Happy 50th birthday Joss Whedon

The 50th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, it just so happens, written and directed by Joss Whedon.  ‘Doppelgangland’ showcases many of the key strengths of Whedon and of his most fully-realised, successful story-world: a tightly-plotted, fantastical scenario, revolving around an established ensemble of eloquent and witty characters who are manoeuvred into a series of dramatically effective constellations, is used to create situations in which characters feel deeply, respond emotionally, and are placed in life-or-death situations, as a way of tracing out some of the contours of personal identity via interpersonal interactions.  This makes it a good episode to discuss as a way of marking its maker’s 50th birthday.

The existing facts of the Buffyverse that are brought to the foreground and made salient in this episode are Willow’s conscientiousness, diffidence, readiness to help others, and tendency to follow the rules.  More particularly, what Willow is repeatedly confronted with in the early stages of this episode is others’ attributions of these qualities to her.  It is the image of herself that she sees reflected in their expectations of her that she finds hard to take, an image that she finds hard to find a place for erotic desirability within.  ‘You think I’m boring’, she tells Oz, and then, in response to being called ‘Old Reliable’ by Buffy, dejectedly notes that ‘there’s a sexy nickname’.

The therapeutic mechanism of the episode comes in the unlikely form of a vampire Willow from an alternative dimension (to whom viewers have been introduced in ‘The Wish’, an earlier episode from the same season), who is dropped into the Sunnydale we know by a spell gone awry.  Vampire Willow is the opposite of the human Willow with respect to those qualities that Willow feels burdened by on the one hand, and lacking on the other: she cares naught for others nor for rules, and carries herself with an eroticism laced with sadism.

Whedon knows how to use his camera to acknowledge the differences between the two Willows.  As Vampire Willow stalks down the middle of Sunnydale’s main street, and then performs her survey of the Bronze, meeting and holding the gaze of anyone who looks in her direction, the camera accommodates her movements with its own fluid motion, matching and thus accentuating this Willow’s assurance.  Close-ups of her boots similarly emphasise her way of of asserting her presence and taking control as she plants her feet wide apart before addressing or confronting others.

The main source of meaning-making in ‘Doppelgangland’ is Hannigan’s double performance, under Whedon’s direction.  We know that Vampire Willow does not care about others by the way she engages with them.  She is not of this world, and nor is she quite in it.  Her scowls, and the way she lowers her head slightly whilst peering outward and pacing around, suggest a detached onlooker with an anthropologist’s (or a sociopath’s) gaze, rather than a full participant.  When Buffy arrives at the Bronze and mistakes Vampire Willow for her friend, Vampire Willow does not converse with Buffy, but simply waits for her to stop talking so that she can deliver her verdicts: ‘I don’t like you’, and ‘Bored now.’

When human Willow imitates Vampire Willow (who has been temporarily neutralised) in an attempt to avoid potential slaughter at the Bronze, what is shown principally (and played for laughs) is this Willow’s inability to inhabit the still persona (and the binding clothes) of her doppelganger. She shifts uneasily in her outfit, pauses in her pacing to give a little wave and a grin to her boyfriend (in a worthy credits montage moment), a bit like a child waving to her parents in a school play, and in the single funniest moment, tries to replicate Vampire Willow’s imposing hauteur by running her fingers through a young woman’s hair, only to get them stuck. However, Willow also uses this assumed identity as a therapeutic resource, and as a way of shedding, at least in part, her former identity. Willow undergoes a little death, une petite mort, as part of a process of becoming. The human Willow was ‘so weak and accommodating’, she tells Anya. ‘I just couldn’t let her live.’

Stanley Cavell has suggested that one thing that film – a category we might expand to include other screen fiction like television – reveals is the restlessness, the fidgetiness even, of human bodies, and the relationship of such a state to thinking (Cavell is in part attempting by such an observation to reverse, or note film’s reversal of, the Cartesian formula ‘I think therefore I am’.)  One way of describing the fundamental distinction between Hannigan’s performance as human Willow and Vampire Willow would be to say that human Willow (here and for much of the series) is responsive, to the point of excess and fidgetiness, to the world around her.  Vampire Willow’s self-possessed stillness shows that the most important thing in the world to her, is her.  Human Willow is acutely aware of and always gauging the surrounding world, including its human inhabitants.  This expresses itself through Hannigan’s beautiful nervous hesitations in her line deliveries (removed when she embodies Vampire Willow), her anxious readings of the reactions of her interlocutors, and the way her body language goes into overdrive during moments of agitation.  It is also part of her exquisite ability to be, and to appear, wounded.  The events of ‘Doppelgangland’ show Willow that one of the surest ways to shake off those qualities she has been experiencing as undesirable is to cease to be human.  Whedon’s camera shows us something about what it is to be human, and that Willow Rosenberg is a particularly wonderful instance of this category.

In Your Eyes

I’d been keeping tabs on the progress of In Your Eyes (Brin Hill, 2014) for a while – because it was written by Joss Whedon.  A couple of weeks ago I saw that it would be premiering at Tribeca, but even at that point I could still see no news of a UK release.  Given how tricky it was for someone living in a city without an independent cinema to get to see Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012), I wasn’t optimistic about getting to see In Your Eyes any time soon.  So I was delighted when a friend texted me this lunchtime with the news that the film is available to stream now on Vimeo, for just $5, via http://inyoureyesmovie.com/.  I have now watched it, and it may well be my favourite film that Whedon has written and/or directed (not including Toy Story, for which Whedon gets first screenwriting credit but which clearly remains John Lasseter’s film first and foremost).

The first part of the review below is spoiler-free (aside from discussing the concept that drives the film, which is introduced at a very early stage), then there is a clearly-signalled division before I proceed to discuss the film as a whole, including its ending.

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In Your Eyes has been described in some places as science fiction, but is probably better-described as a high concept romantic drama, with a comedic streak.  It tells the story of two white Americans in their early thirties – a man and a woman, separated by two time zones – who share a mental connection.  The particular nature of that connection is clarified in an early scene of the film, where the two communicate consciously and sustainedly for the first time.  The realm of intense bodily sensation is something the pair share involuntarily: the film begins with scenes from their childhood, and when Rebecca flies off her sleigh and into a tree, we see Dylan, sitting in the classroom, fall from his desk to the floor, unconscious.  When Dylan is hit by a pool cue in a bar, Rebecca feels it.  Dylan and Rebecca can also see and hear what the other is seeing and hearing, something which they have at least some measure of control over.  It is established early that neither of the pair can read the other’s thoughts or hear her or his inner monologue.  Thus, we do not get echoey ‘voice of my brain’ effects over characters with closed mouths, which would be less dramatically effective – and much harder to sustain – than what we do get, which is more like a series of telephone calls – with sensory enhancements! – between two people getting to know one another.

As one might expect, Whedon’s script develops the concept with assurance, mining rather than milking first its comedic and then its dramatic potential.  And it is Whedon the scenarist rather than Whedon the writer of dialogue who is most prominently on display here.  A friend of mine once observed that more often than not, a Whedon character will talk like Whedon, but this is not the case here, and the film is probably the better for it.  Dylan and Rebecca’s articulateness and self-consciousness are heightened to the extent that most screen fiction characters’ are, without that little extra again that Whedon usually employs.  This also makes the direction of Brin Hill (of whose work I have seen nothing else) a good fit.  Whedon will often use very precise beats and gestures in a scene, creating dramatic and emotional punctuation that for me falls just on the right side of being mannered.  The heart of In Your Eyes – which is not the heart of most movies – is two characters talking to one another, but in separate locations, and without being able, except when they are near mirrors (as they are in a couple of electrifying scenes), to see one another.  Therefore, what the predominant dramatic situation demands is a lot of smiling, openness, warmth, and genuine and spontaneous responsiveness to what the other is saying, things that are duly delivered by the two (it should be added, very well-cast) leads under Hill’s direction.

Spoilers to follow.

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As already stated, In Your Eyes is a film that not only has a concept, but knows what to do with it.  As a dramatic and emotional experience, the film is paced very well, and modulates its tone expertly too.  During the film’s climax, both characters have to go on the run to escape from imprisonment and to reach one another.  Dylan, a former prisoner on parole, has to run from his very thorough parole officer, and Rebecca has to escape from the mental facility her husband has committed her to.  On Dylan’s side, I had no complaints.  On Rebecca’s side, though, the character of Rebecca’s husband is the film’s weakness – not fatal, but significant.  It seems that the film wishes to partake of the ‘persecuted wife’ cycle of studio Hollywood, which included masterpieces such as Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940) Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) and Whirlpool (Preminger, 1949), but feels unable to entirely commit to this.  Rebecca’s behaviour – violent and seemingly unprompted physical sensations, seeing and talking to absent things – would be enough to cause any husband to worry.  For a lot of the movie, Phillip (Rebecca’s husband) seems unsympathetic rather than malevolent; thinking about the other generic elements at work, he seems to be operating as the unsuitable partner of a romantic comedy, the kind of figure who stifles due to their lack of imagination rather than their patriarchal authority.  Things get a little more sinister when we learn that Phillip, who manages the town hospital, has covertly called upon the help of a colleague specialising in abnormal psychology.  However, this is one of the very rare scenes of unmediated access to Phillip we get.  The one scene that I would count as a clear-cut dramatic failure is the one where malicious town gossip Diane goes to Phillip, presumably to tell him that Rebecca is having an affair.  I say ‘presumably’ because the scene is filmed as a flaky montage of gestures without sound.  Thus, we are denied precise information about what Phillip is told and how he reacts.  The close-up of his wedding ring does not do the necessary work.  The key point, for me, is that the film appears to want to simplify the picture at this point, and make it seem as though Phillip is stealing Rebecca’s liberty because he suspects her of adultery.  But such a motive comes too late: if this is the first time Phillip is thinking this, how do we match this part of the story up with his monitoring of his wife before this point.  Would he have committed her to secure mental care without being told of her supposed adultery?  If he has a history of sexual jealousy specifically in addition to protectiveness, we ought to have found out about it earlier.  In short, in order for Phillip to have the function in the plot that he is ultimately given, he ought to be more of a character.

Another and more positive way of putting this would be to say that nothing in the film is quite as good as the leads and their interaction (though Dylan’s attempts to date Donna, with the help of Rebecca, sometimes comes close).  It is unusual for one to feel moved to praise a film for having the bravery to deliver a happy ending, but that was my response to the end of In My Eyes.  Knowing of Whedon’s tendency to kill beloved characters and deliver crushing plot developments, I envisaged an ending where Rebecca, after becoming a mental patient, is subjected to a procedure which destroys her connection with Dylan.  He tries to save her, but arrives just too late, and she does not recognise him.  Instead, we end with the couple united physically as well as mentally.  Against the odds, but nevertheless plausibly, both have escaped their pursuers, and come together, wonderfully, on the empty boxcar of a freight train.  Seeing the world with the same eyes and being able to hear one another at a distance may cease to provide the same sort of thrill now that the couple are in the same place, but, as the film makes sure to remind us, the sensual empathy, which becomes a sensuous circuit, remains.  Luckily, the film has also taken the care to present us with a relationship based on love and empathy, and on looking out at the world together, rather than mindreading, so there is a basis for us to expect as well as hope that Rebecca and Dylan’s future together will be happier than their pasts.

How good was the last episode of Breaking Bad?

As the title suggests, this blog contains spoilers.  It is dedicated to my good friend James MacDowell, king of endings.

Last night I watched ‘Felina’, the final episode of Breaking Bad.  I also watched the preceding three on the same night; as usual, I am late to the television party, but also as usual, what I lack in punctuality I try to make up for in speed!  However, even though the episode aired nearly four months ago (29 September last year), when I did my first spoiler-immune Breaking Bad internet search this morning, I didn’t find the volume of critical commentary about it that I was expecting.  Perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right places (and all suggestions are welcome), but in the absence of much criticism to engage with, it made me want to write down my own thoughts.  What follows will not try to cover all the bases, but will mainly focus on the characters present in the programme’s final scenes: Walter, Jesse, Todd, ‘Uncle’ Jack Belker, and Jack’s gang.

In his very interesting discussion of Walter’s character transformation, which was written after the end of the show’s fourth season, Jason Mittell suggests that Walter’s moral trajectory can be ‘benchmarked by those who die or are injured at his hands.’  Walter’s first act of violence is one of self-defence committed on the spur of the moment and under duress, and directed towards a dangerous criminal.  By the end of the fourth season, Walter has poisoned a young boy whose only connection to the trade in crystal meth is that he is loved by Jesse, Walter’s partner, whom Walter is trying to manipulate.  In the (first half of) the fifth season, Walter orders a Michael Corleone-esque simultaneous hit of ten prisoners who pose a threat to his interests.

The turn that events take in ‘the final season’ (or the second half of season five, depending on how one chooses to divide up the last sixteen episodes) might come as a surprise then.  Walt ceases to outdo those around him in terms of brutality, ruthlessness and remorselessness, and becomes a victim once more.  The turning point comes in ‘Ozymandias’, the series’ pre-penultimate episode.  Walt has been lured to his millions, buried out in the desert, by Jesse, and is arrested there by Hank and Steve.  Before the cuffs go on, Walt summons Jack and his crew, giving them coordinates for the location.  He tells them not to come at the end of the phone call, but they come anyway.  The result: Hank and Steve are killed, and Jack takes most of Walt’s money and, because Walt tells them where he is hiding, Jesse too.  Todd tortures Jesse and then keeps him in a hole in the ground by night, and by day forces him to cook crystal meth.

If Heisenberg’s ‘unique selling point’ is the blue colour of his meth (and, of course, its high purity), the thing that is often suggested as a near-USP for Breaking Bad is the scope of the transformation that the main character undergoes – from Mr Chips to Scarface, as creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan would have it.  ‘I like the idea’, Gilligan has said, ‘of approaching a bad guy character from a starting point of zero, from never having jaywalked or littered to doing some of the crazy shit Walter White does’ (I read this quote in Mittell’s chapter, cited above).

Gilligan (unsurprisingly, given that he is the show’s mastermind) identifies here something that gives the programme much of its cumulative power.  It turns out to be a double-edged sword, however, because it can also help us to put our finger on some problems with ending the series with a group of villains like Todd, Jack, and Jack’s crew (hereafter ‘the crew’).

Like many of Walt’s former antagonists, the crew appear to have known nothing but a criminal existence for most of their adult lives, at least.  However, unlike those other antagonists – I am thinking mainly of Tuco, Hector and Gus – we are given no backstories to invest the characters with a sense of history.  This is not just a point about devoting time to developing fleshed-out characters.  It is fitting that such development does not occur, given what the crew represent, and how they function.  They are given no redeeming characteristics, and what makes them, and Todd especially, peculiarly terrifying, is that criminality and violence seem to be for them not means to other ends, but ends in themselves.  Breaking Bad shows us men committing horrible acts in the name of avenging family members and other loved ones, in the pursuit of recognition and self-actualisation, and in the name of trying to protect or provide for one’s family, but never in the sustainedly brutal and dead-eyed way that the crew do.  To be sure, all of the crew’s members will have been ‘made the way they are’ by events in their past, but they are neither connected (chained?) to the past nor oriented to the future in the way that most of the series’ other characters are.  Money in Breaking Bad is often tantalisingly held out as the opportunity to start a whole new life (even if it does not occur in practice).  But it is hard to imagine the crew transforming (that word again) their lives in any significant respect.  They are sitting on tens of millions of dollars in cash, but it does not appear to have affected their lifestyles at all.  (It might be worth noting that near the beginning of the final episode we see a pair of people who certainly do know how to make their money work: Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz.)  These are a purely death-dealing bunch of men, a monstrous perversion of a family.  (This may be one of Breaking Bad‘s more interesting debts to the Western.  There is a clear precedent for the crew in, for example, the Clanton family in Ford’s My Darling Clementine.)

Gus was such a perfect foil to Walt because like Walt, as Gus himself observes, he ‘hide[s] in plain sight’.  In the character of Gus, Breaking Bad dramatises the thin line between legal and illegal enterprise.  The way in which Walt goes about trying to amass a private fortune is not endorsed by the culture he lives in, but the aim itself most certainly is.

In season 5 especially, one can also detect similarities between Walt and his non-criminal antagonist, Hank.  Both are not only supremely driven men, but they are also prepared to sacrifice others to their aims.  Steve worries about the risks of sending Jesse to Walt in case Walt plans to kill him; Hank dismisses the worry by disregarding the value of the life of a drug-addicted murderer.  Hank is also one of a series of men who meets his end as a result of his overwhelming drive to best another man, and do it personally.  Hank ends up in the desert with Walt and only minimal back-up because his dogged pursuit of Heisenberg has left him at some distance from the procedures and support of the DEA.  If Jesse had gone to Walt wearing a wire and not come up with his own ‘better idea’ for revenge and conviction, he would not have been tortured and enslaved by Todd and the rest of the crew; if Gus had not felt it necessary to go to Hector and gloat, he would not have left himself open to Walt’s attack.  This strand continues right until the end.  Jack’s pride – his honour code, we might say – dictates that Walt, even though he is about to die, must see and know that Jesse is not his (Jack’s) partner but his slave, thus giving Walt the chance to retrieve the trigger for the weapon that kills the crew.

It would be impertinent to construct one’s own hypothetical ending, and I will not attempt to do so here, but I do think, nevertheless, that we see some dissipation of the show’s central concept in its final three episodes especially.  For me, Breaking Bad works best when, along the lines I sketch (inadequately) above, it places Walt’s actions uncomfortably close in some respects to drives that are not only tolerated but endorsed and celebrated: the pursuit of money and recognition, enterprise, prudent economic thinking, rationalised production, giving the consumer the highest-quality version possible of the product that they want…  The crew take us to another (ideological) place.  For me, this is less satisfying, but I am prepared to acknowledge that perhaps I am imposing my own pattern of coherence upon the series as a whole, a pattern which cannot quite accommodate its final movements.  Both Jason Mittell and Jason Jacobs have highlighted the show’s commitment to the creation of a world where bad actions have dire consequences.  Taking this step back, it does become easier to see the crew as a capstone to the series.

For the first time in a long time, we are (I would say) unequivocally on Walt’s side once more when he enters the compound to murder the crew.  Clearly, this is ‘relative morality’ at work (see, once again, Mittell’s chapter).  But should we submit unquestioningly to being given an ending where a man who has committed despicable acts gets to go out in a blaze of glory (and to act as Jesse’s avenging angel to boot), simply because he is (probably) less morally reprehensible than those he kills?  Should we count this as sleight of hand?  Likewise: it is, on one level, deeply satisfying to see all the loose ends of the story tied up, and for all characters to be left in a place where most viewers would (I would venture) want, or at least expect, to leave them.  But again, it is Walt doing the tying up.  The mechanics of well-wrought storytelling and the final acts and desires of a villain dovetail here to satisfy our desire for neatness and certainty.  Of course, this is nothing that film and television has not done countless times before.  But if the ecstatic reception of Breaking Bad is to be taken seriously, then we should hold the programme to the highest standards possible.  Should we be satisfied with the invitations to satisfaction we are offered?

I like to end on a grateful note wherever possible, so I will end by talking about Jesse.  Aaron Paul is a beautiful gift, who is better at conveying thought and feeling by just looking at other characters than any other actor I can think of.  It was not far into the series that I became much more interested in charting Jesse’s development than Walt’s.  I have no complaints about Jesse’s trajectory, or his actions in the closing minutes of the programme.  In his final exchange with Walt especially, Jesse is shown to negotiate perfectly the possibilities presented to him, making exactly the right choices, and saying exactly the right things.  Painful though it is to watch, Jesse’s time spent as the gang’s slave can be seen as a form of purgatory and atonement.  When Jesse breaks free from them and from Walt, and breaks through the chain link fence of the compound, there is a genuine sense of exhilaration and freedom.  One feels that Jesse has not only escaped his captors and his manipulative would-be father, but that his ordeal may have finally allowed him to come to terms with his guilt.  Gilligan chose well by making Jesse the character whose fate appears least-sealed, allowing him to act for the viewer as a much-needed repository of hope.

James W Carey on Harold Innis

Electronics, like print in its early phases, is biased toward supporting one type of civilization: a powerhouse society dedicated to wealth, power, and productivity, to technical perfectionism and ethical nihilism.  No amount of rhetorical varnish would reverse this pattern; only the work of politics and the day-to-day attempt to maintain another and contradictory pattern of life, thought, and scholarship.  As Innis pointed out, the demise of culture could be dispelled only by a deliberate cutting down of the influence of modern technics and cultivation of the realms of art, ethics, and politics.  He identified the oral tradition with its emphasis on dialogue, dialectics, ethics, and metaphysics as the countervailing force to modern technics.  But support of such traditions or media requires that elements of stability be maintained, that mobility be controlled, that communities of association and styles of life be freed from the blinding obsolescence of technical change.  However, the demands of growth, empire, and technology put an emphasis – in education, politics, and social life generally – on those media that fostered administrative efficiency such as print and electronics.  Only by supporting the countervailing power of substantive rationality, democracy, and time would the bias of technology be controlled.

James W Carey. ‘Space, Time, and Communication: A Tribute to Harold Innis.’ In his Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Revised Edition. Routledge, 2009.

Learning environments and learning experiences

If teachers were to live in constant full cognizance of the full weight of responsibility that they have, the result might well be blind panic, or paralysis.  I’m not referring to the quantity of work that many teachers experience, but rather to the fact that teachers take on the awesome responsibility of being the guides to particular fields of knowledge, and to the broader experience of learning as a whole.  As a result of one’s teaching, a student might be inspired to devote a lifetime to a subject, or equally might swear off it forever.  Few people emerge from their educations completely unscathed.  In my experience, teaching is second only to parenting as an activity which almost every day leaves you feeling that you failed in some small or large way, that you didn’t manage to provide what was needed in that particular situation, and that with more time, and patience, you could have done better.

Since this blog began earlier in the year I’ve been a pretty enthusiastic proselytiser of various pieces of education theory/scholarship.  And a lot of that theory itself radiates enthusiasm, if not zeal.  The parts of it that I have encountered are often very ‘up’.  In particular, books about teaching in higher education which are at once research-based and designed to offer guidance to teachers will be quick to point out where we have been going wrong up to now, but will also offer clear advice about how we can make things better, perhaps by moving towards a student-centred mode of teaching, and/or ensuring constructive alignment between learning outcomes, learning activities and assessment tasks, and/or ensuring that we create feedback-rich learning environments.  I have no doubt that thinking through all of these ideas and applying them to my own teaching has been hugely beneficial.  But I also have no doubt that in teaching there are no magic bullets.  Nothing I have learned or tried has stopped me feeling ‘down’ rather than ‘up’ about teaching a fair proportion of the time, and as I look back on my year of teaching there’s one thing in particular that I keep returning to.

I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at getting students to participate in classroom activities, and at designing those activities themselves (the two things are of course related).  Reading Diana Laurillard’s Teaching as a Design Science was something of a ‘lightbulb’ moment for me in this respect; that book gave me a name for and a way of thinking about things I had been trying to achieve for a few years.  If something is well-designed, be it a public space or a domestic appliance, then one’s engagement with it will be smooth, natural, intuitive.  Few of us need to be told how to find a cash machine or a place to sit in an urban area, nor how to operate a microwave (some people reading may also detect the influence of Heidegger via Paddy Scannell here – another set of ideas I’ve been absorbing for the past two years).  In my classrooms, I consciously design things in order to encourage students to act in particular ways, to engage in particular activities.  Sometimes it will be a spatial matter: I will make students sit in a horseshoe around a screen so that the audio-visual sequence we are analysing is there before us, everyone can see and respond to everyone else, and so on.  Sometimes I will issue a set of instructions that create a series of steps for the students.  Sometimes, taking control of the learning environment will also involve, quite simply, holding one’s nerve in the face of initial reluctance to talk.  Teaching/learning is too inherently ‘sticky’ and ‘subversive’ to be as smooth as the other kinds of design alluded to above, but there are similar motivations at work.

‘So what?’ might be the response so far.  All teaching activities are planned and therefore by logical extension ‘designed’.  What gives me pause for thought is the element of coercion that goes along with certain kinds of learning environment design.  A big part of the job of all but the most fortunate teachers is getting students to speak more than they are naturally inclined to.  We smile while we do it (well, most of us, most of the time), of course, but we are applying pressure.  A lot of this can be justified in the name of getting the best out of students (notice the language of extraction), and again, it could not really be any other way.

And yet.  There are times, over the past eighteen months or so especially, when I have felt that my role as teacher was shading into something more like that of a ‘gamemaker’.  I think that, along with carefully-structured activities which assign students roles which are difficult to escape, things like provocation, persistent questioning, playing the fool, and even plain old goading all have their place in teaching and learning.  But so too do things like prolonged solitary reflection, letting a question or a piece of reading stew in the back of one’s mind for weeks (months, years), and the right to say ‘I do not feel ready to talk about this yet’.  If learning environments should be designed to cultivate in students the kinds of habits of mind they will require for ‘deep’, ‘life-long’ learning, then those environments should not just be about cut and thrust, wall-to-wall talking, and rapid cycles of feedback.  One of my teachers once told me, as I was about to embark upon my own teaching, ‘Don’t be afraid of silence.’  More and more, I see the value of such advice (especially when I consider that the filling of silence can often be as much about the alleviation of anxiety as it is about the contribution of something worthwhile).

It is good to feel permanently dissatisfied.  It is a sign that one is still learning, and still alive.  When my teaching resumes in the New Year, one thing I will try to do is let my teaching pendulum swing back (or is it rather a deepening spiral? – that’s the metaphor that most closely fits my pattern of thinking on the topic) a little towards a set-up that allows students more space and time to reflect, and to involve themselves in ways that may be less audible and visible to others, but may also be ultimately more beneficial to them, which is, after all, what it’s all about.

Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary: Mad About the Boy

This review contains spoilers.

As I suspect it was for many people, the publication of an unexpected further instalment of Bridget Jones’s Diary (after the first two novels came out not far apart in 1996 and 1999, having been preceded by a newspaper column) was for me a literary event.  I purchased the book as soon as it was released (something I hardly ever do), and started reading it as soon as I had purchased it (even more unheard of: my shelves and my conscious alike sag under the ever-growing weight of unread books, making me feel like Gatsby, telling myself with each new purchase that tomorrow I will be able to run faster, and catch up with all this stuff)!  My original plan was to get through the book within a few days so that I could post a timely review of it on this blog.  Unfortunately, this plan was frustrated partly by a stomach bug working its way through the members of my household, and partly by the various demands of the start of term…  This, with its reference to the plans we enthusiastically make, the always time-consuming and unpredictable and often messy demands of everyday life, and the gap that opens up between these two things, is already taking us deep into Bridget Jones territory.  Indeed, for me, this may be at the heart of the genius of Helen Fielding and her most famous character.  Bridget is a dramatization of how time feels when one has goals, demands, distractions and desires – and the particular ones that modern middle-aged middle class Westerners have: writing deadlines; an inbox that rarely sleeps; a work life and a sex life and a family life; communications devices, social networking profiles, search engines, and fridges full of food that all lure you with their promises of connection or consumption.

I have dipped my toe in the online critical response to the novel now that I have finished it, and I agree with those people (of whom there are a fair few) who point out that there is quite a lot wrong with Mad About the Boy.  It lacks the elegant plotting of the first instalment (and it is not to qualify Fielding’s achievement too greatly to observe that that elegance derives from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which, as most people will know, lends the first Bridget Jones’s Diary not only the name of its male romantic hero but also its overall plot structure).  But I also enjoyed the novel hugely.  Given that I found its pleasures to be many, and miscellaneous, I thought that a good way to approach this review would be to write in a series of bullet points, rather than to try (much as the novel does not appear to!) to do something more neat and well-wrought, and in this way try to give appropriate weight both to the novel’s great successes and to its major flaws.

  • At the level of plot structure Fielding is certainly more than a little shaky, but her sharp eye for details and her gift for prose that is descriptive and humorous is hard to beat.  There are countless examples of acute distillations of bits and pieces of lifestyle that other popular media texts offer as things to aspire to and emulate (one example I enjoyed is Bridget’s desire to have a ‘mixy-matchy “capsule wardrobe” so that getting dressed becomes a calm joy instead of hysterical scramble.’  There is also the phenomenology of everyday frustrating activities.  I could identify with this one, for example: ‘Managed to get Mabel [...] into the car, leaning over in the traditional body-wrenching movement [...], fastening the seat belt by waddling my hand in the mess between the seat back and booster seat.’
  • One can also marvel at and savour the poetic terseness and expert tonal modulations of individual sentences.  Simply by dropping articles, pronouns, and so on, Fielding has created a mode of speech that is instantly recognisable as Bridget’s, helping us to enter her mental universe.  On the subject of modulation: the comic effect in the following sentences derives from the way in which a familiar complaint about technology gradually becomes more and more hyperbolic and baroque: ‘Why does turning on a TV set these days require three remotes with ninety buttons?  Why?  Suspect designed by thirteen-year-old technogeeks, competing with each other from sordid bedrooms, leaving everyone else thinking they’re the only person in the world who doesn’t understand what the buttons are for, thus wreaking psychological damage on a massive, global scale.’  (Just one more example in this vein – Bridget’s flights of fancy when extrapolating the consequences of her actions are also marvellous rapid accumulations of evocative and humorous details: ‘If I shrivel and become bitter, then what use will that be to the children?  They will become child-centric, demanding King Babies: and I a negative, rasping old fool, lunging at sherry [that clause is especially good], roaring “WHY DON’T YOU DO ANYTHING FOR MEEEEEEEEE?”‘)
  • This gift for the thumbnail sketch is also put to use in moments where Bridget remembers her life before Mark is killed, and some of the difficult moments of her widowhood.  For example: ‘Did not want it to end up like last year, with me trying to stop my heart from breaking into pieces at doing Santa without Mark and sobbing behind the kitchen counter, whilst Mum and Una squabbled over lumps in the gravy and commented on my parenting and housekeeping, as if, rather than inviting them for Christmas, I had called them in as Systems Analysts.’  The book reduced me to tears (albeit only briefly) on more than one occasion.
  • Bridget remains as vivid as ever, but many of the other characters are unsatisfying.  Of the recurring ones, it is Daniel Cleaver who is most disappointing, as he has been reduced to a one-note sexaholic.  Of the new characters, it is the ones at ‘Greenlight Productions’ who are least well-realised.  It is in the passages where Bridget attends meetings at Greenlight where Fielding’s grasp on her material feels least assured.  As one person whose review I read pointed out, correctly, the subplot involving Bridget’s screenplay is almost entirely redundant.
  • This lack of cohesion even extends to the two main male characters.  These are ‘Roxster’, the 30 year old whom Bridget spends most of the novel with, and Mr Wallaker, who watches Bridget with Darcy-like loving chastisement from a distance for most of the novel before revealing his warmth and love for Bridget towards the end.  It is hard when reading not to view characters and events through the lens of Pride and Prejudice.  In the first Bridget Jones, Daniel was the Wickham character, and Mark Darcy was, of course, Mr Darcy.  And this schema is partially repeated in the new novel.  Like Wickham, Roxster is the more immediately charming, but ultimately the more unsuitable.  Like Darcy, Mr Wallaker is stand-offish but ultimately utterly noble, and a red hot lover to boot.  One effect of the second-guessing that the echoes of Bridget Jones’s Diary and, in turn, Pride and Prejudice encourage is that we are likely to spend most of the novel waiting for Roxster to turn out to be a louse.  In the end, this does not happen.  Bridget and Roxster part amicably, without blame on either side.  (Eventually the age gap of twenty years between them is the deciding factor, which raises a whole other set of issues that I won’t try to address here.)  There are some instances where the pre-judgment of the Wickham character or equivalent is used in a principled and interesting fashion – Lost in Austen being the best example I can think of – but here I wasn’t sure how I felt, or how I was meant to feel, about Roxster.
  • Bringing together these two issues of lack of cohesion and slightly misfiring Pride and Prejudice echoes: in Pride and Prejudice and in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Wickham and Darcy/Cleaver and Darcy hold deep yet concealed grudges against one another, which propel the story along for most of its duration.  In Mad About the Boy, the same is not true of Roxster and Mr Wallaker, which further contributes to the novel’s episodic feel.
  • I wasn’t quite satisfied with the Wallaker character either.  This is the one aspect of the novel that I would say was both over-done (he’s so like Darcy that we can see the end coming) and under-done (Roxster is too present and too good for too long, I would suggest, for us to be completely satisfied by his replacement).  Having said that, the (again, not-subtle) comparisons with Daniel Craig in Skyfall and Russell Crowe in Gladiator did deliver me to the correct model of masculine desirability very efficiently, and made me wonder if the same trick could be pulled off with Daniel Craig in a film adaptation as was pulled off with Colin Firth in the first Bridget Jones movie.

I will end here, despite feeling that I haven’t quite done justice to the novel or to my experience of it.  The above strikes me as more negative than positive, whereas my experience of reading Mad About the Boy was definitely more positive than negative.  Which is to say that getting public acts of criticism to match up with the moment-by-moment, private experience of reading is difficult.  The things that are easiest to talk and write about afterwards (the overall shape of the plot, the depth of characterisation) are the things that this novel does least well.  The things that are hardest to capture after the fact, in critical prose, are the things that it frequently excels at.  Perhaps, then, that is why I liked it as much as I did.

Pride and Prejudice on stage

Last week I went on a rare trip to the theatre, to see a production of Pride and Prejudice at Hull Truck Theatre.  It had a high concept selling point: this particular take on Austen’s novel retained twenty one characters, but they were all played by only two performers, one female (Joannah Tincey) and one male (Nick Underwood).  (The play was directed by Abigail Anderson.)

On the whole, this approach worked very well, and created some interesting effects.  The performers often shifted quite rapidly between different characters, sometimes even stepping aside and continuing a conversation with the character/space they had just vacated.  They distinguished between their different roles partly through broad performances (which is a treatment that, as anyone who is reasonably familiar with Pride and Prejudice will know, several characters in the novel lend themselves quite readily to: Mrs Bennet, Lydia, Sir William Lucas, and perhaps most of all, Mr Collins), and partly through the judicious use of props: Mrs Bennet punctuated almost every phrase with the wave of a handkerchief; Mr Bennet was usually chewing on a pipe (and often slamming shut a book); Caroline Bingley brandished a fan; Mr Collins wore a black clergyman’s cap.  A shade more subtly, both performers were very adept at using carriage and posture to transform themselves from confident or overbearing characters to meek ones and back again. (Tincey’s sketch of Charlotte Lucas, hiding herself behind a pair of spectacles and nervously self-effacing mannerisms, was particularly vivid.)  Underwood did not play all the men and Tincey did not play all the women.  I was pleased to have confirmed my intuition that to see Bingley played by a woman would feel appropriate.  There was only one character whom the two performers took turns playing: Lady Catherine De Bourgh.

For me, one of the most interesting features of the production was the way that the novel’s narration was incorporated.  In the screen versions of Pride and Prejudice, if any of Austen’s words besides the direct speech of the characters are retained, they will tend to be put into characters’ mouths.  The novel’s famous first line, for example (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’) has sometimes been given to Elizabeth.  It is not a line one would wish to lose, but transferring it to a character is not without its costs.  As John Caughie so acutely puts it (in a passage I also found useful when I was thinking over one of my very favourite adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Lost in Austen), when the source of the novel’s opening observation is changed in this way,

It assigns to Lizzie a knowledge of her social and historical situation, a knowledge which in the novel is shared between author and reader over the heads of the characters. A Lizzie who has the wit to know escapes at least some of the ironies of prejudice. In adaptation, characters become knowing and textual irony, the discourse of the narrator, becomes Elizabeth Bennet’s arch knowingness. The ironic trope of an embryonic modernism regresses historically into the wit of an earlier classicism.

In the theatre production, the performers would often deliver lines from the novel’s narration whilst they were ‘between characters’, as it were – or perhaps one should say, standing partly inside and partly outside them (between sympathy and detachment, perhaps).  They spoke in the voice of a particular character, and used her or his mannerisms, but the audience understood, I take it, that it was not actually that character talking.  This is a very good and interesting way of approximating indirect free style, that literary technique Austen used so masterfully.  It is a style that ventriloquises characters, often taking their choices of vocabulary and so on, and turning these things against them for (in Pride and Prejudice especially) satirical effect.  It dances on the threshold of characters’ understandings of their lives and the people in them, speaking in voices which partly fit their perspectives but do not emanate from their consciousnesses.

The relationship that this production established between characters and audience, then, brought out interestingly some features of Pride and Prejudice that are often lost in translation – principally, the distance that stems from Austen’s irony and from the fact that as well as being populated by some rounded and psychologically satisfactory characters, the novel also features a cast of types, sketched vividly and in broad (and this word again, masterful) strokes.

As one might expect, the aesthetic cost that this incurs, if it be considered to be one, is that within such an overall tone it is harder to make intimate and deeply emotional moments for characters work as such for the audience.  When watching the production I was certainly impressed with its modulations of pace.  Scenes between Elizabeth and Darcy were given a good amount of room to breathe.  Nevertheless, my emotional engagement with this Lizzie and Darcy remained some distance from that which I feel when experiencing other versions, including the source text.

I wouldn’t want to end on a negative or ungrateful note though.  It is not possible for any text to deliver all potentially valuable aesthetic effects simultaneously, since many of these effects are mutually exclusive.  (This said, one measure of a truly great artist is her or his ability to range across and move between effects with greater facility than most mortals.)  This production made me see new things in a well-loved novel, created some novel effects, seemed to know what it wanted to do, and did those things very well.