Monday, July 31, 2006


This is the second movie by John Cameron Mitchell, after his 2001 effort, Hedwig and the Angry Itch, a movie I must see now. The title is ostensibly a reference to a bus which is not the traditional yellow school bus, and to a rather adventurous underground New York club - it is a hangout, performance venue, where people sing songs about feeling upside down by getting quite literal about it and, most important, a place where people have sex. I think it is also important that a short bus is used to transport those needing special education (or, as the urban dictionary puts it less kindly, retards). I think this sense of something missing to the characters is an important theme for the movie.


It would be impossible to talk about this movie without referencing the sex, as there was a lot of it, the participants were rather focussed on its role in their lives, and it too was thematically important to the movie. Oddly enough, the only thing I found to be particularly disturbing (I won't go into details) happened off-screen and was not about sex at all. I did become a bit worried by it: as I was waiting, some people sat down behind me, saying it was time they got themselves some porn. I was beginning to wonder if it was going to be like Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs, which featured plenty of unrehearsed sex and not much else (apparently - I've not seen it). This was not helped by the opening scenes: we have one fellow trying to position himself so that he could give himself a blowjob (with a fellow looking on from an adjoining apartment, too surprised (not shocked, I don't think) to keep up his photography), we have a dominatrix whacking a fellow who had been dressed and acting like a nerdy school boy and we have a straight couple engaged in sex, in many positions and at great speed.

I need not have worried: this was a wonderful movie. Sure, there was a lot of sex, all shot without the use of blue screens or any other such technology, but ultimately, this was an enquiry into the conections between its characters which went well beyond the sexual.

The woman in the straight couple is Sofia: she is a couples counsellor (who refuses to accept the label sex therapist) who, despite her long and vigourous marriage to Rob, has yet to achieve an orgasm. The fellow playing solo is James, who is in a long term relationship with Jamie: they are seeing Sofia in order to figure out what to do with their relationship. James is a depressive and is probably not as devoted to Jamie as the converse: Jamie is intent on saving the relationship, and is wondering about loving others as a way to salvage it.
Sure, that's an old storylline and has a fresh resolution here. The domanitrix, Severin (or Jennifer Aniston - I mean that's her name, she's not played by her) has trouble connecting, has never had any real relationship with another human being.

So, the movie is about the pathways these damaged people (well, they at least feel like damaged goods) have to take. Shortbus provides the answers: Sofia meets Severin,

and they form a mutual support group, meeting every night in a sensory deprivation tank. This reminds me of something else the movie was pretty good at doing, at highlighting people's pretentions (such as Sofia eschewing a chair in favour of a swiss ball, and the sickmaking way in which Sofia and her husband would talk with each other when conflict resolution was needed): inside Shortbus, they all fade away.

There's a kind of framing device in order to show us the movie is conscious of its own fictional nature but, even so, there was an incredible sense of freshness to the scenes. I think this was partly because the crew developed the story lines themselves, improvising as they went along, and also quite a few of the supporting roles were people from the NY underground (freak?) scene playing themselves. So, we could see they were having an enormous amount of quite silly fun - particularly when James and Jamie brought Ceth into their midst. Oh, and then Sofia gives her husband the remote control to a vibrating egg: if he wants to say hi, all he needs to do is push the button. Of course, he's not really having a good time, so sits it out, with said remote in his rear pocket - with resulting hilarious results, because Sofia IS getting into the swing of it.

But there was an incredible degree of tenderness at the same time, in fact I'd say this was the prevailing mood: at several points, I found myself crying, as things worked out for these people. I loved the scenes where Sofia is looking on, not knowing how to respond, at what is basically an orgy - but there was one woman, she seemed cool, who noticed Sofia's presence and seemed to be suggestive of a future path.

There is also a political agenda: the filmmaker sees it as a small act of resistance against Bush's America, trying to be a reminder that there are still good things, New York is still a refuge for those who don't fit elsewhere, is a place for personal expression, not just tolerance but acceptance of diversity.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

La Doublure (The Valet), un film de Francis Veber

My first encounter with Veber was his marvellous The Closet, which I see is being remade by Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham, Brider and Prejudice). This is his latest movie to hit our screens: it opens with two young men driving very flash cars - my immediate reaction was that they'd be racing them. But no - they are two workmates (Richard (right) and Francois), two very ordinary men who valet for a swanky restaurant: they call each other ass-face and are not very lucky in love.

The comedy starts with an elderly doctor making a home visit but having a fainting fit and requiring treatment from his patient, Francois's father.

The doctor is father of the lovely Émilie (played by Virginie Ledoyen, who was Francois in The Beach): it turns out that Francois determined when they were at kindergarten together that they were going to marry and the time is apparently now ripe for him to make his move. Unfortunately for him, she sees him as too much like her brother to have any romantic interest for her.

So, that sets the scene for the farce that is about to unfold. Pierre (Daniel Autiel) has been having an affair with a super model: a random photographer caught them on film and, of course, it made the newspapers. So Pierre has to find some way out of divorce from his wife, as she owns the majority of the company he runs - it would ruin him to lose control. So, he and his lawyer (who is the less evil of
the two) have this big plot. The photo just happened to include Francois as well, so they run with the idea of making it look like Francois and the supermodel, Elena, are the couple and Pierre was just randomly caught by the lens. Elena is not cheap: she genuinely loves Pierre (why??) and is bitter because he's played her; her demand is 20 million Euros.

Francois is more humble: when asked to have Eelena come live with him, his reaction is "how much will I have to pay?" He is very aware of his limitations, that guys like him just don't get to be with supermodels - and we soon see that he's still totally smitten with
Émilie. His only demand is enough money to get her out of a financial difficulty, and so the deal is done. Elena is in his hovel
pouring his beer, pretending to be living with him. She, of course, is expecting the worst, that he'll be some sort of creep and take advantage of the situation. But they talk, and she finds out about his love for Émilie - who is now being stalked by this completely odious cell phone salesmen: we know all we need to know about him just from his ringtone. So, there's one tense scene where Elena and Francois are at lunch, and mad cellphone guy has persuaded Émilie to have lunch with him. Of course, they're all at the same restaurant: lets just say, it becomes pretty clear that Francois is no longer just a brother to Émilie. Lucky him, because she really was lovely, and ran a bookshop, not because she wanted to make lots of money, but because she loved books.

Of course, being a comedy, everything comes out right in the end. Without necessarily having any quotably funny one liners, this movie was still one which had me laughing pretty much the whole way through. One thing that did amuse me: this is obviously not a movie to take seriously, but in a scene where there was a bit of cat and mouse going on, trying to get Elena away from a fellow following her, we had music appropriate to a car chase scene in a movie which does take itself seriously. Then there was some bank heist type music when a particularly secret (but nonsensical) task had to be performed. All these things added up to a hugely enjoyable movie. But at the same time, it was heartwarming: love matters, cheats ultimately don't prosper, money isn't the answer, nor is fame and celebrity.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Lonesome Jim, a film by Steve Buscemi

Steve Buscemi has made it his life's work to play losers, losers like Seymour in Ghost World who are actually great guys but just out of step with the contemporary way of doing things, so they can still have an appeal, because there are those of us who will identify.

I found it harder to identify with his creation, Jim, because for the larger part of the movie, he was simply too bleak a character. He went to New York to try his luck but, out of money, out of hope he comes back home to some small town in Indiana where all the bars are called Kiki's (Kiki appears late in the move in a throway line - she is in prison). He can't think of anything worse than living the kind of compromised life his parents have (particularly his mum - there's a fairly strong sub story developed about the loss of freedom being married has had on her). So, when he does come home, he is in the pits of despair, can't see anyway out, and he all but stays in that mode.
Sure, it gives him attitude and some good lines: such as when he says he came back for a nervous breakdown, but his brother beat him to it, and when he asks his brother how he's managed to stay so long without killing himself. But it is very easy to grow tired of such a fellow.

Most people as they grow up have pictures of their idols on their wall: Jim is no exception, but all of his idols are writers who have killed themselves. He sees himself as part of a club of pathetic people with pathetic unacheivable dreams. So, of course, when he meets Anika (Liv Tyler) in a bar (Kiki's III), their relationship is characterised by a complete lack of fizz: their first attempt at sex seems to be over in less than a second. Equally of course, his feeling of having no purpose in the universe is gradually replaced by a sense of place, alongside Anika and her young son, Benjamen. That is the essential trajectory of this movie: she brings him out of himself. So, yes, the story was all a bit obvious.

Sure there are a few sub-plots, such as Jim taking over as coach of the kids' basketball team his brother had been coaching - the team has not taken a basket all season, and if you think having a profound depressive like Jim is good for team spirit, you'd be wrong - although it was very funny the night he just gave up and told the team to do whatever they liked. Then there was the strange story featuring his trailer trash uncle, who's selling drugs through Jims' parents' factory, leading to a police bust. This was also an important step in Jim's coming alive, as he was faced with doing something vital: spill the beans on his uncle to get his mum out of jail or once again avoid his obligations as a human being.

But the joys in the movie were the attention to detail in the cinematography, the fine characterisation of some of the supporting cast (although dad was pretty much a stereotype) and the gentle way in which humour would be emoployed to stop the story getting too bogged down. The movie is an interesting companion piece for Ghost World: in that movie, Enid can't find any sort of purpose in her life at home, and so we see her at the end catching a mystical bus to the end of the rainbow. We also see Jim getting onto bus at the end of Lonesome Jim but he's not on it for long.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Used train, anyone?

I have been on a lot of trains in my life. I've trained across the Australian desert from East to West (and am unlikely to repeat the experience). I have used trains in France as mobile Youth Hostels, thanks to having a train pass but little cash. I have been on a train that managed to get lost (going through Jackson, Illinois). I have been on a train which ran someone over, in Chile. My first real experience of India was to spend three days on a train, going from Mumbai to Calcutta. My most recent train adventure was to take the Maple Leaf from New York to Niagara (which, by the way, has the hottest immigration officers I have ever encountered).

But my very first experience of a train (except, perhaps at some time in my infancy I no longer recall) was the train now known as the Overlander, a train which runs daily between Auckland and Wellingron (and vice versa) on New Zealand's North Island. Until last year, it also ran as an overnight service, which, in previous iterations, had even run to having a sleeper car service and (I think) some form of motorail. For my very first stint of travelling and living by myself, occasioned by my choice to attend the NZ University furthest from my home, I took the train. I retain little of that particular journey, save for the unexplained stops in the midle of nowehere which seem to be attendant upon train travel.

Since then, however, I have made numerous trips on it. I repeated the journey from Auckland to Dunedin when my then employers, concerned that I might be having some sort of burn-out related breakdown, sent me on holiday. The train was most helpful when I lived in Palmerston North, within walking distance of the station. For three years, I had weekly classes in Wellington. While the Overlander was too early in the morning to get me there at a sensible time, it did make the northward journey at a suitable time. Plus, I had parents living in Raurimu: although there was no scheduled stop, this was where the train crews would be exchanged between north and south bound trains, so I could generally persuade them to let me off.

But over the past decades, our train service has been ravaged. It fell into the hands of private interests, who were notorious for not undertaking the necessary degree of maintenance and capital expenditure. Quick and dirty solutions were the norm: when a young fellow managed to fall off the outside vestibule used by smokers, the response was not to make these areas safe, but to ban passengers from them. In the 1980's, the most stupid decision possible concerning the network was made: to prevent the familiar clackety-clack of a train, the railway lines were all welded together to smooth passage over them. Unfortunately, a basic law of physics was overlooked: in the heat of summer, steel expands. With no spaces between each link in the network, the railway iron had no choice but to kink and twist: which causes adverse consequences for trains. So, over summer, trains have to run at ridiculously slow speeds. Passengers are put on busses for parts of their voyage. More than twelve hours are needed, at the best of times, to travel 800 kilometres.

Even in these days of escalating fuel prices, when trains are a logical way to maximise the number of people carried for a given amount of fuel, busses are cheaper. Taking the bus, with its compulsory stop every couple of hours, is still quicker then the train. Sometimes, they'll put on a decent video to watch. Even flying can be cheaper and is obviously faster.

And, under the current ownership (a freight company) the staff employed to deal with passengers seem to want to treat us as items of freight, who can be shouted at and shunted around at will. The very last time I rode the night time equivalent of the Overlander (my never again moment), I had a very simple request. I wanted to read while I had a cup of tea: the above seat light was disturbing my fellow passengers. There was an entire cafe car with no passengers, so drinking my tea there hardly seemed unreasonable. After all, that's where I bought my tea. And yet the train manager warned me that I could not have a light for long (he had to sleep) and, in fact, as soon as I had settled down with me tea, he switched off all lights. Yes, it was a minor thing, but it was so unnecessary and irritating.

If we'd had a proper investment in good tracks, so that trains can go at a decent pace, an investment in good trains, and an operator who understands passenger transport and tourism, New Zealand could have saved its trains, which provide a marvellous way of seeing the place. Instead, it has been announced that the Overlander will soon be no more. There is a certain irony that the only remaining long distance trains will then be in the relatively under-populated South Island, but I wonder how long they will last. Apparently they're both for sale.

Monday, July 24, 2006

All Quiet On the Orient Express by Magness Mills

He’s a strange one, is Mr Mills. He speaks to us from the perspective of someone transplanted into a rural working class environment, so in his first novel The Restraint of Beasts we joined an English fellow who had been put in charge of a pair of truly terrible Scottish fencing contractors. That novel was made memorable by the way they’d deal with someone they didn’t like: he’d find himself dead and buried head first under a fence post. The subtleties of drinking in country pubs were also explored: I still don’t know what the difference is between a straight edge and a curved edge pint glass, except that the glasses mark out class distinctions. The whole novel was completely mad.

His second novel, All Quiet … is saner, taking on the ways in which a decent hard working individual will be exploited. What is remarkable about the novel is the complete absence of polemic: Mills simply tells the story of the nameless narrator, using a deadpan comic style with the occasional flourishes of more overt humour, such as when he is recounting the narrator’s efforts to obtain baked beans or nice biscuits from the local shopkeeper, Hodge. The humour is in the extreme measures needed in respect of such a trivial matter, and in the character of Hodge. Here is one attempt by the narrator to get some baked beans:
‘Baked beans, is it?’ he asked.
‘You are open then, are you?’
‘Open every day,’ he said. ‘Early closing Wednesdays.’
‘Oh, I see. Right. Yes please, baked beans.’
He went to the appropriate shelf. ‘You’re lucky. These are the last two cans.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘You’ll be getting some more in though, won’t you?’
Hodge smiled in a cheery way and clapped his hands together. ‘I’m afraid not.’
‘Why’s that?’ I asked.
‘No demand once the season’s over. Not worth opening another box.’
‘But I’ll be staying for a while now, so I’ll definitely be buying them.’
‘That’s what they all say.’
‘People who come in here asking for things.’
‘You mean customers?’
‘Call them what you like,’ said Hodge. ‘There’ll be no more beans this year.’
The narrator claims to have had some history of working in some factory “down south”: they claim never to have heard of him. Apart from that, and the fact he’s picked up some skills along the way, we know nothing about him. Either working life has dehumanised him or he’s a stand in for us all. By contrast, pretty much everyone else in the community is both named and has their character deftly drawn.

He has decided to stay on for an extra week’s holiday after the end of the season at some lakeside North East England camping ground. His plan is to kick back and relax before taking off on an overland trip to India. Tommy, the owner, offers him a bit of work painting in exchange for a night’s free accommodation. Within weeks, he is in over his head – he ostensibly has a job repainting the seven rowing boats attached to the camping ground, but Tommy keeps interrupting with new tasks. As does Tommy’s 15 year old daughter (the only female in town) – she has him doing all of her homework (starting with an essay on “where I live”, just to indicate her lack of ability, or maybe it indicates her ability to manipulate). He’s also contracted out to cut firewood, to do sheepyard work and there is growing speculation that he’ll become the new milkman, as Deakin isn’t really up to it.

Meanwhile, he is amassing debts to be paid “all in good time” and afraid to raise the question of payment for his work with Tommy.

The one social outlet is to go to the pub. Again, pubs are used to draw vital social distinctions. He goes to the Packhorse, because it has the beer he likes. As he has stayed on beyond the tourist season, the locals are remarkably generous about welcoming him into their midst, shouting him, running a tab, getting him on the darts team. The losers go to the Ring of Bells. Our narrator is relegated there for a couple of weeks when he lets his darts team down. Here
, there is no decent conversation to be had – not even from Hodge, with whom the narrator is still engaged in a cat and mouse game in order to be supplied with the biscuits he likes. He does get to go back to the Packhorse, but it is no longer the same: it is extremely hard for him to regain his position; made clear from the fact that he’s now only a reserve in the darts team. Within the Packhorse, too, we have a “top” bar created by having part of the pub two steps higher than the rest: this is where Tommy and a handful of the locals do their drinking, but our narrator never ventures there.

So, the greater part of the novel is simply tracing the narrator’s deepening involvement in the community. Sure enough, there’s a mysterious “accident” involving Deakin
With Mr Parker’s help I shoved the mooring weight over the edge. It plummeted into the depths followed by the long, rattling chain, and a moment later it was gone.

So was Deakin.
The narrator’s assimilation is now complete: he takes over the milk round. But then in the final 20 pages, there is a denouement of sorts, something that has been hinted at since the beginning, with references to Tommy’s terrible temper every time the narrator errs, and to the completely useless Marco, who had worked for Tommy over the summer. Through careful control of text and character, we have been expecting an explosion from Tommy, ever since the narrator spilt green paint on his concrete driveway in chapter one. Although there is a bit of a tantrum towards the end, I think the point is that Tommy is never bad enough so that the narrator thinks “that’s it, sod you” (as he has earlier with Hodge). So, instead, things are actually worse: the narrator is basically stuck while less worthy people are getting the world trips (and the girl).

The Independent claimed Mills to be locating some sort of artistic space between Albert Camus and Enid Blyton(!). I’d suggest he has a more than passing connection with Flann O’Brien and a non-manic John Cleese. I also wonder if there’s a riff here on Stephen Dedalus’s “I will not serve”.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Purple Hibiscus by Chimananda Ngozi Adiche

One of my bookgroups is presently reading this: the general attitude is that it is an annoyingly slight piece of fiction, but I am not convinced. - I think there may be a little bit more going on with this novel than is apparent. First off, I think it is very much in a feminist tradition which sees a split between the public (male) and private or domestic (female) but which claims an equal importance for both. So, while there is a coup underway in Nigeria where some un-named Big Man has wrested control and is murdering his oponents, the concern with this novel is with the domestic consequences.

Furthemore, there is another, equally important, power struggle and coup being enacted secretly within the confines of the household, which is anticipated by the opening words of the novel
"Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines..."
Our narrator throughout is Kambali (15): she and her brother Jaja (who is either 14 or 17, I think there's a bit of a slip up) live with their parents, Eugene and Mama (a.k.a. Beatrice - she is hardly ever named, confirming the lack of any sort of public role for her). In some ways, Eugene is a good man, a very good man, even. He is a newspaper publisher and through his editorials and those of his editor, he stands up to the illegitimate government and the terrible things they do, he makes secret donations to a children's hospital and homes for orphans: the public perception of him is that he is a hero. Many are given strength by the stance he takes. To some extent, this continues through to his performance as a father: he is clearly very protective of his children, and wants the best for them. But there is a cost, and it is a terrible cost to pay: Mama is practically silenced by his repressive tyrannical ways and Kambali speaks only in a whisper and even then stutters.

There is a clue in Eugene's name to a critical tension in this novel: he has embraced the English ways, sees doing things the English way as the answer to Nigeria's problems, has turned his back on his native Igbo language and has embraced Catholicism to the point he refuses to have anything to do with his "heathen" father and won't let his children play unattended with their "heathen" cousins. So, when the kids err by spending unsupervised time with their grandfather, he pours boiling water on their feet. We learn of his tendencies early in the story - they have just been to Mass, Beatrice, heavily pregnant, is feeling sick and not up to taking tea with the young guest priest. Eugene asks, twice "Are you sure you want to stay in the car". Back home:
I was in my room after lunch, reading James chapter five because I would talk about the biblical roots of the anointing of the sick during family time, when I heard the sounds. Swift, heavy thuds on my parents' hand-carved bedroom door. I imagines the door had gotten stuck and Papa was trying to open it. If I imagined hard enough, then it would be true.
Beatrice is not his only victim: Kambali is brought to the point that the final rites ("extreme unction") are administered and, let us just say that Jaja does not escape. Eugene apparently sees himself as doing god's work so that the devil does not win, can't understand why his family walk into and like sin. So, after one attack:
Papa crushed Jaja and me to his body. 'Did the belt hurt you? Did it break your skin?.. I felt a throbbing on my back, but I said no, that I was not hurt. It was the way Papa shook his head when he talked about liking sin, as if something weighed him down, something he could not throw off.
Maybe it is this recognition that allows Kambali to maintain a steadfast love for her father, in the face of what most of us would regard as abuse. The author is quoted as saying that while his fundamentalism is definitely a problem, and symptomatic of a lot of what is happening
in Nigeria:
for all of his fundamentalism, at least has a sense of social consciousness that is expansive and proactive and USEFUL, so while his character may be seen as a critique of fundamentalism, the God-fearing public in Nigeria can learn a bit from him as well.
But there is another important element to this story. Kambali and Jaja are permitted to go and stay with Eugene's sister, ostensibly in order go on apligrimmage to see an apparition of the Blessed Virgin (there is a cute line about why she should be white and not appear in Africa, since she did come from the Middle East). We first meet Eugene's sister at the family Christmas celebrations:
Aunty Ifeoma came the next day, in the evening... Her laughter floated upstairs into the living room, where I sat reading. I had not heard it in two years, but I would know that cackling, hearty sound anywhere.
Of course she would: this is the first laughter in the novel, possibly the only laughter she knows.
Ifeoma is important: she is a woman who is not confined to a domestic role, she lectures at the University and, by her inhabiting that public role, we get to see quite a bit more of the consequences of the coup. Spending time with Ifeoma and her two kids proves to be a revelation for Kambali, who cannot understand a life not lived according to the strict schedules her father has set out for her. Two other people need special mention: Amaka is Kambali's counterpart, who has a lot of trouble sorting out her cousin - she misinterprets Kambali's disinterest in her music as disdain for the poor equipment upon which it was played, rather than a complete unfamiliarity with music, for example. It is only when Amaka leanrs more about Kambali's situation at home that the hostility dissipates: finally they are like sisters.

The other is the young and good looking Father Amadi - who creates feelings within Kambali she has never experienced before and doesn't really understand. He is possibly the most controversial figure, in that there are some who think he is not only interested in her as a woman, but encourages her - which is completely wrong for a Catholic priest. I'm not so sure: I think he recognises there is a fine line between making her feel silly for feeling something for him and him taking advantage of the situation, and don't think he ever does the latter. Certainly, he is a very positive influence upon her, encouraging her to develop her talent for running and to open up socially and three years later, they are still writing to each other with no hint of anything "lovey-dovey" in their letters, despite what others think.

The events of the novel are structured around Palm Sunday - which celebrates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on the Sunday before Easter. Most happened before Palm Sunday, which have culminated in Jaja's refusal to attend communion on Palm Sunday itself, and to Eugene's final meltdown. Somehow, Jaja's defiance is so bad that Eugene cannot even resort to violence against him just the breaking of the religious symbols. Then, well, I'd better not say any more about what happens at Easter.

Oh, the final point is that the purple hibiscus of the title is described in the novel as rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom - a freedom to be, to do.

As for our author, she is the daugher of a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, and just happened to live in the same house as had been occupied by Chinua Achebe (to whom the opening lines of her novel are a homage).

This book won the Booker Prize in 2004 but it has taken me quite some time to sit down and read it. It actually came with me on my recent trip to New York: the many hours there and back on the plane gave me the space needed to savour it, because it is a book to savour rather than devour. At one stage, there's a bit of a discussion between a couple of the characters as to the relative merits of Henry James and Anthony Trollope. The latter is dismissed by one as writing too fast but applauded by the other for being very good on money. I don't think we'd accuse Hollinghurst of writing too fast, but he might well have followed Trollope's lead and titled this The Way We Live Now, so long as "now" was understood to be the 1980's, in Thatcher's Britain. Critics have noted that the book "is infected by the rhythms of [James's] prose" - maybe so, but it is a much more straightforward writing style than the Master ever employed!

Nick Guest is a student, albeit not the most diligent one, of Henry James: he is interested in style, in the way that it can hide and reveal things at the same time. I'm no big James scholar, but I know he was an author who developed his own particular style of writing, and was also very much one for observing. So, when Nick is asked what Henry James would have made of us, Nick's answer is that James would have been very kind,, said how wonderful we are, how beautiful, given us incredibly subtle things to say "and we wouldn't have realised until just before the end that he'd seen right through us". This provides for an extended and subtle joke at Nick's expense, because he also sees himself as plugged in and yet by the end of the novel, we become very aware that his observations of what is going on around him are probably more than a little defective.

When we first meet Nick, he's a virgin. Margaret Thatcher has just won the election in a landslide, and he is on his way to a blind date, his first ever with a man. His day is "a shimmer of nerves, with little breezy interludes of lustful dreaming". Things go well; a large part of the first third of the book is taken up with the developing relationship between Nick and Leo. The
normal confusions and resolutions arising in any new relationship are compunded by a number of factors: it is Nick's first; Leo is considerably older; Leo is black; his mother is extremely religious so he has concealed the fact he is gay from her and the two of them are very different social backgrounds. Nonetheless, the section ends with Leo taking Nick to meet his family (as a "friend"). An ominous note is struck, however, by reference to Leo's former boyfriend, Old Pete, as being "a bit low" with some mystery illness taking all the life out of him. AIDS was first diagnosed at the very end of 1981, so in 1983 it would be very unlikely for them to know that Old Pete had it.

We see very little of Nick's family in this section, save to learn that his father was someone who would wind the clocks in the homes of the gentry, which is credited with giving Nick the social skills he has to live as a guest in the home of Gerald Felden, a newly elected Tory MP with an old money family behind him. Nick had met his son, Toby, at Oxford and thinks of himself as the "lost middle child" of the Feldens, someone they all trust because of his gravity and a certain shy polish. Their other child, Catherine, is a troubled child - as the novel opens, Nick has been left with her while the rest of the family holidays; he is "minding the Cat" according to the family joke. Not very well, as it happens: she tries suicide and he makes an executive decision not to tell anyone. Bad move.

Two parties, a season apart, occupy the rest of this section of the novel. One is Toby's 21st, just after Nick has met Leo. Nick is feeling out of sorts, hopelessly lusting (as he always has) after Toby and rejecting the partygoers as "an efficiently reproductive species", thinking the "great heterosexual express [was] pulling out from the platform precisely on time, and all his friends were on it...". This is one of a number of his recognitions of his status as an outsider: although he certainly likes to think of himself as an insider, and generally gets away with thinking he is, he really knows he is not. I like the suggestion made by one critic that he is a lot like Nick Carraway.

Hollinghurst uses these parties as an opportunity to bring lots of characters together, the very sort of people who were profiting from the 80's and mixing with the "right" peiople, such as the Feddens - a lot of fun is poked at their pretentions. There's one great comic scene where a possibly awful little pianist is brought in for a musical performance Gerald puts on in order to impress - the real target is the audience:
Beside Nick a thin-lipped man from the Cabinet office groped for his programme sheet as if the music had come as a slightly unpleasant surprise - he made a little scuffle with his chair and the paper. One or two people snapped their glasses cases as they tried well-meaningly to catch up with the leaping flood of sound. It was all so sudden and serious, the piano was quivering, the sound throbbed through the floorboards, and there were hints on some faces that it could be thought rather bad form to make so much noise indoors...

Nick wondered what he thought of Nina ... too assailed by the sound, by the astounding phenomenon of it, to know if she was really any good... She had clearly been ferociously schooled, she was like those implacable little gymnasts who sprang out from behind the Iron Curtain, curling and vaulting along the keyboard. [She] put ona fearless turn of speed...
Now this music was Chopin, who Nick in his programme notes had described as "overflowing with tenderness! When he hears her actually play it, he says her beginning was a "motorbike summons"! When the performance is finally finished, there is "firm applause, given a new edge of enthusiasm by the fact of its being the end - the whole experience was suddenly seen in a brighter light..."

Three years on, only one thing seems to have changed. Nick is still with the Feddens, Gerald is campaigning madly for re-election (there is one very scene where Gerald's competitive streak is unleashed, when he's at a village fete and invited to enter a "welly-whanging" (i.e. gumboot throwing) competition for a pig) but now Leo is off the scene and barely gets a mention. Nick is having a very secret affair with another classmate, Wani. It has to be kept secret - Wani is engaged and his father, who has become a multi-millionaire under Thatcher with a chain of convenience stores, wouldn't stand for Wani being gay, is really quite an awful man when it comes down to it. So, Nick hasn't even told Toby or Catherine - a huge thing to conceal. When they can, they have sex, inclding random strangers whenever possible, and snort lots of coke - very 80's. They are running a film and art magazine company (Nick is its aestehtic consultant, which sounds like a pretty cool job) called Ogee:
The Ogee curve was pure expression, decorative not structural; a structure could be made from it, but it supported nothing more than a boss or the cross that topped an onion dome.
In other words, the ogee is a line of beauty - something William Hogarth had written about in The Analysis of Beauty. Nick thinks about this:
The double curve was Hogarth's 'line of beauty', the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement. He ran his hand down Wani's back. He didn't think Hogarth had illustrated this best exaple of it, the dip and swell...
But the phrase has other dimensions as well: at one point, there is mention of cocaine being a line of beauty. Later on, Nick is having a very personal, reflective moment, and he can trace a line of beauty back to his first encounter with Toby - it has provided a shape or trajectory for his life. With the several references by one or two of the characters besotted with the Prime Minister to her beauty, there seems to be another line of beauty running fowards - from their first imagining of her to their actual meeting with her - the second section of the novel finishes with another Feddon party graced with the presence of the great Lady herself. Good old Nick, he spots her sitting alone, and gets her to dance with him, completely stealong Gerald's thunder.

The third section is called "the end of the street"; without wanting to say too much about it, pretty much everything comes unstuck, for everyone.

I was left with only two minor quibbles when I finished this book. I'm not actually convinced much is added by the whole "line of beauty" motif - although there is certainly a lot of irony, as these people manage to suround themselves with a lot of beautiful things which they simply have no ability to appreciate. As Nick says (somewhere) "
The worse they are the more they see beauty in each other." I guess the idea is that beauty is something pure and to value, but in the midst of the excesses of the 1980's, the whole idea of beauty is degraded - and if Wani is the source of beauty, then we can see this degradation in his tastes for porn and coke and the shape in which he ends up in the novel.

Second, while the majority of the characters were obviously put up as targets for satire, I was troubled by both Toby and Catherine. He was too conventional and almost completely uninteresting - the only suggestion of any sort of dark side or complexity of any sort was when Nick is assured that if he were to get Toby drunk, Toby would be his. Why did he want him, apart, of course, from the physical? Catherine was his counterpart - the troubled manic depressive, who you were never quite sure wasn't just a very spoilt child, a product of an over-privileged background. She was certainly given sharper lines than her brother and I did like her, but there was just an edge of cliche about her. I guess I wanted someone real here.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Kill Bill

I’m sure everyone in the world has seen this. It’s the story of the Bride (later revealed to be named as Beatrix Kiddo although her name is ostentatiously bleeped out a few times) and her quest for revenge after she’s left for dead, and her husband to be and his entire family are gunned down at their wedding rehearsal. She wakes up out of a coma four years later, and she's away! Of course, Tarantino has a bit of fun with the storyline, cutting it up and spreading it across two movies.

I did like Tarantino’s control of the story, it is the best feature. The film opens with Bill saying he’s not being sadistic, it is the most masochistic thing he’s had to do. We really have no idea what that’s about at all, and it isn’t till near the end, when we get Bill’s need for her, that this statement comes into focus. There are plenty of other times where he does this, doles out some bit of the story which is subsequently given an extra layer of meaning or two. So, when she turns up at Vernita Green’s house, she does so in a bad ass truck (“Pussy Wagon”).
We don’t know initially what their problem is, she kills Vernita with the young kid, Nikki, watching. This gains poignancy when we learn that Beatrix herself had wanted to keep her own daughter away from this sort of life, because of its inevitable consequences on a kid (when we meet B.B., her favourite movie seems to be some sort of samurai assassin movie). Then there is the truck: it turns out to be one she has taken from a fellow who had been selling sexual favors with her comatose body (yuk!).

I also liked the way he paid homage to those he saw as great within the particular movie traditions he was interested in
and I’m sure he had some fun in doing so. Take the man from Okinawa: he’s a retired samurai and master craftsman, Hattori Hanza (the name of a real warrior from the 1500’s). His swords are simply the best: all swords not made by him cannot be compared with any sword made by him. Hanza has given up sword making: his only fighting now is with his assistant over whose turn it is to make tea! He is played by Sonny Chiba – a fellow Tarantino had grown up watching in all sorts of kung fu movies. Then there is David Carradine as Bill; he was in something I vaguely remember from the 1970’s called Kung Fu. The cutest was his use of Gordon Lui, who had fought the good fight against Pai Mei and other baddies: now, he is playing the bad man himself (with a ridiculous beard affectation).

Of course, the major part of the first movie is when she takes on O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Lui, lookingfabulously regal), ruler of the crime scene in Tokyo. I found my sympathy with her, what with having her parents killed by the crime boss of the time and the way she was so in control of her colleagues:
"As your leader, I encourage you from time to time, and always in a respectful manner, to question my logic. If you're unconvinced that a particular plan of action I've decided is the wisest, tell me so, but allow me to convince you and I promise you right here and now, no subject will ever be taboo. Except, of course, the subject that was just under discussion. The price you pay for bringing up either my Chinese or American heritage as a negative is... I collect your fucking head. Just like this fucker here. Now, if any of you sons of bitches got anything else to say, now's the fucking time!"

Now, when the film first came out, I thought long and hard about seeing it, because found myself made squeamish by the talk of all of the violence in it and the way that it seemed to desensitize people to violence. Sure enough, when I did finally see it, the violence was not a problem, mainly by having

the big showdown so stylized. It really was just silly, completely over the top. Beatrix takes on O-Ren’s entire fighting force, the Crazy 88’s (there must have been over a hundred of them) all intent on keeping her away from their boss, yet she bests them all. Tarantino explains this: the greatest form of film directing is making action movies, he wanted to test the limit of his own talent – and to hell with anything approaching realism.

I did find it hard to sympathise with the central character, the Bride. Sure, when, it is natural she wants revenge. But let us not forget, she herself was apparently happy enough to be a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad while it suited her, and no doubt that involved her in killing quite a few. Maybe if I was a bigger fan of Uma Thurman, I’d feel differently. Ultimately, I found the whole idea of her wanting to stop killing because she had found out she was going to be a mother just a little bit too trite. And, really, things had worn thin by the end of the second DVD. That turgid dialogue didn’t really help, with Bill wittering on about the goldfish and Superman: thank God Beatrix applied the Five-Point-Palm Exploding-Heart technique when she did! Carradine may well be a fine actor but Bill: he's a pretentious bore. No wonder the movie is called Kill Bill.

We also seemed to get just a little too close to Tarantino’s own obsessions in this movie; he seems to cross the line into fetishism, more than once – that stuff with the swords was just a bit much. He seems genuine in his idolatory, otherwise I’d suspect a parody, and he virtually confesses in the commentary that having two “gargantuan blonde women” fight each other is his own wet dream fantasy. Funnily enough, he has one of the characters also use the word gargantuan, tossing it around and saying “I like it”.

So, I'm quite ambivalent about the second DVD overall. There were bits that reeked of padding. What exactly was going on with Budd and his boss? After Beatrix has said she has only one man left to kill, Bill, why does she go after Budd? Just to set things up for the twists and turns between him, her, and Eve and to get in the story of Beatrix's training under Pai Mae? Not to say they weren't interesting to watch, (and there was delicious understatement when Bill tells Beatrix that Pai Mae "hates caucasions, despises Americans and has utter contempt for women" so it might take him "a little while to warm to you") but they seemed just a little gratuituous in terms of the story line. It did make me wonder: if I was being buried alive, would having a torch make me feel the slightest bit better? I suspect not!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Judge Savage, by Tim Parks

There is a nice element of synchronicty between today's post and yesterday's, in which I mentioned going to see India play New Zealand at hockey. The reason I did that was because I'd just finished reading Tim Parks's A Season With Verona, which recounted his adventures while travelling around a lowly rated Italian football team, one which spent the latter part of the season on the brink of relegation to a lower league. He made it sound such a blast that I wanted to attend a sports event: I could not face rugby, and hockey was happening that very day, within walking distance of my office.

Tim Parks is probably better known as a writer of fiction - he is up to 11 novels now. Although I have Europa kicking about, I'd never actually read any of his novels until Judge Savage turned up on the library shelf. As the cover makes clear, he's a man of colour, although the photo makes him out to be a lot darker than his own description of himself as almond coloured. Nonetheless, he is the first black Crown Court circuit Judge in this particular bit of the UK. I'd say that the only real importance of his colour to the plot is that it sped up his appointment to the bench: he acknowledges his friend Martin to be as good as he is, yet Martin does not make it.

In most respects, Judge Savage is just another upper middle class male; nice wife, right sort of education, secure job, on the treadmill of acquiring the right sort of house and things to put in it, having a number of affairs (something like 20 in the past seven years or so). His obscure origins - he was adopted from unknown parents in Africa - are well and truly behind him. Things are going really well with him at the moment, he's even turning women down and being faithful. He writes in his diary "I have become myself" and maybe he even believes it - he does turn out to be pretty good at self deceit.

But on that same day, something silly he did years ago comes out of the woodwork to wreck his life. Back when he was a lawyer, he slept with a woman he really should not have, Minnie: she was a juror in a case he was arguing. Her family is also something of a problem, not just because they're Korean with very strict ideas of whom Minnie should associate with but also because they're running drugs. He has conveniently rationalised that it made no difference to the outcome of that trial and forgotten about her. Until, that is, she starts phoning, in evident need of help - there is pressure from her family to marry some boy and she's also worried that the police might be closing in. She wants out.

The novel, all 442 pages of it, is the tale of his life gradually unravelling. Funnily enough, it does so because he thinks he owes Minnie something, and does something about it. In going to her aid, however, her family decide to send him a message: they beat him up. Now some people might be able to just hide away until the wounds recover, but when you have a family and are a public figure like a judge, you need some sort of cover story. He couldn't tell the truth, because his involvement with Minnie was wrong on so many levels, so he just said he'd been beaten up by some thugs. His wife isn't really satisfied, as he had no reason to be where he was when he was beaten up. The cop investigating seems to be pretty much aware of the truth, but he's both interested in catching Minnie's family for their drug activities and in propping up the public figure of the Judge, so plays along, on a disturbingly "wink wink say no more" basis.

Of course, at the same time, Daniel continues with his judging work, so we get some pretty rich irony as he preaches about family values and the like. Unlike many novels, Parks gets right into the ins and outs of the cases Daniel hears - we read the evidence along with Daniel, get his take on the cases, the parties, the lawyers. One of the major cases intriguing him is about a group of young people, accused of throwing rocks off a bridge onto a motorway. There is all sorts of detail in the novel about the law of conspiracy, the evidence given by the members, the tensions between them that might lead one or more to lie... Oh, and there is the possibility that some prostitutes might have been witnesses, which leads to a neat linking between Daniel's professional life and more personal needs.

Along with his casework, Minnie, her impact on his family life there are all sorts of other little stories progressing. His best friend, Martin, has had a car accident and is sinking more and more deeply into depression. His wife is making more and more open calls on Daniel to have sex with him: we find out why she's so needy right towards the end, and it has little to do with Daniel. Then there is Sarah, Daniel's daughter, who is trying to find her identity: at the moment, she's a confusing ball of anger. She drops out of school, only to return to fill her exam scripts with obscenities. I'd say that she is the least well rendered of the characters, as we never really get what's going on with her in any sort of convinving way. Then there is a reuniting with his "brother" (son of his adoptive (white) parents) Frank, a gay Brick Lane dealer, after years of unresolved tension.

Throughout it all, we are constantly with Daniel, seeing everything through his eyes, getting his reactions, subject to his limitations - he often means well, but can't quite cash the cheques he is writing.

The last point is about Park's writing - he is really good at creating a host of different voices to populate the novel. It isn't that innovative these days, but he eschews traditional things like speech marks, paragraph breaks and the like. In consequence, there can be a bit of a jumble: within a single paragraph, we might well be thinking about 19th century music (Daniel's wife teaches music), Minnie, that damned cop, and a fairly fierce concentration on the work at hand: in fact, I'd go so far to say that it is the work and the need to stay focus which is all that Daniel himself has at times to hold himself together.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


I never really planned it. Well, maybe I did, a little, subconsciously, after watching the Silver Ferns beat Australia in their fairly recent surge into winning form. But a couple of weeks ago, I found myself on the edge of my seat, watching the Force play off against the Flames for the chance to play Southern Sting in the National Bank Cup. I hadn't even been aware the game was on until I idly flicked the TV on: the first quarter was already over.Megan Dehn had gone down, hit by one of her own team apparently, and been replaced by a youngster, who never even expected to get on court, Brigette Tapene.She's my hero of the moment. I've tried to find some action shots on the game, but they're nowhere to be found, so this publicity shot from the Force website will have to do.

I recken she was robbed of player of the match, after getting shot after shot, never being flustered. Of course, it is a team game, and she was totally reliant on the defence keeping the ball away from the Flames, and the midfield getting the ball to her so she could do her thing but, man, once she got the ball, could she do her thing! All the commentators could say about her was the unobtrusive way in which she simply stuck to doing her job, or her "gliding runs", meaning that they finished with a 42 - 39 win over the Flames. She was damn smooth.

I had actually got so caught up in this game that I damn near got in Webster and went to Invercargill to see the semi final (the last sports match I attended was when New Zealand played India at hockey) but, well, it was cold and I'd been working hard, so I just stayed home and watched it on TV.

Playing the Sting, Tapene damn near did it all over again. She and Daneka Wipiti both started this time, and they were a formidible team. I was convinced they'd managed to pull off a win - being ahead all the way through, even with a six point lead in the 3rd quarter. But right at the end of the fourth quarter, when it was looking increasingly like a tie and Tapene had her chance to put the Force in the lead to end it there - for the first time in the whole match, the ball refused to co-operate.

So, the game tied at 54 all, which in netball gives them an entire fifth quarter of 14 minutes to play, and the Sting triumphed - I guess it helped that they had had a change of goal attack at half time, when Donna Loffhagen and Natalie Avellino came on. It took Loffhagen a wee while to find her pace, but Avellino was a machine from get go. This led to a final score of 59 - 64, and yet another fight between the Sting and Magic in the final. I knew that the Sting have been in every single final so far: what I did not know is that in the last few showdowns between the Magic and the Sting, the Magic have prevailed. So, not knowing that gave the game just that extra little bit of tension for me.

As it turned out, the Magic had the gme in the bag from about the first minute. I think the Sting may have actually taken the first goal, but they were never in the lead again, falling further and further behind, to finish 24 points down. Of course, Magic has Irene van Dyk, who is a magical shooter -
when you can take 52 goals from 55 shots, it is extremely hard for any other team to get a look in. Her offsider, Tanya Lund, did well as well: she set up so many shots for van Dyk (who seems to like being straight under the goal) as well as taking a fair few shots herself from further out. Even so, she was sitting on a 100% success rate (15 from 15) when the TV commentators jinxed it so she missed her last shot.

This other player in the photo, Hutton, was ptetty notable for being an aggressive player - she gave a shitload of points away through penalties.

So, yeah, I've enjoyed these three matches, and will probably make a point of watching the Silver Ferns (lineup is announced in the next few days) when they take on Australia and South Africa.

And, I must confess, I have become interested in yet another sporting code (that long dormant inner sports geek seems finally to be waking up): there is going to be a Mini Cooper S racing series, which looks like it will be a lot of fun.