Monday, 27 December 2010

Travels in the Scriptorium [2006] by Paul Auster

Having finally finished War and Peace I've decided to read lots of short books in quick succession to get my yearly quota up. I'm a newcomer to Auster and decided now is as good a time as any to break into his ever growing bibliography with Travels in the Scriptorium, a compact post-modern experiment running to 130 pages.

I'm a sucker for tricksy novels and self reflexive narratives and, as much as it is a cliché, I do enjoy authors writing themselves into their own novels, with Kurt Vonnegut's repeated personal appearances being a particular favourite. However, what I didn't realise when I started the novel is that all of the characters in the book are drawn from previous Auster novels, apart from the protagonist Mr Blank. This put me at somewhat of a unusual position whilst reading the book as I began to ask myself who are these minor fleeting characters with their mysterious vaguely alluded to histories and backstories. In such an allegorical book I started to read in to each character, trying to pin some sort of emotion or association on to them. This proved to be something of a dead end, as after finishing the book I found out that they were old Auster characters, and then everything fell in to place...

Mr Blank, an old man, finds himself in a bare room, apparently locked in, with no idea of how he got there or where he is. In the room there is a bed, desk, some paper and several manuscripts of half written stories. He is visited intermittently by people who obviously know him personally and have been had their lives seriously affected by Mr Blank's actions. Mr Blank guesses that he sends these people on 'missions' much like a spy master, often to unsafe or dangerous locations. He spends the day thinking about his position in the room, promising to himself that he will work at unlocking its secret, but never managing it due to a number of distractions.

A great deal of the novel takes the form of Mr Blank reading through one of the manuscripts which takes the form of an unfinished alternative history novel written by John Trause. Apparently John Trause (and anagram for Auster...) was a character in the New York Trilogy, Auster's breakthrough collection - again something I missed in my ignorance. Mr Blank is tasked to complete the manuscript himself, to come up with a middle and an end to the story, a feat of 'imaginative reasoning' designed to test his 'emotional reflexes'. Auster uses this subplot to toy with the concepts of clichés and literary forms in which the reader is comforted by a familiar plot structure (much in the same way that I'm constantly compelled by Westerns and film noir, even though they all roughly follow the same trajectory). At one point, the labels on all of the items in the room are switched somehow, and Mr blank has to re-order them so that everything makes sense. I'll admit, this section of the novel lost me, as I'm not too sure of the symbolism behind the labels and their sudden randomisation.

The novel then is a (obvious?) metaphor for the process of writing and creation. Do we have a duty of care towards are creations? Are their stories ever finished? Do their fictional lives give the author a legacy, a kind of life on the page that will continue after the author dies, one that endless repeats itself each time it is read anew? And if so, how much thought, how much life, should the author instill in his characters?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Lolita [1962]

Nearly finished Kubrick's filmography now - just Killer's Kiss and Eyes Wide Shut to go.

This was brilliant, early, restrained Kubrick, just as he was about to turn into brilliant, later, over-the-top Kubrick. I've never read the book, so couldn't compare the two, but the screenplay was written by Nabokov anyway so it has to be authentic.

Famously shot - again - in Britain, Kubrick does a decent job of pretending to be in middle America, except for the exterior scenes of pebble dashed detached house that are unmistakably English. Never mind.

James Mason was astonishing. He must have relished this role, something to get his teeth into with Humbert Humbert's particular brand of desperate depravity. I love James Mason at the best of times (and agree with Eddie Izzard that God MUST have Mason's voice) but he was a real treat to watch here, veering from aloof and respectful, to cunning and manipulative. You feel at once sickened and sorry for the man, given that happiness could be his except happiness is in the shape of a young - too young - girl.

Seller's play Quilty, and when you booked Seller's you really got Seller's. The Rough Guide to film states his performance  had "all the nuanced subleties of a Looney Tunes cartoon". Harsh, but true. Regardless I like Sellers and never have a problem with his over the top performances, often finding his desperate gurning and mania can veer into something truly pathetic... in a good way.

Kubrick had a particular fascination with casting comedic/manic actors in his films: the sergeant in full metal jacket, Jack, Alex, all 3 versions of Seller's in Dr Strangelove, Leonard Rossiter in Barry Lyndon. Its easy for accusations of coldness to stick when one's film career has a vein of unhinged characters running through it, but Sellers brought an unearthly third party into Humbert's solopsism which was entirely necessary to the film.


The Servant [1963]

Interesting yet slightly underwhelming class drama, directed by Joseph Losey. Remember reading a great article in Sight & Sound about the Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter collaborations and this seemed to stand out for its potential. Great dialogue alright, and many awkward, absurd moments (particularly the bizaare ball game Bogarde and Fox play together towards the end of the film) that set the film apart from its contemporaries, but it was mired by too much 60s zaniness, especially the debauched ending. Brilliantly directed though, confined angles and hidden viewpoints all in one house. Bogarde was great as well.

Night and the city [1950]

Why didn't anyone tell me that this film revolved around the London wrestling circuit of the 50s? A tense thriller it wasn't - Richard Widmark, normally so venal and terse, was flouncing around like a bratty teenager and I couldn't help but laugh at the wrestling scenes. Bear hug him Gregorius! Silly film.

Lift to the scaffold [1957]

Disappointing Louis Malle film, made me realise why Malle is so often disregarded. A slightly contrived premise, but nevertheless one that could work with enough suspence: Jeanne Moreau gets her lover to murder her rich husband, he forgets to clean up the scene of the crime and returns, only to get stuck in the lift when the building is locked up for the night. Mostly revolved around Moreau (who I often find dull and underwhelming anyway) wandering around the city reflecting on whether her lover has ran away at the last minute. Also contained a ridiculous side plot focuses on a young couple who steal the lover's car and get into various kinds of trouble. Didn't make me pine for more.

My Night At Maud's [1969]

First Rohmer film, and one that I have been waiting to watch for years. Managed to catch it at the Manchester Cornerhouse's Sunday Matinee which is always worth keeping an eye on.

Jean Louis Trintignant is a wound up Catholic with something against Pascal, and he has to stay the night in Francois Fabian's bed - only he has promised to remain celibate until he marries the pretty blonde who he has been checking out at Sunday Mass.

Pretty weird set up, but an enjoyable film nonetheless. Unrepentantly intellectual, I'll admit most of the discussions on Pascal went over my head. However, after a bit of post film explantion from S I started to understand the plot's analogies with Pascal's wager: Trintignant saw that he had everything to gain and nothing to lose by devoting himself to marriage with the pretty blonde, but I'm not quite he was convinced of this, especially considering the brief coda to the film when his memories and regrets seemed to wash over him like the nearby tide.

A beautifully photographed film (courtesy of Nestor Almendros, who also shot Days of Heaven - one of my personal favourites), every frame seemed to evoke repression (cold landscapes, icy streets) or clarity (simple interiors, the warmth of the church) - a reflection of Trintignant's emotions? Trintignant again displays his mastery of repressed urges: not as creepy as The Conformist or Three Colours: Red, but a calm, gentle and assured performance.

Heavy on the dialogue as it is, one never feels short changed by the film - this isn't a staged script, but a demonstration of how discussion and spoken thought can be cinematic when done properly.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Thoughts on Heroes

The heroes of Ride The High Country - these old, decrepit men doing a dirty job in a thankless world - seem far more real, far more sympathetic than today's crop of superheroes and supermen. Why is this? Am I alone in finding modest, self reliant outsiders far more charismatic and engaging than Spiderman, Jason Bourne or any of the cast members of Avatar? Here's my two penny's worth...

The events of the first sixty years of the 20th century showed us that the actions of one man can't explain the events of history (something Tolstoy mentions repeatedly in War and Peace, which I'll get around to blogging about when I finally finish it...). Two world wars, the depression, the cold war, Korea, Vietnam - all were monumental occurrences that where the backdrop to all forms of art from 1900 - 1960. Yet, it seems to me at least, that the protagonists and heroes of popular film in the first half of the century always seemed to be concerned with more personal, intimate forms of heroism. The effect on human lives of these seemingly immovable, unavoidable shifts in history is far more engaging and illustrative of the human condition than any story of some all powerful super-human fighting machine, who not only saves himself and the girl but manages to keep the course of history running smoothly, never letting it invade the lives of the little people down below.

What I find remarkable is that the popular entertainment of the time - westerns, noir, even musicals - embodied this feeling of personal heroism and victory and remained immensely popular.  You can still find such films today, but they tend to be small independently produced affairs with very little distribution. The audience, it would seem, has tired of modest heroism. (Either that, or, star struck by the spectacle of increasingly preposterous CGI and galactic heroism, audiences flock to the next blockbuster which inevitably costs ten times as much as a small picture like Ride the High Country to produce. Subsequently the next big film has to be hyped up as much as possible to generate revenue and ticket sales, with all that time and money being invested in relatively few films. I think I'm digressing from my original point....)

This could go some way to explain the decline of the western form (as well as noir and musicals - who can save the world with a dance?). The West is a hermetic landscape, very little changes, and if too much is changed then it ceases to be a western. No cowboy could save the world - the most he can hope for is to end the rule of a ruthless cattle baron or local hoodlum. But then, couldn't we? Corporations and politicians have been brought down by ordinary individuals. Gangsters and criminals have been stopped by local heroes. These things can and do happen and when represented on screen or on the page they provide so much more fulfillment and entertainment than a vacuous metal suit flying through the air.

Ride The High Country (1962)

Like most Peckinpah films Ride The High Country was concerned with men of action unable to come to terms with a changing world. Much like The Wild Bunch it was set at the beginning of the 20th century when the West had been won and law and order were becoming regulated. The opening scenes neatly sum up the changes as Joel McCrea rides in to town, only to be hurried along by a uniformed policeman and nearly ran over by a 'horseless carriage'. The West is starting to mythologise itself:, demostrated by Randolph Scott,  dressed up like Wild Bill Hickock and running a fixed shooting gallery. The two heroes are all but relics, trying to make a dollar any way they can.

The film was shot 7 years before The Wild Bunch. As such there is not as much glorious, vibrant violence in the film and the story is a more recognisable western - two heroic riders, one young greenhorn, riding through the high country to a dangerous big payoff. The themes and motifs that make you feel comfortable are here, but there is a definite sense of loss and unease at the way things now are. The mining town scenes are ingrained with dirt and hedonism, the treatment of women is harsh and misogynistic. Peckinpah always leaves a bitter taste after his scenes with women - was he merely showing us what it would have been like, or were his misogynistic characters a sign of a deeper contempt in the director?

Definitely one of the more thoughtful westerns with a script loaded with nostalgia and questions of morality and heroism. Scott's old timer is still drawn to money, especially after decades in the wilderness, his sentiment of 'You can't take pride with you to the grave' contrasting sharply with McCrea's statement that all he wants is to "enter my home justified". Its also a very beautiful film, shot in a big, wide, heavily wooded country and filled with memorably dramatic scenes of nature - especially the windswept, hillside shootout.

There is a lot to Peckinpah. Indeed there is a wealth of literature to read up on, most of it raising very valid points. One of the more pithy and to the point examples is Christine Gledhill's appraisal of the film in The Cinema Book (BFI, 2007):

"The question [Peckinpah] poses is, how can the traditional code of the western survive into an era when the certainties that underpin it have been eroded?  Individual morality has been replaced by corporatism, greed and cynicism [...] in Peckinpah's films, the white male hero is subjected to a series of ordeals, moral and physical that test to the full his ability to retain his integrity and sense of self. Typically, Peckinpah's heroes cannot adjust to a world that has overtaken them. There is no community that they can relate to, only, if they are lucky, a few kindred souls, doomed like them to assert their defiance in acts of heroic resistance."

A nice explanation. But I was wondering what she meant by "an era when the certainties that underpin it have eroded". Does she mean the era represented in the film, or the era of the audience? This started me thinking: has our perception of the hero changed, or have the movies simply stopped showing us these modest men and women? Read my next entry....