Trashy TV

I’ve been sick for a few days, and I’m likely to be so for a little while. All of which to say that I’m watching some trashy TV, sitting on my couch.

Jump Street 22 was funny if you’re sick, and looking for something brain dead, which I was. I was very conscious that it was the kind of funny that a young white male finds funny; which is okay as far as it goes, but there should be other kinds of humour out there. But it gets points for not taking itself too seriously.

Jump Street 21 (which I watched later) was similar enough to be funny when you’re tired.

I also re-watched Star Wars Episodes IV, V and VI. Amazing, really, how good they are decades on. I will say, though, that it’s interesting seeing the gender roles from this decade; by which I mean that Han doesn’t ask questions that he should, and it seems to fall to Leia to have the emotional intelligence in the relationship.

Pacific Rim was fun. I liked it a lot. I liked a romantic partnership of equals – that was satisfying. I also liked the enormous robots fighting giant monsters. Deeply fun to watch, in a childish way. Although I will say – why did it take them so long to figure out that using swords would cut a monster in half? Surely if that strategy works, you wouldn’t resort to punching it in the face half a dozen times? A minor point.

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HIlary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

I’ve just finished reading – and enjoying – Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I watched the TV series several months ago. I won’t go into that contrast in detail, but I’ll touch on a few points as I go.

Mantel’s writing style is incredibly smooth. It’s an effortless pleasure to read and it carries the reader along, through a book that is over 600 pages long. It does that even though the narrative drivers aren’t always obvious. That was something I found missing in the TV show – watching that  I felt as though I was missing something, as though the scenes were significant just not for me. That sense of removal isn’t a problem in the book – it flows smoothly and easily.

One of the most fundamental and interesting questions is how Mantel deals with Cromwell’s character. Both his role in the story, and the composition of his personality.

Part of how Mantel deals with Cromwell is to make him a superman. He can solve any and every problem – interpersonal, logistical, political, sexual, and anything else that Cardinal or King needs. He does it in a way that seems effortless – there is very little sense of him struggling, wearied under what must have been an incredibly difficult role. The closest we come is seeing him deal with the fall of the cardinal – his struggle to make a draughty residence habitable. But for the most part his meteoric rise seem somehow attributable to innate qualities – his peculiar combination  of personal and intellectual genius. He is intimately familiar with violence – has a history of it, and uses implied threats to intimidate gentry. He’s also brilliant at interpersonal negotiations, and gently persuading and cajoling the King’s opponents and allies to where they need to be. He has a mind for money – a past life as a trader gives him an edge over the fat and slow  noblemen who rely on him. He has a logistical genius – he reorganises multiple royal bodies, bringing some order to Henry’s disorganised reign.

Now, undoubtedly Thomas Cromwell was a brilliant man. He would have to have been. But it still feels a little surreal  reading it in the novel – there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of explanation, either where it came from, or how he worked to acquire it. That, perhaps, is reflected a little in the TV show, where Cromwell smiles enigmatically through every scene without ever really saying much – I see now  that’s just being faithful to the book.

Another fascinating angle is Cromwell’s conflict with More. I’ve previously read and loved A man for all seasons.  It’s a beautiful play. In that piece, More is very much the victim – the man of principle holding out against the world around him That’s not how Mantel tells it. In the novel,  there is a very clear depiction of More’s violence – the people burnt, hung,  and killed in other gruesome ways.  That’s a crucial part of the background for the conflict that plays out between More and Cromwell. Cromwell is a friend of at least one of the religious figures (what we might now think of as early protestants, although that may not be the correct terminology) who is burnt alive, and witnesses another burning as a child. When he fights More, demanding a response, it’s personal – part of his frustration is that he refuses to use torture, giving More the option of silence, an option that More never gave to those he tortured.

But for all that, there’s something lurking in the background – which is that through the changes he helps bring about (granted, partially at the King’s behest), Cromwell himself also sets in train mass executions in horrific ways. A description of monks dying while their entrails are burned was particularly scarring. Given that, it’s hard to see how he can hold the moral high ground for very long.

So I think that’s an element that’s underplayed in Mantel’s telling. Granted, this is a man bringing about a change that increases British independence, and puts a British monarch ahead of a corrupt foreign church. But doing so involves a national oath of allegiance, and mass torture for those that won’t comply. This is the stuff dictatorial regimes are made of, and on reflection it’s hard not to feel that Mantel’s elided something crucial here, at least in her recounting of Cromwell’s character.

And after all that, this is ultimately a story about Cromwell, and at times it feels hard to realise what’s changed for him. He has, granted, moved from the opening scene where he is kicked, as a boy, on the floor of his father’s smithy, to a closing scene where he is one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, a commoner visited by the King and planning the King’s itinerary. He has struggled and overcome against a range of enemies – family, noblemen, and the rest. But it’s hard to know that it was much of a struggle for him; in Mantel’s telling he does it effortlessly, without changing an iota, and because of that it feels a little hard to care – almost preordained, rather than something attained through genuine struggle.

That would perhaps be one of my chief complaints. But for all that, it’s a well told piece, and a fun read – I recommend it if you’re in the mood for detailed historical fiction.

Frances Ha

I’ve just finished watching Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. I really enjoyed it. It isn’t dramatic in a traditional sense, it isn’t fast-paced, but it’s lovely.

It was also interesting, watching it, to see how despite the mundane setting and everyday events, there’s at its core a story unfolding. There’s the serenity (life with Sophie) before the life-shattering event (Sophie moving out). There are the struggles that generate unforeseen challenges, and then there’s … well, I won’t spoil it. But I will say that the challenges that Frances deals with along the way (housing, friendship, relationships, art) are all resolved in some sense at the end, in their own way.

It is … It’s warm hearted, and I recommend it.

The Year of Magical Thinking

I’ve just finished reading The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s a powerful piece. It’s both elegantly crafted at points, but at others clearly very raw, and none the less powerful. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a rewarding one.

Didion is writing in the aftermath of the death of her husband of many years. At the same time, before she even has time to begin grieving, she begins to care for her daughter, hospitalised with a life-threatening illness.

The book is simultaneously a small part of Didion’s grieving, capturing her experience of it, but also a reflection on it. She draws on the medical literature, classical references and contemporary culture to try and cast light on her own experience, but that is what draws her back, what drives her – her struggle to deal with a fundamental, catastrophic rendering of her world.

Thinking on it, I think this is perhaps the closest thing to a narrative quest in the novel – can a human being (Didion) survive the grief and loss of a partner of forty years? This isn’t a book that’s riven with narrative in the conventional sense (cliffhangers and the like), but it is a powerful one, and it has a conclusion that I found to some degree satisfying.

Satisfying as well, I suppose, because I think it gave a real answer; it didn’t shy away from the experience, or seek false comfort in platitudes. It recognised and respected the experience for what it was, which means the answer feels … more authentic, if no more comforting for that.

Grief, I think, is a more primal thing thing than we really think of it as; from the little I understand it seems visceral, biological, innate. This book conveys some of that, and for that reason it isn’t an easy read, but I think it’s worth reading.