Friday, 29 January 2010

Review of Hayton on Homicide

I wrote this for the website of the Society for Psychical Research and it was posted in July 2009, but it was deleted during an upgrade to the SPR website in January 2010. It is a brief review of a play which featured the SPR and which toured prior to a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009 .

SPR gets supporting part in a new play

Hayton on Homicide

A play by J. M. Golder

It is Cambridge, 1883, and Professor Hayton is working in his study, or vainly trying to because his wife Florence insists on reporting strange nocturnal goings-on at the house of their neighbours Mr and Mrs Kentwell. Fired by conversations with her friend Mrs Sidgwick of the newly-formed Society for Psychical Research, Mrs Hayton believes herself to have psychic powers, and is convinced the mysterious opening of the Kentwells’ cupboards is caused by a poltergeist. Hayton is fond of his wife, but as a rationalist is sceptical of her beliefs. Yet undoubtedly there are strange things happening at their friends’ house, which are driving poor Mrs Kentwell to despair. The professor knows he will get no peace to carry out his own research into the equally new science of fingerprints until he looks into it. But whose methods are the best for these deep waters: his, or his wife’s?

Mixing mystery and humour in a fast-paced narrative, this new play by J. M. Golder captures the atmosphere of Cambridge when psychical research was a new discipline striving for scientific respectability. I personally found it very entertaining, and it was nice to hear the SPR given a number of name-checks. After an extremely successful trial at Cambridge’s ADC theatre, the play is going to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it will appear at the Royal College of Surgeons from 7 - 29 August. For further details, see

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Cambridge Film Festival 2003 reviews (2)

Non-Dovzhenko films:

Blind Spot

This is the story of how a young Bavarian girl, wanting to get away from an overbearing father who refused to allow her to become a dancer, instead became one of Hitler’s secretaries at the age of 22. She remained with him, at both Berchtesgarten and in Berlin, right up until the end, taking down his last political and personal testaments as Soviet shells rained down on the bunker complex. She had not spoken much of her time with Hitler until recent years, partly because, as she says, there was little interest in Germany in examining such a painful period. But she has popped up occasionally in documentaries covering much the same ground, and of course there were other witnesses to these events, not least Hitler’s personal valet.

So not much of what Traudl Junge has to say in this documentary provides new insights into the pathological boilerhouse that was the end of the Third Reich. What is fascinating about this film is her personal story, how she got the job – personal connections were extremely important to advancement – and how she came to realise, rather late in the day, that Hitler was a criminal. It is the small details that fascinate, such as Hitler himself giving her a dictation test (and taking a ‘phone call from Ribbentrop allowing her time to control her nerves), his dislike of warm rooms and cut flowers, his stomach wind, Junge making the six doomed Goebbels children marmalade sandwiches because nobody had fed them.

These counterpoint the larger-scale events that provided the context, and finally overwhelmed the thousand-year Reich. Junge considers whether her youth absolved her from complicity, and decides it did not, given that others her age resisted, and paid the price. Well over half a century later one can see that she is still haunted by what she did, and did not do. Ultimately, whether others forgave her was less important than whether she could forgive herself.

Bufallo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldiers was shelved after 11 September 2001, and although set in Germany in 1989, it has resonances today, not least as a possible explanation of why the US military gets involved in so many friendly fire incidents. It is an exploration of the maxim “The Devil makes work for idle hands”, and there is a lot of idleness on show here. The main protagonist, superbly played by Joaquin phoenix, fills the vacuum, abetted by a bunch of chancers, and unwittingly by his weak-willed base commander, a sad-eyed Ed Harris. Phoenix is Sgt Bilko thirty years on in a tougher age.

Yet despite his nefarious activities, cooking up heroin and selling army property, from cleaning fluid to automatic weapons, once his nemesis, a sinister Scott Glenn, appears, and his world begins to unravel, we feel sorry for him, so fully has Phoenix engaged our sympathies. There is a climax worthy of Tom Sharpe, with desserts not necessarily dealt out according to merit, and with the commander at Phoenix’s new post (Hawaii!) clearly from the same mould as Harris, the implication is that if top management cannot keep a grip, wide boys are bound to flourish. A telling moment is when a bunch of the guys are watching the Berlin wall come down on TV, and they don’t even know whether they are in East or West Germany. The lesson is that if you can no longer understand why you are in a country, your time there is past. [yes, this was written in 2003]

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Usually martial arts films are about fighting and not much else. In that sense Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon isn’t really a martial arts film, even though it contains the cliché of a warrior (the superb Chow Yun Fat – obviously a less talented clone bagged the part of Bullet Proof Monk) out to revenge his dead master, plus a great deal of acrobatic combat. Rather it is a character study of loyalty, thwarted love (with the divine Michellle Yeoh) and destiny that transcends the pulp confines of the story. So we get emotional depth, but we get much more. The plot involves attempts to recapture the Green Destiny sword, but who cares when you have wirework of this calibre. These warriors race up walls and across roofs, and pirouette delicately among the treetops. Women are no less able in this world than the menfolk, being equal opportunities warriors. The protagonists seem to have found a kung fu style that allows them to overcome the law of gravity, and they use it to its full potential. But just when you think that things will turn out well, the ending brings you up short, and leaves even the most hardened action aficionado with a lump in the throat. This is a China that never was but should have been.

Dennis Hopper: Create or Die

Dennis Hopper (Create or Die) is an amiable look at a one-time Hollywood rebel, examining various facets of this interesting and intelligent character. He gives an abbreviated version of his childhood and his acting and directorial careers, but seems more interested in his painting and photography; the latter in particular is tremendously accomplished. Various mates, notably Sean Penn, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Bryan Adams and David Hockney, appear in order to provide their take on him. Wenders is spot on when he says that at the time of The American Friend he did not expect Hopper to be alive in 2000, but now he will probably outlive them all.

Hopper has certainly cleaned up his act, and surviving the vicissitudes he has experienced results in a lack the egomania typical of many stars, though he can still be acerbic, as his dressing down of a German museum curator during the hanging of a retrospective exhibition indicates. He is filmed, also in Germany, conducting an acting masterclass in The Method, showing a willingness to help students, even if the process looks stressful for them. It is a bit odd to see this ex-hellraiser play golf, and a surprise to see the excellent shape he is in compared to Jack Nicholson, who looks awful (and who is not interviewed).

This is a portrait that is probably not as revealing as it would like to suggest, the anecdotes for the most part well-worn, but you come away with respect for a great talent, though one that might have accomplished even more if he had spent more time sober. The title is misleading: Hopper never said “Create or die”. He said that if you don’t have the feeling that if you do not create you will die, you should stop creating, lead a useful life, and let those who do feel that if they don’t create they will die get on with it. That seems a useful philosophy to have, and one that has served Hopper well, even if the results have been variable.


Axel is a surgeon but he doesn't practise any more. Instead he lives with his sister and spends his days in cafes. One day he meets a pregnant woman and eventually moves in with her. Time passes. She has her baby. Axel leaves the hospital during the birth and is last seen on a train, heading who knows where.

The problem with film is that unless there is a voice-over (and often even then) it is difficult trying to work out what is going on in somebody's head. If a person is quiet, it is easy to assume that they are somehow profound. A less charitable explanation is that there is nothing underneath. What you see is what you're stuck with. A silence can be shallow as easily as profound.

Axel doesn't talk much, and it is difficult to fathom what the various women in his life - a clearly devoted older sister, his girlfriend, an old flame he visits and with whom he is more animated than at any other time in the film - see in him. Normally he is a lousy conversationalist, with a marked lack of curiosity about those with whom he interacts.

The director, Santiago Loza, seems to sense this emptiness. All too often time passes with static shots of the environment, often trees struggling to survive in a desert of concrete. The camera lingers on small details, such as a coffee cup, a small wine stain on a white tablecloth, eyes, a back. Look, we are being urged, these are the details we never notice, you can see the stale world afresh through this film.

But it is a sleight of hand, covering up the lack of a centre of gravity. Axel is too passive a character to elicit interest. Only rarely does he make genuine contact with others, as opposed to passing the time with them: sharing a cigarette with his nephew, lying in bed with his girlfriend, telling his sister that she is the most important woman in his life, but not the only one.

At the end of the film, during the interminable shot of him sitting by a window, the eye is drawn more to the scenery passing outside than it is to him in the foreground. A low-budget film that concentrates on character is fine, but it needs to be one that the audience cares about.

Goodbye, Lenin

The fall of the Berlin Wall may have brought freedoms to the residents of the former East Germany: freedom from interrogation by sinister plain-clothed policemen and from being beaten in the street by uniformed ones; the ability to buy fast food, a wider range of, and better fitting, clothing; and not least gherkins from Holland and ready access to pornography. But there was clearly a downside, from the humiliation of seeing the currency superseded, through mass unemployment, to the supercilious attitude of West Germans. Worst of all was the loss of the certainties that provided identity and purpose.

Against this background, Alex has to protect his fiercely socialist mother, who fell into a coma before the wall fell, and has woken up in a vastly changed world. He tries to keep her from further shocks by weaving an ever-more elaborate fantasy, the steps of which follow logically, for example explaining why Coca Cola should be freely available all of a sudden (invented by Communists), culminating in the preposterous notion that desperate West Germans are clamouring for sanctuary in the Workers' Paradise, in order to explain to her the influx of what were hitherto class enemies. In doing so he continues the toppled apparatus's public relations machine, painting a false picture of reality which those in the scheme with him find increasingly distasteful

The irony is that towards the end his mother is told the truth by Alex's girlfriend, and is able to cope with the news, so that the only person who is deceived is Alex himself. The clear implication is that East Germans can bear reality. Yet the feeling left by the film is one of nostalgia, despite the harshness and shoddiness of the discredited regime. As Alex says, what he was doing was to bring East Germany to the conclusion it should have had, one with dignity and on equal terms with its richer neighbour.

The sense of loss is best summed up by the walk that Alex's mother takes on her first venture into the brave new world. She is confronted by the torso of a giant statue of Lenin being borne past by helicopter. As she stands, stunned, the two seem to make eye contact, and Lenin holds out a hand, a beseeching look on his face, as he is carried off into history.

Ma Vie

Etienne is a solitary lad living in Rouen whose mother wishes he would become more sociable. He has one good friend, Ludo, but his interests revolve around figure skating, and latterly the video camera he has been given. With this he starts to record the minutiae of his everyday life, and especially his mother, to the extent that she eventually becomes uncomfortable with the intrusiveness. He does record other things, though, especially his geography teacher, whom he stalks. Eventually mother and teacher become a couple and Etienne carries on recording as part of the new family unit. He also likes to video good-looking (but as it turns out rather dense) Ludo, both on his own, using Ludo’s dramatic pretensions as a pretext, and with his girlfriends, which not unreasonably they find creepy.

When chided by Ludo about being on his own, Etienne declares that this will be the year of love, and the story comes to a head on holiday, where romance traditionally blossoms. Etienne’s is a typical story of a teenager finding himself, and being a pain to the others around him as a result (in the teacher’s case – after he has twigged what is going on - literally). Jimmy Taveres, who plays Etienne, is amazingly assured and convincing, and is also a damn fine figure skater. The conceit of the viewer only seeing the supposed video footage never grows stale, though one wonders why Etiennne’s mother never becomes concerned at his obsessive use of the camera and has a look at his footage. This is the sort of low-key character study that the French do so well, even though in this case the whole does not seem to be quite the sum of its parts.

Petites Coupures

Bruno, a convincingly haggard Daniel Auteuil, is a communist journalist who doesn’t seem to write much. He is an amiable enough chap but seems to have lost his sense of direction. He is also a philanderer in trouble with his wife, who leaves at the beginning of the film. Bruno is summoned to the court of his uncle, the local mayor, for whom Bruno writes speeches and whose reelection bid is in trouble (no wonder, because he’s barmy) and given a letter to deliver to an enemy. Thus begins a picaresque journey through the French winter landscape, where on the way he meets a variety of women, from mad to sad, and gets himself deeper in trouble until a deceived husband exacts his revenge.

The small cuts of the title refer to gashes Bruno makes on his fingers with a craft knife in a travel agent where his wife is buying her ticket, that is, they are self-inflicted wounds. His character is shallow, with a line in platitudes, a fear of engaging deeper in life, and capable of cruelty, as when he speaks harshly about his young (how French!) mistress. The Danteesque nature of his journey is emphasised unsubtly by the name of Beatrice, a neurotic turn from Kristin Scott Thomas, with whom he falls in love. At the end, bearing a fine bushy beard, he has learned wisdom, which seems to consist in eschewing women. A running motif in the film is a ring, a symbol of fidelity, which keeps being passed round. It is an apt metaphor for a film in which most of the characters display bad faith.

Victoria Guerin

Victoria Guerin is the latest entry in a small genre focusing on the organised crime scene in 1990s Dublin, along with The General, about Martin Cahill, who has a peripheral part in this film, and When the Sky Falls, also about Victoria Guerin. Joel Schumacher has fashioned a solid but old-fashioned film about a crusading journo walking the mean streets in her hunt for a scoop that would have seemed schematic had it not been for Cate Blanchett’s nuanced portrayal of a flawed but incredibly brave woman.

Blanchett’s Guerin is depicted as not altogether likeable, being manipulative, ready to rush into print on the word of a single source, and assuming that the ends justify the means, but the cumulative effect is admiration for a woman who was determined not to show others just how afraid she was, and for whom the risks of the job outweighed the celebrity that resulted from it.

Unfortunately Blanchett cannot carry the film by herself, and questions remain unanswered. One wonders precisely why the Irish Republic was such a haven for gangsters during that period; why Guerin’s fellow journalists, who never seem to stir out of the pub and are only missing press passes stuck in their hat bands to complete the stereotype, apparently despised her for her efforts (surely not because, as is suggested, they thought she wrote badly – the aesthetes); and above all what the relationship was between the criminal classes and the equally seedy world of the IRA.

That Schumacher feels he has failed to address these wider issues is suggested by his insistence on a busy style that rushes the narrative along, the camera favouring vertiginous shots that distance the viewer from the human drama. One detects the hand of producer Jerry Bruckheimer in the flashy style, and also in the mawkish sentimentality of the music played over the funeral, which indicates that the filmmakers haven’t the confidence to let the subject speak for itself, but feel the need to manipulate the desired emotional response. Given Guerin’s bravery, that fails to do her justice.

Cambridge Film Festival 2003 reviews (1)

Each year the Cambridge Film Festival runs a competition for the best critic, the prize being some vouchers. In 2003 I had a serious go at winning this and wrote reviews of every film I saw. They were written at speed in the evening after spending much of the day at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, and emailed off to the festival website. This has now been taken down so I thought it worth adding the reviews here. Many were of films directed by Alexander Dovzhenko, as there was an extensive programme devoted to his work that year. The first batch of reviews are of his films, followed by the rest, in alphabetical order. I didn't win the prize for best festival film critic, but the reviews still seem to stand up well, and I enjoyed writing them. I later wrote an article on The Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine for the Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film (2005).

Films by Dovzhenko:


With Aerograd Dovzhenko left his beloved Ukraine for the Russian Far East, but the film bears his stamp all the same, majestic forests and the Pacific Ocean providing the backdrop to the story, as opposed to the vast wheat fields of his earlier work. The film itself has a frontier feel about it, with a sense of the vast potential waiting to be exploited. Against this setting is a chase story involving Stepan, a grizzled, wise member of the local collective farm (and famous tiger hunter), tracking two Japanese agents who have attempted sabotage. He finds and dispatches one, but fails to find the other as he, we discover, is being shielded by Stepan’s old acquaintance who lives by himself deep within the forest (a suspicious trait as he clearly lacks the collective spirit). A party of comrades from the farm sets out and eventually the other Japanese agent is caught, and the perfidious friend exposed as a class traitor. The reason for his treachery is because he is in cahoots with a group of Old Believers, an anti-Bolshevik religious sect also living cut off from the regime. Needles to say the final samurai and his Old Believer stooges are defeated.

The title of the film is rather misleading, because the new city of Aerograd does not actually exist. Only as the film ends do the military personnel who are the first wave of colonisers arrive to start work on the project. A local turns up, hoping to study at the new city, but realising that first he will have to help construct it. He is quite cheerful about the prospect, and is unconcerned about the despoliation of the wilderness. Dovzhenko too seems sanguine, and there is a lack of an elegiac note to bemoan the passing of the unspoilt beauty. The story is told in a straightforward manner, and as by now Socialist Realism was in full force, there are few experiments with the style of the film. The main problem is the ropey model work towards the end when waves of unconvincing model aeroplanes are shown. Overall an enjoyable drama by a mature filmmaker able to show that he can use other parts of the Soviet Union than the Ukraine with equal skill.


Arsenal is the product of a filmmaker not in charge of his material. That Dovzhenko could make dramatically exciting films had been indicated by The Diplomatic Pouch, but here he seems to having difficulty in carving a narrative from the events of the First World War, revolution, Civil War and bid for Ukrainian independence. His camera style in particular seems bolted on, influenced by Eisenstein and Vertov, rather than an organic expression of the story. For example there are 45-degree angles that appear to serve no apparent purpose, and in one such instance, where an old peasant hobbles out of the distance up to and past the camera, is told that there are no train tickets available, and then hobbles back from where he came, the effect is risible.

On other occasions the camerawork is static, and here the loss of so many people to war is poignantly achieved. Women stand by their doors, sexual exploitation suggested by a passing policeman casually squeezing a breast. Old men too stand, the distance between them showing their isolation from each other and from the terrible events they have witnessed. A dead German soldier appears to laugh, his upraised hand containing pebbles, as if offering the land he had tried to seize back in a kind of joke.

The overall feeling is of Dovzhenko trying to cram in too much. The scenes that work best, because of the emotions they generate, are those depicting the effects of war on the peasants: an old man kicking a starving horse in frustration, an old woman, her menfolk gone, trying to sow a huge field alone until she drops from exhaustion. These contrast with the schematic nature of the fighting and its unclear aftermath. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Dovzhenko’s next project was Earth, where his love for the Ukraine manifests at its most lyrical, where people get excited at the arrival of a tractor for the collective farm, and where he could concentrate on character studies.

One feels sorry for him trying to reconcile on the one hand his desire to promote a Ukrainian identity, on the other having to work in an increasingly authoritarian environment in which Stalin, intent on suppressing nationalist sentiments within the Soviet Union, was increasing his grip on power. Arsenal is fatally compromised by Dovzhenko’s inability to square two contradictory elements within Soviet society.

Battle for our Soviet Ukraine/Battle on the Right Bank

Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine and Victory on the Right Bank are documentaries made in consecutive years that cover similar ground, the advance and repulsion of the German forces in the Ukraine during the Great Patriotic War. The first is the more harrowing, showing many shots of dead bodies, including children, and the devastation caused by the war is brought vividly home. There is a section showing, in an idealised manner, what life was like before the invasion, and the contrast gives the scenes of destruction much of their impact Both films feature footage taken by German forces that was later captured, providing a more rounded picture of the conflict. Remarkably there is enough to allow Dovzhenko to obey the 180-degree rule of continuity editing, with Germans usually attacking left to right, and Russians from right to left. Interspersed with battle scenes are speeches from party and army leaders (Khrushchev, head of the Ukrainian Communist Party, pops up in both films) and witness accounts from ordinary people, who have harrowing stories to tell. Victory on the Right Bank also covers the war but there is more on reconstruction, and further shots of peasants in the fields, this time organising to repair the ravages of war. Dovzhenko has done a masterful job in editing disparate sections of film together to make the chronology of events fairly easy to follow. As a record of the campaign in that part of the Soviet Union these are valuable films, and stand among the best war documentaries.

Chronicle of the Years of Fire

Chronicle of the Years of Fire was not actually directed by Dovzhenko but by his wife, from his script, three years after his death. Unfortunately there is a huge gap between script and execution, and it is safe to say that Alexander’s film would have been a lot different than Yulia’s turned out. This is a filmic version of those Soviet realist posters, with granite-jawed workers, soldiers and peasants united in the Great Patriotic War. Here Ivan is an everycomrade from (inevitably) the Ukraine and the man does not shut up. He waxes lyrical about his homeland and his hopes for the future at great length, clearly loving the sound of his own voice. It is not so much making conversation as making speeches. He is dedicated to the cause, risking his life continually to defeat the invading German army. These are shown as arrogant monsters who are victims of their own hubris, eventually becoming bogged down in the mud they have created, their commanding officer gone mad. The film takes the war and gives it an epic quality, and there is also the usual Dovzhenkian lingering over the wonderful landscapes; there is a fabulous sequence where a badly wounded Ivan dreams he is drifting on a boat through flooded trees, blossom above him, until he is reunited with his family. The military aspect works well enough, though Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron, telling the same story from the German side, without the technical assistance of the Red Army, does it better. But against this background the stories of the ordinary people, whose sufferings must have been considerable, seem sketchy, and the characters, not least Ivan himself, are two-dimensional. The film ends with Germany defeated (though one wonders how Ivan, shown in Berlin at the beginning of the film, manages to get home in time to be a prosecutor in the trial of a Ukrainian nationalist who abetted the Germans), Ivan married to the teacher, and the village pulling together to make the fields productive once more. The print is stunning, but marred by ghastly American dubbing. Not a great film, more a curiosity, and in its failure to convey adequately the sacrifices of a nation, a wasted opportunity. That failure was redeemed by Tarkovsky, who also made a film about an Ivan only two years later, showing us his childhood in unsparing detail.

The Diplomatic Pouch

Even though this was Dovzhenko’s first feature, it is an assured piece of filmmaking. The story is simple. A Soviet agent in England has to get a case of vital documents back to Moscow. He is waylaid and eventually dies, but not before he has been able to pass the case on to sympathisers. Eventually it is given to Communistic sailors at Portsmouth – which looks uncannily like Odessa – and they undertake to get it to its rightful destination, despite the presence on board of the British political police, with their ballerina accomplice.

It’s a slice of hokum and the diplomatic pouch is merely a maguffin to drive the plot. There is little attempt to render the British realistically; the police uniforms look as if they originally belonged to Mack Sennett, and the sailors’ hat bands were made by somebody possessing a greater familiarity with the Cyrillic alphabet than the Arabic, but the viewer becomes absorbed in the film’s evocation of atmosphere and narrative pace.

The editing is less flashy than we are used to with Soviet directors of this period, with no symbolic elements bolted on. Dovzhenko, who appears in a cameo as a “fueller”, looking broodingly magnificent, has combined the ideological interests of the Soviet Union with a Hitchcock-style thriller, and produced a marvellous entertainment as well as a piece of propaganda.

Farewell America

Farewell America was left uncompleted after Dovzhenko was told to cease production, and was only released after his death with the insertion of bridging segments indicating the progress of the story. No matter, for it is a fascinating exercise. To begin with it is in lush colour rather than the stark black and white we associate with the Soviet pioneers, remarkably well preserved and presented in a gorgeous print. The second thing is that it concerns events in the American embassy in Moscow at the end of the Second World War, but the depiction of the Americans is filtered through the perceptions of Soviet propaganda, making them oddly not unlike the perceptions of Russians presented by Western propaganda of the same period. Thus they are bullying, boorish, paranoid, often drunk, they spy on each other and tell lies – one diplomat who has been on a ‘fact finding’ mission quits when he refuses to toe the line and say that the people are starving and the country is in chaos (untrue of course). He is later murdered, and the Russians blamed.

Running through the characterisation of these unsavoury imperialist lackies is the thread that ties everything together, the story of idealistic Ann Bedford, who is so appalled at what she sees her fellow Americans doing, and their cynicism in misrepresenting the USSR to their bosses in Washington, that she defects. She is shown to be one of the few people in the American camp with any scruples, and her conversion comes after a holiday when she sees the country as it really is, not as her bosses want to show it: “To know us is to love us” is the film’s subtext. There is also a preamble set in Ann’s home in the U.S. where she is shown talking about her new posting with her family, who are much more sympathetic to the Soviets than the Truman administration is, indicating a Russian hope that the U.S. government’s attitude was not representative of the American people as a whole.

However caricatured the Americans seem, it is an antidote, after so many years of hearing foreigners in U.S. films speaking English, to hear ‘Americans’ speaking Russian. Dovzhenko shows the Cold War from the other side, engendering sympathy for the USSR’s plight. When Russian characters complain that the enormous Soviet wartime sacrifices would soon be forgotten outside their own country, and that the United States preferred to fight its battles against Germany using Soviet blood rather than its own, their assessments sadly have the ring of truth.


With Ivan, Dovzhenko is once again extolling the virtues of his native Ukraine, but here concentrating less on the peasantry and more on industrial progress, represented by the building of a dam. The action starts on a collective farm, with the announcement that it has more hands than it needs, it is being run so efficiently (this was a time when forced collectivisation was throwing Soviet agriculture into turmoil) so that a hundred men should be released to work in industry. So off they go for the good of the whole, and work on a dam to generate electricity, with scant regard for health and safety considerations. The focus of the film is Ivan, a fine upstanding young man who wants to work hard, but finds to his chagrin that to be a good Stakhanovite you need more than strength, you need training too. A subplot is his fraught relationship with his lazy drunken father, whom he disowns. But no matter, because his comrades are his family, united in the struggle to make the USSR stronger. He becomes a young communist, and is finally seen at school, learning how to be a better shock worker.

By 1932, when Ivan was made, earlier avant-garde experimentation in film (which was in any case never terribly popular with the mass of cinemagoers in the Soviet Union) had been pronounced as elitist and had given way to a greater emphasis on realism. Consequently the narrative is more straightforward than some of Dovzhenko’s earlier work, though he still has time for the occasional tricksy effect, such as jump cuts and the use of repeated action, such as the mother of a dead worker running through sets of double doors with no intervening action, and later advancing down the great meeting hall to the stage, her progress divided into overlapping sections.

Ivan has a soundtrack but there is not a great deal of synchronised dialogue. Generally it is confined to non-synchronous dialogue and music, the latter a combination of dramatic orchestration and more intimate a cappella singing by Ukrainian women. The film clearly glosses over the harsh everyday reality for the bulk of working people, and it is sad that the aspirations for a better life remained largely unfulfilled. Yet as the opening shots of the Dnieper suggest, the landscape transcends human activity, resulting in a mystical approach by Dovzhenko that sits ill with the tenets of dialectical materialism.

Love Berry

Dovzhenko’s first short is the fast-paced, and very warm-hearted, story of a dandyish barber attempting to offload the baby his girlfriend has dumped on him. This simple plot device is the peg for all manner of farcical shenanigans with a cast of outlandish characters more clearly inspired by the Factory of the Eccentric Actor than by Soviet ideology. The barber himself seems to have been modelled on Max Linder, and nods to Chaplin suggest that Dovzhenko was influenced as much by the comic tradition in Europe and the US as he was by his colleagues developing theories of montage editing closer to home. The treatment of the baby – or babies, as at one point his efforts are so unsuccessful that he picks up another one - is remarkably cavalier, and the reason for his girlfriend’s action, that he won’t commit and marry her, rather racy for the period. Needles to say all is not as it appears, and the poor man, once the truth is revealed, has to put his head under the tap. Well, it was a very trying day.


Dovzhenko’s hymn to the Ukraine is an exercise in symbolism, and also an object lesson on how sometimes we can’t see the obvious in front of us. The premise is that, centuries ago, a treasure was buried on Mount Zvenigora. The film recounts the fortunes of the mountain and its surrounding area through the vicissitudes of the passing years. At its core is the old man, ever present, trying with his grandson to find the hoard. The magic properties of the mountain are early signalled when he thinks he has found a valuable goblet, but it turns into a broken bottle as he and a Viking invader struggle for it. The mountain is good at keeping secrets, and for a while one wonders whether the treasure-seekers are deluded, digging holes in a misguided enterprise. But gradually it becomes clear what the treasure is. Nothing as obvious as gold or diamonds, Zvenogora’s treasue is its people, agriculture and deposits. Only when the Bosheviks era arrives is this realised. The new republic will be able to use this wealth for the good of the Union, beating away those (including Ukrainian nationalists) who would destroy the new regime. In order to tell this story Dovzhenko uses a variety of styles that do not always cohere and can leave the viewer confused. There is no attempt at linear story-telling, but this rag-bag approach is part of the charm, and provides a fast pace to the narrative. Zvenigora is essentially a robust fairy tale for the machine age. As such is a companion piece to the more lyrical Earth, but shows how Ukrainian identity was forged from a less than lyrical history.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Review of The St. Francisville Experiment

I wrote this review for a competition in 2004. It had to follow the style of reviews in Sight and Sound, with synopsis and critique. I didn't win.

The St Francisville Experiment (2000)

Louisiana, the present. A film producer brings together four young people, two men (Paul and Tim) and two women (Madison and Ryan), to investigate “America’s most haunted house.” They are given basic training in investigative techniques and discuss their views to camera, while the producer interviews locals who narrate historical events that may be generating the hauntings. The investigators are locked in the house for a night and elect Paul the leader. Madison, a psychic, immediately wants to bless the house, but the others eventually find her preoccupation with her psychic sensitivity irritating. They set out to explore the house, determined to keep together. They realise that the attic has a strange atmosphere and while visiting it see (and capture on film) a chair moving of its own accord. In other parts of the house they see breezes though the windows are shut, and smell odd odours. They hold a séance and communicate with an entity called ‘Charles’. Deciding to bless the house in various rooms simultaneously, the four split up, and as they begin their incantation they become scared. Tim finds a secret passageway and goes to the cellar. Ryan appears to sink through the floor. Paul, in the attic, hears Madison screaming and finds her considerably scratched. In the cellar they discover Ryan strapped to a table and Tim to the wall. As they flee in terror the door slams shut and we see a ghostly mist. A final title says that someone called Charles made an emergency call that morning.

Documentaries on paranormal phenomena are old hat given their recent overexposure on The Living Channel, but in the wake of the success of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and its own precursor The Last Broadcast (1998) it must have seemed a good idea to cash in on the verité approach, with a supposed documentary about four ‘investigators’ given camcorders and locked in a haunted house for a night.

The most interesting part curiously isn’t the investigation but the film’s opening, setting up the scenario and introducing us to the characters. The producer (close kin to Spinal Tap’s Marty DiBergi) tells us that St Francisville is the most haunted location in the US and that “everything you see is real” (which isn’t much). We learn about Madam Lalurie in 1830s New Orleans and her unsavoury predilection for carrying out Dr Moreau-style experiments on her slaves.

We meet our four intrepid investigators and hear what they hope to gain from the investigation, and begin to suspect them of the vacuity that will be confirmed by their later actions. So Tim, the most outgoing of the quartet, proclaims himself to be a “filmmaker” while the accompanying title amusingly tells us that he is a film student; Ryan feels she is qualified to be on the expedition because she is a “history major”.

The investigators-in-a-haunted-house format goes back to the much creepier happenings in The Haunting (1963), and a comparison shows just how The St Francisville Four lack credibility. The Haunting’s Dr Markway may have been sloppy in his methods, but at least he had some: an experienced anthropologist leads a pair with psychic track records, with the owner’s nephew keeping an eye on proceedings. We see character development, a story arc and a tragic denouement. But that’s fiction.

This is supposed to be reality, so it’s unstructured, apart from the first section which uses talking heads to give us the back story, a device clearly cribbed from Blair Witch. We have four twentysomethings who seem to have no experience, apart from the egotistical and extremely flaky earth mother who feels her avowed psychic abilities give her the edge in dealing with the entities lurking on the premises. They receive a brief lecture on investigative techniques from a psychical researcher (who amazingly does not join them for the night) which is so basic that it is clear that they are novices, and who demonstrates gadgets most of which are never seen again.

Instead of developing a plan they just walk round with their cameras, experiencing the occasional strange occurrence (a chair flies across the attic, shackles drops out of the fireplace, and most spectacularly, a chandelier falls gingerly to the floor, remaining remarkably intact) but mostly nothing at all happens. In this respect it may be intended to evoke the delicate ambiguity of The Haunting, but it replaces tension with just enough aimless wandering to fill the modest running time.

We learn that Mme Lalurie did not abuse her slaves at this house but in New Orleans itself, and the location of the investigation is a house outside the city to which she fled after being exposed. If a haunting is more likely in a place of great suffering, they seem to be in the wrong place. Perhaps the viewer is supposed to forget her flight because the attic at St Francisville is indicated to be a psychic hot-spot, with the flying chair linking it to the attic where the unfortunate slaves were found in New Orleans, and the climax, with Ryan fastened to a table and Paul to the wall, evoking their grizzly condition.

Finally, like The Last Broadcast, the fiction that this is fact breaks down. The shots in the final sequence are obviously not being taken by the explorers’ shakycams but by someone else, because they are too busy running about like headless chickens, and we also realise that we have been watching footage from a camera that has supposedly been lost. The Amityville Horror pretended to be real too, but was a lot more entertaining.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Review of Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott

Below is a review I wrote of the paperback edition of Rebecca Stott’s novel Ghostwalk.  Readers’ opinions since Ghostwalk’s publication have been polarised, some praising the book for its rich, evocative, slow-burning qualities, rather more criticising it for its tedious convoluted style and two-dimensional characters. While I can see both sides, I think it is clear in which camp I fall.

A review of Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott

“…for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.”

Ghostwalk ( 2007) is Rebecca Stott’s first novel and is obviously intended as a calling card. But just as calling cards often seem to buckle under the weight of the author’s aspirations, so Ghostwalk constantly reminds us that Rebecca Stott is an intellectual who has graced us with a weighty novel, full of ideas, superbly executed. Unfortunately the most brilliant ideas - and this book certainly isn’t packed with them - are wasted if the execution is as misjudged as it is here.

The plot: an historian, Elizabeth, who is writing a biography of Sir Isaac Newton, focusing particularly on his activities as an alchemist, is found, drowned and clutching a glass prism, by her son, Cameron, a neuroscientist who does animal experiments. He asks Lydia Brooke to finish the manuscript, essentially become a ghost writer. Cameron, who is married, had had an affair with Lydia and she had moved to Brighton to escape, but now she is back she cannot resist his brilliance and smouldering good looks, nor his captivating text messages. Besides, there is this bloke in her Brighton flat she doesn’t like any more- his main sin seems to be that he is handy round the house so not an intellectual - and staying on in Cambridge will give her a chance to get rid of him.

So she moves into Elizabeth’s house by the river, next to the apple orchard, but soon finds that Elizabeth’s book was no ordinary biography, and that the seventeenth century is not as far away as you might think, with suspicious deaths echoed from one period to the other. Meanwhile animal activists in the area are becoming increasingly violent, leading to animal mutilation and murder. A strange butch one-eyed psychic from Prickwillow seems to know more than she is telling, a woman with the unlikely moniker of Will Burroughs (feeling a bit cut up) has been wandering in and out of Elizabeth‘s house without anybody noticing. Are all these seemingly disparate threads connected in some mind-bending way? You betcha.

The book’s historical aspect has been extremely well researched, but rather than follow the adage of doing the research, and then throwing it away before writing the novel, Stott has crammed in as much of it as possible. She uses the device of incorporating chunks of Elizabeth’s manuscript, which enables her to show off her scholarship; not many novels have footnotes. But while such background adds to the texture, it does not feel adequately integrated. At least readers who might not pick up a book on the politics of seventeenth century glass making or on alchemical networks will take some knowledge away.

Unfortunately novels full of ideas are nullified if the framework within which they are expressed is poorly constructed and peopled by characters in whom we cannot believe. Stott’s are paper thin and veer well into cliché. Charismatic Cameron has an amazing capacity for running multiple affairs and a high-powered career (actually more than one career as it turns out) which would exhaust a lesser - or a real - man, while Lydia is supposed to be one of those feisty independent women who actually shows herself to be masochistically drippy by being helplessly drawn to a man who treats her badly.

These are characters from stock romantic fiction (which I expect Stott only reads on the beach) masquerading as profound. The dialogue too is unlikely. Even in the rarefied atmosphere of Cambridge it is hard to believe that people speak in this elliptical style. And does anybody really use the word “goddam” any more? Lydia is a curious anti-heroine, a passive cipher. Yet there is a similar rhythm to the names - Lydia Brooke, Rebecca Stottt. Does Lydia stand in for Rebecca? Perhaps this is a wish-fulfilment fantasy but as Lydia is written, or anyway comes across, as an unsympathetic creation, one hopes not.

It is hard to tell whether this approach is post-modern or cack-handed. Perhaps, as the story is mostly told from the perspective of “me, Lydia Brooke” (she helpfully tells herself - and therefore us - her own name, at the beginning, a good example of creaky style which aspiring novelists are hopefully warned against on creative writing courses) it is Lydia rather than Stott who can’t get a grip on characterisation, reflecting her self-absorption. If so it is brilliant technique, but feels laboured when drawn out across 320 pages.

Turning from character to plot, the book is full of implausibilities. Why does nobody, for example, ask what animal liberationists would harm animals? There is a cleverly revealed twist, but it’s only unforeseen because the conspiracy element surrounding this aspect of the novel just wouldn’t happen so in real life. Also, would one person working in laboratory really be able to keep an extremely valuable formula secret from his colleagues and sponsors? One suspects that Stott’s experience of scientific research is less extensive than that of working in historical archives (the treatment of entanglement theory feels as if it has been lifted from a Wikipedia entry). Why, after having made the deal not to divulge the key chapter of the original MS that had been missing for the length of the book and now conveniently turns up just in time for the climax, does Lydia photocopy it and give it to Cameron when there was no need? Could she not foresee that this would lead to trouble? Doing so allows a symmetrical pattern to play itself out, but only at the cost of coherence.

Appropriately for a book so absorbed with seventeenth century Cambridge, it revels in baroque accretions, with Stott throwing a huge variety of strands into the mix to show us her erudition. Sometimes these are skilfully inserted; having the house next to an apple orchard subliminally connects to forbidden knowledge. A motif focusing on eyes, seeing or not seeing or being fooled, comments obliquely on the mystery. Phrasing at the close seems to echo Burnt Norton (T.S. Eliot‘s Collected Poems 1909-1962 appears in the list of ‘suggested further reading' with which we are supplied to enrich our understanding of Stott‘s novel), appropriate for a story that shifts in time. Elsewhere the reader is banged over the head with allusions which are usually meaningful but not exactly subtle.

Thus water is a motif so we have to be told that Virginia Woolf drowned herself (to imply that Lydia has a room of her own?). The book starts with a nod to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier (Elizabeth drowning while wearing red and being pulled out by her son, reversing DLN’s father pulling out daughter, even though one death is an accident, the other - something else?). It concludes with further references to Venice, where Lydia and Cameron are supposed to be going for an illicit break. During the course of the novel Lydia has seen reflections on the walls in Elizabeth’s house which seem to emanate mysteriously from the glass works that once occupied the spot, and this parallels the reflections on walls created by water in Venetian canals.

At the end of the novel Lydia has a dream which seems to echo the conclusion of Don’t Look Now, with her running around an ancient city, with canals, in the dark. There are rats, a child in a red coat crying… On the glass aspect, we have a Sergeant Cuff (as in The Moonstone) now a minor character at present day Parkside police station, presumably to hint self-consciously at another mystery involving a sparkly substance. Whether such allusions signify anything other than the author’s wide reading is open to question. At least Stott didn’t give Lydia tattoos, but then Lydia does not come across as any kind of encyclopaedia.

The reference to The Moonstone is not a happy one. If this is supposed to be a thriller, it may hold the record as the slowest in the genre, though these decisions often owe more to the marketing department than the author. The pace is glacial, and the denouement not quite as clever as it would like to believe. The paranormal element rings hollow and Stott’s attempt to bring a seventeenth-century character into the present day fatally undermines the sense of the uncanny she has so carefully contrived. If he can do that, why didn’t he just do it before, got rid of the bits of evidence around which the plot hinges and saved everyone, particularly Elizabeth, a lot of grief. Actually, as it transpires that much of the supposed evidence for the seventeenth century crimes is drawn from mediumistic communications one wonders why he was bothered as other historians would have just laughed.

Stott does have something interesting to say about places as palimpsests, the new being imposed on the old but the old showing through. She is also good on describing places. Yet rather than play to her strengths she dilutes the excellent idea of building a story round Newton’s unlikely snagging of a Trinity Fellowship by trying to cram too much in. The result is that the narrative comes unstuck. A story set entirely in the seventeenth century might have worked much better.

To reinforce the impression that this is a Significant Novel, suggestions for book club discussions are included. That seems conceited, and, like the Cambridge milieu in which Lydia moves, and which Stott writes about well, there is an air or smugness in it. I ended the book feeling that it wasn’t written because of an urgent need to say something about the world, past or present, but as a career-building move away from non-fiction and into creative writing. It is hard to maintain an interest in Lydia, Cameron, or any of the minor characters who circle around them. One gets a feel for the geography of contemporary Cambridge, which Stott knows, being a resident, but the people in it lie inert, incapable of a chemical reaction. Perhaps Stott sees herself as an alchemist of words. If so, she has taken materials of gold and made of them something surprisingly dull.

PS On 10 April 2010 I attended a very enjoyable discussion on "Writing History" organised as part of Cambridge Wordfest, which had Hilary Mantel, Anna Whitelock, Malcolm Gaskill and Rebecca Stott debating the relationship between writing history and writing historical fiction. The issue of doing thorough research when producing the latter came up, and the two novelists agreed that for them the research was like an iceberg, with most of it invisible to the reader. Stott stressed the huge amount she does - for her most recent novel (The Coral Thief), for example, she clainmed to have read every diary written by every young man visiting Paris in 1815, of which it would seem there are more than you might think. Perhaps my verdict on Ghostwalk, that it was crammed with research to the detriment of the plot, was unfair. This was probably only the tip of her iceberg, it was just a rather large iceberg, Titanic-sized in fact.

PPS The Cambridge News of 8 December 2010, p.13, carried an article on something called "The Cambridgeshire Book of the Decade", the shortlist for which had been announced. The aim of the competition was to find the best book written by someone living in Cambridgeshire, or which was set in the county, and published between January 2000 and December 2009. There were ten titles on the list, one of which was Ghostwalk.

The judges who compiled the shortlist were drawn from the sponsors, plus sundry others. One of the sponsors, and hence supplying a judge, was Anglia Ruskin University, where Rebecca Stott taught until her move to the University of East Anglia to teach creative writing. The judge in question was unnamed in the article, but was apparently Laura Dietz, who currently teaches on ARU’s Creative Writing MA.

One of the sundry others was Cambridge University's Gillian Beer, who knows Stott. For example they both acted as literary consultants on a Darwin project at the Fitzwilliam Museum, spoke at a conference on Darwin, Tennyson and their Readers at Anglia Ruskin in late 2009, and are patrons of Cambridge Wordfest. Dietz is on the Wordfest steering group. Another Book of the Decade judge was Cathy Moore, who happens to be director of Wordfest. Beer also enthusiastically rated Stott’s 2012 Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists as Book of the Week in the Sunday Telegraph, 6 May 2012.

Literary culture in Cambridge seems to be rather tight-knight, with the potential for a conflict of interest. Fortunately though, the Canbridge Book of the Decade winner was chosen by members of the public rather than a clique, and announced on 15 December 2010. It was Saumya Balsari’s The Cambridge Curry Club.