29 August 2011

Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002), plus three Shorts

Lynne Ramsay directed three shorts before the two features of hers which have been released so far.

Small Deaths (1996) is eleven minutes long and is Ramsay's graduation movie. It is in three sections. The first – 'Ma and Da' – is perhaps set in the 1970s and shows the young girl Anne Marie, with her mother in the kitchen combing her husband's hair in preparation for his night out with the lads in working-class Scotland. This prefigures the male-dominated Glasgow in Ramsay's first feature Ratcatcher, where there are also two (rather different) hair combing scenes. The second section is in a pastoral setting showing Anne Marie as a young teenager with her younger sister. Some young kids chase cows and the girls later watch a cow dying. The third section  – 'Joke' – shows the older teenager Anne Marie with her boyfriend, who invites her into a room where a man and some youths pretend that a girl is in a coma after taking drugs.

In the eighteen-minute Kill the Day (1996), drug addict James Gallagher (played by James Ramsay) steals a handbag from a locker in a hospital, buys drugs with the proceeds and is subsequently imprisoned. Inside, he resists such temptations as drugs as he contemplates a cabbage leaf and fantasizes about the freedom that a cabbage field represents. He tries to get rid of his frustration (or the withdrawal symptoms) by working out in his cell.

He's released from prison, and there's a flashback of him running through the cornfields and nude bathing in the river with his young school (or truant) mates, until an ironic 'Greensleeves' alarm tune finds him back in his seedy room with its woodchip-covered walls.  Ignoring the pusher's car outside, he continously bangs his head on the window in frustration. Or despair.
Gasman (1998) is fifteen minutes long and involves a working-class Glasgow woman getting her son and daughter ready for them to see her estranged husband at Christmas. The children are handed over on a railway line, taken by their father to a celebration of some kind, and then delivered back on the railway line at the end. 

Ratcatcher is set on a grim working-class estate in Glasgow in 1973 at the time of the dustman's strike. Black bin bags are present everywhere, as are the rats. The main character is twelve-year-old James Gillespie (William Eadie), who lives with his parents, and whose father is an alcoholic and a womanizer. James has accidentally killed a young friend in the canal after a playful tussle, and this weighs heavily on his conscience.

In this bleak environment, James befriends a slightly older girl, Margaret Anne (Lenne Mullen), who is sexually exploited by a group of adolescents in the area. There are two innocent, tender moments in which James and Anne take a bath and sleep together. They are both deeply alienated by their surroundings.

At one point, James take a bus trip out to a new council housing estate
on Balmore Road and marvels at the (actually rather basic) facilities. There is an idyllic (and probably fantasized) scene when he finds a cornfield by the house, and this same field (definitely fantasized) is seen at the end, when the family carries furniture through it toward the house. Alas, the music of Nick Drake's 'Cello Song' (sample words 'So forget this cruel world/Where I belong') has some time before subtly suggested a different end.
Morvern Callar is based on Alan Warner's 1995 novel, and bears several of the hallmarks of Lynne Ramsay's earlier work. Again, this is set in working-class Scotland, although, like the novel, it is set not in Glasgow but in the small west coast port of Oban. And again, the eponymous protagonist (played by Samantha Morton) is young but somewhat older than either James or Margaret. She works in a supermarket with her friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) and earlier on the the two also show their togetherness by taking a bath together. But the central event is Morvern going back home to find her boyfriend has killed himself in the kitchen.

As in the book, we never find out the reason for the suicide, and likewise never know what is happening in Movern's head. Suffice to say that she chops up his body, loads it in installments into a rucksack and buries it, withdraws her boyfriend's money (over £3000), sends to a publisher the typescript he has thoughtfully left her to use any proceeds from (but she sends it under her name), and goes off to Spain with Lanna.

Unlike Ratcatcher, the dream here is reality, and after the two split up two publisher's representatives visit her in Spain (the movie was filmed in Almería) and offer her a £100,000 advance. Her secret reaction as she pretends to disappear to the toilet to 'consider': 'Fuckin' 'ell!' And the dream-come-true merges into a chemically induced dream as Morvern joins the rave culture.

So, Lynne Ramsay's preoccupations so far: rootlessness, working-class alienation, the fantasy life, problem parents and problem offspring, self-destruction, etc. And soon, Ramsay's eagerly awaited adaptation of Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin hits the cinemas. A broken home, a deeply disturbed child....oh, we'll wait and see what she's done with it. But who's betting there's a communal bath scene?

Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Samuel Butler's Langar, Nottinghamshire

George Bernard Shaw lamented the fact that Samuel Butler (1835–1902) died virtually unknown, although he is now widely recognized as the author of such works as the novels Erewhon: or, Over the Range (1872) and The Way of All Flesh (1903). Many of his works are available through Project Gutenberg, a link to which is here .

Ian Brown's booklet Samuel Butler of Langar (West Bridgford, Nottingham: Nottinghamshire County Council Leisure Services, 1990) has an excellent cover photo of the Rectory on Church Lane, Langar (pronounced with a soft 'g'), where Butler was born. In the shot I took here, foliage almost completely conceals the building.

Samuel Butler's father Thomas was the rector of St Andrew's in Langar from 1834 to 1876. On his arrival the church was very run down, and the tower had to be almost rebuilt.

The former school was established by the Rev Thomas Butler and Francis Wright. Thomas gave classes there, although Samuel was probably taught by a governess. Brown's booklet suggests that stones from the kitchen garden walls of the old Langar Hall were used in the building of the school.

A closer view of the entrance, with the school bell above the datestone,

which records 'AD 1842'. The school continued to function until very recently, and this Grade II listed building is now undergoing conversion into a home.

The original school fireplace.

The well at the rear of the school might predate the building, and possibly even have served the village itself. Many thanks to Tom and Maria Jackson for showing us round.

No Butler connections that I'm aware of here, but it seems an error not to mention the village pub – the Unicorn's Head, which dates from the 17th century according to Everards, the present owners. The distinctive chimney was once part of the pub brewhouse.

The AA sign states that Langar is four miles from Bingham and twelve from Nottingham.

25 August 2011

Robert Millhouse (1788–1839)

I've mentioned the Nottingham poet Robert Millhouse before, and my attention is drawn back to him by a comment Jim Silver made to my post about Millhouse's grave here. A reference to Millhouse's home in Mole Court, Milton Street, Nottingham, is in the Gentleman's Magazine 92 (April 1822) – and includes a poem – here.

The plaque above is outside Nottingham Castle.

Eugène Ionesco: La Cantatrice chauve (1950), La Leçon (1951), Rhinocéros (1959), and Le Roi se meurt (1963)

La cantatrice chauve was Ionesco's first play, and was inspired by his learning English through Assimil. The stage directions in the opening paragraph are only just over eight lines long, although the word 'anglais' is used to describe this 'bourgeois' setting sixteen times. The first scene introduces Mr and Mrs Smith, and the husband's first words I translate as:

'I say, it's nine o'clock. We've eaten soup, fish, potatoes in pig fat, English salad. The children have drunk English water. We've eaten well tonight. That's because we live near London and our name is Smith.'

Obviously some form of parody is intended here, probably of both the lessons and the English people. The conversation between Mr and Mrs Smith degenerates as exaggerated realistic moorings get lifted and the play moves into – well – Absurd waters, and the name 'Bobby Watson' is used for a whole family: confusion begins to become part of the norm.

When Mr and Mrs Martin knock, the Smiths retire to dress (which they don't actually do), and the Martins are left alone to play out a farce in which they 'discover' (as if they are long lost friends) that they have not only come from the same city but they live on the same road and share the same bed, etc. As they fall into each others' arms and fall asleep, the maid returns to explain that they aren't who they say they are, and that she (Mary) is Sherlock Holmes.

When the Smiths return, the conversation between the two couples becomes a trading of meaningless and rather mindless facts, with a number of mock exclamatory words of surprise for the most banal details, as if, again, Ionesco is parodying these bourgeois types. The entry of the fire chief (Capitaine des Pompiers) into the scene takes the play to a new level, when the characters exchange meaningless stories full of paradox, plays on words, non sequiturs, and it is deeply mediocre. But humorous too, of course: Ionesco has a gift for making the boring enjoyable.

He originally intended to call the play 'L'anglais sans peine' ('English without Tears'), but a change in the dialogue by the actor playing the fire chief – from 'l'institutrice 'blonde' ('the blond schoolteacher') to 'la cantatrice chauve' (translated as 'the bald soprano') – proved far preferable a title.

On the fire chief's exit to attend to a fire that probably is so insignificant as not to be worth attending to, the language degenerates even further, with the characters voicing largely meaningless invented proverbs and rhymes ('Prenez un cercle, caressez-le, il devient vicieux' (Take a circle, caress it, it becomes vicious')/'Mon oncle vit à la campagne mais ça ne regarde pas la sage-femme' ('My uncle lives in the country but that's of no interest to the midwife')). Isolated words or phrases are uttered and repeated, or changed according to a whim of assonance, etc, until 'C'est pas par là, c'est par ici' ('It's not that way, it's this way') is repeated over and over, and the curtain falls.

The use (or rather abuse) of language is evidentally all-important in Ionesco's world.

La Leçon illustrates the tyranny of language, or the tyranny of power represented by a member of the bourgeoisie – a professor. Overwhelmingly, this is a dialogue between the fiftysomething Professor and his eighteen-year-old new student, with Marie the maid making several brief appearances.

The Professor begins rather timidly, and the student confidently, although this situation is rapidly reversed, with the Professor gaining total control over the helpless student. The lesson begins with extremely basic arithmetic, and the student has no problems, even later being able to swiftly calculate the multiplication of quadrillions. But she is incapable of even the most basic substraction: it is as if she's resisting loss, or death.

In spite of Marie warning about the grave danger of the Professor moving from Mathematics to Philology, he pitches into it in a frenzied, crazy lecture in dictatorial fashion, not allowing the student to say anything, and ignoring her increasingly impassioned pleas that she has toothache: his words are causing her great pain. She is completely in his control, and he stabs her to death with one knife blow, and the directions tell us it is either a real or an imaginary knife, but the effect of the word 'couteau' (knife) - which is repeated many times by the Professor - obviously has a profoundly violent physical effect on the Student anyway. The phallic nature of the weapon is obvious to the audience, and the Student's widely spread legs also suggest a sexual attack.

Just before the next student arrives, the Professor and Marie get rid of the body, which we learn is the 40th in a week.  

Bérenger – a name that appears in several Ionesco plays – is the main character in Rhinocéros, which begins with Bérenger talking to his friend Jean in a café one morning in the small unnamed provincial town where they live. Bérenger is a little dishevelled from a drinking session the previous evening, and the responsible and respectable Jean disapproves of his friend's behavior. The conversation – and the peace of the day – are scattered by the appearance of one of two rhinoceroses: it isn't clear if it's the same one seen twice, and there is much debate over this.

The next day, when Bérenger arrives at the office, he finds the people there hotly discussing a snippet in the paper about a rhinoceros killing a cat: the boss Monsieur Papillon, who is anxious that the workers don't spend all there time gossiping about the odd occurrence; Daisy, with whom Bérenger is madly in love; Dudard, who is a rival for Daisy's heart; and Botard, a pedantic ex-schoolteacher who disbelieves in the rhinoceros's existence. However, it soon becomes evident that the rhinoceros is real, as it destroys the bottom of the office stairs, effectively imprisoning them until the fire brigade can rescue them. Madame Boeuf, who has come to excuse her husband for being unable to come to work, discovers that the attacking rhinocero is in fact Monsieur Boeuf.

Bérenger goes to see Jean, who left the café in disgust with Bérenger, although he doesn't remember anything about it, and nothing of the rhinoceros either. At the beginning, the two men find each other slightly odd, although Jean is not feeling very well, and in fact he very rapidly turns into a rhinoceros before the eyes of Bérenger, who is forced to flee for his life, although he meets a a herd of rhinoceroses outside, which are making a terrible noise.

The next day Bérenger is doing what perhaps most other people would do under the circumstances – tranquillizing (or immunizing, as he would prefer to call it) himself with alcohol – when Dudard enters, and there is much talk of the rhinoceros 'epidemic'. Slowly, Dudard breaks the news to Bérenger that Monsieur Papillon has also turned into a rhinocereros, although Bérenger thinks that he had the strength to resist it.

Later, Daisy joins the two men and informs them that Botard has become a rhinoceros, along with others she knows. When Dudard leaves, Bérenger confesses his love, and Daisy is in love with him too, although all the time, as the monstruous noises of the rhinoceroses sound more musical, and the brutes themselves appear to have a certain beauty, Daisy is seduced, and leaves Bérenger to his own devices.

In spite of the strange attraction the beasts can have, Bérenger stands firm: 'Vous ne m'aurez pas, moi. [...] Je reste comme je suis. Je ne vous suivrai pas, je ne vous comprends pas. Je suis un être humain. Je suis un être humain.' ('You won't take me. [...] I'm staying as I am. I won't follow you, I don't understand you. I'm a human being. I'm a human being.') And it is this stance which makes Bérenger – a man with an obvious propensity to alcoholism and little regard for his personal apearance – a slightly unconventional hero. Ionesco intended the play to be understood in the light of Nazism, which is perhaps only too obvious, although  by extension the rhinoceros madness can be seen as conformity in general, refusal to join the crowd, refusal to accept assimilation. Certainly, there is some similarity between Bérenger's defiant final words, 'Je ne capitule pas !' and Hugo's final words in Sartre's Les Mains sales: 'Non récuperable !'

Ionesco's Le Roi se meurt is titled Exit the King in the English translation, in which the king is Béranger I, who has two wives, the first being Marguerite and the second Marie. This has been thought by some critics to be Ionesco's most Beckettian play, as things gradually disappear from the stage, contrary the proliferation in Ionesco's usual sets.

Bérenger is dying but refuses to accept it: 'Je mourrai quand je voudrai, je suis le roi, c'est moi qui décide' ('I'll die when I want to, I'm the king, I make the decisions.')

In the end the characters leave him to die and he sits alone, while around him the doors, windows, and walls slowly disappear, as does the king himself.

16 August 2011

George Orwell, Lionel Britton, and 'The Proletarian Writer'

For a number of years now the transcript of 'The Proletarian Writer' – Desmond Hawkins's Home Service radio interview with George Orwell on 6 December 1940 – has been available in Peter Davison's A Patriot After All: 1940–1941, but I've only just noticed it online. As I've mentioned this in several posts before, I won't dwell on it again, except to repeat that it's very interesting how affected Orwell was by Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love: almost ten years after publication he's still talking about it, even calling it an 'exceptional book'. It seems hardly surprising, then, to find echoes of Britton in – for example – Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air.

The transcript is here.

15 August 2011

Jean Genet in Nottingham

The art gallery Nottingham Contemporary's summer (16 July 2011 – 2 October 2011) exhibition is entitled 'Jean Genet' as it is inspired by the French rebel writer, and it is in two 'Acts'.

Act 1 features work by Marc Camille Chaimowicz, and also includes sculptures (notably Man Pointing) and the portrait of Genet by Alberto Giacometti. Others works shown in Act 1 are by Tariq Alvi, Lukas Duwenhögger, Mathilde Rachet, and Wolfgang Tillmans.

Act 2 concentrates on Genet's later politically involved years, and features the film Nervus Rerum by The Otolith Group, which moves round Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank with readings from Genet's Prisoner of Love (Captif amoureux) and Fernando Pessoa's O Livro do desassossego (The Book of Disquiet). Lili Reynaud–Dewar's walls speak passages from Prisoner of Love and L'Ennemi déclaré (The Declared Enemy), with books by north African writers displayed, such as Nabile Farès's Le champ  des oliviers and Tahar Ben Jelloun's Harrouda. Act 2 also features work by André Acquart, Emory Douglas (Black Panther graphic work), Latifa Echakhch, Mona Hatoum, Glenn Ligon, Abdul Hay Mosallam, Gil J. Wolman, Akram Zaatari, and Carole Roussopoulos.

9 August 2011

Jim Loach's Oranges and Sunshine

Ken Loach is a major British director, and his movies have frequently been strong attacks on social problems often perceived as stemming from governmental policies, from the television Play for Today Cathy Come Home (homelessness) through Kes (state education in a working-class community), Family Life (conventional psychiatry), Ladybird, Ladybird (the Social Services), and The Navigators (New Labour's privatization of the public sector). Now, Ken Loach's son Jim has made his first feature film, which involves abuse by British governments in the recent past.

Oranges and Sunshine is the ironic title of this partly fictionalized story, and alludes to a 'promise' made to British children in home care that the British government deported, often to be abused sexually and by other violent physical means. Over a large number of years, perhaps as many as 150,000 of these children were deported to different Commonwealth countries as a source of labour, although the movie concentrates on Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphrey's discovery of a number of children sent to live permanently in Australia between the 1940s and 1970.

Initially an Austalian woman approached Humphreys (played remarkably well by Emily Watson) because she was seeking to find out about her parents. The movie charts the rapid increase in Humphreys's knowledge as she is given the two-year task of unearthing the facts about this abuse. A particularly poignant moment is when Len (played by David Wenham - a brilliant foil to Watson) shows Margaret the Christian Brothers' Keaney College in Bindoon, which he (along with other children) had built brick by brick, and where many were otherwise abused. Much time is spent in detective work trying to track down the parents of a number of children.

The former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a public apology for past governmental abuse in February 2011.

One thing I hated about the movie: the Cat Stevens song. Perhaps Humphreys would have been unaware of Stevens's (or rather Yusuf Islam's) comments on the Rushdie fatwa, but many of us are aware of them.

(Some scenes take place in Nottingham, and the streets of Sneinton to the south-east of Sneinton Boulevard, the former Sneinton Market buildings, and William Reid Dick's Welcome statue inside the Council House are clearly recognizable.)

4 August 2011

Mike Mills's Thumbsucker (2005)

This was director Mike Mills's first feature, and was filmed in Beaverton and Portland, Oregon.

Seventeen-year-old Justin Cobb (played by 17-year-old Lou Pucci) is the thumbsucker of the title, and this is an adaptation of Walter Kirn's 1999 autobiographical novel of the same name. Mills is fascinated by transgressions, and what – thinking about it – can be much more transgressive than an adult addictively sucking his thumb? Justin's father Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) finds it repulsive; he does it at school in a toilet cubicle just as he might conceal mastubatory activity; he daren't reveal his secret shame to his would be girlfriend Rebecca (Kelli Garner); and his orthodontist Dr. Perry Lynham (Keanu Reeves) more or less hypnotizes him out of it.

One of the joys of this movie is that people don't do what is expected of them, and kids and adults have equal weight: no one is magically wise due to age, and age can actually confer lack of maturity. Adults are seen to hesitate about courses of action relating to younger people, and even young kids can have a lot more going for them mentally.

Yes, of course there are a number of Oedipal references, and in the long conversation between Kirn and Mills (a special feature on the DVD), the novelist asks why thumbsucking should be seen as so taboo when sucking on a can of beer is seen as masculine behavior. This idea (not actually mentioned in either the conversation or Mills's commentary on the movie) is underlined toward the end when Perry (who is also Justin's unofficial analyst and other self, and who has earlier identified the thumbsucking as in part a substitute for the mother's breast) very improbably but very tellingly lights up two cigarettes in rapid sucession in the dental surgery.

This is after Perry has admitted to previous hippy philosophizing, declared that thumbsucking is in fact OK behavior, and made a statement of brilliant uncertainty: 'The truth is living without an answer. I think'.

Mills wholeheartedly agrees with the above remark, and says that the aim of the film is to 'help you feel more permissive about yourself'.

Elliott Smith was set to do the whole score, consisting of covers such as John Lennon's 'Isolation' and Leonard Cohen's 'The Sisters of Mercy', but, sadly, died before finishing it. A few of Smith's songs are still in there, such as Cat Stevens's 'Trouble', which Mills sentimentally remembers from Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude. (Many people have far less fond memories of Cat Stevens, and for very good reasons, but we'll save that for the next post.)

A movie about outsiders in which everyone (yes, that's all of us) is the outsider: I'm really looking forward to watching Mike Mills's recent Beginners.