A Look at Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Dead Poets Society

As my last blog post covered, I recently watched The Good Wife, which starred Josh Charles, whose other main credit was Knox Overstreet in Dead Poets Society. I hadn’t watched that film in years and had a sudden yearning to revisit it.

I was an undergraduate student when it first came out back in 1989. My friends and I saw it multiple times (films were cheap back then where I went to university). For all its familiarity, the two trigger points still triggered me. I rarely cry at films or TV, but Dead Poets gets me in two scenes because the film spoke to me on a profound level. It still speaks to me, but it’s different now.

Back then my wounds still bled, and I’m not writing entirely figuratively.

I went to a single-sex high school. State-run, but it had pretensions of being private and exclusive. My years spanned the 1980s when there was a bit of a backlash against the social progress of the 1960s and 1970s. None of this is clear-cut, of course, with different bits moving at different speeds. My school was ruled by a woman who insisted on being called Head Mistress – none of that gender-neutral Principal rot for her. She was enthralled by Ronald Reagan, and went to the USA to witness his second inauguration. On return she expressed her wish that Australians would emulate the US form of overt patriotism. I remember teachers had issue with her approach, and as I grew older and experienced the beginnings of friendship with some of them I learned their concern was about how she nurtured a school that excelled in all the classes that would turn unruly girls into good wife material.

Only the real world intervened, and the state curriculum ensured that we got a late 20th century education. However, I didn’t quite fit in and I ended up repeating my final year of senior high school at an independent school that I thrived in. That’s life, and decades on the pain of living it has receded.

Parts of my experiences were what made me identify with Neil Perry and his struggle to be free to explore his talent. His tragedy is and always has been that he merely stretched the confines of his life, not break it, and yet he saw death as his only way out. His talent was acting, mine writing and the intellectual pursuits of history and politics.

As a school kid, and throughout my university years, I detested public speaking of any kind. I liked to write the words for others to speak. I was called shy, but really it was introversion. If I ever do write a letter to my teenaged self, a large paragraph would be all about how I needn’t worry about that. Confidence will deal with most of it, but also I have never felt the need to just talk unless I have something to say. I am still that way.

So. Yes. I identified strongly with Todd Anderson.

Watching Dead Poets back now from the advantage of someone who has done pretty well in realising my dreams, and has learned a lot about how the world works, that shyness and introversion still resonate. Stronger, if anything. Todd’s confused, panicked bravery at the end when he confronts the Head Master to tell his teacher, Mr Keating, that he was forced to lie is an emotional punch because he is fighting so much to just speak. That and his reaction to the news of Neil’s death are the two scenes that get me every time. His normal desire to hide destroyed because of his all-consuming grief.

But, this watch I also saw the raw pain expressed by Neil’s parents.

That’s Weir’s genius as a director. The small, powerful scenes. Mostly unspoken. I think I had unconsciously picked up on it when I consciously identified so strongly with the kids. Now, as an adult, it’s undeniably there. So much depth in a short film by today’s standards.

I decided to then watch Weir’s earlier film, Picnic at Hanging Rock (the 1998 director’s cut). It’s another favourite of mine that I have watched many times, but I’ve never watched these two sequentially.

What struck me were the similarities between the two films. There are the obvious points: the strict school principals, the sensitive child who doesn’t fit in, the inspiring teacher who doesn’t fit the school’s restrictive ethos, the rebellion by the kids, the forbidden infatuation of the other by an outsider, and the death by suicide of a kid who sees no way out even though escape is arguably nearby. Both schools are steeped in British tradition in their new lands. Both films are of their landscapes, too, and hint at the past, restive human occupants that the white people blunder into. Both films are fascinating character studies, beautifully shot and underplayed, but with moments of explosive emotion.

There are obvious differences. Gender the main one, at least on the surface. Miss Appleyard’s college is run by women for girls; Welton Academy is run by men for boys. Having said that, the male world of Dead Poets Society is not particularly masculine. In fact, it questions it and pokes at it from a few different angles. Neither at the time I first watched them, nor now, did I feel any attraction to any of the characters. I identified with some, their problems and struggle to be themselves yes, but I never fantasised about any desires for them. I never saw them as sexual beings.

Both films are really more about class and colonialism, with a culture uprooted from Britain and transplanted to two different post-colonial white nations. Both films examine class through the lens of the past; 1900 and the 1959. Both show the clash of the lower classes played out by kids who cannot control how that clash affects their lives. Neither Sarah (the orphan from Picnic) nor Neil can cope when that clash threatens their lives and dreams – for Sarah the knowledge that Miranda will never reappear and that she is destined for poverty, for Neil the knowledge that acting is forbidden him and that he is destined to a military academy to entrench him in the upper middle class.

Both films are set on the cusp of times of great liberating change, too, for each country.

Picnic is based rather closely on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, but Dead Poets had an original screenplay by Tom Schulman. Weir had a lot of creative control over both films, and I wonder how many of these thematic echoes were simply just what happens or were at any time deliberate.

If you’ve not seen either film, I highly recommend both.

Foyle’s War

 

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The Old Town of Hastings

Foyle’s War hits three things I enjoy: detective stories set in the English countryside, World War II, and spies. The series is a guilty pleasure, though. Guilty because while generally good, it’s no Endeavour. Foyle’s War is slow-paced, fairly predictable, and the cast not known for their dynamism.

 

I watched all of it not too long ago. I’d seen all the WWII stories before – some of the stories more than once – but had not seen the Cold War ones before. In fact, they’d somehow passed me by. I only watched them because they were part of a box set I’d picked up on special, and I’m really pleased I did because I hugely enjoyed them. They had a spark missing from the WWII ones. Actually, thinking about it, it shouldn’t be that surprising given Foyle’s desire from the outset to work for the spooks rather than the plod. It’s a tension always there, but underplayed.

Michael Kitchen underplays Foyle, which is a style that doesn’t engage immediately. It’s tempting to think of the show as sleepy. As full of the English stereotypes of reservation. But, clearly Foyle is an introvert. Clear in an unshowy way. Difficult to pull off, and in unskilled hands would be terrible. Kitchen nails it, and when you know what to watch for it makes the show better than first expected.

I have always liked Honeysuckle Weeks as awkward Sam, the driver. The character is a fascinating one. She’s a young woman born into the cosy inter-war years and village vicarage. I imagine a girl who would have been stifled by that, but yet make do. Because you just did. Instead, the war came with opportunities she takes with a chaotic enthusiasm. Duty is her by-word, but there’s something else there. Bubbling under the surface of conformity is an unstructured intelligence. I wonder what she would have been with a mentor able to challenge the chaos. To channel it. Her role as a London Labour politician’s wife and MI5 employee in the last few stories capture all that. The problem is forgetting her husband was in the Special Operations Executive (SOE)…

That is the thing that irks about the series. Big things like the relationships that vanish without trace when they should be mentioned. Sam’s relationship with Foyle’s pilot son Andrew is beautifully done, and then ditched unconvincingly. A shame.

The other character who I didn’t think quite worked was DS Milner, and he started off as a promising idea. An injured soldier from the start of the conflict forced into a job he doesn’t enjoy and back into a marriage with a wife who rejected him. I think the actor couldn’t quite carry it off, but also it’s a difficult storyline to maintain as a secondary tale.

I took great pleasure in the little chats between Anthony Horowitz, the show’s main writer and creator, and historian Terry Charman from the Imperial War Museum after many of the later stories and included in the DVD box set. I really enjoy learning more about SOE, Bletchley Park, and the general flow of WWII in Europe.

The series didn’t baulk from difficult moral quandaries of class, race, gender, even queerness. Also the politics of the time. In the Cold War stories Communism features – both foreign fights and local socialist fights. As does extreme right wing politics. That latter even more pronounced during the WWII years with a stand out episode featuring Charles Dance as a thinly disguised Mosely.

Of course there are a few thinly disguised historical figures brought to the series. My favourite is Hilda Pierce, heavily modelled on the amazing Vera Atkins. She is in the WWII stories as a wonderful foil to Foyle, who comes into her own in the post-war years. It’s a lovely treatment of some interesting questions, paramount of which is the debate about women in distinctly grubby and dangerous war work. Yes, the real failures of SOE are explored, very much with an eye on the human impact. Those co-opted volunteers had families who mostly had no idea what their family members were up to.

One of the delights of the series was how it was able to incorporate newly discovered facts in its fictional world. Its attention to detail lovely, with only a very few errors. The most glaring of which was the cinema in a coastal town lit up at night while the blackout was still very much in force.

Foyle’s War is a cosy crime drama when all is said and done, but the added WWII and Cold War skulduggery and moral ambiguities lift it.

Review: Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion (Angry Robot Books)

I had been looking forward to this book for some time, and finally got to it on my increasingly large to-be-read pile. The audience of a panel I was on at LonCon 3 (the 2014 World SF Convention) told me about Kameron Hurley’s God’s War trilogy, which I sought out and read with great interest. If you’ve not read them, and are interested in SF/fantasy/(body)horror that makes you think about more than what it throws in your face, then I strongly recommend them. They are also terrific adventures with a cast of astonishing characters.

The Stars Are Legion is a one-off (though the demand for other stories set in this universe is strong, and I understand if you support Hurley’s Patreon/sign up to her newsletter you may well get what is demanded). It is a totally different conceptual framework from the God’s War trilogy – the Legion is a fleet (?) of generation starships that have become organic (or so is hinted at the end), and are sickening and dying. Wars rage within and between the various peoples who inhabit the various levels of each. These generation starships are huge – world-size huge – and have existed for a long time. Hurley excels at conveying just how complex these two facts make world-building (a theme that captivated me in her God’s War books – these are not mono-cultures, but richly diverse, and internally logical).

The novel is told from the first person present tense views of two main protagonists – Zan and Jayd. They are lovers who concoct a terrible plot to save the Legion, but it’s far more complicated than that. I won’t go into how – spoilers! – but the two strands of plotting are neatly woven together so that the conclusions aren’t predictable, but are once you reach the end inevitable. The one criticism I have of the book is the use of present tense; there is a clever non-linear time component to the book (cycles within cycles) that the use of present tense jarred against. Emma Newman’s Planetfall needed first person present tense to carry off the denouement, but the Stars are Legion didn’t. A minor point, though, all things considered.

Fascinatingly, this book has no men in it. No males of any kind, in fact, because the world-building has rendered what males bring to reproductive biology redundant. What Hurley succeeds at in this book is making that absence not matter. In the lives of the characters, males have never existed.

The book is viscerally biological, and like Hurley’s God’s War trilogy not for readers who don’t like body-horror. It doesn’t revel in it, though. It’s not gore for gore’s sake. One of Hurley’s real skills as a novelist is to simultaneously make what is normal for one group of people monstrous for others without judgement. Everything in the Stars are Legion is the consequence of something else.

So, all up – this book won’t appeal to all (like any book ever does!), but I wasn’t remotely disappointed by it.

(Also posted to my Goodreads account, 7 May 2017.)

The X-Files… extreme paranoia

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J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington DC © SJG 2013

I had just re-watched all of this rather odd little but wildly successful US TV series before they announced its brief revival last year. My thoughts on that I have copied below, taken from my previous blog-site. Most of my observations from then still stand, but some have shifted because of how the world has changed, politically. Plus, of course, there now exists six additional episodes with our old friends and tropes.

Overall, I am surprised by how fresh and lively the first few seasons still are. What caught the imagination of the world back in the 1990s still catches. It’s not until principal filming moved from Canada to California that the shine starts to dull. The Doggett and Reyes year suffers from the show drowning in its own heavy mythology. A shame, because those two characters, and Scully, are great and could have done so much. C’est la vie.

I like the second movie more each time I watch it. There’s an odd moment in it when Scully and Mulder are in the Hoover Building, flanking a portrait of then President George W. Bush. The X-Files theme tune echoes, and they give each other a weird little look. Then knowing, now…

I watched the first two episodes of the 2016 season close to its transmission. I enjoyed them, but work got in the way. I bought the DVD, and then decided to watch the whole series again. Glad I did. I do wonder how comprehensible five episodes of the six would be to the more casual viewer, even with the voice-overs and flash-backs.

The exception – ironically given the in-jokes – was Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. Great fun, silly, and caught the essence of the brilliant stand-alone stories of maximum quirk from the first few seasons. It’s also a good tale, imaginatively told, with some fascinating characters.

The first and last episodes of the run top and tail it all, and when watched during the first sixty days of the current presidency of the USA is bizarre. I mentioned in my blog below my thoughts on how the shift in real-world politics also affected the show. My thoughts have sharpened on this.

Most of the X-Files aired during the Bill Clinton administration. There were conspiracies and lies, just as there had been during other presidencies, which is what the show picked up on and ran with. People believed some of what was depicted in the show. I remember smart people at my work who bought into the ‘based on truth’ advertising campaign way back at the start. I talked this over with a friend recently, and they observed that the series caught that comforting type of conspiracy theory where ridiculous things are believed of the government because while presenting a punching-bag to hit at, it simultaneously reassured them that the government was competent.

The 2016 season was made and aired during the end of the Obama presidency; eight years of bonkers conspiracy theories, but not a lot of actual scandal. An interesting shift in the socio-political zeitgeist that the first and last episodes gleefully dive in to play. The role of the internet in airing huge and whacky conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ is poked at, as is the problem of how to work out what is true and what isn’t.

And now we are in a world where during the first days and weeks of a new administration the lines between rumour-mongers, partisan propagandists, and conspiracy theorists and official announcements by the Executive Branch are short. Congress – both main parties, by the way – is also playing these games, but the sound and vision of the White House communications is deafening and blinding those others through sheer volume and boldness. What was obviously planned in an amusing little TV SF show to push boundaries to extreme possibilities mere months ago now looks woefully timid.

I enjoyed my re-watch. I will always have a soft spot for the show, and I am glad they made the 2008 movie and the 2016 episodes. Only one episode truly stood out, though, which makes me ponder just how bankable nostalgia is on a sustainable basis. By the way, by bankable I don’t just mean money; I include the emotional and intellectual investment by viewers and fans.

I’ll end this with a small observation I spotted this time around: the X-Files traces the history of the mobile telephone. At first they are rare, car-bound (pretty much) bricks. The models our heroes use change each season, but most of the show’s run came before cameras became intrinsic to mobile phones. I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone has observed that the number of UFO sightings has decreased as the number of phones with cameras and internet connections increased, with a fairly obvious assumed causality between the two phenomena.

The X-Files, re-watched, re-assessed, & re-analysed

Posted originally on 5th January 2014.

When I was in Washington DC in September 2013 I was lucky enough to visit the FBI’s J Edgar Hoover building (pictured above). As a fan of a fair few fictional depictions of FBI agents (Clarice Starling, Dana Scully) it was a highlight of my visit.

On my return to London I decided to watch the TV series I like set in DC. I had the West Wing and the X-Files to choose from, and I plumped for the X-Files because someone had pointed out it was twenty years old.

Twenty years! Gosh. I remembered watching it when I still lived with my parents in their new house in North Sydney. Friends David and Kyla were about the only other folk I knew who watched those first few episodes on its first run on Aussie TV; they because of the links to Kolchack the Night Stalker me because it was like Project Bluebook and had the FBI in it. People picked up on it on its second run, if my memory serves me correctly, and then Australia went nuts about it. Seriously nuts. Gillian Anderson visited and got mobbed. It rated highly, and it was the first ‘genre show’ that got discussed by people not into sci-fi and all that at work. Well, so far as I was aware, at any rate. Though some work colleagues of mine had believed the line about the stories being based on truth and thought it was a series of dramatised documentaries. Oh, dear.

Anyway, I watched all the episodes and the two movies. I didn’t watch the Lone Gunmen series interspersed with the season of the X-Files that they should be. Not too much of a problem, that, although I did have to look up the plot synopses to make sense of one X-Files episode. I love the Lone Gunmen, by the way, just was one of a few underwhelmed by their short-lived series.

Things that struck me were just how good the first few seasons are. Then it seemed to get a bit lost in its own hype, and while I don’t think the quality dips there is a change and it becomes less enjoyable, somehow. Not bad, just missable. That’s roughly when the filming moves from Canada to California, so way before Doggett and Reyes get assigned. I think it’s because it loses a quirky sense of humour and takes itself and its own mythology way too seriously.

Given that it was mostly filmed in Canada those first few seasons get DC amazingly well. Obviously the production crew had access to interior shots of the Hoover Building, and external shots would have been easy. The geography made sense, and many of the first set of tales took place in the states close by to DC. I was also rather impressed that places that looked like the DC, Maryland or Virginia locales were used, too. I don’t think there are too many series that would bother if they didn’t need to.

And I loved all the little jokes about how much the X-Files unit costs the FBI in travel expenses.

I know there are a few reasons put forward by various, including Chris Carter and the production crew, about why the X-Files suddenly dived in popularity. I think it was partially that they ran out of stories after nine years, without having to recycle the same old. Also the bizarre paranoia thing about the US government and crazy conspiracies got a bit weird with real-life. Without ducking off into a history lesson, the fact is the USA is no different from any other country or political system in that in order to keep the status quo ‘safe’ there are steps that need to be taken that run counter to that system and its beliefs in its own status as ‘right’ or ‘most ideal’. Hoover pioneered many of those techniques with the early days of the FBI, and he and the Bureau weren’t alone. And, yes, of course they run the risk of being hooked up to a political ideology, and running rampant. There are well-documented cases of this, which makes for fertile ground to sow and reap great stories. In the early Bill Clinton years this all made sense. It wasn’t real, well not excessively so, so we could have some fun with the idea of a global conspiracy hiding aliens.

What fascinates me is just how George W. Bush’s presidency made it impossible to have fun with all this. Why? Because it became too believable. And I don’t think Barak Obama’s presidency is one where having a bit of fun with preposterous government conspiracies is viable for a TV series. Too many people believe the nonsensical – ‘birthers’, UN spoiling to attack the USA, ‘Obamacare’ having ‘death panels’ as a medical treatment strategy…

Yeah. The X-Files was a product of its time.

But, the X-Files was a lot more than just the conspiracy arc. The last time I watched the series (just before the second movie came out) I was really struck by how good many of the standalone episodes are. The oddball in particular. The ones where we never know just what it really was that caused the murders, or disappearances, or whatever it was our FBI Special Agents had to investigate. This re-watch confirmed that for me, and I still adore War of the Coprophages, Humbug, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose – just to name a few.

I hadn’t noticed the recurring insect people arc until this time.

One of the things that makes the X-Files enjoyable to re-watch are the characters. Despite neither Duchnovy or Anderson being particularly lively, both bring their characters to life, and their characters are pretty cool. There is character development, particularly with Scully, and by the last few seasons she’s rather weary in her shouldering responsibility for Mulder’s mission in life. Her reaction to loving him is fascinating. Anderson grew, I think, as an actor during the nine years she worked on the series and performs the role an increasingly assured but subtle way. And, hurrah, the writers didn’t screw up her characterisation.

Mulder is the main character, though, and even when he’s off hiding in the last few seasons his mark is indelible.

During the last year or so I’ve been reading up on Jungian theory and Meyers-Briggs. Yeah, that stuff that certain management and HR gurus like to whitter on about. Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff gets it wrong, which leaves it open to a lot of (justified) attack. However, those attacks were so obvious that Myers-Briggs warned against mis-using it… If only people would read original texts. Even read the stuff from those trained in it – some of whom are trained psychologists! (By the way, any critique that starts off with or includes that Myers and Briggs were ‘housewives’ betrays itself as lazy at best and also sexist.)

Anyway, my take on it all is this: it’s a theoretical model through which to try to explore / explain the different ways in which people understand the world, which manifests as personality. It’s based on models and ideas that have existed for millennia (yes, really). It’s being refined all the time as understanding grows, particularly in relation to physiology. But, it’s a difficult area. I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I’ve never had formal training in it. I do know that it doesn’t pretend to be a series of robust experiments, and it is susceptible to confirmation bias… but, it’s a tool that I’ve found useful in terms of understanding why I react the way I do and why it’s different to other people’s reactions. I’ve also found a bunch of folk, amateurs like me, who like exploring this stuff. Key word being ‘exploring’, there, not ‘believing in’. And part of that exploring is playing with it.

So… just doing a quick Google and it seems that there are some folk out there who argue Mulder is an INFP or INTJ, and argue against anyone who ‘types’ Mulder as an INTP. Well I think Mulder is an INTP… and it’s not wishful thinking. It was a continuing series of ‘OMG, that! Wow. He is so INTP’ as I watched the whole series.

I’ve been ‘typed’ professionally by different people – first time in Australia, second and third times in the UK – over the last 20 odd years. I’ve consistently come out as INTP. To spell out the letters to those of you who are probably thinking ‘WTF?’ – I’m an introvert (meaning I need to re-charge in quiet), intuitive (meaning I use my imagination to take in the world rather than my five senses), a thinker (meaning I consider logic over consideration of people) and a perceiver (meaning I keep my options open). That’s my four letter combination out of sixteen possible permutations.

For many, that’s enough. For others there is a slightly more complicated but ultimately more rewarding approach to do with functions and how they appear in the use stack.

Okay, a little diversion. The idea is that these are all preferred ways of taking in and interpreting the world. They are not the be all and end all. The common analogy is handedness – most people are either right or left handed, but if their dominant side was incapacitated in some way can use their other side. Some people are genuinely ambidextrous. So, in the Myers-Briggs world this translates most easily for those who are extroverted / introverted – plenty of introverts can extrovert (and vice versa). If you’re interested, Susan Cain’s book is rather good, as is her TED talk. Easy to search for 🙂

Function theory operates a fairly simple formula which looks at what the sixteen letters represent, asks whether the Sensing/Intuition and Thinking/Feeling pairs are extroverted or introverted and what order they come in – there are four preferred and the remaining four are what becomes dominant when I’m stressed.

For me as an INTP my function stack are, in order: introverted thinking (Ti, meaning I think and analyse obsessively – cannot switch it off, feel better when my brain is working on complex problems); extroverted intuition (Ne, meaning bouncing around from possibility to possibility); introverted sensing (Si, meaning I have a pretty good encyclopaedic memory of things that have happened before); and extroverted feeling (Fe, meaning I care obsessively about what other people think). The below brief explanation summarises it beautifully:

Ti: *masterminding* So, lets find a concise explanation for how this works…
Ne: *extremely excited* IDEAS! FROM MARS! On x and y and z and what about sigma??
Si: *serious and knowledgeable* Well, previous experience tells us that….
Fe: *worried* I do hope nobody minds…
(It’s from some folks on Tumblr – © 2011-14 Red Striped Alibis)

The higher up the stack, so the theory goes, the more developed the process is. The lower down the less developed. They all work together, too, with their varying levels of development. And all that is affected by personal experience, growth, etc, which is why we are none of us clones. But, it is scary when you discover other people who think and feel in ways similar to you, and even scarier when they’ve had similar experiences growing up despite being in different countries – not all English speaking.

Okay, enough about me. What about Mulder?

If he’s INTP then he is Ti, Ne, Si and Fe.
If he’s INFP then he is Fi, Ne, Si and Te.
If he’s INTJ then he is Ni, Te, Fi and Se.

So, what does that mean?

If he’s INFP then he values and considers importance, beliefs and worth first; interprets situations and relationships and picks up meaning and interconnections to other contexts; then reviews and recalls past experiences and seeks detailed data; and then segments and organises for efficiency and systematises his thoughts.

If he’s INTJ then he foresees implications, transformations and likely effects; then segments and organises for efficiency and systematises his thoughts; then values and considers importance, beliefs and worth; and then experiences and acts in the immediate context.

Yeah, I don’t think he’s an INTJ at all. Most of the time he’s in trouble because he hasn’t foreseen the implications of what’s going on. His acting in the immediate context is usually because he’s a trained FBI agent. He’s clearly got Ne in his stack, and fairly high up, too (‘extreme possibilities’ is his thing, after all).

What about INFP? Hm. Maybe. But I’m not sure he puts other people first ahead of his quest for the truth.

Regardless of whether he’s INTP or INFP – two of the stack are the same for both, it’s the primary and last ones that are different – and their placings do have an effect – he’s consistently driven to find out the answer to the mysteries presented, and contrary to an idea that pops up when people summarise the characters from the X-Files, he doesn’t automatically plump for the paranormal. In fact, he spends some of the series actively rejecting the idea of the aliens running everything (against Scully and against the evidence, arguably).

I think it does boil down to whether he’s driven by the need to analyse or the need to consider people’s beliefs.

Review: Denial

01/08/2010 20:02:14

Graffito in Köln, 2010

I nearly missed this film and only caught it because a friend, Dr D, had spotted it and wanted to see it. I’m glad she did, and glad we able to find a session that wasn’t sold out. I must say that I am suspicious about how responsive the cinema industry is to suddenly popular films, versus “blockbusters” that tank. Anyway, see it we did last night at the nearly full screening at Clapham Picturehouse.

It tells the story of two historians – one British, one American – who clash over their scholarly interpretation of an event within living memory. The Brit takes the Yank to court in the UK  in a libel case because the Yank accused the Brit of being a racist. The American proves her case against the Brit, aided by her amazing team of British lawyers.

Or, to be more precise, the film charts the first personal encounter American historian Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt had with British scholar David Irving in the USA. He challenged her during a lecture about her work on people who deny that the Holocaust happened the way it did. In 1996 he sued her and her publisher, Penguin, for defamation using the British courts where the burden of proof lays on the defendant. The case rested on the book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, published by Penguin in 1994. The judgement itself was made by The Hon. Mr Justice Gray in 2000 and is worth reading, especially given current events.Be warned, though: a version that pops up in google searching takes you to Irving’s site with an annotated and amended version of the judgement.

The film itself is a fairly tight courtroom drama, with some nice nods to differences between British and US legal systems and traditions. The acting from all concerned is first rate, and the script deals with difficult questions of denying one’s immediate, all-to-human reaction, to win a case that seemed simple but really wasn’t. The difficulty was to keep the Holocaust from becoming the issue, and to keep the entire focus on those who misinterpret the historical record (deliberately, or a result of cognitive bias – the difference crucial but a hairline splits them) to deny the Holocaust either happened, or if it did that it didn’t target the Jews, and wasn’t part of Hitler’s plans. Bearing in mind the film is based on court records and Lipstadt’s book about the trial, it was interesting to see character development as Lipstadt and Barrister Richard Rampton QC slowly come to understand each other. I like the little touch of the first day of hearings where Lipstadt refuses to bow her head because she is an American, but by the day of the judgement she does so. The film had moments of gentle humour to break what could have been fairly tedious legal talk.

It also had a sequence that left the audience silent. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a nearly full cinema where for a lengthy sequence there was no noise beyond the film. It was when Lipstadt and her legal team visit Auschwitz.

The timing of the release of this film is probably one reason for its popularity. It premiered in the UK on 27 January 2017, International Holocaust Memorial Day. The day that Donald Trump, newly inaugurated President of the USA, issued a statement from the White House that for the first time did not specifically mention the Jews. While incompetence cannot in all fairness be ruled out, the subsequent actions are too close to neo-Nazi tropes to support the idea it was a mistake. The White House doubled down on there being other victims, which is true. But, crucially, the Jews were especially targeted. Lipstadt has commented on there being a spectrum of Holocaust denialism: from total (hard) denial, to a softer version. Regardless, any denial of the historical facts in this case is anti-semitic.

I would recommend this film anyway, but it’s especially pertinent for now. Not only as a warning, but also about ways to confront such lies.

I wrote this blog back in 2007, thought the article itself was from the mid-1990s. It’s about Doctor Who’s depiction of World War II and Nazism, but if you scroll through that there’s a personal bit at the end.

Review: To Walk Invisible

Sally Wainwright is one of Britain’s best TV writers and directors, and her two-hour drama about Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë and their brother Branwell, was a sheer joy to watch. It aired on BBC1 on 29 December 2016, but I watched it last night on iPlayer. I just had to double-check that it was in fact two hours, it flew by.

The writing – unsurprisingly – was top-notch, and along with both the beautiful direction and acting, the show brought to life the complex internal worlds of three extraordinary women and the business of writing when novels were novel. I was reminded of some of Kameron Hurley’s writing about publishing today, plus the ‘scandal’ about Elena Ferrante that broke this year… not much has changed, really, in the 175 or so years since when the bulk of the show was set.

You can tell that Wainwright loves Yorkshire and knows it intimately; while some scenes were shot with familiar framing of the moors and Victorian housing, none of it was cliched. Given the various TV and film versions of the most famous of the novels – Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre – it would be easy to keep the landscape bleak and miserable. Wainwright draws out the beauty of the place in all of its seasons. Art and place – inseparable.

It also weaves in their relationship with their brother, Branwell, and their father, as well as the realities of middle class Victorian life in the counties. I was blown away by how fabulously the story I know reasonably well was brought to life. Lived-in life. The extraordinarily fine balance of showing the terrible behaviour of Branwell and yet also drawing out the reasons why. Both Adam Nagaitis and Troy Tipple were superb as the ‘troubled’ Branwell (as adult and child, respectively). Actually, all the main cast shone: the different personalities of the sisters, and their strong love for each other, their father, and brother (despite everything) – all difficult to portray without slipping into caricature. Finn Atkins was wonderful as the business-minded, easy-to-dismiss-as-repressed-but-actually-fiery eldest sister Charlotte. Chloe Pirrie brought an expressiveness to Emily (her ongoing exasperation about Charlotte changing her mind entirely believable, and her reasons to not accompany her sisters to London convincing), and like others watching at the same time I did keep expecting her to actually, physically lash out and twat someone. Charlie Murphy could have just been fragile as Anne, but while her actions could be seen as being swept along by whichever sister held sway, I think she weighed up her options and did the required deed. She clearly saw the need to accompany Charlotte to London to prove the three writers published as Messrs Bell were not one author but three sisters.


Back in 1993 I wrote a short story about a woman’s love for Charlotte Brontë. It was published back then in an Australian magazine called ClitLit. I’m reproducing my story here because it just seems apt. Please note that I retain the copyright for it.

Slice of Life

Faded fragments, paper dreams. I want to forget you, but I can’t. I see an actor’s face looking like you staring from billboards around this hot summer city. Your name, as though a crowd-puller, emblazoned everywhere. And the songs about you, beating out from record shops, pull on my heart the way you did, all those years ago.

*

I’ve just moved into another flat, full of strangers. We’re settled now, listening to Madonna and watching some dancers shimmy-shimmy to her on the small TV screen. Through the sound, Jim asks if I’ve got a boyfriend. It’s a question I’ve expected, been asked a million times before with that same longing I hear in his voice. Please say no because I want you.

With a silly grin, I shake my head, wondering if he gets the hint. Useless shouting intimate details in this noise.

Sean passes me a joint, and I pass it on. Not my scene. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you know there’s no point.

Lull in the video clip. To my left Chris and Angel are arguing about Stein and Toklas: ‘Bull they fucked.’

They did, actually, but I don’t tell them that. The music starts up again making it impossible, anyway.

A woman enters. Miranda. Like the beauty of the classics, she stands haloed by light and her hair. Her Nicole Kidman hair. She is wearing her normal white flowing inner city dress, thinking she looks like one of the girls of Hanging Rock as she drifts her hand down along the door frame. She sees me stare, and smiles, shy.

The talk drifts with the smoke. It’s a good welcoming party and I know I’m going to get on well with these people. They’re nice, easy going, unquestioning but they still involve you in things that are important. Most leave me alone, knowing that I don’t really want to talk, just watch and listen. I’ve already told them I’m tired and don’t want to play. They respect that, which is why I think this place is going to work out.

The couples drift off, the singles slink home. I stay, ensconced in the lounge, thinking about things I’ve done and seen and felt. I am alone, yet accompanied by sweet memories.

Now it’s four thirty. The darkest time of the night. Flick on the TV because I’m feeling bored and sleepless. Ride the remote till I find Doctor Who. I watch the antics of the curly-haired one, wondering how Scott was getting on. I remember I met him back in London when this show first started. Glorious year, back then. Thirty years it must be… Must be.

The announcer’s just said Doctor Who is thirty and I met Scott racing to get home to watch this new sci-fi show amidst all the JFK stuff. He must be in his forties now, even fifty.

Miranda comes out into the room, drawn by the noise of Time Lords killing Time Lords. Oh, to be a lord of time, to control it, make it bend to your will rather than be swept along with it…

She stands at the door again, this time in loose silk pyjamas. She speaks, ‘Charlotte, I know what you are.’ I hear the gentle catch in her low voice. ‘What you want.’ I nod, turn the TV off, and go with her like the virgin Madonna once was, and we all know that’s a lie.

*

Crowds. Christmas crowds making the Pitt Street Mall almost impenetrable. And hot. Sweat pours through my pale Irish skin, dampening my loose clothing as sure as any longed-for downpour. Perspiration drips into my eyes, stinging, and I wipe them just to be able to see where I’m going. Christmas in Australia still frazzles me, that weird feeling of seeing cotton snow in weather that can melt plastic.

I twist and weave through the people, dodging parcels and bags and sticky kids. A gaggle of men, fresh out of uni, charge in a laughing row and part the crowd like Moses and the sea. Girls giggle past, staring at dress shops, wishing for the flares that were dreadful first time round. Rap versions of carols thud out of music shops, and yet it’s still only November. I can smell the smell of sweets drive through the fried food scent so common here at lunch time.

Lunch. My stomach tells me I want food, so I dive into a cafe crowded with sagging grandmothers and their grandchildren on early release from school, all babbling in the pre-Christmas excitement. Some children stare at me as I eat, knowing something different is before them even though I look no different from anything else they’ve seen.

I leave again, and resume my quest. My quest for a present for Miranda, love of my life now. Not a Christmas present (Miranda doesn’t believe) but a present of congratulations. Miranda finishing her university years with her PhD after years of uncertain soul searching. And her mother had written on her sweetly perfumed paper, extolling her praises, and I feel proud too. Maybe a book would be good. One of your books, as I see them stacked in the stores to take advantage of the film. Yet, I wonder if I could bear her touching something so bound up in you.

*

I lie in the half light of the moon’s silver shine casting in from a window. I am naked, warmed by the glow of a woman beside me. Warmed also by the memory of you. They say first love is the one you remember the best. Maybe. I remember the wild moors we both loved — the wind — even the cold driving rain. Impossible to ignore feeling when all around was so sensual, across these ages…

A now familiar hand pushes against my arm, pushing away my memories, bringing me back to now. A voice — soft, husky — speaks. Miranda’s, sweet after the tempest; ‘Where do you come from?’

‘That would be telling,’ I say, aware the joke catches on my tongue as it always does.

‘You seem so English, but I’ve heard you talk to Jim and Sean about other places you’ve lived. Ireland…’

Silence as I try to think. ‘I’ve travelled a lot,’ I finally say, fudging the answer I know I must eventually give. Miranda forgives the evasion, and runs her gentle fingers down my arm, playing. Though tired, I respond.

*

I feel the bite of the wind and rain against my skin as I wait for you. I’ve dressed in man’s clothes: black trousers, white shirt, sleeves rolled up, a waistcoat. I’ve even cut my hair short for you, so no one will know. I look, and see, and smile as you ride your pony to me. So wild, so free, so under the yoke of your family.

We play as we always play. Innocent, wild. Later, people put a name to what we do and call it evil.

And I say I must go, away to London, away from here because people talk and I cannot bear their talk. I remember what you say; ‘Don’t go, please. I love you.’

Be brave, I told you, and both of us cried.

I never told you what I am.

*

Evening, and I enter my home. Miranda is in our room, cleaning, and crying. She hasn’t heard me, doesn’t know I stand watching the scene from the doorway. I wonder, and use her name to question.

She turns, ‘Charlotte. I feel, feel so…’

‘Confused?’ I finish for her.

She moves her arm to point to a sheet of paper on the neatly made bed. A sluggish gesture as though she is completely drained of energy. I move to pick it up, though I already know what it is, what it says. My eyes flick over the spidery cruel words made on the unscented onion paper.

Miranda stands, uncertain, searching for words. ‘I… she was so happy before. All I wanted was to let her know how happy I am.’

‘I know,’ is all I can say.

We look at each other as the moment unfolds, both lost. I have read about this, heard stories, but have never been here before.

‘What about your parents? Do they know? You never talk about them.’

‘My parents died a long time ago.’ I turn, not wanting to talk about that.

‘Oh, Charlotte…’ And I know she has heard the pain of rejection in my voice, and know she has misunderstood my words. But how can I explain?

*

Picture a green land, green as the pictures of tourist leaflets. Impossibly green. A green that counterpoints the grey of the sky and the stone grey of the hovels that are our homes. The colours are still alive to me, as though I only saw them yesterday.

Smell the peat smoke pervading everything and everywhere, and the fresh scent of the rain that falls more times than the sun shines. Hear the sound of cows lowing, dogs barking lazily, and the lolling beat of music made by the men and women who live here. Romantic memories, tinged and altered by the years that separate me from them.

Idyllic scenery hides the pain.

I remember the sound, the awful sound, of soldiers charging the village. The shouts and screams, the clash of metal on metal, and the loud cra-boom of the muskets as they fire death into the people who are my family. Maire and Feargus run, begging me to come, but, panicked, I stay where we’d hidden the day Cromwell’s army exacted revenge.

Night, dark night. Darker than nights are now. Then I ran, not daring to see what I had to leave to live. I was fifteen and had a lot of living to do.

*

‘It wasn’t like that,’ I find myself saying to Miranda, as though my tongue has a mind of its own.

She’s twisting a bit of thumbnail with her fingers. A nervous trait of hers that I find endearing in her, annoying when others do it.

I sigh, and indicate she should sit. She does, beside me. I like the feel of her thigh warmly against mine, but she doesn’t rest her hand on my leg as she normally does. ‘My parents really did die a long time ago. They were killed,’ and my mind stops me from continuing, by Cromwell’s army in Ireland. ‘They never knew about me.’

‘Oh.’

‘There was nothing for them to know. I was only a child.’

‘She says Dad’ll kill me if he ever found out.’

‘Would he?’

‘I don’t know. It’s possible.’ She turns her sweet brown eyes to me, and they dart back and forth, troubled. ‘I don’t know him, not like I thought I knew my mother.’

There are no words to say. We embrace, instead; the hug of friends not lovers.

Miranda breaks the contact, and looks at me. ‘I wasn’t your first, was I?’

‘No.’

‘I knew it.’

Reproachful tone, though not angry. Hurt, and I understand that hurt. ‘She was someone very special,’ I begin, staring at the floor, seeing you there lying on the grass with your skirts all about you, laughing. ‘She died a year after she married.’ Now I see the paper in my hands, accusing me. I burned it, wanting no record of the pain that caused.

‘God, I’m sorry,’ Miranda says in a rush and I know it is the truth.

‘That was a long time ago, too,’ I continue, quietly, and know somehow that I have to go on, and somehow can with Miranda. I need to, for your sake. ‘I worshipped her, and nobody of hers knew me. One glorious summer on the moors and I had to leave her because I couldn’t bear the way she would grow old before me and die, and I…’ I choke off.

Miranda’s hand touches me, and my skin flinches away. ‘You…’ she says, but I shake my head, ashamed that tears are gathering.

I look directly into her eyes and see you stand, accusing. I hear your words; ‘Don’t leave me! Please, don’t…’ But I had to.

We sit in silence for a while. The door to the flat opens. Jim calls out, ‘Miranda? Charlotte? Sean and I are off to see a movie. Want to come?’

‘What?’ calls Miranda, and I hear how glad she is for the distraction.

The Brontës,’ he answers, poking his head around our door. ‘You’re a Brontë fan, aren’t you, Charlotte? You always go on about your namesake. Have you seen the film yet?’

‘No,’ I shake my head. I’ve been avoiding it, trying to avoid the film posters of the Merchant Ivory you. An impossibility.

‘I think we should go,’ says Miranda quietly to me.

I nod, dumbly, and we do go. Maybe it will be all right to see you on the screen like that, to be reminded of you the way others see you. But I cannot stop the stabbing pain in my heart as I remember that last time on the moors, our beloved moors.

When you died, I took your name so you would live forever.

Rogue One: Adding to that Story from a Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Away

My first blog post at this new location was all about Star Wars, written just after I had seen The Force Awakens. I won’t go over old ground too much because my views haven’t really changed since then. Suffice it to say, I was in the slightly younger edge of the target age for Star Wars IV: A New Hope when it first came out back in the 1970s, bang in the age bullseye for Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, and slightly over the target age range for Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi. I was disappointed by the first trilogy, but loved Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.

Having read some reviews and dipped into the new ‘established wisdom’ (or so it seems), I’ve been thinking about why I like the ones I like, and where I think the discordance is.

A New Hope remains a cracking good adventure that deftly introduces a bunch of characters you quickly begin to like. It helps that they’re tropes, to a large extent, but with elements of originality and played well to take the predicable edge off. Its place in the annals of successful blockbuster film-making is well-earned. Empire is the near-perfect sequel – characters and situations flow almost seamlessly from Hope. It doesn’t seem to be a re-hash, but actually the story beats are similar enough. Empire remains a firm favourite of mine, but truth be told I know it would struggle as a standalone. Jedi is immense fun, and while the adventure continues apace I have trouble with the character arcs. I think it’s where the flaws in how George Lucas approaches storytelling are first made obvious. I am referring to the jarring revelations about Luke and Leia’s relationship. I remain of the view that Lucas made that bit up as a tack-on.

Even though I was never part of Star Wars fandom, I did feel the gap between Jedi and Phantom Menace. In a way, it was similar to that experienced by Doctor Who fans of the original series that stopped regular TV broadcast in 1989 and didn’t return to TV until 2005. There were rumours, often quashed, and then when the rumours became real it never seemed quite real until cinemas were booked and tickets went on sale.

And, yes, I was one of those terribly disappointed by how Star Wars returned. I think that the main trouble was in the casting of Anakin (too young in the first, and the worst actor possible to play him as a troubled teenager and young adult). We should have seen a study in the descent from troubled good to pure evil that is yet redeemable by Luke’s innocent belief that his father cannot be all bad (or what does it mean for him?). Also, I don’t think the story beat was in sync with the middle trilogy. After all, why the need to have a whole series added in to tell the key story of the Clone Wars if it was all done so masterfully?

Having said that, though, I do still enjoy watching them.

I was wary of Force Awakens, but blown away by it. I rarely go to the cinema these days (lots of reasons why) so to go an see a film twice on its first release is a bit deal for me. I recognise that nostalgia plays a role in my love of it, but there is more to it than that. I’ve seen comment that it’s just a copy of A New Hope, but I don’t think it’s that simple either. I think people are confusing a particular plot structure that works because the characters and set-pieces flow (Jedi’s the same as Hope, only it didn’t work quite as well because the character arc rang a discordant note, in my opinion).

My ranking of the Star Wars films in order are: Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope, Force Awakens, Jedi, Revenge of the Sith, Attack of the Clones, and then Phantom Menace. My favourite watching order is IV, V, (I), II, III, VI, VII.

Which brings me to Rogue One.

I am aware of a lot of nonsense surrounding it connected to the horrible political space the world is in currently. Some of it surfaced around the time Force Awakens was released and is entirely in the GamerGate and Sad/Rabid Puppies world as far as I’m concerned. I’m a Doctor Who fan and I have never been able to fathom the ‘fan as hater’ thing. Rabid hatred totally out of all proportion, and so often targeted against people who are just making entertainment, and in some small cases trying to make said entertainment reflect and appeal to a wider audience than just white, straight, cis men who speak English as their first and only language.

I watched some of the trailers, which made me smile as I realised the whole object of the film was to tell the tale of the many Bothans who died bringing the plans of the Death Star to the Rebel Alliance. Only it doesn’t, really, but that’s okay. It tells the story of Jyn Erso and a rag-tag bunch of interesting characters thrown together – mostly reluctantly – to steal the plans of the highly secret Death Star to a Rebel Alliance struggling to stay allied. It’s a great romp, with real heart in terms of the terrible effects of tyranny on mostly ordinary people.

I have a feeling it has made as many continuity errors as it fixed.

I admired the CGI that brought back Peter Cushing OBE to the role of Grand Moff Tarkin, but was also distracted by it. The odd twitching of his facial muscles…

But, the character arcs were terrific, and the battles spectacular and actually awful. If you know the Star Wars saga reasonably well, then you knew the inevitable conclusion, and it drove to it in what I thought was perfect sense and with a chaotic sense of humour (the rebellion are clearly not great strategists). It neatly stitched the first trilogy to the second with Senator Bail Organa getting his adoptive daughter Leia into the action to take the stolen plans to safety from a terrible space battle via an old friend in hiding who might be able to help…