Thursday, 30 October 2014

Bits and pieces

In retrospect, it's probably not a good idea to talk at length about the novel 'Zorba the Greek', as it generates a lot of internal conflict. The intention had been to do the whole post on it, but what would it ultimately have been about? The novel is essentially about how someone should live his life, manly Greek love, death, and the sadnesses of thinking too much about things. It's almost sacrilegious to take it apart and write about it at length, or even to think about the way the women are treated in that historical context. Oh, ancient peoples, you and your chauvinistic tendencies, be they wrong or be they right. It is a very good and moving novel, however upsetting it might be in the short term.

'Zorba the Greek' forms the first part of a very curious double bill of entertainment as my 'The Mentalist' sixth season catchup session drove past the demise of semi-mythical series antagonist Red John, and it was very strange. For so many seasons, that primal evil person had haunted the show, and the ultimate reveal of his identity proved to be a problem. It was always going to be a problem, as that killer of Patrick Jane's family had been built up to some kind of mystical power thanks to all his achievements, already been putatively killed at the end of the third season, and his ultimate end just seemed a letdown. They did employ the only known method for dealing with such letdowns though: If the box you're going to open is going to have a disappointing content, then stick it inside another more satisfying box and open that one very quickly! It was all worth it, though, as seeing the tortured Jane free of his demons for the first time in the next episode was a grand, grand experience. I've been a nut for this series, and have no idea why.

That double bill essentially formed the backdrop for an interview trip with an unsatisfying end. Another interview passes down the stream, and slightly more desperation builds up in the demented mind of this author. Truly, it was under-prepared for and now the next ones are going to be much harder. That's the life of an academic, although I might not be one for much longer. Odd though it may sound, academia may just be not difficult enough. Where's the challenge after all? And how to avoid the innumerable biscuits? With one more scheduled interview to go, in Loughborough, it's time to review everything that's happened - yes, including the llama incident, which no-one ever lets me forget - and come to some conclusion that makes sense.

Golly, it has been ages since anything made sense, I wonder if that means anything? Of course it would be very easy to jump far too far in the wrong direction as a reaction to a perceived failure, but on the other hand the best way to commit well-intentioned acts of folly is with complete spontaneity and good will.

To the land of folly! Let there be plenty of honey and big hats!


Tuesday, 28 October 2014


Now, that was a very strange few days, a veritable odyssey into the known. Interview trips are always a little like that, especially as I've already visited so many places in Britain at this point. Now, in the aftermath of the trip, it's time to sit back and relax and try to not worry about the consequences of either success or failure. Yes, success can have very scary consequences, as it normally brings change with it. That's why many people try not to succeed, as they're scared of things not being the same. This is what you learn in any kind of counselling, as well as how to indulge in double-speak and waste time talking about the weather.

So, in this case success would involve quickly moving to a distant town, jumping into new teaching duties fairly soon, and doing all the settling in things that get on everyone's nerves, saving lots of money, and trying your best in a short-term position which includes both the lengthy Christmas and Easter vacations. Short-term positions can actually leave you feeling pretty sleazy, as being paid for Christmas and Easter is a massive piece of inadvertent exploitation on your own part. You are in reality being paid a moderately large amount of money for watching television and reading novels for a month, barring unexpected faculty duties or actual dedication to your research. Very sleazy indeed.

A lot of people need to be trained into accepting the possibility of success, instead of turning away from it. When we eventually get to the 'The West Wing' and its second season finale 'Two Cathedrals', this theme will rear its terrible head again. If the rationale for not doing something is that it would be too hard, then how does that affect you and is it a good reason? And how do you tell the difference between something you genuinely don't want to do and something you're very afraid of doing? It's complicated out there in the monumental forests of the soul, and there aren't phantom owls or secretaries to light the way.

Philosophy can crawl all over you on long train journeys with only one or two books to keep you company. On this occasion 'Zorba the Greek' was finally finished and can be reported as definitely troubling. There will be a post about it, but the main thrust of the admittedly excellent novel is all about life, death and conquering your own fears, and it must be troubling indeed for all the timid people out there in the world and right here at this keyboard. It's only troubling, though, and not downright distressing as 'The Glass Bead Game' was. Gadzooks, that novel needed to come with a mental stability warning, and a big 'do not panic' sticker on the final page. It will take a few days for all this philosophy to wear off and for things to get back to normal, unless of course success renders a new and highly disruptive normal.

Success is scary but often necessary, but sadly doesn't often come with a complimentary blanket. Darn.


Sunday, 26 October 2014

Story: Wordspace, XX

(Part I , XIX , XXI)

Mystery's path was set. It led his band of exiles to the exit of the Zone of Meaningless Jargon, they carrying essential supplies like tea and word stems, and it hoping that one of the guardians remained alive to release them on time. For now, War and its cohort were following Mystery, but how would it work once they reached the outside? Club walked dutifully to its left, and Lies to its right, as they toiled around the inside perimeter of the dome.

The exiles were twenty or thirty in number, a few missing despite their long imprisonment and now release. There had apparently been no in-fighting, no chaos, and no giving up in the long years inside. The group reached the exit portal, a blocked off arched opening in the wall of the dome, and set up camp as the rendesvous with the guardian was still some hours away.

War approached Mystery, and took it away to an alcove in the wall, the latter not able to resist its persistent apprehension. The historical belligerent looked it in the eye, seemingly making as assessment. Mystery broke first. "Something's bothering you, isn't it?"

War's voice rumbled when it was thinking hard. "We have been in here a long, long time. Imprisoned for reasons not straightforward and not entirely honest. Some of us here have lost contact with the cores of our meanings, and some we have ourselves imprisoned. If you look amongst you will see not the likes of Hate and Malice. They will have the run of the Zone once they free themselves." War waved a tea bag in the air thoughtfully. "I worry not about this Armageddon who has come from the outside; We shall deal with it. I worry about the Words who put us in this luxurious cage, and what they might do after the Wordspace is saved."

"And you worry about Change."

"We all worry about Change. It was always the worst and the best of the words." A sudden shift. "Tell me, how is my old friend Peace?" War chuckled.

"Peace is just as insufferably dull as he has always been! He seems to adhere to his meaning far more than you do."

"We all conform to our meanings, but in ways with which we are comfortable. I have never prosecuted war for no reason, but Peace in most consistent in its own agenda. Conflict does like to argue senselessly, but I think it's relationship with Consensus drove it out of its mind a little. As you may have noticed, the Destructives are proponents of change and our opposite numbers preservers of the status quo. That makes them somewhat stuffy at times."

"Yes... They do tend to be a bit frustrating at times for those of us in the middle ground... Will they try to put you away again?"

"Perhaps." War nodded its syllables.

"Then we had best prepare for that eventuality. It's not long until they open the portal."

War and Mystery held a summit.

To be continued...

Friday, 24 October 2014

Joie de vivre

Let's be joyous. Why not, after all? The human brain may be trained to nitpick and see the worst in everything but that doesn't mean we have to let it get its way. Let's be merry instead, and embrace the great joy of life! Sometimes it's normal to be happy, but don't spread it around and worry the other humans as they might not be able to handle it. They'll think you're high on carrot cake and call an ambulance.

Oh, it would be nice to be truly that happy. It has happened on occasion, with small epiphanies here and there. There has been some singing in the rain while walking down Penglais Hill, or fantastic bursts of clarity while staring out from Constitution Hill to the sea or at the Beeston weir. There are even good reasons to be happy now, with an interview to come on Tuesday and progress being made in swimming, but somehow the moments don't quite come. It's the curse of the seasonal gloom, as darkness creeps in ever earlier. However, the good news is that we get back to real time this weekend, as the dreaded British Summer Time finally goes away. Real time, oh joy!

Oh, British Summer Time, I had finally forgotten you and stopped remembering two times simultaneously all the time, and now you're gone. I hope you're abolished before next time. On Sunday, we will go swimming on regular time and I won't be out of synch with everyone else any more. Yippee! It's lovely to finally be making progress with front crawl and breathing. Absolutely lovely. It's not as happy as euphoria, but still rather nice. It's also nice to put up fliers advertising 'Oliver Bain, PhD, Mathematician At Large', but perhaps in more of a skewed sense of enjoyment.

There are now only four episodes of 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea' left before the end is reached, and a sense of loss is looming in the distance. It has been a wonderful ride and this fourth season was far better than expected. Oh, cheap and silly show, you have been uplifting. The latest episode featured Frostmen trying to steal the Seaview's reactor to power their spaceship, and it was of course daft. Daft is not necessarily a bad thing. Coming soon on DVD: 'Batman'. It's brilliant that it's finally coming. Joyful, in fact.

Holy Sea Sponges, Batman!


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Film: 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)

What began with 'Bringing Up Baby' ends here, with the diversions into 'Holiday' and 'Woman Of The Year' mere figments of a fancy. 'Box office poison' became a thing of the past as Hepburn engineered her own redemption via the most scathing of self-lampooning. It was already old news for her, in a way, having starred in the play during her cinematic exile. Buying up all the rights, getting Cary Grant and director George Cukor on board, she redeemed her career by the greatest strength of will and engineering. If only a lot more screwball comedies had followed!

'The Philadelphia Story' is on a superficial level just a comedy of class and relationships, albeit one enlivened by the presence of not just Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, but also Jimmy Stewart in one of his numerous breakout roles. Jimmy Stewart broke out so many times, without ever sliding back into any sort of oblivion. The man was a phenomenon. In actuality, this is a film rich in metatextuality, as it explores the inherent contradictions in the life of the icily cold, rich socialite Tracy Lord as she prepares to marry and engage in the life of love. Can she manage love, is her coldness a permanent state, will anyone love her rather than worship her, and what does it mean that in the days before her wedding both her first husband and a visiting journalist become intimately involved in her life?

Putting the metatextuality of Lord/Hepburn parallels aside, noting only that she effectively deconstructs her whole screen persona in this role and then rebuilds it just so that everyone can see it anew and different, this film is a fascinating screwball/romantic comedy. Screwball because the culture clash between Hepburn's Tracy Lord and Stewart's Mike Connor is iconic as the cinematic toff butts heads with the iconic everyman, and sparks as it couldn't with any other combination of actors, and romantic as Tracy is all set to marry the wrong man until Grant's suave and unbearably right Dexter Haven comes back to throw a spanner in the works. I spoke prematurely, as 'Holiday' may have been a diversion for the blog, but it was the greatest practice run for this monument to small-scale audacity. It's truly remarkable that 'The Philadelphia Story' isn't spoken about all the time, rendering as it does almost every other romantic comedy completely redundant.

Of course there are flaws, which I shall gloss over thanks to the licence I inherit as web-logger in residence, but they are mainly represented by the somewhat clunky exposition and setup of Tracy's family, who are never outright weak but also never strong presences. To be fair, who could be when they're sharing a film with Those Three? Ruth Hussey does well as Jimmy Stewart's attendant photographer and would-be love interest though. A second flaw would be the fairly obvious 'wrong man' aspects of Tracy's fiance George, who never at any point is a credible husband, even before the advents of Grant or Stewart's characters. Thinking about Jimmy Stewart, he takes the second lead outright while Cary Grant really doesn't get much to do, and if memory serves did it partly as a favour and got top billing as part of the bargain. Stewart excels as Mike's character arc directly mirrors Hepburn's. While Tracy Lord struggles to get down from her pedestal and become part of love, Connor is struggling to get out from under his pile of both class prejudices and artistic scruples. Their very odd relationship underpins the whole film, revolving around the Lords' swimming pool.

There's not much else to say without spoiling the whole thing, and it shouldn't be spoiled. It's the ultimate romantic comedy with screwball included for no extra price. There's dialogue to spare, and the staginess of the adaptation and production is eclipsed totally by the star power of Those Three. Can you really not check out the unique pairing of Cary Grant and James Stewart? Even if you don't like Katherine Hepburn? You'd be mad.

Here endeth Hepburn mini-season. 'His Girl Friday' will follow, to close the Cary Grant / Howard Hawks double also begun by 'Bringing Up Baby'.


Monday, 20 October 2014

The Balancing Act

Buckle up, as it's going to be a rough ride. Over the next week I have to prepare for a suddenly sprung interview in Portsmouth, apply for several jobs, stare blankly at the walls, resist finally watching the newly released DVDs of the sixth season of 'The Mentalist', incorporate the finally returned comments into my paper, punch out some three dimensional calculations, and remain sane in the process.

'Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House' is playing as I write, and it proving to be mildly entertaining in its comedy, but not particularly noteworthy. Cary Grant is as good as always, of course, but not much is really happening. It's all a bit bland. At least it's alleviating the nerves a little. Isn't life wonderful in its seemingly random piles of events, slapping down from on high after weeks of dullness and boredom? It can not possibly be any stranger.

Gosh, another interview, how to get through yet another interview and succeed this time?! It's possible, it must be possible. It has to be possible to get through this post too, even though I am so deeply sleepy as to be barely coherent at all. Still, what could possibly go wrong? Words, words, words, don't fail us all now. No, nothing's happening, not even a joke. It's probably partly the effect of trying to condense the first phase of 'Triangles' into a single piece.

Hmmm, this new world of global health crises and madnesses, it's got its own balancing act to keep going, and we're the ones set to fall off it goes wrong. Let's hope it keeps going for a while longer.


Note: Now only five episodes of 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea' left to watch. Today's was 'Savage Jungle', and it was rather amazing in its sheer idiotic creativity. The submarine Seaview was overtaken by jungle and invaded by guerrilla aliens. How bizarre and fascinating it was. Being the 'dumb science-fiction show' really does let the writers have liberty in many crazy ways. A submarine overtaken by jungle! Amazing!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Film: 'Woman of the Year' (1942)

My Katherine Hepburn mini-season has come to this, a spectacular personal fail. It shouldn't be true, as this is the movie that paired Hepburn with her long-time love Spencer Tracy for the first time, but it just doesn't work when compared to the other three movies I've been considering: 'Bringing Up Baby', 'Holiday' and 'The Philadelphia Story'. All of those play with the Hepburn persona and contradiction well, but this is a heavy-handed mess, and one which is just too scared of the problem it's trying to address. Also, It's too far to the dramatic end of the comedy drama spectrum to really fit into the movies I find interesting and to make its point lightly and effectively.

Digging into the story: 'Woman of the Year' is about the high flying and influential journalist Tess Harding, as played by Hepburn, and the rougher-hewn sports reporter and biographer Sam Craig, as personified by Tracy, and their rapidly matured relationship and marriage. That marriage is quickly threatened by the inability of Tess to give up her fast-living and important lifestyle to be a wife, and Sam's similar inability to understand how to deal with such a woman who spends her life dealing with ambassadors, refugees and statesmen galore. It's a frustrating story, as it almost brings Tess to the point of abandoning everything to be a housewife or to lose her marriage, before Sam brings her to an understanding of the existence of some half-way compromise in the last half-minute of the film. The problem is that it's not clear that Sam himself is compromising at all, or that he would have helped her in any way, or even left her in a confused and crippled state of mind for the rest of her life if they hadn't reconciled. No number of comedic popping toasters or interesting characters can fix that, and for that reason, I just can't like 'Woman of the Year', although there are some interesting aspects.

One of the great things about the movie is the radiant love affair between the two leads. If there has ever been screen chemistry then these two had it. It's easy to believe they would spend the rest of their paired lifetime together, even under the burden of Tracy's alcoholism! As a consequence their rapid courting, engagement, and marriage works perfectly, as it would in a light romantic comedy. That marriage is the point, however, at which the drama kicks in and it all becomes tricky. In this contemporary world of equality and feminism it seems strange, and then if you put yourself back into their time period it seems particularly ham-fisted, with only a few brief seconds at the end where you wonder that maybe the film had the best interests of Tess at heart the whole time but had no intention of showing it for even a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. Could those two actually function together at all? Could Tess go through with it and not be stifled to the point of heartbreak?

Is it possible that I have missed some incredibly obvious point, or that a tonal shift eluded me? When a movie is in the company of 'The Philadelphia Story' it has to be incredibly good or die in the comparison, and this one doesn't do well. At least Hepburn and Tracy were both good, and the supporting cast solid. The direction can be mixed in with the confused motivation of the movie but was good in at least the execution of the story. Was it perhaps a landmark at the time? It made it into the American Film Registry so it must have broken some ground. Hence the value of 'Woman of the Year' may not have been in being a great movie itself, but in breaking enough ground for other movies to go further and do more interesting and less contradictory things. That's probably enough.

Next, and finally: 'The Philadelphia Story'!