Review

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I’ve recently finished reading Heart of Darkness, Joseph Konrad’s novella set in late 19th century Africa, which inspired Apocalypse Now. I’m one of the few people who’ve not seen the film, so I won’t be able to make any comparisons – though there was a disappointingly low number of helicopter attacks.

Heart of Darkness in the Belgian Congo, where crews of various nationalities are working under the power of ‘the company’, who have established a more imperial than capitalist foothold.
The story begins with Charlie Marlowe on the banks of the Thames as night falls, telling the story that follows.
The blurb of my copy claims that Konrad inspired Orwell, Golding, Celine, Borges and Eliot. Being a bit of a philistine, Orwell is the only of those I’ve read, but the writers that came more to mind as I was reading were JG Ballard and Joseph Heller. Ballard’s novels use strange worlds and situations to look at what happens to seemingly civilised people when taken out of civilisation. Heart of Darkness reminded me in particular of The Drowned World, set in a London that’s became a post-apocalyptic swamp. As for the comparisons to Heller – the company appears to be a beauracratic mess. A specialist and highly skilled brickmaker is sent where there are no materials for him to work with, and when a ship runs aground and rivulets are needed to repair it, Marlowe is able to get his hands on everything but. The comedy (or it might be better to call it cynicism) is played deadpan, as opposed to the sometimes zany tone of Catch 22, but there were a few moments that were sharply funny in the same way.

The main idea running through the novel is the effect the environment (the heat, humidity, distance from home) has on people – are they driven slightly mad, or are their true selves coming out? There’s grand talk of civilising the natives, but most of the characters don’t seem to think much of them, and there’s regular use of the ‘n word’. (No, I don’t mean native.) There’s an interesting comparison with Roman soldiers travelling to primitive and remote Britannia, far from their loved ones and what they considered civilisation, so the author clearly knows what he’s doing, rather than having ‘outdated’ views himself.

There isn’t a definite, clear narrative – the novel is more a series of things that happen. Whereas in Apocalypse Now, the hero is assigned to retrieve Kurtz near the start, the plot in Heart of Darkness develops in stages. It’s personal ambition, rather than orders, that take Charlie Marlowe to Congo. He spends time adapting to the environment (where he hears a series of whispers about the missing genius Mr Kurtz) before he is assigned to bring him back to Europe.

But the absence of a strong narrative works well for the book. The substance is  the taking apart of moral frameworks – imperial worldview of the company, Marlowe’s more subtle morality, and Kurtz’ grand ambitions.
All of this is told in prose that’s detailed and enveloping without being too rich, does a lot to build the feeling that Marlowe is feeling, of the Congo getting under the skin.

Verdict: A landmark and influential novella, with provocative ideas and a dash of cynical humour.

Egotism, Recaps

Welcome to my blog!

When I started this blog back in November, I wanted to do so in a low-key way, just in case everything fell apart and I ended up making a total fool of myself. (The key to success is negative thinking – it keeps you hungry.)
I’ve not been promoting the blog properly in ‘real life’, so if you just know me casually, there’s a good chance you won’t know I’ve been writing, both on this blog and other websites.
I’ve also picked up a few new followers over recent weeks, so it’s as good a time as any to go through the different things I write here.

For a short breakdown of the different Categories I’ve used, see the Navigation bar above.
There. That’s pretty much it, end of post. How about we discuss the topical issues of the day – errm, politics?

Those swords definitely aren’t compensating for anything.

Okay, a bit more detail.
I’ve taken a look at a few TV programmes from a slightly technical point of view, (looking at what works and what doesn’t) including a 2000+ word look at the first four minutes of Friends’ pilot. The more I think about the fact I did that, the more I start to worry about what drove me to write at such length.

I’ve written a series of reviews – I’ve fallen behind on my aim of reading a book a week on average and reviewing them all, and I’ve reviewed other things, mainly sitcoms.

I’ve written a few posts that can be classed as either rants or opinion pieces, spoof news for parody website The Leaky Wiki, and other things that are intended to be funny.
I’ve been writing for football website Bornoffside.net, including a mostly weekly column on England’s lower leagues – Leagues One, Two, and the Conference.

So that’s basically what I do here, with more to come in the future. Feel free to click around, and, as always, comments are appreciated.

Review

Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

I wasn’t optimistic about Veronika Decides to Die when I first picked it out. Paulo Coehlo is a name I’m aware of vaguely, but I’d never read anything of his before I noticed Veronika on the shelf of a charity shop.
The blurb also gave me pause for thought:

Veronika has everything in life she could wish for – young and pretty, with plenty of attractive boyfriends, a steady job, a loving family. Yet Veronika is not happy and one winter’s morning she takes an overdose of sleeping pills, only to wake up some time later in the local hospital. There she is told that her heart is now irreparably damaged and she has only a few days to live…
Through these intense days Veronika comes to realise that every second of existence is a choice we all make between living and dying. This is a moving and uplifting song to life, one that reminds us that every moment  in our lives is special and precious.

While others may disagree, to me that sounds like a routine, by the numbers, ‘heartwarming’ story, in which the hero discovers the joy of life, realises there are things worth experiencing, opens her heart, instantly embraces joy, skydives from a plane, blablabla.
It’s not that I disagree with that sort of outlook on life, but in my experience it’s usually handled badly – superficially and cleanly. If I am cynical about ‘heartwarming’ stories, it’s only because it’s a story format that’s hard to pull off in my experience. Its more likely to end up cheesy and sickly sweet, rather than upbeat and optimistic as they’re intended to be.
And Veronika Decides To Die does pull this off – it’s a genuinely sweet book, with the sharp edges – dealing with subjects like misery, mental illness, the difficulty of connecting with others – intact.

Paulo Coelho: You may remember him from such poses as ‘stroking his beard’ and ‘resting his head against his left hand’.

I really like ‘magical realism’ as a style of prose – the type of world that feels more real than reality, a bigger, quirkier and more colourful version of the real world, but still rooted in the complex and sometimes dark emotions of the world around us.
This is achieved partially by the colour and poetry of the prose, and partially with playful ideas – there’s Veronika’s suicide note, Coehlo writes himself into the novel, and one of the doctors believes he’s found a single cause of all madness (one that isn’t totally implausible).

The story begins with the main character, Veronika, deciding on suicide, not because she’s been worn down and is unable to cope with life, but because, on a more intellectual than emotional level feels her life is pointless. It’s an interesting choice for the writer to make, as is the whimsical way the scene plays out – considering placing the blame for her suicide on a magazine article that was mildly rude about Slovenia, her home country.
As mentioned in the blurb, Veronika’s suicide attempt fails, leaving her, weeks from an inevitable death, in a mental institute. But she doesn’t open up straight away – the opposite in fact, shutting down and withdrawing from those around her, so as few people are hurt by her death as possible.
The book takes a long time for the positivity I was expecting to kick in – not only is Veronika consistently negative, but it’s persuasive, logical negativity as well.

As Veronika embraces her loneliness, the scope of the story expands, showing us the patients of the institute, with conditions ranging from anxiety to schizophrenia, and the characters are well drawn, sympathetic and believable.
Having said that, none of the characters are given mental illnesses that place them into an unwinnable situation, and I’m not sure schizophrenia works the way it’s depicted here.
There’s also an event towards the end of the story I found hard to buy, but by the time I reached it, the book had built up enough goodwill, through its tenderness, humour and depth, that I was willing to set my objection aside.

Verdict: A genuinely inspiring and empathic novel, with tenderness and sympathy for it’s flawed characters.

Review

Review: Dead Boss, episodes 1 & 2

Dead Boss is the new sitcom cowritten by and starring Sharon Horgan (Pulling, Annually Retentive, Todd Margaret), and is a darkish comedy with quite a cheerful tone.
The first episode opens in court, after Helen Stephens (Horgan) has just been found guilty of murdering her boss. Some quick exposition lets the audience in on the plot, and the subtext of what’s really going on, as she’s sentenced and led away.

Dead Boss is silly enough to make light of the dark subject (complete with cheerfully upbeat narration and music), but dark enough that interactions with Top Dog and Yvonne (leaders of the prison gang) have menace to them.
There’s a strong story running through the comedy, whereas Life’s Too Short, for instance, is more a series of comic incidents with a plot loosely connecting them. With the process of appeals, and the murder mystery, there’s a strong story here as well as the comic incidents.

But of course, comedies rely on the quality of their jokes, and Dead Boss is packed with good lines, many of them laugh out loud and mostly character based. Some of the jokes are a bit filthy (Horgan was one of the writers on Monkey Dust) but Dead Boss doesn’t reach for the cheap shocks.

Though you may expect a writer-star to give themselves the best lines, there’s a range of strong characters here – Helen’s meek, arsonist cellmate, her cheerfully indifferent sister, Jennifer Saunders as The Governor – almost as selfishly detached and delusional as Absolutely Fabulous‘ Eddy Monsoon – and a cheerfully incompetent lawyer, who announces that ‘Until I get paid, my work will be half-arsed. At best.’

The best comparison I can make on Dead Boss‘ style is with 30 Rock.
I first became aware of 30 Rock by repuation, a fair while before seeing an episode. With it being hyped up so much, I expected something very funny and emotionally and tonally realistic, like Frasier and Cheers at their peaks. In fact, it’s more like Airplane – very funny, but in a silly and inconsequential way, with characters that are quite over the top. Dead Boss is the same.
Dead Boss has the kind of world that isn’t realistic, (and certainly wouldn’t be mistaken for a documentary as The Office apparently was) but has plenty of funny and compelling characters. None of the characters is a Tracy Jordan or Jack Donaghy, but there are a few (Aisling Bea’s and Edward Hogg’s characters in particular) who are just below that level in quality.

Verdict:
Silly but involving ensemble sitcom with colourful characters and big laughs.

Dead Boss is available on BBC iPlayer, episode 3 is on BBC Three at 10:30 Thursday.

Analysis

The Opening Scene of Friends

When I first started this blog, one of my initial aims was to analyse, to look at films and television from an analytical point of view, to tear things apart and look at why they do, or don’t, work.

As part of the process, I’ve looked at a few pilots, in particular how they introduce the characters, to take some tips for my own script.
In particular, the opening scene of Friends is, in my opinion, excellent. I’m not going to look at the quality of the jokes (I think that analysing humour tends to kill whatever was funny about the line or situation, and besides, that’s not really what interests me here) but at the way the characters are introduced.
First of all, I’d recommend you take a look at the video below, as it really is quite funny:

0:00 – 0:28 The episode (and the series) opens by introducing Central Perk coffee shop first, introducing the setting before the characters, and the sign on the window establishes that this is a coffee house.
Four of the main cast are discussing Monica’s pathetic love life, Joey mocking her while being smooth, Chandler quipping, Phoebe talking sympathetically about her ex-boyfriend’s chalk addiction.
Four of the main characters are fundamentally introduced here – Monica is pretty defensive and has romantic troubles, Phoebe is open-hearted and mixes with slightly weird people, Joey and Chandler are being smooth and quippy respectively, and to an extent playing off each other. Bear in mind that this is within the first twenty eight seconds of a brand new programme, and the audience should have a decent sense of who 67% of the main characters are already. That’s pretty efficient story-telling.
I just want to slow down for a second, and look at what we know about these characters based on just this very brief opening section.
Joey is cool, laid back, though the leather jacket is perhaps slightly overstating his character, making him seem a little bit more like Tony Danza than the character Joey Tribbiani would become.
Phoebe has her hair in pigtails (a girlish look) and is genuinely slightly weird, in a way that’s amusing and intriguing, rather than ‘look at me’ wackiness.
Chandler is quippy, with a fast-paced delivery, and Monica is more emotionally open and honest than the other characters, more open to mockery than doing the mocking.

0:28 – 1:00 The scene cuts forward to later, still at the cafe. Chandler is now telling the story of his dream, which is recognisable but… goes off in a weird direction.
And, while I may be reading a bit too much into the scene here, it also touches on the empathy of the series. The core audience was always, as far as I’m aware, people in their mid-twenties – similar people to the characters – just living a more glamourous and exciting life. It’s a slightly cheap trick, but introducing something – anything – that the audience can identify with, will help to build a bond between viewer and character. Also, Chandler’s dream condition sounds quite painful.

1:00 Ross enters, on the verge of collapsing into tears. Upset at his wife having left him, he’s being miserable and self-hating – hatred driven internally, rather than outward.
Joey’s line – ‘This guy says hello, I want to kill myself’ – shows that this is a group of friends willing to make jokes about even the misery they’re going through, suggesting a strong friendship, with no solid boundaries betwee them.
Concentrating on Ross’ behaviour for a moment, it’s striking how different his behaviour is here to in the later years of the series. His reaction to being left by the woman who had pledged to spend the rest of her life with him, makes him understandably miserable, but he doesn’t seem too angry about it.
Imagine if he acted in a different way. Imagine, to pick a totally random example, his ex-girlfriend, who dumped him after he slept with another woman several years earlier, pointed out that this hurt her, and he responded by, out of nowhere, yelling at her about how technically what he did was okay, because technically they hadn’t been a couple for about six hours when he slept with the other woman.
You wouldn’t like that guy, would you? Of course not, that guy’s a jerk, to put it mildly. So unless you have really bad taste in friends, you’d be annoyed by someone with such poor self-control and lack of perspective.
Here though, Ross, though clearly unhappy, has driven his anger inwards, he’s reluctant to even admit he’s angry at his ex-wife, who’s left him for someone else. The Ross – Rachel plot was the central driving narrative in the first few years. With Ross as the main protagonist of the series, establishing him as sympathetic and likeable early on is pretty important.

1:30 Combining my earlier points about Phoebe and Ross, trying to cheer Ross up, Pheobe ‘cleanses his aura’. Ross is clearly annoyed by it, but doesn’t get too worked up.
Ross doesn’t seem the type to believe in spirituality, but even at his emotionally lowest doesn’t snap at her, plus it helps establish Phoebe’s slightly weird personality a bit further.

1:44 Joey: ‘And you never knew she was a lesbian?’ Ross: ‘Why does everyone fixate on that?’
First of all, it’s a really funny line.
I’m not totally aware of the state of gay acceptance in mid-nineties New York. (In my defence, I was a kid living 300 miles away.) But I’ve read references to Ellen’s ‘coming out’ episode as being a major landmark in gay culture, and that came in 1997, three years after this episode was aired.  The idea plays up the metropolitan, colourful nature of New York, and, to an extent shows how nice a guy Ross is that this seems almost irrelevant to him. Though I’m not sure of the cultural context, it may have helped make the show seem edgy.
There were early plots centring around threesomes and being the other man in an open marriage. In the early years it was a little bit edgy, all things considered.

2:25 ‘I just want to be married again’, then Rachel shows up in a wedding dress. Chandler’s next line (‘And I just want a million dollars!’) shows his irreverence, and he’s mocking the show itself to an extent. I don’t want to get bogged down in how much the quality of the show dipped over time, but I’d say this acts as a sort of promise to the audience, that there’ll be big, interesting events happening in this and future episodes, but that the characters won’t take themselves too seriously.

2:50 Monica takes control when Rachel enters, introduces her to the other characters. This establishes that the two have the previous relationship, Monica’s position as the mother hen of the group, hammers home who the characters are (I don’t think Joey and Chandler were mentioned by name before this).
Having re-watched a few of the first few years of Friends in recent months, most of them in or just after the Tom Selleck era, I’ve started to realise how much Monica is the emotionally vulnerable mother hen of the group, the ‘heart’ of the story, so to speak. In the same way that Michael Bluth is the ‘normal’, relatable character in Arrested Development, surrounded by weirdos, I’d argue that Monica plays a similar role in the early years of Friends. If my memory’s accurate, this only goes as far as series 4 or 5, before the gang start to deviate from their ‘classic’ personas, and become less funny, less interesting characters, with their interesting and relatable quirks being replaced by melodrama and overacting. But in the early years, she is very much the mother hen, the characters who feels, and creates, the most empathy.
Over time she becomes an uptight weirdo, with an OCD problem that would concern Adrian Monk, and I’m not sure that Courtney Cox has ever been particularly funny. But, as much as the friends clearly care for each other, she goes further than the others in the early years in creating empathy. Ross, with his divorce and feelings for Rachel, is the central character plotwise in the first few years, but I’d argue that Monica is the emotional centre of the show.

3:10 Rachel tells her story – why she ran away from the wedding. She’s a bit scatterbrained in her explanation, but gives a good and compelling explanation of why she suddenly came to the realisation she couldn’t marry Barry.
She’s the last of the characters to be properly introduced, and as she’s coming into their lives, it makes sense to introduce the other five main characters – the status quo – first, and have Rachel’s introduction act as the inciting incident, the thing which shatters the status quo and spurs the story into action. As well as her own story, she has an impact on Monica (her old friend who invites her to share her flat) and Ross (who had an unrequited crush on her when younger). While these plotlines aren’t shown in the opening scene, she’s turned to Monica for help, and Ross is being supportive and helpful to her.

 

 

Looking in from a technical point of view, one of the things that surprised me was the quick cuts.
Rather than everything in the conversation following on in real time, the show cuts across the relevant points in a long conversation. This  shows they’re happy to spend a significant portion of time just sitting around in each other’s company, and is more realistic than having the ‘big events’ happen one after another.
I don’t think that I’ve seen this used too often in other sitcoms (or even in Friends) but it’s an interesting device.

Chandler’s material is weird, embarassing, witty but self-effacing.
Joey’s is smooth, he’s stylish in control. His cool is never really undercut, whereas Chandler would find it nearly impossible to build up a sense of cool after what we see of him here. Joey’s also a bit indifferent – whereas Ross goofily and clumsily tries to be supportive to Rachel, Joey just sits there, and makes fun of his goofiness.
Rachel is moving at 100 miles an hour, bit of a scatterbrain, a bit self-involved and spoiled. There’s an episode in one of the later years when Phoebe discovers Rachel had a lesbian affair in college, and is surprised by it, as Rachel is ‘so vanilla’. Eventually she develops this way, but at first she’s definitely a slightly spoiled and emotionally stunted brat, and this is the start of a personal quest for her, a process of personal growth.
Ross is miserable, but drives his frustration and anger against himself (as he’s not yet developed the sub-Adam Sandler anger management problem he’ll have in later years). He doesn’t lash out at his friends – even when he’s clearly a little bit annoyed by Phoebe, he’s still quite nice about it. He wants to wish the woman who’s just broken his heart well, and is being caring towards Rachel (pouring sugar into her coffee) when she tells her story.
Phoebe in later years becomes more generic Hollywood zany girl, as if the writers are thinking up wild and wacky things for her to, rather than look to the root of the character. Here she’s quirky, off-beat, but in a way that feels like a real person.
Monica, I’d say, really only has one funny line where the comedy rests on her performance (rather than being mocked by others). I don’t know if she was originally envisioned as the ‘straight man’ of the group, but she feels like she works that way here.

When a television programme is as well made as Friends was at it’s peak, it’s tempting, even as someone who wants to imitate it’s greatness, to sit back and enjoy, without thinking about why I enjoy it. But, even without looking at the jokes, I think it’s interesting how quickly and how well the characters are introduced here.

Basically those are my thoughts about the opening of Friends.
I’d be interested in reading any further thoughts people have to offer, whether building on what I’ve said or tearing apart my interpretations.

FootballOpinion

Dramatic Endings Good for England

Just a quick post to let you know I’ve written a post on Born Offside.

Today was the day of England’s first Euro 2012 match, and I’ve written a little thing about how the dramatic end to the domestic season could help England. The title was decided on the last day, Chelsea winning the European Cup against the odds, and Wigan going on a late run which was frankly unrealistic and badly written.

Click here to read Dramatic Endings

And, with Euro 2012 firmly underway, we at BornOffside have been covering the matches. My report of the Ukraine Sweden match is now up on the site.

My report of Ukraine vs Sweden

Read My Fiction

Don’t Tell Me to Be Quiet

I’ve been updating this blog irregularly for about half a year now, with a variety of subjects. I’ve dropped links to my articles on Born Offside, and rather silly spoof news on The Leaky Wiki, as well as a few reviews and analysis of books and television here, and off-format silliness that wouldn’t fit on The Leaky Wiki.

But despite being an asipring fiction writer, I’ve not actually put any fiction up yet. Partially this is because of not finishing things off, partially this is about not wanting to share small things that could be developed into something bigger and longer. But I intend to start putting up some short prose on here, for your reading pleasure as you wile away a few minutes on the weekend. I hope you enjoy…

Don’t Tell Me To Be Quiet

Joanie and Mitchell had been tossing and turning through the night, woken again and again by their beautiful young genius.
As new parents, they’d followed tradition, and taken it in turns to respond to the demands of the new life they’d created – this was the third time Mitchell had been called from his bed that night. He wished he was a more old-fashioned man, wished he was some sort of horrible old-school misogynist, who left all aspects of child-rearing to his wife. He wasn’t a bad man – at least he didn’t think so – he just wanted sleep.

Already, nine days after birth, Precious Symphony Polyphonic Jones was progressing faster than the books said she should. Mitchell was sure he’d heard her say ‘ma’ the other day, but it could have been a belch.

Mitchell held his armful of joy, whispering to her in a cheerful tone.
“Who’s a special girl? You are! Yes you are!”
Holding her tightly, he swung round, hoping the motion would relax her. It was a sort of a centrifugal effect, with Precious pressed tightly against his body, in an intimate grip.
“You’re going to do something amazing with your life, because you’re my indigo princess, aren’t you? Aren’t you, sweetie?”
Mitchell was tempted to say something really awful, something he knew he shouldn’t.
“But if you’re going to be a lawyer or a doctor, and save the whales or cure malaria, you’ll need to get some sleep. Sleep is good!”
Mitchell knew it was wrong to tell a child how to behave, and they should decide for themselves. He felt awful as soon as he’d said it.
But it seemed to work.
He placed the quiet Precious into her cot, hoping he hadn’t traumatised her too badly. He knew she would grow up to be something amazing – he saw it in her eyes. He just had to make sure not to destroy her natural spark.
As he turned to leave, Mitchell heard a voice coming from the cot.
“Don’t tell me to be quiet!”