Not a Good Year for Reading

I’m not sure what I’m doing differently but I seem to be picking a lot of bad books at the minute. I don’t know if I am getting harder to please as I get older. (This does seem to be a genuine problem for some readers. My father in law has been like this for some years and now seems to just read tried and tested authors or books that he already knows.)

For the last few years, I have tried to read different genres more and to expand my reading behaviour. I was stuck in a rut. Now I feel like I have the opposite problem. There is no end of reading choice but a lot of it sounds dreadful.

Following big sellers such as the Hunger Games series and thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, publishers seem to be grabbing at any opportunity to gain the same possible success. Most of these books are dreadful. It is the same in cinema, a proliferation of genre fluff  follows every a big success until eventually the genre is drowned in a sea of mediocrity. It’s making me wary of choosing anything.

Maybe I read too much literary fiction to ever be fully happy reading popular fiction. Maybe I am an intellectual snob. (No maybe about it, some would say.) Undoubtedly this is where my longing for more comes from – more depth, more characterisation, more distinctiveness. Like with watching Indie films and then trying to go back to watching blockbusters, maybe I’ve just spoiled the mainstream for myself.

It’s very easy to wax nostalgic about books and films – “but blockbusters were better when I was young” and so on. Maybe that is true. Or maybe it is just that tastes change and refine and what you like when you are twenty is inevitably going to be different when you are forty. Or maybe the search for the next big money spinner is genuinely ruining the  viewing and reading experience.

Books read in 2014 – 12. Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins – Rupert Everett

Genre: Autobiography, film, glbt
narrative style: first person, mostly chronological
Rating: 4/5
Format: Paperback
Published: 2006

Synopsis: Everett recounts his life in film and theatre with amusing rupert everett_vividness. This takes the reader from the very beginning to the Hollywood years and beyond. Full of vignettes and asides about various stars and directors.

I’ve been a fan of Rupert Everett since I was a teenager and saw Another Country and Dance with a Stranger in close succession – both of which feature stunning performances from Everett. Even though his career has been patchy – to say the least – when he is good, he is very good. Of course, he is also intensely outspoken (as his recent comments about gay marriage show) and so it could be assumed that this would be an exciting read.

And so it was. Everett is a consummate story teller. His tales are full of vivid detail and are often at his own expense. He spares himself no humiliation in describing his own diva tendencies and ability to choose the wrong script. Where he is most amusing is in his descriptions of the stars that he met and worked with. (Who’d have thought that the cocky arrogance that led to Live Aid was due to Geldof literally having a big one.) There were a number of laugh out loud moments. This was delightfully camp and intelligently witty.

There are also a number of tender moments. Everett’s description of his relationship with Paula Yates, for example, was particularly poignant as was his description of a holiday with his ageing father. Everett certainly knows how to draw the reader in and there were times when this felt like an intimate chat with a good friend.

However, there is a limit. This is very much a Hollywood memoir and it is great as far as that goes. You are left with a feeling that there is more to Everett than this but you aren’t going to get to see it. And maybe that is fair enough. After all, we are only the audience and this is only one more great performance.

 

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Memoir – It’s Only A Movie – Mark Kermode.

There were a couple of reasons for picking up this book. First of all, it fulfilled the memoir category for the Eclectic Reader Challenge but, as the last couple of books I have read have been a bit rubbish (Yes, Tell No One by Harlan Coben, I do mean you”) I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.

And of course, I wasn’t. In this book, Kermode imagines his life as a made for TV movie – a very funny idea which sees him detailing who would play him – Jason Isaacs – and his family members. It does seem as if spending so much time in front of a cinema screen has left Kermode with an odd view of reality and a lot of the episodes he recounts wouldn’t be out of place in a (slightly dubious) biopic. Maybe that is the point.

photo (14)

The story starts with Kermode’s early cinematic experiences, moves through his love of horror, particularly The Exorcist, through his early experiences as a critic to the celebrity status he has today. The early experiences were the most interesting, I thought. Recalling as they do, a different era when going to the cinema was a more intimate experience. Y’know when cinemas had two screens and ran two features. It made me think about going to the cinema in the early eighties and I began to recall my own experiences. Although unlike Kermode, who seems to be able remember which cinema and when for every film he has ever seen, I can’t remember what I went to see first although it was undoubtedly a Disney rerun, this being back in the days before Pixar and Dreamworks and a whole business aiming to sell cinema to small kids.

There is no doubt that Kermode is a geek – and I say this as a compliment – and a particularly grumpy geek, at that. (Amusingly a review of this, or possibly The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex, on Goodreads complained about this grumpiness as though it was a surprise. As if he had happened upon the book by sheer chance, knowing nothing about Kermode. It reminded me of when a friend went to see Billy Bragg and afterwards complained that he was too political. Well, duh.) He gamely outlines the number of people he was annoyed and irritated over the years including being put on the spot by Dame Helen Mirren after saying The Queen wasn’t a  proper film and, my own personal favourite, getting punched in the arm by Benedict Cumberbatch on behalf of Kiera Knightley who resented being called Ikea Knightley on account of her plank-like acting style. A very apt description, if you ask me.

Ultimately, this is a book about obsession and I think this is why Kermode can get away with his rants and raves. He loves cinema with his whole heart and hates the fact that some people do not give it the respect it deserves. It is only possible to remain calm about things that do not matter. Cinema matters an awful lot to Mark Kermode and thank goodness for that.

The Fear of God and Rebellion

The Exorcist is not a film that scares me. It may be that as I am not religious I have no real fear of the devil or possession. That is not to suggest that it is a bad film. It is shocking, disturbing, difficult, even powerful, just, for me anyway, not scary.

Part of the problem was the lack of ambiguity. I thought there was no suggestion that Regan’s problem was anything other than possession. It was written on her face and on her body. Again, I think my lack of religious belief lets me down. This was just something I am not capable of believing in.  Last week, I saw the film again. As part of Sheffield’s DocFest, there was a showing of The Fear of God, a documentary about The Exorcist, a Q&A with Mark Kermode and then a showing of The Exorcist. I have to admit that the main draw was Kermode who is always incredibly intelligent about film and who I admire greatly. I have to admit that I’ve always been a little unconvinced by his championing of The Exorcist when I so often agree with his opinions about films.

The documentary was brilliant, not least because it showed how difficult special effects were before CGI and how borderline insane William Friedkin was. It is always fun to open up a film and find out exactly how it was put together. Well worth a watch if you are at all interested in horror.

Kermode was his usual charming and knowledgeable self. He dismissed notions that we are desensitized to violence these days, pointing out that this is a debate that has been running almost as long as the film industry itself. Most interestingly, he explained exactly what parts of the film impressed him even after more than 200 views. (Can you imagine seeing a film that many times? I’ve seen my favourite film, It’s a Wonderful Life 5 times.) I found myself excited by watching The Exorcist and spotting these things myself.

One of the things that Kermode said about the film was that when you watched it for the first time, it was unrelenting but watching it for a second time, you would be able to spot the more subtle effects. I found that hard to believe.

It was 1998 when I first saw The Exorcist and it was a completely jarring experience. It felt like one terrible moment after the other. I read once that one of the reasons The Exorcist was such a difficult watch was that it showed no sympathy for its teenage heroine. I could only agree. It was completely without mercy. Every image was shocking, sickening, utterly painful. I could completely understand people vomiting in the aisles or running into the nearest church.

So I found it hard to imagine that it would be different the second time around. And some scenes where just as difficult even when you knew what to expect. The sight of a teenage girl, plunging a crucifix between her bloody legs will always remain one of the most disturbing scenes I have ever seen. But Kermode was right, I was able to notice other things. For a start, one thing that disturbed me, that I barely remembered from the first time, was the horror of all the invasive processes that the medical profession force on to Regan. It is interesting to note that the problems really seem to come to a head after her father forgets her birthday. No wonder she was so very angry.

It became apparent that you could read this as something other than a religious parable. Regan’s bodily transformation could represent the changes at adolescence. It could be a manifestation of her very real anger. It could also represent the fears that adults have about the younger generation. So it became a much better, more interesting film on second watching. Still not frightening as such but certainly more interesting and more powerful.

 

 

 

Cinematic Wish Fulfilment – Django Unchained

At the end of last week, I went to see Django Unchained and I have to say that I  loved it. Well, I love Tarantino, the extreme violence, the superb dialogue and the non-linear chronological structures all appeal. So much so that I was quite excited to go and I was not disappointed.

As with all good westerns, retribution was the main theme of Django Unchained. And retribution of a slave against his masters, was a revenge that the viewer could really get behind. Particularly, I thought, at the end when the toadying slave played by Samuel L Jackson got his comeuppance. That was a particularly satisfying moment.

Also, as with all westerns, even the good guys were really bad guys. Django himself has to go through hell to get his freedom and along the way commit acts of atrocious violence. King Schultz, whilst nominally on the side of good, and who helps Django with his scheme, is a bounty hunter who is willing to shoot a man in front of his son if it means he gets his money. This version of history shows us that no one escaped the depravity of slavery – whether it warped the mind of the slave owners or destroyed the slaves, both physically and mentally, it’s brutality was all encompassing. In this sense, the level of violence seemed apt to show the horror of such a system

Tarantino has been criticised for taking on the subject of slavery. Spike Lee, for example, has suggested that he finds the film – or rather the idea of the film, as he doesn’t feel obliged to see it before he passes judgement on it – offensive. Lee makes a number of assumptions in doing this, one of which

the-help

seems to be that the only people who are allowed to write about slavery are its victims. There is no doubting that this is a white man’s story about racism but that does not immediately mean that it will be racist. Of course, Tarantino is irreverent. Of course, the violence tends  towards the cartoonish. Perhaps these things do not fit with Lee’s views of what a film about slavery should be about but for me it was far less offensive than a film like The Help which was packed with racial stereotypes. Nevermind the idea of the charismatic white woman who saves the day. (see the following link for more re-created movie posters at ww.theshiznit.com.)

Finally, the main reason I like this film is the same reason that I like Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino seems  to be using his films as a sort of cinematic wish fulfilment, a cinematic version of the idea of if you had a time machine, what would you change. At the end of Inglourious Basterds, Hitler is absolutely obliterated. The explosion at the end of Django Unchained performs a similar function on history. It blows up the house and all in it and as Django and Broomhilda ride away from it, it is the very idea of slavery that is blown sky high. All the horrors of the system, Jackson’s house slave, the man who nearly cut off Django’s gentals, all of Candie’s warped acolytes, they all go up in flames. Apart from Django and Broomhilda, only two seemingly innocent female slaves are allowed to escape. The final explosion is cathartic, releasing Django from his past and allowing him to finally, actually be free.

DAY 23. – Best book you’ve read in the last 12 months – The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex

It wasn’t an easy decision. Last year, I read the Song of Fire and Ice series and loved each of the books and it was tempting to pick the entire series as my favourite reads. I also had a bit of a Pratchett re-read in October when I wasn’t very well but picking a re-read felt like a bit of a cheat. After all, I already knew what I was going to get.

In the end, I picked The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex by Mark Kermode because it is not often that I feel somebody has read my mind quite so clearly or quite so often as when I was reading this book.

I was already a big fan of Kermode and he is one of the few film critics that I would take any notice of. Compared to Claudia Winkleman and her ilk, Kermode is a serious reviewer, giving film as a medium, the consideration it deserves. His knowledge of film history is second to none. In short, he knows his stuff.

It isn’t just knowledge that comes across in The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex although there is certainly plenty of it. There is also a clear love of the movies and also a disappointment with the whole modern movie-going experience. This is where the mind reading feeling came in. My husband and I stopped going to multiplexes years ago, preferring the intimate surroundings of the Showroom in Sheffield to the huge and unfriendly Odeon. I don’t know if it is to do with being of a certain generation when going to the cinema meant going to a two screen (or if you were really lucky four screen) building that had probably once been a theatre.

IMG_0028

The Odeon in Newcastle had this amazing sweeping staircase that gave you a real sense of occasion when you visited. That is all gone now. There is a similar nostalgia to some of the writing here.

Kermode is at his best when he gets irate  And luckily for the reader (although not for what it suggests about the state of the film industry today) that is quite often. Near the beginning of the book, he recounts a visit to the local mulitplex where every step of his journey from trying to book tickets online to seeing the movie shown in the wrong ratio, is a complete nightmare. It is both hilarious and depressing in just about equal measure.

This is an intelligent book about the decline of certain aspects of the film industry. He is not trying to suggest that there are no good modern films. That would be stupid. It is more that this book mourns the passing of certain elements of the film industry and the viewing experience that we are undoubtedly worse off without.

Day 4 – Book turned into a movie and completely desecrated.

It took me quite a while to think of an answer for this one. As I have mentioned before, I think that the book is generally better than the film. Having said that, it was still difficult to think of a film that had completely ruined the book.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been things that have annoyed me about adaptations. For example, the chase scene at the end of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas annoyed me immensely. The ending in the book is much more subtle and therefore more poignant. The rest of the film was, I thought, quite well handled though. The word desecrated seemed to suggest a bit more than mere irritation.

Eventually, I remembered my disappointment after watching the film

boleyn girlof The Other Boleyn Girl. I had been quite excited to watch it as it was an excellent read so expectations were high when I sat down to watch it with my mam who had also read the book.

I’m not sure how it is possible to take a book that is so packed with action and intrigue and make it limp and insipid but they managed it. Events were missing, the characters didn’t sparkle, there was no tension at all. Normally, I would have stopped watching but because I knew that the book was so good, I persevered. I kept thinking surely it must get better. I was wrong. This was a real damp squib of a film even when considered on its own merits and not compared to the book.