Sunday, 11 August 2013

Silence is Golden?

Last week's #twittersilence has been labelled by some (notably the esteemed Samantha Brick and her pet ego) as a total failure. Honestly, I agree, but it might be better that way.

Its important to acknowledge the severity of online bullying, now known as Trolling. Just because Mary Beard happens to be a famous classicist who spoke out about her victimisation does not make her case unique, in fact it speaks volumes about how widespread the problem has become. If minor academic celebrities are sent death threats, what exactly goes on behind the scenes in the world of social media?

Users of the now ubiquitous technology, particularly the younger generation, have an unusual approach to manners in an online setting. That is, a lack thereof. Unlike the proverbial playground, the internet is safe from the prying eyes of teachers and parents alike. All etiquette that comes into play 'in real life' dissolves here- its a dog eat dog world wide web. The very fact that, in the aftermath of all this jazz, twitter cooperatively offered to install an 'abuse' button sheds a few rays of light on the dark underworld of social media.

And along with good manners goes responsibility, skipping off into the sunset and leaving a void behind. 'John' might not be a very nice boy, but he'd never threaten his teacher with his penknife in real life- God knows what kind of trouble that could get you in. But he might log into his pseudonymic twitter account that evening and give her 140 characters of his mind. Because nobody can get in trouble for that, right? Wrong. As Mary Beard has so consistently pointed out, a death threat is a death threat is a death threat. A criminal offence is not decriminalised behind the anonymity of an online persona. And anonymity? I know enough people with a clump of blu-tack shuttering their webcam to take Facebook's privacy settings with a pinch of salt. But I digress... Freedom of speech. Is it freedom of speech to be granted the liberty of bandying violent promises around under the guise of a clever anagram of your surname? 'You taught me language; and my profit on't / Is I know how to curse...'

The platform provided by social media and the (current) lack of censorship involved in that may be handing a gun to your pursuer, but it is also - I state the obvious - one of the most valuable and unique aspects of the internet. With the internet has come the age of whistle-blowing, of prying the hands of the corrupt away from the eyes of the people. It has made information so easily accessible, opinions so easily shared, petitions so easily signed. Of course, minimal policing means someone somewhere is going to abuse their newfound power, but we've know that was going to happen since bloody Plato told us so. What we should be focusing on is how we can use this platform for the better.

If I had been walking down my slightly shady road in south east London and a slightly shady character had thrown a slightly shady comment my way, I would have walked a bit faster. There would be scenes of muted outrage in my living room, someone might throw a swearword across a picnic table in a busy beer garden. Revolution! If the same comment had been preceded by an @the_observist and confined to the remaining 126 characters, with a lewd # thrown in for good measure, the world is my jury. The firing squad is 277,599,976 strong, the consequences are public shaming and widespread outrage, action and a global awareness of a problem that usually slips under the radar. Especially if I happen to be a demi celebrity with a famous @ to my name.

Caitlin Moran, I do love you so, but on this occasion you've missed a golden opportunity. Why use your right to remain silent? It's finally possible to make a loud enough noise to make a difference.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Reflection: Natural Selection

As an English Literature graduate it would be a wild claim if I were to deny any form of literary snobbery towards film adaptations. You'd have a certain amount of disdain too, if you'd had to sit through word-perfect, oaken performances of Emma that went on for five and a half hours. As it is, even though I'd call myself a cinephile, I'm recovering from a dark past as an adaptation fundamentalist.

In years gone by, upon the announcement of an upcoming adaptation of a treasured novel, I would become inexplicably yet unbearably excited. Unlimited card in hand, I would be waiting edgily in line for the first showing, no matter what Empire magazine had warned me was in store for me. And yet, despite my sunny optimism, I would consistently leave the cinema foaming at the mouth over character emissions, plot edits and  - God forbid - a changed ending. The quality of the film itself rarely (if ever) informed my opinion.

I will now begrudgingly admit to having a closed-minded attitude, something I so deplore in others, when it came to being so vehemently anti-adaptation. I failed to see film as an art form in its own right, at least not when it was using a literary influence as a crutch. I was convinced that, by being unfaithful to the book it was based on, a film must be inherently bad - and I'm sure I was not alone in that conviction. It's only recently that I've realised (and I am well aware that every rule is defined by its exceptions) that films that remain closest to the books they are based on are often the worst adaptations. Let's be honest, the experience of reading a novel is intrinsically different to that of watching a film. My reliance on screenwriters and directors to follow the book... well, by the book, and to be dismissive of those that did not was a misplaced categoriastion. A director who rejects infidelity will have a hard time creating anything more impressive than a 'fairly good' film.

The origin of the word 'adaptation' stems from Darwinian theory, and of course means change - change in order to survive in a new environment. Simply lifting the contents of the page and placing them on the screen guarantees extinction - a faithful adaptation is almost paradoxical. Reading a book is an imaginative act: a film adaptation is one person's reading of the book, creating from the words a multi-sensory experience of image, music and dialogue. It is impossible to represent in this all possible readings of the book. If our outrage is based on an inaccurate line, or a protagonist who is 'not how I imagined him' we have to accept that he was never going to be. If we had made the film ourselves, no doubt it would be almost entirely different, and we should accept the director's creation as a new work of their imagination rather than a mere translation of book to film. Consider how often we come across a painting inspired by a play (Ophelia springs to mind most readily), a poem inspired by a painting, a piece of music inspired by a fairy tale. Are we to dismiss these on the grounds they are not a direct replica of the original, because they are not how our own interpretation may have turned out?

Let me use a famous adaptation to illustrate my point. Of course, as a closet geek, this example will be Lord of the Rings. I cross my heart, I've read it (more than once!), and not very long ago, and I loved them. But the idea of a faithful adaptation makes my stomach churn. I've spent enough of my life on the brink of insanity, following twelve hours holed up in a student living room, stinking of smoke and Doritos and clutching a misplaced sense of pride that I finally made it to Mount Doom, thank you very much. I would not appreciate a 72 hour saga, which is no doubt what we would be left with without Peter Jackson's tactful trimmings and embellishments. Let this remind us that the success of a good adaptation does not rely on the act of simply changing things, but on allowing the right elements of the raw novel to evolve on screen.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Review: Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master'

"You do this for a billion years - or not at all"

Release Date: 16th November (or out now on 70mm film at the Odeon West End)
Paul Thomas Anderson
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Amy Adams

If you've been drumming your fingers since 2007 and yearning for the release Paul Thomas Anderson's most recent masterpiece, rest assured you will be rewarded for your patience. From the very first second - choppy Pacific waters and a prolonged shot of shifting, stormy eyes, urged forwards with the booming orchestra of Johnny Greenwood's perfect score - it's obvious that the past five years of Anderson's life have not been spent idly.

The story is one of power, manipulation, trauma, vulnerability, love and loneliness... but the story was somewhat insignificant. It feels that Anderson isn't trying to tell a story, nor give us a narrative - his plot just serves as a canvas for the characters he is painting. And, much like Plainview and Eli in TWBB, what we care about is this warped father/son-esque power struggle that his characters engage in. Joaquin Phoenix has gifted us with his most accomplished performance yet as Freddie Quale, an apt name for a Naval Veteran and a drunk who squirms with inner turmoil. Freddie seems so filled with pain that his entire body is curling in on itself. He is a man at sea in every sense - and he's lost control of his ship in stormy waters. His limbs spasm, violence takes him over and he unsteadily lurches across life. Anderson's characteristically brooding close ups (a la Daniel Plainview) show us a man broken by war and desperate for somewhere to rest. Enter Seymour-Hoffman, that is Lancaster Dodd - a charismatic, enchanting ship commander who looks past Freddie's erratic, anti-social behaviour and takes him under his wing after he stows away on the good ship Alethia.

And so begins a  captivating play-off between the leading men, Seymour-Hoffman and Phoenix, set against Anderson's suggestive and stunning backdrop of barren desert and rolling beaches - brought to vivid, saturated life on the 70mm film. Like the hopelessly vulnerable Freddie, we are at first sucked in by the charm of Dodd, but steadily the cracks begin to show and Dodd's amiable patriarch gives way to a megalomanic Ahab, Captain of religious-movement-cum-cult 'The Cause', and incapable of being questioned without bursts of quickly dampened rage. Anderson brings to mind Scientology in a vague sort of a way, but like the story this is insignificant in comparison to the charged close-ups of faces and souls, and we feel reluctant to see this as a comment on its contemporary counterpart. Despite our slow disenchantment, Freddie remains in the Masters thrall, and we witness his struggle with this surrogate father, with alcohol and with himself. He is drawn to Dodd, comforted by him and in adulation of him, he provides a long sought for island of calm for a man in turmoil. For Dodd, Freddie is his disciple, his son and his greatest challenge, and like a dog follows him faithfully and attacks his adversaries. Like volatile lovers they hurl abuse at one another, then return for an embrace - excommunicate one another only to call, grovelling, and ask to come back.

Although the film is so forcefully about masculine power, the feminine force driving these men - something totally absent in TWBB - is soft and steely. The wholesome, heavily pregnant Amy Adams is a driving force behind The Cause, and where Dodd embraces Freddie, she coldly turns him away. Her perseverance in her following of her husband's gospel, 'you do this for a billion years - or not at all' implies a dogged devotion, but we aren't convinced. Always still, quiet and on the periphery of the action, Peggy Dodd is a silent power and suggests the true momentum behind Langston's booming confidence - a silent wind in the sails of his Pequod. She not so much defines the Master, but underlines him. Similarly, in the opening scenes of the film, the bestial Freddie is reduced to a 'crying episode' by a letter from a girl he used to know. We get a sense that the very cores of these men are, however indirectly, engineered by their women.

I feel that the only way you can fully appreciate The Master is by feeling it - the desperate sadness of a broken man and the fearsome power of oration. Paul Thomas Anderson has created characters as powerful, solitary and moving as Daniel Plainview twice over, and it's fair to say that he is the real master here.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Review: Skyfall

Since Quantum of Solace received such a brutally cold reception, Skyfall had a lot to answer for. Over the past few months, the internet has been the soundboard for a constant foreboding that Skyfall is bound to disappoint, and concerns have been raised that we have most probably seen it before in the form of... well, every other Bond film.

 But Sam Mendes can be suitably smug about the latest instalment of the 007 chronicles. Of course, Skyfall is full of Bond stereotypes and blatant references to previous films - indeed, what is a Bond film without the mandatory death-by-wild-animal? But, in intentionally using props and plots from previous adventures, he crafts something wholly new. And here, we meet the James we know and love again. Except, somehow, without doing anything particularly new, Craig shows us an entirely fresh kind of Bond - soft and emotional, vulnerable and, after twenty three adventures, understandably ageing. 

Barring a brief soujourn in Shanghai, the main action in Skyfall is on and under home ground, featuring pursuits through the London Underground reminiscent of the just-in-time commute we all know and loathe and action-packed scenes in rural, ethereally foggy Scotland. Skyfall coaxes elements of the classic Bond franchise into it's British bosom and, quite literally, blows them up.

Performance wise, there was hardly a flaw. Javier Bardem as 'the villain' Silver was just plain weird... utterly distressing to watch, and despite being the funniest aspect of the film his unnerving performance is on a par with Christoph Waltz's chilling Hans Landa of Inglorious Basterds. The veterans were of course on top form, with Craig using Bond's suddenly uncovered past to create a more complex and personable character than his previous efforts. We are also treated to the delightful addition of Ralph Fiennes as a morally ambiguous sparring partner for Dench, and the ever-impressive Ben Whishaw as an adorable, wool-clad 'Q'. 

As Adele croons over the credits we can be safe in one conclusion - that Skyfall has reincarnated James Bond in every sense. 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Review: Shame

Director: Steve Mcqueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan

I was not sure what to expect from a film so self-proclaimedly explicit, though I suppose centring on the struggles one goes through in the battle with satyriasis it would have been hard to avoid. I understand why Fassbender said it was a blessing in disguise that his mother couldn't make the Venice Film Festival premiere. It's also no wonder he won an award for his moving yet frankly quite disturbing performance as sex-addict Brandon.

We already know that Steve McQueen is not afraid of pushing Fassbender to physical extremes, as we saw in Hunger, with Fassbender as an emaciated Bobby Sands, literally wasting away. On this level, the troubled, angry and subversively pleasant man we meet in Shame makes for extremely uncomfortable watching. Yes, I'm pretty sure anyone watching this film will have found it uncomfortable, but it's also impossible to tear your eyes away. Fassbender and Mulligan's explosive and melancholy - not to mention borderline incestuous - relationship, and their private anguish is an utterly hypnotizing playing out of damaged lives. It is stark and crude, but beautiful, epitomised in Mulligan's haunting rendition of New York, New York, and the silent tear it moves Brandon to shed.

McQueen does little to offer his characters a route out of their ruts, and we are left with a somewhat grim dissatisfaction, from which there seems to be no escape. His morbid fatalism is a grey undertone of the whole film, both literally, in everything from the costume to the clinical lighting, and in a more pervasive way - the whole film feels overwhelmingly colourless. McQueen has crafted a stark and brilliant look at the lives of the secret down and outs, creating a complex distortion of how success and satisfaction is perceived. Shame is almost definitely worth a watch, just don't go and see it with your parents.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

War Horse

Speilberg was brave to attempt to adapt a book written in a horse's perspective (which, having been done in Black Beauty so memorably can't really be done again) and a play that shot to fame for its incredible puppetry. So, detracting the main elements of the success of its other forms, what are you left with? In fact, a remarkable film. Our heartstrings are played with the ideal balance of gut-wrenchingly sad scenes and the odd, perfectly timed laugh. I don't even think such thorough enjoyment depends on a tendency to love horses, or a tendency to love Benedict Cumberbatch (but who lacks that tendency anyway?). Tears seemed to be a fairly unanimous reaction, unsurprisingly. In fact, this would be my only criticism, I do begin to tire of films engineered to melt the hearts and tear-ducts of its audience in such a contrived way - often such a bleak film seems unnecessary, unless it can save itself on it's merit as a piece of art.
Luckily, Spielberg managed once again showed the horror of the war from a completely different point of view, in a completely new way, so there was nothing of the 'same old' attitude I've developed towards the 'genred' films that seem unforgivably formulaic. The sheer quantity of eye-candy was also something of a plus point- from the handsome horse to the men he carried. Even the scenery and camera-work was occasionally so beautiful you forgot all about the film itself. The final scene was such an incredible piece of cinema it will take a long time to forget- the colours and light on screen were like nothing I'd seen before.
Now all I want to do is see the stage production.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

My Week With Marilyn

Director: Simon Curtis
Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh
On debating what to see at the cinema this weekend, we opted for this based on time alone. It was a happy coincidence. Michelle Williams is beautiful as Marilyn, and bears such a genuine resemblance it could almost be her on screen. The plot is fairly predictable but it's a light-hearted hour or so with some dashingly handsome/pretty case members- barring a few irritating castings, for instance Emma Watson, whose wooden acting adds nothing to the film- but, thankfully, takes nothing away from it, and would perhaps have gone unnoticed had she not just stepped out of the highest grossing film series of all time. And, of course, Kenneth Branagh had be cast as Sir Laurence Olivier- he wouldn't be seen dead in a film where he had no opportunity to reel off Shakespearian monologues at regular intervals. Luckily, for once I managed to curb my hate for him did not let it eclipse my enjoyment of the film, in fact it added a few laughs, if unintentional on the director's behalf. As a BBC production you are guaranteed surprising cameos, and the occasional appearance of some of Britain's finest - Derek Jakobi and Judi Dench spring to mind.
It is usually American films that are tiresomely obvious. But if you're looking for a deep, reflective film this probably isn't it, nothing is left up to the audiences imagination in a film where the characters impulsively and extremely un-Englishly announce their greatest torments to the rest of the cast and the world. The vocalisation of emotional issues is far from believable, but on occasion I don't mind being told something I already know- it makes for easy watching and is probably infinitely more profound than Breaking Dawn.