Tuesday, 3 July 2018

It is all about questions


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Reading the books from the Hogarth Project of re-telling Shakespeare I was wondering what makes the books successful as the new versions of Shakespearian plays and stories that they tell us. I had some ideas, maybe not that bad but suddenly it hit me what it actually is that is most important to me. In many forms of art and in-depth conversations with likeminded people I consider the biggest value for myself to discover questions to which I feel compelled to find new answers, my answers. Writing seems to be the most obvious and natural form of art to ask questions in the process of telling a story. Not necessarily give readers answers but pose questions that readers consider relevant to their own lives. Maybe they can get some ideas while reading what the answer for their own lives could be, maybe not. Maybe in pondering on our personal answers we do searching that is important to us as individuals. Maybe we experience epiphanies, maybe not but this type of thinking usually makes us understand ourselves or others a little better. Sometimes I joke that thinking hurts and at times it is not that funny. Discovering some truths may be painful.

Looking from the perspective of questions the recently read books made me think about, I came to a conclusion that Macbeth did not ignite in me any interesting questions I needed to find answers to. This may not be the fault of the book, it may be just that I have not found anything particularly interesting or applicable to myself at this point of time.

Shylock Is My Name prompted me to think about intolerance leading to unjustifiable hatred. The two major questions, I still do not have answers to, are: Why do I respond so emotionally to injustice done to Jews over the ages? Why Jews cause hatred the way other nations/people do not? Is it their “fault” so to speak? They are the questions I will be coming back to for a while.
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I just finished the fourth Shakespearean book – The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson and the question of the book (at least for me) is about the past. Faulkner said: The past isn’t dead. It's not even past. My question is how is it about past? Why do I dwell at times on things that are past and I am concern with people who are not in my life for quite some time or are not even with us? Maybe just because of that they are not past to me?

Saturday, 30 June 2018

New Boy - Otello


I have been reading the Shakespeare re-telling books one after one, without any other books in between. They are all interesting and written in a different style and set in  different times. As I start a new book I am curious how this particular author will treat his famous master and follow with the own story. This is like musical variations, the stories come up from time to time to a point to remind the reader of the original and then follow its own rhythm changing the melodies depending on imagination of the new person that now tells the story.

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I realized that if I am to write about what I have read I should do it before the next book takes over my thinking. When I was writing about Macbeth I was already reading New Boy, retelling of Otello, and I was too involved in the new book so Macbeth was already a pale past to me. Now, I am in a similar situation. New Boy impressions have faded a bit as I am half way through The Gap of Time – The Winter’s Tale. So, I will need to make an effort to recall my earlier impressions.

I liked New Boy and think that the subjects related to being different and because of that ostracized are very much of interests today. The new Otello story is set, again in the 70ties, similarly to Macbeth. It takes place in a school in one of the affluent Washington D.C. suburbs where a black boy, a son of a diplomate from Ghana joins the school. He is the first black student in the school causing consternation among children and even more so amongst teachers. He is different and this is why he needs to be suspected of unexpected and treated as worth less and knowing less than other children. He is our 11-year-old Otello. A clever boy who already has experience in being a new boy as his father’s post change quite often. He is coping quite well especially that Dee, our young Desdemona, likes him for being different and by that interesting to her. She represents another possible reaction to those who are different. And then the school bully, Ian-Iago, comes into action and his intrigue that takes over the mind of Oise.

The story of the original Otello takes only few days and the story in New Boy follows the pattern taking a very short span of time, one school day only. When the mind of Oise is poisoned with jealousy and unreasonable ideas and pictures come to his mind one starts to wonder how it is possible that he in spite of earlier evidence of Dee being a “nice girl” can turn against her in such a crude and rude manner. Is this realistic? Exaggerated? Untrue psychologically? It seems so and yet I was able to observe another unreasonable Otello who maintained that a child was not his in spite of all evidence and looks to the contrary. There was no killing in this story but there was violence, a lot of pain and the relationship was ruined for the rest of its formal duration. Since I saw such a story happening in a “normal” life, I accept the New Boy story as totally plausible and by that its re-telling of value in helping to understand human nature, imperfect and bizarre as it sometimes is.

The drama of the new Otello is gripping even if the reader most likely knows it and there are no surprises even if I caught myself on hoping for a sort of a happy end.

This is my second book by Tracey Chevalier. I have read Girl with a Pearl Earring and it made an impression on me when I read it. Vermeer is one of my favourite painters, it has been since the first time I saw The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum.  Seeing another of my favourite paintings on a cover of a book, I bought the book and liked it a lot. I still remember the scene of piercing the Vermeer’s model’s ear and the pain she took without flinching. The scenes in the fish market of Delft also made a lasting impression on me. I almost could smell the fishy smells and feel dampness of the fish market air on my face. Gee, I am getting poetic here, but they were my authentic and lasting impressions for which I salute the author.  

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I would rate New Boy highly, 8 out of 10, for its relevance to the current times, well told story, interesting setting and possibly opening the subject of prejudice and its consequences to young generations.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Commissioner Macbeth

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Birnam Wood takes a  form  of Bertha Locomotive in this version of Macbeth

Re-telling Shakespeare has to be controversial. My impression after reading the new version of the Merchant of Venice was very positive.  Maybe because the book only loosely followed the original story that served as canvas on which Jacobson explored the subjects related to being Jewish. It is a highly intellectual book and by that seems appropriate in its seriousness to be linked with Shakespeare. The story of Macbeth re-told by Jo Nesbo is different. This was my first book by this particular author that I have read and most likely will be the last. Not my type of a book even if I read it with interest and give the author credit for the style and the way he tells the story keeping the reader’s attention.

One point of retelling Shakespeare is to prove its value and application in the current times and in varied genres of novels. I would say that Shakespeare lands itself beautifully to be told in the form of a modern crime story. There are enough of murders in so many of them to satisfy a Scandinavian crime writer.

Macbeth in the Nesbo’s story is a police commissioner who gets corrupted under influence of his Lady and his own thirst for power. Quite like in the original. The circles of power are set appropriately to the current times. Politicians, police and the drug world cooperate, fight, scheme and generally form the town power center that rules the life of the town and its people. Populism of the current politicians so prevalent in real life is clearly visible in the book. Most of the crimes are committed to create a happy environment for the citizens of the not-named town. Everything is done for the higher good. In this sense the book is written, as so many Scandinavian crime stories, with social conscience and preaching a little. Not very convincingly this time.

Macbeth is a likable figure almost through the whole book. He commands the murders but tries to keep away from making his own hands dirty as far as he can. Duff – Macduff tells us that Macbeth cannot kill a defenseless man. Even if there were some exceptions to this rule this was only to protect others, like Duff himself. His weakness for and dependence on Lady makes his character somehow soft and maybe because of that likable. Top dog with underdog characteristics. Strange, but this is how it worked for me. Lady is the owner of the most exclusive casino in the town, clever, scheming, manipulating and beautiful. Like in the original. The whole book is sequentially faithful re-telling of the Shakespeare Macbeth. One could ask what is the reason for the exercise of re-telling? One possibility is that this is a way to familiarize people with the story and dynamics behind it, so they get the idea of the classic without reading it. In my case I have found out the opposite. After reading the book I know how Nesbo writes and I know that I do not have a desire to continue reading his books. I have no better perspective of the classic masterpiece. I wonder how I will react to the remaining Shakespearean books, but I somehow lost the initial enthusiasm and do not expect fireworks.

Back to Macbeth – My view is that it is a well written crime story respecting the sequence of events and I generally liked it.  I have reservations concerning psychological viability of many character changes. This is mostly sloppily done, but maybe this kind of a book does not need to be psychologically pedantic? I would disagree, though. The changes of Lady who at some point loses her way and leaves Macbeth on his own do not ring psychological truth to me. After Lady is mentally out of the game Macbeth’s political acumen and insight are not enough to lead the intrigue into a successful completion. Her mental abilities are temporarily revived to push the action a bit further until such a time when a splendid catastrophe can complete the story.

My next book is re-telling Otello - New Boy by Tracey Chevalier. I like the begging already.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Sydney Film Festival - Polish films

There have been two Polish films shown in this year's film festival - Cold War and Mug. Both awarded. Cold War in Cannes and Mug in Berlin.
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I have read and heard a lot about the film Cold War. So much and so positive that I expected a film that is really spellbinding and very moving. Has it been for me like that or am I a little disappointed? Strangely enough I experience both of the reactions. If one expects perfection in anything, disappointment is a consequence of such high expectations. I knew that the film is going to be black and white but I did not expect a small screen, so my first reaction was a surprise that the screen felt so restricting. I was looking at the first scenes from a perspective of a foreigner. Will an Australian understand the meaning of the film. After all, Polish specifics are difficult to comprehend especially by an Australian. I would say that an average Australian will shrug their shoulders and move to more familiar and practical subjects than neurotic feelings of some foreigners. I do not think that the film can gain popularity outside Europe. Too dark in a tender way, too sensitive, the story insufficiently explained and really told by omissions. You have to be tuned in to dark moods of a foreign kind.
I do not think I have enticed anyone to see the film if and when it hits Australian movie theaters, but this is a film one should see at her/his own risk of emotional damage.

The film is told in an elliptical way starting from 1949 to finish about ten years later. My times of understanding events around me came much later than that, or maybe I was too naïve to understand it at all when I lived in Poland. Still, I understood some on the scenes in the way a non-Pole would have great problems to understand. Some nuances of the film are not accessible to foreigners, in my opinion. Maybe this is just as well as it is so depressing. Thinking about it I feel sorry for the nation. We turned out not that bad considering the times of the war and the years after. I wonder what was more damaging to the soul of the nation, the Nazis’ killing of Poles with a special focus on Polish inteligencia or the Soviet friends reversing the social structure and lifting the uneducated to the top?

The film is a romance without a happy end, there is no happiness as a part of love at all. Maybe glimpses, fleeting moments of elation. It kept my attention completely and the movie theatre was unusually quiet during the film. There is no melodrama in the film, the people meet their destiny and events of their lives resigning to the bleak realities and need to survive politically, economically and emotionally. Until they cannot continue…

It is a good film and from me 10 out of 10.

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During the Film Festival of Sydney, I have seen another Polish film – Mug. It has been awarded in the Berlin Film Festival. We, Poles, look for confirmation of our self-worth in signs of international acceptance. Such a small weakness. The film got an international recognition so I should be proud, but watching it I cringed and protested internally against Poland and Poles shown in the film. Bigotry, narrowmindedness, cruelty, drunkenness and acceptance of drunks, rudeness, bad language (I heard bad language in life, but Polish offenses and swearing are of particular quality and power)…It all made me feel ashamed. It was an unpleasant film to watch. It is a comedy and when the audience laughed. I made me think Gogol’s thought “What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourself.” Only that this mainly applied to my compatriots and myself. Why wallow in such self-depreciation? To notice and change? Only that those who notice the problems are not typically the ones who need so much to change.

An unpleasant film to watch, at least for a Pole.  4 out of 10.


Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Wife


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I have been catching up with films in the last few days and it has been a serious catchup as I have seen five films in less than a week and there is one more ahead of me. This is Sydney Festival event and my local cinema is one of the movie theaters that takes part. The films that are shown have not yet been shown to general public and some of them are not intended to be screened more than at this particular occasion. Looks that I have chosen rather popular films that will be possible to see in cinemas later. Maybe except the two Polish films – Mug that got Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize in Berlin 2018 and Cold War that was awarded the best film director in Cannes 2018 for Paul Pawlikowski. I will write about the films at some stage.

Yesterday I saw The Wife with Glen Close as the main attraction of the film. I am a little less enthusiastic than the critics and reviews of The Guardian and Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe because I do not particularly like Glen Close. She seems superficial and affectatious to me. I must admit that how she appears in her interviews should not reflect on her arts as an actress. But it seems to influence my judgement.

What is perhaps more to the point is how did I like her performance in this particular film. And yes, it was a remarkable performance, subtle, moving and I give it the highest marks and my admiration. I still left the theatre somewhat disappointed. Maybe even confused? The film seems to portray The Wife as a sort of a victim and her husband, brilliantly played by Jonathan Pryce as the person who wronged her. I do not see the story this way at all, even with my feministic leaning. I buy the meaning of the outburst of the husband when he tells how it was for him. Here comes the spoiler : The story is about two people who want to be writers, he is a professor who teaches how to write and she is a talented writer who is learning. However she does not have a chance to be noticed in the male dominated field and her writing, however brilliant it might be, does not stand a chance to be published. This is what she is told by a more experienced woman and she believes it. She gives up on writing but supports her lover, the professor, in his writing efforts. Eventually, editing  his book she re-writes it with a minor contribution of the original author. The book is a hit and as it is published under his name, the glory is his.  However, being very much in love, they are both happy with the situation. This is the beginning of their future life together and it based on the wife being the ghost writer for her husband. She writes the books under his name and he plays the role of the famous, very talented writer. It goes on for years, until the time when the man gets a Nobel Prize for the work of his wife who is smiling shyly, happy but always in his shadow. At this point of time she can not continue with the mystification, but her plans are not verbalized so we never really find our what she would consider to be a satisfactory solution fro her point of view.

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To me, they came to an agreement that was serving both of them and in my opinion, she got a better part of the deal. Her part was not to be famous, but she got her work published and she new the impact her writing had on the readers. He played a humiliating role of a pretender compensating his paper tiger situation by romances that gave him some feeling of self-worth and power. She tolerated it up to a point but at the end it was too much for her to accept and live with. I am on his side, not her. This is the reason for my confusion. Have I missed some psychological truth and got the whole story wrong? I do not think so. Maybe I misunderstood the critics? This is possible.

One can take the whole story as a meta model of lives of capable women who are in a relationship and in love with less talented men. In olden days, women did not have rights to vote and in fact rights to live the life they would choose for themselves. In those times being the brain behind a man and directing his actions was not challenged or even noticed. As I am reading the new version of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth comes to mind as one of negative influences a woman can have on a man. Those times are gone and women have rights to work and to their own successes. There is a price for that though. While many men tolerate such situations to a point, often happens that he needs to re-establish his superior position. This typically can be done only with another partner. The relationship breaks up. Perhaps it was doomed form the start, but we often live with and in illusions for years.
The question is why men need to feel superior to women? Conditioning? Whatever the reason is, this is the situation in many cases.

Back to the film - my rating 8 out of 10.

The story is a bit far fetched for me even if played very convincingly.