Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

The location is important

I watched a very interesting documentary about Len Deighton a few weeks ago. Len was a student in Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and became a commercial artist before writing The Ipcress File and finding overnight fame as a writer of intelligent spy thrillers. One thing he learned in college was to walk round his subject before drawing it. He was told to look at it from all angles.

You can see him doing this in his writing. He writes in short, simple sentences but the juxtapositions are often surprising. They are visual but not merely visual. Together they have breadth and depth and detail. It is 3-D fiction of astonishing clarity.

Here are some extracts. His spy is on an island to witness some tests of a nuclear bomb.

The heat rocketed back from the burning sand underfoot. The red painted framework of girders that made the shot tower blistered the careless hand. Wriggling away from the legs of the tower, black smooth cables and corrugated pipelines rested along each other like a Chinese apothecary’s box of snakes. Fifty yards away a twenty-foot-high electric fence, circumscribing the tower, was manned by a white-helmeted police with panting Alsation dogs on short leashes. A white amphibious jeep was parked near the only gate, its awning modified to permit the traverse of a half-inch-calibre machine-gun. The driver sat with hands clasped high on the steering-column, his chin resting on the back of his thumb. His helmet liner was painted in lateral black and yellow two-inch stripes to show he had a ‘Q’ permit. He looked like Danny Kaye.

Half a mile away across the flat sand I could see small shimmering black figures adjusting the automatic cameras which at this range could only be preserved by a freak of failure. With a well-oiled sound a three-man lift dropped down the tower with the accuracy of a guillotine blade and bobbed gently on its spring cushion. My guide was a small lizard-like civilian with hard, horny hands and face, and the lightest blue eyes I ever saw. His white shirt had small darns such as only a loving wife can do, and only a tight salary bracket make necessary. Across the back of one hand was a faded tattoo, an anchor design from which a name had been erased. The plain gold signet-ring caught the sun through his copious white hair…

The spy gets into the lift, telling the guide to look after his brief-case.

He nodded his white head slowly and deliberately, as one would to a sub-intelligent child or foreigner, and the lift surged upward. The red girders cut the white hot sand into Mondrian-like shapes moving before me more quickly as the lift gained speed. The wire roof divided the dark-blue sky into a hundred rectangles as the oily steel lift cable passed me on its journey downward. No sooner did the platforms permit me to peek over them than they fell away beneath my feet. For 200 feet I rocketed into the air, the circle of fencing falling around my feet like a spent hula hoop. Through the crack in the floorboard I watched the white police jeep lazily trot round the tower, on the sand that the explosion would transform into glass.

What happens high up in the tower is of immense significance to the plot. Most writers would concentrate on the meeting that takes place there, the tense conversation between the two men, the revelation that puts both their lives in danger.  Len gives us the those things but he doesn’t neglect the location. He walks all around the subject.

Afterwards, the spy returns to the Officers’ Mess where he becomes earthed again and Len shows off more of his early training – as a chef.

Then all was cool and calm. The long white crispy tables, the jugs of ice-water making noises like the treble end of a xylophone. The stainless steel, the low murmur of serious masculine conversation, the purr of air-conditioning units. This was reality, this was the world – not the scene through the window; that was a fable.

The vichyssoise was rich with fresh cream, through which the fugitive flavour of leek came mellow and earthy; it was cold and not too thick. The steak was tender and sanguine, dark with the charred carbon of crusted juices, and served with asparagus tips and pommes allumettes. The coffee came along with strawberry short-cake. I ate it all, drank the weak coffee, then settled back with a Gauloise Blue. Poisoning seemed an unlikely method of dealing with my defection.

I have left out the wry dialogue and the dry wit. Even without them you can see why this novel was snapped up by Harry Saltzman and made into a movie. It’s not rocket science.


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I adore Mingzhu. “You look so good in blue,” she told me the other week. “And you are so slim. You have no belly. There’s nothing there at all.”

“That’s because Lanying keeps me on a diet of tofu, fish and bitter green vegetables.”

“I couldn’t eat like that,” she said. “I love English roast dinners. Beef and Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes. I’ve got to have meat.”

“But you don’t put on weight. You have a perfect figure.”

“No, my belly’s bigger than yours. Look!”

I looked and I can still see it now. I think about it often, that belly. Smooth and shapely. Seductive. Slim. Gorgeous.

Last night the three of us were on the tube discussing Sex and the City 2. “I don’t like the way they approach other cultures,” Mingzhu said. “They went all the way to Abu Dhabi and they just wanted to behave like they were in a nightclub in Manhattan.”

Opposite us were four young men who had been drinking. They were staring at us. Well, not so much at me. “That’s what you want,” said one of them, who was a Geordie and was wearing a trilby. “You want to get off the beaten track.”

Mingzhu and Lanying couldn’t understand his accent but they nodded. He started to talk some more so Mingzhu said “What?”

“Get off the beaten track,” he repeated amiably.

They still didn’t understand.

“Get off the beaten track,” I said.

“Ah,” Mingzhu said, still puzzled. “Yes.”

We explained that we’d been to see Sex and the City, which led to a discussion about the best of British films since the original Ladykillers, which Lanying so admires. The Geordie had good taste. Unfortunately Mingzhu and Lanying couldn’t understand him. He warmly recommended Shogun Assassin and I told him I would put it on our rental wish list.

At London Bridge, Mingzhu had to get off. She gave me and Lanying a quick kiss and hurried to the doorway. The Geordie stared after her. “Stop drooling!” One of his friends told him. “It’s obvious what you’re thinking. She’s gorgeous.”

At the cinema Mingzhu had bought me a chocolate ice cream. She didn’t ask me, she just bought it. I had no choice but to eat it. It was delicious.

It was a quiet cinema where everyone is usually very well behaved. But last night there were groups of women drinking cocktails and hooting. They cheered loudly when Sarah Jessica Parker appeared on the screen. “Don’t they know it’s a film?” Mingzhu whispered to me. “She can’t hear them.” Mingzhu has never seen a single episode of Sex and the City, unlike Lanying, who has sat through every episode several times, with me at her side.

“I should have married Mingzhu,” I told Lanying today as we sat down to an octopus salad.


“I could have had roast dinner every weekend.”

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A fruity finish

I’ve never understood why film critics always write in opaque sentences stuffed with pretentious abstract nouns. I’ve always imagined it’s because they need to establish the fact that they’ve had an education. It’s one of the reasons I never read much about films. Another is that the critics seldom reflect my own tastes. The only way to know if a film is any good is to go and see it.

The problem is knowing which films to go and see. Luckily I’m married to a passionate researcher. Lanying scours my Sight and Sound every month and nags me about the films that have aroused her curiosity. She takes notice of the emails from the Curzon cinema and researches what ordinary people are saying on the internet.

That’s why on Friday night she took me to go and see Revanche by Götz Spielmann instead of Life During Wartime by Todd Solondz.

I loved Revanche. I was really pleased I hadn’t read any of the reviews and had no idea what to expect because it drew me in gradually, as a story should, and took quiet hold of my imagination. I almost forgot I was watching a film and got absorbed in the story and the characters. I didn’t completely forget, though, because the images resonated in my mind and I kept thinking about them. The film opens with something black hitting the surface of a pond and sinking without trace. Then you see a man mowing his lawn. There is no drama here, you might think, but as the story unfolds you appreciate what is under the surface.

To me it was as satisfying as a good novel, which is the highest praise I can give it. Lanying and I had a good chat about it on the way home. What a perfect end to a nearly perfect evening!

I say nearly perfect because there was the experience in the restaurant beforehand. It was a pleasant enough restaurant and the food was excellent but our waiter was new and he was being supervised by an eagle-eyed female mentor who noticed that we had to wait a long time and she kept coming over to apologise. Then a waitress got pushed from behind just as she was serving the table next to us and she spilled some white sauce all over me. I had to rush to the bathroom and sponge my (cheap) Italian suit with cold water. I’m pretty sure my suit will be come back from the cleaner’s looking OK but the well-meaning mentor apologised profusely, waived the bill and gave me a bottle of Santo Stefano Ruggeri Prosecco.

Lanying doesn’t know anything about wine so I googled it and discovered that

This brilliant wine has an inviting pale greenish colour and fine strands of persistent perlage. Its delicate fruity bouquet is subtle yet persistent, with aromas of mature apples and lemon blossoms. Fresh and lightly sweet, Santo Stefano is well-structured and rounded. It is harmoniously balanced and has a long and gently fruity finish.  It is the classic ‘ombretta trevigiana’ (which could be roughly translated as the ‘between-meal drink of Treviso’) often drunk with pastries and cakes.

(The drinkshop)

I see. It’s a good job we still have wine critics, as I really don’t have a clue.

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Luca Guadagnino with Tilda Swinton

“You dare yourself to make these childish fantasies real,” says Tilda Swinton, talking about her 20-year collaboration with Luca Guadagnino and their ambition to make an operatic film in the style of Visconti or Antonioni. “We egg each other on.”

They’ve egged each other on slowly but surely over the last 20 years and now, finally, we are able to see the fruits of their collaboration, I am Love.

There is no doubt that Luca and Tilda have a passion for cinema. There is a lot of love in this film. Listening to them talk about the creative process is inspiring. They really whet your appetite.

But I didn’t like the film. It is beautifully made. It is lovingly made. It is a very intelligent and a very sensual film. But it is boring.

I think it exemplifies the huge risks that every creative artist takes. You can have a great idea. You can have a great creative team. You can execute your idea with infinite care. You can bring to it passion and exquisite craftsmanship. But you can still fail to excite your audience.

It is the first of a series of collaborations, they claim, in which they will explore the unique language of cinema, and they have already secured the funding for the next in the series, which will be an homage to Michael Powell.

I don’t know much about Michael Powell but I will certainly change that over the next few months. If he inspired Tilda and Luca I think he must be some kind of god.

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Gao Yuanyuan in Shanghai Dreams

When Lanying was eight years old her parents made her cook the rice every day for dinner. She was also sent to get the tofu. 

Tofu, like all food in China in the early 1980s, was rationed, so she had to take her bowl and her coupons to the tofu shop, which was some distance from her home, along a lane patrolled by a fierce dog. 

She received some guidance from friends on what to do if the dog approached. Whatever you do, they told her, do not run. Instead she was to crouch down low as if picking up a rock. This would make the dog stop. 

They didn’t have any advice for what to do if it didn’t stop. I suppose she could either give it some tofu or hit it with the empty bowl. Have you ever seen a dog eat tofu? 

Anyway, she told me this after we’d spent the evening watching Shanghai Dreams, a film about life in China for two families who were moved to the countryside from Shanghai in order to strengthen China’s industrial base in the time of Chairman Mao. This was a political initiative known as the Third Front and it evoked in Lanying many memories of her childhood. Lanying herself was not moved to the countryside because her parents were army doctors and were treated differently but many of the domestic details were the same. 

It was a very touching film but one detail touched me more than any other. Everyone in the family put on elasticated cotton sleeves when they were doing housework —  mother, father, son and daughter. Lanying has a pair of these cotton sleeves which she keeps in a drawer in our kitchen. Her mother made them for her because she can’t get them here. She has got out of the habit of wearing them but when I first knew her she used to wear them all the time. 

It is not often that we watch a serious film at home. Normally Lanying won’t watch serious programmes. She only wants to watch comedies and lightweight entertainment. 

It’s not that she is shallow. She knows more about international politics than anyone I know and she recently scored higher than all my brainy colleagues in the BBC’s English vocabulary test. But when you’ve risked your life for tofu, you don’t want a diet of stodgy drama and bloated bulletins. 

Next time she cooks me tofu I will try to be more appreciative. I must admit, it’s not something for which I would normally go the extra mile.

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George Clooney and Vera Farmiga

You are no doubt desperate for the sequel to Tom and Mingzhu’s girlfriend experience.

Tom admitted to Lanying, the arch-orchestrator of the plot, that Mingzhu was exactly his type. “How did you know that she was exactly the sort of woman I like?”

“I just know.”

“The trouble is…” said Tom. “Please don’t take this the wrong way but Chinese women can be tricky.”

“Tricky? Are we?”

“They can be incredibly pretty but you never know what is going on in their minds. They always trick you somehow.”

“Mingzhu is not like that. She is a very decent person.”

“All the same…”

“Does that mean you are not going to contact her?”

“She told me she will be very busy until after the new year because she is going away with her mother. So I said we can meet for lunch in January.”

January is nearly over and they still haven’t met for lunch. Mingzhu emailed him. After a few days he replied. They couldn’t agree on a date. Mingzhu wrote straight back. A few days later he replied again. They eventually agreed a date.

“But it’s not a date,” Tom told Lanying. “Don’t call it a date. It’s just lunch.”

“A lunch date.”

“No, not a lunch date. It’s just lunch.”

Then he cancelled the lunch date. He had been promoted and he had to go for lunch with his new boss instead.

“Mingzhu will understand. She likes ambitious men, doesn’t she?”

“That was when she was younger,” said Lanying. “She is more mellow now. She says you take a long time to reply to her emails. She thinks maybe you are not that keen.”

“But she writes such long ones! I have 300 unanswered emails in my inbox. I can’t reply to hers in two minutes on my BlackBerry. I have to think about them and sit at a proper keyboard.”

“Maybe you are thinking too much. It’s only lunch.”

Yesterday Tom found time to go and see a film with Lanying. It’s that film with George Clooney called Up in the Air.  I read a review over breakfast. “It’s got four stars!” I said. “I bet it’s really good.”

“Four stars! Give me that! I’m going to take that with me and show him. He never believes me when I tell him a film is going to be good.”

“He’s so fussy. He’s neurotic.”

“Yeah, and he’s always late! He’d better not be late today.”

He was late. Lanying told him twice that the film started at 3.00 o’clock but he didn’t get there till 3.17. She was waiting at the entrance watching him as he came running up the road. He was sweating.

“I already have the tickets,” she said and took him straight in. “I want to find a good seat. I hate to sit at the front.”

“I thought it had started.”

“It hasn’t.”

“You told me it started at 3.00.”

“If I told you it started at 3.30 I’d still be waiting at the door checking my watch.”

“I’ve been tricked!”

“Just sit down. Here, use these tissues to wipe the sweat off your face.”

“I told you Chinese women are tricky.”

Meanwhile Tom and Mingzhu haven’t yet agreed on a date so it’s all still up in the air.

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Sasha Grey as Chelsea

Last night I went to see a film called The Girlfriend Experience. It was a very intelligent film with some intriguing performances but it was less interesting to me than the rest of the evening, in which the film played a very minor part.

We’d invited along two of Lanying’s friends who had never met each other, a woman called Mingzhu and a man called Tom. Tom is looking for a girlfriend experience and Mingzhu is looking for a boyfriend experience. Lanying has plenty of matchmaking experience so the film was her idea.

We learned over dinner that Tom had studied Chinese in Shanghai ten years ago and had plenty to talk about with Mingzhu, who was born there. “It has all changed now,” she said. “For better and worse. Anything in the world you can imagine, you can get it in Shanghai.”

Lanying talked in great detail about a massage she’d had in Thailand, which held everyone’s interest for a while.

Then we took the tube to the cinema and Lanying took this opportunity to nudge me (quite hard) in the ribs. “It’s going well, isn’t it?” she whispered excitedly. “They seem to really like each other.”

I nodded. They were talking a lot together and seemed to be hitting it off.

Afterwards we went home with Mingzhu. “Tom is really nice,” I suggested.

“Oh yes,” said Mingzhu. “He’s very easy to talk to.”

“And quite witty.”

“We were talking about the film,” said Mingzhu, “and I told him, it’s really interesting because, speaking for myself, since I can only speak for myself, I have no experience of prostitutes or escorts or anything like that. And he said ‘Is that a question or are you waiting for me to make a comment on that?’ And I said, ‘Oh no, it’s not a question.’ And he said ‘Well, of course, those massage parlours in Shanghai were in my student days.'”

We all laughed about that. But later Lanying got a text from Tom. “Well, that went very badly,” he said. “She took no interest in me at all. The only thing she was interested in was what I did as a student ten years ago.”

Lanying was shocked. Some frantic texts and emails followed.

“She really likes you,” Lanying told him.

“Are you just being polite, or do you really think so?”

“No, really! She thinks you are very interesting to talk to.”

“Well, she is stunning, so I might be interested if she is interested.”

Some texts and emails to Mingzhu followed. “You’d better send him an email to let him know you enjoyed the evening!” Lanying advised her.

“How will he feel if we just stay friends?” Mingzhu asked.

“What shall I tell her?” Lanying asked me.

“Tell her it’s up to the two of them now.”

“I’m glad I’m not dating.” Lanying said.

“Me too. I need all my spare time to practise Chinese.”

“Well,” Lanying told me, “a man stopped me in the street today while you were in the bookshop and told me he thought I was very beautiful, so I’m very happy.”

“Really? What kind of man? Was he old?”

“No, he was young.”

“He wasn’t one of those drunks in a Santa costume was he?”

“No. He was sober and quite handsome.”

“Well,” I said, “Mingzhu told me I speak Chinese like someone who has been studying it for years.”

“You have been studying it for years.”

“And you are very beautiful.”

“But it’s nice to be told.”

“Maybe you should pass on that comment from Tom that he thinks Mingzhu is stunning.”

“Already passed!”

We both laughed about that. You need to laugh about something. This whole girlfriend experience is terribly stressful.

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