Monday 30 March 2009


The recent sectarian killings in Northern Ireland reminded us all not only of the relative period of peace that has been enjoyed there recently but the brutal period of violence that came before it. It also showed up starkly the difference between violence and the political process, two themes which become enmeshed together in Steve McQueen's fêted, brutal and ultimately disappointing film about the hunger strike that killed Bobby Sands.

It is a story I have a dim awareness of, with no detail, having been a far from politically aware six year-old at the time. A few sentences at the beginning set the scene, with political prisoners denied their political status and the men inside the Maze prison on a 'blanket' and 'no-wash' protest. Apart from an obligatory epilogue at the end and the now infamous 'the scene' (including a 17 minute single take, static shot) in which Sands exchanges quick fire dialogue with a priest, that is it as far as a factual analysis goes. The rest is more of a mood piece, showing through imagery and sound (or more often the lack of it) what it is to be a prisoner at that time, in that place.

In fact for the first half of the film it focuses more on what it was to be on the other side of the prison door. Stuart Graham's guard checks under his car before leaving for work, his wife watching nervously as he starts the engine and when he arrives we see that his knuckles carry the marks of recent violence. We watch the detachment with which he and others go about their tasks. The violence when it comes is brutal, loud and horrible.

Then we have 'the scene'. And for me it was a relief to have some script and some acting. When McQueen made clear that he wanted to shoot a long single take Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham apparently got a bit worried and spent every spare moment rehearsing. The opening exchanges are almost too slick, too rehearsed, but Enda Walsh's script fizzes with import and both actors make a fine job of it. Why McQueen chooses to back-light them so that all but the outlines of their profiles are in darkness is a mystery. When he moves the camera around to their faces, and more importantly their eyes, you really start to get your money's worth but this is only in the final few minutes.

After that we go back to the art-installation film-making and the slow deterioration of Sand's body through emaciation to death. It is of course unpleasant to watch, hugely effective in portraying the lonely journey he undertakes and provides the film with one of those sombre endings which can leave an audience filing silently out of the auditorium. So why disappointing? Because it isn't really a film. Well, of course it's a film, and films can be arty (and art can be filmy) with very little dialogue and still say plenty but, and my wife pointed this out, the potential pitfall of an artist making a film like this is that it all looks too pretty. The poster above makes art out of starvation, the faeces smeared on the cell walls looks more like the considered work of someone like Chris Ofilli than the abnegation of personal dignity in order to protest. The pale lighting and white sheets which serve to accentuate the bedsores and blood-loss of Sands are in danger of beatifying those final scenes and that doesn't tell us anything. I can see why a film-maker would choose to minimise the politics and focus on the human reality of the situation, but with what ends up feeling like a narrow view I'm no closer to understanding why those men were there, both guards and prisoners, than I was as a child.


Saturday 28 March 2009

'let the wild rumpus start'


Friday 27 March 2009

One for the wish-list?

I'm not sure I'll be rushing out to snap up a copy of this years Diagram Prize winner.
How about you?


Monday 23 March 2009

'what I carry between myself and death'

A Day And A Night And A Day
by Glen Duncan

Glen Duncan was another chance find for me when I picked up a remaindered copy of his second novel, Love Remains, in a second hand shop for no good reason other than it sounded dark and interesting and found myself diving into one of the most disturbing reads I've had yet. Duncan is a writer unafraid of dealing with the big themes: love, hate, sex, death, violence and, perverse as it may sound, his lightest offering so far has been the novel he wrote from the point of view of Lucifer himself. His bravery comes in saying what most of us would rather keep hidden, the darker side of our motivations and desires. In his latest novel one of the characters offers what could be a maxim for him as a writer, 'If we're going to have art...let's not have art that's done like a hobby.'

The title refers to the period of time that Augustus Rose spends being tortured after becoming a victim of extraordinary rendition. The novel is fractured, jumping back and forth through time as Rose remembers important moments from his life, his mind fighting for a foothold as his body is subjected to increasingly violent attacks from which of course his mind is not exempt. In fact the first thing to mention is the skill with which Duncan deals with this whole area. I actually became aware that he had a new book out after reading a review in the TLS in which it was grouped together with other novels in the thriller genre including the latest from John Grisham . Now as someone who's never read any I'm not going to pass judgement on the bestseller and apparently guilty pleasure that is The Grisham (he puts 'The' in every title so why can't I?) but I was a little surprised to see the two of them together. Rose's interrogator at one point asks, 'You read the testimonies of people who've survived torture...they're affectless . They tell you what was done to them but never what it did to them. Why is that?' Duncan excels at psychological veracity and in the scenes of torture he steers aware from pornographic descriptions of violence, showing that the real battle is a mental one, making torture a surprisingly clever template for narrative structure. Looking back to his past we see how this mixed race boy dreamed of being white ('there was his astonished and delighted face in the mirror, same mouth and nose and eyes but with the fair skin and the relief of having come at last into his inheritance.'), overachieved educationally and, at a time when a mixed race couple would raise not only eyebrows but confrontation, became involved in a passionate and full blooded affair with a New York aristocrat.

Duncan's relationships are often all-or-nothing. It is this lover, Selina who speaks the line about art I mentioned above and who, when the couple meet again, many years after the termination of their relationship describes it in mythical terms, 'You and I could have sat down with Tristan and Isolde and held up our heads'. This brief encounter, which also lasts a day and a night and a day becomes the catalyst that drives Augustus to join a terrorist network called Sentinel, a kind of vigilante terrorist cell, and the reason for his apprehension and torture.

His interrogator is Harper, an intelligent and controlled man of violence who cuts a contradictory figure in his 'Gap casuals'. Through him Duncan is able to articulate some of those difficult ideas and thoughts, as when Abu Grahib is raised.

'We needed to know we could do that, still do that. Otherwise why'd we photograph it?'
'Collective conciousness. America - in fact the entire non-Islamic western world - is only just waking up to what its enemy wants. It's taken such a long time because what it wants is so bizarre, so unreasonable. Its enemy wants to wipe it off the face of the earth, and has evolved a psychotic death cult to get the job done. You've got to love the jihadis' candor: 'We're not fighting so that you'll offer us something. We're fighting to eliminate you.' ...You don't fight that with reason, you fight it with contempt and brutality. We needed to know we could count on ourselves to get down and dirty...the Abu Grahib pictures were a relief...Why did the MP's take the photos? Because everyone back home, in a collective surge of self-doubt, had asked them to.'

But he doesn't restrict himself to his own professional arena, branching out into popular culture,

'We're suffering representational saturation. We've written too many books, made too many movies. By the time you're eighteen you've already encountered representations of everything important, you already know the scripts.'

We have knowledge we don't want so we send it to the movies. Hollywood's the transformation chamber where unpleasant truths get turned into consumable fictions. -Nothing's going to protect extraordinary rendition like Rendition.'

At one point he even proffers his ideas on what the neurological repercussions of the iPhone might be (I'll leave that treat for you to discover). It is typical of Duncan to have so much fun with this character, helping to make it even more chilling as the torture approaches its inevitable conclusion. Inevitable because casting forwards if you like we see Rose as an older man on the remote island of Calansay, his body naturally weakened by time but with an eye-patch standing out as starkly as the colour of his skin in this part of the world. Duncan anticipates anyone who might criticise the corny nature of he set up by having Rose imagine the movie-trailer voice over or novel blurb. 'the story of a man's spirit destroyed...and the love in which it's reborn. Now on an island at the edge of the world he must learn to live again..' Through his enforced proximity to a young runaway he finds that fighting spirit rising again at a time when he had thought he was preparing himself for death. Despite his attempt to head off our criticism this section of the novel is the weakest mainly because it struggles to keep pace with the vitality of the 'earlier' sections and because it resorts to the kind of climax one might well expect from the work of The Grisham et al. But Duncan remains an urgent and never less than interesting writer. His books are filled with ideas, many of them unpleasant or uncomfortable (as the truth often is), and I still regard it as fortuitous to have stumbled on him and his dark vision amongst those dusty stacks on Charing Cross Road.


Friday 20 March 2009

all the better to disappoint you with

So, I'm back. Hurrah. Being without a broadband connection for a couple of weeks has taught me that I am utterly reliant on the web to do just about everything, which is just where they want us I guess. I'm not sure who 'they' are, I've gone all conspiratorial. It must be the Red Riding Trilogy which started just before I disappeared.

If you actually listened to me and watched it, and the following two feature length episodes, then I would like to apologise. Six hours is a long time. That's kind of the point, that's what television can do that films can't; take the time to tell the story in a unique way. However, if it doesn't use that time in a way which leaves you feeling that your investment paid off then it all feels a bit, well, Northern Rock. I still think the first part was really interesting and above all promising but I'm afraid parts two and three didn't deliver for me. There was an interesting atmosphere of paranoia during the period of the Yorkshire Ripper's crimes, and it was shot and acted beautifully throughout but as it wore on it seemed to get more and more conventional. The desperate tying together of loose ends in the final section was particularly unsatisfactory. I could have gone for a bit more ambiguity, in fact I thought that might have been the point but instead we were treated to evil coppers, 'this is the north, where we do what we like' repeated about fifteen times and the wheeling out of some trusty paedophiles to round things off.

I'm only disappointed because it all promised so much more. Never mind. Back to watching the latest spirit-sapping reality TV programme.


Friday 6 March 2009

another fine mess

I am moving home. There may therefore be a brief hiatus in my posts here until things are up and running in our new abode.

Right, back to packing.

Wow, what a lot of books...

Ooooh, just before I go and lose my broadband connection, PLEASE tell me that you watched Red Riding last night, or that if you didn't you recorded it or if you didn't manage that you will go to Catch Up online. PLEASE!

Just brilliant television. Who says the Americans are the only ones who can do it? (oh, that might have been me actually). No time for a detailed analysis but let's just say the acting was fantastic, the script intelligent, the direction superb, the visuals dark and interesting and the atmosphere genuinely terrifying. Must-see-TV.


Wednesday 4 March 2009

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Mark Kermode (or Mark Fairey as I recently discovered his real name to be) got quite angry last year when this film didn't clean up at the Oscars. 'Visually rich, dramatically mournful, and thematically existential, this was quite the best film of 2007' were his words. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel by Ron Hansen as you can see here and finally got around to seeing the film version the other day (when you know a film is almost three hours long its difficult to find the time to sit down and commit). My wife lasted an hour before decamping, finding it difficult to care about cowboys; the opening scenes are pretty hard to follow with the dialogue kept mumbled and idiomatic, but this is a definite slow burner, a mood piece, and if you can make the time for it, it really does repay your effort.

As the poster above would suggest the film is dominated by its two central performances. Brad Pitt as James is mean and moody one moment, hysterical and demonstrative the next. It's refreshing to see the lines under his eyes and the marks on his skin for a change, not to mention oneof hose performances that reminds you that the man really can act. The novel was so pleasing due to the complex psychological workings whirring throughout but Pitt is adept at bringing some of those to the film with his looks into the middle-distance, especially towards the film's close. Casey Affleck is a revelation. Having only previously seen him in Ocean's Eleven (in which, don't get me wrong, he was good) it is astounding to see him inhabit the character I had read so vividly. With his reedy voice and darkened eyes, the chin often dipped but fighting to rise in confidence, he is a weak and yet sinister figure from start to finish. It is a fantastic example of being able to dominate a film without resort to bombast or pyrotechnics. Subtle, accurate and precise (I'd better watch myself or I'll come over all Kermode on you), it is indeed a shame that he lost out on an Oscar to the haircut that is Javier Bardem.

It is as faithful an adaptation as you could hope for, with huge chunks of text lifted directly from the novel (including all the quotes I used in my review). The cinematography is impressive as you would expect from Roger Deakins, the harsh conditions and era evident in the distressed and weathered skin that we are unused to seeing in modern films. Writer/director Andrew Dominik takes his time in creating his atmosphere. There are indeed a few too many shots of clouds speeding by, but some of the landscapes are absolutely stunning and the visual language that he develops during the film makes the final scenes leading up to the film's titular killing poetic, majestic and loaded with meaning. This surely is what cinema is supposed to do better than any other medium. That said there is something special about reading the book which means that it will always remain foremost in my mind, even set alongside this excellent adaptation.


Monday 2 March 2009

'somewhere, I shall wake, And give what's left of love again'

The Great Lover
by Jill Dawson

A convincing narrative voice is a challenge for any writer and doubly so when that voice belongs to a real person. Whilst poems, letters and other material might appear initially to give a writer a head start on rendering them, it can be those same pieces which gradually restrict your ability to write confidently yourself (I say this as someone who has tried and failed in the past to write from historical sources). With this in mind and also the impending responsibility of literally giving voice to Rupert Brooke in an audio-book recording of this novel I was truly intrigued by how Jill Dawson would cope with that challenge. As the pages flew by in this engrossing, atmospheric and beautifully crafted novel I could feel my shoulders relaxing. When the writing is good enough, everything you need to know is there in the text, and all you need to do is serve it.

Dawson begins things with a letter from Arlice Rapoto, a Tahitian woman who claims to be Brooke's daughter. This letter is received by Nellie Golightly ('Which sounds like something out of a music hall') who served as a maid at The Old Vicarage, Grantchester at the time when Brooke stayed in a room there. Arlice asks the same question that I began with:

I have read two poems by him but I would like to hear his voice. I would like to read his letters but mostly hear his living voice, to know what he smelled like and sounded like.

This allows Nellie to plunder her memories of that time and her thoughts alternate with the letters and journal entries of Brooke himself. I'm not a huge fan of that kind of structure to a novel but when it's done well as in Julian Barnes' Arthur and George you almost don't notice the convention and Dawson skilfully builds a rhythm to these exchanges which adds to the overall impact of the narrative.

Nellie is able to answer Arlice's question almost immediately with one of her early encounters with the poet. Late one evening in the garden she is startled to be met by a completely naked Brooke.

'Glorious evening, Nell- '
I opened my eyes then, thinking he had passed, and his hand flew down to his private parts and, widening his legs comically, he said: '"Down, little bounder, down!" as Edmund Gosse said to his heart,' and then he laughed, rudely and very loudly. He passed so close that I could smell the scent of the muddy river that wrapped his skin.

Nellie reels away from this encounter, finding it stirs up memories of her recent past, reminding her first of her brothers swimming in the summer back home and then of the 'poor stiff body' of her father that she had to lay out and bathe when he died. This bereavement, which has led Nellie away from home in order to support the rest of the family, has a lingering impact on her and her time at The Old Vicarage is one of personal, social, political and sexual awakening. One of the joys of this book is that none of these things are dealt with in a heavy handed manner. During this period, the height of the Suffragette movement, Nell is naturally exposed to the politics, both domestic and national, that dominate the country at this time. As a woman in service she is well aware of her place and indeed happy with it and Dawson illustrates this brilliantly by making Nell the daughter of a bee-keeper. As such she knows about the order of the hive- 'Bees have morals! They're loyal. They're devoted to their queen and they work so hard! There's no shame in service...Bees live only to serve!' It is through her own tending of the hives in Grantchester that Dawson creates one of the books most memorable scenes. The power structure is turned on its head when Nell takes Rupert to the hives, the bees themselves sensitive to the energy between them and Nell alive to the danger that this places Rupert in as his flirtations grow. When he lifts his veil to kiss her the bees sense their opportunity.

Now he is mine to rescue..One bee is on his chin, edging up towards his mouth.The terror in his eyes is quite real. I see by the wildness in his look that he wants to flap and scream and run about but puts his trust in me, like a small boy, like one of my brothers. It is this, finally, that is my undoing. I could have held off, I reckon, if it weren't for this. His teasing, his naughtiness, his insults, his demands, his flirting. Even the sight of him naked as the day he was born. I could resist them all, but not that one small thing. A glimpse of the boy.

Until this point Nell has perceptively identified Rupert as someone who 'has spent too much time in the classroom with other boys, giving the same boys too great an importance, with their secret games and private names', which cuts right to the heart of his emotional immaturity. A man still behaving like a schoolboy, having moved from one institution to another and indulged by those around him, the big surprise about Brooke is that at this point in his life 'the handsomest young man in England' is in fact a virgin. More than that, he is wrestling with his sexuality and Dawson again uses great subtlety and skill in depicting the clumsiness and shame of his various forays into sexual maturity.

There is something so choking, so suffocating, about being adored. The oxygen of indifference is what I need: it surely makes my heart pump healthily. I am a Poet, so I must be the one doing the loving. The Great Lover, that's me, not the beloved. the beloved is despicable. That's the role of a girl.

The relationship between Nell and Rupert, like the rhythm of their alternating voices, is filled with echoes. As Nell awakens to the world around her, so too does Rupert through his Fabian Society tour of the country and visit to the continent. There are moments when they can drop the class barrier that separates them - 'Whenever I let slip the mask for a moment, Nellie never fails to respond. It is not in what she says - Tradition and Centuries are difficult to undo - but in her glances. That is where the truth between us resides', - and when Brooke loses his father it is Nell he thinks of first, finding comfort from what she had said to him of her own loss.

When he leaves for the South Seas there is a danger that the energy built up between them will dissipate but Dawson cleverly counters it by altering the synchronicity of their respective voices; whilst Rupert is away, Nell remembers an event before his leaving and we learn of that as we see how Brooke ends his days, bringing everything full circle with a very satisfying close.

I only hope I can do it justice when the time comes to record it. Watch this space for more information about that nearer the time.


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