While it’s pretty clear that civilisation in general is going through a bit of a bad patch at the minute, what with the revival of the concept of the undeserving poor and the slashing, belittling and selling off of essential public services for reasons that seem dubious at best, there are however one or two fringe benefits to being alive right now, particularly if you’re into old movies. Back in the day, before videos and DVDs and way before on-demand streaming, you sometimes had to make herculean efforts to see any film not currently on general release, either by waiting up into the small hours to catch a screening on one of the three TV channels or by attending film clubs, where the quality of the prints were usually so dire that you weren’t left much the wiser by the end. The advent of VHS rental shops seemed like a revolution, but even then you usually ended up squinting at something smeary and riddled with tracking artefacts and there was the ever present possibility that your machine would chew the tape into unusability. Plus it wasn’t necessarily cheap: shops would often require you to buy one film at retail price before they let you start renting, and the price of a film could be something like £45, which could represent several weeks worth of disposal income in the early 80s.
Nowadays on the other hand you can get high-definition surround-sound transfers of just about anything beamed direct into your cerebral cortex within seconds of thinking of it. Or, if you’re still wedded to the idea of the physical product you can probably order it on disc for the price of a latte or a magazine. For example: as part of their centenary celebrations, Universal studios have issued a handsome box containing blu-rays of eight of their classic horror movies from the 30s, 40s and 50s and you can currently get it online for £18. That’s Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride Of Frankenstein, The Phantom Of The Opera, The Wolfman and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. For eighteen quid! It’s an austerity-age bargain! And these are no knocked-off cheapo editions either – they’re buffed up, restored, gleaming transfers with yards of value added material such as documentaries and commentaries attached, and you even get a glossy little book and postcards showcasing the original promotional art.
So far I’ve only watched Dracula (1931) all the way through. It’s a classic, just for the opening ten minutes, which are all wild mountainside roads and the Count’s spectacularly cobwebbed and ultra-gothic castle. The sets and matte paintings are just gorgeous. Eventually Bela Lugosi makes his appearance and despite his slightly stilted delivery (you can tell English is not his first language) he’s immediately the definitive Dracula: elegant, charming, slick-backed and exotically accented. He couldn’t be more of a contrast to the rat-like Max Shreck in Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu and is the template for more or less every screen vampire-in-chief ever since. I’ve got to say that the earlier film is ultimately more effective and resonant due to its sheer weirdness and scenes of plague and disaster – where Murnau showed a whole town succumbing to the baleful influence of the vampire, the 1931 film seems to bed down into long and not very dramatic dialogues scenes that take place in a comfortable mansion, as though we’re watching a stage play. The main points of interest are Dwight Frye’s manic interjections as the possessed Renfield, which do shatter the slightly soporific tone even if they’re a bit hammy.
Anyway, one film down, seven to go and if you’d told me thirty years ago that a collection like this would be available for the price of a small shopping basket at Tesco I’d have told you that it sounded like someone somewhere had got their priorities a bit tangled.
New Year’s Resolution: if you can’t find anything interesting to say then keep it short.
Case in point: 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of nineteenth century black musician Solomon Northup’s 1953 book of the same name. Northup was kidnapped and sold to a succession of plantation owners, under whom he witnessed and experienced barely imaginable cruelty. The film’s been garnering five star reviews for months and is as surefire an awards-magnet as I’ve ever seen for its theme, its pitiless but never gratuitous depiction of the barbarity and degradation of slavery, the skill and judgement of its makers (despite all the horrors here they still managed to bring it in as a 15 certificate) and the quality of the acting, particularly Chiwetel Ejiofor as the brutalised Northup, Michael Fassbender as his drunk and sadistic “owner” Edwin Epps and Lupita Nyong’o as an unfortunate girl who Epps has taken a perverse shine to. I could go on for another few hundred words, many of which probably be along the lines of “searing” and “unflinching”, but others have said it much better elsewhere. It’s pretty much a bulletproof classic. I will however throw in a couple of observations: firstly, that I did very much enjoy Paul Giamatti’s cameo as a silver-tongued slave dealer (“my sentimentality is the length of a coin”) and secondly, that it did leave me with a yen to dig out the old mini-series Roots. My guess is that while it would probably come across as a lot more stagey and a bit less intense than McQueen’s film it would still make a good point of comparison and stand up well, if only for showing the monumental effects of slavery on successive generations rather than one displaced man.
At one point in Annie Hall Woody Allen’s character muses that life is essentially divided into the horrible and the miserable. On the evidence of The Casual Vacancy J.K.Rowling would seem to agree, though possibly with the caveat that a lot of us are often both. This is a novel that’s hyper-caustic in its anger and disgust at the hypocrisies and insularity of small-town attitudes, but it also reads like a veritable encyclopedia of woe, with even the more sympathetic characters given enough flaws and weaknesses to make you want to withdraw from human relationships altogether and go and live in a yurt on a mountainside somewhere. Redemptive it most surely isn’t.
It is however a testament to Rowling’s skills as a storyteller and a close observer of the awkwardnesses of social interactions that the book turns out to be as grimly compelling as other famously winceworthy entertainments, such as Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen or Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings. The setting is the well-to-do market town of Pagford and the plot is kicked off by the sudden death by aneurysm of a popular and progressive local councillor, whose support for a down-at-heel estate notorious for being a den of vice and immorality has long been a thorn in the side of the more conservative elements of the town’s citizenry. The book doesn’t really unfold in the way you might expect, as an account of an election campaign to fill this “casual vacancy” – instead it uses the unhappy event as a catalyst to expose a number of underlying tensions and rivalries and to give a few of the less privileged inhabitants of the town opportunities to puncture the ambitions and pretensions of those who assume they have an automatic right to authority. The story is impressively multi-stranded and holds together convincingly and unpredictably, although one or two of the plot contrivances seem slightly unlikely and the ending is a bit close to straight melodrama.
Where the novel really impresses, and at times shocks, is in its vivid depictions of cruelty, callousness and depravity. We get school bullying, parental abuse, joyless teenage sex, self-harm and heroin dependence just for starters, all described unflinchingly, though without gratuitous relish. Later on things get even worse. Rowling gets inside the heads of her characters and we can usually see what’s motivating them to visit misery on their families or acquaintances at the same time as being appalled by it. She’s got a knack for distilling the techniques people use for dodging serious engagement with each other (I particularly like “it was wonderful how you could obscure an emotional issue by appearing to seek precision”) and some of the abrasive encounters are presented in such a raw and acute manner that you feel that they must be drawn from her personal experience.
Whether Rowling has any solution to, or strategy for, the dreadful and unnecessary woundings that people inflict on each other and themselves she provides copious examples of here is, on the other hand, not that clear. This book feels more like a rant or a roar than a manifesto. Whatever it is, it’s effective. I wasn’t expecting much more than a well-plotted social satire from The Casual Vacancy, but it’s clearly a book coming straight from the heart.
The Desolation Of Smaug, the second and middle part of Peter Jackson’s ludicrously over-extended adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is just as padded out as its predecessor with gratuitous sequences of horrible orcs hunting our heroes but nonetheless seems to flow considerably better. This may be because it’s starting to feel that Bilbo and his dwarfy mates are actually getting somewhere in their convoluted journey to the Lonely Mountain and the usurping dragon within, or it might have something to do with the variety and richly textured realisation of the places we get to visit: a spooky, cobwebby forest, the treetop palace of an Elven lord, the damp and rundown platforms and walkways of Laketown (particularly liked this location, a bit like a Poundland Venice in the Fens) and finally the treasure strewn halls of the dwarves’ former kingdom. We get man-eating spiders, spectacular flypasts round forbidding ruined castles precariously balanced on the sides of mountains, about half a dozen long and complicated battle bits in which Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly prove over and over and over again how great elves are at kicking goblin butt and, as the master of Lakeland, Stephen Fry doing his addled aristo routine in a quite awesomely preposterous wig. Best of all we eventually get a one to one between Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and the Benedict Cumberbatch voiced dragon Smaug (Watson, meet Holmes), and like its counterpoint Bilbo/Gollum scene in the first film it stands head, shoulders and menacing scaly appendages above everything else – it’s creepy, unbearably tense and was the only point in the film when even the young children in the audience I was in fell silent. Elsewhere, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf continues his tradition of abandoning his charges just when they need his help most in order to keep mysterious appointments in pointlessly perilous places, and Richard Armitage’s Thorin carries on managing his team badly with a winning mixture of impulsiveness, resentment and arrogance, like he’s been hastily over-promoted. This is a film that there’s really not much recommending, as you’ll either not be interested or will have bought your ticket and ordered the DVD already, but it delivers more or less everything you require it to and once someone’s done a fan edit that cuts out all the endless crossbow and beheading bits it’ll be pretty damn zippy. My chief worry is that we leave the story very close to the end of book, if I’m remembering it rightly – how on Middle Earth is Jackson going to wring a final three hour film out of one dragon attack, one battle and a bit of mopping up? Will it turn into a musical?
I’m a bit wary of award winning literary novels, usually finding myself bewildered by the glacial pace and the sense that terribly sophisticated insights into human nature are sailing several miles over my head whenever I attempt to give one a go. I did however find myself becoming more and more fascinated by Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries the deeper I got into it, to the extent that I wanted to read it again as soon as I’d finished it, and for an 800 page doorstop of a book like this that’s pretty impressive.
The Luminaries is a historical novel, set in a remote New Zealand gold-mining settlement in 1866 where a chain of mysterious and possibly nefarious events have aroused concern among certain of the community’s professional men. There’s a death, a disappearance, a fraud, an opium overdose and sundry other vendettas and loyalties to be considered and to this end a meeting has been called in the parlour of a hotel, a meeting that is inadvertently interrupted by a new arrival in town. Sensing that this smart, discreet and intelligent young man might prove a useful neutral sounding board the motley fellowship consent to relate to him their various involvements in and viewpoints on the situation and gradually a bigger picture starts to emerge. Over the course of the next two months other dramatic incidents thicken the plot further: a seance, a court case and at least one crime of passion. It’s all pretty complicated, with particular events often being multiply reported from different points of view, but the strands eventually weave together delightfully and logically, and my slight confusion at the end about some of the finer detail is certainly down to me skimming some of the set-up chapters rather than any failure of Catton.
The novel reminded me in quite a few ways of Wilkie Collins, particularly The Moonstone, though there’s much less overt comedy here and probably not so much interest in satirising social hierarchies. What Catton brings instead is a formidable mastery of structure: while the first, long, section feels slightly rambly it becomes clear as you press on that the drawstrings on the drama are being incrementally tightened, with action and revelation taking more and more precedence over description and atmosphere with every new chapter. Each of the twelve sections is shorter than the one before, in imitation of a waning moon, and there’s also a handy character chart whereby all the main players are associated with either an astrological sign or a celestial body – while it’s not necessary to take any notice of this in order to read or understand the book it certainly helps as an organising principle and as a way of keeping track of who’s who among the many characters (it also makes sense of the somewhat cryptic chapter titles). Her writing style is clear and fluent, and while it’s as convincing as it needs to be as a genuine nineteenth century confection it never distracts by lapsing into pastiche.
In some ways its effect is similar to dense, multi-layered films like Magnolia or The Prestige or Nashville in that a second viewing in each of those cases really helped to clarify and cast light on a whole bunch of complicated and intricate connections and relationships. I’m not a particularly patient reader and have a bad habit of speeding carelessly through passages that seem overly descriptive and mood-setting but by the closing sections of this book I wanted to make sure I paid close attention to every detail, such was the care and ingenuity the author had put into her precise and pleasingly labyrinthine plotting. This is a book to take with you if you ever have to spend a week or two somewhere remote, rainy and lacking internet access – while it’s slow to get going it will repay the dedicated reader who can resist distraction handsomely.
One of my very favourite famous people died today…although to be honest the Rev John Graham, otherwise known as cryptic crossword setter Araucaria, was hardly what you’d call a household name. Now I love cryptic crosswords as much as some folk love other arcane pursuits like ballet or hang-gliding or chess, though I’ve got to say it took me a long old while to get the hang of the various rules and flags that govern them. There have been a lot of great compilers, each with their own signature style and idiosyncrasies, but Araucaria was fairly unarguably the master of them all.
Graham was 92, and had been setting puzzles for the Guardian and other non-Murdoch papers for the last fifty-five years or so – someone somewhere might know exactly how many in total, and where one might find them, but it’s unlikely given Graham’s mild and self-effacing nature that he himself was keeping tally. The important thing was the quality and ingenuity of his work and the care he took to run themes and links through his grids that gave the completed puzzles a sense of unity. At the risk of sounding seriously pretentious about something originally designed as a tea-break diversion, to me the best of them had the appeal and resonance of great poems or songs, and even the more run-of-the-mill ones could be relied upon to provide at least half a dozen clues witty and unexpected enough to make one beam with pleasure. He was, unlike some of his fellow setters, always rigorously fair and never ostentatiously obscure with his clues, though he would often drop in topical or political references that made clear his left-leaning sympathies without ever coming across as preachy (in order to best appreciate his most celebrated clue it’s necessary to know that it was published at the time that Jeffrey Archer was laying low in his famous residence just outside Cambridge having recently been exposed as a perjurer and a cheat: “Poetical scene has surprisingly chaste Lord Archer, vegetating” leads, by means of a flabbergasting anagram, to the solution “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”).
Inevitably he chose to reveal his terminal cancer of the oesophagus via clues in a crossword a few months ago and his last grid in the Guardian a couple of Saturdays ago contained a few answers that should have tipped us off that the end wouldn’t be long: “nil by mouth”, “cottage hospital”, “time to go”. He was on top of the game even at the last, and I shall miss him. *Oftentimes.
About eighteen months ago I was quite sniffy about the first Hunger Games movie, mainly because I was disappointed that a promising future world scenario, in which random young people from the oppressed outlying districts of a decadent dictatorship were forced to fight to the death, had fizzled out in an over-extended arena sequence which seemed to go out of its way to dodge the potential moral challenges that Jennifer Lawrence’s gutsy heroine Katniss should have had to face. Fortunately author Suzanne Collins’s books form one of these modern Harry Potter style franchises, so here’s another film in which they get to have another go at the same basic storyline (or a pretty familiar-feeling development of it, anyway) and this time round it seems to me to come off a lot more satisfactorily.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire follows straight on from the events of the first installment and assumes that you’re up to speed on who’s who and what’s what without so much as a title card to break the ice. It’s framed as a conflict between Katniss, who is becoming the unwitting figurehead for a nascent revolution since her wily gambit at the end of the previous games saved her life and that of her fellow tribute Peeta, and the cruel and manipulative President Snow who was only a shadowy presence before but gets buckets of choice dialogue scenes and lingering malevolent close-ups here. This is good news as Donald Sutherland can do unsettling and controlling as well as anyone in the business, and he’s not the only heavyweight delivering a classy performance as we also get Stanley Tucci reprising his role as a brilliantly oily TV presenter and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the hard-to-read games designer Plutarch Heavensbee, which is incidentally the most preposterously enjoyable character name I’ve come across in a good while.
Anyway, whereas in the first film we got a gripping set-up followed by a lame pay-off, here it’s the other way round. The first half of Catching Fire seems unremittingly drab and dour and bleak as we witness the various deprived regions suffering brutal reprisals for the mildest acts of dissent against the state while the plot weaves its way through the contortions necessary to contrive a reason to send Katniss back into the arena of death again. None of this is poorly thought out or badly staged, and in a lot of ways it even feels emotionally convincing, but Lord it’s grim, with the only light relief being the bizarre costumes and hairstyles of some of the privileged capital dwellers and the odd moment of deadpan black humour. It really ramps up though when we eventually get to the main event – this time The Hunger Games themselves are meaner and altogether zippier, taking place in an ingeniously deadly environment and involving a much more interesting bunch of competitors than previously. Hell, some of them are even middle-aged or older! One of them even wears glasses!
The last hour or so of the film is as inventive and engaging as you could hope for, even if the overall tone remains firmly in the zone marked bleak, and there’s real uncertainty as to how the story will resolve. Without wanting to spoil anything, there are another couple of films in the pipeline and this one ends with the sort of revelations that some folk like to call “game-changing”. This isn’t exactly the cheeriest night out, and don’t even think about going to see it if you haven’t seen the first film, but it’s nice to see a sci-fi blockbuster that’s taken the trouble to establish characters as complex and subtle as some of those presented here, and to not make it too obvious which ones are going to win out in the end.