Month: March 2013

Some films – not a top ten…

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I was talking to a friend on the phone and we got talking about films (as usual). She asked what my top ten were. I found it almost impossible to answer, by the time I’d gone through a few we had reached at least twenty and that only skimmed the surface, as soon as she mentioned someone then another came to mind.

I sometimes wonder why we worry about listing but it is in our nature, it applies to all things books, people, cakes, walks, dogs. We grade things. So, lying awake in the night I tried to list to myself a set of films and luckily this was quite good for getting to sleep and had a quite odd effect on my later dream (somehow set in Buckingham Palace photographing paintings, odd).

So as a totally self-indulgent exercise and having not a great deal to say today about much else, here are ten films I would not want to be without and wish to watch again many times.

L’Atalante – Jean Vigo – 1934

This is such a deceptively simple film, break it down to its basic plot – young woman marries the captain of a barge that plies up and down the Seine – longs for the bright lights when they reach Paris – learns lessons. Oh but it is so much more! It is beautiful, poetic and holds a shot which is worth owning the film for – where Dita Parlo in her bridal dress is walking back along the barge and the barge is moving the other way, she is static yet moving, glowing in her white dress in the dusk, it says so much. This is a very great film.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0024844/?ref_=sr_1

The 39 Steps – Alfred Hitchcock – 1935

I could watch this film for the first 10 and last 10 minutes alone, the scenes in the music hall are just wonderful. The plot runs at a fast pace, it has all of Hitchcock’s hallmarks. The side story in the cottage with the woman longing for Glasgow on a Saturday night and her stern husband shows such fantastic handling of a sub theme worthy of a film in itself. He took what was a pot-boiler adventure and turned it into a wonderful piece of cinema. I love the fish at the flat. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026029/?ref_=sr_1

Closely Observed Trains – Jiri Menzel – 1966

This is about sex and a young man’s initiation into life. Set at a sleepy provincial station in wartime Czechoslovakia and made in the Prague Spring era, it comments on freedom within the form filling world. It is funny and sad. The boredom of the regulated life on the station is beautifully portrayed and the threat of the invaders always there working towards its quite surprising tragic and yet heroic end. It is hard to quantify how much influence this film has had on me, it has been a part of my life for more than 40 years.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060802/?ref_=sr_1

Badlands – Terence Malick –  1973

Set in the late 1950’s Badlands is about a teenage girl and a man in his early 20’s who go on a killing spree. There is no remorse; it is about a bid for freedom, for being famous. The photography is stunning; the use of Carl Orff’s music magical. It is told through the Sissy Spacek character with a coldness that sometimes chills, to her this is an ordinary life, they set up home in the desert, waiting for the tragedy which from the start you know will unfold. Martin Sheen plays a wanna-be James Dean who is determining their fate.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069762/

Kings of the Road – Wim Wenders – 1978

Another road film which borrows from American 50’s films and set along the East-West Germany border. It is a story about the decline of small town cinemas, the friendship between two opposites, the negative influence of American culture on West Germany. There is the ever present border which looms over their lives and all the metaphors of that. It has a lovely pace.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073152/?ref_=sr_1

Howl’s Moving Castle – Hayao Miyazaki – 2004

Japanese animation based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones. A girl is cursed by a witch to be an old woman until someone loves her for herself. An amazing adventure set in a strange castle on legs which moves between places and time. I love the door which can open onto four very different places. Superb imaginative drawing immersing you into a steampunk world.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0347149/

The Antoine Doinel series of films – Francois Truffaut – 1959 to 1979

This series of five films about Antoine Doinel started with The 400 Blows in 1959 and ended with L’amour en fuite in 1979. Truffaut worked with Jean-Pierre Leaud from when he was a boy, following the Doinel character. The 400 Blows is a remarkable film, one of the finest about childhood, about the troubled life of Antoine and could easily be said to have changed cinema. We then follow Antoine as he grows and his usually disastrous quest to find a good relationship through the short Love at Twenty (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968) and Bed and Board (1970). His relationships never seem to work out because of his unrealistic wishes and idealism. The final film L’amour en fuite (Love on the Run) (1979) uses clips from all the others alongside a typical Doinel storyline where Antoine sees a man ripping up a photograph of a woman in a phonebooth, then he puts the photo together and immediately falls in love with the woman and has to find her. Truffaut actually paid for this film from his earnings acting on Close Encounters and wrote it whilst hanging around between shots!

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000076/

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – Sergio Leone – 1966

Leone took the elements of the western genre and created films which were stripped down, cynical and ‘operatic’. I shouldn’t like them, but am captivated by the powerful images, music and formality. Here Leone moved away from remaking Samurai films and is another road movie in a form of spiral which includes all sorts of sidetracks in the three principal characters’ quest for gold. There are no good characters in Leone’s films, they have self-interest at heart. This is a quite phenomenal experience in the cinema, the classic facial close up with the hat filling the wide screen edge to edge and the music soaring in time with the action. I could equally have chosen Once Upon a Time in the West, which is a better story, but prefer the Eastwood character to that of Charles Bronson who seems wrongly cast in an otherwise great film.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060196/?ref_=sr_2

I Served The King of England – Menzel – 2006

More recent Menzel, but from the same author as source. I loved this film from the first few seconds. It has elements of Chaplin in the first part and with all Menzel is basically about sex! Here the ‘hero’ Jan is searching for success and will do almost anything to become rich. The one thing he only seems successful at is pleasing women! The film has two time periods, the late 30’s and the War, and the 1960’s from where the story is told. The young Jan works as a waiter, much of this has a Chaplinesque quality as he tries in vain to improve himself. He becomes a Nazi to be able to marry a German girl he is enamoured with and improve his prospects. Then just as he reaches his goal, gets arrested by the new Checkoslovak Communist Government for being rich! He is let out and sent to live in internal exile where he meets a professor and his student and dreams of new successes. It is as all Menzel’s films a parody of society and the prevailing politics, it is subtle, amusing and quite delightful.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0284363/?ref_=sr_1

8½ – Fellini – 1963

It’s about creativity and what it does to you. It is a celebration of film, women, life. And yet it is about a film director having a creative and psychological breakdown. As with all Fellini for many years after this the past is as important as the present. Guido’s fantasies are lived out in his memories which are weighing him down and are taking out his present complicated life. He yearns for the simpler life of his childhood, whereas he is living under the intense pressure to complete another film. I love the last ten minutes with its wonderful music and the dance of his life (a dance of death?) where all his past and present come together on the set of his impossible film, life is suddenly simpler. Love it!

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056801/

I could add pages on films by Kurosawa, Carne, Ozu, Godard, Leigh, Aldomovar, Bunuel, Ozon, Ford, von Stroheim, Chaplin, Fassbinder, Tartovsky, Capra, Renoir, Passolini, and so many more. But the films above are ten (or so) I can live with every day and regularly watch bits from when they come to mind. Some I have watched well over 100 times, they are a part of my life!

Today’s photograph is another old one from a hot sunny day in the south of France a couple of years ago.

Genre

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Genre. Peter from Renegade Writers wrote about genre on FB today. I think my genre is ‘writing no one would actually want to buy’. I too do not particularly like the genre terms, it limits. I have found considerable pleasure and annoyance reading all sorts of writing; as with watching all sorts of films; listening to all sorts of music. I wouldn’t like to think I would write in any one genre or form of writing. Of course writing in a genre makes selling a book easier, people know what they are going to get, but I like the surprise.

I got Amy Sackville’s Orkney from the library just because it looked interesting and I had never heard of it or her. It is a wonderful book, beautifully written, quite magical and yet written in a very straightforward style. What genre was that, probably literary fiction, which sort of covers all serious writing. And yet, there are elements of mythology, fantasy, psychological torment, mystery.

The majority of really good writing is hard to pinpoint. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy is a good case. It is fantasy, it has elements of horror, and yet has some of the finest writing and imagery of the twentieth century. To put it in the same genre as say Game of Thrones is an insult. So it is beyond genre and just literature, as I feel all writing should be judged by.

Interestingly, in my opinion, Game of Thrones has made excellent silly TV but I felt the BBC adaptation of Gormenghast was dreadful. Perhaps poor quality writing works better in visual terms. I’m sure many of you reading this would disagree.

The most important thing is to write an interesting story without thinking what genre it should be, if it is interesting it doesn’t matter. Look at the Hilary Mantel books on Cromwell. On the face of it written in the much maligned Historical Fiction genre, yet very fine writing which opens up the Tudor period and history in a far more accessible and understandable way than any work of history could.

Today’s photograph is of the remains of the snow drift in my garden, the roses starting to bud through the snow. Taken on a bright cold windy day at 2.30pm.

 

Levelling criticism…

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If you can’t say something good about something, then don’t say it – so goes the saying or something like that. So the blog I have written about Argo I will put aside, which basically said that Oskar (my dog) could have directed it better and it was a piece of racist drivel (but it took about 800 words to say it!). It would probably have brought both a fatwa and the CIA down on me!

So it made me think about what we want from feedback and supportive criticism. I was talking to a long-time friend in Cardiff about Renegade Writers and how the critiques can be rigorous but very supportive, and how I would find it very difficult to write without the feedback I get. Members point out the faults and praise the well written. It is very easy to criticise – less easy to praise, and equally hard to accept praise. The most important thing is to criticise constructively and not personally, something I try and do.

One of the blogs I read by a student, Shannon, posted that she had some feedback that hurt her feelings deeply, she was writing very personally about grief, and her similar aged fellow students had no or very little knowledge of grief so gave poor feedback. So how much should you invest of yourself into something, to not lead to feeling a critique is criticism of oneself, rather than the work? It is something I have touched on before because in my poetry (there is a link to the left of this post) is very personal and maybe open to the criticism of being self-absorbed. Maybe categorised as arrogant in the fact that I want you to see the world through my eyes, but as ‘artists’ isn’t that what we are doing, we are arrogant enough to publish a book, sing a song, show a painting, expecting others to look, read, listen to our innermost thoughts and observations. Perhaps in my life I needed more of that arrogance and become the ‘artist’ I knew I could be? Maybe. ‘Artists’ are not always the nicest people because of this, self-belief is not a particularly ‘nice’ trait to have.

Another long-time friend I talked to over the weekend had felt let down by some friends who were ‘fair weather’ friends. I am reading Javier Marias and over the last 50 pages he has discussed how much to tell people, who to trust, whether friends or family can be trusted with secrets. In my poetry I have opened up maybe beyond what ‘you’ want to hear, I want to share my experience partly to find out about myself and partly to say to others you are not alone, others have the feelings or loneliness that you are feeling. It is not for everyone and I have to expect to be criticised for it, maybe personally criticised, I think I am strong enough to take it, but have to be prepared for it.

When I was at Art College about 200 years ago, we had regular sessions where other students would sit around your work with staff and after attempting to explain what you were doing, they would give sometimes very hard feedback. It was tough. But it made one realise what others who were not inside your head were seeing. Some students were quite disturbed by the levels of criticism they received, but it did make me able to self-start, however it also made me over criticise my own work to a point of being unable to create, until the last ten years when I am much freer, however I still find it hard to draw or paint, but writing does it for me, at the moment anyway.

Today’s photograph is in Tunstall on a windy bitterly cold bright day at about 10am.

Just rubble

Today’s photographs are from my ‘garden’ taken on a windy, snowy day at midday.

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The ‘garden’ looks like soil even in this tundra-like mode of snowy windy weather. It is actually the remains of one of the now demolished local pot banks (the local name for pottery factories). At one time they were everywhere in Stoke-on-Trent. Within a few hundred yards of where I live there were large factories like Doulton and smaller ones like Keele Street and what appears to have been dumped at the back of my flat Alfred Meakin. In Tunstall at one time there would have been more than 100 different pot banks. They were the lifeblood of this area alongside the also defunct mining and steel works. The work force were families, generation after generation up until the last generation. Now, it’s nearly all gone abroad. A few small high quality factories hang on like Moorcroft in Burslem, and a couple of factories specialising in hotel and commercial wear.

Those white flecks you can see in my ‘garden’ are broken bits of pottery, I found this bit.

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I also unearth kiln furniture, the bits they used to hold the pottery in place whilst being fired, cup handles, plate edges, broken moulds. It is something to be proud of, the long history of skills and artistry, now really only on show at the Potteries Museum, not where it should be in the shops! It is now mainly just rubble.

Oh to be in England…

Three photographs taken on the second day of Spring on my way to get a library book, in Tunstall at 10.15am. Very windy after a snowfall in the early hours, chilly, white sky with lots more snow to come. Last year was the warmest March on record about 20 degrees warmer than today, this year is the coldest March for 50 years. ‘Oh to be in England…”

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Now I know it’s not April, but it is often misquoted as Oh to be in England now that Spring is here – here is some Browning –

HOME THOUGHTS FROM ABROAD

Oh, to be in England
Now that April ‘s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That ‘s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Robert Browning

…happily ever after.

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Today’s photograph is in a corridor of the outpatients block, it’s a bit like an airport. I was there for yet another visit to the prostate department to hear results of tests, got to have more in 6 months. This was at 2pm, on a bright windy cold day.

Write what you know about.

How many times have we been advised that?

It is good advice, especially to begin with. But then we need to develop our writing. We do it, we tell stories about places and people who have never existed, we’ve never been to. Google Earth has helped, I wrote a couple of chapters which took place in Venice, I’ve never been there, but Google took me to where I wanted and an online property agent had a video going round a building for sale which gave me good detail of the interior. Those are quite useful and I used the same for a home on a beach in South Carolina (somewhere else I’ve never been) it featured a few times in Underpainting, and I was able to place characters in rooms which existed.

Those are places. Probably harder are relationships. For me it would be the relationship with your own children, it is easy to watch friends and their children as an outsider, but what about that inner feeling, inner love. I remember a former colleague saying that as soon as she gave birth she immediately loved that unknown being more than anything else, without thinking about it. And yet another had great difficulty loving her two children, luckily a quite rare thing, but part of relationships.

I am now separated, I sometimes wonder why I got married, though there were times when it was by far the happiest time of my life, in my writing I have only ever used the period of slowly moving apart (on my side anyway) and loss of attachment. I would find it quite difficult to write about the inner feelings of say a couple who had happily been together a long time, as some of my friends have been.

Happy long term relationships do not always make interesting plots and I have found in reading writers find them hard to make interesting, look at Arnold Bennett in the Clayhanger trilogy, the third book is far less interesting when the protagonists have got together. No wonder fairy stories finish with ‘…and they lived happily ever after’, happiness is actually quite boring. If we look at our own happiest periods in relationships they are probably periods when feelings of safety, calmness, certainty are to the fore.

What brought these thoughts on has been reading Orkney by Amy Sackville, a beautifully written novel about a ‘honeymoon’ and the strange relationship between two people. The writing is poetic without being complex, it combines myths and legends and memory, with the reality of a situation the first person narrator fails to understand or foresee. Quite a wonderful book.