Sunday 25 May 2014

Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis

Continuing my modestly ambitious project of reading all of Kingsley Amis's novels (inspired by Zachary Leader's admirable and definitive biography of Amis), I have just finished Take a Girl Like You. This is Amis's fourth novel, after Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling and  I Like it Here and it is widely regarded as one of his best.

I'd go along with that, though it isn't about to unseat The Green Man as my personal favourite. (Actually, there is an interesting foreshadowing of The Green Man here. The male protagonist of Take a Girl Like You is given to panic attacks of an almost hallucinatory intensity, like this: "Some configuration of the leaves under the slight breeze formed, as he watched, a shifting face in profile, the eye blinking slowly." That will ring a bell with anyone who has read Amis's classic ghost story.)

One thing I've noticed in my Amis-reading project is the extent of his vocabulary. It's an education to read his books. You can generally count on at least one word you've never heard before. This time it is "carphology" which means the plucking of the bedclothes by a delirious patient. Here Amis uses it to refer to some frenetic modern jazz he doesn't like (Coltrane, I suspect): "carphology in sound." 

Take a Girl Like You is Amis's own favourite among his novels. It is lovingly crafted and took a long time to write, started in 1955 and set aside for I Like it Here, it was finally published in 1960.

It is also Amis's longest novel, carefully planned in terms of characterisation and structure. He made 80 pages of detailed notes in a notebook, begun while he was in Portugal (also incidentally gathering the material for I Like it Here). It's a notable step forward in Amis's craft, depicting the action from two character's viewpoints. It starts out as a pure account of Jenny Bunn and what happens to her, then follows Patrick Standish's point of view, alternating chapters between the two of them. But it remains essentially Jenny's novel (16 chapters for her, 11 for Patrick).

Jenny is a delightful character, a ravishing Northern virgin. She is largely inspired by Amis's wife Hilly (though she wasn't from the North of England) and it is a highly sympathetic portrait, although it is easy for the modern reader (and indeed the 1960 reader) to get fed up with Jenny's silly insistence on trying to retain her virginity in the face of Patrick's (and others') onslaughts and stratagems.

But, as Zachary Leader points out, it is easier to mock a desire to retain virginity than a wish for fidelity, and in the real world that was the true tension between Hilly and Amis — they loved each other but he was running around (to put it euphemistically) with every available, attractive women who crossed his line of sight.

This is a beautifully observed novel and very sympathetic to the plight of women suffering unwanted attention. For instance when Amis describes the anxious sweaty dud nerving himself himself up to try and put his arm around Jenny's shoulder, "like a golfer preparing for a tricky shot."

This brilliant observation extends to other characters, like posh Julian the flamboyant  rich rake. As he serves drinks, Jenny observes "It was funny to see him with something in his hands that was for other people."

And the character of Julian's mistress Wendy is a comic tour de force, delivered almost as a three page monologue: "Is he pissed or something? ... He's absolutely stark raving mad. Darling, what happened to him to make him behave like that, do you suppose? Do you think he was brought up in the most weird morbid sort of way by some ghastly old maiden aunt or something, you know with all harmoniums and aspidistras and antimacassars and things?"
Take a Girl Like You is also hilariously funny: "he quietened down, like somebody who knows he has let on to being a bit too interested in how they manage the floggings in prisons."

Amis himself said of the novel, "I hope they'll go on laughing, but this time... I'm saying something serious. I don't mean profound or earnest, but something serious."

And, true enough, Take a Girl Like You is wildly funny, but it is also surprisingly dark — perhaps the first sign of a tendency which would become increasingly emphatic in Amis's fiction. And, like many of his novels, it has a real sting in the tail.

The ending of the book is rather shocking, for a number of reasons which obviously I won't go into here, since I don't want to spoil it for you. I will just say that it's no surprise that Patrick Standish is capable of being a bastard — we see plenty of examples of that throughout the novel — but it is jarring to discover that the previously sympathetic Miss Sinclair, the headmistress at Jenny's school and her boss, is capable of being such a complete bitch.

Classic Amis.

(Image credits: The cover of the copy I read, the Penguin with the neat repeating graphic design by Lou Klein is from ABE. As are the great sexy Signet, the later Penguin (lecher in scholar's robes) and the Gollancz original hardcover. The lovely Quentin Blake Penguin is from Good Reads.)

Sunday 18 May 2014

More Thoughts on Noah

I saw Noah again the other day, thinking that any new thoughts I had about the film could be added to my earlier post. However, there was so much to say that it justified a whole new entry. 

One thing I only briefly touched on last time was the issue of meat eating (stay with me on this)... 

Noah and his family are gentle vegetarians and horrified at the notion of eating the flesh of living animals. Other creatures are regarded as sacred, and this is powerfully embodied in the movie.

There's a great scene early on when the bad guys (the Sons of Cain) are hunting an animal (a strange kind of scaly hound) and fatally wound it with an arrow. Noah goes to the rescue and the baddies try to kill him. Russell Crowe proceeds to dispatch them in an enjoyable action-hero scene which is reminiscent of Gladiator. (Gentleness has its limits.) But he's too late to save the scaly hound, so Noah and his sons wrap it in a shroud and respectfully burn it on a funeral pyre. The bad guys are presumably left to rot.

But there's no hypocrisy here, because Noah is very clear that animals are innocent whereas the Sons of Cain — in fact, humans generally — are knowingly wicked. This kind of Old-Testament-Apocrypha animal rights stance strikes a powerful chord with viewers, or at least it did with me. Noah isn't going to be ordering a Big Mac any time soon. 

Indeed, it is the sequence in which he sees the Sons of Cain tearing living animals apart and devouring them that prompts Noah to wash his hands of humans once and for all, abandon any notion of finding wives for his sons, and try for a world wiped clean of mankind. It's worth hammering this point home because the geniuses who wrote the Wikipedia entry think this scene depicts Noah "witnessing cannibalism by a starving mob." It's not cannibalism, boys. They are not eating people. They're eating animals, and that's enough for Noah.
As I said, this is powerful stuff and it is reinforced in a shocking scene where the chief bad guy, Tubal-cain (played by an awesome Ray Winstone) stows away on the ark and sustains himself by snacking on the lovingly stowed living beasts. Even Ham — Noah's son but Tubal-cain's confederate — is shocked. "There's only two of each," he protests. "Well, there's only one of me," says Tubal-cain, ever the pragmatist. We're really glad when Noah kills him.

Other things that struck me about the film on a second viewing was the magnificent, and unusual, use of CGI. Normally computer effects in Hollywood blockbusters are devoted to space ships, giant robots, exploding cities. Here the special effects are breathtakingly deployed to show us the animals coming into the ark — storm-clouds of birds, a slithering river of snakes, a stampede of beasts.

And one of the clever new wrinkles dreamt up by Darren Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel is the way these animals are put into hibernation by having them breathe the smoke of burning herbs. So all the critters settle down peacefully in a space-saving state of suspended animation, perhaps inspired by the cryogenic sleep of starship passengers in science fiction movies. It's a smart new idea, and definitely the way to go if you ever want to build an ark of your own.

This second viewing also emphasised just how great Anthony Hopkins is as Methuselah. He kept reminding me of Merlin for some reason, and I realised that the whole movie has a kind of Arthurian feel, in particular evoking John Boorman's film Excalibur.

Any other fresh observations? Yup, Clint Mansell's score is terrific. Brooding, scary, rousing, folky, glorious. I first noticed how good Mansell was with his music for Stoker and I'm going to be paying him a lot more attention.

This is, as you will have gathered, a striking piece of film making. It's full of subtle, potent moments. Like when the apocalyptic deluge starts to fall, and the first rain drops sizzle on the forge where Tubal-cain is hammering out the red hot metal of his weapons of war.

(Image credits, as with the previous post, all the posters and stills are from Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday 11 May 2014

Locke by Steven Knight

Steven Knight is a British screenwriter — and now a director. I first became aware of his work with his script for Dirty Pretty Things, directed by Stephen Frears, an unusual and intriguing film. But he really registered on my radar with Eastern Promises, a tale of Russian gangsters in London directed by David Cronenberg and one of my favourite films of recent years.

Knight has a highly unusual background. He was primarily a TV comedy writer and created and scripted a successful comedy cop show for the BBC called The Detectives. Then he hit the jackpot by creating the game show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Not my cup of tea, but a huge success on British television and replicated around the world. At this point Knight was wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice and could have put his feet up and relaxed — he certainly never needed to work again.

Instead he began writing, then directing, an increasingly challenging string of movies, the latest of which is Locke, a masterpiece and one of the best films of 2014.

I had no idea what it was about when I went to see it, beyond a vague notion that it featured Tom Hardy at the wheel of a car. I'd assumed it was a thriller. But instead it's a startling portrait of a man whose life is falling apart, as he drives through the night towards London from a northern city, taking and making phonecalls as he goes.

Locke is an honourable man, under immense pressure, trying to do the right thing. The movie is suspenseful, deeply involving, and often hilarious. Tom Hardy, who has made a big impression in Inception and Lawless (not to mention as the masked baddie in the last Batman flick) is terrific.

He is the only person we see on screen, although there are some distinguished actors and fine performances on the other end of the phone. Knight's script is unremittingly brilliant, with superb dialogue, wonderful characterisation and profound emotional impact. An amazing and moving film, it takes place almost in real time (the movie runs 84 minutes, the drive to London takes something under two hours).

Shot with Hardy actually behind the wheel of a car, it's an impressive and beautifully crafted film. You can read about the making of it here. Don't miss this movie.

 (Image credits: the posters and stills are from Ace Show Biz, where the pickings were very thin compared to your average Hollywood blockbuster.)

Sunday 4 May 2014

Noah by Aronofsky & Handel

I've been wary of Darren Aronofsky ever since his amazingly wayward movie The Fountain. But Black Swan was excellent and now his latest Noah is nothing short of a masterpiece. 

Working with his regular screenwriting partner Ari Handel, Aronofsky has jettisoned the conventional Christian framework of the Noah story (good work guys) and opted for a fantasy approach.

This means, for instance, that there are fallen angels called the Watchers who look like Transformers made of chunky rock fragments. 

When I saw these ungainly galoots I thought the movie was in deep trouble. But I was wrong, and elsewhere the CGI effects (as when the animals come into the ark) are magnificent.

So is the acting. Ray Winstone is breathtaking as the descendant of Cain who is the chief bad guy in the movie and represents the evil in humanity which has despoiled the Earth and which the coming flood is specifically designed to get rid of. And Russell Crowe as Noah has never been better.

The script is remarkably good. Despite ladling on special effects, spectacle and battle, Aronofsky and Handel understand that the essence of the film is human and simple — Noah's son Ham being torn between the charismatically evil Winstone character and loyalty to his father.

Noah is specifically designed as a powerful ecological parable about how we are destroying the world through exploitation, pollution and climate change. 

In the movie the animals are the good guys — Noah and his family are vegetarians, Ray Winstone's mob are meat eaters — and the most emotionally forceful and profound moments of the film concern Noah's tormented attempts to decide whether humanity should be allowed to survive the floods at all — or whether we should just leave the world to the animals, who won't screw it up.

A great movie, and an important one.

(All the images are from Ace Show Biz.)