What I’m Watching/Reading This Week
‘The Chocolate Cobweb’ is a taut novel by Charlotte Armstrong (most recently filmed with Isabel Huppert in the lead) adding a strange froideur to its very 1950s storyline, which involves a poisoning interrupted by a neighbour, who unwittingly removes the evidence in a handkerchief (the contents of a spilled chocolate cup). Domestic suspense is very on-trend at the moment (which might explain why my first pseudonymously written book, ‘Little Boy Found’, is doing very nicely) but often these republished stories are psychologically old-fashioned. The genre tends to be dominated by neurotic housewives who think they’re being driven insane, but this one has a strong-minded femme lead.
Gore Verbinsky’s film ‘A Cure For Wellness’ could be viewed as a melding of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, ‘The Road To Wellville’ and ‘Traitement du Choc’, although this doesn’t even begin to cover its peculiarities. The director won my heart with ‘Mousehunt’, a family film which used the surreal in a far more cohesive way than Tim Burton (check out the scene with the ‘Belgian hair models’!). Here he has created a disturbing adult fantasy with a hateful hero (thus limiting his box office appeal) who heads to a Swiss rejuvenation clinic run by Jason Isaacs, in order to get his boss’s signature on a piece of paper, thus making him the fall guy for a business scandal. Instead, the boss won’t play ball, the institute harbours a peculiar secret involving incest, eels and a serum kept in blue bottles, and the guests are unwitting participants in an age-old system of wellness. Visually delightful, it ruffles and disturbs rather than shocks, climaxing with the kind of fiery ballroom scene one used to find in old Hammer films.
Sebastian Junger’s superb ‘Syria: Hell On Earth’ is a National Geographic feature-length documentary that explains and illuminates the recent history of Syria and Iran/Iraq on both a human and international level. Unravelling the complex series of events that led to the fall of a country and a terrorist organisation similar to the Mafia stepping into the power vacuum is no mean feat, but the storytelling is clear, concise and ultimately moving. It’s also a timeless story of repeated history that deserves to be seen by everyone who is interested in their world, and is therefore probably garnering low ratings.
‘Shakespeare: The Director’s Cut’ is a set of chatty, rambling essays by Michael Bogdanov on key texts – and who better to write about them than an RSC director? They’re pleasingly perverse, refusing to kowtow to traditional opinions about the plays (for example, reframing The Tempest as a play about the blindness of political downfall rather than forgiveness and redemption), but make for fascinating reading.
I’m also watching and reading about the screwball comedies of the 1930s, many of which are hard to track down now. The draconian Hays code forced such films to rethink how they handled adult material, but just made the writers cleverer. What comes over now, rewatching them, is how they place their women in charge and how they consistently subvert expectations by being one jump ahead of the viewer. In ‘Libelled Lady’ William Powell is hired to seduce Myrna Loy and thereby prevent her from taking the moral high ground by undermining her lawsuit against a scandal rag, but she sees through him from the outset, forcing him into honesty and consequently winning her over. There are between 40 and 50 such films, about a third of which are utterly brilliant.
POWELL: Your eyes…they look like…
LOY: Yes, I know, limpid pools, starry nights.
POWELL: I was going to say angry marbles.
Finally I watched/read Dave Eggers’ ‘The Circle’, a satire on Apple culture and 24/7 connectivity that doesn’t quite work in either form because, as is the way of such hybrid beasts, it can’t decide what it wants to be. As a satire it’s already dated just seconds after being made, as a thriller it’s forced to jump the shark by adding dramatic elements that go against logical human behaviour. And as one critic put it ‘you can’t build tension with footage of someone sitting in front of a screen’. The film raises the stakes – in the book I think the lead character Mae watches three screens, which breaks up her concentration, and in the film she has seven to contend with – Mr Eggers’ intentions are true and good but no-one can keep pace with this level of change and he can’t follow the lesson taught by screwball comedies of staying ahead of expectations. Bound by his subject matter, he’s caught between preaching to the converted and/or preaching an Awful Warning that can open him to accusations of Luddism.