selenak: (Scarlett by Olde_fashioned)
I've acquired new fandoms and revisited some old ones since the last time I did this, thus, from [personal profile] astrogirl:

1) Make a list of fifteen characters first, and keep it to yourself for the moment.

2) Ask your f-list to post questions in the comments. For example: "One, nine, and fifteen are chosen by a prophecy to save the world from four. Do they succeed?", "Under what circumstances might five and fourteen fall in love?", "Which character on the list would you most want on your side in a zombie invasion?"

3) After your f-list has stopped asking questions, round them up and answer them using the fifteen characters you selected beforehand, then post them.

Also, this unique summary of A Legacy Of Spies cracks me up. :)
selenak: (Goethe/Schiller - Shezan)
So John Le Carré has a life long interest/(barbed)affection for all things German, which I knew, but I still found myself touched and surprised by this love declaration to the German language. Also to education in general, and the way learning languages changes our minds, which is direly needed here and now. Writes he: The decision to learn a foreign language is to me an act of friendship. It is indeed a holding out of the hand. It’s not just a route to negotiation. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking. And the decision to teach a foreign language is an act of commitment, generosity and mediation.

(I've never tried to verbalize how I feel about English, come to think of that.)

Meanwhile, two Doctor Who fanfiction recs, hidden under a spoiler cut because they're hard to describe without giving away plot points of the last season )
selenak: (Partners in Crime by Monanotlisa)
Which is a not-really-memoir, a collection of autobiographical stories, several of which have been earlier published, here arranged not in linear order but thematically, in a way. Le Carré puts himself in the observer role in most of the stories, which are focused on the various people, famous or not, he encounters. For all that he's a superb raconteur about them, he keeps his own emotions about the people he describes mostly in check; understatement is the name of the game. The big exception, and unsurprisingly the chapter that got the most attention in reviews when this book was published, comes near the end, in the tale of his dastardly conman of a father, Ronnie, a born life ruiner (and occasional beater, but the devastating damage Ronnie does both to marks and to his family is usually non-physical in nature), and his absent mother Olive, who left him and his brother with Ronnie when our author was five and whom when reencountering her as an adult he never quite managed to form a relationship with, not least due to her habit of addressing him as Ronnie. Lé Carré is far too self aware not to realise the connection between spying, being a conman, and being a writer, and thus warns the reader early on, re: veracity of the stories he's about to tell:

““I’m a liar . . .Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as novelist. As a maker of fictions, I invent versions of myself, never the real thing, if it exists.”

Ronnie and Olive remind me a lot of Charles Dickens' parents, for all that Dickens and Le Carré aren't really much alike as writers; the parallel extends to adult Dickens' senior embarassing his son by writing out cheques in his name till Charles had to publish an advertisement in the papers to say he wasn't countenancing this, while Ronnie uses his son's novelist successs in a similar manner (and even signs the novels), to the novelist sons putting their fathers in more bearable form in novels while in rl living in an uneasy tension between trying to avoid their fathers and being unable to let them go. While carrying a less obvious but as deep-seated grudge against their mothers due to what they see as an utter lack of affection. Le Carré's terse description of Olive as the mother without a scent (he can't remember what she smelled like because she never hugged him) says it all.

But the Ronnie (and Olive) chapter comes, as mentioned, near the end of the book; Le Carré knew of course it was the most emotional and the climax. Earlier, we're treated wrily and drolly to such gems as lunch with Rupert Murdoch (who wanted to know who killed Robert Maxwell) being his over the top tycoon self, Alec Guinness, whom Le Carré befriended due to Smiley, being as gentlemanly and enigmatic as you want him to have been, with the occasional one liner to his fellow actors when they go over the top, Yassir Arafat putting on a show (in more senses than one) while Le Carré is busy roleplaying himself as Charlie, the herone of Litlte Drummer Girl, and so forth. Of particular interest to me and a red thread through the book is Le Carré's life long fascination with all things German. He was stationed in Bonn in the 50s, is fluent in the language (and says these days he can't focus on a book for longer than an hour, except if it's in German), keeps coming back here and provides German locations as guest spots in many of his novels. His descriptions of the many, many old Nazis on all levels of the administration in the 50s and 60s is dead-on, I'm afraid. (Just recently, our justice department published a study on how many former Nazis were there in the post war justice system until the 70s. Over 77 percent, I kid you not. Even allowing for the usual argument (which is: well, non-Nazi German lawyers and judges were hard to come by in the 1950s; not untrue, but there were the emigrés, who found it harder, not easier, than the Nazis to get those kind of jobs if they were willing to return, plus there was no encouragement of the younger, less tainted generation), that's devastatingly high. As for the reformed spy network, you probably had to search for a non-former Nazi with a flashlight. Le Carré's description of Gehlen, who founded it and got the US licence for it is wickedly on point. He also can't resist some sarcasm re: the US and British attitude, which was as he sums up that as a Nazi, you were per definition not a Communist, and so okay in the Cold War era CIA's book. (Ignoring that Gehlen was a fantasist and that having a dark past makes you easily availablef or blackmail,with the end result that according to Le Carré 90 % of the German agents working in Eastern Europe were really working for the Stasi. Which I'm completely ready to believe. Competence isn't something the BND was ever famous for, even after the Nazis died out. In an account of a more recent German episode, he maks me cringe because that one concerns the German citizen tortured at Guantanamo, and I remember the (non-)reaction from our governments all too well.

Like Le Carré's novels, The Pigeon Tunnel features far more men than women, though the occasional memorable woman makes it through, like Yvonne, the original for Tessa in The Constant Gardener. Someone I'd like to have read about more is his younger half sister Charlotte Cornwell, who inspired Charlie in The Little Drummer Girl and who, since she's an actress, he wanted to play the character in the movie version, which didn't happen. (Not a fan of Diane Keaton he.) Unfortunately with the exception of saying this about Charlie, he doesn't talk about her, or his other siblings really, other than saying his brother Tony was basically his only source of affection in his childhood (Ronnie and Olive weren't). Various ladies with the designation "my wife" are spotted at the edges of these stories, but as I said, for the most part, Le Carré manages to remain deepy private in this collection, taking the not unreasonable position that describing all these other people is where his and the readers' interests allign.

All in all: highly readable, and no, you don't have to be into his novels to enjoy it.
selenak: (M)
Which Amazon Video put up as soon as it had finished its run on the BBC, so I marathoned it. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Coleman, it's a sleek adaption-plus-update of John Le Carré's novel of the same name. I really enjoye watching, nitpicks aside, but I also groaned when reading there may be a second season and said "please don't" immediately, because if there is, it will make the Broadchurch mistake of adding something to a perfectly self contained miniseries just because it was successful, not because the story needs it.

On to the miniseries that needs no second season, with spoilers:

Read more... )
selenak: (Carl Denham by grayrace)
It occurs to me that both in my tv and book reviews, I used the term "Le Carré-style" pretty often, so, for those of you vaguely or not at all familiar with the gentleman (and his books) in question: the New York Times, apropos the publication of his latest novel, put up very good interview plus portrait. Choice quotes: “I know about interrogation,” he said, alluding to his days as a British spy in the 1950s. “I’ve done interrogations, and I can tell you this: By extracting information under torture, you make a fool of yourself. You obtain information that isn’t true. And: “If I’m angry at America, I’m angry as a disenchanted romantic,” he said. Which I think is a pretty common European phenomenon. When [ profile] artaxastra asked me about the enthusiastic Obama reception in Berlin, I replied that it struck as less being about Obama himself - who at this point has no acts affecting the rest of the world either to praise or resent - than a desperate wish to fall in love with America again. Over here, we grow up with American movies, American tv and American music. Of course we romantisize the country. Or demonize it, as the case may be, absolutely, but I think most of us start out with the romantisizing and falling in love part, and in addition to horror evoked by the policies of the Bush administration summed up with the name "Abu Ghraib", there is your everyday divorced couple type of bile and bitterness.

On to something from the past, decades ago, and as it happens the result of Europeans being in the US. On the road last week I aquired a reasonably cheap collection of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff films on dvd. I have a huge soft spot for the old Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s; so much so that, for example, I never watched any of the Mummy remakes because I'm that attached to the Boris Karloff original. One of my favourite films from that era is The Black Cat, the first one the two horror icons of the day, Lugosi and Karloff, did together. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Poe short story it takes its name from. (To justify the title, there are a very few pointless scenes of one of the characters showing a cat phobia.) Which is true for all the films using Poe titles Universal made. The story director Edgar Ulmer and his fellow scriptwriter came up with is what we'd call today the good crack, and firmly set in the then present day. I strongly suspect Stephen Sondheim of being a fan, because the plot resembles Sweeney Todd in not a few points: Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) having been imprisoned for fifteen years and having lost his wife and daughter to the man responsible, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), for one, Poelzig having married the lookalike daughter after having ravaged the wife in another, and then there's the way in which Werdegast takes revenge. On the other hand, the film, quite un-Sweeney-Todd-like, sets the precedents the Rocky Horror Picture Show later would parody: clueless American couple stumbles into villain's lair (tm). Ulmer, who was Austrian, has some fun with that, but he also pokes fun at the European side of things, via the Ungarian policemen who instead of picking up on the distress and emergency situation of the Americans just pimp their respective hometowns as the only destinations worth visiting.

It's also very much a film using the first World War as an (unseen) background, with both Werdegast and Poelzig, whose backstory occured then, traumatized by it; in an early sequence, the driver picking up our hapless American couple, Werdegast and his servant mentions the battle that occured on the ground they're driving over, the senseless butchery, and the divide between the Europeans and the two Americans to whom this is just a story (whereas the rest of the people in the car lived through it) is very clear, by visual expressions alone. And then, mixed up in this type of psychological realism, you have Universal horror at its most outrageous: satanism (Poelzig reading a book on how to conduct a black mass in bed at night before switching off the light is so tongue in cheek that it has to be deliberate), expressionistic architecture, torture, and sexuality they'd never have gotten away with in the A-movies of the day, but in B-movies, censorship didn't strike as hard. This ranks from the harmless (yet then daring) like our couple kissing while lying on a bed together to the twisted (Poelzig's thing for keeping the corpse of Karen the mother around while having sex with Karen the daughter) to the insinuated (Werdegast and Poelzig's mutually obsessive relationship allows for Poelzig dropping in in what he believes to be Werdegast's bedroom in the middle of the night, whispering "we have unsettled business, Vitus", and when Werdegast finally takes his revenge on Poelzig, he strips him first. Boris Karloff clearly relishes the chance to be as un-Frankenstein's creature-as it gets as a diabolical and very verbal genius and milks such potential clunkers as lines like "do you hear that, Vitus? The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead" for all they're worth, making them sound genuinenly ominous instead, and Bela Lugosi, at the height of his powers, manages never to go over the top and make Werdegast the tragic and ambiguous heart of the story. Allow me a couple of detours here:

Sidenote one: some of you might know Lugosi not from his own films, but from Martin Landau's Oscar-rewarded portrayal of his last years in Ed Wood. If you're curious, I'd recommend The Black Cat rather than Dracula as an introduction and an illustration of what he was like in his prime, simply because Dracula is a very static movie, with Todd Browning basically filming a stage play, whereas Edgar Ulmer was a truly cinematic director and thus his films still hold up. Also, as I said, Lugosi delivers a rarely restrained performance here, most notable in situations where you'd expect it least (and where in other films he might have chewed the scenery till there was nothing left), such as the moment when Poelzig shows Werdegast the corpse of his late wife; Lugosi's delivery of Werdegast's reaction, the sudden childlike "but why? Why is she like this?" makes the shock and grief real in the midst of this completely insane scenario (i.e. being presented with a lovingly styled corpse, with a Bride-of-Frankenstein hair style, in a glass box, and Karloff basically whispering in his hear).

Sidenote two: one has to feel pity for David Manners, who kept being cast as the nominal hero and young male lead in a couple of Universal films either with Karloff or Lugosi or both. It's always the same role, whether he's playing it in The Mummy (with Karloff) or Dracula (with Lugosi), and he always gets completely overlooked in favour of the two scenery chewers. Rewatching, I realized he wasn't as bad as I recalled (his expression when watching Werdegast watching his sleeping wife, for example, is way more subtle than you'd expect instead of hamming the outraged husband bit up), and he does a reasonably good job playing the young straight man against the middleaged menace of the dynamic duo, but he still completely fades into the wallpaper in terms of audience attention.

Sidenote three: anecdote from the shooting of the film: Lugosi wasn't the only Hungarian actor around on this; several of the extras were Hungarians, too, and so they chatted in Hungarian between takes, which was when Ulmer, who was Austrian, irritated chided them: "We're in America now, people, talk German!" Incidentally, in the scene were the policemen arrive, we hear Werdegast talk a few lines in Hungarian to them, and the difference between this and Lugosi's mode of speaking in English is striking, down to a different body language.

Back to the review. As I said, don't look for Poe here. Don't look for that much logic, either (so Poelzig the genius architect who also dabbles in Satan worship build his house over the remains of the WWI fortress he betrayed because he's just crazy that way, including the leaving of WWI explosives in the basement); but do look for atmosphere and a mixture of horror tropes and contemporary issues that shouldn't work at all but does, and enjoy two icons showing just why they were icons. And while you're at it, enjoy the sly black humour. Then get out the next movie in the collection!


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