Sunday, June 25, 2006

Anthony Buckeridge - 'Just Like Jennings'

I used to love Jennings books. The ones I had were '80s paperbacks with photos on the covers which made me wonder if there was a TV series I'd missed. If there wasn't, then why did they go to the expense of getting actors to pose? If there was, why didn't it say 'Now a major BBC TV series' on the front? And why was it never on TV? This copy of 'Just Like Jennings' looks nothing like the ones I remember. A hardback from 1961, a first edition even, which cost all of £6 from an Oxfam book shop. Its line drawn illustrations aren't something I remember, and I'm fairly sure they didn't appear in my paperbacks, perhaps because they didn't fit the almost-a-TV-series image. They have a freshness and an innocence which say '50s rather than '60s. They don't smack of franchise.

This isn't the first Jennings book I've read lately, and for this reason I can't get too excited about it. It's enjoyable enough, and does have in it some of the wonderful convolutions which make Jennings so great - such as the episode in which (deep breath) Jennings becomes convinced he's on the trail of a criminal mastermind because he's seen a man out birdwatching with some sophisticated equipment. Lacking a magnifying glass, he borrows the lens from a slide projector and smothers large areas of the school in chalk dust - not in a direct attempt to catch his man, but more because he's caught the detective bug and likes the attention. He and Darbishire do make an attempt to get the suspect's finger prints (by covering a pop bottle in chalk dust and pretending they can't open it - at least this is the plan until they notice, with relief, that he's wearing gloves). This makes them late for roll call, and some teachers amble along in search of them . They come across the bird watcher too, realise he's rather a distinguished fellow, and invite him to give a talk to the boys. The talk requires a projector, the projector requires its lens back... there's plenty of confusion to be had here, and Buckeridge uses it to good comic effect.

The problem is that this is only one of four stories which occupy the term, and the two which follow don't quite measure up. They certainly don't measure up to 'Jennings Goes To School', the other one of the series I read recently, which was hilarious all the way through: as funny, it seemed to me at the time (perhaps affected a little by nostalgia - but not too much) as any Wodehouse novel, and in much the same vein, but with school masters instead of aunts. This one sort of peters out, which is a shame.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

'Out of the Past' (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

The dark, the light. The night time drive during which gas station manager Jeff Bailey brings his small town love Ann up to speed with his past life as a PI; the sunlit scenes by lakes and rivers, and in the dusty town itself. Out in Mexico, the dark of the bars, the light of the hotel at breakfast. Perhaps it's not so surprising: there are twenty four hours in a day, and Robert Mitchum seems to suit all of them. Whit Sterling, a big bad 'businessman', has Jeff hunt down his girl Kathie, who's run out on him taking $40,000 with her for company. 'What'll you do when I find her?' 'I won't touch her' - this is the lip service they pay to propriety, but it's clear from Whit's aggressive manner that he's not to be believed. Whit also says he's hiring Jeff because he trusts him, a claim he repeats several times in the film, and each time it's more ludicrous. Jeff's not to be trusted, and Whit knows it. He's a law unto himself, neither on the side of good nor evil, but nonetheless with an unpredictable integrity all his own. So he finds Kathie, falls in love, takes her for himself. Or is it she who takes him? And would that be because she wants to stay out of Whit's reach, or because she falls in love back?

Kathie doesn't have a program, is just as unpredictable as Jeff, but entirely lacks his integrity. As the film progresses she kills nearly every major character in an attempt to a) ward off the authorities and b) get Jeff back (and b) often seems like a convenient way to consolidate a).) She's ruthless, but without direction. She draws Jeff back to her when Whit brings him back into the fray (he'll be useful as a fall guy), and clings on to him until she's destroyed them both. Ann, the good woman who loves him, doesn't stand a chance, and the first time we see them together (romantic, lakeside, carefree) is the last time we see them together and happy. He eventually dies trying to hand Kathie over to the police, and afterwards we see Ann talking to Jimmy, Jeff's deaf mute garage assistant, who tells her that Jeff was running away with Kathie. It's not true, but it releases Ann from the clutches of his memory, clutches which are Kathie's by proxy.

By proxy is how femme fatales operate, of course: they can do nothing without the adoration of men who should know better, or men (like Jeff) who do know better and get sucked in anyway. I saw the film not as a crime caper (though there are plenty of dirty deeds) but as almost an allegory, about the dangers of falling in love with someone you shouldn't have. 'Almost' because this actually does happen to Jeff in the film, but for most of us this kind of bad choice doesn't result in intrigue, murder, fleeing the law. The mood it conjures up by its noir devices (of tension, despair, fleeting hope dashed, nerves frayed but alive) is equivalent to the kind of thing one might go through, being besotted in the wrong direction, with a tender object who is just interested enough to keep one dangling.

This is what the film does so well: it shows the power of a woman's beauty, and the incapacity of either the woman herself or the entranced man to deal with it. It shows the moral choices which emerge under such circumstances. For her: how far to exploit her power, how far can she even see past her reflected glory to judge the extent of any real reciprocated feeling? For him: how far to let himself be exploited, how far to let his love eclipse the world? Such choices are so contingent on circumstances beyond the control of the (dis-)interested parties (like Whit's calling in of Jeff after ten years, itself dependent on the large sign over Jeff's gas station which bears his name and gets spotted by one of Whit's henchmen) that they barely amount to choices at all. All they can do is wipe themselves out.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Oxford Stage Company - 'Paradise Lost' (Dundee Rep, 10th June)

Jesus in a hoody, shaking. At the centre of a stage kitted out like a back alley: litter, an 'EXIT' light over a door, a few classroom chairs lying discarded. Getting up, slowly approaching a red apple on the floor to the front of the stage, suspicious, hood up. Lit entirely from above, the hood casts his face into an impenetrable shadow the shape of a cobra's head, and the snake is at once within him, a parasite, and looking out, confronting the audience, daring him and us to partake of the forbidden fruit. Picking it up, the apple seems to contain an elemental and atomic force, carrying Jesus' hands in great arcs up into the air, plunging them almost to the ground, behind his back, but always returning to the space just before his mouth. Rejecting temptation, he thrusts the apple into the pouch of his top, and speaks the first lines of the play.

(Jesus in a hoody, shaking. This whole first scene is something which could have gone either way. At the interval I overheard someone saying his hand movements annoyed her, and I could see why: highly mannered, and surrounded by imagery - the hoody, the slum - which seemed a forced attempt to bed down with the zeitgeist. There was real tension and suppressed energy in those first few minutes, though.)

From the slum we were pitched into a Hell of red neon, with Satan, Beelzebub and three cronies lying stretched over imaginary racks, sizzling and writhing in the black flames which swallow light. Managing to escape, they made their way to a dank cave (can Hell be dank?) and held a council of war against the backdrop of a moth eaten theatre curtain, its lower edge trimming uneven and descending from right to left, suggesting the uneven stone roof. The fallen angels wore white, but a white smeared with mud and blood, carried over into gloriously messy eye make-up. Appealing to a mass of lesser fallen angels, these five declaimed as from a platform, fighting over the microphone, presided over by a Satan pitched somewhere between Malcolm McLaren and Gene Wilder. After hearing the arguments for outright war on heaven and cowering in Hell, the assembly decided upon a third way: they would take on idiot mankind in place of God, and tempt him from his thoughtless purity.

Strange, in this age of ours when purity so often equates to fanaticism, to find Satan tempting Adam and Eve away from it. He encourages them to give up their single minded devotion, their unquestioning obedience, and to think for themselves. Therein, of course, lies the Fall. He doesn't ask that they follow him (other than in the act of eating from the tree of knowledge). Once they have eaten, they become disillusioned, but a great deal more sensible. Covering their nakedness with some fairly bog standard business dress, they make their way from Eden to a world in which they will have to work, and in which they will eventually die. Though their former rapture is lost, they seem to have gained rather than lost by the transaction: instead of wandering from tree to tree in a blinkered ecstasy, they are now going to have to face up to their surroundings, and live.

The staging which got them to this point was frequently spectacular. Satan in mid-air, plunging and ascending through the infinite reaches of limbo, an illusion assisted by projections of rapidly moving lines on to the back wall of the stage. Satan on the Sun, assuming the guise and demeanour of a timid chaplain, and tricking the angel Raphael into directing him to Earth - an Earth represented by a glowing green ball, carried around Satan in an orbit by Jesus / the narrator, and manipulated by him in the same way that the apple was earlier on (the Earth = the apple / knowledge, it seems). Planets and stars in the background emphasised the beyond-cosmic scale of operations, and the uncertain physical construction of the Hell / Earth / Heaven setup: Satan's journey from Hell, after his millions of miles travelled, found him not clambering out of a manhole on our planet, but spat out into space, still far from his destination.

Before the interval all on stage was black, red or a tarnished white. Afterwards it was lit up with the green of Eden. The curtain rose on Adam and Eve: naked, sleeping, then waking, dancing slowly but rapturously, he lifting her around him, the two moving in innocent delight (lust had to wait until after the apple). The mood of the actors caught on surprisingly quickly, and their nakedness - though attractive - didn't titillate. Their flesh seemed just another costume, though one uniquely flattered in its curves and shadows by the gentle lighting. By contrast Gabriel, in his robe and tangibly feathery wings, seemed rather overdressed. A final delight from Satan was the temptation scene: putting on a snakeskin jacket, he held out an arm as though it were a glove puppet of a snake, and revelled and prolonged every subsequent 's' the script brought his way. An immensely vivid production.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Italo Calvino - 'Mr Palomar'

There's a sleight of hand going on with Mr Palomar. As a character, he's barely there in his own story, being merely present at the events it encompasses, often playing no part at all. On the occasions when he does, it's usually to be sneered at by passers by. He's a watcher, a thinker, an insignificant ponderer. His creator appears to have no more regard for his character's social significance than do George and Weedon Grossmith for Mr Pooter's, but there is a further point being made, that solitary observations can themselves be more significant than social success, and by many orders of magnitude. To be lost in contemplation of a wave, a cheese counter, or an albino gorilla; giving up TV to watch a gecko illuminated on a window. The gecko's elaborate form inspires the thought: begin to wonder if all that perfection is not squandered, in view of the limited operations it performs. Or is this perhaps the secret: content to be, does he reduce his doing to the minimum? Can this be the lesson, the opposite of the morality that, in his youth, Mr Palomar wanted to make his: to strive always to do something a bit beyond one's means? (p.54)
Mr Palomar does strive to act, or at least to understand, beyond his means, but he does it slowly, steadily, always making sure of his footing. In the opening chapter he gazes out at the ocean but tries to isolate a single wave - because how can he understand the ocean without a firm grasp of its constituent parts? This is typically his approach, and the only time he reverses it he comes unstuck: in 'The Universe as a Mirror', deciding that he's insufficiently at ease with people, this happens:
All his efforts, from now on, will be directed towards achieving a harmony both with the human race, his neighbor, and with the most distant spiral of the system of the galaxies. To begin with, since his neighbor has too many problems, Palomar will try to improve his relations with the universe. (p.105)
He fetches his telescope. His logic is wonderfully warped here, past breaking point. There is clearly no connection between astronomy and always having the right thing to say. Elsewhere, Palomar's leaps are equally abrupt but less nonsensical. Watching Copito de Nieve the albino gorilla playing with a tire, Palomar glimpses the root of language, culture, civilisation:
For 'Copito de Nieve' [...] the contact with the tire seems to be something affective, possessive, and somehow symbolic. From it he can have a glimpse of what for man is the search for an escape from the dismay of living: investing oneself in things, recognising oneself in signs, transforming the world into a collection of symbols; a first daybreak of culture in the long biological night. (p. 74)
There's a balance between Palomar's ridiculousness and his wisdom, but the most important thing, it seems, is taking an interest, and really seriously looking at the things around you - because if you look hard enough, there nearly always is interest to be found, extrapolations to be made. This is why it makes sense for Momus to be recommending Palomar, and that's where I heard about him.

(Quotations from William Weaver's translation, Vintage 1999)

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