Archive for the ‘film’ Category

Inception versus Earthquakes in London

August 9, 2010

Last week I went to see Inception, as did however many million other Brits. It was two-and-a-half hours of non-stop adrenaline, which meant that I spent the entire film slack-jawed, tight-gripped, sweaty-foreheaded. And I barely ever sweat.

When it was finally over, I found myself shaking, barely able to stand up, reduced to leaning on the fiancé for support – and his legs were quaking too, so we left the cinema looking like a pair of geriatrics. I was reminded of one particularly grim night during my first term of university when I drank a litre of espresso and could do nothing other than lie on my bed shivering for hours, unable to sleep, unable to concentrate on the essay I was supposed to be writing, wondering if this was what it might be like should I end up in purgatory.

I know there are people who call themselves ‘adrenaline junkies’. I can only conclude that they must also be quite insane. I would hate to put myself through that prolonged state of extreme tension again.

Inception seems to be one of those films that everyone says is brilliant, except for those people who say that ‘everyone says it’s brilliant, but I thought it was awful’. Yes, ok, it has massive plot flaws, and one does come out thinking ‘well what was the point of that?’ (I managed to annoy the fiancé almost as much as after The Karate Kid – see my last post – by constantly saying, ‘But what if this is a dream, and what if my subconscious made me go to see that film to realise that I’m in a dream, or what if you are controlling my dream and wanted me to see that so that …’)

But for all its flaws, I fail to see how anyone could not be completely and utterly absorbed by Inception. My near-death adrenaline experience was, in its own way, rather amazing. How clever to be able to make a film that is so intense, so gripping, so immersive! Quite aside from the shots of Paris being bent around and the collective ‘wooah, wow’s of the audience, being on the edge of one’s seat for two-and-a-half hours might be rather uncomfortable but it’s one hell of an achievement for the director.

You must know by now that books are at the top of my list of favourite things. Above Coco Pops, toast, sunflowers and certainly films. But I do feel that the total immersion achieved in Inception is only very rarely found in books. (Is it embarrassing to admit that the Harry Potter books might be the only ones that, for me, have ever come close?) And plays … well, now they’re a different kettle of fish altogether.

Or are they? Later in the week I went to see Earthquakes in London, a new Mike Bartlett play directed by Rupert Goold, the same guy who did Enron (which I thought was a bit silly and bizarrely akin to Peter Pan in this vintage post), at the National’s Cottlesloe theatre.

I have to admit to palpable feelings of smugness and anachronism when I go to the theatre. It is so much more highbrow than the cinema. Definitely not for the hoi polloi, no matter how much the Arts Council tries to make it more socially inclusive. Yet theatre certainly used to be as much for the hoi polloi as for anyone else, and I suppose that’s what makes it feel slightly anachronistic. Ask Joe Bloggs when he last went to the cinema and when he last went to the theatre and I can hazard a guess that the cinema will be a far more recent and far more frequent excursion.

But Earthquakes in London is not set up to look high-brow at all. The Cottlesloe has been emptied out and turned into what looks like an enormous bar – a serpentine orange raised surface that winds its way through several pivoty bar stools. The action takes place on said snakey bar and on two raised stages recessed into the walls on either end. It means that those people seated on the pivoty bar stools spend a great deal of time pivoting around.

Now in the rather cynical zone of my head I imagine some hotshot young director saying something as vile as:

Let’s sex this baby up. Let’s throw the action right up into their faces. Let’s break down the barriers, let’s deconstruct the whole idea of “theatre”.


But, to my surprise, it works. I was completely absorbed. The acting is brilliant, which is crucial – one is so close to the actors, anything less than completely convincing wouldn’t cut it – and all the music and the lights, and the rapid head turning from one end to the other … Well it makes it fun, different and compelling. I felt in the middle of it all, caught up in the action; it was all too easy to forget I was in a theatre for over three hours. Yes, that’s right. The play was actually longer than Inception. And I was standing up. And I loved it.

But can this kind of sensationalist theatre really compete with the special effects, enormous screens, clever camera angles and speeded-up/slowed-down shots of a film like Inception?

Well, I’ve told you about the effects of all that Inception-fuelled adrenaline, but Earthquakes in London had a far more dramatic effect on me.

I fainted.

After only half-an-hour or so, I felt it coming on – the nausea, the thudding in my ears, the blacking out, the strange fuzzy pins-and-needles feeling in my head. I staggered towards the exit (through the strobe lighting and crowds of spectators), was helped up the stairs (which by then I couldn’t see at all) by a very kind steward, and swiftly collapsed on the blue carpet of the foyer.

If I were a human scale of overwhelmingness, I would say that fainting definitely trumps jittery sweats. And so Earthquakes in London must trump Inception. And so, I suppose, this sensationalist ‘sexed-up’ theatre must trump Hollywood no-expense-spared cinema.

And, best of all, even if Earthquakes in London has an unbelievably naf ending, it does make rather a serious point, unlike Inception. It makes one think about hedonism in the light of ecological disaster. It makes one (or, at least, me) completely panic about the future of our planet, and what we are bringing our children into, and what can we do to stop it, and why aren’t we doing all of that and more right now … Perhaps Inception isn’t the best film for comparison; Avatar is along more similar ecological lines.

But now I come to think of it, and now I remember Avatar – another brilliantly absorbing film, I wonder if 3D specs are the answer for an ultimate viewing experience. Perhaps what one should really do is go to the, completely naturally 3D, theatre instead.

Eyes upon the street

June 7, 2010

When I woke up on Saturday morning I was thinking very hard about windows.

The previous night I went to see the Exposed exhibition at the Tate Modern and then, instead of going to a big amazing party in Hackney, stayed in and watched a BBC adaptation of Mrs Dalloway on iPlayer. I am sure this is the onset of middle age. Everything muddled together in my head overnight and resulted in this preoccupation with windows.

‘Window’ evolved etymologically from the Old Norse: vindr – ‘wind’ and auga – ‘eye’. A root which brings to mind what Jane Jacobs wrote in The Life and Death of Great American Cities:

There must be eyes upon the street

For windows enable exactly that – one can be inside, separate from, yet looking out on to the street.

This function of a window strikes me as particularly applicable to a moment just before the end of the BBC version of Mrs Dalloway. The party, for which Clarissa Dalloway has spent all day preparing, is in full swing. A doctor arrives very late and apologises for his tardiness, explaining that one of his patients has just killed himself. We already know this, because we have seen his patient – Septimus Warren Smith – kill himself earlier on. Clarissa is upset by the doctor bringing death into her party and goes into a small quiet room next door to come to and recover. She goes to an open window and looks down upon the street, watching carriages coming and going, people arriving and leaving her party.

It is Kafka’s endorsement of a window as a way of making life bearable for a solitary man:

… he will not be able to manage for long without a window looking on to the street. And if he is in the mood of not desiring anything and only goes to his window sill a tired man, with eyes turning from his public to heaven and back again, not wanting to look out and having thrown his head up a little, even then the horses below will draw him down into their train of wagons and tumult, and so at last into the human harmony.

Mrs Dalloway has gone to her window a tired woman, but the movement of the street helps her recover, brings her back ‘into the human harmony’, ready to face the party again.

But there’s more to this window scene than just a swift recovery. For Septimus killed himself by throwing himself out of window, impaling himself on the railings below. Indeed, in the film, Mrs Dalloway looks out of the window, looks down and, after watching the street, sees some railings. She finds herself imagining what must have happened to Septimus. In the book, Woolf writes:

Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it.

So windows, then, are not just an eye upon the street; they are a boundary between home and street. A boundary which can be too easily transgressed – a transparent line which, if stepped across, if one is so moved to escape the interior world and desperate to join the street, leads to death.

This window scene is a contrast from the opening of the novel, in which Clarissa remembers when she was eighteen, stepping through French windows into the outside:

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.

But even then, right at the beginning of the book, windows bring tension and foreboding:

… feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen …

For Woolf then, windows are an escape – ‘a plunge’ – a bursting out of the oppressive interior and out into the world, into the street. But this optimism is shattered with Septimus’ death, when he moves from the inside, through the window, to the street.

In Exposed at the Tate Modern, there are photographs of people killing themselves by jumping from buildings. These are tragic enough, but more chilling are the photos of the crowd gathering around, watching the spectacle.

There is one of a young man in South Africa, Amos Gexella, looking back anxiously at the camera poised on the edge of the sixth-floor balcony of a building. Blurred on the street below are crowds of people. Apparently, the caption tells us, an estimated 2,000 onlookers yelled ‘Jump! Jump’. Two hours later he rolled off the parapet to his death.

In Mrs Dalloway, Septimus waits until the doctor (Holmes) arrives before throwing himself out of the window to his death. Immediately beforehand, he catches sight of an onlooker:

Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door.

Septimus’ suicide depends on witnesses, just as the death of his friend Evans, during the war, is made all the more horrific by his witnessing it and his repeated hallucinations of that horrific moment.

When Clarissa learns of Septimus’ death, she sees an onlooker too. In the book of Mrs Dalloway (not the film), when Clarissa escapes her party she doesn’t immediately look out of the window. All the reflections on death take place within the quiet room. It is only afterwards that she goes to the window:

She parted the curtains; she looked. Oh, but how surprising! – in the room opposite the old lady stared straight at her! … She was going to bed, in the room opposite. It was fascinating to watch her, moving about, that old lady, crossing the room, coming to the window. Could she see her? It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed alone.

It is indeed ‘surprising’, incredibly unexpected, to look out of a window, expecting to see the street and instead to be confronted with someone else, another observer, another person staring out of their own window. You lose your position of privilege, of exclusivity – you’re no longer the only person looking. (In the film, Clarissa also sees the old lady opposite, but only after she has looked down on the street.)

What about when the process is reversed? What happens when instead of looking out of the window on to the street, one looks from the street back into the window.

There is a striking example of this at the Tate Modern’s Exposed. Two photos from Shizuka Yokomizo’s ‘Stranger’ series are on show. Yokomizo wrote anonymous letters to several subjects asking if they would stand, with the lights on, at a particular window at a certain time of night, so that she could photograph them from the street. If they chose not to participate they could close the curtains, and if they chose to open the door to meet her then she wouldn’t use the photo. The encounters lasted for ten minutes, and nothing else was exchanged.

In the ‘Stranger’ photos the first thing I noticed was that appendage to a window: the window frame. Because here window frame and picture frame are almost perfectly aligned. Looking into a window yields only a small glimpse of the occupant’s home and private life. But, as with many portraits, photos, still-lifes, one is tempted to infer as much as possible from the details that are on show. Everything in the frame gains significance just because it is included.

One feels as if one is intruding, looking into someone’s home through their window. The window panels and frame also act as bars, preventing entry, blocking a complete unhindered view. And it is this feeling of intrusion that is played with, encouraged, in many photos that highlight voyeurism. Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows series – also on show in Exposed, and mentioned by Geoff Dyer in his fantastic The Ongoing Moment – are good examples.

The photos are of a back window of a sex club, showing blurred and alluring images of women in various stages of strip-tease. Dyer makes the point that the sex club was off Wall Street, and as we look at bejewelled thronged bottoms, we are really seeing the ‘murky, grimy backside of finance’. (I bet the banker who was so horrid to me at that party goes to that kind of place all the time.)

In Mrs Dalloway – both film and book – windows are two-way. They are a method of looking in and looking out; of moving from interior to exterior and back again, between characters, between different aspects of London. As Woolf flits from one character’s thoughts to another, so seamlessly, so smoothly, so windows are sheer, smooth linking devices, ways of joining people, openings.

The sun became extraordinarily hot because the motor car had stopped outside Mulberry’s shop window; old ladies on the tops of omnibuses spread their black parasols; here a green, here a red parasol opened with a little pop. Mrs Dalloway, coming to the window with her arms full of sweet peas, looked out with her little pink face pursed in inquiry. Everyone looked at the motor car. Septimus looked.

Windows are ways of looking. Looking out and looking in, or even looking between, from window to window. Perhaps the most haunting window was the photographer W. Eugene Smith’s. Geoff Dyer describes Smith’s liability to obsession, spending years on the street and taking too many photographs, documenting so much that it became meaningless. Eventually Smith limited himself to his window, wanting to create a series of shots entitled As from my window I sometimes glance. But he did not ‘sometimes glance’, instead he sat there obsessively for more than twenty hours at a time, taking thousands of photos.  His window was close to his workspace and darkroom, so he was able to produce prints very quickly. He pinned them up on panels that he erected across his loft, dividing the room into a maze of alleys and streets. As Dyer points out:

The photographer didn’t want to go into the streets; instead, by dint of obsessive Borgesian twists, the street moved into the home.

And perhaps this hints at the riskiness of windows, their untrustworthiness. Smith’s window was supposed to be his protection from the street but instead it brought the street to him, enabling it to invade his interior space. Windows don’t provide an escape in Mrs Dalloway, they lead to death, or to a view of another observer at their window, a kind of distorted mirror. They don’t provide honest views of people and their homes in Yokomizo’s ‘Stranger’ series – the frames block entry, only allowing views of specific sections.

And, perhaps it’s rude, but I’d like to end with a photo which I think of as an insult to windows.

I came across Edward Steichen’s photo Sunday Papers in Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment. Annoyingly the copyright must be assiduously protected as I can’t find a picture of it online anywhere. The photo is a view out of a window but there is no street. Most of the frame is filled with a brick building. In the centre of all the brick is another window, wide open, but you can look in only far enough to see a man, not even looking back at you, but reading the papers. He is frustrating the window. Because of this man, you can’t see in through his window and you might as well not be able to look out of your window as, aside from the man, you can only see a brick wall. But the man is reading the newspaper – he has found a different view, a different way of having eyes upon the street. And, I’m afraid, he’s saying it’s better.

The Oxo Tower – A Peculiarly Placed Product

May 28, 2010

I neglected to mention, in my last blog about the glorious London Overground, that I was on my way to a party at the Oxo Tower.

Soon after we alighted, the fiancé (architect-in-training) said, ‘Of course you do know the story about the Oxo Tower, don’t you?’

I didn’t. In case you don’t either, here it is:

An old power station was bought by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, who made Oxo beef stock cubes. They got an architect, Albert Moore, to rebuild most of it in the late 1920s and as part of this art-deco refab, they wanted a big tower on the Thames on which they could advertise their Oxo cubes. They were denied permission to advertise and so Albert Moore designed the tower so that ‘OXO’ was built into its structure. They could claim that the windows just happened to be in the shape of a circle, cross and a circle.

What chutzpah! Yes, it was clever of them, but it was also cheeky and dishonest.

And now, of course, it’s known as the Oxo Tower – the building is defined by this piece of advertising. I wanted to ask the waiters if they had to use Oxo cubes in all the food there, but it didn’t seem like the sort of party where that would have gone down terribly well.

So the OXO can no longer be seen as just an advertisement; it’s part of the building. I’m afraid I think there’s something grotesque about advertising in any case, but it’s particularly foul when a product wheedles its way in like that, insinuating itself in such a dishonest way.

It’s like product placement. Who can forget that Britney Spears, in her film Crossroads (yes, I loved it and I won’t deny it), uses Herbal Essences shampoo? (And so did I for the following five years.) Or that in The Faculty Josh Hartnett and all his friends wear Tommy Hilfiger? The products aren’t advertised in an obvious way, they’re woven into the fabric of the film, adopted by the narrative.

This is nothing new or particularly surprising, I hear you say. Nobody likes product placement (do they?). But product placement happens more than we realise; it happens pretty much all the time. In books as well as in films. It’s a question of where you draw the line – what is a product and what isn’t?

For instance, I’ve just read a proof of Paul Auster’s forthcoming novel Sunset Park (due to be published in November). In this book, the film The Best Years of Our Lives is referenced again and again and again. One of the characters is studying it for her dissertation; the main character and his girlfriend watch it at her request; the father of the main character watches it on an aeroplane … you get the picture.

Now clearly Auster wants us to think about his book in relation to The Best Years of Our Lives – why else would he mention it so many times? I hadn’t even heard of the film, but, seeing it mentioned so many times, I assiduously looked it up online. It became clear that it’s firmly in the American canon of World War Two movies. (You can watch a bit on YouTube here.) I so enjoyed the novel, was so intrigued by these references to the film that I think I might go out and buy a copy of The Best Years of Our Lives. In the same way that I went out and bought Herbal Essences and Tommy Hilfiger when I saw Crossroads and The Faculty as a teenager.

Yes, there is a lesson here. I need to become less impressionable. But essentially isn’t Paul Auster placing a product in his book? But he gets off the hook because The Best Years of Our Lives is a film, which can masquerade as a cultural reference, rather than obviously declaring itself as something for sale.

But this film is clearly important to Auster, and to his ideas in the book. Why shouldn’t he reference it if he wants to? I’m now reading Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and he quotes from T.S. Eliot all the time. Why shouldn’t he? Even if it makes me want to reach for my T.S. Eliot and reread his poems. Or, if I didn’t already own it, go out and buy a copy. Where does one draw the line between a cultural reference and advertising something that can be bought in a shop?

And what about if the book, or film, or television programme, is set in a certain place? The Apprentice, for example, got lots of stick for sending all its contestants out to well-known London establishments. ‘Free advertising,’ grumbled the critics, while the restaurants and bars that were featured kept schtum and quietly patted the wads of cash in their pockets as wannabe city execs turned up in droves. But it would be ridiculous if The Apprentice contestants didn’t do anything in London, as that’s where the programme’s resolutely set.

Everyone’s making a fuss over the new Sex and the City film being set in Abu Dhabi over Manhattan. It’s an NYC programme and yes, perhaps it does seem quite bonkers to move it to the Middle East. We expect to watch lunches and brunches, drinks and dinners in ‘fabulous’ Manhattan eateries, not to mention shopping trips to Jimmy Choo and Prada. Evidently product placement is so central to SATC that, to critical eyes, it falls apart when the New York products are removed. The television series would have been just as rubbish as the new film (apparently) is, if brands weren’t allowed to be mentioned, or if it couldn’t be seen to endorse any actual NY restaurants or bars. It would feel far too fake, not nearly NYC enough. Perhaps it is the products and brands that make Manhattan Manhattan.

But in the same Paul Auster novel, Sunset Park, I glimpsed a solution to the dilemma of how to set a story somewhere specific without endorsing gross consumerism. Auster mentions a certain greasy-spoon diner called Joe Junior’s. It’s an important place in the novel – the setting of a couple of poignant scenes and home to some father and son memories. And the diner is described in detail; we learn that it features ‘a curved Formica counter with chrome trim, eight swivel stools, three tables by the window in front, and four booths along the northern wall’. And Auster locates the diner, very specifically, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Twelfth Street.

Gosh, is this a real place? I wondered. Would hardcore Auster fans make a pilgrimage to Sixth and Twelfth and order Joe Junior’s (apparently) legendary onion rings? I searched online and found that yes, Joe Jr.’s is a real place. Or was a real place. It seems that this little diner on the corner of  Sixth and Twelfth – and the photos make it look exactly as Auster described – closed down on 4th July 2009. By all accounts it was a very sad day for fans of Greenwich Village, when this cherished little independent establishment could no longer meet the rent. There was much speculation about which ghastly chain would open there in its place. (I can’t tell, as Joe Jr.’s still exists on Google Maps.)

So yes, Auster has written about a real place, one that many New Yorkers knew and loved, and one that losers like me can look up and see photos of. (I think the best ones are here.) But no, I can’t go and eat their cheesburgers and onion rings because it’s closed down. Instead I can feel sad that an independent has been forced to close its doors, feel inspired to go and support my own local independent lunchspot – no longer will I buy my sandwiches from Pret! – and I suppose be a slightly better person for it.

The irony about the Oxo Tower is that it’s no longer the home of Oxo cubes. The restaurant is let out to Harvey Nichols. And quite why Harvey Nichols would want to encourage the sale of cubes of beef stock, when in their online ‘foodmarket shop’, Oxo is left out of its list of ‘brands’ and one can only buy things like a ‘fashionista hamper’ and a ‘Dolce Vita Espresso Gift Box’, I can’t quite fathom.

Teeth and Dogtooth

May 14, 2010

I’ve had toothache this week. It’s a horrible affliction and one I’ve been lucky enough not to suffer from much in the past. I’ve spent a great deal of time feeling like half my face is ringing in pain. The dentist said I had an infected wisdom tooth and has prescribed several antibiotics.

Teeth are funny things. One can almost forget one has them, until they start hurting, or something gets stuck in them. It was different when young and waiting for them to fall out. Who can forget those thrilling days of wobbly teeth and toothfairies? And older brothers offering to get it out for you by tying a piece of string between the wobbly tooth and the door handle, and then slamming the door. A terrifying offer that always felt more like a threat than anything else.

And then there are those dreams in which teeth suddenly fall out. Horrible dreams. A therapist once told me it was a form of anxiety, of feeling that one was loosing one’s grip on something – not being able to get one’s teeth into it anymore. Freud, of course, said it was to do with masturbation.

But the most haunting tooth-related incident that I’ve experienced recently is the profoundly chilling, disturbing film Dogtooth.

Essentially three children, now in their late teens, have been raised in complete isolation by their parents. They never leave the perimeter of their garden, their television watching is restricted to home videos of themselves, and are told that a ‘motorway’ is a type of wind, an ‘excursion’ a type of flooring, and a ‘telephone’ a salt cellar. When the girls see their mother on an actual telephone, they assume she is talking to herself.

There’s a lot that’s very funny in the film. One of the girls manages to get hold of some videos and we deduce that they’re Rocky, Jaws and Flashdance, when she starts speaking in lines from the films and dances the Flashdance dance. But I don’t think I ever quite laughed. It was partly the weirdness of it, the dehumanising alien-like shock. But moreover it was the brutal violence that was never far out of the frame. When the father finds out that his daughter has been watching these illicit films, for example, he ties the videotapes to his hands with duct tape and clubs his daughter over the head with them, repeatedly.

The most violent image for me was, appropriately enough, one of teeth. The children are told that they will be able to go beyond the garden when their second ‘dogteeth’ fall out. (Dogteeth are the slightly fang-like canine teeth that we all have.) Of course, these teeth won’t fall out. The eldest girl, sensing that there is more to the world than their narrow enclosure, tells her sister, full of hope, she thinks she can feel one of her dogteeth beginning to move. We know this must be imagined but desperately want to believe it.

But the shocking moment comes when the girl subsequently takes a dumbbell into the bathroom and starts hitting her face with it, aiming straight for her dogteeth. Blood goes everywhere – the mirror, the basin, her dress. I have to admit I was peeking through fingers through this bit, so my recollection might not be perfect, but when the camera shows her face, through the blood, she is grinning broadly into the mirror. There are huge bloody gaps where her dogteeth used to be.

It is her brutal determination that is so shocking. The slow, deliberate self-harming that comes from her desperation to be free. It certainly made my nervousness of an older brother yanking out a tooth by slamming a door seem rather feeble.

The teeth-falling-out dream leaves one with the most horrible feeling – it can be strange, alarming to chew for the whole next day. No-one would ever want their teeth to fall out; nobody would ever court that feeling of anxiety, loss, toothlessness. And yet, in this film in which so much is turned on its head and in which violence is part of everyday life, that is exactly what the girl longs for. She longs to lose her teeth, for them to wobble and fall, to loose herself from the trap which holds her. Her desire to lose her teeth – and the freedom that it entails – is so great that it turns physical pain into ecstatic pleasure.

Unfortunately, my infected wisdom tooth is minus the emotional baggage. It remains quite painful, although the antibiotics are definitely helping. If I do have to have it removed, eventually, I shall endeavour to avoid both the dumbbell and door-slamming methods.

The brains behind Jackboots

April 30, 2010

Last week I went to an advance screening of Jackboots on Whitehall, an epic stop-motion film about what might have happened if the Nazis had invaded.

It’s a completely utterly wonderfully mindblowingly brilliant film. And it’s beautiful – epic sweeps across pastoral English countryside, great shots of London, old intricate maps, and fantastic models. The one of Goebbels is particularly impressive, with skin a pale shade of sickly green and jaw always awkwardly gawping open. In fact, with such an impressive sidekick, I thought the model of Hitler would have to be a disappointment, but that problem was overcome by Hitler’s dramatic entrance in frilly overblown drag.

I laughed almost all the way through Jackboots, except for one bit when a tear almost leaked out, just before the final battle at Hadrian’s Wall when everyone sings Jerusalem.

But what was so particularly endearing, and so eye-opening, and so flabberghastingly impressive, is that Jackboots was made by a good friend of mine and his younger brother. In fact they have already made cameo appearances elsewhere in this blog …

For the past few years, they’ve put their all into writing and directing this film. I’ve heard about it on many an occasion, from the thrill of doing the voice recordings with such a star-studded cast (including Rosamund Pike, Ewan McGregor, Richard E. Grant and Alan Cumming), to the excited exhaustion of non-stop filming for six weeks, even to the difficulty of finding the right corduroy for the main character’s trousers.

It was quite odd to watch Jackboots knowing who had written it. It was such a fascinating glimpse into my friends’ rather peculiar minds.

At the beginning, Goebbels and Goering and some other lead Nazis are in a Zeppelin flying over a pastoral scene. They decide to drop a bomb, and look through their viewfinder for the perfect target. Various characters fill the frame – a vicar, some pretty milkmaids, an arrogant soldier, but the final target is a baby’s pram. I was surprised (and, dare I say, rather unnerved) by such dark humour. And how on earth did the two of them come up with the idea of the main character’s vital trait – his big hands? And the American guy who’s convinced the Nazis are all actually Communists? Or the great little gag when the Nazis rechristen The Ritz, ‘The Fritz’?

‘So this is how their brains work,’ I kept thinking, ‘that is so exactly what they would make happen next …’ Watching the film was like watching the two of them in some kind of ultimate conversation – in which every gag is spot on, every sound effect on cue, and with a host of actors to do all the different voices. Although I kept listening out for friends in the cameo roles.

It’s a dangerous game to try and find out how writers’ brains work from what they’ve written. Most of A-Level English was spent being told, ‘the narrator is NOT the author’ and it’s generally seen as pretty reductive to spot their friends/lovers/enemies among the main characters. Of course it can be informative to bring biographical information to a reading of a text, but the text supposedly lives free of the author and, according to Barthes, the reader is the author too – bringing their own wealth of experience and associations to the text. Now I’m actually trying to write a novel, I have to say I think the reader definitely gets the easier ride of authorship.

As it so happens, I’m reading Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green at the moment. It’s a delicious slice of the thirties a la P.G. Wodehouse – lots of posh young people larking around a village and falling in love with each other, although, of course, in the wrong combinations.

But this is a book in which biographical information is absolutely vital. It is really a very thinly veiled satire of Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts (or ‘Union Jacksuits’ in the book). Indeed Wigs caused such a rift between Nancy and her sister Diana – who became Oswald’s second wife – that she never allowed it to be reprinted during her lifetime. Originally published in 1935, it’s only just come back into print.

This charming novel about silly posh people gains a whole new dimension when one knows about the Mitford sisters and Mosley and the falling out. Eugenia Malmains, for instance, described as Britain’s largest heiress, is a thinly veiled Unity Mitford – famed for being six foot one, very large indeed.

Of course most writers don’t make such direct satires – probably from fear of libel as much as anything else – but it can be fun to try and think of how particular friends, enemies or neuroses come out in their text. For instance, having discovered that Hook went to Eton, on rereading Peter Pan after seeing Enron, I felt more than a pang of disappointment when I found out that J.M. Barrie didn’t go to Harrow. I wonder why his quintessential villain was an Etonian then? Perhaps he couldn’t stand all the posh public schoolboys he met at Edinburgh University.

But going back to Jackboots on Whitehall, and this funny squint into my friends’ brains, I realised quite how bonkers they both were, quite how much they loved mad Scots, and that when faced with danger they will always be able to twist it into a joke and laugh their way out of it. So next time we all play Germans in the Dark I needn’t be quite so scared.

The Mad Hatter, hanging on to his hat

March 25, 2010

I went to see Alice in Wonderland the other day. Everyone said how bored they were by it – one friend of mine actually fell asleep – but I have to confess, I found myself really intrigued by the Mad Hatter’s attachment to his hat. Yes, he’s a Hatter, of course he loves his hat – he knows exactly how much work and love and care went into making it – but surely he’s made hundreds, thousands of hats. Why is this one so important?

By strange coincidence (or is it the universe nudging me to write this post? See this post for more on ‘coincidence’) I happened to be reading about hats the following day in The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer – a brilliantly enlightening sweep across American photography, which clumps all sorts of photos together under marvellously approachable themes like benches, fences, hands and … hats.

Dyer reckons ‘the story of the Depression can be told quite simply through photographs of men’s hats’. He actually means through photographs of men in hats (important distinction this, as we shall see …) Hats, he says, before America’s Great Depression, are a symbol of affluence and democracy; men wearing them are ‘brimful of hope and expectation’. During the Depression, the relative batteredness of a man’s hat reflects his downtrodden state. Wearing one’s heart on one’s hat rather than on one’s sleeve, I suppose.

White Angel Bread Line, Lange, 1933

Dyer uses Dorothea Lange’s photograph White Angel Bread Line to illustrate this. The fedora belonging to the man in the centre, with his back to the crowd, is far more bedraggled than anyone else’s. The man has gone through more than the other men, his hat is worse off, and he has turned his back on the scrum of people jostling, scrabbling for something that’s in short supply. He knows that there isn’t enough for him, his greater experience has resigned him to it. And, as Dyer suggests, that man, and his hat, is ‘like a premonition of what is to come. By the end of the decade everyone else will have followed his example of battered resilience.’

Lange’s photos of men in hats show, Dyer says, the hat to be their shelter, their source of comfort – be it a shade when sitting, waiting indefinitely, at the edge of a field, or a pillow when lying on the pavement of Skid Row in San Francisco. There is something almost unbearably poignant, I think, about these men clinging on to this piece of dignity, still finding comfort in it, when everything else has gone.

What if we look at the Mad Hatter in this light? Ok, it’s not 1930s America, but it is a place going through an undoubtedly hard time. Wonderland (or ‘Underland’ in the film) is under the tyrannous rule of the Red Queen. The Hatter, who used to work for the White Queen, is now unemployed and there is nothing for him to do other than take tea. Remember his joy, in the film, when the Red Queen gets him to make hats for her – ‘it’s so good to be practising my trade again,’ he gushes to Alice. Work, even if it is for the enemy, is better than no work at all. If this weren’t enough to suggest that Underland is undergoing some sort of Depression, then what about the more literal fact that the Hatter is, well, depressed – Johnny Depp isn’t just mad in the film, he is most definitely sad. The hat is his reminder of happier times, of when he danced the futterwack (his ‘happy dance’), for example. He refuses to be parted from it, even when the Cheshire Cat asks him, even when about to be beheaded – perhaps not taking his hat off to the Red Queen is also a mark of disrespect, or a premonition of his imminent escape, that he won’t soon be in the presence of death.

The Hatter is inseparable from his hat, just as the men of America’s Great Depression kept their hats on even when reduced to sleeping on the pavement. Hanging on their hats, they all refuse to give up on the memory of good times, on the hope for those good times to return.

Untitled, Winogrand, 1950s

Tellingly, after the Depression, hats lose this significance in photography. Dyer uses the example of this untitled photograph by Garry Winogrand from the 1950s to show that by then a hat is just a hat, not something that represents the unfair blows that life has dealt to its wearer. The man on the right represents the 1930s, the hat-stand on the left represents the 1950s and the future of photography. The hat is no longer on a man’s head; it is dehumanised. As Dyer says, ‘the photographers of the new generation will describe a hat because it just happens to be somewhere’.

Perhaps, at the end of the film, once the Jabberwocky has been slain and the White Queen rules again, the Hatter will be able to see his trusted hat as just another hat, an optional appendage. Perhaps he will take his hat off to Alice, acknowledging his respect for her triumphant battle. And perhaps, let’s hope, in the happier times to come, he won’t hasten to put it back on.

Blub at the smug in Julie and Julia

March 15, 2010

I watched Julie and Julia last night. I had wanted to see it at the cinema, but when I suggested it to my boyfriend, one wintry Sunday evening, I was told in no uncertain terms that it was too girly. We went to see District 9 instead. (Which was actually stupendously brilliant, not at all the rubbish sci-fi film about aliens I’d anticipated.)

So last night, knowing by now that yes the film is a bit trashy, a bit girly, but nonetheless gentle and heart-warming, I thought that, with the excuse of still recovering from my lost tonsils, I would settle down to watch it.

For those of you who don’t know, Julie and Julia tells the story of Julia Child – dotty American lady in Paris in the 1950s who then writes a seminal French cookbook for Americans – in parallel with the story of Julie Powell – a modern-day New Yorker, turning thirty, who gets over her mid-life crisis by writing a blog about cooking Julia Child’s recipes.

Meryl Streep plays Julia Child and she’s magnificent; I loved this half of the film. She totters eccentrically through Paris, gorging on oysters, pastries and fruit; she frantically practises chopping onions so as to be better than the men on the cooking course; and, of course, she cooks in stunning French kitchens. It’s escapist enjoyable fun, despite the sinister background of McCarthyism and the moments of sadness when it becomes clear that she wants, and can’t have, a baby.

The Julie half of the film – well, I’m ashamed to say that it brought out a rather horrid, unattractive side of me.

The problem began at the beginning, when I instantly empathised with the Julie character. I have a bad habit of doing this in films and books. Whenever the main character has any of the following traits – writes, reads, plays the cello, goes to Oxford, lives in London, has brown hair etc. – some part of me always thinks, ‘Ah, that’s just like me.’ And then it’s just a short progression to thinking, ‘Ah, this film is actually kind of about me.’ Other recent occurrences of this curse have been with An Education (plays the cello, goes to Oxford, lives in London, has brown hair), and A Long Way to Verona (writes, reads, definitely has brown hair in my imagination even if it might not be specifically mentioned in the book).

In Julie and Julia I thought, ‘Oh, she’s just like me, she tried to write a novel and she’s writing a blog and she feels like all her friends are more successful than her.’ So I instantly had a loyalty towards Julie, I was on her side, I shared her anguish during the ghastly lunch where all her friends boast about getting promoted, talk on their mobiles and don’t understand what she’s doing at all. (Sorry friends – not all of you are like that.)

But this loyalty quickly came to be tested. Julie endlessly complains about her apartment above a pizzeria, coming across as a really spoilt brat. I’m sorry, it’s a 900 square foot huge open-plan flat in New York, and, if she weren’t so into cooking, being so close to a pizza place would be heaven. Somehow she’s lucky enough to be married to a handsome, successful man, who puts up with her endless tantrums and doesn’t mind the fact that she gets up at 5.30 a.m. to write her blog, and that all she seems to do, apart from work, is cook. But yet, to Julie, her life seems to be awful, and she strops around more like a teenager than someone turning thirty.

‘Woah, she looks pretty high-maintenance,’ said my boyfriend, after one of her early strops. No, I thought, feeling loyal towards her. After all, she’s just like me. It’s difficult being a misunderstood writer. But it doesn’t take very long for me to begin to think – oh, maybe she is quite high-maintenance, and spoilt, and actually rather annoying.

Now in films, of course there are characters whom one doesn’t like. These tend to be the baddies. But the problem in Julie and Julia was I found myself not liking one of the heroines, once I’d already decided (using my stupid inbuilt-identifying-with-mechanism) she was actually a version of me. Not ideal.

The situation got worse. Julie’s blog becomes very successful and she starts being hideously full-of-herself about it, showing off to people about how many comments she gets on a post (53!) and whining to her boyfriend about how all these readers depend on her. Obviously this is unbelievably annoying and conceited of her. But, crucially, this is where the identifying-with impulse begins to let me down. You see, I identified with her as a struggling writer/blogger, not as a successful one. The worst bit is when she has sixty-something messages on her answer-phone, mostly from literary agents and publishers, following an interview she’s had in the New York Times.

At this point I am filled with rage. I have been betrayed by sweet little hopeless Julie the struggling writer, who admittedly can be quite annoying but at least is no better than me. Now she has morphed into a smug brat, who is positively thriving. She is even more irritating and she is successful. Hundreds of people read her blog and now she’s going to get a book published after all. It’s not fair, I think, and find myself beginning to cry. Incidentally, crying when one has just lost one’s tonsils is so painful that one wants to stop crying straight away. I snivel and snuffle and try to pull myself together.

Boyfriend comes over and comforts me. I now feel akin to Julie – only a less successful version – I am having a tantrum and behaving like a spoilt brat and he is putting up with it. This is awful. Inexcusable. I feel even more full of rage. I am better than this, I tell myself. I must be better than her.

I sit there feeling glum and trying to be brave while the remainder of the film unfolds. It is only when Julie is down to cooking the final recipe in the book that I have an epiphany.

Frankly, who wants to bone a duck, fill it with disgusting-looking mucky mincey stuff, cover it in pastry and bake it? Why doesn’t she just get a pizza from the conveniently-located restaurant downstairs and get a life?

And no, I’m not bitter.

Dexter Fletcher and the nature of coincidence

March 12, 2010

Last night, I watched some episodes of Misfits. I only came across this brilliant series, originally on E4, because the people who work in the DVD shop were watching it when I last went in (before the horrid tonsil-removal) to rent Caravaggio by Derek Jarman.

That looks funny, I thought, seeing them giggling, engrossed in the on-screen action as I paid for the film, making a mental note of the title as something to watch when in need of a laugh. The basic premise, as I discovered last night, is that a bunch of young offenders are doing community service when a freak storm gives them all magical powers. The script is wonderfully sharp, and I found myself in hysterics most of the time – which is actually one of the more painful things to do while tonsil wounds are healing, so rather a mixed blessing.

About half-way through the fourth episode, a familiar face briefly graces the screen as the father of one of the main characters. ‘It’s Dexter Fletcher,’ I hear my boyfriend say in amazement. ‘It is!’ I say, absolutely stunned.

The strange thing is that I’d never heard of Dexter Fletcher until two weeks ago, when I rented the afore-mentioned Caravaggio. The young Caravaggio is a beautiful young boy with very curly hair and excellent cheekiness. (As shown in the picture, which is available from the BFI printstore)

‘That’s the guy from Press Gang,’ my boyfriend said. It took a while to remember his name but, yes you’ve probably guessed, it was Dexter Fletcher. Unfortunately I never saw Press Gang, but from what I can gather from the classic YouTube clips, it was an eighties teen drama (featuring Dexter Fletcher and Julia Sawalha – aka Saffy from AbFab) about running a newspaper. It does look really very funny. I might get the DVDs for my final week of post-tonsil-removal-pain.

Great name, I thought. Dexter Fletcher. It could almost be made-up.

A few days after Caravaggio, we returned to the DVD shop, this time to rent The Elephant Man. We are sitting on the sofa, excited about the unravelling David Lynch classic, when I hear, ‘It’s Dexter Fletcher again!’ And it is. This time, a few years younger than in Caravaggio, he is the sweet little, rather unwilling, assistant to the Elephant Man’s abusive keeper.

How strange, I thought, to see two seemingly unconnected films in under a week and to find this actor in both of them.

So imagine the shock when last night – two weeks later – he reappeared, almost forty years on, as a cameo in Misfits?

For those of you who still can’t place Dexter Fletcher, he’s the one who has that great line in Lock, Stock: ‘guns for show, knives for a pro’. (A favourite during that immortal teenage summer when everyone talked in quotes from that film.)

So what does it mean, this sudden, insistent entrance of Dexter Fletcher into my viewing life?

A friend of mine recently gave me a bit of a talking to about coincidences like this. I’m sure we’ve all been prey to them. It’s like having a dream about someone you haven’t seen for years and then bumping into them the next day, or recommending a book to someone and then finding that same book mentioned in the book you’re reading, just a few days later. An occasion where things overlap which shouldn’t overlap. It leaves one thinking, wow, that’s a bit weird. Spooky. Perhaps there is a shiver running down one’s spine.

This friend of mine explained that actually each event or occurrence instigates hundreds of different thought associations. A dream, for example, is rarely just about one person, it’s about lots of people, set in various places, about quite a few things. So really it shouldn’t be surprising if, soon afterwards, something vaguely connected to that dream happens. In fact, he pointed out, it would actually be weirder if none of those coincidences ever happened.

But … but … I’m not sure I can be satisfied with such a dry logical explanation. Surely there’s meaning to these strange moments? Aren’t they really an instance of the universe trying to explain something, or push one in a certain direction?

This morning, I assiduously spent some time googling Dexter Fletcher. There must be a message here somewhere, I thought.

It seems that after a successful start to his career (incidentally, his debut was Babyface in Bugsy Malone), he had a bit of a blip and spent a while bankrupt, forced to live in his car. He is married to a Lithuanian playwright. And the most recurrent piece of trivia seems to be that Alan Rickman was his best man.

Now, research completed, I just need to keep an eye out for more signs. Any news of gangsters, bankruptcy, cars, Lithuanians, best men, Alan Rickman … then the universe will be continuing to steer me in its chosen direction.

Gosh, my mother has just this second telephoned to see how I’m feeling. Her father’s side of the family are originally from Lithuania. This must be the sign I was waiting for! Perhaps I need to introduce my mother to someone a bit like Dexter Fletcher. Or what about Alan Rickman? Wait, hang on a minute, Alan Rickman was in the Harry Potter films. And my dream last night was that I could do magic and had to save the world. AND the characters in Misfits have magical powers too.

Spooky. Or have I just taken rather a lot of codeine?

Tonsils tonsils tonsils

March 11, 2010

I’m sorry not to have posted anything for a while. I had my tonsils removed a week ago and, as a rather unfortunate side-effect, my brain has been turned into mashed potato thanks to the horrid combination of pain and very strong painkillers.

I will post something just as soon as I have something to say again. In fact it will before I can actually say it properly because my voice now sounds a bit like the Elephant Man’s.

Among the various DVDs I’ve been watching and children’s books I’ve been reading, I noticed that by strange coincidence the evil, dreaded TONSILLITIS is mentioned in both Wes Anderson’s film of Fantastic Mr Fox, and in the beautifully eccentric children’s book A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam.  It was almost the best bit of both of them for me, in my rather enfeebled state. ‘Ha,’ I thought. ‘At least there will be none of that for me ever, ever again.’

I do hope my brain gets better soon.

Almodovar’s ‘All About My Mother’ and Williams’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

February 4, 2010

I watched Almodovar’s All About My Mother (Todo Sobre mi Madre) last night. It inspired a few thoughts about translation, which I shall endeavour to write about here.

Early on in the film, Manuela, the main character, takes her son to see a play. He wants to be a writer and it’s his birthday treat. The play, like the rest of the film, is in Spanish. But, as soon as the camera alights on it, there’s something very familiar about this play. It is clearly a moment of climax – three men sit at the rear of the stage playing poker, while a nurse chases an eccentrically-attired woman around the stage. It’s only moments before I recognise the play to be Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, confirmed in an instant when another actor address the woman as Miss Dubois.

The play takes on a great deal of significance in the film, and Almodovar shows excerpts of it several times. We are clearly invited to see links between the play and the film, perhaps made most explicit when Manuela says, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire has marked my life’. Almodovar has etched this American text into his character’s existence.

This line reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in particular the moment when Benjamin quotes Rudolf Pannwitz:

Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English …

Bear in mind that this was originally written in German. Pannwitz goes on to say that the translator ‘must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language’.

According to this principle, Almodovar has achieved a feat of translation in the character of Manuela. Manuela’s life has been so influenced by Streetcar, so ‘marked’ by it, that she only makes sense with this foreign text. Almodovar has taken Pannwitz’s idea of expanding the mother-tongue and extrapolated it to show how a mother-narrative, so to speak, can be expanded and deepened by means of a foreign narrative.

For instance, Manuela says she is ‘moved’ by Streetcar’s character Stella, who, when we first see Streetcar in the film, leaves her husband, taking her baby with her. Manuela met her husband when they were both acting in Streetcar and we can hazard a pretty good guess that when she left Barcelona for Madrid, running away from him, carrying her unborn son inside her, this idea was inspired by Stella’s actions at the end of Streetcar.

But something jarred while watching the play in the film. The thing is, I studied Streetcar at school, and I was sure that something about Almodovar’s excerpts from it didn’t quite add up. I found my old copy of the text, filled with sixteen-year-old scribbles, and watched those bits of the film again, play-script in hand.

I realised that something quite uncanny had happened. The first thing that became clear was that the scene had been cut, less significant parts removed and more dramatic ones sown together. I imagine this was to make it more simple, more understandable to the viewer who only sees a minute or so of the play. But the really crucial change is that, in Williams’s play, Stella stays with Stanley. The final image is one of Stanley soothing Stella:

Stanley [voluptuously, soothingly]: Now, honey. Now, love. Now, now love. [He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse.] Now, now, love. Now, love …

Stella remains in Stanley’s modern (echoed in the repeated ‘now’), sexual (suggested here with ‘his fingers find the opening of her blouse’) world. She doesn’t run away with their baby.

In the play that Almodovar shows, however, the final image – and the one that has been so significant for Manuela – is Stella leaving Stanley. The subtitles go like this:

[Stanley] Come on. The worst’s over.

[Stella] Don’t touch me! Don’t ever touch me again, bastard!

[Stanley] Watch your language. Stella come here. Stella.

[Stella] I’m never coming back to this house. Never! [Stella walks off stage]

[Stanley, calling after her] Stella, Stella.


So the effect of the translation is not straightforwardly one-way. While it seems as though the American text has marked the (Spanish) narrative of Manuela’s life, it is actually the Spanish translation of the text that has marked her life – if it had been the American version, perhaps she would not have run away from her husband with her unborn child.

Examining the two versions of the play more meticulously, it is clear that the words themselves – not just the narrative thrust – have changed. Translation is evidently a radical process. Instead of getting the original English of Tennessee Williams’s play in the subtitles, we get something very different indeed. We get the end result of two translations: an American play, translated into Spanish, and then translated again into English for the subtitles. The word ‘bastard’, for example, isn’t used once in the original play. For every part of the play that Almodovar shows, there is a marked disjuncture between the text of the English subtitles and the original text of the play.

In the original, for example, Blanche asks Stella to get something from ‘the heart-shaped box I keep my accessories in’. In the version we see in All About my Mother, this is altered to:

[Blanche]: Where’s my heart?

[Stella]: She means her jewel-box, it’s heart-shaped.

Almodovar then cuts to Manuela watching the actors, closing her eyes in, what we infer is, pain. The question, ‘where’s my heart?’ is of great significance to Manuela, harking back to earlier in the film, when she went to Coruna to see who received the heart of her dead son in a transplant operation. A ‘heart-shaped box’ would not have the same resonance. The re-translation of the play back into English has been vitally affected by the Spanish.

Some phrases are sacrosanct. ‘Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’, uttered by Blanche to the doctor at the end of the Streetcar we see in the film, is identical, word for word, to the line in Williams’s play. There’s a remarkable scene about half-way through the film, when Huma Rojo, who plays Blanche in the play, is being driven through Barcelona by Manuela, who she has only just met, to try and find her girlfriend and fellow actress Nina. Huma turns to Manuela, in the car, and repeats the infamous line perfectly. The phrase is utterly characteristic of Blanche, and is also utterly characteristic of Huma. This is an example of Pannwitz’s ideal translation: a phrase, albeit spoken in Spanish, that has kept Williams’s unmistakable tone, deepening and expanding Spanish with the American-English idiom. The retranslation in the subtitles shows it to be identical to the original version; the phrase is meaningful enough, strong enough, to survive intact.

But this is the exception rather than the rule. Almodovar’s translation of Streetcar into All About My Mother is far more dialogic. The American play affects the Spanish, but the Spanish also affects the American play. I can only conclude that while Streetcar may have ‘marked’ Manuela, All About my Mother has also, indelibly, marked Streetcar.