Tag Archives: George Eliot

In The Heart of The Sea – a script adrift that ignores the classic story structure

InTheHeartOfTheSeaI really wanted to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, because JJ Abrams makes great action films – Mission Impossible III is one of my favourite movies – but it’s all a case of balancing going early to Star Wars and facing a cinema overcrowded with people who don’t normally go to the cinema and who think they are watching TV… against going late in the run and risk reading or hearing ‘spoilers’.

So, instead, last night, I went to see In The Heart of The Sea because I could not really believe that director Ron Howard could make a bad film and to try to figure out why the reviews/box office returns have not been good.

Even my local cinema, which you might have thought would try to encourage people to see it, billed In The Heart of The Sea as “Watchable but doldrum-prone”.

I have tended to avoid reviews in this blog, but…

…having sat through In The Heart of The Sea, this could be Ron Howard’s Romola.

George Eliot was/is arguably the greatest writer in the English language. Reading Middlemarch is almost enough to persuade any aspiring novelist to give up, because you could never write anything better.

She is a great writer.

But having to plough through her novel Romola is like eating sawdust. It recreates life in 15th century Florence so exactly, in such highly, over-researched, dreary detail that all life is sucked out of the characters, the plot, everything.

No-one is interested in detail at the expense of a single, unified central plot.

In The Heart of The Sea is much the same. It is about the true incident that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick and, I imagine, it is a fine recreation of whaling and of 19th century Nantucket but it is all detail to the detriment of actual interest.

My trite, superficial eight-word review would be: It is a fishy tale with no hook.

The classic story structure is to present an unresolved problem or mystery at the beginning. The story then explores the problem and attempts to resolve it. And the end has a resolution to the problem or mystery established at the start.

Basically, In The Heart of The Sea has no central hook at the start and is low on any single ongoing plot because it flounders around.  Every word and phrase has to push the plot forward, not just add colour and atmosphere. The movie is filled with atmosphere – visual and verbal – but no strong ongoing hooks, no single central thrust – and the whale does not appear until an hour in.

Presumably the elevator pitch was: The real story of Moby-Dick.

But there are two problems here.

One is that the story is bookended by Herman Melville, years later, being told the original story by a survivor.

Framing devices are always risky things in movies – especially when they are not simple bookends with a top-and-tail addition. When, as here, it is not just a framing/flashback device but constantly interrupts the narrative flow and is partly used to narrate the story, you are in trouble. If you have to have one person sitting at a desk narrating the story or filling in the gaps to another person sitting at the same desk, telling him what happened next, then the basic concept of your script is not strong enough and any rising flow your ‘adventure’ film has is completely buggered.

The second problem is that, in the original book and the original 1956 film, Moby-Dick is the monster, the villain.

But, nowadays, hunting whales is not a heroic act. There is no sympathy for the whalers. The audience’s sympathy goes to the hunted whales. So the human protagonists are inherently unsympathetic. The monster/villain is not a monster/villain. There is no ‘evil’ antagonist and no protagonist to identify with. The villain is not a villain; the hero is not heroic.

It is a bit like being expected to sympathise and empathise and identify with a group of men hunting down, harpooning and cutting up a kitten or a group of small children.

Like George Eliot with Romola, Ron Howard seems to have been mesmerised by the complication and difficulties of production.

Immensely detailed.

No audience sympathy or involvement.

No heroes or villain or clear central hook.

Dead in the water.

Abandon hope all ye who abandon meticulously-plotted story structure.

An awful lot of detail In The Heart of the Sea

An awful lot of detail disguising a fundamentally weak script structure

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Toothache and George Eliot, writer of the best novel in the English language

I just can’t be bothered to write a blog this morning. I have not recovered from what, in effect, was my day trip to Kiev – despite the fact I slept for a lot of that.

And I have to go to the dentist at midday today.

He is treating me for problems with a top right tooth and a bottom right tooth.

And, six days ago, an entire filling fell out a top left tooth. No immediate pain, but I could not get an appointment until today and went to Kiev with six different types of painkiller and a temporary tooth filling kit.

Now I just want to go to sleep before seeing the dentist.

GeorgeEliot_WikipediaSo this blog is just going to be quotes from my favourite author before I stopped being able to read books after being hit by an articulated truck in 1991 – Look, you should have read my previous blogs. Now you will have to wait for the book of the blogs.

The writer Julian Barnes called Middlemarch by George Eliotprobably the greatest English novel”. Virginia Woolf said it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” and Martin Amis called George Eliot “the greatest writer in the English language”.

All three are right.

GEORGE ELIOT
RIP Mary Ann Evans
born 22nd November 1819
died 22nd December 1880

So it goes.

  • I like trying to get pregnant. I’m not so sure about childbirth.
  • Different taste in jokes is a great strain on the affections.
  • It is never too late to be what you might have been.
  • Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.
  • Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.
  • The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.
  • Our deeds still travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are.
  • Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact.

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The best-written paragraph in English was written by a shortsighted Irishman

James Joyce in 1915

James Joyce, shortsighted man, in 1915, the year after Dubliners was published

When I was young, I wanted to be a writer.

I took my early jobs because they would make me write a lot, on the principle that quantity might make me able to write as well as George Orwell and I might be able to write in any style on demand.

George Orwell was not a great novelist, but he was a brilliant communicator of ideas.

I would like to have thought I could write a book as well as George Eliot but, like several others, once I read Middlemarch, I knew this was not even a  distant possibility.

As for style, when I was young, I might even have hoped that one day I could write something as perfect as the final paragraph of The Dead, the last story in James Joyce’s book Dubliners. It is arguably the most perfectly-written paragraph in English literature… written, as it happens, by an Irishman.

The final paragraph always reminds me of Christmas. These are the final three paragraphs of The Dead:

_____________________________________________________________

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

_____________________________________________________________

So it goes.

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The Welsh language is just plain silly and is a clear sign of national insecurity

So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.

If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.

What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.

I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.

I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.

The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.

“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.

“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”

“London,” he said.

I did not get the job.

Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.

As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.

At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.

At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.

In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.

It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.

“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.

“No idea,” he told me.

We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.

It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.

It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.

One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.

“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.

By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.

Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.

My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.

So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.

But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.

Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.

But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.

It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.

My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.

Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.

The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.

Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.

English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel –  S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.

While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.

Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.

Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.

Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.

What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?

Dim sense.

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I am surrounded by people with newly-born pigs’ arses for faces

At school, my English teacher once talked to our class about the poet W.H. Auden.

“Just look at the lines on his face!” he told us in awe. “All that character! All that experience!”

Sometimes, for a while after that – still in my early teens – I would sit in a tube train on my way home after school and look at my reflection in the window opposite and raise my eyebrows to try to create wrinkles on my forehead… to absolutely no effect at all. I could not insert lasting wrinkles in my forehead.

I was very disappointed.

Of course, back then, I was too young to realise most lines are caused by emotional strain or pain and one single incident of strain or pain doth not a single line cause – it’s pain and strain repeated and repeated in various incidents in your life at different times that cause a single line and multiple lines are the result of… well, you know what I mean.

I was and am a great admirer of the writer Mary Anne Evans aka George Eliot.

That godawful writer Virginia Woolf once said she thought George Eliot’s Middlemarch was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

In my opinion, it’s the greatest novel ever written in the English language.

So at least Virginia Woolf wrote something sensible on that one occasion.

George Eliot had a brilliant mind and somewhere along the way, I think in Middlemarch, she said something to the effect that suffering was never wasted because it led to sympathy for other people’s suffering. That’s not altogether true, as it can also lead to extreme callousness, of course.

Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi had lines on their forehead and they were perhaps just a wee bit unsympathetic to others’ suffering. I’m not sure whether to talk of Colonel Gaddafi in the present tense or the past tense. He’s present at the moment but this blog may soon be over-taken by events.

Anyway… we are talking in generalities here and, as always, I may be talking bollocks.

But I have always been wary of women over a certain age – basically over their mid-twenties – with no lines at all on their forehead, because it means they have had little experience of the shittyness that is life and therefore no understanding of or sympathy with other people’s problems. So they are even more dangerous than other women. (Men, as we know, are all shits without exception, so that distinction does not exist in the male of the species.)

A friend of mine has had lines on her forehead for as long as I have known her. I met her when she was 21; she is now 56. Some time, I guess when she was in her thirties, she told me she wished she hadn’t got them. I told her, perfectly truthfully, that I had always found them attractive because they showed she had a genuine, real, likable character; she wasn’t some mindless bimbo with a face like a newly-born pig’s arse.

Perhaps I could have chosen my words better. She didn’t take this compliment well.

But we are still friends.

Now I have lines on my forehead, my face and around my eyes – I even have old man clefts at the sides of my mouth so sometimes I leak spittle out onto the pillow when I sleep. It is not the most endearing of traits. I can’t get rid of the lines nor the old man clefts. But I don’t want to.

Well, maybe oozing spittle is not really ideal. Maybe I wish I didn’t do that.

But it’s an age thing.

When I was younger, the Carry On actor Sid James seemed to have an incredibly lined face. Now when I see his face on TV or in movies, I see personality engraved in his face, not lines.

To me, schoolchildren, who are all character-filled individuals to each other, now look like Invasion of The Body Snatchers type pod clones. They all look the same to me – like babies with newly-born pig’s arse faces.

A friend of mine (not the one previously mentioned) tells me that, in her teens and early twenties, she used to stick strips of Sellotape onto her forehead overnight to stop wrinkles forming.

“Once, I forgot to take them off,” she told me yesterday. “I was opening the front door before i remembered. I don’t know what people would have thought.”

A couple of days ago, a comedian’s wife told me that, in her teens, she used to sleep with a clothes peg on the bridge of her nose because she thought it was too wide. She too told me: “I cared what people thought about the way I looked.”

There’s not a lot I can do about the way I look and, about ten years ago, I gave up caring what people think of me in general. Not that I much cared what people thought about me before then anyway.

It was not and is not a positive character trait and it never proved to be any help in career advancement.

But scum always rises and the people with no lines on their forehead – the shallow bullshit artists – very often triumph.

The comic Martin Soan – admittedly drunk at the time – told me last week that my blogs sometimes show a cynical streak.

Streak? Streak? I would have said it was a six-lane super-highway.

I am surrounded by people with newly-born pigs’ arses for faces!

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