Local Hero

What do you watch when you want something easy and comfortably familiar?  Something that will make you smile and recall other occasions on which you’ve watched it?

'You can't eat scenery, Mac'

I have several old films on both DVD and VHS that I revert to every now and again because I know that they will either entertain me in that easy way, or which I can switch off if it’s not quite right this time without losing my fondness for them.

Yesterday I watched Local Hero, a gentle comedy from the early 1980s by Bill Forsyth.  Made after the success of Gregory’s Girl, but with more money, both allowing and, presumably, obliging him, to use bigger named performers, it is a story of what happens when a large American oil company attempts to buy a Scottish village.

In the tradition of small British comedies, however, the enjoyment of the film for me lies not in the plot nor in pratfalls, but in the study of human nature and the cleverness of the dialogue.

Although the Americans think that the Scots are ‘nearly like us’, Peter Riegert, playing Mac, the Knox Oil and Gas representative still arrives believing that they will all be slightly simple, whereas behind his backs the small community is cannily plotting together to get as much out of him as they can.  Expecting them to be isolated and cut off, he is surprised to find that the local vicar is from Africa and that the village is regularly visited by a Russian fisherman, the occasional bidey-in of the lady shop owner.

It’s clearly an old movie now; the clothes and the big hair fix it unquestionably in the 1980s.  The comedy of the red phone box and the limitless supply of 10p coins Mac needs to call back to Houston, would be lost in an era of mobile telephones.  But I like the daftness of the motorcycle that always just misses Mac as he crosses the road which otherwise carries no traffic; and how he gets accustomed to the turn of speed necessary to avoid it.

It’s the small touches that always make me smile.  Mac and Oldsen kill time on the beach playing ducks and drakes, discussing how many bounces it is possible to get out of a stone, and the relative skimming properties of different shaped pebbles.  Mac tries to make conversation with the group of men who hang around the upturned  boat on the dock, with them is a baby in a pushchair, who reappears at the edge of many shots throughout the film.  Mac simply asks ‘Whose baby?’, and the group of men purse their lips and look away, and you know that Mac has asked the unanswerable question.

The boat itself is constantly being renamed as its owner tries to decide what the right name should be once he’s rich.  And the conversations and debates over whether it’s yer Maserati or yer Ferrari that would be a better buy flow as constant riffs through the screenplay.

Who could resist the idea that Burt Lancaster as Mr Happer, the oil tycoon, feels so remote from ordinary life and people that he has to employ Moritz, a therapist, to insult him?  Now there’s a niche job that might suit me.

It’s a period chamber piece, but fun to revisit.

By pure coincidence, I see that Peter Capaldi, who had his first role as the painfully awkward Oldsen in the film, was interviewed in the Independent this weekend.

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True Grit – Mumbling, Lisping and Enunciating

I went to see True Grit a couple of weeks ago, and have been thinking about it a fair amount since.  I should declare up front that I am a fan of the Coen brothers’ movies.  Mainly I think because of their sly humour and the often odd angles through which they appear to view the world.  While they have moved away from the strange long shots from floor level that they used so eerily in films like ‘Barton Fink’ and ‘Miller’s Crossing’ their framing of the shots is still a pleasure to the eye.

The landscape behind the action of True Grit is wintry; the viewer feels the cold; it is no surprise that the earth is frozen too hard to permit the burying of a body.

The clothes on the actors’ backs are bulky against the chill and grow ever dirtier as the film progresses; you can feel the distance they all are from the nearest settlement: is ‘civilisation’ the right world?

They are all on their own and will have to rely on their joint resources to survive and to achieve their objective to track down Tom Chaney.

But I think the greatest pleasure for me was the dialogue, or if not the dialogue the manner in which it was delivered.  There was a real sense of humour behind it, I think.

Jeff Bridges spent most of the film mumbling and Matt Damon, after coming off worst in a fight in which he bit his tongue, spoke for the remainder of the film with a pronounced lisp from behind a ridiculous moustache, while Hailee Steinfield, the young actress playing Mattie, spoke in deliberately arcane formal sentences which might have come straight from the Bible.

The dialogue was sharp and witty, and rewarded careful listening, as sometimes Jeff Bridges’ mumbling made it difficult to hear; it was dry and underplayed all the way through.  I enjoyed the minimalism of it.

‘That didn’t go the way I planned’ as he surveyed a row of dead men; but equally he became nearly garrulous when telling Mattie of his marital misadventures; painting for us a picture of a self-centred, deeply flawed man.

By lisping with his damaged tongue, Matt Damon gave the character of LaBoeuf a sustained but low-key comic air.  Behind his moustache and underneath his tasselled, hide jacket there is a man of some principal, forced to throw in his lot with Cogburn, because he too is motivated by money in his quest to track the villain Chaney.

It is Mattie who is the one solely motivated by vengeance in the search; but it is her speech idiom and clear-eyed determination that lets us know that she has right on her side.  She seeks the retribution that is her right according to the Old Testament.

So there it is…once again I’m recommending a film on the basis of its dialogue and the manner in which it is delivered.

Uzbek domestic

Tashkent Market

Memory can be infinitely elastic; there are some things I remember and can recount faithfully, there are other tales that are improved in the telling, and yet others still that can only be told if all the details are changed.

And this is only if I rely only on my own memories.

What if I take into account another person’s recollection of a shared experience?  Maybe I could write one of those stories in which the same event is told from different points of view?

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who suggested that I write something about a trip we shared to Samarkand a few years ago.

‘You remember the swing?’ he said

‘What swing?’

‘The one in the office garden.’

‘No.’ I shook my head.  ‘That must have been when I was asleep on the sofa inside.’

We both laughed and shook our heads recalling our visit to our firm’s ‘office’ in Tashkent, which was, in reality, a furnished, rented house, barely altered from its domestic set -up, with desktop PCs on the dining table, and another on the coffee table.

Our joint experience allows us a shorthand, but the nuances in our memories give us something to talk about still; but to share the surreality of the experience with others it’s necessary to give it context and a fuller explanation. The choices that I make when recounting the tale will make it my story; my friend would tell a different one.

We flew overnight from Moscow on Air Uzbek (not an experience I would recommend) and arrived in the early morning.  It was Easter; in Moscow it was still Winter, but Spring was well under way in Tashkent.  We were a small, motley group of expats working in Moscow.  The office in Tashkent had helped with some of the arrangements, so we had to go there first.

We were so early we arrived before most of the staff, so had some time to kill.  I sat down on a sofa and fell asleep.  I woke with a start when the cleaning lady started emptying the waste paper bins around me.  I sat up, apologising, but she waved her hand at me and disappeared through the door into the adjacent room.

When she reappeared she was holding a pillow which she gave me.  She’d taken it from the Manager’s bed.  (He was out of town ….)  There were many young women who, at the time, would have been jealous at the thought of me laying my head on one of his pillows.

A couple of days later we were in Samarkand being shown around the area by a guide on our own little bus.  Inevitably one member of the party expressed the need to find a public convenience.  The bus stopped at the side of the road by a ramshackle little shed.  I watched through the window as a couple of my friends opened the shed door, recoiled, got back on the bus and asked to be taken back to our hotel.

A long debate ensued, most of it between the guide and the driver, revealing nothing, apart from a reluctance to cross the city.  Eventually the bus started off again and we were driven through residential streets, narrow, wall lined but with trees and and foliage tumbling over the masonry.  The bus stopped outside a gate in a wall and the driver got out and went inside.  We all waited, wondering what was happening.

The driver returned and nodded to us.  It was his mother’s house, and we could use the toilet there.

The house was built as separate blocks around a courtyard; broadly the living area and winter kitchen as one, the summer kitchen separate, and the bathroom/toilet on its own.  One by one we took our turns.

I gave a rather embarrassed nod and timid ‘Spacebo’ to the old lady who was sitting in her courtyard, watching impassively as the ramshackle parade of foreigners passed through her home.

I wonder how she would tell the tale.

Twenty Questions

The opening question was always ‘animal, vegetable or mineral?’

And the first argument was immediate.

‘You can only ask questions with yes or no as an answer,’ the person whose turn it was would retort.

So then you’d have to use up the first two questions finding out.  But it didn’t matter that much, as we never restricted it to twenty chances.  The games would go on until the answer was found; it could be days and scores of exchanges.

My father would come up with things that we as children had little chance of getting.  I distinctly remember us, after several hours, getting to the point of having determined it to be the man who built the Suez Canal, but he refused to give it to us until we found the man’s name;  Ferdinand de Lesseps.

It is knowledge that is firmly wedged in my mind, but which has never been of the least bit of use to me.

Oh, all right, it was marginally useful in a ‘the old woman who swallowed a fly’ sort of way.

It made me pay attention when the film ‘Suez’ starring Tyrone Power as Ferdinand was on the television.  From that I learnt that after the Suez Canal, he had a go at building a canal in Panama, which failed because of the difficult terrain and the malarial epidemic among the workers.

When, at school, we were learning about the Darien Scheme, which virtually bankrupted Scotland at the end of the 17th century, and the teacher asked if anyone had any ideas on why the Scheme was destined to fail, I was able to raise my hand, in what was probably an irritating, rather smug way,  and offer disease and swamp as my suggestions.

Another long running edition culminated in us getting stuck at the point of knowing that it was something to do with Oliver Cromwell. Only after a further few days would he give in and tell us it was the wart on his face.  Cue arguments about the legitimacy of specifying only a part of a person.

He justified himself on the basis that we should know the origin of the phrase ‘warts and all’; that Cromwell insisted that his portrait not flatter him, that he be portrayed as he was.  Recent research has made me aware that it is now thought that the phrase came long after Cromwell’s death.

There’s nothing for it though, I still remember it, even if  it’s not right.

Somewhere along the line I must have shared my memories of the torture of ‘twenty questions’ with friends at university, because I played it with them there; and there were near blows when finally, after days of questioning, we managed to identify Ziggy Stardust as an answer.  There was much shouting that fictional, performance characters weren’t allowed.

I often wonder why these useless little chips of information stick in my head; but they do all fit together like an odd mosaic of broken bottles through which I see the world.

If only I could remember ‘important’ things as effectively.

Blue Valentine

I went to see the movie ‘Blue Valentine’ last week.  It’s too stark and raw a story to say that I enjoyed it, but it did have an impact on me.

The film is about the breakdown in a short but ill fated marriage, between Dean and Cindy, told in jagged flash backs.  Many of the shots are in extreme close up, and the acting is subtle and painful.  There was nothing glossy or slick about it.

I found as I was watching that my sympathies veered between Dean and Cindy, but I suspect that was the point; that a relationship will falter because there is a failure of communication and fault on both sides, and that people aren’t always easy or pleasant.

There was a particularly uncomfortable sequence where, in an entirely misconceived attempt at reconciliation, Dean books them into a shabby themed hotel in which they then spend a drunken evening in a room with a revolving bed but no windows.

As they got increasingly drunk it was clear nothing was going to be improved by the outing.

The dialogue was extraordinary; I found myself getting increasingly aggravated by it.  It wasn’t ‘ordinary speech’, but nor was it the clear minimalist exchange of information usually found in films.

As Dean becomes increasingly agitated he speaks all the time, badgering Cindy with endless repetitions of the same questions.

‘What do you want? What should I do? Tell me what I should do? What do you want?’  Interminable, wearing repetition leaving no gaps, not even pausing for breath and so Cindy cannot reply even if she were prepared to; so she just stands and lets it wash over her.

We know that this has happened so many times before that she has given up trying to answer; anything she does say he almost wilfully misunderstands.

As a way of showing a complete break down of communication it was very effective.

Writing dialogue which dramatises a failure to communicate is very tricky; I tend to go for silences, and it is difficult to show a reluctance to speak through writing gaps.

I am going to reconsider the use of excessive speaking as an alternative, although I think the calibration of it must be difficult: how to convey an increase in frustration and pain without alienating the reader into having no sympathy for the character?

Bombarding someone with questions can make them feel like they are under attack, rather than having an interest shown in them.  Asking a question is only the opening of a conversation if the asker waits to hear the answer and responds to it, otherwise it is nothing more than filling an empty silence with unnecessary noise.

Interestingly, a couple of days after my trip to the cinema, I watched ‘Proof’ on television.  Probably sensitised through my reflection on the dialogue in ‘Blue Valentine’, and although a completely different style of film, there were  scenes in ‘Proof’ where I could see the same technique at work.  A failed sibling relationship is shown through one sister badgering the other with endless questions; the answers are either not forthcoming or when they are given, are ignored.

Right.

I’ve just a couple of questions……just don’t ask me any.

Black Watch

I went to see Black Watch at the Barbican last week.

When I told a friend afterwards that I thought it was extraordinary, she asked me what had been so good about it.  I found myself at something of a loss for words.  While I took a moment to think about it, I rather limply repeated, ‘it was simply extraordinary.’

Where were my vocabulary and my critical faculties?

Sometimes a reaction to a performance is visceral; you allow yourself to be totally absorbed, forgetting the passage of time, the discomfort of your seat, the people around you and the pure artifice of watching grown men pretending to be something they’re not.

When it works well, you experience something that can only happen in the theatre; you know it’s make believe, but there are real people conjuring something out of nothing, right there in front of you.  It’s not the fakery of CGI or special effects, it’s the illusion of a well constructed magic trick.

It’s the alchemy I hope for every time I go to the theatre.

I experienced it during War Horse; I knew that it was men, canvas and a metal and leather frame, but I believed there were horses on stage, and was moved in a way that I would not have been by a film of real horses.

So what was it about ‘Black Watch’?

It was all of it; the coming together of idea, script, staging, props and performances.  In a space, bare apart from a couple of freight containers and scaffolding, ten actors performed a piece constructed around a real fatal incident in Iraq in the period after the war had been declared ‘over’.

Their props were a few bar chairs, some guns and a pool table covered in red baize, which served as tomb, dug out, armoured vehicle and least of all, for playing pool.

The dialogue captured the cadences of speech of Fife, and the vocabulary of the squaddie, as well as the mealy mouths of politicians.

The actors switched from the aggression of  angry soldiers to the near ballet of a sequence in which one man was dressed successively in the regiment’s uniforms over the centuries by his mates.

There was singing, swearing, marching, mute signing while reading letters from home, laughter, tears, explosions, more marching AND bag-pipes.

Did it make me think?  Yes.  Did it change my mind about anything?  Probably not.

I still can’t quite understand why anyone would join the Army, although I know they make that choice freely.  And I know that it is young men who are the victims of war; and that latterly it is the hubris of our politicians that has taken us into our most recent wars.

One of the distinctive memories of my childhood was the constant coverage on the television of the war in Vietnam.  I don’t notice so much attention to the fighting that is going on now, other than the dryly clinical recording of the names of the dead.

Either I am inured to it, or there is genuinely less coverage; which is why to be faced with a piece of theatre which makes me focus on the humanity of armed conflict has to be worth it; and is extraordinary.

Talk proper

Holiday blue

I’ve been shouting at the television a lot lately.

Shouting and putting my hands over my ears, or hurrying out of the room ‘lalala’-ing, to put the kettle on or to do the washing up, so I can’t hear the voice-over for a particular advert.

It’s a holiday advert; one of those ones that they dust down every January and air 4 times an hour to lure you to book early for your summer break.

I remember it from last year, and it irritated me then; but it’s the fact that they’ve had the gall to use it again that has infuriated me.

What is it that I find so offensive about the voice-over?    The script goes something along the lines of:

We fan’asise abou’ i’

we plan i’

we look forward to i’.

Don’ jus book i’

……’

I’m sure written on the page it contained a few more ‘t’s; pity they didn’t make it to the final edit.  It has been designed around repetition of the word ‘it’, and they hired someone apparently incapable of pronouncing ‘t’ except when it’s the first letter of a word.  Aargh!

A committee of people has been involved in the ad’s production from the creative agency to the production company to the client paying for it all.  They’ve thought about the impression they want to make, how to entice the viewer to pick that holiday company over its competitors.

Anyone at any time before it was broadcast had the opportunity to ask the voice over performers to speak more precisely; but they didn’t, so they must like it that way.

The ad isn’t targeted at me, because if it is, it fails; and advertisers don’t repeat ads that fail.

Apart from this general ranting though, the ad has made me consider the power effect of words and accent in creating an impression.

In writing stories and novels a huge amount of information is conveyed by the dialogue.  I was recently directed towards an excellent short discussion of how dialogue differs from real speech in Paris Review.

Small touches in what a character says, and doesn’t say, can colour the impression on the reader.  Readers can be alienated by certain attributes, by the choice of vocabulary and tone, as easily as they can be entranced.

As the writer, to a certain extent, therefore, you select your audience through the stylistic choices you make.

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