Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

Murders on the Orient Express

Firstly, a promise. I promise that nowhere in the following piece will I reveal, or even hint at, the solution to the mystery that is at the heart of Murder on the Orient Express. Should there be anyone unaware of what happens in this story, I can guarantee that the revelation is quite startling, and I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment.

Having said that, I will admit to not being much of an Agatha Christie fan. In my pre-teenage years, the very lurid illustrations that used then to appear on the covers of various paperback issues led me to believe she was a horror writer, but when I did finally come round to reading a few of them in my early teens, far from horror, I found an entirely unexpected cosiness. At the time – I was about thirteen or so – I quite enjoyed the few I read, but not enough, obviously, to want to read more. From what I remember, everything seems subordinate to the plot, and the plot in itself is something I have never found particularly interesting. However, these novels have most definitely passed the test of time quite triumphantly, so no doubt it is I who am missing something. And, after reading Sophie Hannah’s spirited appreciation, I am more than happy to accept that the problem is with me as a reader rather than with the novels themselves. After all, I’ve only read a few, and that many, many years ago, when I was not a very experienced reader: I may well have missed the point.

I can’t help feeling it a shame, though, that in order to praise Christie, Sophie Hannah denigrates Chandler; but I suppose it’s natural to take against someone who has been rude about your favourite writer; and, it must be admitted, Chandler has been quite unconscionably rude about Agatha Christie. In Chandler’s novels, unlike Christie’s, the plotting is very clearly not the point: it doesn’t really matter, for instance, who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. And neither is Chandler interested in the elements of mystery and of puzzles: the appeal of his novels lies elsewhere. Indeed, that is one of the reasons I like Chandler so much: he developed the detective story in directions where plotting becomes increasingly less relevant, and the focus is allowed to fall more fully upon other and – to my mind – more interesting matters. I remain, I must admit, very much on Chandler’s side of this divide.

But this is of course unfair given how limited my exposure has been to Agatha Christie’s novels. If these books can hold generations of readers in thrall for nearly a century now, she must have been doing something right. And I have, after all, enjoyed a great many adaptations of Christie’s novels, both on television and on the big screen, where actors can fill the characters out with their own personalities. So, before I pass further judgement, I felt it only right to try reading some Agatha Christie for myself; and, in view of the recent cinema release, Murder on the Orient Express seemed a good place to start my re-evaluation.

And it’s not just the recent release. This is one of that small handful of Agatha Christie books I read all those years ago, and I remember enjoying it at the  time. I remember particularly how struck I was by that ending. And then, a few days before Christmas 1974, we had a seasonal family outing to the ABC cinema (as it was then) on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow to see the newly released film version directed by Sidney Lumet, and with Albert Finney as Poirot heading a star-studded cast. It was a tremendously enjoyable night out, and remains vivid in the memory forty years and more afterwards. And what’s more, that film is a particular favourite of my wife’s, and watching the DVD version has become something of a Christmas tradition for us.

And here’s a puzzle, worthy of Agatha Christie herself: if the plot were the whole point of it, why can we (and many others) enjoy watching this film repeatedly, when we already know the story? What enjoyment can we possibly find in a whodunit when we know from the start who dun it? One obvious answer is the sense of cosiness. This is an element virtually all adaptations accentuate, and with good reason. I used to look down on cosiness: a thriller, I felt, deals with evil acts, and should be dark and troubling, sinister and edgy. However, it is wrong to judge anything by one’s pre-conceived rules: a thriller should be what the author set it out to be, and if it sets out to be cosy, then so be it: Agatha Christie was hardly under any compulsion to abide by my rules, after all. And in any case, with advancing years, I find that I am less insistent on the edgy, and, indeed, tire of various formulaic thrillers formulaically focussing on physical violence to achieve that all-purpose formulaic edginess. And at the same time, I find myself more tolerant of cosiness. After all, as the world hurtles madly to heaven knows where, a sense of comfort, I increasingly feel, is not something to be sneered at.

Or it’s possible that I have just got older.

But are the novels really cosy? Are her characters merely cardboard cut-outs, enlivened in adaptations only by the actors’ personalities? And is her prose, as I have so often maintained, merely plodding and bland? Sophie Hannah certainly doesn’t seem to think so:

Each of her novels demonstrates a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave – all delivered in her crisp, elegant, addictively readable style. While immersed in a Christie mystery, you might not notice the wisdom sprinkled throughout the pages because you’re having too much fun, growling with frustration because you’d love to be able to guess the solution but can’t.

To begin with, the story of Murder on  the Orient Express is superb. I don’t just mean the solution to the mystery – I mean the whole idea of the thing. (I have to be careful here to keep the promise I made at the start of this piece.) It has such resonance, that it has become a sort of modern myth. And it raises questions on all sorts of vitally important themes – themes that have been addressed in some of the most profound works of world literature. But Agatha Christie does not so much as touch upon any of them. In my younger days, when I was more prescriptive and censorious than I am now, I would have counted this as a serious flaw, but now I am inclined to think that she does not touch on these themes because she did not want to: she was writing an entertainment, after all, and not a serious Dostoyevskian novel. Indeed, so naturally do these serious issues arise from the plot, it required no small degree of skill and craftsmanship to lock these issues out.

In this respect, the 1974 film version, directed by Sidney Lumet, is faithful to the book. I heard on the radio once that the distinguished film composer Bernard Herrmann (most famous for his scores for many of Hitchcock’s finest films, including Psycho) objected to the delightful waltz composed by Richard Rodney Bennett for this film: this is the Train of Death, Herrmann insisted, and a delightful waltz is out of place. But I think Bennett understood what this film is about: it’s not about Death, and neither is it about psychological trauma, or about divine justice, or any of these things. It is a cosy, comfort film, just as Christie’s novel is a cosy, comfort novel.

Visually, it is superb. Sidney Lumet seemed to make a speciality of setting films within small, enclosed spaces: Twelve Angry Men is an obvious example. Lumet also made some very successful cinematic adaptations of plays set in enclosed locations – Long Day’s Journey Into Night, say, or The Seagull – and the visual variety he finds even in such restricted settings is often quite extraordinary. Lumet weaves his magic here also, conveying superbly a sense of cramped luxury. The setting here is no mere decoration: it helps create the drama.

The cast is superb, but it is when we come to Albert Finney, in the central role of Poirot, that we run into difficulties. I know there are those who simply cannot stand Finney’s singularly mannered performance, and I can understand why. But I can understand also why he chose to play it in this manner. He was surrounded by some of the finest of screen actors, some of the strongest of screen presences – Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, etc. – and he had to stand out from this distinguished gathering; and he decided to stand out by putting on a highly – one may almost say “grotesquely” – eccentric performance. I must say I rather enjoy it; and the final sequence, where he has the long speech explaining who dun it, and how, seems to me pulled off with a fine theatrical panache. But yes, I can understand why some would hate it also. Nothing so mannered and idiosyncratic can be universally liked. (I still find it difficult to come to terms, for instance, with Jeremy Brett’s highly mannered performance as Holmes, even though the consensus of opinion seems to regard this performance as well nigh definitive.)

Fine entertainment, yes, but light entertainment: Lumet does not allow the serious themes implicit in the storyline to come to the surface, any more than Christie did.

Now, of course, we have the much heralded remake directed by Kennet Branagh. Some objected to remaking the film, but I don’t really see the objection: it is a very powerful story, after all, and why shouldn’t a contemporary director and a contemporary cast get a chance to reinterpret it?  I must admit, though, that I am rather old-fashioned in these matters, and there are some aspects of modern mainstream cinema that … how shall I put it? – that are not to my taste. For instance, when two characters are talking, I just want the camera in the same room as them, and pointing at them. Putting the camera outside so we can see them through the window, and then executing all kinds of intricate camera movements, does not enhance the drama. Worse, it distracts from what the characters are saying. I don’t really see why we should insist that everything must look like a video game.

And neither do I see why anyone should think that conversations lasting more than a minute or so at the most are dull and uncinematic. Some of the very finest and most iconic of films are full of long scenes of conversation. Much of Agatha Christie’s novel consists of conversations, as each of the suspects is interviewed in turn: fitting together all the various pieces of evidence is where the interest lies. But in this film, various of these interviews are intercut with each other, presumably in the belief that if any single conversation goes on for more than a few seconds the audience will lose interest. Sure, this kind of intercutting injects pace into the narrative, but does the narrative always need to be pacy? In effectively banishing from the narrative passages of repose or even of stillness, film-makers seem to me to be restricting their range, resulting all too often in an almost uni-paced, shapeless mass.

Yes, I know this is the modern way of film-making, and that things change, can’t keep still, new generation, and so on, and so forth. And when everyone seems happy with this, I have to accept that it is I who am out on a limb. But there it is, for what it’s worth: I find myself unsympathetic to modern styles. Living in the past, I am, and happy to be there.

There were a few other aspects in this latest film that, to my mind, didn’t work, including an obligatory action sequence, and another obligatory chase sequence, both of which seemed out of place in what is, after all, a cosy whodunit. It is also important for the audience in these whodunits to be always aware of the list of suspects, but the Hungarian couple were kept absent for so long that I had almost forgotten about them till they suddenly emerge some half way through. Sidney Lumet had been more successful, I think, in keeping all the characters constantly in the frame. Also, unlike the Lumet film, the cramped setting was not used here to any great effect: perhaps it was a mistake in taking some of the scenes outside the train.

However, having said all that, the film was entertaining enough on its own terms. The all-star cast is fine, and the story remains as startling as ever. And Kenneth Branagh, with facial hair so spectacular that I felt a mere amateur in this respect, made a strong impression as Poirot without having to go to the extremes of Albert Finney. (Although I must admit that I do still enjoy Finney’s theatrical gusto.) The scene where all is revealed was particularly well done, and the script here was quite happy to bring to the fore some of the more serious aspects of the story that both the novel and the earlier film had stayed away from: Branagh’s Poirot here speaks of “fractured souls”, and of the need for healing.

Between these two productions came two television adaptations – one in 2001 with Alfred Molina as Poirot (I have not seen this), and, in 2010, an adaptation of the novel as part of the long-running series, filmed and broadcast in Britain by ITV, starring David Suchet as Poirot. This particular episode (so imdb.com tells me), was scripted, quite superbly, by Stuart Harcourt, and directed, equally superbly, by Philip Martin. Here, we see Agatha Christie’s story turn into a modern myth: the story is here re-interpreted, and scriptwriter and director make of it something entirely new. Far from hiding away the serious aspects – ethical, psychological, even theological – they are given centre stage, and the effect is about as dark and as disturbing a drama as I think I have seen. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Christie, and while this may perhaps upset some fans of the original, the departure is entirely justified. Christie’s story, splendid though it is, is used here to but as a basis for something that is not even hinted at in  the novel. To say this is not to denigrate Christie’s work: indeed, it speaks for the strength of the original story that, despite the intense seriousness of the themes broached in this version, the plotline is strong enough to carry so heavy a burden.

And no, cosy it ain’t. Noticeably, the rather charming and whimsical theme tune used in the other episodes of this series is here absent. We are plunged, before the title sequence, straight into the midst of things: Poirot is wrapping up his previous case, and, in time-honoured fashion, is explaining (in this instance, to assembled military officers) the solution he has successfully arrived at. But in less than time-honoured fashion, he is here in a fit of passion. The details of the crime he had investigated are not given, but it appears from what he says that what had been thought to have been murder was, in fact, an accidental death; but Poirot’s wrathful indignation is directed at one of the officers present, who, through his lying, had impeded the investigation. And even as Poirot is denouncing him, a shot rings out, and Poirot’s face is splattered with blood. Only a few drops of blood – this is not gothic horror, after all – but enough to let us know that we are not here in the world of cosy whodunits. The officer Poirot was denouncing has shot himself.

As Poirot leaves afterwards, having completed the case successfully (in the sense that he has solved the mystery), one of the soldiers accompanying him breaks protocol to let him know that the man who had shot himself had not been a bad man: he had merely made an error of judgement. Poirot sticks to his guns: he had lied, and was morally culpable. But what precisely is going on in Poirot’s mind we cannot be sure.

In Istanbul, Poirot witnesses another horrible scene: he sees an adulterous woman stoned to death. Even this he seems to condone: it is horrible, yes, but the application of law is necessarily horrible, and the stoning is no more horrible than hangings in Britain. However horrible, the law must be applied, for, without the law, where are we? What are we? There is, of course, another question here, implied though not openly articulated: even when we do apply the law, what are we?

We are in very deep waters here, and those expecting the traditional cosy whodunit may well be tempted at this point to switch off. They would be well advised to do so, for this production does not let up: it is a dark and serious investigation into some of the most profound of themes – the nature of justice; the application of laws, both human and divine; how justice differs from mere retribution; the corrosive nature of evil, and how it spreads; our human need for justice, without which we cannot begin to heal; and our failure to heal even when justice is done, as each act of justice is a fresh crime in itself. Throughout, Poirot’s is a dark, brooding presence, exhibiting none of the quirkiness or whimsicality that had characterised him in previous episodes: he is here a tortured man, clinging dogmatically to what moral certainties he still possesses, because to lose these certainties would be to cast himself into moral chaos.

David Suchet’s performance is simply extraordinary. No theatrical grandstanding here: there is a time and a place for that kind of thing, but not here, where we find ourselves so deep in such turbulent moral waters. The other roles are not quite so demanding, perhaps, although I do find it quite astonishing just how great an intensity of emotion Eileen Atkins can communicate in just a few softly spoken lines. No sense here of dialogue being boring, or uncinematic; no scope here for intercutting with other dialogues to prevent the audience’s attention wandering.

This, like the two films, re-creates the murder in a flashback sequence towards the end. In the Sidney Lumet film, this sequence is very impressively staged, and is tense and sombre; in the more recent film, it is more frenzied; but neither can really compare with the murder scene in this television version, which really chills one’s blood. No hint here of formulaic edginess: the horror is moral at least as much as it is physical.

The whole thing, in short, is a triumph. It is as brilliant as it is audacious: never have I seen an episode of a well-established television drama that so relentlessly subverts audience expectations. And what we see here is the creation of mythology: although the plot keeps quite close to Christie’s novel, this is neither an “adaptation”, nor a “dramatization”: it takes the novel but as a starting point to create something entirely new. Yes, the profound and troubling themes it broaches are all latent in the original novel, but it takes something special not merely to bring them out, but also to explore them in such a way that the original material is left far, far behind.

For that original material is, in spirit if not in letter, very different indeed. When people speak of an adaptation being faithful, they usually mean “faithful” in terms of the plot: in that sense, this adaptation is indeed quite faithful. But it’s very unfaithful where it really matters. For when I read the novel over after watching the television version, I found myself in a completely different world. Had Agatha Christie envisaged that the story could take on such dark and serious hues? Possibly. But if she did, she used all her skill to keep these hues out. For the book is a romp. That is not to criticise it: a romp, light entertainment, cosy whodunit …these are not things to be looked down on. Well-crafted entertainment is admirable in itself. And Christie has, I’d contend, given us even more than well-crafted entertainment: she has given us one of the finest of all plots – a plot capable of bearing the burden of some of the most difficult and troubling of moral issues.

But does Christie, as Sophie Hannah contends, “demonstrate a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave”? I must admit that, on the basis of this novel alone, I’ll have to answer “no”. The characterisation only goes so far as to differentiate the characters from each other, and to render the murderer’s motives (or the suspected murderers’ motives) credible. There are times when she is not above crude stereotypes:

A big, swarthy Italian was picking his teeth with gusto. Opposite him a spare, neat Englishman had the expressionless, disapproving face of a well-trained servant. Next  to the Englishman was a big American in a loud suit  – possibly a commercial traveller.

“You have to put it over big,” he was saying in a loud, nasal voice.

And is the prose style really “crisp and elegant”? It is not clunky, admittedly, but I can’t say I found much trace of elegance either. Perhaps the best way to describe it is “functional”. Everything is geared towards the plot, and plot alone. And, of course, when the plot is so good, that is nothing to apologise for.

But I shouldn’t pass judgement based on just one of her many novels – although, admittedly, it’s one of her most famous novels. And neither should I – as I used to – look down my nose at the “cosy”. Some friends of mine, who have read more of Christie than I have, tell me that many of her early works were considerably darker, and advise me to read And Then There Were None. (That is not, by the way, the original title: that original title is now considered, for entirely understandable reasons, unacceptable in polite society, although it should be said that the book itself is not racist.) Perhaps I’ll read that too some day, for the plot of that, too, has taken on something of a mythical quality. And these books are very easy to read, after all: I do not regard that as a recommendation in literary terms, but it does mean that one can race through them fairly quickly.

I said at the start of this post that I shall not reveal, nor even hint at, the solution to the mystery. I trust that I have kept that promise. It was a promise that was important to keep: for, whatever the resonances of her stories, whatever the serious and profound themes that lie implicit in them, as far as Agatha Christie was concerned, the plot’s the thing. And yes, she did think up some rather fine ones.

Advertisements

Confessions of a culture-vulture

It was Cosi Fan Tutte last night.

Every November, the Glyndebourne Touring Opera give a few performances in nearby Woking, and, almost invariably, they perform a Mozart opera. Which, obviously, is fine by us. Last year, it was Don Giovanni (I reported on that briefly here). I was recovering then from serious illness, and, in my weakened state, was afraid I might fall asleep during the performance; but, in the event, it turned out to be a first step back, as it were, to life: by the end of that performance, I felt less of an invalid, less weighed down by my troubles and worries – in brief, less of a miserable old sod. Those three Mozart-da Ponte operas have that effect on me: no matter how serious the aspects of our humanity they probe into, they elate, they exhilarate.

Take last night’s Cosi Fan Tutte. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about this opera, and I dwelt at some length on how deeply troubling the whole thing was. I cannot think of any other work, in any other artistic medium, that is so exquisitely beautiful, and yet so profoundly troubling. And last night, I felt the full force of this paradox all over again: the music is so perfectly beautiful, that the sense aches at it; and yet it presents a view of ourselves, of us all, that perturbs, and leaves one uneasy. I have read many accounts of this work, and even writers with far greater command than myself of the English language clearly find themselves struggling in trying to describe its effect. It remains elusive: just when you think you have found the key to it, some new detail occurs to you, and the entire edifice you have built for yourself suddenly comes tumbling down. It is hard indeed to account for a work that so entrances with its beauty, and yet so troubles you to your very depths; and which, even despite this troublesome nature, leaves you, somehow, elated by the end.

In other words, it’s a right bugger to blog about. So let’s move on.

One full year on from when I was feeling so sorry for myself and so comfortably self-pitying, I find myself in the midst of a spree of nights out. Last night, as I said, it was Cosi Fan Tutte; last week, it was Handel’s Rodelinda at the English National Opera. This was unplanned: a friend of a friend had an extra ticket which he was willing to see off at a ridiculously low price, and it seemed rude to turn it down. I must confess, though, that I am not really convinced by Baroque opera. Not dramatically, I mean. As I understand it, opera audiences of Handel’s time went to hear fine singing from star singers; and they went for spectacle; but they didn’t really go for what we would nowadays consider drama. So Handel operas tend to consist of a long sequence of solo arias – each very beautiful, and each very expressive, but each rather static, designed as they were for the singers simply to stand-and-deliver. Modern stagings invent various piece of stage business – some ingenious, others (to my mind) a bit pointless, and even a bit silly – to prevent it all becoming a merely a long sequence of dramatically static arias; but I rarely find myself convinced. The ENO production did as good a job as can be imagined, but I don’t think I’d have lost much if it had all been done simply as a concert performance. Certainly, in musical terms, and in terms of their expressive power, the arias themselves are top-drawer stuff, and they were quite beautifully performed; but I still can’t quite see this as drama. However, this is just a personal reaction: aficionados of Baroque opera may well disagree.

And I am also attending a series of concerts given at the Wigmore Hall by the Spanish quartet Cuarteto Casals, covering all of Beethoven’s mighty string quartets. I’ve been to two already, and there is a third concert in early December. We are also going to a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers in two weeks’ time, in which a friend of ours is singing in the chorus. (To clarify on this point, when I say “I”, I mean I am going on my own; when I say “we”, I am going with my wife. We share some tastes – we both love Mozart and Verdi, for instance – but not all, and we see little point dragging each other off to events we may not enjoy.)

I will not be writing here about any of these concerts, since I am not really qualified to pass my layman’s opinions on musical matters. But when it comes to dramatic matters … well, truth to tell, I’m not really qualified to write about these matters either; but if I were to keep quiet about everything I am not qualified to comment on, this blog would never even get started. (And in any case, remaining silent when you have nothing much of interest to say would be going very much against the spirit of our times.)

And there’s theatre, of course. The Royal Shakespeare Company will be in London this winter, and they are bringing down from Stratford-on-Avon all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Titus Andronicus has never been amongst my favourite plays, although, given I have never seen it on stage before, I may well go along to have a look come January. More surprisingly, perhaps, I have never seen Julius Caesar or Coriolanus on stage either, and have tickets for both between now and Christmas. And also between now and Christmas, I’ll be seeing Antony and Cleopatra, which I often name as my single favourite Shakespeare play: I find it a hard play to keep away from.

(And speaking of which, the National Theatre promises us an Antony and Cleopatra next year with Ralph Fiennes. It also promises us also Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. At the same time the Royal Shakespeare Company is also promising us Macbeth, this time with Christopher Ecclestone and Niamh Cusack. Which one will be better? Well, there’s only one way to find out, as Harry Hill might say…)

And if all this weren’t enough, one Sunday in early December, the British Film Institute promises us screenings of all three films comprising Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (which I often regard as possibly cinema’s finest artistic achievement) in newly restored prints. I used to be a very keen film-goer in my student days, but I must admit that this is something that has long fallen by the wayside. However, I have never seen these masterpieces before on the big screen, and this really is very tempting.

So much to see, so little money in the bank…

The moving window

I go to the Laurel and Hardy page on Facebook (I am a fan of Stan and Ollie), and, amidst all the clips and pictures and snippets of information that only diehard fans such as myself would be interested in, there’s that perennial complaint: “Why don’t they show Laurel and Hardy films on television any more?” I may point out that we fans have these films on DVD anyway; but I stay quiet, because I know what the answers would be. First of all, they’ll say, it’s much more fun watching these films when they are being broadcast, as the knowledge that there are others around the country watching the film at the same time engenders a sense of community; and second, DVDs are for those who are already aficionados, so how are new generations to know these films if they aren’t shown?

Both these points can be answered. On the first point, given that we can now record programmes, and have facilities built into our smart-television sets to watch various programmes that we had missed, it is unlikely, even if these films were to be broadcast, that we’d all be watching them at the same time. And on the second point, if the new generations see an old black and white film being shown on television, they’d switch over immediately to some other channel that is showing the latest action-adventure-superhero-sciencefiction-fantasy-specialeffects spectacular. We fans may not like it, but, except for those whose parents made a point of showing them Laurel and Hardy films as they were growing up (and not even there), we have lost the new generations. If Laurel and Hardy films do survive, they will do so only as a minority interest. A very small minority interest.

Then I go to the Marx Brothers page, and I see exactly the same thing. Clips and pictures and snippets of information, and “Why oh why don’t they show Marx Brothers films on television? How are new generations ….” And so on.

And then I go to the Hammer horror page. (Yes, I am a fan of these films also.) And yet again, it’s the same story. People reminisce fondly about how they discovered these films in their childhood when they were shown on television, and lament that new generations are not given that opportunity.

I am not member of the Jimmy Cagney fan group, or of Hollywood film noir, or of Fred and Ginger films, or screwball comedies, or classic Hollywood musicals, etc. I love all of these, but one can’t join everything. But I am sure that if I were to look at the fan pages of these, I’d find  the same complaint. It all essentially boils down to “Why aren’t things as they were when I was growing up?”

I don’t mean to say that the people making these complaints are wrong. Indeed, I am very much on their side. I do believe, most fervently, that the mainstream Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s, and even in the 50s (although the rot was even then beginning to set in), are of a quality that mainstream Hollywood has very rarely matched since, and that it is indeed a grievous loss that these films have now dropped out of public consciousness. I too look back in misty-eyed nostalgia on those days when films such as The Maltese Falcon, Now Voyager, Top Hat, The Roaring Twenties, Wagonmaster, The Heiress, etc. – as well as a whole lot of lesser films that still seem to me better by far than the various masterpieces we are asked nowadays to admire – could be seen regularly on television. Now, of course, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on this: indeed, I’d expect most people to disagree with me, and to give me a whole list of modern films I should be seeing to change my blinkered opinion. But let’s not get hung up on that. Whatever our views on the respective merits of modern mainstream movies as opposed to classic Hollywood movies, we may agree, I hope, that there was much of great value in those classic movies, that they deserve to be remembered, and that their steady disappearance from public consciousness is indeed something to be regretted.

I find myself regretting this particularly around Christmas time. Back in those days before satellite television, before even the advent of VHS video, television broadcasts of films were events: if you missed them, you didn’t get a chance to see them again. And every Christmas, there would be special seasons – seasons of Marx Brothers films, or of Humphrey Bogart films, or of Fred and Ginger, or screwball comedies, or whatever. Publication of Christmas television schedules was something fervently looked forward to, as was the careful marking with a felt-tip pen of all the films I just had to watch. That this is no longer the case, that these films – with a very small handful of exceptions – are no longer shown, seems to me (and to other old farts like myself) a loss of something precious. Even when our reason tells us otherwise, it is difficult to avoid feeling this sense of loss. It is difficult to come to terms with the fact that entire generations have now grown up without knowing Laurel and Hardy; and further, that even if television channels were to start showing these films again, it would make not the slightest difference.

There is also the question of our perception of time. In 1975, say, when I was fifteen, A Night at the Opera and Bride of Frankenstein were forty years old; Spellbound and The Lost Weekend were thirty years old.  Now, in 2017, Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever are forty years old; Fatal Attraction and Lethal Weapon are thirty years old. People actually feel nostalgic now about films I still regard in my no doubt jaundiced mind as “modern rubbish”. So it’s not that old films aren’t shown any more: it’s more that what constitutes “old” has changed. The window of public interest, instead of expanding to take in more recent films without losing sight of what had gone before, has simply moved along with the years. And those films that precede the earlier end of this moving window effectively drop out of consideration.

But is that, one may ask, such a terrible thing? Well, yes, to me it is. And I emphasise – to me. I do not pretend to make any objective statement on this, as I am far too emotionally involved to be in any way objective. I can’t help but feel that tinge of sadness when I go through the Christmas television listings, and, apart from a predictable few titles (Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz), there is no classic Hollywood film at all. It is as if an entire culture – and, to my mind a very substantial culture – has dropped out of our consciousness.

And so, on the various fan pages, we will go on lamenting the absence from television schedules of Laurel and Hardy, of the Marx Brothers, of the Warner Brothers gangster movies, of the MGM musicals, and so on. Until such a time when we, too, will drop out of the moving window, taking our memories with us.

Nostalgia, the ache for home

It is hard to understand why some cheesy piece of pop music we used to jump up and down to as a teenager, and which we know in our adult years to be but a cheap and shoddy piece of tat, should, nonetheless, when heard in some café or in a busy mall, affect us so powerfully. The obvious answer is “nostalgia”, but that is merely to put a label on something that remains in essence mysterious.

It is not that nostalgia overrides all other considerations. I may feel nostalgic about the time I used to enjoy books by Enid Blyton, but I don’t think I could read them again with any pleasure. But I know that the pleasure I take in revisiting Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles is immeasurably enhanced by memories of childhood encounters.

Most strange is the resurgence of feelings for things one had thought one had left behind. I had thought I had left behind my Bengali heritage, dominated as it was, and still, I think, is, by Rabindraculture. I am sure Westerners often wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Rabindranath Tagore all the time, as if there were no other cultural figure of note. I used to wonder this myself. In my teenage years, I was frankly fed up with his ubiquity. He had been, in effect, an extra member of our family: his poetry, his stories, and, above all, his songs, were omnipresent in our house. And I had thought I had walked away from all that. I had discovered the plays of Shakespeare, the great Russian novels, the operas of Mozart and the lieder of Schubert, and I felt, with some justification, that I had absorbed, and was continuing to absorb, all the culture I would need to sustain myself through my life. But then, one evening some twenty and more years ago, I was in an Indian restaurant with some Western friends; the background music, rather unusually even for Indian restaurants, was instrumental arrangements of Tagore songs (Rabindrasangeet), and all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, a melody appeared that almost reduced me to tears. Not that I physically cried: I don’t cry too easily. But I felt something unexpectedly welling up inside me. It wasn’t merely a resurgence of childhood memories: it was a recognition of something from my past that was beautiful and valuable, and which I had not left behind at all. To borrow an image from a great work of Western art, Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, what I experienced then was like those water-lilies that shoot up from the unfathomed depths of the waters and bloom suddenly upon the surface.

The song that had such an effect on me that day was Gram chhara oi ranga matir path: it is a song about the compulsion to leave one’s village behind, and the lure of the world outside:

The red-earthed path leading out from the village
holds the heart enthralled.
Oh, who is it for whom the heart pines
even as it wilts into the dust?
Who is it who calls me out from home,
pleading with me at every step?
Who is it who leads me out
to heaven knows where?
At what bend in the path will I see riches?
Where will I find myself washed up?
Where this path will culminate
my thoughts cannot encompass.

The irony of such a song arousing in me nostalgia, an ache for home, was not lost on me, but that red-earthed path leading out from the village leads back into the village also. And exploring that village, the one I thought I had left behind, is also enriching. That sudden revelation in that restaurant was for me a first step in a journey back. For revelation it was: moments of epiphany aren’t restricted merely to James Joyce’s short stories.

Was this merely nostalgia, and nothing more? I don’t think so. I can listen to Mud’s Tiger Feet playing in the background in some café, enjoy the memories it reawakens of early teenage years, but feel no desire whatever to revisit 1970s British glam-rock music. Nostalgia may be a potent force, but I don’t think it necessarily blinds us to questions of worth and of value: true, it allows us to enjoy what we know to be valueless; but when it reawakens in us feelings for that which is indeed of value, the effect is quite different. It is like those water-lilies of Ibsen, shooting up from unfathomed depths and blooming suddenly on the surface.

I haven’t completed that journey back yet. I’m not sure I ever will. And in any case, the metaphor of the journey breaks down here quite quickly, as this journey back does not entail abandonment of the journey out. But at least I no longer wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Tagore all the time: I now know, and, indeed, do a fair bit of banging on myself. So, while I’m still in the banging mood, let me indulge myself a little further.

Last weekend, I watched, after many years, Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata. I had long known this film to be a masterpiece, but on this viewing, it resonated particularly strongly, more so than it had done before. The film is steeped in Tagorean culture, and not merely because Ray had based the bare bones of the story on a novella by Tagore, Nastanirh (“The Damaged Nest”). While the outline of the story is Tagore’s, the motivations of the characters are very different, and the drama presented is almost entirely Ray’s creation rather than Tagore’s; but Ray himself was steeped in Tagorean culture, and one can sense Tagore’s presence throughout the film.

Over the title sequence, we hear what is effectively a fantasia, composed by Ray himself, based on a Tagore song; but where the Tagore song is upbeat and joyful, Ray slows down the tempo and casts it in a minor key: the result is heart-achingly melancholy and wistful.

(There are two more Tagore songs featured in this film – rather anachronistically, as the action takes place, we’re told, in 1879, when Tagore would merely have been eighteen years old. But it doesn’t really matter: only a pedant would object to such things.)

charulata

Madhabi Mukherjee as Charu in “Charulata” dir. by Satyajit Ray

And I found myself utterly captivated, from opening frame to last. It is set in an aristocratic Bengali household. The husband, a wealthy liberal, spends all his time on his newspaper: he sees the dissemination of his liberal politics as the principal purpose of his life. However, his wife, Charu, is utterly isolated inside her mansion. The opening sequence is a virtuoso piece of film-making: we see Charu wandering from room to room aimlessly, seeing the world outside through her opera glasses. When the husband eventually notices that his wife is a bit lonely, he invites Charu’s brother and her sister-in-law to come over – the brother to help with the financial management of his newspaper, and the sister-in-law to keep Charu company: he doesn’t realise that the presence of the sister-in-law – a frivolous airhead – is no companionship at all for an intelligent woman such as Charu.

As with so many ladies from the 19th century literature, Charu has no outlet either for her intellect, or for her passions. Under similar conditions, Hedda Gabler turned psychotic and destructive. Emma Bovary is arguably in a similar situation, but, unlike Hedda or Charu, she is deeply unintelligent: her rebellion is as stupid as that she rebels against.

But the drama here is very different either from that of Emma Bovary, or of Hedda Gabler. Charu’s husband’s younger brother arrives, and there develops a relationship between them that, from his point of view, is but bantering, but, from her point of view, is something far deeper and far more intense: here she finds, as she thinks, a long sought-for outlet both for her passions and for her intellect. In both, she is mistaken.

The film has all the depth and complexity of a great 19th century novel. Much of it is very elegant, with an intricacy that one does not normally expect from a film; but there are powerful passions simmering underneath, and I had not remembered just how powerfully the passion bubbles up to the surface towards the end. But despite this, it remains a very subtle film. Among the major themes is betrayal: Charu’s brother betrays Charu’s husband; Charu’s brother-in-law, to Charu’s mind at least, betrays Charu; and Charu herself betrays her husband. But there’s no adultery, as such: the “action” is almost entirely what happens in the characters’ minds.

It is not a film that appears in any of those lists of “Greatest Ever Films” with all the Vertigos and Citizen Kanes. Most people, even self-proclaimed film-buffs, have not seen this film, or even for that matter heard of it. Why is this, I wonder? It is not because this film is quiet and slow and refined, whereas we prefer in our times the loud and the fast and the brash: Tokyo Story, as quiet as slow and as refined a film as can be imagined, regularly takes top spots in these lists.

I suspect that its relative neglect is due to its being steeped in a particularly Bengali culture – more specifically, a Tagorean culture – that makes it difficult for uninitiates to take in. But I may be mistaken: I am really not sure. All I know is that if I were asked to name my favourite film, right now, I’d name this, although, even were I to enumerate its many merits, I would find hard to account for the strength with which it resonates with me. I suppose it is all part of my “journey back”.

If I didn’t know better than to finish a post with a cliché, I’d write now “the apple never falls far from the tree”, but far be it from me to end on so weak a note! And I don’t really hold with what it expresses: far from being merely apples falling helplessly close to the tree, we have both the ability and the freedom to explore far and wide, and make what we like our own; and the currently fashionable principles of identity politics that question this ability and deny this freedom are, to my mind, mischievous and harmful. But I do feel that what we take in during our formative years – not necessarily consciously, but often, as it were, through the very pores of our skin – retains for us a particular significance: even when we think we have left it behind, it comes back, and takes us by surprise.

My unfortunate partiality for “colonising texts”

When I first came under the spell of Shakespeare some forty and more years ago, I failed to realise that I was siding with a tool of colonial oppression. And now, it’s too late to do anything about it: I am too stuck in my ways.

I suppose it has much to do with my family background. One never escapes the cultural ambience one grows up in; even those elements we reject define us: they define us by the very fact that we have rejected them. And there are other elements that one rejects, but later comes back to. And, finally, there are those elements in one’s family background that, consciously or unconsciously, become integral parts of one’s very being. My love of Shakespeare belongs, I think, to the third category.

Not that my parents read Shakespeare: my late father, who loved and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Bengali literature, often lamented to me that his English wasn’t good enough for him to read and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays. I think he was wrong in this: his English most certainly was good enough to enable appreciation to a significantly high degree, but, given the level to which he understood and appreciated Bengali poetry, the standards he set himself were high. He did love watching the plays though, and never spoke of Shakespeare with anything other than respect. As a man steeped in Bengali culture, and who had lived the first twenty-one years of his life under British rule, if there was any resentment to be felt about “cultural imperialism”, he was well placed to feel it: but he didn’t. Yes, it did distress him that the Bengali culture he loved and valued so much was so little known outside the Bengali-speaking world; but the idea that Shakespeare was a colonial imposition was something that never even had occurred to him.

And this, I think, is only to be expected from someone who was so steeped in Tagorean ethos as was my father. In the first decade of the twentieth century, when Indian nationalist sentiment, though in its infancy, was establishing itself as a potent force, Tagore wrote possibly the most startling of all patriotic poems. (It is No. 106 in the Bengali Gitanjali, for those who have access to it.) He does not here proclaim the greatness of India; and nor does he speak, as he was fully entitled to do, of India’s violation by foreign powers. Instead, he calls for people from all around the world, of all cultures and all backgrounds – even, quite explicitly, the imperialist rulers, the British – to bring to India their cultural riches, and thereby enrich the Indian mind and the Indian soul. The very concept of “cultural imperialism” was to Tagore utterly alien.

Looking back, that was the ethos in the household in which I grew up. My parents obviously thought it important that I, a five-year-old newly arrived in the country and unable to speak a word of English, should learn the language, but their motives were by no means purely utilitarian: even before I knew who Shakespeare was, I knew that this strange language I was to learn was “the language of Shakespeare”; and that if I learnt it well, I would have the privilege of being able to read the original works. This reverence – which, contrary to popular belief, does not preclude critical engagement – that was inculcated into me remains with me still. And, somewhat absurdly I suppose (since it reflects no credit on me personally), I find myself rather proud of this: my love of Shakespeare, far from being a foreign cultural imposition, is an aspect of my Bengali, Tagorean heritage.

And so, when I see an article in the arts pages of a prestigious newspapers that tells us, with obvious disapproval, that “in India and countries in Africa, Shakespeare’s works were made compulsory in schools, as they were seen as a mark of civilisation”, I struggle to understand what there can be in any of that that the author finds objectionable: does the author think these plays aren’t a mark of civilisation? And when the author then goes on to refer to these plays as “the master’s colonising texts”, something inside me, I confess, dies a little.

There are many other aspects of that article that I find – to put it politely – puzzling. The author, Preti Taneja, says of a recent Catalan film, Otel.lo, that it is “genuinely far more entertaining, political and provocative than many contemporary productions of Shakespeare in the UK”. Presumably, she is stating her own personal opinion here, and if so, that’s fair enough. There’s no arguing with personal opinion: de gustibus, and all that. But I can’t help wondering what the point of this comparison is. For one thing, comparing a Shakespeare play with a film in which a Shakespeare play is used as the basis for a new work of art is not a like-for-like comparison. And secondly, while I am sure that there are indeed productions of Shakespeare in the UK that are mediocre or worse – quality, after all, varies in all areas of human activity – the standard of Shakespearean performances in British theatres remains, despite the often desperate state of theatre finances, very high. Preti Taneja’s slur seems to me frankly gratuitous and churlish.

And there’s more. “It’s time to break this national monopoly on Shakespeare,” the headline proclaims. What “national monopoly”? The article itself tells us of the various productions and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays from all around the world. Translating Shakespeare into other languages, adapting Shakespeare, seeing Shakespeare through different cultural prisms to arrive at new levels of meaning – this has all been going on for a few centuries now, and none of it requires special pleading. From Verdi’s Otello to Kurosawa’s Ran (Italy and Japan both countries in which Shakespeare looms large, despite the rather inconvenient fact that neither has ever been colonised by the British), the plays of Shakespeare have formed the basis of new works; and often (as is certainly the case with the works of Verdi and Kurosawa), these new works themselves are widely acclaimed as masterpieces in their own right. So, once again – what national monopoly? What, in short, is Ms Taneja complaining about?

Personally, I welcome new adaptations of Shakespeare. I can’t imagine any lover of Shakespeare who doesn’t. Otel.lo may no doubt be a very fine film, and I would be keen to see it. But it remains somewhat dispiriting that in order to praise new adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, Preti Taneja feels the need to disparage the very fine work that is going on in theatres all around Britain. And it is equally dispiriting to see these endlessly enriching works characterised as tools of colonial oppression.

As for me, I shall go on revering the plays of Shakespeare. I owe it to my Bengali heritage, after all.

A bit of self-indulgent nostalgia about films

As yet another year starts winding down to an end, I, at my age, can’t help feeling nostalgic. Indeed, at my age, I can’t help feeling nostalgic at any time of the year: everything nowadays reminds me of something from the past. Except for modern films. They don’t remind me of the past at all – but they do remind me how good films used to be.

And I don’t mean arthouse movies, or films you really have to go out of your way to see: I’m sure there are a few nuggets to be found if one looks hard enough.  I mean mainstream films that are likely to come to my local cinema.

Last night, I watched on DVD a film from the mid-70s – One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest. I can’t remember the last time I saw this film, but I can certainly remember the first. I had just turned 16, and was in my final year at school, just outside Glasgow. My father had obtained a new post in Lancashire, and my parents had decided to go down there for a week in search of a place to live. However, with my final year examinations coming up, it was out of the question for me to miss school: so I was left home alone. I have no idea how legal that was either then or now, but I didn’t mind in the slightest. A week on my own, doing as I pleased, seemed like heaven to me.

So that Saturday afternoon, I wandered around a wet Glasgow city centre, looking for a film to see. It had to be an X-rated film, because, after all, I was an adult now … at least, I could easily pass for 18. Not that I wanted to watch a porn film, as such: I knew which cinemas specialised in porn films, and, adult or not, would have been far too embarrassed to be seen queuing at those places – although what those cinemas in those days were allowed to show was no doubt very mild and innocent compared to what now seems acceptable even in mainstream cinema. That is not to say, of course, that I would have objected to a quick artistic flash, perhaps; but what I really wanted to see was a grown-up  film – a drama aimed at a grown-up audience: I disdained the very idea of watching some kiddies’ movie..

And I remember still that after walking round the city centre cinemas, my short-list consisted of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (with Al Pacino), and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to go round the cinemas now and be presented with a choice of such quality? But let us not digress. On the toss of a coin, I went to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was an adult film – in the sense that it was a drama that was aimed at grown-ups, and demanded much of its audience.

A few months afterwards, my parents had moved down to Lancashire, and I was living in a students’ hall of residence on Sauchiehall Street, in the centre of Glasgow. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the big films of the year, and all my fellow students with whom I associated – most about a couple of years older than me – had seen it. And the discussions we used to have about it in each others’ rooms, or around a few beers in the pub! (Yes – I can admit now I was an under-aged drinker…) Never mind Hamlet – was Randall Patrick McMurphy really mad, or was he merely pretending to be? Did he really care for the other inmates, or was he just out for himself? Did he have a therapeutic effect on the others? Did Nurse Ratched actually understand Billy better than McMurphy did? Why did McMurphy not escape when he had the opportunity? And so on. I won’t pretend these discussions were particularly profound or in-depth, but the very fact that  we could come out of a film and have so many issues to discuss does bespeak a certain degree of complexity in the film. I wonder what kids have to discuss nowadays affter a showing of the latest biggest and baddest action-adventure-sciencefiction-fantasy-specialeffects-extravaganza. The sort of thing, in other words, which, even had they existed in my time, we would have disdained as being “kiddies’ movies”.

Watching this film again inevitably brought back a great many memories, but, beyond the nostalgia, I was reminded once again how good it is as a film. Of course, it would have no chance of being made these days. Several individual scenes last ten or more minutes at a time – with no fancy camerawork or anything like that, but focussing merely on people as they talk, and as they react to each other: for that, after all, is the substance of drama. Right at the very start of the film there is a scene lasting nearly ten minutes of two people – McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and the head of the psychiatric hospital – just speaking to each other. Nowadays, even a scene lasting a mere two minutes would be considered overlong, and likely to tax the attention span of its no doubt sophisticated audience.

The film itself is set almost entirely within a psychiatric ward, and most of the principal characters are inmates. The drama as it unfolds involves electric shock treatment, a particularly nasty suicide, frontal lobotomy, and euthanasia – not exactly feelgood stuff. And the laughter that is encouraged at the behaviour of some of the inmates would certainly be considered non-PC these days, especially by those who appear not to realise that laughter does not necessarily imply denigration: I cannot think of any other film in which psychiatric patients are presented as humans, as individuals; and where, even as we laugh, we feel for them both sympathy and empathy. We come, indeed, to like them as people.

Milos Forman’s  expert and unobtrusive direction strikes a path through very difficult territory without putting a foot wrong, and, while Jack Nicholson is obviously the star of the film – this was back in the days before he would turn up on set merely to roll his eyes, do his Jack-the-Lad routine, and collect the cheque … mind you, when you are playing merely in big-budget kiddies’ movies like the Batman films, what else can you do? – this is by no means a star vehicle. It’s an ensemble piece and the performances of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, of Brad  Dourif, Danny de Vito, Cristopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick, William Redfield, etc. as the immates, are all outstanding. Add to that an intelligent and perceptive script (adapted from what I am led to believe is a pretty mediocre novel – though I could be wrong on that), and the cinematic experience on offer makes, even on repeated viewing, a huge emotional impact. It made me feel very nostalgic indeed for the days when one could just wander into town and have a choice between films of such quality as this and Dog Day Afternoon.

I didn’t realise then that that era in the mid- to late- 70s, when I first became a student, was the fag-end of what, in retrospect, we may think of as a sort of golden era for mainstream Hollywood films. For soon, along came the Star Wars films and Spielberg, and cinema became not just juvenilised, but infantilised. Oh well – I still have my memories!

Novels from films?

We are all accustomed to works in one medium adapted to another. Novels are often dramatised as plays, as, increasingly nowadays, are films. Films themselves are frequently adapted from novels and plays. Operas plunder from wherever they can. None of this raises eyebrows. We sometimes want the adaptation to be as faithful as possible to their sources (e.g. the various BBC adaptations of classic 19th century novels) – to such an extent indeed that if adaptations diverge even slightly from the material on which they are based, aficionados of the originals can become quite irate; and at other times, we can accept that the original material was but the starting point for the creation of something new (Verdi’s Otello, Kurosawa’s Ran, etc.) But one thing we never see is the adaptation of a film into a novel. I wonder why that is.

hammerbookIt wasn’t, admittedly, always like this. In the days before DVD Blu-Rays – in the days even before VHS video recorders – “novelisations” of films, usually cult films, were quite popular, as that was the nearest fans could come to owning the film. Most of the writing was hack work, and, although I may be very wrong here, I doubt there was much in any of them of any great literary interest. But if it is possible to create significant works of art in one medium based on works in another (the examples I gave earlier – Verdi’s Otello, Kurosawa’s Ran – can be cited again in this context), there should really be no reason why we should not have novels of high literary quality based on films. Unless, of course, we think of cinema as an art so inferior that it does not have the potential to engender works of artistic merit in other forms.

So can it be possible? Could a talented novelist write novels of significant artistic merit based on, say, La Règle du Jeu, or Citizen Kane, or  Sullivan’s Travels, or Persona? If so, why don’t they already do this? And if not, why not?

I think the answer comes down to a residual snobbery in these matters. We may pay lip service to cinema as an art form, but while we think it perfectly acceptable for films to be based on novels, we feel the novel to be so much more elevated a form of art than mere film that we cannot imagine it the other way round.

I’d like to see it tried, at least. Indeed, if I had any talent as a novelist I’d have a go myself!