Random Thoughts

Oh yes, my blog! – I’d forgotten about that.

Here are some random thoughts, to fill in the gaps between postings:

  • I found the Coen Brothers’ film, A Serious Man, perfectly dreadful. If you take Job’s faith out of the story, it doesn’t really leave you with much. It also seems to me a good example of overloading a work of art with profound symbolism (a sort of Tom McCarthy on camera), without bothering to make it in any way interesting. The Coen Brothers should go back to making perfectly-shot, wonderfully entertaining trash, as they’ve been going for years. (Is Burn After Reading any better – it’s the next one I was thinking of renting?) – A much better film I watched was Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtman’s Contract. Great stuff!
  • The Guardian seems to have a couple of themes in its Books pages at the moment: a) Libraries – we should prevent them from closing. Now, the last thing I’m going to do is actually try to comment in the Guardian on a subject I know something about because it’s quite close to whatever it is I do for a living, because after all, that’s not the done thing – but… libraries are managed and financed through local authorities, funds in general coming from core budget (council tax) and not via central government through grant; – this means any cutbacks in libraries are being carried out by local authorities … but … on the other hand, as central government cuts back on the grants in general given to local authorities (which compromise usually about 4x the amount brought in by council tax), this affects other “more important” services, so the local authorities are inclined to divert money away from libraries to support these “more important” services. Libraries are not important, not because no one thinks they’re a good idea, but because local authorities have no statutory duty to provide library services, unlike say schools. – In a recent poll of LA chief executives, asked which services were most likely to be cut, libraries came top (81% of LAs), slightly ahead of Finance/IT/HR. – I was having a look through library stats for 10/11 (not available on the internet – extranet only), and one oft-spouted myth we can perhaps challenge is that libraries predominantly help the poor (and consequently cutting them is an act of oppression – a class thing). If we take Inner London (which after all we should, since none of the rest of the UK is of any consequence), the top three boroughs in terms of library borrowing per capita are: 1. Westminster (about 30% ahead of); 2. Kensington & Chelsea (about 30% ahead of); 3. Wandsworth (and then the others were quite close behind). (My own borough came top of total rented DVDs, which I felt strangely pleased about). – Actually, there was one Inner London borough which came miles even ahead of Westminster (with 700% more books loaned per capita – an astonishing 55 books per person per year), but was excluded from the results – that was, of course, the City of London.
  • And the other thing the Guardian’s been going on about is, Is This the Death of the Critic? – “this”, being, no doubt, our recent innovations in communication and social networking; – which all seemed to start with this article. One argument about the death of the critic that’s beginning to annoy me is the: “we don’t need people anymore telling us what to think” argument; – have though critics ever done this? have you (and by you, I mean you – not the rest of humanity, who are of course easily led) – but have you ever read criticism in order to find out what you should believe about something? – I don’t recall ever doing so.
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13 thoughts on “Random Thoughts

  1. I thought you must have died, possibly under an avalanche of half-read books.

    I’m clearly much shallower than you. I used to read reviews in the (distant) past, rather than reading the book or seeing the film/play, before meeting people if I thought the subject might come up. Obviously I never read any of the set books at university, just the key notes or whatever they were called.

  2. Yes, it wasn’t so much using reviews as a short-cut to appear well-educated in society that I had in mind. (Naturally, there’s nothing wrong with that; – and after all, why else do reviews spend 3/4 of their time simply rehashing the plot?).

    I’ve got a good example from a dinner I once went to:

    A girl gives an account of an Iranian film she’d seen.
    Obooki: And was there a moment in the film where a ball was rolling away along a street and this ball rolling away was the most fascinating thing in the world and you couldn’t keep your eyes from it.
    Girl: You’ve seen it then?
    Obooki: No. I just thought that was the kind of thing it would have in it.

    My best friend at university, who was doing English, didn’t read any of the set texts either; – but since he’d bought all the books, he did end up reading them after he’d left.

    But no, what I was thinking was that people in general (I think) base their opinions about a work of art they’ve witnessed/read themselves on their own feelings / reactions to it, rather than what they’ve read that some critic thinks about it. Always have; always will.

  3. That Will Self article irritated the hell out of me. It’s a pity: I’d read 2 pieces by him recently (about Kafka and Bierce) that I found interesting and was moving my perception of him out of “negative but disinterested.” Oh well, my loss I’m sure.

    PS I quite liked A Serious Man. How upsetting to see a McCarthy comparison! I took it that the “profound symbolism” was in fact the opposite, meaningless and ironic. The teeth story? The spooky prologue? Hard to take them seriously.

    Burn After Reading is, by comparison, closer to the category “entertaining trash” but it seems to have been divisive even among Coenphiles.

  4. Yes, Self’s article seemed to put a lot of commenters’ backs up. (I was annoyed by the McCarthy section and his use of the word “middlebrow”). I feel – without having seen True Grit, but at least knowing from reading idly that it isn’t a remake – the 2nd half is probably quite poor. But I tend to agree with the first part, and would extend it to critical opinion on a wide gamut of modern art: – that people mistake mediocrity for genius (something especially applicable, I feel, to American Indie films, which I basically don’t watch anymore).

    “Profound symbolism” is probably meant by me ironically too in some way; I certainly don’t mean the symbolism is “profound”; stirring in a lot of references doesn’t lead to profundity. On imdb, there’s a lot of talk re A Serious Man around the significance of the whole Schroedinger’s Cat stuff (surely one of the great indicators of false profundity whenever it’s encountered); but I can’t help feeling there’s very little significance.

    “Meaningless and ironic” – yes, it was meant to be meaningless and ironic, honest! It’s the best defence modern art can come up with to excuse its mediocrity.

  5. OK, I realise I fell into the standard “modern art” defence there (cf. “meaningless & ironic”). It struck me that the boyos were ruminating on the Jewish milieu they grew up in, with its rituals, domesticity, backdrop of myth etc and criticising it or rejecting it.

    It’s a fair point about US indie films – I wonder how many people look back at the rapturous reception they accorded (eg) American Beauty and cringe now?

  6. True Grit is pretty good. Nothing earth-shaking but not an ironic take on a Western like Self suggests. It’s a straight down the line yarn. The coda which could have been ironic was anything but.

    Aside from the tone of the piece which was annoying I got the feeling that Self was trying to claim that the likes of a screwball comedy was something pure dragged kicking and screaming out of a film-maker’s psyche rather than being a knowing, referential and confected style.

    Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire is a mix of Snow White, Pygmalion and 30’s gangster films and is as knowing and arch as anything the Coens could come up with. 20th Century has great play with camp OTT luvvies.

    For me Raising Arizona is a screwball comedy – it’s not a comment on one. Similarly Fargo is a detective story not a comment on one.

    I’ve liked all the Coen films I’ve seen ( some more than others ) except for Barton Fink ( Eraserhead-lite ) and Intolerable Cruelty which wasn’t funny enough.

  7. Yes, well – A Serious Man is the first one I’ve actively disliked. – I’ve seen everything up to The Man Who Wasn’t There (which roughly coincidences with the point when I stopped going to the cinema generally) – though I have to say that, with the exception of Lebowski and O Brother, I don’t remember a hell of a lot about any of them.

    A Serious Man of course reminded me of American Beauty – a man whose life and relationships are falling apart; though at least in American Beauty he makes some sort of effort and is satisfyingly bitter about things.

  8. I liked A Serious Man and like Leroy Hunter, I got the impression that it was, if not autobiographical, then at least based in part on the milieu and people they grew up with.

    I know the boys are the sons of academics and grew up somewhere like Minneapolis. I liked Barton Fink a lot. Then again, it’s a period of Americana that I’ve read a lot about and that interests me.

    Fink was clearly based on Clifford Odets, the genteel Southern drunk was Faulkner and the studio head (who I found hugely entertaining: ‘Here at Megalomania Pictures, the writer is king, Fink’) was based on…well…all of them, really. The scene with John Goodman storming out of the flames, shotgun held high, shouting ‘I’ll show you a life of the mind…’ is evergreen in my memory…

  9. Yes, it’s about time I went back and watched some of their earlier films: I can’t remember a thing now about Blood Simple, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, and to be honest very little of Fargo either. (I don’t think in general I have much memory for films: I just bought a boxset of J-P Melville: I know I’ve seen 2 films out of the 6 (Le Flic and Bob Le Flambeur), but I might just as well have seen none). – Of course, I guess if I want to watch them, I’m going to have to buy them, since they don’t show such films on TV any more, and my library only stocks obscure Hungarian and Czech films.

  10. I think Fargo is one of their best, and Self’s indifference to it is an indicator of his poor critical acumen. I had no idea that Lebowski was such a cult until my daughter went to university and reported that a quarter of the students were wearing Dude T-shirts. I’m wearing one now (with my Bergman underwear).

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