Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Seeing stupid people happy

March 30, 2017

What makes you depressed?

Seeing stupid people happy.

This from an amusingly oddball Q&A with Slavoj Žižek. Whether or not we subscribe to Žižek’s personal brand of Eeyoreish misanthropy (and I confess I don’t, though the thought of Žižek being miserable is certainly a pleasing one), I expect most of us have felt depressed at seeing stupid people happy, whether we realise it or not.

It’s often a symptom of their not sharing our tastes. How, we ask ourselves, can they find joy in something so self-evidently wrong? ‘One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other,’ says Jane Austen’s Emma. I don’t know precisely what Emma is getting at here, but as an Austen heroine she may be alluding to the harpsichord vs fortepiano question. A debate as old as time.

Horses for courses, I suppose. We all know people who spend their time collecting figurines of cats sleeping on pianos, say, or pursuing a career in recruitment, and we don’t call them out on it because it’s not worth ruining the friendship for. They may have had similar thoughts about our increasing dependence on alcohol. But there comes a time when one has to put one’s foot down, and putting one’s foot down usually involves Disney (as it does now).

I happened some time ago upon a quotation of more than usually revolting sentimentality. It was this:

If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together … there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart … I’ll always be with you.

I’m very sorry for having made you vomit, as you will find you just did. I left the ellipses in place because the dramatic pauses they imply are particularly emetic, but even without them this paragraph would constitute probably the most loathsome violation of the Roman alphabet in the history of recorded time.

But enough vituperation. There is a time to spout invective and a time to take action and kill someone, and this is obviously the latter. Who has perpetrated this monstrosity? Step forward, A.A. Milne! Or at least that’s what the internet says.

Look at this. It’s a catalogue of saccharine platitudes, but I’m going to keep quoting it, so if you read further you have only yourself to blame.

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.

Promise me you’ll never forget me because if I thought you would, I’d never leave.

Ready for this?

Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.

I mean, Milne’s not exactly Raymond Chandler, but the Pooh books are a fuck of a lot more hard-nosed than this steaming pile of horseshit. Anyway, it’s not Milne, as anyone with half a brain can tell. It’s Disney, or Disney-lite. I can’t trace the source of every spurious Pooh quotation on the internet, but it’s clear enough where the rot started. Milne himself isn’t blameless, but he couldn’t have anticipated the full horror of what would follow when in 1930 he sold merchandising rights to the USA.

The problem is that as the originator of the character in print, every Pooh emission is attributed by default to Milne, and not to whatever faceless corporation reckons (wrongly) that the Hundred Acre Wood’s bee-botherer-in-chief would even think anything as sappy as ‘Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart’, let alone say it out loud; and because of the way the internet works, one error being duplicated in a second and endlessly reduplicated thereafter, the fake A.A. Milne quotation is now ubiquitous. I manage to avoid them most of the time, but sometimes an otherwise benign website posts you a bookmark like this one, as happened a few days ago, and the black heffalump descends.

(This is a perverted rewrite of a comment made by Christopher Robin at the end of The House at Pooh Corner, the episode in which he and Pooh say goodbye. It’s one of the most moving scenes in English literature. It loses something here.)

Pooh Bear has been despoiled by the Disnetic infantilisation of the senses, and the common perception of him now is of an emotionally incontinent brainstormer of fridge magnet slogans. It gives credence to Dorothy Parker’s disingenuous broadside on the books (‘And it is that word “hummy”, my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up’). I hate that Dorothy Parker piece, but it now seems prophetic.

Comrades, we can fight back! Every time someone wrongly attributes a quotation to A.A. Milne on Twitter, inform them politely that they’re an idiot and then block them so they can’t reply. Reread the books, or listen to Alan Bennett reading them. And if you’ve never seen them before, make time for these brilliant Russian cartoons, respectful of the source material in a way that I can only imagine Disney never is.

Grand Tour #1 – Portugal. The Crime of Father Amaro / Eça de Queiróz

January 14, 2017

My literary tour of the EU begins with a novel from Portugal, The Crime of Father Amaro: Scenes from the Religious Life (O Crime do Padre Amaro) by Eça de Queiróz, in its final edition from 1880, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. The author’s name is nowadays more commonly spelled de Queirós, but in her introduction Costa calls him simply Eça (as one would Leonardo), so that avoids any orthographic heartache.

I’m letting this project be dictated, where possible, by the availability of books in the library, and this happened to be the only Portuguese book we have in translation (titles from e.g. Brazil and Mozambique excepted). It wasn’t a wholly unknown quantity to me, though. I haven’t seen it, but I was at least aware of the 2003 film adaptation, sexed up (not that the book needs much sexing up) and moved to modern-day Mexico and starring my not very secret crush Gael García Bernal.

A bit about Eça (1845-1900). One of the great Portuguese realist writers. Lived in the UK for much of his adult life, working for the Portuguese consular service in Newcastle and then Bristol. A fan of Dickens, the introduction notes, though I thought this book was closer in spirit to Zola or Flaubert, with its simmering sexuality. Zola, quoted on the back cover: ‘Queiróz is far greater than my own dear master, Flaubert.’ I raised an eyebrow.

The book opens explosively with the death from apoplexy of the priest José Miguéis. (He’s in good company – there are three deaths from apoplexy in the first 100 pages; clearly the way to go in nineteenth-century Portugal.) The fat, bloated carcass of José Miguéis seems symbolic of the Catholic Church in Portugal – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Drafted into his place is young Amaro Vieira, not long out of the seminary.

The corruption and hypocrisy rooted deep within the church in the town of Leiria, where the book is set, are evident from the start. Canon Dias arranges for Amaro to lodge in the household of his own mistress, São Joaneira, so that she can have some extra money from his rent. This forces Amaro together with São Joaneira’s daughter Amélia, and after a bit of pussy-footing (not a euphemism) they embark on their own illicit affair. Ah! you think, this is the crime of Father Amaro. Well, it’s one of them, but really there are so many to choose from.

This thing about Dickens. The introduction plays up the similarity between the two writers, and Eça’s book is undoubtedly full of characters who, while not in most cases as vividly drawn and described as Dickens’ finest comic creations, are larger than life. For a book full of anger and bitterness (Amaro is aptly named), it has its fair share of comedy. The scene where the ladies of Leiria inspect Amaro’s room while he’s out and admire his underwear is memorable, as is this forensic pencil sketch:

Dona Maria da Assunção had dressed in her Sunday black silk; she was wearing a reddish-blonde wig covered in ornamental black lace; her bony, mittened hands, which lay solemnly on her lap, glittered with rings; a thick gold chain made of filigree hung from the brooch at her neck down to her waist. She was sitting very stiff and erect, her head slightly tilted, her gold-rimmed spectacles perched on her rather equine nose; she had a large, hairy mole on her chin, and whenever she spoke of religious feelings or of miracles she would make an odd movement with her neck and then open her mouth in a silent smile that revealed enormous, greenish teeth, like wedges hammered into her gums. She was a wealthy widow and suffered from chronic catarrh.

(Dona Maria da Assunção lives surrounded by religious tat, the crowning glory of which is a reliquary containing a piece of Christ’s nappy.)

Eça, writes Costa, disliked Dickens’ sentimentality. I think I’d have worked that out by myself: he’s brutal. Dickens gets most maudlin when he’s engaged in social commentary, perhaps. (To take the first example that came to mind, that of Dick, one of the workhouse boys in Oliver Twist: ‘I heard the doctor tell them I was dying … I know the doctor must be right, Oliver, because I dream so much of Heaven, and Angels, and kind faces that I never see when I am awake.’) Eça’s way of approaching the problems of society is blunter. With the honourable exception of Father Ferrão, who becomes Amélia’s confessor – though even his motives can sometimes be read as sinister – the priests are boorish, self-satisfied and corrupt, wedded to the bed and the bottle.

The sacristan stood behind him, arms folded, slowly stroking his thick, neatly trimmed beard and casting sideways glances at Casimira França, the cathedral carpenter’s devout wife, whom he had had his eye on since Easter.

One of the political points Eça makes, rather well, is the folly whereby men (boys, really) enter the priesthood at an age when they have no vocation and little self-knowledge, as is the case with Amaro. Surrounded by fornicating priests, it’s hardly a surprise that the temptation to follow their example is too strong for him, or that, when faced with the prospect of a love rival, he spins out of control.

Then he tried to get a grip on himself and all his faculties and to apply them to finding the best way to have his revenge. And then the old despair returned that he was not living in the times of the Inquisition and could not therefore pack them off to prison on some accusation of irreligion or black magic. Ah, a priest could have enjoyed himself then. But now, with the liberals in power, he was forced to watch as that wretched clerk earning six vinténs a day made off with the girl, whilst he, an educated priest, who might become a bishop or even Pope, had to bow his shoulders and ponder his grief alone. If God’s curses had any value, then let them be cursed. He hoped to see them overrun with children, with no bread in the cupboard, their last blanket pawned, gaunt with hunger, cursing each other – then he would laugh, oh, how he would laugh!

Such bitterness, such self-pity. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel, for me, was the emotional immaturity of Amaro and Amélia, each so quick to think the worst of the other when (as happens occasionally) one ceases communication with the other, both of them so unversed in human psychology. When, halfway through the book, Amaro finally gets what he wants, i.e. Amélia, he becomes not more level-headed, but a tyrant, forbidding her from reading novels and poetry, suspecting her of infidelity at the least provocation. It invites the question, can we forgive Amaro? Can we pity him, even? To what extent is his cruelty a product of the repressiveness of his situation? What is the point at which we have to assume responsibility for our actions? By the end, I found myself wishing he had suffered more, if anything.

At Chapter 22, the unexpected happens: a shopping list between pages 390 and 391.

shopping-list

I don’t suppose I will ever know what happened to this student’s nails.

The story of Amaro and Amélia, though, is resolved. It’s a resolution that feels right, though dully predictable. I don’t think predictability is necessarily a bad thing, but goodness Eça likes his signposting. When, in an earlyish episode, Amélia’s childhood friend Joaninha is publicly dishonoured, having fallen from grace following an affair with a priest, it doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to read it as a prefiguration of what is to come. With all the evidence that destruction is on the way, why does neither Amélia nor Amaro come clean? That’s another symptom of society’s corruption, I suppose, that it compels you to conceal the truth.

Anyway, if you like a mix of self-righteous satire and torrid melodrama, this is your book. I liked it. It’s a page-turner.

2016 foursomes

December 30, 2016

What a year it’s been. Bring on the nuclear holocaust, that’s what I say. But for some of us, whether we like it or not, life goes on, and so here is the annual trawl through the handful of things that have made me grateful to be alive in 2016.

Top 4 theatre
The year began and ended with exciting plays at the Hampstead Theatre – Tom Stoppard’s typically complex but fun Hapgood in January, with Lisa Dillon as the titular spymistress; and Tony Kushner’s irresistibly sprawling The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures in November, with Luke Newberry particularly catching the eye. The Helen McCrory-led production of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre was more moving than I’d dared expect it to be. And the most fun I had all year was at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves, where Nicholas Le Prevost reduced me to helpless laughter (as he has in the past).

ayckbourn

Top 4 student theatre
I’m very lucky to live in Cambridge. The Marlowe Society’s production of Measure for Measure at the Arts Theatre in February was outstanding in many respects, not least the speaking of the text. I’ve sat through enough bad productions of Shakespeare to notice the difference when the actors really understand what they’re talking about. Alexandra Wetherell’s Isabella and Tom Beaven’s innately funny Lucio were two of many standout performances. At the ADC, a gripping production of David Hare’s Murmuring Judges in March has stayed in the memory, and Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art was very well done in October, as good a production as I can imagine of this ingenious, frustrating play. Outside Cambridge, the Eltham College production of Merrily We Roll Along that I wrote about here was super.

Top 4 albums
This year I have been mostly listening to popular music from the 1920s, but there’s none of that here. Still, I advise all readers to dig out some Roger Wolfe Kahn, zip up their cocktail slacks and get frigging. Quite a catholic selection this year. In April I bought the 17-disc box set of the studio recordings of Marcelle Meyer, a pianist of preternatural elegance and taste. I love her way with French repertoire especially, and not just the expected Ravel and Chabrier but also Rameau and Couperin. Try her Scarlatti. The original Broadway cast recording of A Chorus Line has afforded me considerable pleasure. It’s a joy to find there’s more to it than simply ‘One’, catchy though that is. Joni Mitchell’s Blue I already knew, but it wasn’t until this year that it got under my skin and became an obsession. The single album that’s been most in my ears, though, is Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park to Memphis. I’ve loved the Sprouts for years, but have only recently begun to explore their back catalogue in depth. They really are the most harmonically inventive pop group of their era, and every track on this album is a jewel, from old favourites like ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Cars and Girls’ to the less familiar. Give it a try.

Top 4 books
It’s been another busy reading year (more on that anon), but if I had to whittle it down to four… I read Harold Pinter’s Betrayal early in the year and it dazzled me, all the more for being quiet and reserved in tone, without the aggression of something like The Birthday Party, though there’s a great deal of surface and below-surface tension. It’s more straightforward, more ordinary than his other plays, the non-straightforward thing being the play’s reverse chronology, which is just the sort of thing I love. It never feels gimmicky. I listen to music backwards too. I’ve been making my way through Anthony Trollope for about ten years now, and The Last Chronicle of Barset tied up a lot of loose ends in the most satisfactory ways imaginable. Bishop Proudie’s revolt, a very long time coming, is the most exhilarating thing I’ve read in yonks. David Garnett’s short novel Lady into Fox was an unexpected delight, a whimsical story of metamorphosis, an unorthodox but touching story of trans-species love. And I can’t omit Angela Carter’s wildly fun and funny Wise Children, the deliciously gossipy theatrical memoir of 75-year-old Dora Chance, owner of the only castrato grandfather clock in London.

It was all right until Grandma fixed it. All she did was tap it and the weights dropped off. She always had that effect on gentlemen.

Top 4 new films
The cinema used to be a second home to me. Well, not really, but I used to go to it more often than at present. I thought Spotlight, a good old-fashioned procedural drama about Boston journalists trying to uncover a sex abuse story, was fully deserving of its Best Picture Oscar, smart and tense. Alice Munro’s short story collection Runaway impressed me early in the year, and Pedro Almodóvar’s adaptation of its three interlinked stories, Julieta, was just wonderful, romantic and mysterious and beguiling, with Rossy de Palma’s standoffish housekeeper stealing the show. How wise Almodóvar and Munro are about the dynamics of human relationships. Ira Sachs’ Little Men was a poignant offering, about how the relationship between two boys in early adolescence is threatened by a dispute between their families. Like last year’s Carol, it felt to me more than anything else like a love story, a film about falling in love, and about growing up. Fourth and lastly, I’m not a horror aficionado, but I was thrilled by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy. It looks sensational, shot in a palette of greens and greys, and works an eerie kind of magic. Two twin boys live in a remote house with their mother, who is recovering from facial surgery. Her behaviour to them since her surgery feels changed, and they begin to doubt her authenticity. What it lacks in subtle commentary on power relationships it makes up for in creepiness. I was a bit freaked out.

Top 4 old films
Or, the ones I watched on TV. Not an old film, but Sean McAllister’s documentary A Syrian Love Story is a very great piece of work, more eloquent on the subject of displacement than a thousand news reports. It follows a Syrian family of two parents and three boys over the course of several years and several different homes, as the changing political situation forces them to leave Syria and alter their expectations of life. Thomas Vinterberg’s revenge drama (of sorts) Festen was electric, epic in scope, Shakespearean even (I don’t think it was just the setting that made me think of Hamlet), making the self-imposed limitations of Dogme 95 seem a virtue more often than not. My film of the year, without a doubt, was Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, made when the director was still a teenager. Based on a true story with (mindblowingly) the protagonists playing themselves, it’s about a father who keeps his two daughters confined to their house, and the efforts of members of the village to liberate the girls. Enigmatic, humane, endlessly fascinating. Last of all, Manhattan. I could easily get into Woody Allen if all his films were this warm and funny and beautiful. I loved every frame. A proper, grown-up romantic comedy that makes you smile.

Top 4 New York
Watching Manhattan was a prelude to going to New York in October. I suppose I’d always assumed that going to America was something done by other people, people I had no desire to emulate, but when my brother said he intended to go I suddenly realised it was the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world. It didn’t disappoint. The National September 11 Memorial made me emotional in a way I hadn’t expected; the views from the Empire State Building were spectacular; seeing the Tom Harrell Quartet at the Village Vanguard made me think I ought to start going to jazz clubs in the UK; and, on our final day, Brooklyn’s beautiful Green-Wood Cemetery, where I paid visits to people like Gottschalk and Bernstein. I hope to return one day.

new-york

Have a happy New Year, and I’ll see you on the other side.

The 1947 Club: The Path to the Spiders’ Nests / Italo Calvino

October 12, 2016

What a difference a pair of glasses makes. Philip Larkin and Italo Calvino shared a lifespan, born barely a year apart, in 1922 and 1923 respectively, and dying within three months of one another in 1985. That’s commitment. Larkin read English at Oxford, while Calvino studied agriculture at Turin and Florence, but when their countries came calling Larkin’s duff eyesight got him out of National Service, whereas Calvino joined the Resistance. It was Calvino’s wartime experience that formed the basis of his first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno), which I read in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation, revised by Martin McLaughlin.

the-path-to-the-spiders-nests

Calvino’s protagonist is Pin, a boy of indeterminate age (I’d have put him at about 12 or 13; other sources – OK, Italian Wikipedia – say 10). He has had a difficult life. His parents are dead and he now lives with his older sister who works as a prostitute. He spends his time in bars, cracking jokes and singing sexy songs he doesn’t really understand in the company of much older people. He’s full of pugnacity and bravado.

All Pin talks about is men and women in bed, or men murdered or put in prison, stories picked up from grown-ups, fables they tell among themselves.

Pin is desperate to be taken seriously by the regulars at the bar, and so when one of them dares him to steal the gun of Frick, the German sailor who is his sister’s most frequent visitor, he sees the chance of acceptance. Having stolen the gun, his first instinct is to play around with it (‘Your money or your life!’), but then he marvels at the power it gives him, the power he wants so badly.

Pin cannot resist the temptation any more and points the pistol against his temple; it makes his head swim. On it moves, until it touches the skin and he can feel the coldness of the steel. Suppose he put his finger on the trigger now? No, it’s better to press the mouth of the barrel against the top of his cheek bone, until it hurts, and feel the circle of steel with its empty centre where the bullets come from. Perhaps if he suddenly pulls the gun away from his temple, the suction of the air will make a shot go off; no, it doesn’t go off. Now he can put the barrel into his mouth and feel its taste against his tongue. Then, the most frightening of all, put it up to his eyes and look right into it, down the dark barrel which seems deep as a well. Once Pin saw a boy who had shot himself in the eye with a hunting-gun being taken off to hospital; his face was half-covered by a great splodge of blood, and the other half with little black spots from the gunpowder.

He hides the gun in a secret place he knows on the riverbank where some spiders have built their nests. This place, known only to Pin, acquires a symbolic significance. Throughout the book he looks for someone he can trust enough to share the secret of its location, someone who will understand its beauty.

***

At times I struggled with this book, not with the words (the translation reads very well) but with maintaining an interest in it. It’s partly the result of an ingrained apathy to war stories. Some years ago I exchanged my copy of A Farewell to Arms for a not very good ballpoint pen as part of a Rag Week swap thing. You were supposed to keep swapping and eventually end up with something incalculably more valuable than what you started with. I was happy enough with the pen.

People draw comparisons between this book and Italian neorealist cinema. Calvino, like Rossellini or De Sica, takes as his protagonists the downtrodden, the people uncared for by those in power, the people with no ability to help themselves. It’s admirable, if not always a great deal of fun. A late chapter introduces two new characters, the philosophical Kim and the practical Ferriera, apparently solely so they can have a polemical conversation about the motivations of Resistance men. It feels clumsy, and perhaps the older Calvino would have omitted it.

The theme of how easily people can be bought when they’re desperate recurs throughout: the group of partisans Pin eventually joins is betrayed by a renegade who defects to the enemy; Pin’s sister ends up consorting with the SS; even Pin himself considers joining the Fascist Black Brigade. More than once I thought of Louis Malle’s masterpiece Lacombe Lucien, whose antihero Lucien joins the Nazis when he is rebuffed by the local Resistance forces; more than anything else he wants to belong, even if it means turning his back on his own people. Pin, like Lucien, is bored of waiting for something to happen to him.

The effect of the indifference of the people around him is to make Pin’s mischievousness, which might otherwise be tiresome, amiable. When the sailor Frick arrives for an assignation with Pin’s sister, Pin informs him that she’s in hospital being treated for VD. His repartee is spontaneous and often amusing.

‘If you want to, you can get into the Black Brigade too,’ the militiaman says to Pin.

‘If I want to, I can get into that cow of a grandmother of yours,’ Pin replies readily.

Pin’s smart mouth is the catalyst for his departure from the Resistance. When the rest of the detachment goes off to fight a battle, he is left behind with the leader, Dritto, and Giglia, the wife of the cook, Mancino. Pin appears more interested in whether Dritto and Giglia will fuck than in watching the fighting, and when the others return he jokes about Mancino being a cuckold and is chased out.

The final chapter is the most beautiful. One last time Pin takes the path to the spiders’ nests. He walks past places where he should be playing, but has no appetite for play: the war has hardened him. When he reaches the spiders’ nests, he finds the place changed and the gun no longer there. It’s been so long since he visited. He’s at an impasse, unable to go back or forward, when Cousin (Cugino), a member of Dritto’s detachment, arrives unexpectedly. Might Cousin be the friend Pin has been looking for, the person who will understand the secret of the spiders’ nests?

This book is sometimes talked of as a coming-of-age novel, but it seems to me the opposite is true. Pin has spent a long time trying to be a grown-up in a world that has no place for children, and his incipient friendship with Cousin seems to signal a return to childhood innocence. Pin’s interest in sex throughout the book is vicarious: he understands it as something that obsesses the grown-ups who surround him, and as the means by which his sister makes her living, but is not interested in it for himself. When Cousin embarrassedly asks Pin if he can meet his sister, Pin is deflated: if, like everyone else, Cousin is only interested in sex, their friendship cannot bloom; but Cousin returns to him having changed his mind, and they walk off together, hand in hand, like Pooh and Piglet.

‘Can you remember your mother, then?’ asks Pin.

‘Yes, she died when I was fifteen,’ says Cousin.

‘Was she nice?’

‘Yes,’ says Cousin, ‘she was nice.’

‘Mine was nice too,’ says Pin.

‘What a lot of fireflies,’ says Cousin.

‘If you look at them really closely, the fireflies,’ says Pin, ‘they’re filthy creatures too, all reddish in colour.’

‘Yes,’ says Cousin, ‘but seen from this distance they’re beautiful.’

And they walk on, the big man and the child, into the night, amid the fireflies, holding each other by the hand.