Book 3: Steppenwolf

Steppenwolf is the tenth novel by German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse. Originally published in Germany in 1927, it was first translated into English in 1929. Combining autobiographical and psychoanalytic elements, the novel was named after the lonesome wolf of the steppes. The story in large part reflects a profound crisis in Hesse’s spiritual world in the 1920s while memorably portraying the protagonist’s split between his humanity, and his wolf-like aggression and homelessness. The novel became an international success, although Hesse would later claim that the book was largely misunderstood.

– From Wikipedia

My poor fecundity means I’m introducing Steppenwolf having already read half of it. Briefly, it is blistering, insightful and brilliantly poetic, but such very hard work. One unique element of reading this book is that I can’t help but be aware of the person who recommended it. It is in its style and substance Adam all over.

A full write up will surface when I’ve finished the book.

Has anyone else read Steppenwolf? Has anyone else who knows Adam read Steppenwolf?


Book 2: Things Fall Apart

My reading is on schedule, but blogging about it is not. In the interests of catching up, I’m going to talk about my experience of the second book, and (in the next blog) introduce the third (which I’m already reading) before I look back at To Kill A Mockingbird.

Things Fall Apart is a 1958 English language novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It is a staple book in schools throughout Africa and widely read and studied in English-speaking countries around the world. It is seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, and one of the first African novels written in English to receive global critical acclaim.

– From Wikipedia

A lot of people recommended I read Things Fall Apart. It is, I’ve been told, “a very Oxfam-staff sort of book to read”.

I can understand why Things Fall Apart is regarded as groundbreaking, educational and unique. It’s an important insight into a world and an experience that I otherwise would almost certainly never have been given. But I found it very difficult book to enjoy. It is, I suspect, not entirely intended to be enjoyed, but to be admired. Unfortunately the cold, almost biblical writing and thankless characters simply turned me off. And there was a pervading sense that the author was so much better educated than myself, and that I should be ashamed for my ignorance. This may well have been intentional and is almost certainly accurate, but the constant air of condescension ate at me from the very first page and never let up, such that I felt I wasn’t being invited to be involved in the story, only to silently and ignorantly observe it from too great a distance.

Did anyone else find the style of writing a barrier to their enjoyment or engrossment in Things Fall Apart? Or did you find it enhancing? Is my reaction to the content a perfect example of the type of cultural misunderstanding the book seems designed to highlight? Let me know in the comments.

Art and honesty: Truth in advertising

Yesterday at the cinema we were treated to a trailer for The Iron Lady. Having seen the film only a few days ago, I was struck by just how dishonest this particular piece of marketing was. The trailer clearly implied that The Iron Lady is the story of Margaret Thatcher’s political career, when the film is (as I’ve noted with great frustration) anything but political. In truth it is a film about a senile old lady recalling a series of newsreel montages.

I don’t pretend to be so naïve as to believe a film trailer is made with the intention of giving audiences a genuine sense of a film, to help them make an informed decision about whether to see it; I’m fully aware that it’s just another marketing tool carefully and conventionally designed to coax ticket buyers into parting with their pennies. But where is the line? Could the distributors of Michael Winterbottom’s sex ‘n’ songs docudrama 9 Songs have edited a trailer containing only live music performances, or only quasi-pornographic sex scenes – that is to say, concealing half of the nature of the film – and claimed to have honestly represented their product? This is effectively what the marketers of The Iron Lady have done.

I’m a wannabe film director. I find, when I think about the challenge of publicising my films, that my ideas fall into one of two categories: art or honesty. The few ideas I have for trailers are works of art in their own right; they (if successful) stand alone but invoke the same emotional responses as the films they represent. These ideas are rare; I’m a wannabe film director, not a wannabe film marketeer. My inclination regarding the films for which I have no such inspiration is to make some sort of mini-documentary in which the filmmakers tell the audience about the film. Here’s what it’s about; here’s why we made it; here’s why we like it. I would love it if all trailers were designed to conform to these categories. (But, of course, that’s not the nature of marketing. Most films are awful, and while I don’t expect distributors to be quite so frank as to admit that, it would probably be difficult to talk honestly about the concept and making of a terrible film without giving away some of its flaws.)

What do you think? Is the truth in advertising more flexible when selling art? If not, how could we ever regulate it? Do you have any other examples – cinematic or otherwise – of brazenly dishonest advertising?

Film review: The Iron Lady

In Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone neatly lampooned the film convention of the montage (“… show us a passage of time / we’re gonna need a montage … show a lot of things happening at once / remind everyone of what’s going on … to show it all would take too long / that’s called a montage …”). I wish someone had played this song to Phyllida Lloyd before she began editing The Iron Lady. I didn’t count the number of montages in the film but I’m confident there were at least 10 – perhaps closer to 15. That’s ten to fifteen lengthy sequences of cobbled-together news footage representing selected events that occurred during Margaret Thatcher’s political career, often without introduction, explanation, or follow up. “To show it all would take too long”, I suppose. To show something, though, would at least be courteous. Including one montage is (arguably lazy but) passable; sitting through ten in a row is less like watching a film than having a list of events read out to you.

Not just a list, though: a checklist. With each 80s newsreel, it feels like the filmmakers are ticking off significant historical moments to cover themselves when someone inevitably points out that a (seemingly biographical) film about the most divisive politician in Britain otherwise steers lightyears clear of any political action. Some viewers – and some of the filmmakers – would counter that this isn’t a biopic about Thatcher the politician, but a broadly fictional piece about a once-powerful woman coming to terms with the loss of her power. If that’s the case, the question rings loud and clear: why is it about (the decidedly non-fictional) Margaret Thatcher at all?

Most of the few non-montage sequences to which we’re treated are shot with bizarre – and entirely inappropriate – horror-film techniques: all canted angles, shaky handheld shots and extreme close-ups. In the middle of one such scene we cut to a shot so up close and out of focus that it’s little more than a blur of fleshy colour, before returning to the scene itself. Is this the editing equivalent of a typo? Or a failed attempt to create an effect? The whole film feels misjudged in this way: there are two catastrophic explosions, the consequences of which are dealt with in no more than 20 seconds; we’re constantly reminded of the huge significance of Margaret’s husband’s absence yet his decline and death is never shown and barely referred to; Thatcher’s declaration of war with the Falklands is shown but the consequences are barely felt by her or the audience in the few minutes dedicated to the subsequent events (and guess what film convention the filmmakers use to present those events…). There’s no plot, no narrative – nothing for the audience to hold on to besides Streep’s performance.

Which brings us to the film’s only saving grace. Those pervasive, infuriating montages are interspersed with scenes of Meryl Streep and Alexandra Roach playing Thatcher as, variously, an aspiring politican, an MP and (most of the time) a senile elderly lady. Streep and Roach both do excellent, compelling impersonations of “the iron lady”, Streep with the help of some profoundly detailed prosthetics (though once or twice you get the impression her face wants to move rather more than the make-up allows). There are also one or two touching moments – Thatcher’s blank dismissal to her daughter during an emotional exchange the most notable – but the film is otherwise completely undone by poor editing, lazy plotting and a naïve refusal to acknowledge that Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is neither her attachment to her husband, nor her senility, nor a series of anonymous newsreels. Thatcher’s legacy is her politics; an element that, along with a plot and a structure, is fatally absent from this film.

Oh, and, for good measure:

Film review: Hugo

“We’re sitting here in 3D. We are in 3D. We see in 3D. So why not?”

This is how Martin Scorsese justified his decision to film Hugo using stereoscopic cameras. I find it a startling quote – an esteemed cinema connoisseur displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of film. Cinema doesn’t seek to perfectly emulate reality; we may be sitting here in 3D, but we don’t instantly change our physical perspectives like the sudden shift of a jump cut, and our most poignant moments aren’t (usually) accompanied by grand orchestral scores. Film is a medium with its own conventions and traditions, not replicable in the real world. To aim to dutifully represent life as we truly experience it would be to create not a film at all, but a piece of live performance art. This, I propose, is the conclusion Scorsese would have come to had he taken his own argument seriously.

Which is a lengthy way of saying, Scorsese’s remarks hadn’t convinced me that Hugo would be any more valid in 3D than the slew of films we’ve recently seen shot in, or retrofitted into, the format. So it was with high expectations for the film, but low expectations for the presentation, that I entered the cinema.

My expectations were, broadly, met. It’s finely played by all involved, particularly lead Asa Butterfield (who laughs and cries believably and doesn’t often ov-er-en-un-ci-ate like many young performers) and Ben Kingsley (who is a delight to watch making whole silent speeches with little more than his eyes and mustache), and it accurately strikes a difficult balance between slapstick and sentimentality – I often found myself touched (though never moved). It’s beautifully lit, all nostalgic blues and golds, and even the dust that drifts through so many shots is romantic.

And as a love letter to the imagination, to cinema, to the wonder of the movie, Hugo succeeds with aplomb. Here it’s at its best, brightly, lovingly and indeed educationally telling the tale of the moving picture with all the sound and colour at its disposal.

The film isn’t without fat; there are amusing but superfluous scenes involving minor characters (two cute romances and an odd friendship with a librarian) that I suspect a more objective writer or editor, with less attachment to the source material, would have left out; the explanation to the film’s final mystery drags and feels like a necessary but forced intrusion to an otherwise quite well-paced plot; and most of the shots noticeably taking advantage of the 3D format arguably are included for the sake of the 3D, not for the sake of the film.

Which rather neatly brings us to the use of 3D. I haven’t mentioned it till now, in an attempt to prevent it distracting from the rest of the film. Yet that is largely what it does, when it has any effect at all. More importantly, even if the effect wasn’t so distracting, it was almost entirely unnecessary. I counted seven shots during which the third dimension added to the film’s poignancy, power or entertainment. Most were delightfully subtle  – a flipbook sketch quietly coming free from the page; the sinister station controller’s face enlarging into the cinema itself as his anger peaked. But seven good shots and hundreds of distracting, dim, alienating ones is not a complimentary ratio.

I wanted to post this review now, rather than waiting for the DVD release, as I had so much to say about the use of 3D, and most home viewers will (I assume) watch the film in 2D. They can discard the previous paragraph as irrelevant and enjoy a film that, despite some simple flaws, is concise, fun, touching, and smart – and ever-so-slightly better than the one I saw in the cinema.

Book 1: To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee, published in 1960. It was instantly successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic of modern American literature. The plot and characters are loosely based on the author’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.

– From Wikipedia

To Kill A MockingbirdReading the first paragraph in Wikipedia’s entry for To Kill A Mockingbird I am already humbled and alarmed by my ignorance. I hadn’t even realised that Harper Lee was a woman.

Contributors to my list of 26 books to read in 2012 were keen to ensure that women weren’t under-represented, so it’s nice to start with a female author (and with a surprise one at that). I wonder whether this new awareness will affect my experience of the book. I wonder whether it’s really important to have a balance of male and female authors in the list, and how – if at all – the sex of the authors chosen has coloured their output. Aside from choosing one book each from 26 different countries, I’m not aware that we’ve encouraged diversity within the selection in any other way. Should we have?

And (without spoiling the experience for me) if you’ve read Mockingbird, what did you think?

2012’s 26 book challenge: The list

  1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee from USA (suggested by Fia)
  2. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe from Nigeria (suggested by Ben/Joanna)
  3. Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse from Switzerland/Germany (suggested by Adam)
  4. The Uninvited by Geling Yan from China (suggested by Ross)
  5. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje from Sri Lanka/Canada (suggested by Zoe)
  6. La Guitare by Michel del Castillo from France (suggested by Maria) unavailable in English; replaced by Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (suggested by Ben)
  7. Mister Pip by Lloyds Jones from New Zealand (suggested by Ros)
  8. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera from Czechoslovakia (suggested by Laura G)
  9. The Zahir by Paulo Coelho from Brazil (suggested by Jeroen) abandoned in favour of:
    The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
  10. Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa from Angola (suggested by Maroney)
  11. Neuromancer by William Gibson from Canada/USA (suggested by Zem) abandoned; cruelly replaced by The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  12. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn from Russia (suggested by Ben)
  13. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink from Germany (suggested by Susanna G)
  14. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig from Austria (suggested by Manu)
  15. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi from Iran (suggested by Leila)
  16. The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch from Holland (suggested by Jeroen)
  17. The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg from Sweden (suggested by Kerstin)
  18. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell from UK (suggested by Duncan)
  19. Bonus: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
  20. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela from South Africa (suggested by Ros)
  21. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak from Australia (suggested by Susanna G)
  22. The Leopard by Guiseppe di Lampedusa from Italy (suggested by Ben)
  23. My Happy Days in Hell by György Faludy from Hungary (suggested by Laura G)
  24. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides from USA (Turkey/Greece) (suggested by Clive)
  • Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig from Argentina (suggested by Margarita)
  • Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami from Japan (suggested by David DLP)
  • The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by ETA Hoffmann from Prussia (suggested by Eugenie)