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Saturday, 7 December 2019

On not finishing The Lair of the White Worm

Every reader must at some point decide that curiosity is no longer enough, and they have no choice but to stop reading. 
I thought earlier that I would continue reading The Lair of the White Worm, despite everything, just to finish the story, but have now reached the point where interest wears thin and I no longer have any reason to continue. Life is too short. But at least, after going through half of it, I can say I know enough to criticise it.  
The racism, for 1 thing, is shocking. The word “negro” appears 17 times throughout the book, “nigger” 23 times, and the word “savage” is used 7 times to refer to the character of Oolanga. Oolanga is described as unsoftened savage, low, base, malignant, evil, hateful, barbaric, etc. He with his African origins is used as a device, a character who is human but not fully human—a subhuman, a savage, someone from “the swamp and the forest”, and a kind of devil. 
In my previous blog post, I already quoted some revolting passages from Bram Stoker’s book. Now, look at these sentences from the scene where Oolanga expresses his love to Lady Arabella: 
“The circumstances were too grotesque, the contrast too violent, for subdued mirth. The man a debased specimen of one of the most primitive races of the earth, and of an ugliness which was simply devilish; the woman of high degree, beautiful, accomplished.” (Ch.13) 
Imagine that.  
I tried to get past all that, but it’s difficult. Would the racism be accepted as a product of its time (1911) if The Lair of the White Worm were otherwise a well-written book? For a moment, I wasn’t so sure, as I looked at great classic works with some deplorable views on women and/or non-white people. But in terms of racism, it’s worse than any novel I’ve ever read, and as disgusting as the white supremacy propaganda and rhetoric I used to read on my Ethnicity and Immigration in America course. 
Moreover, in this case luckily there’s no dilemma, because The Lair of the White Worm easily belongs in the bin. It is such a bad book. 
The plot is muddled and incoherent, the characterisation is confused and weak, there are too many ideas, mostly crackpot ideas, and Bram Stoker makes a big mistake in switching from Adam Salton’s to the villains’ points of view—Edgar Caswall and Lady Arabella and even Oolanga. Even if they are not narrators, he still comes close to them and switches to their perspective, and shows that he can’t handle the task. The characterisation falls apart. Before anyone protests, of course I’m not expecting any psychological depth, Bram Stoker is not Tolstoy, nor does he try to be, but part of why Dracula works so well is because Dracula is barely there—the distance, mystery, and legend, coupled with everyone’s fear, cause more dread. In The Lair of the White Worm, he fails miserably when focusing on the perspective of the villains. 
Overall, the book is a big filthy confusing mess. Some books require readers to go along with them and figure out what the author was trying to do, to judge them accordingly. The Lair of the White Worm doesn’t deserve that. 
Waste of time and effort.




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By the way, if you want to know the plot, this is a hilarious (negative) review: 
https://cassandraparkin.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/adventures-in-trash-the-lair-of-the-white-worm-by-bram-stoker/

Friday, 6 December 2019

The Lair of the White Worm

Anyone who comes from Dracula to The Lair of the White Worm, expecting a nutty book, would still be surprised and baffled because of how nutty it is.
Bram Stoker’s good at captivating our attention—we want to know what happens, how it ends, what the mystery is. But it’s a crazy, baffling, badly plotted, and incoherent book, and I haven’t even finished it. 
Here’s the summary: our main character Adam Salton from Australia comes to England to visit his grand-uncle Richard Salton. There he is introduced to Mr Salton’s friend, Sir Nathaniel de Salis. Together Mr Salton and Sir Nathaniel, but especially the latter, introduce Adam to the area, show him the different sites such as Castra Regis (the castle of Caswall family) and Diana’s Grove, tell him the history and traits of the Caswall family and the legends of the area. 
Then Edgar Caswall, the new heir of the castle, comes home to claim the place after generations. The book so far has 3 villains: Edgar Caswall, his African servant Oolanga, and Lady Arabella March of Diana’s Grove, all of whom share a chilling lack of human feeling. 
The book is filled with myths, legends; pseudo-sciences such as physiognomy; and other crackpot ideas such as Voodoo, hypnotising, inherited personality traits, and so-called “moral metabolism”: 
“Strangely, as [Edgar Caswall] yielded to this demoralising process, he seemed to be achieving a new likeness to Oolanga. […] the thing which puzzled [Adam] most was that the forbidding qualities in the African, which had at first evoked his attention and his disgust, remained the same. Had it been that the two men had been affected, one changing with the other by slow degrees—a sort of moral metabolism,—he would have better and more easily understood it. Transmutation of different bodies is, in a way, more understandable than changes in one body that have no equivalent equipoise in the other. The idea was recurrent to him that perhaps when a nature has reached its lowest point of decadence it loses the faculty of change of any kind.” (Ch.13) 
See what I mean? Madman Bram Stoker is.    
The book is also filled with racism. Lots of it. I feel slightly annoyed but can get over the depiction of women—innocent, helpless, dove-like creatures who swoon at the slightest thing, but the racism is quite something else. 
Behold Oolanga’s introduction: 
“But presently his African servant approached him, and at once their thoughts changed to a larger toleration. For by comparison with this man his face seemed to have a certain nobility hitherto lacking. Caswall looked indeed a savage—but a cultured savage. In him were traces of the softening civilisation of ages—of some of the higher instincts and education of man, no matter how rudimentary these might be. But the face of Oolanga, as his master at once called him, was pure pristine, unreformed, unsoftened savage, with inherent in it all of the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp—the lowest and most loathsome of all created things which were in some form ostensibly human.” (Ch.4) 
That’s bad, no? It gets worse. Bram Stoker places Oolanga and Lady Arabella next to each other: 
“The girl of the Caucasian type, beautiful, Salon blonde, with a complexion of milk and roses, high-bred, clever, serene of nature. The other negroid of the lowest type; hideously ugly, wanting in all the mental and moral faculties—in fact, so brutal as to be hardly human.” (Ch.5) 
That’s convenient: the author wants a human who is not fully human, a villain who is low, base, savage, a “child of the forest and the swamp”, so he creates an African character. 
“Briefly, this is his history. He was originally a witch-finder—about as low an occupation as exists amongst aboriginal savages. Then he got up in the world and became an Obi-man, which gives an opportunity to wealth via blackmail.  Finally, he reached the highest honour in hellish service. He became a user of Voodoo, which seems to be a service of the utmost baseness and cruelty. I was told some of his deeds of cruelty, which are simply sickening. They made me long for an opportunity of helping to drive him back to hell. You might think to look at him that you could measure in some way the extent of his vileness; but it would be a vain hope. Monsters such as he is belong to an earlier and more rudimentary stage of barbarism. He is in his way a clever fellow—for a nigger; but is none the less dangerous or the less hateful for that.” (Ch.7) 
Whoa. 
I do take the time into account (The Lair of the White Worm was published in 1911), but that is still quite hard to stomach. I mean, disgusting. 
I continued reading the book to get to the end of the story, but that never quite gets out of the way.  
The plot, however, becomes more confusing and less coherent. I’m currently on chapter 14, and chapter 12 is when Bram Stoker starts to lose control and the story takes a random turn and moves in a different direction. Imagine, the story up to chapter 11 has been about the 3 villains, Edgar Caswall’s courtship of Lilla Watford (under Adam’s watchful eyes), and the mystery of the snakes and Adam’s dead mongooses. All of a sudden, in chapter 12, Bram Stoker mixes in Hitchcock’s The Birds, and introduces the odd solution of a kite in shape of a great hawk, which helps shut up the birds but at the same time also brings about a dreadful silence and soundless gloom among the cattle and a depression among the people in the area. He also writes about Edgar Caswall developing a mad obsession with the kite—watching it, associating human qualities with it, trying to communicate with it. 
Then, suddenly, abruptly, and very randomly, Bram Stoker changes direction again—to the collection of curios, mummies, and weapons in the castle, and to a mysterious chest. 
What in the fresh hell is going on? 
I have no clue. This is really bad, a hotchpotch of insane ideas. But I have to read it to the end.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Bram Stoker’s horror stories

Everyone needs a bit of escapism once in a while (especially now when elections are coming up in the UK and my facebook newsfeed is flooded with idiocy), so these days I’ve been reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories. My copy is a Penguin Classics, which includes The Lair of the White Worm
In short, 4 years after Dracula, I’m reading his horror stories. Guess what, I prefer them. 
So far, of the 9 short stories, I’ve read 7. My favourites are “The Judge’s House” and “The Squaw”. There isn’t much to say about these stories, as (most) horror stories are to be read, not analysed. The plot is relatively simple. “The Judge’s House” is about a science student who goes to a strange town and stays at a house for peace and quiet, which turns out to be a haunted house of a cruel judge. “The Squaw” is a revenge tale in which an American tourist kills a little kitten by accident in front of its mother and is followed by the cat. 
The plot is simple, but Bram Stoker’s brilliant at creating atmosphere and building up tension. “The Burial of the Rats” is a good example of tension and suspense, as the story’s written from the point of view of a tourist being chased in the dark by a group of silent murderous rag-pickers. “Dracula’s Guest” is also good, which could be a draft, an original opening, a deleted episode, or just a story on its own (it’s complete on its own)—an enjoyable read for those who want a bit more of Dracula. But the best stories here are “The Judge’s House” and “The Squaw”, especially in the use of the uncanny. A rat has baleful eyes, and a cat stares with hatred.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

The Yorkshire Ripper Files: a Very British Crime Story (2019)

Not long after The Ripper Hoaxer: The Real Story (2006)*, I’ve just seen The Yorkshire Ripper Files: a Very British Crime Story (2019)**. 

Whilst the 2006 film focuses entirely on the hoax and its effect on the investigation, the 2019 miniseries (3 episodes) is about the case as a whole—the victims, the investigation, the media, and the mood in Yorkshire at the time (the 70s-80s). 
Arguably, it is about the Yorkshire Ripper case from a feminist perspective: 
- Placing the victims, not the murderer, in the centre—focusing on their lives, speaking to their families, discussing the way they are portrayed or described by the police/ the news, etc. 
- Examining the effect of the murders on women in Yorkshire—from fear to suggested curfew and feminist protests. 
- Examining misogyny and prejudice against prostitutes among the West Yorkshire police, and how it led to misassumption and other errors in the investigation. 
That is where the problem lies. The filmmaker doesn’t set out to find out what went wrong and why West Yorkshire police made mistakes, fell for the hoax, and dismissed key witnesses. Instead, she set out to explain it, and to prove that it was because of misogyny and prejudice against prostitutes. 
I’m not saying that it was not a factor, it was. The documentary does show that from early on, the police jumped to the conclusion that Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) must have been motivated by hatred of prostitutes, and anyone else who was not a prostitute must either have had “loose morals” or been a wrong target. The documentary also shows that not only the police but the press and the public at the time also made a distinction between prostitutes and “respectable women”, even saying things such as the “respectable women” were “innocent victims”, as though the prostitutes somehow deserved to be killed.   
In that way, the miniseries can be interesting. But as a whole, it is a weak documentary because of its obvious agenda. Sexism and prejudice against prostitutes alone cannot explain why the police fell for the hoax and changed the whole course of the investigation because of it without any basis, failed to make a connection between the 2 similar photofits, dismissed eye witnesses (survivors) and their similar testimonies, failed to see discrepancies between the profile built on eye witnesses’ testimonies and the profile built on the letters and tape (the hoax), ignored dissent, interviewed Peter Sutcliffe 9 times and let him go 9 times, and so on.  
In addition, a documentary, in my opinion, should tell the story and explore its subject without preconceptions, and let the audience judge as the events unfold. For most of The Yorkshire Ripper Files, especially because of the narration, it feels more like a long video essay than a documentary.  
That being said, it can be an interesting watch if you want to know more about the Yorkshire Ripper case and the mood in Yorkshire at the time. 




*: For whatever reasons, the only place where I can find information about the documentary is here: https://www.truenorth.tv/work/ripper-hoaxer-real-story/
However, the entire documentary can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-t8JcOewaOM 
**: If you have BBC iPlayer, the miniseries can be found here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0003m05

Saturday, 23 November 2019

On 2 new Jane Austen adaptations

1/ Sanditon (2019): 
Trailer:


The trailer for the series doesn’t look too bad, except that the music feels off. However, I have no intention of watching it because of Andrew Davies. I have criticised him several times and will say it again: he adapts classic works with the delusion that he is improving them, and sexes up everything from Jane Austen to George Eliot and even Tolstoy. He is responsible for the misrepresentation (and misunderstanding) of Jane Austen in popular culture, and ruins everything he touches.
A few months ago, whilst reading Little Dorrit, I considered watching his adaptation. But then I came across his crude remarks about Dickens and Amy Dorrit, and thought that someone who had such thoughts wouldn’t have enough understanding and sensitivity to adapt Little Dorrit.
So I’ve never seen it.
To go back to the adaptation of Sanditon, I read the book in 2016. It’s more worrisome that it’s an unfinished novel, which means that Andrew Davies would have had more freedom with characters and storyline. I’ve also seen a few reactions here and there that make me think I wouldn’t like it.

2/ Emma (2020):
Trailer:


Do we need another Emma? Not really. But I’m going to see it anyway.
So far I’ve seen the Kate Beckinsale one, the Gwyneth Paltrow one, and Clueless. Clueless is the best—such a radical adaptation (moving Emma’s story to modern day’s American high school) explains Jane Austen’s universal appeal and adaptability. It also shows that a loose adaptation with changed settings may retain the author’s spirit a lot better than many adaptations that appear faithful on the surface.
Regarding this new adaptation, it looks mad. It makes me think of Love and Friendship (adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan). Maybe I’ll like it. Maybe I’ll hate it. I don’t know. But it’s very different from the 2 adaptations from 1996, in tone—that is, if the film is like the trailer.

Monday, 18 November 2019

On trans issues

This blog post has no disclaimer.
1/ Recently I’ve noticed that the word “transphobic” is used very regularly, almost everywhere and for almost everything, perhaps nearly to the point of losing all meaning. 
Examples of transphobia can be bullying, abusing, or mocking transgender people; using violence against transgender people; denying jobs, housing, or healthcare to transgender people; dismissing feelings of gender dysphoria, etc. 
However: 
Discussing transitioning and detransitioning is not transphobic. 
Questioning gender ideology is not transphobic. 
Having a debate about trans athletes in women’s sports, or even disapproving of trans athletes competing in women’s sports, is not transphobic. 
Talking about the differences between trans women and cis women, or between trans men and cis men, is not transphobic. 
Not dating trans people is not transphobic.  
In a free society, people have the right to question things, to have a conversation, to have a debate. The word “transphobic” is too often thrown out carelessly, to shut up others and end a conversation, like some other words such as “sexist”, “misogynistic”, “mansplaining”, “racist”...—and like them, “transphobic” starts losing its meaning and is taken less seriously. 

2/ A short while ago, a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships revealed that 87.5% of participants would only date cisgender people and excluded transgender people. 
The result is to be expected. What is telling is that the author of the study, Karen L. Blair, decided to write a commentary on her blog about it, and wrote: 
“What then, does this mean for trans people’s overall well-being if the majority of people within society won’t even consider them as potential dating partners under hypothetical conditions? A lack of social support could contribute to some of the existing discrepancies in mental and physical well-being within trans communities.” 
Not dating transgender people is seen as a lack of social support.  
Did she ask the participants what their reasons were? No. Instead: 
“... the authors speculated that exclusion was likely the result of factors ranging from explicit transprejudice, such as viewing trans persons as unfit, mentally ill, or subhuman, to a lack of understanding or knowledge about what it means to be a transgender man or woman, and therefore, what it would mean to date a trans person.” 
It didn’t seem to dawn on her to consider the thought that maybe those participants were just not attracted to transgender people. 
Then in the conclusion, she wrote: 
“Ultimately, each individual has the freedom to decide whom they date or are interested in dating, and thus the article does not suggest that any single individual must include trans people within their dating pool. However, the article does suggest that examining and following the overall societal patterns of including or excluding trans people within the intimate realm of dating can be used as an indicator of overall acceptance and social inclusion of trans people. In other words, it is one thing to make space for trans people within our workplaces, schools, washrooms, and public spaces, but it is another to see them included within our families and most intimate of spaces, our romantic relationships. We won’t be able to say, as a society, that we are accepting of trans citizens until they are also included within our prospective dating pools; at the very least, on a hypothetical basis.” 
(my emphasis) 
In short, she’s suggesting that toleration doesn’t only mean respecting trans people’s human rights and treating them equally and respectfully, but toleration also includes dating and having sex with them. 
The entire blog post can be read here: http://www.cambridgeblog.org/2019/06/who-will-date-a-trans-person/ 
She’s not the only one who has such opinions. I’ve come across other articles, such as this: 
https://www.them.us/story/cis-trans-dating?fbclid=IwAR0TKBvrjhhU4mct-ICJi88Bqa6gt7EXzvCqiY2OxWWEevkkn2EZVZEyxt8# 
Or videos like this: 
https://youtu.be/2X-PgHSZh6U 
The speaker, a transgender person, argues that not dating trans people is discriminatory and hurtful. 
Someone may ask me, is it racist not to date Asian women? Well it is if it’s because you think Asians are inferior to white people or Asians are stupid/ dirty, etc., but if you’re just not attracted to Asian features, no, that’s not racist, and I don’t care. 

3/ Relating to the subject above is the concept of “cotton ceiling”, a term in the trans community which refers to the barriers trans women face when denied access to sex with lesbians. Have a look: 
https://transgenderreality.com/2016/12/22/shallow-creepy-fetishist-of-vaginae/
https://transgenderreality.com/2016/07/31/people-arent-thinking-deeply-enough-about-their-sexuality-more-cotton-ceiling-from-transactivists/
https://transgenderreality.com/2015/11/20/its-a-girls-dick/ 
Google “Get the L out”, you can find lots of articles about conflicts between lesbian activists and trans activists, and the movement to get the L out of LGBT. Here is an example: 
https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2018/07/why-were-lesbians-protesting-pride-because-lgbt-coalition-leaves-women 
As I read about conflicts between the trans community and other parts of the LBGT community, I noticed an interesting pattern: trans men don’t seem to say much, whereas some trans women are very loud and have been attacking cis straight men and lesbians for not wanting to sleep with them—cis straight men are called “insecure”, “confused”, “afraid of being labelled gay”, “suffering from toxic masculinity”, whereas lesbians are derided as transphobes and “vagina fetishists”. 
This is not to say that all trans people are the same, nor that all trans activists are toxic. However, such people exist in the trans community. It is harmful and dangerous to suggest that it’s transphobic not to date trans people, or to argue that trans people are exactly the same as cis people. 

4/ A few years ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sparked an outrage when she said that trans women were different from cis women. 
In fact, screaming “transphobic!” is an automatic response whenever someone says that trans women and cis women are not the same. Trans people shouldn’t be seen as less human, and I understand that it’s hurtful to say that trans women are not true women, but it is silly and delusional to suggest that there are no differences whatsoever between trans women and cis women, either in biology or in experience, especially if a trans woman transitioned after puberty.     
The argument that “trans women are real women” and “people are whatever gender they identify as” is problematic and wrong in the case of lesbians, because lesbians should not be harassed into having sex with trans women, nor abused for not doing so. 
It is a greater issue when we talk about trans athletes in women’s sports.

5/ Let’s look at the debate on trans athletes in women’s sports. 
https://www.wired.com/story/the-glorious-victories-of-trans-athletes-are-shaking-up-sports/
https://nationalfile.com/womens-sports-are-being-dominated-by-trans-athletes/?fbclid=IwAR3FGq03X4eJ6Qo2EkDr0DszbN0Evxt_EHkXZVT7-_mqwiSykKg1jlL4n2M
https://nypost.com/2019/10/13/justice-for-trans-athletes-is-unfair-to-girls-like-my-daughter/ 
If you believe that trans athletes should have the right to compete and it would be unjust otherwise, how do you make it fair when trans athletes who transitioned after puberty have an unfair physical advantage? Getting hormones might have an effect on their performance, but doesn’t change their muscle mass and bone structure.  
There are people who, in response to the debate, say that the gender binary in sports should be dispensed with, and men and women should compete together—such statements are not worth examining. 

6/ The media, when discussing trans issues, tend to talk about gender dysphoria and trans people’s suicide rates. They don’t talk about the actual process of transitioning and its effects on physical and mental health. Nor do they touch on the subject of detransitioning. 
These subjects are important, because there are things to consider if you’re thinking about transitioning. More importantly, they are part of the debate if you ask, at what age should children be allowed to transition? On the 1 hand, certain characteristics can no longer change after puberty. On the other hand, when do you actually know that a child is not happy with their gender and transitioning would be the answer? What if the problem lies elsewhere? What if the child is mistaken? What if they change their mind a few years later? 
In times of confusion, the online trans community can be dangerous, because their “diagnosis” of someone as transgender can often be based on meaningless stereotypes. 
https://transgenderreality.com/2017/09/29/non-conformity-to-gender-roles-as-red-flags/
https://transgenderreality.com/2016/09/30/wearing-the-most-comfortable-sandals-ever-more-stereotypes-about-men-and-women/
https://transgenderreality.com/2016/06/14/feeling-pretty-and-delicate-that-is-clearly-female-behavioral-traits-right/
https://transgenderreality.com/2016/05/19/have-you-ever-identified-more-with-female-characters-than-male-ones/
https://transgenderreality.com/2016/05/10/the-dangers-of-stereotypes/
https://transgenderreality.com/2016/03/02/like-to-wear-comfortable-clothes-dislike-sexism-change-your-sex/ 
https://transgenderreality.com/2016/01/20/really-what-little-boy-wants-to-be-the-girl-lion/ 
https://transgenderreality.com/2015/12/11/i-wasnt-like-other-girls-i-liked-pokemon-i-liked-dragonball-z/
For the record, I’ve never liked pink, and as a kid, I had guns as well as dolls, and most of my stuff were blue. The idea that there are girl stuff and boy stuff is absolutely ridiculous, and it is a lot worse to claim that if a girl likes boy stuff, she must wish to be a boy, and vice versa. 
It is a pity that there was a time people said that men and women were the same, and girls could be whatever they wanted to be—astronauts, engineers, doctors, etc. but now liking something is seen as a boy thing or a girl thing. When, for example, a person who identifies as genderfluid, says that they sometimes feel like a guy and sometimes feel like a girl, I don’t know what they mean. What does it mean, really, to feel like a guy or a girl? If liking girl things is equal to feeling like a girl, isn’t that reinforcing gender stereotypes? 
The online trans community can sometimes cause harm in the way they give advice and persuade young people to believe they are transgender and should go for transitioning. 
https://transgenderreality.com/2016/03/15/lie-to-them-to-get-hrt-give-them-the-good-old-narrative/
https://transgenderreality.com/2016/08/04/questioning-teens-and-social-contagion/
https://transgenderreality.com/2016/07/30/do-you-feel-uncomfortable-with-yourself-in-some-way/
https://transgenderreality.com/2016/05/13/i-hide-my-meds-in-my-saxophone-case-self-medding-advice-to-minors/
This, again, doesn’t mean that all trans activists are the same, but these people exist in the online trans community, and this is something, I think, parents should be aware of. 

7/ In conclusion, trans issues, like everything else, are not black and white. Nuance is important. Facts are important. It is harmful to shut down a debate and dismiss everything as transphobic. 
Trans issues are not simple, and if you say that people not only can identify as whatever gender they wish but must also be recognised as that gender and have all of its rights, that can, very often, come at the expense of someone else.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Benny Green on Billie Holiday

The passages I’ve so far quoted from the Benny Green book might create the impression that he’s a perceptive but harsh critic who likes to destroy great figures in jazz. That is not the case.  
His essay on Billie Holiday is written with such sensitivity that he makes me listen to her music again. 
“… when one listens to all these recordings indiscriminately, the skilful songs and the average jingles, the peculiar truth emerges that for some reason they were all more or less as good as each other, that apparently Billie Holiday was independent of the material she used. Songs came to her as competent minor products of the popular music machine of the day went through the treatment, and emerged as the touching expression of thoughts and emotions their composers had never dreamed of. ‘Me, Myself, and I’ sung by anyone else would be no more than the slightly cretinous but not objectionable expression of the infatuation of one person for another. The Billie Holiday recording is positively joyous. It abounds with the expression of a happy, helpless love, so that the triteness of the lyric disappears to be replaced by a wit of expression whose incongruity with the original tune is almost comical.” 
Note that this comes from a man who is against the concept of jazz singers, except for people like Louis Armstrong, “whose methods of vocal expression are so clearly extensions of their instrumental personalities”. The idea of a jazz singer, to him, goes against the improvisational nature of jazz. 
But Billie Holiday is an exception. 
Benny Green writes about “Body and Soul”: 
“When Billie sings the words, she invests them with an intensity achieved by the childishly simple device of singing them as though she meant them. The fact that she chooses to sing the lesser-known alternate lyrics on the last middle eight, the lines that begin ‘What lies before me, a future that’s stormy?’ suggests that she must have given close thought to the meaning of the words before singing them.” 
He reminds me of why there was a period in 2015 when I listened to Billie Holiday all day, almost exclusively. Hers might not be the kind of music we can enjoy all the time, but when we’re in the right mood, her performance beats everyone else’s in its intensity and depth of feeling. 
It is amusing to see Benny Green denigrate Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. I’ve never felt much when listening to Sarah Vaughan, except for “Whatever Lola Wants” and “Lullaby of Birdland”, much as I admire her range and vocal techniques; Ella Fitzgerald is a singer I like a lot, but now I’m listening to Billie Holiday again—just place side by side their renditions of the same song, Lady Day almost always wins (except for “Summertime”, my favourite version is the one by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong). Billie Holiday makes the perfection of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald appear hollow. 
“Much later in her career, when the ravages of a desperately unhappy life were beginning to tell, her range shrank much more seriously, so that in singing old stand-bys like ‘Body and Soul’ and ‘These Foolish Things’, she dropped her key by a tone or sometimes more. But by then her voice had changed so profoundly in character that she was a different kind of artist altogether. The great virtue of the recordings from the 1st period was their heart-lifting optimism, a certain buoyancy of spirit which made the listen feel an affinity for a disembodied sound whose owner he might never have heard of before. I am convinced that for much of the time Billie was not consciously aware of what she was doing while she was doing it. To her, singing was not so much the exercise of an artistic function as the natural means of expression towards the world. This relationship involving the mechanics of making music is common enough among the best instrumentalists, but certainly no singer since Bessie Smith could be said to need to sing as desperately as Billie Holiday. The casual effects she threw off would be psychological masterstrokes had they been thought out and planned ahead. As it was, they remained emphatic triumphs of intuition.” 
He ends the essay with: 
“… the normal rules applied to her no more at the end of her life than they had in the beginning. Whatever shortcomings there might now be in her breathing, her range and her pronunciation, she had retained, because it was a very real part of her personality, this unfailing ability to wrest out of every lyric the last drop of significance, and even to insert her own where the lyricist had failed to include it. As this was the very core of her art, the last recordings overcame their own technical limitations in a miraculous way.” 
That is beautiful. 
My only complaint about the essay is that he doesn’t analyse some of her most famous songs such as “Strange Fruit” and “Gloomy Sunday”. 

Here is a collection of tracks performed by Billie Holiday and Lester Young:


Monday, 11 November 2019

Short review of some documentaries I watched recently

Jon Venables: What Went Wrong? (2011)
In 1993, 2-year-old boy James Bulger was abducted, tortured, and killed in England by 2 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. Both were convicted and sent to prison. 
Several years after being released, Jon Venables was imprisoned again for possession of child pornography. The documentary, as you can tell from the title, focuses on him and tries to find out what went wrong—why he ended up in prison again. 
This is a rather interesting documentary, which raises the question of how to handle young offenders, and makes people think about the effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes in the UK. However, the documentary doesn’t go far enough in investigating the story of Jon Venables, and seems to treat it mostly on the surface. It also doesn’t explore the difference between the 2 boys—at the time, Jon seemed very emotional and scared and asked for comfort from a police officer, whereas Robert appeared coldly calm (based on the recording) and blamed everything on Jon, but the documentary doesn’t quite say what happened to Robert after prison and doesn’t question why it was Jon, not Robert, who violated the law and got imprisoned again. 
At the same time, using child pornography is not a “normal” crime like, say, burglary or drug dealing—I mean, you don’t look for child pornography unless you are a paedophile or have such tendencies. To say that he committed a crime again because the system had failed him is not very convincing, and that aspect in Jon isn’t explored either. 

The Ripper Hoaxer: The Real Story (2006)
Between 1975 and 1980 in England, there was a serial killer who killed 13 women and attempted to murder 7 others, mostly but not only prostitutes. He was nicknamed Yorkshire Ripper. 
During the period of 1978- 1979, a man sent letters, and even a recording, to West Yorkshire Police, claiming to be Yorkshire Ripper. He was not, but the police fell for the hoax, which changed the course of the entire investigation, and allowed the real killer to kill more women.  
The documentary is captivating—as the title suggests, it is not about the killings or about the real killer, but about the hoaxer and how the hoax changed the direction of the investigation and let the real killer escape 9 times, whose file was dismissed for not having the “right” handwriting or the “right” accent. The film narrates the events objectively and lets contributors speak, without openly condemning the police, but still exposes their gullibility and incompetence. 
The documentary also has footage of the hoaxer speaking, so the audience can hear him talk for himself. 
If you like true crime, this is a very good documentary. 

Mystery of the Man on the Moor (2017)
Picture this: in 2015, a body was found on Saddleworth Moor. This was a man estimated to be in his 60s- 70s, he was not from the area, and he was not wearing the proper clothes to walk on the moor. Nobody knew who he was—he had no ID, no bank card, no passport, no mobile phone, no form of identification, not even a wallet. His picture got no response from the public, and his fingerprints didn’t match any record. 
The police found CCTV footage of him at the train station earlier, walking around aimlessly for an hour or an hour and a half, without seeming to be in a panic or any anxiety. 
Who was he? Why did he travel to Saddleworth Moor? What was he doing there? Did he commit suicide or was he killed? The documentary follows the police as they investigate the case and try to answer these questions. As the filmmakers got access to the police from early on, instead of making the film after the events, they could follow the stages of the investigation, find out things as the police discovered more facts, and also capture their emotions, especially their excitement and puzzlement, as the grappled with the case. 
As the story unfolds, it becomes stranger and stranger; once a question is answered, there appear 10 other questions. 
I want to write more about the man, his life and death, but I shall not spoil the documentary, as it is worth watching. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Benny Green on Ornette Coleman

In an essay about Coleman Hawkins, Benny Green says: 
“In any case, objective criticism is a platonic impossibility which would not even be desirable even if it were possible. The only criticism which is readable is the fiercely prejudiced, fiercely subjective criticism by a man who cares enough to show his enthusiasms.” 
With that “fiercely prejudiced, fiercely subjective” attitude, he writes about Ornette Coleman.   
Before writing anything about Coleman, Benny Green talks about critics and their mistake at the beginning regarding Charlie Parker. Then: 
“The frame of mind in which most critics trooped down to Scott’s Club to hear the ageing enfant terrible may best be described by reciting the false syllogism which had become the 1st rule of conduct for all jazz reviewers. ‘Parker sounded mad, and he turned out to be a great musician. Ornette Coleman sounds mad. Therefore Ornette Coleman must be a great musician.’” 
I myself haven’t heard much of Coleman, but my experience not only hasn’t been very favourable, it also makes me indifferent to everything else he has created. I have a strong dislike of the screeching noise in “Lonely Woman”, which is more painful than hearing a fork scratching a plate. 
Now that you’ve seen Benny Green tear apart Dave Brubeck, prepare to see him flinging a knife at Ornette Coleman. Slash slash. 
“… in the past 2 or 3 years, Coleman had become a multi-instrumentalist. Part of his early fame had rested on the fact that he preferred blowing a plastic alto saxophone, although why this should have contributed to the legend of his genius it is hard to say. So far from being a crazy novelty, plastic saxophones had been tried and found wanting many years before Coleman took up their cause. In any case, it is difficult to understand on what basis a man can see something spectacular about a plastic instrument who had never handled a metal one. […]
But Coleman had come to London armed not only with his plastic saxophone, but with a trumpet and a violin as well, and if it is true to say that he was at least reasonably familiar with the technical problems of playing jazz on a saxophone, it is also true to say that he apparently had only the most rudimentary of how to handle the 2 new instruments. Coleman as a saxophone player is a fascinating curiosity, an artist whose technique is a bewildering patchwork of dexterity and the most shocking ineptitude. […]
But what of Coleman the trumpeter or Coleman the violinist? What he actually succeeded in doing at Scott’s was to defy all rational criticism. Once he began to struggle with the trumpet or to saw savagely at the violin, the process of ratiocination collapsed entirely. There was no criterion by which to judge. It was not so much bad playing as no playing at all, not so much poor music as antimusic.” 
Such fun. 
This essay was written in 1966, in case anyone’s wondering. Benny Green quotes himself in another review: 
“It ought to be clear to anyone visiting Ronnie Scott’s Club in the last few days that it is not possible to criticise the playing of Ornette Coleman. The act of criticism is necessarily connected with what the artist is supposed to be doing, and as I haven’t the remotest idea what Ornette Coleman is supposed to be doing, all criticism is stilled. It remains only to report in factual terms what happens when he arrives on the bandstand. 
Coleman begins with what might be laughingly called an alto saxophone solo at a fast tempo, brief and to the point, lasting, say, 10 or 15 minutes, in the course of which both harmony and melody are given the brush. Next comes a change of mood, that is to say, the same thing is played slow instead of fast. The violin interlude which follows is even more startling. Coleman staggers through some mysterious pattern of his own devising, sawing away with a ferocity which belies the dolorous expression in his face. 
[…] He is not, however, completely without shrewdness. By mastering the useful trick of playing the entire chromatic scale at any given moment, he has absolved himself from the charge of continuously playing the wrong notes. Like a stopped clock, Coleman is right at least twice a day.” 
Ha ha ha. 
What a devastating review. Benny Green is my new model.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Film updates

1/ I’ve just completed 1-week work experience at True North Productions, working for a TV programme called A New Life in the Sun, about Brits who move to Spain or France to start a new life and set up a business. 
Now back to job-hunting. 
2/ In October, my graduation film No More Than This was screened at Viet Film Fest in California.  
3/ My experimental film Footfalls has just been nominated for Best Experimental Award at Screentest: National Student Film Festival, and will be screened in London next weekend. 
The other day I also got news that Footfalls got accepted into Prodigy Film Festival. 
That means that the film has been doing quite well, quite unexpectedly. So far it has been accepted into: 
- Viet Film Fest (California, the US) 
- Manchester Student Film Festival (Manchester, the UK) 
- Castaway Film Festival (Goole, the UK) 
- Screentest: National Student Film Festival (London, the UK) 
- Prodigy Film Festival (online) 
(in chronological order) 
Footfalls also won the RTS Yorkshire Student Award for Short Form in February 2019. 
I’m hoping No More Than This will do all right as well.