Archive for the 'writing' Category

Inspector Barlach

23 September 2017

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Pushkin Press specialises in classily produced versions of translated fiction. Their Vertigo imprint which features translated crime, is a welcome extension. I saw the recently re-published Suspicion, one of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s Inspector Barlach crime novels, on the counter of the excellent Riverside Bookshop in London, and surprisingly good value, too, at £4.99.

Durrenmatt is a Swiss writer whom I mostly know for The Visit, an entertaining play that has at its heart questions about money, morality and corruption.

Suspicion looks as if it was first published in instalments in a Swiss newspaper in 1951–2, and then in book form a year later. It is set in late 1948 and early 1949, and like the Philip Kerr novel featured recently on Around the Edges, trades in that grey world of the post-war war criminal. Is the doctor running a prestigious Zurich clinic really a notorious doctor from a concentration camp?

I’m not going to try to convey the plot, since I’ll give something away, but it’s fair to say that it is equal parts noir and metaphysics. It also has that now-familar trope (small spoiler) of the detective who puts himself in danger to catch his quarry, only to realise that his quarry is two or three steps ahead of him. As tropes go, it would have been a lot less familiar in 1951.

It’s closer to novella length, at 150 pages or so, and I kept turning the pages. I hadn’t come across Barlach before, but there are several more to read.

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Brendan Behan, lighthouse painter

2 September 2017


I once learnt in the Maritime Museum in Moville, Co. Donegal, that the Irish writer Brendan Behan had spent some time as a young man working as a lighthouse painter. This was in that time after his second spell in jail for IRA-related activities, but before his literary career had become a success.

He wasn’t very good at painting, possibly to the longer-term gain of Irish literature. The museum has a letter from the Principal Keeper at St John’s Point lighthouse asking that he be sacked immediately. The local paper, The Down Recorder had an article when the letter came to light later.

“He is wilfully wasting materials, opening drums and paint tins by blows from a heavy hammer, spilling the contents which is now running out of the paint stores.

“Drums of waterwash opening and exposed to the weather, paint brushes dirty and lying all around the station — no cleaning up of any mess but he tramps through everything.

“His language is filthy and he is not amenable to any law or order.

“The spare house, which was clean and ready for painters has been turned into a filthy shambles inside a week.

“Empty stinking milk bottles, articles of food, coal, ashes and other debris litter the floor of the place which is now in a scandalous condition of dirt.”

Here’s the letter.


I was thinking of this because I was listening to Philip Chevron’s version of Behan’s lyric, “The Captains and the Kings”, with its precise disdain for England and the Empire:

We have many goods for export, Christian ethics and old port

But our greatest boast is that the Anglo-Saxon is a sport

On the playing fields of Eton we still do thrilling things

Do not think we’ll ever weaken of the captains and the kings


Behan wrote the song for his play The Hostage. While I was looking for the Chevron version, I found a recording by Behan himself, singing it in his “Oxford accent”:

 

 

A tender kiss

26 August 2017

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While checking an assertion I’d made in my last post, on Robin Hood, I stumbled across a presentation/workshop that Ben Crystal gave to the British Council on Shakespeare’s language and his pronunciation. The whole thing is worth watching, but early on there’s a stunning close reading of the scene in Romeo and Juliet where the two lovers meet for the first time, at the masked ball. As Crystal points out, Shakespeare suddenly breaks stride and has them, in their first conversation, exchange the lines of a sonnet.

ROMEO

[To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

JULIET

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

ROMEO

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

JULIET

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

ROMEO

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

JULIET

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

ROMEO

Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

JULIET

Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

ROMEO

Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.

JULIET

You kiss by the book.

Here’s his reading of it, helped by a couple of actors. It runs for around 10 minutes.

The image of Romeo and Juliet at the top of the post is from Franco Zeffirelli’s version, in 1968, starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.

Moment #13: Mr. Holmes (2015)

11 June 2017

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It is always interesting watching films about the very old, not least because there are relatively few of them. Mr Holmes, made in 2015, has Ian McKellen playing the 93-year old detective in post-World War II England. He is long retired to a house on the south coast, looked after by a housekeeper, Mrs Munro, and her son, Roger, wrestling with the details of his last case, some thirty years previously. He is trying to work out why the case, “The Adventure of the Dove Grey Glove”, made him retire.

Through some makeup magic by Dave Elsey, the film tells two parallel stories. The ageing and forgetful Holmes looks after his bees, obsesses with things (like Japanese prickly ash) that might postpone his death, while trying to write his own story of the case of the dove grey glove. In flashback, his 60-something self investigates the case, or perhaps reinterprets it. John Watson’s version of the story makes him appear a hero, but he can’t ask him, for Watson is long dead.

As he tells Roger:

SHERLOCK HOLMES; I’ve decided to write the story down; as it was, not as John made it. Get it right, before I die.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, of course, were stories inside stories, apparently written by Watson, and as with the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock, on the BBC, the film plays off Watson’s invention of the character of Holmes. In Japan, while he is collecting the prickly ash, Mr Umezaki asks him:

MR UMEZAKI: My mother, she wonders if you have brought your famous hat.
HOLMES: Oh, the deer stalker. That was an embellishment of the illustrator. I’ve never worn one.
MR UMEZAKI: And the pipe?
HOLMES: I prefer a cigar. I told Watson, if I ever write a story myself, it will be to correct the million misconceptions created by his imaginative licence.

In similarly recursive mode, the McKellen character goes to see a Sherlock Holmes film in Mr Holmes. It seems to be a film based on the “Dove Grey Glove”, which before you ask is an invention of the novel the film is based on.

The moment. The film is built around a triangle; Holmes, the young Roger, whom he’s taken under his wing, and his mother, the housekeeper, who is worried about what will happen to her and her son when Holmes dies. She’s heard about a position in a hotel in Portsmouth. Her son doesn’t want to go. Unknown to the viewer, she’s been to visit the hotel owner that day. After she returns her son asks Holmes to “do his thing… where he tells people who they are and where they’ve been, just from looking.” The ageing detective demurs, then summons up his powers and does his thing.

HOLMES: I’m sure your mother doesn’t need to be told where she’s been.
MRS MUNRO: Let’s not bother Mr Holmes with any foolishness.
ROGER: It’s not foolishness. Here. You come and stand in front of Mr Holmes. Just like that. And he will tell you where you’ve been. Do it.
[to HOLMES] You want her to turn in a circle?
HOLMES: No, that won’t be necessary.
ROGER (to mother): Turn in a circle.
HOLMES: You’ve been away most of the day. The soot on your dress attests that you went by train to Portsmouth, as all other nearby rail lines which might accommodate a return trip of this length are under repair or beyond it. In Portsmouth, you met the couple who run the hotel. Your hair and nails are evidence that you wished to make a favourable impression. They made you an offer, you accepted. You declined tea, and did not see the sister for whom you have no particular fondness, using my indisposition as an excuse to hurry back.
MRS MUNRO: It wasn’t an excuse.
ROGER: You accepted?
MRS MUNRO: Start a week Monday.
ROGER: Both of us?
MRS MUNRO: We’re both going.
ROGER: She wants me to be a bootblack!

One of the things that scriptwriters are taught is to “make your exposition argument”. But this revelation seems, to me, to be done far more cleverly.

The script extracts are from Springfield! Springfield!

Moment#6: The Awful Truth (1937)

8 May 2017

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Moment #6: Still on the screwball trail, this is one of the BFI’s ‘ten great’ screwball comedies. It won its director, Leo McCarey, an Oscar, leading woman Irene Dunne an Oscar nomination, and established Cary Grant as a leading man. And watching it, you can see why: it’s wonderfully written, sharply plotted, moves along at pace, is packed full of fine comic moments, several involving their dog, and it takes you, eventually, to the place you want to be. As a scriptwriter I once worked with observed, you need to take the audience where it wants to go, but not by the route they expect to get there.

The film is set, mostly, in the ninety days from the date of the divorce. I could have picked any one of a dozen moments or more from the film, but the sequence that sets up the plot is a sublime piece of staging. Jerry Warriner, played by Grant, has been away, apparently but most likely not in Florida, and he returns home with some friends to find his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) away. Well, he finds out that she’s away quite slowly.

First, one of the women in the group scans the table with the mail on it and observes that there are some letters on the table for Lucy, some from yesterday.

JERRY: That’s the trouble with most marriages today. People are always imagining things. (Beat) The road to Reno is paved with suspicions. The first thing you know is they all end up in a divorce court.

GUEST: The broad-minded man from the Rio Grande.

JERRY: If you think I’m going to get a chance to prove my broadmindedness any minute you’re crazy. No, Lucy’s really up at her Aunt Patsy’s cabin, I’ll bet on it.

And Jerry’s on a roll, extolling the virtues of Aunt Patsy’s cabin as we see Aunt Patsy arrive in shot behind him, seen by everyone in the room except for Jerry.

AUNT PATSY (her first words): Any idea where Lucy is? You know she invited me to this…

At which point Lucy arrives, looking stunning in white, followed a moment or two later by her singing teacher, and a long story about how they’d been on their way home from a concert when the car broke down and they’d had to spend the night in “the nastiest little inn you ever saw,” insisting of course that it was all completely innocent.

LUCY: Can’t have a happily married life if you’re always going to be suspicious of each other.

JERRY: Right again […]

LUCY: But I don’t know why I’m boring all of you with private matters.

GUEST: Oh, we’re not bored.

LUCY: No one’s interested in mine except for Jerry, and he knows it’s innocent, just as he knows (pause), well, that he just got back from Florida.

Part of the ambiguity is probably to dance around the restrictions imposed on what films could show or say about sex, under the Hays Code, but the effect is to make the film funnier.

One of the moments I could have chosen is the scene in which Lucy and her new fiance, Dan Leeson, played by Ralph Bellamy, run into Cary Grant at a night club. This clip gives a sense of both the film’s dialogue and the comedy, and a version of this scene plays out in a different way later on in the film at a decisive point in the story.

Intolerable Cruelty riffs off The Awful Truth in several places, and I couldn’t also help wonder if Marilyn’s iconic scene in The Seven Year Itch borrowed from it. Its director, Billy Wilder, would certainly have been familiar with The Awful Truth, and in their way the two films have a similar theme.

Moment#5: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

7 May 2017

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Moment # 5 The Coen brothers always make their films with a smile on their face and a knowing nod in the direction of Hollywood’s history and genre conventions, and Intolerable Cruelty is no exception. It is a modern version of a screwball comedy, as I realised watching the smartly plotted final act, which I’m not going to spoil for you here.

George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a divorce lawyer at the top of his game (the creator of the best and most ironclad pre-nup agreement in the business, and the President, we later discover, of his industry body, N.O.M.A.N)1 while Catherine Zeta-Jones is Marylin Rexroth, a woman who is trying to divorce her way to enough money to be financially independent. Both characters are compelling, though neither is particularly likeable. When he says to her over dinner, “I assume you’re a carnivore”, she laughs and replies, “Oh, Mr Massey, you have no idea.”

In another age this might have paired Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck, or maybe Claudette Colbert. And I think they would have made more of Marylin’s background: given the spelling of the name, we can probably assume she started out on the wrong side of the tracks.

Arguably the film’s a little too knowing for its own good (Roger Ebert wanted the Coens to lay off the ironical detachment and just enjoy what they had created). But there is much to like, including  the way they love their minor characters, including, for example, Zeta-Jones’ second husband, Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton) and –mild spoiler– the reverend who marries the pair of them at midnight in Las Vegas. “Love your minor characters” happens to be one of Robert McKee’s screenwriting rules.

So the moment is about minor characters. It is the only time in the film, a film about law and lawyers, when we see Clooney on his feet in a courtroom. Zeta-Jones’ case is going well until he calls Heinz the Baron Krauss von Espy, the concierge at an exclusive Alpine resort, who arrives in court with his dog. You can see it here:

 


1. National Organization of Matrimoney Attorneys, Nationally. The strapline on the screen at their annual conference is, ‘Let N.O.M.A.N put asunder.’

Moment#3: The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

2 May 2017


Moment #3 Barefoot Contessa is a movie about movies. It was written and directed by Joseph Manciewicz, who had a long and successful Hollywood career, and stars Humphrey Bogart as a writer-director working for a business magnate who has decided to go into moves, and Ava Gardner as Maria Vargas, a Spanish dancer who becomes the “face” of those movies. The film is told in flashback from her funeral, although we don’t know how or why she dies until the end of the film.

There are some curiosities; the flashback sequences are narrated consecutively by Bogart, by the magnate’s PR flack Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), by Gardner’s husband, and finally by Bogart himself. Some scenes replay from the different perspectives of these protagonists. As in Casablanca and Gilda, we don’t see the female star until quite a long way in (about 12 minutes), although the second scene of the film watches the audience as she dances unseen on camera. And, as in Gilda, we hear plenty about her before she appears. The film is also interesting because Bogart doesn’t play the romantic lead. His relationship with Maria Vargas is strictly platonic, more a protector and a confidante.

Along the way, Mankiewicz gives us a unsympathetic picture of the rich at play, especially in the voice-overs, and the relationship between wealth and poverty, though for my money the Cinderella metaphor was laid on with a trowel. I also hoped that the argument about the meaning of the Faust story, which plays out in the long early scene in a Madrid nightclub, might be more woven into the screenplay, but I was disappointed.

At the start of the film, magnate, PR guy and Bogart have gone to a Madrid club to watch Maria dance. They’ve missed her, and eventually manage to persuade her to come to their table to talk to them. It doesn’t go well, Maria leaves, and Bogart is despatched to find her. It’s worth noting how poor Spain was in 1954, still making a slow recovery from the Civil War.
The moment: the scene where Bogart arrives at Maria Vargas’ house (a tenement flat) to ask her to come to Rome for a screen test. Bogart doesn’t go in, and we watch the scene in one continuous shot through the door looking into a cramped front room; her mother denying that she’s here at all, her brother saying she is, her father sitting in the corner of the room, the radio blaring, Maria herself arriving in the room, and a furious argument breaking out between the four of them, mostly in Spanish with subtitles.

MOTHER (in Spanish, to BROTHER): What does he want with Maria? (Beat) Miguel, the radio!

BROTHER: Maria is going to America, to be a star.

MOTHER: I won’t let her. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone all my life, Now it’s her turn. Miguel, the radio!

BROTHER (to BOGART, in English): You don’t understand my nother. Is liar.

MOTHER (to MIGUEL, in Spanish): I won’t tell you again!

BROTHER (to MOTHER, in Spanish): Since she was a child, you made her dance for men and kept the money. Now she’ll keep it for herself.

BOGART (in English): Why don’t you fight this out later, I haven’t got much time… Every minute counts.

MOTHER (walking across the room to the husband, in Spanish): You deaf? I told you to turn down the radio. (And she turns it off)

Maria appears from the back room.

MARIA (still in Spanish): He can play the radio as loud as he wants. (And she turns it on again).

MOTHER: You won’t go to America.

MARIA: I’ll go where I please.

And she sashays across the room towards the door and towards Bogart, touching her brother’s scheek affectionately as she passes him and closing the door behing her.

MARIA (in English): I think we can talk better outside.

The door immediately reopens, and he mother appears in the doorway:

MOTHER (in Spanish): Over my dead body!

MARIA (in Spanish): One more word, and I’ll go even if I don’t want to. Whether you live or die.

It’s a fabulous scene, and the blaring Spanish music on the radio makes it seem even more intense, as does the single two minute take. I suspect the use of subtitles was unusual in a 1954 big budget film, but the scene, and the use of Spanish, manages to convey in an instant the cultural gap, the claustrophobia of her family, the poverty that she’s escaping from, and also a milieu that in different ways she returns to throughout the rest of the film, most notably in the sequence where her husband-to-be, an Italian count, sees her for the first time.

One other curiosity. Bogart doesn’t trust the business magnate he’s working for, so he surrepitiously invites three other big-noise producers to watch the screening of Maria’s first screen test. Their names:ack, Mr Brown, and Mr Blue. Now, I wonder where I’ve heard that before?

City of Glass

1 May 2017


There’s a scene half way through the new theatre adaptation of City of Glass where you realise that you’re watching (spoiler alert) a man disintegrating psychologically rather than trying to prevent a potential crime being committed. But I’d better rewind a bit first. City of Glass is an version for stage of Paul Auster’s novel adapted by the writer Duncan MacMillan and directed by Leo Warner; it is staged by 59 Productions, which specialises in combining technology and art to tell stories in a range of disciplines. The play opened at HOME in Manchester and is playing at the Lyric in Hammersith until 20th May.

It tells the story of a 35-year old writer, once known as Daniel Quinn, who is living on his own after the death of his wife and young son, unexplained in the play, who has given up a literary career to write detective novels under the name of William Wilson, which happens to be the name of a New York Mets player. At least, this may be true. One day he takes a call at home from someone looking for the Paul Auster Detective Agency, who fears that her husband’s life may be in danger. He takes the case. Well, you can see where this might be heading. (And I should add that I haven’t read the book; I’m reviewing the play here.)

In fact Auster appears in the play, as he does in the novel, and has a conversation with Quinn/Wilson explaining an elaborate theory as to why Don Quixote goes to such lengths to pretend that he’s not the author of the book within a book in Don Quixote:

AUSTER: The theory I present in the essay is that Sancho Panza Dictated the story to the barber and the priest, Don Quixote’s friends

AUSTER, talking across the NARRATOR (the script says he’s momentarily drowned out by the narrator): … They had the manuscript translated into Arabic. Cervantes found the translation and and had it rendered back into Spanish, and then published the book The Adventures of Don Quixote.

NARRATOR, talking simultaneously with AUSTER: Auster was obviously enjoying himself, but the precise nature of that pleasure eluded Quinn. It seemd to be a kind of soundless laughter, a joke that stopped short of its punchline.

QUINN: But why would Sancho and the others go to all that trouble?

AUSTER: To cure Don Quixote of his madness. The want to save their friend. [Emphasis in the script.]

The moment you realise that we ae watching a breakdown is when Wilson starts tracing the routes around New York that the routes followed each day by Stillman, the man he’s been tailing–and we see all of this back projected on the stage, for the video design,  isby Lysander Ashton, is a star of the show–spell out the words “The Tower of Babel,” the very same thing that Stillman had written a controversial book about. It reminded me of nothing so much as the sequence in A Beautiful Mind where we start to suspect that John Nash is delusional about working on a top secret national security project.

It’s not always an easy play to watch as much of it is told in voiceover, which I realise now, writing this, may well have been voice in Quinn/Wilson’s head. But it is a compelling piece of theatre, precisely because it disturbs our expectations about theatre and partly because the outstanding lighting and video design give it the feel of a film, or of a hallucination.

The image at the top of the post is courtesy of the Lyic, Hammersmith, and is used with thanks.

Buddies: ending Broadchurch

20 April 2017

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There was a writer’s moment right at the end of Broadchurch (right at the end, so no spoilers here) that said quite a lot about how the writer, Chris Chibnall, thought about the drama.

After three series, and twenty hours of drama, and after solving their latest and last case, Miller (Olivia Colman) and Hardy (David Tennant) are sitting on a bench, not that close,  with the cliffs behind them.

MILLER: I could do with a drink. Do you want one? We could go to the pub, we’ve never been to the pub.

(Pause)

HARDY: Nah.

MILLER: Nah.

(Pause)

MILLER (getting up): I should get back for Daisy.

HARDY (also getting up): I should get back to my boys.

The detective series that always ended with the detectives having a drink, of course, was Morse, and that tradition carries on with its offshoot Lewis. Morse and Lewis are puzzles to be solved, and the pint is like a reward for finishing a difficult crossword.

I think what’s going here is a writer’s side-swipe: Chris Chibnall is saying that those shows where they have a pint as mates after the case is solved are just stories. The narrative gets closed as the case is cracked. Life, on the other hand, isn’t tidy: the case may be over (Hardy says just before , “We did our job, Miller, we got the people responsible, that’s all we can do”) but life carries on. Drama is closed but life is open. In other words, Broadchurch isn’t just another one of those television cop shows.

Of course, it’s a writer’s conceit, since obviously Broadchurch is another television cop show. But because the detectives’ family lives have been so much a part of the story (unlike Morse) it’s a conceit that works.

The image of Miller and Hardy on the poster is by Mikey, and is published here with thanks under a Creative Commons licence.

The Atkin-James song book

12 February 2017


I have been a fan of the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James for all my adult life, ever since a friend turned up at a flat I was living in in my late teens with a copy of their second LP, Driving Through Mythical America. It was obvious at first hearing that these were songs of a different order, from the very first song, ‘Sunlight Gate’, a lyric about the Vietnam war which never names it and manages, at the same time, to be timeless. And that’s not even one of the best songs on the record, by some way.

So I’ve been looking forward to reading Ian Shircore’s book, Loose Canon on their lifelong collaboration. I wasn’t disappointed.

These lyrics aren’t a sideline for James: while I tend to think that his poetry is over-rated, the constraints of the song lyric seem to suit him well. As he said on the John Peel Show in 2000, “This is the work I’m known least for, but which is closest to my heart.” Atkin’s arrangements, which are given good consideration here, are often rich and subtle.
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