Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Review - David Szalay: "London and the South East" (2008)

I confess I'd never heard of David Szalay when this novel, with its commonplace-yet-odd title and its cover (not the one on the Goodreads page) resembling some recurring nightmare of Martin Parr's jumped out at me in my local library. I'm very glad it did. It's a painfully funny, hilariously true account of disappointed, self-deluding, alcoholic male middle-age. Determinedly downbeat, it's nevertheless very sharply observed, and some of the description shimmers, in a determinedly downbeat sort of way. Its subject - a man behaving badly and trying desperately to maintain his wilful lack of self-awareness in the matter - is reminiscent of Kingsley Amis at his best, and it contains at least one description of a hangover as fine as any in "Lucky Jim" or the rest of that writer's output. Unlike Amis, there's no misogyny - in fact, Szalay's characters, male and female, are all treated with a kind of rough compassion, regardless of their very obvious faults. A rare debut, one that coaxes engagement, horrible fascination, and compulsive readability out of ostensibly unpromising, unsympathetic raw material.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Still On The Road: Walter Salles films Jack Kerouac

            It's generally considered a truism that great novels tend to make indifferent films, and it's not difficult to see why. The denser and more highly-wrought a textual narrative, the less amenable it is to a single, exclusively visual interpretation. Conversely, the greater a story's reliance on non-allusive, unreflective action, the more chance it has of translating directly to the screen. Those few major novels which have also made seriously good films without exception required screenwriter and director to reimagine both original text and their own respective arts to create something different from, but in some way equivalent to the original.

            I doubt that anyone these days would seriously challenge the status of "On The Road" as a great novel. It revolutionised English prose, articulated an identifiably American sensibility that was reaching for the universal, and extended an existing literary tradition or two,  at the same time as laying the ground for much subsequent experimentation in literary, poetic, and journalistic writing. It is also one of those rare books which literally does change lives. So in attempting to film it, Walter Salles must have known he was setting himself up to fail quite badly in the eyes of those hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people who know, love, and have their own complex and multifaceted response to Kerouac's 1950s masterpiece.

            Salles opts wisely to begin by placing “On the Road” firmly in the tradition of Kerouac's acknowledged forebears, those painters of continental restlessness Thomas Wolfe & John Steinbeck. The instant ability of film to reveal landscape and the configurations of people framing and inhabiting it , combined with the use of hobo folk song as a soundtrack to rapidly-cut scenes of  cross-country travel, delivers a depth of historic backstory with an economy a novelist might envy. Claustrophobic, scruffy domestic interiors and dull urban lots are set against this Great Outdoors of light and weather. And as Sal Paradise, Kerouac's surrogate, Sam Riley in voiceover sounds convincingly worldweary in a way only a very young person can. It's a great set-up.

In narrative terms, Salles has evidently tried to remain as faithful as possible to the overall structure of Kerouac’s novel, while teasing out certain themes and implications that were dormant – even unacknowledged – in the original published version of  1957. Some of these, notably the strong homoerotic bond between Sal, Dean Moriarty, and Carlo Marx, were present in the legendary manuscript ‘scroll’ from which this was culled, finally published in its entirety 50 years later. More interestingly, though, the automatic 1940s misogyny of the male dramatis personae, of which even Keroauc was probably blithely unaware as he wrote, is cleverly counterpointed by the building-up into characters of some of the women, who feature as little more than sketches in either version of his text. Kristen Stewart – hitherto best known for the clunking, bloodless vampire Bella in the Twilight films – demonstrates astonishingly that she can actually act, putting in a finely-tuned performance as Dean’s sexually-exploited and emotionally-abused teenage wife Marylou. As Dean’s other marital partner-cum-victim Camille, Kirsten Dunst is given a couple of extra scenes to demonstrate the frustration and anger of being a female foil to the glorified adolescent male-bonding culture unthinkingly celebrated by Kerouac. It’s a thoughtful and effective call. In one of those moments where film can offer an instant insight that might take a novelist hundreds of words to lay out, Sal and Dean toast “The old men and the West” above the sleeping, ignored body of Marylou.

Garrett Hedlund’s Dean, monster of egotism though he is, retains the seductiveness and charm which undoubtedly motivated Kerouac to centre On the Road around his original, Neal Cassady.  Hedlund’s laconic, Midwestern delivery carries off  dialogue I’ve  always thought might sound slightly arch, even hysterical, if spoken aloud. Also, for a character written so much larger-than-life, he augments this with a subtle range of facial expression, emphasised in the shaky close-up of certain intimate, interior scenes between Dean, Sal, Carlo, and the occasional disposable woman.  Tom Sturridge’s longsuffering Carlo personifies the undercurrent of sexual frustration, undeclarable love,  & jealousy of Dean which Kerouac himself persistently refuses to acknowledge, except indirectly. It is also a convincing and endearing portrait of a young Allen Ginsberg.

Perhaps the main philosophical strand in On the Road is one which Kerouac’s later interest in Buddhism would more fully explore, that of the busyness of everyday life and its corollary in eternity – stasis, silence, the Void. A fear of placelessness, and the endless, contradictory putting of oneself in different places in order to try and avoid this, is periodically revisited in Salles’s film, as in Kerouac’s book.  There is a recurring quotation from Proust, and the melancholy visualisation of  lonely Midwestern small towns at sunset, seen from hotel rooms where you know neither where nor who you are.

If, then, a film had to be made of On the Road, this one will do very well. It respects the text, while refusing to collude with some of the more obvious elisions engaged in by the author. It also manages to strike a realistic balance between the romanticism of youthful restlessness – which I think is something most of us fall for the first time we read Kerouac – and the more squalid, selfish side of those characters for whom we have fallen. It even allows itself the obvious metaphor, in its closing sequences, of envisaging the ribbon of paper on which Kerouac typed his first draft – the legendary ‘scroll’ – as The Road itself. But since that’s one that the author himself invented (“rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road” he said in a letter to Cassady in 1951) it’s probably still OK.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Barry N. Malzberg: the science-fiction of inner space

Barry N. Malzberg
                It’s standard practice when considering the literary claims of ‘genre’ fiction to point out that some of the canonical works of Eng. Lit. could easily be so ghettoised if they hadn’t long since been accepted as ‘proper’ literature. Where science-fiction is concerned, this usually involves the invocation of Frankenstein, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the collected works of JG Ballard. So consider this done. As Oscar Wilde nearly-but-not-quite said:  “There is no such thing as genre fiction or literary fiction, only good books and bad books.”

                Barry Nathaniel Malzberg has written some very good books. Between 1970 and 1985 he was almost bewilderingly prolific. More than 30 novels on a SF theme appeared in that time, of which the best-known is probably Beyond Apollo (1972), winner of the 1973 John W. Campbell book award. Described by one commentator as “2001: a Space Odyssey written by Samuel Beckett”, it is a series of short, obsessive monologues by one Evans, an astronaut confined in some kind of psychiatric institution,  attempting to piece together a coherent narrative of an abortive space mission during which his crewmate, The Captain, mysteriously disappeared. His accounts to himself and his interrogators are hallucinatory, fragmented, and contradictory. Did he murder the other man ? Was it suicide ? What was the precise nature of their relationship ? Why were they sent into space at all ? 

Typically garish 70s SF cover nevertheless hints at something more than space-opera

Evans’s accounts are highly sexualised, both in terms of his homoerotic attraction to the missing man and memories of his failing marriage. This sexuality is swamped by technological metaphor, highly reminiscent of Ballard (particularly Crash, which Apollo predates by a year), counterpointed ironically by the mission’s putative destination, Venus. The mystery unfolded through Evans’s ravings is never resolved, but the real question is not what happened to The Captain as an individual, but what has happened to the human race since we began to apprehend the true vastness of space and our inability to understand it definitively: “Everything is blind chance, happenstance, occurrence; in an infinite universe anything can happen. After the fact we find reasons.”

                The identity of outer space with an existential ‘inner space’ is further explored in On A Planet Alien (1974): “Lying on the bleak earth of this blasted planet, listening to the wind filter through the trees, it is possible for one moment in the clinging darkness to believe that it is not impossibly removed, that it is not at the far edge of the universe but that it is Earth itself and this has not been a voyage outward but a voyage in, to some other aspect of familiar terrain…” 

Folsom, leader of an ostensibly peaceful embassy to a distant, tribal society, is another narrator whose grip on reality is rapidly loosening. The ‘natives’ do not react with the expected compliance, and appear to have more sophisticated philosophical ideas than they should. The paranoia this engenders in Folsom rapidly develops into megalomania, and is then turned murderously on his supposedly treacherous colleagues, possibly on the whole planet.  Given the date of composition, I don’t think it is fanciful to see this as Malzberg’s Vietnam novel, and it certainly has relevant political content. As Folsom recalls one bureaucrat saying :  “Some of the opposition of course were referring to the program not as one of amalgamation but of ‘conquest,’ the brutalisation of innocent worlds to bring them into the hands of the Federation, render their natives hostage, their resources as plunder. Although everyone connected with the Bureau knew that this was untrue… [A]ll that the Federation was trying to do was make the universe a safe and agreeable place in which all of the races could live equably and without fear…”  We have heard this throughout the history of colonial exploitation.

Still from 1974 movie of "Phase IV", so far the only BNM novel to have been filmed.

 Malzberg is extremely interested in contemporary phenomena and the ways in which they might play out in the future. Like Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition (1970), The Destruction of the Temple (1974) explores continuing public fascination with the John F. Kennedy assassination (with walk-on parts for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King), positing a repetitive, obsessive reconstruction of the event against the background of a decayed New York City – whose nomadic, semi-feral inhabitants also strangely recall those of Ballard’s later High Rise (1975.)

TNew York in a more recognisable form is the backdrop for two other novels. Overlay (1972) is a blackly comic account of the attempt by an alien interloper to precipitate Armageddon by manipulating the human tendency to irrational belief: “We have to approach them from the edges, concentrate on mysticism, spirituality, the occult… That’s the only way to topple them.”  His choice of a social group to influence is neither ideological nor religious, but a ragbag of small-time compulsive horseracing gamblers – although the combination of illogical metaphysics, all-consuming resentment and a final scene of suicidal terrorism make this tale seem strangely prescient and familiar.

Herovit’s World (1973) satirises the science-fiction milieu itself, the protagonist Jonathan Herovit a hack writer increasingly frustrated not only by the disjuncture between his own chaotic life and the heroism of his creations, but also envious of the character and lifestyle he has attributed to his own pseudonym, ‘Kirk Poland’: “Kirk was a good first name. Nothing insoluble could happen to a man named Kirk once he put his mind to things.” There are no conventional SF elements in this novel, although there are various Malzberg trademarks – emotional and psychological disintegration, sexual anxiety, strange voices. I have no idea if there is anything autobiographical here, but some of the characters – Herovit himself and his monstrously egotistical colleague Mitchell Wilk, for example  – are vividly grotesque.

It is also extremely funny, and illustrates brilliantly the range of Malzberg’s  abilities, both thematic and stylistic. His lack of general recognition in the UK is probably not helped by his books – in their garish, inappropriately spaceship-festooned covers – having been out of print for years. Is it too much to hope that a recently-announced film adaptation of Beyond Apollo might change this ?

This article was originally written in June 2012 for the online magazine "Big Eyes".

Friday, 13 April 2012

American Nightmare: "Miller's Crossing" and the ethnic politics of gangster movies


              If the Hollywood western set out an American foundation myth for the first fifty years of popular cinema, then the Mafia movie took over with a darker vision for the past forty. Western heroes were all Anglo-Saxon individualists, steeped in rugged Protestant decency, striving for the rights of the ‘little man’ against supposedly uncivilised hordes of pagan aboriginals,  superstitious Catholic Mexicans, or the twisted mirror-image of themselves (outlaws, corporate-minded Easterners, corrupt sheriffs, etc.)  Francis Coppola’s The Godfather  (1972) acknowledged for the first time that not all US citizens were descended from north Europeans, that  American individualism was all about free enterprise in business, and that those two facts had created a far more complex and less innocent basis for the society in which most of his countrymen lived. The racism which had excluded Italian immigrants from the Anglo establishment gave rise to alternative social structures, based on ethnic clan loyalties; the free enterprise principle that profit should be made by whatever means could be got away with involved the bypassing and manipulation of that establishment’s rules. The Sicilian Cosa Nostra portrayed in the first two Godfather movies (Part II in 1974) is criminal and violent, but also social and, within its own terms of reference, recognisably moral. That’s what makes these a new kind of film about US social history, as well as compelling stories. Brian de Palma did the same kind of thing for the Hispanic criminal underworld with Scarface (1983), Sergio Leone for Jewish gangsters in Once Upon a Time in America (1984.)

 Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar)

                By the time the Coen Brothers made Miller’s Crossing (1990) the struggle between Italians, Jews, Anglos, Hispanics, Irish,  and, to a lesser extent, African-Americans, for  dollars and the nation’s soul (which may or may not be the same thing) was an established cinematic paradigm.  Being the Coens, though, this was never going to be a simple genre piece. On one level, the film is a blackly comic pastiche of everybody else’s gangster movie. It opens with an outraged Sicilian mobster (Johnny Caspar) decrying to an Irish gang boss (Leo O’Bannion) the dubious ethics of a renegade Jewish grifter (Bernie Birnbaum) who has shortened the odds on a fixed boxing-match, thus diminishing his gambling profits. It involves a ménage à trois between Bannion, his ‘moll’ Verna – a cynic from Central Casting and Birnbaum’s sister to boot – and his lieutenant, Tom Reagan, who gives every indication of not caring a damn about her. In the course of the action, Reagan is subjected to a series of savage beatings which in the real world would have killed or incapacitated him, sustaining no more injury than a cut lip. In several early scenes, O’Bannion is shown dictating to the Mayor and Police Chief as though they were underlings; in a later one, the now-dominant Caspar does the same thing.  There are crosses and double-crosses galore.

L-R: Albert Finney (Leo O'Bannion), Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Marcia Gay Harden (Verna Birnbaum)

So far, so parodic. But just as Coppola and Leone, inter alia, demonstrate the workings of politics and the wider mechanisms of business in the activities of organised crime, so the Coens introduce the cock-up theory of history into the mix.  Reagan, now apparently working for Johnny Caspar (keep up !) takes pity on Birnbaum, whom he has been instructed to murder, and allows him to escape on condition he leave town without trace. Whereupon he reappears in Reagan’s own apartment to manipulate the situation to his own reckless financial advantage.  The gang war prompted by his chiselling fizzles out. Caspar himself is murdered by Reagan, who also (finally) takes out Birnbaum. O’Bannion is restored, diminished, to top-dog status, with Verna agreeing to marry him but Reagan refusing his offer of re-employment. The solidarity within all camps – Sicilian, Irish and Jewish – is fatally compromised. Reagan is the last man left standing, largely because his ruthlessness, cynicism and ability to take a beating exceed those of any of the other players, but it is a moot point how long this is likely to last. He might be killed next week, or he might go on to found his own mob and be brought down years later in a replay of the kind of machinations in which he has just played a part. His bloody-mindedness and individualism, like a perverted version of that of the cowboy-heroes cited earlier, have allowed him to outwit the collectivities and corporations among which he moves, but the price is solitude and unknowability, and we're all aware they will not protect him indefinitely. He is as blank as Melville’s Samouraï, and as doomed.

John Turturro (Bernie Birnbaum)

Friday, 6 April 2012

Glossy pictures: Gary Hume - Flashback, at Leeds Art Gallery

American Tan XXVIII (2008)

The first draft of this review began thus:             

“In his essay Cuisine ornamentale, published in the mid-1950s and collected in his celebrated Mythologies (1957), the French cultural critic Roland Barthes decried a tendency of the magazine Elle to extend the glossiness of its own production values to the content of its cookery pages. Every week, he wrote, Elle would publish a colour photo of some elaborate dish in which ‘the predominant  substantial characteristic is the coating (le nappé): visible effort is made to glaze surfaces, to surround them, to swamp the food itself with a smooth patina of sauce, cream, fondant, or jelly… This universal glazing is, in fact, a demand that we accord its object a certain distinction, refinement, eminence… ’ 

“That word, le nappé, kept coming back to me as I prowled between the paintings and sculptures making up this small retrospective of Gary Hume’s work, wondering why, for the most part, I didn’t get it – or indeed, if there was anything to get. Perhaps it was all the gloss paint used for many of the pieces. Sheets of aluminium evenly covered in simple blocks of uniform bright colour, balloonlike bronzes sheathed in shiny black or white carapaces: this work announces its surface, its coating, as brashly as a new car’s bodywork, a glossy nailpolish, or a 1950s gastroporn photograph. But does it announce anything else ?”

Then my computer died on me, and I couldn’t do anything more on it for nearly two weeks. But I did go back to take a second look at the Gary Hume , and I couldn’t believe my eyes… Somehow, that fortnight away from first impressions, and the prejudices they had triggered, enabled me to see the work afresh. Yes, the surfaces were glossy, the materials and their combination unusual and confrontational, the colours bright and simple, but coming back to them with an idea of what I thought they looked like, I found myself completely confounded.  Instead of a uniform Barthesian nappé, I found an array of textures and variations beneath the outer sheen which was little short of astonishing. Pictures I had been prepared to dismiss as slapdash and overly simplistic, like Roots (1993) and Flying (1995), disclosed a technical effort and a subtlety of finish which simply hadn’t been apparent (to me, at least) on an initial view. 

 Four Doors I (1988-89)

Paint is layered, scraped, pooled and brushed, in a range of ways, rewarding close examination and the viewing of each piece from different distances and angles. In fact, it can probably be asserted that the glossier the surface – the greater its initial resistance to examination – the more there is to be discovered. Four Feet in the Garden (1995), ostensibly just a silhouette of, well, two pairs of human feet facing each other above stylised blades of grass, is delicately inscribed with detail of the toes and carries two mysterious whorls of relief positioned above them.  Although his paintings will sometimes use contrasting blocks of colour  for immediate effect, there is actually more going on within individual colour-areas than between them. This, of course, makes the pictures fiendishly difficult to photograph, so be warned about judging them from the illustrations accompanying this text – they really need to be seen in their original state.

Snowman (not in the Leeds show)

The same goes for the sculptures. The bronze may have been denatured by treatment with Hume’s ubiquitous gloss paint, but their surfaces are far from uniform. American Tan VII (2006-2007) is an assembly of sections of human legs, planed and curved with a solidity, presence, and isolation both familiar and poignant. Even the ‘snowman’ sculpture The End of Fun (2004) – two sets of three black-painted spheres stacked on top of each other – has an irregular, ‘made’ quality which works against its stylised premiss.  American Tan VI (2006-2007) combines a tan-painted ‘legs’ motif with what would appear to be a giant bare-bronze chrysanthemum, a touching and funny comment on the relationship between artifice and nature.

Water Painting (1999)

On this second visit, I took time to watch parts of the film of Gary Hume talking about his work which is played on a loop in an anteroom to the main exhibition. In it he talks about the particular qualities of the gloss-paint medium:  “There are no light-effects in my paintings” he says at one point “but the paint itself loves light.” Quite.  He is engagingly modest about his drawing ability, although on the strength of the complex, interweaving human outlines in Water Painting (1999) he has no real need to be. He is clearly a highly original craftsman and thinker about painting, and appears, remarkably, to have found a new and challenging way to skin the old artistic cat.

 Gary Hume - Flashback is at Leeds Art Gallery, The Headrow, Leeds, until 15th April.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Bog, Droogs & Ludwig Van: Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” Revisited

Malcolm McDowell as Alex

‘What’s it going to be, then, eh ?’  The phrase which recurs as a Leitmotif throughout Anthony Burgess’s 1963 novel,  surfacing once in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 screen adaptation, encapsulates what its author saw as the essential element determining whether human behaviour can be judged as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ – choice. More prosaically, it was an apposite question to ask myself as I sat down in front of this notorious movie forty years on from its original UK release: would it come over as a period-piece dependent on the assumptions of the times in which it was made, or would it continue to work on its own terms, as any piece of art must if it is to be worth revisiting  ?

The short answer is, probably, both. The film’s opening sequences of gang violence speak, of course, to continuing fears among the wider population  about young men attacking the vulnerable. Burgess’s starting-point was an assault by off-duty GIs on his wife during the Second World War blackout in London, but by the early 60s what Dick Hebdige called “respectable fears” about Teddy Boys, and later Mods and Rockers, fighting each other , the police, and polite society, had become a standard media trope. By 1971 this had modulated into tabloid-fuelled terror of that highly-visible, working-class male phenomenon, the skinhead (I can’t be sure, but I think I had a No 1 crop at the time I first saw the film.)  Kubrick’s  costume design taps cleverly into contemporary signs associated with such groups – the antihero Alex’s gang wear straight trousers, boots and braces, as did the skins; the group led by one ‘Billy-Boy’ sport vaguely Nazi-ish military insignia, then current among some bikers. In the ensuing decades it’s easy to map the same hysteria onto successive, loosely-identifiable groups of young men – ‘casuals’, punk-rockers, ‘chavs’, boys in hoodies, wearers of ‘gangsta’ uniform – banding together, as young men will, to establish hierarchies of status based largely on physical strength and aggression. Customary liberal opinion holds that any destructive behaviour emanating from such groups is a social and/or psychological problem amenable to practical solutions;  A Clockwork Orange , however, suggests it may be a moral issue more intractably arising from human nature – even, in Burgess’s lapsed-Catholic terms, Original Sin.

Anthony Burgess in the early 1960s

It has to be said that Kubrick is lighter on the religion and philosophy than Burgess, probably wisely, almost certainly because of the difficulty inherent in rendering internal monologue cinematically. Whereas Burgess’s Alex is quite explicit from the beginning about his belonging ‘in the other shop’ from ‘Bog or God’, Kubrick’s is necessarily more of a doer than a thinker. If anything, this makes the depiction of violence all the more shocking. Burgess filters his description through a  largely Russian-based argot (derived, probably, from his Cold War-era fears about the advance of Soviet influence), which has a distancing, almost comic effect. Kubrick retains the ‘nadsat’, or ‘teen’ language for much of his dialogue, but choreographs his scenes of  beatings, stabbings and rape to a soundtrack of popular classics, which serves the dual purpose of counterpointing Alex’s delight in mayhem with the supposedly ‘civilised’ pleasure he takes in serious music, and by extension implicating the audience in this confusion of  savagery and culture. One thing everyone knows about A Clockwork Orange the film is that it was blamed by the tabloid press for inspiring just about every outbreak of youth-related violence which occurred during its original run, and was thus withdrawn from distribution in the UK for some 20 years afterwards, allegedly by Kubrick himself. Ironically, then, it was co-opted by the very advocates of social engineering whose philosophy – that human nature can be altered by external intervention – it questions. Doubly ironically, Burgess, from whose pessimistic  vision of humanity it arose in the first place, found himself appointed a popular media pundit on teenage violence, despite his insistence that he knew nothing  in particular about it !

McDowell & Kubrick on set

It is said that nothing dates like the future, meaning that our views of what is to come are invariably based on present prejudices and therefore likely to seem absurdly quaint once that future actually arrives – think 1950s science-fiction movies, for example. A Clockwork Orange, 1961 novel-version, is avowedly a futuristic satire, its setting a Britain in which a kind of socialism is institutionalised in government, streets are named after early-1960s Labour Party luminaries and left-wing writers (including Kingsley Amis !), Russian words have infiltrated popular speech, and so forth.  It doesn’t, however, give much attention to domestic detail.  Kubrick, on the other hand, faced with the need to depict the future physically, chose a slightly different tack. Design is fundamental to his film, and his approach was to exaggerate existing trends in décor, clothing and architecture rather than attempting to imagine something unknown. Thus the modified skinhead- and biker-clothing already referred to. Also, his use of the brutalist Friars’ Square shopping centre in Aylesbury (built 1966) for some of the external scenes (e.g. Alex walking home at dawn across the prestressed concrete roofs of its retail units), and the California-era David Hockney-influenced interior in which Frank (the writer earlier beaten and crippled by Alex and his droogs) and his weightlifting friend Julian appear towards the end of the film. Most strikingly, the furniture in the Korova Milk Bar – the gang’s regular meeting-place and hangout – is clearly based on the now largely-forgotten work of Allen Jones: stylised, moulded plastic simulacra of exaggeratedly trim naked female bodies, sadistically twisted into table supports and, in one case, a machine which dispenses drug-spiked milk through a gravity-defying exposed breast.

Korova Milk Bar tables

 Allen Jones table

Korova Milk Bar dispenser

This inevitably raises the portrayal of sexuality in A Clockwork Orange, in both versions a wholly male affair predicated exclusively on rape. Burgess is deliberately flat in his account, allowing his reader’s assumed disgust to arise automatically. Sex is apostrophised, in Alex’s narration, as ‘the old in-out, in-out’; most of the rape-victims are almost casually described by him as no more than ten years old (he himself, we learn at the end of Part 1 of the book, is ‘not yet fifteen.’) Kubrick’s approach is more problematic. Plainly, he could neither depict the full brutality involved, nor use child actors, and yet sexual violence – indeed, the way in which his male characters regard sex as indistinguishable from violence – is an essential element  of his critique.  Again, the design – from the outrageously sexist Allen Jones-inspired tables, through the phallic masks worn by Alex & co as disguises, to the casually-placed sculpture of a giant penis with which Miriam Karlin’s unfortunate character is battered to death – is crucial to establishing the misogynistic context within which his characters operate.  But it is difficult to see what is shown of the actual assaults – specifically the artful cutting-away of a catsuit worn by Adrienne Corri prior to her character’s (unseen) rape – as anything other than titillatory, however stylised.  Not much in A Clockwork Orange is comfortable to watch, but  this additionally feels like exploitation.

 McDowell in phallic mask, Adrienne Corri in catsuit

McDowell & murder weapon...

The original poster for the film carried a strapline describing Alex as ‘a young man whose principal interests are ultra-violence, rape and Beethoven.’ Though a composer himself, Anthony Burgess  held no illusions about the morally edifying power of great music, which notion he doubtless would have seen as a piece of mechanistic reductionism akin to the penal authorities’  attempts to condition Alex against evil through aversion therapy – the ‘Ludovico Technique’ of both novel and film.  It is, of course, well-attested that many perpetrators of Second World War death-camp atrocities were apparently ‘cultured’ people with a well-developed love of music.  This is neatly folded into Alex’s story by the use of Beethoven to accompany a film of Nazi activities shown during his ‘therapy,’ which inadvertently causes him to associate the Ninth Symphony with a desire to commit suicide.  It’s worth commenting here on Walter (later Wendy) Carlos’s disorienting soundtrack to the film, a series of Moog synthesiser programmings of, inter alia, Purcell and Beethoven, combining familiarity of theme with a demonic strangeness of execution,  cleverly complementing what has been done with the visual ‘stretching’ of current design conventions into something almost hallucinatory. With or without aversion therapy, if I woke in a locked room to find Carlos’s arrangement of the Ninth bubbling and squeaking at high volume through the floorboards, I too might be tempted to throw myself through the nearest window…

A film made 40 years ago of a novel that is now 50 years old, A Clockwork Orange stands up well because of its abiding themes – violence among young men, misogyny, the eternal nature of evil, and the perennial failure of the state to rid itself of ‘antisocial behaviour’ through social and medical interventions. Kubrick elides some of the metaphysical subtlety of Burgess’s book, but creates some strong visual images as corollaries for philosophical unease. There are also many telling little details to delight the heart of the film-buff and amateur cultural historian: Alex-in-the-film (Malcolm McDowell) is given a Mancunian accent, like that originally possessed by his literary begetter, and the surname ‘Burgess’ - although confusingly he's also referred to at one point as 'Alex Delarge'. There is even a not-so-subtle piece of early product-placement in the form of the soundtrack album from Kubrick’s own 2001 – A Space Odyssey at the centre of a display in the record-shop scene !  Around the edges of the violence done both by and to Alex there gathers a coterie of memorable grotesques – a bombastic clergyman aping the hellfire priest in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, Freddie Jones’s oleaginous probation officer, Alex’s bewildered parents, the crazed writer Frank (Patrick Magee) – signalling, perhaps, that what we are dealing with here is above all a very, very black comedy. In fact, the whole thing can be seen as a kind of updated Jacobean revenge play, full of horrors, gory effects and dark wit, from which no-one emerges well. Anthony Burgess would certainly have liked that. Stanley Kubrick too, probably.

Stanley Kubrick's film is now widely available on DVD, often, alas, in supermarket bargain bins; Anthony Burgess's novel, though not his best work, has remained continuously in print since its reissue in 1972, currently as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Creative Writing: Reflections of a Survivor

'Q' (Rip Torn) in Wonder Boys

              In Curtis Hanson’s 2000 film Wonder Boys, based on a novel by Michael Chabon, the successful author Quentin Morewood (known as ‘Q’, and played by Rip Torn), opens his keynote speech to a literary festival by announcing, portentously, “ I am… a Writer.” There is a brief pause, followed by thunderous applause from the assembled members of the university Creative Writing faculty hosting the event. As the ovation dies down, it is replaced by isolated shrieks of laughter  emanating from James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a gifted student, misfit and fantasist, who plainly has no time for the solemnity and self-regard of the occasion – and has also been smoking marijuana.  It’s a great comic moment, puncturing Q’s pomposity and calling into question the solemn presence of everybody there. We’re never quite sure if James is impressed by, or even aware of, his own talent – which has already been comprehensively rubbished by his studious peers – or whether it is all part of the continuum of deceit and self-concealment by which he keeps everyone around him at bay. But there can be no doubt that he holds the institution of which he is a member in little regard, and this only serves to emphasise the uncertainties simultaneously assailing his tutor, Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), who was appointed to his post on the strength of a single well-received novel and now cannot finish his second.  James obviously can write, but won’t – or can’t – play the game. Prof Tripp plays the game – he is both coach and referee into the bargain – but seems to have forgotten how to write spontaneously.  And here we have, in one brilliant little vignette, the whole paradox of Creative Writing education.

                I‘m thinking of this because for some reason a number of my Facebook friends have, in the last couple of days, posted various press and blog articles giving advice to writers and other artists on how to ‘up’ their performance,  concentrate on the job in hand, augment their creativity, and otherwise improve themselves and their production.  Coupled with this has been publicity surrounding the recent 40th anniversary of the first UK Creative Writing degree course at the University of East Anglia (alumni: Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, et al.) The question this raises with  me is one I’ve often heard articulated before: does any of it work ? Indeed, given the huge disparity in personality between practitioners of the literary arts, the impenetrability of the commercial market for their output, and the unpredictability of artistic trends, can  it work ?

"Bleeding obvious !"

                I suppose a lot depends on what it is you’re trying to achieve. Much of the standard advice concerns the development of writing habits – treating what you do as though it were a day job, writing even when you don’t feel like it, accepting that writing practice complies with the old formula ‘1% inspiration, 99% perspiration’, and so on. But this strikes me as what Basil Fawlty might have described as the ‘school of the bleeding obvious’ – useful only to those with a vague idea that they might want to become a writer, as though this were some kind of supplementary accomplishment like learning to swim or cultivating gardenias. I’d guess that most of those who take any notice at all of this kind of article, or who might consider enrolling on a Creative Writing course, have already been doing these things for years and have either worked out all the basics on their own or learnt them through independent research.  For the rest, a very great deal of the other hints and tips regularly dispensed are contradictory and/or mutually exclusive – the most obvious example, familiar to all practising writers, being the incompatibility between screenwriter Robert McKee’s brilliantly-constructed comprehensive theory of storytelling and his confrère  William Goldman’s pithy dictum: “No-one knows anything.”  The journalist Robert McCrum was widely ridiculed just before Christmas when he filled his Observer column with  “Fifty things I've learned about the literary life”, apparently because he was simply reproducing a set of self-cancelling clichés about writing.  But as far as I could tell,  this was precisely the point he was trying to make.

Robert McCrum's Life in Books
                OK, declaration of interest time. I am a writer (note lower-case ‘w’, and no pregnant pause) – or at least, I was. Not a serial success like Q, nor a talented maverick like James Leer, nor even a one-hit wonder with a great future behind him (as they say) like Grady Tripp. I was a hoverer round the fringes of the UK poetry scene,  recipient of  fairly regular little-magazine publication, a couple of minor residencies, commissions for reviews and essays on poetry, and author of a single short collection bought out by a small press. My three continuously-rewritten and -submitted novel manuscripts remain unpublished.  I have also purported to be a Creative Writing tutor,  this last earning me far more money, and probably a bigger audience, in one year than all the rest had managed in the previous ten. As I commented when the first series of Chris Douglas and Andrew Nickolds’s Radio 4 series went out, Ed Reardon – c’est moi !

The thing about the CW gig, which I walked into almost entirely on my own say-so, was that I had absolutely no idea how to proceed in a way that would make any sense to my students. Leaving aside the fact that my track-record was in poetry and they were principally prose-fiction writers, their main concern was how to make their work publishable and attract the requisite attention of agents and publishing-houses, something I was in absolutely no position to tell them other than by repeating what others had, ineffectually, told me.  I was quite honest about this, as my own occasional tutors and quasi-mentors had been with me. I might be able to help you write better, I said, but beyond that nothing is guaranteed. Nothing can be guaranteed. Unsurprisingly, this was not what most of them wanted to hear : one class dwindled from 35 participants at the beginning of term to 3 at the end. Yet even in areas where I believed I had some expertise – conciseness of style, handling of imagery, effective use of dialogue – I had read too many too-diverse books to expect any more than the most provisional impact. Presented with a latterday Henry James, for example, I would have savaged his prolixity. John Le Carré would have been commended for plot, advised to tone down some of his characters, and generally recommended to make his style less leaden. God alone knows what I would have made of JK Rowling.

I ought to stress that I have never had anything to do with university-level CW courses. These are probably quite different from the kind of weekly evening-class sessions that I oversaw, and certainly attract higher-calibre authors as teaching staff.  Also, I’m sure they will have changed from the early days at UEA, where, as Ian McEwan recalled in a recent radio interview, students benefited chiefly from being encouraged to read a great deal (another example, I would suggest, of the blindingly ‘bleeding obvious’) and tutorials with the late Malcolm Bradbury sometimes consisted simply in being told one was on the right track and should carry on along it. I mean absolutely no disrespect to anybody who either teaches or has studied on any CW course at any level – and  I number several friends among both groups – but I do wonder if they aren’t setting themselves an impossible task, given the ever-mutating nature of art and literature, and the fact that nobody, but nobody, claims to be able to predict what ‘the Market’ will pick up, now or in the future.

Of course, as McEwan also pointed out in the same interview, the great advantage of his time at university was the opportunity to spend a substantial period legitimately concentrating on writing, reading, discussing work with other writers, and developing ideas, free from the necessities of paid labour and the multifarious other calls on one’s time which necessarily circumscribe the lives of most people, the great majority of practising writers among them. Ultimately, however, he will have had to reach the same accommodation as the rest of us with the practicalities of everyday existence. Whatever he or anybody else may have chanced to learn through the teaching or experience of others, such knowledge or ability remains under constant review, and is only any good so long as the individual is able to keep acquiring insights for him- or herself, maintaining self-confidence, and convincing those on whom publication depends that the work is worth the investment. Perhaps the grounding of a CW course can help in this, although it seems to me that there are so many variables involved that any success in this connection is likely to be more by luck – combined with native talent and blind tenacity – than by any judgment on the part of the course designers.

Of all the arts, I’d argue, writing is the most thankless. Even an indifferent painter or sculptor will end up with a picture or object that can be displayed, albeit in their own living-room. A composer will have a piece of music that can be played, by its author if by no-one else. A choreographer doesn’t even exist as such without someone willing to dance his or her steps. A writer, on the other hand, can spend years creating, refining, editing, and rewriting a book, but have only a heap of manuscript paper in a drawer to show for all that solitary effort if no-one is willing to publish it. With all the encouragement in the world, this is something no CW course, or handy list of writing hints and tips, or do’s and don’ts from people supposedly in the know, is ever likely to be able to remedy.  Nobody has a right to publication, and many literary agents are admirably clear in their submission guidelines as to what they will consider accepting  – even though they will themselves sometimes break their own rules if they come across something genuinely surprising.  The whole process is inherently unpredictable, and this isn’t helped by the lack of feedback accompanying most rejected submissions. The best anyone can hope to derive from the kind of advice generally available, be it in the form of structured academic courses or ad hoc lists, is a kind of temporary bulwark against the next disappointment, or the superstitious gambler’s hope that next time, next time it will be different.

(That looks suspiciously like my study floor... PS)