Narrative Metalepsis, Plus Explosions

Friday 2nd May 2014. This week’s work: researching the final essay of the academic year, due in on May 22nd. Today I realise that I’ve lost one of my pages of notes – a fairly important one with my bibliography. I do the dutiful trying to remember where I had it last, and after much straining to peer inside my mind’s fuzzier corners I recall dropping it on the floor of the café in Birkbeck’s School of Arts, in Gordon Square. The terrible thing is, I also recall thinking ‘well, I’ll pick that up in a minute, before I go’, and then completely forgetting to do so. But thankfully I now remember that I forgot.

I phone the man on reception at Birkbeck, who immediately goes over to speak to the café staff next door. They locate the messy-looking piece of paper, and it’s waiting for me at reception the next day. At no point do they give the impression that I’m being a scatter-brained pest, nor do they even ask who I am to make such demands. They just help. It’s moments like this that defy the impression of London life as unfriendly.  It also makes me want to make more of an effort to spot other people’s lost property, and take the best action that will lead to its reunion with its owner. One snowy day, I too will know what it’s like to pick up a lost mitten and spear it on a nearby railing.

* * *

Saturday 3rd May 2014. I get a letter from the GP regarding the results of my blood test. The very sight of the letter chills my heart, because it automatically means something is up. If a blood test gets the all clear, they don’t bother to write – you just phone a week later to check.

So I’m relieved to find that the cause of my recent lack of energy seems to be minor and easily treatable. It is the fault of my inadvertent vampire lifestyle, hiding in libraries all day. I have been getting so little sunlight that I now have a Vitamin D deficiency. So I officially, medically, do not get out enough. They’ve given me some turbo-charged vitamin supplements, ones that the pharmacy has to specially order, and I look forward to those taking effect. I’m certainly not the type to hit the beach.

I also think this means I can be officially referred to as a Goth.

* * *

I impulsively try out a quiet café in Whitcombe Street. It’s called Bubbobar and specialises in  ‘bubble tea’. This is a Taiwanese creation where the ‘bubbles’ are not carbonated but little balls of tapioca, which one sucks up through a straw and chews. There’s a magazine article pinned to the wall about how such cafes are a fashionable new trend in London. I am the only person there.

* * *

To the Odeon Panton Street to see We Are The Best!, or to give it its original Swedish title, Vi är bäst!  It’s by Lukas Moodysson, and like his earlier work Together (which I saw with Dad), it has a completely naturalistic, organic feel. It’s truly hard to believe the characters on screen aren’t those people in real life. We Are The Best! is set in Stockholm in 1982, and depicts two tomboyish schoolgirls who form a punk rock band, though at 12 years old they are barely much bigger than their instruments. They’re later joined by a shy blonde girl who’s only a year or two older, but who towers above them like a Nordic amazon. This is very much something I remember from when I was that age. Not the Nordic amazons, but the feeling that when you’re 12, a 14 year old might as well be an adult. The film is a little slight in plot, but it’s sweet and funny and as lovable as the characters. The big, indestructible grin of Klara, the little girl with the mohawk, stays with me long after the credits.

There’s an advert before the film that campaigns against movie piracy, with John Hurt ominously narrating images of cinemas turning into windswept, dusty ruins. ‘Imagine an experience shared… lost forever’. If cinemas do shut down due to lack of use, the blame should not be left purely at the foot of piracy. When I buy a small, unpleasant cup of diet Pepsi, dispensed from the tap, the Odeon charges me £2.95. No one will miss that, not even John Hurt.

* * *

Tuesday 6th May 2014.  Signs of the times. The begger outside The Ritz has a sign which adds ‘and British’ to the usual ‘Hungry and homeless’.

Meanwhile, the Big Issue seller on Jermyn Street is chatting on a mobile phone. He’s not the first I’ve seen do this, either. Mobile phones, once thought in the late 1980s to be a luxury and even a status symbol, are now a lifeline to many. The anti-poverty campaigner and cookery writer, Jack Monroe, has written about how near-starvation led her to sell many of her possessions, but not her phone. In fact, she used the latter to write a blog about her situation, which led directly to her new career.

This evening I go to the ICA and see a new film that reflects the idea of living through phones: Locke. It’s effectively a one-man play, and very nearly a radio play at that. It entirely consists of Tom Hardy in a car during one single evening, making calls. The audience hears the voices of those he speaks to, but the camera never cuts away to show them.

The script is by Steven Knight, whose Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises I found admirable, yet frustrating. Mr Knight tends to write about lives in Britain that don’t get much of a look-in: immigrant workers, victims of foreign gangsters, and in this case a Welsh foreman of a building site. The problem is that Mr Knight tends to surround his well-written and well-researched characters with two-dimensional, unrealistic ones. Every film of his has moments that made me want to shout ‘oh come off it!’ at the cinema screen. Locke is no exception: there are things said in this film that just wouldn’t take place over a phone call. And though the format is original, the story resembles any number of Friday night plays on Radio 4. Still, I come away from the cinema knowing more about concrete and road closures than I did going in.

* * *

Thursday 8th May 2014. My two final classes of the third year at Birkbeck. Last class for Fin De Siecle (on the poetry of Amy Levy and Arthur Symons), and last class for 21st Century Fiction, which is just a short meeting about the essay. And that’s it for those courses. I won’t have any more classes until my fourth and final year begins in October. From now till May 22nd it’s all about the 21st Century essay, which I’m doing on Tokyo Cancelled and Inception.

What fascinates me about Inception is the way it manages to be successful popcorn entertainment – making over 800 million dollars world wide – while inspiring academic studies as well. There’s already been two books of essays: Inception and Philosophy: Because It’s Never Just a Dream and Inception and Philosophy: Ideas to Die For. Today I read an essay called ‘Narrative Metalepsis as Diegetic Concept in Christopher Nolan’s Inception’.

There’s an interview with Nolan where a critic points out his film’s resemblance to Last Year at Marienbad, the dreamy 1960s arthouse classic. Nolan agrees but adds – rather brilliantly – ‘but we have way more explosions’.

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Four Films: How To Change Shape

Catching up with more films, and enjoying spotting how different directors handle the same themes. In this case, metamorphosis.

Inception. Seen at the Prince Charles cinema for £2.50. It’s by Christopher Nolan, and has his very recognisable style: masculine disorientation, confusing battle scenes, a Borges-esque preference for ideas over characterisation, intellectual coldness, aesthetically pretty actors in sharp suits. No sex scenes, no silliness, no mucking about. Though Tom Hardy does sneak in a little camp aside. During a siege, he suddenly produces an oversized weapon and tells Joseph Gordon-Levitt, ‘You’ve got to dream a little bigger, darling’.

One location is meant to be Mombasa, but anyone who’s been to Tangier will recognise the very Moroccan Grand Socco and medina, with a few Kenyan drapes. I’m quite pleased about this. I may not always follow what’s going on in the film, but I know now that I can spot Tangier in disguise.

What I would like to know is why Mr Nolan couldn’t just set these scenes in Tangier anyway, given the city’s association with Westerners escaping into dreams. The two main literary biographies of Tangier even allude to this in their titles: Michelle Green’s The Dream at the End of the World and Iain Finlayson’s Tangier: City Of The Dream.

Even Nolan’s special effects are in keeping with his clean, non-silly style. Tom Hardy’s character has the ability to change into other people, though while other directors would reach for CGI morphing effects or a touch of latex, Nolan chooses to cut simply to a mirror, then back again. Transformation done.

No such luck for the protagonist of District 9, which I watch on DVD while staying in Suffolk with my sci-fi loving father (February 3rd-7th). I also see Avatar while I’m there. Both films have the human lead turning into an alien: Avatar’s hero gets an instant and entirely wished-for change into a beautiful blue humanoid. District 9’s anti-hero, meanwhile, becomes one of the film’s Lovecraftian and tentacled ‘prawns’, and does so very slowly and very reluctantly, with gooey prosthetics (fingernails coming off) added to CGI. If the aliens of one film swapped with the aliens in the other, the stories would be entirely different.

Avatar uses sci-fi to address colonialism and invasion, while District 9 does it for immigration and apartheid. The military in both cases is the enemy, and there’s a lot of White Racial Guilt to read between the lines. It’s such a shame, though, that they both end with up with the standard Hollywood Final Battle between lone hero and lone villain, both with an Exo-Suit.

Finally, I see Black Swan at the Muswell Hill Odeon. I’m happy to report that Natalie Portman does not have to deal with an Exo-Suit in the finale. But conveniently for this diary entry, she does undergo a transformation into The Other which combines elements of all of the above.

She gets the revulsion of shedding fingernails from District 9, the glances of change in mirrors from Inception, and the smooth, beautiful CGI of Avatar for the final scenes of consenting change. Most impressive of all are the fluid ripplings of flesh to feather that are actually choreographed to go with the ballet music. Angela Carter would have loved it.

Black Swan is vastly enjoyable: a histrionic horror film that’s been cunningly smuggled into Oscar territory. And as I’ll always prefer dance scenes to shoot-outs, it’s my favourite of the four.

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