Friday, 4 October 2013

Friday Five: University Novels

I am currently rehearsing for a play by Helen Machalias called In Loco Parentis. It is set on campus at university and explores the question of just who is responsible for the welfare of the students. It raises some interesting issues and as I am working with young folk who are still undergoing the graduate experience I am amazed at how much it has changed in the past twenty years. In other ways it hasn't. To wit: people still do the incredibly stupid things that we used to, but now they look to blame someone else for the consequences.

Anyway, it led me to think about the novels I have read set in universities and how they have changed over time. It seems the biggest difference has been in 'elitism' which has now come to be a dirty word. People used to go to universities because they were academically bright. Now they go because everyone can and it stops them having to get a 'real' job for a few more years. In general the attitude towards those attending (both students and lecturers) has become less respectful or mysterious and a lot more antagonistic and commonplace.

I have never read Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, or any of Tom Sharpe's varsity novels, although I'm told they're hilarious. I was also told that about Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, although I didn't find it to be so. I read it at a fairly young age, but I found it callous, cruel, sexist and with a chip on its shoulder. I feel the same way about Bret Easton Ellis' novels, with an added dose of shiny narcissism and lackustre prose, so I am discounting The Rules of Attraction.

Although James Joyce's Ulysses nearly destroyed me (it is the novel it has taken me the most attempts to read), I actually read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at the first try. I'm not a fan of the stream-of-consciousness novel, however, so it's not one of my favourites. Nor is Europa by Tim Parks for the same reason, although there were some light moments buried amid the lengthy paragraphs.

Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure is a powerful tragedy but it made me laugh out loud, which cannot be a good thing. Maybe I am lacking in sensitivity, but I felt Thomas trampled all over subtlety, as did Donna Tartt in The Secret History. This is highly praised by many of my friends (whose opinions on such matters I respect) but I failed to see anything above the obvious in this over-long and condescending novel. I do consider J M Coetzee's Disgrace to be a piece of brilliance, but it strays from campus early on, so probably doesn't count as a university novel.

5 Favourite Varsity/Campus Novels:
  1. Still Life/ The Biographer's Tale - A.S. Byatt: the woman can write! And no, before you ask, I've not yet read Possession. It has been on my bookshelf for years, calling to me for a special occasion - this Christmas perhaps?
  2. Deaf Sentence - David Lodge: the first novel of his that I have read. I doubt it will be the last.
  3. Jill - Philip Larkin: his poetry can be a bit annoyng, but his prose style is sublime.
  4. Gaudy Night - Dorothy L Sayers: life at a women's college in Oxford, struggling for equality in both academic and social spheres - but such fun!
  5. Degrees for Everyone - Bob Jones: academic satire, which is cutting, acerbic and sadly true. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Every Cloud Has One

Silver Linings Playbook could be the worst representation of a film by trailers ever. I didn’t think I would particularly enjoy it (but am cursed by a need to see all Oscar-nominated films), but five minutes into it I realised that I read the book (by Matthew Quick) four years ago and loved it.

Maybe my memory is going and I should have remembered the title, but being as they changed the lead character’s name and ethnicity, the importance of the minor characters (who are truly minor in the novel), the ending and the whole point of the story, it may not be quite so surprising. I still liked the film – very loosely based on the novel – but the question remains; did Jennifer Lawrence deserve that Oscar for best actress?

The answer is possibly, but no more so than Bradley Cooper as best actor, but then, the Academy had already decided to give that to Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln, which meant the best aspect of this film went unrewarded. Cooper plays Pat Solatano Jnr., who checks out of a mental health institution against medical advice. He was committed after assaulting his wife’s lover and has served his sentence, but has also been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.

One of the conditions of his release is that he moves home with his parents – father Pat Snr. is a study in OCD played by Robert de Niro, while mother, Dolores, is an anxious conciliator played by Jacki Weaver. Pat Jnr. has a couple of ambitions: to get back his old job as a substitute teacher, and to get back with his ex-wife, Nikki. He believes he can accomplish his goals through healthy living (he runs every day) and positive thinking, looking for silver linings in every situation, and remaking himself by avoiding negativity, “a poison like nothing else”.

In keeping with his new up-beat mentality, Pat Jnr. reads only the books on the English language syllabus that have happy endings – he throws Hemingway out of the window. Neither does he approve of Lord of the Flies in which he deplores that humanity is nasty, and there are no silver linings. Even if he weren’t suffering a mental illness, he would find it tough to remain resilient in the face of his brother, Jake’s (Shea Whigham) insistence on talking of all the things that are going right for himself and wrong for Pat Jnr.

He also worries about his father’s commitment to the Philadelphia Eagles, who seem to suffer from an inferiority complex, getting close to success and then blowing it. Pat Snr. attempts to control the results of the games through various rituals with handkerchiefs and envelopes. The sport, however, is the way that they bond, and, although his father has been banned from the stadium, they go to watch a game together, with Dolores’ advice to, “Don’t drink too much; don’t fight anybody.”

His old friend, Ronnie (John Ortiz), invites him to dinner with his domineering wife, Veronica (Julia Stiles) and her sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), dealing with her husband’s death through reckless promiscuity. If this is supposed to offer an alternative home scenario, it is not a particularly appealing one. Everyone has problems and is undergoing a variety of therapy. Ronnie goes to the garage when he gets angry, where he plays loud music and punches things to work out his aggression.

Besides sex, Tiffany uses dance as a physical outlet. She is the first to admit, “I’m not that great a dancer, but who cares – it’s therapy and I like it” She needs a partner to perform a routine, so she teaches Pat Jnr to dance, sharing intimacy and touch. More than the necessary steps, he learns to let go of the past and painful memories and begins to live in the present, assimilating valuable lessons of focus, collaboration and discipline.

Pat Jnr knows that he lacks a filter when he talks, which allows him to ask inappropriate questions no one else would broach. While this can be awkward, it also leads to occasional humorous circumstances. Yes, this film is actually billed as a romantic comedy, in defiance of all categorising constructs. Who knew that restraining orders, neuroses, grievous assault, pain, anger and sorrow were funny? The mother, father, and son trio form a lonely and dysfunctional unit, which seems unlikely to provoke laughs.

The camera-work is hand-held jerky although at the low end of the nausea scale, and the direction (David O. Russell) is light although slightly inconsistent. Russell also wrote the screenplay and he has made the main characters much more likeable and ‘fixable’. There are some continuity issues with costume and jewellery, but I’m prepared to overlook them for the mostly fabulous soundtrack featuring a range of great music from the Clash and the White Stripes through to The Stranglers and the Sex Pistols.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Crossing the Line: 'Contemporary Art'

I love art. I love the whole concept of transmitting ideas through visual media. I spend a lot of time in art galleries, wandering about, looking and thinking and feeling. I often feel like that robot in Short Circuit who needed input, and I search for it such places. Obviously I like some stuff more than others – we all do. There’s nothing wrong with that. Art is largely subjective, and that’s completely acceptable and, in fact, what makes it so interesting.

Sometimes, however, I feel as though it is April Fool’s Day, and I find myself looking for the candid camera, such as at the Contemporary Gallery of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. I realise some people might like this, and fair play to them, but for me there is a line and this is where I draw it. These really are the Emperor’s New Clothes.

If the explanation is more artistic than the execution, it is a failed project. The real artist is the curator or whoever has written this guff – the more you need to write; the less successful the artwork. Now, I’m all for words and words for all, and I agree that great art can be complex and evade easy interpretation; it can draw you in and make you think, but these particular pieces just made me laugh. And not in a good way. See for yourself.

Wall Drawing #337 and Wall Drawing #338 by Sol Lewitt
Sol Lewitt has an artwork here called Rectangle Open: it’s a large white frame in the shape of a rectangle. Yup, that’s it.

His Wall Drawing #337 looks like a series of test paint colour spots on the wall, as a home rennovator decides which shade of magnolia they want in the hallway. Apparently they are created by ‘professional draughtspeople following Lewitt’s instructions’ thus making the instructions themselves the work of art. Seriously, that's what it says. 

The descriptor adds that the works are manifested by others – all are slightly different and no single work is the definitive version. The pretentious artist piffles on that it is ‘as though I am writing a piece of music and somebody else is going to play it on the piano.’ There are another 336 of these? They are certainly four-letter drawings beginning with 'w'. 

Canopy LI by Brian Blanchflower
Poor Brian Blanchflower is seemingly 'little known outside his native Perth.' Shame. Many more poeple could do with a laugh. The hapless viewer is instructed that these works (there are four of them) of oils on wax medium and pumice powder on laminated hessian exude energy in their technique.

The coarse thickness of paint on the support and then repeated gestures that both recede and deepen, and the layering of pigments, visually swell the material surface. The effect of the paintings is meant to be similar to the under-painting of Monet’s late water-lilies, as the angle of the light is reflected from the surface to reveal structures and grids embedded in the layers of paint, as you move around the room.

Pictorially the images map out the rhythm of time passing with marks, gestures and colour. The multiple layers of colour and mineralised paint suggest geological accretion. Metaphorically they chart the passage of the heavens or the earth; “this expression of the void in the earth, of being and nothingness, invokes the horizon where consciousness and materiality lightly touch.”

Untitled (elongated plinths) by Rachel Whiteread
"Rachel Whiteread is known especially for her negative casts of domestic spaces, in which she turns empty space into a solid. Here she has cast the plinth forms in the negative from a classically moulded silhouette of a dado that has been stretched to make a positive form the size of a bed or a mortuary slab. They are exactly the right size to be containers for the human body and could easily be read as sarcophagi.

"In addition to being made strange by elongation, the material is a semi-opaque white plastic over foam, which has an oddly ambiguous materiality. From a distance it could be marble, reinforcing the tomblike appearance. At close quarters, however, the light seems to be within the objects, or passing through them. This apparent transparency or luminosity makes them very mysterious, like the cryogenic containers so often represented in science fiction movies."