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.

Inverness Film Festival 2010, Day 1 – Never Let Me Go

There is a feeling I get that I don’t know the name for. Basically if you make an equilateral triangle of Despair, Ennui and Contempt and then extrapolate upwards to form a tetrahedron, then the emotion I’m trying to describe is the pinnacle of the pyramid.

I get it every time a soi-disant literary author has what they think of as an audacious, innovative idea which turns out, in reality, to be a well-worn science fiction device.

The usual form is for the author to deny that they are writing SF at all when its obvious to anyone who’s actually done genre writers the courtesy of reading round a bit that it effing well is effing Science Fiction. Just wanting it not to be isn’t enough.

Every time Margaret Atwood states that her SF books aren’t SF I wince as though she has actually physically punched Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Lisa Tuttle (or any honest SF writer with a feminist agenda) right in the face.

I cringed through the late seventies and eighties when Doris Lessing distanced her Canopus In Argos: Archives series from the Science Fiction genre and, seemingly the whole of literary society was too polite to say, “Nice one Doris, but what you have done here is to pointlessly re-invent the wheel. Or in this case pointlessly re-invent the Dune trilogy.”

I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go with that same dismaying nameless feeling described above. The idea, his amazing idea, of a secondary class of humans cloned solely to provide organs for “proper” humans is only surprising if you’ve not read any SF ever. Indeed the same year that Never Let Me Go was published the Michael Bay film The Island was released at cinemas. It’s pretty much the same story.

The Island is a dire film. Truly a crass, artless, thudding, bombastic, cock-wagging mess of a movie. But, in its defence, it is quite clear about its aims. There’s a perfectly serviceable basic three-act structure to it. Set-up. Conflict. Resolution. Crucially, low though they may have set the bar, the creators have had a specific intention and have seen it through.

Never Let Me Go (the novel) by contrast comes across as a meek, bovine version of the same story.

There is a superb axiom in writing that the author should strive to “show, not tell”. Marvellous. Except I think that the most important part of that is “to show”, whereas Ishiguro seems to think it’s “to not tell”.

It’s maddening the lack of explanatory detail in the book.

My generous understanding of it is that Ishiguro has created the lacunae and the vagueness as a sort of literary negative space. An absence into which we are invited to project our own interpretations of meaning.

My less generous understanding of it is that there was in his mind no clear concept of what he was writing about.

So where is the wisdom in trying to bring that book to the screen?

One of culture’s most unwatchable debasements happened when Fernando Meirelles (a bone fide brilliant director) tried to adapt Blindness a novel by Portugal’s greatest living dead writer, Jose Saramago, for the screen. The mimsy, farting mis-shape that resulted is awful; a grunting insult to Day Of The Triffids and 28 Days Later and numerous other narratives of integrity. What was the original point of the book? No idea. The film has had any trace of artistic accomplishment ruthlessly expunged from it. Whatever muse was ever involved in its inception was bludgeoned to death long before I got a chance to see the film.

So whilst the prospect of a Never Let Me Go movie was, for me, generally a grim one I could never quite let go of the fact that it was directed by Mark Romanek.

I still recall vividly the galvanising effect that Romanek’s first movie Static had on me the one and only time I saw it in 1986. It stars under-exploited treasure Keith Gordon as a worker in a crucifix factory who collects all the malformed crosses that would otherwise be thrown away. In his spare time he has invented a machine which, he says, can see into the afterlife. Static seems subsequently to have been disowned by Romanek. I think this is a shame. I’d dearly love to see it again.

Romanek didn’t make another movie until 2002 when he wrote and directed One Hour Photo, a film of incredible control and nuance.

In the intervening years he worked as a director of music videos including an emotionally ravaging one for the Johnny Cash version of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt.

I’m always going to watch Romanek stuff then, whatever the apparent pedigree. But add to that a script from Alex Garland (who is much more comfortable writing for the screen than the page) and the acting talents of Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield and suddenly I’m up for it.

The film is quite beautiful.

It is beautiful visually thanks to Romanek’s masterful eye for frame-filling and use of colour, but it has a beauty beyond the mere superficial. With a few plot changes (choice rather than expediency) and the occasional inversion of the implicit to the explicit, this story has suddenly becoming an unbelievably moving experience.

From a novel I thought reticent, clumsy and monochromatic has come a very rich experience indeed. Romanek and his shockingly talented cast have uncovered a lot in this narrative that simply wasn’t evident in the book however closely you read it. Themes of purpose, transience and the compromises we make. And, most witheringly, a stark exposure of the futility of all the expectations and hopes we have, and the pointlessness of the suppositions we make as we huff inelegantly from alpha to omega.

A great film which I cannot wait to see again.

Rachel Portman’s score is lush too.

Pictured: Spider-Man versus Sally Sparrow