Tuesday 26 January 2016

45 Years

You see a work differently when you do some writing yourself. The choices you made- how to tell the story, how to structure the plot, whose perspective should be the focus, what to show and what to hide, what to keep and what to omit... help you notice and make you think about the choices the author made that otherwise you might have paid no attention to.
Yesterday evening I watched 45 Years. The plot is simple: it's almost a week of Mr and Mrs Mercer before their 45th wedding anniversary on Saturday (the structure: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,..., Saturday). On Monday, at the start of the film, the husband receives a letter in German informing that people have found the perfectly preserved body of his ex-girlfriend Katya, who 50 years earlier slipped into an Alpine crevasse (right before him). 45 Years isn't about the anniversary party alone. It isn't about Katya and her death or the love story between her and the husband, Geoff, before the future Mrs Mercer, Kate, comes along. It isn't about Geoff and how he deals with the news and comes to terms with it, how he immerses himself in memories with all the pains and regrets and what-ifs. 45 Years is about Kate- how she's affected by the news and its effect on her husband, how she deals with that past of her husband of which she wasn't a part, how she's bothered and then pained by his reawakened grief and something like an attempt to get Katya back, how she ponders over hypothetical questions, how she tries to come to terms with some newfound knowledge that seems to tear her world apart, how she all of a sudden sees her whole marriage differently whilst arranging on her own the wedding anniversary that she herself isn't certain they should have.
I watched 45 Years and thought about Andrew Haigh's artistic choices. The photos of the friend Lena's grandchild that she shows the couple, whilst Geoff is distracted with thoughts about climate change and the Alps and the accident and Kate is also distracted with concern for him but looks out of politeness, aren't shown; the photo of Katya that Geoff looks for in the middle of the night and Kate demands to see isn't shown; what we have instead are Charlotte Rampling's and Tom Courtenay's faces. Geoff's visit to the travel agency isn't shown; instead, we see Kate go there to ask and discover that he has come to inquire about Switzerland, and see her reaction. Geoff's meeting with long-time friends, of which he wanted to back out but couldn't, isn't shown; instead, we see Kate pick him up afterwards and him whine about it. Haigh omits all that can be redundant, unnecessary. And he goes further. Many details are withheld, the characters' motives and emotions aren't verbalised- why the Mercers have no children isn't explained, whether Katya dies pregnant or what happens to the foetus/ baby if that's not the case isn't stated, how Kate really feels about the discovery isn't expressed; all we have is what we can see on the screen. He even lets Kate imply but not talk about what she has known, and we thus can never know how Geoff might respond to what she eventually leaves unsaid.
The most interesting decision is perhaps not to show any flashback. None whatsoever. We never see the young Geoff with Katya. We never see Katya's last day and the accident. What Andrew Haigh does is to let Geoff tell it to Kate. The camera turns from the husband telling the story, to the wife hearing it. This is usually a "crime" in films- the language of cinema is image, and what can be shown with images shouldn't be told in words. By not showing the accident, Haigh seems to choose an easy way, at the cost of not conveying the awfulness of the memory, thus reducing its nightmarish, haunting impact and not depicting to the full extent Geoff's pain. The reasoning isn't hard to grasp- from the beginning to the end, 45 Years focuses on Kate. It begins with her, and ends with her. But Haigh's decision has an effect- as we the audience hear the story from old Geoff, as we can't see it and are kept distanced from it, as we know only what Kate knows, that puts us in Kate's position and brings us closer to her, as though we wonder the same things, ask the same questions, have the same doubts. That is interesting. And it makes us realise the painful truth that the happiest and most stable of couples are made up of 2 persons that are essentially alone, and strangers to each other.
Come to think of it, it's not an easy way that Haigh has chosen. The focus now is on emotions and reactions, the weight is now on the actor and actress (and Haigh's casting and directing). Like Marion Cotillard in De rouille et d'os or Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, Charlotte Rampling has a subtle performance, and says so much more with her face than many actresses could with words. Without her and Tom Courtenay, 45 Years wouldn't be such a beautiful and moving film. As it is. 

Thursday 14 January 2016

"Can't Help Falling In Love"- Elvis Presley vs Celine Dion

"Can't Help Falling In Love" is better in Elvis Presley's rendition than in Celine Dion's. It's not only because of his low, warm voice, but also, and more, because he sings it simply, which conveys more effectively the spirit of the song, the feeling that the speaker's love is simple and natural and meant to be. Pay attention to the lyrics- "Wise men say only fools rush in", he doesn't want to rush; "Shall I stay? Would it be a sin?", he hesitates; but it happens, naturally, "like a river flows surely to the sea". Celine Dion, great as her voice is, drags the notes and chooses such a dramatic, melismatic, affected approach that it goes against the song and the "assertion" that the speaker can't help falling in love. She butchers the song. 

Sunday 10 January 2016

On the new BBC adaptation of War and Peace

I tried watching the new adaptation of War and Peace last night.
I couldn't watch a whole episode.
You know I love Tolstoy. You know what I often think of adaptations. You know what I think about Andrew Davies and the Colin Firth effect (my fear came true, by the way).
So I won't say anything about this series. What I say instead is: fine, this isn't for me, but we'll always have the book, and if this adaptation gets more people to read War and Peace, great.
You can say, let's be realistic, most people won't. Some will be interested but find the size daunting. Some will think watching an adaptation is good enough. Some will intend to read it but never come round to reading it. After all I'm not much better- I can humiliate myself now by making a list of classic novels I haven't read despite watching the adaptations: Les Misérables, The Three Musketeers, The Age of Innocence, A Room with a View, The Wings of the Dove, Washington Square, Jude the Obscure, Far from the Madding Crowd, Barry Lyndon, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and so on and so forth. The seen-the-film-not-read-the-book list will be much longer if we include more modern works: The Green Mile, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Psycho, The Shining, American Psycho, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Brokeback Mountain, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, We Need to Talk About Kevin, etc.
Still, it will get someone to read the book. However critical I am of the adaptations of Anna Karenina, they led me to the novel. For years I heard my mom's praise of Tolstoy and was indifferent- or I was interested, but not enough to tackle the book, partly because of its size, partly because of its tragic ending, partly because of my ignorance of Russian literature and indifference to Russia. Then after watching about 4 adaptations, I thought: why not read Tolstoy's novel when I'm obsessed with Anna Karenina and already know the story so well? So I won't be angry now. I'll see this new adaptation as 1 of those TV series that other people watch and I don't, like Games of Thrones or Downton Abbey (I'm indifferent to many things in popular culture anyway*), or something that motivates someone to read Tolstoy's book. That's it.
We'll always have the novels.

*: I intended to write a post called "Di Nguyen on pop culture, or Why I have no friends", but it sounds pretentious and hipsterish, so never mind.

Saturday 2 January 2016

Patti Smith- "I Ain't Got Nobody"


Jane Austen never ceases to surprise me.
Reading Sanditon, I thought of The Watsons and Virginia Woolf's comment "... the stiffness and the bareness of the first chapters prove that she was one of those writers who lay their facts out rather baldly in the first version and then go back and back and back and cover them with flesh and atmosphere...", only to realise that Sanditon's not so bare. Indeed, the writing is not very polished, and there are superfluous remarks that could and would have been removed (for example, she doesn't have to say that the 3 Parkers' ailments are imaginary, which we can see for ourselves, and she often says enough), reminiscent of the abundant comments and unnecessary explanations I see in Trimalchio that aren't in The Great Gatsby, and yet it doesn't really look like a rough draft, and doesn't look like it was written by a dying person (I mean, look at the sentences!). 
I was also expecting something different. After a melancholy, autumnal work like Persuasion comes a satire of hypochondriacs, hypocrites and fortune hunters? That feels odd. I know, I know, after publishing the bright, light and sparkling Pride and Prejudice, she created an opposite of Elizabeth Bennet to be her heroine, and created an anti-heroine superficially similar to Elizabeth; after the sombre work Mansfield Park, she returned to comedy with Emma; after the sparkling Emma, she wrote a novel sadder than anything she'd ever written. What feels strange is that Persuasion is melancholy and passionate and romantic, and Jane Austen seemed to be going in another direction. Now I read Sanditon, and she in a sense goes in yet another direction, writing about the verbal construction of a town and people's reactions towards change; in another sense goes back to her early self, goes back to comedy and satire, to depicting, mocking and making fun of ridiculous, affected people. The ridiculous characters in Persuasion are pushed far into the background, pale, insignificant, more forgettable than such characters in previous works, as the focus is entirely on the story of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. In Sanditon, at least in the draft we have today, the caricatures are prominent. Whilst The Watsons is clearly a story of Emma Watson, Sanditon doesn't quite look like a story of Charlotte Heywood (or the Parker brothers).  
Another interesting thing is that Jane Austen seems to expand her scope beyond love/ courtship stories. If in Persuasion, she mentions war, deals with change in society and writes about old money vs new money, in Sanditon she again takes up the theme of changes in society and writes about the construction of a seaside town, a bathing place. 
Sanditon takes me aback, so to speak. It's different, there are so many things in it, and the story can develop in any direction, I wonder how Sanditon might have turned out if Jane Austen had been able to complete it.