April Miscellany (2009)

A documentary film first.  Afghan Star directed by Havana Marking, which won a prize at the 2009 Sundance Festival, told the extraordinary story of the introduction of an American Idol/X-Factor type show in Afghanistan. Music was banned by the Taliban and the producers of the show (Afghan Star) obviously faced considerable problems when they decided to try making an Afghan version. But it was a fantastic success with estimated figures of one-third of the Afghan population watching or voting via mobiles. And watching in itself presented great difficulties – the documentary showed incredibly battered and decrepit television sets being repaired with great ingenuity, makeshift aerials being held in position with rocks. At the heart of the documentary however was the story of 4 of the 10 finalists – 2 being women. The women were subjected to abuse and harassment and when one of them danced on stage she was denounced and we were shown open interviews with men who said she she should be killed. One of the most striking things about the film however, was to demonstrate how words and their meaning change given the cultural and social context. The statements about the importance of the contest to the individual’s lives – how important, life-changing etc. etc. it is to them – which have become part of the bland and indeed rather tiresome furniture of the Western shows took on a whole new meaning here, as, of course,  for these Afghan competitors the competition did indeed hold an importance and life-changing (or ending) potential to a degree unimaginable in the West. Even when a Western show does throw up someone for whom the words ‘life-changing’ can have real meaning – as in the case of Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent recently (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxPZh4AnWyk  if you are one of few people in the world who has not seen her by now – I will return to her later) – she is still not going to be denounced from pulpits or face very real death threats. Now it needs to be stressed that the songs which the contestants sang were very much Afghan songs – this was not some case of demented cultural imperialism or Eurovision tacky blandness. I can’t say that any of the singers sounded that good to me but that is the result of listening with a Western ear. No, this was Afghan people themselves attempting to build a new society – and showing the rifts, divisions, terrifying sexism which they face (and display – the other singers themselves condemned the dancing woman). Riveting viewing.

And also riveting was the aforementioned Susan Boyle – YouTube hits now at over 100 million and rising. Now Britain’s Got Talent is an extraordinary cultural phenomenon. It will need distance and considerable study to figure out exactly what is going on here. What is completely clear is that the first series took off due to Paul Potts. Again the story is extremely well-known (video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1k08yxu57NA )  – chubby mobile-phone salesman walks on stage and says that he is going to sing opera, everyone (myself included) prepares to hide behind the sofa and/or laugh, opens his mouth and glorious sounds emerge. Yes of course the facts that emerged gave a slightly different slant – he’d had vocal training; he isn’t some second Pavarotti. None of that alters the fact that – and I saw it ‘live’ so to speak – it is one of the single greatest moments of television I have ever seen. Why? Because it is uniquely televisual. This would not and could not work in any other medium – it is the double ‘liveness’ ; the first the live recording – and the audience reaction is crucial – the second the ‘live’ TV showing because you knew you were sharing the moment with 12 million other people. These conditions clearly do not apply to any other medium. But why do the Potts/Boyle moments have such an emotional impact on so many millions? (and I still get teary watching them for the nth time on YouTube) Here we get into even deeper waters – clearly there is some sort of ‘love of the underdog’, clearly some sort of revolt against everything which society dictates about body image, looking good and so on, clearly some – crucial – class identification, clearly in Boyle’s case a lot of issues round women and dictated images. It is also impossible to neglect the importance of YouTube in the spreading of these performances into global phenomena – this is the democracy of the Internet. Indeed one might go further as YouTube is free and speak of a type of cultural communism. Although that still begs the question as to why these performances reverberate around the world. No amount of cynicism about the way in which  Simon Cowell will exploit the artists for his own financial gain can start to answer the questions which the reactions to these performers raise (not that I begrudge Cowell his millions as he is responsible for many of my television pleasures these days; incidentally American Idol 2009 has now turned into a one-man show with the terrific Adam Lambert streets ahead of the talented Allison Iraheta and the rest decidedly boring).

Turning to the movies first up is Black Book (2006) directed by Paul Verhoeven. This was the story of how a Jewish singer, played with great aplomb by Carice van Houten, joins the Dutch resistance after her family are shot by the Nazis. She is detailed to get close to the head of regional Gestapo but they end up falling for each other. This plot summary makes the film sound melodramatic and to some extent it was – although the plotting is quite complex. Certainly it is directed with considerable skill and the action drives forward at an impressive pace – as one would expect from Verhoeven. The politics are a bit more complex. It turns out that there is at least one ‘good’ Nazi and several ‘bad’ members of the Resistance. Events post-Liberation are shown as wildly out of control with a rampaging mob – there is a graphically horrible scene of van Houten’s humiliation and abuse in a prison to which she has been unjustly consigned. Clearly this is a revisionist version of history and it may well be that it is needed to confront some skeletons in Dutch closets. Verhoeven is after all Dutch and one imagines that this is a film which he felt was close to him. It is certainly intense and thought-provoking but perhaps never quite escapes from the thriller mode – which is what on the other hand makes it effective as a movie. Making a film which is at the same time visceral thriller and at the same time serious revisionist history may be an impossible combination.

Next is Little Children (2006) directed by Todd Field and based on a novel by Tom Perrotta who co-wrote the screen-play with Field. At the centre of the film is the adulterous relationship between characters played by Kate Winslet and Brad Adamson though this is interwoven with other stories, particularly that of a sex-offender magnificently acted by Jackie Earle Haley.  Little Child is a fascinating, if uneven, film. The literary origins are very obvious, especially at the start of the film where voice-over is extensively employed (voice-over then disappears only to recur towards the end) and there is an overt sub-Updike influence, as when Adamson spends his time watching young men skateboard rather than study for his Bar examination ( I am not being particularly critical here – if you are going to be sub-anyone then Updike is an excellent choice!). But the opening scenes where Winslet sits near a group of middle-class women in a small park also has certain shades of Desperate Housewives; and the film is somewhat satirical in a rather easy way of these women. Indeed at this point I thought it was going to be a very light-weight and probably unpleasant affair. However as soon as Adamson appears and he and Winslet start talking the film becomes much more substantial and interesting. Winslet’s unhappy marriage is exposed as we see her husband become obsessed with Internet pornography – she comes upon him masturbating. But then, somewhat typically, this theme is dropped and we hardly see the husband again – although they are still living in the same house. Most disturbing is the treatment of the Haley character. To outline all of this would be to give away the film since it deliberately continues to play upon the audiences expectations and reactions to this man right up to the climax. One noteworthy and I imagine very well-known scene occurs at the town’s swimming pool where the Winslet and Adamson characters tryst during what seems like a permanently sunny summer; one day the Haley character turns up and heads into the pool crowded with children. All this is very deliberately shot as a Jaws parody; he dives underwater and we see the children’s legs, then he is spotted and mothers frantically call their children out of the pool until he is left alone surrounded by a ring of faces standing  around the pool edge. The viewer is unsure as to whether he is to be pitied or seen as a danger as we have no idea whether he is really likely to molest a child (his offence was to expose himself to a minor). But it is a brilliant sequence which uses a cinematic montage of which everyone will be aware to great effect. Themes and issues drop in and out of sight and one’s sympathies for various characters oscillate. Winslet goes to a women’s book group which is discussing Madame Bovary and various characters give their opinions, the discussion becomes heated and personal; but even here I felt that one woman (one from the park at the beginning – indeed the Alpha-woman of the park set) is treated almost satirically where the others are treated realistically. The film’s ending – after some terrific climactic scenes – is almost bathetic; something to do with the future holding new possibilities (almost at a ‘tomorrow is another day’ level!) – perhaps this was intended as some sort of ironic joke as there is absolutely nothing to suggest happiness for any of the characters. Uneven but definitely compelling and full of interest. Indeed I would be interested to re-watch this film and that is something I rarely say straight away, even about films which are appear ‘better’ than this one.

In some ways I’ve Loved You So Long (2008), directed by Philippe Claudel and starring Kristin Scott-Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein, provides an ideal contrast and illustrates my point. This film is extremely even, ordered, clear in its narrative focus just as Little Children is uneven, disordered, unclear in its narrative focus. In I’ve Loved You So Long, Kristin Scott-Thomas, in a brilliant and haunting performance, plays a woman, Juliette, released from prison after 15 years who comes to stay with her sister Lea (Zylberstein) and her family – husband Luc, two adopted Vietnamese girls and mute father-in law. Juliette has been in prison for the murder of her son, the reasons for which are only revealed at the end. The film shows her very gradually coming back to life through, at first very tentative, contacts with the old man, the children, a mournful police officer to whom she has to report, Michel a work colleague of Lea’s and, centrally, Lea herself. Very little happens which is outside the focus of this immediate narrative. There is one of those very French weekends in the country where a satirised intellectual bully preens himself. Lea loses her temper with a student. The milieu is unremittingly middle-class; to a certain extent it plays to a benign French view of themselves as all intellectuals, all cosmopolitan – this is a bourgeoisie with a discreet charm. I am perhaps unfair to the film and it was perhaps unfortunate that I watched a long interview with Claudel which came as part of the DVD. These ‘extras’ always range from the absurdly superficial to the in-depth and thought-provoking; unfortunately in the case of the latter it is a fact that one’s thoughts may be affected in a negative, as well as positive, direction. Claudel called attention to his directing style (this was his first and so far only such assignment, though he is an established novelist) which he said was to be as plain as possible, never to call attention to the camera or editing; he went on to make the utterly absurd claim that ‘anyone can move a camera around’. Well maybe they can but the number of those who can do it with style, grace, artistry, elegance, beauty is incredibly small. In any case this drew my attention to the fact that visually the film is of no great interest. I like my cinema to have visual and editorial panache – as a general rule the more the better. So my opinion of the film actually deteriorated after hearing the interview! This is an unfair and patently uncritical attitude. The performance of Scott-Thomas is terrific and the story a strong one. But it still isn’t a movie which I would want to see again, nor was it thought-provoking in the way that both Black Book and much more intensely Little Children were – flawed and uneven though they both are.

A couple of books to note here too. I finally caught up withStieg Larsson’s  The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2005, English translation 2008) – about a year later than the rest of the mystery reading universe and wrote the following review….. 

>>Another review of this book seems more than a little redundant – there can be few mystery readers who, if they have not actually read the book, have at least read a review or heard of it. Sharon Wheeler’s at rte is much the best place to start (http://www.reviewingtheevidence.com/review.html?id=7201) and will save me from regurgitating the plot.

So its just a matter of my judgement. Is it an astonishing debut? Yes, undoubtedly. It is almost impossible to believe it is a debut, so assured is the writing even in translation – and one point I would make is that this book would be an even deeper and finer experience if you were Swedish or understood the many references to Swedish politics, media, personalities which permeate the book. It is part of the book’s triumph that Larsson is very Swedish but transcends any national boundaries (although it was very amusing to see St Albans described as a suburb of London – not something the inhabitants of that town would appreciate I imagine!). But the plotting, characterisation, sociology, sense of location, narrative impetus are all of a very high order.

Do I rate it as highly as Sharon (‘one of the finest crime fiction novels it’s been my privilege to read‘) though? Regretfully I am afraid not. This probably comes down to a matter of personal taste. For me the aspect of the book which concerned itself with international finance was all a little over-blown and thrillerish. In fact I felt that the two stories – one of the Vanger family and Harriet Vanger’s disappearance some 40 years before the book is set, and the other of Blomkvist’s battle with the crooked financier Wennerstrom – are not wholly integrated despite all Larsson’s clever attempts to disguise this. I much preferred the Vanger story – which is in many ways a classic mystery puzzle. The third ‘story’ of Lisbeth Salander and her struggles against the system provide the books tension and much of the anger and are well-done, until towards the very end when she becomes embroiled in the Wennerstrom saga, when once again the book teeters into thriller country.

In conclusion – a fantastic debut novel, recommended without hesitation if you are one of those who haven’t read it, without doubt an alpha rating and a book which would have made my top 5 for 2008 if I’d read it then. But in my greatest of all time – no. << 

Now on to the second in Larsson’s Millenium trilogy The Girl Who Played With Fire when I can get it from the library – waiting times are lengthy, a tribute to his well-deserved success. It is worth adding – albeit for the millionth time – my personal sadness that these works should be appearing post-humously. 

In very sharp contrast I attempted Laura Thompson’s Agatha Christie An English Mystery (2007). On the excellent advice of a friend I read the chapter entitled ‘An English Murder’ first, but of the rest only managed about five pages. Thompson’s analysis of Christie’s books is readable but inadequate – when she announces that A Murder is Announced marks the start of a decline one knows one is not going to be faced with anything very substantial (it is one of Robert Barnard’s favourites in his book A Talent to Deceivethe – the best on Christie as a mystery writer). Thompson simplifies Christie’s morality, overestimates her powers of characterisation and vastly underestimates her genius at plotting (as usual). She does give some tantalising glimpses of the Christie notebooks on which a new book is scheduled to appear this autumn. However it is on moving back to the start of the biography that the real weaknesses become instantly apparent – we are presented with a sequence where we are told to imagine how Christie would see present-day Torquay, which becomes jumbled with Thompson’s personal jeremiad on general architectural and social decline. Who knows and much more pertinently who cares? Certainly not me. Interested as I am in Christie, life is definitely too short for this.

A short notice of a theatre trip too – to see Boeing, Boeing a farce by Marc Camoletti which once ran for seven years in London and is apparently listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the most performed French play throughout the world – if true this is a depressing statistic as is not even a particularly good farce, the gender politics are appalling and the intellectual level low. The cast however performed with energy and it allows me to speculate on how farce is peculiarly theatrical – the physicality and immediacy work in a theatre in a way that they just do not in other media. Thus even very good farces like Michael Frayn’s Noises Off do not quite translate to the cinema – it is much funnier and works far better in its original environment (apparently Boeing, Boeing was itself filmed with Tony Curtis no less but would probably be best avoided). In the theatre devices such as multiple doors (7 in this production) with characters emerging and disappearing in ever more frenetic fashion sweep one up; in the cinema or on television they never work in the same way. I am always interested in particular genres which inherently belong to one medium and never quite work in another.

I will finish this disparate collation by returning to television documentaries and Channel Four’s brilliant Unreported World. We do not always catch this exemplary series and it is massively undervalued – this is classic documentary making of the best kind. One particular recent episode entitled Children of the Inferno stood out though; the web-site (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/unreported-world/episode-guide/series-2009/episode-7) talks of the programme presenting a ‘vision of hell’; now this might sound, indeed did sound, like over-statement. That is until you watched the programme. The area concerned is the Jharia coalfields in Jharkand state in India; here underground coal-fires rage over hundreds of square kilometres, the ground so hot that paper will combust if left on it – to describe the landscape as bleak or barren quite fails to capture the utter desolation which has been wrought here ; it looked like a more convincing version of Mordor than that which Peter Jackosn achieved in his wonderful Lord of the Rings film. In places there are whole villages which have collapsed as the earth beneath them shifted. Dispossessed farmers and their families scratch a living by illegally collecting the scraps of waste coal which are dumped on vast slag heaps.  The state owned BCCL coal company wants to shift 500,000 (yes half a million) people out of the area to make way for yet more mines. The documentary-makers travelled to Belguria where the company has constructed a bleak set of flats to which these people are supposed to relocate. Now these flats bore a strong resemblance to those which had been seen in yet another excellent series which was shown on BBC2 a little while ago – The Lost World of Communism – dealing in this particular episode with Caeucescu’s Roumania, where rural villages were destroyed and the villagers driven into soulless and half-constructed blocks of flats. It is uncanny that the Indian coal company should have even selected a name – Belguria – which seems redolent of Eastern Europe. When questioned the manager of the company’s responses could have been those of any Stalinist apparatchik – it was a matter of rules and regulations and even the size of the rooms was so determined. So in one programme we had on the one hand a vision of what England was like in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, with young children slaving for minimal wages to feed themselves and whole populations being displaced and swallowed up by the demands of production, on the other a picture of Stalinism in action. ‘A vision of hell’ indeed and a magnificent documentary.

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