Suffragette

I’ve just been to see Suffragette. It’s a moving film, and a thought provoking one.

[SPOILER ALERT: I’ll be talking about plot points throughout the movie]. 

The film’s been panned in some of the reviews I read (see The Guardian and Vanity Fair, and others at Rotten Tomatoes). There’s always room to criticise particular aspects of the treatment, and how a movie has handled different issues. But regardless, it’s touching on an incredibly important historical moment, and one that’s fascinating.

One thing I found interesting was how Suffragette focussed its narrative. An obvious comparison point for me was Selma. That was also a movie about a political movement, that focussed its narrative through the lens of a particular place and time in history, rather than any one character. In contrast, Suffragette follows a single character over the course of the movie.

I think that’s actually quite a powerful technique. It doesn’t capture the whole movement (which I think would be impossible in a movie, and challenging even in an extended mini-series), but it captures an individual’s experience, which I think is one of the most crucial parts for a story.

In turn, that individual’s experience is a really interesting one. Maud Watts is a composite character, rather than a historical one. She starts as a working class woman accidentally witnessing a suffragette protest (rocks thrown at windows). After she sees her male boss (factory owner?) abusing a young girl, she goes to her first meeting. From there, the whole movie is a series of decisions that she takes – implicitly or explicitly – that lead her to greater involvement with the suffragette movement. By the end she’s lighting bombs, and there on the race-course when a fellow activist is killed by the King’s horse.

It’s interesting to see that story in an Australian context, where the government recently released a pamphlet on anti-radicalisation. It was widely criticised for including an example of someone who took part in non-violent protest about environmental issues. But an underlying concept in the booklet, I understand, was of the trajectory that an individual takes to reach the point of ‘radicalisation’. I couldn’t spot a standardised definition in the booklet – it seems to talk about ‘ a person’s beliefs move from being relatively conventional to being radical, and they want a drastic change in society’, but also mentions on the same page ‘people … [who] use violence to promote their cause’. In effect, though, that is exactly the trajectory that Suffragette is mapping out. Perhaps in doing so for a cause that every one would now agree was an appropriate one, the movie is in some way ‘radical’?

The history and context for how violence was used by the Suffragettes is a complex one, that I don’t know much about. It’d be interesting to learn more – Wikipedia suggests that there was some form of campaigning from the 1860’s.

Another aspect I though the movie did well was capturing that in shifting to the Suffragette community, Maud also experienced significant loss. Her husband kicks her out, and she loses access to her son, who’s ultimately given to foster parents. A third aspect that I think it’s harder for us to grasp today in a more atomised society, is the opprobrium that she would have received from neighbours- not necessarily friends, but people she knew and saw on a daily basis, people watching from the windows as she came home.

One thing I thought was missing was the power of the media. It’s touched on briefly in the movie, as a prompt before the suffragettes head for the Derby. But I imagine their ability to communicate through the media, and to communicate directly, were crucial.

A final thought that occurs is that the music doesn’t carry Suffragette in the same way it did Selma. ‘Glory’ by John Legend is an incredible piece of music, and even in its abbreviated form, it lifted Selma. 

There isn’t a comparable anthem in Suffragette – the most I noticed the music was the heartbeat thud of the bass at tense moments.

The Force Awakens [post includes spoilers]

There are lots of reviews out there now of The Force Awakens (Christopher Orr at The Atlantic, Mark Kermode at the Guardian, and the rest). The general consensus seems to be that it’s possible to find flaws if you try, but that it’s a good piece of cinema.

I liked that the gender dynamics were distinctly different from the earlier films. There were moments when Finn went to interact with Rey as a star wars character might have thirty years ago – protectively, assuming that she’s in trouble because she’s a woman. Her responses, something like ‘Of course I’m fine – what an odd question’ feel like a healthy breath of fresh air.

Overall, it was a fun movie. Sure, it’s a redo of the old movies – a pastiche of the same fights and scenes and relationship tensions, repasted in different ways. Almost as if they’d commissioned someone to recreate A New Hope. But you know what? Episode IV was pretty great – and A New Hope is a lot of fun.

The Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies has some big names attached to it. Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance – it’s a strong roster. Given that, I was slightly disappointed. It’s a good movie, but I wasn’t blown away.

I haven’t had a chance to read the book, or dig into the history. So what follows are my reflections purely on the story as presented in the movie – not on real events, or the book’s treatment.

The first portion of the movie deals with James Donovan (Tom Hanks) as a lawyer, fighting for the rights of a captured Soviet spy. This part could have been expanded on, I thought. It’s a crucial issue, and it felt as though it was dealt with in a few glossy speeches. But credit to Donavan, for following a difficult path for the right reasons.

The second portion felt … slightly odd, to me. I think it was that Donovan essentially stumbles into being a hostage negotiator. While his support for the captured Soviet spy is commendable, there were a few points where it seemed odd – surely the CIA has a few low level agents they can send over, or someone from the State Department to do it via telephone? What’s the point of the State Department if they have to outsource this stuff to a random insurance lawyer?

Given that, it seems as though Donavan is almost over-eager to jump on board. At least get a room at the Hilton, if you’re such a good negotiator.

Later, the movie portrays him as demanding the release of two captured Americans (one held by the USSR, the other by East Germany – the internal politics are interesting). That’s despite orders from his CIA contact, that only one of them is critical. This is an interesting moment in the movie – this lawyer, who’s not a trained negotiator, goes in and changes the directions he’s been given.

It’s portrayed as principled and courageous, and in the end he wins – the Soviets release both of their hostages, making him a better poker player than the FBI agent. But reflecting on it, it seems (in the movie) an odd moment. This outside agent, brought in for reasons that are still unclear, changes negotiating policy. What if it had gone wrong? What if he’d miscalculated terribly?

It’s one thing for him to stick to his principles as a lawyer representing a man who deserves a fair trial. It’s another for him to change negotiating policy when he’s not empowered as a representative of the US Government. For that reason I found Donavan’s character much more sympathetic earlier in the movie.

The conclusion was odd, too. Donavan is a principled man – the first portion is built on his commitment to principles regardless of what others think. He tells the returned U2 pilot as they board, something like ‘it doesn’t matter what others think – you know you stayed true’. But the movie provides his vindication through the recognition and approval he receives from others. It might have felt a little neater if it had been a solitary shot, something that captured his commitment to independent principles, rather than making him look like someone seeking a smile from strangers on the train.

Reading B. Traven

B. Traven is a mysterious author (identity still unknown), the inspiration for VM Straka in S, which was a novel I enjoyed. I was looking forward to reading his writing; but I found The Death Ship uninspiring, and a collection of his short stories only marginally better.

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The steam ship “Hawea” run ashore at the entrance to the Grey River, Greymouth, 30 October 1908, courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

The Death Ship

One of the things that I enjoyed about The Ship of Theseus was the sense of mystery that was associated with the mysterious author, V. M. Straka. It was unclear who he was – reading the S/Ship of Theseus (the titling is somewhat unclear) was like reading something by a literary Bond.

VM Straka is based loosely on B. Traven, a similarly mysterious figure. From what I’ve read it seems that he was an anarchist or a socialist of some kind, but who exactly remains a mystery, although there are several conspiracy theories.

Given the sense of excitement built up in Ship of Theseus, I was looking forward to reading The Death Ship, a Traven novel that was the inspiration for the ship that features prominently in Ship of Theseus. 

I was somewhat disappointed. The Death Ship centres on an American sailor who suffers through a series of ever escalating misfortunes. Traven uses those situations to highlight (at length, and somewhat bluntly) the misfortune of those caught up in a bureaucratic passport system that can leave unlucky people stateless, and in turn how people in that situation can be exploited (as workers on horrific ships). But unfortunately that’s about as far as the novel goes; the characters are paper thin, and there’s not much development. The exposition is clumsy, and reads a little like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, in being almost directly rhetorical, bypassing narrative altogether.

That said, there are some images and ideas in the book that will likely linger; but it wasn’t a page turner. Might be worth a go if you’re particularly keen after The Ship of Theseus, but otherwise there are plenty of other good books out there.

To the Honourable Miss S…

To the Honourable Miss S… is one of several short stories in an eponymous collection. It’s an easier read than The Death Ship. Some of the stories are only a few pages long, others (in particular the titular story) is almost a quarter of the book’s length.

The stories are good, for the most part. Not breath-takingly good, but they’re decent reads, and mildly enjoyable. Throughout there’s a flavour of those ideas that come up in Traven’s work; the individual chewed up or facing up against a larger system of states, corporations, and selfish corruption.

There’s also a foreword speculating on Traven’s identity, which actually came the closest to capturing the sense of mystery and intrigue around his identity of anything in the two books.

Not brilliant, but maybe worth a read if you’re fascinated by Traven/VM Straka; probably a better choice than The Death Ship.

Back at the movies

The Martian

Having read Andy Weir’s book, it was exciting to see the movie. Which is lighter on the science, but gives the people, politics and narrative comparatively more time.

Essentially, it’s the story of man vs. Martian environment – the quest of an astronaut left behind on Mars to make it back, and of those at home to help him.

It’s a fun execution. It feels as though some science and detail was sacrificed for the sake of narrative, but it captures that essential struggle of man vs. Mars well. That was something that felt even more missing in the book – I remember thinking as I read, ‘how is it that someone is stranded on Mars, and all we know about their inner state are occasional musings about Aquaman?’ So the movie covered that ground a little more.

Having said which, it felt stretched taut at points. The characters weren’t developed in depth. There’s a whole range of clips up online which would have given a little more energy to the characters, which don’t seem to have made it into the movie (you can see some of that here, here, here, and most crucially here).

The Intouchables

The Intouchables was fun to watch.

It’s a story of a young man who’s had a rough start, who chances into the role of personal carer for a person with wealth and a disability. Their characters spark each other nicely, and the story of how they change each other generates a good narrative arc.

Most of all, The Intouchables didn’t fit into a neat package of how Hollywood makes movies. Which was nice. So even though there were some rough edges in how different characters were seen through the movie’s eyes (I’m thinking particularly of how Driss’s overt approaches to Magalie are portrayed as not a problem; she handles them well, but I think they could be seen more critically), overall I enjoyed it.

It’s also based on a true story – which is not to say that it is completely true.

Don’t point that thing at me

Don’t point that thing at me is the first of the Mortdecai trilogy, a series of novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli. They follow Charlie Mortdecai, an art thief, on a series of comic adventures.

What carries the book is the tone; sarcastic but warm, as though the funny guy had suddenly decided he wanted to be friends with you. Culture, language, stupidity, and the protagonist are all the butt of jokes at various points.

In its final pages, Don’t point that thing at me takes a twist into a very different direction; a serious tone imparting a serious message, based on the consequences Charlie suffers as a result of his choices. That felt odd to me. It was only when I realised that there was a trilogy (and therefore the consequences for Charlie can’t have been as consequential as they appeared) that I realised that even that, final, shift in tone was likely a joke too.

At the movies

I’ve seen quite a few movies recently. It’d be nice to do some more detailed notes, but as always time rushes by.

Minions

This is a fun movie to watch if you’re tired on a plane. It doesn’t deliver too much, but it doesn’t ask much either. Oh, and the language takes real phrases mixed with random babbling.

The Forbidden Kingdom

The Forbidden Kingdom is one of those movies that feels cast perfectly for teenage males, but left me gagging with a sense of disconnection from reality. Not that it’s fantasy – there is amazing fantasy that’s deeply rooted in an understanding of how humans and societies work – but that it fails to grapple with much that’s meaningful.

Having said which, having Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the same movie is pretty cool, and some of the fights are fun to watch.

Me Earl and the Dying Girl

This movie made me really angry. It’s the story of a teenager (Greg) who is asked by his mother to visit and befriend a classmate with terminal cancer. This is a violation of his attempt to be emotionally invulnerable by staying distant from people around him. The fact that caring for a person with cancer is set up as a violation of his emotional distance, and that the ‘violation’ is the inciting incident for the narrative arc, says a lot about how self involved Greg is.

For what it’s worth, I think Greg is selfish, and could have been a much, much better friend to someone who was in need. More to the point, I felt like his eventual realisation that he was being selfish, and his tentative steps out of his shell, weren’t interesting, and I certainly did not find Greg likeable. One of the more satisfying moments in the movie was when someone punched him (I think they did – maybe they just threatened to?).

I remember reading a description of narrative once, which I’ll paraphrase (I unfortunately can’t dig up the original source) as: ‘Story is interesting things happening to people we can identify with’.

We’ve all been selfish at some point, so I suppose in that sense it’s possible in some way to identify with Greg. But on balance, I felt he wasn’t easy to identify with, and the things that happened to him (becoming less selfish) weren’t interesting.

Having said which, those are just my views. My ever excellent girlfriend liked it a lot, and argued the case for why Greg’s development is significant – leading to me grudgingly shifting my opinion from ‘awful’, to ‘bad’.

The trailer is here, if you want to see it.

The Big Lebowski

I’ve enjoyed other Coen brother films, so I was looking forward to this one (particularly as I’ve heard quite a bit about it).

I found myself somewhat bemused by the end. There are certainly hilarious moments – the Dude’s whip-sharp commentary at points, and bemused, befuddled approach to life at others. But watching, it didn’t feel enough to tie it all together for me. It felt haphazard and random.

But for many people, the Big Lebowski is a big deal. There are some interesting explanations around about why it’s acquired cult status. It seems plausible to me that part of it has to do with the nihilism inherent in the movie – the plot is random and driven largely by external events, that happen haphazardly to a bemused dude. For some, I can imagine that’s a comforting message.

Babette’s feast

Released in 1987, this is a very different beast to most contemporary film I watch. It tells the story of two spinsters in a remote Danish village, and their servant, who cooks them an incredible meal.

The story only really comes together in the final moments, as a pean to art, and the transformative power it has for the artist and those who experience it.

Its style is … slow, certainly not one hanging on narrative tension. It moves at its own pace, and isn’t going to be hurried. For all that, it’s a thoughtful piece, and it leaves questions with the viewer – did Babette do the right thing? What would you have done differently? In some ways I think that’s an excellent quality.

Chef, another movie about the joys of cooking, was fluffier and with a faster pace, but ultimately didn’t leave any lingering questions behind it.