ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Art

Art Online and How We All Need to Talk About It More

Let me begin with a question:

How great is the internet?

Seriously, just think about it for a moment, go right ahead and bask in the sheer awesome concept that right now, you can be more connected and informed than anyone else in the entire span of human history. The feat of technology that delivers entertainment, culture, news and community at the push of a few buttons is one of the few genuine human achievements that have completely reshaped the world from what is was only a generation ago. Life without it is almost impossible to conceive of, and the very way that you know the internet has changed the life of billions? You don’t even think about it – the internet just happens.

One of the side effects of this normalisation of global connectivity is that art and more specifically our experience of art has become indelible democratised. For the first time in our cultural history artists and creators now share an incredibly intimate digital space. We comment on their blogs, fund their kickstarter ideas, re-tweet them and share their work on our facebook walls all because they have made their work, whether it be ideas, art, literature or music available to us, immediately and wherever we are. What’s curious about this, and maybe something we haven’t talked about enough, is how this affects criticism.

You see? I imagine a few of you made your assumptions about the word just from reading it. Criticism in the age of the internet has become something vicious and personal. Trolls have replaced commentators and ‘the critic’ has drifted away as more and more culture has drifted online. Several things are happening here – our understanding of the role of the critic has changed and more crucially, how criticism is practised has changed too. So let’s start there:

Firstly, critics. For all of the negative connotations the word carries, the truth is, on one level, really quite simple. The act of criticism is what happens when an individual comes into contact with something that provokes a reaction, usually in an encounter with culture but not exclusively.

That meal you really enjoyed? Food criticism.

The movie you posted about? Film criticism.

Your favourite book?

You see what I’m saying I hope – criticism is not quite the same thing as criticising. We exist in an age when culture is all around us and almost completely all-pervading and so we need to engage with it. This act of engagement, whether we admit it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, is a kind of criticism.

What’s crucial to say though is that whilst we all engage with culture in some form there is a difference between the cultural criticism that is done on a daily basis and the kind of thing done by those who identify as critics. I mean, not all of us have a column in a paper, not all of us get invites to premieres or critic’s screenings and not all of us have the same platform that CRITICS do, despite all of us taking part in the act of cultural criticism on a daily basis. So, what is it then that critics actually do?

Well, here’s where things get more complex in the age of the internet because that new found shared space of creators and consumers share has complicated the process of criticism a great deal. A lot of people tend to treat criticism from the people they read or like as gospel – either forming opinions from what the critic says or using the critic’s opinion to validate their own. For proof of this you only need look at the myriad of reviewers out there – on YouTube, across the blogosphere and even in more established digital media who have the temerity to dislike something popular. Sit and watch the comments roll in from people shocked that someone would have the gall to disagree with WHAT THEY THINK!

‘Well, you just don’t understand this…’

‘It’s clear you hate anything produced by….’

‘I don’t think you’ve reviewed this at all…’

‘All you’ve done is pick holes and emphasises the bits you didn’t like…’

And so on and so on and so on…

Two things are happening here – firstly, critics aren’t here to validate your opinions, or anyone else’s for that matter. The job of a good reviewer or critic is to accurately explain what their own experience of something was. Not to explain why you are right to think the way you do, but to explain why THEY think the way THEY do. This is my problem with scores actually – whilst I accept that scoring is useful, the problem is that scoring something with an arbitrary number perpetuates this idea that a critic can sum up a piece of work and how it made them feel in one easy to digest, black and white, right or wrong sound bite. This immediacy of the internet makes people want the easy answer but if anything can be summed up as good or bad then I wonder how good that thing really is…

I understand the reactions like the ones I gave before – this closeness that the internet engenders makes people really protective about the things they love, and that protectiveness means that criticism often meets with hostility. If you want proof, you only need to see the outrage when Anita Sarkeesian suggested that maybe women haven’t been represented that well in pop culture and we, collectively, could talk about it. If you want more proof, see the rage and the anger when the misogyny of fighting games was exposed, when Hitman Absolution happened and people called it out for the sexism and violence against women it perpetuated. People reacted so angrily and without being overly general, it tends to happen more online because this is where geek culture found its home. I get it, I do – a culture that is so young, and has been marginalised for so long, doesn’t take negative attention well. But there is a difference between being attacked and entering the conversation. You see, nobody will take the things you like away from you, nobody will suddenly declare that the one thing you really love is suddenly unacceptable. It isn’t going to happen, but part of being in the culture we live in, is talking about it – all the good, all the bad and what comes next. If there’s one thing that needs to happen more online, in forums, threads and feeds it’s that. Criticism and culture are for all, and here online there is the best chance EVER to bring them, and all the people who love them both, together.

Now, that’s great –right?

To Be Continued.

High Hopes, or This is a pun, promise.

Right,

Well it’s that time of year where all civilised folk retreat back homewards towards family and the TV schedules becomes the equivalent of cultural comfort food. You know, reassuring stories that we’ve all seen before, but the kind of thing that everyone really like and makes you feel good about yourself. If this sounds like I’m being unfairly harsh to the Christmas TV line up I should point out that Christmas TV also has another facet to it. As it’s a time where audiences are guaranteed to be at a yearly high it’s become a place where films become classics. Sometimes undeservedly, but most of the time the ‘classic’ films that get shown really deserve the status they garner and it’s one these classic films I’m looking at today.

Yes, I know – but it is Christmas so I fancied doing something that was actually good. Actually, scratch that, when you look at the filmography of this film’s director, this film is better than good. Because this is Sir David Lean’s ‘Great Expectations.’ Now for those of you who don’t know, allow me to provide a brief rundown of some of Lean’s achievements in British cinema:

–           Bridge on the River Kwai

–          Doctor Zhivago

–          Oliver Twist

–          A Passage To India

–          Brief Encounter (Possibly the finest English romance ever made)

And if those film’s weren’t enough he’s also been voted as one of the top 10 film directors of all  time AND of the top 11 greatest films ever, four of them were directed by him. He is one of the greats of the movie making world and has been named as an influence by people like Spielberg and Kubrick. He had a talent for bringing epic English literature to the big screen with a sense of poise, emotional restraint and just sheer class that is the hallmark of good movie making. So, which of the great man’s oeuvre will we be looking at? Well, considering the reputation that Lean made it would have to be a film based on one of the very best of English writing. Something good…no no no, something…GREAT.

In 1946 Lean directed his 2nd celebrated Dickens adaptation with Great Expectations and as per usual I’ll give a brief rundown of the plot without major spoilers, though if you’ve managed to come this far without ever hearing ANYTHING about either the film or the book that’s a level of cultural ignorance that is almost impressive. The novel, as with many of Dickens’, was serialized and first appeared as a whole in 1861. Amazingly this is Dickens’s THIRTEENTH novel, yet it only the 2nd one (after David Copperfield) to feature first person narration. To give it its technical description this novel is a Bildungsroman, or a coming of age story told retrospectively by the main character Pip. Pip is raised in the marshes of Kent and later makes his way to London. After a terrifying encounter with the escaped convict Abel Magwitch, Pip leaves his rural life and makes his way to London. Sponsored by a mysterious benefactor the book follows his life as he finds his place in society, and eventually falls in love. As per usual with Dickens the cast of characters is just superb – Estelle, Pip’s love, the mysterious and bitter Miss Havisham, Joe Blacksmith, Mr Jaggers and Uncle Pumblechook have all become well established in the pantheon of his creations. If you’ve never read the novel you may feel I’ve been parsimonious with the detail but the fun of Dickens is all in the characters. He was never a writer as some of the Victorians were, with an obsession for realism but rather he was a man bursting with imagination. The novel is truly ‘Great’, thematically, linguistically and representationally and is probably Dickens at his best. To sum up the novel in the lovely phrase from GK Chesterton, the novel is Dickens in the afternoon of his life and glory and I really recommend you take the time to explore the book.

The film is also considered a classic and it is not hard to see why. If anything Lean as a director has an exquisite eye for detail and everything about this movie feels like an authentic attempt to do justice to the source material. The overly verbose Dickens is slimmed down and the cast of characters is all given room to shine. Of particular note, (though only praising some of the cast seems deeply unfair) is John Mills as the grown up Pip and Valerie Hobson as the frosty Estelle. Alec Guinness is sublime as Pip’s friend Herbert Pocket and it is not hard to see why Lean called him ‘my good luck charm’ as he steals every scene he is in.

The film deservedly won Oscars for it’s wonderful cinematography and set design and even today watching the film you cannot help but be struck by the time and effort that went into creating Pip’s world. What’s so successful about the film is it doesn’t do something the more modern version does, namely focusing on the romance between Pip and Estelle. It’s easy to want to do that as it provides audiences with familiarity and a coherent thread but the book itself is not really a romance novel. That isn’t to say that there isn’t romance in it, but it’s there because Pip’s life had romance in it and the organic nature of Lean’s film reflects this much better than the more modern re-make.

What more can I say? One of the finest English novelists finest books turned into one of the finest films of one of the finest ever directors. What a treat. And what could be more Christmassy than that?

Merry Christmas everybody and thank you so much for making this first year of ThePageBoy one to remember. Here’s hoping you all have a great Christmas time and I’ll see you all on the other side in 2013.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

Dredding it, or, ‘Do you see what I did there?’

If ever fans could feel aggrieved at the treatment of a Hollywood adaptation then Judge Dredd fans clearly have a case to make. First appearing in the second ever issue of the massively influential British magazine 2000AD Dredd became one of the most iconic and certainly one of the most successful British comic characters ever created. The writers used the dystopia setting and the violent characters as a chance to explore issues such as free speech, authoritarianism, the role of law and the police state. Such is the measure of the character that Judge Dredd has been mentioned in Parliament when British law makers have been discussing just these same issues.

Sadly though it couldn’t stay that way forever and in the mid-1990s Hollywood came a calling. It’s worth noting at this point in time Hollywood was in the middle of the what fans of actions movies would later call ‘the dark time,’ (not actually true but 90s action movies were god awful) and the chances the adaptation would be faithful were…well…not great…

If that non too subtle clue at the end of the last paragraph wasn’t a big enough give away I feel I should probably spell this one out as simply as I can, the Judge Dredd movie has as little to do with the original source material as I did with the JFK assassination – (this is a blog on the internet, you all should have known it was only a matter of time before I mentioned at least ONE conspiracy theory.) That said there is one final piece of information I should give in order to be completely honest with my pre-held opinions. Despite having almost nothing to do with the original comics ‘Judge Dredd’ is, in my opinion, easily one of the best Sylvester Stallone vehicles ever committed to celluloid. Yes, that’s right – it is high praise indeed.

Anyone who thinks they can detect even a trace of hipster-ish cynicism is wrong. This is genuinely one of those movies that wins out on sheer unadulterated fun and if anything, movies should be at least that. It’s become a staple of television schedules and a film beloved by men of my generation for its charm and cheese in equal measure. For those of you who don’t know, allow me to offer a recap of what is tenuously termed as the ‘plot.’ In a dystopian future society is kept away from the brink of anarchy by the judges –a group of law enforcement officers possessing the power of judge, jury and executioner all in one. The most feared is the notorious Judge Joseph Dredd, in the comics, a violent faceless figure of overreaching authority – here in the film, its Stallone. Obviously as the marquee star Dredd quickly loses his helmet and is allowed to wander around chewing the scenery and spouting ‘dialogue.’ The bad guy is the mysterious ex-Judge ‘Rico’ played with wide eyed and malevolent glee by Armand Assante who is clearly having the time of his life as he demonstrates how to turn a villain into a cartoon character over the course of about 90 minutes. Max von Sydow pops up as the paternal Chief Judge and as was mandated by law back then, there is a ‘comedy sidekick,’ played by the films one black spot, the execrable Rob Schneider.

The details of the story I will not bother to relate as they don’t really matter. This is a big, bonkers action movie. The explosions will be loud, the guns will never need to be reloaded, the scenery won’t stand up to the actors demolishing it and no matter how hard you hope the comedy side kick will make it alive to the end of the film. And to no surprise that is exactly what happens here. It’s dumb, loud and hugely over the top as well as being an absolute pile of stupid fun – (perhaps best exemplified by Stallone’s apparent complete inability to pronounce the word ‘law’, seriously…)

So, I really enjoy this movie but there is a part of me that feels a little disappointed. There are occasional flashes in the movie that there was the plan to maybe make a more ‘faithful’ version. The brief glimpses we get of the dystopia actually look as if they had some care put into them, the costuming is all really well done – thanks to the costuming work by Versace. But it wasn’t to be – originality may well have compromised the film’s box office takings so the film is the pure throwaway entertainment its makers were aiming for. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favour – get a few beers in the fridge, a few friends on your couch and have a great night in. For those of you to whom that may sound beyond grim, maybe you should take a different route. Go to your local bookstore and find some Judge Dredd; it’s a wonderful slice of British comic history, often gleefully over the top but always well drawn and always trying to make a serious point. Most of the comics are being collected and released as collections and are well worth looking at, if you’re a comic fan.

This may not have touched on all the adaptive issues here but, well, I’ve been away for a while and this is me trying to get back into the swing of things so there will be more intense adaptive discussions coming up in the next few weeks I promise. One question worth considering though, is, if the adaptation had been more ‘faithful’ to the world of the original comics would the movie have been as fun? Thankfully, in keeping with this week’s laid back approach to the adaptation discussion it seems that question may well have already been answered, here. It seems to be a new kind of Judge Dredd movie for a new generation of action fans not satisfied by just cheese. Frankly, I’m just happy they found someone able to pronounce the word law. (Seriously, look it up..)

Thanks

ThePageBoy

Ps. It’s good to be back!

Double Barrelled Shotgun Review – Realism and ‘Realism’

Right,

From the beginning of the blog I have always tried my best to ensure that this site was kept free of technical jargon and dense language. This wasn’t out of any desire to dumb down, but rather out of the aim of keeping the blog as available to as many potential readers as possible – you don’t and shouldn’t need any background or expertise in arts criticism to feel like cinema and literature are places where you can contribute and take part in our collective culture. Books and movies are among some of the last cultural arenas that everyone can take part in. On top of this I wanted ThePageBoy to be a blog that helped generate discussion, provoked debate and even started some friendly arguments and that should happen in whatever language you possess. I go into all this detail for a simple reason, which is this isn’t a blog I started lightly.  However thanks to things like readers being engaged and full of debate things have reached the point that maybe I need to start being a little more adventurous in what I talk about.

With the release of ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ a few weeks ago and now the first reviews from Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie surfacing there has been a lot talk of how superhero movies have become more ‘realistic.’ The Amazing Spider-Man is different because it is more ‘real’ than the Sam Rami trilogy and the reason this struck me as odd is that these films are about a teenager who is bitten by a spider and then becomes a vigilante to combat his guilt about his uncle being murdered. The Christopher Nolan trilogy starts with a billionaire absconding from university, running away from home and then climbing a mountain to join a ninja death cult. Does this sound like a Ken Loach film? No, not even a little bit – I know of nobody whose life is like this. Real life doesn’t consist of fights on top of skyscrapers with mutated lizard men.  Books also get lambasted for not being realistic enough; conversely a lot of young adult fiction has been criticized for being too gritty, or too realistic as if the two words were somehow synonymous

So this leads to an inevitable conclusion – the word realism doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with real life; when a film is described as realistic it is not because it has anything to do with real life but rather the term is an aesthetic choice and the same goes for literature. So let’s start with the film and what makes these recent films qualify as ‘realistic’ and thus we need to go into a little history. The term ‘realism’ first came into the arts gradually during the period 1750-1850 (very approximately) in a variety of artistic fields. In a stereotype that is shockingly on point, the majority of the artistic fields that gave birth to the rise of realism came from the cultural heavyweight of France. In painting it came and thus literature inevitable followed. To put it as simply as I can, these pioneers, painters like Courbet and Chardin along with writers such as Balzac and Zola were attempting to do something special – create art that exists in third person or some sort of objective reality. Their aim was the production of verisimilitude of the real world. It sounds basic but this was an incredible radical decision for these artists to make. When literary realism reached England it provoked huge controversy; for an artist to make someone up that seemed to be real was considered to be ethically dodgy –lies sold as truth in the guise of art.

So, if this was the original aim of the realists, what changed? Well, two things have influenced where art has gone, firstly the artists themselves and secondly the people who view art, i.e. you and me. The first is possible more complex and certainly explains how films like the Amazing Spider-man can claim to be more realistic. As time progressed and artists continued to experiment the rules of ‘realism’ shifted. Through the realist writers different approaches developed, things like kitchen sink realism in British theatre and photography thanks to people like Dickens and his depictions of the life of the poor. The brittle sarcastic exchanges of the middle class English gentry in Austen are a world away from life in the dustbowl of America that Steinbeck wrote on, so literary realism became a form of the art rather than a description. The writer Henry James wrote a famous essay on the ‘Art of Fiction’ at the end of the 1800s that solidified this change – realism was less about the art but was no about the form it took. In literature the key points were close third person narrative and a direct access to the representation of a specific consciousness, and in many ways, regardless of genre this is still the basis of ‘realist’ writing today. I hope that goes some way to explaining how JK Rowling and Jonathan Franzen can both, in a sense, be considered realist writers  – with content subsumed to form this also applies to movies. As long as the form is still correct then the content can be as wild or fantastical as you like. From the literary form of realism realistic cinema we still have, (in most films in the mainstream) a three act plot structure, a close group of characters and unless the film is particularly avant-garde, a limited POV. Not in terms of cinematography mind you, just in the perspective the film is told from.

There is another, slightly more abstract reason why the term ‘realistic’ needs to be more carefully defined and this is about the very process of making art. Basically it’s this – my life doesn’t have lens flare. The very act of making a movie or writing a book involves a lot that is NOT real! To keep this term unchallenged and lazily bandied about by critics who want to explain how it can be a superhero movie without Adam West in it is just wrong.

Basically, what I’m trying to argue for is a better application of our shared critical language when we try and describe and engage with culture. From Wuthering Heights to The Dark Knight Rises our cinema and literary life is full of big exciting and often complex things that surely deserve more than just having a simple, fix all term thrown at them. So if we’re going to do that we should at least understand what we’re saying.

At least, that’s what I think.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

PS I am well aware that these thoughts on realism in the critical sense are hardly exhaustive and if there is something worth saying that I’ve missed then please join in, in the comments section.

What do you want from me? or, This one might be a little gloomy.

Right,

Well, last week’s column certainly raised a few eyebrows amongst those who thought I was trying to have my cake and eat it, (I’ve always thought that was an odd expression) so today I’ve decided to review something for this week that is a little more straightforward. Now, don’t worry and don’t get me wrong I’m not trying to play it safe – this would be an incredibly dull blog if that were the case…

Still, a few people have mentioned through various means and in different ways that I have yet to find a book and an adaptation that I was equally fond of, or that I thought were equally good. Whilst I have found adaptations I’ve hated – don’t worry, I’m not going slam Ben Affleck again, and those I’ve really loved, (oh, Christopher Nolan, don’t ever change) I haven’t found a book that I liked just as much as the film. Untill now, anyway.

So, today I think I’ve found one that fits the bill, an outstanding novel that was fluently and classily adapted in to a highly successful film, (well, in a critical sense at the very least – I haven’t yet looked up what the box office looked like…one sec…)

Yes, it was critical success, and though the box office returns weren’t necessarily all that impressive thanks to what is a tense and bleak plot the film is still incredible and probably deserved more success at the end of year party where all the film critics give out the awards. Alright, enough being coy, lets talk about The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Firstly though, I hope you’ll allow me a small digression. Those who were reading the blog back in the mists of time when I reviewed Atonement by Ian McEwan may remember that I spent some time listing the many achievements and accolades that the author had been lavished with. McCarthy? Yeah, he’s a won few too and to make sure I get across the quality of the book under review today, taker a look at this list. In his career McCarthy has amassed the following…

The Faulkner prize for a first novel for The Orchard Keeper, the Traveling Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative writing, a MacArthur Fellowship, the National Book Award for fiction, the national Book Critics Circle Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, the Believer Book Award, a little known award called the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fictionfor a career whose writing “possesses qualities of excellence, ambition, and scale of achievement over a sustained career which place him or her in the highest rank of American literature.”

And if this wasn’t enough, the novel of The Road was declared by Entertainment Weekly to be the best book of the last 25 years and the most important environmental book ever written. There isn’t anyone currently in the world of fiction who can really match him, in terms of talent, poise, and literary merit. Which is why many who come to The Road for the first time may have felt a little disappointed. Instead of being a literary firework that immediately rewards your attention, The Road is one of the sparest and simplistic books I’ve ever read. For those of you who haven’t already clicked over to Wikipedia allow me to offer a brief summary of the important details.

At some point in the future something happens. A cataclysmic event has completely destroyed the environment and society has fallen into ruin. An unnamed man and his son are making their way from an unknown place, to somewhere further south for warmth. On the way through the utterly devastated landscape they have to keep warm, find food and survive others who, in this dark dystopian world have turned to cannibalism to keep themselves alive.

That’s pretty much all I can say with regards to the plot, but the true beauty of the book is in the artistry of its construction. Prose is bleak and simple, reminiscent of Hemingway in its minimalism and the lack of any punctuation to separate the dialogue, narration and description seems like a simple stylistic trick but proves to be an incredibly immersive device that sucks you in to massive effect. I read this on a bright and sunny day in St Andrews and I could not tear myself away from the world the book creates, horrifying but possessed of a bleak and elegant kind of beauty. If you haven’t read the book, find it, but make sure you don’t have any plans for a day because you will struggle to put it down. It is THAT good – by no means easy to read, but not in the same way as American Psycho; the book is difficult to deal with rather than being graphic and violent, The Road documents the end of the civilised age, and it is simply entrancing.

Since the book was such a huge success it took only three years to turn the book into a film, directed by John Hillcoat, best known for the gritty Western The Proposistion and his latest film has been chosen to compete for the Palm d’Or at Cannes. He chose Viggo Mortensen to take the role of the Man and the film crew discovered the young Kodi Smit-McPhee  to play the boy.

Let me be utterly straight-forward about this, this film is utterly superb. Mortensen is as usual completely lost in the character, all layers of clothes, encrusted filth and dirt and a desperation in his eyes to keep his son safe. The complete new-comer Kodi Smit-McPhee is just heartbreakingly good, the moral centre of the film and a tragic innocent in a world that has completely lost all traces of the humanity and vulnerability that the boy embodies.

The production design and the cinematography are also pitch perfect, filmed in places across the mid-West of the States deliberately using the ruined towns and environments of the old rust belt to perfectly evoke the film’s world. In short everything about this works, and to highlight my point there is one brief sequence worth highlighting.

At one point the man and the boy skirt round a group of bandits and find an empty house. Desperate for food the two take the chance and break into the house. In the space of a couple of sentences the book creates a scene of incredible power as the man and the boy find in the cellar dozens of people, kept as food for the others.

The film takes exactly the same approach – the moment is kept, brief and sudden and the horror is all kept implied. The film doesn’t feel the need to explain why what we’ve just seen is horrifying, the look in Viggo Mortensen’s eyes in the brief moment we see the shapes in the gloom of the cellar is enough, and the subtle hints of cannibalism throughout the film means that the sense of menace is preserved throughout rather than degenerating into cheap cinematic tricks and jump cuts.

Another moment, as this is what the film and book essential boils down to, is one that the films takes from the original source, and loads with a huge amount of pathos. Finding a derilict house, the two go to look for food. As they pass the open door to the bedroom the boy sees a dried out corpse lying on the bed, and freezes in fear as you would expect. Viggo Mortensen simply turns and mutters the heart-breaking line that this is ‘nothing you haven’t seen before’, a line not only depressed but resigned to his own inability to protect his son.

Now, I could keep going on about this I really could, but I shouldn’t as this blog should probably be under 15,000 words long and I’m already quite tired. So I sign off with this, the way that this brilliant book is written, so minimal, so sparse and so elegant translates so well to film it has to be seen to be believed. Now, this isn’t a fun film to watch; if the article hasn’t given it away, the film and the book are often hard to read and hard to watch – but great art really should be.

Watch it.

Read it.

And then let me know what you think, it’s what this whole thing is here for.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

Punching is manly, or, ‘Imaginary friends often lead to huge explosions.’

Right,

After last weeks dose of book/film joy, which was, without too much generalisation,  pretty much universally aimed at women I decided to focus this week on something different. Something slightly more masculine. Something involving violence, punching, madness, explosions, Meatloaf, and Brad Pitt in some jeans. This long list of requirements left me feeling a little desperate, there would be no way I could possible find a film that was a book that met all of these criteria. Oh, wait a second…

Fight Club y’all….

Again, I feel I should hold my hands up and admit my own vested interest. I adore this film. It is far from perfect but David Fincher’s 1999 film has been one of my personal favourites ever since I first watched it and the more I found out about it the more I loved it. It is one of the most talked about, analysed and debated films in a very long time, so here I’m going to way in with my two cents worth.

The film stars Edward Norton as a nameless white-collar worker who is bored out of his mind by the existential malaise of the modern age and suffering from crippling insomnia, he begins by going to support groups for those with terminal illness and he finds that going enables him to sleep. On one of his travels around the country he meets the charismatic Tyler Durden and the two of them found Fight Club – a place for the men of this bored and disconnected generation to beat the hell out of each other.  As the film goes on Norton’s character begins to spiral downwards into Tyler’s world, culminating in the launch of Project Mayhem; Tyler’s project to destroy the modern world.

There is also a sub-plot with Helena Bonham-Carter as Marla, a loner that Norton runs into in one of his support groups, like him she’s also  looking for something and the two of them become closer and closer. Having done some reading into this, I found that Fincher wanted to make a coming of age film; he personally compared Fight Club to The Graduate, and whilst the two couldn’t be more different in terms of style and content the comparison does make a weird kind of sense.

Personally though I think that comparison misses something of Fight Club’s philosophical leanings. The ideology of Fight Club is incredibly bleak, unremittingly nihilistic and utterly contemptuous of modern capitalist society. For many people this is where their own personal dislike of Fight Club comes from, it seems to take away any and all hope of redemption for Edward Norton’s character. what this misses, is of course, that is exactly the point – for in Fight Club, we’re all trapped in one way or another.

Before I get too abstract then, lets focus in on the details of the film. Edward Norton is simply fantastic; all gaunt eyed despair and slowly disintegrating physicality. He manages to convey so well the emotional sterility of modern life and the sheer panic when Tyler’s true plans become clear to him. It may be a little cliché to say so, but I really do struggle to think of a film where he’s been as good, (as much as I love American History X I lean towards his performance here as slightly better in terms of emotional restraint and subtlety) In short, he carries this movie, amidst all the insanity we as viewers can still connect with the film.

Talking about crazy leads me quite nicely onto Mr Brad Pitt. Tyler Durden is possible one of the most charismatic creations in modern cinema; a swaggering ball of testosterone that every man wishes he had the balls to be – someone who truly doesn’t care about things like money, success, the opinion of your peers or your boss at the job you hate. Now, a lot has already been written about how Fight Club ‘touched a nerve in the male psyche that was debated around the world’ and much of the reason why rests on Brad Pitt’s performance – brilliant, violent and compelling to watch, his performance in this film is proof positive that Brad Pitt is a true cinematic star.

Interestingly the critical reception at the time of the film’s release was decidedly mixed – whilst many critics loved it, those that didn’t hated the film. People feared that it would lead to copycat Fight Clubs being set up; in many cases it was compared to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in the way that it glamorized violent behaviour. Now, whilst I can roll my eyes at the lack of moral intelligence that 30 years of cinema has foisted upon its critics, I do understand the point of view. Why? Because I just finished reading some Chuck Palahniuk….and let me just say that some of it, really isn’t for the faint of heart.

Fight Club is probably one of his more accessible book, and yes, that is saying a lot. Though it is dark and highly disturbing in places, just as the film it is easy and engaging to read. This was the book that pushed him into stratospheric  levels of fame; starting a short story Palahniuk claimed that he wanted to write The Great Gatsby, just updated. A story that was apostolic, one where the surviving apostle tells the story of the dead hero and in a twisted kind of way that really does work. So, enough flirting with the question is this a good adaptation?

Yes.

But, I’m not sure which is better out of the book or the film and at the moment; I’m sort of leaning towards the film. Let me get the obvious caveats out-of-the-way; I am well aware that comparing two different mediums and trying to come to any sort of objective judgement about which one is better is not really possible to do completely fairly so before you all get all sarcastic with me in the comments section I do have my reasons. Firstly, this isn’t Palahniuk’s first novel – that was the really quite good Invisible Monsters. So, publisher after publisher turned it down as being tom dark and disturbing and so Palahniuk decided to focus on a seven page short story he was writing for a compilation called Pursuit of Happiness. It was published and then expanded to full novel length and then re-published as Fight Club.

Without getting too mean then, this is why I think I prefer the film. In the book, you can’t see the scars. If you read the book, as talented a writer as Palahniuk is, it is possible to see the short story. Chapter six is by far the best bit of the novel, neat, contained just as every good short story should be. The novel feels a little stretched in places, something that has been spun out to fill the space. The film on the other hand, works as a cohesive whole – everything is slick, well designed and faithful to the original source material.  I know its rare for me to side with the film against the book but it isn’t by much, and without one there wouldn’t be the other. Where both succeed though is in the purpose that Palahnuik had for writing it. To quote the man himself…

‘..bookstores were full of books like The Joy Luck Club and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and How to Make an American Quilt. These were all novels that presented a social model for women to be together. But there was no novel that presented a new social model for men to share their lives…’

One only has to look around at modern culture to see the effect that Fight Club has had. People have been arrested over it, loved it, hated it, read it and watched it. And they always will I think. It’s become part of the societal landscape and made it OK for men to admit they often felt  lost in this world they had forged. So job done Chuck, good work.

I feel a little strange saying a film adaptation is better than its source…Looks like I’m back to splitting hairs again…Ah well..

If you agree, disagree or think I’ve missed the point entirely, don’t worry. The first rule of the great and the good is talk about it. That’s what the comments section is for.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

Marvel Month I: An Apology, or, ‘I’m not really a big enough geek for this.’

Right,

First off, let me expunge the first reaction you may be having. This isn’t an apology for me beng too busy to update regularly because I’m out doing things that the internet doesn’t approve of; like having friends who aren’t pixels and talking to girls, (joking! A bit…) This post wasn’t even supposed to be an apology – it was intended to be a huge announcement of the first ever theme month.

This was where I was going to be proud to announce the commencement of…MARVEL MONTH! That’s right, a whole month of me assessing the Marvel movies and the source material they came from. A month of superheroics, kick-ass action, bad guys and saving the world. A whole month of geek awesomeness.

And that’s where I hit just a couple of really small snags. The first one came when I was looking for which comic should be the first one to be reviewed. It should have been obvious, it really should have been but all I can say is that I was so grateful for getting past The Da Vinci Code I just wasn’t thinking straight. Then it hit me. The first comic I wanted to read has been going since 1963. That is a really long time. Really – a loooooooooooooong time. So, there’s 49 years of comics to read. I can’t do that, nobody can. Not in a week, where I also need to watch the movie!

Then, I hit upon the obvious and simple solution. I don’t need to read it all, because the people who wrote the movie probably didn’t, and if its been going since 1963 the law of averages says that a big chunck of these comics aren’t going to be worth reading. sorry to be harsh, but that just seems to be the way things are.  If you don’t believe me just try to read some of the Batman that was churned out in the 1960’s and try and tell me seriously that it  meets any definition of the word good.

So, this is where I hit my second snag, and to be honest, this one I don’t see a way through, so here’s why I need to apologise. Again. Here we go…

I am not an expert on comics. I read them for a bit but didn’t have the money or the dedication to keep up the habit. But some people do. Some people must have read every comic, are familiar with the mythology of the comics, the lore, the references, the jokes even. Sorry, but that isn’t me.

Here’s what I can do though, and maybe what I should be doing. I’m going to spend the time looking into each character and find the run that helps shape and define the character and then treat that as the source material. If it isn’t the run you would have chosen or the writer you love then, sorry… But surely the success or failure of the film shouldn’t hinge on me having read Journey into Mystery #92. Maybe I’ll get round to it, but in the meantime this is the best way I’ve found.

The more eagle-eyed and comic loving may have picked up on the one or two clues in this article, the first film in ThePageBoy’s is Thor directed by Kenneth Branagh, after a little research I decided on the jaw dropping run by Walt Simonsen Vol1 #337-382.

Right, I’m off. Got comics to read.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

Oh, don’t worry; there will be more jokes in the next column. Promise.

‘Why John Hurt is destined for a happy life in a facist state’ or 1980’s flashback!

Right,

First of all, apologies for the slightly morbid title – but I thought it best to title this one with a quote from the book, and when the book is considered in all of it’s glory there really aren’t that many quotes from this magnificent novel that aren’t as bleak as Labour’s re-election chances. If the small semantic clue I dropped in the last sentence wasn’t clue enough to the more lively cells in the great hive mind of the web, I adore this novel. It was one of the first great works of literature I remember reading from my early teenage years and it scared the bejesus out of me then and still does. All of this is to say, that any adaptation of this book has one hell of a bar to meet.

To that end, enter Michael Radford, whom, in 1984, with the backing of Virgin Films released what has become an acclaimed interpretation. Whilst I was optimistic,  the idea of releasing the film in 1984 initially struck me as a gimmick. Coupled with the tagline, ‘The year of the movie. The movie of the year,’ I was slightly concerned the makers of the film had inspired the marketing strategy from The Omen re-boot, (notable only for the 11.11.11 release date and being a complete load of old balls.)

Thankfully I was swiftly disabused of my cynical notions from the opening minutes as the viewer is plunged into the ‘Two Minute Hate’ and introduced to Winston Smith, played by John Hurt. As the protagonist of the story Hurt carries the film out of necessity as the book itself is all about the isolation that the world of ‘1984’ has forced upon him. Frankly, Hurt is simply incredible; a man blessed with the kind of face that looks like weathered granite, an actor ideally suited for conveying so much through silence, glances or twitches in the face.

The rest of the cast is extremely good but I will only mention one more here, (to see more on the cast of the movie just check out the IMDB page for the film) and that would be the chilling Richard Burton as O’Brien. This was Burton’s final film and his first after a lengthy hiatus but he is simply brilliant. Cold, calculated and utterly convinced of not simply his right-ness but the Party’s righteousness. Though a fourth choice for the part he is O’Brien – the next time I go to read the book I fully expect to hear his smooth and authoritative voice giving me the image of a boot stamping on a human face, forever.

This isn’t merely a post to sing the praises of this Brit-flick classic but to assess how this works as an adaptation. To return to the film’s opening, it highlights what I believe is the crucial difference between the book and the film, a difference that is inherent in the two mediums. The opening of the book contains personally, what I believe to be one of the finest opening lines of any book ever written, ‘It was a cold, windy day in April, and the clocks had just finished striking thirteen.’

Go on, read that again. Take the time and appreciate just how good a sentence that is. That is wonderful, frankly.

The opening of the novel plunges the reader into Winston’s world. It is close, lonely and fetid with paranoia. The milieu is superbly evoked, from the first line we as readers are presented with a brew of the familar and the strangely alien. With the film, immediately the viewer is submerged, not in isolation but by faces. Screaming faces. Watching the film for the first time it actually took me a few moments to realise who was Winston Smith.

This isn’t to criticise, don’t get me wrong – the nature of film is as a visual medium, and the directorial choice to present the viewer with a bewildering and strange image is a very bold one but for me, the power of the story comes from its closeness to Winston’s point of view, something that the close third narrative point of view was specifically designed to do and film, well not so much. The film is commendably close to the original text however, and this is hugely to its credit, the design and setting of the film tracks incredibly closely what I thought the world of the book would look like.

So, all good right?

Yeah – a harrowing retelling of the classic novel for freedom that elegantly juxtaposes the original text with its modern-day 1980’s setting. And now, I’ll stop using the language of an arse and actually offer some criticism. In one very important way, I don’t believe this is an adaptation of the book.

I’ll pause to let people re-adjust. Finished freaking out?

Good.

The film is hugely and apparently indebted to the book yet is that what makes the film an adaptation? I think it could quite easily be argued, no. The closer that a film comes to the original source material the more difficult it is to transfer that into an easily comprehended, coherent visual narrative. Books are, by the nature of their form, designed for the exploration of the psyche, motive, feeling and thought. This aren’t things that have immediately obvious visual markers and whilst the film transfers really well the experience feels more like an attempt at a straight re-telling rather than an adaptation of the story in a new way. The thing that really tipped me off to this was a thought that flashed through my  mind midway through the film.

‘Would I like this as much, if I didn’t know and love the book beforehand?’

Arguably? No, I don’t think I would.

There are a few more examples that back up what I’m saying, from time to time the script feels a little crowded – jamming in points from the book without the means of explaining WHY these things matter. Things such as the old rhyme about the churches of London, the coral in glass, Winston’s thoughts on his young neighbours are all crucial to the book for understanding everything that is going on from Winston’s perspective yet in the film these events felt rushed and crowded out by the main thrust of the narrative. However, there is one moment from the film that I feel gets the balance right, with the sequence in Room 101. Watching it took me back to the first reaction I had to the novel as a teenager. I don’t want to add too many more spoilers here, (check it out on YouTube) but everything about it works. The camera work, (with it’s emphasis on the faces of the two main charcters) along with the minimal violence and the tension of it shows how the film does have flashes of genuine adaptive genius, whilst showing all of the greatness British film making is capable of.

Maybe I’m not being fair and I will certainly admit I’m splitting hairs. Yes I know – the very fact this exists in a seperate and distinct form from the book does make it an adaptation but all I’ve tried to argue here is that, perhaps, adaptation should not simply re-tell, (no matter how well it does) but should give a reason for exisiting as a film – if a re-telling is all a film offers surely I could just re-read the novel.

I will also admit that there are book/films that demonstrate this much more extremely than this one, but if I’m guilty of being too harsh please let me say that it comes from just loving this book too much for my own good.

So.

There we go. Now go off and read the book, (no seriously, go read the book right now) then watch the movie and let me know what you think.

Thanks!

ThePageBoy

So onwards we go. Next time I promise to not split hairs as much and do a book/film that properly lives up to the term ‘adaptation.’ In the meantime, join the conversation, find @ThePageBoy1 on Twitter and keep talking about the best and the worst of books and films.