ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Christopher Nolan

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.

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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

Backwards sense make should this, or, Christopher Nolan, remember?

Right,

 

If the title of the article hasn’t given away the name of today’s film then you clearly need to stop getting out so much and watch some more movies; clearly you’ve been having too much of a social life or friends to be paying attention to a BritishAmerican guy called Christopher Nolan. For those of you for whom this name only rings faint bells, probably associated with a certain Bat-Man, then consider this your movie education. Nolan is a director who is surprisingly little known apart from the trilogy of Batman movies that have proven that superhero films can be critically and commercially successful – for this alone he should deserve unending respect and creative freedom. Personally I also think he should be followed everywhere by the director of the horror that was The Green Lantern movie apologising for not paying close enough attention on how to direct a superhero movie.

Nolan is somewhat unique in modern directors as, speaking personally here, I don’t believe he has ever produced a bad movie. Ever. And when that’s considered in the modern gulag that is the cinematic world that is kind of impressive fact and places Nolan in the company of the hottest directors currently working. Nolan has a reputation as a consummate professional but his films have been played down by some for producing films that are too cerebral. Maybe too cold. Too interested in the intellect and too much emphasis on the power of the mind in getting through events.

Frankly, anyone who thinks this makes Nolan a poor director or someone who can’t communicate a decent story is…well…wrong. And for proof, we’ll turn to what was only Nolan’s second feature film; the staggeringly good film from 2000, Memento.

Now, again, as per usual I am going to try to avoid spoilers but rather than out of mere politeness as with usual films, Memento is a film that any spoilers would ruin. Let me say this, right now – if you haven’t seen this film, go out and find a copy. Buy it. Watch it and you’ll see one of the most creative, interesting films produced in the last fifteen years. The film follows Leonard Shelby, (Guy Pearce) a man who suffers from retrograde amnesia who is looking for the man who has murdered his wife.

So, on to some of the many, many positives  the film posses. Guy Pearce is Leonard Shelby, a man who can only hold things in his head for fifteen minutes at a time. He’s a great combination of driven, vulnerable and lost and the film’s incredible script brings all of this across; the rage, the loss and even the black comedy that comes out of the situation. One great sequence involves Pearce and a man with a gun. In the voiceover Shelby wonders whether he’s chasing this guy or being chased by him. A gunshot rings out. And dryly he realises which is the right answer…

The rest of the actors all do an admirable job but the film’s real strengths lie in the script – which won an Oscar and the direction. The film feels like a noir film with ADHD, splicing between artful monochrome, splashes of colour and an expert use of light and shade. The whole story unfolds in a non-linear fashion and as you watch you piece the story together alongside Leonard. It’s sad and strange and wonderfully done – its themes and the huge twist that the film’s end delivers is made even more brutal by being the beginning of the narrative told at the very end of the film. Once you put the narrative together in your own mind, you’ll want to watch it again. And again. And again. It is that good.

But as an adaptation? Well, here’s the thing, a lot of people don’t know, but the film is based on a very good short story published in Esquire in 2001. It was written by a successful screen writer who worked on projects such as The Prestige and a little known film called The Dark Knight. Yeah, that one. The writer’s name? Jonathan Nolan.

It must be genetic, at some level anyway…

The short story, Memento Mori didn’t really bear a close resemblance to the film but you know something? I think it’s a brilliant adaptation, thanks not necessarily to things like plot or characters but on the level of form and the similarities in ideas.  The story, written, (depressingly) when Jonathan Nolan was still at university, centres around a man called Earl who can only remember things for a few minutes at a time and who developed his condition when his wife was murdered by an assailant who causes Earl memory loss. He uses notes to himself and tattoos to keep track of new information. The temporal nature of the story is as fractured as the film’s. Earl story basically follows three different time scales. We see Earl escape from the mental institution where he’s kept, the next time line follows his escape and his search for revenge and then he manages to get his revenge and utterly fails to remember it.

As I said, the success or failure of this as an adaptation can’t really rest on the similarities between the two on the level of plot. This is an adaptation that works best on the level of form. As with the film, the notes that Earl leaves for himself are done incredibly well and the quest for revenge has a similar ultimate futility to it, given his fragile and broken mind. The question that the short story raises is one that the film will make you think about on around the third time you watch it. Namely, this….if you can’t remember anything that happened to you, then who are you? The most commonly held assumption about what philosophers call our  personal continuation throughout existence is that without the notion of psychological consistency, effectively it would be nigh on impossible to claim that you are the same person that you were. It may sound slightly odd but think about it, if the timescale of your memory was reduced to the length of time it has taken you to read this article, (thanks by the way) then who are you? What will happen when you stop reading? If you have no memory of it – does that make you someone else.

The most troubling implication is perhaps one the film has more time and space in its form to play around with – if everything you are, (in a mental state kind of way) is so fragile, how easy would it be to manipulate you? Who would you be? Could it be shaped? Changed?

In a way, both the story and the film are wake up calls. Who you are is indelibly a construct. A construct of lots of different things, yes, such as culture and nature/nurture and your own psychology but so much of this is dependent on your own memory. The scary thing is, it can all be taken away so easily. So simply.

This is what great art is meant to do folks, to jolt us out-of-the-way we look at the world and remember that life is fragile and precious. The saddest moments of the film and the short story aren’t the horrible things that have happened to them, or their wives. The true tragedy is that they can’t remember winning. Revenge is futile, because how can you take revenge if you can’t remember the hurt you suffered? Or who you’re taking revenge for? Or why?

Lots of questions, I know but if you haven’t watched the movie in a while, seek it out. But be warned, you’ll end up like me, putting your two cents in whenever someone brings it up. Disagree? Saw it and hated it? Great – join in the debate in the comment section.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

Oh, I realise that there weren’t that many gags in this week’s column. I was going to do this whole thing where I wrote the whole blog backwards and you would have had to have read to the very end to figure out what I was talking about. Would have been awesome, though I decided it would be way too much hard work. Next time, promise!