Talking Movies

March 9, 2012

Welcome to Greeneland

I wrote some months ago about an impending trip to Graham Greene’s birthplace (Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire) for the Graham Greene Festival 2011, which took place at the start of October. I thought I’d cast a slightly belated eye back over proceedings.

I had won the thriller category of the creative writing awards for my short story ‘Dieu et Mon Droit’ and was lucky enough to collect my prize from festival guest speaker Lee Langley, who adapted Greene’s lost 1940s ‘scriptment’ The Tenth Man into a complex and tense film starring Anthony Hopkins and Kristin Scott Thomas in the late 1980s. Berkhamsted is only a half-hour train ride from London, and the festival is always worth the attention of any Greene fans in the Home Counties. The interesting line up of talks and screenings this year included rising film director and screenwriter Rowan Joffe introducing his Brighton Rock adaptation, and the launch by Dermot Gilvary and Darren Middleton of their edited book of critical essays Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene. I sadly missed a lot of the festival’s events but what I did catch was most impressive. Professor Joyce Stavick gave an interesting account of how American military college students responded surprisingly positively to Greene’s prescient warnings about Vietnam in The Quiet American, Lee Langley gave a very funny account of how she adapted The Tenth Man for the screen only to watch her most prized original dialogue scene that for her summed up the whole film get thrown onto the cutting room floor by the director as pointless padding, and Professor Steven Chibnall (fresh from excavations in the archives) gave an imposingly detailed examination of the two contrasting film adaptations of Brighton Rock.

I must though single out Professor Michael Brennan’s lecture on Greene’s creative use of the Manichean heresy, in Brighton Rock and Stamboul Train among others, was a truly stunning piece of scholarship. I’d have to rank this patient explanation of the bizarre beliefs of the Manicheans and careful analysis of just how Greene used this good/evil, soul/body, man/woman set of dichotomies for his own purposes as one of the very best lectures I’ve ever heard. On the basis of this talk alone I’d recommend Prof. Brennan’s new book on Greene to all Greene scholars and indeed anyone working in the wider field of English Catholic literature. Once all the prizes had been given out and the talks concluded it was time for the Bourget-Greene Gala Dinner in the luxurious surroundings of Berkhamsted’s venerable Public School. Despite my complete unfamiliarity with ‘Ed Reardon’ I greatly enjoyed the BBC Radio 4 comedy character’s short after dinner talk spuriously linking himself to Greene throughout his own fictional life. I also greatly enjoyed talking with a number of other Greene fans including Cathy Hogan, a fellow Irish winner in the writing awards. Andrew Bourget, Greene’s eldest grandson and the new and very gracious patron of the Festival, has launched a website intended as the primary resource on the web for all things Greene related – I think it’s a great idea, using a signature concept, and one that deserves all the support that Greene fans can muster.

I think everyone will find that there is one Graham Greene work that speaks to them. For me it’s The Ministry of Fear, for other people I know I could say The End of the Affair or Twenty One Short Stories. Why not find out which one speaks to you?

December 14, 2009

On Not Watching the Watchmen

Zack Snyder directing Alan Moore’s Watchmen raises the intriguing question – can a right-wing director successfully helm the work of a left-wing writer? Moore doesn’t seem to think so, but then Watchmen is very unrepresentative of his work, perhaps he resents its veneration because it’s the closest he’s come to Frank Miller’s shtick. The quintessential Moore is really the impossibly clever allusive universe and absurdist comedy of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

Greg Garrett noted that Moore’s Batman in The Killing Joke was more interested in rehabilitating criminals than any before or since and that the Joker was given a more sympathetic portrayal; hence Moore’s writing is distinctly left-wing, especially when one considers his nemesis Miller’s splenetic fury at that work: “I disagree with everything Moore did in that book….My Joker was more evil than troubled; Alan’s was more troubled than evil”. Watchmen’s author is a left wing lunatic (read some interviews with Moore – full of the right spirit, but barking), so it’s deluded to think it could be done justice by a man who produced a completely faithful adaptation of 300. Snyder’s film works wonderfully, as a comedy, so replete is it with absurd patriotism and macho bombast. The DVD extras confirm Snyder is a right-wing lunatic, because he in all seriousness put it together as a straight down the line action about freedom, not preposterous nonsense – a sort of musical comedy without music. Moore refused to be drawn on Snyder’s approach to Watchmen, pithily dismissing 300: “I didn’t particularly like the book 300. I had a lot of problems with it, and everything I heard or saw about the film tended to increase rather than reduce them: it was racist, it was homophobic, and above all it was sublimely stupid”. Moore you see detests Miller for being a right-wing lunatic. Miller doesn’t do rehabilitation of criminals, or shades of grey, and as his career has progressed his obsession with whorish females and stylised violence has become ever more repetitive, distasteful and shallow, even as Moore’s work has become more playful, intelligent and optimistic. Miller and Snyder mesh in a way that Moore and Snyder patently do not, it is a question of worldview.

Rorschach was meant as a parody of Steve Ditko’s ridiculous early 1970s comics character Mr A, a vigilante who saw the world in strict black and white morality and delivered savage beatings to anyone who strayed. Moore was parodying this insane Manicheanism. An insistence on dividing the world into good or evil, not only denies political reality and the existence of ethical dilemmas it is also (as Ditko soon found out from falling sales) largely devoid of any artistic interest. Moore was not endorsing Mr A/Rorschach’s politics but if Snyder directed 300, which may in time be come to seen as the ultimate cinematic encapsulation of the cocksureness of the Bush zeitgeist, does he not believe in exactly what Moore mocked? Moore gave Rorschach peculiarly phrased dialogue, an aural equivalent would be rather high-pitched – hysterical and psychotic. Synder’s Rorschach growls like Batman, which renders him heroic rather than damaged. Does Snyder regard Rorschach’s interior monologue then not as reprehensible but merely colourfully phrased expressions of a legitimate worldview? Even Ditko when asked about Rorschach replied “Oh yes, he’s like Mr A, but insane”. Perhaps Snyder failed to realise that Nite Owl 2 is obviously Batman…

Moore’s comic is violent but the presentation downplays panels of violence in favour of panels of characters talking to each other indoors. Not exactly blockbuster visuals, so Synder amps up the violence. This elides Moore’s satirical point about the comic medium’s need for violent spectacle, which is even more pertinent to blockbusters. Nite Owl 2 and Silk Spectre’s rescue of people from a fire is intentionally seriously lame, making the sex afterwards even more pointedly pathetic and indicative of some heavy-duty psychosis on Nite Owl’s part. Why then film it with slow-mo heroic firestorms and Hallelujah scored sex? One could argue that Synder has only one style of directing – slow-mo ultra-violence – but when a co-writer/director hits so many wrong notes by applying a ‘previously winning formula’ it points more towards the politics of adaptation: it is possible to be faithful in replicating exact panels of a comic-book but miss the point, it’s called not getting irony.

But why deliberately not watch Watchmen? Here’s why:

CASEY: Snyder’s Watchmen will be rubbish.
LIBERAL: If you haven’t seen it, you can’t criticise it.
(Casey goes to cinema, resumes argument with Liberal)
CASEY: Fine I’ve seen it now and it is witless trash, but then I already knew that. Why the hell does Hollywood keep producing such dross?
(Enter a Hollywood producer)
DELANEY: We only make movies like Watchmen because they’re profitable. If people stopped going to them we wouldn’t make more. You’ve paid to see two of Snyder’s films now so blame yourself for his next one getting financed.
CASEY: Hang on a minute, so I can’t criticise the film without seeing it, but if I see it I just guarantee more of the same. (beat, turns to Liberal) Are you two working together?
LIBERAL: I have no comment on the matter…

And so I will have no part in encouraging Snyder.

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