Monthly Archives: April 2014

Disagreeing with Iris: the power of words

Words get dissed: from God in Neale Donald Walsch’s conversations to a quote in the biopic on Iris Murdoch, important people are recorded as saying that language is ineffectual, inaccurate, inadequate. In Iris (2002), Kate Winslet as the young dame to be says that words are a falsehood. Coming from someone famous for words as philosopher and novelist, and who in a later scene says [slightly altered] ‘I love words, otherwise how can one think?’ such a statement seems a falsehood in itself. Surely the craft and challenge of the writer is to find the right words to convey all the shades of our existence. I find that using imagery helps for the more difficult and abstract. I’d have liked to have been at the college dinner table, answering her soliloquy and impromptu seminar to the adoring fellows, for just because Iris Murdoch was successful and charming and confident doesn’t mean she is right. It is defeating and disappointing to say that the thing we use to communicate is not very good, and that as an academic at what’s considered one of the world’s greatest learning institutions, you concede that what you use to make a name and earn your living doesn’t really work. However, Iris remained a lecturer and went on to write 26 novels as well as poems and plays, so she can’t have rated words so little. Words have been one of my greatest pleasures, but I find using them with music and image gives them their greatest effect, which is why I am so drawn to film.

Iris was viewed as part of my Kate Winslet season. Other posts here on her and reviews on Amazon UK will follow

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Kate Winslet 1 – repeating the same depressing roles?

I was irritated to read two rather ignorant posts about the woman that is probably my favourite actress, who has most epitomised for me that people we don’t know can be part of our lives. I was amused to read that Kate said she has a fantasy friendship with Scarlett Johansson – so famous people have these too! Kate Winslet is the only actor whose whole filmography I know and whose every film I have seen (even the obscure second offering A Kid In King Arthur’s Court, with Russian dubbing!) – many at the cinema within days of opening. I own and have watched most many times, as well as related novels and scripts.

The blogger who wrote “Is Kate Winslet overrated?” didn’t know all her films; he missed out several which would have undone his rather crudely put argument that she always plays a depressed housewife, in suburbia or another time. That’s a lazy description of the drama genre, and it puts the label ‘depressed’ as glibly as the NHS. About her latest role in Labor Day, Kate says she does not see Adele as agoraphobic, as viewers have been quick to call her. I liked Kate for not putting her characters in boxes or diagnosing them.

The other irritating peice – by a Guardian writer I won’t flatter by naming – coincided with the 2004 release of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That the journalist saw Kate’s role of Clem as someone ‘insecure enough to still dye their hair weird colours at 30’ was telltale of the writer’s general outlook. She made sweeping remarks not only about Kate’s roles but Ms Winslet’s life and career, without back up. I don’t wish to propound those remarks by quoting them, but just to add that when one reads an interview, we’re interested in the interviewee, not the interviewer, and in having that celebrity brought out by the journalist, not imposing their own views as a way of regaining their self importance and visibility. I don’t think either she nor the blogger above has really engaged with Kate’s films and their articles show a less than masterful grasp on life issues.

Now having set myself up for similar scrutiny, I’d like to deal with the issue of the blog post: the suggestion that Kate’s playing a similar person over and over. It recalls a magazine article which make me smile some years ago which said that Kate always goes mad or dies in all her films. Is it true?

PLOT SPOILERS AHOY… and I’ve got a 20 year career to comment on, so be prepared to scroll!

Heavenly Creatures: Insanity was rejected by the jury and I’d say it was unfair to diagnose Juliet or Pauline as mentally ill, but she does cause death and does somewhat unravel. And although Juliet lives, she was forever parted from her friend. Parting from lovers is another theme to watch in Kate’s films

A Kid in King Arthur’s Court: She’s disappointingly well and sane as Princess Sarah though she does suffer a bit of menace from a forceful suitor (though it’s more her sister who’s in danger of death than her)

Sense and Sensibility: Broken heart precipitates a few days in bed and near death, but Marianne does get over ‘blaggard’ Willoughby and find love with the Colonel. So yes – but with a happy ending

Hamlet: Most definitely fits the goes mad and dies thesis – full house as Ophelia

Jude: Sue unravels after her kids hang themselves “because we was too many” and parts from her cousin non husband: Yes

Titanic: Death is near and her lover dies before her, but Rose is set free by that brief romance and avoids the breakdown which nearly led her to suicide. So although near death and emotional disturbance is there, Rose leaves us aged 102 having had a long fulfilled life that the Titanic’s tragedy made possible

Hideous Kinky: No death here; and without some kind of melt down, there’s no plot or character journey. Only the mindset of the above journalist would see Julia’s decision to lurk round Morocco in search of adventure and enlightenment (both of which she gets) as anything akin to madness. And despite the randomness of the film, Julia does happily complete her story arc – and again, an absent lover (by his choice) sets her free to go on

Holy Smoke: Although her family and friend Prue sees Ruth’s spiritual conversion as madness, Ruth is full of something that they don’t understand. And though her she is broken down in the desert, she also does breakage of her own. But it’s a journey that ends well, again with the absent lover, but this time, it’s a mutual release. And no death.

Quills: She may work in a mad house, her beloved may descend into madness, and the Marquis might commit suicide, but Madeleine’s the most grounded character at Charenton. She’s funny, carnal, naughty, sneaky and strong, and survives an attempted rape and whipping. But yes, she does get killed and it sets no-one free – quite the reverse.

Enigma in no way fits this; Hester, despite knowing some fatally dangerous secrets, stays afloat and astute.

Iris: As with old Rose in Titanic, Kate only dies in that her older actress counterpart reaches the end of their long life. Iris’ Alzheimer’s is not part of Kate’s role and nor is there madness or death in her younger years.

The Life of David Gale: The titular death row campaigner dies, and Bitsey, Kate’s journalist, is affected by this, but I wouldn’t call this a mad and dying movie. But David Gale’s death does achieve something – for Bitsey and on a political scale.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: You might call wanting to erase your painful past madness – but the whole point is that you can’t and shouldn’t. There’s no death or threat and no parting for Clem and Joel: without being sunsetty about it, it’s a happy ending.

Finding Neverland: Yes, Ms Winslet (Sylvia) does quite beautifully leave the earthly world into a JM Barrie style heaven, but through physical illnesss, not madness

We’ll skip her Extras comic appearance as a nun (which doesn’t add to the thesis, though there’s the threat of death by Nazi soldiers).

All the King’s Men: A powerful death related ending, but it’s not to do with Kate’s character Anne, and nor’s there madness

Romance and Cigarettes: Tula has an underwear shop fight, but no death or lunacy here, although the tone of the piece is somewhat offbeat.

Little Children: The death and melt down isn’t about Kate’s character. Sarah is parted from her lover but she reconnects with her daughter and offers some compassion to Ronnie who is rescued by his worst tormenter.

The Holiday: A lighter, more upbeat film, where lovesick journalist Iris begins crumpling and ends stronger and with a nice new man

The Reader: Back to form – Hannah the tram conductor come SS prison guard takes her life after many years in prison

Four weeks later in Britain came:

Revolutionary Road: April unravels over being stuck in the titular suburb due to being pregnant, so she performs a fatal DIY miscarriage.

Mildred Pierce: Death comes to her youngest child, but another kind of death visits Mildred and much of her family. She gets her husband back with little ceremony, but loses her daughter and her business. It’s a cruel, cynical ending. Mildred might be called unbalanced for throttling her daughter whose monstrosity may be

Carnage: Nancy descends into frenzy in a row with another couple and with her own husband, throwing his forever bleeping phone into a vase, but no death

Contagion: Yup, pretty soon, Dr Erin’s in a body bag, having caught the lurgy epidemic she’s investigating, and the story is left for the rest of the ensemble cast to continue

Movie 43 is one we’ll skip as a minor silly part but not one adding to the thesis: suffice to say, with that and Extras, that Kate’s prepared for comedy and silliness, even laughing at herself, as she’s done on Comic Relief

Labor Day: A happy ending, a sort of reverse of what happens in The Reader. Some might say that being a literal stay at home mum means Adele has mental illness, and like Rose says of Jack in Titanic, she’s saved by the man that comes into her life in dramatic circumstances for a few days. There is no death, though you might argue that danger seems to lurk in the form of invite-yourself-guest Frank

Divergent: I suppose Jeanine does go off the wall as she’s trying to wipe out all who oppose her, and when she’s stabbed and thrown to the ground, you might presume her dead… but I know she’s signed on for another film in the trilogy

[Update – Insurgent does end with Kate’s character dying – could you call cold, deluded Janine mad?]

A Little Chaos – see upcoming piece

Steve Jobs Death is avoided and is like in Quills, Joanna is the person half running the delusional obsessive’s enterprise and the sanest person in the show

The Dressmaker Plenty of people die, including Tilly’s mum and lover. There’s general descent, but is Tilly mad, or pulling off her long planned revenge?

So, considering madness and death are two of not a large number of possibilities for characters, especially in drama, which Kate has preferred (but not done exclusively), I don’t think it’s fair to say all her endings are negative and that madness and death are unduly represented. If she’s done lots of one thing – eg period – she does two more modern films; if she’s been in mainly serious drama, she does a quirky musical and a rom com; and then she does a sci fi baddie, more of thriller, and some comedic roles to show she’s no one trick actor. But many actors (and people generally) find what works for them and realise that they’re at their best when doing it. I personally have preferred her dramatic roles.

As to here being always a housewife, we’ll come to her relationships to children and others in another post…

There’s going to be a spate of these about Kate

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The Wisdom of Ms Roth

It’s tempting, being a generation older than Veronica Roth of Divergent et al fame, to be dismissive of her years to cover my own jealousy and concerns that she has succeeded when I have yet to publish (but that’s changing soon). But I feel that despite society’s messages – much like the dystopia she writes about – we shouldn’t compare or compete, and I won’t be drawn into feeling disharmony toward others: there is room in the world for everyone to do well. I’m also reading Tom Butler-Bowdon’s Never Too Late To Be Great all about slow cooked success and how he cannot find an example of someone without percolation time of at least a decade. Veronica is an example of that, for despite being only 25, she has written since age 12 and had 48 unfinished manuscripts in her draw.

The blog I learned that latter fact from – “The Art of Not Writing” by Ms Roth – is full of wisdom precisely because of her awareness of being young with lots more growth to go. Veronica too is full of encouragement about not panicking at not having early or one chance at success, about being open to further growth and feedback [I’d put a proviso over the last part of that]. “Cultivate humility [my least favourite word], patience, wisdom,” she extols her readers – and have “compassion for yourself and your work”. So despite having a picture of her leaping round her room to music, the text is thoughtful, mature and helpful, and not of the “I’ve made it so I’m a guru to my captive audience” school. And her thoughts about life were also impressive.

There is about to be a little flurry of posts, all connected to someone in Divergent

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Eloquent Expression – fiction dialogue for the congruent

As I writer, I am fed up with hearing – when you write dialogue, make sure nobody says what they mean. And I think – does this mean that all characters, by definition, are inarticulate and not self aware? Surely their journey during the story should be towards greater awareness and the ability to say what’s on their hearts? Some people are taciturn and oblique; some are loquacious and elaborate. The writing world seems to favour the former. But can’t we create characters who are at different stages of the speech spectrum? In film, it means the actor’s facial expressions leave us guessing what a character’s thinking – and sometimes, viewers can guess wrong.

I wondered if characters who were skilled at self expression would make for interesting drama – for there always needs to be something that’s not working for a story to be worth telling. Are they too sorted for the necessary growing and tension?

In life, we strive to be greater at self awareness, at speaking our hearts, at building better relationships with ourselves and others – especially our intimate others. In fiction, characters go on journey too and can be incredibly informing about real life. So why this discrepancy? Why are we encouraged to keep our characters (and our audience) in emotional nappies?

Carol Rogers, the psychotherapist behind person centred counselling, speaks of congruence as one of his three core conditions needed for a therapeutic relationship. It reminds me of school maths and triangles fitting over each other – but I think that’s the point – that what you’re feeling inside fits with what you present to others.

Also – who’s to say no one ever makes speeches or uses mellifluous language in dialogue? We are diverse, and yet the writing world would have everyone have a particular mode of expression – pithy, tangential, limited vocabulary.

I was delighted by the recent film Her in which characters (one human, one virtual) do share their emotions freely. Samantha, the operating system, begins by being open and insightful; as she evolves to ever grater levels, she gets even more adept at it. There is plenty of tension, and yet both Samantha and Theodore always speak their hearts. At last – a drama for the emotionally mature! So thank you to Spike Jonze for penning one and for Joachim Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson and Amy Adams for being part of something which demonstrates that self development and being congruent does make for good drama.

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Is Quills sexy?

I wrote an article on this 2000 film about France’s most infamous writer, stating that it incites debate, not debauchery, and is one of the best crafted and intelligent films I know. It was called “Quills: a Christian response” and was deliberately not what you’d expect from that title.

Yet in my latest re-viewing, I became aware of more negative aspects of the film.

Health warning ahoy! Some prior knowledge of the film is assumed, including spoilers

Writer Doug Wright says in the DVD extras that de Sade is ‘a sexy subject’; he’s often called a ‘pornographer’, and words like ‘titillation’ appear in and about the film; laundry maid Madeleine asks gleefully if the next story she is to illicitly deliver to the printer is “terribly erotic”. But it isn’t.

The stories the Marquis writes (penned by Wright) are all about a young woman being forced into a sexual experience by an older man who often ‘tutors’ her. Like Dangerous Liaisons and The Misadventures Of Margaret, these are not love affairs but relationships built on expanding sexual repertoire, mostly benefiting the man.

There’s also nothing about emotion and connection in these tales, so that however many ‘endless repetitions of nipple and pikestaff’, or other body parts and acts, it is sexual but never sexy. It’s very orifice based, always the man doing to the woman, and the Marquis’ stories have no kissing and no tenderness. It’s hard to see therefore how these stories are appealing; the couplets in the play within play “The Crimes of Love” become repetitive bawdy lists which go beyond what’s needed to lampoon the new overseeing doctor’s extracurricular behaviour.

Madeleine’s coworkers’ fornication may be at least consensual, but it seems lust based. I found these characters that were neither very necessary or likeable.

Simone’s liberation through de Sade’s books is also about seeking a tutor from a man she speaks little with, so I felt a mention of ‘[their] love’ inappropriate. How Simone would find the contents of Justine inspiring or freeing, I cannot tell, and she mercifully does not act out its contents with her lover Prouix, but seems to have more standard sex. At least she initiates that.

The real love story of Quills wasn’t in the original script or in the play on which the film is based. The love between Madeleine and the Abbe was Kate Winslet’s suggestion and lifts the story from being an exchange of ideas and a descent of hope and morals. It is Kate, who plays Madeleine, who brings sensuality to this film. It is in her performance and appearance: a strange mix of being good and inexperienced, alluring and secretly wicked. It is she that makes this film have some kind of moral balance and emotional interest; Kate’s role was the appeal of my watching something I would otherwise avoid.

The one love scene that might be called so is technically (as is the story Maddie earlier transcribes) ‘postmortem’, though it’s also a dream, and Maddie reanimates until the fantasy turns nightmarish. There, emotion – particularly the Abbe’s love fuelling terrible grief and remorse – is very apparent. The physical contact begins gently and is initiated by Madeleine who runs her hand on his face, starts the kiss (as she did previously), and pushes the robe off his shoulders; but then he hops on and the screenplay is dreadful in its description of what happens next… he explores her ‘slippery hollows’ (do they know any other words for that area of a woman?), he ‘thrusts’ inside her ‘savagely’. Madeleine is buck naked, but Abbe doesn’t take his cassock off.

The stripping scene between the Abbe and Marquis is funny in the theatre, but in film, it’s sinister; the Marquis says that having power over another man is ‘a powerful aphrodisiac’. Quills’ sexuality is about one person having power over another throughout the entire story. From the ornaments in the Marquis’ cell, the opening sequence at the guillotine, Simone’s wedding night and the play about it, to the dreadful tale which leads to Madeleine’s demise, sex is not about connection and consent, but the reverse. And those who practice kink say that those two cs are at the heart of what they do.

I’ve said that Quills interests me as a film about redemption, but is anyone redeemed? The Marquis refuses the traditional Christian death rite, preferring to choke on the crucifix he’s offered after being mutilated at the order of the priest. The priest  himself goes mad and is incarcerated in his own asylum. Madeleine is murdered and her brutaliser entombed to be left to die, without trial or mercy. Everyone continues at the asylum, staff and wards alike, with only death as their seeming escape. Only during the fire is there a brief release for inmates. The one person who grows and gets away is Simone; her elopement is comeuppance for her sadistic doctor husband. But he’s not down for long – he strikes up a relationship with snitching, cynical pretend prude Charlotte and continues as overseer at the asylum, making money from the Marquis – the very works he came to ban.

I never did share the Marquis’s view of the world as a place driven by base 4 letter verbs, and nor was he ever the draw to this film (I tentatively watched it despite him). I’ve always felt that the points of the film could be better made with stories which really are sexy – and the violence kept separate.

I agree wholeheartedly with Doug Wright that art should be there to challenge and change society; I just disagree with his examples of that.

“We fall in love, we build cities, and write symphonies, and we endure,” counters the Abbe. “Why not put that in your work?”

That is what I have put in mine.

It is a celebration of sexuality, but also the dangers of denial.

UPDATE: Having listened again to the excellent DVD commentary, I’m reminded that the end of the film isn’t the Abbe going mad, but the birth of a new writer. And that Madeleine and the Abbe are contrasted with Proiux and Simone. The Abbe is so afraid of his own desires and breaking the rules of the Church that he sends this young woman away rather than kiss her. So even if she hadn’t been killed, this was the last that the Abbe would have seen of Maddie. He takes up his quill from her mum in her memory; having experienced the gamut of human emotion, he is now in a position to write.  Simone’s response to the same writer allows her to leave her enclosure and find freedom.

Quills remains one of my favourite performances by Kate Winslet.


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