Posts Tagged ‘films’

The original Bladerunner movie is one of my all time favourites. It’s an unusual piece of work – futuristic, obviously – but also nostalgic, managing to combine forties noir with sci-fi, while remaining, in look and tone, still very much an eighties film with its shoulder pads and big hair. For men of a certain generation then, it also oozes nostalgia for a period when the girls we ached for all looked like Rachel Tyrell.

I recall the first cinematic release wasn’t brilliant. It had an unnecessary voice-over, also a twee ending that didn’t sit well with the rest of the film. In spite of these imperfections though, I found the rest of it visually stunning, and poignant, and it left you with a question – what does it mean to be human? If you could bio-engineer something that was more physically human than human – faster, stronger, more intelligent, what would that mean to be merely human in its presence, and how would you view your creations? The movie tells us you would despise them, and you would treat them as slaves.

A later cut – the so called Director’s cut – removed the voice-over and the twee ending. There was suddenly a brevity to the dialogue, as if the essence of the story had been mined in the editing room until they finally hit the mother-lode. And then there’s the Unicorn, and the silence regarding it, and the myth that has grown up around the movie ever since. It’s a sign of greatness it’s still talked about thirty five years after its release. I still watch it from time to time, still love every scene, know every line by heart.

I was dubious therefore about the release of the new movie, Bladerunner 2049. How could you take something so well polished, so well regarded, and hope to improve upon it? Was disappointment inevitable? At three hours running time, I was prepared for a long haul – something visually stunning, maybe a bit of a slow burner, but with luck something as thought-provoking as the original. I mean, with all that running time you could ask some pretty searching questions and make a good fist of answering them, even that one about the Unicorn!

So, how did Bladerunner 2049 compare?

Well, visually stunning is an understatement. It’s a spellbinding experience, this second outing, a visual and a sonic feast – a slow burner, yes – indeed several people got up and walked out after an hour. Fortunately one of them was the fidgety girl who’d sat right in front of me and played with her pony tail from the opening credits. But it didn’t feel like a three hour film. It took you in, showed you its wonders in myriad detail, and you were rapt with curiosity and awe.

The world of Bladerunner had moved on from the teeming, seething swamp-of-life feel of the original and was now overcast with a post-apocalyptic vibe. I found myself immersed in it, and yet,… I don’t know what I was waiting for. I suppose it was a Roy Baty moment – you know? The guy on the rooftop? the pouring rain? the dove? I wanted an answer to Roy’s existential dilemma. And the Unicorn.

“You people have no idea,…

“All those moments will be lost,…

“Like tears in rain,.. time to die,…”

And all that.

Perhaps I’d missed it. Perhaps it came when the screen was partially obscured by the fidgety girl’s pony tail, held vertical and flicked impatiently from side to side as if to deliberately test my patience – boy was I glad when she went! I presume the movie did nothing for her at all. Me? I came out of the cinema feeling still hungry for something. I had gone in itching like mad, but beyond beguiling and bewitching me, the film steadfastly refused to scratch the right spot. That said, it was a miracle, as so much of our capabilities are these days, it’s just that we don’t seem to know what to do with miracles any more.

There’s a scene, late on, in which Rachel from the original movie was recreated by CGI. It was for me, and I presume millions of other romantically inclined guys of a certain age, a truly heart-stopping – how the hell did they do that – sort of moment? She managed about ten seconds screen time before being pointlessly, casually and violently dispatched. It was a missed opportunity, I think, that one scene a reminder to me that while our achievements are at times astonishing, we have also lost our way, that our oversights and our growing insensitivities are becoming indefensible.

Speaking of violence, there were other moments, graphic and shocking, to punctuate the visual sumptuousness, as if to keep us awake. I don’t enjoy that sort of thing unless there’s a good reason for it – and in any case it’s a question to which I already know the answer – that we bleed and break when we’re hurt. Everybody knows this, no need for further demonstration.

What I wanted was the answer to Roy’s question. And yes, that flipping Unicorn! But I didn’t get it. The dialogue was occasionally stylish, but didn’t actually say anything in the end. In the original, the dove suggested the presence of a soul for all the otherwise synthetic nature of Roy’s being. The second movie did nothing to build upon this premise, indeed seemed only to take the soul right out of the human players as well. Perhaps that’s our future, and though it’s not a hopeful message, it’s worth heeding. In this sense alone then the film becomes more than visual candy. There is a meaning, but you’ve got to dig for it.

As for that damned unicorn: Arrghhh!

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I first saw this film in 1973, watched it as a shaky U-matic recording in a sociology class at school. I was twelve years old. There’s an emotional ending that some members of the class weren’t able to deal with, resulting in infantile laughter from the back row when you might otherwise have expected to hear a pin drop. Thus was the climax lost in an explosive telling off by our teacher, a Brian Glover look-a-like, who, by coincidence, was one of the characters in the movie. It was surreal, like art imitating life.

I’ve only recently caught up with the film again in full and was struck by the quality of the photography, and the power of the story. It’s certainly better in HD than it was on U-matic. And, like the death of U-matic, some things have changed in England since 1969, the year the film came out, while others remain the same, namely that among a certain persuasion of society, the poor are despised for being poor, and there’s a belief that if you’re poor, it’s your fault for not doing something about it, that you’re lazy, you drink too much, you smoke too much, that you should have worked harder at school.

Kes is the story of Billy Casper, a lad born to a broken family in a poor area of Barnsley. He’s of my generation but the kind of character I would have avoided at school because of his position on the periphery of a bad crowd. Poorly dressed, dirty, always in trouble, always being picked on by the bigger toughs, Billy finds pleasure in exploring the woods and farmland near his home.

Though town-bred, he is country-wise, has raised wild creatures inspired by a wonder at the natural world and it’s in this we see the depths of Billy, and his hopes of any kind of escape. Billy will never be a king, most of us won’t, but we all have it in us to be poets, thinkers, sensitive lovers, musicians, to develop inwardly as the spirit in us evolves, as it moves us towards discovering the meaning of our lives, and in Billy the spirit is strong. But given the life he was born into, will that be enough? If at the end of this film you have not found in yourself any compassion for Billy, then indeed you have a hard heart.

He’s not the kind of lad we’re supposed to care much about. He’s a no hoper, an under achiever and a petty thief. Billy’s family is supported in part by the wages of the older brother, Judd, a mineworker at a time when the South Yorkshire pits paid the poorest wages of any developed country. Nearing fifteen, Billy will not be staying on at school. Most likely he’ll be joining his brother down the pit. He doesn’t want to, but beyond that he hasn’t thought about it much. The family are struggling. The father is gone. Billy’s mother is hardly a nurturing, caring, motherly type seeminly permanently at war with Judd’s cock sure ego. Both lads have been dragged up, and are entirely reliant on their own wits to make the transition into manhood. God knows what will happen to them.

The titular Kes is a Kestrel Billy robs from a nest and rears himself, learning the art of falconry – supposedly the sport of kings – which he practices in the fields beyond the terraced backs of his Barnsley home. Working men have traditionally found great dignity in their care and understanding of birds, though usually of the pigeon variety. Denied a voice most of the time, Billy becomes unexpectedly and quite stunningly eloquent when picked upon to tell the class of his adventures with Kes.

The school I went to was not as bad as Billy’s, not set down in quite as poor an area, but the scenes still send a chill, and the football match with Brian Glover’s daft, pompous bully of a games master would be funny were it not also eerily familiar from my own past. It’s clear Billy would do well not to trust authority for his salvation, for in 1969 it clearly has not the competence to do so – indeed it appears crass, insensitive and stupid. Would things go any better for him now?

Of all the teachers at Billy’s school, only Colin Welland’s English master is portrayed as showing any empathy and provides at least a tentative connection with that part of the human race capable of valuing and nurturing whatever is latent in others, rather than merely commanding conformance to a set of arbitrary rules that are of no practical use whatsoever to an individual like Billy.

In ’69, Billy is nearing fifteen years old, and can leave school to become so called factory or mine fodder. If we transplant the story to the present day, Billy would be stuck in education until he was sixteen, or even eighteen, which is just as well because there are no factories or mines any more that can use his hands. But the Key Stages and Assessment Scores of the latter day tell us only what is already blindingly obvious, that Billy Casper will never get the obligatory degree, nor wear a tie to work, and no matter what the strength of his spirit, if he is fifteen or eighteen, he is still consigned to the default condition of the poor. This is not, as is the pernicious myth perpetuated by certain classes of the non-poor, scrounging on benefits for the rest of his life, but more one of enduring the tyranical trap of zero hours contracts, and minimum wage slavery.

“I don’t like school much,” he says, “so I don’t suppose I’ll like work much either. But at least I’ll be paid for not liking it.”

Billy will be nearing sixty now and I wonder how his life turned out – if his latent passions finally found room to flourish. Certainly the ending of Kes downplayed this possibility, suggesting rather the contrary, that dignity, however he sought it, was not for the likes of him, in which case Billy’s had a very hard life indeed. There were flashes of genius in him, impossible to label; they were not recognised then, nor do I believe they would be recognised now. Billy Casper flicks two fingers at the world, and I don’t blame him.

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far from the madding crodThis was the first major novel I read. I had no choice, it being one of the set texts for my Literature GCSE, a course that otherwise did its best to kill my love of books, and to instil in me a lifelong aversion to Dickens and the plays of Bernard Shaw. But Far From The Madding Crowd was different. Reading it that first time, throughout the hot Summer break of 1975, connected me with a deep longing that I understood viscerally, but could not articulate. It was a thing almost spiritual in its depth, and seemed rooted partly in the earth, but also in the collective soul of mankind.

On the surface it is a love story, by turns dramatic, romantic, comic and tragic. Through its telling Hardy demonstrates a sage-like understanding for the nuances of love and human relations, but also of landscape and the nature of place which can, with him, take on a mystical, personal quality of its own. It seemed I had found in Hardy a writer who understood me, who saw the world the same way – with one eye on the timeless beauty of nature, and another on the steamroller about to flatten it.

Of all the exams I have taken, that literature GCSE remains the only one I have failed, mainly the result of the mocks, following which the entire class was flunked and bawled out by a normally mild mannered teacher. There were clever girls that day in tears, their hopes apparently in tatters, girls who knew their Hardy, their Dickens and the plays of Shaw very well and who had thought they’d done okay. With hindsight, I realise, we’d probably all done okay, but our teacher, dear Mr H. had wanted to scare the pants off us and make us do better for the real thing, come June. His plan backfired with me though; I took the more pragmatic step of setting literature aside, so I might devote more time to swatting Maths, Physics, and Languages, at which I did moderately well and I became an engineer.

It was a formative experience, one that saw an early end to my formal cultural education, but there at least arose from the ashes an abiding love of the works of Thomas Hardy, and the desire to be a writer, just like him. Throughout my ensuing studies in the technical colleges of the industrial towns of the North, one of Hardy’s Wessex novels was my habitual lunch-time companion, a reminder there was another way of seeing the world besides through the eyes and equations of Mr Newton. But of all Hardy’s works, Far From the Madding Crowd remains my favourite.

The novel is set in a region of England Hardy called Wessex, roughly centred on the county of Dorset. Thanks to Hardy, so ingrained in our psyche now is the idea of Wessex that many visitors arrive in the area and are surprised to find it does not exist. Indeed Hardy’s world is very much a lost one. It was already lost when he wrote the first serialised edition of Far From the Madding Crowd in 1873.

The largely pre-industrial England portrayed in the novel saw its population established in the rural regions in ways we cannot now imagine. Our valleys, our broad plains, our mountain-sides, our moorlands were once home to thriving pastoral communities whose relationship with nature was far more intimate and instinctual than for the town bred generations we have now mostly become. Agriculture needed armies of men to sow, to harvest, and to tend the flocks, but in Hardy’s lifetime this system changed as the farms became mechanised and the resulting rural jobless began their migration to the cities, to the great manufactories of the Victorian industrial heyday.

Hardy saw that something vitally human and important was disappearing, and nowhere is it more poignantly observed than in this story. There is nothing left of Hardy’s Wessex now, nor its bucolic equivalents elsewhere in the remaining fragments of rural England, but that we pay homage to it is still important as a reminder of man’s oft overlooked relationship with the earth and that we still have much to lose.  It may not be practically or even socially possible to return to Hardy’s pastoral ideal, return to the green of the land, but a desire does not need to be attainable for it still to be desirable.

But anyway, the story,…

Our hero, the stoic, naive young sheep-farmer, Gabriel Oak, falls in love and woos the flighty milkmaid Bathsheba Everdene, but comes a cropper, foundering on the rocks of her vanity and her immaturity. The tables are then turned when Oak falls upon hard times and is reduced to the status of itinerant shepherd, while Bathsheba inherits her rich uncle’s farm. She then finds herself mistress, and queen bee of the rural community where Oak, humbled and impoverished, and still very much in love with Bathsheba, finds work.

She dashes any renewed hopes he might have by saying he should forget any past association, that their roles in life are very different now. Instead Oak must look on helplessly while she foolishly inflames the passions of two men: Boldwood, an older, wealthy gentleman farmer, and the rakish ne-er-do-well, Captain Troy. Poor old Boldwood is driven mad by a smouldering, impotent, and largely voiceless ferment, while Troy’s incandescent but ultimately transient lusts threaten the immolation of, at the very least, Bathsheba’s reputation, possibly also her being.

Hardy loved his women. His heroines are among the finest of any written characters, many of them now obscure, scattered throughout his lesser known Wessex novels, though I remember all of them as powerful and deeply interesting women. Alas I have yet to meet their like in real life – the one disservice Hardy has done me, setting my sights too much among the higher frequencies of the romantic spectrum.

Bathsheba, though she begins as vain and shallow and flighty is given room through her experiences to grow and to deepen from the first girlish bud to the full flowering of an impressive womanhood, and all under the aching gaze of the ever faithful Gabriel, for whom Bathsheba remains thoroughly unattainable.

One reason this book means so much to me is that at the time of reading it, I was suffering the ill winds of an unrequited affair myself, and like Oak, neither able to extricate myself, nor advance my cause. The image I carry in my head of Bathsheba Everdene is very much modelled on my memory of the object of my then desires. She was entirely oblivious to me, but this is not the case for Oak. Bathsheba knows of his abiding affections, but cannot return them, so engrossed is she in her own passions and misfortunes, while relying upon Oak to clean up and the carry the farm when things come crashing down around her ears.

His stoic nobility is one of the great character pieces of literature, far outshining in my opinion the wealthy glitter of Austen’s more well known Mr Darcy. And the centre of the universe here is not a stately pile, but a humble and ancient farmstead, a farm one might have difficulty pointing to on the map, lost in a fictional fold of hills that is both everywhere and yet nowhere in particular. It forms too the focus of the lives and loves of all who live and work there.

There is a tremendous longing in all of Hardy’s work, not just in the stories of the characters, but in the landscapes and the natural elements he describes. There is a scene where Oak secures the hayricks one night, as a storm approaches and all the men lay drunk asleep. It’s so vividly portrayed it’s burned in my memory as if I saw it on film. But I have watched the Schlezinger movie and the Granada TV serial adaptation in vain, realising now it was never actually filmed at all, only told through Hardy’s pellucid pen. Paradoxically then, you have to read it to see it. This is powerful storytelling.

The hayrick scene is rendered all the more poignant coming as it does on the night Oak has finally lost Bathsheba, the night of her wedding to the odious and dangerous Troy. Troy is a serial consumer and destroyer of womankind, a man who now lies drunk asleep with all the hands, incapable and indeed insensible to the approaching disaster. Other spurned men would have walked away in despair, but Oak stays, saves the farm, and shields Bathsheba from ruin even in her ultimate rejection of him. This is love like it isn’t told any more.

The John Schlesinger film (1967) makes a decent fist of the story, though I felt Julie Christie did not suit the role of Bathsheba, at least not to the satisfaction of my imagination. Terence Stamp as Troy and Peter Finch as Boldwood, however, I enjoyed very much and their faces still own these roles to my mind’s eye. Alan Bates as Oak, I liked, but I felt he lacked the quiet humility of Hardy’s vision. The story was adapted again by Granada TV in 1998. I thought this was a much better telling with the casting of Bathsheba by the largely (then) unknown actress Paloma Baeza.  Its six hours of running time also allowed for a much greater faithfulness and leisurely telling, more in keeping with the pastoral mood of the novel.

Of course I shall be watching with interest the new adaptation, by Thomas Vinterberg, shortly to be released. I shall approach it with an open mind and look forward to seeing what this new, attractive cast will make of it. But we Hardy fans are a hard bunch to please and require more than compelling visuals. Alter one word of that original dialogue, skip a single treasured scene, and we will notice, feel it as an insult in our bones, and become highly voluble with our raspberries.

But the movie business is in the business of visual efficiency, and precis. It cannot tell the multi-layered story in all its subtlety and nuance as a written story can, something that has been poured in all its fresh, bleeding complexity from the heart of a man. If you want to experience Far from the Madding Crowd as it was intended, you will have to read it. I note my Penguin edition, purchased in the summer of 1974, cost 70p. You can download it for free now, yet it remains one of the most precious books I own, and is surely also one of the most treasured stories ever told. Do join me in going to see the new film adaptation, but read the book too.

Stranded on a desert island, even with nothing else for company, I would never tire of it.

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