Posts Tagged ‘cinema’

Thor 3D

May 9, 2011

‘What are you doing for the rest of your evening?’ asked the waiter in Byron, as we were paying the bill.

‘Going to see Thor 3D,’ I replied, excited, in spite of the meat slump that inevitably descends after a good burger.

‘Oh,’ he said.

‘Have you seen it?’ I ask.

‘Yes.’

‘And? Was it good?’

‘Well I read the comics you see, so I was bound to be a bit disappointed. But it was enjoyable, I guess, just not absolutely brilliant.’

So my expectations, as we went into the cinema, were somewhat lower than they had been pre-burger. But there’s something about going to the cinema that I find irresistibly exciting. First there’s the bigness – the huge multiplex screen, the vast seats, the gigantic drinks and popcorn; then there’s the thrill of the trailers – all those short, sharp clips, reducing films to their most exciting essence; and then that hush of anticipation as the film begins, the shuffling back in the seat, knowing you’ll be absorbed in entertainment for the following ninety minutes. And when it’s in 3D, there’s the added comedy of looking at each other wearing eighties shades in a darkened room, and the added wow of all those special effects dancing out in front of you.

So, by the time Thor 3D was beginning, I’d forgotten all about the burger boy’s scepticism and was once again somewhat childishly over-excited.

Now, unlike the burger boy, I haven’t read the comics, but I wasn’t coming to Thor devoid of any cultural references. From the age of around six to twelve, I was quite obsessed with ancient myths. I had this brilliant book called Gods Men and Monsters, which related stories from the Greek myths, with fantastic, epic illustrations After a year or so my parents discovered there were other books in the series, and, over time, I collected several, including Druids Gods and Heroes, from Celtic mythology; Gods and Pharaohs, from Egyptian mythology; and, yes, you’ve guessed, Gods and Heroes, from Viking mythology. (Sadly these books are all now out of print.) So I had dim memories of Thor and his hammer Mjölnir, the mischievous Loki, and the beautiful rainbow bridge Bifröst.

And, of course, my humble childish imaginings were nothing like the high-tech mythological world which floated out of the cinema screen. The latter was far more impressive. Bifröst looked magical and beautiful, and both Asgard – the realm of the gods – and Jotenheim – the realm of the frost giants – were imaginatively and convincingly rendered.

So I saw the film with a tiny bit of half-baked childhood knowledge of the Norse myths, but I also saw it with a tiny bit of knowledge of Shakespeare. And director Kenneth Brannagh, one of Britain’s foremost Shakespearean actors, has brought a great deal of the Bard’s influence to the film.

The epic register in which the Gods speak goes almost unnoticed until it is contrasted with usual speech when Thor is ‘cast out’ to Earth to comic effect:

‘You dare threaten me, Thor, with so puny a weapon?’

This leads to him being tazered by the (quite annoying) Darcy, ‘What? He was freaking me out.’

‘This drink, I like it. Another!’ says Thor, before smashing his coffee cup on the floor of the diner.

Again, Darcy responds, ‘This is going on Facebook. Smile,’ snapping him with her mobile phone.

Let me fill you in a bit of plot – Odin is King of Asgard, and Thor, his son, is successor to the throne. On the day of Thor’s succession, frost giants from the enemy realm of Jotenheim mysteriously breach Asgard’s defences and disrupt the ceremony. Thor, arrogant and keen for battle, decides to go to Jotenheim, with his brother Loki and The Warriors Three, to cause trouble, and ends up starting a war between Asgard and Jotenheim after a long-held peace. Odin rescues them, but is so furious with Thor for his arrogance that he strips him of his strength and his hammer, and banishes him to Earth.

Coming back to the contrasting registers of the language of the Gods and the humans, we can see the language of Earth-dwellers makes Thor’s language sound ridiculously bombastic and elevated. Thor must lose his pride, grow humble, see himself as a man, before he can be a true, worthy God, and this is reflected in his speech. But just as the register of mortals makes Thor’s language seem silly, the register of the gods makes that of mortals seem weak, thin, pathetic, sarcastic. I’d much rather talk like Thor than Darcy. There’s far more beauty in the epic language of Shakespeare than the feeble language of Facebook.

There were a few phrases that struck me as particularly influenced by Shakespeare. When Odin is about to banish Thor to Earth, Thor tells him, ‘You are an old man and a fool.’ This is not a million miles away from ‘Old fools are babes again,’ or ‘I am a very foolish fond old man,’ from King Lear.

In both Lear and Thor, the King is old and weary and seeks to pass on his Kingdom. And, in both, he is disappointed by the actions of his children. Lear banishes Cordelia and Odin banishes Thor. As soon as Cordelia has lost favour with her father, her two sisters, Goneril and Regan, turn against her: ‘Prescribe us not our duty,’ says Regan, sharply. And Loki, Thor’s brother, wastes no time in turning against him, visiting him on Earth to tell him painful lies about their father Odin. This is also similar to the subplot in Lear, in which Edmund tells his brother Edward that he has enraged their father.

But, when it comes to Loki, another Shakespeare play comes to mind. Othello. A play in which Brannagh has played the antihero. Thor has the same nobility as Othello, the same phenomenal success in battles, the same ‘true and open nature’. And Loki shares many traits with Iago. Loki could say of Thor, just as Iago does of Othello, ‘In following him, I follow but myself.’ They are both cleverer, craftier than their heroic counterparts, spinning their complicated webs of deceit to bring the others down. Coleridge famously described Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’, and, similarly, it is hard to see what it is, beyond jealousy and a plot twist about his birth, that is truly behind Loki’s malignity.

Iago has fascinated audiences, readers and critics alike for hundreds of years. I’m not sure Brannagh has pulled off quite the same feat with Loki, but he has definitely created an ambiguous, complicated character – played with quiet magnificence by Tom Hiddleston – that gives this blockbuster far more subtle depths than most.

Chalet Girl

April 11, 2011

Some of you might deem this rather a questionable post.

The respected opinion to hold about Chalet Girl is that it’s absolutely rubbish – see this rather acerbic review in the Spectator, for instance. And, in any case, this is EmilyBooks, not EmilyFilms, so who am I to write about films? And trashy ones, at that. And, if that wasn’t enough already, this post is already outdated – Chalet Girl has been out now for several weeks (I saw it almost a month ago), this is far too late for a review.

But I seem to have had so many conversations that end up with a friend saying words to the effect of, ‘You’ve actually seen Chalet Girl? You’re joking. You can’t have enjoyed it! It’s supposed to be terrible.’

And, while I was defending my point of view the other day, a friend was so incredulous at my holding the film in such high esteem that she asked if I’d written a blog about it. So I thought perhaps I should.

Let it be known that I loved Chalet Girl.

I went into the cinema wanting to see a trashy British Rom-Com, and that was exactly what I got. Within about fifteen minutes of screen time, it was obvious exactly what was going to happen:

  1. Felicity Jones and Ed Westwick would fall in love
  2. Felicity Jones and Tamsin Egerton (the really posh one) would make friends
  3. Felicity Jones would turn out to be unbelievably good at snowboarding, thanks to her past as a champion child skateboarder, and would probably win the big snowboarding competition

There are a few little twists, little glitches that prevent the curve of the plot from being perfectly smooth, but it is never pushed too far off course. And this doesn’t matter at all, it just makes for a blissfully comforting experience. Each time Felicity and Ed have a little flirt with each other, it conjures a little warm glow in one’s tummy.

And it is marvellously funny. What could be funnier than seeing Bill Bailey, unable to work the microwave, lick frozen lasagne as a giant lolly? Or Felicity Jones pouring tea on the crotch of a lecherous older man? Granted, it’s at the slapstick end of the comedy scale, but what’s wrong with that? The film never pretends to aspire to something intellectual.

Perhaps the reason it’s met with a rather adverse critical reception is down to no more than intellectual snobbery, which is a revolting habit. I often slip into the evil clutches of intellectual snobbery when at work in the bookshop. Someone asks for a recommendation, I suggest a brilliant book, they say they want something more ‘superficial’, or ‘more like chick lit’ or ‘easier’. It’s hard to not feel slight despair, as the book that you have adored is rejected in favour of Katie Fforde or Daisy Goodwin or Marian Keyes. Urgh…

But it really is unattractive to be such a snob. Why shouldn’t someone prefer to read chick lit? Why should they feel pressured to read a classic, or modern literature or something more highbrow? And, ever since reading One Day, I realised that a book can be trashy and very funny and very good too.

So long as there are no pretences about it, I can’t see that there’s really anything wrong with lowbrow entertainment. Sometimes one wants to engage one’s brain on a slightly higher plane, sometimes one wants to be taken along for an easy, enjoyable ride. The first isn’t automatically better than the second. Being able to deliver an easy, enjoyable ride must be just as difficult as a writer, or director, as being able to deliver an intellectual challenge.

So yes, I thought Chalet Girl was ninety minutes of entertainment bliss. I laughed and I cried, and I came out feeling wonderful. I would put it up there in the canon with Four Weddings and A Funeral and Clueless. In fact, I think I’m going to go and see it again.

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 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?

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.

[Ends]

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.