High Fidelity

Whilst reading Victor Hugo’s highly acclaimed 1862 novel Les Miserables, it occurred to me that it was not very much like the film version I had seen starring Russel Crowe, Ann Hathaway and Hugh Jackman. There was much about the film that I found quite confusing, and in so far as it was trying to tell me a story, I was not able to follow the story through the film. Much of what the characters did seemed divorced from anything that had gone before and appeared to have no influence on anything that followed.

There was, for example, an official-type person called Javert who for some reason had taken it upon himself to follow the Hugh Jackman character around the country to wreak revenge upon him. But the film seemed to assume that the viewer already knew why this was happening and made no attempt to clarify this for people who, like me, were new to the story. This had the effect that Javert came across as a mean spirited bully who was using his official status and position for personal motives and Jean Valjean was not going to be allowed to forget that he was an ex-convict.

Reading the book gives a completely different interpretation of these two men, gives a much better account of the friction between them and explains their motives and actions in a much more rounded and plausible way. Part of this is because a novel can take its time to provide deep background information that puts other events into meaningful context. In Les Miserables, the novel, we therefore get forty pages on the Battle of Waterloo specifically so that a dying man can meet a camp-follower stripping valuables from the countless dead of the battle. This is an important scene in the novel and motivates the actions of a central character almost to the end of the story, but neither the battle nor any of the three characters involved in this plot development so much as appears in the film version of the story.

It should not come as any great surprise that a film is not the same as a book but I think it worth spending a minute to think about why they are not the same, and why it is that some films seem to be exactly like the book while other films seem to bear very little similarity to the book upon which they claim to be based.

I should perhaps clarify that when I say book I almost always mean novel. There are films based on non-fiction books; Unbroken (2014) based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography of Louis Zamperini being a notable recent example, but films do tend to be based on novels, which are works of fiction. It becomes useful, therefore, to think about what fiction is so that we can in turn see what a novel is and why it is that despite story telling being something humans have done since they invented fire in order to sit round the fire and tell stories to each other, the novel did not appear until the fourteenth century. The late appearance of the novel suggests that a novel is not simply a way of telling a story, it must be doing something else too.

Chaucer told stories. He told a whole bunch of stories that he wove together into a frame story of a group of people walking from London to Canterbury and back. As they walked they told stories to pass the time and we read this hugely popular work today under the title, Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s stories were told for amusement, merely because they were fine stories to tell, and crucially, he told them in verse. Chaucer wrote poetry and translations of them into a more comprehensible form of English for the benefit of modern readers vary in their adherence to these poetic roots but they are still great stories, an impressive work of fiction, but not a novel.

After the poetry of Chaucer we encounter the medieval Romance, those stories of brave knights who went off on epic adventures and fought in single combat to win the love of their lady. Chaucer’s characters had a purpose, they were going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and these knights have a purpose too. They want to win the love of their lady, but for these guys love is not, despite the name of the genre, romantic love, but a special form of an idealised esteem. In these stories the knights are all doing the same thing for the same reason with the same ultimate objective so there is no need to explain why they are doing these things. A knight is a man who does these things, they are knights and therefore they do these things. They are not individuals with personality and character, they are just knights doing whatever it is knights do.

The difference between a story like those told by Chaucer or a knight’s romance and a novel such as Pride and Prejudice (1811), is that the novel provides the reader with an insight into the inner life of its characters. Chaucer tells us what a man wore and how he earned his living and the things that he did but Jane Austen tells us why her characters did these things, what they hoped to get out of their actions and how their hopes and fears affected what they did and how they responded to their interactions with the other characters.

A novel, then, is a story with this extra layer of insight woven into it. A layer of insight into the inner life of multiple characters that it is extremely difficult to represent within the time frame imposed by the medium of film. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is twelve hundred pages and took me almost two weeks to read. A film lasting three hours is considered exceptionally long and half that time is more usual. Within that time frame the things that happen get preference over how characters feel about those events so that film viewers are far more likely to see the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre as a grim portrayal of violent death than they are to see a depiction of the logical reasoning behind the prohibition on sales of liquor that was the underlying cause of the massacre.

For this reason, much of what makes a novel into a novel is absent from film and is in any event almost impossible to depict in a visual medium. In Goodfellas (1990) we see Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) walk across the street to the cab stand where he gradually becomes a gang member and we have his voice over telling us how he felt about that and why he crossed the street in the first place. But this technique, the voice over, is just about the only way that a film can depict the inner life of a character in real time.

Take, for example, Dances With Wolves (1990) based on the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Blake. The film is an extremely accurate depiction of the novel, it is not just a film based on the novel it is the novel brought to the screen. Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) reads to us in voice over notes taken from his diary, a book that also appears in the film and at one point is seen being torn up for toilet paper and then floating down a river. Or maybe, Snow Falling on Cedars (1999), a Scott Hicks film based on the 1994 novel of the same name by David Guterson. Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) is a newspaper reporter recounting the story of his transgressive relationship with a Japanese American girl and how this affects their lives and his reporting of a later trial. The reporter gives us voice over to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of how two cultures collide in a small town. Or maybe Cold Mountain (2003), an Anthony Minghella film set during the American Civil War and based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Charles Frazier. In this film both Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) and W. P. Inman (Jude Law) provide voice over at different times to give us their perspective on the journeys they are taking towards each other.

Which makes it interesting to think about those films that are based upon novels but where such techniques are not necessary. Can you think of a film based on a novel, that is an accurate depiction of that novel, but that does not require this technique to achieve the desired effect? I guess your answer would depend to some extent on how you define the term, “accurate depiction of the novel,” and how much of the novel can be excluded whilst remaining true to its source.

Also of relevance would be the extent to which you think a film should aspire to being an accurate depiction of its source material. My own view is that a film need not aspire to this but can have its own aims and ambitions so that it stands alone as a work of art in its own right rather than merely reflecting the story being told in the novel. Those crucial words in the credits, “based upon the novel by…” can mean exactly what they say, based upon the novel, but high fidelity to it is not, in my opinion, necessarily required.

An excellent recent example would be the Todd Haynes film Carol (2015) starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (1951). It is a visually stunning film in which the viewer is never in any doubt about what the two central characters are thinking without any annoying voice over, and other than a minor change of career for the younger woman it is uncommonly true to its source. Whether this is due to the quality of Highsmith’s original material, Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay or Todd Haynes direction would be difficult to pinpoint but it is a remarkable achievement by everyone concerned.

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We Need to Talk About Sex

Words have meanings. This is how we communicate with each other. The words I use have specific meanings and I use the words that communicate the ideas I am trying to talk about. When I say apple you know what an apple is and you might picture an apple or remember eating an apple and the word conveys to you the idea of the appleness of an apple. When you ask me to buy you some apples I come back home with a bag full of stuff and in due course we have an apple pie on the kitchen table which is what you wanted when you asked for apples. Words have meanings.

Unfortunately, language also evolves. This means that the meanings of words change over time. Take the word gambrel, for example. It derives from the French word gamberel which comes from gambier meaning a forked stick. Its original use was in the forestry trades where sheep hurdles, shepherds crooks, and walking sticks are made but over time it came to be applied to other things bent in the same way and in due course became the name for a joint in the upper hind leg of a horse. It then travelled to the United States where it was applied to roofs with two different slopes. At the bottom the roof has a steep slope and then the roofline bends like the stick and the slope becomes more shallow. Such a roof is referred to as a gambrel roof and the term can be found quite liberally sprinkled through the short stories of H. P. Lovecraft.

Then he went back to Arkham, the terrible witch-haunted old town of his forefathers in New England, and had experiences in the dark, amidst the hoary willows and tottering gambrel roofs, which made him seal for ever certain pages in the diary of a wild-minded ancestor.” The Silver Key (1929), H. P. Lovecraft

Language evolves, which means that anyone can use the, “language evolves” defence to cover up their mistakes. Any infelicitous, incorrect or inappropriate useage can be defended in this way and “language evolves” becomes a hedge behind which anyone can hide, whether they deserve the protection of the hedge or not. Which is why we need to talk about sex.

Sex, as a noun, is a binary distinction between male and female. For some species to reproduce requires a male and a female to interact in some way to create offspring. They might lay eggs as do both fish and birds or they might produce live young as do both bears and humans, among many other species. But the start of this process is one individual of each sex getting together to mate. The mating process itself uses sex as a verb.

In grammar, the word gender is applied to the labelling of objects as either male or female. In some languages, but not in English, pencils and chairs have gender. They are either male or female objects. The French say le pencil or la chair according to the gender of the object. In German they use der, die and das in the same way and in Spanish they use el and la. But this is a randomly applied label that has nothing to do with what the object actually is. There is no sense in which a pencil is either male or female, a chair does not have male or female characteristics, it has simply been decided, by fiat, that each noun will have a pre-determined gender and the rules of such languages then label the objects in the appropriate way. Here, gender is a grammatical category that has nothing to do with sex, or biology, or reproduction, or with anything really. It is just a construct.

It is also worth noting that it is a construct that has nothing to do with the English language and has exactly zero influence on the way English is used written or spoken.

Outside of grammatical constructs, gender, as a noun, insofar as it applies to individuals of a species, is a label for a position on a spectrum. It is not a binary distinction but one with infinite variety. As it applies to humans it is a self-assigned label for a person’s sexual identity.

It is used for the relatively recent discovery that people do not all fit into two big boxes. A person can be born with male sexual organs but not identify as a male. A person can have female sexual organs but not identify as a female, or not identify that way all the time, or for all time. A person is free to choose who they are and to identify themselves in any way they choose. And they are free to change their mind about this and to identify differently to different groups at different times. It’s your body, so you get to choose who you are.

This means that I know what my gender is and you know what your gender is but neither of us can tell what gender the other is just by looking. The only way for me to know what gender you are is to ask you.

It also means that there are many more than two gender. I don’t know how many gender there are. There are as many as are required. If there isn’t a box into which you fit then you are free to invent your own box, including the box labelled, “I identify as being gender neutral,” and if you end up being the only person in your self-assigned box then that’s fine too.

Our language has evolved to deal with this idea so that not everyone has to subscribe to the old-fashioned idea of being either male or female or of using male or female pronouns. You don’t have to be a he or a she but you can choose your own pronoun and if you want to be known as, “they” then you can. You can also choose something else if you want. It’s your choice. Individual autonomy is the new Model T Ford. Where, once upon a time, everyone, supposedly, aspired to owning a Model T Ford, we can now all aspire to exercising autonomy over our own body and identity.

Feminists, however, have not embraced the word gender in quite the same way. They use the word gender as a synonym for sex. Feminists talk about the, “gender pay gap,” when they mean the apparent difference between what men and women get paid. They talk about, “gender equality,” and they unfortunately make comments about, “gender stereotypes” where, in each case, they are using gender to make a binary distinction between the male and female sexes. This happens because, basically, they are too coy to say sex when that is exactly what they mean. If you mean sex then say sex. If you are making a binary distinction between men on the one hand and women on the other then you mean sex and should say so.

This habit has some consequences and the reason I mention feminists is because those consequences are more important in feminist debates than they are in, say, completing official forms. You will have come across a form that asks you to enter your “gender” and then provides you with only two options, male or female, and in such situations it is obvious what is meant. It is disappointing that they couldn’t say what they mean but we do at least understand what is meant. When a feminist uses the word gender instead of sex it has more serious consequences because feminism is supposed to be about equality. When a feminist uses “gender,” as a coy synonym for sex what she is doing is erasing the distinction between gender that true equality and respect for individual autonomy requires, and then lumping all those born with bodies similar to hers into the single category she calls, “women.” She is, ironically, denying anyone who looks like a woman the right to choose who they really are. She is essentially saying that her definition of what equality looks like is the only one that applies and that people are not allowed to choose their gender for themselves.

Feminism does have a point, and there are still wars to be fought over the ways in which society discriminates against various groups of people, but feminists are not doing themselves any favours by denying others their right to define themselves and pick the battles they want to fight. Feminists should give, “gender,” back to those who need it and use, “sex,” instead. Words have meanings, and if you start by saying what you mean then people might eventually take you to mean what you say.

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War and Peace

The man at my local bookshop asked me what I was reading and when I said, “War and Peace” his eyes lit up. “Oh,” he said, “I’ve always wanted to read that, what’s it about?”

At the time I was only half way through the novel and didn’t feel ready to offer an opinion but threw out a one-liner based on what I had read so far. “Chance is not a synonym for genius,” I said.

Having finished the book I now know that as a pithy one-liner that is not actually a bad stab at summarising the book, but War and Peace is thirteen hundred pages long so is obviously about more than just that. War, Tolstoy tells us, seems at some level to be a highly organised human endeavour. The prevailing wisdom is that we have the art and science of warfare which together dictate the extent of the possible, from which plans are developed at the highest level. We then have a chain of command from the general at the top threading through armies and divisions and regiments and companies all the way down to individual foot soldiers on the front line, and at every link in this chain well-trained officers and men obey orders in a highly disciplined manner to execute to a degree of precision unrivaled in human civilisation the strategic plans devised by the clever person in charge, from which the desired tactical objectives are achieved. Which is, obviously, all entirely due to the sheer genius of the Commander-in-Chief.

The only trouble is that warfare, as War and Peace amply demonstrates, is not like that at all. Who is meant to go where and what they are supposed to do when they get there is, admittedly, sometimes planned out to a surprisingly high degree, but what actually happens on the ground in the midst of battle is, by comparison, utter chaos. Tolstoy demonstrates this with, among other things, a highly detailed account of the Battle of Borodino, an important battle during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, a battle so important that the two sides concerned cannot even agree on which date it was fought much less who won. The French think it was fought on the 7th September and that they won because they held the field at the close of play, but the Russians think it was held on the 26th August and that they won because they were not defeated.

At one point in the novel Napoleon is depicted on a hill overlooking Moscow requesting a special escort for his decisive advance on the city while his advisors are anxiously conferring as to which of them should advise his Excellency that the Russians have withdrawn and French soldiers have already entered the city. It then becomes a little problematic to argue that the city was taken in accordance with the plans detailed by the military genius who knew nothing about it.

And, big clue in the title of the novel, War and Peace also says that it is not just war that is like this, but that life, in general, is like this. History, Tolstoy argues, is not an ordered sequence of events each consequent upon some prior event so that for any given event we can look back and find its cause and the reasons why it happened. No, history is really the simultaneous occurrence of numberless unplanned acts by people acting entirely at random in, they hope, their own interests. Which will no doubt come as something of a surprise to those people who think they are running our country.

Having got that far I asked myself why it was that in order to make this point Tolstoy concentrated on the upper classes? In telling his story he stuffs it full of princes, counts and the landed aristocracy and their wives, daughters and mothers but there is very little of the ordinary citizenry, what we today might think of as the ninety-nine percent. There are footmen, grooms, ostlers, serfs, peasants and sutlers in War and Peace but they are largely there to serve their masters, to be grooms and footmen and so on rather than to be people with hopes and dreams and desires. Why is it, I asked, that these people are not cited as examples of the populace thinking their lives are occurring in accordance with some highly organised scheme of cause and effect?

The answer, of course, is complex, and I will mention just two reasons. The first is that these people already feel as though their lives are not under their control. The serfs and peasants of Tolstoy’s Russia are not in control of their lives but are merely actors in a drama being directed by their masters. An important scene where Princess Mary Bolkonskaya tries to give the serfs some grain to relieve their suffering emphasises this point. The grain is a reserve known as Landlord’s Corn, and the serfs have an existential fear that if the Landlord’s Corn is given away there will no longer be a landlord and they will of necessity cease to have a home. They need there to be a landlord for them to serve and Princess Mary cannot simply end the play by benevolently giving away her corn.

The second reason is that even the aristocracy, the ones who think they are in control, are not in control of their own lives anyway. They have this rather quaint idea, not unique to the Russian nobility but shared with the aristocracy of many nations, that they are participating in some kind of developmental breeding programme where they choose partners for their sons and daughters based on their heritage, their education, their dowry, their degree of social integration and acceptance and on their manners and courtly demeanour. They think the fact that their daughter can sing light opera and play the piano means that she will be the perfect bride for a properly educated noble man who appreciates these values. But the reality of life as it is lived rather than as it is dreamed about is that love knows not the meaning of piano playing or manners or adherence to the constantly changing rules of fashion. Men and women fall in love at the drop of a hat, when two eyes meet and detect that indefinable spark of recognition that lights the fires within.

It is to demonstrate this point that in the novel Pierre, Count Bezukhov, marries the beautiful, talented, rich but exceedingly ill-matched Princess Helene Kuragina and spends virtually the rest of the novel regretting it. That his marriage was made precisely in accordance with “the rules,” but turns out to be an utter failure makes Tolstoy’s overall point that there are no rules. And since there are no rules life cannot therefore be a game played in accordance with them. Life, Tolstoy says, all of life, not just the War part but the Peace part too, is not a game being conducted according to some set of rules comprehensible to the enlightened few, it is a continuous sequence of random events.

Tolstoy wrote this novel one hundred and forty years ago, and it is widely considered to be one of the finest works of literature, it regularly appears on “Best of…” lists or the top 100 novels lists or those lists of books you absolutely have to read before you die. Which does kind of beg the question: Why don’t we believe him? If it is such a fine piece of literature that proffers so clear, compelling and comprehensible a point, why is it that we still tend to believe that we are in control of our lives? How can we simultaneously believe that War and Peace is both brilliant and wrong?

That, my friends, is why we have Dostoevsky, and Hardy, and Trollope and Hemingway and Balzac and Flaubert, to name just a few. If we already understood the answer to that we wouldn’t read fiction. If we knew the answer to that we wouldn’t need Madame Bovary, The Idiot, Far From the Madding Crowd, For Whom the Bell Tolls or any of the other thousands of novels that deal with the utter perplexity of life and the contradictory nature of us mere humans. We believe in logical rational thinking but allow our actions to be driven by our emotions, we believe one thing and do another, we change our minds and follow our noses and this makes us unpredictable and inexplicable and it is these very qualities that make us infinitely interesting as the subjects of fiction. If we weren’t like this we wouldn’t want to read or write about us.

If Alex Garland‘s film Ex Machina (2015) starring Alicia Vikander as an artificially intelligent robot ever came true, the robot us would not sit round fires telling our stories or peck away at keyboards writing novels about ourselves, we would not sit night after night at kitchen tables composing poetry or arise in the pre-dawn hush to write songs of hope and desire because these are the creative outputs of what it means to be human. In a utopia stuffed full of robots there would be no art and that explains why we need both war and peace and also why we need War and Peace. Life without them would be an intolerable perfection.

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The Unexamined Life

Everything has to have an origin story. For some reason, it doesn’t matter very much whether the story makes any sense or whether a nine-year-old girl would be fooled by it, what matters is that there is a story to be told. The tobacco factory in Durham, North Carolina has an origin story, according to which, W. T. Blackwell, the founder of the factory, thought that Colman’s mustard was made in Durham, England, so he borrowed the bull from their label and attached it to his tobacco factory and called it Bull Durham Tobacco.

Sports teams in Durham, and for the purposes of this article that means baseball teams, minor league baseball teams, then took the name and are known as the Durham Bulls. A film, ostensibly about just such a team, was then called Bull Durham (1988).

In the film, “Crash” Davies (Kevin Costner) is a minor league baseball player and has been for a long time. He once got to the majors but it didn’t last long and he is conflicted between pining wistfully for his few moments in the spotlight whilst being resigned to the certainty that his baseball life will end largely un-noticed in the minor leagues. The one thing he thinks he can do is prevent other players from making the same mistakes he made, which is why he is signed to the Durham Bulls to mentor their star pitcher, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) who has a million dollar arm and a five cent brain. Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who preaches at the church of baseball, comes between them, and the film is as much about the boys competing with each other for her attention as it is about them cooperating with each other to get “Nuke” to the major league.

Towards the end of the film Crash, out on the road with the team, hits his 247th minor league home run, a record that goes largely un-noticed, exactly as Crash expected. At home in Durham, Annie tells us in a voice over that she knew the moment he hit it, though the sports papers never mentioned it. Then she quotes a line of poetry, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air. Thomas Grey,” she says.

This is an accurate quote from Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Grey, published in 1751. It is an elegy in name only, more similar to an ode, it embodies a meditation on death, on the unknown lives of those buried in the churchyard, and thoughts on how we each approach death and are remembered after death. In this context Annie means to draw attention to the unseen nature of Crash’s achievement, and that it not being acknowledged does not diminish it in any way, which can be thought of as similar to the unknown lives of the obscure rustic persons buried in Grey’s churchyard. Their lives are not less noble or meaningful for being hidden from us. A thought that seems at face value to contrast with a line from the Greek philosopher Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Not a lot is known about Socrates, about the context in which he said these words and whether or not they are meant to be taken literally, and I am certainly not scholar enough to debate philosophy with Socrates, but I think it possible to draw some sensible conclusions.

Socrates was, I think, talking about the life of a human being. He didn’t mean that a beetle or a seal should examine its life, or that the life of a horse was not worth living because it went unexamined. He was talking about the life of a moral being, a person capable of making ethical choices and of knowing right from wrong. He was, I think, saying that if we do not make those choices by examining ourselves and questioning our motives and our morality then our lives as moral beings are effectively no more purposeful than those of the beetle, the seal or the horse.

Whenever I consider this thought of Socrates I am minded to think about the tens of millions of young men who have joined their nation’s military to, in many cases, fight a war they do not understand against an enemy they do not know. I am not suggesting the young men are blind fools, merely that comprehending the real reason their country is at war requires a level of political and philosophical engagement rarely seen in the young, and that would, in any event, require information normally not available to them, or to you and me for that matter.

Take the First World War, for example. An Austrian duke called Franz Ferdinand was riding in an open car on his way to the town hall in a place called Sarajevo where he got shot by a man called Gavrilo Princip, one of six assassins. Within weeks, most of Europe was at war and it doesn’t, I suggest, require any stretch of the imagination to suppose that the majority of the millions of men who died in that war had no idea what started it or what they were really fighting for.

A Serbian shot an Austrian, as a consequence of which English soldiers gathered in a ditch in France where they were shot, bombed, and gassed to death by Germans. In their millions. If it were not such a tragic waste of human life it could almost be the plot for a political satire.

My point is that if the men do not have available the information that would help them make the moral or ethical choice then their choice is not being made along the lines identified by Socrates. Which, he seems to be saying, suggests that their lives are not worth living and that their sacrifice is therefore pointless.

Thomas Grey said that the lives of the noble rustic labourers buried in the country churchyard were not rendered any less by us not knowing who they were or what they had done or how they had done it. Socrates appears to be saying that even though we know who those millions of young men were, and how they got into that ditch, and why they died there, their lives were not worth living simply because their choices had not been made morally or ethically. It seems to me that Grey and Socrates cannot both be right.

The American author John Williams (1922 – 1994) wrote a novel on this theme. Stoner (1965) is an immersive study of the life of one man who in many ways can be equated with Grey’s rustic persons who lead noble but simple and largely unobserved lives. By the end of the novel we know quite a lot about John Stoner and we have shared with him the ups and downs of his life in a story told in a language that both takes your breath away and insistently urges you to keep turning the pages. It is a one-sit read, an unputdownable novel that quietly but urgently requires the reader to answer the question of whether Grey was right, or was Socrates right. The very special quality of Williams’ writing is that unlike both Thomas Grey and Socrates, he doesn’t tell you the answer. Instead, he gives you everything you need to know to decide the matter for yourself.

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Hunting a Real Whale

Herman Melville’s groundbreaking 1851 novel, Moby Dick is an account of one man’s obsessive hunt for the whale that bit off his leg. It is also both not really that at all and an awful lot more than that, so that describing Moby Dick as a whale hunt is a bit like describing Don Quixote (1612) as one man’s obsessive search for a woman whose name he can remember but whose face he can’t quite recall.

Published in 1851, the novel is set some time before that, “some years ago,” within the life of the narrator Ishmael, and it isn’t immediately obvious why Melville thought it necessary to say so. What possible difference could it make if it was set in 1747 or 1847? The answer to that question is, I think, useful to an understanding of Moby Dick. The fact, irrelevant in itself, is one of many small reasons we have for supposing the events actually happened.

In an interview in Paris Review the American author Philip Roth used the word aboutness to describe a property that some stories have, that they are the product of something more than the imagination of their author, that the events and people portrayed in a story have an existence somewhere outside the pages of the book. It is this property of aboutness that Melville creates with this simple statement about the origin of the story. On its own it means nothing, but it is just one of many similar strands that are twisted into a great thick cable of facts that anchors the book in a comprehensible and believable time and place.

In his own lifetime Melville saw the book receive mixed reviews and he died in 1891 in obscurity as a poor, retired customs inspector. In the same way that Beowulf, also a story about the hunt for a monster, was resurrected by a new critical appraisal, after World War I Moby Dick resurfaced from the deep as a story of something more than just a whale hunt, and both it and Melville are now rightly praised and appreciated by all book lovers. In the case of Beowulf it was J. R. R. Tolkien who resurrected it and for Moby Dick the reanimator was Carl van Doren (1885 – 1950) in his 1921 study The American Novel.

Rather than discuss the whole book it is this property of aboutness that I want to talk about here. There are a number of chapters in Moby Dick that do nothing to advance the story but instead extend and advance the reader’s knowledge of whales and whaling. There is, for example, Chapter 24 The Advocate, which sets out to refute some commonly held myths and misperceptions about whalers and their craft. One of the criticisms often leveled at Melville’s work is this sort of lengthy digression that although interesting in its own way could quite usefully have been omitted without detracting from the tale and thereby made the novel considerably shorter and therefore more accessible. Such critiques do, in my view, miss the point of these chapters which, for different reasons, contribute to this very useful novelistic property of aboutness.

The first reason is that they add to the reader’s sense that the novel might be true. If whales actually exist and whaling really is a thing then a story about a man becoming obsessed with catching one particular whale might, conceivably, be true. In her series of novels about a boy wizard, J. K. Rowling did not spend very long on the science behind how spells work or why putting an owl feather inside a stick makes it any different from any other stick because, quite frankly, none of it is true. The reader either grasps the essential premise of her story or they don’t and there is not a huge amount Rowling can do for those readers not sucked into the required core belief in the magical properties of sticks. But Melville can describe why a whale ship looks the way it does, and how harpoons are made, and where the oil comes from, and how to reeve the whale line round the loggerhead, and what exactly a man sees when he is standing in an open boat in the middle of the ocean and he looks up to see a whale fluke bearing down on him, and all of these details accrete to an overwhelming sense that all of this might actually be true. Ishmael knows so much and saw so much and can describe in great detail sufficient of whales and whaling for us to just know, to a high degree of certainty, that this happened and he actually was there to see it.

A second reason is that it adds immeasurably to our understanding of Ishmael. It tells us about the things that interest him, how his mind works, what his values are and it legitimises his desire to go whaling in the first place. If he had chosen some other activity like carpentry or playing poker then we would have formed a very different view of the man but he chose whaling, and by telling us exactly what a whale is and what a dangerous and useful and noble pursuit whaling is and how inaccurate are the depictions of whales in art he enhances our estimation and understanding of who he is.

And third, it gives us the impression that Ishmael is a fundamentally honest fellow who is not merely reporting what he saw but placing the events into a wider context. In Chapter 35 Mast Head, for example, he tells us about the difference between the crow’s nest on a northern or Greenland whaler and that on a southern whaler. This detail is unnecessary for us to know since the Pequod is a southern whaler, but it tells us that he has troubled to check his sources and is not merely repeating blindly those things he thinks he knows. This impression, however, is slightly offset by his insistence that the sperm whale is a fish when most authorities agree that whales are actually mammals.

Maybe having him make a mistake is a sign of something. There are lots of signs and symbols in Moby Dick and making sense of them can begin to feel like a full-time occupation. There are bible references and Egyptian Pharaohs and various gods and their wives and stories of death and repentance and cannibals and widely different religions. There are also skins, the various guises that people adopt and the faces they wear and obviously the whale itself and a one-legged man and a wide variety of ancient buildings and exotic animals and after a while the reader becomes overwhelmed by all these signs.

Imagine someone gives you a lottery ticket. Then they give you another, and another, and then six more of them and eleven more tickets and then they tip a bucket full of lottery tickets over your head and then more and more and whole handfuls of lottery tickets and a sack full of them until you are sat in the middle of the floor engulfed by and drowning in a whole mountain of lottery tickets. The winning ticket might be in there somewhere but you have no way of ever finding it and that is how the reader feels with Melville’s signs, they overwhelm you until eventually you start to wonder whether being overwhelmed by them is actually the point.

In real life we have clues to the next step to take and we have lessons we can learn and indicators to what people really meant or what they are going to do next, but we also have no way of knowing which of these things really matter. Maybe the overwhelming torrent of signs and symbols in Moby Dick is a way of making the story seem less like a story and more like real life in that sense. In a detective story there are specific clues, one or two red herrings (a fish) but the clues you need are all there and if you pay attention you can usually figure out who done it. It doesn’t usually work like that in real life, though, so Melville has made sure that it doesn’t work that way in Moby Dick as a way of saying that this is not an allegory or metaphor or parable, it is not even just a novel, it is a story that actually happened in real life. It is about something, deal with it.

In fact, Melville tells us this, in plain English, in Chapter 45 The Affidavit, “So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”

Could he have said it any plainer than that?

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Closure

This month I went to a reading at my local bookshop. Three ladies came along to read from their recently published anthology of short stories on the theme of closure. To add to the topicality of the event the three ladies were all members of the black and Asian community and their stories featured black and Asian characters.

The first story we heard was about a couple who had some problems keeping it together because one of them had drug and alcohol dependencies, had fidelity problems and had anger management issues that came to a head causing the other partner to leave. While I was listening to this story I remembered the words of the French literary theorist, philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) who identified a concept called the punctum. He was actually talking about photography, but the idea has since been drawn into literary studies to mean the one telling detail in a scene that makes it all hang together, the specific thing about the scene that pierces the invisible wall between the reader and the story and draws the reader into the world the story inhabits. Instead of fully describing a character you just say which particular shade of red lipstick she is wearing or the exact shape of her hat and this somehow magically brings everything else into focus.

The author of this first story, Louisa Adjoa, who called herself a poet having a tentative first go at fiction, identified what was for me the punctum in a number of the scenes in her story so that with only a few very well-chosen words she was able to draw the scene in a way that really brought the events to life. I was actually sitting in a brightly lit bookshop on a rather drab winter afternoon with a howling gale blowing outside but in my mind I was in that room with the green door where Akeem and Zoe were having their confrontation. Based on this experience I would like to think the poet in her will give this fiction lark a go because she has a definite affinity with it.

The second story was a slightly spooky story about two women in a darkened room having a conversation in which a third person intercedes, a third person who may or may not really be there. Listening to this story is a slightly strange and unnerving experience that wasn’t diminished for me by having heard it before. The story does, however, rely for its visual imagery on a pair of metaphors repeated three times, and whilst each on its own is perfectly fine the combination just doesn’t work for me. In my mind they each create an image that renders the other impossible, and that might even be the point, but it prevented me from picturing the carriage clock at the centre of the story so that instead of picking out the one telling detail the author left me standing behind an opaque veil gazing at events as though through mist or fog.

The third story was about a meeting between three women confronting a situation they would rather not be in. The women had different back-stories and different reasons for being there and quite different approaches to their situation but they all had the same fundamental problem to confront and it was these differences, brought out with some subtle dialogue and acute observation, that made the story resonate for me. It was also very interesting for me, a man, to be given a view of a uniquely female experience. No man ever has or ever will be in that situation and try as I might I cannot imagine what it is really like, and the story did much more than just invite me to, it made me, see things I might not otherwise be privileged to see. It was, if you like, a lifting of the veil, like taking a vegetarian into a butcher’s shop and forcing him to watch chops being cut. No man can come away from reading that story without new levels of respect for what it means to be a woman.

This post is not, however, just an advert for the book. It is an advert for the book, it was called Closure (2015) and it is published by Peepal Tree Press and you should get hold of a copy if you can. But it is not just an advert for the book because in the post-story discussion some very interesting points came out.

One gentleman asked a question about character strengths. This was given to Louisa Adjoa to answer and her main character had lots of easily identifiable weaknesses but no obvious strengths. She had drugs issues and alcohol issues, she was forgetful and irresponsible, she was not faithful and she got angry when these issues were brought up. But at one crucial point in the story her partner suggested she might lose her child and that got a response from her. That was the point when a glass flew across the room, that was the motivating moment that brought about the closure her partner required.

So she might be on the edge, she might be staring into the abyss but she is not completely lost because despite all her faults she is still a mother and has that instinct to, above all else, protect her child. This suggests to me that there might be a redemption narrative in her future and if that is the case then it might be worth remembering that couples do break up, they argue cuss and fight but they also reconcile sometimes too. Which means that the glass flying across the room signaled closure for Akeem but it also helps us, the audience, realise that maybe closure here isn’t a final and irrevocable kind of closure. It might be just one step along a path to a different kind of future they can still have together. I found this bifurcation of the potentialities of the story a really pleasing aspect of it and I found myself still thinking about Zoe and Akeem a few days later. Testament, I think, to the powerful way the story was told.

Also in the post-story discussion Akila Richards used the expression, “Black experience,” a phrase I had heard a few days earlier in an interview with Marlon James, author of the Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (2015). He was asked to comment on the expectation that writers of colour should write about the “Black experience,” and in his reply he said that writers are often enjoined to write about what they know, and it seemed to him that what all writers know about is their own cultural milieu, the interface and interaction of their own culture with others and it seemed to him perfectly normal for anyone to want to write about this but that they can write about other stuff too. Which, for him, means that the expectation, if it exists, is unlikely to be realised any time soon.

If we then think about these three stories within the context of Marlon James remarks we can see that the stories are not about a uniquely black experience. Couples of all cultures have problems, they argue, fight and break up. The middle story might have voodoo elements I didn’t pick up on but didn’t strike me as being a uniquely black experience and the third story was a uniquely female experience but not a uniquely black experience. That made me think of a quote from David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest (1996) and The Pale King (2011). In an interview he said, “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” and that is precisely what these three stories were about. They resonated with and spoke to the audience precisely because they were intensely human experiences.

They were written from a black and Asian perspective and they featured black and Asian characters but they were fundamentally stories about what it means to be human, and that, I think, says that Lynne Blackwood, Louisa Adjoa, and Akila Richards might have very different colour skin to mine but their heart still beats to the same passions as mine, they have the same wants, needs and desires as I do and it says that we are more alike than some people might care to admit and that those similarities are much greater than any differences we might perceive. We are all human beings together.

It is one of the fundamental paradoxes of being human that we all want to be known for those traits that make us special as individuals, we want our achievements, skills and talents to be recognised and acknowledged but we also want to be one of a community of people who are considered alike in some respects. We want to be different as individuals, and yet we also want to be the same in community. Stories like these go a long way to resolving that paradox not just for writers of colour, not just for people in the black and Asian community and not just for women, but for anyone who has the least bit of humanity within them.

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Experimental Ways of Living

Near the end of March, 1845, Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) took an axe into the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, and he built himself a cabin by a lake where he lived, on and off, for the next two years. He went into the woods for a number of reasons and in the book that he subsequently wrote about it he gave three of them. In Walden (1854), he said that he went into the woods looking for the seclusion to write a book about a river trip he had taken with his brother who had recently died, he went into the woods in order to live deliberately, and he went into the woods because he had got ready to go into the woods.

Walden is pretty hard to categorise or describe to someone who has not read it, and only once you have read the book do you properly understand the difficulty of describing what you just read. It is not a diary, as such, but it is a roughly chronological account of the experiences to be had living in the woods by a lake, and much of what he describes did happen to him whilst he lived there. But the time is telescoped into one narrative year and it does not in any event claim to be a true account of the particular two years that he spent in the woods.

And, importantly, although he is talking about living in the woods, that is not what he is really talking about at all. His real topic is the lives of the people who do not live in the woods. Going to the woods is a way of contrasting what Thoreau thought of as “modern life,” with its magnetic telegraph and steam trains and indoor plumbing and all, with the more fundamentally honest and pure mode of living to be had if we were only to look at life, the world, our environment, in a completely different way.

Walden is a philosophical enquiry about the nature of modernity and the benefit, if any, of living our lives as though we are tools in a capitalist machine. He gives a number of examples of people he meets whose lives are made miserable and hollow and without joy or pleasure of any kind purely because they view their life as an attempt to earn money.

One man he comes across lives in a shack on a small parcel of land with a wife and some children. The man goes out each day to a piece of land owned by someone else where he digs peat all day. The landowner pays him for the peat and he then goes home exhausted from a long day of hard manual labour with barely enough energy to do anything else and with barely enough money to feed his family. Thoreau points out, quite reasonably, that if the man stopped digging peat and grew crops on his own land and kept chickens and a hog he could feed his family for free. But the man won’t change, because he is scared of not having any money. He views freedom from poverty as being about how much money he has.

Thoreau, meanwhile, spends his day walking in the woods picking huckleberries and wild blackberries, fishing in the lake, harvesting wild honey, growing corn and beans and watching the squirrels playing in his woodpile. Just like the peat-digger, he doesn’t have any money, but neither does he spend eight hours a day digging peat so that someone else can make money out of it. Thoreau’s point was that neither man had any money, but they were not equally poor.

Walden is beautifully and lyrically written and is a joy to read but it is also a polemic consisting of long looping and rhetorically convoluted debates about the incomprehensible reasons why, to take one example, farmers work their whole life to pay off a mortgage on land that was essentially given away for free. The words themselves are simple, well-chosen and easily read but the thoughts they express are complex and require some work from the reader, work that is rewarded with political and economic arguments that are compelling but have ultimately failed to convince large numbers of people.

Later on I read another story about a person living on their own. Her name was Joyce Carol Vincent and she lived on her own in a housing estate in London, England. She did not intend to live on her own and she wasn’t doing it to prove a point and didn’t write a book about it, she just happened to be on her own. When the local council banged on her door to find out why her rent had not been paid they found her on the sofa, with the television flickering and just-wrapped Christmas presents gathered at her feet. She had been dead for three years, and no one had noticed.

Documentary film maker Carol Morley took an interest in the story and eventually made a film out of it. She spoke to Vincent’s friends and family, she met previous boyfriends, work colleagues, friends on the edge of the music industry through whom Vincent had met Stevie Wonder, punk legend Captain Sensible, American disco singer Judy Cheeks and the soul singer Betty Wright. Morley even unearthed a video of Vincent meeting Nelson Mandela when he came to London. So Vincent wasn’t a loner, she wasn’t one of those sad drug addicts no one wants to know or an angry drunk who drives their friends away, she just happened to be alone when she died, and no one noticed for three years.

The point that both of these stories are making is that if the world were in some way better, these things would not happen. If the world were a better place we wouldn’t have to dig peat for eight hours a day in order to feed our children and people with no friends would not die alone in their two-bedroom apartment in a tower block filled with strangers. In the language of the sixties, “Come the revolution, brother.”

This thought led me to a surprising piece of American poetry. Gilbert “Gil” Scott-Heron came from Chicago where he was born in 1949. His mother was an opera singer and his father was a football player, the first black man to play with Glasgow Celtic. His parents separated when he was seven and he went to live with his grandmother in Tennessee. She died when he was 12-years-old and he went to New York where he lived with his mother.

This broken childhood, is, I think, important, because his childhood taught him that there wasn’t anyone looking out for him and he had to take care of himself, and this made the adult Scott-Heron a self sufficient and somewhat bold and assertive person. He became a blues poet, speaking poetry over a musical accompaniment that incorporated elements of what would later become the rap and hip-hop styles of music.

One of his more famous pieces is a poem called, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1970). When I read the title the first thing I thought of was the Arab Spring appearing on Youtube videos and Twitter feeds and how the sanitised version of the news we see on television is only a very small portion of, and a highly politicised version of, the actual events. I thought about how we only got to see one side of the war in Syria, or the War in Vietnam. I thought about how, as a young man, I had watched the news of the troubles in Northern Ireland and how after a while I gradually realised that only one side in the conflict were getting to tell their story. What I imagined Scott-Heron saying was that when the revolution comes the media companies will not be showing those events on television because political forces will ensure that news of it is covered up. “They,” won’t allow it to be shown. When I actually read the lyrics of his poem I, not unnaturally, learned that he was saying something else altogether. The first verse says:

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised

Gil Scot-Heron (1970)

What follows is a long list of things the revolution will not be. It will not be sponsored by Xerox, or star Natalie Wood or Steve McQueen, NBC will not be able to predict the winner and there will be no signed pictures of Wilie May.

Eventually, I realised that what he was saying is that the life we are living is the revolution. The revolution is happening day by day, it is taking place and will continue to take place so that the modern life Thoreau railed against no longer exists and would today be considered old-fashioned hardship. Scott-Heron was saying that this is the revolution, you are in the throws of the revolution, always have been, always will be. And so it goes.

Which means that those two stories about what might happen in a better world, will not just organically happen in a better way, “come the revolution.” A better world will only let things like that not happen if we actively do something to create that better world. We can’t just sit back on cruise control watching the revolution taking place all around us hoping for a better world, wishing for a world where no one goes to work to make money for super-rich oligarchs with more money than they know how to count, unless we actually do something about it.

I don’t go to work and I don’t live in a house I built myself and my mother gave my fishing rod to a jumble sale so I haven’t caught a fish in thirty years. I don’t have a mobile phone or a Facebook account and can’t imagine ever saying anything in 140 characters on Twitter, but I am happy in a comfortably basic Thoreau-in-the-woods kind of way that doesn’t require constant consumerism to validate my life. So far, I have looked online and learned that to buy an axe would cost me fifty-three pounds. I have not actually bought an axe, much less walked to the woods to build a cabin with it, but I have read Walden (1854) and will know how to live when I get there, and I have come to realise that what Thoreau said to that man who was digging peat is as relevant to us today as it was in 1854. We can change the world by the way that we live from day to day and that everything we do, even the little things, picking huckleberries and buying books from Amazon, both matter and have consequences. We get the world that we make, for ourselves and for our future.

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And Then

Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida (2013), is set in Poland in the winter of 1962. Anna is a young polish woman on the verge of taking her vows and becoming a catholic nun. Her mother superior lets her out into the world to let her see the alternative, to meet her family and give her a chance to decide whether this is what she really wants to do.

Orphaned as a child Anna’s only family is an aunt called Wanda (Agata Kulesza), an older woman who has seen something of life. We can see in her face that she has struggled, that she bears the scars of life in the lines on her skin, her listless eyes and the lifeless draggle of her hair. She smokes and drinks too much, she has meaningless sex with strangers in order to forget something she would rather she did not know. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) arrives on aunt Wanda’s doorstep in her hand-made overcoat carrying her world in a second-hand suitcase looking like an angel transported from another world, and blood would appear to be the only thing that binds them together.

As Wanda starts to fill in the blanks in Anna’s knowledge of her family, including that she was actually born a Jew and christened Ida, it gradually dawns on the girl that before she can decide whether she wants to become a nun she first has to discover who she really is. The two women set off in an old car on a journey, both real and metaphorical, and the film that has up to this point been a quietly beautiful story of mutual discovery segues into a road-movie with a dual purpose.

I won’t spoil the film for you by revealing the plot but I do need to mention that along the way Anna meets a young man called Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik). He is a musician, the saxophone player in a jazz group, and Anna dances to the music, she smokes a cigarette with him and ultimately they make love. Lying on the bed together in a rather dreary-looking room they are sprawled and turned away from each other and as he smokes Lis sketches out in a few words his idea of the future. His band are going to Gdansk to do some gigs and he asks her to come with them.

“You’ll listen to us play, we’ll walk on the beach…”

“And then,” Anna asks.

He lays down beside her and they smile.

“Then we’ll buy a dog…”

“And then?” Anna asks again, and it slowly dawns on Lis that they don’t have a future, or at least that their futures do not coincide, that she will go back to her convent and he will play jazz and the puppy will be left to run on the beach on its own.

Watching the film I thought this an elegantly profound moment and that question, “and then?” followed me for several days as I considered the beautiful simplicity of it juxtaposed with the complexity of the things it portrayed. Those two simple words of dialogue told us important things about Anna, about what was going on in her mind and what her future held in store for her and watching the young man struggle to comprehend these things told us why they needed to be said. I saw it as a comment on the trivial life Lis imagined for them versus the meaningful life of the devotedly religious woman and as a commentary on what modern life in general has become, an endless sequence of petty and banal activities we impose on ourselves to pass the time until we die.

After thinking about it for a while I tried the conversation the other way round and imagined Lis asking Anna, “What are you going to do tomorrow?”

“I shall get down on my knees and pray to God.”

“And then?”

“Oh, I shall probably pray some more.”

“And then?”

When viewed this way round we can see that the deep and profound question about the insignificant life the jazz musician envisaged is not really as profound or sincere as it at first appeared. The life Anna envisages for herself is not necessarily any more meaningful than his.

This reminded me of something my father said to me when I was around fifteen years old. He described a game of football as, “twenty-two grown men kicking a pig’s bladder into a string bag.” At the time it had struck me as amusing and clever but later I heard the world professional snooker champion Steve Davis describe snooker as, “poking balls off a table with a pointy stick,” and it quickly becomes obvious that almost any activity we choose to amuse ourselves with can be trivialised to some extent. Even most jobs are pointless in themselves and we only do them to earn shiny tokens we exchange for food, rent and running water. I actually spent ten years of my life tinkering about with Excel spreadsheets to add up every month how much money someone else was making. Anna’s apparently profound question turns out to be as superficial as the lives we all lead.

In 1850, Charles Dickens published a novel called David Copperfield. This is the rather simple story of a young man telling his own life story from a birth he is able to describe in rather implausible detail to… well, I’ll let you read it and find out how it ends. Along the way, David spends a few moments meditating about an imaginary scene involving a young lady of his acquaintance.

“What a picture rose before me of her sitting on the far-off shore, among the children like herself when she was innocent, listening to little voices such as might have called her Mother had she been a poor man’s wife; and to the great voice of the sea, with its eternal `Never more!’ ”

This line immediately reminded me of a poem by the American poet and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe (1808 – 1849). The poem is called The Raven (1845), and it tells the story of a man working in his study late one night disturbed by thoughts of a recently deceased loved one. Then a raven comes pecking at his window. After accidentally letting the bird in the man asks it what its name is and the bird replies, “Nevermore.”

At first this seems to be a truly miraculous thing, a bird that can not only speak but answer questions.  The man tries to convince himself that it cannot possibly be true and says that the bird will leave him tomorrow, “as my hopes have fled before.”

And the bird replies, “Nevermore.”

The man asks the bird several more questions, all of which are answered in the same way, and the reader is gradually invited to consider that the bird can in fact say only one thing, and that this word appears to answer the questions is nothing more than mere coincidence. So that just as with Anna’s “and then,” when repeated sufficiently often the deep and profound becomes commonplace and irrelevant.

Which in turn suggests that the meaning of words is not merely in the words themselves, but in the swirling vortex of context and personality within which the words are spoken. When Anna asked her lover, “and then?” it said something entirely different from what it meant when he asked her the same question. The raven’s, “nevermore,” meant something entirely different at the end of the poem to the meaning it had the first time the bird said it and that space that exists between those two opposite meanings is what authors are striving to uncover and expose and explore, because it is in the ambiguities and misunderstandings that inhabit that space that people are their most interesting, exciting, frightening, beguiling and attractive.

Which, if true, would seem to imply that we are most alive when only imperfectly understood, that to know someone means to quench their fire, even just a little bit. Knowing that a rainbow is merely a pattern of light refracting through raindrops makes it seem so much less magical than thinking of it as a bridge to another dimension, a portal to another world, and at its end lies mystical treasure beyond compare.

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Selective Reading

Alyssa Rosenberg writes for the Washington Post covering culture and media, she writes about television and film mostly, but she flits about a bit and often talks about books. In March 2015 she wrote about an idea suggested to her by a blog post by a technology journalist called K. T. Bradford. The idea is that book readers could try reading books by particular authors based on their sex, race and gender. Particularly, that they try for a year to not read books by white, middle class cisgendered males.

I am, to be honest, a white cisgendered male, although I had to look up cisgendered to find out what it means and for anyone who needs to do the same it means that your gender identity is in accord with your biological sex. If you walk like a duck and quack like a duck then you are a cisgendered duck. I don’t think anyone could accuse me of being middle class but I am receptive to the idea of checking my privilege from time to time so ideas that ask me to do that are not immediately written off as hysterical feminist rants, even if they are, like this, a definitively first world problem. I don’t,  for example, tend to agree with issues like the proportion of MP’s in parliament and the number of directors on the boards of large companies, that often seem at a superficial level to have some merit to them but are on closer examination devoid of merit and in fact counter to any logic that can be applied. So I thought it worth examining the idea of choosing authors based on their sexuality to see where the idea comes from and discover, if I can, whether it has any merit.

K. T. Bradford is a technology journalist who has written about and reviewed technology, “mostly of the mobile variety,” for Laptop Magazine, Android Central, Mashable, Time’s TechLand blog, and others. She also describes herself as a, “Non-Fake Geek Girl,” a term that I’m afraid you will have to parse yourself because I have no idea what it means. She also writes short fiction, and part of her self improvement program is to read a lot of short fiction and, not unreasonably, she reads the sort of fiction that she wants to write, which turns out to be science fiction and fantasy. The inspiration for her idea, if it can be called that, was her discovery that a lot of the stories in the magazines she was reading were just not very good.

I’m fairly sure that most nine-year-old children are vaguely familiar with the idea that not all stories are equally good. You know, some stories are better than others and some are so terrific you have them read to you every night for a week until mum knows the story by heart. It is, to be honest, a little disheartening to hear that a woman who is both a journalist and an aspiring author of short fiction was discovering this as an adult by reading fantasy magazines. It does kind of make you wonder what she’d been reading up to that point in her life.

Her reaction to these stories she didn’t like, and I’m not joking here, was, “I rage-quit the issue.” K. T. Bradford, it seems, is a grown adult who has anger management issues over made up stories in pulp fiction magazines. Okay.

Her solution to this anger management issue was, as explained on her blog, “Then I thought: What if I only read stories by a certain type of author? Instead of reading everything, I would only look at stories by women or people of color or LGBT writers.  Essentially: no straight, cis, white males.”

I freely admit that I don’t see the connection either. She said the stories were not that good, so she stops reading straight white cisgendered males. Is there any evidence the stories she didn’t like were written by straight white cisgendered males? Or by straight dudes, or by white males, or even by men? If there is she doesn’t say so. K.T. Bradford is a technology journalist, so I think it reasonable to suppose she is familiar with the concept of adding up things to see how many of them there are. She could have added up the stories she didn’t like, analysed the demographic profiles of the authors and learned that the stories she didn’t like were written by pre-pubescent teens sitting alone in darkened bedrooms with one finger up their nose. Or maybe they were written by people who, just like her, needed to improve their writing and were extremely grateful for the crumb of encouragement they got from getting one of their stories published in a magazine.

However, absent any logical connection between sexual orientation and writing ability, K. T. Bradford claims that, “Cutting that one demographic out of my reading list greatly improved my enjoyment of reading short stories.”

What confuses me at this point is how she would even know which authors are cisgendered. I have been consistently referring to K. T. Bradford using feminine pronouns because the photograph on her blog makes her look like a woman, and she calls herself a geek girl, but I genuinely have no idea whether she is cisgendered or not and absent the option of asking her directly there doesn’t appear to be any way I could possibly know that, or any reason for me to ask. So how does K. T. Bradford know which authors of short stories in science fiction and fantasy magazines are cisgendered?

Obviously, she doesn’t, and therefore her claim that cutting out that particular demographic can improve her reading experience is completely invalid. The whole thing is, ironically, a fiction based on her own prejudice. She doesn’t want to read the work of white middle class cisgendered males and has constructed some utterly transparent and illogical reason to justify her prejudice.

There is, to be fair, nothing inherently wrong with having prejudices, we all have them, even me. I don’t read science fiction and fantasy magazines and wouldn’t even know how to get hold of one if I wanted to, and am not particularly interested in finding out. But I have no logical explanation for any of that, it just is the case that science fiction has never interested me and I see no need to justify or explain that to anyone else and if they want to crucify me on Twitter because of it then so be it.

The mere fact that K. T. Bradford has no valid justification for her prejudice does not, of itself, mean that her idea has no merit. She might be right for the wrong reason, or right for no reason at all. To close out this topic we would have to know whether reading any particular demographic might serve some purpose. Is there, for example, any privilege to be legitimately checked? Is there a prejudice in the book publishing industry so that straight white cisgendered males get priority in the publishing queue? Do we need more women authors? Is the feminist viewpoint represented in contemporary fiction? and so forth. In other words, does she actually have a point or was this just another in that long line of completely illogical feminist rants where all they are saying is that they want a bigger slice of the pie?

As a side note: Not all feminists rant. Not all feminist rants are illogical, and not all feminist rants that are logical are about equality of opportunity. I totally, wholeheartedly and completely support any feminist action that searches for equality of opportunity. As soon as they turn that into equality of outcome, I switch off. Women should be able to be jack hammer operators if they want, and scientists and judges and tank drivers and they should be able to stand for election for public office and choose their own clothes and have the vote and hold the TV remote and get degrees and put mayonnaise on their chips and sit on the board of directors and assemble flat pack furniture and play professional ice hockey and have their own front door key if they want. Absolutely. Hell, they can even do all those at once if they want and I don’t even care if they want to stand up to pee. But once they start arguing about how many of anything there are, I zone out.

If women can be promoted to a judgeship then how many female judges there are says nothing about equality. How many female judges there are is a function of how many female barristers there are and how many female solicitors and how many female law students. If, and only if, fifty percent of law students are women can you expect around fifty percent of law graduates to be women. But that only has to do with law graduates and might have nothing to do with how many women actually enter the legal profession. How many women in the profession actually go down the route of civil and criminal trial law that might lead to a judgeship? How many pursue it long enough to qualify as a barrister? How many even want to be a judge but would prefer to remain in the cut and thrust of a criminal trial? Without the answers to all of these questions simply counting judges and claiming to have shown that the system is patriarchal is illogical, unintelligent, uninformed and unworthy of anyone who might aspire to becoming a judge.

When feminists allow themselves to be sidetracked by fights over how many, how many board directors there are or how many politicians there are or how many Pulitzer prize winners there are they are no longer arguing for any kind of equality that I can recognise as being equal. They are arguing for a bigger slice of the pie. There is nothing wrong with wanting a bigger slice of the pie. We all want a bigger slice of the pie and both capitalism itself and the American Dream are predicated on the idea that anyone can aspire to improve themselves, drag themselves up, become more than their parents imagined. “I farm so that my son can go to college so that his son can become a poet.” Wanting more of whatever is available is natural, it’s human, it is perfectly normal and the one who gives back some of her share is praised and admired precisely because it is so unusual. Wanting more of the pie is normal. Pretending that you are owed more of the pie is the dishonest and distasteful side of feminism, and I will not subscribe to it, neither will I support or defend it but I will expose its hypocrisy when required.

K. T. Bradford wants more of the pie, too. Her pie consists of science fiction and fantasy magazines with her stories in them, and that’s what she wants more of, more of her stories in more magazines. I wish her well. Reading lots of those stories should give her some insight into what the publishers are looking for, then all she has to do is learn to write to the template. I’m sure it’s called creative writing for a reason but if template writing is your bag then go for it. But can she achieve that by not reading work by straight white cisgendered males?

I first read A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession (1990) shortly after it won the Booker Prize in 1990. I was going through a completist phase and that it had won a prize seemed a good reason to read it. It turned out to be a terrific read and I read it at least twice more before it occurred to me that I had no idea who A. S. Byatt was. I didn’t even know if A. S. Byatt was a man or a woman but it didn’t seem to matter very much because the book was engrossing and convoluted and beautifully written and absorbing and confusing and everything I like in a novel I haven’t written myself.

After they invented the interweb I learned that the A. stands for Antonia, but knowing that has added nothing to my appreciation of her writing. So when K. T. Bradford said that not reading straight white cisgendered males improved her reading experience I have no idea what she was talking about. People don’t read Jane Austen because she’s a woman, they read her because they are terrific and very well written stories. No one reads Zadie Smith because she’s a woman, they read her because she tells intelligent, contemporary stories about things that are invigorating and relevant to the lives we lead. No one reads Anita Shreve because she’s a woman, they read her because although not very much happens in an Anita Shreve novel, it does always happen very beautifully and lyrically to intensely believable people in a way that makes you almost wish you lived in the world where her novels exist. People in general do not read women writers because they are women, they read them because they are damn fine writers who just happen to be women.

For as long as there have been writers there has been a debate about what writers do, whether it is their responsibility to report on the injustices in the world or to posit solutions or to transport readers to worlds where such problems do not exist or to temporarily relieve readers of their cares and woes. I read for all of these reasons, and more, and one of the most stimulating things I have learned is to read people you disagree with. Then read authors who have been censored in their own country and authors who have had their  works suppressed and authors who have had to pretend to be someone else and flee to another country to get their books into print. All of these are terrific reasons for choosing which books to read and this will lead you to the works of Boris Pasternak and Chinua Achebe and Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov and Frederico Lorca, all of whom are on K. T. Barnard’s banned list because they happen to be straight white cisgendered males.

Anyone who would choose not to read Cervantes or Henry James or James Joyce or Honore de Balzac or Thomas Hardy or Ernest Hemingway because they are white middle class men has no understanding of what a novel is and should have her library card burned on the beach at midnight by the light of a full moon. When she has nothing else to read but back issues of science fiction and fantasy magazines she will come to fully understand the meaning of the word pain and will repent and beg to be allowed to read Richard Powers novels. I suggest she start with The Time of Our Singing (2003), which might teach her a thing or two about prejudice.

 

Sources:

Washington Post 27 March 2015 – 24 books for a year of reading only work by women, Alyssa Rosenberg

K. T. Bradford, 22 February 2015 – I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year

Posted in creative writing, feminism, literature, prejudice, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Michael Clayton

When a film has a man’s name as the title the viewer approaches the film with an expectation that the film will be about that man. See, for example, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Patton (1970), Charley Varrick (1973), Superman (1978), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Barton Fink (1991), and Donnie Brasco (1997). All of these films have the main character front and centre and the viewer knows their name before they know anything else about the film. Michael Clayton (2007) is about a man by that name but probably not in the way that you might imagine. The film does not tell its story in chronological order and I started by wondering why, exactly, the writer Tony Gilroy chose to start where he did. The answer to that apparently simple question took me down a rabbit-hole far larger and much more impressive than I had imagined and as I explored what I found my admiration for both the film and its writer grew.

The film starts with a monlogue being narrated by a man, although at this point we have no idea who he is or what his monologue means except that he is clearly suffering some delusions and has arrived at the conclusion that, “the time is now,” although the time for what is not made clear. Later, we might decide that he meant it was the time for taking his clothes off, but even later we might realise that he meant it was time to switch from defence to offence. He is a lawyer and has been defending a case for six years and this monologue is his description of the moment of clarity when he realised he was on the wrong side.

Atmospheric shots of empty offices, cleaners hoovering, a man mopping a stairwell, long empty corridors with the lights off, barren meeting rooms. This is late at night, after office hours, the place is supposed to be closed but a man wheeling a trolley with files on it swoops into a brightly lit office full of people shuffling paper and Bridget Klein (Danielle Skraastad), a journalist on the Wall Street Journal, is on the phone. She’s running a story in tomorrow’s paper on the uNorth defoliant case and she wants a comment. The phone is handed to Marty Bach (Sidney Pollack) who tells her the case is and always has been pending but she claims to know they are settling the six year old case and Marty tells her that her deadline was twenty minutes ago and he wishes her the best of luck. The viewer knows nothing, but what the journalist said appears to be true, they do have lots of people working late at night, “jamming this through,” so Marty’s comment is a clear case of obfuscation and the viewer has to wonder, if they really were settling a $300 million lawsuit why would they not want to comment? From a story perspective, that they are settling this case means, to a non-lawyer like me, that it’s over, this case is dead and whatever this film is about this case is not it. Marty ends the call and asks, “Where the fuck is Karen Crowder?”

Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is hiding in the bathroom having some sort of episode. She is stressed out and panicking about something, huge sweat stains under her armpits, and she looks like shit. In fact, she looks pretty much like this the whole way through the film so whatever she’s doing it is not good for her emotionally, physically or psychologically and we need to understand the reasons for this. We get a long shot of a uNorth logo on a bag which connects her to whatever was going on in the other room but what is it about settling a big case that makes her so nervous, paranoid, scared, or whatever it is she’s feeling right now? Only after seeing the film can we understand what was haunting her, skulking in the ladies toilets at Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, but the viewer, on their first run through, would have no idea and this scene just says that she is one very scared lady.

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is playing poker in some seedy underground basement late at night. He gets a phone call and leaves. As he leaves the guy running the poker room says, “good to see you again,” indicating that this is not a one off but something he has done regularly if not recently. He takes the call then drives to Westchester. A lawyer called Walter (Thomas McCarthy) has a huge client who has had a hit and run. This scene establishes Michael’s credentials as a genius fixer for the law firm but we also know he is a gambler and dialogue in the poker room establishes that he has other interests including a restaurant. This is all good background, character stuff, but we do not yet know what the story is. Maybe it’s the hit and run?

On the drive to Westchester we see that he has GPS in the car but it is flickering and there is clearly a fault with it. Later we understand why but it’s interesting because at this point in the story it is not clear what this fact tells us, and maybe that’s the point. It might or might not be significant and the viewer has to process this but is unable to resolve it. These are the sorts of details that make the plot seem complicated and twisty turny like a twisty turny thing, not because the plot is complex but because the viewer is busy processing stuff that doesn’t matter. At this point we have no idea what the story is, what is important and which of the things we are seeing, if any, will turn out to be clues or even if there are clues; is this even a clue type story? We know nothing. A guy we just met playing poker is sat in his car performing percussive maintenance on his GPS. So what?

Quick shot of the exterior of the client’s house to say, “money,” in a slightly larger font than normal. Quick shot of Michael examining the car, one of several in the garage. This also says “money,” but it also says the car hit something so maybe this is the story. This rich and powerful client needs to be extricated from this hit and run debacle to save the firm’s finances, maybe. Michael is careful, in control, professional, and despite playing late night poker, he is completely sober. I would bet those cars he has not had one drink. The client, Mr. Greer (Denis O’Hare) is rude, screamy, shouty, and Michael just stands there totally impassive letting the guy vent his spleen until his own wife throws a glass across the room as her way of letting him know he is out of order. Michael is robotically cool and ends the meeting by arranging for a local lawyer to take the case and see it through for the client.This establishes Michael’s credentials as the guy you want in your corner in a crisis but this is not the story.

Michael is driving on country roads in what looks like pre-dawn light. We assume he is driving home from the previous scene but there really is no way of knowing. He pulls over and gets out of the car to look at some horses on the brow of a hill. Later we will see a drawing of this scene in a book found in Arthur Edens’ loft and it will become apparent that Michael stops to look at this scene because he has already seen the picture in Arthur’s book. At this point, however, we have no idea about any of this and for all we know he could have stopped because he loves horses. This is more processing of stuff that doesn’t matter, making connections to things that don’t exist, to make the story more involved, more complex, more tangled and more difficult to unravel. So far, nothing substantive has actually happened and the only lead we had, rich Mr Shouty-Screamy’s hit and run, has been thrown into the discard along with some un-named lawyer who is going to be handling it. We don’t even have smoke and mirrors; all we have is a lot of smoke hiding even more smoke.

And then his car blows up. Michael runs down the hill towards his car and we get a caption: Four Days Earlier. We need to consider this scene because it fulfills an important role in the story. The writer needed an event that was uncontroversially an attempt on Michael’s life to let him know that the game is being played for real, but it has to be non-fatal or the film ends with a funeral after fifteen minutes. Other, more obvious methods, fail only because the assassin is incompetent or unprofessional but due to the highly professional way in which Arthur is murdered later we cannot have the implication that these are incompetent contract killers. So their attempt needs to be good, obviously intentional, but to fail for reasons that are not the killer’s fault. A bomb after he got out of the car for completely unpredictable reasons is going to achieve all of that. The remote, rural location means that no one else is drawn into the story, we don’t have hundreds of cops investigating a bomb going off in a busy city and it ties in nicely with the horses on the hill. Having it happen on the way back from Mr Screamy-Shouty is an obvious timing thing and all of that explains why Mr Greer, the hit and run driver, lives in Westchester not uptown Manhattan.

However, I have now seen this film several times and I still can’t make up my mind about a couple of points. Who the hell is Walter, and was Michael lured to this remote location to be assassinated or was this, within the logic of the story, a coincidence? The writer needed Michael to be near the horses but the killers did not, so if they were going to blow his car up why not do that on the freeway coming out of town? Why did they follow him all the way to Westchester and then decide to blow him up on the way back? And, is this just more processing of unrelated matter, like digesting a meal you haven’t yet eaten? Maybe that’s what thriller means, indigestible chunks and scissored snippets of unrelated matter sprinkled liberally across the plot to confuse, confound and mentally cripple the viewer into believing they no longer even know which film they’re watching never mind what it’s about. Timing is crucial here. Any more of this smoke on smoke stuff would have the audience falling asleep, but this car blowing up alerts them to the fact that despite the incomprehensible monologue and somnambulistic opening there is something going on here and they should put their popcorn to one side and start paying attention.

Fifteen minutes into the film we go back to another beginning. On a computer screen in a child’s bedroom we see the splash screen of something called Realm + Conquest, which turns out to be a multi-media story for kids. It appears in the film several times and fulfills two useful functions in the story so it is useful to know here what it is. A small boy, Henry (Austin Williams) collects together some things, toys, cards, kids stuff, lies to his mom (Jennifer van Dyck) about what he had for breakfast but she calls him out on it and he explains it by telling her, “it’s a miracle,” and then he goes out to join Michael in the car for a father and son day. Henry is smiling, he is looking forward to this and we can assume he enjoys his father’s company, but there is no physical contact between them when he comes out and gets in the car and I have clue one about whether this tells us anything. They talk in the car about the Realm + Conquest book Henry is reading and we learn that Henry was previously at Michael’s house and left him the book for him to read. They discuss this in the car, Henry is excited about it and recommends it to his father and then they pull over and it turns out he is just taking Henry to school. Maybe the familiarity of this routine is the reason they didn’t hug and stuff but it is clear that on an emotional level there is real affection there from both sides even if it is not overtly displayed. It might be worth wondering whether Michael is divorced because he plays poker until three in the morning and then drives to Westchester to solve someone else’s problem, or whether he does those things because he is divorced.

At a restaurant called Tim’s that has closed they are clearing out and auctioning the hardware; bowls, whisks, stuff. Michael is at a table with Gabe (Bill Raymond) discussing money. Michael owes Gabe money, the auction was to raise it and there is going to be a deficit. At this point this looks like just another sub plot, a cross for Michael to bear and another clue to his personality, his character. But later, much later, the decisions Michael makes will be influenced by his need for this money. It’s $80,000 which, from the fact that he’s a twenty year lawyer in a firm with six hundred lawyers and a, “genius fixer,” who is not on hourly rates we would assume that this kind of money would not be chicken feed but within the realms of reality for him. The gambling, however, has left him without any of what Michael calls, “walk away money,” and it seems the restaurant was meant to be an investment for his future but has turned into a liability the consequences of which will eventually force Michael’s hand and drive the story to its conclusion.

A further complication, for Michael, is that his brother, Timmy (David Lansbury), is the one who actually owes this money. His name is, “on the book,” (and on the sign over the door) which means that Timmy and Michael were partners and it is actually Timmy who owes the money and Michael is obligated somehow because Timmy has knocked up a coke dealing waitress and has four stolen radios to his name, which explains why Timmy’s share of the money for the restaurant was borrowed from a loan shark rather than a bank. Michael is a victim of that old ‘blood is thicker than water’ trope, and Timmy is an impact character, influencing the choices the main character makes. It wouldn’t matter if Timmy never actually appears in the film, his influence on how the story plays out is profound. This scene is crucial to understanding the story because it tells us exactly what Michael’s motivations and obligations are. We also learn that timing might be an issue so a clock is ticking now.

Generic shot of Michael walking along a street so that we can see the loan shark has not yet cut his legs off. He enters a building and we get a couple of shots to establish that Kenner, Bach & Ledeen is a huge firm with long carpeted corridors of offices and hundreds of lawyers in tiny boxes billing hours to clients they never see. Michael juggles some phone calls, makes lawyer talk, stands by the window. The whole point of this scene is to give Michael’s secretary (Sharon Washington) a chance to ask him about a merger. “Like I would know,” he says, “I don’t know,” and when she pushes he fobs her off by pointing out her phone is ringing. In a later scene Michael reveals that a merger might mean he is out of a job because officially he doesn’t do what he does and therefore he would have no way of explaining to the new hierarchy just why they need to keep him on. This scene establishes the rationale for the later scene in which he asks Marty Bach for the loan, and is possibly meant to tell us that he is not in all the important loops, but since we have no way of knowing how honest Michael’s, “like I would know” is, it is largely irrelevant on that point. It does tell us, however, that how long the loan shark is prepared to wait may not be the important criteria for timescale, and being out of the loop will mean that he is up against an invisible and possibly moving deadline. A throwaway line almost obscured in all the clutter in this scene is where the secretary mentions, en passant, a pro pos nothing else at all, that she knows Michael has been trying to see Marty Bach. This is obviously to ask for the loan of $80,000. Time’s moving on. The pressure is piling up.

Karen Crowder is rehearsing and editing her lines for a video interview with the press (Amy Hargreaves). She wants to make the right impression and seems obsessed with seemingly trivial details; is it world or globe, or planet, this matters to her. uNorth, an agro-chemicals company, has 75,000 employees in 62 countries and their general counsel is talking to herself in a mirror dressed in her bathrobe and despite having had a shower she looks almost ill with worry. Again, although chronologically this is the first time, we get the impression that she is under a lot of pressure that seems to be mostly self inflicted. She is learning how to dress wounds so that she can stab herself with sharp knives but we have no idea what pushes her to do this. The interview is the announcement of her promotion and maybe this is what she has been scheming for and why she is under this pressure, but we get no real clues as to why she is in this headspace that makes her so uncomfortable except that she has been at uNorth twelve years and therefore clearly wants to be there. She even tells us in this scene, rehearsed twice in her hotel room and replayed a third time in the interview, “when you really enjoy what you’re doing, there’s your balance.” But she had to rehearse it twice which means it’s the image she wants to project rather than the real her, which remains an enigma. We can see for ourselves that she is clearly a highly driven woman, only later do we learn how far she can drive.

As an aside, she dresses like shit. She’s supposed to be a high flying executive lawyer but her clothes come straight out of a Salvation Army thrift store. She’s at this important press conference in a polyester skirt suit she borrowed from a fat friend of her mother and in a later scene she addresses her board of directors wearing a jacket that looks like she found it in her next door neighbour’s dog basket. Maybe this is deliberate, maybe it shows us that the only thing that matters to Karen Crowder is her work.

Karen Crowder’s interview is interrupted and we cut to a phone call being taken somewhere in Kenner, Bach & Ledeen and Michael sticks his head through the doorway to be told that Arthur Edens just stripped naked in a deposition room in Milwaukee. I doubt very much that anyone would connect this to a case we were told twenty minutes ago was being settled. Michael flies to Milwaukee. Apart from anything else, this decreases his chances of seeing Marty Bach any time soon. That $80,000 is not going away. As Michael boards the plane we hear Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) reprise the last couple of lines of his opening monologue, “I took a deep cleansing breath and I set that notion aside, I tabled it, I said to myself as clear as this may be, as potent a feeling as this is, as true a thing as I believe that I have witnessed today it must wait, it must stand the test of time, and Michael, the time is now.” This allows us to mentally connect the name Arthur Edens to the monologue we heard at the beginning and as this scene segues into Arthur finishing that same speech to Michael in the jailhouse in Milwaukee the dots are starting to join up. Arthur repeats that the time is now, so there is more than one clock ticking and Michael’s problem is that he has to somehow beat both of them.

Karen Crowder beats Michael to Milwaukee in the snow, but it is, “nurse Michael,” a name he is given by Arthur, who goes to see Arthur in jail. For the first time we see emotion from Mister Cool, he is annoyed with Arthur for reneging on their agreement. “If you want to go off your medication that’s fine. But you call me first, that was our agreement.” The pressure is beginning to tell and Mister Ice-Cool who stood down the hit and run driver without bothering to breathe is now going toe to toe with his long time friend in a Milwaukee jailhouse. They both cool down and Arthur tells Michael in a very confidential whisper, ashamed to admit it as though he is personally guilty, “they killed them Michael, those small farms, family farms.” Arthur has a long speech in which he mentions dead parents and dying brothers, destroying perfect Anna, a horrific chain of carcinogenic molecules and he tells Michael he has blood on his hands and will no longer trade that realisation for the drug induced nirvanah of his pills. Michael tells him he is the senior litigating partner in one of the largest most respected law firms in the world, “you are a legend,” he says, but Arthur begs to differ, “I am an accomplice,” which Michael counters with, “you are a manic depressive,” but Arthur has the final word, “I am Shiva the god of death.”

Arthur has crossed the Rubicon and will not defend uNorth anymore and we finally get a clue what the story is about. It is also important to realise that Arthur has done this on purpose. He has not simply forgotten to take his pills, he chose not to. There are clues in both the opening monologue and his long speech in the jailhouse that this was a moral choice he actively made, which adds credibility and credence to Michael’s defence of him. But not being the defending council is not the same as being the antagonist. Choosing not to defend uNorth is not the same as choosing to bring them down, so at this point Karen Crowder has the floor to herself. She doesn’t see it that way, she thinks she just lost her strongest ally.

We get to see the video tape of the deposition where Arthur takes his clothes off. Anna (Merritt Wever) a shy young woman, is prompted by her lawyer to read what sounds as though it is going to be a suicide note from her mother but she never gets any of it out since Arthur interrupts with his entirely individual interpretation of the dance of the seven veils. In true Blair Witch style the camera is knocked to the floor and we do not see the coup de gras but Karen Crowder is watching the tape in a hotel room in Milwaukee with two associates and it is fair to say that she does not recognise Arthur’s dance routine as an agreed part of their defence strategy. Maude (Rachel Black), one of the associates, is asked to fill Karen in on the guy sent down from New York to tidy up the mess. Two mouse clicks and she has his biography on screen which gives us Michael’s backstory.

Michael Raymond Clayton, born 9 Sept 1959, Saint Joseph’s hospital, Bronx, New York. Father is NYPD patrolman Raymond Xavier Clayton, mother, Alice Mary Clayton. Graduates Washingtonville Central High School, Orange County New York in 1977, graduates Saint John’s University 1980, Buffalo Law 1982. 82-86 he’s A.D.A. with the Queen’s district attorney’s office, and 1986 he’s with the joint Manhattan Queen’s organised crime task force, and then in 1990 he starts at Kenner, Bach & Ledeen where he’s listed as a special counsel specialising in wills and trusts.

Karen finds this intriguing. He goes from criminal prosecution to wills and trusts, he’s been there seventeen years and he’s not a partner. Who is this guy, she asks. This is an important scene for both these two characters because it tells us that Michael is not just a grunt in a black suit. He’s a smart guy who has found a niche role at which he specialises but there is more to it than getting a local lawyer out to a hit and run client at three in the morning and there is more under the bonnet of Michael’s car than the plain black suit and white shirt would suggest. Karen doesn’t have all this information but is alerted to the fact that there might be more to him than appearances and computerised bio’s would suggest. Technically, at this point, they are on the same side, but she might not be calling him in to bat the next innings just yet.

Very short scene where Michael bails Arthur out of jail.

Michael meets Arthur’s associates in their deposition office in Milwaukee, a hotel room. Surprisingly, he has to tell them that Arthur has a chemical imbalance and requires medication. This is similar to the scene in a science fiction movie where the engineering officer has to explain to the captain how the engines work. The captain already knows this, it’s really for the viewer’s benefit. Michael then tells the associates that Arthur forgot to take his medication. Since we were in the jailhouse with him we know that he didn’t forget but we also know the real reason, so Michael’s lie is not seen as that of some corporate shyster covering his ass but as a man telling a white lie to minimise the damage to his friend. Ironically, then, the lie increases Michael’s credibility and standing with the audience because it shows him empathising with his friend’s predicament. Arthur’s briefcase is missing. The associates surmise that Jody might have it. We never find out who Jody is.

Henry is in bed at home with his toy dragons and furry spiders and he’s on the phone to Arthur telling him about the Realm + Conquest book he told Michael about on the trip to school. It seems that Henry phoned his dad and Arthur answered the phone. Henry is telling Arthur how the story in his book plays out with a group of people, they are having some special dreams, except, this is a whole group of people all having the same dream, telling them that they should go to a special place, they don’t know why, they just have this feeling that they have to go there, that they’ve been summoned, but they don’t know they’re all having the same dream, they all think it’s just them, that maybe they’re going crazy and they don’t want to admit it, but they’re not crazy, it’s real, it’s really happening. Unsurprisingly, Arthur the manic depressive relates to all of this and thinks this little boy has just told him his life story so he gets the details of the book and writes them down.

It is interesting to see how much effort has gone into this Realm + Conquest project. There’s the splash screen, the book, a card game and Henry has plot lines from it in his dialogue but it has precisely nothing to do with the story in the film. It adds verisimilitude to the world we are temporarily invited into but it has nothing to do with preventing uNorth from being killed in court by their carcinogenic defoliant. The connection between Arthur and Henry is, however, quite touching, making us believe both that Henry is older than he seems and that Arthur is more childlike than his age would suggest. But that is exactly the point. In most of his scenes in the film Arthur is as driven as Karen Crowder, but driven to rage, shouting, screaming, eyes on stalks with long discursive monologues that wander all over the expansive realm of his lucid imagination. This touching scene with Henry let’s us see him in an entirely different light and from this we get a better understanding of why Michael feels that Arthur’s life is worth avenging. He isn’t just that angry man with twenty loaves of bread under his arm or the mad lawyer undressing for the camera but a gentle, kind, soul who is also a victim, not just of his own demons but of uNorth, too. Which is weird, because it means that although he is not in it, this scene is all about Michael Clayton. This scene between the two people Michael cares about tells us why, when the time comes, he takes on the role of antagonist.

Karen and Michael meet in a hotel restaurant and although the subject is Arthur the theme here is empathy. Michael explains to her what Arthur’s problem is and that in a few days he will be back to normal, and her empathy level is that of a yard broom. It’s fascinating to contrast them here, the ex-district attorney whose best friend is his ten year old son and the corporate big shot whose best friend is her cell phone and who is unable to see beyond, “this is a three billion dollar class action law suit.” There are no people in her world. You’re either an obstacle to be swept out of the way or a gofer in her one woman crusade. Disappointingly, I still have no idea why she thinks that way. What motivates Karen Crowder? Is it just about money for her, or does she believe in uNorth and what they do, or is it the prestige of being able to call herself general counsel for a multi-national conglomerate? What drives her?

I spent some time exploring the idea that her background is law, so maybe it’s the legal system that drives her, she is motivated by statutes by evidence by protocols and the minutae of precedent. But in the very next scene we see that she has no respect for the law so Karen Crowder remains a mask behind which the real protagonist lurks in permanent disguise. Maybe she is not meant to be a person but an allegory of corporate greed, of capitalism, of the error of having an excess of power in one place. She is all companies and corporations that seek to impose their will on the common man and to dictate to us that they know best what’s good for us. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t have a personality, because neither do they. However, I shaved with Occam’s Razor this morning and I think the simplest explanation is the best and most likely. Karen Crowder has no personality so that when the moment comes and the angel of revenge and restitution sweeps down upon her we, the audience, will have no sympathy with her. This scene, where she has no empathy for victim Arthur, is the point where we the audience start rooting for whoever is going to give her the comeuppance she deserves.

Michael returns to the hotel room where he pays a New York policeman (Christopher Mann) he’s hired to come and look after Arthur in his absence. Michael goes through a connecting door to Arthur’s room and listens to another of his enigmatic monologues. Michael is not really listening, it’s been a long day, he’s tired and Arthur is on drugs and rambling a bit but his speech says that the mystical “they” have won. He points out to Michael that his life as a janitor, the genius fixer going from hotel room to hotel room, to hit and run drivers at three in the morning is a sure sign that he is a victim of them too. “We’ve been summoned,” Arthur says, with a line straight out of Henry’s book and Michael, who has no idea what Arthur is talking about, tells him to go to sleep.

Karen Crowder is making a telephone call. She must be doing this straight after walking out of her meeting with Michael. The camera pans across her desk and we study the items on it looking for clues to who she is, what makes her tick and we realise the things are not hers. Arthur Edens’ corporate ID card is in there with a stack of index cards covered with incredibly neat, minutely written notes, a Swiss Army penknife, some micro cassettes, a stack of computer discs, a memo. The briefcase that Michael asked the associates for, that they said was not there, has turned up in Karen Crowder’s hotel room. We get a good enough view of the memo to recognise it if we see it again, but initially not good enough to know what it says. Karen now has information we do not have and it has prompted her to call someone called Mr. Verne (Robert Prescott) who requires a password before he will talk to her and an encryption package for email so he is obviously not delivering pizzas. We also see that she handles the memo with a plastic bag over her hand as she conveniently holds it up to the camera while her encryption package is down loading. The part we can see says, “In-house field studies have indicated that small, short season farms dependent on well-water for human consumption are at risk for toxic particulate concentrations at levels significant enough to cause serious human tissue damage.” We get some close ups showing snippets of some of this text with the addition of, “potentially lethal exposures.” That memo is obviously what prompted Arthur’s change of heart and what Arthur knows is a danger to her so in her mind he is no longer just an ex-associate who has slipped by in her wake, he is a threat to her three billion dollar lawsuit. From her perspective, that memo says that Arthur is now a problem in need of a solution.

Michael is on the phone exploring options for laying off the lease on the restaurant which is costing him $8,900 a month. He is disappointed. This is Michael’s last chance of raising the $80,000 himself, and he is now dependent on the un-reachable Marty Bach to come through with the loan. The pressure on Michael is gradually being ramped up. Then he calls Arthur in the adjoining room and tells him it’s time to go but Arthur is not there. He has escaped, leaving a note on the bedroom wall to, “make believe this is not just madness.” This is the third time Michael has been told this, which, incidentally, means exactly what it says, that Arthur might both look and sound mad but he has very good reasons for doing what he has done, but it is not clear that Michael is getting the message. By escaping, Arthur demonstrates that he has predicted Marty Bach’s response and this act prevents him from being institutionalised in Wisconsin.

Quick shot at a golf club to establish the identity of Mr. Verne and his associate Mr. Iker (Terry Serpico) so that when we see them we know who they are.

In Marty Bach’s office Karen Crowder is showing Marty the memo. He asks her what the memo was doing in Arthur’s briefcase and she says that she was rather hoping that was something he would be able to tell her. That needs to be analysed properly because at face value it makes them both look stupid. Arthur’s the lead lawyer. Why would he not have all the important information to hand? Are lawyers supposed to consider only the evidence that supports their case and ignore anything that says their client is as guilty as a bag of spanners? If, after six years on the case, Arthur did not know about this memo he would fail to qualify for the “legend” status Michael afforded him in the jailhouse. Therefore, if Karen or Marty had prior knowledge of this memo, they should have expected Arthur to have it or to at least know about it. And that’s the point here, they each asked that question, “how did he have this?” and left off the implied ending, “when I didn’t know about it?” Karen assumed that Arthur had shared knowledge of the memo with Marty, and Marty assumed that Arthur could only have got the memo from Karen. So this scene says two important things, that neither of them had prior knowledge of this memo before it turned up in Arthur’s briefcase, and that Arthur has not shared knowledge of this memo with anyone else. Finally, the memo they have is a copy, the original was lost in a warehouse fire five years ago. This gives Karen a tiny little bit of wiggle room if Arthur is the only person not in that office who knows about the memo. The final point of this scene, then, is to get Karen to tell us about the warehouse fire so that we know why she goes to plan-X so quickly. Eliminating Arthur ends all non-privileged knowledge of the memo.

In Arthur’s office, Marty and Barry Grissom (Michael O’Keefe) are looking for anything that says uNorth on it. Marty wants them to box it all up and move it up to his house. Michael walks in, Marty tells him Barry is taking over the uNorth case and Michael tells them he found out that Arthur got a limo from the airport into downtown, got out and walked away meaning that he could be anywhere. Marty says they have a lot of grovelling to do with, “these people,” and his idea of grovelling is to get Arthur committed somewhere to invalidate anything he has to say on the subject of defoliants causing carcinogenic particulates in well water. Michael disabuses them of that notion by reminding them that of their six hundred lawyers the one who knows the most about psychiatric commitment statutes is Arthur. This scene says Arthur is being pursued by both sides, one side wants him dead and the other side wants him in an institution. Michael, who still hasn’t seen the memo, just wants him back on his pills.

Arthur in crowds in New York. As he moves down the street it suddenly becomes clear that Mr. Verne is tailing him. This is why we had the shot at the golf club, so that we would recognise Mr. Verne when we saw him here. It isn’t enough anymore to know that Arthur is being tailed, we also need to know which side is doing it. Meanwhile, Mr. Verne’s associate Mr. Iker is breaking into Arthur’s loft apartment. Arthur walks down the street without a care.

Michael in his apartment. The book Henry left in his kitchen, that they discussed on the school run, is still lying there and Michael picks it up, shows it to the camera and opens it to the title page so we get the point. The point is that later on he will find an annotated copy of this book in Arthur’s apartment and make the connection to this one. Then he phones Arthur and leaves a long message, the telephone message equivalent of ten shots from a Smith & Wesson revolver. We hear Michael’s message coming out of Arthur’s phone and we can see Mr. Iker moving around in the apartment at the same time. The gist of his message is that he agrees with Arthur, that they are janitors, victims, but he (Michael) wants to help and Arthur should call him straight away. The bits he says about agreeing with Arthur do not really come across as sincere. I don’t think Michael actually understands what Arthur was talking about, he just says he does to be friendly, to get Arthur to cooperate with him, so that he can get Arthur back on his medication. I don’t think Michael actually understands anything until he sees the memo for himself. The call is cut off by the machine and Michael’s frustration is palpable.

Arthur is standing in a busy section of downtown surrounded by the bright lights and bustle of city life, people rushing by, buses, multi-coloured neon lights and he seems happy, there is the child-like smile on his face of a small boy coming downstairs on Christmas morning and seeing the lights on the tree. Then he sees an advert for uNorth play out on one of the screens and his expression changes to one of suspicion, not quite fear but denial of the message of the ad and he backs away, fearful of turning round and leaving himself exposed. This scene represents the second coming of Arthur Edens. When he undressed in that deposition room in Milwaukee he was saying, “I will defend you no more,” but in this scene he decides that he needs to act, to oppose them, to become the antagonist.

A trivia note about this scene is that we can say fairly precisely where and when it was shot. He is standing in Times Square on the corner of West 42nd street and 7th Avenue and the uNorth ad that he watches is on the north corner, identified because we can see the Hard Rock Cafe in the background to its right. Then as the camera pans round, behind his head we see a scrolling news banner for the forthcoming Superbowl that says that tackle Sean Locklear will play. This can therefore only be referring to Superbowl XL when Sean Locklear played for the Seattle Seahawks in their only Superbowl appearance on 5th Feb 2006, so the scene must have been shot shortly before then, say, last week of January 2006.

Rural winter. Early morning. Pretty obviously one of the small farms Arthur talked about. A phone rings and it’s Arthur wanting to talk to Anna. Arthur mentioned Anna in his jailhouse speech. In this film she stands for all the litigants, all those damaged by uNorth’s defoliant. She is not a single victim, she is all victims but there is very little attempt in the film to portray the size of the problem. Several times the value of the suit is mentioned but we are told just once how many litigants there are and once how many have died. One film critic I read said, “the film wants to have a moral heart,” but that completely misses the point of the story. The victims are not the story. The story is not about poisoned well water or how morally bereft capitalist corporations can be. The story is about friendship, it’s about love and honesty and standing up for the disadvantaged and taking care of the people you care about and it’s about who is prepared to stand up and be counted when the shit hits the fan.

The absence of victims is a therefore an entirely sensible choice about story. We had that poignant scene between Henry and Arthur establishing Arthur as victim, and we’ve had several clues to the friendship between Arthur and Michael so when the time comes the viewer is emotionally invested in the idea of Michael avenging Arthur’s death. Introducing other victims obscures that and waters it down making the film about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do rather than about one man gaining revenge for the death of his friend. The film is called Michael Clayton for a reason, it isn’t called how Wisconsin farmers won their case, and it’s important to keep the story focused on what the film is really about. That’s why Anna is all of the other victims.

We cut to Mr. Verne and Mr. Iker in a van outside Arthur’s apartment building monitoring this call. Later, Michael will have to wrestle with how people knew about the content of Arthur’s phone calls, so this scene is the viewer having information the main character does not, but which he later needs. The content of the call itself is hugely ambiguous. The first time I saw the film this scene said that Arthur was romantically interested in Anna, he said things like, “you meet someone and everything changes,” and he mentioned doing things together and about him helping her with her independence, and it came across as a sick old man chatting up a pretty young woman and seemed completely out of context. But it is also the continuation of a previous conversation, he asks her, “did you think about what I said?” and so the conversation we hear has to be interpreted in the context of what he said earlier, which we know nothing about. So in this scene we get information Michael needs and are told about information Arthur and Anna have shared but which remains secret; except that Mr Verne is listening in. The emphasis on timing has temporarily shifted and it is now about who knows what about whom?

Michael and Gabe the loan shark guy are sat in a coffee shop. Michael says he can get $12,000 by Monday but Gabe says that won’t work, that will just make people nervous. Gabe suggests remortgaging his apartment but Michael says he did that already, and when asked he denies being back at the tables but we have already seen the future so we know that he shortly will be. Then he realises what Gabe is driving at and asks if he is kidding. Gabe says that if “he” finds out that Michael is playing cards with his money there will be no dialogue after that. Gabe’s suggestion is to get out a treasure map and start digging. Then he says that Michael has a week. Michael is in trouble and running out of both options and time.

Michael visits Marty Bach’s house and from the way his wife greets him and he makes his way upstairs it is clear he has been there before. We also know from his wife’s one line of dialogue that it is morning. Michael has come to ask for his loan but Marty is focused on the uNorth case. He tells Michael that he has just heard that Arthur has been talking to the plaintiffs, information that Marty obviously got from Karen Crowder via Mr. Verne. The interesting thing is that by following the chronology, and basing it on the fact that when we saw Michael’s car blow up the caption said, “four days earlier,” and we have not yet returned to his car blowing up, Marty is telling Michael what he knows about a phone call that took place this morning. Within the last few hours. Marty Bach and Karen Crowder have each other on speed dial.

Then Michael spots Arthur’s briefcase on a chair and Marty says it came up with the other stuff from Arthur’s office. This is almost certainly not true. For Marty’s version to be true requires Karen Crowder, the last person known to have the briefcase, to break into Arthur’s office and leave it there. It isn’t credible for Mr. Verne, wherever he was when Karen contacted him, to fly to Milwaukee, pick up the briefcase, fly to New York, break into Arthur’s office and be out before Marty and Barry start ransacking Arthur’s office that morning. The most likely explanation is that Karen Crowder gave it to Marty yesterday morning when she met with him to discuss the memo. A generous interpretation is that the detail of how it got there is not important to Marty and he is confused about what actually happened. This being a thriller we must consider deception, especially when we consider why Marty might be lying to Michael. Marty’s number one priority is Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, their income, their credibility, their standing and this supposedly forthcoming merger. To that end getting Arthur committed somewhere is a high priority item for Marty so letting Michael know about the memo and that Arthur may have very good reasons for what he did does not fit into Marty’s agenda. It is becoming clear, then, that Marty is not just the genial oaf who signs the cheques but is doing stuff behind the scenes that we don’t know about for purposes we might not have been briefed on.

Then Michael pays him back with a lie of his own. He asks Marty for the loan and apologises for jumping him and says, “I have been trying to get a meeting with you for the last two weeks,” which is probably an exaggeration; he had his restaurant auction two days ago and expected that to raise the money. But he is under pressure and in this scene he tells us that what Arthur told him in the hotel room in Milwaukee is true, he is a victim of the system too. He tells Marty his fears about the consequences of the merger and Marty tells him that everyone who needs to know knows how valuable he is. “I’m forty five years old and I’m broke, I’ve been riding shotgun for twelve years and I’ve got no equity, I’m sorry but I don’t feel reassured,” Michael says. It comes out that he has asked Marty several times to go back to litigation but Marty tells him that anyone can do that, that what Michael does is special and that he is very good at it. They keep switching from being boss and employee to being friends who have known each other a long time and back again but Marty gets in his line that sorting Arthur out is crucial, everything, he says, depends on it, “that by this time next week everything will be under control,” and then he walks out leaving Michael alone with his loan request unresolved. That’s two people setting deadlines for Michael of one week. Michael’s clock is ticking down, options are getting fewer.

Inside Arthur’s loft and the buzzer sounds. It’s Michael looking for Arthur and Mr. Verne is outside in a van with camera surveillance and he probably has wifi sound too. Michael gets back in his car and Henry is with him. Henry asks why they don’t just give uncle Jimmy a call and get the cops to help find him. Michael says it’s not that kind of a problem and they drive off. Henry asks how much longer they are going to be doing this so we can assume they have been at this a while. Henry has had enough and wants to go home: Michael probably feels the same. The love between them is not there, nerves and tempers are a little bit exposed like lemon juice on a paper cut.

Michael finds Arthur walking home from a baker’s with sixteen loaves of bread under his arm. Michael starts to lose his cool a bit and it is clear that attempts to rein Arthur in and keep everyone else on song are taking a toll on Michael and he has not forgotten and is not yet ready to forgive that Arthur ran out of the hotel just yesterday morning. Michael tries to impress upon Arthur the seriousness of the situation, how seriously the other parties are taking it, that he is covering for Arthur and telling everyone that it’s going to be fine but Arthur is not helping by calling this girl in Wisconsin and before Michael can explain what the call was about Arthur latches on to this and wants to know how Michael knows about this phone call.

Mr. Verne told Karen Crowder about this call and she told Marty Bach who told Michael Clayton and now Michael is telling Arthur about this call that he made not four or five hours ago and Arthur is stunned and justifiably annoyed. Michael says he neither knows nor cares how Marty found out about the call but that what matters is that Arthur’s actions are not helping his case. He intimates that what happened in Milwaukee gives them some options but Arthur instantly becomes a lawyer demonstrating the knowledge Michael attributed to him in an earlier scene. Arthur points out that whatever happened in another state is irrelevant in New York where Arthur has no criminal record, “where the single most important determining factor for involuntary incarceration is danger, to himself or others,” and Arthur asks Michael rhetorically whether he has, “the horses for that?” Then he tells Michael that the last place Michael wants to see Arthur is in a court room and having just seen a very different Arthur we know he isn’t joking. Michael backs off telling Arthur he is not the enemy. “Then who are you?” asks Arthur. When no answer is forthcoming Arthur turns and walks away. Having discovered that his phone is tapped and that other aspects of his life are probably under surveillance Arthur can no longer trust anyone; everyone is the enemy. In Times Square he decided to become the antagonist and actively oppose uNorth and now he knows that he has to do it on his own.

The uNorth ad we saw in Times Square is playing. Arthur is in his loft apartment and is repeatedly playing the opening of the ad. Mr. Verne and Mr. Iker are listening in from their van and we gradually learn that Arthur has been recording the audio from the ad and then he takes the tape he has made and plays it, loudly, while making a phone call to his own voicemail at Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. It is clear, however, that the call is not really to himself but to whoever is listening in. Arthur knows they are there and even addresses them, asking if everyone is listening in so he wants them to hear what he has to say. That’s because the music of the ad is Arthur’s opening message to the spooks, by playing the uNorth theme he is saying, “pay attention guys, this is about uNorth,” which is why he asks them if they can hear him, which he means both literally and metaphorically. As Arthur reads out and translates into layman’s language particularly damaging parts of the memo we see pictures telling the story of the consequences of his call. Mr. Verne phones Karen Crowder, they meet on a city street and he plays her an mp3 file of Arthur’s call and she tells him he has to contain this.

Mr. Verne asks her what “contain” means, is she talking about the paper, the data, and without spelling it out she suggests there might be some option she isn’t thinking of. He tells her they deal in absolutes, and yet they are talking in a language where nothing means what the words would suggest, neither of them wants to say the one thing they think the other one is thinking. She says she understands, and he tells her that with regard to the paper he is not a lawyer, we try, we do what we can, and she says, “and the other way?” He chews his gum and looks across the street at traffic rushing by and taxi cab signs lighting up the night and he says, “is the other way.” Karen is quiet, processing this and Mr. Verne suggests bringing Don into the loop but she shuts that idea down. “This is nothing to do with Don,” she says. They both wait, then Karen asks, “do you think it’s do-able?” and he says they have some ideas. He is clearly a professional who has already considered some options and he shows her some confidence mixed with some caution and she says, “okay.” They wait some more and he asks, “is that okay you understand or okay proceed?” Karen has the look of a cat caught in car headlights as she realises it really is up to her and it has actually come down to this and before she can answer we cut to the next scene.

Nice looking detached house on a tree lined street. There are four cars parked outside suggesting a family occasion and we can hear applause and cheering as some joyous event is being celebrated inside. Michael is there with Henry and about eight other people cheering on as Michael’s father Raymond (Kevin Hagan) gets his grand daughter to help him blow out his birthday candle. His brother Gene (Sean Cullen) and sister-in-law Stephanie (Julia Gibson) are there with their children and Henry looks really happy in this company but Michael has a problem and his joy is a facade. Gene has to go to work, he has a shift and he’s late already but when Michael says he has to go too they both try to persuade him otherwise. Every reason Gene has for leaving applies to Michael too, Stephanie tries to blackmail him by telling Michael that if he goes Henry has to stay and he says he’s good with that, but Stephanie has to take him home afterwards. This is very normal, “my family don’t understand me,” stuff that applies to everyone whilst everyone thinks of themselves as the misunderstood victim.

Gene goes to his bedroom to finish dressing for work, as a police detective, and Michael follows him. Gene says that Timmy has been calling and he’s afraid to talk to Michael, but it’s obvious they are looking at the problem from different directions. Gene sees Timmy’s girlfriend Pammy and the kids as the victims and he has empathy for them and thinks of Timmy’s problem as no big deal, he’s someone who fell off the wagon and Gene’s seen a lot of people doing that lately, “it’s going around,” he says. Michael takes that personally and tells Gene he has not been in a game in over a year, he hasn’t been in a card room in ten months, which might be true right now but we have already seen the future and in a day or two he will be back at the table, in that underground bunker with the Chinese dealer trying to win eighty thousand dollars. “I gambled on the bar,” he says, but he hadn’t gambled on Timmy wiping him out and says, “I put up my walk away money and it’s gone, and I’m scrambling.” to his credit Gene comes round and sees it from Michael’s point of view, he’s sympathetic but has no solutions and is in a rush because he’s already late for work. As Gene walks out Michael hangs his head. He wasn’t looking for eighty thousand dollars from Gene but he was looking for something more than he got. The problem is weighing him down. He told Gene, “if it was you, you’d be in traction,” and there is no obvious way out for him. Gabe had suggested getting out a treasure map and that is increasingly looking like Michael’s only option.

Arthur steps out of his loft and is stunned with a cattle prod. Mr. Verne and Mr. Iker perform a closely choreographed ballet that quickly and efficiently brings Arthur a silent and painless death. The killers are wearing hairnets and plastic rain suits, they move with confidence and assurance through a routine they have clearly rehearsed many times. He is drugged, carried into the bathroom, one shoe and sock are removed and he is injected with something between his toes. The care with which his foot is lowered back to the floor to ensure that there is no bruise on the heel is alarming in its simplicity and reveals a level of thought, preparation and conditioning that leaves the viewer in no doubt that they will never get caught out and you do not want to cross these people because whatever the price, they are going to win.

At the birthday party Pammy gives Michael Timmy’s number and he takes Henry outside to get in the car. Timmy (David Lansbury) is approaching and he’s proud of being clean for eight days but Michael is not impressed. Timmy says he doesn’t know what to do to make it right between them and Michael suggests he could start by giving Stephanie her tyres back. Despite his personal problems and the things Timmy owes him his first thought was for someone else, the same trait that saw him drive out to Westchester at three in the morning to fix someone else’s problem and has seen him chasing Arthur to get him back on his pills. Michael seems to put everyone else first and maybe the solution to his problem is to put himself first in the queue for once.

In the car as they drive away Henry knows that Timmy has been on drugs and it’s quite frightening to think that a child that young knows about such stuff. They drive down the street a short way and Michael pulls the car over to tell Henry that he doesn’t have to worry about any of that, “you’re not going to be one of these people who goes through life wondering why shit keeps falling out of the sky on them,” he says, and it’s difficult to see this as anything other than Michael projecting his own problems onto Henry. There is no easy way to end this conversation because Henry is just a kid who has no witty come back but just nods wide-eyed at his father as though he has understood what he was talking about and Michael gets a call on his mobile that he just has to answer.

Michael is in a police station and detective Dalberto (David Zayas) is telling him how Arthur was found by his neighbours who had water flooding into their place from Arthur’s bathroom above. The detective outlines how hard it was for police to gain entry to Arthur’s loft, it was locked up so well it took them ten minutes to get in. There were pills all over the place and the detective is aware of the problems Arthur had been having and has concluded that it was suicide. He conceded that there was no note and it might have been an accident but he was waiting for toxicology reports. The obvious question is: Why was it necessary for Arthur to be running the bath, why was it so important that his body be found quickly? The answer seems to be so that his death becomes known to the lawyers at Kenner, Bach and Ledeen, to let them know that anything Arthur might have to say about the memo has ceased to be a problem.

Michael goes to a bar and meets Marty Bach and they talk about Arthur’s death. Although they both hate to admit it and agree it is the wrong thing to be thinking at that point, they agree that they dodged a bullet there. “We caught a lucky break, didn’t we,” Michael says, and Marty agrees. They discuss the implausibility of suicide. How is it that Arthur was such a bull in the alleyway protesting that the last place Michael wanted to see him was in court, then two hours later he kills himself? How come Arthur, who, according to Marty, couldn’t take a piss without leaving a memo, didn’t leave a suicide note? Marty is explaining how incomprehensible Arthur was when Barry Grissom comes in and says they have to go back to the office because Don Jeffries at uNorth wants to settle the case.

The film started here, with them “jamming it through” late into the night and then we went back four days so we are almost back where we started except that this time we know exactly why Karen Crowder was hiding in the ladies toilets with a sweat stain the size of Iowa in her armpit. But as Marty and Barry leave the bar Michael looks confused and the settlement doesn’t seem to make any sense to him. Why defend the case for six years at a cost of nine million dollars in lawyers fees only to give up when the lead lawyer kills himself? Too many questions and not enough answers.

The phone rings in a darkened room. Anna’s sister answers it in her pyjamas and it’s Michael calling. He is looking for Anna and the woman on the phone is really annoyed with him but tells him Anna has flown to New York to meet Arthur.

Michael appears at a hotel out by the airport. Mr. Verne and Mr. Iker are on surveillance in the car park and observe his arrival.

In Anna’s hotel room she tells Michael that she came to New York because Arthur promised to show her something that would win the whole case. She is crying and we must assume Michael has told her that Arthur is dead but she believed him, he spent eight hundred dollars on her flight and she believed that he had something of importance to show her and she had not told a single other person about her trip. Michael already knows that Arthur’s phone calls were being monitored so when Arthur phoned Anna and told her this important thing and arranged for her to come to New York, uNorth knew that she was coming and why. Michael is now convinced that Arthur’s death was no accident and he knows who was responsible. What he needs now is whatever Arthur had against them.

Michael goes to see his brother Gene and gets a special pass that lets him past the police line. He wants to use it to get into Arthur’s loft but he doesn’t tell Gene which property it’s for. Gene guesses its for the restaurant and Michael asks him do you really want to know?

Michael lets himself into Arthur’s loft. Mr. Verne and Mr. Iker are watching from a car across the street. Michael finds the Realm + Conquest book, heavily highlighted by Arthur. In the book he sees a picture of two horses on a hill under a tree by moonlight and something falls out of the book. He picks it up. It’s a receipt for copying at a copy shop at 283 West Broadway, which is in real life the Tribeca 5 apartment building with three bedroom apartments going for $2.4 million US dollars each. Then the police come in and he is arrested.

Gene pulls some strings with detective Dalberto and Michael is released but Gene is not happy because he now owes Dalberto his balls for the favour and has risked his pension which is eighteen months away. Michael tries to get in that someone had to have called it in, someone called 911 to report an intruder and Michael has a point because we saw Mr. Verne and his buddy in the car outside as Michael went in. But Gene is not quick enough and too upset to think clearly. “You got all these cops thinking you’re a lawyer. You got all these lawyers thinking you’re some kind of cop. You got everybody fooled don’t you?” Gene walks away still annoyed with his brother and Michael is out there on a limb, hanging on by his fingernails like Buster Keaton dangling from a clock face over the busy streets of downtown and all he can see in his future is a horrible squishy mess when he lets go.

Michael is in the copy shop with Arthur’s receipt collecting whatever it was Arthur thought was so important. Arthur has ordered three thousand copies of the memo to be copied and bound in nice covers ready for distribution to everyone on his mailing list. Michael takes a copy and tips the copy clerk a hundred dollars to hold on to them for him. As Michael leaves, Mr. Iker comes into the shop.

Karen Crowder and Don Jeffries and several of their friends and associates are walking along a street with briefcases, obviously on their way to a meeting. Three of them are on the phone, then Karen answers hers and that makes four of them. Whatever it is she hears suprises her and she slows down and the others move past her and leave her behind. She turns across the street and Mr. Verne is watching her, waiting to tell her something he does not want to commit to the airwaves. She crosses the street and confirms that she knows who Michael Clayton is and Mr. Verne shows her a copy of the memo. “We have a situation,” he says, with masterful understatement. She has that sick look on her face we saw when she was facing down her demons in the toilets at Kenner, Bach and Ledeen. This is her worst nightmare. This is waking up at three in the morning with hundreds of spiders in her bed and a snake on her pillow and it’s looking at her, and she suddenly realises that the reason she woke up is because it has already bitten her.

Michael walks into Marty’s office and they have one of those multi-stranded conversations where they always seem to be talking at cross purposes to each other but arrive at a point where at least one of them is happy he said what needed to be said. Marty wants Michael to liaise with the people organising Arthur’s memorial service, and he has a cheque for Michael, which he says they’re going to call a bonus, but there are strings and Michael will have to sign a contract. Michael finally understands the message Arthur wrote on his bedroom wall and waves the memo at Marty and tries to get across that Arthur was on to something, that maybe he wasn’t mad, maybe he was right after all but Marty isn’t interested. “This case reeked from day one,” Marty says, “Fifteen years in I got to tell you how we pay the rent?” Michael asks what would happen if Arthur had gone public with what he had and Marty refuses to speculate, he says that if they don’t sort out this settlement in 24 hours they’re going to withhold nine million dollars in legal fees, broadcast the video of Arthur doing his striptease in Milwaukee which will end the merger with London and Kenner, Bach and Ledeen will be selling off the furniture. Marty hands Michael the cheque for eighty thousand but as he takes it he realises that just as Arthur had found himself adrift fighting the good fight on his own he is now perhaps the only one who cares that Arthur’s death might not have been a suicide.

Michael walks out of an elevator into a corridor and he and Karen Crowder miss each other by a second. She has her scared face on and we assume she has just come from her meeting with Mr. Verne and is rushing into the meeting with Don Jeffries and friends.

Night time. Tim’s restaurant. Michael hands Gabe a cheque for seventy five thousand and they are square. “No bad blood,” as Gabe puts it. One problem solved.

Michael is in the underground poker parlour again so we know that he is shortly going to drive to Westchester for his rendevous with Mr. Screamy-Shouty. This time around his visit is intercut with shots of Mr. Iker in Michael’s car, setting the bomb behind the stereo and jumping out smartly when Mr. Verne alerts him through his wifi headset that Michael has left the game. So we discover how Michael’s car got blown up by remote control, and more importantly we finally grasp why his car was blown up; it’s Mr. Verne’s solution to the, “situation,” he told Karen Crowder about. She got bitten by a snake and the car bomb is her biting back.

For some reason they’ve put both a tracking device and a bomb in the car and as Michael drives to Westchester Mr. Iker is trying to read his GPS tracking Michael’s car but his wiring was rushed as he had to jump out quick and the signal is intermittent, which is what’s causing Michael’s GPS to flicker. All the things that confused us at the beginning are being carefully unravelled and the pieces are slotting into place, people are taking their positions and the denouement is rushing towards us like the lights on the highway speeding towards a car being driven too fast.

Michael caught them by surprise when he left Mr. Screamy-Shouties and with their GPS playing up they lose him in the country roads, tempers are fraying, the super cool killers are starting to look like amateurs on their first job and Michael seems to be getting away from them even though he has no idea he is being followed. He stops by the horses and is as confused as we were at the beginning. He can see this scene that was pictured in Arthur’s book, that Henry told him about, and although Michael suspects it means something he can’t make anything of it. It’s actually a pretty surreal experience because it is just about the only moment of peace in the whole film and as we watch it for the second time we know that any second the car is going to blow up and we will be plunged into the abyss, our four days of rehash are over and we will, for the first time in the film, be experiencing the future.

The car blows up. Michael takes about half a minute to process what happened, two quick, furtive glances up and down the road then he throws his watch and wallet into the flames and runs off into the woods.

Early morning. City street. A battered old second hand car pulls up to the kerb and Timmy is at the wheel. Michael gets in. Timmy thanks him. He doesn’t say what for but he doesn’t have to. Timmy didn’t know what he could do to make it up between them and Michael has given him something, some way to redeem himself. The car pulls away.

Two men we don’t know are in a meeting and a third man sticks his head in the door to tell them that Michael Clayton was killed in a car bomb this morning. Marty Bach is told but it’s hard to read his reaction. Is he remembering his conversation with Michael when he said that Arthur was maybe on to something? Is he glad they have already closed the uNorth deal and does he think they dodged a bullet on that one too, or is he remembering his long time friend, seventeen years they’ve known each other, and would Marty be prepared to go out on a limb to get justice for Michael Clayton? I doubt it.

Karen Crowder is in a dressing room getting ready for a meeting and the speech she makes in that meeting is cut over the top of her calmly putting on her earrings. In the meeting she tells her board of directors, about fifteen of them gathered in a huge cinema where they are overshadowed by the room and rendered insignificant by Karen’s performance as she explains why they should act now and settle this case. She is, for the first time in the film, in control of both her emotions and the situation. Back in her dressing room she looks at herself in the mirror and smiles for the first time. She looks confident and assured as she paces back and forth while addressing her board in a manner that in her mind leaves them only one option; to agree with her. She retires to let them consider her proposal at this, her moment of triumph. This is the moment she has worked for, everything was for this and when they accept, as they will, as they surely must, she will be the queen of uNorth and the toast of her colleagues for successfully steering them through this horrible mess at virtually no cost to the company at all. She has won.

Outside the board meeting she turns round and Michael Clayton is leaning against the wall. She is speechless. If he had any doubts they dissipate right there. The look on her face says that she knows, and he knows that she knows and he is the one in control now. He asks her coolly how it went in there. She can’t move her mouth and he waves the memo at her, “Have you got one of these?” he asks, “It’s a great memo. It’s an oldy but a goody.” She finally finds her voice and tells him that, “we have a deal,” that whatever that is, pointing at the memo, “it’s meaningless at this point.”

Michael isn’t convinced. “You think,” he asks her. He suggests that they don’t actually have a deal, they just have a tentative proposal, “I didn’t realise you’d actually signed all those cheques yet.”

She has nothing.

“That’s a drag,” Michael says, “I’ve got a thousand of these, what the hell am I going to do with them?”

She threatens to phone Marty and he’s cool with that. “Good, good, do it. Let’s find out who told him that Arthur was calling Anna Kysersen. Let’s find out who tapped those phones.”

Karen tries to bluff him. “That memo, even if it’s authentic, which I doubt…”

Michael interrupts her, “I know what you did to Arthur…”

“…it’s protected,” she continues, pretending not to notice what he said. “It belongs to uNorth.” She claims attorney client privilege but Michael cuts her off. “You really are lost, aren’t you. I’m not the guy that you kill, I’m the guy that you buy. Can’t you see what I am?” He tells her he’s a bag man, a fixer, “I sold out Arthur for eighty grand and a three year contract, and you’re going to kill me?” he asks her, incredulous that she really doesn’t have a clue. But she gets it, finally, and sees a way out for herself. “What do you want?” she asks.

He tells he wants more, he wants out, he waves the memo at her and tells her he wants everything.

“Is there a number?” she murmurs, glimpsing a way through the thickets, a light at the end of the tunnel.

“Ten, is a number,” he says.

He lets her work out that he means ten million dollars and she almost laughs at him. So he reminds her who signed the memo and suggests they go in the boardroom and ask Don Jefferies if they want to pass the hat for a worthy cause.

She recovers her composure and suggests that this would have to be a longer conversation and it would have to take place somewhere else.

Michael makes it easier for her. “Let’s make it five,” he says. “Five, and I’ll forget about Arthur.”

She agrees that five is easier. “We can talk about that.”

“Good,” he says, “and the other five is for the 468 people that you knocked off with your weed killer.”

She asks him if she can finish off her meeting but he cuts her off, “Do I look like I’m negotiating,” he says, angry at her attempt to weasel out.

Don Jefferies opens the door and asks her if everything is alright. She asks him to wait one second then turns back to Michael. She is seconds away from getting her prize, she just needs to conclude this deal with Michael. “Yes,” she says.

Michael lays it out. “Ten million dollars, bank of my choosing, offshore, immediately.”

“Yes.”

“Say it,” he orders.

She does. “Ten million dollars, your account, the moment this meeting is through.”

Don Jefferies calls from the doorway, “I’m coming Don,” she says, triumphant.

“You’re so fucked,” Michael says. He pulls out his cell phone and takes her picture. Don Jefferies comes over to see what the problem is. Michael turns and walks away and Don asks the security men to stop that man, but they walk past Michael. Don asks them who they are and they say, “We’re detectives with NYPD,” and in the background, barely noticed, Karen Crowder sinks to the floor and the camera follows Michael Clayton as he walks away. He hands the phone to his brother Gene, he makes sure his brother heard it all and Gene, their previous argument forgotten, reminds his brother to stay close.

The camera stays with Michael and it’s his face we see in close up at his moment of triumph. He’s solved all the problems life threw at him, he’s paid back the loan shark and repaired his relationships with his brothers Timmy and Gene and he has wreaked revenge on Karen Crowder and uNorth for his friend’s death and although it looked at times as though the film was going to be about a lot of other things it turns out it was about him all along. Which is why it’s called Michael Clayton.

 

notes:
1) In the scene where Karen Crowder is read Michael Clayton’s bio’, the associate’s reading of the law school is unclear. I’m sure the word she uses starts with a ‘B’, and there are three law schools in New York starting with a ‘B’. Two of them are private and the third is public. I’m assuming that public means it is state funded while private means you have to pay for yourself, so, since his father is a policemen, a respectable but not notably high salaried profession, I’m going with the public option. Therefore, I have him going to University at Buffalo Law School. The private options are the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, or Brooklyn Law School and it remains possible that he went to an entirely fictional law school or one not within New York.

2) There is no Washingtonville Central High School in Orange County, New York. There is a Washingtonville High School, and a Valley Central High School.

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