When Alice met Jerry

Back in August, while travelling in North America, I hoped to meet an Internet friend and namesake, Heather Munro, during a changeover at Minneapolis Airport – but she couldn’t make it. So, I went to a bookshop in the airport and bought a book of short stories by another namesake, Alice Munro, instead. I had flown to Minneapolis en route from Vancouver, Canada to Kansas City, Missouri and while in Vancouver, I’d spent a couple of days across the bay in Victoria. Had I known then what I know now I would have bought the same book in Munro’s Bookshop in Victoria which was established by Jim Munro and his first wife Alice – yes, the same Alice – in 1963. But coming out of Bastion Square onto Government Street, I turned left towards the intriguingly named Trounce Alley and inadvertently away from the bookshop which was only a few doors down on the right.

At the time, I was going through a period of serious self-doubt. Not so much about my writing itself – because I’m well aware of my limitations – but about the wisdom of spending so much time writing stuff that hardly anyone will read and even fewer will enjoy. The whole endeavour appeared increasingly pointless; and yet I could conceive of no other way I’d rather spend my time. So I bought a volume of Alice Munro’s short stories in the hope that they would inspire me and teach me and enable me to derive more satisfaction from what I was doing.

Part of the problem, too, was that I had been reading books about writing in the hope that if I could master the craft of writing I would derive more satisfaction from what I produced. But the more I read the more complex and unfathomable the process of creating fiction seemed to become. Before long, and without realising it, I had amassed a litany of reasons for NOT writing; these taking the form of all the faux pas that incompetent writers commit in their stumbling attempts at writing fiction. And before long I had reached a point where, when I sat down to write I felt inhibited by all the rules I had read about and the many more rules I felt were out there, waiting to entrap me. The freedom to write I had once enjoyed had dissipated and the joy of creating had been replaced by a fear of creating something that was an abomination.

I had bought the book of short stories by Alice Munro, hoping that I could learn, by osmosis, the rhythms and cadences of short story writing from one who is regarded as a modern master of the medium. Inside the cover, however, I found a citation from the Washington Post, from which I now quote: “The stories of Dear Life violate a host of creative writing rules (my italics), but they establish yet again Munro’s psychological acuity, clear-eyed acceptance of frailties and the mastery of the short story form.” In other words, the rules I had been struggling to master, the Master breaks with abandon and impunity.

I did not finish the book; and that is all I am prepared to say about it, being far from qualified to pass judgement. But having reached that point, the future was looking even bleaker. Then I saw the documentary film: Salinger.

The Catcher in the Rye was one of three books that convinced me I wanted to be a writer. The other two were: Kerouac’s On the Road, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. I had read them all when I was still young – they are books that ought to be read when one is young – and they combined to set the tone for much of the rest of my life. But until I saw the biopic, it was a mystery to me why Salinger had apparently abandoned writing after publishing his masterpiece.

Salinger wanted, above all else, to be a writer; and his measure of success was to be published in the New Yorker. Time after time his work was rejected; yet he persevered. In 1941, the New Yorker rejected seven of his stories and even when Slight Rebellion off Madison was accepted in December of that year, the attack on Pearl Harbour rendered it “unpublishable”. The Fates seemed to be conspiring against him. But he was determined to succeed; and eventually, the New Yorker accepted and published his short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish in 1948.

Throughout the Forties, Salinger had been developing an idea based on the lead character in his short story, Slight Rebellion off Madison – Holden Caulfield. Now that he had finally been published in the New Yorker, an avenue for his novel opened up and The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, spending 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Salinger had made it. But success, apparently, was not all that it was cracked up to be; and two years later he moved out of the spotlight of New York City to the seclusion of Cornish, New Hampshire.

Salinger had been notoriously protective of the integrity of his prose, even of his punctuation; and in his seclusion, he became even more determined to write what he wanted to write, rather than fashion stories that would appeal to editors and publishers. Some might argue that this self-indulgence would lead to a deterioration of his prose. But it suggests to me that Salinger had learned one of the most important lessons in life: one should not stake one’s happiness on something that is outside one’s control.

To most people, being a writer means being published, writing books that sell; it means being acclaimed; and ultimately, it means becoming a celebrity. Initially, Salinger seemed to strive for precisely this; but ultimately, he recognised the emptiness of such ambition. He realised that he didn’t want to be a writer after all. What he really wanted to do was to write.

Alice Munro has spent a lifetime writing the stories she wanted to write and today, she was rewarded with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Congratulations Alice.

Only God Forgives

THA_CD_0534

Do you believe in coincidences? Okay, then let me ask you this: what does Nicholas Winding Refn’s controversial new film – Only God Forgives – have in common with Puccini’s opera, Tosca? The fact that I saw them both on the same day? That’s only of significance to me. That they are both examples of creative expression combining music, story and images? They’re by no means unique in that. The fact that they have a musical connection? Well, I didn’t see that coming. When I sat down in the cinema yesterday afternoon to watch Only God Forgives, knowing that my wife and I had tickets to see Tosca in the Opera House that evening, the last thing I expected was to hear Tosca’s famous aria, Vissi d’Arte, playing over the opening credits. Yet it was somehow appropriate.

In the aria, Tosca sings that she has lived for art and goes on to ask God: “why, why, Lord, why do you reward me thus?” When Nicholas Winding Refn showed his latest film at the Cannes Film Festival it was booed by many of the audience of journalists and critics. He too lives for art, and he must have been wondering why the critics treated him so harshly. Having now seen the film, I don’t understand their reaction either. This film might not be everyone’s cup of Chai, but setting the question of film artistry aside for a moment, what is there about the film that would cause it to be booed?

The most strident criticism of the film I’ve heard is centred on its depiction of violence. People are shot, limbs are hacked off, torsos are ripped open and one man has his eyes gouged out. But in Tosca, the eponymous heroine of the story stabs her nemesis – repeatedly – at the end of the second act; her lover is shot by a firing squad; and Tosca herself dies in a hail of bullets just before the final curtain. In fact, by the end of the opera, all the principle characters have died violently. Okay, Only God Forgives is more gruesome; but you have to remember that this film was made over 100 years after Tosca was first performed (in 1900) and what shocked audiences back then seems pretty tame now, after we’ve been exposed to the films of Sam Peckinpah, films like Soldier Blue, almost the entire oeuvre of Quentin Tarrantino and that contretemps that actually took place between 1939 and 1945. Remember Saving Private Ryan? And if the eye-gouging scene offends you, have you seen Louis Bunuel’s 1929 classic, Un Chien Andalou? I rest my case.

If the violence in Only God Forgives was purely gratuitous, I’d sympathise with the film’s detractors; but the violence is essential to the plot, in my opinion. And if we’re so concerned about gratuitous violence in films anyway, how come Tarrantino’s Django Unchained was nominated for 5 Oscars? Was all that mayhem at the end really necessary?

The other criticism I’ve heard is that the actors in Only God Forgives move around the scenes like non-people. Once again, I see this is deliberate and entirely consistent with what I believe the film to be about. Like Tosca, Only God Forgives is an exploration of the struggle between good and evil; only, in Tosca, the struggle happens out in the open, whereas in Only God Forgives, the film deals with the internal struggle Julian (Ryan Gosling) is facing in trying to reconcile these conflicting influences on his personality formation. Why do I think this is what the film is about? My first clue lies in the way Refn shoots the film. Much of the action takes place in dark spaces, in long dark corridors, in isolated pools of light surrounded by shadows, against backgrounds of latticed or intersecting lines. These images suggest to me the interior of Julian’s brain. And if Julian appears lifeless on the screen, it is because we have entered his brain. Instead of seeing him, we are seeing what he feels on the inside and his image is only there to remind us that it is Julian’s brain we are navigating. But having said that, what a stroke of genius to cast Ryan Gosling in the role because I cannot think of another actor working today who can bring such intensity to a fixed expression.

And on the subject of casting, I think Kristin Scott Thomas is outstanding in the role of Julian’s mother. We are familiar with her past portrayals of the prickly, acerbic businesswoman; but in this film she is almost unrecognisable as evil personified; the mother of all wicked witches. If you can’t think of another reason to see the film, her performance is reason enough.

And if you don’t want to see it for KST’s extraordinary performance, do yourself a favour and watch it for the enigmatic Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). He too wanders in and out of scenes like a zombie but that’s not bad acting, or bad direction. Just think about what he represents and you’ll understand clearly why he plays it the way he does. I read one review that described him as the “bad guy” but for me, he was the epitome of “good” in the film. Sure, he performed a lot of impromptu butchery along the way; but only to those who deserved it. For me, the character of Chang represented a kind of universal conscience, thus explaining the last scene of the film and going a long way to deciphering the title. And the scenes where Chang sings karaoke love songs to a group of passive policemen are priceless, immediately bringing to my mind the glorious eccentricities of David Lynch.

It is not for me to tell anyone to like this film. We all have to make up our own minds about it. But I will counsel readers not to be put off by the negative reviews. Do yourself a favour and open your mind to it, to the content and to how it is expressed. In the history of cinema there are many films that opened to negative criticism but subsequently went on to become classics; and I have the feeling that his might be one of them. In any case, I think we should give the benefit of the doubt to those film makers who are prepared to push the boundaries of their art, to take us to places we’ve never been before, because that’s what the pioneers of cinema did.

And as a footnote, Only God Forgives won the Grand Prize at the recent Sydney Film Festival; so hats off to you Sydney.

Disclaimer: The interpretation of the film on which I based my critique is mine alone and it is not my intention or desire to “sell” this interpretation. I firmly believe that an artist interprets the world around him according to his own knowledge and experience and ability to express, and those of us who view the art interpret that each according to our own knowledge and experience and ability to comprehend. I do not know what Nicholas Winding Refn set out to say in this film. I can only state with certainty what the film he created said to me; and judge it on that basis.

To The Wonder

To the wonder

The Wonder (Le Mont Saint-Michel)

Art is a funny business. For some, it’s a way of making money, pure and simple. For others, it’s a way of making a statement: this is who I am; this is what I believe in; this is how I see the world. And for a few, perhaps more than a few, it is the diary of their search for meaning, for truth, for themselves and where they fit in this random, chaotic world of ours. What is if for Terrence Malick? I would not presume to answer that question. But I am very glad that he has chosen to share his vision publicly.

My only problem with his previous film, The Tree of Life, was not so much a problem with the film as it was a problem I had with context. He had cast Brad Pitt as the father; but the characterisation Pitt chose for the role was very similar to that which he had employed in playing Aldo the Apache in Tarrentino’s Inglourious Basterds. That was a sado-comic role and all through The Tree of Life, when Brad Pitt was on screen, I was either waiting for a punch line, or waiting for him to take out his Bowie knife and whip off someone’s scalp. So throughout The Tree of Life, I found it difficult to take Pitt’s portrayal of the tortured father seriously.

Malick’s latest film, To the Wonder, has opened to a cool-to-lukewarm reception from the critics. IMDb has awarded it 3 stars (out of 5); Rotten Tomatoes only gives it 2 (also out of 5). Locally, David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz of At the Movies (ABC TV) gave it a combined 4.5 stars out of 10. Consequently, I went to see the film with cautious expectations.

When we encounter an art work, whether it is a novel or a poem, a piece of music or sculpture, a painting or a photograph – or as in this case, a film – a connection occurs (or not) between the viewer and the work itself; and the depth and breadth of this connection conditions how we react to the film. If we experience a strong, positive connection, we will probably love the film. Experiencing no connection might leave us feeling ambivalent about the film but probably with a leaning to the negative. I don’t know if it is even possible to have a negative connection but if it is, our opinion of that film is almost certain to be negative too. So, the artist (in this case the film maker) is taking a chance in putting his (or her) work on public display. There is no way to predict how an audience of strangers will react to one’s work; but critics we trust will usually steer us away from films that we are probably not going to like.

Fortunately, I refused to be steered away from To the Wonder. I saw it, despite its poor reviews, because I trusted Terrence Malick more than I trusted my advisors. And I came out of the cinema feeling amply rewarded and slightly mystified. Are there two films with the same title in distribution at the moment; and had I seen the other one by mistake?

Paris

Paris

I connected with the film immediately and it’s not difficult to understand why. I will automatically feel drawn to any film set in Paris, in locations that are familiar to me. But Malick inadvertently built on that happenstance with his lyrical direction and the fluid photography of Emmanuel Lubezki. As the camera followed the relationship between the characters of Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) it seemed to move with them, participating in their choreography, caressing them with the same tenderness that they were exhibiting towards each other. If I had been delighted to see Paris as their stage, I was entranced by how the camera transported me onto that stage with them.

When the action moved to le Mont Saint-Michel, a subtle shift in the photography took place. The colours became slightly more muted. The camera appeared to want to dance but the couple seemed a little less eager. They were becoming stuck in the mud.

Stuck in the mud

Stuck in the mud

But my second connection with the film, and an even stronger one, came in the next scene when the action was relocated to Oklahoma in the United States. The culture shock that Marina feels when transported to this foreign place was something I had experienced three years earlier when my son and I travelled from Barcelona, in Spain, to Kansas City Missouri. Missouri and Oklahoma are joined at the hip and Malick’s evocation of the US mid-west is exactly as I recall it. From the lyrically romantic way he captured Paris, the camera is suddenly stilled and there is a great sense of emptiness. The house Neil, Marina and Tatiana (Marina’s daughter) live in is barely furnished. They  seemed to have hardly unpacked. Their garden is a vast expanse of lawn. Everywhere, there is empty space. And I believe this is the key to the film. The story is being told primarily in images and camera technique; and only occasionally are we allowed to eavesdrop on the conversations between the characters.

Kansas City

Kansas City

At this point, I am tempted to say what I think the film is about; but I’m not going to do that because it is not important what I think; and I hold that everyone who sees it should interpret it according to their own, personal frame of reference. Have I understood the film as Malick intended it to be understood? Probably not. Does that matter? Not at all. This is art; not documentary. It is intended to make us think; not to inform us; to think about how we would react to the situation in which the actors find themselves. And it would not be right for me to impose my interpretation of the film on others because the way I reacted only applies to me, not to anyone else.

My only criticism of the film is that the music credits at the end are too dense on the screen and roll round too quickly to be read; and I make this criticism because after the images, I feel that the music also plays an important role in creating the mood and tone of the unfolding story. And whilst knowing the names of the pieces used will not necessarily enhance my understanding or appreciation of the film, I am interested enough to want to know that.

I think this is a film one has to submit to in order to enjoy fully. There is beauty everywhere; even in the bleak, empty landscapes of rural Oklahoma. But there is a great deal of pain also: the pain of people searching and not finding; of connecting at a superficial level but not deeply, nor in a way that will endure. This is true of Neil and his partners; but it is also true of Father Quintana (Xavier Bardem) whose story, whose search, whose desolation is told in parallel to the main thread. But in the end, Malick has shown what many other directors seem to have forgotten, or have chosen to ignore: that film is primarily a visual art form and the image is of paramount importance. Each image seems to have been chosen meticulously, almost as though it too were a character, cast in a part with a role to play in telling the story. And in writing this I find that I want to see the film again; because I feel that there is much more to it than can be taken in in just one viewing.

Would Terrence Malick approve of this review? I don’t know. I suspect that he wouldn’t care one way or the other because he appears to be one of those directors with the courage to put his art above public opinion or critical acclaim. And I will reiterate what I said at the beginning: I am so glad that he has chosen to share his vision publicly.

I couldn't resist one more shot of Paris. You'll see this too if you watch the movie.

I couldn’t resist one more shot of Paris. You’ll see this too if you watch the movie.

What is art?

What is art?

It all sounds simple enough: if you want to improve your photography, study good photographs and learn from them. So where does one find good photographs? In galleries; in photo books; the winners of reputable competitions; photographs that people are prepared to pay for, handsomely. They must be good. Then I saw a photograph that had been awarded $28,000 for first prize in a reputable competition: a depiction of a corner of a room, just three planes meeting at a point, with what looked like a rough circle, scratched by hand on the negative. ? Okay, maybe I need to go farther up market. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #96 fetched $3.9m at auction. It must be really good, for that price: the head and torso of a sunburned girl wearing an orange sweater and checked skirt, lying on some orange tiles. Lots of orange but I still failed to see the attraction. I decided to skip the also-rans and check out the most expensive photograph ever sold: Andreas Gurskey’s Rhein II.  A river, shot from the side, with green banks, a footpath and a moderately cloudy sky. Looks like it might have been shot from the window of a passing bus. Lots of green; lots of parallel straight lines; nice echo of the sky colour in the water. But would I pay upwards of $4.3m for it, even if I had the money? I don’t think so. Okay, now it doesn’t sound so simple. I mean, is a photograph good just because someone says it’s good? I need to give this some more thought.