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Last Night by James Salter: “Such Fun”

July 2, 2015
Such Fun

Looking back over the pieces I have written about this collection I am struck by the fact that I’ve effectively been dancing around an idea first put forward by the German poet, playwright and theatre director Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht was a life-long committed Marxist at a time when that meant something other than being an academic. As a Marxist, Brecht was concerned about the purpose of the theatre and people’s tendency to use it as a source of escapism and/or moral complacency: Turn up at a show, identify with one of the characters, experience their moral gyrations at one step removed, go back to your life without even pausing for self-reflection. Brecht’s response to this tendency was to develop a form known as ‘epic theatre’ that encouraged the audience to engage critically with his plays rather than relying on more traditional forms of engagement such as searching for strong characters with which to identify.

Brecht would pursue this end by deploying what he called Verfremdungseffekt, which is often translated as ‘distancing effect’, ‘estrangement effect’ or simply ‘the V-effekt’. The best known distancing effects are those that draw attention to the play’s status as a fictional conceit by breaking down the fourth wall, anything to prevent the audience from relaxing into a passive state and treating the text of the play as some sort of inviolable entity. Given the universality of postmodernism and the frequent use of meta-fictional conceits in popular culture, I suspect that today’s writers have to work considerably harder to force their audience onto a critical footing but the basic principle of the verfremdungseffekt remains intact: You cannot encourage your audience both to suspend their disbelief and to treat your text as an intriguing fiction. An audience that is engaging critically with a text is not surrendering to your attempts at emotional manipulation and an audience that has submitted to a series of carefully curated emotional experiences will be either unwilling or incapable of engaging with a text in a dispassionate fashion. Audiences can, of course, move from one footing to another but they can’t do both things at once.

The reason I mention the verfremdungseffekt is that I think something similar is going on in this collection. Every story thus far uses literary techniques to encourage us to identify with a character and their needs only for Salter to hide much of his real intent in little details that only become apparent when you step back from the stories and survey them not as the journeys of particular characters but as the interaction of different ideas and themes. This effect is definitely at work in “Such Fun”, one of the shorter stories included in this collection.


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A Farewell to Arms: Midnight Eye

July 1, 2015

I recently spent several thousand words complaining about how 21st Century film journalism has allowed itself to become little more than an unpaid cog in the Hollywood marketing machine but there will always be exceptions to the rule. For as long as I have been reading about world cinema on the internet, I have been aware of the brilliance that is the website Midnight Eye.

For over fifteen years old, Midnight Eye has set the gold standard for online film criticism. Devoted where others were fickle, serious where others were glib and passionate where others were opportunistic, Midnight Eye has showcased the new and the old in Japanese film and now its journey has come to an end as its operators Tom Mes, Jasper Sharpe and Martin Mes have decided to stop updating and get on with their lives.

As readers will have come to expect, their parting message is as insightful as it is despairing about the nature of contemporary Japanese cinema:

There is still quite a bit of guts and artistic vision on the no-budget end, but that side suffers from a lack of outlook – for the vast majority of young indie filmmakers there is nowhere to grow after they make their first self-financed feature, even if they had their film shown at festivals abroad and picked up a few awards along the way. Self-financing a movie is an exhausting process that you are not terribly likely to repeat (unless you are Shinya Tsukamoto and it’s in your DNA). They can’t go professional either, because there is simply no room for them in the industry: since the collapse of the video and DVD market medium-budget productions have to all intents and purposes vanished, while the production committees of the high-budget films prefer to hire someone of whom they can be sure, which means either a TV director familiar to the network that has a stake in the production or an experienced hand like Takashi Miike or Yukihiko Tsutsumi who already has a track record making hits.

Things go in waves (or in circles), so surely these recent developments in Japanese film (and hopefully those in politics too) will eventually be replaced by other trends. That an increasing number of directors are looking to make films overseas is both a sad consequence of the current situation and an opportunity to redefine our views of what constitutes a “Japanese film”. But the current situation and the films it engenders do not exactly fill us at Midnight Eye with the enthusiasm we need to keep this website running when so many other important things require attention.

The closure of Midnight Eye has left me wondering whether cultural scenes might not just wind up getting the critical press they deserve. How can we expect film journalists and critics to be brave and pioneering when the creators they write about seem content to chase the last big hit?

I have long been an admirer of Midnight Eye and will profoundly regret their closure… great works should not end in a chorus of indifference.

The Images of Mr. Turner

June 30, 2015

I do not have very much to say about Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner other than to urge you all to seek it out.

Despite the fact that Leigh’s Topsy Turvy remains one of my favourite films, I had been put off going to see Mr. Turner by a series of trailers that made it look like the kind of sighing, nostalgic, worthy poison that is normally reserved for Sunday evening television. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about… conservative propaganda masquerading as ‘prestige drama’ and forced down the gullet of a population struggling to remain conscious after a weekend’s concerted hyper-consumption. British landscapes with the motorways dutifully cropped. British stately homes that are open to the public but only by appointment and on the understanding that HMRC won’t look too closely at the VAT receipts on the upkeep bills.

In truth, I shouldn’t have worried as Mr. Turner is just as strategically disrespectful as Topsy Turvy. In fact, the film’s methods and politics are so close to those of Topsy Turvy that one could almost talk of the films as a series united by a desire to re-claim, re-invent and re-humanise icons of Britain’s cultural past. I won’t hold my breath for a similar film about Agatha Christie or M.R. James but a boy can certainly dream.

The writing and acting that went into Mr. Turner are, naturally, sublime but I think particular credit needs to be given to the film’s cinematographer Dick Pope who has littered an otherwise very actor-centric film with some of the most arresting images to come out of British cinema in recent history. Though not as expressionistic as the work of Turner, you still have to marvel at Pope’s composition:


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Last Night by James Salter: “My Lord You”

June 23, 2015
Such Fun

Mistah Salter – He dead. The New York Times has an interesting obituary that paints Salter as a man plagued by the twin demons of ambition and bitter resentment over the failure to transmute critical acclaim into popular success. While the piece does stop well short of being a hatchet job, it is definitely in the business of burying rather than praising its subject. Having said that, it does quote a lovely line from Reynolds Price who described Salter’s work thusly:

“In its peculiar compound of lucid surface and dark interior, it’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.”

Salter’s death reminded me of my need to return to this series of posts but it also reminded me of why this project began to run out of steam in the first place: I didn’t particularly enjoy “My Lord You” the first time I read through it. In fact, it was only after re-reading the story three times that I came to realise the precision and power that lies hidden behind its rather distracting use of metaphorical imagery.

Back in October 2014, I began a constellation of posts that tried to articulate the reasons for my reluctance to engage with the field of genre short fiction. While the bulk of the constellation went into describing the genre short fiction scene as an engine for acquiring and redistributing social capital rather than generating interesting stories, the root of my problem was that I simply did not like the stories that said engine was bringing to the attention of the wider genre community. As I said in my piece “Short Fiction and the Feels”:

In each of these stories, the genre elements sit somewhere between the metaphorical and the literal; aspects of a fictional world that seem to mirror the contours of real emotional lives whilst leaving the world unchanged and the metaphor unresolved and shrouded with the kind of ambiguity that renders precision anathema. As a genre reader, I am frustrated by the authors’ lack of interest in exploring how these genre elements might transform their fictional worlds. As a literary reader I am left perplexed by the decision to abandon realism in favour of a quasi-metaphorical language that makes the characters’ emotional lives seem more rather than less opaque.

Re-visiting these opinions more recently, I did begin to wonder whether my problem might not have been rooted in an aversion to fantasy literature. To me, fantasy always feels a bit like cheating because it allows the author to embed the logic of their stories in the fabric of their fictional worlds. There’s a fine line between using fiction as a means of engaging with the world from a particular viewpoint and constructing a fantasy in which all of the writer’s beliefs and prejudices are somehow magically true. Producing fiction in which the world actively rises up to meet the oncoming force of your narrative has always struck me as way too much of the latter.

Of course… traditional science fiction pulls this type of shit all the time and the boundaries between traditions have long been under pressure from a professional class with an interest in creating a single integrated marketplace for science fiction, fantasy and horror. As unpopular and deliberately narrow as it may seem, my vision of science fiction of a world-facing literary tradition in which authors are held accountable for their departures from reality, even when it is only on the level of scientific inaccuracy.

When I accused the quasi-metaphorical of falling somewhere between the demands of genre and the demands of traditional literature, I meant that many of these stories seemed completely unaccountable. Even allowing space for radical formal experimentation, literary fiction must ultimately resolve as some form of statement about the world or human nature and the same is true of the genre fiction that I want to read (although SF’s historical abrogation of the mimetic impulse allows for a considerably broader idea as to what constitutes resolution). My feeling about the quasi-metaphorical is that while many of these stories carry a very real and carefully-engineered affective payload, the artifice that goes into many of these stories also serves to distance them from the world and obscure many of the crunchier details in which the wheels of fictional conceit might be expected to meet the road of reality.

Though not a piece of genre writing, Salter’s “My Lord You” resembles the quasi-metaphorical in so far as it is a story built around a single metaphor that appears to have been designed with the intention of capturing a very specific feeling. However, unlike many of the quasi-metaphorical stories I touched on in my earlier pieces, Salter uses his metaphorical device as a means of uncovering all sorts of crunchy ideas about the nature of relationships and human sexuality.

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Runaway (2001) — Where are the Wolfhounds?

June 17, 2015

Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s documentary Runaway is best viewed as a companion piece to their 1998 collaboration Divorce Iranian Style. Fusing the intense humanism of cinéma vérité with the analytical powers of feminist anthropology, Divorce Iranian Style is a fundamentally optimistic film about a group of women who use the unfair and oppressive structures of Iranian divorce law to improve their lives. I call Runaway a ‘companion piece’ to Divorce Iranian Style as while the earlier film is all about working inside the system to improve your lot, Runaway is all about what happens when the system fails and women are forced to flee for the sake of their own security.

Like all of Kim Longinotto’s work, Runaway provides a fascinating and genuinely moving portrait of a group of women who are trying to protect themselves from the failings of their society. In this case, the failing that women are forced to contend with is a vision of gendered sexuality that is as old as the hills and twice as tricky to erode.


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How Film Writing Works in the 21st Century

June 15, 2015

Step 1: Come up with an angle from which to promote the film and ensure that said angle features prominently in all pre-release promotional materials including fan-oriented press releases and interviews with talent.

For example, suggest that Guardians of the Galaxy is very similar to the original Star Wars as a way to (i) cross-promote two franchises that are owned by the same multinational corporation, (ii) get-over any (Green Lantern-inspired) resistance the target audience might have to a space-based action movie by comparing Guardians of the Galaxy to a film they already know, and (iii) give the adult audience an excuse to infantilise themselves and set aside their cynicism by inviting them to approach Guardians of the Galaxy in the same way as they approached Star Wars as children.


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Jimmy’s Hall (2014) — Don’t Call Me ‘Fascist’… Yeh little Bollocks!

June 4, 2015

Just as a certain kind of middle-class Israeli filmmaker is prone to using Palestinians as set-dressing in stories about their own sense of guilt, a certain kind of middle-class British filmmaker is prone to using Irish history as a means of talking about socialism without having to deal with the fact that the British working-classes have spent the last few decades moving further and further to the right. I suppose the allure is born of envy: When the Irish people won their independence they beat many of the interests and institutions that continue to hold sway over British political life. Much like Scotland voting-in a left-wing party and looking to free itself from the festering right-wing cesspit that is the palace of Westminster, it’s difficult not to be envious of the Irish War of independence and ask ‘Can we come too?’

The thing that keeps drawing me back to the work of Ken Loach is his willingness to accept that left-wing politics is a difficult path. Too many so-called left-wing filmmakers are content to either limit themselves to critiques of right-wing thought or turn the revolution into some sort of aspirational fantasy like Aragorn taking over Gondor at the end of Lord of the Rings. However, this is not to say that Loach is some sort of miserabilist, it’s just that many of his films recognise both the potential of left-wing politics to change lives for the better and the potential of right-wing politics to shut that potential down the second it becomes a nuisance. Loach’s intense ambivalence about the realities of revolution are beautifully expressed in both Land and Freedom and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, both films about revolutions that ended badly only to live on in the minds of younger people. Mooted as Loach’s last ever film, Jimmy’s Hall revisits these themes in a far more mundane and seemingly a-political setting.

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