The Crow Road (1996, TV)

It was a sad day at my house when the news of Iain Banks’ death came out. A brilliant author, and a really decent fella, who almost ruined my second year at Uni – I discovered him and spent most of a term reading everything he’d written up to that point, rather than course-books. I had very fond memories of the 1996 TV mini-series based on “The Crow Road”, so I decided to watch it again, introducing my wife to it in the process.

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“The Crow Road” is three stories in one – the gradual coming-of-age of Prentice McHoan, and his struggles with love and a family of oddballs; a murder-mystery about the death of Prentice’s Uncle Rory seven years previously; and flashbacks to Rory’s life, framed as Prentice discovering his Uncle’s papers and piecing together his sort-of autobiography. They intertwine, and the way they don’t exactly come together but inform and enrich your understanding of the other strands of the story is one of the great things about both the book and the show.

I’m getting ahead of the show, though. Joe McFadden, who slipped into early-evening family drama roles after this, it seems, plays Prentice, a student at Glasgow University who is brought back to his family’s home village of Gallanach thanks to the death of his grandmother. He’s fallen out with his father, the sternly socialist and atheist Kenneth, played absolutely brilliantly by Bill Paterson. Prentice at the start of the story sort-of believes in God, and this tension between the two drives some clever and philosophical discussions between the two of them and other characters; Kenneth’s brother Hamish is in a Christian sect with only one member (himself) and their brother-in-law Fergus is the Laird of the local castle. Their sister, married to Fergus, died in a car crash years previously, before the disappearance of Uncle Rory. Prentice becomes interested in Rory’s life after being given some papers by Rory’s ex Janice.

That seems like a lot of information to take in, but the show does it beautifully. There’s a flashback inside a flashback in the first ten minutes of the show, and all the performances are note-perfect, with two unfortunate exception. Verity, the object of his desires in the first few episodes, never gives any indication why she so bewitches Prentice and is a bit of a non-character, as things go (she’s really there to drive a wedge between Prentice and his brother Lewis, a successful standup played by Dougray Scott before Hollywood came calling). And then there’s his best friend Ashley, played by Valerie Edmond. I had such an enormous crush on her when I first watched this – she’s beautiful, funny, independent, passionate, and clever (okay, I still have quite a large crush on her). The problem is, she’s really struggling to act in some of the scenes. It feels like she’s reading dialogue from a book rather than acting it, and while it’s not that bad, and may have been a deliberate choice – a naturalistic performance to counterpoint the high emotions on show from the rest of the cast – it’s weirdly out of place.

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If my gushing wasn’t obvious, I love this show. A lot of the heavy lifting was done by the book, one of those times when you’re the perfect age to discover a book for the first time. I was about the same age and doing the same thing as Prentice when I first read this – although my family have fewer murderous secrets, and I don’t live in beautifully picturesque Scotland. When I first watched it, my sympathies were more with him than with his Dad, but as I age and capitalism gets worse and worse for the daily lives of us all, Kenneth becomes more sympathetic. Normally, I’d be upset that merely ageing could change my mind on something, but this show is rich enough that it supports both the teenage me and the late-30s me.

Debate was inspired, and the four hours of the show flew by. I hope it’ll be as well regarded in another 20 years, as it deserves to be. One of the genuine classics of 1990s TV. Oh, and Iain Banks thought it was better than the book in lots of places, and given  he didn’t shower any of the other adaptations of his with the same praise, I think it’s safe to say he liked this one.

The Crow Road on IMDB
Buy The Crow Road [DVD]
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Neco z Alenky (1988)

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The first memories I have are ones of growing up in Thatcher’s Britain in the 80s, I wasn’t aware of the importance of politics, how Maggie was throttling us or that, when old enough, we could eventually choose the business man or woman to manage the country like a big ailing high street chain slipping further down the pecking order. All I knew was that this was life and it had to be lived. The then government would tell us that we had to learn to make our own way at the expense of others and we weren’t there to be mollycoddled as the post war-time signals coming from our special-relationship cousins over the Atlantic would suggest.

Even before the war America’s syrupy ‘think of the children’ ideals by way of Disney and other youth focussed broadcasters made us move on and break from the child-labour ways of our industrial revolution foundations. We began to believe that children were important and not only that but special too. More child laws were coming into effect like we were protecting an endangered species by pumping money into their salvation by way of television advertising but instead of giving a few quid to ‘save the whale’ we were giving hundreds to branded manufacturers to ensure our precious babes stay ahead of the crowd and look good while doing it with extravagant excess.

While we spent the rest of the 20th century wearing plastic American smiles hanging loosely off our once socialist European faces other parts of the continent were not so quick to join our brownnosing. With Czechoslovakia being a central/eastern European country it would become part of the Communist Eastern Bloc and, as with the rest of the Bloc states, it would quickly lag behind the West socially and economically thus breeding a politically repressive climate.

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It’s in our youth that we are most receptive to learning intricacies about our society and it’s our understanding of the world around which gradually adds ill-fitting building blocks to our personalities forging us into the people we become like a cruel blacksmith cheating his client with crooked wares. It does seem to be an odd kink in the human condition that creativity is unlocked in people from a repressive upbringing whether it be something darkly sinister or a hulking political machine steamrollering childhood dreams into flat puddles of bloodied bones and faded rainbows.

Czechoslovakia spawned artists such as the writer Franz Kafka and the animator Jan Svankmajer and it was the latter who would highlight the cultural differences between the decadent West and the oppressed Eastern Bloc by comparing the great American storyteller Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland with his own interpretation of the Lewis Carroll novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Neco z Alenky or Alice to English speaking audiences.

Svankmajer had been making short stop-motion animation films since the early sixties and, after realising the popularity of these, decided to make the step up to feature length and further his career as a film director. The first of these was Alice made in 1988 as his answer to what he perceived as a long list of poorly interpreted film versions of the same material, he didn’t see this story as a fairy tale but more a “realised dream”.

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While Alice is played by a real girl (Kristyna Kohoutova) the rest of the characters in the film are fantastical creations made up of bones, meat, metal, crying wigs and, in a casting masterstroke, the white rabbit is an actual rabbit fresh from a trip to the taxidermist. In a brutal twist the rabbit haemorrhages sawdust from a rip in his body only to repair the damage with a safety pin and then lick the recently excreted innards from the face of his infamous timepiece in the vain hope of stunting his dwindling punctuality.

In fact, all the creatures that Alice meets on her dream journey are similarly beset by grotesque mannerisms or simple failures in their general creation like the sock-puppet caterpillar who has to sew his own eyes shut in order to sleep or the march hare who frequently needs the key in his back fully wound so he can spread butter over the mad hatter’s clocks. Alice herself even falls foul of this when she eats the biscuits and instead of just becoming a smaller version of herself she turns into one of those creepy porcelain dolls that you find advertised in TV guides.

Violence and death are ongoing themes throughout too. There’s lots of pain inflicted between Alice and the white rabbit which raises the question of what she actually wants to do with our furry friend once she’s caught up with him. The barbarism is dished out in equal measure without regard for consequence like when she pushes him out of a window into a pane of glass and traps his hand in a door tearing a hole in it through his glove and, among his many ripostes, he paddles her and cuts her hand with a saw. There’s a moment just over halfway through where Alice sees the lifeless body of a friendly rat whom she had met earlier with his head now caught in a vicious trap. Walt Disney this most certainly is not.

The production design is uncompromising in its darkness, the sets are cold and hard like a Wendy house whose interiors have been arranged by H.R. Giger on a shoestring budget, the sound is foreboding and the constant jagged close-ups of Alice’s lips mouthing “said the white rabbit” add an air of jarring uneasiness. While the film looks and sounds macabre a beautiful undercurrent of emotional depth flows beneath the surface which makes Alice the best artistic adaptation of Carroll’s novel and packs a satisfying punch that leaves you laying sprawled and dazed on the abstract canvas hidden in the recesses of the mind after such a profound attack on the senses.

This film conveys what it was like to be a child in the Eastern Bloc and how their dreams were infested by bones and decay rather than sweetened with hugs and teddy bears like their democratic peers further west. Svankmajer leaves us with a thoroughly challenging, unsettling but fully rounded and perfectly realised piece of fantasy cinema which is worlds away from the saccharine sweet Disney effort. Alice really is a stunning, evocative display of filmmaking and an absolute powerhouse in storytelling, even if the source isn’t his own the Czech immerses himself in it sufficiently enough to create a masterpiece that most definitely is.

– Greg Foster

Neco z Alenky on IMDB
Buy Alice (DVD + Blu-ray) [1988]

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

An unspecified time after a terrible tragedy hits a small-town American community, Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) begins her new job in a menial travel agency, a poor facsimile of her previous career as a globe-trotting journalist. Ostracised from her community and enduring regular humiliation in various guises, Eva attempts to gradually rebuild her life, reflecting upon the events leading up to the tragedy: Her marriage to the affable, easy-going Franklin (John C. Reilly) and, most crucially, the troubled development of their son Kevin (played as a teen by Ezra Miller). Kevin is a supremely difficult child, increasingly cold and adversarial towards Eva, testing both her patience and affinity with motherhood. It becomes increasingly apparent that Kevin is in some way complicit in the tragedy, but how much responsibility should Eva share?

It’s of course naive to consider director Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Schriver’s best selling book as in any way prescient of the recent shootings in Aurora, Illinois. However, the pending case of James Eagan Holmes does help highlight a recurring problem in attempting this subject matter. Ben Coccio’s Zero Day (2003) is a found-footage video diary of two teenagers preparing to execute a Columbine-like attack. Despite the optimised effort at portraying reality, very little of the run-time is spent with any real rumination of their motives. In a similar manner to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, another high school massacre movie released in the same year, it’s more an exercise in ruthless banality. The point is presumably that such terrible crimes are either beyond the pat conclusions of three-act narrative, or that as an audience we’ve yet to earn the cathartis of a psychological buffer between ourselves and the perpetrators. On the surface, and at the risk of trivialising atrocity, the real-life background of Holmes would attest to this point. Beyond his social ineptitude, accumulation of weaponry, and of course his alleged mass killing, there doesn’t appear to be much to single him out as nefarious. In the context of a drama, it leaves the production in a bit of vacuous state.  If we don’t glean any real lesson or insight into our characters and situation, what’s the point?

There is no point..” opines Kevin, rather helpfully, partway through the film, “that’s the point“. However, despite this nihilistic corroboration, We Need to Talk About Kevin deviates from its thematic predecessors in three main ways. Primarily, it eschews a linear approach for something more lurid and stylised, albeit ruthlessly grounded in events. In fact, it’s a production tour-de-force that should, if accounting for a modicum of innate justice, bring Lynne Ramsay to the forefront of respected contemporary directors. This is particularly in light of the endless precession of washed-out gangster films and derivative zombies that comprise the majority of the British film industry’s output. Secondly, the film never in all honesty portrays Kevin as a ‘normal’ kid compromised by social influence. For one thing, he lacks the ‘jocks picked on me’ defence and is the product of an ostensibly affluent environment. Almost from his birth onwards, Kevin is nakedly malevolent and sociopathic. Thirdly, the film is told entirely through the perspective of Kevin’s mother, Eva, whose flashbacks to his upbringing are potentially unreliable. It’s possible within the logic of the story that Kevin’s unpleasantness is magnified through the prism of Eva’s masochistic hindsight.

In the supplemental material, cast and crew attempt to paint a film with no good and evil people. That’s certainly a more noble aim, rather than the reductive notion that ‘evil’ is a tangible or innate affliction. Unfortunately, it’s not the prevailing assumption of the film that one is left with. On the upside, Kevin is a truly memorable creation, particularly when coming of age as a cold, bullying, yet unerringly perceptive youth. He singles out his mother for victimisation at an implausibly early age; it’s simply never convincing enough that his personality stems organically from Eva’s maternal antipathy. The knock-on effect is that we never interpret her as truly culpable in her own struggles, not even subsequently. As a psychological insight into those who commit such atrocity – presuming that as an intention – it fails. Its successes, however, neatly eclipse these admitted disappointments.

From the opening shot of billowing curtain leading out to a twilight patio, it’s evident we’re in different territory than a standard genre affair. The composition is frequently stunning, every other shot providing a desktop-worthy snap. The film drenches itself in symbolism, much of which rewards with subsequent viewings. Every transition seems carefully built for healthy musing, as aural and visual callbacks are elegantly intimated. Editor Joe Bini should be singled out somewhat for this; seamlessly bringing us back and forth through time without a loss of coherence is no mean feat.

As has been noted among Ramsey’s previous work, there’s a frequently vivid use of colour. Chiefly red, most explicitly in the paint attack suffered by Eva’s new house, her resulting clean-up punctuating the movie. The colour is there in children’s toys, police lights, food thrown petulantly against a fridge etc. The scenes of Eva literally cleaning off red paint from her body and environment may smack of thuddingly literal imagery – a problem the film periodically suffers from – but the cumulative effect is potent and satisfying. For a film containing so much repression and denial among the central characters, the colour serves almost to throw it all into sharp relief. It’s this sense of hyper-reality that helps buoy the film during its broader psychological moments.

Tilda Swinton is fantastic throughout, serving a tremendous dynamic of character as we track one woman’s emotional and existential descent. John C. Reilly gives a fine performance, though is a slightly bemusing presence; despite being a fine dramatic actor, his role seems to echo the kinds of endearing man-children that gave his career a deserved second wind. Franklin is a magnanimous sort, to the point of frustration, so it remains a logical fit. The chemistry between he and Eva is deliberately questionable, adding to the malapropros climate of the film. Ezra Miller luxuriates in the role of Kevin, the child actors (Rocky Duer and Jasper Newell) having already set the stage by playing the character at his more conflicted. Here, he’s given full license to exude pure, sweating ego and unaccountable contempt, yet somehow without nudging too much into cartoon.

We Need To Talk About Kevin sidesteps many real-world concerns surrounding these tragedies, such as gun control, religion or cultural identity. This isn’t quite a point against it, as hitting broader notes can strengthen the symbolic drive. It does however prohibit the film from making any kind of proactive stance, leaving it vulnerable to numerous self-defeating interpretations. It would be unfair to derive political assumptions when events on-screen are to an extent knowingly in excess of reality. Despite employing a sophistication that exceeds the majority of ‘evil kid’ genre movies, the film gives a more satisfying reading as liberal horror, or perhaps a feminist allegory about the sacrifices of motherhood. Eva is slapped, taunted and dehumanised throughout the run-time, yet appears to endure it voluntarily as a form of penance. Depending on your political leanings, the central folly of the Khatchadourian household is either an absence of communication, or an absence of discipline. It’s a tale of an ostensibly nice, wealthy family fatally disarmed by the apparent product of their own values. Beyond the peadophobic fantasy aspects, the fear at the heart of this story is ultimately primal and very palpable; its the fear that we’re vulnerable in our own home, by those closest to us. It’s also the fear – and knowledge – that problems we ignore don’t remotely go away.

We Need to Talk About Kevin on IMDB
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