Thoughts On The Sentimental Uses Of Animals, And Subsequent Mockery

Saturday 14th November 2015.

Last night, after seeing The Lady In The Van at the East Finchley Phoenix, I couldn’t resist getting straight on the tube to Camden Town in order to look at the other star of the film: Number 23 Gloucester Crescent, NW1. The fake blue plaque for Miss Shepherd that appears in the film’s finale has gone. In Alan Bennett’s 2014 diaries (now published in a tie-in book about the film), he hopes the prop plaque would be left up, ‘as it may enhance the value of the property’. Mr B has since moved out for good, and on this night when a film about the house is opening in cinemas across the country, Number 23 is subdued, dark and silent.

I touch the spot on the gate post where Maggie Smith spills her yellow paint – now cleaned up – and walk back. The house is on the corner of Inverness Street, with the Good Mixer pub about thirty seconds’ walk away. About four years after Miss Shepherd’s death in 1989, the pub became the favourite drinking den of London’s Britpop bands. Given the lady in the van was so opposed to the ‘din’ of neighbours’ children playing their recorders, it’s hard to think how she’d have copied with the guitarist from Blur.

(Indeed, there’s a new film out about that era of London too – Kill Your Friends.)

One triumph of The Lady In The Van is that it captures the way English people can wrap themselves into complex emotional knots of awkwardness, guilt, etiquette and embarrassment, when it comes to helping the homeless. In one scene, Roger Allam’s character begrudgingly opens a jam jar for Miss Shepherd, while taking care to see no one in the street is looking. It’s Englishness in a nutshell.

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Sunday 15th November 2015.

On Twitter, the Sky News presenter Kay Burley reports on the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Among her postings is a photograph of an elderly Labrador, sitting in a Paris street, simply looking at the camera. Ms Burley adds the caption ‘Sadness in his eyes’. This photo is soon roundly criticised, mocked and parodied by countless Twitterers. At the very least, the question is raised as to whether anthropomorphic judgements of canine emotion are quite the priority for frontline reportage.

It’s a moment that now feels like a regular stage in the breaking down of tragedy. First, there is the initial shock of the news. Then there is a dominant wave of concern and sympathy. But after that – two days in or so – one section of the crowd begins to overdo their public sentiment. And another section of the crowd, eager to cheer itself up, begins to wince and smirk.

In 1997, with the death of Princess Diana, there were huge amounts of floral tributes left at the gates of Kensington Palace. Among these were a fair number of children’s toys. Not just soft toy animals, but Star Wars figurines. I distinctly remember going to the gates myself and seeing a dangling Stormtrooper doll. Presumably the toys were to do with children wanting to give up a favourite possession, but it all seemed very odd. A few years later, Stewart Lee performed a whole routine mocking such tributes, imagining grown adults rushing out to buy stuffed ET dolls. ‘It’s what she would have wanted.’

Come July 2005, with the London bombs, the mocking of anthropomorphic tributes became an internet sport. There was a spate of ‘crying bulldog’ photos posted on LiveJournal with the caption ‘London Hurts’. Initially these were perfectly sincere. But soon the parodies popped up, each bulldog and each badly Photoshopped teardrop getting more and more silly.

The point is that this form of mockery is never really malicious. No one really begrudges anyone’s feelings. Not even the feelings of dog-loving Sky News reporters. It’s all humans being human, expressing themselves healthily and without violence, and so evoking the anti-terrorist spirit at its purest. Indeed, the magazine Charlie Hebdo responded to this week’s events with a cover of a man drinking champagne, while riddled with bullet holes. To some, appalling taste; to others, defiantly funny, perhaps even touching. When it comes to what is and isn’t an appropriate response, vive le difference.

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Tuesday 17th November 2015.

To the Curzon Bloomsbury for the film Steve Jobs, about Mr Apple. It’s one of those films from the sub-genre of Overtly Blunt Titles, along with Twister, We Bought A Zoo, and of course, Snakes On A Plane. (‘What’s it about?’ ‘Well…’). The tale has already been told – there was an Ashton Kutcher biopic two years ago. But this time it’s told with bolder artistic strokes, perhaps in an attempt to evoke the aesthetic obsessions of the man. Danny Boyle directs, being Mr Spectacle, and Aaron Sorkin provides the script, being Mr Dialogue For Ambitious Americans. The film is play-like, with three distinct acts, each one taking place at the launches of Mr Jobs’s pretty machines.

There’s a fascinating 1960s clip of Arthur C Clarke used right at the beginning, where he predicts the rise of domestic computers. Then we’re straight into Mr Fassbender as the 1984 Jobs, shouting at people to get the Macintosh launched without a hitch. Various figures from his life turn up in the corridors and dressing rooms, in the Sorkin-esque walking-and-talking way. It’s a unique stylistic conceit, yet at times it still hits the same notes as any corny biopic (like Jobs pointing at a cassette Walkman and saying there should be a way of carrying around hundreds of songs). But Mr Sorkin gets away with it with his sheer speed of ideas.

The only problem, perhaps indicated by the film’s lack of success in the US, is that despite all the talent involved, Steve Jobs’s real life is still not that interesting. A clever man makes some pretty machines and makes a lot of money very early on. He’s a bit of an ‘asshole’ to others, but hey, he gave us the pretty machines, so that’s okay. At first there is a slightly interesting problem with his daughter, but it’s more or less sorted out by the middle act. His ‘worst night of his life’ is when he is sacked from Apple for not making quite as many millions as planned. When one character tells him ‘You’re gonna get killed!’, this really means: ‘your new computer won’t sell all that much’. It’s not exactly Saving Private Ryan.

Mr J ends up quoting Dylan, wearing roll-neck Beatles jumpers and round John Lennon glasses. Perhaps that’s the problem. A computer star is not a rock star. ‘I’m poorly made’, he says towards the end. This is not the admission of a flawed hero, but the admission that he’s not the hero after all. The star quality is all in the machines, and not in the man.

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Four Alices

A binge of Alice In Wonderlands during the last week. First, I see the new Tim Burton take at the Muswell Hill Odeon, then off to the NFT for the 1933 talkie with Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle and WC Fields as Humpty Dumpty. This bill also includes the 1903, 8 minute long British silent adaptation by Percy Stow – with a live piano player doing the score. Finally, back to the NFT a few days later for Dreamchild, the 1985 portrait of Alice Liddell aged 80, with a script by Dennis Potter and creatures by Jim Henson.

Links between the 1903 and 2010 versions: both Percy Stow and Tim Burton insist on squeezing a dog into the proceedings, the one obvious animal that Lewis Carroll left out. Burton has a bloodhound voiced by Timothy Spall, while Stow has a nameless ‘Dog’ that Alice meets along the way, clearly the family pet muscling in. The mutt in question became a massive star in the proto-Lassie adventure ‘Rescued By Rover’, a huge international hit in 1905, and according to the BFI ‘possibly the only point in film history when British cinema unquestionably led the world.’ The Brits have always been good with dogs.

The 1903 Cheshire Cat is hilarious: a real cat – probably the family pet again – looking immensely annoyed while superimposed on a hedge, as Alice gesticulates around it by way of reaction.

I enjoy the Burton overall, though I bristle at the Carroll characters crowbarred into a regulation third-act structure, with a Big Final Battle at the end, two armies and a Tolkein-ish Jabberwock dragon voiced by Christopher Lee begging comparison with the Lord Of The Rings films. A comparison which is not going to do it favours. It’s also a sequel with a misleading title: it really should be called ‘Return To Wonderland’.

I saw a recent TV interview with Mr Burton, where he said he needed a proper story structure, as Carroll’s books are just a series of surreal encounters. Well, yes, but there is still a story: Alice is chasing the White Rabbit to find out what he’s late for, while trying to find her way out. That’s story enough. It was good enough to get generations of readers turning the page (or not checking their watch).

Whereas at the Muswell Hill Odeon I notice several children getting restless, with their mothers checking the time on their phones – that tell-tale flash of light in the stalls. All that expensive spectacle and colour, all those big names doing the voices (Barbara Windsor as a swash-buckling dormouse!), it shouldn’t sag for a second, but at times it really does. Still, the lead actress is one of the best live action Alices yet, while the actual tumble down the rabbit hole is as fresh and exciting as any – with a grand piano falling after her.

The 1933 black and white take is more faithful, conflating scenes from both the books while adding a few inspired ones: the Dodo dries off Alice from her swim in the pool of tears, by reciting ‘dry’ facts from history at her. The actors wear grotesque rubbery masks, even for the human-like characters like the Duchess. Alice is a rather bland American incarnation, something referred to in the other film I see. In Dreamchild, the 80-year-old Alice Liddell manages to secure a cut of the 1933 movie’s budget, in return for her endorsement. ‘But Alice can’t be American’, a British fan complains in the scene.

Dreamchild is more of a spin-off than an adaptation. But it certainly is one of the most emotional and thought-provoking dramas connected with the material. The Jim Henson creatures are straight out of The Dark Crystal – sinister and ambiguous. The tale of the aged Alice Liddell in 1930s New York is interspersed with flashbacks to Victorian Oxford, portraying the relationship between Ian Holm’s Lewis Carroll and the pre-pubescent Liddell, along with sequences from the books with the Jim Henson creations. And as it’s Dennis Potter, there’s lots of lovely 1930s songs, themes of ambiguity, sexuality, and the merging of memory with fantasy.

The film dares to celebrate that the books were a gift of love from a lonely bachelor to a little girl: something that was already pretty controversial in 1985. We see Alice’s mother tearing up Carroll’s letters to the child, before he gets a kind of redemption, as the 80-year-old Liddell finally accepts his feelings for what they were. We see her younger self cross over to him during a picnic on the riverbank, to give him a chaste but fond hug of thanks. It’s a powerful moment, and I wonder if it’d be harder to make such a film now.

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