hare hasn’t fallen completely flat on its face at the box office to deter filmmakers from churning out such hearty fare. Because this sort of comedy is like a British biscuit; by no means unique but it certainly has its place as a needed comfort food from time to time. Refreshingly the film does not take itself too seriously and some (emphasis on some), some of the classic visual gags are nostalgically funny. It’s also splendid to see Ronnie Corbett again, even though it’s surely sheer novelty that makes his scenes so enjoyable rather than majestic acting prowess or a hilariously wonderful script. Simon Pegg also enhances his reputation by doing a remarkable job with mediocre material; as Burke he is the only character to come close to being rounded as well as occasionally funny. His relationship with Isla Fisher’s character, who adds the traditional totty to proceedings, has the potential to be moving at times. As several reviewers have remarked though, Burke and Hare could have done with a sprinkling of Pegg behind the camera as well to make this a more modern, and most of all a funnier British comedy.
If Burke and Hare was difficult to remember then Shutter Island will be difficult to forget. I genuinely believe that this Scorsese thriller is one of the films of the year and I’ll be rushing out to buy it on DVD so I can enjoy its treasures again and again. It’s impossible to fully appreciate this film in one sitting. It also must have been magnificent on the big screen and I am gutted that I did not manage to see it at the cinema as I desperately wanted to. If Burke and Hare’s score was jolly and comforting, then Shutter Island’s is chilling and mesmerising as it builds the tension and paranoia.
Leonardo DiCaprio hogged the limelight with Inception and critics raved about director Christopher Nolan’s exploration of dreams. But in my view Inception did not represent what dreams are really like and merely toyed with the structures of narrative with some fresh action scenes in comparison to Shutter Island’s bemusing, beautiful and ugly psychological study. DiCaprio’s character was haunted by visions of his dead wife in Inception too, but here the nightmares and the hallucinations are far more recognisable as dreams with their symbolism and scares.
It would be easy to dwell on Shutter Island’s brilliance but I will try and briefly summarise it. I cannot think of anything I disliked about the film and it feels far shorter than its considerable runtime. It is well acted and directed. The locations look fantastic. The soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment and enhancer of the rising levels of terror, paranoia and tension. The action scenes are engaging; the period perfectly evoked and made use of with its undertones of Cold War suspicion and Second World War horror. Most of all the narrative twists and turns are truly gripping and seductive. You come to care about DiCaprio’s character far more than the oddly named Cobb in the more widely praised Inception, and you’re far more clueless and concerned about what’s going on. In short: Shutter Island is a must see. It’s the primetime meat to Burke and Hare’s daytime sandwich.
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I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.
First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too. It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.
I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.
I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.
The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.
Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.
If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.
From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.
Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.
The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.
The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other. What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality? Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.
I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.
These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.
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There are basically two George Clooneys. There’s the lovable, charming, cocky George. You know the suave Danny Ocean type with that irresistible playful glimmer in his eye. And then there’s cold, calculating, enigmatic Mr Clooney, who oozes just as much mysterious charisma as George, but from a more serious, furrowed face. Like the bearded suit in Syriana or what I imagine the detached, ruthless assassin to be like in Anton Corbjin’s upcoming picturesque character study, The American. The grave Mr Clooney doesn’t get out so much, not because he’s not up to scratch, but because the whole wide world can’t seem to get enough of George.
And it’s definitely the face of likeable bad boy George that Clooney wears in Juno director’s Jason Reitman’s 2009 rom-com Up in the Air. As you might expect from the director of Juno however, this is a rom-com with a twist and consequently a different take on George’s familiar face of fun. There are lashings of misery, isolation and loneliness in this movie that ought to deflate it and well and truly puncture its comedy moments. The audience ought to despise central character Ryan Bingham’s cheery detachment in the midst of the gloom, but it’s a credit to Clooney’s sheer charisma that you’re almost always rooting for him and seeing the pluses of Bingham’s bleak and extreme philosophy of life.
Put simply and less eloquently, persuasively or amusingly as Bingham phrases it, this philosophy is; travel light. Ditch not only the material possessions but the emotional baggage of normal existence to stay on the move and thus continue to feel alive for as long as possible. Wrap yourself in a cotton wool world of luxury that you are fully aware is fake and artificial but nevertheless gives you a simple satisfaction and loyalty. Embrace exclusivity and inhabit a cocoon of consistency away from the volatile real world. Spend the bulk of your time away from the worker ants tethered to the ground but weightless, floating and drifting, blissfully Up in the Air.
It’s essentially the dream life on the road and Bingham has achieved it so that it has become his normal existence. He has refined and perfected his life to tailor his ever moving, but basic needs. But then two things happen to shatter the cycle of bliss. Anna Kendrick’s Natalie devises a cost saving strategy for Bingham’s company, whereby people like him who skilfully fire people no longer do so face to face across the nation, but from a remote computer screen in the company’s base in Omaha, via the wonders of modern technology. And Bingham meets Vera Farmigan’s Alex, who seems to be his perfect match and as Alex puts it essentially him “with a vagina”. Initially they enjoy each other’s company, are extremely compatible sexually and amusingly synchronise their schedules for further bouts of spontaneous passion. It’s safe organised fun and Bingham doesn’t consider a future with her.
Bingham reacts with scorn to Natalie’s idea of modernising his company and swiftly destroying his way of life. He successfully wins himself the chance to take the young upstart on a brutal tour of the realities of “corporate downsizing”. It’s in this portion of the film that Reitman’s fondness for making us simultaneously laugh and cry at deep, depressing subjects comes into play. It’s also where we see not only an extremely familiar charismatic George, charming people in impossible situations, but also a character who underneath it all does care about the impact of his work, and regards what he does as an art, in that if it is done right he genuinely believes he can steer the newly unemployed on a dignified path to a new life. There are a number of awkward, funny and emotionally affecting scenes where either Clooney or Kendrick must fire someone, and each person offers a new challenge Bingham insists cannot be dealt with via webcam.
Away from the backdrop of a new wave of unemployment, philosophies of life and exploiting misery, Up in the Air becomes a simple love story, in which Bingham realises he wants something, or someone, weighing him down in his previously empty rucksack, giving his life meaning by grounding it. Kendrick’s performance as Natalie is wonderfully believable and funny at times, and it is she who forces Bingham to accept his loneliness, his prolonged state of running through the crowd from his unhappiness. Tragically, even after Bingham has accepted Alex into his life as his guest at his sister’s wedding and physically abandoned his philosophy by running away from a speech he was giving about it, we are reminded of the attraction of travelling light. Bingham finds Alex at her home with a secret family of her own, a real life. He cannot believe he was foolish enough to think she was sharing a real life as empty as his own with him. By packing people in our rucksacks we risk being hurt by them.
The whole film is wonderfully acted, right down to the performances of those freshly fired employees and their varied responses. It also looks great, emphasising the glamour of the hotel bubble world Bingham lives in, as well as its isolation. The opening titles of the film play out to jazzy music and some stylishly edited shots of the ground from above, taking in a multi-coloured picture of America. Despite the good points it’s never actually that funny, with the humour being more of the slight smile at the corners of the mouth than roaring chortle variety. However ultimately the onscreen magnetism of George Clooney drives Up in the Air and is all the more compelling for channelling it in a refreshing, alternative way.
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