Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: Classic Review

Drink with this: Gin and tonic.

Gin, as well as our classic under review, was hugely popular in the Victorian age. Tonic, originally containing quinine, was added to create a refreshing, anti-malarial drink ideal for empire-building in steamy climates. Therefore the gin and tonic is where mass popularity and aristocratic sensibilities meet. Invented eleven years after the publication of TWIW, so drink alongside to be as avant garde as the novel itself.
The Woman in White has never been out of print since 1859. This kind of enduring popularity is hard to dismiss. (But I intend to anyway.) When first published, it represented a remarkable innovation in terms of narrative structure and thematic concerns. But like any good ideas, the features which originally made the novel stand out have since been explored, exploited and improved on by so many authors that their original incarnation feels dated, and even irritating.  This is not to say the novel isn’t still worth reading. As a study in Victorian mores and in the context of 19th century literature, it’s fascinating. It just doesn’t necessarily stand alone as an enjoyable and suspenseful read in the way it seemingly did 150-ish years ago. 

 It is often described as a precursor to the detective story, but it really bears no resemblance to the modern detective novel. Collins’ characters fumble around for whole chapters, clueless about what’s going on. Meanwhile the reader skims impatiently through, having figured out the ‘mystery’ pages ago. It is de rigeur in the genre nowdays for the ending to leave certain details unexplained. (See: Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo) The careful advanced signaling of every single secret in the novel felt clumsy in comparison.

"If the cinematic idea of the male gaze can exist in literary form, it undoubtedly exists here."

TWIW was revolutionary in its heyday for its treatment of motifs such as forbidden secrets hidden underneath a veneer of respectability, and its examination of the lack of legal standing afforded to married women. But even by the standards of its contemporaries, its investigation into woman’s rights feels unsatisfactory. Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for example, (Anne Bronte) takes a much more impassioned and considered look at the same issues, which also happens to be from the viewpoint of the character affected. And compared to other sensation novels of the Victorian era – Lady Audley’s Secret, anything by Oscar Wilde, and even Dracula – TWIW seems rather tame.

My biggest issue with the novel was its treatment of female characters. If the cinematic idea of the male gaze can exist in literary form, it undoubtedly exists here. Wilkie’s female characters never really felt believable to me. The clammy, leering presence of the author was something I was uncomfortably conscious of in every scene which involved a woman. Laura, the ostensible heroine, is stripped of both agency and voice in the novel, while also running the gamut of insulting female stereotypes. (Attractive dimwit, subservient angel, child-like romantic heroine, hysterical/insane woman).

 Marian, with her intelligence and bravery, arguably represents a more positive portrayal of a woman; yet each of her admirable qualities is filtered through the prism of her ‘masculinity’. She is clearly established as a ‘deviant’ woman, unworthy of sexual consideration except by the monstrous Count Fosco. Only within this context is she allowed to act as narrator, and engage with the male characters on their own terms.

"Too tedious to enjoy in an ironic ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of way" 

 Even within the genre of gothic romance, The Woman in White stretches credulity to its utmost limit. In Dickens’ capable hands, melodrama and coincidence are intrinsic parts of the world he creates and the themes he develops. Compared to his masterful command of these devices, Wilkie’s writing feels like a desperate attempt to keep the story trundling along, by any means possible.

It’s hard to evaluate TWIW fairly today. Too tedious to enjoy in an ironic ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of way – just as Kipling is too racist for this game – it is better appreciated as product of its times than by comparison to its modern equivalents.

Verdict: Worth reading, but only while taking part in an elaborate drinking game. Rules as follows – shot every time a woman faints/has hysterics. Chug every time Collins uses six words when one would do. Drink every time the ‘working classes’ are described in a condescending manner.

On the big screen: There have already been several films and TV series made of this, none of which I’ve seen. The book’s narrative structure, with first-person narratives from various characters, make it well suited for film adaptation. The fact that Laura is a pathetic idiot would be no obstacle to Hollywood success. I would love to see a Todd Haynes take on this, with the gothic melodrama amped up.  

Highbrow/Lowbrow: It’s a Classic, which automatically makes it highbrow, although it wasn’t regarded this way in the 19th C.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Sirens (C4): TV Review

Season 1, Episodes 1 - 4

Drink with this: Corona and lime

Tries to appeal to men, by virtue of being beer, and to women, by coming with a slice of citrus fruit. Refreshing and cheap enough to drink on a big night out, but not really part of binge-drinking culture.

The first episode of Sirens is enjoyable enough, with several quite funny jokes. Unfortunately, episodes two and three string out these self-same jokes, with no introduction of any kind of over-arching series narrative arc to distract us. But as with the Mafia, so it goes with British comedy television programmes of the twenty-tens. Just when you think you’re out, they’ll pull you back in. The last seven minutes of the fourth episode felt genuinely engaging, and more moving than the previous one hundred and eighty-one minutes of television.

(I might have been carried away by all the Scottish characters in Episode Four. Five hours from home, I get a bit giddy when I hear Scottish accents now.  Sometimes my afternoon playlist at work is composed of the rather niche category of music by artists who are not only Scottish but who actually sing in a recognisably Scottish accent. ) But from an objective point of view, I would like to think that Episode Four could have marked a turn-around, where Sirens begins to pull its dangling threads together to create some kind of cohesive, beautifully knitted whole.

Sirens follows EMTs Rasheed, Ashely and Stuart while on and off shift, as well as policewoman Maxine Fox.  The portrayal of Maxine, as a female cop whose tough attitude makes it difficult for her to meet men, felt a bit hackneyed and tended to grate on me. Similar accusations of stereotype have been leveled at Richard Madden’s portrayal of Ashley, as the token gay guy. I did try to evaluate these claims, but I got distracted by his face. Sorry, but as Game of Thrones viewers will know, he’s just beautiful.

Sirens started as a blog, and then became a book before being made into a TV series. I’ve not read the book, but a look at Brian Kellett’s blog made me wish Sirens was a more faithful adaptation of it. As a glance into a world I know nothing of, I found it absolutely fascinating. Intense, funny, and at times despairing, there is a lot more reflection there on the NHS and its various processes than made it on screen. I want to see this stuff as a TV show! I’ve seen countless shows about twenty something guys trying to pull, but I’ve never seen a show about the daily workings of the ambulance service in Britain.


"If this is comedy, it’s just not funny enough." 

I feel that American drama and comedy are much more sharply delineated than their British equivalents. Sirens tries to be both comedy and drama at once, and so never really achieves a consistent tone. If this is drama, we need more character development. Even after four episodes, all the characters still felt one-dimensional to me. The aspects of the show which could be really moving or meaningful – the medical emergencies – are not explored in any serious way.

If this is comedy, it’s just not funny enough. It’s immature enough to appeal to viewers of the Inbetweeners – but seems tame in comparison.  We’ve all seen enough medical dramas now to be unfazed by anal surgery. Following the example of Scrubs or Green Wing and introducing a wider range of oddball supporting characters would also help.

By trying to do everything, Siren ultimately fails to do anything completely successfully.

Verdict: Worth watching as background tv, while doing the ironing. Or another activity of your choice. I don’t iron, but I imagine this is the kind of thing you might do.

Director’s cut: I want to remake this as a kind of British sixth season of The Wire. Why don’t we have great drama which looks at the NHS in the same way as the Wire looks at journalism, education, politics, and the police? Ok, we have loads of shows about the NHS. But this aspect – emergency services – is something which has not been given serious treatment.

Highbrow/lowbrow: No Angels for guys. Green Wing for Hollyoaks viewers.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick: Cinema Review

Drink with this: Absinthe. 

Its hallucinogenic properties can only enhance the overall experience. Pleasingly green so you will feel at one with nature and the universe.

I’ve never been to see a film which so obviously divided its cinema audience. No less than eight people walked out of the cinema when I was there; yet there were lots of moments – especially in the parenting scenes - which had everyone chuckling in recognition. Many groups outside the cinema were involved in passionate debate – I heard a lot of discussion about how beautifully it was shot, but how long it felt. As we left our seats, one half of the couple behind us muttered fervently, “THANK GOD THAT IS OVER”. (Cap locks fully necessary as he was totally whisper-shouting.) “That was….painful” his girlfriend responded.

In a way, the whole experience really helped to reaffirm my own relationship. Six years ago my boyfriend thought Fellini was a type of pasta. Last weekend, he quite enjoyed TTOL, or at least pretended to, so I wouldn’t shout at him. I consider that a personal life achievement, which may or may not have influenced my opinion of the film.

"There are many reasons you might hate this film."

But to the plot. (Such as it is.) The film follows Sean Penn as an adult reflecting on the meaning of life and the existence of faith, as he remembers the death of his brother and his childhood in the 1950s.


"There are many reasons you might hate this film." It is undoubtedly pretentious, pompous, and tedious in parts. Lee Marshall,writing on Screen Daily, summed it up thusly: ‘If ever a whole film were on the nose, this is it.’ At times it seems almost to be inviting a spoof of itself to be made. It chunders along without the slightest self-awareness, or postmodern acknowledgment  that its earnest look at such ponderous issues could so easily be ridiculed. 

"Fantasia meets Revolutionary Road, as imagined by Stanley Kubrick while smoking opium."

But even the negative reviews all agree that it is a strikingly beautiful piece of work. The cinematography alone is breathtaking, and the sheer audacity of a film which spends several minutes on shots of the sky viewed through tree branches must be applauded. The acting’s superb, with a wealth of emotion and intensity packed into Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt’s few lines.
So far, so obvious. What I really loved about it, and what elevates it from a masturbatory exercise in self-aggrandisement to something profound, is the way it manages to evoke childhood so perfectly.

The kind of childhood depicted in the film was different from mine in a million particulars, but the essential truth felt the same. It pinpoints the nature of sibling and parent-child relationships so exactly that somehow amidst the shots of dinosaurs and grass shoots it made me cry. (Ok, I cry at Mastercard adverts, but still.) Tree of Life deserves to be lauded as an American coming of age story in the same way as Stand By Me.

Verdict: Let’s forgive Malick his excesses. He is making brilliant, beautiful and thought-provoking cinema. All the people who leave the cinema and hate it should ask themselves why, and what this says about their expectations of film. That in itself is a conversation worth having. In consumer-driven Hollywood, Malick is trying to make a masterpiece. Tree of Life might not quite succeed at this, but it comes close enough to compensate for any number of quasi-mystical shots of sunlight on the ocean.

Take Two: This could easily be broken down into a series of shorts. In fact, in some ways the film resembles more closely several short films strung together, with certain motifs in common. Three minute sequences would be more digestible, and perhaps increase appreciation of the cinematography involved.

Highbrow/Lowbrow: Fantasia meets Revolutionary Road, as imagined by Stanley Kubrick while smoking opium.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood: Book Review

Drink with this: a Grasshopper.
 Sweet and frothy enough to dispel the grotesquery of Atwood’s dystopia.  The aggressive jade of the crème de menthe echoes the obsessive focus on nature recurring throughout the novel. Thick and sickly creaminess brings to mind the novel’s heavy-handed approach to allegory.  

Atwood is a writer I feel I should like more than I do. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale of course, but that’s a given really, no more profound than stating a fondness for cake, or an appreciation of bellinis. It’s easy to enjoy. Oryx and Crake I liked too: but in general Atwood’s writing strikes me as clever but lacking emotional depth. She skilfully creates vividly realised worlds, wrought by the powerful fault lines of the ideologies she explores. But her characters fail to engage the reader, and the ultimate impression is one of a writer bent on exhibiting literary techniques rather than constructing a compelling narrative.

Year of the Flood is no exception to this.  It follows two female characters, Toby and Ren, who seem to be the sole survivors of a devastating plague which has a struck an already blighted futuristic world. Sadly, Atwood doesn’t put her descriptive abilities to use actually telling us about the disaster which has hit Earth.  We don’t even get any satisfyingly gruesome passages describing the aftermath, along with all its de rigueur dystopian features. (Frenzied looting, city-wide stench from rotting corpses, realisation that the disaster has been worldwide.) The first half of the book lamentably sacrifices this kind of apocalyptic action entirely for scene setting and character development.

Despite her focus on the characters, I didn’t find either Toby or Ren particularly sympathetic. This might have been because of their involvement with the cult the book revolves around, the God’s Gardeners. Cults are bizarre and irritating, and if they have to be the subject of  books I don’t think it’s too unreasonable to expect some brainwashing and similar seedy practices from them. Atwood hints at some unscrupulous undertakings, but quickly moves on to explore in more detail their love for bees and celebration of organic vegetables. Tongue-in-cheek sermons and hymns at the start of each chapter are an attempt to inject some humour into the novel. But these passages are poised uncomfortably on the edge of satire, never quite coming close enough to compensate for the tedium of reading them.

Atwood’s treatment of environmental issues is one of the stronger aspects of the novel. She has argued that the bleak themes she develops in YOTF are all extrapolated from existing technologies and societal trends. There is definitely some basis for this in terms of her investigation into climate change and genetic engineering, and it’s great to see a mainstream novelist exploring these ideas. 
However, the world view she presents is rooted in an essentially pessimistic view of humanity. While I’m not an optimist by any stretch of the imagination, (on a good day, my attitude to life is similar to Eeyore’s) this is not the dystopian future I like to envisage. John Wyndham and Stephen King have taught me that there is one plot only appropriate to the post-apocalyptic novel. By right, it goes like this: massive disaster caused by error of a few misguided individuals; everyone dies bar a  few isolated strangers; process of rebuilding commences following struggle for survival; attempts are made to recognise and move on from mistakes of the past for the sake of future generations.

The final part of this plot structure is crucial. Atwood’s characterisation felt two-dimensional as there’s no opportunity for her characters to achieve any kind of redemption, or realisation that things must change. Even before the plague, they are annoyingly self-righteous.

As the God’s Gardeners, they stand apart from the mistakes made by humanity.  The sole real event of the book therefore changes virtually nothing – the cult continues to operate unscathed in much the same way as it did prior to the disaster.  Of course there are meant to be biblical parallels here, with only the chosen few surviving. Atwood seems to have intended the book to be a kind of fable, rather than a realistic depiction of human nature. 

Her CorpSeCorps is a corrupt organisation straight out a Bond film, or Alex Rider novel, with almost complete omnipotence and omniscience. Maybe I am a blind optimist after all, but I found the total control exerted and the lack of any kind of organised revolutionary movement a strain to credulity.  This was essentially my main objection to the novel. Being asked to swallow completely implausible plot details feels patronizing, and detracts both from my enjoyment and from the overall impact of Atwood’s message.

Verdict: Despite this overwhelmingly negative review, this book does deal with some important issues. Don’t buy, but borrow from the library, to scare yourself into taking climate change more seriously.  And feel free to skip the sermons.

On the big screen: I would however be interested in seeing a Hollywood adaptation of this. What this book needs is Spielberg to come in and force the plot into a 120 hour sentiment-fest, with all the dross cut out and the action increased. Susan Sarandon could definitely play Toby, and Jennifer Lawrence could pull off Ren. However, if we’re imagining a page to screen adaptation which is actually faithful to the spirit of the novel, then David Lynch all the way. I think he could take the more bizarre elements and make them beautiful.

Highbrow/Lowbrow: Closer to The Road than The Stand