Alex Gibney, the director behind the Wikileaks documentary, looks at another kind of whistleblower. It begins with a letter, an accusation of pedophilia, and spreads out like a stain as the deaf children’s abuse scandal takes grip within all levels of the Catholic Church – a global religion that is rapidly growing in the developed world.
What follows is at first a rather familiar recap of the church’s reaction to the accusations, but Gibney is laying the groundwork for a much larger, more devastating story. The largest organisation on the planet is becoming frightened that if it’s revealed in court that priests are routinely sexually abusing children and have been doing so for decades, its parishes may lose the rivers of cash that pour in from the faithful. So what do they do to counteract the problem? They promote their serial abusers instead of defrocking them. The Vatican is not a country – it has not residents, no births – but it claims diplomatic immunity when the question of blame is raised.
But there are signs that its world congregation now wants and may demand clear accounting, because ultimately, the people are the church. And if the Vatican refuses to respond, it will lose its money, and therefore its power. 50,000 pages of documents reveal the crimes of pedophile priests all around the world, where the priests’ attitude to revelations of repeated rape is ‘It’s a rite of passage’ and ‘Children heal fast’.
As Gibney shows, it doesn’t take long for Fox News, the grotesque laughing-stock of a channel that’s pretty much hit pariah status in the rest of the world, to take the side of the church in hiding its crimes and smearing the accusers. Although the film (which appeared earlier in the year and is now up for a Best Documentary award which it’s unlikely to win against the astonishing ‘The Act of Killing’) ends on a positive, upbeat note, it’s hard not to come away from this with a feeling of deep despair.
In a religion that’s paradoxically based on faith in the face of facts, where the highest level of celibacy in the church (an essential tenet of its mission) isn’t even estimated at 50%, how can anyone ever admit anything? The phrase ‘a time for the church to heal’ is thrown around until it loses any meaning.
Now I’m not religious, but if I was, I would want my church to lead by example. One single shocking fact remains after the closing titles; that the current Pope – the supposed representative of a god on earth – aided and abetted the rape of children because he was the sole ecclesiastical member in charge of the abuse files.
Well, worshippers have a choice that’s just as simple. They can withhold their cash until there is clear accounting, or they can continue to turn a blind eye.
I don’t collect soundtracks,I have always been obsessed by them; I have thousands, catalogued (in the way sad men do) without slipcases so that I can store them without it feeling as if I live in a warehouse. Some of these are temp scores given to me by directors who used them to shoot with (Baz Lurhmann gave me his early scores which were very different to what ended up on screen.) Some are so obscure that they don’t exist anywhere online. Some are discoveries I’ve made through watching rare films and thinking ‘Wow – listen to that!’ Some recent scores, like the soundtrack to ‘Mr Nobody’, which apparently exists, have eluded me.
There are moments in cinema when music catches me so by surprise that I almost stop watching the film at all and just listen. In the Japanese animated version of ‘Metropolis’, where the city falls at the end of the film, the sound of its destruction fades away and is replaced by Elvis singing ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ in one of those moments that catch at your heart.
Hollywood action scores have been very boring of late – all drums and over-dense orchestration – but a few had a left-field fragile quality. I can’t work without playing music from films. Here are some of the stunning albums I discovered in the course of 2013.
‘The Best Offer’ – Ennio Morricone
I saw him in concert two years ago and he was on fine form, still as strong and creative as ever. This score echoes another film he scored about paintings, ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’, and could be considered a companion piece.
Una Música De Cine Español, Volumes 1 & 2
These immense double albums unveil an astonishing richness hitherto hidden from the world of cinema soundtracks; every kind of theme imaginable, epics, romances, horror and suspense movies, comedies, by composers who deserve to be household names. Many of the tracks are from recent Spanish films for which there are no soundtracks. Thirty quid on iTunes buys you the entire library – far and away my pick of the year.
A superlative, dark score (barring two old Maria Callas tracks) from Robin Foster; melancholy and eerily cool, perfect for late nights. The UK produced great composers, from Michael Nyman to Craig Armstrong, and Foster’s the man to watch.
Tom Tykwer is a director who is very conscious of the way his films need to sound. I loved his scores for ‘The International’ and ‘Perfume’, Here he scores his own film with some beautiful grand themes that match an underrated film few people took to their hearts.
Not a great film, but it was a smart move getting a band, M83, to provide an ethereal score the space drama, an idea that also worked when Daft Punk scored the remake of ‘Tron’.
Dans La Maison
Philippe Rombi’s score accentuated the unease in this story of a pupil who manipulates his teacher with alarming results, one of several rich French scores this year.
It was a TV series, but getting Mogwai to score it proved a smart idea – I hope they continue with the second season. My other favourite TV score was for ‘Dead Like Me’, written by Stewart Copeland from The Police.
Sight & Sound just published its annual round-up of critics’ choices from around the world for 2013, and it’s a healthy celebration of some superb films, although I take exception to quite a few of the choices (well, that’s what lists are there for).
I disagree with the rapture that greeted Italy’s ‘The Great Beauty’, which felt like Fellini-lite, and detested ‘The Selfish Giant’, which doubtless meant well but felt parochial and over-familiar. Once again DC proved itself as the company that makes the boring superhero movies, while Marvel makes the guilty pleasures. ‘Man of Steel’ VS ‘Iron Man 3′? No contest!
Sight & Sound clearly feels that highly experienced critics are being kicked out of newspapers as the faux-egalitarianism of the internet takes hold, but what’s actually happened is that many superb reviewers have risen online, most of them writing for no money, and the air of self-importance around some film critics has finally been deflated. Questions are also being asked; do we need someone who knows in detail about the career of David Lean to enjoy ‘Pacific Rim’?
Here, for what it’s worth, are some of the films I happened to enjoy.
Unfortunately I’d been following the outcome of this terribly sad story as it broke, and wished I’d come fresh to this powerful filmed version of events, which won the Sundance Festival this year, and deservedly so. As in so many such tragedies, the real crime was the result of the investigation afterwards.
‘The Act Of Killing’
A unique 8-year-gestating experiment that was rightly honoured at Cannes with the Special Jury Award. In a cathartic experiment to encourage Indonesian gangster-generals to admit culpability in war crimes, the director achieves his purpose in closing scenes of harrowing intensity. It’s also – shockingly – very funny.
Alfonso Cuaron brought us the astonishing experience of really being in space – there’s no up, no down, and possibly no way to survive. Marred by studio insistence on some sentimental dialogue near the end – Hollywood just can’t let go of the feel good, it seems – it’s still a brilliant achievement, although possibly the most male-skewed film ever, despite its female lead.
‘The Last Day’ (‘Los Ultimos Dias’)
How will the world end? Suppose it wasn’t through some outside agency at all, by via some terrible internal problem that had been building for a long time? The only disappointment in this ravishing Spanish SF thriller was its failure to overtly link the cause to the current social climate – it’s still palm-sweatingly pleasurable.
‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks’
A film that made me question everything I believed was sacred and fair about communication and the will of the people, a balanced and objective study of what happens when governments go wrong and news agencies become mouthpieces for skewed ideologies. And, unfortunately, terrifying in its implications of what will follow.
The Snow White story retold for adults in silky monochrome, with flamenco, bullfights and a wonderful matador-heroine, this was lumped with ‘The Artist’ in some lazy reviews but was a very different experience. and a total joy from first frame to last.
It made no sense. I like films that make no sense. It was made by the guy who made ‘Primer’, the WTF?-Time-Travel movie. For the record, I also liked ‘Synechdoche New York’, ‘Tabu’, James Ivory’s ‘Savages’ and ‘Last Tear At Marienbad’ so what do I know?
‘The Best Offer’
Guiseppe Tornatore is never popular with critics these days – too stylised, too middle class, but this story of art dealer Geoffrey Rush attempting to discover the secret of a hidden beauty with a houseful of art treasures is a wonderful, wrong-footing delight – a romance, a mystery and a tragedy in one, with an award-winning new score by Ennio Morricone.
It wasn’t a good year for film by any stretch of the imagination. But there were gems. I haven’t yet been able to see ‘Philomena’ ‘American Hustle’ or ’12 Years A Slave’, so these may get added to the list. There were no decent comedies, unless you count self-regarding fratpack Hollywood films and the TV spin-off ‘Alpha Papa’. What would you add to the list?
It’s a known fact – series sell. My career could best be described as ‘jobbing writer’, with no too books the same except the Bryant & May series, and no reaction as strong from readers except in that series.
So the thinking is, maybe I should do another series. Fun though they were, books like ‘Psychoville’ and ‘Hell Train’ don’t make series. However, ‘Plastic might.
I had a lot of fun writing it, and eventually it was sold to Solaris, an independent publisher who did the book proud. But the problem of not being with a giant publishing house means that a book doesn’t have the same social reach – although Amazon is levelling the playing field in this area.
‘Plastic’ was always intended to be part of the ‘Wife Or Death’ trilogy, with the other volumes being ‘Wed & Buried’ and ’Married Alive’. It was a hard book to write partly because it’s so densely packed with action and jokes – someone pointed out that it has enough craziness stuffed into it for a trilogy by itself. But it was a style of writing I wanted to try out. It ended with the heroine, June Cryer, starting a new life. And as we all know from TV shows, that’s a perfect segue into a sequel.
But as much as I love writing Bryant & May, I’d like to have another series running that would allow me to explore something a bit more complex and thoughtful.
That’s ‘Plastic’ out, which concentrates on craziness, although there’s a nice little message about independence tucked inside. I don’t know – maybe it could work. I had other characters already set up in that world.
I would like to use a female lead character, but not a police officer. You can’t have members of the public interfering in police matters – this is not the age of the helpful busybody, if there ever was such a thing, so it would have to be a specialist. Here we get into the world of forensic sciences, and that’s not for me because others already do it better, and sciences change fast.
If it was a man, my character would be an outsider, unaccepted, disliked, European, offbeat. One idea was an autistic film critic who only connects with people through movies, and who only gets cases where people don’t want to go to the police.
Any thoughts would be helpful.
Most views that tourists assume to be very English have, in fact, been massively tampered with. Bankside had a power station plonked onto it, but a couple of 450 year-old houses survived by themselves by Cardinal Cap Alley. There’s a rather good book on the subject called ‘The House by the Thames, and the People Who Lived There’, by Gillian Tindall, one of my favourite London writers, but anyone venturing there today will be disappointed by what they see. Although I believe the houses remain in private hands, they’re tarted up with white and yellow paint jobs, the road is closed off and the alley has steel bars over it to deter tourists.
One can always find rich people’s homes unmarked by the passage of time. Finding working class houses is rare as they tend to be bulldozed. That’s why I’ve always loved this particular view, just around the corner from the smartened up ones. The Anchor gets plenty of tourists – it was originally built in 1615 and stands next to the newly restored Globe theatre.
The present brewery would have you think Samuel Pepys watched the Great Fire of London from it and Doctor Johnston wrote part of his dictionary there, but even if that’s the case there’s still something pleasingly disreputable about it. The brickwork is never cleaned and it remains an unsophisticated venue.
The view here is messed about with too – the road was pedestrianised relatively recently and the bollards are new, as is the beer garden. But it really doesn’t matter, because the spirit of the corner, with the river just beyond, feels right. And of course, there is St Paul’s, which I can still see from my bedroom, and which still acts as a compass centre for Londoners, no matter how many glass boxes they put up near it.
Europe does Christmas very well; it’s just as cheesy but less corporate and nakedly sales-oriented than the UK or US, and Berlin is better than most, with its plethora of Christmas markets and art and craft fairs. The biggest problem in a weekend jaunt is allowing for travel on a subway system that’s (understandably perhaps, given its history) awkward and time-consuming, but if you’re prepared to make a long day of it you can cover all the best ones, including the riverside ‘Nostalgia’ market, filled with big band sounds and traditional stalls.
With an astonishing array of museums, from those on ‘museum island’ like the grandiose Pergamon to the stunningly designed Jewish Museum, it’s best to book online to avoid standing over an hour in the sleet. The new visitor centre at Checkpoint Charlie has finally got the balance right, providing history and insight with a powerful timeline, and now the new palace is set to return as they have got rid of the notoriously ugly modern building, which was riddled with asbestos.
It’s no longer even remotely a city of two halves, with the Eastern side more fashion-conscious and Hoxton-ish than the West, although the huge ugly McDonalds that features on what has been known for years as the ‘American’ side still threatens to cause an international incident by being so in-your-face offensive, placed so close to the spot where so many lost their lives.
I’ve still never been clubbing in Berlin and now probably never will, so I’ll clearly miss out on one of its biggest selling points, but I did get to hang out with Pedro Almodovar and all the other European directors at the European Film Awards.
I’m back in London now after a weekend of sausages and sauerkraut, Christmas trees and – oh yes, a surprise visit from Santa in the snowy night sky, powered by rockets in his sleigh and looking real enough to terrify the children underneath (there was an actual human Santa driving – I hope he had insurance). Normal service will now be resumed, although not for very long – I’ll be posting from some surprising places in the coming weeks…
I’m in Berlin today – I only ever seem to be in Berlin in winter, and yes, it’s minus something and trying to snow, which will devolve to a point where I end up standing in Alexanderplatz in horizontal icy rain without adequate clothing, wondering whether I still have ears.
What to do, shall I visit the museum that promised to show me the complete history of East German motorcycle production, or head for the Trabant factory? We stumble into what must be the only remaining original Bavarian sausage restaurant left in Berlin and eat goose washed down with flaming schnapps. The whole meal comes to less than a round of drinks in London. The lady who owns the restaurant is wearing a dirndl, and sends more drinks on a long wooden board. She’s pissed. Everyone’s pissed. And they’re all smoking. Christmas songs are belted out at a demented level. Who knew we could remember all the words from Wham’s Christmas album?
I’m here for Catherine Deneuve’s party – she’s being given a Lifetime Achievement at the European Film Awards, and there’s a big bash after. It’s a black-tie affair. I’ve forgotten the only item of clothing actually specified on the invitation. Where is everyone? Berlin looks depopulated compared to London. Across vast empty streets I see the occasional figure in the distance, like a Lowry painting. The city is covered in tiny gold lights, minimal and tasteful. Must remember the Christmas tree decorations, which is really why I’m here (last year I went to get them in the Czech Republic).
Tonight I expect there will be many types of sausage. And sauerkraut. Can’t wait.
The modern mantra is to say that globalisation has shrunk the world, turning cities into identical reproductions of each other, but I’m starting to wonder if that’s true. I make it a habit to regularly check out American and English Top 50 book lists and compare them, to try and gauge what we’re all reading, but recently I’ve been surprised by the widening gulf between our cousin-countries and what we’re enjoying in fiction. If anything, we’re more separate than we have been in decades.
Googling the bestsellers is a trick in itself, as every search brings up something different, but as far as I can ascertain, the Top 10 UK fiction titles are listed thus, and don’t really need authors’ names attached to them, because you can see exactly what they are from their titles:
Sleighbells In The Snow
The Husband’s Secret
Meet Me Under The Mistletoe
Take A Look At Me Now
Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy
Christmas At The Beach Cafe
Two things to note – Their Christmassy and/or pastel covers suggest that all but one of the books (Pratchett) are of exclusively female interest and are all written by women. Second, I’ve not only not read a single one of them, but have never heard of eight of the ten authors. Let’s compare that to stateside:
Takedown Twenty: A Stephanie Plum Novel
A Game Of Thrones Complete Boxset
The Longest Ride
Command Authority: A Jack Ryan Novel
Soy Sauce For Beginners
And The Mountains Echoed
What’s immediately obvious is that there’s a much broader diversity, and a pronounced male/female reading-writing split. Also, several of the books, including Donna Tart’s number one, would be deemed ‘literary’ here – and for a country that’s religious there are no Christmas books. The UK is now virtually non-religious, and their Christmas titles use the sentimental tropes of the season rather than any messages of Christianity.
The US, which has over four times the population of the UK, has a far greater diversity of popular reading, more ethnic writing, a wider range of fiction, and astonishingly diverse non-fiction lists. There is also – and this is largely the norm now – no overlap at all in the books making the two Top Tens.
What does this tell us? That UK males have stopped reading? That we no longer buy literary novels? That can’t be true, given the massive success of Hilary Mantel’s books – shortly to become a brand thanks to theatre and TV adaptations.
The other problem is gauging bestsellers with any accuracy at all, because an e-book skew is created by Amazon’s pricing structure, so that a really bad book can sell many copies because it is cheaply price-pegged. Perhaps the days of the single novel everyone is reading are over.
Me, I’m reading Ned Beauman’s ‘The Teleportation Accident’ – easily my best book of the year. Then, maybe I’ll write next year’s bestseller: Tangled Angels In The Snow.
Some time back I posted about trying to find the author of a book I owned as a teenager.
The author’s brilliant first novel ‘Here (Away From It All)’ received wide praise from Anthony Burgess, the New York Times and others, but when I tried to track her down the trail ended in Australia. When I asked readers of The Independent to help me locate her, I received a letter which began; ‘My first husband came across your piece about Maryann Forrest, asking if anyone knows where she is. Yes I know, for I am she.’
I visited her, real name Polly Hope, to discover that she was a polymath, a writer, visual artist and opera librettist, living in London’s Spittalfields, where she had thrived for forty years in her art-filled studio house, along with four dogs, a cat, chickens and friends, and an opera-shaped henhouse.
She had adopted an alias to write the novel. Polly was living in Greece during the period of the military junta, and would very likely have faced deportation upon the book’s publication. She covered her tracks so successfully that her three books were tough to find, but she had an unfinished novel waiting, so I asked publishers to rediscover her uniquely powerful voice. The book was astonishing but there were no takers. ‘Not the sort of thing that sells right now’, I was told – probably because it was erudite and had a good story to tell.
Polly’s work graces public buildings like the Globe Theatre and the Barbican, and she has created a huge range of art. Although she exhibited all over the world, she referred to herself as ‘a jobbing artist’.
One Midsummer’s Eve she threw a zodiac concert party at home filled with the kind of English eccentrics I thought had all but vanished, and gave sunflowers to the cast, accompanied by a three-legged dog. Whenever I visited her I was reminded why I still love London.
With my encouragement she republished the first book herself online (at the age of 80), then in hardcover, painting a fresh cover, and made it available to the public once more. Last week I planned to visit her for one of our regular get-togethers to complain about the parlous state of the artist in modern life, where she would serve tea, wine or a meal every lunchtime for whoever was passing through the area (she had staff – who has staff now?) and discovered that after a brief illness she had died.
I looked at the new version of the book she created. Inside is a dedication; ‘To Chris for finding me.’
London is less colourful without her.
The book can be found here.
So, here’s the latest rough of the cover artfor my 2014 haunted house thriller, Nyctophobia.
Why do so many suspense and horror films take place in virtual darkness? I’ve always found the dark a cliche, probably because I was never very bothered by it. However, an early movie, ‘Wait Until Dark’, did scar me as a kid, to the point where I made woodcuts of Alan Arkin in my art class at school just to get the image of his character, Roat, out of my head. The film features a blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) confronting crooks who are trying to find a heroin-filled doll in her apartment. It’s an oddity, with its skewed, creepy score by Henry Mancini, and bits that don’t quite make sense – why go to so much trouble to deceive her when a threat would have worked? And why would one of the crooks disguise his face if she’s blind? But the finally scare after Hepburn smashes all the lightbulbs in the flat stayed with me for years.
Apparently it works brilliantly in the theatre, where it originated. Light and dark signify what’s hidden and what’s in plain sight. In ‘All The President’s Men’, characters slip back into shadow when they can say no more about what they know. It’s hard to scare people in bright light, but ‘Spoorloos’ (‘The Vanishing’) does it so brilliantly, with its abduction at the sunny, crowded gas station that for years after whenever I stopped at a gas station in France I felt uneasy.
When it came to writing ‘Nyctophobia’ I knew that light and dark were the key to the novel, so I decided to shift its location from the English countryside to Southern Spain. I needed to be sure that the light sections of the book were really bright and would contrast with what was happening in the shadows of the house, in the way that paintings by De Chirico caught the sharply delineated oddity of Mediterranean light.
But perhaps we don’t respond to too much claustrophobic darkness – ‘Buried’, the tour-de-force movie set entirely in a coffin flopped at they box office, despite being incredibly tense and smart. Dark suggests enclosure and confinement. Nyctophobia sufferers speak of ‘stifling’ and ‘suffocating’ darkness. Light is associated with open spaces and freedom.
The best use of light and dark I’ve seen in a film is ’Darkness In Tallin’, in which a man is released from prison to heist a gold bullion van by blacking out a city, not knowing that his wife is on an emergency support system. The ‘lights on’ sections of the film are in black and white, and the dark sequences are in colour – I’m amazed no-one has remade this.
Shadows denote passing time. The sultans of the Persian dynasties built courtyards with direct sunlight so that no shadows ever cut them in half, because they believed that death hid in the darkness. In ‘Nyctophobia’ I found a number of ways of using encroaching shadows to suggest something sinister – but you’ll have to wait until next year to find out what’s in the dark!