Monday, 30 May 2016

RECENT FILMS

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STILL ALICE

This was a video that we watched at home on the television. It very like a TV Movie; low budget; all interiors; unambitious. It has an Oscar-winning main performance from Julianne Moore who is surely America’s greatest actress at the moment. I thought she was amazing as Sarah Palin, as I noted on the blog a few months ago. Apparently it was made in only twenty-three days on such a tight budget that the actors worked for union rates. It shows.

It is about a clever lady [Moore] who suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. In the film she is only fifty. The majority of people who are unlucky enough to get Alzheimers are in their seventies and eighties but it wouldn’t make cinematic sense to cast the great Julianne Moore as an eighty-year old, or write a book about an eighty year old [its all based on a best-selling novel]. You would lose what little audience you might get at the first hurdle. Nobody cares. An audience might care about the tragedy of a fifty-year old college professor and her rapid decline into a ghost. And that’s how it’s played. Pretty much constructed as a tear-jerker.

The only person I have known well to have Alzheimer’s was Auntie Eileen and she was a lot worse than what we are shown here. She was a remarkably sociable, incredibly gregarious and happy woman and her decline was all the more tragic and terrible for that. She didn’t recognise her own children or husband and by the end became unmanageable. She definitely was not Still Eileen. What a terrible ending to the loving marriage they had enjoyed.

It is poignant but focuses almost entirely on the family. I would have liked a bit more of the real Julianne Moore character, seen her at work, with girl-friends and colleagues [not the usual theatrical dinner-party device we so often see] before she gets ill. So that we could understand more of how she used to be. I guess there was no budget for that.
One last thing: the music is terrible.


SON OF SAUL

This is a Hungarian film set in Auchwitz in 1944 when the German efforts at erasing Jews from Europe were at their peak; at one point we overhear the camp commander tell one of his men that there will be three thousand new arrivals that night. Too many for the ovens and they will have to use the pits.

It won an Oscar last year for Best Foreign Film and the Grand Prix of the Jury at Cannes, no mean feat for a first-time director. He was on the Film Programme on BBC4 last week explaining how it took him years to get it funded. The interviewer asked him if he had tried to get money in Israel and he shrugged and said, ‘They didn’t like the script’. He should have showed them the searing three minute hand-held sequence in the Coal Room.

It is incredible. As I have posted many times on here, I take great pains not to expose myself to mans inhumanity to man and in every way, this is a film about mans inhumanity to man. But in the end my interest in contemporary cinema has overridden my what? . . . my qualms about the subject matter. The opening scene is the actual gas chamber; it never flinches, ‘Remember your peg number’, as they are locked into the showers and we stay with the men, the Sonderkommando and see their impassive faces as we hear the prisoners being gassed, hammering on the walls and the doors to be let out.

There is a story as such but it is thin. The main protagonist, Saul one of the Sonderkommando finds a dead boy and claims he is his son and spends the entire time trying to give him a Jewish burial. This is a device that allows Saul to visit all the different parts of the camp and allows we the audience to see every horror. We are spared nothing. The ovens, the pits, the trains, all in a very intelligently done soft-focus background while the camera never moves from the visceral immediacy of Saul’s face in close-up. Saul burning bodies; Saul at the pits; Saul snatching a moment to eat gruel; Saul sorting through the discarded possessions; Saul in the Coal Room. The sound is just astounding, loud and clanky, emphasising how industrial the process was; one of the prizes it won at Cannes was for sound.

However, the device of the deceased son allows us also to be interested in this chink of humanity in a grotesque world of death; if it were all relentlessly horrific, we would simply disengage.
Just a couple of other points: the men, the Sonderkommando are utterly brutal and structurally it reminded me of other prison films and prison books and in some ways films about men at war or in the cauldron of battle, where survival is the only thing that matters. The subtitles are pretty hopeless and given the care the director has put into everything else, it is forgivable and I suppose they aren’t the most important thing. As a picture of a life lived a nanosecond away from death . . . for everyone . . . not just the prisoners, life isn’t just cheap, it has no value whatsoever one tiny mistake and you can be shot or clubbed to death, it is gripping beyond words. I must admit I thought that everything that could be said about the Holocaust in cinematic terms had been said but this single-minded film proves otherwise.   

Friday, 27 May 2016

Thursday, 26 May 2016

GEMINI

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It would have been my father’s birthday today. He was a Gemini, RIP. I am not a Gemini, my birthday is in March so I am a Pisces. I love the month of March, the cold but just on the turn, full of expectancy; the daffodils, my favourite flower. But May is good too: the birds and the bees arriving out of their hibernation.

I got to thinking that so many people I have known are Geminis; my daughter; my sister-in-law; my best friend at school; a girl I was deeply in love with once. It’s a long list.
Clustering is when nodes [events or people] cluster together for no apparent reason and above average probability. Checking out the traits of a Gemini, it says they are witty and humorous; enthusiastic; versatile and are blessed with excellent communication skills, all qualities that conjure human decency at its fullest weight and pitch that I would seek in a friend or work-colleague.

I no longer really believe in the stars and star-signs but something strikes a chord here.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

LUCY KELLAWAY

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Lucy Kellaway is a feature writer on the FT and she put this up over the weekend. I thought it was tremendous. I’ve italicised her piece because I have something I want to say about it at the end:


Johannes Haushofer, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton, last month published a CV recording every professional failure in his career to date. He listed the university courses he didn’t get on to. The academic jobs he failed to land. The papers that were turned down for publication. The fellowships that went to someone else instead.

The resulting CV of failures was a Twitter sensation and picked up by newspapers around the world. So humble! So inspirational! So brave!  . . . was the verdict. The whole thing was so popular it constituted what Prof Haushofer called a meta failure . . .  as it attracted far more attention than his entire academic output combined.

Although amusing, his CV doesn’t strike me as brave in the slightest. If you teach at Princeton, listing your failures takes little courage. To say that the Stockholm School of Economics turned you down feels more like a taunt: look what they missed. It is not humble: it is a humble brag.

To prove how easy it is to be blasé about failure when you’ve had some success, last week I cheerfully sat down to compose my own CV of rejections. It involved quite a lot of brain-racking as my memory has done me the service of forgetting most of my failures over the past 40 years but, as far as I recall, it goes roughly like this.

In 1977 I failed to get accepted by Exeter, York, and Sussex universities to do a bachelors degree in economics.

In 1981 Boston Consulting Group, Bain, Shell, BP and the Treasury rejected me as a graduate trainee. Two years later I failed to get jobs on The Times, the Telegraph and (I think) the Evening Standard. In about 1985 I was turned down by The Economist and in 1987 failed to land the Laurence Stern fellowship on the Washington Post.

In 2004 and in 2010 successive novels were rejected by numerous publishers in various countries. In 2015 I was interviewed for board positions at ITV, British Land and Belmond — and given the thumbs down by all of them. And from 1985 to the present day I have failed to win so many journalism awards that listing them all would fill half this newspaper.

Studying my failure CV, the most interesting thing is the very long period in which I appear to have failed at nothing at all. From about 1991 to about 2004 I hardly received a single rejection. Yet far from being the most successful part of my career, it was the most sluggish. I was bringing up children, trying to hold it together at the Financial Times and generally attempting to keep the show on the road.
This shows that if your failure CV is very short, that in itself is a failure . . . you aren’t trying hard enough. If, on the other hand, it is very long, that may mean you are a no hoper  . . . or it may show you merely aim high. For each of us there is a perfect ratio of rejections to acceptances . . .  probably about four to one: any fewer than that, and you aren’t putting yourself out there enough.

The next thing that occurs to me is that not all rejections are equal. Some hurt a lot [like when a detested rival won a prize that I had my heart set on] and others hurt not at all. Failures followed by successes stop mattering at once. As you can only do one degree or one job at any given time, as soon as you have landed one, those that got away are meaningless. I minded not getting a job on The Economist until I got one on the FT, when I stopped minding entirely.

Indeed the only rejection that still hurts almost half a century on is not even on my list. I was 10 years old and failed to secure even a minor part in the primary school leavers’ production of The Boy Friend.

When I asked my colleagues about their failure CVs, many reported something similar. None minded their assorted rejections from the BBC and the Foreign Office, but it was an early rejection at school . . . often in sport  . . . that still rankled. My husband always used to claim that his failure to get on to the first 11 cricket team at Eton was the most bruising thing that ever happened to him, and made him turn against the establishment for the following 20 years.

The bald CV is silent both on pain, and on explanation. Prof Haushofer offers the reassuring thought that most failure is no more than bad luck as the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots and selection committees often make mistakes.

I’m not so sure this is the right way of looking at it. If I think back to my failures, I remember concocting comforting stories to explain them away, telling myself that the process was arbitrary, or I was too outspoken, or it was just Buggins’ turn.

Yet looking at my CV of failures a more plausible explanation occurs to me. I failed in almost every case simply because there was someone else who put in a stronger application or gave a better interview.


Anybody want my two-pence worth? I agree absolutely that when I go back over my own CV of failure it is more often than not because someone else gave a stronger application and or interview. I would like to think the reverse is also true that where I was successful, it was because my application was better.

But it takes the whole of your adult life to get there.

Luck helps, right place right time and all that. Could never have won Paradise Street without that tiny, tiny spark of good fortune and that applies to almost every job and yes, once you are in the race or on the pitch you can still miss an open goal or be hacked down by an opponent but that confidence that will always come with experience . . . it takes years to get it to a point where it is a usable tool. But the other thing I want to say is that the key factor is not whether we have faith in ourselves or in our abilities, but in how central it is to how we live. The how matters. I think back to jobs we couldda won if we had cut our prices or substituted some Chinese crap abandoned site visits, refused any liason. And I think back to careers I might have had; the guy in Bristol who told me I was wasting my time with all this technical stuff and wanted to put me on a management training course, with all your intelligence.

Or the favours I could have called in. And then what?

But of course focus is the thing and there is a whole section in Parallel Lines about that, how you have to focus usually at the expense of everything else. To quote my own burb: ‘You can have what you want most in the world, but to pay for it you must give up what you wanted second and third.’ I never had Lucy Kellaway’s dilemmas because from my mid-twenties on the only thing I wanted in life was to run my own business and my focus never varied.
So sometimes Lucy, taking the job at The Economist may not have been the right thing anyway if you weren’t actually qualified; you would have been unhappy there.