The Crow Bridge

“We can’t go to the police, the police are boring. Alfred Hitchcock says so”
— The Beiderbecke Affair

Stonemouth (Charles Martin, 2015)
There’s a sense of deja vu about this Iain Banks narrative — the hulking bridge, the family secret, the huge clan, sex and drugs and violence. I remember being gripped by the television adaptation of The Crow Road nearly twenty years ago and the astonishing performance by Peter Capaldi who deserves to play more great roles. In this two-part television adaptation we have a similar set of tangled relationships in a small Scottish town — at a wedding Stewart Gilmour (Christian Cooke) sees his fiancée Ellie Murston (Charlotte Spencer) kissing someone and then disappears off to a toilet cubicle for a line of coke and a shag. This understandably leads to his being chased out of town. The Murstons are a small time set of gangsters, tartan Sopranos, locked in a rivalry with Mike MacAvett (Gary Lewis), who sells fish even if he doesn’t make people sleep with them. Two years later, Stewart’s best friend Callum Murston (Samuel Robertson) has apparently committed suicide off the Stoun Bridge and Stewart ventures home for the funeral.

Obviously he is taking a risk but the Murstons’ lieutenant Powell (Brian Gleeson) says it’ll be okay, as long he’s gone after the funeral, pays his respects to the Don (Peter Mullan) and keeps away from Ellie. Well, one out of three isn’t bad and without those two there wouldn’t be a plot. Stewart had received a video message from Callum on his mobile before his death and local police officer, old school friend Dougie (Ncuti Gatwa) suggests there is something fishy about the autopsy. Which of the family secrets is the one that either led to Callum being offed or killing himself? And do people really send video messages rather than leave voicemails?

I have to confess that from early on I latched onto gay best friend Ferg (Chris Fulton), who has engaged in shenanigans with a number of people in the town and wondered whether the not-quite-impossible love triangle of Callum-Stewart-Ferg had become possible in Stewart’s absence. The gay gangster is a trope, after all, and usually does not end well. (That might amount to a spoiler, of course. Or a bluff. Or a double bluff.) The plot itself bluffs us and counter bluffs, as it should, with a few moments of ambiguity left for us to question.

Hanging over all of this is the bridge, not quite a refugee from another Banks novel, but quite clearly CGId in, imposed onto the Scottish landscape. Whilst on the one hand let us marvel that tv can do such a thing, on the other it doesn’t seem quite real (in part because we know it isn’t real) and there’s a sense of irreality over the whole. Our Tartan noir has given us Rebus, Brookmyre, Trainspotting, but the contemporary rural Scotland has been Balamory and Hamish Macbeth and Monarch of the Glen. There are a few throwaway lines about Scottish heritage and Presbyterianism, but I can’t quite see the turf wars of the New Jersey bois.

It works because of an extraordinary performance from Mullan as Don — and Banks was clearly winking at us with that name — and a lesser extent from Gleeson. Mullan can do the hardman, but you can see the restrained sorrow and anger at the same time, you can believe there could be a moment of extraordinary violence, you can believe he has the pair of balls he does. If his two surviving sons — referred to as the Chuckle Brothers, and that too must be a trope — were a quarter as hard, then he could put a bid in for Glasgow.

And so Stewart can be menaced but —

— and here we run into the two flaws in the adaptation.

I need to do some thinking about first person or intradiegetic narration. Such a narrator can only tell us what they’ve seen and if, therefore, they die… Well, okay, it’s still possible to narrate whilst drowned in a swimming pool, but not often. But Stewart seems likely to be escaping, er, Scot free, because he’s narrating — although it might not be clear when he’s narrating from. We can only see what Stewart sees — although there are two moments I recall in the first episode where this is broken away from. In the second half of the second episode, even more so. Of course, Blade Runner (1982) is more interesting (if not necessarily better) than the Director’s and Final Cuts because of that narration which gives Deckard ownership of the film and the replicants’ viewpoints. In a novel, it’s easier to mix viewpoints (and Banks does, of course — see Complicity, say); film and tv tends to go for narrow or omniscient. To my mind, the mix is inelegant.

The second flaw is I don’t think Martin can handle those action scenes. I watched the programme on iPlayer and there was something wrong with the streaming as Stewart was chased around the town. Even so, I think there was some slow motion. Indeed, the second episode had a few aspirations to pop video — but it had a great soundtrack so I can see the temptation. But the Chuckle Brothers (who were there in a different guise in Pride) weren’t quite convincing. Stewart was going to have the shit beaten out of him unless he was rescued.

And don’t forget, it has been carefully established that there is a cop in town, who is an old friend of Stewart’s.

I said, don’t forget, it has been carefully established that there is a cop in town, who is an old friend of Stewart’s.

Ah, apparently the script writer did. Or Banks did.

At some point, you go to the police, don’t you?

Spoilers!

I need to read the novel to see whether Banks handles the climax any better. On the one hand, there’s an emotional tug at the heart strings that feels awkward but there’s a move to consolation. It has a choice of two endings: consolation or melodrama. I’m not convinced it picked the right option. I think the Banks of The Wasp Factory would have picked differently.

Cogito Ego Operor

So… a couple of days ago I was going through the draft sent emails having realised I’d sent an important email to myself and wondering what else was stuck in the outbox. I found a message about a call for papers that I’d tried to send to myself but had somehow failed.

Doh!

I reread it, thinking, interesting, but who has the time? I forwarded it to a grad student, thinking it might be his mug of Earl Grey.

I looked again — abstract by then, chapters by then, neatly bracketing the autumn term. That’s going to be my heavy term.

Who has the time?

And there I left it, and there was no more, until I was thinking about a book I really have to read Real Soon Now to apply to the Sekrit TTTTTTTT Projekt (or at least the proposal).

A project which overlaps with the Call for Papers.

Uh huh.

I don’t have the time this autumn, but perhaps I should make a start this summer and that’ll have materials that can fit the Sekrit TTTTTTTT Projekt. And again I’m struck how often I chistel away at the block of marble to find the statue rather than build a statue from chickenwire and papier-mâché.

Manifest Pollocks

Blind Spots: Jackson Pollock (Tate Liverpool, 1 July 2015-17 October 2015)

Jackson Pollock was born in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming, but grew up in Arizona and California. Having gone to art school (and been expelled), he became an artist for the Federal Work Program. His big stylistic breakthrough was the all-over drip painting, although pouring might be a better word. The whole canvas is covered by oil or thinned enamel paint dripped from brushes or syringes; in most cases the paint over lies and is overlain with other paint, in some cases the canvas is visible.

Pollock was slotted into the abstract expressionism category — abstract because it wasn’t figurative, expressionist because he was expressing his feelings and emotions on the canvas. This wasn’t necessarily a term he liked and I will come back to it. Pollock was an alcoholic and went through Jungian psychoanalysis to attempt to cure this — the assumption is that his art can be understood in Jungian terms, presumably expressing a nonindividuated ego and archetypes. Early paintings had Greek mythic titles and he is also assumed to be drawing in an interest in Native American art.

I hope to return to this but I’m troubled — action painting gives access to the unconscious and more primitive stares of mind, such as that of the Native American.

Koffs.

Really?

In 1951, after a less successful exhibition of the kind of paintings we know Pollock for, he took a change in direction: the black paintings. These were largely blank canvases with thinned black enamel dribbled on them — sometimes calligraphy, sometimes faces, sometimes scribbles — and it is this set of paintings that becomes central to Blind Spots, the current exhibition. Whilst they’ve never been entirely ignored, they have been downplayed.

Pollock wasn’t the first to paint in black — Malevich’s black squares have been seen at at least two British shows in the last year, at Tate Modern and the Whitechapel. Willem de Kooning had a black and white painting, coincidentally also in the Tate at the moment. But Pollock painted just in black.

I was worried — I prefer twentieth to pre-twentieth-century art, but I don’t like all abstract art. I was worried that I’d be wasting my time seeing this, even though I prepared by reading three or four books on Pollock. Pollock is the epitome of the “My six year old can paint like that” school of art criticism; it’s said of Picasso, too. And bollocks. But I wasn’t sure I’d get it.

I don’t pretend this to be profound, but it struck me that there is an opposition between figurative and abstract, figure and ground, paint and canvas and so on. Paint is applied in layers — in three dimensions, however trivially, as new paint obscures old.

If abstract expressionism gives us access to the unconscious, how do we know it’s the artist’s unconscious rather than our own? Does that matter?

Of course, schooled in deconstruction, you’d expect me to pick away at the oppositions.

There are specks rather than spots in this exhibition — but blind spots are the part of your eye where the nerve and exits and lacks rods and cones, there the bit that wing mirrors can’t pick out (Pollock died in a car crash) and blind spots are the things critucs overlook. But there was for me a misprison — I thought of Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight, the blind spot of a text or of the critic’s reading of it.

Hmmm.

At the start of the exhibition is a found collotype of a mother and child, mostly obscured in black ink.

Obscure vs. reveal. Mask vs. unmask.

The mother and child is a key trope — archetype of — of the history of art. The Madonna and Child. This is clearly a pop art version, but we need to keep an eye out for this in the exhibition. Pollock’s mother and Pollock? Maybe. Is the black ink covering them up or revealing them? It certainly draws attention — you look harder.

The idea of looking is set up for us in the first picture of the show. It is the keynote.

(To be continued…)

When We Were Very Young

For reasons that escape me, a number of years ago I bought a boxset of Daphne Du Maurier novels. I must have thought this was good plan, because I then bought a second, and a couple of novels not included in either. I also bought the collection which contains the story that was the basis for ‘Don’t Look Now’. The most Hitchcockian of novelists – with perhaps the thought that Du Maurier was a Cornish Patricia Highsmith. The grand plan, being anal, was to read the novels in chronological order of publication, but that never happened and the boxes sat by my bed, gathering dust. So I picked another one at random. Du Maurier Plaque

Daphne du Maurier, I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932)

I’ll Never Be Young Again is very much a book of two halves. In the first, Call-Me-Dick is about to throw himself into the Thames, having been estranged from his Famous Author Father for writing pornographic poetry. For the sake of the first person narration, he is rescued by Jake, a young man recently released from jail having served a sentence for manslaughter. The two decide to go to Scandinavia — partly working their passage, partly tourists. Call-Me-Dick is plainly a dick, he being miserable and contrariwise half the time and it’s a wonder that Jake doesn’t drop him in the nearest fjord at the fjirst opportunity.

In the second half, he settles in Paris, initially adrift, sacked from job after job, pretending to be a writer, and set up at first by selling his rights to the pornographic poems. Think Henry Miller without the explicit sex scenes. Somewhere along the line he picks up an American music student, Helva, who becomes his partner and muse and is generally messed around by Call-Me-Dick.

It’s a brave thing, to have a protagonist and first person at that who is such a whiny. It’s pretty episodic, of course, with a vague theme of growing up and becoming accepted by one’s father. Jake isn’t sure he wants Call-Me-Dick to grow up — perhaps he’s a bit of a manchild too.

What would have made the characters grow up? There’s no shadow of war on the scene — assuming CMD is twenty in 1932 (when the novel was published), he would have been two to six when it took place. Too young to fight, obviously, but still a shadowy memory? If it’s set even earlier, then even more of a memory. I began assuming that there was a Victorian setting — the manslaughter, the fog on the Thames — but there’s a gramophone and then there’s cars and the characters go to the cinema. Early twentieth century then? Are there mentions of phones at the end? It’s all a little … closed in.

Inevitably, there’s some amateur psychoanalysis to undertake – du Maurier, the bisexual, putting herself into the viewpoint of a man who moves from effete to pugilist (Jake was a boxer, who defended a young woman’s honour, incidentally.) there’s a sense of CMD being picked up by Jake and an odd love-hate attitude to the sailors, a sense of CMD throwing himself at the ladies that I don’t think Jake echoes.

The novel, in that alibi-ing, disavowing dance, even has a character ask CMD:

“Are you a sodomite?” […]
“No, I haven’t sufficient rhythm.”

Oscar Wilde was accused of “Posing as a sodomite” (or, rather, a somdomite, the Marquis of Queensbury being presumably better at rules than spelling). Late in the novel, we learn that CDM’s dialogue in his novel (or is it his play?) is meant to be Wildean. Hmm.

This is a mixed bag — some exciting scenes of action, some dull scenes of domestic life, a very weird ending where the joke seems to be on Dick. But, after all, this was her second novel.

Gucci Gucci Goo

Blood Cells (Joseph Bull and Luke Seomore, 2014)

So there’s a moment when a character in this film explains to someone that the light from those stars was shining years ago and has only just arrived — then and now. For that matter, the light from the cinema screen left microseconds ago — then and now. And the film was made a year or so ago — then and now. Cos that is just like memories innit — then and now.

So Adam (Barry Ward), the first man, the elder son, is haunted by the death of his father some years ago due to fall out from the BSE crisis and frankly he’s gone off the rails. There is no farm any more, he’s got a string of women across the UK and still does bits and pieces of casual farmwork. But now, Aiden, the younger son, is having a baby, or his partner is, and Adam’s got to go home and get his shit together.

So obviously he looks up old friends and ex-lovers, because that’s the best way to get one’s shot together. There’s hitchhiking past pylons, there’s bus journeys past pylons, there’s car journeys past pylons and there’s taxi rides past pylons and there’s walking past pylons.

If you like pylons, then we have a movie for you.

The rest of us not so much.

Shit gathering seems to involve much drinking and gate crashing birthday parties of 18 years olds and hanging out with jailbait girls. Adam seems to prefer young women — although the woman in Rhyl is not quite that young. I guess he hasn’t quite grown up — and we see Adam and Aiden in flashback as children too. Then and now.

We get a lot of shots of characters from behind — which is as well because Ward kept reminding me of Greg from the 1970s version of Survivors. The back of the neck keep us focused. Of course, if he were a Sontaran he’d have a probic vent that we could use to knock him out. Ward has one of the finest back of necks I’ve seen all week.

So it turns out this was a debut film — and whilst the debut Slow West was a long 84 minutes because it was packed with details, this is a looooooooooooooooong 86 minutes because it’s packed with the back if necks and bloody pylons and windfarms for variety.

So it also turns out that Gucci funded this micro budget film as part of the Venice Biennale and it’s the first British film to be so funded. I hoping it’s the last as Gucci should stick to fragrances rather than film making because this is a stinker.

Imagine if filmmakers made fragrances. HAL9000 by Kubrick. Competition with The Duke of Burgundy, which listed its perfumes as I recall. And was Citizen Kane in comparison.