Month: September 2017

Interruptus

Brief Encounter Film Still

The last time we delved into British cinema, we thought we’d discovered a forgotten gem.  Now, let’s look at the flipside: the film that was highly acclaimed as a masterpiece, but which I didn’t enjoy at all.

The words “realist cinema” should always act as a warning.  It’s supposed to bring a sharper focus, convey events that might actually happen to anyone. The idea was probably to move away from what had come before, to throw out both heroic tragedy and anything that happened to exceptional people out with the bathwater.  Turns out it creates films that are tawdry and more than a bit boring.

The critics, of course, loved them.

The one we’re looking at today is called Brief Encounter.  It tells the story of a bored housewife (protip: anything that tells the story of a bored housewife will be worse, all other variables remaining constant, than anything which doesn’t) who meets a man on a train and begins a platonic relationship with him.

This had the potential to turn into something interesting, except that just when interesting was about to occur, the guy’s best friend walked in on them and they decided to go their separate ways.  In order to kill the possibility of interesting things ensuing later, the man decides to leave for South Africa.  It’s a study in frustration for both the characters and the audience.

Noel coward Brief Encounter

Yes, it deftly echoes the angst and utter meaninglessness of middle class existence (the ones from 1938 in this case)… but does little else.  That’s why critics loved it, but it left me feeling empty (your mileage may vary).

That’s not to say that it’s a bad piece of filmmaking.  It isn’t.  It wasn’t hard to watch, it was well acted and well made.  The atmosphere was extremely well created and the whole “train station in the night” is truly memorable.  The problem is that it was a realist film, which meant that, being well executed just meant that, in the end, it was a bit tawdry and disappointing.  Like life itself, something only a critic can love…

The interesting notes that accompany this one are that it was based on a Noël Coward play whose plot sounds a lot more interesting than the film.

Also, a shout out to actress Margaret Barton, only surviving member of the cast that I could find.  If you’re reading this, take heart; the acting was excellent–the concept let you guys down.

Advertisements

MR James’ Ghosts: Building on the Victorians

I first heard of MR James in a completely unexpected place.  It happened a few years ago while reading a Martin H. Greenberg anthology called My Favorite Fantasy Story*.  This is a book from the early oughts in which modern writers (including George RR Martin for those of you who must have every printed mention of the man in your collections) chose ONE fantasy story from all of the history of writing and gave their reasons for calling it the best ever.

My Favorits Fantasy Story Cover

As you can imagine, this produced an eclectic mix, with everything from Mopsa the Fairy, a novella from 1869 which was, quite frankly, the strangest selection of the book as well as, in my opinion, the weakest, to a Terry Pratchett tale.  Also in the mix were not one but two of Vance’s Dying Earth stories (Martin chose the best of these) which one is never certain whether to classify as SF or Fantasy.

Finally, there was this weird little ghost story by some guy named MR James, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, chosen by Morgan Llywelyn, which, though a change of pace from most, was one I remembered years later (all right, I’ll admit there were a couple that I still recall, particularly the Zelazny and the two by Vance, but the ghost story was in there).

It was completely different from what I was expecting, but not in a bad way like Mopsa the Fairy.  It was a creepy ghost story of an unseen spirit messing with the protagonist at a pleasant seaside resort.  No gore, no dismemberment, just the much more relatable experience of being alone and certain there was something watching you, and that that something was an evil something.

James Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Illustration

Years later, I took out a subscription to Easton Press’ Horror Classics lineup (I do this for two reasons: the first is that they are very pretty books, and the second is that they often select books that I would never have chosen for myself).  One of the books they sent me was a volume by MR James entitled Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and it turns out that it’s full of tales philosophically similar to this one.  All of them have barely seen, sometimes imaginary spirits stalking the main character without ever really becoming explicit.  James always leaves the question of whether they are real or product of madness hanging in the air–though the stories, if taken at face value, demand for the explanation to be the former.

These are extremely different from what Le Fanu was creating a few years earlier (despite James familiarity with Le Fanu’s work).  They are much less sexual–not sexual at all, in fact–and they don’t give the reader an explanation about what was happening.  While Carmilla is revealed to be a vampire, James’ haunts remain mysterious.

The best story in the collection, describing what literary experts would refer to as “some seriously bad ju-ju”, was likely “The Ash Tree”, but each will find his or her own favorite among the tales.

More interesting than a review here (there are dozens available), is to talk about MR James himself.  He is a man that one thinks would have enjoyed Classically Educated.  Not just a writer, but a scholar and an administrator, he was a polymath indeed. The fact that his ghost stories have eclipsed the rest of his reputation is almost sad.

One can imagine him sitting in his wood-paneled study or University rooms and exhaustively studying the writers of the supernatural that paved the way for him.  I can especially see him as an expert on many obscure Victorian writers of ghost stories that history has forgotten… because, though written in the 20th century, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is definitely a Victorian book.  It deals with Victorian preoccupations with a Victorian structure and informed by Victorian mores.

Though he is credited with creating the “antiquary ghost story” subgenre, it seems to me that James was not looking to innovate.  Quite the opposite, in face: the never-changing world of academia (Cambridge and Eton in his case), inspired him to look to the past and refine it.

In doing so, he did something new**, but only by chance.

 

*Though Gardner Dozois had a habit of dismissing Greenberg anthos as “pleasant but minor” in his Year’s Best books for ages, I’ve always found his collections to be pleasant and to contain at least a few memorable stories.  Not to try to contradict Dozois, who is a notable student of the SFF field, but sometimes a lack of readability is celebrated as creating “better” fiction, which seems unfortunate.

**I always think that the 80’s film Gremlins had to take at least some inspiration from this book.

SciFan Magazine #9 Released

Here at Classically Educated, we have a lot of literary and cultural friends, and we’re always happy to give them a shout-out when they do something notable.  SciFan Magazine is one of them, and they’ve recently put out their ninth issue (in a world where many publications never make it past the first two or three, that is truly an achievement worth celebrating).

SciFan Magazine - Issue 9

The nice thing about SciFan is that they combine science fiction and fantasy, preferably in the same tale, which makes it a haven where readers of hard to classify tales can scratch that particular itch.

The ninth issue is particularly packed with stories and serials by Chris Nardone, Todd Sullivan, Patrick Hodges, Ken Goldman, M. C. Tuggle, Sarah L. Johnson, Mandi Jourdan, A.M. Justice, Tom Fallwell, Richard Flores IV, Fariel Shafee, Matthew McKiernan, and Stan Faryna as well as three novel previews and an interview with Andrey Vasiliev.

We think this is a good bet for our SF/F reading fans (we’re always surprised at how many we have), and one you might not have heard of before.

Enjoy!

 

Trying to Take Stock

There are many films about World War II.  Most of them are action flicks.  Some are anti-war.  Others deal with the horrors of war in general.  Some are Italian, and therefore morally ambiguous and political.  And only Quentin Tarantino knows what he was trying to do with his.

Best Years of Our Lives Movie Poster

But there is one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to understanding the effect of the war on the lives of the men and women in the United States who survived it.  That movie is The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 ensemble masterpiece that became the highest-grossing film since Gone With the Wind.  And since anything to do with the old South is seriously out of favor nowadays, the war film should come even further into its own as the days go by.

The title, of course, refers to the fact that, despite its horrors, war gave the protagonists–three men recently demobilized who return to their hometown–a shared experience that all of them recognize as participation in the most important event that they will ever be a part of.  They return to a society that doesn’t understand what they’ve been through, and is often cruel and indifferent to their needs.  The question “was this terrifying experience the best thing that will ever happen to me?” casts its shadow over the entire movie.

It’s never answered, because all three of the men eventually find a path that, with luck might bring them something better.  But at the same time, the paths they find might also lead them to a life of grey mediocrity, a condition that they’re ideally suited to identify because of what they’ve lived through.

Interestingly, despite some of the themes, it doesn’t show much anti-war sentiment.  The war happened.  It was important and necessary.  And now they’re dealing with what comes next.  Simple, no need to overthink it.

That’s probably why it works so well today.  In our world, a film like this would have been an exercise in political reflection, guilt and recrimination.  Back then, when the US had an actually significant event to reflect upon, it was a measured, even-handed view.  It’s interesting to see that people back then (yes, even in Hollywood!) acted like adults while seventy years later, everyone is a whining, idealistic adolescent.  Sad, too.  But mainly interesting.

Harold Russell still

The standout for me was the character of Homer Parrish, a former Navy sailor and amputee played by Harold Russell.  Our politically incorrect viewing party immediately dubbed him “Sailor Hook”, but the truth is that he steals the show; his Oscar win for best supporting actor was well-deserved: apart from being an amputee, the guy could act. so we tried to find a little more about him.

There’s an army film about rehabilitating veterans in which he stars, entitled Diary of a Sergeant.  It’s available in its entirety on Youtube.  Inspiring and sobering in equal measures, kind of like the film about the Battle of San Pietro, also produced by the military and which was so significant that we spoke about it twice: here and here.

This film makes the reviewer’s job pretty simple: if you haven’t seen it, watch it.  If you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it again.  There’s something here for everyone except, maybe, for those people who need constant, non-stop action.  There’s a reason this one is considered one of the best of the best.