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Thursday, 31 October 2013

Classic Film Review: The Outlaw (1943)

The Outlaw stars Jack Buetel as Billy the Kid. He arrives in a New Mexico town with a horse stolen from Doc Holliday (Walter Huston). Holliday is intrigued by Billy, taking sides with him over his old friend and new town sheriff, Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell). When Billy is injured, Doc takes him to Rio McDonald's (Jane Russell) home to keep him safe. Although romantically involved with Doc, Rio falls for Billy and what follows is a steady build-up of tension between the four main characters.

This film is notably mostly for being the first appearance of Jane Russell on film. It's not a stunning debut but it is a good promise of what's to come. For the most part, Rio is a bland character, won round to loving Billy despite him killing someone she loves. The stronger aspects of her characters shine through before she falls for Billy. Similarly, Jack Buetel is better when paired with Walter Huston instead of Russell.

The interest for me came in the battle between friends Holliday and Garrett. Although Garrett is interested in catching Billy the Kid on a professional level, he also feels betrayed by Holliday siding with Billy against him. This tension sustains the narrative, even though in parts the film drags.

It relies on stereotypes and typical genre tropes and the attempts to make Russell an instant sex symbol are alarming at times. There is one particular close-up of her lips which comes across as more comical than alluring. However, as her first film it remains interesting and the fraught relationship between Holliday and Garrett gives the plot a boost that the Billy the Kid aspect alone could not achieve.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2013: Other November Commitments

As regular readers will know, I shouldn't really be doing NaNoWriMo at all this year given how frazzled I am with my PhD. But I've never been one for backing away from a challenge, when it involves my brain anyway. General PhD work will have to fit alongside these 50,000 words but that isn't the limit to the 'distractions' I have in November...

  • Saturday 2nd - I'm babysitting for my nieces. This could work to my advantage if the little angels go to sleep though...
  • Sunday 3rd - In the afternoon I'm seeing the second screening of Merrily We Roll Along. Given that when I saw it on stage in London it made me cry lots, I may be useless for the rest of the day. 
  • Thursday 7th - Supervisor meeting in Sheffield. These trips always leave me in a heap.
  • Saturday 9th - Wilkie Collins study day with the VPFA down in London. Up at six in the morning, not back till ten at night. 
  • Sunday 10th - Meal round at my brother's. 
  • Friday 15th - Deadline for essay rewrites, also going down to Birmingham for a few days where very little writing will be allowed to occur.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head but I expect the month to get busier as it goes on. I'll probably have another supervisor meeting towards the end of the month and the work associated with that. 

My plan to get ahead with NaNoWriMo begins with my customary midnight start, trying to get a few thousand written in the early hours of Friday 1st. But if I fall behind after that I suspect it'll be tricky to catch up. I'd better not fall behind. 

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Book Review: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford is a rather episodic novel, first published in 1851. Told from the viewpoint of Mary Smith, a frequent visitor to the town, it shines brief lights on various episodes in the town's history generally involving a set of core characters including Miss Matty Jenkyns, Miss Pole and Mrs Jamieson. There is no real plot running throughout the novel, although things do reoccur.

I found the episodic nature of the novel rather difficult to deal with. No sooner had I become involved in one storyline than I had to get to grips with another. It was frustrating, too, the way characters dipped in and out of the novel. Nevertheless, other people may see this as a strength of the book - you can pick it up, read a few chapters, put it down and then start a brand new section when you're ready. Personally, I prefer coherent, long-running narratives but that's not to say I didn't enjoy Cranford.

Gaskell's light-hearted and satirical style is just right. Mary Smith relates more than comments on incidents, allowing the reader to draw out the truths within them. Each character is also perfectly rounded with their distinctive voices and personalities. The upright Deborah Jenkyns, particularly, is excellent. Perhaps my one criticism of characterisation comes from the narrator herself but, then, she's supposed to be a vehicle for the events of Cranford to be seen through rather than a part of them herself.

All in all, I enjoyed Cranford, although I found it difficult to stick with. It managed to surprise me, mostly because it jumped around so much, and I was sad to reach the low-key ending.

Monday, 28 October 2013

First Draft Finished, Looking Forward

I don't know if the length of time it's taken for me to finish this latest first draft is a record for me. I first mentioned it back in February when the protagonist came into my head and refused to leave. Then I had to break off to focus on PhD work. In May I explained that I was finding it a difficult story to work on so I was leaving it be for a bit. Then in June I got a little side-tracked again. I started another first draft and poor Izzy got pushed to the back of the queue again. However, in my blog post last month detailing what I need to do before 2013 is out, I made Izzy a priority. Knuckling down, I finally managed to draw it to a conclusion, a decent chunk being written in the last four days.

My first drafts never have large word counts. Maybe it's a consequence of coming by half of them through NaNoWriMo but once they slip over 50,000 words I feel like that's a reasonable basis for revision. Izzy's no different, coming in at just over 52,000. Even with the glow of completing the first draft still present, I'm aware of how much has to be done to it. But loving the character is a good start in that respect. I didn't betray her with her ending in the first draft and I won't betray her in the rewrite. But when will that happen?

Let's put my projects in order of importance (here's an old list of their status):
  • Next up is my NaNoWriMo novel, labelled 'Carys' after my habit of protagonist titles until inspiration strikes. I hate titles. 
  • After that, I would like to finish 'Kathy' before 2014. 
  • I need to do rewrites on 'Danni'. Final, final rewrites. I've added to this extensively in the last year, bringing in material from a discarded first draft and generally beefing it up a little. I'm now working on dialogue, atmosphere and word choice, possibly the hardest things to do!
  • Then comes 'Liz'. To say I consider this the finest first draft I ever wrote, rewriting it is proving to be damn difficult. I got about a fifth of the way through the rewrite before halting a few months ago. 
  • I think then that 'Lauren' deserves her chance, though this one is going to become an ensemble novel. I've been playing with these characters since I was sixteen and they need yet another realignment. I'll get them right someday.
  • After that I should probably have a crack at my NaNoWriMo novel from last year - 'Vic'. I've got a solid idea for the rewrite of this to make it darker than it already was. 
  • Then 'Max'. I know how I want the rewrite of this to pan out but the thought of writing it makes me feel queasy. 
  • Finally, 'Lily'. I have no idea what I'm going to do with her or whether I should do anything at all. 
Of course, writing is my secondary concern now. My PhD takes priority. And, if you listen carefully, you can hear me growling with frustration. Is it any wonder I feel like poor Veronica from In the Good Old Summertime?

Friday, 25 October 2013

Classic Film Review: Flower Drum Song (1961)

Flower Drum Song is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's lesser-known musicals. It tells the story of stowaway Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) who arrives in San Francisco with her father Doctor Li (Kam Tong) for an arranged marriage to Sammy Fong (Jack Soo). Unfortunately, Sammy is in love with dancer Linda Low (Nancy Kwan). He decides to palm Mei Li off onto his friend Wang Chi-Lang (Benson Fong), who is looking for a bride for his son Wang Ta (James Shigeta). But Wang Ta already has his own crush on Linda Low and the situation gets ever more complicated.

This is a glossy, colourful film that deals with a clash of cultures alongside the actual love story. The luscious opening credits set the scene for a vibrant film and, on that level, it certainly delivers. The songs, however, aren't the best Rogers and Hammerstein ever wrote. The most enduring song within the score is no doubt 'I Enjoy Being a Girl', dubbed here by B.J. Baker for Nancy Kwan, and a couple of others are decent - 'Chop Suey' about the clash of cultures and the amusing 'Don't Marry Me' performed by Miyoshi Umeki and Jack Soo. The song sung by yet another woman in love with Wang Ta, Helen Chao (Reiko Sato, singing dubbed by Marilyn Horne), 'Love, Look Away', is an excellent song of a broken heart. One of my main criticisms about the film is that Helen Chao is the best character and she doesn't get a proper ending.

The central love story of Mei Li and Wang Ta doesn't work for me - I never once thought they should get together. Equally, the amount of dubbed singing in the film irritated me. There are plenty of humorous lines but it doesn't add up to a coherent whole. I don't know if it just translated badly to film, trying to make itself shorter, but the main love story didn't get the energy it should have from the initial set-up. Mei Li sees Wang Ta and immediately loves him - why?

Overall, this is a colourful film with some excellent commentaries on culture clashes and some good comic performances from the likes of Benson Fong and Jack Soo. However, on the basic plot level, it didn't hook me. I really wanted to know what happened to Helen Chao - never a good way to end a film like this.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2013: A Sense Of Place

Yesterday, I promised to discuss the places my characters will be visiting in my NaNoWriMo novel for 2013. As I said, the action takes place on a cruise ship, a trip to the Mediterranean. The ship first docks in Lisbon and, perhaps, my characters will take a trip to the Castle of São Jorge. Wonderful views from up there...

Next, they travel to Gibraltar, that tiny block of land so heavily disputed where the mischievous apes live.

Malaga, birthplace of Picasso, is the next port.

After that, they'll go onto Cadiz with its narrow streets and beautiful sea views.

The last port will be La Coruña, though who knows what state my protagonists will be in by then?

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2013: The Research Trip

This year, taking a holiday in October, I thought I could combine this trip with research for my NaNoWriMo novel for 2013. I was struggling with an idea for this year but as soon as I decided it would take place on a cruise ship within the narrow confines of a fortnight's holiday the novel came alive in my head. The main character jumped at me first - a freelance photographer employed to publicise the flagging company. I like Carys, I have to say. Her foil? Pippa, a woman hiding a couple of dark secrets. 

Naturally, my own holiday will feed a lot into the novel. The places I visited will be the places they visit. However, they are already making those places their own. I felt it as I took notes at the end of each day. I dug into how Carys and Pippa would react to places and events in my mind and, thanks to those few minutes of pondering per day, I'm in a very good position as far as knowing the basics of my characters goes, possibly better than I've been before.

Of course, regular readers of this blog will know that I don't really have time to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. This neat little summary dictates what I have to do before 2013 is finished with and the things I'd like to do. NaNoWriMo is on there because it's important to me. I like the deadlines, I like the freedom of just writing. I also like having the ability to justify my writing time to both me and the people around me - participating in NaNoWriMo gives the illusion that my writing time is not time wasted. It might only be a psychological thing but I need the validation that I'm meant to be writing at the moment. Justifying the time I spend on my fictional works is becoming all the more difficult as academic anxiety kicks in. 

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of this year's novel will be a sense of place. I took hundreds of pictures while I was away, trying to catch the essence of the ports visited far too briefly. Tomorrow, I'll give you an overview of the main places. In the meantime, here's a picture of me being dwarfed by a tree in Cadiz.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Classic Film Review: Mr Lucky (1943)

Mr Lucky stars Cary Grant as Joe Adams, a gambler who has appropriated the name of a dead gangster in order to escape the army. He plans to con a war charity by affixing a gambling den to their function and siphoning off the profits. Volunteer and society girl, Dorothy Bryant (Laraine Day), suspects he's trying to con them but they gradually fall for each other. What they don't know is that Joe's former partner Zepp (Paul Stewart) is plotting against them. If Joe does have a change of heart, it won't be simple.

One of my issues with this film stems from the confusion about what it's meant to be. IMDB lists it as a comedy/romance while the television guide had it down as a drama. For me, it was all those things - a comedy in the first half with drama in the second and a romance string stretching through the piece. Cary Grant plays the charmer extremely well but once Joe begins to fall in love with Dorothy the humour necessarily disappears. There is one scene in a Greek church where he learns about the fate of his appropriated name's family at the hands of the Germans that signals a complete shift in tone and sets up the final half an hour.

Grant was good, though struggling with a script that kept information back from the audience in a rather sluggish manner. Laraine Day was excellent as the feisty society girl, less so as the romantic sap who falls for Joe. The supporting cast, with the exception of Gladys Cooper as Dorothy's boss, are mediocre with no depth. There are a few good comic moments, with Joe conning people on behalf of the charity and learning how to knit, but once the serious tone sets in, it becomes more run-of-the-mill.

I did enjoy it, for all the difficulties. It was an odd role to find Grant in and, on occasion, the romance aspect seemed completely implausible. That said, I wanted to see how it all ended, so it can't have been that disastrous a film.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Classic Film Review: They Came to Cordura (1959)

They Came to Cordura stars Gary Cooper as Major Thorn, an officer guilty of cowardice who now wants to create some real heroes. He takes five men after a 1916 battle against the Mexicans, intent on delivering them up as real-life heroes to be looked up to in the troubled years ahead. They are accompanied by a prisoner accused of helping the Mexicans - Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth). But as they travel through the difficult landscape, tempers fray and the nature of these 'heroes' becomes clear.

The first twenty minutes of this film - establishing Thorn and showing the actual battle - dragged for me. I understand why it was included but it was only when the seven set off on their trek that the film got interesting. I'm not certain we needed to see the heroic deeds in order for the rest of the film to work. Also, it's fair to say that Cooper was too old for this role, but that only makes itself blatantly clear in the final sequence. It was a decent performance but he did feel out of place.

Rita Hayworth, coming into her own towards the end of the film, was a revelation. Apart from the irritating aspect of her perfect hairstyle throughout (after days in the desert), she fulfilled her role wonderfully from the first time she sets herself against the men to the painful finale. Her act of sacrifice for Major Thorn is notable for its unshrinking honesty. There is one scene where Thorn and Adelaide are discussing what happened to label him a coward and it is stunning for its quiet intensity.

Occasionally, the soldiers become caricatures, almost pantomime villains. That can be said of the chief antagonist, Sergeant John Chawk (Van Heflin), who offers us tantalising glimpses of the man beneath but not enough to justify why he makes it his mission to not only overthrow Thorn but to kill him too. Lieutenant William Fowler (Tab Hunter) is probably the most intriguing of the detail - the man who joins the pack last and has the final line of the film.

This is a film about courage and cowardice, one that attempts to demonstrate that simply being a 'hero' or a 'coward' once in your life is not all a person is about. As Adelaide says: "One act of cowardice doesn't make a man a coward forever, just as one act of bravery doesn't make a man a hero forever." That is the point of this film, and it's one it makes very well.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Grandmother Update: Failure

Regular readers of this blog or my Twitter feed will know what for the past year or so I've been increasingly worried for, and harassed by, my ageing grandmother. It all started in March 2011 when she was moved into sheltered accommodation that I knew wasn't right for her and was really just better for my aunt and uncle. For a while she seemed to like her new place but that changed rapidly, as I'd feared it would, and coincided with a decrease in her mobility. For the past year the phone calls from her have increased to an average of 20 a day, reaching 40 on some memorable occasions. They're confused calls, they're distressed calls and, finally, it has been decreed that she can't stay where she is any more. But the way this has happened has infuriated me.

You see, my aunt was away for most of September in America. Nonetheless, we continued to speak to my grandmother everyday and I continued to calm her down (even when I was away in Birmingham myself). My aunt returned about a week ago and yesterday everything kicked off - there had been disturbances during the night in the accommodation, my grandmother had been lectured by my aunt (which explained the lack of phone calls) and, even more surprisingly, there was a backlog of 'incidents' that the warden had neglected to tell us about.

Yes, despite being listed as the secondary next of kin (and going to see her/calling her/answering the damn phone), the warden didn't think to let us know what was going on, preferring to wait until my aunt got back to talk to her about it. I was astounded. Social services have been brought into the equation before we were. The upshot of this is that she's being moved to a residential home as soon as possible, probably a temporary one before we get her into one we actually approve of.

Now, she wants to go into a home. So she says. She's been angling for it for months, as things have deteriorated between herself and the other residents at the sheltered accommodation. However, her complaints about the accommodation are worrying in this context: she says she feels like she's in a prison and doesn't like being told what to do and having to wait for the carer etc. She doesn't seem to realise that being in a residential home really is like a prison. Just like the reality of sheltered accommodation finally hit, this realisation will hit and there'll be nothing at all I can do about it.

You see, the truth here is that I've failed. It's easier to blame my aunt for pretty much dumping her there and leaving her or criticise my dad's short temper but, really, I've failed. I knew sheltered accommodation wasn't right for her and I allowed myself to be talked round when she was. I've experienced how bad it's been getting and how miserable she is but I've told myself there were no other options. Perhaps there were none now but there were some then, and I let them slip through my fingers.

I know how my grandmother feels. We've got the same anxieties about things being right and worries about what will happen when. Out of all of us, I'm the one who cares the most and understands. So why didn't I understand two years ago? She's an educated woman who hates being surrounded by, I'm sorry to say it, stupid people. That's why she's had difficulty in the sheltered accommodation and I fear it'll be worse in the home.

You never know, I could be wrong. I don't want to be right, I don't want her to suffer any more than she already has done. I hate seeing her cry and look at me like I'm the only friend she's got in the world. I suppose time will tell but, in the meantime, it's fair to say that I failed the one person I'd set out to look after - again. You can always count on me to muck things up, it's a speciality.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Colour-Coding Overload

There's a moment when you think that maybe, just maybe, you've overdone the close reading of a book. My mission for the past week or so has been to reread Wilkie Collins's No Name in order to gather a semblance of an argument for my final thesis chapter. This is the result...

What you see there are actually five colours (there are two shades of pink). It occurred to me halfway through that I should probably just stick a multicoloured post-it on the front of the book and have done with it. As it is, my desk is lit up by its very own Wilkie Collins rainbow. Just when I thought my life couldn't get any odder... 

Anyone want a Minstrel? 

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Classic Film Review: Wuthering Heights (1939)

This adaptation of the Emily Bronte novel stars Laurence Olivier as Heathcliffe with Merle Oberon as Cathy, David Niven as Edgar Linton and Flora Robson as Ellen. It only tells half the story of the novel, up to Cathy's death and misses out everything to do with the children. It works well, centring Heathcliffe and Cathy in a somewhat compact adaptation.

It maintains the frame narrative, the story being told by Ellen, which allows for the passages of time to be easily glossed over. The childhood scenes are surprisingly well acted with Rex Downing doing an excellent job as the young Heathcliffe. Once Olivier takes over, the role becomes necessarily more nuanced and it is a very good portrayal, faltering at times. I was less impressed with Merle Oberon overall - her confrontation scenes with Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) late in the film are more memorable than most of her scenes with Olivier. The character is, of course, a difficult one to like but there's depth missing from Oberon's performance. For me, the standout stars were two of the supporting cast - Flora Robson as Ellen and Hugh Williams as the older Hindley Earnshaw, drunk and bitter with Heathcliffe.

Something this adaptation does exceptionally well is generate atmosphere. Although filmed in America, the outdoor scenes do have the sense of wild Yorkshire moorland. The lighting is perfect and the direction just subtle enough. I think the score, slightly overpowering at times, assisted in scenes where not a lot was said but a great deal was conveyed.

Overall, this is an excellent - if curtailed - adaptation of a very complex book. Olivier was a good Heathcliffe but credit for the atmosphere of this film must go to all involved.