Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

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.

Shakespeare just got more beautiful

Another new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, I see. Well, why not. That play is not going to go out of fashion any time soon, and no number of tired, routine productions will spoil it. But this one has a novel selling point: it has been adapted by Julian Fellowes, creator of the phenomenally successful Downton Abbey.

Of course, there are the usual criticisms: Fellowes has received some flak from those pantomime villains, the Purists (boo! hiss!), for “rewriting certain passages and altering the language used in the Bard’s work”. And these usual criticisms have been countered by the usual reply: it “was never intended to be a straight adaptation of the original”.

So far, so predictable. But it doesn’t stop here. Fellowes goes on to say:

…to see the original [Shakespeare play] in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearian scholarship and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on. I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare’s language choices.

I haven’t been keeping up with the Downton Abbey phenomenon, but I can only assume that Fellowes has a certain public image that is lucrative for him to maintain. It is hard to imagine otherwise how anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together could say such a thing in public. Even if they thought it. The idea that Shakespeare must be beyond those who haven’t had an expensive education, or who haven’t studied at a prestigious university, would indeed be offensive, were it not so damn funny.

In an idle hour, I put all this up on my Facebook page, with a few choice expletives aimed and this Fellowes chappie (which I then took out for fear of causing offence to any maiden aunt who may be reading). Within minutes, there was a targeted ad on to my Facebook page for this new Romeo and Juliet film:

Romeo & Juliet. We all know the ending to this love story, but it just got more beautiful.

No, seriously – that’s what it says, word for word! Thanks to Fellowes, Shakespeare just got “more beautiful”.

Ah – the wonders of an expensive education!

The Peter Cushing centenary

As a keen fan of Hammer horror films, I could not let the opportunity pass to pay a tribute to Peter Cushing on his centenary. Actually, his centenary was yesterday, and I should have written something last night, but I decided instead to pour myself a good whisky, sit back, and watch the great man in The Gorgon.

Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley in "The Gorgon"

Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley in “The Gorgon”

Curious film, The Gorgon. Obviously, they were looking for a horror theme a bit different from the usual fare of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy and the Werewolf, and, perhaps rather bizarrely, hit upon the Greek myth of the Gorgon, the creature who had live snakes instead of hair, and the sight of whom turned people into stone. Not too terrifying a premise, admittedly, but director Terence Fisher, cameraman Michael Reed, set designer Bernard Robinson and composer James Bernard all combined their considerable talents to give the film a gorgeous romantic gloss. Lyricism is not a quality we tend to associate with horror films –a t least, not nowadays – but there is a haunting dreamlike lyricism to this (as some of the screen-shots here will testify) that really is quite unlike anything I have seen in any other film.

Peter Cushing’s role – as the guilt-ridden doctor in love with his assistant Carla, and trying desperately to protect her – is badly under-written (screenwriter John Gilling complained about the changes made to his original script, claiming that but for these changes, it “might have been a very good movie”), but, as ever, Cushing makes more out of the role that one could think possible. But he had a habit of doing that. Because he made most of his career in horror films, non-aficionados of the genre often seem not to realise what a truly fine actor he was. In film after film, he projected elements that, judging from the script alone, simply weren’t there. And the range too is surprising: from the kindly but authoritative presence as van Helsing, to the cold and austere Sherlock Holmes, to the gentle and persecuted old man in Tales From the Crypt, to the murdering religious fanatic in Twins of Evil. Putting my personal taste aside, it is doubtful that any of these films would be ranked alongside La Grande Illusion or Citizen Kane, but that does not detract from the quality of the performances. In Twins of Evil, for instance, he actually makes the religious fanatic Gustav Weil appear, ultimately, a sympathetic figure, as the realisation of the true nature of his acts begins to dawn upon him. Cushing projects here a depth of character that one had no right to expect given the premise and the script.

Perhaps the centrepiece of Cushing’s performances are the five Frankenstein films he made with director Terence Fisher –

Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein

Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein

The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman (a personal favourite of Martin Scorsese’s, apparently), Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (surely amongst the finest of all gothic films) and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. (The Evil of Frankenstein was directed by Freddie Francis, and is not really part of this series.) These films are no mere series of worn-out sequels in a tired franchise; each of these films re-thinks the premise of the original, and provides new and intelligent variations. Taken together, I really do think they are among the finest achievements of British cinema, irrespective of genre. And at the centre of these films are the performances of Peter Cushing: his depiction of the increasingly monomaniac and unhinged Frankenstein is breathtaking.

And yet, from all accounts, this stalwart of horror films was in real life the warmest and kindest of people. We all speak well of the dead – especially on their centenary – but those who knew him and worked with him all invariably break into a loving smile when remembering the man. He was a much-loved resident of the seaside town of Whitstable, which has been warmly celebrating his centenary. There is even a beauty spot on the beach that has been named Cushing’s View.

There’s not much to be said about the man that hasn’t been said already. He was a part of my childhood, and of my growing up, and now, for that reason (though not only for that reason), I would like to offer my own tribute and thanks to one of the finest of all screen actors.

( I should like to point out that, it just so happens, today is the birthday of that other great stalwart of hammer Horror films, Christopher Lee. Happy birthday, Sir Chris – but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait another nine years for your centenary celebrations!)

On adaptations

I see there’s yet another film adaptation of Great Expectations doing the rounds. And the question “What’s the point?” does come to mind. There seems to be a new adaptation of this novel either for the big or the small screen every other year – I’ve frankly lost track of them all. I suppose it shouldn’t really come as a surprise: so powerful a story with such a gallery of memorable characters is bound to attract adaptations. But perhaps it raises a wider question of why one should choose to adapt books in the first place. After all, we have the novel: is that not enough?

An obvious answer to this, I suppose, is that far more people watch films than read novels, and so, by adapting it, one could reach a far wider audience. This is undoubtedly true, but it would be wrong to infer from this that watching a film adaptation, no matter how faithful, is a comparable and equivalent experience to reading the novel. Even when the film-makers set out to be faithful, they are translating a literary experience into a cinematic experience; and the two are essentially different. There are certain things that the written word can communicate better than cinematic images; and, of course, vice versa.

Of course, this is but one type of adaptation: there is, it seems to me, another type – where the intention is not so much fidelity to the original, but to take the original as a starting point to create something that is new.  If the former category includes such works as, say, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, David Lean’s Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and – my own personal favourite – The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, then the latter would include Kurasawa’s Shakespeare-inspired Samurai films (Throne of Blood based on Macbeth, Ran based on King Lear), Bresson’s Pickpocket (which takes Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as its starting point), and Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (based on the novels of Bibhuthibhushan Banerji). Indeed, if we were to widen our scope to include adaptations other than cinematic, then we could also include Verdi’s great Shakespeare operas Otello and Falstaff. Or indeed, Shakespeare’s own plays, which almost invariably are derived from other sources. In this type of adaptation, fidelity to the original is not a serious consideration: we do not judge Shakespeare’s history plays on how closely they reflect the chronicles of Holinshed. But in the adaptation that sets out to be a translation of the original work into a different medium, then, as with any other type of translation, fidelity to the original is inevitably a major consideration.

However, when translating from a literary to a cinematic medium, some things are bound to differ. Most obviously, one cannot squeeze so much into a two hour film as one can in a novel of several hundred pages. This is why even as strongly plotted a novel as Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is not really good material for cinematic adaptation: over its thousand and more pages, Dumas delights in introducing new plot strands at every possible opportunity, and, with all the finesse and exuberance of a master showman, allows these various strands to overlay each other to quite exhilarating effect; but in any film adaptation of reasonable length, this dense narrative texture has to be thinned out considerably, thus robbing the work of the very feature that makes it so wonderful a reading experience.

There is another problem: cinema isn’t as effective as is the written word in depicting the inner lives. What goes on in a character’s mind can at best be communicated in voice-overs. But even voice-overs can be clumsy, and cannot be used at all when, as is often the case, the characters themselves are but vaguely aware of their own selves. Of course, skilful film-making can overcome even this (The Innocents once again comes to mind), but usually, complex psychologies that we often find in novels go missing in film adaptations –  even in the finest: David Lean’s version of Great Expectations, for instance – a landmark film in its own right – conveys very little, I think, of Pip’s complex psychological development.

But of course, other aspects of literature can translate very well into film: it is hard now to read the atmospheric opening of Great Expectations now without conjuring up in one’s mind the images of David Lean’s film. (This is even more true of David Lean’s film of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: whatever criticism one may have of the film version, Freddie Young’s cinematic images, once seen, haunt the mind insistently.)

And sometimes, a film adaptation can add to the original: Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful little thriller, but how much richer is its effect when enhanced by the directorial skills of John Huston, and by the now iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre et al!

One may say, of course, all that matters is whether or not the film is good – as a film. That there’s no point in complaining that the latest version of Great Expectations or of Anna Karenina is not true to the book; the question is – did it make a good film? But I am really not so sure on this point. If one does know the original; and if the adaptation falls far short of the standard of the original (as is virtually unavoidable when the original is of the quality of Great Expectations or of Anna Karenina); then comparisons, odious though they may be, are inevitable. The latest Great Expectations may or may not be a fine film – I don’t know: but if it isn’t, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ponder of the size of the gap between what it is based on, and what it is.

And finally, there’s the argument that at least it may encourage people to read the book. This is undoubtedly true: I was about 12 or so when I found myself enthralled by the BBC production of War and Peace. (The production values of this adaptation look very primitive by modern standards, but the quality of Jack Pulman’s script, and of the acting in general – a then relatively unknown young actor called Antony Hopkins gives a quite sensational performance as Pierre Bezuhov – are exceptional.) It was this adaptation that encouraged me to tackle the novel itself, and now, some 40 years on, I’m still hooked. Would I have tried to read Tolstoy had I not been taken by this adaptation? I don’t know. But I am certainly grateful to have seen it at so impressionable an age

But there’s a possible downside to that as well: a poor adaptation may convince readers that the book is not worth reading. Or it may project the wrong impression: nowadays, it seems virtually de rigeur for television adaptations to use fast-editing techniques, and not allow any single scene to go on for more than, say, a couple of minutes at most; and this really does not lend itself to communicating much of the complexity or the intricacy of literature of any quality. Or film-makers may decide that the novel may have been good enough for its own times, but we moderns are so much more sophisticated now that we can’t do without a few sex scenes. Now, why we sophisticated moderns should require sex scenes in adaptations of classic novels when pornography is so easily available on the net for one and all, I really do not know – but there it is.

So will I be rushing out to see this new Great Expectations? No, I don’t think I will. I did not rush out to see the recent Anna Karenina either. But it is possible for a great work of literature to be translated successfully into a great work of cinema: unlikely, perhaps, especially given current cinematic fashions, but nonetheless possible. So I suppose there’s no reason why they shouldn’t keep on trying. And if they happen to be somewhat less than masterpieces – well, we still have the books, don’t we?

The canons of cinema

Canons to right of them,
Canons to left of them,
Canons in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d …

If a canon may be defined as a consensus of the cognoscenti – and I really don’t know how else it may be defined – then the BFI (British Film Institute) poll of film critics and of directors, carried out every decade, and the latest of which was published only last week, has a greater claim than most of being definitive.

There are those, of course, who question why we should need a canon anyway: aren’t our own tastes sufficient? Well, yes, up to a point: no canon, after all, is going to alter our individual tastes. I am not going to start liking Vertigo – a film that I have long disliked – just because it now tops this latest list; and neither am I going to stop loving those favourite films of mine that didn’t make it. But nonetheless, a concept of a canon is, I think, important in any field of activity in which we value excellence, for the simple reason that only those titles that belong to the canon have any chance of surviving into the future. Far too many films have been made over the years for them all to be available; and even if they were all to be available, it is not reasonable to expect even the most devoted of cineastes to view every one of them. What we choose to view from the past is determined by their canonical status: I am, after all, unlikely to see some forgotten film from the 1930s, for the very reason that is forgotten. Our personal canons are, inevitably, subsets of a wider canon.

For that matter, this BFI list too is a subset of a wider canon: most of us, I imagine, can think of films of the highest quality that didn’t make this Top 50 list. Fifty really is too small a number: cinema is a relatively new art form – it has been around now for only slightly over a century – yet, already, the number of films made over these hundred or so years that are of the highest artistic quality really is quite staggering. Yes, it is true that there is also much – possibly the vast majority – that is utter rubbish; but even after applying the most stringent of filters, I find myself quite astonished by the sheer number of films that, for a bewildering diversity of reasons, seem to me to bear the mark of greatness.

Inevitably, when speaking of excellence – whether with films or with anything else –  we hear the glib comment that “it’s all a matter of personal opinion”. Well, our personal opinion is a matter of personal opinion, certainly, but that’s mere tautology: excellence, if we are to believe in that concept at all, seems to me not a matter of personal opinion at all, but of considered judgement. While it is true that judgement, even considered judgement, may vary, it varies considerably less erratically or unpredictably than does personal opinion. That a consensus exists at all, and that such a consensus proves to be quite stable over time, indicate a certain stability in critical judgement; and whether or not my personal judgement corresponds with the consensus is frankly irrelevant: whether we agree or not with the choices – and there are certainly many that I personally would take issue with – the BFI lists over the decades embody what we collectively understand as “excellence”.

But with that out of the way, I do find the current list to be rather curious. That’s personally speaking, of course. After some five decades, Citizen Kane – a film I picked as one of my personal top ten – is no longer at the top of the list: it has been replaced by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film whose reputation frankly puzzles me. It’s not that I dislike Hitchcock: indeed, he has made some of my favourite films – The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, and that dazzlingly inventive and influential addition to the horror genrePsycho. But, while he was unquestionably masterly with individual sequences, he all too often, I feel, misjudged the pacing, or long-term effects. I cannot, for instance, see any reason to introduce that scene in North by North-West after the United Nations murder in which a gathering of senior FBI agents assures us that they are aware of the innocence of the Cary Grant character: up to that point, the film has been superb, deftly balancing suspense with comedy, but this scene, quite apart from introducing into the proceedings a disruptive shift in narrative perspective, helps dissipate tension at the very point where there should ideally have been a few more turns of the screw. The reasoning behind this directorial decision to include this scene seems to me quite incomprehensible. And neither do I understand why Hitchcock then proceeds to slow the pace down in the sequence on the train, largely substituting glamour and romance for menace or suspense. Of course, there are fine sequences afterwards – the famous scene with the crop duster, for instance – but the tension built up so beautifully in the earlier part of the film seems to me, to a great extent, to have disappeared. And this can only be put down to poor long-term planning.

Similarly with Vertigo. Admirers of the film tell me it is an incisive study of obsession, but, despite several viewings, I really cannot see it as such: merely to show the protagonist (played by James Stewart) as obsessed does not amount to an exploration of the nature of obsession. But maybe I am missing something on that front, so I’ll let that pass: what is more serious, though, is Hitchcock’s poor long-term planning. As is well-known, the twist in the plot is given away considerably before the end of the film: this has been justified to me on the grounds that by doing so, Hitchcock shifts the focus of interest from “what happens next” to “why it happens next”; but if this had indeed been Hitchcock’s intention, why set it up as a mystery in the first place? Shifting the audience’s focus of attention so radically at so late a stage in the proceedings merely disrupts the narrative momentum; and, further, it requires a sudden change in narrative perspective (from Jimmy Stewart’s perspective to Kim Novak’s) that, no matter how often I see the film, merely jars. And as for the ending – well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but really, there is nothing to spoil: far from resolving anything, it is merely arbitrary, and, frankly, rather silly.

Well, my opinion on this matter is clearly out of step with the “consensus of the cognoscenti” I had mentioned earlier, but there it is: Hitchcock, at his best, certainly made very entertaining films, but I do not see in any of them the substance or the depth that his admirers seem to see. Substance and depth are not always required for cinematic excellence, of course: there is little of either in Singin’ in the Rain, say, or in Casablanca, to name but two films that are rarely far from my own personal Top Ten: but when admirers cite such qualities in his films, and, further, put forward the presence of these qualities as reasons for rating these films so highly, then my own failure to find these qualities inevitably affects my own critical judgement.

The film that Vertigo has replaced, Citizen Kane, is rarely included nowadays in personal Top Ten choices for the rather curious reason that it is too predictable a choice, and, hence, rather boring. Well, I include it in mine, because, predictable though the choice may be, I personally love it. All too often, it is regarded merely as a bag of cinematic tricks: it is conceded that it has contributed much to cinematic technique, but it is, I often hear, dramatically uninteresting, and even shallow. I do not understand such criticism at all. It is a film that depicts and explores personal failure: a rich man dies at the start of the film, surrounded by vast wealth, but the only people who are near him at the point of death are those who are paid to be there: this is a failure by any human standard. The rest of the film then explores the nature of this failure. First of all, a brilliant pastiche of a newsreel footage tells us “what happens next”, thus removing from the very start any curiosity on the audience’s part on this issue; and it proceeds then to focus, from a multiplicity of overlapping viewpoints and with a narrative and dramatic panache that still leaves me breathless with excitement, the reasons behind the human failure. That so potent a theme, explored with such intelligence and insight, can be seen as dramatically uninteresting or even “shallow”, leaves me as puzzled as does the often uninhibited praise awarded to Vertigo.  But at least I’m in step with critical consensus on this film: second place in the list is hardly a fall from grace.

Looking through the other films in the Top Fifty, there are several individual observations I could offer: I’ll refrain from commenting on 2001 – A Space Odyssey, since, as I have said often enough, I find it difficult to connect with the science fiction genre; I find myself disappointed that John Ford, one of my favourite directors, should be best known for what seems to me one of his least successful films (The Searchers); and so on. And as ever, there are many films I love deeply that aren’t in here. But one shouldn’t complain too much: while this list may, as I think, embody what we collectively understand to be cinematic excellence, it would be foolish to imagine that a list so short can in any way be exhaustive. After all, if you don’t like any particular list, you could always make up your own!

No – don’t worry! – I am not going to compile a boring list of my favourite films. But if I did, I suspect that a sizable chunk of it would consist of classic Hollywood films – films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The Maltese Falcon, Singin’ in the Rain, Frankenstein, The Lost Weekend, My Darling Clementine, To Be Or Not To Be, Casablanca, The Big Heat, Shane, Sullivan’s Travels, screwball comedies, Jimmy Cagney gangster movies, the Marx Brothers, Laurel  & Hardy … These were the films I grew up with, and it seems to me that, for a while at least, cinema was a form that was both extremely popular, and also of considerable artistic merit – a rare and possibly unique combination. Hollywood in these decades really did produce a popular art. There was, I think, a resurgence in Hollywood films in the late 60s and early-to-mid 70s, with films such as The Wild Bunch, the two Godfather films, The Last Detail, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Chinatown, etc. In a sense, this was my era: if the classic Hollywood films were the ones I grew up watched on television, these were the films I used to go to see in the cinema. But this resurgence didn’t last long: some time in the mid-to-late 70s, Steven Spielberg realised that there was a vast potential audience out there which wasn’t interested in serious drama, but wanted spectacle: and so, he gave them spectacle – essentially children’s movies given the big budget treatment. The phenomenal success of the Star Wars films sealed the trend, and cinema became juvenilised; some may even say “infantilised”. And I don’t think there’s any recovery in sight yet. Of course, once in a while an intelligent and absorbing drama does get made (I particularly enjoyed About Schmidt, for instance), but one has to do an awful lot of hunting around to come across these; and, more importantly, such films are not widely distributed: About Schmidt, for instance, certainly did not make it to my local cinemas.

How many of those treasured films from the past, if made today (assuming that they could be made today) would receive widespread release? Not too many, I suspect.

Recently, my wife and I watched on DVD Sunday, Bloody Sunday, a British film from 1971 directed by John Schlesinger, starring Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, and boasting a script by Penelope Gilliatt of tremendous intelligence and subtlety: it is a challenging and intricate adult drama (by “adult drama”, I mean a drama for grown-ups, and not pornography: isn’t it strange what “adult” has come to mean these days?), and I couldn’t help thinking that this film, at the time, was released into the mainstream: it wasn’t just an art-house feature. For such a film to be released so widely now would be unthinkable: we have yet to recover from the juvenilisation of cinema that came with Spielberg & co. And yet, the very fact that a film as demanding as this was, once upon a time, made for a mainstream audience is indicative of how ambitious, at least in artistic terms, cinema was not so very long ago.

Perhaps list such as the BFI’s – whatever one’s personal view of the choices – could help rekindle interest in cinema as an art form. For that it what it is. For what else could one call a form that could deliver works such as The Third Man, Wild Strawberries, La Grande Illusion, Sunset Boulevard? Are works of this stature really inferior in terms of artistic quality to, say, the major plays and novels of the 20th century? The decline that I perceive in cinema is indeed sad, but, as someone-or-other once said, though much is taken, much remains. And if cinema is once again to attain the artistic levels that it had once attained, then consideration of its past glories – the canon, in other words – may not be a bad place to start.

Even though picking Vertigo as the best film ever is damn odd!

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence.

– from “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats

“The Woman in Black”: the new Hammer horror

Ghost stories are incredibly difficult to pull off. One must maintain throughout a judicious balance between telling too little, and telling too much: tell too little, and the reader feels cheated; tell too much and the sense of mystery, of the unexplained – that sense which is the essence of any good ghost story – dissipates. And the pacing has to be just right: any slight misjudgement in pacing that may pass unnoticed by most readers in other types of fiction can sink a ghost story. I know: I speak as one who has tried his hand at writing ghost stories, but who has been so embarrassed by the results that he has not even kept them tucked away on his hard drive.

None of this prevents there being an entire library of great ghost stories. For many aficionados of the genre (including myself), M. R. James was the acknowledged master: he got it just right, time after time. And, at the risk of being seen merely to be repeating received wisdom, it is hard to think of a better ghost story than The Turn of the Screw by that other James – Henry. And the most renowned ghost story of our own times is, I think indisputably, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. For here, she gets everything just right: it is an enthralling read. Sadly, her subsequent efforts have not maintained this standard: I keep reading them in the hope that she could once again capture the brilliance of her first novel in the genre, but the melancholy truth is that The Mist in the Mirror is not as good as The Woman in Black (although it is still very fine without odorous comparisons); that The Man in the Picture is not as good as The Mist in the Mirror; and that her latest, The Small Hand, is not as good as The Man in the Picture. Indeed, The Small Hand is a prime example of the ghost story that fails because it over-explains: it spends far too much on the reasons behind the haunting – the mere mechanics of the plot – rather than focusing on the haunting itself. It is curious that the author of something so consummately fine as The Woman in Black should fall into such a trap. But no matter. The Woman in Black remains a masterpiece of the genre, and one can only be thankful.

So far, The Woman in Black has formed the basis of a superb stage adaptation; a less well-known but sporadically effective television version from the late 1980s; and now, to much publicity, a film version from a newly revamped (if “revamped” is the word I’m looking for) Hammer Films. In some ways, this is a strange choice, since the Hammer films of old that we all know and love (or, at least, that I, personally, know and love) did not specialise in ghost stories as such: however, as a fan both of Hammer films and of ghost stories, this was a film for which I had to break the habit of half a lifetime, and go to the cinema to see.

Image copyright  Hammer Films

Cinema hasn’t really produced too many ghost stories either, once one comes to think of it. Horror stories, yes, but good ghost story films are actually quite rare. Off the top of my head, I can think of The Innocents (which to my mind is as great a cinematic masterpiece as The Turn of the Screw, on which it was based, was a literary one); the original version of The Haunting; and a rather little-known film called The Changeling. No doubt there are a few more I am forgetting now, but really, that isn’t much. For a good ghost film is just as difficult as a good ghost story: the terror must come not from what one sees, but from what one thinks one may see in the next frame. To achieve this, what one sees must be rationed. (Indeed, in The Haunting, one sees nothing at all!) The trick is to plant seeds of suggestion in the viewer’s mind. And that is difficult. That requires far more imagination than mere recourse to special effects.

This film started promisingly. Indeed, some half way through the film I found myself thinking that this is very good indeed. The situation had been well set up; the design of the interior of the haunted house was superb – cluttered, dark and menacing; and the brief glimpses of the supernatural – seen, as M. R. James once put it, in the corner of the retina – were effective and creepy. This, I felt, is how a ghost story should be filmed. But the film didn’t seem to have the courage of its convictions. There’s nothing wrong with moments that make you jump: if well handled, they can be very good indeed. But if you overdo those jumpy moments, it becomes a matter of diminishing returns: once you have already jumped a few times, you become less inclined to jump yet again. The climactic sequence of Susan Hill’s story – as it was in the theatrical adaptation – is an extended sequence where the protagonist finds himself alone in the isolated Eel Marsh House overnight: here, that sequence started off very well, but ended, rather disappointingly, merely in a passage of “jumpy moments” piled on top of each other. As a result, the terror is no longer in what you think you may see next: rather, it is in what you see – and what you see, frankly, is nowhere near as frightening as what you think you might.

Then, afterwards, the pacing goes all to pot. After the long sequence in Eel Marsh House, we needed the tension to come down for a while, and the temperature to settle, if only for a while. But instead, we were taken straight to a house fire, the suicide of a child, and another quite gratuitously unnecessary appearance of the Woman in Black. It was dreadfully misjudged. After the events at Eel Marsh House, the fire and the suicide did not make much impact; and the director seemed to have forgotten how important it is to ration the appearance of the ghost.

Throwing out at this stage all considerations of pacing, the film then continues rather aimlessly. The sequence in which the drowned carriage is pulled out of the marsh is, once again, ill-judged, as the threat in this sequence comes not from the supernatural, but from the marsh itself: in ghost stories, the source of the menace should be kept unchanged, as any sense of menace other than that of the supernatural tends not to register in its own right, and, worse, distracts from what should be at the centre of the story. To compound it all, the film-makers seemed to think that if one ghost is frightening, then ten ghosts must be ten times as frightening: this really isn’t the case. The scene in which the ghosts of all the dead children appear, and in which Dailly sees the ghost of his own dead child (an obvious nod to the story “They” by Rudyard Kipling) may have been effective in a different dramatic context, but here, it merely serves to dissipate the viewer’s attention from the principal point.

And as for the very ending, without giving too much away, it introduces a strain of sentimentality which is out of keeping with the material of the rest of the film. And by this stage, the appearance of the Woman in Black is no longer frightening: we have seen her too often by then, and have become too familiar with her presence. And inevitably, familiarity breeds comfort.

So, it’s a big disappointment after all, I fear – especially after that very fine first half. If only the latter half of the film had the courage of the convictions displayed in the first.

The many lives of Holmes & Watson

Certain characters, once they are created, are no longer merely the author’s creations: each age reinvents them, finds new possibilities. Don Quixote has been interpreted both as visionary and as fool; Prince Hamlet has been portrayed as everything from sweet prince to psychotic thug. There are those who would hesitate to place Holmes and Watson in such illustrious company, but I say “Bah!”

I’ll say it again: “Bah!”

For if the Holmes & Watson stories don’t constitute great literature, what does?

There have been many interpretations of Holmes and Watson – on screen from the days of silent films to modern times; on radio; on stage; on television; on audio recordings, in retellings, in new stories… They are no longer merely the characters Conan Doyle had created. I am not even close to having seen (or heard, or read) all the countless interpretations of these two characters, but even in the small sample I know, the variety of interpretations is breathtaking.

The earliest Holmes-Watson partnership to make a mark – on me, at any rate – was the pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Let us get the obvious observation out of the way: they have very little in common with Conan Doyle’s creations. But there is no reason to see this as a drawback: these performances have a charm all of their own. And, no matter how insistently we fans of the original stories keep insisting that Watson, far from being the buffoon portrayed by Nigel Bruce, is actually an intelligent man, it is this image of the stupid assistant to the intellectually brilliant sleuth that has, to a great extent, eclipsed the original characterisations.

But there’s no need to regret this. Nigel Bruce’s performance in these films is as fine a comic performance as one could hope to see. Indeed, to accommodate this wonderfully eccentric portrayal, it is Basil Rathbone as Holmes who ends up being the straight man. As a consequence, Holmes appears a pillar of strength – reliable, authoritative, reassuring. And for those of us who imprinted on these performances – and whose identification of Rathbone with the original Holmes was enhanced by his extraordinary resemblance to Holmes in Sidney Paget’s illustrations – these are all qualities that define the great detective.

There have been other interpretations as well, and, while each actor put his own individual stamp on the roles, these qualities of reliability, authority, and reassurance remained intact: Peter Cushing, Ian Richardson, Clive Merrison (in the excellent BBC radio adaptations) all projected these qualities.

So, for those of used to seeing Holmes played in this way, it was a bit of a shock when Jeremy Brett’s interpretation (for Granada TV) first hit the screens in the early 80s. This performance is regarded nowadays in many quarters as “definitive”, but, to be honest, I must admit that I have never quite taken to it. The shock of a first encounter with a Holmes so very different from what I had been expecting has now worn off, and, on repeated viewings, I find myself becoming more accustomed to his interpretation; but it’s still fair to say that this is not quite the Holmes I imagine when I read the stories. But it’s only to be expected that a performance as idiosyncratic as this will sharply divide opinions; and one that is so far removed from what we had till then been the norm is bound to remain controversial.

I think I had been – and probably still am – too accustomed to thinking of Holmes as a sort of reassuring authority figure. Like many other readers, I first encountered these stories as a child, and this man with almost preternatural intellectual gifts (not to mention his skills in pugilism and in martial arts) struck me as someone to be unreservedly admired. His very presence was reassuring. I remember for instance when I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles: as soon as Holmes appeared in Dartmoor after his presumed absence, I felt a sense of reassurance – I felt that now, at last, things will be put right. Of course, as one gets older one becomes less starry-eyed, and one begins to see the very serious flaws in Holmes’ character – the drug addiction, the edginess, the sense of danger, the lack of sensitivity, and so on. But first impressions do tend to be strong ones. And Brett’s very edgy performance challenged all preconceptions I had about the character.

I can now see why Brett played Holmes in this way: he wanted to move away in no uncertain terms from the Basil Rathbone approach to the character. For all their merits, the performances of Rathbone, Cushing et al did not convey the darker, edgier aspects of Holmes that are undeniably present in the stories. But I still can’t help wondering whether Brett may perhaps have tipped the balance too far to the other side. I wonder, for instance, whether Holmes really is so insensitive to the feelings of others: Conan Doyle often tells us for instance that Holmes was very good at putting his clients and his witnesses at ease so they could tell their stories more coherently; but Brett’s Holmes never puts anyone at their ease. There are also many instances in the Conan Doyle stories where Holmes shows great consideration for other peoples’ feelings. For instance, towards the end of “The Blue Carbuncle”, when the criminal, tracked down by Holmes, begs for mercy, Holmes angrily reminds him that he himself had shown not the slightest feeling for the innocent man languishing in prison, or for that innocent man’s family. Holmes is not only sensitive to the feelings of the innocent man and of his family: he is furious that this person now begging for mercy had lacked this sensitivity. None of this seems to me suggested by Brett’s portrayal, in which Holmes’ utter lack of sensitivity for anyone’s feelings makes him seem almost autistic.

However, it is certainly a most striking performance, and there are many who are fans at least as fervent as myself of the Conan Doyle stories who reckon Jeremy Brett’s performances to be hwell-nigh definitive. Brett himself took the Conan Doyle stories very seriously, apparently bringing the books to the shooting, and frequently referring to them to ensure fidelity to the originals.

Recently, of course, we had the BBC series Sherlock, created by the self-confessed Sherlock Holmes nuts Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. The conceit is such a good one, one wonders why no-one had done this before: it considers what Holmes and Watson might have been like had they lived in contemporary London, and had access to modern technology. The stories are far more convoluted than Conan Doyle’s, and, where the original stories moved at the pace of Watson’s thinking, this series moves at the frenetic pace of Holmes’s. But the results – with frequent and affectionate references not only to the original stories, but also to the various adaptations – are wonderfully entertaining. The entire internet now seems to be buzzing now with theories on how exactly Holmes faked his death in the last episode of the second series: it seems to have made as great an impact as “The Final Problem” did in Conan Doyle’s time.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, like that of Jeremy Brett (though in a different way), is far more edgy than reassuring. Perhaps this is a reflection of our age that doesn’t believe in reassuring figures of authority; or, at least, is reluctant to see such figures as heroes.

Of course, one should not write about Holmes without writing about Watson: it is the relationship – perhaps the most unlikely friendship in all literature – between the two that is at the heart of these wonderful stories. We have long, I think – I hope – stopped seeing Watson as a buffoon, but it is still not generally appreciated, I think, that Watson is, in his own way, an intelligent character. Holmes, after all, is unlikely to have put up with anyone who isn’t; and throughout the stories, Holmes consistently displays complete confidence in Watson’s medical expertise. Of course, in Holmes’ own area of speciality, Watson is no match for him – but who is? Watson in recent adaptations – Michael Williams with Clive Merrison, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke with Jeremy Brett, and, most recently, Martin Freeman with Benedict Cumberbatch – have all been remarkably successful not merely in depicting the character that – to my mind at least – is closer to Conan Doyle’s Watson than previous incarnations had been, but equally successful in convincing us that two such different people could indeed be close friends, and have so warm a regard for each other.

I am sure we will go on re-inventing Holmes & Watson in ages to come. I don’t know that there are any other fictional characters whose immortality is more guaranteed.