Posted by Lou. The time is 1.55pm here in London, UK.

Recently in the UK there have been public outcries over things perceived as being bigoted: a dancer on Strictly Come Dancing received accusations of racism after (in jest) calling his dance partner a "paki", and Danni Minogue found herself at the centre of (incorrect) homophobia accusations after a badly made attempt at repartee with a contestant on X Factor. To a certain extent this is great - there should be an outcry when comments/ attitudes deemed unacceptable by society are broadcast or made by public figures.

So I was left rather surprised when X Factor host Dermot made a blatantly fattist comment to a contestant, leaving me and my flatmate with our mouths literally hanging open in shock, but without even prompting a trickle of controversy. In fact, people seemed to take his "you used to be quite big but now you look really cool" as a perfectly okay thing to say (because people who are even slightly fat are ugly). It once again demonstrated the total double-standard in society that says it's okay to position fat as ugly/ lazy/ bad, whilst frowning upon other forms of bigotry.

Anyway, really I just wanted to highlight this excellent piece about it on BBC today.

The rest of my fest: Precious, Samson and Delilah, At the End of Daybreak

Posted by Lou. The time is 8.10pm here in London, UK.

Precious: Based on the novel by Sapphire is amazing - totally one of those films that comes out of nowhere and stuns people with its power and might. It is the first time I have ever sat in a cinema audience where alongside laughing and crying is actual shrieking. The shrieking is the best way I can convey to you how involved you become, and how real this story seems, as it unfurls onscreen.

But if I tell you what the story is it will seem patronising and cliche - a poor, obese, black 16-y-o with an abusive mother and an absent (except when raping her) father who finds herself pregnant and put into an alternative education school. Yeah, I know... but... the filmmaking is far from patronising (it feels told from 'within'), it is portrayed in a fresh and stylistic way but retaining utter realism, and the casting is fucken genius: newbie Gabourey Sidibe fills her character with pride and sass and humour, and Mo'Nique is absolutely incredible as her mother (a certainty for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, methinks).

Go see this film!!

I saw Samson and Delilah straight after and, as I was feeling horridly ill anyway, it was sort of just a ridiculously depressing and emotive day of cinema. It is the story of two young teenagers from an isolated Aboriginal community who silently bond, and then run off to Alice Springs together to a life on the streets after things turn sour at home. I wasn't sure what to think of the film at the end (it is ambiguous and one of those ones where I need to know the context within which it was made - for that same point of patronising vs from 'within'), but having read more about it since I am retrospectively blown away.

To fill you in: the film is made by a first-time feature filmmaker who is himself Aboriginal and made the film to express things he himself grew up around; the budget was a paltry $Aus1.6m; the two leads are non-actors with personal experience of the issues portrayed; he cast his own older brother - a non-actor with acute alcohol dependency issues for which he was sent to rehab prior to filming - to portray a homeless man with alcohol dependency; he intends the film to ask questions that can't - and haven't been able to - be answered for Australia.

Seen in this light, the film is absolutely stunning.

I was very - very - underwhelmed and quite disappointed in the other of my film fest films, At the End of Daybreak. It's entry in the festival programme talked of it being an illicit Malaysian modern-day film noir - a 23-y-o man faces charges of statutory rape after his girlfriend's parents find out about their relationship: plenty of potential to play with the power dynamics of sexual relationships and add in some thriller elements. Instead we get a dreary and contradictory tale that has the unfortunate collision of one fantastic performance (the mother of the boy) and one extremely bland and meaningless performance (the teenage girl).

Due to the bland portrayal of the relationship and the teenage girl we don't know what he is meant to be being saved from - there is no chemistry to the relationship (in fact, I didn't actually realise they were meant to be shagging), the teenage girl is portrayed in a terribly blank manner so we don't know if she is meant to be complicit in the events or taken advantage of or a robot with human skin on or taking out her frustration towards other factors on the boy or her parents or everything and everyone... Not to mention that I find it quite offensive that they used the genre classification "film noir", one of the calling cards of which is the femme fatale. There was nothing femme fatale about this character or performance, and can a 15-y-o girl be a femme fatale? (Now that question could have provided the basis for an interesting film.) The sympathy gained by the mother can't make up for what seemed to be an unintentional ambiguity of everything and everyone else.

Jane Campion Screen Talk

Posted by Lou. The time is 12.50pm here in London, UK.

I was going to email Bel some points from the Jane Campion film festival Screen Talk I had the pleasure of attending the other night, but may as well put them here in case anyone else is interested. It is a mix of thoughts and observations from me, and some second-hand anecdotes from her. I didn't take notes so treat my paraphrasing as being very loose! The person asking the questions was Sandra Hebron, the film festival's Artistic Director. This is a list in no particular order as I recall things:

  • Jane is incredibly engaging, lively and down-to-earth (in that very Kiwi way!) - she's the exact person you'd want to be put next to at a formal dinner. You can tell that she is able to find humour and depth in everything. I want to be her best friend.
  • She is very humble and has a lot of grace towards her colleagues - constantly mentioning collaborators and sharing the praise that was given to her work. This was particularly interesting as it is in total opposition to the manner of Werner Herzog, another great filmmaker I saw speak recently. Whilst he positions himself as the sole driving force and the genius of his own work (in a way that does manage to be endearing rather than entirely arrogant), she positions herself as someone who is just doing something she finds interesting with a lot of other people who help make the finished product good. This is super particularly interesting as, whilst I think they are both cinematic geniuses of a kind, hers is actually the more polished and flawless work - hers retains that perspective of films being something you make for an audience; whereas his have that feeling of being something he has made for himself, and if you happen to like it then that's just an incidental bonus.
  • Sandra asked about something she read in the media, wherein Jane had spoken about a young guy who is on set every day sitting beside her operating the video playback, who - at the grand age of 18 or 19 - would give her "tips" to make the film better ("move the camera more", "don't you need some sex?", etc). Sandra seemed to be quite taken aback by this behaviour - as if it somehow insulted or undermined Jane's role as Director. But Jane obviously finds these guys (who she says are always like this on any film) hilarious, as of course to her they're an over-enthusiastic guy acting like 18- and 19-year-old film guys do and don't have any of her experience or knowledge. This, to me, embodies her under-stated confidence: you know that she knows that she is completely in control. She doesn't need to prance around acting like the king of the world, because she is the king of the world. And she had the grace to say that occasionally these tips are actually useful.
  • She went on to tell a story about how this guy was gotten back in a way as he was seeing one girl and text-flirting with another and getting input from all the other assistants on set about how to juggle the two girls, and one day was showing a draft text he'd written to one girl to an assistant who just hit "send" instead of helping him with the wording. This is obviously an entirely tangental, unrelated, flippant and banal anecdote from on-set and I love that - I love that she pays that much attention to the people around her and that she finds everybody interesting including the lowest of assistants. Sandra didn't seem so amused by it.
  • Someone asked a question about the difference in the ending of her film In The Cut versus the ending of the same-named novel upon which it is based. She openly stated that actually the only reason she changed the ending was because the financiers told her she couldn't make it with the book's ending. This prompted someone else to ask for tips on how to deal with funders who are pressuring you to change your artistic vision. Her response was something like: "Well, films need to make the money back. That's economics. Or perhaps that's me being a New Zealander!" (we are a thrifty sort). Having worked for a major funding body, I loved her response as it is the truth: if you're asking someone/an entity to put major investment into your film, you need to listen to what they have to say. There is no obligation owed by The World to filmmakers to give them millions to make their vision as they and only they want it. The money talks. (This is why only paying money to see films that you want to see more of is so important!!) I also, of course, loved that she clearly positioned herself as a New Zealander, as all-too-often she is called an Australian. Anyone who grows up in New Zealand and moves away in their 20s is a New Zealander, no matter where they live or where they work.
  • Sandra asked what about the story of Keats and Brawne had prompted her to get back into feature filmmaking and she told the most gorgeous story about being in a field and having a horse come up and develop a curiosity for what was in her rucksack, and sort of nudge it open with its nose. She said that she thought it was beautifully tender, and it made her want to make a film about tenderness.
  • They showed a 5-minute clip from The Piano - a film that I haven't seen for far too many years - and I found it more engaging and moving and beautiful than most filmmakers can hope to achieve in an entire career.
  • Sandra asked Jane about the fact that many of her protagonists are quite wild and insane, and whether to Jane they are normal or if she is consciously writing insane characters. Jane laughed a lot at this one, and to explain it properly I have to specify: Sandra seemed very much like one of those perfectly groomed, well-spoken people who are (to people like me) perhaps - how shall we say it - a little controlled. So Jane's response is along the lines of "aren't we all just pretending to be sane?" - a sentiment most of us can relate to. But it seemed that Sandra couldn't. And Jane went on to say that anyone who doesn't seem a little bit wild or insane is just trying to look good, and Sandra sort of laughed and disputed it a bit, and Jane reiterated the point, and there was this moment where I think a lot of us realised that perhaps it was hitting a nerve, and it was rather hilarious.
  • During the clips, as they were seated in front of the screen, Jane just threw herself onto the floor to watch them from down there out of sight, so Sandra had to follow suit, and that was also rather amusing as you could tell it wasn't an organic thing for her to do but an entirely natural thing to Jane.
  • Okay, so, as you may be picking up, there was this brilliant juxtaposition between the two women which often served to emphasise Jane's points and add a layer of hilarity, but also at times held the conversation back as Sandra would paraphrase what Jane was saying but not quite get it right. (This isn't a criticism of Sandra - I think she came off very well, just entirely different in personality.)
  • Another anecdote I loved was mentioning that a specific moment in Bright Star - a moment that will give you butterflies and may cause swooning - was improvised by Ben Whishaw. (Ben was in the audience - just quietly sitting there for no-one to notice, obviously having enough esteem and respect for his director to be interested in listening to her speak for 90 minutes about filmmaking.) This is another example of her always giving credit to others.
  • She spoke about how in film school her teachers were largely negative towards her work, but that she took this positively: it can mean that they think your work is worth pulling apart and specifically critiquing, and it is a great primer for being in the industry and being able to maintain confidence and vision in the face of negative pressure.
  • And on the subject of critiquing, she told how learning first of all to critique something totally handicaps your ability to then do the something because your first instinct will be to critique yourself. This hits a nerve for me as I find it difficult to write now as I spent two years critiquing other people's writing: all I can see is the faults.
  • I really desperately wanted to ask a question about how she formed the screenplay in relation to Keats' own words - whether she had particular extracts she weaved her writing around, or whether she wove his words in as she went, or if they were the cherry on the top that were added once she had her story in place. My interest stems from Bright Star being such a great example of the organic blending of two artists' work (the filmmaker and the subject) that leaves neither dominating or dictating to the other. Alas, given the chance to directly question my idol, I went all shy. But maybe one day I'll find myself sat next to her at a dinner...

    Edited by Lou. The time is 11.50am here in London, UK.

    I left out the best bit!!!

    Sandra spoke about how Jane's films feature strong, unconventional female protagonists and then asked her why she thinks this is so rare. Jane did the pause that says "well duh" and said "...because only 3% of directors are women" like hello Sandra. Instead of laughing and going "of course" (because, um, yeah, that's pretty much it in a nutshell) Sandra tried to push it further sort of saying "but your characters in particular", which was not a great line of questioning as, well, yeah, her characters in particular because she is one of the few women given funding to make generously budgeted art films with female protagonists (I'm sure there are hundreds - thousands - of other woman filmmakers out there with great strong female protagonists who would fucken love to make films about them if the industry wasn't so wholly sexist). But Jane went with it and further said that it seems natural to her to make films that express her experience of life as a woman. Love her.

    Motorcycle Diaries of the Travelling Illegal Pants

    Posted by Bel. The time is 12:36pm here in Wellington, NZ.

    In 1916, sisters Augusta and Adeline Van Buren rode their motorcycles from the east to west coast of America. Frustrated that they were not permitted to be part of the armed forces in the build up to World War I, they used this epic journey (on what would now be considered ramshackle equipment) to demonstrate their willingness and ability to be involved.

    It was just the public opinion that they had to work against. They were actually arrested on more than one occasion - because they were wearing "men's clothing", the leathers most suitable for this kind of arduous long journey, on roads that were not yet the super highways now common in the States.

    You can read about the Van Buren sisters in more detail here.

    This story appeals to me on so many levels. I love their determination and their feminist attitude (wanting both sexes to be treated equally). Their plan to carry out action and achieve change as a result brings to mind other inspirational women such as Rosa Parks and Amelia Earhart.

    Also, my family are a bunch of motorbike hoons from way back. As a child, my parents often teasingly bemoaned my presence on this earth and how it prevented them from continuing their carefree jaunts on hulking Japanese roadbikes which apparently were a near daily occurrence before the restraints of parenting came along. *rolls eyes*

    This is photo of my great uncle, taken in the 1940s. (My mum calls this the 'Che Guevara photo'.)

    Conversely he, and his brother, my grandfather, were conscientious objectors, who did hard labour for their pacifist views.

    Motorbikes are often a symbol of freedom and rebellion, used iconicly in films such as The Wild One starring Marlon Brando and Easy Rider starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (who also directed. Who knew). For me though, the gloss has worn off - mainly thanks to my cousin who broke his leg in six places coming off his dirt bike. Six places, people. Count it out on your leg. Uggh.

    And here endth my rambling vaguely interconnected post. Oh wait - maybe a photo of Brando, just for good measure:

    ***Addition by Lou***

    I love Easy Rider and think Peter Fonda is unspeakably sexy in it, so am adding this piccie:

    Bright Star

    Posted by Lou. The time is 12.10pm here in London, UK.

    I know I gush about the artists I love a lot here, but must do it once again: Jane Campion is my idol. For the trail-blazer of contemporary woman filmmakers (the first to win a Palme d'Or, only the second in history to be nominated for a Best Directing Oscar) to be a New Zealander and a feminist, for her to make films about women that examine female sensuality and sexuality, means that she is a figure of utter awe and adoration to me. If I could have one person's career it would be hers. When she was quoted a few years ago as saying she would not make another film my disappointment was acute. As such, Bright Star - her film about the love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne - is something I have been anticipating since the moment I heard of it. (And I retain hope that she will one day realise that my dream project - Jane Campion writing and directing the life of Katherine Mansfield - is also her own.) Anyway, gushing aside...

    Bright Star is - of course - wonderful. It is beautiful, romantic, sensual, and - above all - intimate. She introduced to the film by saying that the story of Keats and Brawne is a real-life Romeo and Juliet, but cautioned that it is like "a slowly opening door". No cautions were necessary - I cried twice within the first half hour and from the moment they met felt personally involved in their love story.

    The filmmaking is stunning for its modesty - this film isn't about Jane Campion, it's about the love story of Keats of Brawne. She lets it unravel slowly and chastely, utterly engaging audience emotions in the process. There are moments of barely-there touches that are startlingly erotic, and scenes in which I was almost leaning forward in my chair willing the other characters to leave the room so that Keats and Brawne could have space to breathe together. This is all played out in front of a backdrop of sumptuous gorgeousness, which, again, is just there without the overly lingering camera that may have tempted other directors.

    The acting is fantastic - Abbie Cornish in particular will be coming up again and again in the awards season. She single-handedly left me slumped in my chair with a sore throat and headache from the strain of holding myself together. Her Brawne anchors the film with an unusual mix of romanticism and sense. Ben Whishaw also does a tremendous job of keeping Keats in check - the danger with real-life geniuses being that the actor will play them as a genius, whereas in this he is kept firmly in the realm of human.

    I hope beyond hope that maybe - just maybe - Jane will be the one to overcome one of the great bastions of male domination in the film industry and take home the..... oh, I can't even think on that. It'll just end in tears (whichever way it goes). A more realistic hope is that this films finds its way to a wide and willing audience - which brings me to some words from Jane on which to end:

    "It's something beyond words, 'This is life, things of immense beauty and things of great pain.' For those people who go with it, that's the reward. For others who don't have that territory in them, I don't worry about that. They have their own movies to go to. They can go to 'Spider-Man 4.'"

    I Feel Bad About My Neck

    Posted by Lou. The time is 6.15pm here in London, UK.

    (I do, by the way (feel bad about my neck (but because it hurts, not because it's ageing)).)

    As you will know from my gushing over Julie & Julia, I'm a fan of Nora Ephron - she's smart, witty and extremely interesting. This collection of essays is a perfect demonstration - ranging from laugh-out-loud funny to poignant to flippant, and always with a healthy does of self-deprecation. As the essays were written over a wide time period (many having been previously published in magazines) they vary in style and subject - but are united by being first and foremost the work of a woman in her 60s, sharing with other women wisdom, reflection, sentimentality and a lamentation of the years gone and going by.

    My favourite is an absolutely stunning piece of writing - "The Story of My Life in 3500 Words or Less". It alone is worth the price of the book, pulling together a marvellous set of anecdotes of the highs and the lows and the cathartic moments of her life, each clearly speaking for themselves. I read this essay twice - seeing how somebody of her age and life and career defines their life is a lesson in itself on how to live.

    I think this epitomises what is so fantastic about this book for women - whilst the target audience is more overtly women in their middle-age and more who can empathise directly with what she is saying, it also provides great insight for those of us on a younger end of the scale by providing insight into how we might feel 30 years down the line before it's too late. The title is a great example - Ephron longs for the neck of her youth, defining 46 as the year it disappears and becomes the neck of an ageing woman. For the next 17 years I'm going to love and appreciate my smooth, taut neck.

    Things to distract you on a Friday afternoon

    Posted by Bel. The time is 12:15pm here in Wellington, NZ.

    flickr: anna t

    flickr: clairity

    It's a rainy day here in Wellington and I have an hour to kill before I brave the elements and get my hair cut in my lunch break. In case your afternoon is dragging as much as mine, here are some links from the last week that managed to hold my attention.


    Where The Wild Things Are interview with director Spike Jonze, co-screenwriter Dave Eggers (squee!) and the indomitable Maurice Sendak: "I would rather not have had a film than turn it into a kiddie movie". Includes a quick video from the London premiere.


    Polaroid's not dead? The company has now announced the classic Polaroid camera and standard 600 film will be back in production. In the meantime, check out this exhibition in London of the very last batches of film with the final expiry date or go download Poladroid to easily turn your digital pics into retro goodies!


    This we need to talk about: The Guttmacher Institute have released latest research which shows that the abortion rates have declined worldwide as contraceptive use has increased. Pow.

    The sad flipside of this is in developing countries where safe access to contraceptives is not possible and where abortion remains highly restricted, tens of thousands of women are dying each year from unsafe abortions. And millions suffering serious complications as a result.

    The report is very short and includes three key recommendations. It is highly recommended reading.


    I have probably only removed about four staples in my lifetime. But when that time came, those staples really needed to be removed and it was no fun shredding my fingertips in the process. Would I have preferred to have had this nifty contraption instead? All signs point to: GRRRROWL.


    As a writer (!), there are few things I abhor more than writing exercises. I find they evoke little more than stale and derivative scribblings in me, desperately squeezed from my mind grapes.

    But when I clicked through to 100 Colors, 100 Days, 100 Writings, I was struck by not only the originality and freshness of the writing, but the thought that maybe, just maybe, this was something I could get into.


    I find home renovation as about as thrilling as the next person - assuming that the next person is someone who finds it completely dull, and not my Aunty Lynda, who could watch Mitre 10 Home Make Over until the cows come home. (And make over the cowshed.)

    But props to the couple who did this to their bathroom:

    i.e. MADE IT AWESOME!!

    A comment says they should've gone for proper coloured tiles and everything, but the blogger says they're hoping that when they eventually resell the house, prospective buyers won't notice the Tetris motif and just think it's a random pattern. Or it will be a SELLING POINT to end all!!


    And finally, if you haven't already watched this video, enjoy!

    Book review: The Bell Jar

    Posted by Bel. The time is 2:03pm here in Wellington, NZ.

    This is the first time I've read The Bell Jar, and although familiar with some of Sylvia Plath's poetry, I'm not a fan and wasn't really amped for this novel.

    Also (and it's dreadful to have had this association, but somewhat unavoidable), the image of GOOPy Gwyneth Paltrow mooching around in cardigans in Dunedin - oh I mean, Cambridge - is inextricably implanted in my mind.

    Reading this brilliant book has successfully wiped all that away.

    The first third of the book, set in the glitz and glam of 1950s New York City, shows our heroine Esther as the somewhat reluctant member of a group of interns for a top fashion magazine editor. This reminded me a little of that section of The Girl's Guide To Hunting And Fishing, but with more of a delightful sarcastic humour.

    I loved the moment where hedonistic intern Doreen, with her Marilyn Munroe hair, passes out drunken in a pool of vomit outside Esther's hostel door, and Esther contemplates it, and then delicately closes the door again, deciding to deny all knowledge. (Recovery position, people!!)

    Returning home to the suburbs, Esther is devastated to learn she has not been accepted into the writing course she had her heart set on. Imagery is used with her thinking of many figs on different branches, all representing various choices in her life, future paths that may be taken. Esther sees these all withering before her fingers even get a chance to grasp them. (There is also the added layer that the character lives in a time when even with education, her choices were rather limited and most people's ideals were for a women to be a lovely housewife.)

    There are moments in this book when you just want to give this young lady a shake of the shoulders and say "Buck up! It'll work out!". But from the halfway point on, her decent from inaction to depression is very well characterised. And although the final lines of the book are open-ended, I felt that it was positive and that Esther was on the right track. Her actions in the closing chapters had been self-directed and about achieving things for herself - the opposite of the frozen inertia that defined the slump into depression.

    It is very hard to write a review of this book, let alone read it, without the spectre of Sylvia Plath's suicide looming over. I guess I'd always assumed that a novel published mere weeks before the writer killed themselves might not be the most fun to pick up. But despite The Bell Jar's autobiographical content, it is not all doom and gloom, and is actually very entertaining.

    Last thing: The cover above is unfortunately not the one that was on the shelf at the Wellington Central Library when I swung by. It was one that incorporated the image below, which I assume is of Sylvia Plath, which seems a bit much like blurring the line, considering the character Esther makes frequent mention of using a typewriter.

    The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Recommended.
    First published 1963. Set in New York/Massachusetts, 1950s.
    #42 from 'The List'

    A Heartwarming Story of Staggering Self-lessness

    Posted by Lou. The time is 2.00pm here in London, UK.

    Today I went onto NZ Herald's site to see dual depressing headlines about the missing toddler's body being found in a drain, and the Boyzone star having drowned in his own vomit... so finding this gem on BBC News was a welcome burst of news of the uplifting sort.

    In summary, a 16-year-old West Bengalese boy believes himself to be so privileged to receive a school education that he has started his own school in his backyard to pass on his learning to even more impoverished and disadvantaged children - all done in the late-afternoon after his own long day with chores and school. This is their only chance to become literate people.

    It's people like him who will change the world.

    The Impossible Dream

    Posted by Lou. The time is 10.07pm here in London, UK.

    You will remember that Bel recently reviewed Lost in La Mancha as part of her 14 Film in 7 Days orgy of DVDs. This reminded me that I have wanted to see this film for years, and thanks to amazon (I love you amazon) I've just watched it. Whoa. Holy fuck! I mean, I knew they were cursed with bad luck, but I didn't realise just quite how horrendous it was - almost biblical in scale as the set is literally washed away and the lead actor falls prey to physical fallibility...

    The film took me back a few years to when I had just started my first film job as receptionist at the Film Commission. An epic NZ story of colonisation had just gone into production with one of our finest and most experienced filmmakers at the helm - like Gilliam I guess you would call him a genius, having made several of NZ's most revered films, but like Gilliam he was considered a bit too eccentric for Hollywood, having had a script rejected for a major film franchise on which he was signed to do a sequel for being "too out there". Let's just say, it was exciting for him to be back doing a NZ film, and a lot of high hopes and dollars rode on it...

    Then the storms came. Wintery, horrible storms. The set was apparently awash with mud and absolutely freezing. And the lead actor fell ill - though in this case didn't help things much herself by taking the illness and escalating it tenfold from what it had to be. A flu shut the film down for more than a month. The media started calling (perhaps this is where I get my ability to be a firm telephone gatekeepers as nobody was getting through to anyone via my "innocent" taking of messages for people who were "unavailable"). People were running down hallways. Scurried meetings being held by worried looking people. As the schedule expanded the scope of the filming contracted. The Completion Bond guarantors moved in. The Director was taken off set. The DoP finished it up. Unlike The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a film was made and released - but the completed product was one of the most disappointing things I have ever seen. I felt so gutted - having read the script and really loved the project for its epic New Zealand story - watching this pared-down, thrown-together reminder of what might have been but wasn't.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is - I'm glad they pulled the plug on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote... but hope he can one day achieve the vision as it looked and sounded ah-may-zing.

    Right, I guess next up would have to be finally getting round to watching the behind-the-scenes doc of the making of Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, to complete my cautionary education into the dangers of setting out to make a movie... "to dream the impossible dream..."

    My Nancy Drew

    Posted by Lou. The time is 1.50pm here in London, UK.

    For some reason I got to thinking about Nancy Drew the other day, which led to me feeling the strange need to read one of her mystery novels, and conveniently amazon has a selection for about £2. Unfortunately this meant getting a new edition (though I got the oldest new edition I could find - "Treasure in the Royal Tower"), when I'd much rather find a proper old one in a second-hand bookstore (where does one find an old-school second-hand bookstore in London? I don't really see the Charing Cross ones as having an extensive section of teenage girl mystery novels...). But fortunately it arrived on the very day London weather turned pants, as there is nothing better than reading a trashy mystery novel on a wintery evening.

    The novel took me all of 2 hours to read (and half of that was whilst half-watching tv - so they're probably 90-minute jobs for an attentive adult), and ticked all the boxes by having an addictive plot, mystery and intrigue, and a couple of twists and turns. (Disappointingly it also had a mention of a computer, which took me out of my reverie of imagining them all in nifty '50s outfits.) Part of me wonders though, have they been watered down or were they always as quick-reading and swiftly brought to a conclusion? I read them in both my early- and mid-teens, so wasn't an entirely unsophisticated reader at the time... I remember them having meaty plots that really drew me in... I guess the only way to find out is to track down an old-school edition (I'm sure my mother still has them in a bookcase somewhere, ready for my niece to reach her adolescence).

    Now, the main thing I wanted to talk about is that I've always dreamt of writing a Nancy Drew film and turning her into a brilliant role model for the next generation of young women. She was definitely a huge influence on my burgeoning adulthood - she is one of the few teenage female characters I can think of from my generation that was entirely focussed on Doing Things - solving mysteries, being adventurous - rather than on Relationships (haha, misogynists would cynically reply that perhaps I would have done well to focus a little bit more on relationships instead of being, what the Nancy Drew era crowd would call, "a Spinster"). As such, I can't bring myself to see any of the tv series recently made - the fact that the most notable thing that has been said about it is that Julia Roberts' niece plays Nancy is quite enough for me to say no thanks. [Whoa, turns out this was a movie - it made no impact though, huh?]

    So Nancy herself - reading the novel as a 28-year-old made me realise one disturbing thing about her: she's perfect. She's smart, pretty, polite, friendly, helpful, popular, sweet, humorous, a "perfect daughter", "great girlfriend", one heck of a sleuth, etc... In fact, she's an archetype of the Ultimate Woman - which is of course, actually really negative. In creating some ridiculous Super Woman it embodies the pressures on women to be all things to all people. Which got me to thinking whether male "heroes" are the same - are they perfect beings who are all things to all people? Well, problematically, I didn't read boy-oriented teen books (is there such a thing?) so can't really think of any directly relevant examples, but the iconic super men - Superman himself Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Indiana Jones, James Bond - are all far from perfect: Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne grapple with their duel identities, Indiana Jones is a bit of a shit (who is scared of snakes), James Bond is a total shit towards women (though oh-so-charming nonetheless)... Throw some examples at me! I want picture-perfect male heroes, and fallible female heroes.

    I got to wiki'ing and saw a discussion of the evolution of Nancy Drew - in the original texts she was sassy, straight-forward, and stood up to male authority figures; as time went on she became more emotional and sympathetic (fulfilling the "caring" ideal of femininity), subordinate to, polite and respectful of male authority. This is in tandem with the evolution of cinematic female heroines - in the days of black and white they were so sassy and witty, but have gradually faded to being passive, serious characters while the men get all the good lines (with some wonderful notable exceptions). [A basic example here is Hermione - oh so lacking in self-esteem, desperate for male approval, and always so serious!] Basically, as women became more empowered in society our role in mass storytelling diminished - it's fine, great even, for women to be subversive and hilarious within a society of powerlessness, but in our society of technically and legally having almost equal rights subversion of male authority is dangerous as, well, it'll lead to Actual Equality. And we can't have that happening, can we!

    My Nancy Drew would be sassy, subversive, smart, funny - but with an edge of fallibility that would make her real. She'd also be wearing some kick-ass '50s dresses (despite her birth being in the '30s), perhaps even quality nylons, but would be in flat shoes - all the better for adventure - and might even have a hair out of place or two.

    "Any prayers you happen to have lying around I would dearly appreciate."

    Posted by Bel. The time is 5:11pm here in Wellington, NZ.

    I'm a fan of Elizabeth Taylor. Not so much of the big-haired perfume-flogging 1980s Elizabeth Taylor, but more of the big-haired eyelash-batting 1960s Elizabeth Taylor.

    When Michael Jackson died earlier this year, my panicked thoughts turned to her. Her health was bad enough as it was! Would the shock of her weird friend passing on finally do her in?

    Love you too, Liz!

    These tweets are from Taylor's verified Twitter account. (Of course she tweets! Don't question the woman. She'll tweet when she wants and marry when she wants.)

    Not to be a fearmonger, but I don't think this bodes well. I think it would be best if we all put on another layer of eyeliner, some sparkly jewellery and though happy thoughts. (If you are possessed by the urge to marry someone, then just go with the flow. WWETD?)

    Book review: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

    Posted by Bel. The time is 4:05pm here in Wellington, NZ.

    Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical story of growing up as a young black girl in a world defined by its boundaries, yet still determined to grow and flourish despite all set-backs.

    Early in the book, there is a wonderful example of the lack of perspective that segregation brings. Young Maya sees the laundry baskets carried by the women who do housework for white households in the area. She is amazed to spy among the heaps of clean clothing the same style of underwear that she and her family wear! To her, whites are akin to an alien species. To imagine that they would be wearing underwear and doing normal everyday things is simply impossible.

    As well as these basic insights, there are some moments in the book that are truly shocking. Because Maya's grandmother runs the general store, she has been able to help out local people during the worst times of the Depression. This includes a white dentist who lives on the other (wealthy) side of town. She calls on him to repay the favour when Maya is crippled by toothache. They approach the house via the servants' entrance after walking across the distance of the town, the little girl howling all the way with pain.

    The reception they receive is chilling. The dentist flatly refuses to help them, culminating with the brutal statement that he would no more put his hand inside a negro's mouth than he would a dog's.

    There are many difficult and even traumatic moments related in the book - the sexual abuse and rape that takes place when Maya is eight years old is the hardest to read, regardless of the outcome, in which he is taken to court and then murdered by her uncles. But overall the tone is positive and uplifting. This is not someone who is overwhelmed and downtrodden by the circumstances, and there is some comfort in thinking that the young girl of this "story" will experience the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and all that will entail.

    One of my favourite moments of Obama's election was this interview with Maya Angelou, where (if you watch through to the end) she recites my favourite poem of hers. Watching it the morning after America elected a black man to its highest office, tears were brought to my eyes.

    Maya Angelou on Barack Obama's presidential win and reciting "Still I Rise"

    (Can't embed the video, sorry - you will have to click over to Jezebel to enjoy it!)

    PS It should be noted that Angelou read a poem at Bill Clinton's inauguration - he who was famously called "the first black US president" by none other than Toni Morrison, author of The Color Purple and also Beloved, which is on 'The List' and I thought I reviewed ages ago but now I can't find a post for. Whoops.

    I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Highly recommended.
    First published in 1969. Set in Arkansas, Missouri & California, 1930s/40s.
    #40 on The List. 24 left to go!

    Book review: The Group

    Posted by Bel. The time is 1:49pm here in Wellington, NZ.

    As always, I was influenced by the cover and was not hopeful about this book. I had to request it from stack and it was a bit battered, with loopy hand-drawn daisies on the front - a bit 'flower power' and not reminiscent of the educated and privileged 1930s setting I was about to immerse myself in.

    The Group opens with a wedding and ends with a funeral, covering a hectic decade in between, seen through a shifting prism of eight lives. The group of young American women have just finished college (Vassar, which doesn't mean much to me, but I've learnt is quite small and exclusive) and are on the cusp of adulthood in its various incarnations.

    The book is startlingly modern and easy to read, with a humour that has lasted well. Anyone that has had a group of close female friends will relate to woven relationships, gossip and assignment of roles that goes with the territory. And although I say 'modern' some of the most interesting aspects of the book come from observing the dramatic changes in society that have happened so rapidly.

    At the opening of the book, one character (Libby? Dottie? Helena? I forget. I'm a shocker with ensemble casts.) is directed by her lover to seek out contraception. This is a mortifying prospect and she discusses with a friend that they are fortunate it is even legal in their state. The only option is to be fitted with a diaphragm, a complicated and uncomfortable procedure in that day and age - especially thanks to the unfeeling male doctor.

    Other issues, such as the occasional nonchalant anti-Semitism, underline how much times have changed.

    Although this book is dominated by female narrative, the men in their lives play an important part. One woman marries the wrong man, despite their creative affinities, and has to battle through their disaster zone of a marriage. The parents of another decide to split and her dad moves into her New York apartment with her, becoming liberally politicised and annoying her with what we would call his glaringly obvious 'mid-life crisis'. Another casts aside men altogether, returning from years spent in Europe with a lesbian partner at her side.

    Despite their education and privilege, the women in The Group don't come across as haughty or grating as you might expect. The Depression-era setting plays a big part, helping to make the ear and circumstances deeply resonant to today's "current economic climate".

    After some googling, I've seen many comparisons made to Sex and The City, but those tarts don't have any of the depth and resilience of these women. The restrictions that kept them dominated and to being literally locked up in one case, were societal, not self-inflicted. Their aspirations are always for self-improvement - and not by way of consumerism.

    Here are a couple of covers that popped up on the interwebs. This imagery I like, other than the candy coated colour corrected - but I suppose that goes hand-in-hand when Candace Bushnell has penned an introduction. They've even put her name into pink, in case anyone was still confused at this stage that this might not be a group of WOMEN we were all talking about.

    This design I probably prefer - perhaps they could do a reissue with the photo from above with the cute leopard print coat and make my life complete?

    The Group by Mary McCarthy. Highly recommended.
    First published 1963. Set in New York, 1930s.
    #39 from 'The List'