Fifty Shades Of Grey/The Amazing Spider-Man/Jaws

 

 

 

By accident once I was an internet troll.

What happened was, I was watching TV when unexpectedly, a comedian, oooh let’s call her Zita Zudner, came on and did some stand up. Now I like a funny woman and, as a youth, had had a massive crush on Ms. Zudner. The passage of time has not been generous to either of us but Zita had clearly put a lot of money and effort into combating the second law of thermodynamics and, to my reckoning, she was not looking well on it.

Being new to Twitter at the time I thought it would be best to alert my couple of dozen followers to my reckon, and I tweeted something about Zita looking “funny”.

I could adopt a defensive posture here and say that the tweet was more about my reaction to something than the thing itself, but let’s not fuck about. It was an unpleasant and unnecessary thing to say.

What happened next was that Rita Rudner, excuse me Zita Zudner, tweeted me back with a derogatory comment about my appearance on my Twitter avatar.

A couple of things occurred to me at this point.

Firstly, she isn’t a follower of mine. I hadn’t used her @ name. The only way she could have found out about my tweet was by searching for mentions of her name on Twitter at which point, you could argue, she’s bringing grief upon herself.

Secondly, ungallant though it undoubtedly was, my opinion was an honest one expressed semi-privately. What I think of Zita Zudner’s appearance is, actually, none of her damned business.

Thirdly, I am quite aware of how I look thanks, but my job involves sitting alone in a dark room, rather than standing up in front of an audience of millions and going “Look at meeeeeeee!”

But that’s all self-serving twaddle.

I was in the wrong. I’d had it coming. I apologised to her and I deleted the tweet.

From this I learned, quite late in life, that I am the sort of person who isn’t comfortable saying stuff behind someone’s back that I wouldn’t say to his or her face. Also, that anything I say outside my own head I am effectively saying in public.

And there ended my brief, inadvertent trolling career.

It brought home to me that offence is a funny thing. Easy to give without meaning to. Easy to take when it’s not necessary to. After a recent spell of deploring the crudeness of some online communication, and feeling personally affronted when people failed to agree with me, or expressed reasonable opinions that didn’t chime with mine I decided that I wasn’t living very healthily.

I resolved to live and let live. To express my opinions honestly but positively, and to allow other people to do the same.

This resolution didn’t have a name, but if it had had a name it would have been Project Pollyanna.

I’ll be honest with you. It’s not really going all that well.

A couple of things have arisen recently which have taken my idealistic resolve way past its elastic limit and left it dangling and broken, like a dangly broken metaphorical spider web or, possibly, willy.

These things are Fifty Shades Of Grey and The Amazing Spider-Man. And incidentally if you are my Mum you should ignore the Fifty Shades stuff and skip straight on to Spider-Man, though you won’t really like that much either I’m afraid.

Hello Mum, by the way. How are you? Well, I hope. Love to Dad.

Fifty Shades Of Grey, then. Hastily rebranded Twilight fan fiction with Edward and Bella becoming Christian and Anastasia, it has made the move from marginalised freak-text to covertly read Kindle-porn to socially acceptable bookshop purchase in a minuscule span of time.

Holy Crap! That tie!

Like Emmanuelle in the seventies and 9½ Weeks in the eighties this is a work whose content is principally sexual which has moved into the mainstream. This is remarkable when it happens as, speaking very broadly, sexuality is a difficult thing to discuss openly in Britain for various longstanding cultural reasons, most of which are to do with the class system and the weather.

Sexy old sex. To save you the trouble, I have investigated sex, and I am here to report back to you that it is really, really, really nice.

It’s nice if you have it by yourself. It’s especially nice if you have it with someone you like and who likes you back. It’s pretty much all you could hope for from a means of reproduction. It remains quite a private thing though, which is why the rare crossovers into the mainstream are so interesting.

By all previous standards Fifty Shades Of Grey is a bizarre work to have gone through the normalising process. The width of its reach is ambitious and it embraces a lot of sexual activity that I would previously have described as niche.

The anal intercourse, the fisting and the BDSM are all explicitly placed in a consensual context, sometimes off-puttingly so. There is a cock-wiltingly large amount of basic safe sex education and contract law to get through, for instance, before you reach any actual consummation. So the morality of the work, insofar as that actually means anything, is not up for debate with me. The book (and I should make it clear here that I have only read the first of the trilogy) has established a fantasy setting and then a rigidly structured system of consent within that.

I have a liberal tendency to arch an eyebrow at anything which consistently portrays a woman as submissive, but the book is about a sub-dom relationship, so it is what it is. I’m going to leave that alone.

Fundamentally I believe that author E.L. James deserves applause for being so unflinching, clear-eyed and smirk-free in the way she has presented us with this. The question for me is not “Why would she write such a book?” That doesn’t matter. It’s already been written. The question I’m interested in is “Is it any good for what it is?”

And my answer, which is an opinion rather than a statement of absolute fact is: No. No it’s not very good at all. In fact it’s awful.

With any depiction of sex the way it is presented is key to how involved I can get with it. In the case of visual pornography, and God bless the internet here for rendering a lot of things see-able that were once not so easy to see, it doesn’t take much to change what was a scene of lovely people having lovely sex into a grisly meat puppet show. Focus too tightly on any act and it stops being sexy fun-times and it starts looking like somebody whacking a raw pork chop with another raw pork chop.

It is the same with written porn or, if you are of a delicate turn of mind, erotica. The fun lies not in the acts being described so much as in the way they are described, and this is where Fifty Shades Of Grey repeatedly trips over its own spreader.

E.L. James has next to no descriptive powers. Time after time metaphor fails her.

As a much younger man I worked my way (and worked is not the right word really) through the Beauty series by Anne Rice. The Claiming Of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty’s Punishment and Beauty’s Release are strikingly similar in subject matter to Fifty Shades Of Grey, but set in a feudal, fairytale world. Also Rice (who published these under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaure) has worked hard at the craft of writing and can put one word after another without making your brain fall out of your nose.

During one febrile passage as our bound heroine Beauty is watching something quiveringly erotic happen to someone else she describes a feeling “like a grape bursting between my legs” which in seven words instantly outclasses anything in Fifty Shades Of Grey.

E.L. James, in whose hands sex always seems to be a sprint to the climax, only has one way of describing an orgasm: shattering into a million pieces. Really? Is that what it’s like for girls?

This descriptive failure doesn’t just apply to the sex. The characters have no characteristics. They exist through their choices of car, clothes, food and music. One scene in which our protagonist’s pal Kate is giving a graduation speech unfolds thus: “She takes her time, not intimidated by a thousand people gawping at her. She smiles when she’s ready, looks up at the captivated throng, and launches eloquently into her speech. She’s so composed and funny, the girls beside me erupt on cue at her first joke.”

What is the first joke? We never find out. We don’t know because the author doesn’t know. She wants you to know that Kate is confident and funny so she tells you that Kate is confident and funny. End of.

So lame is the exposition that you can only really gauge how you should be responding emotionally by the vocal cues Anastasia gives you. Holy shit. Holy crap. Holy cow. They are the special phrases that tell you this is an exciting bit.

It’s maybe a bit optimistic of me to expect too much from the writing that is holding the porn together, but I do need some sense that the author is a human being who has met and interacted with other human beings in an adult way. This is weak, solipsistic drivel. It’s the kind of misdirected, self-obsessed inward-looking piffle you’d expect from a dizzy adolescent in possession of a new and exciting head full of brain soup.

Not for adults.

Millions disagree.

Good for them.

By contrast Spider-Man has never really set itself up as an adult entertainment. Even in the Marvel continuity of four-coloured heroes and gaudy galactic pantomime-dame villains Spidey is considered a bit bratty and juvenile.

That’s his thing in essence. Insecure kid gets power, has to learn to use power responsibly. It’s the story of everybody’s transition from childhood told by adults who know from experience what they are talking about.

It’s hard to be unfamiliar with the approximate shape of the Spider-Man origin story: a guy gets bitten by a radioactive spider and develops spider powers. It’s not a concept to trouble the old brain-banana too much, but even if it were we have had three perfectly good Spider-Man movies in the last ten years. People saw those. We remember. So the decision to make this year’s The Amazing Spider-Man yet another retelling of the origin story is one to make you throw your hands up in despair.

What’s the difference? In place of Sam Raimi’s panel-aware ebullience we have Marc Webb’s stumbling, self-conscious coolness. Instead of a plot where things happened and people exchanged information with each other using sentences full of words we have a drizzly, chaotic nocturnal trudge towards a cocked ending in which two major plotlines are left in midair. It’s insulting. The plot that there is is held together by an embarrassing amount of coincidence. And, for an origin, there isn’t half a lot of opaque back-story told through flashbacks.

The killer though is the casting of Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. I don’t doubt his sincerity and people more perceptive than I am have seen great things in what he’s done in The Amazing Spider-Man, but it eludes me. A lot of the problem is beyond Garfield’s control. As he is written here Peter Parker is an unbearable tool, self-seeking, petulant and way too cool to actually enjoy anything. Remember Tobey Maguire’s unfettered whooping as his Peter Parker exulted in his new powers? Well forget it. You won’t be getting any of that here. Just lots of pouting punctuated by some below-par computer game CGI.

Still, he is very thin. And he’s got that hair that you like. Not you. Those other people. Not the forward-facing Justin Bieber hair. The Hewligan’s Haircut prehensile hair like off of that Twilight guy.

In twenty years time we will find that way funnier than we find the mullet now.

I am so tired of this superabundance of sulky, inarticulate films pandering to sulky inarticulate teens. Yes, yes, yes. You are special. Nobody understands. Life is unfair.

Didn’t movies used to be more fun than this?

Hood hair

Apparently they did.

As part of its 100th anniversary celebrations Universal have spiffed up Jaws and given it a cinematic re-release prior to its appearance on Blu-ray later this year.

Due to some pretty barbaric parental negligence back in 1975 I never got to the cinema to see Jaws and this year has been my first chance to experience it on the big screen.

Obviously age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its infinite variety. It is a perfect movie and I have little to say about it.

The first half of the film is exquisite and I appreciated more than ever that beautiful, yammering, Altmanesque seventies technique of overlapping dialogue. It’s not such a big step from Jaws to Popeye. Not really. But once you get into the second half of the film and it’s just three men in a boat the movie becomes something else, some kind of cinematic ur-text.

The lines of the plot are so sharp and the space in the film so clear that you can pretty much project anything you want on to it symbolically. I don’t think there is an intended metaphor in the film. I even think the Freudian reading of Quint, Brody and Hooper representing the id, ego and superego is taking things far too far.

It is pure film.

If all the movies in the world disappeared I would miss each and every one of them, even the ones I don’t much like.

If however I could keep The Maltese Falcon, 2001 A Space Odyssey and Jaws then I’d be OK.

True Grit

The novel True Grit by Charles Portis was first published in 1968 and must have seemed oddly anachronistic in its rectitude and formality in that furry-headed era of counterculture. It was well received, with Roald Dahl declaiming “True Grit is the best novel to come my way for a very long time. What book has given me greater pleasure in the last five years? Or in the last twenty?”

There were similar plaudits from contemporary writers of the calibre of Ira Levin and Richard Condon. In the UK it was published in 1969 as Penguin paperback number 3017 (thanks to my spheniscid pal Keir for pointing this out http://www.flickr.com/photos/scatterkeir/2548316773/). The writing was beautiful and the widespread assumption was that the novel would live on permanently, revered as a classic.

In her effusive introduction to Bloomsbury’s welcome 2005 reprint Donna Tartt notes of the novel that in the 1970s “…True Grit vanished from the public eye, and my mother and I, along with many other Portis fans, were reduced to scouring used bookstores and buying up whatever stock we could find because the copies we lent out so evangelically were never returned.”

I don’t agree with Tartt that truffling around second-hand bookshops is a mean or lowly pursuit to which one is “reduced”. Some of us find it quite noble. I do share her frustration though. It pre-echoes my constant astonishment that John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books don’t enjoy enduring popularity.

So what causes lie behind Portis’s disappearance from the literary canon?

True Grit is an amazing book. It details the handful of days in which fourteen year-old Mattie Ross heads off into the Choctaw Nation with the spent, dissolute US Marshal Rooster Cogburn and the prickly Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, her only intention being to deliver justice to Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father.

The novel sets itself up in an amazingly economical first chapter, and 215 pages later finishes with a beautiful coda in which Mattie relates, in a matter of paragraphs, the rest of her life. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a compelling account of how an entire life can crystallise around a single event, nor as convincing an evocation of how we all move apart in life like galaxies, no matter how important we are to each other.

“Time just gets away from us,” intones Mattie at the book’s very end. Amen to that.

What comes in between the introduction and the end, the actual story of the novel, does not describe a complicated curve, but the details are convincing and Portis’s writing (in the voice of an old woman, remembering events that happened to her as a young girl) is astonishing in the unwavering nature of its conviction. Best of all though the three central characters change gradually and irreversibly over the course of events, and not one of them ever refers to “going on a journey” apart from in a strict geographical sense.

It is not too overblown to call True Grit a great book. That it fell from renown I think can only be blamed on the broad film adaptation that followed.

The 1969 film version of True Grit is truly a film to make the guts tired. It’s lazily directed by Henry Hathaway, who at this point is coming to the end of a career verging on the illustrious, but who still has 1970’s Airport in his future. It’s catastrophically screen-written by Marguerite Roberts who misses every beat, constantly loses dramatic focus and fills her script with such deadening amounts of exposition that even that gobby bloke at the end of the third Matrix picture might think it was a bit much. She can’t even keep hold of the basic id/ego/superego pattern that the three characters in the novel suggest, like McCoy/Kirk/Spock in Star Trek or Quint/Brodie/Hooper in Jaws.

But worst of all, really, it’s an extravagantly badly cast film. Kim Darby (who had played Miri in olden days “proper” Star Trek) is an awful Mattie Ross, too old, yet not worldly enough. And the stunt casting of Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf misfires very badly indeed.

Why True Grit is remembered is partly for its Dennis Hopper turn, but mostly for the fact that John Wayne won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal (broad mummery, bordering on self-parody) of Rooster Cogburn. He beat both Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight who were nominated in the same category for Midnight Cowboy.

Oh Oscar. Why are you so laughably and persistently wrong? Remember in 1982 when you asserted that Gandhi was better than ET, and that Ben Kingsley was better than Paul Newman in The Verdict? Remember also that year when you gave the best supporting actor to Lou Gossett for An Officer And A Gentleman over James Mason in The Verdict? You are an idiot.

So Wayne got his Oscar and there was some mileage to be got out of that, but I think the film cheapened the reputation of the book, and I further think (with noooooo evidence whatsoever) that it contributed to the book’s decline from popularity.

If there is any justice the new film version of True Grit will correct this.

With their 2010 movie version the Coen brothers have opted for an almost literal adaptation of the book. There are a few ellipses and one or two liberties taken, but generally this is the exact plot of the book with large swatches of dialogue rendered word for word from the page.

Hailee Steinfeld is perfect in her steadfast priggishness as Mattie, providing the supporting mechanism of the film with complete confidence. Watching that degree of competence in so young an actor reminded me of Natalie Portman’s performance in Leon. And that’s as big a compliment as I am able to give.

Matt Damon gives good value as LaBoeuf, once again showing that he is shaping up to be one of the standout actors of his generation, and making me sorry that still every time I see him I am shouting MATTDAYYMMONNN in my head. Team America has a lot to answer for.

Josh Brolin does as much as he can with slow-witted character Chaney and Barry Pepper (so good in The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, and recipient of a Razzie for his collaboration with Battlefield Earth) is a suitably weaselly Lucky Ned Pepper.

But this is very much Jeff Bridges’ show, and he is tremendous as Rooster Cogburn, reclaiming the nuance of character that got blurred in the embarrassing pantomime of John Wayne’s interpretation of the role. Bridges can do the comedy, but he underscores it with the bitterness of age and defeat. His physicality is impressive, and he brings a lot of wounded-elephant grandeur to play, but he never lets you forget that underneath the misanthropy, illiteracy and orneriness – quite far underneath all that in fact – is an actual human being whose current state is the result of everything he has endured in life. The accent, I will assume, is well researched, though I felt we were only ever one “hornswoggle” away from authentic frontier gibberish.

So how good of a film is True Grit in its current incarnation?

There is, I contend, no such thing as a bad Coen brothers film, unless we are to be merciless and include Joel Coen’s cameo in John Landis’s execrable 1985 comedy Spies Like Us. Admittedly some of their less accessible movies like Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man have failed to find a wide fan-base. And two of their comedies, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty are loudly and frequently unloved, which is a shame. The lunatic gravity of Tom Hanks’ ill-judged performance does destabilise the orbit of The Ladykillers rather, but there’s a lot left to enjoy in the film. And as for Intolerable Cruelty I would argue that Geoffrey Rush’s amazing turn goes a long way to cutting through the apparent smugness of the rest of the movie.

True Grit looks beautiful courtesy of the Coen’s regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, and constant Coen composer Carter Burwell scores it up a storm. The acting is great but, I am left to ask, what’s the point of it?

The book is so fluidly written, and so quick to read that in the time it takes to watch this film you could sit down and read it cover to cover.

The film has no flaws at all apart from the fact that it brings absolutely nothing new to what already exists. It’s like Gus Van Sant’s inexplicable shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. No harm has been done, but you strain to find a single microgram of benefit anyone has got from the endeavour.

Why was so much skill, effort and time spent on this?

On a final note, some commentators have tried to infer a political agenda from the fact that Wayne plays Cogburn with an eye patch on his left eye whereas Bridges plays him with the patch over the right eye. As far as I remember in the book Cogburn is described as an old one-eyed jasper. I don’t believe it is ever specified which eye is missing.

28/02/10

After Dashiell Hammett my favourite author is John D. MacDonald. That he is largely neglected now in the UK is nothing short of an outrage. He may still be in print in the US. I certainly hope so because the guy could write. His prose, by his own admission, was never of the “hey, Ma, look at me” school of fancy-pantness. It was however always good, and frequently marvellous.

Also he wrote. He paid heed to P.G. Wodehouse’s estimable advice to writers: First apply the material of the trousers to the seat of the chair. Physically he sat down and produced millions of words and never once to my knowledge complained about writer’s block. This is something to be admired I think. I am always sceptical of people who make their living from putting words on to pieces of paper who then claim suddenly that they can’t do it today.

I never had bookseller’s block and I’ve never heard of air traffic controller’s block, lollipop lady’s block or plumber’s block (at least not in that sense).

MacDonald’s output includes The Executioners which has been adapted twice for cinema as Cape Fear, but his enduring legacy is the Travis McGee series of novels. There are twenty-one of them in total written from the early sixties to the mid-eighties and they stand as a wonderful document of how the world, particularly the USA, and particularly particularly Florida changed over that period. It starts with beach bunnies in bikinis. It ends with Cuban drug gangs.

Every one of the stories is a perfect lapidary example of how to construct a thriller, but that’s just an incidental pleasure. The real depth and detail is in the continuum of characters who evolve throughout the series and the artful, epigrammatic first person narration of Travis McGee himself whom MacDonald clearly regarded as an alter-ego.

Each of the novels has a colour in the title from The Deep Blue Goodbye (1964) to The Lonely Silver Rain (1985) and I once wrote a long article for a short-lived magazine called Million about McGee which I entitled Pigments Of The Imagination. Colours, see?

You know that thing people say about how if they lived their lives over again they wouldn’t change a thing? Well I would change lots of things starting with that title. Pigments Of The Imagination, indeed. What can I tell you? It was 1993. I was young and drunk and full of ego. These days I’m a lot older. I don’t drink. And as far as humility goes I’m pretty much the humblest guy in the world. Humblest guy in all possible worlds probably.

Stephen King is an admirer of MacDonald. He called one of his own characters Travis McGee in Firestarter. MacDonald reciprocated by having Travis McGee read a copy of Cujo during the slower moments of one of his later novels. Aaaah. They share similarities, but, as much as I like King, I think MacDonald is a far superior writer. Some of King’s individual sentences should be taken out and shot. I’ve never felt that about John D. MacDonald. What they share though is an amazing grasp of character and a love of plot-driven narrative.

McGee, throughout the series, lives on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale. It’s called the Busted Flush (he won it in a poker game) and his neighbour is a thickset, hirsute economist called Meyer who lives aboard the John Maynard Keynes. Theirs is a kind of inverse Holmes/Watson relationship and the shtick of the series is that McGee works as a “salvage consultant” recovering things which can’t be retrieved by conventional methods for a percentage of their value.

At one point late in the series when McGee is becoming older and more wistful he looks at his boat with all his stuff on it and speculates that if it all sank without a trace he could carry on with his life with little in the way of regrets. This is something I admired in him, and I admire it in real people too.

It’s a thing I don’t share sadly.

One of my friends is often given to say, “The best things in life aren’t things.” I think I know what he’s driving at. The best things are experiences, feelings, other people, mental well-being, all that. Not your goods and chattels. I aspire to live like this, genuinely I do, but being honest about it I have to confess that I really, really like things.

If all my stuff went up in smoke, I would want to be philosophical about it and take comfort from the mere fact of being alive, but truth to tell I’d be missing my signed copy of James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, my copy of Event Horizon in the silly ship’s log packaging and several hundred thousand million billion other things.

That’s just the kind of shallow guy I am.

I think the next couple of generations down from me don’t quite have this gathering and archiving obsession that I have, and this is noticeable to me with the advent of iTunes and, to a much greater extent, Spotify.

With iTunes I like the fact that you can download stuff and straightaway it’s on your hard drive ready to use. But I dislike the fact that you don’t have an actual thing to put on a shelf. I know I sound like a hopelessly outdated relic here. In fact I remind myself of people who bemoaned the fact that CDs didn’t have the same extensive packaging that LPs did.

Things change. You move on. Until you don’t.

So I can live with iTunes and downloads, and I can live with the mockery of young people who can’t believe the amount of “stuff” I have encumbered myself with. Spotify however maybe a step too far for me. I may finally have come across the first innovation I don’t quite get. This could be the end of my ability to change.

The scoop with Spotify, if you don’t already know, is that for a fee (£9.99 per month in the UK) you can stream live any of the millions of pieces of music they have whenever you like.

It is, by any sensible yardstick, an amazing thing. There’s even a free version of it, albeit with adverts, but that seemed to be by invitation only and I didn’t know anyone who could invite me. Having subscribed now I have two invites of my own to dispense. Form an orderly queue.

The downside for me though is that you never own anything, and the physical possession of an artefact seems to be central to my enjoyment of it. What the hell is that about?

Anyway I’m quite enjoying Spotify, but I don’t know if I’m going to get my £9.99 per month worth out of it. After I’d downloaded the software I spent a few minutes in front of it completely unable to think of anything I wanted to listen to which I didn’t already own. When I finally did think of things there was a surprising amount of stuff that wasn’t available.

Three Wheels On My Wagon, one of the foundation stones of Junior Choice with Ed “Stewpot” Stewart when I was growing up. Not there.

Lucky Number by Lene Lovich. Not there.

Shiny Shiny by Haysi Fantayzee. Not there, but John Wayne Is Big Leggy was there, and I enjoyed that. Then I found a bunch of spoken word stuff by Firesign Theatre which I hadn’t heard for 25 years, which was brilliant.

Then I started getting into it a lot.

Turns out that my decision not to have bought anything by The Guillemots yet may have been the right one (though I’m open to persuasion). Turns out also that my spurning of The Duckworth Lewis Method on the grounds that it is a cricket concept album was the wrong one. It is a sustained piece of post-Bonzo Dog Doodah Band jollity and proves that Neil Hannon has lost none of his Divine Comedy gift for catchy tunes and playful lyrics.

I’ll probably buy it on CD now.

And don’t even start me on how much Harry Belafonte I’m listening to.

***

I would like to add my voice, late but with enthusiasm, to the chorus of approval for Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs (2009), an enjoyable CG romp from Sony. I heard it described as being like a David Lynch movie for kids, which I think is taking it too far, but it has a refreshing surreal tang to it right enough, and the joke density is way higher than I expected.

It may have suffered a lack of attention because it came out the same year as Pixar’s peerless Up and whilst it lacks that movie’s moral clarity and precision-engineered narrative Cloudy is nevertheless a treat. This is the sort of thing that pixels should be used for. Something interesting with a bit of character, humour and purpose.

I have been reflecting again on my anger at Avatar’s squandering of resources and the feebly supine response it got in the press. The characters and situations in Up have stayed with me much longer than those in Avatar. Mr. Fredricksen, Russell, Dug the Dog and Kevin the bird versus Shouty Smurf, Angry Smurf, Shooty Smurf and Victim Smurf from Pandora. Well who do you remember more clearly?

Spending money on stuff to make it shiny does not make the stuff any better. Sometimes the surface of something is much less interesting than what the thing actually is and Avatar has almost nothing going on under its nanometre thin skin.

There’s a warm place in my heart for the films of Ray Harryhausen. For all their ramshackle, jerky, plasticiney artifice they were films whose intentions were pure and whose maker was driven.

And what’s that coming over the hill? It’s the big budget remake of Clash Of The Titans…

02/02/10

After work duties on Tuesday morning the afternoon and evening gave themselves over to a bit of PS3 twiddling, this time with the civilising company of Lawrence and bookshop Toby. That’s my homies. That’s how we roll.  Actually there isn’t really much of an inner city, urban, gangsta subculture to be found in Inverness, but Toby and I did once drive round Skye in my titchy Nissan Micra listening to NWA albums. Straight Outta Contin.

Anyway, PS3. I know I have parped on about this before but Batman Arkham Asylum really is a beautiful piece of entertainment and adds another substantial bit of weight to the argument that computer games should be regarded more seriously as an expressive medium. A lot of games are shoddy admittedly (a lot of books, films and pieces of music are shoddy too), but this isn’t one of them. At their best, as here, games are long term prospects, immersive, fun and rewarding to those with lengthy attention spans.

(And, in parentheses, another hobbyhorse here: How come in English, as demonstrated in the paragraph above, we have the two words “long” and “lengthy”? Is there a subtle distinction between them? Are they the same? Why don’t we have the word “strengthy”? Over to you, internet brain sacks.)

Set in a wonderfully rendered version of Gotham City’s home for the criminally insane this game, as well as having a vocabulary-defyingly high level of technical virtuosity about it, provides a very carefully calibrated balance of puzzle solving which you are involved in, and story-telling which you are not.

Pretty much all games, even the staggeringly open ones like Grand Theft Auto IV, have a progression to them that you have to follow. There is stuff you are not able to do as a character until you have finished other bits of the game. I think this is necessary to keep you engaged and to stop it being a bewildering overload from the start. How successful a game is depends at least partially on how constrained you feel while you’re on this pre-plotted parabola.

Some games leave you feeling lost, bewildered and alone in a colossal environment that you have to make sense out of (for example Fallout 3 – which is still somehow a great game). Some give you so few options and so little scope to go wrong that you might as well be on a railway track, or being kettled by the Metropolitan police force (for example Bioshock – which is also somehow still a great game).

We took turns steering Batman through his fighting, stealthing and puzzle solving and I can’t speak for the others but I think the game is just right in terms of balance. The degree of attention to visual detail is a joy to behold too. I don’t know whose job it was to make the light shine blurry reflections off the tiles in the morgue but I thank them for it. Job’s a good un.

We can all meet back here in ten years if you like. I bet by then it’ll look like Pacman.

Apart from Arkham Asylum we played some PES 2010. Pro Evolution Soccer is a rewarding, technically deep football simulation. It doesn’t have the licenses that its rival franchise FIFA does, so there are some faintly amusing team names. Yorkshire Orange for Hull City for example, which I think makes the team sound like organic marmalade. Now, I have been to Hull and a less marmaladey place you can’t imagine.

I’ve played various incarnations of Pro Evo before but this was the first time I’d played it as a multi-person co-operative game and that added an unexpected element of hilarity. The three of us played on the same side in various hopelessly one-sided matches (Brazil 6 – 1 Hearts) and one surprisingly close tussle between Scotland and Lilliput.

Well not Lilliput obviously, but someone not far off. Was it Kuwait? Lapland? I’ll go for Kuwait.

We employed different metiers in our gameplay. My tiny football man mostly ran round in tight little circles in the middle of the field, possibly weeping at his own inefficacy. Lawrence’s player was recognisable instantly from his irresponsible, reckless, career-threatening lunges from behind. It’s an odd thing that Lawrence, who is pretty much the most cultured and urbane person I know apart from you, turns into a sociopath when you stick a joy pad in his hands. All afternoon he was throwing Batarangs in peoples’ faces and indulging in tackles that would make Vinnie Jones, Julian Dicks and Jack the Ripper all turn away muttering, “That’s a bit too much for my taste.”

Toby alone seemed to have an intuitive, or possibly carefully learned, appreciation of the nuances and minuscule inflections of the game, with his jinking runs, lofted passes and exquisite goals, only occasionally scored with the aid of his face.

I watch a lot of football, but in the same way that I watch 24, that is to say inattentively and with more of an eye on the general outcome than the details of the journey. Every once in a while I see something that I recognise as being part of “the beautiful game”, but for the most part the strategic long game aspects of the sport elude me and that is my loss.

At Toby’s behest I once read an excellent book called Brilliant Orange by David Winner which was all about the apparently neurotic nature of the Dutch national side over the years in the context of the country’s history, art and culture. One of Winner’s arguments, I seem to remember, was that because of the difficulty of reclaiming dry land from the sea Holland has historically put a premium on acreage and there is a tendency to build up and out from a restricted base. This, he extrapolated, gives Dutch people, and particularly Dutch football players, a slightly different sense of spatial awareness from those of us with less limited land resources. Well it was loopy enough for me to buy into.

I feel the same about football as I do about ballet dancing. I know ballet is an elevated art form that requires of its practitioners a lifetime dedicated to its physical pursuit, and I feel like a clodhopping idiot confessing it, but it just looks like a lot of jumping about to me.

A well-meaning girlfriend once took me to see Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet performed by a renowned Scottish ballet ensemble. She wanted me to like it. I wanted me to like it. But I sat unmoved by the whole spectacle. The music was lush but I’d have enjoyed it more without the dancers. I will say this for them: they didn’t bump into each other at all.

I know. I am a boor. I am wrong about this and everyone else is right.

28/01/10

The old Riverside Screen at Eden Court, even before entropy finally had its say and gravity started sucking huge lumps of asbestos and concrete down on the patrons, could be a difficult place to watch films. The programme was OK, if not a patch on the current one in the new building, but the seats were splintery, the projector was rickety and the screen was smaller than most of us had on our TVs at home. Nonetheless I had happy times there.

I also had miserable times of course: Sylvia was one, Gus van Sant’s almost heroically exasperating Gerry was another, and The Blair Witch Project was a definite low point.

The six of us in the cinema looked round at each other when the lights came up after Blair Witch. It wasn’t that it was a bad film exactly, but shouldn’t it have been scary? Six months earlier hysterical journalists had been running screaming from performances in Cannes saying it was the most frightening film ever made.

What we’d seen was a bunch of annoying kids in a wood. The dramatic high spot was when they lost the map. We hadn’t been terrified. We hadn’t even been worried.

I think the problem with horror is that it is more susceptible to hype than other genres. The ends of Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon are moving even if you can recite the scenes word for word. Scary stuff is only scary if you’re not expecting it or if the build-up is done incredibly well.

The three most frightening films I can think of are John Carpenter’s Halloween, Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls. Each of them relies on a careful layering of menace. It’s threat rather than action that makes them so unsettling.

I didn’t get any of that with The Blair Witch Project, but maybe if it had come at me unheralded I’d have been caught up in it. It’s hard to say. I saw it at the tail end of its run and there had already been a backlash to the backlash against the movie’s original success. There was a similar movie out last year called Paranormal Activity which one reviewer breathlessly described as being absolutely terrifying. But you never actually see anything, he said before going on to divulge that the most frightening bit of the movie was “the bit where the door closed”. They even showed the bit with the door closing on the TV trailers and, you know what? It just looked like a door closing. Shorn of context it was pretty mundane.

I can see doors closing at home, in colour and in 3D. So I never went to see Paranormal Activity.

This is all quite a long-winded way of saying that I finally got round to seeing the BBC’s classic 1968 M.R. James ghost story adaptation Whistle And I’ll Come To You this afternoon. I thought it was great and I was awfully glad to have seen it, but as highly in esteem as I hold it I wasn’t scared by it at all and that made me a bit sad.

It’s a tightly controlled work with a blinding central performance by Michael Hordern as a solitary and sceptical professor caught up in an apparently supernatural sequence of events as he holidays alone. The black and white photography and eerie soundscape look and sound innovative now. They must have been amazing in 1968. The central character’s dislocation could not be more clearly portrayed, and the dread of his being alone but with something unknown is tangible. But when the very few actual scary moments happened I found that each of them was familiar from a documentary I’d seen about horror on TV. The effect wasn’t there for me.

I wonder if I’ll feel differently when I see it again.

***

 

Thirst, the vampire film from ace Korean director Park Chan-wook, is a different kettle of worms or, perhaps, can of fish. As you might expect from the guy behind the Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, and not really a trilogy at all) it is physically explicit and goes for the showing you stuff option rather than the subtle implication one.

That’s not a fault though. It’s an enjoyable and often surprising two hours, but flipping heck it’s hard to find new stuff to do with vampires isn’t it?

Park gives it a good go anyway. The central character is a Roman Catholic priest and the narrative (co-written by Park) goes to some lengths to examine how a priest could become a vampire, why he might surrender to the process rather than destroy himself, and what form of justification he might choose to exercise.

It’s a constantly engrossing film, striking to look at and easy to love.

Vampire films and literature are to me a little bit like generic high fantasy in that one of the first people to try it got it so absolutely right that pretty much all of the practitioners who arrived later to the party needn’t have bothered coming at all.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote Lord Of The Rings. Nobody else needs to do it again. It’s been done. In fact it’s a bit annoying when other people try. Stephen Donaldson, David Eddings and Robert Jordan, I am looking at you.

Similarly with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) you feel that the whole of vampire fiction got nailed perfectly pretty early on with, if not perhaps the first vampire novel, certainly one of the first. It’s quite a starchy book I think, written in the epistolary manner. It’s just letters from characters to other characters, journal entries and the like. But what a great story, and you don’t need to be a professor of semiotics to have a bit of a clue what’s going on. An exotic stranger comes over here, penetrates our women and makes them swoon, exchanges bodily fluids with them and takes them from us permanently. It’s all about sex. Or perhaps the fear of sex.

There’s so much in the book that pretty well everything that followed seems redundant. There are a few bold exceptions like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in which the vampires are normal (by weight of numbers) and the sole surviving human is the monster who is trying to destroy them. I’m also fond of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 movie Near Dark which gets closer to pointing out the drawbacks to living forever than most vampire movies, and gets a lot of use out of the remorseless bleaching Texas sun. Mostly though vampire fiction is window dressing and soppy romance.

Anne Rice’s vampire oeuvre gets written up approvingly but I read a couple and thought they were pretty drab. Just typing “sexy vampire, sexy vampire, sexy vampire” over and over again doesn’t do much to further cause of literature or even entertain someone like me, who is frankly pathetically easy to entertain.

Once you get past the obvious sexual charisma, what is there that’s actually interesting about vampires?

Universal Studios, in their adorable series of monster movies, gave up on the Mummy quite quickly. As has previously been noted, it’s not much of a monster if you can defeat it by walking briskly away from it. However they persisted with vampirism.

Dracula was an almost constant feature in their films, but it was the other two horror mainstays I was always more interested in. Frankenstein’s monster with all it had to tell us about scientific responsibility and the fear of change; and poor old Larry Talbot, the Wolfman with his inescapable monthly atavism reflecting our inner animal and showing our civilised sophistication to be the shockingly thin veneer it is.

26/01/10 – 27/01/10

Ah, well it turns out that just because you plan business as usual it doesn’t mean that the usual business will make itself available to you. I pretty much spent Tuesday and most of today so far sleeping or sitting quietly with my own thoughts.

After I got home on Monday, physically and mentally fairly depleted, I made a couple of phone calls and left posts on Twitter and Facebook explaining the bare facts of what had happened. Then I had a short but uncommonly deep sleep. When I came to I had a dozen emails each of which went something along the lines of “Please will you not do that again.” And I have been feeling very emotional about that ever since.

Splendidly about half of the emailers realised that tragedy plus time equals comedy (I think the amount of time is usually years rather than an hour or two, but we’ll let that pass) and made jocular references to Alive, Piers Paul Read’s 1974 factual account of a plane crash in the Andes in which a Uruguayan rugby team managed to survive but only by resorting to cannibalism.

I haven’t read the book but I have seen Frank Marshall’s functional film adaptation of 1993. I feel like I’ve reminisced about this recently so forgive me if this is familiar, but Alive (the movie) gave me one of my defining multiplex experiences.

We had gone to see the film at the Edinburgh UCI on a Saturday morning and pretty much knew what we had let ourselves in for in terms of narrative. The story is, after all, quite well known. So we sat there and watched the plane crash, shockingly well done as I remember, and then there was the inevitable trajectory towards the cannibalism. When it happened I seem to recall that it was quite dainty. Ethan Hawke lifted a delicate forkful of buttock to his mouth and that was it.

The couple next to us though seemed to find a bit much. There was a muffled discussion between them and then they left their seats. Fair enough, I thought, it looked well-judged to me but I guess there is a massive taboo about anthropophagy. If they didn’t like it they were quite right to leave.

But I’d got it completely wrong, because they both returned about five minutes later loaded down with hotdogs, nachos and fizzy drinks. Man, I don’t know what the most socially acceptable response to depictions of cannibalism is, but surely it’s not hunger.

Whilst we were stuck in Glen Affric on Sunday night/Monday morning it would be melodramatic to say that I felt in danger of dying, but I was aware that the margins of survival had become much thinner. This was particularly the case immediately before we reached the bothy when we were trudging through rough snowy terrain in the dark.

I haven’t really had to confront my mortality seriously before, and I probably haven’t done it yet to be honest. There have been the same sort of usual near misses that everyone gets, and as I get older obviously I know more dead people. I think of my own theoretical extinction quite often, but it still seems pretty abstract.

I don’t imagine anything happens after you die. I have been thinking and reading about consciousness and the nature of identity in recent years, and nothing I have come across convinces me that consciousness is a special thing or even particularly that it exists.

When I was a kid I had an operation under general anaesthetic and I remember being struck at how completely absent “I” had been while it had been going on. Similarly when I was getting into trouble with alcohol abuse some years ago I would regularly find lacunae in my life. It’s similar to watching people in comas or suffering from Alzheimer’s I guess. You can measure the physical deterioration of the brain and see the personality disappear in proportion.

There hasn’t been a continuous “me” throughout my life and I don’t see any reason why there should be one after my death. That seems to be highly unlikely in fact. I think that what passes for self-awareness or consciousness is some trick of the bicameral brain I’ve got in my head. Two hemispheres interacting, that sort of thing. I can’t really back this up with anything though, and I am not trying to convert you to my point of view.

It hasn’t made my life pointless however, this acceptance of the brevity of existence. On the contrary it’s made me appreciate what I’ve got and has emphasised for me that the responsibility I have is to enjoy what I can without doing harm. My favourite cliché has become in recent years “Live and let live”.

It may well be that I’m wrong and that there are harps and clouds and angels and whatnot. I have seen absolutely zero evidence to support such a thing though. If I am wrong I’ll just have to cross that one when I get to it. I’m dismissive of the supernatural and particularly the people who try to explain or justify it. If we can experience a phenomenon then we can explain it in terms of other things, and that makes it natural in my book, whatever it is.

I’m sure that there “are” things that are unobservable to us with our three spatial dimensions (and one time one, though we can’t move freely along that one), but precisely because they are unobservable it is pointless speculating about them.

Edwin A. Abbott’s brilliant book Flatland (1884) is really helpful with this. In it a two dimensional creature from Flatland is briefly shown the three dimensional universe. When he returns home he tries vainly to explain to his fellow Flatlanders the concept of a direction which is “up, but not North”. They can’t get it.

People who try to explain, codify, justify or “channel” the supernatural are, in my experience, charlatans who are after something for themselves. Usually sex or money. Of course I would say that. I was brought up in a religion whose priests have a long sorry history of the central accumulation of vast wealth and accidentally getting their penises trapped in altar boys.

***

 

Part of my grounding process was to visit HMV on Tuesday afternoon and buy a bunch of DVDs and Blu-rays from the redoubtable Record Shop Andy and Barbara Button. And what amazing folk they are. HMV shopping in other towns can be (and this is not necessarily a bad thing) a samey sort of experience. Same stuff in the same order. This is not quite the case in the Inverness branch. There is always something quirky for the jaded aesthete such as myself, and I think this is largely due to Andy and Barbara’s influence.

I am sure they will correct me if I am incorrect.

Barbara has been the model for many twentieth century icons, most notably Barbara Windsor, Barbarella Queen of the Galaxy and Jaime Sommers the Bionic Woman (who I think was originally going to be called Barbara Sommers). Her powers are awe-inspiring, but the most impressive of all is her power of Andy-wrangling.

It has been remarked by someone cleverer and funnier than me that Andy is the most likely of my friends to end up the subject of a newspaper article whose headline contains the word “RAMPAGE!!!!” He’s like the Cloverfield monster if the Cloverfield monster knew kung-fu. Nice lad though.

They sold me some great stuff, the most immediately accessible of which is Mesrine Parts 1 and 2 on Blu-ray. This was a great couple of nights out at the cinema last year and I’m anticipating much fun with it on the sofa shortly.

I have some misgivings about the process of putting real-life criminals on pedestals. Partly I think because there’s a potentially wonky morality at work, but mostly it’s because we British are so bad at it.

In Mesrine Vincent Gallo brilliantly plays the French robber and murderer as a complicatedly-motivated person of depth and substance. The style is a completely successful evocation of the seventies thrillers The French Connection and Serpico. They are highly accomplished and enjoyable movies. The British equivalent films were stilted affairs with Phil Collins as a Great Train Robber and the Spandau Ballet boys playing the Krays.

Ah, eighties pop stars. Is there anything you can’t do?

There was a pile of horror stuff in my purchases too and then, with some reluctance, the first series of Mad Men. Am I really going to like that? It doesn’t seem probable, but people of taste and refinement keep telling me I will.

09/01/10

It wasn’t until recently that I became aware of how little actually happens in my life, and this is a cause for gratitude rather than concern I should stress. My average day consists of getting up, having a bit of breakfast, doing some work, having a bit of lunch, doing some more work and then reading or watching TV for a bit. There’s a brief adrenalin rush at about quarter to one each weekday when it is momentarily unclear whether or not the teams will be taking the bonus buy on Bargain Hunt, but that’s about it.

There’s a lot less stress in crossword compiling than there ever was in bookselling (and there isn’t much in bookselling). As long as you stick to deadlines and keep the embarrassing factual errors to a minimum the worst that can happen is that you fill a diagram in almost all the way and then discover that the final spaces you’re left with will only accommodate the word prepuce or vaginismus or perineum or something. (Charmingly my Microsoft spellchecker recognises prepuce and perineum, but not vaginismus. What does this tell us?)

The action highlight of today for instance (and we are not including the one all draw with Wickham Wanderers, who are liars by the way: they weren’t wandering at all; they were moving consistently and concertedly towards the Leeds goal) was that I finally filled my car’s reservoir with screen wash.

I had run out on the last leg of my Christmas journey back from Leeds, right at the start of the long and pitiless A9. It was interesting in a sort of way, turning my windscreen for the last 100 miles into a variation of the game show Deal Or No Deal which I like to call Opaque Or Not Opaque. There were bits where the spray from oncoming traffic helped out a little, but mostly that last hundred miles was memory and guesswork.

The thing was, as soon as I got home I forgot all about it, that is until the next time I got in my car. The one time I remembered and was in a position to buy more screen wash Tesco had sold out. People must have been panic buying, or maybe they were drinking the bloody stuff I don’t know. It was New Year. Anyhow it’s sorted now, so we can all relax. Not exactly Die Hard is it, my life?

Neither is it American Psycho, and for that we can all be thankful.

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000) is another one of those films that I feel a bit silly for not having seen before. I have at least half an excuse that I presumed (correctly as it turns out) that not having liked the book I’d find the film pretty unappealing. But it does seem to have a certain cachet among horror fans, so what the hell?

Of the book I should say that I don’t think I missed the point. The writing is amazing and the satirical point is well taken. What I felt a bit uneasy with was that Brett Easton Ellis appeared to be claiming artistic credibility at the same time as he was getting off on the pornographic violence. I prefer to be able to take my fine dry satire without the distraction of an unkempt man, smelling of raw meat, breathing heavily just behind me. Worrying lip smacking, that’s what I could hear.

The film is cruder in execution than the book, though more restrained in its details. It works well and has a lot that is technically commendable but blimey it’s hard to love. The highlight is Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman. What a disturbing actor he is. He totally inhabits the part of an amoral murderer in the same way that he inhabits the isolated figure of Bruce Wayne/Batman in the two Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films. Is it reading too much into him to suggest that maybe he’s like this in real life?

There is an infamous audio clip (probably still on YouTube) of him losing his rag with a member of the film crew on Terminator Salvation. I am not an actor so I don’t know how hard actoring is – harder than it looks, probably. But Bale’s outburst is incredible. It goes on and on and just when, blessedly, you think it’s ebbing it starts up again. Nobody likes to get interrupted in their work, but acting in Terminator Salvation? It’s not bloody Uncle Vanya, is it?

I have a soft spot for co-star Reese Witherspoon too, and have done ever since I saw her in the very splendid Pleasantville. Apparently when a perfumer is preparing a scent it is important for him or her to include something unpleasant, almost putrefying, in the base of the scent otherwise it becomes overpoweringly sickly. So it is with attractive people I reckon. There should be something slightly unusual about them to complete the attractiveness. With women it might be hairy armpits, a massive tattoo or, as in Reese Witherspoon’s case, the chin of Jimmy Hill.

***

 

I got a lovely message from my pal Fiona the other day in which, inter alia, she described herself as a flâneur. A flâneur! How fantastic is it to have that as part of your everyday vocabulary? I’m not even sure we have a word that means the exact same in English. Well, we do, but it’s flâneur.

It made me think about words I like (which is pretty much all of them) and I compiled a list. I don’t wish to be arsey about words. You can after all get by very elegantly indeed with a vocabulary of a few hundred. But I do find some of them really attractive. I’m aware that there is a danger with this sort of thing that you can start by saying “Ooh, that’s an interesting word” and then, before you know it, one day you wake up and you’re Nigel Rees. I hope to avoid that.

Here’s my list anyway. It’ll be different tomorrow. You should feel free to join in at home.

1 The c-bomb – People are always disappointed when I say that this is my favourite word, but it just is. So much power in four innocuous looking letters. My personal choice is not to bring it out for everyday use, not even here you’ll notice. But it’s nice to have in the cupboard for special occasions. Weddings, funerals, papal audiences that sort of thing.

2 Flâneur – see a few paragraphs above.

3 Pleonasm – The use of more words than are necessary to convey meaning. There’s one word for that. It’s pleonasm!

4 Decimate – This appeals to the hair-splitter in me. People use it wrongly all the time. To decimate means, as I’m sure you all know, to reduce by one tenth. It doesn’t mean to destroy utterly and it’s not the same as devastate, although it is coming to mean this through persistent misuse. It was originally a Roman punishment for mutiny wherein every tenth soldier was killed. Indeed I have a friend who told me about a cartoon she’d seen of ten Roman soldiers, one of whom was lying dead. One of the survivors is saying to another one, “This decimation is nowhere near as bad as I thought it was going to be.” It happened on the BBC News this lunchtime: “Today’s sporting fixture list has been decimated.” No it hasn’t.

5 Quotidian – It just means ordinary or everyday. Such a joyous way of putting it though.

6 Fiasco – A ludicrous or humiliating failure. It’s a bad thing, but it sounds like a good thing. If a big fat man in a Hawaiian shirt invited you to a fiasco you’d go, wouldn’t you?

7 Concupisant – Because, as with quotidian, it’s far and away the nicest way of saying what it means…

8 Fuckwit – Best insult ever.

9 Oblong – Which I like a lot better than rectangle. Something to do with the way it makes your mouth small. You can’t say oblong and smile at the same time.

10 Jodhpurs – a word that just looks funny on the page.

Words I don’t particularly like are: pantyhose, feisty, discharge and decaffeinated. Also I’m not too fond of the vogue for swapping nouns and verbs around. This is an insecure, imprecise business jargon way of doing things. “Action the plan for early gifting,” was the sort of head office instruction that used to make me sad.

Early night for me tonight, but I might get a movie in before bedtime. Tell you tomorrow.

08/01/10

Reporters. Would we understand anything without them?

Whilst watching Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner cavorting to little effect as a press reporter and TV reporter respectively in Futureworld the other night I realised what a seventies phenomenon this was. Hero journalist working outside the system, just give me twenty-four hours chief, all that stuff.

Were there heroic reporters in film prior to this? All the movie journalistic examples I can think of are pretty malevolent ones. Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell Of Success. Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s astounding Ace In The Hole. Then along come the seventies and suddenly we’re knee deep in fact-wielding paragons of integrity, with no deadlines and precious little apparent work to do, like Elliott Gould in Capricorn One (and blimey, that’s a threadbare film, thinner and shoddier than I remembered it when I re-watched it last year).

You can blame Woodward and Bernstein of course, or more accurately Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein in All The President’s Men. I love that movie, but unfortunately so does every journalist who’s ever seen it and it has fed back into the way a lot of them do their jobs. There seems to be very little impartiality and detachment now. Journalists seem to like to be in the story rather than just reporting it. The murder of Jill Dando in 1999 for example, was awful, but it wasn’t unique. Many women are murdered each year by psychotic sexual obsessives. The story with Jill Dando appeared not to be that a woman had been murdered. It was that a journalist had been murdered.

There is a superb book called Amusing Ourselves To Death by an American academic called Neil Postman which has a lot to say about the presentation of news, particularly with regard to its infantilisation on television. One of Postman’s points is that TV has made people feel inappropriately personally involved in things. He contrasts the attack on Pearl Harbor which was covered by newsreels and newspapers (and so felt like something that happened to other people far away) with the assassination of JFK which was covered by TV live in people’s homes (and so felt like something that had happened to “us”). And with the addition of music and graphics the news has stopped being information and has become more of an entertainment, he suggests.

Worryingly enough Amusing Ourselves To Death was written in the early eighties during Reagan’s first term in office and if things have changed at all since then they have got worse. The deaths of Princess Diana and, twelve years later, Michael Jackson have a lot to tell us about the way people are emotionally manipulated by what they see on TV. I remember the deaths of Elvis and John Lennon and, whilst there was an emotional response, I don’t remember the world crunching to a halt for their funerals. And as for the asinine presentation style there’s a danger that one can get inured to it. The pound’s value has gone down, says the newsreader, and sure enough there’s a big picture of a pound coin and an arrow pointing downwards. Ah, we say stroking our chins, so that’s what that means.

So reporters now think they are the story, and news is now lowbrow entertainment. Are these fair accusations?

Oh yes.

This idiocy is most nakedly evident during bad weather, or what I must now learn to call “weather events”. It aggravated me enormously during the 2007 floods when news programmes would cut live, and presumably at some expense, to a hapless fuckwit standing in galoshes in a puddle saying “Here I am standing in a puddle” for two minutes before handing back to the studio for more breaking news on what water is and what we can expect to happen when it falls from the sky in quantity.

This is pertinent just now as we are four weeks into a spell of unusually wintry weather (referred to as a cold “snap” for about three weeks on TV – don’t wish to be pedantic, but isn’t a snap usually a wee bit shorter than three weeks?). I’m in the very fortunate position of working from home so I’ve missed the worst of it, but I have travelled out and about a bit and the impression I have is of a country stoically, often humorously, coping with it. Keep calm. Carry on. That’s us.

That’s not what you see on the news though where it’s absolute bloody panic stations. Fingers are being pointed. How come the councils don’t have enough grit to make the roads safe? Well, because it’s the sort of weather you only get once in fifty years in this country. You wouldn’t expect councils to have laid in the amount of grit they would have needed to deal with this weather. Weather event, sorry. If they had laid in that amount of grit and then not needed it you wouldn’t have been more angry if they’d spent your council tax on a handful of magic beans.

And this is where the reporters are loving it. They get to stand in the snow being the centre of attention brushing snow off their car roof showing you how much has fallen since you last saw them. They are the story. Them.

And if the snow finally comes over the tops of Cameron Buttle’s wellies then we will just have to abandon the country. Leave it where it is with the hazard warning lights flashing and just go.

***

 

Lots of work today and out this evening with friends like a real proper normal person. I did find time for one movie though, and it’s a decent enough little curio.

A Kiss Before Dying is a 1955 noir-ish affair from a novel by Ira Levin, the cheery chap who also gave us the source material for Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys From Brazil and Sliver. It’s an aesthetic disaster from a director (Gerd Oswald) who as far as I can tell made no films of note other than this, and whose career otherwise seems to have involved directing TV episodes.

Direction be damned though, because the plot and cast rescue and redeem this. I think the statute of limitations on spoilers has probably expired after 55 years, but I’ll be careful anyway.

A young Robert Wagner (whose mother is played by The Maltese Falcon’s Mary Astor) is wooing an equally young Joanne Woodward. When he finds out she’s three months pregnant by him he kills her and makes it look like a suicide (some plotting of admirable finesse here). Some time later her sister becomes suspicious (clever clues again) and starts to investigate. Will he get away with it? I’m not telling.

It’s a bit reminiscent of Psycho (albeit five years earlier), another film about a woman investigating the death of her sister at the hands of a psychopath, and that’s a good thing. Great too to see Robert Wagner playing evil. Those who remember him as the affable Jonathan Hart from Hart To Hart (“when they met it was moider”) rather than his wicked arms dealer from Airport 80 – The Concorde (a misunderstood, and criminally underrated film) will be shocked at how plausible a bastard he plays.

07/01/10

Lots of work today so I could go out gallivanting this evening, but I did sneak a cheeky DVD before bed last night.

Futureworld is the 1976 sequel to Westworld, a film so famous that you’ve seen it even if you haven’t.

Watching Futureworld did make me wonder briefly if I ever have actually actually watched Westworld. I definitely feel like I saw it on telly sometime in the eighties but I can’t prove it. Doesn’t matter anyway probably. In Westworld, the original film, a near-future theme park populated with robot simulacra designed to fulfil the customers’ fantasies succumbs to a malfunction. The robots go doolally (as I believe the cyberneticists say) and kill people.

It was written by Michael Crichton and the more astute among you will notice that this is exactly the same plot as his later work Jurassic Park. I’m fond of Michael Crichton, and I feel that he paid more than his fair share of my mortgage off when I was a bookseller. Fond as I am though I can’t really recommend his literary output to you. Essentially each of his books (the sciencey ones anyway, not the history ones or the contentious issue ones like Rising Sun and Disclosure) involve a really clever idea which is explained at length and then not actually developed into anything resembling an interesting plot.

This is a well known Science Fiction disorder called Niven’s syndrome. It’s named after Larry Niven who created a tremendous imaginary structure called Ringworld in a novel of the same name. Ringworld is an alien solar system where all the orbiting matter has been gathered together and reconstructed as a vast hoop around the central star. The inhabitants live on the flat inside surface of the ring, their heads always pointing straight up at the sun, their world curving up in front of them and back behind them. The plot of the novel, as I recall, involves an assembled team from Earth travelling to the artefact, walking round it a bit and then coming home.

Futureworld (which Michael Crichton had nothing to do with) is basically the same dealie as Westworld, except that this time Delos, the evil corporation, are opening a bigger, better theme park with loads more sexbots and a guaranteed 100% less killing; and they have invited along VIP guests and two investigative reporters (played in a deplorably desultory way by Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner). The Delos plot (create robot duplicates of the VIPs and send them back out into the world) is foiled pretty much by accident by the reporters. The end.

It’s a truism that nothing looks quite as funny as yesterday’s idea of the future, and it’s particularly the case I think with seventies sci-fi. If you watch Soylent Green or Rollerball or the movie at hand it’s amazing how old-fashioned they look. The seventies version of the future is a lot hairier, sweatier and more swarthy than it actually turned out to be.

Not much fun then, and as visually and aurally flat as a seventies TV episode. But I gleaned a bit of joy when one of the writers turned out to have the name Mayo Simon. I think this is probably only diverting to people familiar with Radio 5 Live’s output, and that’s mostly the long term sick, people who work from home and taxi drivers.

Michael Crichton was six feet nine inches tall and died of throat cancer aged 66 in 2008. A scaremongering tabloid journalist might conclude from this that being tall gives you cancer, but I’m not one of them. I’m not sure I would have stood with him foursquare on the issues of climate change, gender politics or the total culpability of humans in any human/mechanical breakdown, but Crichton seems to have been genuinely passionate and well-informed, and certainly to have had a hell of a bigger brain than I’ve got.

***

 

And then, for the first time this year, out to the cinema: to Vue for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes.

I don’t want to get started on Vue, but fucking hell, it’s a soul-sucking monolith dedicated to the concept of anti-film isn’t it? Vaulting ceilings, sticky floors, nine quid for a lightly boiled penis in a bun, ten quid for a femtogram of ice-cream. And why is that man over there crying? Oh, it’s all right. The hoodies have got him.

It’s all part of the Inverness Retail Park ordeal, even less fun now since the departure of Borders. What is there for us here? What, out of town, do we actually get? A million acres of concrete tundra blasted by the horizontal rain imported all the way from Siberia, Burger King, Pizza Hut, a gym (which I have to assume is an ironic gym), a supermarket the size of Andorra and a bunch of DIY shops.

I’m with Alexei Sayle on the whole concept of DIY. “I haven’t got a Black & Decker Workmate,” he once said. “I’ve got a Black & Decker Get-Somebody-Else-To-Do-It-mate.”

It’s kind of what happens a lot in Inverness. We take some natural area whose beauty is enough to physically concuss you, and then we give it a bit of a doing. It happened in the city centre back in the sixties. The delicately evolved riverscape got two vast, grey concrete cuboids from some dystopian future dumped right in the middle of it. There’s some good remedial work going on now (street art, innovative architecture, the Culloden visitor centre and the mighty, mighty Eden Court redevelopment), but the Retail Park ain’t part of it.

Also the go ahead seems now to have been given to the overhead electricity transmission line running down from Beauly to Denny. I have, it turns out, two opinions about this. My first instinctive one is to abhor anything that looks like the deliberate scarring of a beautiful landscape. The second is to remember that actually I do tend to like a big engineering project (Caledonian Canal, Kessock Bridge, Falkirk Wheel, hydroelectric dams, bring it on). I find wind farms quite spectacular, and, whilst I’m no expert on the National Grid, I do accept that we’ve got to move the electrons round somehow (is that how it works?) and I don’t think buckets are going to be sufficient.

Have I reviewed Sherlock Holmes yet? No?

Well it’s very good, and I might have to reconsider my existing (slightly immoderate) opinions about Guy Ritchie.

I am agnostic about Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, but I enjoyed Snatch a great deal. Of his other films the only one I’ve tried watching was Swept Away, and that was peculiar. When Sky was showing it on the movie channels I kept sitting down to watch it and then suddenly becoming aware that I was cleaning the bathroom or making a risotto or something. It didn’t seem to matter how great my resolve was I couldn’t get more than twenty minutes in without wandering off and doing something else. I think Swept Away may genuinely be physically impossible to watch.

Sherlock Holmes is a hoot though. Not unreasonably choosing to emphasise the kinetic, combative aspects of Holmes, Ritchie has come up with a movie which, whilst taking liberties (diabolical ones presumably), is nonetheless respectful enough of the Holmes canon to avoid any reasonable criticism.

In fact it’s a positive delight to see Watson (so often depicted as a buffoon after Nigel Bruce) as a bright, slightly acerbic, man of action. He’s a man with a medical degree and he’s seen military action for heaven’s sake. How could he possibly be a buffoon?

Robert Downey Junior is majestic, as so often these days, and even Jude Law, who can be calamitously bad, rises to the occasion. There’s a lovely sense of rapport between the two characters which is either fantastic acting or a sign that the two actors are simpatico.

A sequel is hinted at towards the end. I hope so.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a great many Sherlock Holmes stories all of which I read in the long summer of 1982. It’s not enough for some folk though, nothing’s ever enough, and people have seen fit to write all manner of additional unofficial gubbins, some good, most bad.

I was musing on this over Christmas when I was reading Joe Gores’ book Spade & Archer which is a prequel to The Maltese Falcon. Now, the Maltese Falcon is pretty much my favourite book ever (and the John Huston adaptation is pretty much my favourite film ever) so I wasn’t keen on what might have been a crass bit of grave-robbing, or at best reputation-tarnishing.

Gores’ book is fantastic though. It’s extremely intelligently done and highly recommended if you have any affection for noir at all, particularly Dashiell Hammett. And so it is with the Holmes apocrypha. There’s the odd diamond if you keep digging.

The one I love most is The Final Solution by Michael Chabon and I exhort you to read it, please. It’s a titchy work, more of a novella than a novel, so those of you sensitive to the exact number of words you get per penny might want to consider a second-hand copy or a trip to the library, but please give it an hour of your time. It is spectacular.

What Chabon has written isn’t a parody or pastiche, it’s a kind of postscript to Doyle’s work. In addition Chabon isn’t particularly interested in replicating Doyle’s writing style. He favours a more nuanced and subdued voice, one in fact that suits the melancholy story about an old man living out the end of his life alone with his bees on the Sussex Downs.

Other writers have set stories during Holmes’ retirement. Indeed I read one particularly clumsy one where a young woman seeks out an elderly Holmes for advice. He solves her conundrum and, as she leaves, she is revealed to be a young Jane Marple. Ta-daa. Yeah, right.

Chabon is considerably more graceful than this thank goodness and in surprisingly few words lays out a story of several levels. Acknowledging that the title is The Final Solution and that the story takes place in the 1930s you’ll perhaps see what Chabon’s intentions are. The central mystery element of The Final Solution tends towards the nugatory, but it often did in the original Holmes stories, and there’s certainly enough substance to make the denouement of the book satisfying and surprisingly moving.