What happened?

30 Nov

I watched Django Unchained last night. It’s taken me a while to get around to it for some reason, but I finally sat down and put it on and I loved it. Possibly the best thing Tarantino has done since Pulp Fiction. As is usual in his films, there was a 10 – 15 minute section which lost my attention a bit, but with the exception of Reservoir Dogs (which I still think is his best), this always seems to happen. I’m still waiting for him to get a decent editor who tells him to cut a little bit of the bagginess out and then I think we’ll get an undisputed masterpiece from him.

Anyway, that’s all besides the point really. I don’t want to talk specifically about Tarantino, but about contemporary cinema in general.

I used to watch a lot of films, and I mean a lot. Ten movies in a week wasn’t unheard of. These days I watch about ten a year, which probably skews my perspective a little bit, but is also, I think, a symptom of a serious decline in decent movie making. For me, there were twelve years between 1990 and 2002 in which some of the best, groundbreaking and challenging modern films were made. And since then – well, what is there to really shout about? Let’s do a little acid test. All of these films were made in that twelve year period:

Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Seven, Fight Club, American Beauty, The Usual Suspects, Momento, L.A. Confidential, Goodfellas, Fargo, Bad Lieutenant, The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, American History X, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Royal Tenenbaums, Smoke, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Lost in Translation. (Ok, the last one only just makes it in as it was released in 2003).

But this is even without considering some of the (arguably) more populist films like The Shawshank Redemption, The Matrix, Trainspotting etc. etc. (And I’m deliberately avoiding foreign language films as I could go on forever).

I’ve tried to do the same with films made between 2003 and 2013 which, admittedly, is a slightly shorter timeframe, but I’m struggling to get anywhere near as many dragged out of my memory. One or two at best. So unless there’s a glut in the next eighteen months, I suspect there’s going to be no comparison.

So what happened? Did the economic downturn force studios to restrict their risk to sequels and superhero movies only? Has television taken over with all the best screenwriters and filmmakers moving to HBO and FOX drama series instead? Or has the demographic just changed? There was an appetite in that period – I remember it well – for things that were quirky, and new, and stylish. That was the definition of cool. I’m not so sure that appetite still exists in quite the same way. Films that play around with genre, that self-reference themselves and all that has come before them – perhaps the audience just isn’t there for them as it was before. Or perhaps there is just a perception that it’s not there anymore and that popular interest just needs to be reawakened by something great. I hope so, and I hope something comes along soon to kick start a fresh look at the kind of thing studios make. Because I remember being enthused by Martin Scorsese’s claim that cinema was the main twentieth century art-form, and I just can’t be similarly enthused by Avengers Assemble or Thor.

Young Adult Fiction

22 Nov

I haven’t been around for a while, and thanks to Martin who reminded me of my recent blog-shy behaviour tonight, I thought I should probably come back and do something.

So, what’s been happening? Not a lot writing wise, I have to be honest. Lots of work and personal stuff going on. I hit a bit of a wall over the Summer with the collection of shorts I’m working on, and with the novel. Maybe I just needed the break. Maybe I’ve been having some kind of mild identity crisis. I’ve certainly been trying to get myself out of a bit of a rut I’d fallen into.

Which brings me to the title of my post. I’ve been trying out some books that I wouldn’t normally read. My partner recommended a whole load of Young Adult Fiction to me, something she’s quite enthusiastic about, and after some initial scepticism I decided to give it a go. After all, she had previously pushed Philip Pullman in my direction and that turned out extremely well. So I gave The Hunger Games a go and was pleasantly surprised. I whipped through the trilogy in a couple of days. And then, by sheer chance, we were given Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go to read on my uni course. So that was another trilogy I devoured in just over a week – the Chaos Walking trilogy. Of the two I probably prefer the latter (just), but they both made me realise I’d held far too many wrong preconceptions about Young Adult work. I’d assumed it was all like Twilight – tween romances with a heavy dose of fantasy. I expected overly simplistic plot devices and dumbed down language, all kinds of fluffy stuff the kids might like. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

The Ness books in particular tackle some pretty heavy duty intellectual and ethical ideas about responsibility and culpability. They explore if and how it’s possible to move on once you’ve made a serious moral error. They deal with compromise and difficult decisions in an ethically ambivalent world. And they focus again and again on the difficulty of trying to forge your own identity in a storm of conflicting influences. What’s more, they do all this with style and with a frenetically paced plot to boot. But what I realised, and maybe it shouldn’t have been such a shock, is that whilst these themes may be particularly pertinent for an adolescent reader, they are far from irrelevant for adults. It’s a bit of a myth that you grapple with the big questions as a teenager and then settle them, or move beyond them, as you mature. The reality, as I’ve found it, is that you never really satisfy yourself on these things and you revisit them again and again whatever your age. Which is why, I think, the incessant self-doubt of the narrators in both series of books, the guilt and confusion they experience, resonate so strongly. These books are essentially introducing younger readers to some fundamental philosophical concepts and pull no punches whilst doing that. As a result they stand shoulder to shoulder with work written with an older audience in mind, the only really difference being they are somehow more thematically succinct – certainly no bad thing when you think about it.

If you haven’t read Ness, then I urge you to check him out. (Surely everyone, except me, had already read the Suzanne Collins books anyway). I’m moving onto the Gone series by Michael Grant next – I’ll update the blog when I’m done with those. But it’s fair to say I’m becoming a bit of a convert. I hate admitting I’m wrong, but from time to time I suppose you have to…

I Play the Drums…

10 Apr

LittNothing much to say tonight, except to recommend this book I’m reading. Toby Litt’s I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay.

Started reading it last night and have found it really hard to put down – to, you know, go to work, do stuff etc.

If you’re into music at all, a poor obsessive muso like me even, I can definitely recommend it.

That’s all really to be honest. I’m gearing up for a blog post of some sort of merit, but just don’t quite have it in me today…

Jarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan

8 Apr

Thanks to Cathy White for pointing me towards this. Only available on the iPlayer until 11th April, but great broadcast by Jarvis Cocker on the work of Brautigan: Messy, Isn’t It? – The Life and Works of Richard Brautigan. It still amazes me how much he sounds like Stephen Hawking (Brautigan that is, not Jarvis Cocker).

Written Inc.

6 Feb

Written Inc.I haven’t done a lot of writing lately, except for poetics and essays for university. But I haven’t been totally idle. Read at an open mic last night and found I shit myself slightly less than last time, so all heading in the right direction.

We’ve also finally got our new writing group up and running. That’s the logo I came up with. And I’ve spent some time getting our website worked out. That can be found here: http://www.written-inc.co.uk. Putting the site together was easy enough, migrating it from a test server onto its own hosted site – now that was a painful experience. Partially because I’m a moron, admittedly, but also because the hosting service I picked was not the easiest to use. In any case, it’s done. All I need to do now is add the profiles for other members (those that want to be profiled that is) and wait for the Google bots to pick it up.

Just out of interest though, we want to list on there any literary events we know about in and around Liverpool, or the North West in general really. If anyone knows of any, let me know and I’ll stick the details up.

It keeps getting easier

30 Jan

You know, I’m a moaning bastard. No two ways about it. I’m old and cynical and lots of things get on my nerves. Yet I discovered a shortcut last night that is going to help me enormously in doing my MA and while it’s only a small thing, I’ve been – for some reason – disproportionately excited by it. I’ll get to that in a minute. First of all let me trawl through the good old days…

When I was an undergraduate, I had to buy a lot of books. If they didn’t have them in the university book shop I had to wander about Liverpool and try every second hand bookseller I could find. I had to try all the libraries. It was a bit of a pain in the arse. I was also trying to be a writer back then and I bought a second hand typewriter. Every time I screwed up, or changed my mind, I had to retype a whole page. Or I had to use those little tipex rectangles to blot out a word and then retype over it with the letters usually misaligned. It was, to be quite honest, a bit of a pain in the arse.

By the time I came to do my first MA, we had Amazon. As long as I was quite organised I could get all my books, delivered to my door, well in advance of needing them. I also had a word processor. It was a big, ugly, grey thing that you could use as an electric typewriter or as a rudimentary computer – typing onto a six inch screen, saving the file to a floppy disk and printing out the pages only when you were happy with them. It was a lot better than the typewriter, although printing stuff did take about as long as typing it. The only difference was you sat there and watched it, fed paper into it, and had a beer.

By the time I got to my PhD, Amazon had added the ‘Look Inside’ feature to their books. Which is just as well. I lost some of my notes along the way and although the quotes I needed were already in my thesis, I didn’t have all the details for some of my citations. Instead of trawling all the libraries, I located the books on Amazon. I opened the ‘Look Inside’ feature, searched for my quote, and hey presto – I had a page reference. I also had access to the front pages in the book – the ones that give you year of publication and geographical location of the publisher. (By this point I also had a laptop. I won’t even go into how much easier that is than a typewriter or a word processor…)

Ok, coming back to my latest discovery. But let me put it in context. My research technique has always been as follows: read a book and make notes in it while I go. Afterwards, I come back to it and trawl through all the notes I’ve made. The ones I think are going to be useful I write out, in longhand, in an A4 pad. With the page number, and the book’s publication details at the top. Sometimes, that process can take two to three hours. I filled four of these pads while researching my PhD thesis. (And incidentally, it was the loss of one of them that led to the ‘Look Inside’ discovery).

Two of the novels I’ve read so far for my current MA I’ve read on my Kindle. I knew there was a highlight feature on it, and I knew the highlights get written to a ‘Clippings’ document on the device. Very handy to have all your notes put into one place for you to reference in seminars. What I didn’t know, however, is that this ‘Clippings’ document is actually a .txt file. Which means, I can plug my Kindle into my laptop, open this file, and then copy and paste all the quotes in it into a Word document. Actually, even better, I can copy and paste it into an Excel spreadsheet. Then I have an indexed list of all my quotes, properly referenced, readily available without having to get cramp in my wrist. I can search for quotes rather than having to flip through pages to find them. And best of all, I don’t even have to type them into my essays – I can copy and paste them in.

So now I have to find something else to moan about. I could always moan about the inconvenience of that I suppose. Or how about this – why wasn’t all this stuff around twenty years ago? The hardships I could have avoided if some technological inventor types had pulled their finger out a bit quicker. Lazy bastards…

Blue Monday, Postmodern Tuesday

22 Jan

Yep, yesterday was Blue Monday. In time honoured tradition I celebrated it by having a thoroughly shit day. Today is the day after and because of the novel we covered at uni last night (White Noise by Don DeLillo) I’ve been thinking about postmodernism all day.

The DeLillo book irritated me a bit, probably because I was expecting a postmodern classic and what I got was a satire of postmodernism presented in a fairly conventional structural form. Don’t get me wrong, in parts it was amusing and I’m always up for a bit of satire. But at times it seemed like he was really denigrating postmodernism, reducing it to the absurd and illustrating how it’s useless as a mechanism in approaching existence in the phsyical world. Although I don’t really use any of its techniques in my writing, I still think postmodernism is one of, if not THE most viable aesthetic approach of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Not just in literary terms, but in art, in cinema, in music even. The appropriation of existing cultural themes and reconstitution of them into something new is, for me, the most honest approach an artist can take. Everyone is influenced by what has gone before them, so why not highlight that? Why not make the audience aware that they’re reading a novel or watching a film? Narrative isn’t reality, so why pretend it is? Once you free the work from that constraint it’s then able to provoke all manner of responses to it – on it’s quality, it’s cultural purpose, it’s position within the evolving framework of cognitive connections that form in the mind of those engaging with it.

For my PhD I read a lot of postmodern criticism and took exception to some of the conclusions drawn. This is probably up somewhere else on the blog, but for context I’ve included it again here – my argument against Frederic Jameson (an approach which irritated my supervisors no end, but I refused to take it out):

“A common charge levelled at postmodernism in general, not least by Frederic Jameson, is that it is a superficial method of comprehension; that it fails to engage with representations of the past, or indeed of anything conceptual, in a meaningful or insightful manner. Jameson terms it the “pastiche”, the “bravura imitation” (133) of postmodernism, a reduction of authentic images and ideals to a “mass cultural allusion”, a set of stylised signifiers which start to replace the truth of any matter (134). The example he cites in his opus Postmodernism, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is David Lynch’s Blue Velvet which, he believes, displaces “the 1950s” with “the ‘fifties'” (281), a string of “stereotypes, of ideas of facts and historical realities” (279) rather than those facts and realities themselves. To a certain extent this argument has real validity; however, it seems somewhat misplaced. This process of conceptual displacement is not strictly a fault of postmodernism alone. Representation itself is by very definition a reductionist process. The 1950s do not mean anything as and of themselves; they are merely a collection of years, of months, of revolutions of the earth around the sun. The attachment of significance to them is a revisionist process, an editing of facts into a narrative, a method which raises the same questions of whose narratives have greater authority – those of the historian or those of the “teller [who] constructs that truth and chooses those facts” (Hutcheon 56)?”

Replace David Lynch with Quentin Tarantino. And then tell me that films like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill don’t resonate with audiences because they play on the same cross-reference of iconic images and cult themes that rattle around in their heads anyway. In any case, I’m rambling now. So I’ll stop. We’re covering postmodernism for the next couple of weeks so expect another rant about it soon.