The Inessentials: The Circus

I firmly believe that if you don’t like Charlie Chaplin you have no soul.  How anyone can sit through City Lights or Modern Times and not fall in love with the Little Tramp is beyond me.  Even if you don’t particularly like silent films, Chaplin must be able to melt your cold, cold heart.

The Circus is one of the lesser known of Chaplin’s feature-length films.  Made in 1928, at the height of his popularity, it’s a short, sweet film about the Tramp joining up with a circus.  It does not have the pathos of City Lights and The Kid or the social commentary of Modern Times.  What it does have, and this in abundance, is comedy.

The plot is simple enough.  Down at the heels as always, the Tramp (Chaplin) blunders into a job with a traveling circus when he accidentally gets more laughs than the clowns.  There’s a girl (Merna Kennedy) being bullied by her ringmaster father (Allan Garcia), which naturally raises the Tramp’s hackles.  Then there’s the competitor for her affections in a tall, dark and handsome tight-rope walker (Harry Crocker).  But the plot is really incidental and largely exists to move the Tramp from one comic situation to another.

Which is largely the point.  More so than any other Chaplin film, The Circus is an expression of pure comedy.  Its very subject matter is comedy.  The Tramp gets his job with the circus when he’s chased by a police officer into the big top.  He’s running for his life and his freedom, but the circus audience laughs harder at the improvised comedy than at the professional clowns.  His next big hit comes when he’s employed as a prop man, chased by an angry donkey and pitches into a barrel.  Then, without intending to, he ruins a magician’s performance by revealing every trick.  As the Tramp dashes around trying to capture the wayward animals that spring the magician’s hats, the audience behind him howls with laughter.  He’s a hit, but he’s oblivious.  When the Tramp attempts to be funny, he fails.  But when he’s actually in danger, or in pain, the audience goes into hysterics.  His real life is a comedy.

For some reason, I’ve never thought of Chaplin as an acrobat.  Most of his films don’t place as much emphasis on high-flying tricks.  In The Circus, his acrobatics give Buster Keaton a run for his money.  One of the most spectacular, hilarious set-pieces takes place on the high-wire, when the Tramp takes over for the missing tight-rope walker.  As the routine falls spectacularly to pieces, the Tramp loses his belay and is chased across the wire by monkeys.  He’s in great physical danger and it’s funnier than hell.

He was also quite a spectacular filmmaker.  He’s the definition of an auteur — wrote, directed, starred in and sometimes even scored his own films.  And his use of the cinematic medium is flawless.  When the Tramp runs into a funhouse hall of mirrors to escape the police, the spectacle of cinema comes into play.  The Tramp begins to lose himself in the myriad reflections, chasing after his hat in the mirrors.  He comes to understand the mirrors, though, and when he’s caught, it is the Tramp that has to show the police officer the way out.  He becomes the manipulator of the image; the filmmaker.

Chaplin often had a tinge of melancholy in his work, and The Circus brings it into very sharp relief.  While we laugh at his antics — and they are very, very funny — there is always a sense of sadness in the Tramp.  He’s poor, he’s destitute, he’s basically a decent man who cannot catch a break.  His comedy comes from poverty and danger.  Even when he becomes a star, the villainous ringmaster keeps him in the dark about his popularity.  He’s treated as a prop man, not a performer, and bullied by everyone.  Even his relationship with the girl is doomed.  He protects her from her father, feeds her when she’s hungry, and treats her decently as no one does.  But she’s not in love with him; she’s in love with the tight-rope walker and looks on the poor Tramp as just a friend.

That does nothing to diminish the comedy in The Circus; it rather enhances it.  Chaplin’s great talent was taking serious subjects — poverty, unemployment, starvation, abuse — and making them funny.  He turns obtaining food into a juggling act, running from the police into a comic chase.  He steals a hot dog from a child, is chased by a donkey and bit by monkeys.  It’s all a funhouse game, an elaborate magic trick.  It’s turning tragedy into comedy.

The Circus is entertaining because it’s funny, but it is a great film because it is melancholy.  Chaplin takes comedy very seriously, and it shows.  He’s more than willing to put himself in danger for laugh — at one point, he climbs into a sleeping lion’s cage and the terror on his face is quite real.  And the subject of The Circus is exactly how far a performer will go for the pleasure of the audience.  The Tramp is not a naif; by the end of the film, he’s aware that he’s been exploited, mistreated and manipulated.  But that’s all right, because he did it all to make the girl (and us) smile.

Chaplin’s films often end with an uncertain future.  In Modern Times, the Tramp and the girl are still destitute, still jobless and still running from the authorities.  The war and the Holocaust have not ended in The Great Dictator.  Even The Gold Rush draws the future happiness of its protagonist into question.  Yet no one would call Chaplin’s work pessimistic.  His great sensibility is that, no matter what, the little Tramp will still carry on.  Strange, quiet, gentle and gentlemanly, he might be poor, he might be starving, but he will still pick himself up and walk onwards, into the sunset.  At the end of The Circus, alone in the circle of the big top, he collects himself and wanders off.  Where he goes is anyone’s guess, but you still have the sense that he’s out there, always ready to help the innocent child, the frightened young woman.  Always ready to make us laugh, even if he feels a bit like crying.

Stop Apologizing For What You Do

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted on this blog, mostly because I’m very popular and important.  By which I mean I had a job (YAY!) and have been writing for two other websites (Man I Love Films and newly with We Got This Covered, so check ’em out!) But this post is gonna be all personal and a wee bit snarky and very swear-y, so bear with me.

I have before expressed my sentiments that writers need to get some fucking balls, but I feel like it’s been more than confirmed.  My God, we do complain a lot! It’s either that the world doesn’t understand us, that the world doesn’t want us, or that we can’t write, we have writer’s block, we’re not good enough.  On and on and fucking on.  I cannot tell you how many articles and blog posts I’ve read that basically apologize and run-down their authors.  It’s one thing to be self-deprecating.  It’s another to be a fucking whinger.  What gets me the most is how often we apologize for being writers.  We’re embarrassed by it, we think that we’re posers.  And y’know what? It’s our fucking fault.

Yes, it’s difficult to get people to take you seriously when you’re asked what you do and say ‘I’m a writer’.  A lot of people don’t know what to do with that.  They think it means you sit around doing nothing all day and call it work.  Try telling someone you’re working on a novel and wait for that mixture of condescension and confusion to suffuse their face.  Wait for them to begin asking you ‘how’s that working out?’ Or saying, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’  It’s easy to start getting defensive, to start excusing yourself by saying things like, ‘Well, I also work at a cafe’ or ‘Oh, I’m applying for other jobs.’  To start explaining that you’re a writer but you’re not really a writer.  You do something else too.  Something legitimate.

We need to stop apologizing.  It’s difficult enough to spend days indoors typing away at a book that might never see the light of day, but then we APOLOGIZE for it? We make excuses to people who don’t believe that trying to be creative for five hours a day is work? Yes, it is work.  And it’s work that, more often than not, we don’t get paid for.  We want to — believe me, we do! — but we don’t.  All we can do is keep trying, keep hoping and, above all, keep writing.

I’m no longer embarrassed to tell people that I’m working on a novel.  I’m not particularly frightened to explain what it’s about, or that I write for two websites and my own blog and was just employed teaching others how to write.  I’ll likely have to get yet another job to pay the bills, to move from home, to do all the other things I want to do.  I know that perfectly well.  I’m aware of the difficulty of what I want to do for a living.  I’m aware that there’s a good chance that I’ll fail at it.  But it does no good to be embarrassed.  Writing is what I do, that’s what I want to do, and it’s probably what I will always do.

It’s time to own what we do.  Artists in general don’t get a great deal of respect, but we must learn to stop running ourselves down.   We cannot be embarrassed by saying that we’re writers.  It says a lot more about us than it does about the culture.  Why are we afraid? Because it’s not respectable? It’s not a real job? You know that it’s a real job, you know how tough it is.  So own it.  You’re a writer.  If someone doesn’t get it, you know what? Fuck them.

Penny Dread Tales Volume 2

Ok, I’m all kinds of excited.  After much to-do, my short story ‘The Last Waltz of Witchery Row’ has appeared in RuneWright Publishing’s latest steampunk anthology, Penny Dread Tales Volume Two (yes, that is the greatest title for an anthology ever).  Editor Christopher Ficco has done a great job with this one.  The stories are all good fun and excellent examples of steampunk; that’s not just shameless self-promotion.

This, however, is:

Yep, that’s me, fourth story down.  So, the book is now available on Amazon, in print right now, and I believe will be more widely available in various ebook formats before long.  This is a small press and needs plenty of support … and besides, I want people to read my story.  So there.

The Inessentials: This Happy Breed

I do enjoy British domestic dramas.  While British post-war films have been duly celebrated, not enough is said about the films made in Britain in the 1930s and 40s, as though British cinema began with the decline and fall of the original studios.  What makes This Happy Breed an interesting product is that it is a war movie without being a war movie.

Which might sound inexpressibly dull, so I’ll point out that this was written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean (of Lawrence of Arabia, you’ll remember).  I am not a huge Coward fan.  His work typically prizes a spirit of conservatism, even mediocrity, and he’s the last writer in the world I’d expect to speak convincingly about the trials and tribulations of a lower middle class family.  So I was surprised by how affecting This Happy Breed proved to be.

The plot is simple: it follows a working class (ish, they seem to have one servant and lots of leisure time) English family twenty years, from 1919-1939.  The husband Frank (Robert Newton, proving just how good an actor he really was) has returned from the First World War and moves into a new home with his wife Ethel (Celia Johnson) and three children (Kay Walsh, Eileen Erskine and John Blythe).  What follows are the difficulties of post-war life, the problems of raising children, the shifting politics and changing landscape of Britain, seen through the eyes of some very indomitable English people.

The script, originally a stage play, has been accused of being condescending … and to a certain extent, it is.  The Gibbons are a conservative lot, preaching family values and unquestioning of the class system; very much an upper class attitude about the way the lower classes are supposed to behave.  Some of the more difficult sequences involve the son Reg who gets involved in Socialist politics, much to the chagrin of his father.  And the film fails, for the most part, to present the issues at stake with any sort of complexity.  Reg is wrong and his father is right, but aside from a rather heavy-handed speech by Daddy, there’s not much convincing being done.  More complicated is the ‘downfall’ of the daughter Queenie.  She runs off with a married man, rejecting her family’s class status, moralism, and the life they have built, and condemning herself into the bargain.  This is dealt with in much more detail and with more breadth of character, presenting the parents’ differing reactions.  Sexual politics is a complicated issue and the film deals with it in a remarkably nuanced manner.

The film is helped along by the exceptional abilities of David Lean, in his first major assignment as director.  His style is already much in evidence.  For a director who would later be known for the dramatic scope of his productions (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and so forth), Lean does a lot in a very confined space.  Most of the film takes place within the four walls and back garden of the Gibbons’ house.  The camera moves effortlessly through the rooms, making them at once cramped and home-y.  This is a family that lives on top of each other but manages to do so without claustrophobia.  Nearing the end of the film, Ethel remarks that ‘this room looked much bigger with things in it’; and it does.  Lean’s non-intrusive but powerful cinematography gives the viewer the sense of having actually lived with these people, rather than observing them on a stage.  He makes what could have been a very stagey production come alive.

A lot of credit goes to the cast, which reads as a who’s who of British character actors: Robert Newton (yes, I do have a thing for him) and Celia Johnson are the parents, Kay Walsh the discontented daughter, John Mills the boy next door, and Stanley Holloway the war vet and neighbor.  Newton and Johnson are the anchors here, playing Frank and Ethel Gibbons as a quiet, determined couple.  They play off each other admirably; one has the sense that these are two people who have been together for a very long time.  Newton’s Frank is a perfect patriarch, loving, understanding, but uncompromising in his views.  He’s a sensitive figure, breaking into tears and laughter as the situation demands, but never losing his dignity.  He loves his wife and children without being demonstrative.  Few actors could deliver a speech about the nature of the British people (‘they called us a nation of gardeners … what works in other countries won’t work here’) and make it sound both honest and just a little pompous; Newton plays Frank with an edge of humor that takes the wind out of some of his more portentous pronouncements on the state of the nation.  But when called upon to give his son advice, or to put his arm about his wife, Frank becomes one of the most human figures in the entire film.  I never thought I’d get choked up at a man simply putting his arm around his wife’s shoulders, but I did.

Celia Johnson’s Ethel is the other side of the coin.  She seems almost hardened by life, at times unforgiving to her children and a bit of taskmaster to her husband.  But again, Johnson surprises.  In one of the opening sequences, she protests loudly at Frank’s interruption of their house decorating to ‘take a good look at her face’.  While he laughingly praises her (‘it’s not a bad face.  Not as young as when I married you, but all things being equal, I wouldn’t change it.’), she wrestles with him, telling him that ‘this isn’t the time for fooling around’.  But when he kisses her, she responds in a small movement: raising her hands and letting them rest on his side, before they’re interrupted by the arrival of their neighbor.  The gesture is very slight, almost unnoticeable, but it is a good representation of Ethel’s character: hard, no-nonsense on the outside, but with an underlying human sensitivity that would almost go unnoticed.

Johnson has the most difficult role in the film.  Ethel could come off as a hard woman; she’s largely unresponsive to her husband’s sensitivity, and her coldness when her daughter runs away feels unfair, particularly now.  But beneath the hardness is a sensitive character forced by social and cultural circumstances to be tough.  This is a woman who has raised three children while her husband was away at war; who has seen women around her lose their sons, their husbands and their fathers.  Her anger with Queenie feels extreme, but justified.  Queenie has basically rejected her family’s entire system of life and it is the mother, not the father, who recognizes and responds to it.  Johnson’s greatest work is done with her eyes.  Unable to show overt emotions, all of the character’s suffering, happiness and love comes through in her eyes.  It’s a fantastic performance, one difficult to quantify.  Johnson bursts into tears once, but it is a poignant moment, all the more so because she has been so strong and unforgiving .

This Happy Breed was released in 1944, at the height of the war.  Newton, a sailor, had to have a special leave from the mine sweeper he served on in order to make the picture (Incidentally, the film probably saved his life.  The sweeper was attacked during production and a number of the sailors killed).  Allied success was far from assured.  So while the film feels propagandist, it is an excellent piece of propaganda.  The uncertainty of wartime comes through in every frame, but so does the hope.  If Britain was going to win, it would be because of their spirit as much as their martial prowess.  For all its problems, This Happy Breed reminds us of the dangers these people faced, of how brave you had to be in order to live normally.  It’s a celebration of the people, not the government or the battles.  It’s so damn powerful, because nothing was certain, except that you simply could not give in.

The Inessentials: Tommy


There are a number of pre-requisites to the enjoyment of the bizarre Ken Russell/The Who film Tommy.  One is to actually like The Who’s music, because you’re going to be hearing it for nearly two hours.  The other is to be able to handle Ken Russell’s style, which is something like Luis Bunuel on acid.

There is no doubt that the original album Tommy is a thousand times better than the (mostly) covers of the songs that appear in the film.  Oliver Reed, although he’s a great actor (one of my favorites, and a sexy beast at that) cannot sing to save himself.  Ann-Margret, playing Tommy’s mother, can.  As can Tina Turner, Elton John, and Eric Clapton, all of whom contribute their vocals and prodigious musical gifts to the production.  Roger Daltrey is not really an actor, but then again he doesn’t need to be for most the film.  Keith Moon is Keith Moon, which means that you just have to enjoy every second he’s leering and laughing on the screen.

The plot of Tommy, such as it is, is more highly and narratively developed than the free-form of the original album.  Russell overlays a Jesus myth on what is basically a story about the rise and fall of a celebrity.  Tommy (Roger Daltrey), due to childhood trauma (he sees his mother and her new husband accidentally murder his father), loses his sight, his hearing and his speech.  The first half of the film encompasses the family attempting to find a way to give Tommy a normal life, to cope with his disabilities, and includes all kinds of fun stuff, like abuse and prostitution.  Luckily, these are all in the shapes of songs: Eric Clapton performing ‘Eyesight to the Blind’, Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie, Tina Turner singing ‘Acid Queen’.

Then Tommy discovers that, although he can’t see or speak or hear, he can play pinball.  He becomes, if you will, a Pinball Wizard

Do these shoes make my feet look big?

and Elton John sings a song about him.  It’s one of the most famous songs in the film, featuring John on ginormous platform shoes with The Who backing him — it’s also the one most taken out of context.  Tommy is now a celebrity.  But he’s still blind and deaf and silent.  After Tommy’s mother writhes on the floor covered in pudding and baked beans (it all makes perfect sense, trust me), the parents decide to take Tommy to a Doctor (Jack Nicolson?!) who reveals that there’s nothing physically wrong with him.  So he gets shoved through a mirror and regains his sight, his hearing and his voice.  And that voice, ladies and gentlemen, sounds like Roger Daltrey’s, so we’re all very happy that he can now sing.

If all of this sounds odd, that’s because it is.  But amazingly enough, it works.  Russell’s surrealistic style is perfect for The Who’s music.  Although the narrative is fairly straightforward, the images are wild, from John’s massive shoes, to Tina Turner’s trippy prostitute to the almost inexplicable scene with Ann-Margret writhing on the floor covered in baked beans (the reason behind that one is first that it’s a reference to The Who Sell Out, an album that included fake ads for real products, and a definite finger to the commercialization of rock music and celebrity, which The Who themselves engaged in).  Brief appearances by the band members — Entwhistle and Townshend in ‘Eyesight to the Blind’ and ‘Pinball Wizard’, Keith’s more extended performance in ‘Fiddle About’ and later in ‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’ — remind us of the geniuses behind the rock.  The singing and music are all top-notch.  What’s more, although Townshend may have been perturbed at Russell turning Tommy’s story into a Christ story, it does work on a narrative level.

Where Tommy fails, unfortunately, is where it should succeed the most.  Once the title character gets his voice back, the film falls apart.  The weirdness that has permeated the scenes, the sinister nature of the characters and Tommy’s escape into his own mind, becomes externalized.  It’s a crying shame, because Daltrey has been silent for so long that it really is a thrill to hear him sing again.  Tommy’s downfall is precipitous and, one feels, unnecessary.  While ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ on the album feels like a declaration of independence from Tommy’s followers, a sense of liberation from having to ‘follow’ anyone or anything, in the film it becomes needlessly sinister as they murder Tommy’s parents and family, and drive Tommy away.

Finally, in a film of the FIRST rock opera, The Who barely get to perform together.  In fact, the only song that includes all four members of the most energetic rock band in history is ‘Sally Simpson’, but even then you barely get to watch Moon’s brilliant histrionics, or Townshend’s windmill guitar.  I think it would have been far better to allow The Who to be a sort of Greek chorus to the story.  At least one extended performance seems to be in order, for the viewer to be truly satisfied.  Daltrey is the most featured performer, but the dictates of the story force him to be silent for much of the running time.  And unfortunately, Daltrey finally gets to sing just as the film starts falling apart.

Did I mention that I love Keith Moon?

Taken in sections, Tommy is excellent.  Taken as a whole, it is at best problematic, at worst an incoherent text.  Russell doesn’t even seem certain what he’s trying to do with the film, whether it’s a showcase of the music or a Christ story or a tale of the rise and fall of a celebrity.  The film literalizes the lyrics: the smashing of the mirror is somehow a less powerful emblem when you actually see it done.  And the introduction of various symbols — the cross combined with wartime poppies, the cross with pinballs, the vaguely fascist outfits Tommy’s disciples wear, etc, etc, — don’t seem to have much purpose in the film as a whole.  Their significance is lost in a myriad of contradicting symbols.

Russell made better films than Tommy, no doubt.  Women in Love  and The Devils spring to mind.  But then again, he never made another movie with The Who and a whole bevy of 70s rockers.  There’s so much good stuff here.  I have a deep affection for the film because it introduced me to The Who and still energizes me when I’m feeling low.  It’s one of those films that can be watched in pieces, picking and choosing on the DVD, and actually comes out better than if watched from beginning to end.  It isn’t essential, but it is a lot of fun.  And Jack Nicholson sings!

The Inessentials: The Fearless Vampire Killers

Confession time: I totally love Roman Polanski.  I don’t mean that I love the man — I don’t know him and there are certain issues that I’m not exactly sympathetic towards.  What I mean is that I love the director, the public artist.  As far as I’m concerned, there are three great living directors: Polanski, Scorsese and Herzog.  Everyone else is secondary.  I also happen to greatly enjoy Polanski’s screen persona in the few films he actually appeared in, like Innocent Sorcerers, Chinatown, The Tenant and the subject of this article, The Fearless Vampire Killers.  I often wish that he’d actually gone ahead and cast himself as the lead in Knife in the Water, just to have the pleasure of watching him act.

Right, so that’s out of the way.  Now, onto what is perhaps my favorite Polanski film (although not, in my estimation, his ‘best’ work): The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me But Your Teeth are in My Neck.  As the title suggests, this is one of the few unabashed comedies that Polanski has made.  All of his films have some element of absurd or grotesque humor — even the incredibly disturbing and nihilistic Macbeth.  But Vampire Killers is pretty much a horror-comedy.

The plot comes right out of a Hammer film: Professor Ambronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski) arrive in a small Eastern European village in search of vampires.  They find, naturally enough, buxom barmaids, wiley innkeepers, and well-dressed gents with long sharp teeth.  The film floats along with a series of comic mishaps.  Professor Ambronsius is the most useless vampire killer imaginable; he’s far more interested in proving the existence of vampires than he is in actually killing them.  MacGowran gives Ambronsius a wild look, the very picture of an out-to-lunch academic and a far cry from Peter Cushing’s elegant and rational Van Helsing of Hammer Studios.  Alfred, while far more gallant, is quite obviously a coward.  The one opportunity he has to defeat the vampires he blows because he’s incapable of actually driving a stake through anyone’s chest.

The film in many ways is a send-up; the spurting, garish blood and heaving bosoms recall the films of Hammer Studios, as does the extreme costuming of Ferdy Mayne in the role of the Count, complete with rolling eyeballs and massive plastic teeth.  All of the requisites of vampire movies are here: the elegant gentleman vamp, the promiscuous barmaid, the naive and lovely innkeeper’s daughter.  As Shagal (Alfie Bass) states when Abronsius asks him about a castle in the neighborhood:

“A castle? No, no castle.  There’s no more a castle here than there is a windmill.  Are there any windmills in the neighborhood? … You see? No windmills, no castles.”

The Count looks a bit the worse for wear.

But Polanski, never one to be outdone in his social critique, also teases out the ancient notion of Jews as vampires.  The innkeeper Shagal is transformed after the abduction of his daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate, more on her in a minute) by the Count.  And he’s a ridiculous caricature; a vampire who, because he’s a Jew, is not permitted to sleep in the same crypt as the Count and his son; who is not repelled by a crucifix because, as he says, ‘Oy, have you got the wrong vampire!’ The whole subplot involving Shagal is a beautiful send-up of European notions of vampirism: Jews having been accused, in medieval times, of drinking the blood of infants; the use of Jewish caricature in films like Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula.  That the victims of the vampires are primarily Jews and the vampires are all characterized as decaying Old World Teutons makes plain the project underlying this otherwise innocent, comic film: Polanski sends up, with characteristic viciousness, the very basis of the vampire genre.

What is adorable about The Fearless Vampire Killers is how marvelously innocent it is.  And, oddly enough, that innocence comes straight from Roman Polanski himself.  As Alfred, he’s a small, boyish figure, dressed in short pants and a cap that accentuates his youth.  While Tate doesn’t have a great deal to do, her few scenes, imbued with a playful innocence, give the film an extra dimension. The scenes between Alfred and Sarah have a sexual charge, but there is a sweetness to their relationship, making it the kindest, gentlest romantic relationship in any Polanski film.   It’s difficult to watch Vampire Killers without recalling that this the film that the couple met and began dating on.  Anyone aware of Tate’s life and death cannot help but feel a level of sadness watching her on screen, and the two of them together.

The Alfred/Sarah relationship drives the second half of the film, where Sarah is

abducted by the Count.  Alfred and Ambronsius go to great lengths to save her.  Arriving at the castle, they become acquainted with Count von Krolock and his son Herbert (Iain Quarrier).  In a sharp twist on the usual, Hammer-style vampire/damsel relationship, but quite in keeping with the shifting sexuality of vampires, Herbert is overtly gay … and thinks Alfred is pretty cute.  The scene between them recalls films like The Brides of Dracula (Quarrier is a dead ringer for David Peel in that film), only Polanski (not for the last time in his own features) is placed in the position of the damsel in distress.  It’s a weird, uncomfortable, funny scene.

I’ve called this my favorite Polanski film and it is.  But it is far from his best.  It drags quite a bit in the middle, dwelling on the meanderings of Alfred and Ambronsius through the castle as they search for Sarah.  Certainly the most fun are the beginning scenes in the inn, the final scenes during the dance of the vampires (the original title of the film), and the haphazard, slapstick escape.  Alfie Bass should get some serious credit for the characterization of Shagal, a role that could easily have become offensive.  Polanski also removes much of the attractive sexuality of the vampires that is so typical in vampire movies.  They are represented as decaying, decadent creatures, literally falling apart.  They are, after all, the undead, and it certainly shows.

In some ways (and this is odd), The Fearless Vampire Killers is Polanski’s most hopeful, most playful film.  While not shying away from some very trenchant commentary, it mostly delights in its own comedy.  The tenderness of the love story, even with the tinge of sadness attached to it, from a director not exactly known for warm and fuzzy films, is something of a revelation.  Which is not to say that this is not a Polanski film.  It is.  When watching it, there’s no possible way to forget that.

Whinging about Whinging about Writing

This does help sometimes.

Recently I’ve been considering what it means to have writers’ block.  Neil Gaiman reposted this piece on being blocked on his tumblr the other day  and it seemed to me a good piece of advice.  So I’m writing this short little blog post in a Starbucks cafe, feeling very hipster and pleased with myself.

Everyone who has ever tried to write, or paint, or sculpt or really do anything creative has, at some point, come up against a wall.  A roadblock, if you will.  But it occurred  to me: hasn’t EVERYONE experienced that disturbing sensation of not being able to get something done? Doctors, lawyers, baristas, what have you, everyone — in college, in grad school, in your cubicle, in your office, on a park bench — has had a block against work of some sort.  I don’t see that writers, or creative types, have a monopoly on it.  We just whinge about it a lot more.

Lovely word, that.  Whinge.  That’s what we do when we complain about not being able to write.  What we really mean is that we can’t write well, or at least well enough to suit ourselves.  The words won’t come, or the plot isn’t working, the main character just stands there staring blankly at the wall.  The story seems to have petered out.  So we sit back, we cross our arms, and we say, “I’m blocked.  That must be what it is.  I’m a suffering artist, suffering for my art!”

I have a tendency to be very unfair when I hear that.  Not that we don’t all need a moment or two to feel sorry for ourselves.  Because creation is tough — very tough.  And, if you’re like me and the vast majority of my friends attempting to be writers or artists, it gives very little in return.  You’re not going to get paid right away, if you get paid at all; it’s a lot of work and effort and emotional dedication for something that might never see the light of day.  But here’s the thing, and it’s something that one of my professors at Edinburgh used to impress upon us: you can be the greatest writer in the world, but no one will know if you don’t write the book.

Sitting around feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t cut it.  Nothing is working like I want it to! I want it to be done! I was going along just fine yesterday, what happened? I suck, I’m a bad writer, it’s all over! Pity me!

Am I blameless in this? No, not at all.  I have personally whinged more than I care to think about … and I probably will again.  Right now I’m quite pleased with my progress on a piece that I think shows promise.  But I will come up against myself eventually.  I’ll hit a point, today, tomorrow or a month from now, when I get fed up and can’t do it anymore.  And I will produce nothing and just stare at my computer.  I’ll pity myself.

Self-pity is all well and good, for about ten minutes or so.  But then you have to pull yourself out of the mire of self-pity (which can be an effort, I know) and realize that there’s no one out there going to tell you that you’re better than that.  No one is going to pat you on the head and convince you that this is worth doing.  Positive reinforcement can only go so far.  We all have very delicate egos.  Of course we want people to tell us that what we’re doing is worthwhile.  But at the end of the day, it isn’t.  There’s nothing out there going to tell you that you HAVE to write or finish this piece.  Just you and the undying compulsion to write.  That’s what art is: compulsion.

I don’t mean to say that writer’s block doesn’t exist; I mean that it is still an excuse.  It can be an excuse for fear and insecurities, for deep-seated psychological issues that have nothing to do with writing.  Or just plain laziness.  We’re a lazy breed, us creative types.  Lazier than most.  For instance, I am writing this blog post instead of working on my other stuff, all of which is lot more difficult than mouthing off about what bullshit writer’s block is.  I’m procrastinating, not because I’m not interested in my other work or because I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but rather because … writing is hard.  I’m lazy.

So, stop it.  All of us need to stop saying that writer’s block is forced upon us, that we can’t control it.  We can.  We have to keep writing, even if it’s not what we want, even if we know we’re going to change it later.  We’re never going to write that book if we don’t actually write.

The Inessentials: Jamaica Inn

I watch way too much TCM.  Being without a regular 9-5 job, I have that luxury.  And I’m grateful to TCM, I really am.  They’ve kept me interested in classical films.  But I’m a tad bothered by the nightly show they call The Essentials.  Because watching it the other night, I was struck by the fact that they were showing Some Like it Hot for the umpteenth time.  Not that I don’t love Some Like It Hot — I do, it’s hilarious and thoughtful and one of the first films to make it acceptable for a man to marry another man — but rather that there are other films I would consider ‘Essential’.  How about some love for those movies that, for whatever reason, don’t get a lot of play? The movies that TCM shows at 2:00 a.m. and only the truly die-hard would, say, actively set their VCRs for when they were fifteen years old and madly in love with Basil Rathbone?

So here we go.  I’m going to start posting about films that, for whatever reason, don’t get a lot of love.  Yes, I’m into classical cinema, but I’m not ruling out contemporary films that I feel have been passed over.

Let’s start with one of my favorites.  Alfred Hitchcock’s criminally (probably a strong word) underrated Jamaica Inn.  

First, a little history.  Jamaica Inn is based (very loosely) on the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, and is the first du Maurier adaptation Hitchcock attempted (the other two being Rebecca, and The Birds).  It was also Hitch’s last British film before he departed for America and what many consider to be his glory days of Notorious, Rear Window, and Vertigo.  I may be among the few that am more interested in Hitchcock’s British period than his American one.  While many of the films do not stack up against the sheer brilliance of Psycho or Notorious, they are largely a charming, fascinating set of pictures.  They exhibit Hitchcock’s intimate understanding of Britain and British life.  His secondary characters are better painted and there is a sense of affection and critique that runs through films like The Thirty Nine Steps, Sabotage, and The Lady Vanishes.  But back to Jamaica Inn. 

The movie stars Maureen O’Hara (in her first major role), Charles Laughton, Leslie Banks and Robert Newton.  The plot is fairly basic: O’Hara is Mary, going to Jamaica Inn on the Cornish coast to live with her aunt Patience after the death of her parents.  Little does she know that Jamaica Inn is a den of smugglers and wreckers (men who drive ships onto the rocks and then plunder them), run by her uncle Joss (Banks).  In the process, Mary meets the Squire Pengallen (Laughton), who is just all kinds of charming creepiness, and saves the life of Jem Trehearne (Newton, swoon-worthy), one of the smugglers.  All hell breaks loose as Mary attempts to escape the wreckers and help her aunt.

Charles Laughton's eyebrows, with Charles Laughton.

The plot deviates entirely from that of the novel, so we’ll leave the differences aside.  Laughton is the big name here, so he’s the one that takes center stage.  Pengallen, we very quickly learn (so this is not spoiling a damned thing), is the true leader of the wreckers, living off of them to keep himself in the pink as befits landed gentry.  Laughton plays him as a grotesque; a massive, trundling gentleman in overdone 18th century garb, with the most magnificent set of eyebrows ever committed to celluloid.  He’s frightening, fascinating, and just this side of hammy.  His weird obsession with Mary rapidly becomes disturbing, particularly when we reach the denouement.  He’s a grand Hitchcockian villain, equal parts fascinating and repugnant.  What I like most about Laughton’s performance (which some feel is way too over the top to be believable) is how humorous he is, right up to becoming sinister.  It’s easy to laugh at this overweight peacock, with his leering gaze and posh accent, until his more violent, cruel nature comes out.  He’s threatening but, like Mary, we never quite know it until it’s too late.

Maureen O’Hara wins the award for being one of the toughest Hitchcock heroines, and a perfect argument against those who believe that Hitchcock only let women be victims.  She’s one of two women in the entire film.  When she arrives at Jamaica Inn, alone and in the middle of a storm, she is immediately set upon by her uncle Joss.  But Mary, far from being threatened, responds in kind.  She refuses to be cowed, not by Joss, not by Pengallen, nor the nasty smugglers, nor even the charming rogue who ultimately turns out to be not so roguish.  She’s quick spoken and pro-active, and although her and Newton don’t get nearly the amount of charming banter that, say, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave have in The Lady Vanishes, she holds her own against Laughton quite nicely.

Robert Newton takes unfair advantage of being passed out.

Which brings me to Robert Newton, whom I personally find incredibly appealing as Jem Trehearne.  He’s a hero that only makes an appearance nearly half an hour into the film, and then in not the most flattering of lights: he’s a member of the gang, appears to be stealing from them and nearly gets himself hung as a result.  Only through Mary’s timely intervention is he saved.  Newton has a swash-buckling air that would serve him well in his elder years when he played Long John Silver; but the difference between the handsome young man here and the swaggering old pirate in Treasure Island is night and day.  He acquits himself well in the developing relationship with Mary, and seems to be positively giddy when he’s in the same room with Laughton (they were friends in real life and it shows).

The secondary characters exhibit Hitchcock’s usual flair for the grotesque.  The wreckers are a band of nasty, amusing cutthroats, all played by excellent British character actors.  Emlyn Williams (there’s no reason you should know him unless you like old British films, but he’s a dandy) is Harry, one of the more charming, swaggering and dangerous of the band.

The problem with Jamaica Inn is mostly due to Charles Laughton, who struts in and takes over just about every scene he appears in.  Jamaica Inn is, at base, a melodrama and Laughton at times seems to be making it into a farce.  It has been argued that much of the tension of the film vanishes when we realize that Pengallen is the head of the wreckers.  However, in its defense, I would argue that Hitchcock deals with this aspect quite well.  By revealing Pengallen as a nasty piece of work almost from the beginning, the viewer is placed in a position of knowing more than the characters, a favorite device of Hitch’s.  This allows the viewer to focus on the development of the adventure, the relationship between Jem and Mary, and the danger they are placed in by not possessing this piece of vital information.   Far from disabling the film, this knowledge expands the tension as we watch the machinations of Pengallen to conceal his identity, as well as his gradual descent into madness.

I would never argue for the inclusion of Jamaica Inn in a best-of Hitchcock list, and it is certainly not his best British feature, or even close to it.  It has great difficulties as a film; some of the scenes feel weirdly short, and the characters at times seem to be talking past each other.  But it is entertaining for what it is, an interesting development of the thematics of Hitchcock’s British work (the wrong man motif, the powerful woman, questioning of authority, etc.), and some excellent performances.  For my money, it’s a better way to spend your afternoon than trying to sit through Under Capricorn, which has received more critical attention and is duller than a dust mop.

*The entirety of Jamaica Inn can be watched here.  Watch out for any DVD versions besides the Kino edition.  The Laserlight one cuts out about 8 minutes of pretty essential exposition.

Would Anyone Cry if the Novel Died?

Like Mark Twain (woot for not at all obscure literary references!) rumors of the novel’s death have been exaggerated.  It has endured for over two centuries now as the most popular form of English literature.  It survived the Industrial Revolution, two World Wars, the Atomic Bomb, even postmodernism.  But like all artistic mediums, it has been threatened time and time again.  The novel was going to kill theatre and poetry (both of which are like cockroaches and likely to survive a nuclear holocaust).  Then cinema was going to kill the novel.  Television came next.  Now, the Internet, ebooks and the decline of the printed word.  The supposed decline of the printed word.  Because the printed word still exists, it’s just more likely to be found on a computer screen than on paper.

The New York Times last week (still kicking and screaming their way into the digital age) published a rather confusing and not terribly informative article entitled ‘Why Write Novels at All?’ Despite the author’s apparent inability to form coherent paragraphs (I do so hope he does not intend to write a novel), the question seemed to be an interesting one.  Why indeed? Why should anyone want to write a novel?

Well, for starters, it’s an idiotic question.  Isn’t that sort of like asking why anyone should want to paint a picture, make a movie, play an instrument, compose a concerto? Because some human beings are fueled by art and artistic endeavors, even when those endeavors are not perhaps as elegant as the true greats.  Why write a novel?  Because it’s fun, you unconscionable dingbat.

But more importantly, why the novel? Why do we so venerate, worship, and respect a medium invented several centuries ago as an alternative to theatre and poetics? We like to tell each other stories, yes, but the form of the novel itself does not require us to tell stories in exactly that way.  As far as I can tell, those of us who write often write novels because we have yet to discover (or be offered) an alternative.

There seems to be a quiet desperation at work among the more famous/popular/self-satisfied novelists of our day.  As though the novel were on the brink of destruction and will fall apart unless held together by the few, the happy few, so privileged as to produce not just any novel, but GREAT novels (because, you know, anyone outside of the literary establishment cannot hope to contribute anything worthwhile to the cultural zeitgeist).  Well, I ask you: if the novel were to die, would we really lose that much?

Human beings will not stop writing.  We will not stop making up stories to tell to one another.  We have been doing it since we first crawled out of the primordial ooze and we are likely to carry on doing it until we crawl back again.  But the form of the novel is not so sacred as to not permit a change, a shift.  Perhaps the form of the future will be multimedia, a combination of words, sounds, even images that are weaved together on our little ebook readers.  Films, but not quite films.  Books, but not quite books.  Or perhaps our newest form of storytelling will be something we have yet to even consider, even imagine.  If the novel were to vanish, as a form, tomorrow (like epic poetry or verse plays), we would not lose what came before.  We would only move on.

If I sound snarky, it’s because I am angry.  I’m angry at the New York Times for being so complacent, so blasé, and so ill-informed.  I am angry at the literary establishment for pretending there is only one way of doing things, and that’s the way that many argue was perfected in the mid-19th Century.  Have we not moved on from the Victorian era by now? Well, no, we haven’t.  We still stick to the same dull form of the three volume novel, only we have the gall to pretend that certain ones are great art and that all others are so much tree pulp.  We continue to do things the same way because that’s the way they’ve been done for centuries.  And we balk at the concept that literature can change; indeed, must change, if it is to remain a viable art form.

So, let encomiums be written for the novel.  Let us mourn the decline of a great art form.  And then let us pick ourselves up, leave the old school behind, and move forward, into the great unknown.  The stories will still be there.

The Sign of a Sign of a Sign: Random Thoughts on Infinite Jest

After some cajoling, a little bit of lying, and overcoming my natural aversion to things that are recommended to me by others, I finally read  David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  Having conquered Gravity’s Rainbow under extreme duress last year, Wallace’s ginormous tome seemed the natural step.  It’s spectacular, it’s amazing; the Decemberists based a music video on one of the scenes! Well, it is pretty big.  And a lot does happen, not all of it coherent.  But I am of two minds on this one.

Wallace certainly had a deft touch and was capable of making even banal events seem fascinating.  He dedicates huge swaths of the book to characters that never appear again, or only have a slight effect on the plot.  Whole scenes and subplots are introduced only to be summarily dismissed.  Figures who seem initially under drawn come back 500 pages later and the reader who has managed to pay attention feels somewhat rewarded for her efforts.  I am incapable, however, of not comparing this book to the other great post-modernist novels; i.e. to Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, even American Psycho.  And what I conclude, the more I consider it, is not that Wallace is a bad writer (he’s not) nor that he’s overrated (he isn’t) but rather … well … it’s been done.

I don’t mean that anyone else has ever attempted to write a 1000 page book involving a tennis academy, a dead filmmaker, and a halfway house, among others; I mean that Wallace’s whole project simply smacks of overwriting.  I was about 150 pages into it when I suddenly realized that either this was the most brilliant book ever ever, or it was needlessly verbose.  Long-winded, if you will.  I happen to love ridiculously long books — I figure that I’m getting my money’s worth.  And I enjoy getting involved in the ups and downs of characters over several hundred pages.  If a book is good, how much better to get to spend lots of time on it? I’ve read almost all of Charles Dickens for that very reason.

My problem with Wallace is that I’m not convinced he’s as good as he’s supposed to be.  For all its circuitous nature, Infinite Jest is still a pretty standard, easy-to-follow book.  It does not take you on a roundabout journey through the contemporary moment — in fact, it’s already quite dated.  The technology has stopped in the early nineties, when the book was written, although it is set in the future.  The extensive examination of drugs and drug usage has been done so much, in movies, books and articles, that it feels quite tired.  And that is perhaps why, for me, the book ultimately fails to rise up to the status of a great work of literature.  Gravity’s Rainbow is set in WWII and was published in 1973, but it still resonates.  It’s a novel of apocalypse, of human folly and deconstruction.  It is long and confusing and packed with references real and imagined.  Love it or hate it, it is still a mindfuck.

I would not argue that a book has to be complex or almost impossible to comprehend in order to be great.  But I do think it has to transcend its time period.  Novels I consider great (War and Peace, Gravity’s Rainbow, Bleak House, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, A Confederacy of Dunces, Slaughter-House 5, to name a few) are all of their times, but they ultimately move past their times.  They do not merely attempt to define a moment or a generation — in fact, they do not seem to make it their project to define anything.  They are novels of humanity, stories that strike to the heart of what it means to a human being and do so with humor, tragedy, pathos, cynicism.  I felt curiously disconnected from Infinite Jest.  I admired the writing, but I did not feel connected to it.  It was being told a story that no longer felt relevant.

I don’t really want to set up any author as more worthy of admiration than Wallace … but I’m going to anyways.  Tristan Egolf is from the same generation, and operated in much the same milieu (and like Wallace, he committed suicide).  But to me there is more depth to the few books he completed than in all 1000 pages of Infinite Jest.  He’s unique; his characters are Amish werewolves and punk-addled teenagers with shotguns.  Lord of the Barnyard has no dialogue; Kornwolf occupies a lot of space in describing the experience of listening to punk music.  The novels are edgy, insane grotesqueries, breaking most conventions and totally annihilating others.  The author, like his characters, simply does not give a fuck.  Egolf writes like the end of the world is near.  And the only thing to do is to go out in a blaze of adrenaline-fueled glory.  I must admit, that’s something I can get behind.

Anyways, here’s a music video: