All Sorts Of Questions

The Lady in the Lake.jpg

A year ago I picked up Raymond Chandler’s novel The Lady in the Lake (1944) from Undercover Books in Norwich – aptly, as that bookseller’s logo shows the silhouette of a trenchcoated private eye. I’ve returned to the novel recently and am halfway through it – to be precise, at the end of Chapter 17.

Reading this novel makes me think either: a) I wish I had spent more of my life reading Raymond Chandler, or b) I should spend the rest of my life reading Raymond Chandler. But he only published a handful of novels, so when I finish with those I’ll need to do more rereading. The stories are probably worthwhile also. I think not all of them are about Philip Marlowe, as the novels are. Here are some things I love about this novel.

1. Detection and the sense of the unknown. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out – and as this is a detective novel, it matters how it turns out. It won’t just be a matter of a change of heart or people’s relations or perceptions shifting, it will be about the revelation of specific, decisive things that have happened that I, the reader, don’t know yet. I have a, let’s say ‘epistemological intrigue’ about this book; I want to know (facts, connections) but I also want not to know too much because I want it to go on and on. I don’t want to guess the answers too early and spoil it. Normally that wouldn’t be a risk for me.

I note here the dual narrative frame of the detective story: a) the story of what happened, that is, roughly, ‘the crime’, which we don’t know at all at the outset; we will only learn of it as we go along and some of it may be unknown till a few pages from the end; b) the story of the process of detection. The first story involves criminals, murderers, victims; only the second centres on Marlowe, and some of the same people (as ‘suspects’ and so on) playing a different role and responding to his inquiries. It is an odd fact that the first story (a) is so compelling and it seems to be what I am ultimately reading to find out, yet it is also Marlowe who is more compelling than anyone, and he only occupies the second story (b). There is a temptation (as in for instance Charles J. Rzepka’s engaging book Detective Fiction) to make some kind of ontological or metaphysical case about the distinctiveness of the detective story in this regard. But as it is basically a ‘realistic’ story (it needs to be: if the supernatural became involved then the ‘contract with the reader’ about plausibility, which allows us in principle to try to solve the crime, would be broken), I think it can only be a matter of degree. I think that detective stories must probably belong in essentially the same universe as other realist narratives, in many of which, after all, there is a distinction between ‘those interesting events  that have already happened’ and ‘how we are learning about those events now, from a later point in time’.

2. The stuff I’ve just talked about sounds like what Rzepka calls ‘the puzzle element’ that is distinctive to detective fiction (as against for instance crime fiction at large or other kinds of thriller). There seems to be a standard (as in all-too-standard) historical narrative that says that puzzles belonged to a genteel English mode (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers) which was displaced by a hard-boiled age (Dashiell Hammett at Black Mask magazine): with violence, menace, jeopardy replacing puzzle-solving. Rzepka fairly points out that puzzle-solving, or let’s just say thinking about the crime and trying to work out who did it and what happened, remains very important in good hard-boiled writing. I find this true of Chandler, and it seems to consort better with another view of Chandler – that his plots are notoriously byzantine. If they didn’t include or prompt any puzzling, surely they wouldn’t be?

Yet it’s true that Chandler brings other pleasures. Here is one: the sense of place. Every time in this novel Marlowe visits any place, it is described in detail. There is a sense of familiarity on his part about the terms of reference; he knows the genre of place he is dealing with, and the kinds of detail it is liable to include. Some of the description is bluntly factual – but there is sometimes so much of it. The question arises: is something in this passage going to be important? I’d better quote a couple of examples. Sherriff Jim Patton gets ready to drive:

He got into a car which had a siren on it, two red spotlights, two fog-lights, a red and white fire plate, a new air-raid horn on top, three axes, two heavy coils of rope and a fire-extinguisher in the back seat, extra petrol and oil and water-cans in a frame on the running-board, an extra spare tyre roped to the one on the rack, the stuffing coming out of the upholstery in dingy wads, and half an inch of dust over what was left of the paint. (51)

So far (60 pages on), I don’t think that any of these objects have proved significant. I doubt that any of them will. Chandler is also painstaking with interiors – here is the inside of playboy Chris Lavery’s home:

The lower hall had a door at each end and two in the middle side by side. One of these was a linen closet and the other was locked. I went along to the end and looked in at a spare bedroom with drawn blinds and no sign of being used. I went back to the other end of the hall and stepped into a second bedroom with a wide bed, a café-au-lait rug, angular furniture in light wood, a box mirror over the dressing-table and a long fluorescent lamp over the mirror. In the corner a crystal greyhound stood on a mirror-top table and beside him a crystal box with cigarettes in it. (102-3)

Any more significance here? Well, the broad context is that Marlowe is going to find a body in the house, so it seems proper to establish the setting fully – perhaps in a kind of narrative respect for the importance of the forthcoming discovery, with a sense that that discovery will prompt and require reflection, and such reflection will want to feel that it had any possible relevant facts at its disposal. That’s what Marlowe would feel himself. To a large extent, Chandler’s extensive descriptions of place and scene simply reflect that fact that registering the detail of places and scenes is a big part of his narrator’s job. In this instance, the locked door is the one with the body behind it – so that briefest part of this paragraph will turn out to be the most pregnantly ominous. One more thing: the woman Marlowe is looking for, who he’ll have reason to believe stayed here last night, is called ‘Crystal’. Chandler must have been aware that the objects he mentions here echo her name, though I doubt that any more will be said of that.

Some of the scene-setting is not so bluntly factual, but carries more personality. Marlowe drives up into the hills, to San Bernardino which ‘baked and shimmered in the afternoon heat’ (32) (another precursor to the journey to the relatively discrete zone of San Narciso in The Crying of Lot 49 twenty years later), then on to the Puma Lake Dam with armed guards which are evidently an effect of the ongoing world war, and further on again in search of Little Fawn Lake. The sheer extent of Chandler’s description of this journey is striking. He could have accomplished it much faster, in textual terms. Instead he registers every turn of the Chrysler and shift in atmosphere. So:

The road skimmed along a high granite outcrop and dropped to meadows of coarse grass in which grew what was left of the wild irises and white and purple lupin and bugle flowers and columbine and pennyroyal and desert paint brush. Tall yellow pines probed at the clear blue sky. The road dropped again to lake level and the landscape began to be full of girls in gaudy slacks and snoods and peasant handkerchiefs and rat rolls and fat-soled sandals and fat white thighs. (33)

I think an LRB reviewer in the last few years pointed out the bizarreness of Philip Marlowe knowing all those flowers, even supposing that he could even see them while speeding by in his car. It’s a curious moment where Chandler’s relatively realistic aesthetic of an unusually observant narrator becomes unrealistic by straying into different territory. But I don’t imagine that Chandler was bothered about that. I get the sense that he wanted to be as aesthetic as he could, while keeping his story working, and he wasn’t going to remove those flowers for anyone. The line that follows, while still in the realm of the natural world – ‘Tall yellow pines probed at the clear blue sky’ – is more properly elegant, fine writing. Then the line after that is sardonic. I was surprised by the ‘snoods’, which I only heard about footballers wearing a few years ago.

There are dozens more paragraphs which describe place in fine detail. In fact even the first paragraph of the book is an example:

The Treloar Building was, and is, on Olive Street, near Sixth, on the west side. The sidewalk in  front of it had been built of black and white rubber blocks. They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a hatless pale man with a face like a building superintendent was watching the work and looking as if it was breaking his heart.

I’m now reading that for the third time, and find it so full of interest. There is the question of whom Chandler (through Marlowe) is talking to: whether he posits a readership who really know Los Angeles well enough to register these co-ordinates or, much more likely I think, whether he is aiming at a sense of local knowledge to impress us, the thousands who don’t know the place. There is the way that the meaning and value attached to a place’s details are registered through an observer, the ‘hatless pale man’ (hatless in that all the other men are wearing hats – homburgs, fedoras, caps and so on?). There is the reference to ‘government’ which I loosely associated with the Fredric Jameson reading of Chandler but now I suddenly realize is much more specific: it’s about the war, in which government can requisition such materials. (Later: ‘They had finished laying rose-coloured concrete where the rubber sidewalk had been’ [115].)

3. So: mystery and description; detection and location. My third factor can be comedy. This novel makes me laugh so much. This is almost all about Marlowe: sometimes the way he describes others (which is sometimes consciously comic), sometimes the deliberately comic and snappy things he says to them, sometimes again just the pleasure of watching his routine, his way of reacting and behaving. He walks round the lake with the erratically alcoholic Bill Chess, who keeps breaking into argument then calming down: ‘We started off side by side, as friendly as puppies again. It would probably last all of fifty yards’ (44). He talks to Sherriff Patton about the case, outdoing him with his power of extrapolation; Patton comments: ‘Don’t tell me, son […] Let me guess all for myself that you got a brand-new idea about it’. Having unloaded his latest thoughts, Marlowe adds: ‘When you get tired of it, let me know. I’ll have something else’ (82-3). I love the sense here of Marlowe’s intellectual industry, his restless intelligence and desire to form and test theories – one fact about him that gets relatively underplayed and overlooked. And I love the number of times his response to a statement from another character is ‘I didn’t say anything’. There is a sense that he has learned that this silence can be a powerful strategic substitute for speech.

Puzzling

So much more in this book is fascinating and tremendously enjoyable. But the other thing I wanted to do in this post was to play out the implied readerly role and try to guess something about the crime, in a necessarily naive way.

Here is the one strong hunch I have, halfway through the book. The lady in the lake, discovered at the end of Chapter 6 (48), is not Muriel Chess (aka Mildred Haviland) as is suspected. It is Crystal Kingsley, the wife Marlowe is initially hired to find. Why do I suspect this? Apart from the general imperative for a detective story to contain twists and deceits, it’s because a) before the body is found, their relatively similar appearances are remarked on by Muriel’s own husband Bill, who says of Crystal ‘She’s a blonde like Muriel, same size and weight, same type, almost the same colour eyes’ (39). b) Further play is made on the relative interchangeability of pretty blondes – for instance by the bellhop Marlowe questions (in an odd scene whose oddness is quite typical of Chandler: it carries a faint sense of homoeroticism or sems an encounter which, angled slightly differently, could be a gay pick-up): ‘These small blondes are so much of a pattern that a change of clothes or light or make-up makes them all alike or all different’ (88). The last twitch of thought here – that small changes can make them not just ‘all alike’ but also ‘all different’ – is a terrific piece of gratuitous stimulation. But the main assertion, that one little blonde looks much like another, seems to me an almost clunking clue by Chandler’s standards: a warning to the reader to wonder if these two blondes have changed places. c) And this would in turn produce a kind of aesthetic pattern, of symmetry, reflection, inversion, that I can imagine Chandler might want to evoke, to give his story an additional sense of shape. The territory here would be not so far from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. d) A more mundane rationale, but also noticeable in the text if you’re following the hunch: it’s emphasized that the body in the lake isn’t that identifiable. The corpse’s face is ‘[a] swollen pulpy grey white mass without features, without eyes, without mouth’ (48). Bill Chess instantly identifies it as Muriel, and we’d think he would know. But why should he, given the state of the body? I think this is a mis-identification, probably an honest one (I think that Chess may have done something bad, but not killed this woman), which crucially throws the reader off the possibility that it’s Crystal who has drowned. It’s very noticeable that a police detective later tells Marlowe that ‘a technical man’ is trying to identify the body by its fingerprints, and the specific technique for this is described (92). It seems to be setting us up carefully for the revelation of who the body is – which in this case would be a scientific, ‘forensic‘ revelation, much less common in Chandler than in the last twenty years of television (and I imagine literary) detectives.

If that one hunch is right, what follows? The woman who was at the San Bernardino hotel with Chris Lavery was Muriel Chess, aka Mildred Haviland. Someone has been looking for ms Haviland: a fake cop calling himself De Soto who I suspect is the same cop who accosted Marlowe in Bay City early on. He gave his name as ‘Degarmo, detective-lieutenant’, and seemed a real enough cop to have ‘a blue-and-gold police badge’ (29). (I think I recall that Farewell, My Lovely shows Bay City police to be quite a corrupt body.) Degarmo was protecting Dr Albert Almore, who lives opposite Lavery. I doubt that that shared location is an accident. I’d be fairly sure that Dr Almore is the ‘Al’ who gave ‘Mildred’ a little engraved gold heart on June 28th 1938 (81), which has been cut off an anklet and left in a sugar bowl in Bill Chess’s kitchen – presumably by Muriel Chess. It seems that Mildred Haviland has changed her name in something of the way that Velma Valento has changed her name to Helen Grayle in Farewell, My Lovely. Albert Almore (a name maybe slightly playing on amour) would then be the Moose Malloy figure: the besotted and abandoned male who is pursuing his former lover into her new identity. The sense of repetition from one novel to another would be leavened by the fact that Almore is otherwise so unlike Malloy (perhaps indeed delegating something of the Malloy role to big Degarmo).

The one thing I’m certain of is that Dr Almore will figure much more significantly in the second half of the novel, perhaps becoming the most significant mover behind whatever has happened. We know that Marlowe’s client, Derace Kingsley, knows him; he says that Crystal Kingsley was treated by him, and adds that Almore’s wife committed suicide some time ago (31). This detail is almost gratuitously tantalizing, in a story where there is a question over whether the body in the lake is a suicide. Not that they can be the same body, but that the story of a death in the doctor’s past must be much more meaningful than Marlowe’s casual response to it has let it be so far. It’s also telling that Kingsley goes out of his way to bring up the doctor again in their latest interview: when Marlowe insists on talking to Kingsley’s secretary (‘It’s my business to ask all sorts of questions of all sorts of people’ [114]), Kingsley, having been reluctant to allow such an interview, superfluously adds that ‘As a matter of fact she knew the Almores. She knew Almore’s wife, the one who killed herself. Lavery knew her too. Could that have any possible connexion with this business?’ (114). Of course it could; it must. Marlowe’s reply – ‘I don’t know. You’re in love with her, aren’t you?’ – oddly makes him seem less sharp than he ought to be, unless we’re to assume that even in a fast-moving conversation he is mentally storing up more potential ‘connexions’ than he lets on.

If Crystal was the one in the lake, then Muriel was at the hotel with Crystal’s car and lover, and took the train to El Paso, and – why not? – sent the wire to Kingsley saying that she (Crystal) was eloping with Lavery. Her clothes are the ones in Lavery’s home; she might be the one who shot Lavery in the shower. Not, I think, out of revenge or passion, but from a more calculating need to cover her tracks. The one other thing we know about Mildred Haviland is that Kingsley was evasive, or rather over-emphatic, in denying he had heard of her (67), and repeated it in the following call: ‘Why were you asking me last night about some name – Mildred something or other?’ (94). This looks like a bluff to me. But though Kingsley seems to have things to hide (and a passion for his secretary, who is a potential suspect in Lavery’s murder), is he a major villain in this piece? The tendency might be to think so: to guess that the client is the criminal, making for the biggest possible inversion from where we started. In that case we’d guess for instance that he had ordered Crystal’s murder at the lake. But I don’t think he did. His behaviour in his interview with Marlowe (107-115) gives a sense that he genuinely wants to protect his wife, despite their estrangement. If he’s the villain, then he’s dissembling in a way more thorough than I think Chandler would see as appropriate for the story – it’s a front that the reader can’t really see through.

I love Raymond Chandler.

Advertisements

Loved Films

IMG_0426.JPG

Recently the film rental firm LoveFilm announced that it would be closing down its postal DVD service. This prompts me to do something I have long meant to do: go to my account page and draw from it a list of all the films I have rented from the company in the last c.9 years. The ‘Returned’ dates help me orient my viewing in the time of my life.

In some cases (American Gangster, Shoot the Pianist) I never watched the films, just sent the DVDs back. In others Bande a Part) I watched them two or three times. Sometimes I watched a second time with audio commentary (24 Hour Party People has one by Anthony H. Wilson himself). When I watched the DVDs I usually painstakingly watched all the extras, in a characteristic spirit of pedantic completism.

Often I had the discs lying around too long, becoming accusations of my failure to watch them. You can see this from some of the dates where there is a long gap between DVDs returned. But sometimes I get into a rhythm of watching them promptly and returning them. I find a satisfaction in returning a DVD: putting it in its sturdy plastic envelope, putting that in its red paper envelope, sealing it, then adding an extra layer of masking tape; and out into the morning, to the thick red post up the hill, squeezing the DVD-wide envelope into its slot.

Breathless (1960)
Returned 29 Oct 2008
I watched this a couple of times, so must have seen it at least three times in all, which I suppose is still fewer times than some especially keen people in 1960 will have seen it.

2046 (2004)
Returned 11 Nov 2008
I’m not generally convinced by Wong Kar-Wai.

Bande a Part (1964)
Returned 20 Nov 2008
I watched this twice and then so many extras that it was like a third viewing. I wanted to appreciate and understand it as well as I can. As much as almost any JLG film it seems a key inspiration for later hip culture.

Blood Diamond (2006)
Returned 24 Nov 2008

3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Returned 28 Nov 2008
I really liked this. I also watched the original which was on TV. My father, a great Western viewer, watched one or both of them too.

All The Real Girls (2003)
Returned 9 Dec 2008

Sixteen Candles (1984)
Returned 19 Dec 2008
Unsurprisingly one of my first ideas, on having access to all these films, was to revisit John Hughes.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
Returned 9 Jan 2009

Wicker Park (2004)
Returned 14 Jan 2009

Fresh Horses (1988)
Returned 20 Jan 2009
I pursued the Molly Ringwald trail to this film I probably heard of at the time but had not seen in the intervening twenty years.

Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)
Returned 6 Feb 2009
This is one of several films I struggle to remember watching. Apparently it is a lesbian romcom.

Class (1983)
Returned 21 Feb 2009
Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe, early brat-pack college drama: part of my 1980s excavation.

The Pick-Up Artist (1987)
Returned 19 Mar 2009
Molly Ringwald again: this was actually quite good with a late scene memorably set at Coney Island.

My Blueberry Nights (2007)
Returned 24 Mar 2009
Wong Kar-Wai again. Pretty dire. Unsure that he’s made a good film. One of the most overrated directors of the last 30 years?

Control (2007)
Returned 30 Mar 2009
I don’t know much of Joy Division’s music and I think this black & white biopic frustrated me a bit at the time. But in hindsight (I think I watched it twice) it left a good impression and I learned from it.

24 Hour Party People (2002)
Returned 3 Apr 2009
Clearly on the same track: I watched this at least twice and really appreciated it, but the second half less than the second. I always disliked Happy Mondays. I was keen to see the tiny Paul Morley role, renamed ‘Chris’ (reminiscent of Nothing where he talks of nearly being called Chris Morley) and played by Simon Pegg. Is Rob Brydon in this? If not, why not?

The Office: An American Workplace, season 2 (2005)
Returned 5 Aug 2009
One of my favourite comedy programmes, which in its longevity and development has perhaps surpassed the achievement of the UK original. I managed to stay loyal to this programme for years, slowly watching episodes this way.

The Singing Detective (1986)
Returned 19 Dec 2009
I started on this, found it pretty unwatchable.

The Office: An American Workplace, season 3 (2006)
Returned 16 Jan 2010

Sherrybaby (2006)
Returned 23 Jan 2010
One of a sub-genre of contemporary US films about poor people in a strip-mall world. The setting appeals to me though the drama didn’t much.

Persepolis (2007)
Returned 2 Feb 2010

A Very British Coup (1988)
Returned 13 Feb 2010
The DVD didn’t work properly, so I have still never seen this oft-cited film.

13 Going On 30 (2004)
Returned 9 Mar 2010
I am surprised if I had not seen this film till 2010. It makes some sense that I watched it in March 2010, though, as I mention it in a section of a book that I finished at that time.

The Day Today (1994)
Returned 29 Mar 2010
This was a good thing to return to and watch systematically. Memorable lines.

Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge and other less successful characters live (2009)
Returned 7 Apr 2010
Clearly on a Coogan phase, in my attempt to find particular paths through the DVD catalogue.

The Parole Officer (2001)
Returned 15 Apr 2010

The Line of Beauty (2006)
Returned 6 May 2010

Career Girls (1997)
Returned 2 Jun 2010

Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004)
Returned 28 Jul 2010
Lindsay Lohan fandom.

Adventureland (2009)
Returned 2 Aug 2010

Coogan’s Run (1995)
Returned 25 Aug 2010

Before Sunset (2004)
Returned 8 Sep 2010

The Aviator (2004)
Returned 13 Nov 2010

Hannah Takes The Stairs (2007)
Returned 29 Nov 2010
Trying to get into Mumblecore. I didn’t think much of this but I still see value in the general idea of films about mundane real life.

Louis Malle Collection, Volume One (2006)
Returned 6 Jan 2011
I don’t remember watching this at all. It seems as though my concerted viewing of Steve Coogan and Lindsay Lohan was disguised by a veneer of unviewed art-film orders.

Marion & Geoff, series 1 (2000)
Returned 12 Jan 2011
Discovering Keith Barret at last was important for me. I’ve been doing an impression of the character, as my general Rob Brydon impression, ever since.

The Keith Barret Show (2004)
Returned 2 Feb 2011
Ditto, this time in helpfully ‘light entertainment’ mode. Features Anthony H. Wilson.

I’m Not There (2007)
Returned 16 Feb 2011
A masterpiece; probably one of the ten or so best films I’ve ever seen; the challenge of a film about Dylan could hardly have been better met.

Bottle Rocket (1995)
Returned 26 Feb 2011
On another trail: completing my viewing of Wes Anderson. His first feature has a good reputation but didn’t do much for me.

Me & Orson Welles (2008)
Returned 7 Mar 2011
Featuring an actor who looks remarkably like Orson Welles. What struck me about this Zac Efron picture was its portrait of a world of slightly earlier media: theatre, radio, newsprint.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Returned 10 Mar 2011

Nowhere Boy (2010)
Returned 25 Mar 2011
Lennon biopic, a logical thing for me to need to see. I recall that its very young Paul McCartney is charming, good-looking and brilliantly talented, which is reassuringly true to the real world.

Whip It (2009)
Returned 5 May 2011

Up In The Air (2009)
Returned 27 May 2011

Wings of Desire (1987)
Returned 8 Jun 2011
Just after a trip to Berlin which was revelatory in showing me anew that capital of modern Europe. Any shot of the Fernsehturm amid the clouds gained new value.

Life During Wartime (2009)
Returned 5 Jul 2011
I couldn’t stand this, stopped watching within half an hour.

Spread (2009)
Returned 2 Aug 2011
Daft film about pure indulgence, a knowingly shallow Ashton Kutcher vehicle. I like it.

Christiane F. (1981)
Returned 3 Aug 2011
Another legacy of Berlin: Bowie, Bahnhof Zoo. The first quarter is tremendous then it descends, or at least the characters do.

My Boss’s Daughter (2003)
Returned 15 Aug 2011
Ashton Kutcher comedy. My new trail.

Annie Hall (1977)
Returned 8 Sep 2011

A Lot Like Love (2005)
Returned 31 Oct 2011

Une Femme Mariée (1964)
Returned 4 Nov 2011
Back to JLG for once: this was well worth it, a film I’d never seen, which I came to realize was based on Zola’s Nana.

Killers (2010)
Returned 14 Nov 2011

No Strings Attached (2011)
Returned 5 Jan 2012

The Road (2009)
Returned 16 Aug 2012

American Gangster (2007)
Returned 16 Aug 2012

Thor (2011)
Returned 29 Aug 2012
Anthony Hopkins as Odin memorably delivers a line that resounds repeatedly on the DVD title screen: ‘Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.’

Red River (1948)
Returned 10 Sep 2012

Captain America (2011)
Returned 12 Sep 2012

Love & Other Drugs (2010)
Returned 25 Feb 2013

The Guard (2011)
Returned 19 Mar 2013

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Returned 19 Mar 2013
Michael Caine bizarrely in the Woody Allen role, with a daft scene in a bookshop where he buys a woman a volume of e.e. cummings.

The 400 Blows (1959)
Returned 26 Mar 2013
Unsure that I actually watched this: I remember nothing about it except the famous last shot.

Shoot the Pianist (1960)
Returned 28 Mar 2013
I don’t remember this at all. My Truffaut phase looks cosmetic at best.

Alice in the Cities (1974)
Returned 8 Apr 2013
Another period of Wim Wenders. I can see the appeal of the cities, in the US and Germany, but thought the film essentially meandering and pretentious.

Shadows (1959)
Returned 8 Apr 2013
This is much better. Cassavetes, partly prompted by Lethem’s enthusiasm for him. A vérité vibe, black & white pictures, intriguing characters and a sculpture garden location at the back of MoMA that my friend Carrick then spent years trying to enter.

Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Returned 14 Aug 2013
Very poor, a reminder how bad would-be art-house cinema can be.

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
Returned 14 Aug 2013
I must have taken this up because a contact had been very into anime cinema. This one has moments but I’m not sure why it should be so universally beloved.

On The Road (2012)
Returned 15 Oct 2013
Whereas this is underrated. I watched it twice. Terrific locations and cinematography; good-looking cast. Maybe better than the sprawling book.

The Runaways (2010)
Returned 7 Feb 2014
I watched this a second time with audio commentary. I’d never known anything about Joan Jett let alone The Runaways. The fictional depiction of their manager seemed peculiarly sleazy, but you just had to accept that he was actually not so bad despite that; it was bizarre than, several years after the film was made, he was then accused of sexual abuse. Even as a fictional avatar, he seems to have been hiding in plain sight. The music doesn’t do so much for me.

Robinson in Ruins (2010)
Returned 10 Feb 2014
Crucial to see this at last, having seen the related exhibition at the Tate in 2012. A pretty worthy conclusion to the sequence, and a lot glossier than The Dilapidated Dwelling.

The Descendants (2011)
Returned 16 Apr 2014
I took this Clooney family drama to my parents’ house and we watched it together; they appreciated it.

Before Midnight (2013)
Returned 23 Jul 2014

Tiny Furniture (2010)
Returned 24 Jul 2014
Lena Dunham debut: mostly annoying. I remember watching the very self-indulgent extras too: short films made at Oberlin.

The Office: An American Workplace, season 5 (2008)
Returned 20 Apr 2015

Borgen, season 1 (2010)
Returned 20 Apr 2015
I didn’t watch a minute of this. I’d like to do better with these Scandi dramas.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)
Returned 12 May 2015
I’ve now seen this three times. It’s more worthy of that than most.

Man of Steel (2013)
Returned 22 Jul 2015

Don Jon (2013)
Returned 27 Jul 2015
Scarlett Johansson does a broad-accented job of playing a lower-class Jersey girl.

Avengers Assemble (2012)
Returned 4 Aug 2015
Come to think of it, she must be in this too, notionally as a Russian.

James Joyce’s Dublin: The Ulysses Tour (2011)
Returned 23 Dec 2015
Nice introduction to each episode.

Girls, season 2 (2013)
Returned 15 Sep 2016
A good thing about Girls, like The Office a comedy series: each episode’s only c.25 minutes, it’s nicely manageable and not a great demand on time and attention. My primary feeling about this series is always: it’s best when it’s most comic, and especially when it’s ridiculing its own main characters; worst when it’s most seriously dramatic. Yet even that doesn’t entirely hold. The programme has high production values, seems expertly scripted and planned, has a kind of dramatic boldness with its pacing and surprises.

The Office: An American Workplace, season 6 (2009)
Returned 21 Sep 2016

Damsels in Distress (2011)
Returned 27 Apr 2017
Watched this twice, second time with my folks, and wrote about it.

God Help the Girl (2014)
Returned 23 Aug 2017
Watched this twice too, and all the extras including a B&S concert, and wrote 3,000 words.

Girls, season 3 (2014)
Returned 25 Aug 2017
So I have now seen 36 episodes of Girls, and I am only halfway through it.

IMG_1690.JPG

Acting the Apostle

GHTG.jpg

On DVD I finally watched God Help The Girl, the musical conceived by Stuart Murdoch, the primary songwriter of Belle & Sebastian. This project seemed to take a long time to happen. Looking it up online now, I see that the idea started in … 2004! Then the record LP of the songs was released as long ago as June 2009. I can recall the interest in that record; hearing it with uncertainty and disappointment; periodically going back to it and getting more from it. But that LP is now the best part of a decade old! Impossible how time passes now. But the point, I thought, was always the film. Apparently that didn’t start shooting till 2012, and wasn’t released till 2014 (which by the accelerated standards I’ve mentioned seems all too recent; I’d have guessed at 2011). Now that I’ve at last caught up, I offer these quick reactions to the film.

1: It’s not that good. The script is rarely inherently interesting. Few lines of dialogue sparkle. The acting is fine, in a way – the actors don’t seem damagingly ‘amateur’, or if they do, that is even good for the ‘realism’. But the words they have to say are not terrific dramatic dialogue, and the story that they play out lacks urgency and coherent drive. Here is an example of very bad dialogue. Cassie (Hannah Murray) has declared on a boating trip that she feels like Tom Sawyer, then she drinks some wine. Now she reports that she feels ‘Like Tom Sawyer … when he’s drunk’. The film lingers over this moment, irising out, making the woeful clunk of the line resound all the more. The prevailing idea that I’ve heard here and there that this is ‘am-dram’  or ‘Children’s Film Foundation’ fare, though not strictly true of the production values, is understandable.

2: There is a kind of underlying unspoken fact about this film, which perhaps extends to much that Murdoch has done but is far more emphatic here. Namely: it puts young, slim, attractive women (‘girls’, even) centre stage and photographs them admiringly. I am unsure what is the proper reaction to this. Part of me thinks, roughly, that it is ‘sexist’, an example of ‘the male gaze’ and so on. It is relevant that the girls typically wear stunningly attractive outfits which often display their long legs (and they never seem to wear the same outfit twice). Yet it is hard to substantiate this objection. I can easily imagine that the actresses would entirely reject it and say that it’s a great enabling film which valuably puts female characters at its centre and is thus actually some kind of pro-feminist work. I can imagine some female viewers saying the same. Fair enough. The trouble is, as a heterosexual male, I think I can see through Murdoch’s motives and tastes all too easily, because they are exactly the same things I am, let’s say, conditioned or predisposed to like and desire myself. If I happened to be in his position with the chance to make such a film, I think I would be embarrassed to do what he has done, because I would know that people would accuse me of indulging my own aesthetic tastes which are also, in this instance, libidinal tastes – and they would be right. So I find the film somewhat ‘suspect’ even as, or rather because, I think it is often good to look at.

3: There is one thing that Murdoch could have done to head this off or complicate matters – namely, put a less typically photogenic female character into it, amid the very photogenic ones. For instance he could have featured someone less slim and more fat. He hasn’t chosen to do that – in fact there isn’t a single young character in the film who is even slightly overweight. I don’t care about that particular point, or wish to prescribe what can be in people’s stories – maybe it’s important for people to be free to populate their stories as they want. But I do think it is circumstantial evidence that he has indulged himself by allowing his film to spend most of its time looking at girls he (like almost everyone else) thinks is attractive. And given that the film supposedly has some interest in people’s struggles and difficulties, maybe it would have had more purchase on these things if it had featured people who look less perfect.

Then again, maybe the point is that it’s a musical, hence something of a fantasia, in which daft things happen like a dog being sent waddling off down the street to bring his mistress to a disco, or a ludicrous chase scene in homage to the start of A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Why shouldn’t you populate such a film with the best-looking people you can find? Maybe Murdoch would say: ‘This is my film, it’s the only one I’ll get to make, so I’ll put who I like in it (literally) – if you have a more worthy agenda, make your own film.’

One other note on gender: it is slightly surprising how Murdoch doesn’t do more with the relation between the two female leads. He gives them little screen time alone together; in the couple of scenes they do get, there is some promise. The lack of more such dialogue seems a missed opportunity, also a dramatic flaw in that the relation between the two girls could be established more strongly. As it is, much more time is given to scenes between the female and male leads.

4: The central male character is James (Olly Alexander, who I am subsequently told is also in a real pop group). As is usual, the male collapses the idea about ‘everybody looking perfect’, as he mostly doesn’t look good at all to me. Actually there are moments when he does look OK, so maybe his unappealing appearance is more about skilful method acting and getting into character. But beyond mere looks, I’m afraid this character is very irritating. It doesn’t help that he has an English accent, despite supposedly being technically Scottish. His voice is unpleasant to listen to, not just for the accent but for the general whining, self-indulgent, ironic way he talks. Even when he delivers a line something like ‘I just wanted to plant my little flag in the timeline of pop history’, a sentiment I can actually understand having done it myself, it is ruined for me by his delivery. Admittedly I think all kinds of other actors would have been equally irritating in this role. Even a Scottish version of the character could still have been bad, but not this bad. But it is fair to report that he is by some distance the least appealing part of the film.

5: The film centres on Eve (Emily Browning) moving from a hospital (a specifically psychiatric hospital, I think) to form a band with Cassie and James, then, after a relapse, moving to London. The narrative is driven in some sense by the idea that Eve is a great songwriter: her songs are played by the band which becomes God Help The Girl (the name is taken up without any fanfare or discussion, despite an earlier discussion about the complexities of band-naming), and her two main bandmates revere her talent. The judgment is fair enough in a way: the songs are by Stuart Murdoch, who is a great songwriter, and if someone in Eve’s position came up with such a consistent body of work you would think it was remarkable. Of course this also means that the acclaim for Eve’s songs is self-congratulatory on Murdoch’s part, though that’s probably an inadvertent side-effect of the story he’s set up.

The move from ‘writing songs’ (which we see her doing a bit at a hospital piano) to ‘making a tape’ to ‘forming a band’ (just the three of them) might be plausible, but the further shift to the full band God Help The Girl is not. Drums, bass, guitars, strings, backing singers – in effect, I suppose, Murdoch has created a recapitulation of the expansiveness of Belle &  Sebastian themselves. But the transition from bedroom composition to on-stage orchestras took Murdoch years. Indeed anyone who saw Belle & Sebastian from c.1995 to 1998 will remember them being shambolic in a way that was unique among major pop acts, and their transformation into a slick orchestral outfit that could play any of thirty songs at the drop of Murdoch’s hat – from c.2001? – was an extraordinary feat whose incongruity one tends to forget. It’s somewhat annoying to see the supposed ingenues of this film achieve this shift in a week or two. There is never any serious sense of ‘rehearsal’, or of the business of teaching a band to play your song – which is hard enough with simple songs, but with this complex compositions and arrangements would be like a full-time profession. It’s just a fantasy, it doesn’t matter. But it bothers me slightly, as the whole film is built around the musical journey, how Eve rises to the challenge of getting her songs heard – but it then doesn’t take these challenges seriously.

6: The other issue that drives the story is Eve’s illness. I’m not convinced that the film handles this well. She tells her doctor at the hospital that she has been unwell since she left home. Why did she leave home, and why not go back if leaving might have caused a problem? No indication except a couple of opening-credit seconds visually endorsing the line in ‘Act of the Apostle’ mentioning her parents’ tendency to argue. What is her medical condition? We can arguably perceive two things: depression and anorexia. Depression can be very bad, and is often treated with medication like the tablets Eve takes, but it isn’t usually a cause for hospitalization. And insofar as she has a depressed view of the world, it’s not made clear why. No significant issues in her past that might affect this are revealed or even mentioned. Anorexia is another (though presumably connected) matter. But the film doesn’t really tell us anything about it. If we start from the premise that this is a serious condition that needs sensitive treatment on screen, I don’t think the film performs adequately. It doesn’t show us the roots or causes of the condition, the reality of experiencing it, or any detail about how one recovers from it. Again – why should a film do those things? It’s just a musical. Right. But it’s a musical that has chosen (as it didn’t need to do) to focus on someone with a supposedly debilitating medical condition, then not really bothered to explore it properly and help the audience to understand what the character might be experiencing. In this regard the film fails. And this has a dramatic effect as the central character, her struggle, her ‘journey’ are all less substantial and credible as a result.

Perhaps one could even go further and say: It is often stated that anorexia and eating disorders arise in part from (mainly) young women feeling pressurized by images of women that they see in the media, in which slimness is valorised and ‘normal-sized’, ‘plus-sized’ women and so on are at a premium. If one accepts that premise, then what is the logic in making a film which is about anorexia but which also centres on two beautiful slim young women? Doesn’t this risk compounding the problem even while appearing rather desultorily to address it? Perhaps this charge would be unfair and excessive – but again, it arises from the fact that the film has very deliberately chosen to base itself on this medical condition, a choice that one might think would then bring responsibilities.

But as I say, my main problem here is just a ‘dramatic’ frustration: having founded its story on illness, the film doesn’t bother to represent it properly as part of what happens. It thus makes Eve seem merely glamorously moody and self-indulgent, which is probably not what people who are really ill seem like.

7: There is one other incongruity about this film that I have glanced at: none of the main characters sounds Scottish. Eve is Australian. Cassie is apparently English, with a family that holidays in Bordeaux. James sounds utterly English despite his weak claims to Scottish identity. It goes on: even the fourth most visible character, rock singer Anton, is described as Swiss German (but played by a French actor who doesn’t seem to be working especially hard at a Swiss German accent). This is very odd in a film so resoundingly set in Glasgow, made by one of the most Glasgow-centric figures in popular music of the last decades, who has featured bagpipes on a track and launched a set of Scotland’s For Me! merchandise promoting an album. If there was one thing you would have predicted about a B&S musical, it was – well, the first thing might be the prevalence of young women in Nouvelle Vague clobber, but the second would be lots of Scottish voices. The few Scottish voices in God Help The Girl are marginal: Eve’s doctor (Cora Bisset: seeming a more seasoned and substantial actor than most here, but unable to improve her clunking script much), the odd oldster, a trio of working-class ‘Neds’ seen on a canal bank. The occlusion of local accents is so thorough that one feels that there must be a deliberate strategy here – but what would it be? If it’s to show Scotland as more cosmopolitan, then middle-class English people aren’t going to be the most popular instances of that, and seeing them donning tartan to walk the hills probably doesn’t help. In fact their centrality makes the whole thing bizarrely akin to the phenomenon that Alasdair Gray was attacked for attacking: English people going up to Scotland as arts administrators and, in Gray’s view, lacking roots or commitment to the country. I don’t know the ultimate rights and wrongs of that debate, but can repeat: it is bizarre to see a thoroughly Glaswegian film, by a writer very patriotic about Glasgow, in which almost no-one sounds like they’re from Glasgow.

8: It’s evident that I was often doubtful about this film. And yet I don’t wholly dislike it. It has left something positive in the mind – in fact the positive feeling far outweighs the negative. I find that this can happen with some works of art, like films – that they leave a better aftertaste than seemed likely at the time. I think for me that even applied to Godard’s Bande a Parte (1963), which might be one of God Help The Girl‘s models. What are the good things in God Help The Girl? I propose four.

9: The story does somehow gain conviction in the last reel – when Eve decides to leave Glasgow for London, and, importantly, she doesn’t go for the romance with James. She says something like ‘The time for that was ages ago’, and brushes it off. I like this. It’s a healthy refusal of narrative expectations of the formation of the couple (which are explicitly raised by Cassie a couple of scenes earlier). The fact that Murdoch refuses this norm and sends his characters away down different paths, I find quite creditable. It allows for the last five minutes or so to have a different mood, somehow more mature and honest because not locked into ticking narrative traps.

10: The music is often very good.  It’s dispersed through the film in different ways – often just playing tinnily on a background radio, for instance. It’s quite ingenious to set up a fictional world where all the music that plays is your own music. More centrally, of course, the songs are sung by Eve, and to a lesser extent Cassie and James. There are different sets of norms within the musical genre, with songs motivated by characters performing within the narrative, songs unmotivated by any realistic scenario, and slides from one to the other. This film has both of those options, but if anything is more reliant on ‘motivated’ song and less on random non-realistic bursts into song than I had expected; which relates of course to its being a ‘Let’s form a band’ story. I’ve said that the ease with which the full band comes together annoys me. But they sound good, and the songs they play here can make more sense here than they did on the soundtrack LP: ‘Come Monday Night’, ‘I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie’ (a soaring performance that I come to think is the high point of the whole film), ‘A Down and Dusky Blonde’, ‘I Just Want Your Jeans’. The unmotivated performances can also work: the chorus of ‘Pretty Eve In The Tub’ replenishes my respect for Murdoch. Perhaps one of the film’s greatest virtues, then, is making the album seem better than it did. I’d really like to hear it again now. I think I’ll buy it on CD. In fact maybe I’ll buy the other version, the Original Soundtrack version! Or both!

11: Glasgow. However bad the film gets, it is almost always taking place amid the beautiful brown tenements, green parks and grey churches of this city. For me this creates a slight dissonance, as the poverty of the dialogue makes me want to dislike the scene in a way that’s prevented by the richness of the setting. Put it this way, you could take the characters out of the film, maybe make just a little montage of the brief connecting shots showing trees and tower blocks, and you would still have something valuable. ‘Glasgow Plays Itself’ – in a way that, in begrudging mood, I feel gives the film too easy a victory. But then, who else but Murdoch has asked Glasgow to play itself this way? Frankly, in fact, without Murdoch’s bringing the city to a particular kind of attention, I myself would not have the familiarity with and love for it that I do, which now, absurdly, gives me a proprietorial sense that Murdoch shouldn’t be using it this way … No, that can’t be right – he of all people, besides Alasdair Gray, has earned the right to put the West End of Glasgow into art.

12. The first thing you encounter in the film, with the screen still black, is the voice of Stuart Maconie. Followed by the voice of Mark Radcliffe. This amazed me. I had been listening to them on the radio a few hours earlier; and the day before, and many other days before that. From an initial scepticism, I have developed a great affection for their reassuringly formulaic and predictable radio dialogue. And here it is, the first thing in the film! At first I imagined that this might be an extract from a genuine Radcliffe & Maconie programme, but soon it became apparent that it was specially recorded for the film: presumably improvised, playing themselves, from an initial theme. They sound terrifically realistic, like themselves. Yet, oddly, they are not playing themselves. The credits confirm something that is obscurely said during the film: that they are playing two disc jockeys called Findlay and Donovan. (In an extra wrinkle, the film is credited to Findlay Productions.) It’s problematically obscure during the film because the viewer doesn’t know that Radcliffe & Maconie have been renamed, and might well assume that Eve, when talking of the urgency of getting a tape to Findlay and Donovan, is referring to some other pair of people that we haven’t encountered yet. Possibly they’ve been renamed because they are playing figures of lesser cultural stature than they have in real life (though an early reference to being ‘in Glasgow’ gives the impression that they’re not local DJs but national broadcasters who are just visiting).  But the viewer experiences them not as fictional characters, but as Radcliffe & Maconie! It’s all odd, a contribution to the paradoxes of the theory of fiction. But in closing, to put it simply: I can’t be entirely negative towards on a film that uses Radcliffe & Maconie this way.

 

Aikea-Guinea

In recent days I have heard a few songs on the radio (BBC radio 6music, to be honest) that have touched me.

1: Late the other night I heard a song that sounded like … college rock? Garage indie rock? It sounded like it was from the 1990s, a contemporary of R.E.M. It moved me with a sense of familiarity, of an auditory world somewhat lost. At the end of the track I heard that it was All About Chad. That’s not a good band name! The best I can say for it is that it’s like a parody of All About Eve, which while drawn from a film was a proper band name. Looking up the band online, I find the song: ‘Embarrassing Moments’, self-released in 1991. This at least fits the milieu it sounded like to me.

2: Today on the Radcliffe & Maconie programme I heard a song in a certain generic mode. Tons of reverb, perhaps artificial but maybe supposed to sound as though the band is in an old school studio. A garage sound again, even a bit of a surf sound. A generic sound like Dum Dum Girls had. I couldn’t help liking it. It made me think of US indie rock fans I like – people like the music producer Archie Moore who was in Black Tambourine. It made me yearn for a world I associate with those people and their past – a world of porch parties and indiepop barbeques in summer. The song turned out to be ‘Boyfriend’ by Best Coast. I’m not sure they’re great; I’m hardly even saying the song was worthy of the false memories it made me yearn for.

3: That was enough for me, but the next song they played was ‘Can You Dig It?’ by The Mock Turtles. Now this is much more standard UK radio stuff than the previous two records. It would have been on BBC Radio 1 in 1991 (I see that it was released around the time I turned 18; I’d have guessed it was a year or two earlier), played on evening indie radio if that was around but quite likely also during the day. It’s not much less standard an item of UK pop than for instance The Charlatans’ ‘The Only One I Know’. So it’s nothing to express too much surprise about. But it touches me. So much of it, I think, is in the opening riff that goes round and round through the song’s verses: up and down the three notes, G#, A, B, A, all rooted in the E chord. Then so much of the groove is easy and welcoming. And the drama of the chorus’s minor chord section is so corny. The song is so simple to enjoy. And yes it’s another period piece; the year is the same as All About Chad but this is so English where that was so American.

4: That was enough for me too, but I’ll add that the thrills went on. The next song that Radcliffe & Maconie played was ‘Dreams Tonite’ by Alvvays. I can take ‘Alvvays’ but I’m not keen on ‘Tonite’. But the song had such romantic grandeur, it could make one feel that pop is still as fresh as ever, that there is no aesthetic exhaustion, that the feelings go on.

5: Then the song blended into another, which sounded almost equally good, in a different way, yet continuous with it. After some seconds of its deep sound’s progression I realized that it was … The Cocteau Twins! I had never heard the song before. That’s true for me of so many of their songs: it’s one major band I have never had the measure of enough fully to know one record from another. It turned out to be ‘Aikea Guinea’, a single from March 1985.

It was remarkable to have heard these three tremendous records in a row on the radio – only one of which I had ever heard before. It made me think about how much music can still move and impress me. I thought also of how the other day I had been thinking of the melody’s expansion in the latter half of the first track on the first Chapterhouse LP, and how its up and down movement sounds to me like the world of Norwich I lived in when it came out. I now see that the lyrics include:

Love me warm in cold daylight
Soft as skin and safe inside
Smother silky sin so fine
Make believe that you are mine

 

Cocteau.jpg

Moneyball

Moneyball.png

Last weekend (around Saturday 13th August) the Premier League soccer season began. At noon I turned on BBC1’s Football Focus, as I have done for decades. When it was over, I turned on BBC Radio 5live for about four hours. The next day at 12:15 I turned on Match of the Day 2Extra for 45 minutes. When that finished I turned on 5live again for another 2-3 hours, with commentary on Newcastle United vs Tottenham Hotspur. At 10:45 I watched a delayed Match of the Day 2. The next evening, Monday 14th, I listened to 5live’s Monday Night Club for two hours, partly because Andy Townsend was on it. The former Ireland captain and maligned television pundit finds new vivacity and drollery on radio.

That catalogue makes it look like I watch and listen to too much BBC football coverage. I think I do it not just from a love of the game, but from a kind of patriotic loyalty to the BBC itself. But my own media excess is not the subject of this post. My concern here is how much of those acres of coverage was taken up with talking about transfers, contracts and money.

Actually transfer gossip isn’t the problem. It is normal for sports fans to be interested in transfers between clubs. It’s somewhat normal to be intrigued by the fees. It all goes with one’s interest in one’s team and how it can be tinkered with and improved; and with the logical interest in how the same thing is happening at other clubs. I can understand all this like anyone else. It’s also the case that during the close season, transfer talk is the most evident topic of current conversation, aside perhaps from friendlies which typically have a low level of interest; and that, for instance, on the last day of a transfer window, there is some soap opera (or is it game show) fun in seeing what deals are being done (often not many). So my complaint is not with people gossiping about transfers, as such.

The complaint can be more specifically focused around my own club, Tottenham Hotspur. During all that media coverage I consumed, various clubs would get a slot for discussion, and Tottenham would come up periodically. Almost all of it, on programme after programme, centred around ‘that interview by Danny Rose’. Apparently Tottenham’s left-back, who has been injured and hasn’t played since January, had given an interview to the Sun newspaper in which he had complained about wages at the club being too low and suggested that he might like to move. I won’t go into more detail because I don’t want to go and look at the Sun. One of the distasteful things about this whole phenomenon, remarked on by no one at the BBC or elsewhere, is that that Murdoch organ is driving the news agenda and getting its own profile raised every time the supposed story is mentioned.

But the content of the story and the ensuing discussion is the bigger issue. The discussion, which in my daftly excessive media experience I heard over and over again, says: ‘Danny Rose has a point, doesn’t he? Tottenham’s players are not paid more than £100,000 a week. They look around at players at other clubs, they talk to them on international duty, and they find that players who have done much less well for their clubs in the last couple of seasons are on two or three times as much money. It’s natural to be aggrieved, isn’t it?’. (Typing this out I can hear it all again; it’s infuriating.) It goes on: ‘Yes, he’s only thinking what anyone would think in that position’; ‘Those players have taken Spurs to a new level, they’re entitled to want a reward’; ‘Tottenham need to change their policy on wages or they’re not going to be able to hang on to these players’. This message was not just aired once: it was aired at length on just about every football programme I consumed on the BBC over the weekend.

Here are some things I don’t like about this.

1: It is a substitute for talking about actual football. Many of the pundits, of course, are former players. Others are fans in some sense. You’d think they would be keen to talk about the actual playing of the game: things that happen on the pitch, players’ specific qualities of pace, heading, defending, shooting, or tactics. This talk of contracts utterly occludes that, sucks away the time that could be given to it and replaces it with something much more foreign to the game itself, much more ignoble. You would think that the people engaged in such discussion would feel somewhat dirty afterwards, as though they had wasted precious time; you’d want them to wish that they had talked about the experience of running around a green field.

2: It’s bullying.  These media people are creating a climate of opinion against the policy of a football club with which they have no connection. Note that this isn’t over an issue of high principle, like, say,  whether a club must ban a player accused of racism. Even on such issues, a club can feel bullied and defensive (hence Liverpool’s Suarez T-shirts) – but this is clearly different. A climate oppressive to the club and its stable management is being built up on no ethical imperative at all.

3: There are no serious countervailing voices. True, there is sometimes a semblance of ‘debate’, and the main such voice was Alan Shearer on MotD2 arguing that players like Rose should not be demanding more money as they haven’t won anything yet. He also pointed out that we’ve seen pictures of a sequence of Tottenham players happily signing contracts over the past couple of years, so it doesn’t make sense for them now to complain about the terms of their contracts. Shearer’s message is sensible as far as it goes. But we need more. We need someone in each of these discussions to say: It is obscene that you are talking about someone giving a whingeing interview to a Rupert Murdoch newspaper complaining that he is only paid £80,000 a week.

Such a message – that footballers’ salaries are far too high, that it is wrong to wish them them even higher, and further, that this whole discourse exemplifies the economic inequality of our society – would not be popular among the people on these football programmes. But hold on. Maybe that fact is a problem with the programmes. Maybe the media needs more ‘diversity’ here. Maybe it’s shameful that media coverage of a multi-billion pound industry doesn’t have much more space for voices taking a different view of the ethics of the money involved. In the many years before his surprise rise to prominence, this is the kind of role that Jeremy Corbyn MP would often play on news and current affairs programmes: genuinely challenging a consensus and bringing an ethical perspective otherwise absent.

The BBC is famously supposed to  strive for ‘balance’ in the opinions represented on it. This policy is often presented as hapless and flawed. But a genuine attempt at ‘balance’ would nonetheless improve the discussion here. The people who casually, disdainfully say that players should be downing tools unless a wage cap of £100,000 per week is broken should be challenged, put on the back foot, made to realize that their position is not normal. The lack of serious contrary voices has allowed these discourses about pay to be normalized, in a way that would not pass without comment on Today or Newsnight. In truth soccer programmes are quite bad at structuring discussion; they don’t have the seriousness or expertise of the people who manage Today or Newsnight and try to make discussion go somewhere. That’s OK, it’s only football. But as I’ve said: it’s not football. That’s the trouble. They’re talking about money and, implicitly, about obscene wage inequality, and discussions of this should take place in a proper economic, political and ethical context, in a way that discussions of zonal vs man to man marking need not.

4: There is a last irony. All this is taking place on the BBC – which only in the last month experienced something of a storm about its own salary levels. Some of that anger was about a gender pay cap, some about other kinds of diversity. Some of it is just about people getting paid so much – people like Gary Lineker, for instance. I like Lineker quite a bit, but it is fortunate for him that his particular MotD role doesn’t leave him space for discussion about whether people should settle for £100,000 per week. It would be apparent that there was something inappropriate or dubious about someone so extravagantly paid talking about the even more extravagant pay of others. Actually, perhaps that’s true of Shearer too: after all, he’s contributed to the discussion, and most people think the BBC pays him too much. Perhaps (though I doubt it) that’s even a reason he’s taking a bit of a stand against players’ demands for higher pay.

In general there should be a dissonance, a disquiet, about the BBC hosting this consensus of casual greed: not just because of its own high pay but because it is a public service broadcaster which implies social values. The BBC should not be a place where people can talk blithely about adding zeroes to payslips as though it doesn’t mean anything. There should be much more doubt, shame and anger about all this. And on football programmes, there should be much more talk about football.

 

 

Mutinous Winds

Tempest.jpg

The Tempest at the Barbican Theatre

Like many people I think of myself as revering William Shakespeare, and also imagine that I know the outline of his late play The Tempest (c.1611). But a few minutes into the current RSC production at the Barbican, directed by Gregory Doran with Simon Russell Beale as the wizard Prospero, I started to realise that I hadn’t seen Shakespeare on stage for some time, and haven’t looked closely at the text of The Tempest for still longer. Watching Prospero provide lengthy back-story to his daughter Miranda, I had no doubt that Shakespeare’s magniloquence was reliably in place in every line on the page, but was less sure that rattling through it in a lengthy monologue, voice straining on a bare cavernous stage, was a good mode of narrative exposition. Maybe, I thought, I’d watched more superhero movies than was good for my ability to concentrate on this stuff. For that matter, before the play I’d spent four hours with Martin Keown and Kevin Kilbane on Radio 5live: perhaps this hadn’t left my English at Shakespearean levels.

A gain from my long separation from The Tempest, though, was frequent surprise at what actually happened. When Prospero’s slave Caliban lay under a sheet and was discovered by a clown with painted face and horn, I felt bewilderment  and intrigue: was this clown indeed, as Caliban himself says, a spirit of Prospero’s island? Only gradually did I realize that the clown was Trinculo, yet another of the dispersed survivors from the opening shipwreck (and actually named as a Jester in the dramatis personae). Did you remember that Ferdinand and Miranda have a wedding ceremony blessed by a set of goddesses who appear out of nowhere and sing opera? (In the text a stage direction stipulates: Juno’s car appears in the sky, which seems at least as ambitious as Exit pursued by a bear.) Or that Caliban, Trinculo and their fellow chancer Stephano are deterred from an attack on Prospero by the spirit Ariel conjuring a blitz of raucous barking dogs? (Enter divers spirits, in shape of dogs and hounds, hunting them about.) Quite possibly, but you still might never have seen these moments realized in such spectacular form as in Doran’s production. Screens, projections, graphics, lights: Ariel’s magnified image floating in a great cylinder, looking like the Silver Surfer and giving me hope that this play wasn’t so incompatible with superhero movies after all. The plainness of Prospero’s first scene was transcended by all these, but also, for me, by the simple interest of character and action. How would Caliban’s motives emerge? What would transpire amid the party of royal shipwreck survivors? Would Miranda’s high opinion of Ferdinand dip if she ever saw another man? By the late scene when Prospero abjured his magic and broke his staff, the dynamics of character and emotion had become compelling, and I had even caught up with the language, ascending from Keown to appreciate the tremendous chunky vividness of this:

                                                            I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt: the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar.

        A standard Michael Billington review of a play like this will say something like: ‘Watching Gregory Doran’s production, I came to realize how much Shakespeare’s play is about the power of art’. Sure. But my reaction was more literal. Watching this production, I came to realize how much the play is about magic. Dancing spirits of wood and water taking over the action from human beings; spells cast to put people to sleep or paralyse them. This was striking, because I don’t especially associate Shakespeare with the supernatural but with secular reality: merchants, rogues, deals, motives high and low, realpolitik, negotiation, battles, beer – the kind of thing that fills Henry IV. To see a Shakespeare play so magical is to realize how un-magical most of Shakespeare is, with a few important exceptions, even though it derives from a world where more people believed in both angels and alchemy than they do now. I also started to reflect that The Tempest belongs to the literary history of fantasy. Put simply, when Prospero’s dull cloak had stopped reminding me of Ben Kenobi, his staff and books (unseen here, apparently stored on high) reminded me of Gandalf. Not that The Tempest can be a key progenitor of this mode, a role more solidly occupied by Old Norse sagas and Arthurian romance, but perhaps it shares in the same tradition. This in turn made me wonder if Shakespeare could be related to the other major modern genres. Henry V and Anthony Cleopatra are evidently historical fiction, Much Ado About Nothing romantic comedy, Macbeth Gothic or Horror; how about Measure for Measure as crime (with The Merchant of Venice launching a sub-genre of courtroom drama) and Othello as erotic thriller? Science fiction is another matter, relying on a post-Shakespearean level of technological development, but there remains an imaginative dialogue between them – most evidently in Forbidden Planet’s remake of The Tempest itself.

The one thing I had remembered about The Tempest all these years was less magical and more ‘materialist’: the idea that it dramatizes a colonial situation, exemplified by Caliban’s resentful insistence that he has learned his masters’ language  in order to curse in it. Doran’s production seems to take this head on, with a black actor (Joe Dixon) as Caliban – albeit clad in a tight beige suit with swollen belly. It seems a standard view that the play was inspired by attempts to colonize the Americas, yet this is not explicit in the script, whose reference points are from Milan and Naples to Tunisia: the sea in question is evidently the Mediterranean, not the Caribbean. I was reminded of how awkwardly Shakespeare’s narrative fits with any well-meaning postcolonial analysis, but that the awkwardness can be part of the point. Thus Caliban’s faith in the drunken sailor Stephano as a new master sees him cry ‘Freedom!’ with a doomed poignancy I can still feel, remembering the scene days later. Shakespeare seems to be playing on a standard carnivalesque trope of inversion, with the clowns deluded that they can get the upper hand. Viewed politically, Caliban’s new subservience to Stephano (peculiarly reminiscent of, and perhaps a direct influence on, Gollum’s to Frodo as they cross the Dead Marshes in The Two Towers) is painfully humiliating. Yet I wonder if it encodes a reality of master-slave relations, in which the oppressed is all too ready to follow a new master as the price of escape from the old. The would-be comic structure might get at something troubling but insistent about colonial psychology.

Caliban’s very last appearance marks a change. Chastised by Prospero to return to his cell, he suddenly rises to full height, looking taller than everyone else on stage. Prospero and the rest step back in trepidation. It is as though, from all the grovelling enslavement, Caliban has become Shelley’s lion after slumber, realizing his potential power over the oppressors – though in this case they are many and the oppressed few. Towering over Prospero, Caliban speaks his lines of deference – ‘I’ll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace’ – with a new self-belief and scorn, disdainfully snapping logs of wood  as he stalks off stage. If anything, the implication is that to be ‘wise’ is to gain a better consciousness of his oppressed condition, and the ‘grace’ he seeks would be authentic liberation. Perhaps the recent adventure with a failed rebellion has transformed his understanding. None of this is specified in the script, but the reinterpretation of the scene echoes the notorious difficulty at the end of The Taming of the Shrew, where Kate’s declaration of subservience to her husband is nowadays often played for irony. At this historical moment, in both cases, it seems necessary to find something in the script to redeem it. The effect of Caliban’s transformation, though abrupt, is powerful.

Yet still more than Caliban, Ariel is the production’s wandering star. His presence is assisted by special effects, but the actor Mark Quartley himself is at the heart of it: constantly on tiptoe, always poised to fly from one location to the next, a creature made of potential movement. I know that all the actors on stage will have learned to adapt their bodies to move in different ways – not least Dixon’s hunchbacked and loping Caliban – but Quartley takes this to another level. He’s like a ballerino, seamlessly conveying  a sense of living on another plane from the human beings he floats among. It’s curious that the magic is supposed to be Prospero’s, but so much of it seems reliant on the agency of this dazzling figure: almost as though, like Caliban, he has never realized the true extent of his own powers.

 

Children of Dessinée

Laureline.jpg

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

An early sequence in this film sees the title character, special agent Valerian, on a desert plain dotted with people. Thanks to a hi-tech implant he is also experiencing what seems to be a virtual reality: a vast multi-level bazaar called Big Market (not necessarily modelled on its near namesake in Newcastle) populated by garish creatures and enthusiastic shoppers. As Valerian tumbles into gunbattles in this apparently imaginary place, it is not easy to discern anyone’s motives; but the narrative difficulty is doubled by the fact that we regularly cut back to the calm desert where his partner Laureline is casually walking around him. The juxtaposed spheres of space are hard cognitively to unify. This didn’t make me feel encouraged about my chances of following this film, but it did feel like a distinctive approach to narrative. In retrospect I realized that it was also a model of the production of this whole spectacular feature film: the characters in the desert are equivalent to the actors before the computer-generated imagery has been thrown up around them. One of the lead actors had commented, before the premiere, that they were interested to see what the film looked like: the apparent implication was that its world had been as invisible to them as Big Market is to Laureline. 

Luc Besson’s 137-minute film is derived from a science fiction comic book that ran in France from 1967 to 2010. Evidently a much-loved part of the bande desinée culture, but little known in the Anglosphere, it has inspired a vast French-centred production with the largest budget ever spent on a European film. The story pivots on the planet Mul, which an early sequence shows us to be an agrarian utopia inhabited by elegant grey humanoids so benignly pacific they might recall the decadent Eloi of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895). This race comes to be referred to as ‘Pearls’; their civilization also centres on the pearls that they fish from the sea and that can generate matter and energy.  In the 28th century AD, Mul’s utopia is disrupted by war above the planet: a space battle between humans and another species sends starships crashing explosively down through orbit. To save the humans’ cause in battle, their commander orders the firing of fusion missiles, which defeat the alien fleet but also destroy Mul. It is a narrative nuance that the Pearls’ world is destroyed not by deliberate colonization but by accident: they are collateral damage in the maintenance of human influence in the galaxy.

Commander Filitt, little troubled by these consequences and played by a peculiarly cantankerous Clive Owen, goes on to take charge of an immense space station, Alpha, which is also infiltrated by the small group of Pearls who survived their planet’s destruction.  These survivors are interested not in revenge on humanity but in engineering the recreation of their lost world. This they achieve at the end, though Filitt has tried to destroy them to cover up his previous crimes. The Pearls are ultimately helped in this goal by military agents Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne), who go through a series of space opera scrapes on the way to the denouement of these central, somewhat ethically charged issues.

Alpha is one of the film’s finest ideas: an abundance of interlocking platforms and craft, a mechanical world that grows as though organically. The film briefly describes its zones, but doesn’t give a full sense of its diversity as a space. But, getting some of its best moments out of the way as early as possible, the picture starts with a montage showing Alpha’s origins, in near-Earth collaboration between different human ethnicities. Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern astronauts come on board and shake hands: as the years tick past in a corner of the screen, these are followed by a series of extra-terrestrial races, at the end of which Alpha has become too big for Earth’s orbit and sets off to a new berth 700 million miles across the galaxy. The ‘city of a thousand planets’ is thus akin to the cosmopolitan description of London as ‘the world in a city’. But it’s one of the far-fetched film’s most charming gestures to tie this development back into a real event in human history, starting it all off with real footage of astronauts and cosmonauts harmoniously docking in 1975. Behind all this David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ plays, if anything an excessively obvious choice: why not ‘Loving the Alien’ or ‘New Killer Star’?

Evidently the film partakes in what the novelist and critic Adam Roberts has named as one of science fiction’s great themes: alterity, and the way that the extra-terrestrial ‘alien’ can help to reimagine earthly difference and vice versa. In its treatment of the Pearls the film takes a solid enough stand for the rights of an oppressed species. Yet it’s fair to add that the narrative deals with alterity on its own, limited terms. The oppressed species is an elegant grey humanoid (with an excessively cutesy mascot animal): the equivalent perhaps of what ecologists call charismatic mammals, while the protagonists are thoroughly human – for that matter white and heterosexual with American accents. (The senior human seen in the film, though, is a government minister played by an African-American: the jazz musician Herbie Hancock. He looks pretty well, considering that he was already considered a veteran cameo when he played on a Simple Minds record in 1982.) The closest to a central figure of otherness is the shape-shifting nightclub singer Bubble, a self-declared ‘illegal immigrant’ who when assuming conveniently human form looks exactly like the pop singer Rihanna. If pushing the critique of the film’s lack of imagination of otherness, you could question why Bubble – who seems naturally to be a blue blob – has to take such photogenic human form, even at the moment of death. But perhaps such questions aren’t meant to be insisted on too much in an episodic space opera like this.

The casual viewer of that sub-genre could reasonably think that this film resembles Star Wars. A galactic nightclub of aliens (as in A New Hope and The Force Awakens), a space battle above a planet (Return of the Jedi, Rogue One), a fat alien crime lord (Return of the Jedi), robot soldiers somewhat more efficient than those in Attack of the Clones, squads of uniformed officials in control rooms and corridors (passim, though the ‘Federation’ here is more in tune with Star Trek); the superficial resemblance is plain enough, and even extends to the heroes tumbling down a garbage chute inside a space station. Yet – even though the original comic book is said to have been one of the young George Lucas’s many sources – it doesn’t feel like Star Wars, lacking that saga’s Manichean frame and the sense of momentousness it brings even to what would seem daft derring-do by the standards of other aesthetics. There is always something more picaresque about Valerian, as though it’s making itself up as it goes along; the freewheeling flavour may well relate somehow to the source material, closer to Barbarella than The Empire Strikes Back. As Valerian tells Bubble at one point when she protests the need for method acting and rehearsal: there’s no harm in a bit of improvisation.

That seems potentially a gentle joke about Rihanna as anxious thespian. But the actors from non-traditional backgrounds are certainly not a significant problem in this world of spectacle. ‘Model / actress’ seems to have become a satirical Lost in Showbiz phrase for C-list celebrities who do little of note, but Cara Delevigne here is a successful model who seems more than adequate as an actress too. Nothing in her performance – physically energetic, punctuated with wryness at her partner – makes her seem a dabbling amateur. She even turns out to have creditably sung the song over the closing credits, which I’d been thinking sounded like Sophie Ellis-Bextor. If only it were a cover of ‘Loving the Alien’.