Sunday, 21 July 2013

The World's End - the worst was yet to come

Slightly extravagant Saturday night – family outing to the Duke of York’s in Brighton with Partner plus teenage kids. Treated the family to balcony seats and various indulgent snacks/drinks, and settled down to enjoy The World's End, which Peter Bradshaw of el Guardian had promised was the best of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy of films.

These showcase the talents of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. But what is Bradshaw thinking of? I didn't laugh once, nor did anyone else (on the balcony, anyway). I thought this was vastly inferior to Shaun of the Dead (genius) and Hot Fuzz (hilarious). This is neither as clever nor as likable as Wright's earlier films, and lacks narrative energy and focus. 

The basic set-up is that Gary King, a posing loser, mysteriously persuades four straight/dull old school friends to join him on a pointless pub crawl in their horrible home town. The aim is to drink a pint in each of twelve pubs, which they failed to do on a memorable evening way back in the 90s. The 'reunion' device is creaky and contrived, and we share the boredom of Gary's posse till some blue-blooded robots arrive on the scene.


At this point, there is plenty of fighting, which I suppose is what the demographic wants. But what is being spoofed? In Shaun of the Dead, the zombie genre was brilliantly parodied. In Hot Fuzz the references to US cop shows with a touch of Wicker Man thrown in worked perfectly. Here - what? David Tennant era Dr Who? Bit niche. Robots in general? I couldn't say. There is touch of The Road, too, which made me wish they had made Viggo Mortensen and his pram the butt of their Cornetto humour - dystopian misery is ripe for lambasting, surely?

The buddy element was disappointing, too.  For me, the Pegg/Frost formula is running out of steam: we don't 'get' the dynamic between them till the climax, and the relationship between the five pub crawlers is woefully underdeveloped. Nearest thing to a laugh for me was Paddy Considine's line: ‘Cards on the table. I am currently seeing a 26 year old fitness instructor, but if you’ll have me I’ll leave her in a heartbeat.’ More one-liners would have helped.

Also under-explored was the idea of crap/clone towns and their robotic inhabitants. Sound concept– but how did the plot dramatise this idea? The aesthetic isn't as stylish or original as that of the other two movies, and the visual jokes were patchy and inconsistent. Altogether, a more bloated and less entertaining film than I expected. 

Perhaps I am not enough of a sci-fi aficionado to get the jokes. Or perhaps there just weren't as many jokes in there this time. (Though other, proper critics clearly disagree. Not only am I at variance with Mr Bradshaw, this film is 89 per cent 'Fresh' on Rotten Tomatoes.) But I just don't understand. Are Wright & Co too famous to fail? 

 I may be in a tiny minority, but I prefer their earlier, funnier movies

Friday, 12 July 2013

Dissing Cinders

Why get annoyed about a fairy tale? It's not as if they haven't been thoroughly decoded, retold and reinterpreted by the likes of Angela Carter and Marina Warner. Surely I can't be annoyed by some old story, tried and tested and shining with Disneyfication?

Well, I can. And this is because I am an Actual Feminist. The story that is irritating me is Cinderella. It's not the only contender, of course. Pre-decoding, a lot of fairy stories presented Bad Role Models for Girls. In Sleeping Beauty, all you have to do is lie down in a scented heap and wait for the handsome prince to come and kiss you awake. (But not that awake - into a pleasant somnolence, I assume.) In Rumpelstiltskin, it's fine to marry a bullying control freak as long as he is the King. And in Snow White, youth and prettiness equate to niceness and goodness, while the ageing Queen represents evil and malevolence (and transforms herself into an ugly witch when she wants to do her worst).

Part of the problem is that everything has been prettied up. Earlier versions of fairy tales, collected by Perrault and the brothers Grimm, are harsher and more unforgiving than the sanitised and bowdlerized versions that we read today. And there are some archetypes which present a slightly less passive version of womanhood - the poor but clever girl who can talk her way out of trouble appears in several stories.

So why Cinderella? And why now? Firstly, obviously, because Looks Aren't Everything. This story is the archetype of many others which suggest that beauty is a fail safe route to love, happiness and good fortune. This is not only sexist, it is infantilizing.  Teenage girls are hyper-aware of their looks and of external appearance in general. But in my view, this limiting view of ourselves as women is something that we grow out of. My role models are Christine Legarde and Aretha Franklin, not Victoria Beckham and Beyonce. 

Affluence and consumerism have exacerbated this, so that now we try and buy youth and permanent beauty. Plastic surgery is becoming 'normal', botox is freezing the faces of younger and younger women and extreme make-overs litter TV schedules.

Which brings me to my second point. Cinderella is the grandmother of the makeover. What we are now - you and I - me typing, you reading - is inadequate, according to this mantra. We can and should improve on this. Although we could take exercise or eat less - perfectly sensible approaches to self improvement - this takes time. And Instant Transformation is central to the Cinderella myth.

As there are no fairy godmothers to hand, this can take the form of Extreme Detox, which usually involves spending a lot of money on packets of weird powder as well as No Dairy; or Extreme Dieting, which is basically a short cut to eating disorders, or Surgery, which  promises to fix not only our faces but everything else as well. The fairy godmother will suck the fat out of us, and liposuction will magic away all those years of self indulgence.

Why does this irritate me? Because the Cinderella myth fosters passive compliance. And passive compliance makes you unhappy. At the heart of this story is the idea of rescue. Someone will come and fix it for you. Someone will wave the wand. Someone will conjure the fairy coach. Someone will pick up the glass slipper and find you and marry you and you will live happily ever after, based on the searching courtship of dancing till midnight. Call me a killjoy, but this is a crap model for life. Tell me it's a harmless fantasy and I will point you in the direction of some rather worrying facets of the modern world.

1. The Bridezilla.

Bridezilla is so obsessed with her wedding that she falls out with everyone and almost doesn't marry the fuddled groom, who almost has a lucky escape. Soon after the wedding is over, Bridezilla is horrified to discover that she is married and living on a small housing estate and No One is Looking At Her. Divorce follows soon after, with the promise of another wedding on the horizon. Cinders factor: 10 out of 10 - obsessing about Your Big Day and forgetting about real life.

2. The Shopaholic

The Shopaholic is now slightly out of date due to the Global Financial Crisis, but this isn't going to stop her. She is seeking a transformation via the medium of shopping bags. She shops till she drops, she flexes the plastic, she is a girl on a mission. She never wears anything twice. (Or, ideally, once.) Perfection is a dress folded in tissue; imperfection is putting it on. Cinders factor - Nine out of ten. Confusing a Barclaycard with a Fairy Godmother.

3. The Daily Mail victim

The Daily Mail is a newspaper devoted to the subjugation of women. It does this in a number of devious ways, but the main tactic is Bikinis. Women must be 'bikini ready' for the beach, and those who are on the beach must be 'camera ready' for the prying lenses of the paparazzi. If your make over isn't sufficiently rigorous - and you are a famous woman - they will find you and they will punish you. The Mail usually has at least 10 photos of celebrity cellulite on any given day. (Cellulite only happens to women, apparently.) Cinders factor - Nine out of ten - the Daily Mail is a 21st century Ugly Sister.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Book of the month: Restoration

July seems like a good time to bring in a new idea, being as far as possible from January and therefore a Midyear Resolution. From now on I will be attempting to write about a historical novel every month.

No promises of topicality - I will just include whatever I happen to have read and liked. I won't review books I hate (and there are a few of these). Which means I won't be attempting anything worthy of the Hatchet Job of the Year Award In my experience, it is easier to enjoy a frisson of schadenfreude when reading terrible reviews if you aren't yourself in the business of producing work that could be given similar treatment.

My first review will look at Restoration, by Rose Tremain. It has been on my radar for years, asking to be read. I resisted because - like many people - I thought that historical fiction was a bit National Trusty, politely retrograde, irrelevant. I thought that characters in historical fiction were like pretty puppets, prancing about having bogus emotions. I can't stand clunking wish-fulfilment hist-fic, in which fancy dress and fancy stuff rules. I'm deliberately seeking out historical novels which offer something different.

But the best historical novels are filled with complex, believable characters. Restoration is one of these. Robert Merivel, the protagonist, is as eccentric and vividly realised any character in Dickens. He is an unheroic hero, absurdly comic and often wracked with emotion. At the start of the story he is an ambitious but slipshod physician who accidentally cures Charles II favourite spaniel. Overjoyed, the king makes him surgeon to all the royal dogs. When Merivel is established at Court, Charles arranges a marriage of convenience between Merivel and Celia Clemence, one of the royal mistresses. Celia's dowry includes Bidnold, a splendid house and estate in Norfolk. Part of the deal is that Merivel lives there alone, while Celia is installed in a house in Kew, where the king visits her secretly.

All this is fine, and enables Merivel to play at being a painter and great landowner. (Appearance, superficiality and deception are recurring themes in the book.) But everything unravels when Celia comes to live at Bidnold after irritating the king. Merivel is increasingly smitten by her and makes a drunken advance to her one night, with disastrous results.

Though Merivel is dazzled by Celia, his true love object is Charles II. Not that there is anything sexual in this - Merivel is rampantly heterosexual, like his rakish monarch. But it is Charles who inspires his truest and most painful devotion, and the highs and lows of his relationship with Charles provide the tension and plot structure for the novel. The counter-weight to his rather undignified devotion to the king is his close friendship with Pearce, a dour Quaker who is loyal to Merivel but highly critical of his foolishness.

Tremain has more interest in her male characters than her female creations -  the same is true of her later novel, Music and Silence. Merivel is flawed but endearing: vain, childish, excitable and selfish. But he is also sensitive, loyal, passionate (about people, his horse and Bidnold) and has a powerful sense of his own weakness and absurdity. (The word which most readily comes to mind is 'hapless'.)

Charles is also a complex, beguiling character - he is capricious, easily bored, impulsive and ultimately ruthless and distant. He seems to take delight in Merivel's company, but spies on him to make sure that Merivel is not sleeping with Celia, and treats him with cold disdain when he tries to seduce her. He has absolute belief in his dominance and preeminence as monarch, and his superiority to other human beings.

Celia is a cypher in comparison, cool and pretty and a continuing mystery to Merivel. Most of the other women are variously needy or raunchy sex interests, a bawdy backdrop. But this is Merivel's story, and on that basis the novel works brilliantly.

Tremain also evokes the seventeenth century setting with tremendous style and energy, from the bustling London streets to the quiet haven of a Quaker community, and from the elegance of Bidnold to Merivel's parents' little house, which is consumed by fire.

The novel's main flaw, I think, is that time is handled awkwardly. It's a first-person narrative which is not a journal, and not written in Merivel's old age, but close to the action; a day later, two days later, maybe more than this. The way this shifts around can make the tense and our relation to the action confusing and disorientating. It may be that Tremain intended to disorientate and unsettle the reader, but I found the device distracted me from the story.

However, this is a small issue in such a dramatic and emotionally satisfying novel. It's also a tremendous entertainment, a tour de force: a seventeenth century bromance with wigs and feather hats.