Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Olivia Manning – ‘School for Love’

The other thing to say about wetness is that it is the flipside of tenderness and receptivity. Not the same thing exactly, but which side of the line any given behaviour falls is very subjective, and where art is concerned, I’m not sure I’m interested in strength which doesn’t include weakness, or weakness which doesn’t include strength. As it happens, School for Love walks this line: its protagonist, the teenage boy Felix, is pretty wet. He has reason to be, having recently been bereaved of a mother on whom he doted, and, after the interval of a few months, pushed out of the house of her friends to live with his maiden aunt in Jerusalem, where he doesn’t know a soul. It is 1945, the Second World War comes to an end during the novel’s action (which covers less than a year); this is a story of expatriates hanging around waiting to go home, clinging to identities from which they have become disconnected. The English, of course, excel at this. Here is Felix’s friend, Mrs Ellis, who, pregnant and widowed, is unlucky enough to find herself an anomaly:
‘Friends!’ she echoed and smiled acidly: ‘what makes you think they are friends? I came up with some introductions. Each person invited me to a party. I met the same people at each – then things came to a standstill. They all knew instinctively that I wasn’t one of them. The Government people here are graded and each knows what he can and can’t do inside his grade – or, rather, his wife does – and who he can invite to his home, and who’s going to invite him. It makes things easy for them. You see, they’re all people from a small world and things have to be made easy for them – so they can’t afford to admit strangers, anyway not strangers who probably won’t follow the rules. It complicates things too much.’ (p. 234)
Mrs Ellis and Felix are both lodgers with Miss Bohun, the maiden aunt, an extraordinary and oppressive character, who runs the local branch of a Christian sect always referred to as the ‘Ever-Readies’ (short for ‘The Ever-Ready Group of Wise Virgins’), and regards herself as something of a martyr to their cause. As befits a pillar of the community, she refuses to buy food on the black market, and feeds her tenants tiny portions of mashed beans, and aubergines as a substitute for sardines. She won’t allow any room to have more than one light bulb lit at the same time, and there is minimal heating through the winter. Though housing is at a premium because of the war, she keeps a room at the front of the house empty and immaculate, in preparation for the Second Coming. Throughout – and this was rather distracting – I heard her voice as Linda Snell’s from The Archers. Still, her consistent awfulness gives Mrs Ellis and Felix some common ground, and the scene in which they trade stories over drinks at the Innsbruck café has a wonderful feeling of release and is very funny. She does have some great lines:
‘I know what we’ll do,’ she said in the manner of someone promising a treat to children, ‘to-morrow we’ll all go together and pay the rent.’ (p. 111)
And, giving Felix the doctor’s address at a moment of crisis late on in the novel:
‘Here, I’ll write it down.’ She pulled open the writing-desk drawer and snatched up an envelope; it was a new one. ‘Not a new one – an old one will do.’ (p. 240)
Through all this, Felix makes slow progress. He watches Miss Bohun’s penny-pinching schemes and tenant-politics (she is always trying to evict people whilst appearing not to), and is swayed one way and another by the opinions of others, eventually arriving at nothing stronger than distrust. He is desperately needy, at first viewing Mrs Ellis with dumb adoration, moving on to an unequal friendship. He achieves an indifference to her near the end, transferring his affections to Miss Bohun’s Siamese cat, Faro (I groaned when I realised his name is probably a reference to Felix the Cat). He loves this cat so much he takes her with him when he finally gets a passage back to England. It would be cloying if he were meant to be taken seriously, but none of the book’s characters prompt that suspicion. Yet the situation is engaging; little of any dramatic consequence happens, but little by little, with more or less satire from the third person narrator, everybody is put in their place. As in this snippet of café chat from a gloomy Pole:
‘in my camp we had to eat only potatoes! Frost-bitten potatoes. Day after day, potatoes. Believe me, my friends, that is to suffer.’ Mrs Ellis shook her head slowly in sympathy: ‘And what did the Russians eat?’ she asked. ‘They also ate potatoes. There was a famine. But that was their affair. You cannot treat a Polish officer as if he were a Russian.’ (p. 179)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Since K Got Over Me

This last week has been Kristin Hersh Week over at Manic Pop Thrills (expect an interview there soon; I am not insanely jealous, I am not insanely jealous), and in Edinburgh generally, where she’s done a performance or book signing almost every day. She’s up amongst all the other wacky author portraits that line the inter-tent walkways of Charlotte Square – A. L. Kennedy with a plastic duck on her shoulder, Alasdair Gray gurning and in his element – and even if they have spelt both her names incorrectly under the photo, there’s definitely a feeling that Paradoxical Undressing has arrived, and with it, Kristin as author. Having a hastily-bought second copy signed after the book reading, I told her how much I liked the fact that she describes her songs as happy, towards the end of the book. ‘But I’ve always said that,’ she said, before suggesting that there is an element of sexism in the contrary assumption: that a female vocalist screaming can’t also be having fun. I pondered this for a while afterwards, but couldn’t get myself to agree – the woman on the first Muses record is practically bursting out of her skin, there’s no way she could be mistaken for someone having a good time.

All the same, I do like the idea that those early recordings can’t be pinpointed neatly on a happy / sad graph. At seventeen, this wouldn’t have occurred to me – I was blown away by them in much the same way that I was by Closer and California, and became convinced that all the best music was fraught, on the edge, and deeply unhappy. Which is seventeen for you, I suppose. At seventeen so many things appear solid and permanent and terrible which thirty-five sees are nothing but disappearing miasma; and seventeen can only find out by getting to thirty-five¹. The album actually loses out to its own demo by dropping the rollicking ‘Sinkhole’ – you can see why 4AD might not have wanted to include something that sounded so much like a hoedown, but the upshot is that the playful ‘Rabbit’s Dying’ is badly outflanked. And anyway, ‘Sinkhole’ is a clue, but it’s not about the numbers – the question is, can you look ‘Hate My Way’, ‘Vicky’s Box’, ‘Delicate Cutters’ in the eye? Are you still OK? I know you’re on the floor in a pool of your own tears, but do you feel strengthened in some way? It snapped you like a twig, this monster of a record, but the chances are it fixed something too. Kristin can be as annoyed as she likes that Black Francis got to be the fun screamer, but the Pixies never did that.

It was interesting talking to N. afterwards, in provocative mode, about what the reading was like for a non-fan. Too many cloying words like ‘goofy’ was the verdict, and also she once had a flatmate she disliked who played ‘Your Ghost’ to death on guitar. The whole thing was so needy and wet, the questions were all from ardent worshippers or the clinically depressed (there was one question about lithium and acupuncture which verged on intrusive). ‘If you didn’t grow up with the songs…’ ‘But we did’, was the best counter-argument I could manage at the time. A younger me would probably have muttered darkly and intensely about darkness and intensity, but now I feel more inclined to defend those songs in terms of vitality and, yes, thrills. The cut that kills the knife.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Edward McPherson – ‘Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat’

‘This book is a fan’s notes’, we are told. It aims to ‘avoid the pitfall of the Stone Face’ which has claimed other biographers, who ‘get bogged down in a sort of psychoanalytical quagmire – marking with relish each absent father that appears in his work, each instance of paternal abuse.’ Marion Meade appears to be the main target of this criticism – just look at the outrage her 1995 biography has attracted on Amazon. Whether or not Cut to the Chase deserves this kicking (I remember really enjoying it), Tempest in a Flat Hat runs in the opposite direction, away from scandal and psychological analysis. It has a light touch, and a firm grasp of what it is that makes Keaton great, but its refusal to contemplate any kind of dark side to his childhood is a little frustrating. The Three Keatons were a vaudeville act, consisting of Buster and his parents Joe and Myra, and he was ‘The Little Boy Who Couldn’t Be Damaged’. A high kick from Joe once left him unconscious for 18 hours, aged eight, so that wasn’t entirely true. But mostly, it seems to have been:
The Keatons were playing to a packed Syracuse house when Myra’s saxophone solo aroused the ire of a particularly vociferous critic. Joe immediately hoisted Buster by the handle under his overcoat and threw him – feet-first – at the heckler, breaking three of the offender’s ribs and smashing two of the adjacent man’s front teeth. Buster, naturally, was just fine.
Not the kind of thing which would amuse Social Services, but a good anecdote, nonetheless. And given the extent to which Keaton would draw on vaudeville slapstick for his films, it seems reasonable to conclude that McPherson has a point: ‘what boy doesn’t enjoy playing rough?’

The abuse angle isn’t purely a modern one. At the time, the Keatons worked hard to avoid the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who attended performances in New York to ensure that the law was being followed (no children under seven were allowed on stage; none under sixteen were to actually perform). They succeeded for an amazing nine years, beginning when Buster was five (rounded up to seven in publicity). Joe’s argument ‘that what Buster did didn’t really constitute a performance – he was merely a prop being thrown about’, seems calculated to inflame their ire. It wasn’t true – an instance is given of Buster knocking Joe unconscious in turn, with a broom handle. Then, in 1907, they got caught out, and were banned from performing in New York for two years. They could still work in other states, but it meant exile from the big time. After this, they relaxed in the off-season at Bluffton Actors’ Colony, formed by Joe and others in 1908, described as ‘vaudeville’s bucolic playground, a vibrant fellowship of the performative spirit that lasted the span of a summer, and it was one of Buster’s favourite places in the world’. Here something seemed to click, and Buster began to perpetrate elaborately witty practical jokes, such as throwing pots, pans, then himself and his siblings from the porch onto an unseen sand hill in order to alarm people passing by on the lake, or:
Buster’s pièce de résistance was Ed Gray’s hilltop outhouse. The facility was being strained to the limits of its capacity by uninvited visitors too prim to do their business in the woods and too rude to knock and ask permission. So Buster dismantled the wooden structure and attached spring hinges to each of the four walls. He split the roof down the middle, nailing the halves to opposite walls. He then buried a pipe under the outhouse. What appeared to be a clothesline emerged from one end of the pipe and stretched to Ed Gray’s kitchen window; underwear and shirts hung on the line. It was an inspired setup. When someone was bold enough to make himself at home in the outhouse, all Gray had to do was tug on the line and the roof and four walls fell outward, revealing the interloper, in all of his enthroned glory, to the town below.
This is typical of the kind of technical gag which was to populate his films, and it took place years before he got near a movie camera.

Once the films start, there are excellent pieces on many of them, but the book falls into the trap of recounting film-after-film, and the momentum becomes a bit staid. The ’20s are jam-packed, as you’d expect, the ’30s are awful (Buster drifts into alcoholism, a casualty of the sound era and of MGM’s production line), and the ’40s to the ’60s are skipped over much too quickly. The reasons are understandable, but I think McPherson takes this business of not getting bogged down too far – he accentuates the positive, which means writing mostly about the ’20s, and ignoring the decades during which Buster was bogged down. His attitude to this fall, from star to jobbing comic, was nearly always impressive. Aside from the bleak years of the mid ’30s, he always worked, as a gag writer for MGM, in short films (never a patch on his ’20s work, but often amusing), in television. He didn’t complain, he just got on with the here and now, which wasn’t common amongst faded silent stars: ‘he said talking to his peers – many of whom had never heard the Beatles – made him sad’. It’s a sad story – but not tragic, exactly. It reflects badly on the times, rather than on Buster, that his enormous talent was allowed to go to waste for so long. He didn’t die unappreciated – there was a resurgence of interest in his silent films from the ’50s onwards, which he allowed himself to say was ‘great, but it’s all thirty years too late’.

And what was all the fuss about? Here is an extended quote from the wonderfully enthusiastic chapter on Sherlock, Jr., which says it all:
Most aspects of the film could support a chapter of their own: the Chinese-box structure (Buster has wrapped a movie within a dream within a movie), the mixed bag of camera and stage tricks, the seductive, uneasy tilt-a-whirl of movement. Sherlock, Jr. is a true masterpiece, which again, for all my protesting, has to be seen to be believed. I have never watched it – including the time at a hip downtown Manhattan theater – without hearing someone gasp. It is that kind of movie. (Those who have seen it before are marked by their erratic murmurs – to them are left quieter idiosyncratic pleasures. Like the odd way Ward Crane buffs the tops of his shoes by rubbing them against the back of his calves before entering the girl’s house – the sort of strange, authentic, and inexplicably coalescing detail that reaffirms your suspicion that you’re in the presence of workaday greatness.) Take, as another instance of offhand merit, Keaton and McGuire’s sheepish courting. Sitting in a loveseat, each makes aborted feints for the other’s hand; when Kathryn suddenly slaps her palm down on the bench, Buster grabs it with equal ferocity – they both jump, the look on their faces priceless: they are at heart determined to hold hands and terrified by that determination. It is a twelve-second primer on romance, how it is wonderful, stilted, and arrives in fearful bursts. Like the very first title says, Sherlock, Jr. is a story about being able to do two things at once: move and entertain, dream and wake, negotiate between our real and our better selves – how we are all, in the end, projectionists and detectives. That art inflects life and vice versa is not a new statement, but a celebration of that fact perhaps bears repeating. Sherlock, Jr. is a testament to the imaginative impulse, the creative wish – the amount of ourselves that we put into the movies, and what the movies give back to us. For when the lights come up and we’re shoved rudely back into our misfit selves, we find we’re a little better off. Our ghostly flights sustain us. And then it’s time to kiss the girl.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

One more song and it’s over

In an interview once, Robert Forster answered the question ‘Which living person do you most admire?’ by saying ‘I am fond of Peter Falk’. I love that answer, mostly because I, in turn, am fond of Robert Forster. Although I’ve never seen an episode of Columbo all the way through, I do remember enjoying his performance in Wings of Desire, which is what I thought about when he died recently. I watched it again at the weekend. He plays himself, kind of – people are always pointing him out, ‘Look, there’s Columbo!’ – but he is also a fallen angel, and occasionally speaks to other angels whom no-one else can see. In the film, angels are all around, listening in to the private thoughts of Berlin’s citizens, trying to comfort them in times of distress (though literally imperceptible, they can somehow connect emotionally), but also comparing notes about the more unusual things they think. Near the end Bruno Ganz’s character Damiel, another fallen angel, wanders into a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds gig. They’re playing ‘The Carny’. Damiel is trying to find the woman for whom he has given up his angelhood, who is there too, in the crowd. His friend Cassiel stands onstage next to Nick, unseen. In the pause between songs, this is what he alone can hear:
One more song and it’s over. But I’m not going to tell you about a girl, I’m not going to tell you about a girl.
Cut from black and white to colour, Cassiel becomes invisible, and...
Ah wanna tell ya ’bout a girl
Staccato piano and bunched up, tense drums plunge us into ‘From Her To Eternity’, the rawest of Cave’s many absolute classic masterpieces. Blixa looks like death, there are chandeliers. It’s a breathtaking moment.

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