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Page and Screen: The Trailer for A Dangerous Method shows the pitfalls and pluses of adapting non-fiction


As cinemagoers and telly watchers we are used to accomplished adaptations of fictions born on the page. Whether it’s the BBC’s latest Jane Austen costume drama or blockbusters like the Harry Potter series, we consume creations transformed from the page to the screen all the time. We are also accustomed to the fictionalisation and cinematic imaginings of happenings from history, with one of film’s latest trends being the increasing use of exciting events from the recent past. The likes of The Social Network and 127 Hours brought books about modern, real lives to the big screen.

But we are less used to films based on academic and extensively researched works of non-fiction. There is of course the occasional box office hit based on a lucky scholar’s lengthy biography or surprisingly successful history. However it’s rare for such books to be huge hits in print via Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith, let alone dominate in theatres. It normally takes a strong following of the book to persuade producers that the appetite is there for a lucrative movie. Or a particularly juicy subject matter, ripe for controversial or intriguing expansion and exploration.

In the case of A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr there is certainly the potential for controversy. His book, released in the early 1990s and based on new evidence, charts the relationship between commonly recognised pioneers of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, which is controversial enough in itself. But its way into the world of intellectual competition and mental instability is the papers of Sabina Spielrein. She was a Russian patient of Jung’s, taken to a clinic in Zurich in 1904 at the age of 18. Her habits included “ill concealed masturbation”. And she and Jung had an affair.

As if that were not a sufficiently saucy and shocking cocktail, the nature of the affair remains scandalous even now. Jung was trying to drive forward a new profession and ensure its respect as a science and as a medical treatment. And yet he had an affair with one of his patients. An affair directly linked to his treatment and his probing of her condition. She was beaten as a child by her father and this sexually excited her. It doesn’t take much to imagine what she and Jung got up to. Sadomasochism enters the mix.

An official trailer for A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play, The Talking Cure (which was based on Kerr’s original novel), is now online. You can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZ7JKmcLTsI&feature=player_embedded

 It stars Cronenberg’s usual partner in crime Viggo Mortensen as Freud, Michael Fassbender as Jung and Keira Knightley as Spielrein. Disappointingly for fans of Cronenberg and Mortensen’s previous collaborations, the story appears to focus on Jung, with Freud relegated to a secondary figure. The weight of the narrative therefore falls on rising star Fassbender, who also stars in a new Jane Eyre adaptation out later this year, and his chemistry with Knightley. Disappointingly for fans of history and good storytelling, Knightley’s role, from the trailer at least, appears to be that of kinky sex slave.

Even the slightest research into Kerr’s original work uncovers just how fascinating a story, a true story, he set out to tell. Spielrein was treated by Jung and she had some kind of sexual affair with him, although it may never have been consummated. She went onto graduate as a doctor and pursued her own career in psychoanalysis, playing a key role in bringing its breakthroughs back to Russia. She was treated by Freud but always remained attached to Jung.

Not only did Kerr tell this remarkable story with “verve devices” of storytelling and “scholarly precisions”, according a 1994 review in The Independent, but his book had a serious point. Aside from being part of a tantalising love triangle complicated by genius and a battle for the soul of a groundbreaking science, Sabina Spielrein sheds light on who was the more influential man; Jung or Freud. Kerr argues that Freud’s thinking was of its time and not revolutionary. In any case many of Freud’s and Jung’s ideas are recognised as plain wrong and outdated today but if one was more important in laying the true foundations of psychoanalysis, Kerr argues it was Jung. He helped create Freud’s reputation and was the “engine” of the profession’s growth.

Of course this is just Kerr’s opinion but it is backed by thorough research and is genuinely interesting. The trailer for A Dangerous Method focused on psychoanalysis for its first 40 seconds, before throwing Knightley into the mix as over the top, loony eye candy for Fassbender to drool over. The dialogue, from Fassbender, Knightley and Vincent Cassel, becomes shamelessly erotic; “never repress anything”/”I want you to punish me”/” why should we put so much effort into suppressing our most basic natural instincts”. Surely Cronenberg hasn’t wasted his time on soft porn with period detail?

Probably not. It’s probably just the marketing approach of the trailer. And there are positives and great potential to be found within its brief runtime. The focus on Jung suggests that the general intellectual thrust of Kerr’s book, that Jung was more instrumental than Freud, will remain (although Mortensen does seem to be portrayed as an infrequent but superior wise figure). Cronenberg is hardly known for costumed drama and after the hard hitting History of Violence and Eastern Promises, we can expect something knew from him in this genre. There is also little wrong with well acted desire and I’m sure the full performances won’t disappoint.

The fact remains though that those behind the trailer for A Dangerous Method are following that age old principle of advertising; sex sells. The prospect of charismatic and fit X-Men star Fassbender having forbidden romps with a kinky and crazy Keira Knightley will interest millions, whilst Jung’s professional friendship and battles with Freud will lure considerably less. There is nothing wrong with humanising great figures from the past; it’s what great stories do and it can bring fact to life. But there is something wrong with completely destroying the intentions of a source born of one writer’s hard work. Even if the final film tells Sabina Spielrein’s full story and is truer to Kerr’s revisionist study, it will have sold some sensational half truths to tempt people to see it.

Undiscovered Cinema: Missing Pieces


Most of the time the depressing aspects of the film industry escape our attention. We are happy to simply be entertained and not think about the hard work behind the scenes, the promising projects that wither and die before a general release. If you really love films or you write about them, the downsides are clearer. You will see and fall for films the general public (or perhaps the suits responsible for getting it to them) don’t appreciate.

My point is that once in a while you have to say something and make a stand, however small, against the prevailing culture. History is written by people who challenged the status quo, refusing to accept that “it’s just the way things are”. Missing Pieces is a fantastic film, with a startling story cutting close to the core of a whole range of emotional truths. It is modern and gripping, clever and well executed. And even if others aren’t as enthused by it as me, the quality is evident and it deserves a general release, which it doesn’t currently have.

In a world where the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film and The Hangover: Part II are breaking box office records despite their overwhelming lack of orginality, genuinely original creations that are works of art as well as good filmmaking, slip through the cracks. My Missing Pieces review is below and can also be found here at Flickering Myth: http://flickeringmyth.blogspot.com/2011/06/movie-review-missing-pieces-2011.html

Read on if you’ve got two minutes spare and support it however you can. This film deserves to be discussed.

Originality is what I always strive for in a review. Why read my specific review if it’s just a regurgitation of what a more learned critic said? I always feel unsatisfied if there’s not something, a line of description or paragraph of praise, which feels like my signature. Sometimes though all you can do is record your reaction. A film might be so atrociously bad that all you can do is spend an hour pouring hateful words over it. Or it might be so amazingly and astoundingly good that you just gush in delight about it inadequately.

Missing Pieces is just such a hidden gem that reduces me to strings of clichés. It nails originality on the head. I was literally “blown away” and completely surprised by the way this film personally resonated with me. It is the most enjoyable and emotionally satisfying movie I have seen this year. I cannot remember the last time I identified so deeply with characters or felt so absorbed in a drama. At over two hours long it is not short but I did not want it to end.

It’s the story of David, played by Mark Boone Junior (Batman Begins), who has been in a car accident. His injuries from the crash left his mind all mixed up, as if someone had taken a puzzle box and shaken it until all the pieces are jumbled. We never really see the fragmentation of their relationship, meaning that we see things almost entirely from David’s perspective, but the love of his life leaves him. Played by Melora Walters (Magnolia/Cold Mountain/The Butterfly Effect) Delia appears now and then to collect her stuff, angrily shouting that she wants the real David back. This leaves him confused and hurting, determined to try every trick in the book (and more) to win her back.

Clearly David’s mental state has been altered. In one striking but baffling scene he calmly smashes some cargo in an empty children’s play area. In others he watches the comings and goings of two of his young neighbours. But this he does because of loneliness, not brain damage.

I don’t really want to spoil the key element of Missing Pieces as I found it such a joy to watch completely uninformed. SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH if you wish to avoid it, although I suspect Missing Pieces will not lose much of its power from what I am going to say, as its plot is impossible to summarise. David becomes gripped by a self help tape and is inspired by the artwork of his departed girlfriend. He concocts a strange and deluded plan to win Delia back; kidnap the boy and girl he watches and make them fall in love. He believes if he observes true love he can learn the intricacies of successful romance.

There is a teasingly sinister undertone running throughout the distorted narrative, which heightens the suspense and pulls you to the edge of your seat. Missing Pieces plays out in the wrong order; you’re not sure if plot strands are taking place before or after the central ordeal. Newcomers Daniel Hassel and Taylor Engel, as Daylen and Maggie, are superb, together and apart, as a young boy and girl with troubled families, on an odd journey from suspicion through friendship to love. They form an instant connection, vividly realised through the chemistry of the actors, but they never would have met but for being thrown together by a normally harrowing experience.

Missing Pieces is influenced by a myriad of modern movies and directors but pulls together ideas from numerous genres to tell a completely fresh story. There are strong echoes of Memento, which Boone Junior also starred in, along with components of modern horror, Paul Thomas Anderson, romantic comedies and the indie scene. It addresses themes of love, loss, sadness and happiness. It touches on far too many issues to mention but it always has something true to say. It captures a little of the human condition and the universal desire for purpose, meaning and intimacy. Most of all I was struck by its message of reaching out and ignoring the limitations of social convention to say how you feel before it’s too late.

Perhaps such a message warms the hearts of young people more easily. And what makes Missing Pieces even more remarkable is the youthful team behind it. It is the brainchild of Kenton Bartlett who decided to make a movie when his carefree student life suddenly ended. A 30 minute Making Of feature is enlightening, entertaining and moving, as Kenton struggles through the unexpected scale of the challenge. It’s evident the film went through multiple edits to become a staggering, coherent final product.

Words don’t do Missing Pieces justice. Discovering new talented filmmakers and musicians (the film also has wonderful songs/score) like those behind Missing Pieces is the most fulfilling part of writing about movies. Its unknown actors and crew deserve to do this for a living. And we deserve to see their novel and ambitious ideas realised.

Missing Pieces is still seeking distribution. It is high quality stuff and there’s no reason why it should be kept from a wider audience. Get the word out and find the missing piece in your collection of favourite films: www.FindYourMissingPieces.com

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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”.

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Day 2


Ok so I’ve started writing this with just minutes to go until the dawn of day 3, and things are yet to get into full swing. In fact they’ve barely begun. I’ve entitled this post “Day 2” but Day 1 was non-existent in terms of reading. Day 2 has been little better.

I’m hoping that at some unknown juncture there will come a turning point. Something will simply click and I shall start to bulldozer my objectives in an all out, joyous and unstoppable blitz. In the past I’ve tended to tackle projects with this rather unsustainable method; gradually formulate ideas and then unleash them in a single brief frenzy. There is of course the possibility of very total and publicised failure.

I’m determined to succeed and for once see something through to the end productively. Today in one of the few moments I did dedicate to the challenge, I grouped stacks of books I aimed to devour this month into one daunting pile. It was off-putting and the task seemed insurmountable, but it gave me something to focus on. The opening days of the challenge have been filled with life’s distractions but soon isolation I usually dread will kick in and give me time to hunker down.

Given how impossible the task is starting to seem, I decided to begin with baby steps to ease myself in. I therefore chose books that were less dense and less mountainous to climb. The sort of thing you can snatch things from. So I quickly consumed some poems from Sylvia Plath’s collection, Ariel and mulled them over looking at the sea in dazzling sunshine. Some of the imagery seemed so true and touching such as, “The window square whitens and swallows its dull stars”, but in my rushed, excitable state of mind some poems and lines left me baffled, clueless, unmoved and adrift.

I also purchased an audio book, on a shopping trip with the purpose of equipping myself for a return to playing football. I’ve never experience an audio book and was inspired by this challenge to try it. It gave me an idea for a piece on different types of reading and the future of reading. This is one of my major flaws I’m afraid. I amass ideas and things to read/watch/listen to and get bogged down with so many I do not achieve them. However hopefully this will be different. Hopefully. I have lots of ideas for other articles and thoughts and intend to carry them out. (The audiobook was last year’s booker winner, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen, by the way)

I bought The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham a couple of years ago for my EPQ on science fiction in the Cold War period. I didn’t use the book in the end and never got round to reading it. At the time I was sick of science fiction after studying so much of it so intensely. But I did enjoy everything about it; the ideas, imagination, ethics, history, imagery. Everything. So I’m aiming to make Triffids my first proper read and rekindle the passion. Perhaps I’ll attempt some sci-fi of my own.

The Sartorialist by Scott Schuman is essentially a picture book, full of stylish, fashionable people. It’s not my usual sort of thing. But reading it (or watching it) is surprisingly fulfilling, enlightening and enjoyable. It’s a nice way in to my challenge; a thick book encapsulating so much of society, but one easy to consume.

I sit on my bed with The Sartorialist and Triffids, determined not to sleep until I’ve had a good go at both. I’m also about to finish a film review. I can feel the tiredness dragging at my face as the clock has just turned to midnight and signalled the start of Day 3. Will it be the day I get my act together?

A History of Contradictions: Freedom, Servitude and Niall Ferguson


Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.

I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.

The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.

Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?

I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.

I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/20/niall-ferguson-interview-civilization

In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.

His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.

Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.

I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.

Black Swan


Some people are perfectionists. You cannot imagine them any other way. They strive again and again to be the best, to fulfil their wildest, finely crafted, unblemished dreams. We all know people that work themselves into an unfathomable, illogical frenzy about the slightest flaw. You worry about what will happen to them if they ever completely lose perspective and fall through the cracks of their own expectations. How far can they push themselves, what lengths will they go to in the quest for perfection? Will you lose the person you know as they struggle towards faultlessly achieving their goals?

Black Swan is a film about the extremes of the perfectionist and the mania that can ensue in the dizzy rush for excellence in art. It’s packed full of themes about creativity and control, trust and tantrums. Is talent about honing your skills again and again until they’re technically sound, or something more intangible you must simply give into, like desire? Can anyone ascend to stardom and maintain their youthful innocence? Just how destructive can all consuming ambition be? Most of all, whatever questions Black Swan raises, it is a piece of beautifully pure, utterly gripping drama.

Drama as powerful and captivating as this is rarely found at the cinema these days. Perhaps because of the influence of and sizeable chunks of Swan Lake used in the film, Black Swan has the sensual quality of a stage production. Frequently it is flinchingly shocking. Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky ratchets up the tension and paranoia to chilling, unsettling but completely compelling levels. The whole thing is a visual feast. Most surprisingly of all, given the sheer number of scares jostling for position and all the hype around the film, there were more than a handful of moments in which the auditorium was plagued by infectious giggles.

Most of these laughs come via Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy, director of the New York ballet company. He is amusingly frank with Natalie Portman’s Nina, as is Mila Kunis as Nina’s dancing rival Lily. Both of these supporting cast members give excellent performances but it’s Portman’s Oscar worthy turn rightly stealing the headlines. In the past I’ve found her acting irritating, especially her regular appearances as an English rose type figure, with stereotypical accent. She was the only thing I mildly disliked about V for Vendetta. But here Portman’s character is meant to be prissy and annoying, and despite this as her delusions worsen and multiply you find yourself rooting for her to overcome her demons. Her portrayal of mental confusion and paranoia spiralling into madness is startling.

Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s controlling mother, who has projected her disappointments from her own curtailed career onto her daughter. In a sickly sweet, cotton ball world at home Nina lives as a little girl, primed only to succeed as a dancer. This suffocating environment is far from helpful as Nina works to try and embrace the role of evil, seductive Black Swan as well as the pure, fragile and perfect White Swan Queen. Her director continually tells her to loosen up and the suffocation from Nina’s home life spread throughout the film, haunting her and the audience. Nina projects her own anxieties onto the confident, relaxed Lily, who soon becomes a recurring, taunting theme in her fantasies.

At the beginning of the film, Cassel’s director tells his dancers his will be a “visceral” reworking of Swan Lake. And Black Swan is certainly visceral. Of course it touches on all the themes I mentioned earlier, but in reality it’s far too over the top to explore them properly. Above all else it is a fantastical and theatrical story. You’ll be gripped by the drama, haunted and confused by the plot. Sucked in by claustrophobic visuals, charmed by stunning dance sequences and engaged by superb acting; Black Swan has a bit of everything and its vividness is inexplicable. You won’t see anything more sensual this year.

 

Politicians have Snow Balls


It’s a cliché that you can’t rely on politicians for anything. But as I recently discussed with someone, clichés are clichés for a reason. Most people think that you can at least rely on MPs, particularly party leaders, to be dishonest and always on the lookout for an opportunity to score cheap points against their rivals and amass political capital. However Britain’s recent icy snap proved there are depths the media strategists will not dare sanction for their employers to sink to.

It really is a mystery why no one had the guts or guile to pounce on the targets laid bare by the blankets of white stuff. About a month ago I was reading an article in a hotel lobby in sporadically sunny Spain. Back home the country had already groaned to a moaning, bemused halt under the weight of the snow. This article was in The Times and I forget the identity of the writer, which is regrettably locked behind Murdoch’s News International Paywall. It made the very interesting point that neither leader of the two main parties had utilised a huge moment to deliver defining, resonant messages. The snow touched every single person in the country. It was a destructive but unifying force. The potential for delivering a knockout political blow was immense.

And yet our notoriously backstabbing, corrupt, two-faced politicians did nothing. Well nothing worthwhile. Of course there were the usual gripes about lack of planning and the inevitable shortage of grit. Labour had its half-hearted dig at the government, knowing full well it couldn’t overdo it because the previous administration had been responsible for much of the preparation. Most surprisingly of all, I remember the article in The Times highlighting, was David Cameron passing up his moment to finally win the public’s hearts over to the “Big Society”.

With all the complaints about councils failing to grit icy pavements and elderly neighbours slipping and sliding to serious injury, surely this was Dave’s moment to urge us all to lend a helping hand? This was the closest we were going to get to a modern day Blitz spirit. Everyone was out enjoying the beautiful change, waving to complete strangers, engaging in snowball fights; except those blocked in and cut off. Free those trapped in your area, band together and get by, show the true power that community still had. The Prime Minister said none of this and his chance to convey what his key policy might mean in reality was quickly gone.

It would have been an extraordinary moment for a Prime Minister under fire to show leadership and go on the offensive with a more optimistic message. The distraction from constant protests against cuts would have been welcome and may have lingered memorably in voters’ minds, but instead Cameron chose to wait it out till Christmas for his respite. Ultimately his characteristic caution probably held him back from any such message. It would have been open to ridicule. Evidence, his critics would say, that the Conservatives are leaving you to do it all alone, another excuse for incompetent governance, dressed up as positive ideology. Those criticisms of the “Big Society” might be true and are longstanding, but if Cameron genuinely believes in his policy then why did he have reservations about seizing his best opportunity yet of hammering its message through?

There seems to be an unwritten rule that a crisis caused by natural causes is off limits for use as political ammunition. Even so it is perhaps even more surprising in some ways that Ed Miliband didn’t capitalise on the snow. Miliband didn’t have a readymade policy to bolster like Cameron, but he needs to set his party on a new, distinctive course at some point. As a former Climate Change Secretary he could have pointed out the changing nature of Britain’s climate and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather. He could have been extremely bold and announced that Climate Change would become a central, unifying theme of all Labour policy, especially now that it was proving directly damaging to the UK economy and its citizens everyday lives. However he needn’t have been so specific to achieve an effect, and with his policies still under review a vaguer, flexible approach would have been preferable. He could have simply called for greater provision to deal with such extreme conditions in future and indicated how Climate Change would be one of several of his key priorities, whether he meant it or not. This week Miliband demonstrated he could make decisions and announcements that were at once cynical and correct. Declaring he wished to see the banking bonus tax extended is sensible but he is only willing to commit to this policy ahead of so many others because it wins support. Why then did he not show similar political pragmatism with the snow?

Of course ideally Miliband would have used the snow as a platform, from which to launch a new sustainable set of policies which would see Britain cope better with such circumstances in future and begin an inspiring new assault on Climate Change. Sadly such genuinely motivational and good natured politics is so rare no one expects it. It is reassuring though that some areas, perhaps still considered by some to be acts of God, are still considered off limits for cheap, manipulative political point scoring.

Thoughts on … Never Let Me Go/The Canal/The Dice Man


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.