meaning of life, screen, sport, words

What’s Books Got to Do with It?

capitalism, dressed as Slender Man, has come for the children

Elena Ferrante on TV; the slow death of the movie director; rancid commercials and bad capitalism; the limits of mindfulness and just me, myself and I

        In My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s four ‘Neapolitan novels‘, the narrator’s lifelong pal Lila learns how to tango by reading an instruction manual. She practises at home, daily, diligently, until foot perfect. 

It’s some feat. But then, Lila’s brilliant. Also, this is a story, and sometimes in stories characters do amazing things. Despite its many realist trappings, My Brilliant Friend remains a fictional drama, one of friend worship, friend rivalry and friend dependency. 

I’m not brilliant and I have never successfully used a body of text to acquire a demanding skill. I don’t have the drive, for one thing, but am also unconvinced this is the best use of books.

I once tried to teach myself judo using a manual and it was not a great success. (Many years later, the same outcome with teach yourself yoga.) 

The judo book was bought largely in desperation, unable to think of how else to spend my Christmas token aged eight. As a child who didn’t enjoy reading, book tokens for presents were as much burden as joy. In the pre gift-token era, book tokens meant books. Or maybe LPs at a stretch. But records cost more and were therefore too high risk. And anyway, the only record player at home belonged to my parents and was largely off limits, busy belting out heroic revolutionary songs from the Soviet state army choir.

So, it had to be a book and this time it had to be something other than football. I’d grown weary of staring dumbly at my football books and their pages of results from past matches, contemplating the scorelines almost reverentially, waiting and waiting and waiting… for who knows what – some kind of magical insight to trickle out from beneath the flat surface of 0:0, signifying something more than that the game ended zero zero, which means neither team scored, or won, or lost, that the result was a goalless draw. I’d like to think on me back then as having somehow intuited that text is always, already a container of multiple meanings, but sadly the deduction arrived with the wrong kind of book: there was little interpretive magic to unpack from zero zero. 

Daredevil, Netflix promotional still
dark crusading vigilante stubble

The judo book also appealed because learning to disarm your enemies at close quarters sounded like fun. A useful life skill.

I liked violence on TV as a child and still do – shoot outs and fighting. The bloody revenge scenarios of The Walking Dead are my Restoration tragedies. The complex fantasy fight scenes in Daredevil have a liquid choreography that’s the closest I get to modern dance. You can keep your Pina Bausch as every time I’ll pick the extended punch up scene in Series 2 Episode 3, where Daredevil marmalises a vast biker gang over five minutes of martial brilliance.*

Captain James T Kirk (William Shatner) Star Trek
good hair, no?

At eight I enjoyed the fight scenes in the original Star Trek TV series. The violence mostly involved punch and counter punch. But Captain Kirk had some other moves suggesting a familiarity with martial arts. I once asked the barber to cut my hair to look like Kirk. Now, if only I could fight like him. 

There were many practical issues to consider, which I did not consider until it was too late and I found myself back home in my bedroom, trying to force the tightly bound book to stay open at the same page as I studied the line drawings, from Fig. A to Fig. E, which detailed the five stages to putting a mean-looking assailant on his back and out of the fight. 

The assailant in the illustrations had copious face stubble and carried a piece of lead pipe. His judo opponent wore a white wraparound outfit. I changed into my dressing gown, as the best approximation available.

Apart from the lack of equipment, or the difficulty of following instructions with a book that kept flipping closed, the biggest issue was not having an assailant to work on. I was never going to master the moves like this. I asked my brother to stand in for the bulky predator, but he declined. 

My brother was four years older. Our Venn diagram didn’t always overlap through the formative years. At this stage he was busy knitting. He also crocheted. Later he attended evening classes in cake icing in Little Ilford. He became a pastry chef and in the fullness of time a super-masculine dude – who also likes Daredevil. But he refused to be my martial arts stooge and the teach yourself judo regime duly withered as, of course, it was always destined to.**

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante, UK publication front coverReading through Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, the coming of age of two working class teenage girls in a grotty quarter of 1950s Naples, I can’t keep from adapting it for TV in my head. (In real life, a multi-part series has recently gone into production). I see the scary, portentously laden ascent to Don Achille’s forbidden apartment, and the Lila-Marcello knife scene, as nodal points of an episode one that will climax with the shoot out at the fireworks.

The holiday in Ischia in episode two will be romantic and lovely – the beach, the sea, the period swimming costumes, even some narratively pivotal ice cream. Indubitably, Ferrante on the box will be a medley of rich visual cues, with bright pattern dresses, Fiat classics, Lambrettas, pizza, sfogliatella, more ice cream, sharp wedding suits and, of course, designer Italian shoes. But as with the ice cream, the shoes – the bespoke ‘fairytale shoes’ – will also come freighted with narrative purpose and meaning. Indeed, I’m putting Marcello Solara arriving at the wedding wearing the handmade shoes as the cliffhanger ending of episode three.

Twin Peaks, TV series, Robin on a tree branch
welcome to Twin Peaks

‘One always fails in speaking of what one loves’, writes Roland Barthes. Perhaps then it’s wise not to heap Ferrante with praise, or criticise television’s flaws, but foresee where the problems might surface as the two of them get together. Television is an information media. TV is not a great place historically for auteurs with their personal vision or signature style – or only so rarely: Twin Peaks, Dennis Potter. 

TV is the realm of writers, who convey narrative information to keep the viewer moving through the story. The British screenwriter Andrew Davies is revered for his TV adaptations of classic novels – Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, War and Peace. The people who directed these Davies scripts are not so celebrated, or even remembered. 

The overall vision person for a big American TV series is called the ‘showrunner’. On Breaking Bad Vince Gilligan was the showrunner; David Benihoff is showrunner for Game of Thrones; Jill Solloway for Transparent. Showrunner sounds less Kubrick, von Stroheim or DeMille, and more like the intern who gets the coffee. In reality, a showrunner wields great power concerning overall story goals and structure, series plans, narrative arcs, supervising writing teams, and recruiting and guiding episode directors. David Simon, who created and ran The Wire, was known for steering his brilliant five season tale of drugs and a city with a ‘light hand’, while David Chase ruled The Sopranos with an iron fist. The many eminent filmmakers drafted in to direct a Sopranos episode – Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Figgis,  Lee Tamahori – were required to park their personal vision off set and do precisely as the teleplay said – not a single word of dialogue was tweaked without Chase’s say so.***

Between the omnipotent showrunner and hired hand directors perhaps the potential for something beautiful is lost from a ten, or thirteen, or sixteen episode-per-season TV drama series. The director is in retreat. Things may change, but in this moment, as mid-budget Hollywood film production declines – as the kind of two-hour theatrical films to keep a Coppola, Schrader, Fincher, Soderbergh, or their younger counterparts, in the business, are increasingly not getting funded – apart from asking the counter factual, what films will not get made and we will never get to see because of this decline, we also might ask what do we lose when the director largely becomes just another part of the machinery, a cog in a far larger contraption released through Netflix, HBO or Amazon?

La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini, Italian film poster

In the absence of an auteur’s personal worldview, TV gravitates towards homogeneity, preferring a straightforward, globally accessible aesthetic.

I think I know already how the TV version of Ferrante will look. The allure of 50s technicolour gloss will win out over shadow and grit. There are three little words that ought to be banned on set, but won’t – La, Dolce, Vita. (The TV critics will be lining up to say them too.) The dire film adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) by Anthony Minghella (son of Italian ice cream makers) is a warning that will go unheeded, with its ghastly tones, its annoying Blue-Note record-sleeve colour schemes, and all the psychological intrigue of Patricia Highsmith’s source novel flattened. 

A high end period Perroni advert of trite formulas is a possible visual outcome for My Brilliant Friend, starring the romantic, beautiful, impossibly hot headed characters of the Mezzogiorno. All kinds of airbrushed Neapolitan cliche could wander into frame at any moment. Consider the regurgitated ‘Audrey Hepburn’ in a recent commercial for Galaxy chocolate.  

Filmed on the Isle of Capri, a digitally revivified Hepburn is sat on a bus caught in a comical traffic snarl down by the port. To help pass this moment of endearing Italian chaos, Audrey reaches into her purse and breaks off a piece of Galaxy. The Galaxy in my purse on a hot afternoon would be melted. But Audrey’s chocolate inspires a fantasy to transform her day: suddenly a handsome heartthrob rolls up alongside the bus in a convertible and offers the long dead Hollywood star a ride – right to the top of the hill.

'Audrey Hepburn' post mortem appearance for Galaxy chocolate advert

Even if one can overlook the queasy necrophiliac urge in reanimating a long dead actress to drool over, this painfully saccharine, fake Disneyland froth represents a deep cultural low point. The kind of nadir best quickly forgotten, forever. (If that’s possible with nightmares.) Or perhaps better accepted as punishment for being one of those neurotic types who always arrives early for the cinema. 

Out of habit, I like to be in my seat before the film programme has started. That’s why I always see the food and drink commercials – from chocolate, to vodka, to life-affirming mass-produced globally-recognised beers with too many bubbles. 

But how should I care? I just have to reach inside my rucksack for the treats I smuggled in from the outside world. Why get so boiled under the hem over a couple of mindless commercials?

Well, let’s pretend. For at least the duration of the Galaxy ad – with its crass cultural stereotypes pimped for multinational legibility and market reach – let’s act as if we’re all grown up and relaxed concerning the creepy visuals leisure capitalism hurls our way. Let’s also pretend, here in the dark of the back row that Galaxy, or the Peroni commercial are right – the Peroni commercial where the unrealistically pretty waitress, and her unrealistically beautiful twin, hook up with a bunch of dudes for a swim at the blue lagoon (for which there is inexplicably an extended version online called the ‘Director’s Cut’). Let’s pretend Peroni has actually got it correct, that glob­al­ised cap­it­alism is in fact simply excel­lent. Even when we know this is not true. Even when, as Alain Badiou wrote after the election of Trump, ‘…it’s clear that it’s not. Every­body knows that. Every­body knows that mon­strous inequal­it­ies can­not be a solu­tion of the his­tor­ic­al des­tiny of human beings – every­body knows that.’

But we could act like it’s all smooth and excellent for a few hours, surely? Only thing is, aesthetics and ideology usually come intertwined. Under its glorious retro pieces, My Brilliant Friend is far from being a sweet work of nostalgia. Beneath Ferrante’s beach, is a semi-secret history of the actual world that Lila and Elena the narrator have been born and raised in. This sordid, complicated reality is hinted at by Nino, the dreamy intellectual. Or, more concretely outlined by Pasquale, the builder with Marxist leanings. 

But it is Lila herself, savant oracle of the tenements, who most thrillingly articulates the corrupt clientilist shadow economy that undergirds the scrimped lives of the community: the favours, the kickbacks, the graft, the money made off the misery of neighbours. Lila forces the scales to fall from Elena’s eyes. Only a long quote can capture it: 

‘…for the entire summer,’ remembers Elena, ‘she [Lila] tormented me with a single concept that I found unbearable… [That] There are no gestures, words, or sighs that do not contain the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit… She was gripped by a frenzy of absolute disclosure. She pointed to people, things, streets, and said, “That man fought in the war and killed, that one bludgeoned and administered castor oil, that one turned in a lot of people, that one starved his own mother, in that house they tortured and killed, on these stones they marched and gave the fascist salute, on this corner they inflicted beatings, these people’s money comes from the hunger of others, this car was bought by selling bread adulterated with marble dust and rotten meat on the black market, that butcher shop had its origins in stolen copper and vandalised freight trains, behind that bar is the Camorra, smuggling, loan-sharking.”‘

Lila pulls aside the drapes revealing the nefarious machinations controlling the girls’ existence. The rule of history, money, gender and sexuality has them boxed in. This hard, ineluctable truth is repeated as they grow into young adults. ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir. Lila’s lines of escape from her trap are restricted. The stress of this growing awareness, the rents in Lila’s psyche, are dramatised by the hallucinations she experiences of ‘dissolving margins’. (It will be a point-of-view camera shot when the story comes to TV. The screen will go woozy and gauzy in the harsh sunlight, the lens may even slide off at an angle.)

Lila also suffers from premonitions in which inanimate objects offer warnings, to foretell of bad things coming her way. Late in Book One a copper pot explodes inexplicably. This troubling event echoes through the narrative, like a bell that now and then rings.**** 

Portrait of Samuel Beckett by Reginald Gray, 1961
‘the old earth turning onward and time feasting on our suffering’

As a young man, Samuel Beckett battled his parents’ demand that he work for the family accountancy firm. The stress of this conflict left Becket with several physical symptoms – cysts, pelvic pain and panic attacks which hampered the author for years. When he was twenty nine, Becket attended a lecture given by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, concerning a young patient whose baffling symptoms Jung diagnosed as being due to a severe version of arrested development: ‘The girl had never really been born.’ 

Jung’s diagnosis went bang in Beckett’s brain. Finally the Irish author had the terms to explain his own neuroses. Beckett concluded his emotional struggles were due to an alienation that sprung from not being psychically born yet. 

I think it better that Beckett and his un-birth be taken as metaphor rather than literally. Plainly, through our early development and upwards, there are things that take a while to figure out, if at all, and this is what words and books have to do with it. 

As the years add up, there is a tension for Ferrante’s lead women between identity and politics. In this sense her fiction is very of the moment. After Trump and Brexit, it’s possible we’ll witness a mass switchover to revolution. But currently for many – for most – identity is the main event. The Annoying Son’s Generation Screen (or Generation Z, as the prosaic demographers prefer), as well as the teeming multitude of Millennials up ahead of them, are extraordinarily preoccupied with deciding who they are, constructing, tending and finessing an ‘identity’ that’s continually uploaded for friends to view and (hopefully) ‘like’.

Instagram logo

While promoting her new novel Swing Time, Zadie Smith has defended the book’s narrator from critics who say the character is too thin and under-performing and not much of a literary ‘I’. Smith claims she purposefully chose a narrator ‘an I that almost doesn’t exist… the only thing she is in the world are her actions.’ 

The new world order of social media has existence turned the other way round, where the first step is constructing a demonstrable ‘identity’ through text, image, likes and shares. The social media ‘I’ should be complicated, funny, glamorous, busy. Twenty four seven. Once built, it is this constructed person who will go forward to do things in the world, with the person’s actions determined by their ‘identity’: I am X, and so it follows that being X I do this. If I were a Y, I would do something different.

But how about switching it over? Why not do some ‘stuff’ first and leave the figuring out who you are until later? With things to be done, perhaps there will be less angst concerning who ‘I’ – this work in progress – really is; especially last thing at night, alone, logged off from friends. ‘It might be a useful feeling for a moment,’ suggests Smith, ‘not to be concerned with your identity.’

Thinking about the current dominion of identity reminds me both of therapy, but also the American comedian Jon Stewart, the good leftie, whose cutting satire was broadcast widely on TV for several years and yet failed to turn the world into a better place. Stewart’s stinging gags didn’t make a difference. I read somewhere the ‘failure’ of his barbed one-liners to cause neoliberalism to totter and fall might be compared to Wittgenstein’s pessimistic vision of philosophy, which regrettably ‘leaves everything as it is’. 

I wonder if Wittgenstein’s lament (sounds like a jazz track) could equally be applied to the hopes we have for therapy. But then I thought, the only time I had any real therapy it was supposed to help fix my tummy, and it was CBT, and not only the therapist, but even I got bored discussing my bowels, on that bobbly pale blue sofa in the hot office near the hospital boiler. I know I almost fell asleep one session, so I suspect she felt the same. 

So, I won’t write about all that. Just to say, the therapy, plus the homework the counsellor gave me to complete between sessions –  the digital recordings as pabulum taken twice daily: the bodyscans to listen to with headphones, her soft voice in my ear; the assorted modes of meditation experimented with – like the mindful walking up and down the back stairs at work, morning and afternoon; the big effort to corral my automatic thoughts – modifying my self-talk, taking my inner critic off line… all of this didn’t help a bit. It didn’t fix the problem. Or get close. 

I wasn’t that disappointed by this outcome, as I knew it was a big reach: I mean, talk fixes depressed tummy – that’s asking a lot.  

The boiled down question seems to be what can we realistically hope for from chiselling away at our identity endlessly (via therapy,  mindfulness, Instagram, or whatever), what level of happiness while the wider world is falling apart about our ears?

Freud once declared his goal with patients to be reducing ‘neurotic misery into common unhappiness’. In a Guardian review piece on mindfulness and the happiness industry, Terry Eagleton observes that ‘Happiness for the market researchers and corporate psychologists is a matter of feeling good.’ And yet millions of people don’t feel so good at all. ‘You can’t really be happy if you are a victim of injustice or exploitation, which is what the technologists of joy tend to overlook. This is why, when Aristotle speaks of a science of well-being, he gives it the name of politics.’ 

So, might politics fix the kink in our mood? Knowing our own inner lives and our relationships with others to be extraordinarily complex, maybe it’s better we plump instead for just a simple, no frills revolution. 

Maybe first thing we join a commune. We could all meet in a field and discuss only collective matters – sod feelings – with just one outdoor toilet and limited rations of loo roll. That ought to fix everything, surely. 

David Lamelas, Time
look long enough and their legs start to twitch

Screen violence has often been a bonding agent with the Annoying SonThe in-house policy has largely been liberal, but so far hasn’t stretched to The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not that he’s bothered, but I want to watch both film with him and am sure the bad stuff will simply bounce off his tungsten screen sensitivities. But the sliver of doubt – what if I’m wrong and seeing a diabolic possession from the mid 1970s cracks something inside, like with Lila’s copper pot in My Brilliant Friend? So, I hold back.

** It took several years of flat pack furniture assembly disasters, long weekends of sweat, pain, tears and intra-relationship hell to break me, to push me finally to accept that some practical things will only happen after concentrated reading. Next, I paid other people to assemble the Ikea shelves or the Habitat drawers. But this hurt the wallet and I knew it couldn’t continue. It was time to get down on my hands and knees and read, read, really read the inscrutable assembly manual. It’s down to you now, I told myself, do it, or the shelves aren’t going to make it. This is what finally growing up feels like. 

*** The concept of the auteur filmmaker is arguably exaggerated – critical shorthand, an inheritance from literature, and the Renaissance ideal of the singular creative genius. Nevertheless, from the late 1960s in Hollywood the idea of the author/auteur took off as film directors became leaders of the American film industry. 

There are many problems with auteurs. For one, the auteur isn’t a reliable voice, not just for studios run by megalomaniacs; not just for the lawyers or bankers who have mostly replaced the moguls; but unreliable for viewers – the people buying the tickets. The auteur cannot be relied upon in the way genre can. That is what genre’s good at – dependability. When you go arthouse, you take a gamble on someone else’s vision speaking to you. And if it turns out you don’t care for the auteur’s vision, you forgot in fact you never much cared for the auteur’s vision (Yes Jim Jarmusch, I’m thinking of you in the light of Paterson), then you’re pretty screwed.

The venture is smaller with genre. With a romcom, or a thriller, or a prison escape drama, you know that primarily what you’re getting is not a personal vision, but a set of narrative conventions. In this transaction the only, much smaller risk is that the director fumbles the project – but even then, you still get a top up on your genre fix.

****  As a young adult, Simone de Beauvoir suffered hallucinations where birds swooped down upon her head and attacked her hands. The birds then pulled her upwards by her hair. 

The Portugese writer Fernando Pessoa, who notably wrote under several pseudonyms (which he called heteronyms) spent a lifetime experiencing multiple mindsets, at times feeling himself ‘suddenly being owned by something else’ – of having a ‘very curious sensation’ in the right arm, which was ‘lifted into the air’ without the author’s will. Pessoa often looked into the bathroom mirror and saw not himself but other faces – those of his heteronyms. ‘The bearded man’ was one of four Pessoa characters who frequently assumed control of the author’s face.

With My Brilliant Friend, and Lila’s exploding copper pot being a warning of bad things to come, it is important to note how replete Neapolitan culture is with superstition and arcana: ‘What happened when I conceived you,’ asks Elena’s mother, exasperated by her daughter’s wilfulness, ‘an accident, a hiccup, a convulsion, the lights went out, a bulb blew, the basin fell off the night table. Certainly there must have been something, if you were born so intolerable…’ Traditionally this isn’t a culture where ‘touch wood’ is deemed adequate to stop the demons running amok. 

Slender Man coming round the track
Slender Man’s at it again
And that’s all for 2016