Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Chaucer and language

I never did any Chaucer in school but read the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales while hiking through Cornwell a few years ago. I had a Middle English version that I'd borrowed from my husband with helpful notes scribbled in the sideline to translate it, and I got through it in about three afternoons, it's not very long.

The General Prologue isn't much more than a collection of character descriptions but they are incredibly skilful and, beautifully presented. They have levels - the realistic, the satirical and the allegorical and they challege what you think about them. The writing is gorgeous. It doesn't try to make you think, it doesn't force you with an opinion, in fact it provides basically no opinion at all, and at the same time it's written well enough to get you thinking exactly what Chaucer wants you to think.

The language is old and obscure, but in a way it makes it more exciting to read, as you're having to translate as you go. It's like finding some ancient scroll, or an alien code, and creates an even deeper sense of a little world in a drop of water. I remember reading Shakespeare at school and there was this sort of unspoken assumption that the language would be a barrier, a hurdle to try and get over. I think that particular attitude misses a trick. The language does make it difficult to read like an ordinary book, but it makes it more exciting to explore.

In Chaucer particularly the fact it's written in Middle English makes it all the more exciting when you find a sentence that you can easily translate. After a while you start reading the words with strange pronunciations and saying 'eek' instead of 'also' in general conversation. It's like a foreign language, but it's your foreign language, and you can see how words and phrases have evolved over time into modern English. In Chaucer's time there are sayings, and memes, and stylistic conventions that you can see reflected over time.

It's history and literature all mixed up together by an incredibly talented writer. A little snapshot of a strange world which is oddly familiar. 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Anthropological fiction: three men in a boat

I got a Kindle for Christmas last year, and as a result I've started reading quite a few Project Gutenberg books. For the uninitiated, Project Gutenberg provides free ebooks, in particular those books where the copyright has expired. As my maternity money has really started to bite, I'm been downloading more and more of them. I've just finished reading Three men in a boat by Jerome K. Jerome.
Jerome K. Jerome, image in the public domain
 via wikimedia commons
Although I have my issues with Victorian novels, I really enjoyed this one. Maybe because Jerome actually succeeds in being vaguely humorous, or because he's not trying to make any political points. As well as enjoying the writing what I liked the most was the beautiful little glimpse it provided into Victorian life. Just by writing from the point of view of the time he was in, the author gives a little anthropological study of a way of life that is now almost completely alien.

Things I found particularly fascinating:

  • The 'boys'. Every shop they visited had a 'boy' working there, and several turned up to watch when they were trying to hail a taxi. 
  • Servants. Random housekeepers, washing ladies and charwomen turn up in what are clearly middle-class households. What's most interesting is that in an era of sexual inequality a large number of these random servants are women. Speaking of which...
  • Sexual inequality. Women are described as basically another species. It's not malicious, or degrading, just very alien. He devotes a full mini-chapter to the experience of having the boat pulled by 'girls'.
  • Entertainment. This stands out because while on the boat the guys are entertaining themselves by going to the pub in the evening and chatting, which is pretty much what most people would do on a boating trip nowadays. Whenever he goes off into an anecdote about home life though, you're suddenly plunged into a world of piano playing, music hall songs, and party games.
There's a wonderful blend of the familiar and the strange that make it so enjoyable to read. One minute it's packing a hamper with a dog (relatable) or the annoyance of that one friend who has to work the first day of the holiday and so decides to meet up downstream on the second day (very relatable - that friend was my husband!). Then the next sentence will be everyone lighting up pipes, or an anecdote that involves a household with at least six children in it. Sometimes I had to actively remind myself that the book was written over 100 years ago, other times it's impossible to ignore.

I enjoyed the historical anthropology of it so much that it almost tempted me into reading Dickens again. Almost...

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Husbands of Stepford

"Stepford Wives" is a book by Ira Levin that was turned into a film in 1975 and then again in 2004. The basic premise is that there is a town in America (Stepford) where all the men are married to beautiful, docile, perfect-housekeeper wives. Joanna Eberhart, a young photographer, moves there with her husband and kids and gets increasingly disturbed by the wives behaviour and, to cut a long story very short, discovers that all the wives have been replaced by robots just before being killed and replaced by one herself. A longer summery can be found here.

The big mystery throughout the whole film is "What is up with the women in Stepford?" Joanna thinks that something is badly wrong, because these woman think about literally nothing besides carrying out tasks for their husbands, keeping the house clean, etc, etc. Joanna's husband just thinks that all those men got lucky. It is clear to the audience that something is wrong with them, the Stepford wives are just not behaving like normal woman. Like normal people.

Nobody is that excited about the weekly grocery shop

The mystery of "What is up with the Stepford wives" is answered by the end of the film. They have all been replaced by attractive Roombas. The mystery that never gets solved, the big massive hanging question that is never, ever answered during the entire film is this:

What the HELL is up with the Stepford husbands?

Why would anyone, seriously, want to be married to a robot? Some people may have a fetish in that direction and if so more power to them, but the majority of men tend to be more attracted to actual people. True, the women of Stepford still look and feel like real women, but they aren't, and they aren't in a way that is blindingly obvious to anyone who regularly interacts with them, like their husbands. They are slap-bang in uncanny valley, and it's hard to see what's attractive about them besides the (slightly fake) looks.

In the film, Joanna and her husband show all the signs of being happily married before they get to Stepford. She's a photographer. She talks about philosophy. She looks after the kids well enough and does enough housework to keep the place vaguely tidy. He seems OK with that. Yet a few weeks after moving into Stepford he's asking her to quit her job and complaining she never keeps the place tidy enough.

To be honest, I was starting to wonder at that point whether he'd been turned into a robot. That would have been a nice twist.

It's not enough just to say "every man secretly wants that" because that denies ~50% of the population basic human feelings. Most people ( both men and women) marry because they genuinely want to stay with someone for the foreseeable future. Joanna's husband married her for who she was, not because he secretly wanted to marry a robot but couldn't find one in New York. When Joanna's friend suddenly turns from an outgoing woman into a perfectly-polished Stepford wife, her husband seems unfazed. More importantly, neither men seem to care about what affect replacing their wives with a well-programmed games-console in a frock will have on his children. No matter what people think "all men want" it's generally agreed that it's better for kids to be brought up by actual humans than computers that can only converse about washing-powder.

And bear in mind that the whole premise of the film involves the women being killed before they are replaced by their robot-counterparts. Which means that a whole group of men suddenly decided it was a good idea to murder women that they had been previously happily married too, often for many years.

The Stepford men are as unnatural as their pretty talking-Roomba wives. They all are happy to commit murder. They all completely change their ideas about what they want their wife to be about three days after entering the town. By the end of the film, they are all happy to be living in what is essentially a giant sausage-fest with some very pretty electronics - men and children are now the only humans in Stepford. They can never talk, laugh or enjoy time with their wives again without being constantly aware that the laughter is fake, the excitement is programmed and the woman that they pledged an eternity of love too has been murdered and buried under the patio.

There is something very, very, wrong with the Stepford Husbands.

And we are never told what.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Character development on Wall Street

Woah...haven't been in here for a while...

So, the new Wall Street film came out, and before it did I got a chance to watch the old one (made in the 80s). I loved the 80s "Wall Street" film, the filming was good, the acting was great, the characters were interesting and the plot pulled it all together.

I enjoyed the new one as well, but for some reason it wasn't as good. I didn't enjoy it as much. And this morning in the shower I suddenly realised why I didn't enjoy it as much. Nothing to do with the plot, or the filming, or Shea Labeouf (although all of those could have been improved) but to do with character.

Heres the thing I realised: In the new Wall Street no ones character ever changes. No character arc, no character development, no character anything.

Spoilers Ahead

In the first film Charlie Sheen is the young upcoming Wall-Street-er. He gets a job with Gecko (who owns a whole wall-street based empire), goes flying up the social ladder, but realises somewhere near the top that he's about to sell out his dads buisness. He freaks, slams Gecko, then gets arrested for insider traiding. At the end Gecko has been arrested and Charlie Sheen is seen walking up the steps to his trial.

In the second film, Shea Labeouf is a young upcoming Wall-Street-er who wants to invest in alternative energy. He's dating Gecko's daughter, and Gecko comes out of prison. He talks with Gecko, and they hatch a plan to get the money Gecko left his daughter out of a Swiss bank to invest it in alternative energy. At the last stage, Gecko bails on them, runs off with the money and makes a huge pile of cash. At the end, however, he returns the (relatively small) amount he stole from them in order to be with his daughter, who has a child.

By the end of the first film all the characters have grown, changed and learnt something about themselves. By the end of the second film all the characters are exactly the same. Shea is still an enthusiastic alternative-energy nut who thinks he knows what his wife wants better than she does, Gecko's daughter is still a fairly likable young lady whose idea of what kind of future she wants changes depending on what Shea wants and Gecko is ... Gecko. Nobody learns anything, with the exception of Shea's mother, who learns that if you try to do fast housing deals you end up stuck cleaning out peoples bedpans. We never know how she feels about that though.

They try to spin it out like Gecko's redeption story, but it seems to pass over everyones heads that the end of the story isn't the triumph of the happy family, but rather the triumph of Gecko, who must be laughing all the way to the bank. He literally ends up with everything; a family, pots of money, clean energy, and he does this by simply giving a tiny amount back from his huge fortune. The moral of the first film was that climbing high on dodgy morals sends you falling hard. The moral of the second film is that it's OK to be greedy, as long as you do a few token good deeds somewhere near the end. Forget sacrifice, or self knowledge, the only thing required for this redeption is to give your daughter a couple a hundred and stare whistfully at a scan of your grandchild.

Greed is good and Gecko has won.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The greatest detective...

Recently I've been watching a lot of episodes of 'Lewis', a new-ish detective show based off the Inspector Morse series. Inspector Morse was about an old police inspector in Oxford and his Sargent, Lewis, who went around solving various crimes. Morse was highly intelligent; liked crosswords, puzzles, and classical music and had a couple of mild vices like drinking and not being particularly impressed with forensics.

Morse is the one in front, Lewis is the one behind.

They did a good few series of Morse and then killed him off in the last one. It was fairly standard crime writing, well portayed and acted and with some wonderful filming moments. But then as a spinoff they decided to make Lewis into an Inspector and give him his own show, producing something fairly visionary in the process.

In 'Morse' Lewis is a "steady copper". He's from oop north (not sure it's ever said where but I'm guessing Newcastle). He plays the part of the sidekick that you can relate too, in the same club as Watson and Hastings, while Morse does the brilliant stuff. In 'Lewis' however, Lewis is still a steady copper sidekick, except now he's in charge of the cases. In order to retain the northerner/posh-uni dynamic they give him a Sargent from Cambridge, who does the buisness of knowing odd facts and strange details. Lewis still works out the cases, but unlike Morse (and indeed Sherlock Holmes and even Poirot) he doesn't pull random bits of polished knowledge out of nowhere. He just puts everything together, still in a fairly slow sidekicky manner.

Lewis is on the right and his Sargent sidekick Hathaway on the left.

The most amazing thing about this is that it works. Rather than being a distant insanely-intelligent detective Lewis is someone you can actually relate too. Sherlock Holmes is a force unto himself, Poirot uses deductive reasoning par excellent, but Lewis uses non of those tricks, just his knowledge, experience, and a normally intelligent mind.

That's not to say you can guess the end. You rarely can. But you can clearly see how Lewis gets there, and his experience plays a large part. Hathaway is the Morse-like figure here, intellectually brilliant, fold of crosswords, puzzles, full of random bits of knowledge whenever Lewis needs it, but he lacks the experience and the knowledge of human nature that Lewis has acquired. It makes the balance between them more even as well. With Morse and Lewis (as with Holmes and Watson) the poor sidekick has no chance to be better than the detective at anything. The message of the sidekick is "here is someone for you ordinary mortals to relate too, except obviously it's someone slow and a little dense because you will never be as amazing as the main character".

Lewis has faults as well, and not just the on-screen-harmless 'likes drinking' ones. He has prejudices and dislikes that affect his work (his wife died in a carcrash leading him to be prejudiced against suspects previously guilty of drink or drug driving) and Hathaway gently calls him up on these. Hathaway himself is a marvellous character, funny with dry wit, and amazingly acted. I like watching his face while other characters are talking, little smiles, or sudden small frowns (all very subtle) help to shape the character and the way he sees the world. Conventially, the Cambridge educated, smart sophisticated and intellectually brilliant Hathaway would be the main character, with his occasionally slow and awkward northern superior as the sidekick. But he isn't. Lewis is clearly and obviously the star.

The pacing is gorgeous as well. Once it starts each episode ramps up the pressure, slowly, then warms up slightly quicker and finally hits the last ~15 minutes with sheer fast-paced intensity. The cameras are used really wonderfully as well, with some filming moments which just make me squee at the screen (much to the confusion and amusement of my fiancé). Camera angles and shots are actually used for effect, rather than just to change the view.

But I think it really is the characters that get to me most. In the Holmes/Morse/Poirot school of detective writing the sidekick is just a prop, to hold up the brilliance of the detective. Lewis and Hathaway on the other hand, are truly a team; their faults and strengths compliment each other, and they get along well enough to gently tease about it. Lewis calls the shots, but it is more a partnership of equals than the brilliant detective with his sidekick running to keep up.

(And while I'm on the subject of detectives I must say I loved the recent Sherlock Holmes. It was let down badly by the villains, who were stereotyped-evil and far too unbelievable. Sherlock Holmes and Watson however went straight to my heart and I really hope they make better villains if they make another film).

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Robin Hood and the importance of Genre

The new Robin Hood film is out by now, and I don't know why but I really don't want to see it. On the face of it, it looks like the kind of film I like; Big epic scenery, questy things, gigantic battles etc. The Prince of Persia film (which seems similar) I really do want to see, but somehow the very idea of going to Robin Hood makes me cringe a little.

Probably because every time someone says "Robin Hood" this is what I see in my head:

We're men, menly men, men in tights, tight tights!

Robin Hood has had the piss taken out of him so many times that you simply can't do a serious version any more. Not unless it's really, really good. To get Robin Hood taken seriously you need amazing action, Godfather-style drama, and a quick gripping pace. Which I'm not convinced Russel Crowe's version has. If it's not careful it'll just be a montage of scenes which have already been parodied interspersed with Monty Python Moments and the occasional Blackadder joke.

I think half way through watching the trailer for the third time I finally twigged why it wasn't grabbing me. It's not a fantasy epic. It's trying to be a fantasy epic, it's trying so hard it hurts but it isn't, it just isn't. It's historical fiction.

I'm all for breaking down previously defined boundries, but when it comes to genre some of those boundries are there for a reason. You can have thousands of evil foe being slaughtered to the accompaniment of a cackling evil overlord in fantasy because none if it is real. It's escapism. But you can't get away with that in historical fiction because everyone actually exists (or existed). There are no minions in Historical fiction (although you can get pretty close with Nazis) each dead enemy is a person with hopes, dreams, families and ideologies of their own.

The other problem that comes across is with the way of thinking. In fantasy your heros can have whichever moral leanings they want (such as in the rather hilarious case of Mal in Firefly, who happily kills people but is so utterly anti-slavery). In Historical fiction they are bound by the thoughts of the time, which means when you get Robin Hood standing up and vowing to fight for freedom, truth, justice, womens rights, anti-communism, and the American Way it all looks a tad contrived.

Historical films do not stand and fall on their battle and action sequences, they succeed on strength of character, plot and drama. Gladiator was a political intrigue with awesome acting, very memorable character scenes and Joaquin Phoenix. It was not 'epic' in the sense that it didn't rely on sweeping panoramas or battle scenes to exist. It had sweeping panoramas, of the awesome kind, but it didn't use them as a prop, just to help you sink into the atmosphere created by the narrative. The battles were close and personal and not gratuitous. The action was tight and slick and there was the occasional speech but none of the speeches sounded contrived. It was Historical Drama with a touch of the epic thrown in and it worked.

Robin Hood is a fantasy epic set in Medieval England. I'm not convinced it will work.

Also people are getting more cynical about heros nowadays; random strong-men just turning up, killing people and then talking about justice don't hack it the way it used to. People point out the families of the henchmen, the dubious moral double-standards (Stargate is the best for those). The more recent Star Wars episodes were laced with politics and moral messages, because young lads from the desert flying planes into large state-owned structures based on their own hokey religions just doesn't make such a good story as it used too. Robin Hood is hard enough as a hero anyway, given that he's no more than a glorified thug in a green hoody, and King Richard is hardly the epitome of goodness given that his illegal war in the middle east is the reason his brother keeps hiking the taxes up.

Robin Hood is the guy in the background. And King Richard is the guy in the front. And Nick Clegg is the Sheriff of Nottingham :p

It's very hard, while watching the trailer, to convince yourself that you're not watching Lord of the Rings. There are mistreated peasants being chased by human-looking Uruk Hai, and that obligatory bit where lots of people get mercilessly killed for no particular reason other than to show that the bad guy really is bad. There's a Woman In Armour (TM), Nazgul-type-things in cloaks, very atmospheric woods, the only difference is that the sweeping panoramas are several times more boring because it's England rather than New Zealand.

I can't help thinking though, that if they'd set it in Generic-Fantasy-Olde-England and made it about some guy called Jack Cloak fighting evil King Mark whilst secretly supporting Mark's older brother who was fighting the Romulans or whatever I might be able to enjoy it. That would be pure fantasy escapism, with very little associated moral worries (like - if King Richard is all that good why is he taxing people dry to invade a country that isn't his and try to get all the inhabitants to convert to his religion?) You also wouldn't be worried about all the historical inaccuracies, or be sniggering every time someone inadvertently invokes a Holy Grail joke ("help, help I'm bein' repressed!") because the whole setting is made up and rather ridiculous. You can just enjoy.

I'd appreciate the thoughts of anyone whose actually seen it though. Was it that bad? Or did it manage a passably good story?

Monday, 31 May 2010

Two people with one pulse

I don't know what it is about love poems, and love songs, but somehow they're always a lot better if they don't mention the word 'love'. It's a word which means both too much and too little, especially in the English language, where it can be used to adequately sum up feelings towards things like chocolate, football, or the latest television show. The word 'love' doesn't convey a whole lot in itself, and poems which can most accurately portray the actual feelings of being in love are a lot more beautiful and realistic.

Like this poem
Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.

And they were neither up nor down;
The stream's music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.

The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise -
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.

The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.

Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.

Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.

God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body's peace
God or whatever means the Good.

Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.

"Meeting point" by Louis MacNeice, is probably my favourite love poem (my favourite love song is 'walk the line' by Johnny Cash). There's something about this poem that seems to perfectly capture the feeling of sitting with someone special, someone whose life means as much to you as your own. The feeling that the rest of time has stopped, and that the two of you, for one instance, are locked in a little bubble of one-ness. In the poem, the moving stairs have stopped, the radio sounds are slowing and dimming and the bell has hovered, silently. But that time, the time between the 'clangs' is more beautiful and special than the real noise, in the same way that the time between the times that the lovers are currently in is more special than the surrounding real world.

It's a bit of a surreal poem as well, there are camels and deserts and forests. They aren't seeing the world how it is - of course not, they're in love! There world is a fantastical, magical place, more meaningful if less realistic.

The second-to-last stanza always makes me start sniffling a little. "God or whatever means the Good" is such a good reflection of the way love can feel. It might be God, it might be some other mystical spiritual thing, it might just be two people and the way they feel but there is something other involved in this. Something in love that passes beyond the explanation of science. Sure you can explain why people feel loving feelings, you can point to the various chemicals released by the brain, you can explain how the partnership between two people to bring up a child is evolutionarily important for human survival, but you can't really explain why it feels like that. Or why there's just a connection that happens, with some people and not others. What makes time stop and a coffee shop radio slow to a trickle of water.

I think as well, either consciously or unconsciously it kind of brings up another time that lovers feel. A time when time has stopped, when the world is fantastical, and when there only is one pulse, one heartbeat, and two people feeling one thing at the exact same moment and that feeling is a pure white flash of beautiful empty thought.

It's wonderfully written as well, the repetition of the first and last lines creates a surreal lilting flow. Five lines to a stanza stops the two-four rhythm taking over:
da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM
and THEY were NEI-ther UP nor DOWN
By adding the extra fifth line in there it creates a pause after every stanza, a little space of time to stop the rhythm running away with you. Try reading it without the last line of each stanza and you can see the effect, everything just runs into itself and it creates a running on rhythm that spoils the mood.

The rhythms, the imagery, and the worlds all generate the feelings and emotions inside you that the author is trying to convey. It's the sort of poem which makes me feel both very excited at the power that poetry can possess and the things it can achieve, and at the same time a little miserable because I'm pretty sure I'll never be able to write poetry that amazing myself. A friend of mine put forward that poetry is the purest form of writing, and I think I'm starting to agree with him. Unlike novels, or short stories, poetry aims to use as few words as possible to create true human feelings and emotions. To go from thoughts in a head, to words on a page, to emotions in a mind.