Sunday, 26 October 2014

You all right there?

This phrase has suddenly become ubiquitous in and around Oxford. 'You all right there?' or the snappier 'You all right?' is what everyone in a position of customer assistance seems to be asking. The phrase is disconcerting because it sounds like 'How are you?' when it pointedly isn't. The question is disconcerting because it implies that though you've approached a member of staff in a shop or other site of customer service in order to ask for service, the fact that you are doing so comes to them as a surprise. Sometimes the situation is nothing less than funny. You can be standing there for some time, patiently waiting to be attended to while the staff member is busy with someone else, even exchanging smiles of understanding with the staff member whose help you are waiting for, and then when they're free to help you they start doing something else then ask, as if they've just noticed you as if for the first time, 'You all right there?' It has happened that I've had to stop myself from laughing at the silliness of it all, because I suspect this reaction of innocent delight in absurdity might be misinterpreted as snarkiness. Maybe the clue to this current phrase craze lies in this curious fact: the person asking the question always, but always, makes a point of showing that they are doing something else, that they are busy. They attend to you not because it's why they're there in the first place, but because they have manners enough not to ignore someone who temporarily interrupts their busy-ness though they are too cool to make a show of their kindness with 'Can I help you?' Could this be an unforeseen effect of smartphones, of the new pressure to be always connected somewhere else or to always have to seem occupied with private matters while in public?

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Inglourious Basterds review

Prompted by "Fury", the new and apparently very violent WWII film starring Brad Pitt, I'm posting this old review of what now looks like a movie from a gentler era.

Inglourious Basterds 

Quentin Tarantino is a man in love: with words, with writing, with films, with gleeful depictions of violence. Restrained and measured he is not. Just as Brad Pitt, his star in “Inglourious Basterds” (18), has the looks but not the temperament of a leading man and therefore prefers to ham it up as a character actor, so Tarantino has the talent of a top-class writer and director but prefers to ‘pulp fiction’ his work and throw it down-market with wanton extravagance. At worst, the work is crass; at best, it’s exhilarating. “Inglourious” is probably his best yet. I say this freely admitting that I’d expected to dislike the film on principle, the principle being: how can someone with no grounding in the realities of war – no grounding in any reality perhaps, other than film-making - have the cheek to pitch his geek tent in the middle of Jewish suffering and World War II? What business does he have there? His business, as always, is to have fun with the motive of revenge. One of the ‘chapters’ of the movie is called “Revenge of the Giant Face” and features the line: “this is the face of Jewish vengeance!” The unifying story strand, moreover, concerns a band of predominantly Jewish American soldiers (the ‘Basterds’, led by Pitt’s character) whose purpose is to avenge European Jews by brutally and joyfully killing as many Nazis as possible in occupied France. These two storylines, and a third representing British involvement, are capped by a re-writing of history so flagrant that the whole movie becomes almost a comedy of revenge. Revenge, of course, is not really an option for us ordinary mortals, least of all for those of us seeking to live by Biblical standards of behaviour. If there’s any revenge to be dealt out, a higher power is required: “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). Though “Inglourious” is of course a secular film, it aligns itself rather surprisingly with this hierarchy. Mere revenge ends badly, grimly tripped up by trivial circumstance. Only actions that seek, however dimly, to align themselves with divine justice are allowed to result in some form of poetic justice. Another surprise in this film is that the violence is subordinate to the words. And the words are superb. The dialogue set-pieces alone are worth the price of admission, as is the award-winning performance of Christoph Waltz playing a ‘Jew-hunter’, the silkiest speaker of them all. What violence the film does show is (for the most part) quick and to the point and, while graphic, also obviously fake. If Tarantino is going to set the world to rights with the kind of verve he shows here, and if his most indulgent point of artistic preciousness is his refusal to explain the eccentric spelling of the title, then he can have his private joke and good luck to him. As he writes in “Inglourious”: “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”

Verbal ejaculations

Is there a word for 'prone to stubbing one's toe'? I am very much prone to stubbing my toe, any toe, and therefore could use such a word. And every time it happens I'm reminded of a brief chat I had at a sports centre with a friendly acquaintance who lamented her experience of being in the sauna with men who could not speak without swearing. In the instance she was referring to the men had not only disregarded her presence in the sauna (whatever happened to minding your language when women are present?), they had been swearing while talking about daughters and about family life in general, in a way that was not particularly hostile or angry. My interlocutrice could not understand this, and I sympathised, although she made a point of saying she could well understand the use of swearing in other circumstances, for example when stubbing one's toe. And for all that I was nodding sympathetically before, I found I couldn't nod in agreement to that point. I mean, why? If you swear when you stub your toe, it's because you're angry: either at the pain, or at the unfairness of how much it hurts compared the the smallness of the injury, at fate altogether, the state of the world, the universe and beyond, or all of the preceding. Or, in the case of people like me, you could be angry at how often it happens. But how can you be angry at something that just happens (even if often)? There's nothing to be angry at, and no one to blame. Consequently I keep my mouth shut until the pain begins to subside and then say 'Ow, that hurt!', or its equivalent. Nevertheless I'm guessing that many people would agree that it's acceptable to ejaculate, under those circumstances, i.e. when provoked by toe stubbings or other shocks, even if the ejaculation is foul-mouthed - and I say this according to the definition of 'ejaculation' which, as those who read dictionaries can tell you, simply means 'something thrown out'. So the big strong man from a Catholic background who is terrified on a roller coaster and utters 'Mother of God!'is ejaculating, albeit in a non-sweary though debatably profane way. This use of the word ejaculation and its derivatives often crops up in non-contemporary novels, and blameless though it may be, I find it always takes a second or two  to get over the shift in meaning between then and now. Agatha Christie is particularly fond of it, especially in her younger days as a writer. I'm only a third of the way through the early stories of Poirot Investigates (1924) and she's already notched up five of them, the first one straightaway in the opening story, "The Adventure of the 'Western Star' ": 'That's queer,' I ejaculated suddenly beneath my breath', says Captain Hastings (thereby showcasing another blameless word whose meaning has become specialised). Similarly, there is a runnnig gag in the underrated rom-com "Kate & Leopold" about the use of of the word 'erection', which in a more innocent age merely referred to something made straight or built up, as in a building or, in the film, the Brooklyn Bridge. Anyway, all this to say, that verbally ejaculating when provoked is a much more serious question than the snigger effect would suggest. Firstly there is the question of which word or phrase gets thrown out of you, and what effect it will have. Regarding this question many of us could say, with the prophet Isaiah:' "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips" '. (Isaiah 6: 5) Then, even more importantly, there is the question of what any unclean verbal reaction says about the heart. On this point Jesus was firm, not to say salutarily insulting: ' "You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil." '(Matthew 12: 34,35; also Luke 6: 45) One of my favourite preachers says that on this subject the heart can be likened to a full cup: when the cup gets disturbed by any sort of provocation the nature of what we say shows what our hearts are made of. Though I don't swear when I stub my toe, there are circumstances when my disturbed heart does not seem very nice at all. It's very humbling, as I believe it's meant to be. It's a reminder of our weakness and of the fact that though God expects much from us, nay expects everything, He is patient with us as we try to get it right. He knows perfectly well we are a work in progress, and that it's only by His grace that we are.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Woman's Work

No woman, we've been told recently, should have to sacrifice her career in order to have a family. It sounds good and thoughtful, but what does it mean exactly? There are surely many women who work for pay who cannot be said to have a career, with what that implies of choice and fulfillment. Conversely not all women who have careers necessarily get paid for their work - for example women who want to provide high-level support to a husband's or a relative's career and are happy and fulfilled in doing so. It takes all sorts and there are all sorts. And then the word 'sacrifice' carries a heavy emotional charge, but only in one direction. No one wants to say that a woman may be sacrificing her children in order to have the sort of career she could expect to have if she'd remained childless. So un-PC to even think in that way! And yet it must happen. An enlightened approach to women and paid work should be able to take into account that mothers come in all shapes and sizes, figuratively speaking, as much as women come in all shapes and sizes physically. Some of us can combine career and children, some of us can't. Some of us have careers to start with, some of us don't. Some of us want to work but can't. Some of us want to stay at home but can't. An  enlightened approach to women and work should have no problem in positing that a woman bringing up her own children is in fact working. Moreover, that a woman bringing up her own children is not necessarily doing so because she is privileged enough to do this as a lifestyle choice. For some of us, especially those who are doing this work alone, multitasking is just not possible. Not everyone has plentiful reserves of energy, not everyone is strong. Furthermore - and further down the line - an enlightened approach to women and paid work should be able to recognise that mothers who've put in a decade or two of child-rearing can have a lot to contribute to society, business etc. Why not make a point of understanding the resources that returning mothers could bring to the table? Then those of us who are ready to return to paid work need not be greeted like the unwelcome ghost at the banquet, or at the quickly snatched desk-top lunch*
*Which is a lunch 'al desko':

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Gone Girl

"Gone Girl" is most entertaining (and what fun that the fragrant Rosamund Pike is finally getting her big break), but for some reason it hasn't been marketed as a comedy. It was a slow Monday at the multiplex when I saw it, so the audience was probably not representative, but among my fellow-viewers there was a deplorable lack of  hilarity in response to the utterly daft storyline. People, I wanted to say, this is hilarious! I mean, who behaves like those characters? But maybe this is what adult behaviour looks like nowadays and I should get out more? Until possible future enlightenement on this point, the story will continue to remind me of something a child might have written: a young female child, an Amazing Amy perhaps, who's always been told she's very wonderful and very clever, and who gets carried away on a wave of self-esteem one fine day and writes a story about grown-ups doing very bad things and using very bad words, because she can, so there. Cool girl, gone girl, clever scribbling girl. It was only when the lawyer played by Tyler Perry showed up saying basically that (this is hilarious) that things fell into place as they could have done much earlier in the film. The lawyer could scarcely keep the grin off his face, and we get it - or if we don't, we should. Now, (SPOILER ALERT) of course,  the truly pressing question about this film is: how on earth does the fragrant Rosamund's character manage to achieve a precisely cut bob, by herself, in the middle of nowhere? Was there a sort of Bob-U-Cut among the prizes brought back by her stalker type, metrosexual hunter ex-boyfriend at the end of the day? We should be told. And until such a time as we are, what remains most striking for me about this film is the climactic exchange of c-words between the two leads. These uses of the c-word - you know, the one not unlike 'cut' in its general sound effect - is presumably what we are cautioned against by the 'very strong language' tag on the 18 rating. More importantly, this exchange between husband and wife confirms what some critics have said - the film is unnecessarily sexual - because it is here that the climax happens. This man and this woman are not made one flesh by their physical intimacy: they are made one curse by intimately sharing a taboo insult. The word cannot be forgotten, or erased. Once it's out, the game is up. There is no going gone again. Of course "Atonement", a fine film starring an emerald dress and a typewriter, made this point too, though not quite so brazenly. And wasn't it directed by the chap who dumped Rosamund once upon a time in real life? Serves it right, if so, to be trumped by Amazing Amy. Weirdly, the c-word face-off between the lead characters in "Gone Girl" gives the story a suitably comedic ending: the marriage is saved. Husband and wife might not live happily ever after, but they will live, and on a rock-solid foundation too, just a really nasty one, not to be attempted at home. But words are powerful, for better or for worse. 

Guarding a Malamute

In the park: a cheerful middle-aged man, fairly obviously unemployed, hanging out with his large Alsatian, offered to relieve me from pet-sitting an enormous Malamute who had been found wandering around with no owner. I had taken taken over this Malamute-guarding duty from the lady who'd found the dog and phoned the dog warden but who could no longer wait for the warden to arrive as she had to be somewhere else urgently. Cheerful m-a man, with whom I'd had a quick chat earlier in the park, said he was happy to take over as he had nothing else to do because, he said, "I'm a trainee millionaire." Thank you, man! Greetings to your wife, and I hope you do become a millionaire one day, to everyone's surprise including your own.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Battle Fatigued

A fatigued-looking young man in army surplus trousers held the door open for me today at a service station. Thank you, young man! I hope that whatever was preoccupying you will soon be resolved.

Still on Renée

Here's something to ponder: someone choosing to make fundamental changes to their whole body, as in gender reassignment surgery, would be praised, and praised whatever the aesthetic merits of the outcome might be. A woman chooses (at her own expense) to modify aspects of her face in response to the inevitability of ageing, and the metaphorical knives and pens are out, gleefully sharpened. Public opinion, like the contemporary notion of rights, is finite. Leeway given in one direction corresponds with censure in another.

The Face of Renée

Poor Renée Zellweger, scrutinised and commented on by all and sundry for daring to come out of hiding at a shiny public occasion with a rather different-looking face. Good for her, if nesting with her hirsute companion has made her into a new and happier woman. Good for her, especially, for countering all this impertinent attention by using the word 'nefarious': 'It seems the folks who come digging around for some nefarious truth, which doesn't exist, won't get off my porch until I answer the door', as she is reported to have said. I hope she flummoxed at least a few people with 'nefarious', and may she flummox even more when they realise it means something which is 'extremely wicked or villainous', according to my old Random House Webster's College Dictionary (subtitled 'The right word every time'), and furthermore that it derives from a Latin root meaning an 'offense against divine law' (it's a North American dictionary, hence the spelling of 'offense'). I particularly like the way this kick-ass word leaps out from the folksiness of 'folks', on one side, and the porch-and-door imagery on the other. Go Renée!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Inception review

Inception How do you plant an idea in someone’s head so subtly that they think it’s their own? This is what Dom Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) is asked to figure out in the brainy action movie “Inception” [12A]. Much depends on the success of the operation, so Cobb swiftly assembles a crack team to help him in the task of altering the sub-conscious of one Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the soon-to-be-heir to an energy empire. The cast of “Inception” bristles with Academy Award nominees and winners, and the script interweaves cultural allusions with references to psychology, philosophy, morality, dream theory, architecture and physics, the whole served up with oodles of visual effects: fun for those who like challenging entertainment, and for those who are just along for the ride. For the musically inclined there is the added attraction of a clever score by Hans Zimmer which contracts and expands a recurring snippet of Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien”. This song has associations for me from childhood, and therefore adds a ‘layer’ (in the film’s jargon) of personal links to the dream-level proceedings of the movie. As it throw its net pretty wide, however, this film might stir up associations in many viewers. Writer and director Christopher Nolan himself benefited from a coincidence, when he cast French actress Marion Cotillard as Cobb’s wife, Mal. Cotillard had won an Oscar for portraying Edith Piaf in the biopic “La vie en rose” (2007), and her presence here puts an extra spin on the use of song. Nolan is known for the amnesia whodunnit “Memento” (2000) and for contributing to the Batman series with “Batman Begins” (2005) and “The Dark Knight” (2008). “Inception” is an original script (i.e. not an adaptation) which showcases his inventiveness while, thankfully, steering clear of the bleakness at the core of “Knight”. In fact what I like best about “Inception” is the cheerful simplicity at its core. For all the bandying of lofty words and concepts, the team’s way out of dream zones is termed a ‘kick’, in the refreshingly material sense. For all the cool, dimension-bending visuals and ‘gravity shifts’, it turns out that planting an idea in someone’s head involves disguising the idea as an emotion – a positive emotion, no less, a warm and fuzzy one. Even better, for all the abstract talk of origins and creation (‘inception’ means ‘a beginning’), it turns out that the surest way into Fischer’s mind is through his basic identity as his father’s son. The depths and farthest shores of the human mind are not under attack in this film. It has no quarrel with a religious view that we are embedded in God’s infinite wisdom and held in the inescapable framework of His creation – not least in the outworking of His will for us in relationships and families. Intentionally or not, this is the happy truth “Inception” pays homage to most. There are some who contend the film plays games - you know, clever mind games - with the viewer right up to the closing credits. To which I say: Relax! Get thee to your friend’s HD widescreen when this comes out on DVD, and break out the popcorn. In the end, note and understand the Latin roots of Cobb’s first name and that of his wife. If you must, argue over the final shot of a finely crafted spinning top.
To make a start, I am going to try posting a film review I wrote a few years ago for a now-defunct church magazine. It's old news, but it gives a flavour of my angle on things. And anyway, is anything old, now that we can access so much at will? Appropriately enough, the film reviewed is "Inception" i.e. a beginning.
Well hello! This is a new blog, from someone who doesn't yet know how to blog, so please be patient while I endeavour to get these stones a-grinding.
It's called Through the Mill and/or thoroughlymilled, and the subtitle conveying the intent is: Cornily Earnest Views on Culture, Language and Life.
Be advised that, while trying to not be too obvious about it, I am writing from a Christian standpoint, in a spirit of lightness and, I hope, humour. Anyone seeking to be offended by something or anything is politely asked to trawl elsewhere, as I have no wish or indeed aptitude to get into a fight on any subject this blog may happen to touch on. On the other hand, kindly-meant and civilly-expressed arguments and discussions are most welcome.