Comment:- The Necessity of Hitchens

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Auditioning for the role of Shane MacGowan in the new Pogues biopic?

The long-expected, or if you are the National Portrait Gallery egregiously pre-empted, death of polemicist and writer Christopher Hitchens occurred today. Hitchens had been diagnosed with terminal end-stage oesophageal cancer in July 2010 and in a recent interview with Richard Dawkins, it was increasingly obvious that the disease had been taking its merciless toll. Despite this it is indicative of the sheer vitality of Hitchens ire and indignation, that even whilst riddled with cancer he was able to produce high quality writing, with his trademark polemical clarity, incisiveness and scabrous wit. It is the snapping anger of the man that will be most missed, particularly the way in which he tended to meet pomposity with pomposity, never-failing to address the rapidly accruing modern-day shibboleths within our globalising culture.

Hitchens dedication to critiquing the various different disguises that totalitarianism might take made him a prolific columnist for the likes of Vanity Fair, The New Statesmen and The Nation. Notionally a Marxist socialist with Trotskyite internationalist leanings, Hitchens, in later years, increasingly drifted toward the classical liberal socialist positions of people like George Orwell or Bertrand Russell. Many colleagues and like-minded commentators felt somewhat betrayed by Hitchens uncomfortable fawning around the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 War on Terror. However, despite this blind spot when it came to Bush, Wolfowitz, Chaney and Co., Hitchens remained incredibly cogent when it came to arguing against those who would sacrifice necessary ‘freedoms’ for the implementation of doctrine.

Quite late in his career Hitchens earned his largest public following for his very public criticism of the ‘totalitarianism’ of organised religion. His 2007 bestselling book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, argued for an atheistic understanding of human existence and attempted to puncture fatal holes in organised theocratic thinking. It’s a perfect exemplar of the articulate, powerful, but curiously insubstantial manner in which Hitchens best polemical pieces seemed to operate.

Until recently I had failed to grasp the importance of a figure like Christopher Hitchens. Having been exposed to the powder-puff conservative paranoia of his younger, more hawkish, brother Peter Hitchens, I’d frequently adopted the habit of zoning both Hitchens’ out of my consciousness, as if they were in fact one, and the same, person (now a little more portly, now a little more angular and avian). Such benightedness was really unforgivable, as the two Hitchens, on closer inspection, seemed to share little more than an uncanny physical resemblance, a penchant for arguing and a relatively stern conservative upbringing as the offspring of a socially mobile father. Of the two siblings Christopher was always more enamoured with the flamboyance and panache of his mother’s personality, something that seems to have been a defining difference between his brother and himself, making him a far more appealing transatlantic personality.

I actually began to tune in to Christopher Hitchens far more receptively after having read his thorough dissection and ritual disembowelment of Tom Wolfe that featured in Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in The Public Sphere (London:Verso, 2000). Hitchens was here asking, nigh on demanding, that the careful reader observe a two-way connection between writer and politics. Most people would accept to some degree a writer’s personal politics will dictate their sphere of interest in terms of writing, but what Hitchens argues goes further, demonstrating that a writer’s work then engages with the political process, either implicitly or explicitly, by lending support to dominant ideologies, or through critiquing them. This was all very Saidian, but for Hitchens the distraction of ideology being a politically left concern was one of the fundamental flaws in the formulation of the political as something distinct from the cultural or aesthetic. With the increasing relativism, both cultural and moral, applied to criticism at the end of the twentieth century, Hitchens was strongly arguing for a necessary space in which the political could enter back into the aesthetic and cultural as a means of demonstrating, or possibly prompting, engagement with the essential ideas and issues of the times. This is perhaps one of Hitchens most important points, as it addresses a way of considering the world that has drifted out of fashion since the days of Orwell, namely that there is a continuum between political conviction and aesthetic creation, with both navigating their way toward some kind of notion of ‘truth’.

Far from agreeing entirely with Hitchens every vituperative polemic, I have found myself at least challenged to consider where my own ideological complacencies lie, vis-a-vis whatever the issue is that he is writing about, or discussing. Individuals like Hitchens who so jealousy guard the right to write or say anything well are a rare commodity, nowadays. The danger of any public life is that it ossifies the individual leading it, making the political everything and thus castigating any perceived incoherencies in a person’s positions and pronouncements. The very necessity of public critics and intellectuals like Hitchens lies in their unwillingness to simply toe the line and hold fast to the ideas of the past, whilst simultaneously ensuring that a critical voice isn’t diminished in these times of liberal-conservative political hegemony and post-Capitalist cultural disconnect.


The Best of Hitchens on the Web

1) The Hitchens Zone – An exhaustive assortment of articles, videos and general information resources, featuring Hitchens lengthy radio doc on George Orwell.

2) Vanity Fair Index – Christopher Hitchens contributed to VF for many years and the magazine has done its best to collate much of that material and other media on their website.

3) The Guardian: Books – The literary section of The Guardian newspaper has done a good job of catalouging their love/hate relationship with Hitch.

4) The New Statesman – The left-leaning weekly news and opinion digest has frequently published Hitchens work down the years and has an extensive on-line index.

5) The Daily Hitchens – A well maintained unofficial website, that does a good job of covering his material on atheism in particular.


Book Review:- A Partridge in A Pear Tree by Stuart MacBride

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Crime at Christmas Series: 12 Days of Winter (No. 1 – A Partridge in a Pear Tree)

(Kindle Editon, London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2011)


Stuart MacBride’s experiment with e-publication seems at once to be embracing the modern zeitgeist and also harking back to a much older early twentieth century tradition. The internet allows established writers to hawk their wares in bite-sized nuggets, for a token fee, without the need to worry about excessive, nigh on prohibitive, publication costs. In this case MacBride is selling off short stories at 49p a pop. However, there is an overarching design to these story publications, which will inevitably suggest the form of a printed volume, should these e-book editions prove successful. Similar to old Edwardian writers such as M.R. James and Oliver Onions, MacBride has put together a cavalcade of Christmas themed grotesqueries. Whereas the likes of James and Onions foregrounded the ghostly or the weird and left the detective elements deep within the mechanics of their stories, MacBride, as a popular crime writer, foregrounds the criminal elements (thus the Crime at Christmas moniker), whilst simultaneously applying a gloss of his favoured gruesome violence. What the reader is left with are little grim nuggets of MacBride, more like novelistic set pieces than satisfying short stories.

The first of MacBride’s projected twelve short stories, comprising the 12 Days of Winter, involves a 21 stone petty thief and cat burglar called Billy Partridge. Together with a friend called Andy ‘Twitch’ McKay, they are trying to steal a Monet painting from a well-to-do elderly couple in the fictional town of Oldcastle, where much of MacBride’s work is set, supposedly somewhere between Dundee and Aberdeen. The story is particularly slight, being barely sixteen Kindle pages long, giving very little character detail (a failing of MacBride’s novelist background) for the reader to get their teeth into. As well as this the plot isn’t particularly exceptional, revolving, as it does, around nothing more than a failed robbery. MacBride’s robust writing style that is perfectly suited to longer dissections of the grim vicissitudes of a criminal case, here seems rather lacking in the subtlety and precision necessary for the successful execution of a shorter fictional form.

Yet probing beneath the surface of the seemingly utilitarian prose, there are some nicely articulated descriptive passages, like toward the start of the story where the reader is introduced to the awkward physicality of Billy:

his XXL designer jeans smeared with moss and dirt. That’s what he got for trusting Twitch to bring the sodding stepladders. (Locations 13-21)

This manages to suitably conflate the filth marking Partridge’s clothing with the soft curse of ‘sodding’, creating a little visual image of the northern Scottish rural landscape in the process. Later on, when describing the posh area of Oldcastle that the house they’re breaking into is located in, there is a nice demarcation of haves and have-nots in the nouns used:

where Oldcastle’s old money lived. With a fine view of the Bellows and the Kings River, Castle Hill was not for the likes of Fat Billy Partridge and Andy ‘Twitch’ McKay. (Locations 32-43)

MacBride’s writing is always far more nuanced than it is given credit for and despite the narrowness of the narrative arc he manages to work away at a central theme, or concern, that adds depth to proceedings.

MacBride essentially attempts to unfold a little fable about the ‘value’ of possessions. On one side of the divide is Twitch, who seems to be entirely focused on those things of obvious material value. Whereas Billy, although initially participating in the burglary out of fear of what the gangster Dillon might do to him, expresses some inarticulate yearning for aesthetic value and the meaning that such aesthetic value might give. This division is clearly highlighted in the section in which Billy comes across the Monet for the first time:

A pear tree stood in the middle of a canvas as big as a widescreen telly – the leaves a mixture of delicate greens and dark blue, tinged with purple; the sky a riot of vermillion, ultramarine and gold as the sun set. And in the branches a single pear glistened. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life. (Locations 101-110)

In this section the grammar of the passage would suggest the narrator is alternating between precise aesthetic detail and bland commercial approximation, either as a direct expression of the central motif of the story, or rather as an attempt at registering Billy’s own understanding of what he gazes upon, as filtered through his GCSE-level appreciation of art. MacBride could well be making a sly dig at the way in which modern culture seems to bring the popular and the particular together with ever greater frequency. This notion is further reinforced later in the narrative when the old gentleman owner of the house, whilst in pursuit of the two burglars, doesn’t scream for the return of his Monet, but rather for the return of his “bloody laptop!” (Locations 152-61). Again this could be read in at least two ways, either the old gentleman couldn’t possibly imagine a couple of ‘small-time hoods’ appreciating the aesthetic or commercial value of a Monet, or, moreover, modern culture is shown, once again, as one in which the values of commercial consumerism dominate aesthetic concerns. Not only is the gangster, Dillon, not deserving of this artwork, but potentially its monied owner also.

The set-up for the narrative is lengthy and not entirely satisfying, as the ‘shock’ denouement comes almost too abruptly for it to resonate. MacBride is careful enough as a writer to nicely pattern the Christmas setting, particularly emphasising, on three separate occasions, the white lights which will ultimately serve as the grim reaper at the story’s climax. Throughout there is an insistence on the commercial aspect of modern Christmas, from Harry Potter gifts to gaudy decorations, that even amongst such economically disparate backgrounds as Billy’s and the Castle Hill residents’ has come to predominate. Although not a short narrative masterpiece, MacBride’s first festive foray at least holds forth the prospect of further darkly subversive little riches to follow. It also offers up a nice comparison between the overly cultured ghost-investigation narratives of James, which were so popular within their own period, and the grittier work preferred of present day English language fiction – even at its more fantastical. James’ work showed a preference for a certain morality and ‘high-cultural’ value, whilst MacBride’s simply demonstrates the less clearly defined moral concerns of the present-day, along with the cultural hotchpotch of ‘high’ and ‘low’ aesthetic concerns that cannot even be perceived as defining of modern culture any longer.

Film Review:- Barney’s Version (2010)


Dir:- Richard J. Lewis

Starr:- Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman, Mark Addy, Rachelle Lefevre, Dustin Hoffman

Barney’s Version is a solidly constructed adaptation of Montreal-born Jewish novelist Mordecai Richler’s last novel. It offers nothing in the way of cinematic innovation, but does feature some excellent performances from the always reliable Giamatti and Hoffman, whilst making me aware, for the first time, what the precise purpose of Rosamund Pike is.

Barney’s Version has more than a passing resemblance to the cocaine-fuelled biopic Blow, with both films lovingly recreating the garish 60’s and seedy 70’s of popular imagination, whilst dwelling on the twin themes of memory and regret. However, whereas the drugs are never too far away in Blow and the love-interest plays out like a love-interest, in Barney’s Version, it is death that seems to stalk around every corner, closely accompanied by a ‘real’ sense of love, that makes Barney’s recklessness all the more painfully masochistic.

Giamatti could probably e-mail in this kind of performance and still be exceptional, his slightly crumpled features and puppy-dog eyes seemingly purpose built for such heady concoctions of innate charm, melancholy, neurosis and self-loathing. Playing a working class Jewish-Canadian with ideas above his station Giamatti absolutely nails that sense of being an outsider even when he is patently on the inside. Barney Panofsky is the son of a cop (Izzy) who manages to use a little of his acumen for business to travel around Europe, importing oil and other things, whilst imbibing the artistic bohemianism of the mid-sixties. A shotgun wedding to a suicidal Jewess, that he had thought some kind of regal blue-blood, ends terribly for Barney when he discovers that her child is clearly mixed-race and therefore more likely the child of an artist friend. Barney leaves her and the woman commits suicide, the first of many brushes with death that Barney endures.

Returning to Montreal he takes up production duties at his uncle’s television company and begins to date another young Jewess, the unnamed ‘second wife’, who this time comes from Montreal money, and is played quite fantastically by Minnie Driver. Marrying her despite the clear misgivings of her self-important father, Barney finds himself now part of ‘high society’, however on his wedding night whilst drunk at the reception, he meets a woman, Miriam Grant (Rosamund Pike) who makes him feel, for the first time, the wild abandon of ‘true’ love. Leaving his own wedding reception to hurtle through the Montreal night and board a train that he has no ticket for, just so he can profess to Miriam the crazy feeling that she has induced in him, is the first thing in the movie that Barney does from an impulse of feeling, rather than thought. Rather than looking at the various angles to this relationship, or pursuing a marriage of obligation, Barney finds himself embracing the impulsivity of passion and this scene, these early moments with Miriam, come to be the defining moments of his life.

At the start of the movie we see Barney as an old man, living alone in his plush apartment, drinking himself unconscious, but before doing so making some randomly abusive phonecall to his ex-wife and her ‘new’ husband. His actions have the rawness of emotion that comes from a recent break-up, laced with a deep sense of self-hatred, clearly stemming from guilt. Later on Barney turns up for work at his production company, suitably entitled Totally Unnecessary Productions, and creates a bit of confusion with his lead actress on the awful sitcom he has produced for years. Hounded by a police detective (a nicely rugged cameo from Mark Addy) whilst taking an afternoon soak in a bar, we realise that Barney has been involved in some suspicious disappearance, that the detective clearly believes to have been a murder. It is at this point that Barney’s memory cascades back through his past and we are given his life in seemingly linear flashback.

The disappearance turns out to have been that of his oldest friend Bernard ‘Boogie’ Moscovitch (Richler loves his nicknames), played by Scott Speedman. Together they had been hard-living flâneurs in Rome, where Barney had always had faith in the artistic pretensions of his friend’s writing. Later on the two men have become socially dependent drinking buddies, as Buddy has hit a mental block and Barney is stuck in a loveless marriage to Minnie Driver, all the while fantasising of breaking away to Miriam. One day Minnie Driver discovers Barney’s correspondence with Miriam and assuming her husband is having an affair goes over to the house Barney has leant his Buddy and sleeps with the feckless lush. Barney stumbles upon his wife and best friend and gleefully realises he now has a valid excuse to end the whole sorry mess of a relationship. Sticking around at the house with Buddy, they get drunk together and trawl back through their shared history until Buddy starts fooling around with Barney’s gun. Much later on Barney regains consciousness with no sign of Buddy and a nagging sense that his friend has drowned in the lake at the back of the property. Despite Barney having reported the disappearance to the police, Mark Addy’s police detective is convinced that he has committed the crime, but cannot find the body to pin the murder on him. The disappearance/murder points up the Montreal police force’s attitude toward Izzy (played by Dustin Hoffman), Barney’s father, who seems to have only been a tolerated presence, potentially lending some weight to Izzy’s claims that the police are anti-semitic.

In the fallout of this affair Barney gets his divorce and finally enters into a relationship with Miriam. They have a family and Barney finally seems to have found some kind of true happiness, but a fatally stupid indiscretion steals all of that away from him. It is at this point that we realise exactly how intricately patterned the narrative is. Barney’s Version is not a simple film about love and regret, but rather a subtle meditation on what love actually is and what ultimately deprives us of it – death. Barney loves his father, he loves his friend, he loves Miriam and he loves their children. Somehow he feels a responsibility, for at the very least, having pushed his friend away, if not possibly having played a part in his death. His father dies some time after he marries Miriam, robbing him of the paternal camaraderie and support he’d come to rely on. Barney’s relationship with Miriam falls apart over his own jealousy, his drinking and the reckless indiscretion. Whilst as a result of the break-up his own son won’t talk to him, leaving him only his daughter, who he seems to have trouble remembering.

The draft of memories, his own version of events, appear brutally honest and it becomes apparent that they are compelled thus, as Barney has become increasingly aware that he is losing his mind to Alzheimer’s. As the movie wore on I couldn’t help but be engaged by the chillingly horrific idea that experience may bring us a whole raft of new emotions and may sour the love we once had for someone, but if the recollection of those experiences is erased, then that love reemerges, just as strong as it ever was. In one of the most impressively acted scenes of the year Giamatti and Pike, an actress finally justifying some of the early praise, sit down for dinner in the restaurant adjoining the venue where they first met, at Barney’s wedding to Minnie Driver. They have long since separated and Pike’s Miriam has only just recently been informed that Giamatti’s Barney is losing his memory. Barney at first appears to be lucid, but then gradually regresses to a place where Miriam and himself were absolutely in love. Two decades of pain, suffering and enmity literally fall away from Barney and the warmth of all those passionate feelings courses through him and pours out of him. Miriam, imprisoned in the present, cannot return this love without it being modulated and attenuated by what that love became, however she attempts to pretend for Barney’s sake. We are left watching the painfully true and affecting performances of Giamatti and Pike, with the realisation that love isn’t actually a transitory and fleeting feeling, that a profound love will persist, unacknowledged, even when buried under the avalanche of bitterness and accusation, that even in regret what we are actually experiencing is the ghost of love. In Barney’s ‘final version’ of events he is still the loving, dutiful husband he knew he could only be with Miriam, beyond that lies the foreign shores of ‘forgetting’.

Book Review:- Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

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(Kindle Edition, London: Corgi Books, 2010)

In Belinda Bauer’s marvellous debut novel the faint line between the ‘exploratory’ and the ‘exploitative’ is erased and redrawn time and again. Like a few other female writers (A.M. Homes, Alice Sebold) Bauer has chosen to anchor a significant part of her narrative in the murky terrain of the paedophilic consciousness. There is in fact a slight affinity between Homes’ The End of Alice and Bauer’s Blacklands, as both novelists make much of an epistolary device that brings the transgressor directly into contact with the renewed potential for transgression. In Homes’ novel the paedophile, Chappy, enters into correspondence with a young woman, who is about to seduce an adolescent boy and wants to share her perverse pleasure with him. Bauer’s novel, on the other hand, sees the adolescent boy at the heart of the narrative send letters to the convicted murderer of his uncle (killed when he was just 11 years old) to try to find out where this man buried his Uncle’s body. A significant part of the ‘danger’ in Bauer’s novel comes from this original take on seduction, as her protagonist unwittingly (and sometimes all too knowingly) begins to press all the right buttons in the paedophiles mind. It is both a daring illustration of the implicit complicity between paedophile and victim, something that our selective ‘unsexing’ of the child shows we are far too unwilling to broach, and a fascinating improvisation upon the human grief and inexpressible loss that haunts the extended victims of one of the most infamous cases in British criminal history.

Blacklands follows the troubling explorations of an adolescent boy called Steven Lamb, who over three long, dreary years, digs away relentlessly on Exmoor, trying to uncover the body of the Uncle he never knew, and who remains one of the undiscovered victims of a convicted paedophile called Arnold Avery. Lamb’s single-minded and secretive pursuit of this goal is motivated by the belief that discovering his Uncle’s body will finally heal some of the gaping wounds in his family life, allowing both his grandmother and mother to restart their stalled existences. At a loss as to how to achieve this aim, particularly with so much moorland to cover, Steven enters into a covert correspondence with Avery, who is being detained at a low-security prison in Dartmoor, having been on his ‘best behaviour’ for close to eighteen years. What ensues is a similar cat and mouse exercise in desire and power as that which Homes details between Chappy and his unnamed female correspondent in The End of Alice. Steven is unaware exactly what kind of spark his coy, careful and cryptic letters ignite in Avery, whilst Arnold is left in the dark as to Steven’s reasons for specifically needing to know what happened to one of his many victims. Taking this disturbingly fresh approach to the havoc reaped by the paedophilic transgression, Bauer then clearly demonstrates her confident mastery of narrative pacing, by gradually bringing the two halves of her broken narrative (Steven and Avery’s mutual longing and frustration, just to different ends) together inexorably, as if no other satisfactory conclusion could have been reached, a weird echo of the tar trap of historical fate so many of her characters seem to be oozing their way through.

What makes Bauer’s novel truly compelling, running against the grain of the author’s mentioned, both of whom engage in ‘fantastic’ narrative devices, is the robustly ‘realistic’ manner in which she delves into the dank and dreary Devonshire landscape and the troubled and impoverished life of her young protagonist. This fictional ‘reality’ is so powerfully rendered, at times, seeming uncomfortably authentic, that it most keenly evokes Ken Loach’s 1969 adaptation of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, the painfully effective Kes. A large part of this ‘authenticity’ is derived from Bauer’s proximity to, and clear knowledge of, the landscape (she now lives just across the Severn in Wales), as well as the meticulous research carried out into the actual working procedures of prisons – a particularly striking feature of the novel is the way in which it stays clear of, and in fact carefully corrects, the kind of cliched nonsense beloved of jailbreak movies. However, perhaps the single most important decision that Bauer has made when plotting Steven’s narrative route to Avery, is the one that is defined by her inspiration for the novel, namely her subtle hijacking of the horrific legacy of two of Britain’s most notorious child killers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, The Moors Murderers.

In her appended author’s note Bauer talks about this initial spark for her novel coming when she “saw the mother of a long-murdered child on TV and started to wonder about the impact of crimes such as Avery’s, how they affect people for years, lifetimes – maybe even generations.”. The long-murdered child Bauer referred to was Keith Bennett, whilst the mother being interviewed was Winnie Johnson, a woman who has effectively given her life over to finding the body of her murdered son. In the case of The Moors Murders there is the weight of 45 years of anger, grief, loss and pain to consider and Mrs. Peters’ 20 years of slow torture is clearly a cautious imagining of how such an unresolved history can cast a generational burden upon individuals. In a similar fashion Bauer is using the readers historical knowledge to lend her own novel a tentative tragedy, tapping in to those previous crimes to invest the carefully portrayed fantasy worlds of Shipcott (no such place exists in Exmoor) and Longmoor (more likely Dartmoor) with added verisimilitude. As much as Bauer is at pains to distance herself from retreading factual material, Avery’s gleefully assured narcissism and single-mindedness would appear to be similar to that of Brady, as is the unusual bisexual preferences of his perversion. For figures like Avery (and Brady) the detail of paramount importance is innocence, and more importantly the power they invest themselves with when destroying it.

Bauer has brought together narrative, character and location to outline the major themes of her novel incredibly effectively. The bleakness, the cold, soul-sucking climate of the moors acts as a poetic evocation of the mortification of Steven’s family, making it seem almost a miracle that Steven and his younger brother Davey have been born at all, into a private world so suffused with death and decay. As I’ve previously suggested Steven operates very much like a modern-day Billy Casper (from Kes), whose lonely diggings upon the moor are the sole thing that appears to give his life purpose, whilst at the same time showing a parental neglect that stems from the historical atrophy simultaneously propelling Steven out onto the ‘blacklands’. The inevitability of the narrative does nothing to diminish the powerful conclusion to the novel, particularly as the two characters that are coming together need each other so desperately and for such wildly different reasons.

Quiet associations are what Bauer excels at, creating what appear to be transparent prose images, whilst infusing them with a deceptively strong thematic substance. These can be observed in moments such as when Avery reimagines Exmoor and gradually fixates on the burial sites of his victims, which in turn echoes as the burial mounds of the victim’s families and, perhaps, a nation’s trust; or when Steven works on a map of South Africa in geography and then begins to consider the history of hunting and trapping, how so much life ended up in holes in the ground, becoming worm food, then mineral deposits and then disinterred graves of only archaeological interest. One of the most effective of these moments comes when Avery escapes from Longmoor:

Toby had been the second bench he’d made and was not as strong as Yasmin, which was the fifth. But both were strong enough. After a couple of false starts when his weight threw the balance off and he teetered dangerously, Arnold Avery scaled the wooden tower named for his child victims, kicked them away without even glancing behind him, and then dropped carefully from the top of the wall on to the wide open expanse of Dartmoor. (Locations 3013-3016)

Not only do we have a sense of what exact purpose these benches have served Avery during his incarceration, but we also are now privy to the unsatiable nature at work within him. The memorialised pleasures of the mind are nothing compared to the possibility of the freedom to obtain fresh memories. The individual children mean nothing to him, they are merely sources and sights of pleasure (or in the case of the bereaved family, atrocity).

Bauer’s debut novel deserves to be read, enjoyed and considered, as it is an exquisite rendering of a childhood spent in the shadow of aching grief and loss. Although it intelligently shies away from the kind of crass sensationalism that could be expected of any novel about a moors-obsessed child killer, it doesn’t pursue the easy option of outright demonisation when portraying the manipulative energies of Avery. The careful deconstruction of the thrall of history, to which humanity finds itself forever looking for clues, is astutely carried out as Steven Lamb and Arnold Avery close in upon their certain encounter. As Laura Wilson states in her review of the novel:

As well as detailing the frustrating powerlessness of childhood, Bauer also paints a vivid portrait of the rupturing effect of a child’s murder upon a family, with its aftermath of fractured, stunted people with only one reference point in their lives.

It is this atmosphere of utter petrification that lingers longest in the memory, of ‘blacklands’ that house only the bones of lives long departed, if not quite over.

A Fear of Dying

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Approaching death in Wim Wenders ‘Lightning over Water’ and Tamara Jenkins ‘The Savages’

At an early point in Wim Wenders experimental documentary on the death of Nicholas Ray Lightning over Water Wenders puts forward the idea that one should confront one’s fears head on. Wenders perpetual paralysis when confronted with his visibly failing friend, and cinematic mentor, Nicholas Ray, establishes his motivation for coming to Ray’s New York apartment armed with a camera and flanked by a small film crew. Wenders is undoubtedly confronting his own fear. The uncomfortable opening exchanges between the iconic Hollywood maverick and his European protégé, are partly a result of Wenders placing a physical barrier – in the form of a partition wall – between himself and the coughing and spluttering, cancer-ridden, walking corpse that Ray has become. Ray here is a wraith-like spectre, almost always caught with his cigarette coolly dangling between skeletal fingers, or hanging louche (just like Jimmy Dean) from his wafer thin lips. The partition wall allows Wenders to remain blind to the physical decay of his idol. Yet the camera he deploys so mercilessly does not waver in its depiction of Ray’s deterioration – in looking over the day’s rushes Wenders ruminates over the exposing nature of the camera, as it insinuates itself into every rigid muscle and protuberant bone of Ray’s cracking carapace.

What is it that keeps Wenders film stock rolling? Continually, Wenders refers to the inability to find a film among all of the material, or simply the fact that he must carry on making the film. Yet as the fear grows closer and Ray’s vitality ebbs ever further away from the camera’s inquisition, what prevents Wenders from turning away, turning the camera away and thereby turning us – the audience – away from this process of dying? In amongst the chopping between aesthetic film (the cinema quality scene-setting) and guerrilla film (the revealing process shots of the film crew working the set) Wenders asks Ray what he wants from this film. Ray is bent on realising a dream-story he has had involving an art-dealer forging his masterworks and deriving his greatest pleasure from trying to place his own forgeries into the revered public spaces that have canonised the works in which he deals. Wenders calls Ray on his narrative idealisation. Why a painter Nick, why painting? We know it’s you, why not film. Nicholas Ray then verbalises the burden he is placing upon Wenders. He is asking Wenders to assist him in completing one last film – this film Lightning over Water (in itself a beautiful visual metaphor from the credit sequences). Wenders keeps filming because Ray needs to complete this film, as he says while addressing the Vasser College students, he needs to bring himself back to a sense of the whole man, he needs to feel whole again. Trying to bring Ray out complete and intact from the midst of his own deterioration is then Wenders’ task, his promise and is what fuels the films intense final third, in which Ray fragments before the unflinching lens of the camera allowing Wenders to discover the ‘wholeness’ demanded of him by his co-auteur, a dying man’s ‘final cut’.

The degree to which Wenders goes deep into that reservoir of fear and captures the death of a man and thus the life of a man, is partly because of his resistance to the cathartic emotional release, most often supplied to the viewer through a play of grief, or the shock of a moment of comedy. In Tamara Jenkins recent release The Savages the neurotic middle-class mores of a dysfunctional family triumvirate (erstwhile father, cerebral brother and extrovert sister) are the alienating glaze that deflects the penetrating stare of the camera just enough to keep the death process apart from the life process. The living, in dying, will not yield up to the quiet distancing and necessary erasure that allows them to move seamlessly into memory and away from the residue of ownership over the self.

Lenny Savage is becoming consumed by dementia and he wears the haunted mask of confusion and horror that is the mark of his disease and its brutal propensity for emptying. Philip Bosco is acting, but inhabits that messily defined area, previously inhabited by Henry Fonda (On Golden Pond), Jason Robards (Magnolia) and Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story), where life’s completion is closing in fast and he appears at that finely balanced moment before the inexorable decline. Having alienated himself from his children, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney), when his long-term girlfriend dies, he finds himself exiled from their Sun City retirement bungalow and suddenly in need of the support of two strangers. Jon, a theatre Professor, and Wendy, a wannabe writer, exhibit two different manifestations of the fear of death, suddenly thrust upon them by their father’s mouldering presence. Jon retreats from his father mentally, while keeping a constant physical proximity. His response is akin to that of Wenders when confronted by Ray, a glacial rationalism, poorly masking the palpable fear bubbling away just below the surface of that pale white flesh. Wendy on the other hand attempts to delude herself into an intimacy with the father she never really had, that she has never really known. She compensates for their lack of a sense of deep kinship by throwing herself into a strange attempt at proving her love. Her fear is bought away from her in the little knick-knacks (such as the red pillow) she festoons her befuddled father with.

The two films are completely antithetical and yet when viewed in close proximity begin to migrate toward each other. Wenders film can be viewed as a careful fostering of a father-figure’s failing energies for one last exhibition of mastery. Yet the stress inherent within Wenders’ and Ray’s relationship also at times gives way to a struggle for ownership of the movie. Wenders brings out the key elements of Ray’s back catalogue, his work with actors (almost theatrical and given theatrical voice in the Kafka sequence), the sense of Homecoming that follows Robert Mitchum’s return home in The Lusty Men (as commented on in his Vasser lecture) and the radical fracturing of film narrative and form that was the hallmark of Ray’s return to directorial duties after a decade-long hiatus, in his SUNY Binghamton student project We Can’t go Home Again (which both features in and heavily informs the style of Wenders’ own film). Yet the centre focus of the production itself is Ray and despite his deteriorating condition he seems reluctant to go quietly into the night, forgetting lines, trying to force awkward narrative projections onto the movie’s structure and attempting to make a sentimental death-bed sequence that sends Wenders to sleep.

With no such film-within-a-film framing the straighter narrative concerns of The Savages plays brother and sister off one another for ownership of the estranged father neither of them can now hope to know. What is so successful within the narrative contrivances and distancing devices (all so very Brechtian) of The Savages is the sparing use of back story, the deliberate manner in which the exact details of these three people’s familial relations are withheld. We never get to know how bad a father Lenny was, or what was the cause of the split from his wife. All we have are the poor, and deeply individual, memories of the adult-children, like the brace-removal incident, or their mother’s sudden flight. At the centre of the movie is Philip Bosco’s dispensed Lenny Savage, a porous cipher figure that eludes the misplaced struggle of his children by making himself disappear in all but physical frame. A poignant scene in which Jon and Wendy’s antagonism towards their relative coping methods overspills into an all out slanging match sees the camera carefully pull away from the interior of the vehicle and drift across to the passenger seat, where Lenny sits with a suggestion of rage struggling to break through his otherwise confused countenance. He is framed behind the frosted passenger-side window pane and mutes their squabbling by pulling the hood of his ridiculous Parker raincoat (an inappropriate purchase by Jon) up over his head, encasing himself in yet another protective layer, removing himself a little more from the movie.

The Savages manages to leaven its despairing look at the human inability to cope with the dying process by placing an emphasis on the barbed wit of its protagonists, or their awkwardness within certain social contexts that they deem inappropriate (the sequence in which Larry requests the 1927 version of The Jazz Singer as his film in the respite home, staffed, as it is, by an almost exclusively African-American group of nurses and carers is a perfect example of the comedy of anxiety that the likes of Ricky Gervais and Larry David have mined so well in recent years). It also deploys pointed truths as one of its many distancing devices, so that when Jon rails against the hypocrisy of a society that makes profit from people’s descent into old age, it is concluded by the punchline of him offending the family members who are walking their loved ones in the grounds of the retirement home. Within the limitations of its conventional narrative framework The Savages goes a long way down that road that Wenders is driving in Lightning over Water, in fact if you take Jenkins, as director and writer, and place her in the Wenders role then in her own circuitous fashion she is approaching that primitive fear. The seeming benignity of her final throwaway epilogue sequence proves to have a great deal more resonance when you consider how much easier it is to give up on a human being, particularly when they will not play ball, than it is to give up on a beloved pet.

Wenders also deals with an epilogue as the conclusion to his (or Ray’s) film and there is once more a sense of ambivalence in the seeming triteness of this closing sequence. Having wrapped the film, having ventured to the harrowing point of human completion that is death (or in this case Ray’s ‘Final Cut’) Wenders and his crew dig up the dirt and gossip of the shoot and have a Saki infused wake onboard a yacht, replete with the kind of self-obsessed narcissism of a party for ‘creatives’. Gradually the stories and snippets begin to move onto Ray’s volcanic and electric personality and a wonderful cinematic metaphor is presented to the camera when one of the crew performs a trick in which he burns a match down to his finger and thumb, then wetting the finger and thumb on his other hand inverts the match and lets the flame consume what remains of the matchstick and in the process extinguish itself. Amidst all of the discussion Wenders sits beatifically smiling, having carried the burden of another’s death successfully and thus assumed the mantle of the mentor, facing down his fear.

This essay was originally published on May 25th 2010 on my now defunct ‘Imposturous’ blog.