Friday, 28 June 2013

Looking for authorial intent (Looking for Alaska)

If you're on the Internet (i.e. reading this), you've probably heard of John Green. If you read a lot, you've heard of John Green. If you have an interest in Young Adult fiction, you're wondering what I'm going to say about The Fault in Our Stars, his bestselling novel and being made into a film. However, I'm going to talk about his debut novel, Looking for Alaska. Since he always finds himself talking about it in his YouTube videos, I might as well chip in my two pennies (or two cents would probably be more appropriate).

As well as a well known author, John Green is arguably more well known for his YouTube channel, the Vlogbrothers, which I briefly mentioned in a previous post. Via numerous channels, he discusses (amongst many other things) the process of his books and his intentions in writing them. When specifically talking about Looking for Alaska, he's recently discussed the apparent pornographic content in Alaska (which he correctly asserts is an inaccurate description of said scene) and his use of the Manic Pixie Girl trope (which he helpfully defines two minutes into the video)*. What these videos seem to show is an author who realises the novel he has written is not the novel he intended. As it is a debut novel this feeling is not surprising, at least to me. Naturally it is going to take a while for a writer to hone their craft and make their technique match their ideas. The videos seem to show John considering Looking for Alaska as failing what he intended to do.

However, along with many others I think Looking for Alaska is my favourite of his books and I'm going to explain why the mistakes that John believes exists in the book are reasons for why it is great.

An event occurs halfway through the book that divides the book into two halves, 'Before' and 'After'. I won't spoil what that event is but I will discuss how the novel changes between sections which will probably hint at what this is, so go on at your peril if you haven't read it.
Interestingly, John did not intend this as an event that warrants a spoiler warning. It was meant to be something that was inevitable and fairly obvious to see coming. So if we are to take the author as the authority of their book, I should freely reveal what the event is.

But when the event happened, I was dumbstruck. I genuinely stopped reading to take in the impact. It was an incredibly powerful moment that I didn't see coming. Nor did many others. Which surprised John. Yet while John thinks this effect changes the book from his intentions, this effect is not a negative one. In fact, it benefits the book enormously. While it changes the tone, the first half character development isn't abandoned but expanded. As we get a hold of who we think the characters are (muddling through the unpredictability of growing up), the second half severely challenges them and it is devastating to see these characters who were getting more self-confidence to be so shaken up. In particular, the one that resonates is the narrator, Miles. Seeing him cope with the consequence of the event, which we see through his actions and the style of his narration, results in one of the most beautiful and powerful depictions of grief I've ever seen.

As effective as I found the book, this effect seems to create a different sort of tragedy, one probably every author has experienced: being misunderstood. Alaska is a deliberate distant figure as we see her through Miles' eyes, who idolises her and puts her on a pedestal while paradoxically desperate to obtain her. After the event, this distanced relationship means Alaska becomes even more of a mystery and leaves the audience as mystified as Miles, according to John. From what I can tell, John intended to show how foolish Miles' perception is rather than have us sympathise with it. But for me, I think a combination of the two occurs and is why it struck such a chord with me. I could recognise Miles' behaviour as similar to my own far too recently while also recognising it as a stupid way to treat girls who are nice to you. I don't believe John intended this, indeed I don't expect any writer to be able to depict emotions and experiences I have had. That's just the perks of literature; by attempting to capture aspects of humanity in a fictional form, various books will have a particular influence on certain people as they see things that only they would recognise.

In fact, this whole post has been based upon my interpretation of what John said in the videos - I haven't quoted him for example, which is bad for an essay but has a purpose in this post. John displays much confidence in what the books are about with good reason - after all, he wrote it. However, I am inclined to follow the 'death of the author' view of literature. I am aware most authors dislike this perception of literature, including John who made the humorous quip that this theory makes him worried about how long he has left to live. Funny as that is, I do believe that the text of a book is out of the control of the author as soon as someone else reads it. They bring their own experiences, lifestyle and interpretation to it, and so the text they read will probably (though not always) be a very different one to what the author believed they wrote. For example, it is fine for Baz Lurhmann to present The Great Gatsby as gaudy and visually spectacular, and it is also fine for people not to like that version and prefer the one they have when they read the book.

Basically, to clarify the title of this post, authorial intent is not totally irrelevant as long as you don't simply let it replace how you feel about the book. It's a similar approach to how one should read reviews - this is a person's opinion. It is fine for them to have a different one to you. Just don't assume either of you are entirely right because in literature, there can be no such thing.

And if you haven't read anything by John Green, I highly recommend you do. I have yet to read An Abundance of Katherines or Let It Snow, but all of his other books are well worth reading. I'm not as fond as The Fault in Our Stars as others (although it's still brilliant) and personally prefer Paper Towns. However, Looking for Alaska is far and away my favourite and is as good as a place as any to start.

*Don't worry about the fact he's playing FIFA and is weirdly obsessed in creating a fictional word involving those players. I enjoy the videos and would recommend watching from the start, but the linked videos are still worth watching on their own, if ever so slightly bewildering.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Film Roundup: Enjoying yourself is a serious matter. Sometimes. (Behind the Candelabra, The Stone Roses: Made of Stone, After Earth)

Like the star of its story, Behind the Candelabra revels in its ability to entertain its audience but also uses its glamour to hide dark and personal demons. Swinging between comedy and drama with speed and ease, the film explores the glitzy and bizarre world of Liberace (Michael Douglas), the flamboyant piano player and entertainer who hid his sexuality in plain sight. The story is told through the eyes of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), who finds himself employed as his companion. Michael Douglas is an obvious standout as the character demands attention anyway. While Douglas shines as Liberache the entertainer, he proves to be just as skillful in displaying his manipulative manner and desperation. As we peel back the layers on the man (at times quite literally), he becomes increasingly complex and almost unnerving; he is a man who is unafraid to do as he pleases and damn the consequences.

This effect would be significantly less powerful were Douglas not equalled, and at times surpassed, in performance by Matt Damon as Scott. He is arguably the main character here as it is very much his story (the film is based on Thorson's autobiography) and much of the film explores Scott's repulsed attraction to Liberache's personality. We learn far more about Scott than we do Liberache, and is arguably more sympathetic. Damon has never been better and convincingly portrays how Scott's life revolves around Liberache. However, while Damon and Douglas are extraordinary, every scene they share with Rob Lowe's hilarious plastic surgeon is stolen from them. While his face displays almost no expression at all, Lowe is absolutely wonderful and utterly memorable despite his little screen time.

In contrast to the awkward switch of genres in Side Effects (director Steven Soderburgh's previous film, which he claimed to be his last), Soderburgh is much more sleek here with sudden cuts and transitions rarely awkward and creating an impact, whether they be comic or dramatic. One of my favourite films this year, but I wish I knew less about it before I went in. Knowing the basic story from the trailer, the foreshadowing early on of Damon's plight was obvious and subsequently didn't have the full effect it should of had. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this film on every level - dramatic, funny, stylish. I couldn't of asked for more.

Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy Shane Meadows' latest film and first documentary The Stone Roses: Made of Stone as much as I wanted to. Don't get me wrong, it is a very enjoyable film. Meadows very easily fits into documentary filmmaking as you'd expect from the skilled director of This is England. He's clearly enjoying himself and it is striking how even the real life people he interviews seem to resemble the characters of his films.

Indeed, it is clearly a film for these fans although it doesn't completely alienate those who are unfamiliar with the Stone Roses, such as myself. I did enjoy the songs and you get plenty of them - about half the running time is essentially concert footage. Meadows uses the standard documentary technique of going back and forth in history to track the history of the Stone Roses but also really builds up the impact of their return as a historical event and also shows how they haven't seemed to have really changed much over 20 years.

However, just enjoying the music isn't enough, I feel, to truly appreciate this film. It does remarkably capture the joy of being a fan and the rush you get when seeing live music - lots of great memories came flooding back to me of wonderful concerts I've been to.  But while it is charming, I agree with one of the fans when he tells Meadows why he loves the Stone Roses: "You know, I know, but you can't put it into words". I can appreciate the film and the fandom at the heart of it, but since I can't relate to it, I'm always at a distance.

After Earth on the other hand is just underwhelming completely. While Meadows remains superb when experimenting with genre, M. Night Shaymalan seems to be on a downward trend although he hasn't lost all the innovation he showed in The Sixth Sense. The film is visually attractive and it is not without interesting ideas - the father/son relationship in the film goes on an interesting arc and the Will Smith character's conflict between appearing strong and wanting to express emotion has potential to be really powerful. But as you might notice, I don't even know the characters name and I really can't be bothered to recount the plot (bad reviewing I know, but I also struggle to remember it and I only saw it last week). Basically, Jayden Smith has to fight for survival on a devastated Earth and is less exciting than that sounds. (And it doesn't even sound that exciting). As much as there is interesting stuff in there somewhere, it's so dully executed it is not worth trying to pay attention to them since the film clearly doesn't either.

What's annoying is that it is not awful, it is just very, very average. There is no tension or scares beyond annoying jump scares. While it is a serious drama, it takes itself far too seriously and doesn't allow the survival action scenes to be exciting or thrilling, just gruelling. It seems Shaymalan is so desperate to express deep ideas through imagery, he ignores any sense of fun. The few moments Will Smith is not spouting exposition are deathly dull with only one line allowing him to express any human emotion. His son doesn't fare much better, who struggles to get anything interesting out of his character. The interesting character background is incredibly disjointed to his present self who is just scared all the time. In the end, it's just a very dull film which is arguably the worst thing a film can be.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Film Roundup: Don't judge a movie by its poster (The Purge, Byzantium, Populaire)

Yes, this is technically a week late but these films may still be around by the time you read this. Anyway...

Everything about this poster seems to scream at a mainstream audience to like it. Referencing two popular and memorable films (which I haven't actually seen), and encouraging the use of a hashtag demonstrates an attempt at manipulation that could put someone off. The premise is straightforward, the running time is just under 90 minutes - how can this film offer anything substantial? It appears to be just a throwaway thriller. Even Jeremy Jahns says so. However, the film does not totally ignore its interesting premise and actually uses it to provide a social commentary on modern America, sort of. Within the film, the purge is shown to work and so the immorality of the situation is irrelevant to the characters. Presented with this moral vacuum, the audience is left to consider it instead, and gradually the characters begin to do so too.

Instead of exploring this big idea in a similarly grand style, the film goes small and focuses on how this situation would be experienced. As such, the big idea is somewhat muted as it is so grand that it makes one wonder what is happening outside of the house. While at times this means it falls back easily on a standard house invasion thriller, it also allows for interrogation of the characters' psychology and ask why people feel naturally inclined to murder. Unfortunately, as intellectually stimulating as it is, it is often unsubtle in its attempts to communicate its ideas, too easily resorting to clunky dialogue and blatant exposition. Nevertheless, in its basic setup, it could be argued the film takes the traditional American family model and challenges it by placing it within an extreme situation. Indeed, despite their dysfunctions, they resemble recognisable tropes (working father, housewife mother, stroppy teenage girl, isolated but creative boy). This interpretation doesn't seem too much of an over-reading in a film that addresses some intelligent ideas, but also explains why the characters are fairly two-dimensional. As such, the incredibly short running time seems to not fit the grandness of the central concept and fits the house invasion thriller film better.

However, in the latter half it all fits perfectly. It never feels boring and doesn't outstay its welcome - if much longer, I would have probably sooner lost patience with the film and its clunky dialogue. While the opening ten/fifteen minutes or so drag, the film soon kicks into gear and the tension becomes palpable. The film does fall into the trap of occasional unnecessary dramatic stings, which seems to be a consistent problem with recent films that require tension. They seem to rely on the 'long periods of quiet AND THEN A SUDDEN NOISE' technique (commonly known as 'jump scares') which really grates after seeing it hundreds of times. Nevertheless, when the ideas match the style, the film is as unsettling as something like Right at Your Door, which similarly combined thriller with social commentary.

Similarly intellectually stimulating is the new film from Neil Jordan, Byzantium. I am only familiar with one other Jordan film, The Company of Wolves which Gemma Arterton, the lead in Byzantium, said is one of her favourite films. With the quotes on the poster and the horrific imagery of that film in mind, I expected something very different that I didn't really get. Far from disappointing, Byzantium takes the traditions of the vampire and uses them to explore the tragedy of being the living dead. There is plenty of gory imagery, the most spectacular of which is very early on (you have been warned) and a really innovative (and unnerving) method for vampires to feed.

However, the overall tone is melancholic and sombre, which may bore some people. Stick with it though and you are rewarded with some fantastic characterisation of the sympathetic mother and daughter. Excellently played by Saoirse Ronan and Arterton, the mother/daughter relationship is incredibly moving and is very much the heart of the film. To call it "Twilight for grown-ups" is understandable but silly. While there is a love story between a human and a vampire, it has a dangerous and uncertain edge that is riveting even if Caleb Landry Jones overacts a bit too much. Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller contribute to the traditional vampire story that is told in flashback by Ronan, who finds her relationship with her mother strained by her mother's past coming back to haunt her.

Yes, it plays with the traditions of vampire lore but it isn't designed to scare. Like The Purge. it's not a film for mere entertainment as the posters suggest, but provide food for thought and ask the audience to think about what they've just watched. They're not too serious though and understand the genres they are in, which allows for a nice break between the thoughtful stuff.

Meanwhile, Populaire is exactly what the poster suggests - a frothy French comedy which harks back to 50s comedies. It's a straightforward, predictable plot but the leads are engaging and you care about their relationships. Its shot very stylishly with great attention to period detail. It does make typewriting contests exciting but also give a knowing wink at how absurd the idea is. Very enjoyable but not one to desperately seek out.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Abigail's Party on stage (4th June 2013, New Theatre, Cardiff)

It was only after I read the programme for this production of Abigail's Party that I knew that it had began as a play. Like most, I knew Abigail's Party from the wonderful television play from 1977, starring Alison Steadman. Even when watching a repeat on television a couple of years ago, Mike Leigh's damning social commentary still packs a punch. While teenager Abigail has a riotous party across the road, Beverly (Hannah Waterman) attempts to throw a more modest affair with just as much fun. While much smaller - there is only her and her husband Laurence, new couple Angela and Tony, and Abigail's mother Susan - her party spins out of control just as quickly as the fifteen year old's.

A comic drama rather than a full on comedy, there is still much fun to be had at seeing social manners so quickly disintegrate, as the suburban sheen gradually fades away. Even the set seems to be be simultaneously attractive and repulsive. It may stick close to the 1970s setting but this production proves how even today Leigh's criticism of 'keeping up appearances' is still effective, aided by a talented cast, led by Waterman, who avoids rehashing Steadman's performance and plays Beverly as a more desperate and pitiful character. While her quips are funny, they also hint at her despair at the humdrum life she lives. As such, her seducing of Tony is bitterly comic as we see her desperation for fun and freedom.

In fact, this production seems much bleaker than the television play, to the credit of the cast who avoid playing it too broadly or trying to get easy laughs. Most of the laughs here are uncomfortable ones. Particularly since the television play is so well-regarded, it would be easy for the cast to just fall into character types and caricatures. However, the cast work extraordinarily well at convincing you that these people have a life outside the events of the play. Awkward silences are hilariously recognisable as are the arguments that occur about class and art. Martin Marquez as Laurence is brilliantly stuck up, and appears even more so when he occasionally locks head with Samuel James' Tony, a down-to-earth man who is brilliantly deadpan and aggressive when required. His wife (Katie Lightfoot) gets the balance perfect between irritating and endearing, and Emily Raymond as Susan gives a suitably sympathetic put-upon performance.

The one criticism I have is that there was an interval, which seemed to rudely interrupt the play. It would've been much better to have the ordeal of the party occur uninterrupted, especially as the play really benefits being done as a live performance. From the stalls, you get a fairly similar perspective to the characters on stage allowing the awkwardness and hilarity of the party to be experienced head-on. While for some the television play can't be matched, actually experiencing the events live and have them occur physically in front of you really gives an edge to the play especially as it moves towards tragedy in its final movements.

Mike Leigh has this incredible quality in his work to be able to present human interactions in an authentic and entertaining manner. His process may remain elusive to outsiders, but as long as it continues to produce quality material I'm happy to let the magician keep the secrets under his hat. Well worth seeing live if you can, but if not possible, at least track down the television play. While more muted, it stands up as a remarkable piece of drama.