Lou Grant: s02 e19 – Home


The watchword for this blog is ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’, which means that an episode-by-episode blog of a tv series has to go on, even if I’m not really enjoying it as much as I would like. Only extreme cases (remember Fortitude? I wish I didn’t) justify dropping it.

I used to love Lou Grant. It was a staple of the week’s viewing forty years ago, and my memories  of it are all fond. I still like the cast and their interplay, their intensity and integrity sitting alongside their plain human sensibilities. And the show’s virtues and passions aligned with mine, and I’ve not changed that much in the decades that have passed.

Perhaps its because of my age, ironically, that episodes like this one leave me cold ad, worst of all, bored. This is another of the crusading episodes, the exposure of a disturbing situation, alerting its audience to the injustices in society, whilst contriving a happy ending: two of them, in fact.

The theme was the aged in Society, care of the elderly. I’m not disparaging that, it’s clearly an important topic, in fact it’s Worthy within the show’s parameters. Unfortunately, this is another case where the approach is overly didactic. You could have replaced every member of the cast with someone else and the episode would have been the same, and that’s a problem.

The episode started melodramatically as a man wheels an elderly lady in a wheelchair, who’s obviously confused and frightened, into an office. He, John Bertram, owns a Home, she’s one of his patients, the Government hasn’t paid for her for six months and she’s now their problem.

That’s the cue for the Trib’s investigation of Homes in general and Bertram’s in particular. Billie goes undercover as an aide to see how horrific and uncaring the standard of care is. Bertram’s clearly only in it for the money, and out to maximise profits by minimising standards, though the show undermines itself by establishing twice that Bertram could get his money for Mrs Ford if he filled in certain forms: it was a major, logical inconsistency that was yet more lazy scripting, wanting the shock effect of the stark opening that should never have been happening.

At the same time, Lou’s morning jog in the park sees him palling up with Fred Horton (Jack Gilford), an active retiree, humourous, lively, optimistic, whose continually looking for a job in the face of  society that’s pushed him out. Fred’s a product of an age when the good guys worked and the ones that didn’t were bums: pychologically, he cannot shift his thoughts away from thinking he’s become a bum.

The problem with this episode, like others, is that the story can’t develop organically from the people: they are cyphers in the face of a series of moments that drop seamlessly into place, not with the remorseless inevitability of human existence but with the remorseless inevitability of a cheap script, hitting its numbers. Of course Mrs Ford dies from the shock of being used. Of course the Doctor doesn’t give a damn about Mrs Keaton’s serious pain at night.

And, of course, Lou finds a job for Fred as a surrogate grandad supervising kids in a playground, and of course Billie finds away for Mrs Keaton’s hassled daughter to give her mother a better standard of life, between Daycare in the day and Home care in the evenings. And equally of course, Bertram gets hit with multiple charges from the D.A.

All’s well that ends well.

I still like the series, but my enthusiasm is being severely drained by episodes like this. There are five episodes left in season 2 and I’m currently contemplating taking a break, if I can find something suitable to do on Thursday mornings. Just for a change of pace. We’ll see.

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The Man who wrote Lafferties: Fourth Mansions


There’s always a first book. For every writer whose work captures you, there’s always a first book that grabs you and makes you want more. Sometimes, that first book turns out to be the best book, or the one that you most want to return to. After all, it’s what opened your eyes and mind to the possibilities in this writer. Sometimes it’s the one you’ve read most because it’s the one you’ve had longest and sometimes it’s because it’s the one you keep re-reading.
All of these things and more describe R.A.Lafferty’s Fourth Mansions for me. And to think I owe it all to one of the most unreliable blurb writers I ever read.
You’ve heard me say before that I first got into SF/Fantasy via The Lord of the Rings, in the back end of 1973. It wasn’t until the following January that I read the whole story, in a post-Xmas present with Xmas money. I’ve always tended to date my fascination with the genre to that moment, but it strikes me that I had probably started combing the library shelves for similar delights before the end of the year.
Whenever I started, one of my early discoveries was Roger Zelazny, and his Amber series. I was sufficiently hooked on Zelazny that, when I saw his name on the cover of an unusual book, in a Stockport back-street bookshop, praising the work, I bought it. Zelazny turned out to be an appalling guide to good books, at least so far as my tastes were concerned, except once. That very first book: Fourth Mansions.
I remember it was sunny, but whether this was late spring or early to medium summer I can’t specify. I can’t even state for certain that it was the very first Lafferty I read, only the first novel. I had already discovered Damon Knight’s Orbit series of collections, several of which were in Manchester libraries, and most of which had a Lafferty twinkling in their pages.
One thing to state, up front, about Fourth Mansions is that it is a deeply religious book, drawing heavily on Catholic Symbolism and the work The Interior Castle, written by Saint Teresa of Avila in 1577. Yet that need not be off-putting: I have never been deeply religious, was barely even shallowly religious in 1974, and am long-term atheist by now, but I respond to the book as it is, as a gambol of symbols, exchanging places, balancing forces and circling the book’s ‘hero’, Freddy Foley, newspaperman, everyman and great goof, to whom great things are given, and in whom the outcome lies.
The book takes the shape of a conspiracy theory, one to which Freddy is led by interested parties who are themselves a conspiracy. There are multiple conspiracies at work here, sometimes supplementing, more often contradicting each other, and each represents a group excluded from the Castle, that is, from the accounting of ordinary humans. These are the Pythons, the Toads, the unfledged Falcons and the Badgers, each of whom have been excluded by God.
“There is entwined seven-tentacled lightning. It is fire-masses, it is sheets, it is arms. It is seven-coloured writhing in the darkness, electric and alive. It pulsates, it sends, it sparkles, it blinds!
It explodes!
It is seven murderous thunder-snakes striking in seven directions along the ground! Blindingly fast! Under your feet! Now! At you!
And You! You who glanced in here for but a moment, you are already snake-bit!
It is too late for you to withdraw. The damage is done to you. That faintly odd taste in your mouth, that smallest of tingles which you feel, they signal the snake-death.
Die a little. There is reason for it.”
You too are snake-bit because you have read these words, here, now. Fourth Mansions begins thus, though we are then introduced to the unformed, inquisitive simpleton that is Freddy Foley, newspaper reporter. Freddy is already bit, pressed mentally by the Pythons, the Harvesters to goof and goof greatly. Which he has.
The Harvesters are a septet of rich people, three husband and wife pairs and Bedelia (Biddy) Bencher, a young, unattached girl, save that she is Freddy’s girlfriend (not that either appears the least bit sexually inclined to one another, both being suspended adolescents in different waves.) The others are Jim and Letitia Bauer, Arouet and Wing Manion and Hondo and Ensalziamenta (Salzy) Silverio. Each are described, and continually referred to by artistic characteristic or other passions – Wing Manion as a Klee fish, Biddy Bencher as a cinnamon cookie, a charcoal sketch in cinnamon-pink.
By some means, the Harvesters have created between them a brain-weave, concentrating, intensifying and amplifying their natural psychic strength exponentially. The Harvesters intend to shape the world, to take it over and direct it to their wishes. They have pushed Freddy to goof greatly, but they have pushed him at the second of these exterior creatures, the Toads, the Revenant Toads, with jewels in their heads.
Freddy has goofed on Special Advisor Carmody Overlark. Two years ago, Overlark, an overlooked bureaucrat, suddenly became a Man of the Moment, not merely in the Moment but in all his past Moments. Freddy compares him to Kar-Ibn-Mod, an Egyptian bureaucrat of centuries past, who looks like Overlark, but only in Overlark’s recent photos.
It’s the Hidden Hand conspiracy, the recurring or returning men, as old as cliché, as incredible as underwater breathing. Freddy’s editor Tankersley wants Foley off the story, in roughly equal measures because it’s absurd and because reporters who pursue such stories end up dead.
Meanwhile, the Harvesters essay another shaping push, this time on the highly-regarded intellectual, Michael Fountain. Fountain is, or could be a great man, but has never attempted to be; the Harvesters will fill him with the energy to be and become. But Fountain is defended mentally and sloughs off the attack, the power of which first kills Fountain’s sickly nephew/namesake and then takes hold (not that the Harvesters know this) in Miguel Fuentes, a loutish Mexican south of the Border.
Miguel becomes the leader of a ramshackle, absurdly small band dedicated to overthrowing the world and running it properly. You’d smile at the pretension, but Miguel is of the third order of external creatures, the Unfledged Falcons, who are force and authority and, in their dullest aspect, Fascism (the original fascism, axes or fasces, not the Nazi abhorrence). Miguel has the force.
Back in town (an unnamed Tulsa), Freddy and Biddy go to talk to Michael Fountain and learn of Miguel. Freddy goes on to meet the town’s other, less reputable and austere sage, Bartigrew Bagley (an unflattering quasi-self-portrait of the author). Bagley’s crude and raw, a newspaperman who busted over the same story as Freddy. He’s unequivocal about identifying the four exterior creatures for he is of the last of these, the Badgers, the abiding men, the only one of the exterior creatures whose attitude to man is benevolent, still waiting for God to accept them and allow them to enter into the Castle.
So these are the creatures, three of whom plan to change the world. Of these, you sense that Lafferty approves of the Falcons, is neutral about the Pythons (though if they include the delightful Biddy, even if she is the seventh and lowest of them, they cannot be wholly bad), and is set against the Toads.
For St Teresa’s book was predicated on the notion of seven mansions through which the soul progresses, three rising cycles, a fourth or transitional cycle, and after that three further rising cycles. Lafferty applies that to his book by postulating a history that shows a frustrated progression, three rising cycles followed by a fourth that fails and busts down to a beginning, starting once again in First Mansions.
This is clearly depicted by the Toads, who claim responsibility to the continuing failure of Fourth Mansions, as they continually surface to frustrate progression, breaking the world down to beginnings again. They are the Hidden Hand, working against man and for themselves, to maintain their control of affairs.
And Freddy Foley, simpleton and goof and everyman is at the centre, the representative of man upon whom all these creatures working, As the world collapses into death and danger, plague and panic, as the revenant Toads occupy so many people, including Biddy herself at the very end, the Toads will implant any ancient and mighty one of their line into Freddy, causing him to die. But Freddy has had the remnants of the destroyed brain-weave handed to him. Miguel has given command of the Falcons to him. And the Badgers, in their conclave of Patricks and Crolls and Aloysiuses have elected him to the thousand year vacated position of Emperor.
Never before has a man combined in one body all five creatures, interior and exterior. What outcome will there be in the morning? Will the world wake to First Mansions, or will it be the long-awaited Fifth?
That’s a question fated not to be answered. Lafferty ends his book on this note, a cliffhanger of immense proportions, one for each of us to answer in our own way. Mine is to side with confidence, with the hint that the unprecedented combination will be the key to that long overdue forward movement.
Should I do so? I mean, we are dealing with Lafferty’s most intense beliefs. To me, his intense and severe Catholicism comes closest to the overt herein (Lafferty is not a preachy writer), couched in this ornate and fascinating symbolism, even more so than in his Argo cycle. He and I are completely opposites in our core beliefs, for to Lafferty the world is only properly ordered if it adheres to the strictures of Mother Church. What we call liberalism is to Lafferty the very opposite. In his person as Bagley, he responds to the mention of Secular Humanism with the words, “At the name of which even buzzards gag,” and he has a left-handed form of the weave destroy Michael Fountain, introduced in such kindly and wise a form, by drawing from him the meaning of his refinement, which is to remove ‘impurities’, to reduce rather than to expand, to build a castle and take away its foundations.
But Lafferty is Lafferty, and his gift is to make the unbelievable believable. He will toss out casual ideas, such as humanity originating from a planet with a thirty-four hour not twenty-four hour cycle, to which we revert in times of stress, or that red-headed women are an alien species, and we swallow it whole and wonder if he knows stuff we don’t.
For instance, above I said that Lafferty postulates the four mansions cycle, of three rising mansions leading to a fourth of destruction, and he gives examples, but I always ending up wondering if Lafferty, an erudite and much read man, isn’t simply telling us things that the history books won’t.
Fourth Mansions belongs to my early era of discovery. Like Alfred Bester’s Extro, from the same time, it’s a kaleidoscope of ideas and imagination that overwhelms and overflows. I have left out so much that I want to admire, because there is so much that this post would have to be as long as the book itself to express things in the depth necessary. Like Extro, it was a creative explosion: a writer could mine Fourth Mansions for ideas for years without running out of possibilities. Though Roger Zelazny would steer me badly wrong several times, until I learned to avoid his recommendations, he was true enough this once and I owe him a lifetime of Lafferty as a consequence. This one is my favourite.

Person of Interest: s02 e18 – All In


For once, I would almost say that I was disappointed with the latest episode of Person of Interest: almost, but not quite.

The problem lay largely with myself. Since Relevance, and knowing how the season ends, I assumed the show would be going into its end game to set this up, but in that I was premature. All In was once again, in respect of its Number of the Week, a solus, with all the longer-term aspects taking place elsewhere, beyond the ken of Messrs Finch and Reese.

Once I realised that the issue of Lou Mitchell (Ron McLarty), a retiree on a fixed income who played bacccarat in an Atlantic City casino every day and who had lost over $320,000 over six months, had nothing to do with the wider issues, I found it difficult to be enthused. Yes, the story was nifty, and there was a nice scene when Finch, following Lou around all day, discovered his quarry was much less naive than he’d assumed and had not only made him from the off but confronted him in a bar, played baccarat for questions with far greater skill than he’d ever shown in the casino, and lifted his keys before dropping them in the lobster tank.

No, Lou wasn’t the loser he appeared to be. He was a card sharp from way back who’d fallen foul of the Mafia and been beaten for it, had married the woman who helped in and had forty very committed years together before her death from cancer. But to fund her treatment, Lou had sharked at a casino owned by Darren Makris (Michael Rispoli), and when Makris found out, Lou found himself on the hook, alongwith several other retirees, required to play, and lose, every day.

Why? Makris was in the drug trade and also owned a pharmacy. Lou and the others picked up ‘prescriptions’ daily, money they then lost, in a money-laundering operation. Makris’ drug profits disappear into the casino and come out as its profits.

What makes Lou stand out, and drew the Machine’s attention, was that he was using his skills to skim a bit off the top, a gesture of defiance, I’m not a loser, on the one hand, and with a sentimental purpose in mind on the other. Even when Harold sends Lou out of town, whilst he and John ‘eliminate’ Lou in Makris’ eyes, the cantankerous old bugger comes back.

And this time he’s playing to win, win back everything he’s lost. But with Finch staking him to $2,000,000 and John running interference on Makris, Lou wins over $20,000,000, negating the presence of our old friend, Leon Tau (an ever welcome cameo from Ken Leung, as shallow as ever but also as forensic with a money trail).

Reese saves the day when everyone is captured and forced to go through a Russian Roulette situation that’s actually harmless because Lou palmed the bullet. And with Finch’s help, Lou is set up to buy and preserve the diner in which he eats every day, the one he and his Marilyn practically lived in. A nice, sentimental ending.

It was a decent Number of the Week, and in another frame of mind I would probably have enjoyed it more, but I’m impatient for things to hot up, andthe only place that happened was in the B story, centred on Detective Carter.

Joss is still gathering evidence about the missing Detective Stills, using Detective Terney (Al Sapienza), when Detective Szymanski is hauled in, in handcuffs. Szymanski is due to testify todayagainst the Yogarof brothers, when he’sdirtied up by planted evidence he’s on the take. Carter starts investigating this immediately. Would-be boyfriend Cal Beecher is about but ruins his romantic hopes by admitting he provided the tip on Szymanski.

It’s all a scenario set up by H.R., Officer Simmons and Alonzo Quinn, for a cash deal with the Yogarofs: they will not go to jail. Except that Carter, following the money on the advice of Fusco, finds evidence that Szymanski has been framed. The trial goes ahead, with extra charges as to witness-tampering. Fusco warns Carter aboout making herself a target. Quinn invites the DA and Szymmanski to dinner, impressing on them how invested the Mayor is in securing a conviction. Both of them are determined to press ahead. And Quinn pulls out a gun and kills both, two shots each to the heart.

And another member of H.R. enters, Detective Raymond Terney. The killer got away through the back, leaving two dead and one wounded: Terney shoots Quinn through the right shoulder.

That’s where the heat was, where the long story took place. I sure hope the show turns its face towards the season ending next week…

 

Saturday SkandiKrime: Darkness: Those who Kill episodes 5 & 6


Third week for the revived Darkness: Those who Kill which, incidentally, is billed only as Dem som Draeber in the Danish credits so this ‘Darkness’ crap is justa bloody affectation.

For some of the classic series, the reduction of the standard ten-episode format to eight is a disappointment, but for the average-at-best stuff like this, it’s a blessing to know I’ll have it all over and done with next weekend. Even at a taut eight episodes, this  still feels like some things have been put in to pad it out.

To be honest, I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for finishing this, not even for the $64,000 question of whether Emma, the last hostage, will be found alive (I’m guessing yes but the programme is sufficiently infatuated with its own supposed ‘darkness’ that it might kill her just to prove it).

Both the short, black and white flashbacks this week helped us to understand the fair but homicidal Stine. In the one, she’s getting raped by her overly tall and nasty brother Mikkel, the one whose birthday party her mother is so insistent on her attending (she’s  16, he’s 19). Oh well, thaat explains it all. In the other, the slimeball has already ‘confessed’ to Ma and Pa to pushing her over and making her bump her head but denied her other accusation, and of course Mummy and Daddy don’t believe her and think she’s just wickedly passing off what some other of her endless shags has done to her. Oh well, that explains any leftover bits of it all that we didn’t take from the first one.

I know we’re not supposed to feel sympathy for psychopathic serial killers, especially ones that get their victims to write a beautiful, heartfelt, farewell letter to their parents then burn it in front of the girl, but I did thoroughly enjoy Stine attending Mikkel’s birthday party tinkling a glass and standing up to tell the assembled guests her story about her brother. Yes, that one. She wasn’t a sixteen year old slut, he was her first.

The rest of it was the investigation progressing in fits and starts. Louise clears announcing Anders’ name publicly in the belief he and his accomplice will go dormant. Unfortunately, he reacts by trying to snatch someone off the street. The Police do get tip-offs that lead them to where Anders is sleeping when he’s not at Stine’s and, significantly, they retrieve the dress of Natasha, the first one.

This does not go down well with Anders, who is stupidly determined to get the dress back, which he attempts by kidnapping Louise (didn’t see that coming), smacking her about and demanding she tell the cops to bring the dress to her or he’ll kill her. He really is stupid. Fortunately, he’s interrupted by a security guard before this development gets to a point where e and it get out of control and he has to kill the second lead in episode 5.

The personality sink that is lead investigator Jan is not there for Louise because, in contradiction of my preduction he’s not getting his rocks off with our dark-haired psychologist, but rather with karate instructor and volunteer unofficial civilian decoy Sisse (Malene Beltoft Olsen, looking very nice). Don’t worry, he does get to sleep with Louise in episode 6, though I can’t claim that because it’s on her couch and he’s fast asleep when she curls up beside him.

Anyway, episode 6 is all about Louis recovvering from her ordeal whilt the fuzz start to make real progress. Louise’s women’s group prompts her to ask if Anders’ accomplice is a woman, not a man, and Jan finds the missing link between the slurry tank victims that gives them the name of Stine Velin.

Who has told Anders they have to stop and get out, and he’d better get rid off his little blonde girl himself. And she’s just finished packing when the doorbell goes. No, not the Police, just an extremely pissed and pissed-off Mikkel, who’s still the victim in all this, who’s come round to tell Stine that he never wants to see her again (oh the ironic comic cliche of it!) and she’dbetter not contact their parents again (why on Earth would she want to). Then he blows it rather by snogging her, though if I were looming drunkenly over Signe Egholm Olsen, I would probably have done the same thing. Not that she would have enjoyed it any more than her oh-so-charming brother.

With doubled irony, the intrusion of Mikkel holds Stine up just long eenoough for the  Police to arrive, bristling with riot gear and assault rifles. Mikkel get arrested. Stine, quick-thinking, plays the victim card, Anders threatened to kill her. Everyone storms the basement, looking for Emma. But she’s gonne. And so’s Anders…

If this were a British series, I wouldn’t have touched it with a bargepole. I’m only watching it because it’s Skandi, but not all Skandis are Skandi, if you know what I mean. End of the series next week. I can only hope that if there’s another Skandi lined up fortwo weeks hence, it’s one of the great ones. I’m not holding my breath.

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers


I remember sitting down in the cinema, the now-demolished Grand Central, the five of us, all eager for the second instalment of The Lord of the Rings. I remember the sense of anticipation, the marvellous opening shots skimming over the towering, snow-capped mountains as graddually the dialogue from Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog rises into audibility, the plunge inside the mountain to repeat the footage of that scene, and the shock as the camera plummets with him, and Gandalf hewing and hacking the Balrog throughout that interminable fall, ultimately into the deepest cavern.

A magnificent introduction: I was pumped and primed by it.

And I remember my growing shock and revulsion at the structural changes Peter Jackson and Co made to the story, until I grew angry and smouldered with resentment even through the gloriously choreographed twin-spectacle endings of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, bringing the book to flaring life, and the Ent’s destruction of Isengard, lifted out of the back story to become a worthy addition to the film. Show, don’t tell: it should be stencilled on every story-maker’s forehead.

Seventeen years later, on a grey, damp, Sunday morning, I still disagree profoundly with the four major story-line changes Jackson headed, but knowing them to be a part of this version of the script, I can accept their existence and evaluate the rest of the film around them.

And, leaving these aside for the moment, The Two Towers is a much better film, a finer, more well-made offering than it is usually taken to be, and than its position as the middle-film, the runt of the litter.

In rising above that role, The Two Towers has the advantage of Helm’s Deep. It comes in the middle of the novel, but the novel at this point is telling two stories, parallel in time, and splits itself in two, to deal firstly with the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, Merry in Pippin, and only afterwards Frodo, Sam and Gollum.

The film can’t do that. It has to adhere to one progressing time period and so it has to juggle, to intercut, backwards and forwards, between the three parallel strands. That isn’t easy to do, the risk being that you give too little time at a time to each thread, diminishing the impact of each, or that you allow stories to play out for so long that the audience has lost its place by the time you return.

Jackson judges the length of time each theme needs, and is advantaged in the first half of the film by having all three groups on the move constantly, so that he can, for the most part, drop into each new change of scene with an actual change of scene. And since all these scenes are mind-blowingly awesome New Zealand mountains and valleys, it makes it easy.

Watching the Extended Edition today means that the film stays very close to the book, adds off-page scenes, especially at and around Rohan before Aragorn’s party, and the resurrected Gandalf the White, get there. Very faithful, very impressive: but we’re not far from the end when the first egregious change is made.

We’re in Edoras, Gandalf has freed King Theoden (a superb performance from the great Bernard Hill, rock solid in every line and heart-breakingly vulnerable as the parent who has to bury their child), restored his vigour and his determination. In the book, he gathers Rohan’s army, including his banished nephew and now-heir, Eomer, and goes out to attack the forces that have attacked the Westmark and killed his son, from where he is forced to Helm’s Deep.

But Jackson has him turn all defensive, and even cowardly, ordering his people to flee to Helm’s Deep, to avoid a fight but bottling himself up in an inescapable, but theoretically unbreakable fortress.

Ok, this is like The Fellowship of the Ring, streamlining, compressing, accelerating. But it’s something else that I’ll come back to.

The next one is the Warg attack on the Rohan exodus and the quite riduculous and comletely unecessary cheap melodrama of Aragon falling off a cliff and being believed dead. It’s stupid. You don’t need to know the book to know that Aragorn isn’t dead, and that he’s not going to die only just into the second half of the second film. At a stroke, the film descends to Saturday Morning Serial level, and they were never filmed to the highest of standards. Even the kids were disgusted at that, and one of them was only eight.

Watching it again, it’s still dumb, a piece of gratuitous action in a quiet spot in the film but nevertheless wholly unnecessary. Watching it play out, I think the effect Jackson was aiming for, especially with Aragorn’s dreams of Arwen, and being nuzzled back to life by the horse, was to try to suggest a death-and-resurrection parallel to Gandalf. If so, it fails on the stupidity of the scene, on being too nebulous, and on the difference between the two characters. Aragorn may be long-lived (he confesses to Eowyn, the lovely Mirando Otto who I’d never seen before, that he’s actually 87) but he’s still a mortal, whereas Gandalf is a Wizard, a Maia. We accept his resurrection with a sense of anticipation.

I’m going to jump slightly to the Ents, now. I’ve got to say that I’ve never found Treebeard convincing. He moves too slowly, too mechanically, and he’s too obviously a CGI figure to fully stand on the screen like the rest of the characters, but that’s me. Johnson again diverts the novel’s narrative by having the Ents decide to stay out of the War: not their business. This is done to manipulate the story so that Pippin can divert Treebeard to Isengard, to witness the assault on the Forest and rouse the Ents’ wrath.

The problem is that it instantly diminishes the Ents in general and Treebeard in particular, by removing agency from them. In the book, Treebeard knows about Isengard already, and he persuades the Ents: Pippin and Merry are the pebbles starting the avalanche by waking Treebeard up to immediately take in what’s going on, but that’s not enough for Jackson: they have to lecture the Ents from a position of superiority.

I’ve saved the worst for last, to let me draw together the common thread between these changes, and one other addition, into what is wrong with the film. I speak, of course, of Faramir.

In the book, once Faramir learns of the Ring, and that Frodo has it, he faces a Galadriel-like test. Does he take it for himself? But Faramir has already said he would not reach out for the Ring if it lay beside the road, and he has the almost-pure strain of Numenor in him. Though he is unregarded in his father’s eyes (John Noble is an absolute monster of favouritism and personal gluttony), the point is that Faramir, brother of Boromir, is superior to his elder in every way.

So Jackson has him seize the ring, at which point I nearly howled. The film-maker’s explanation, in the extras on the DVD, was that we were continually being told that the Ring was all-powerful, that no-one could resist it, Gandalf and Galadriel both turn down the gift of it out of the fear and knowledge of what it could do to them. And yet everyone resists it. Jackson thought we had to have a scene of someone being tempted by it, or we wouldn’t believe in the Ring’s potency.

It’s the single biggest thing on which I violently disagree with him, and it’s made worse by his choosing Faramir. It besmirches him at a stroke, it poisons his purity, it reduces the potency of one of the major characters in the final film (though David Wenham as Faramir is one of the very few castings I debate as he’s too flat throughout). The change was also made to create an obstacle for Frodo and Sam when it was decided to postpone Shelob into the final film: sorry, no. Just No.

The writers do try to soften the impact by showing Faramir as motivated by his father, Denethor’s desire for the Ring, and wanting to improve dear old Daddy’s impression of him. All it takes to shake him is Sam blurting out that this is what happened to Boromir, which he waits to do until Osgiliath instead of any sooner, and Faramir changes his mind.

I’m also going to mention the insertion of a number of scenes, dream sequences or flashbacks, between Aragorn and Arwen, remnants of an earlier subplot when there were only going to be two parts. Some of these are used to counterpoint the scenes showing Eowyn’s developing love for Aragorn, his regard for her and his regret at the inevitable sorrow she will experience. Jackson has Elrond dead-set against letting his daughter marry Aragorn and stay in Middle-Earth to die, whilst Arwen loses faith and hope and decides to pony off to the Undying Lands to weep forever at not getting herself throughly rogered by her lover Man.

The common factor to all these changes (except the dumb cliffhanger one), which makes them so wrong in a film like The Lord of the Rings, is that they are all about compromise, and they are about compromise with evil, or rather Evil. Theoden loses faith immediately and seeks to run away. Arwen doubts, and seeks to run away. The Ents decide not to get involved and run away. And Faramir does the business of the Enemy. Every change strikes at the heart of the story.

They may be ‘justifiable’ as making the story more realistic, but that’s not what the film is. The Lord of the Rings is a Fantasy, a High Fantasy. It’s not about realistic things and realistic doubt or compromise. It is about Good or Evil, and being one or the other. You cannot make Good figures equivocal, and Jackson doesn’t understand that, and that is why The Two Towers is flawed.

That said, I had a good, long and thoroughly enjoyable time with it. And there is so much that is good about it, without the defects. I’ve already mentioned Bernard Hill, and Viggo Mortensen is, if anything, even better as Aragorn than in the first film. His scenes with Mirando Otto, where everything between them is done in their faces, are marvellous, and demonstarted that she was a superb pick as Eowyn (my elder stepson and I both found her fascinating). And Brad Dourif is the incarnation of creepiness as Grima Worntongue: I would never let him near my sister.

Of course, you cannot talk about The Lord of the Rings without talking about Andy Serkis as Gollum. I used to think that David Woodthorpe was an unbeatable Gollum in the BBC Radio adaptation, but Serkis is electric, in voice as well as in caper. His leaping, his bounding, his constant movement make the CGI Gollum look like something from another movie entirely but his gift is that this hysterical figure is fully part of this one. And he’s playing two parts, in reality, Gollum and Smeagol, and is miraculous in both.

So, that’s the middle one in Middle-Earth. I so look forward to next Sunday and the last one.

 

The Infinite Jukebox: Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’


Every time I play ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ on YouTube, it automatically leads on to ‘America’. And I let it play and I usually sing along with it, a thing that should only be done in private since I can carry a tune like a string bag can carry water.
I remember that I first heard the song at school, when two of my year-mates performed it on the stage of the school hall, a duet on acoustic guitars for some sort of entertainment the pupils were putting on, and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it because they seemed to flatten the tune out of it, nor hear what they were singing. I only remember it was ‘America’ because they’d talked about rehearsing it.
I don’t think I knew it was by Simon and Garfunkel, or even who they were. I have a vivid memory of hearing ‘Sound of Silence’ on the old radio at Brigham Street, and getting spooked by the lyrics. All this stuff passed by me.
But I love ‘America’, perhaps above everything else Paul and Artie did, except of course ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’. I love its slow haziness, it’s rise and fall, the sense of space between the instruments. Most of all I love the place I am taken to in the song.
It’s a road song, heir to Kerouac and forerunner to Springsteen. Where ‘Bridge’ is Art Garfunkel’s song, ‘America’ is Paul Simon’s. He and his girlfriend Kathy, of ‘Kathy’s Song’ and ‘Homeward Bound’, are on a Greyhound bus, travelling at night. They’ve picked up the bus in Pittsburgh and we never get to learn where they’re headed, two lovers with a pack of cigarettes and a joke about marrying their ‘fortunes’ together.
But where they’re going has no place on any map you could buy over the counter, because they’re all gone to look for America, and in that place and time, America was something you found in your mind, the great dream of what the country meant to you, and what you saw it could be, not what it was.
Paul and Kathy are travelling a road that will take them forever. They joke about other passengers, they smoke their cigarettes, he wakes from a dream, lost and confused as she continues to sleep, and we see her behind the words, long, dishevelled dark hair, head on his shoulder as he looks drawn, and cramped, the moon risen over an open field holding them in its cold light..
Everyone around them is on the same journey, that quest to find who you are and what you’ll be and where you are. They count the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, counting them in to their quest. Though travelling in space, they are really travelling in their souls, which is what the song means when it runs out of words and it fades into that endless road to the sound of an organ wrapping itself around the melody, cocooning it against the inevitable.
Nobody found America, not that year, not since. Seventeen years later, Talking Heads took the same road, but by then we all knew that the destination was unattainable, and they called it for what it was, a ‘Road to Nowhere’.
Out there, the Pauls and Kathys still ride, still take the piss out of the weirdos who accompany them, still sleep fitfully and awkwardly, along night highways that maybe, one day, if we remember how to be better than this and to care for one another and write words that can penetrate to the heart of this need to reach a fabled land, we may finally arrive at that land of pride and hope and honesty and equality that each of us calls by a private name but that many call America, the America that has never been but still lies beyond our horizon.
Each time I let one song transition into another, I become a rider on the same lost Greyhound.

The Man who wrote Lafferties: Space Chantey


Space Chantey was the third R A Lafferty novel to be published in 1968, though that has no bearing on when the book (or any of them) was actually written. Once again, it is, superficially, a straight, even hard SF story: a war has taken place in space, it has finished, a group of space soldiers set off home. The book is about their adventures on their journey home. Anything about this sound familiar?
What we’re looking at here is an SF version of the Odyssey, with Captain Roadstrum, the Road-Storm as Odysseus.
But this is not some cheap knock-off, some direct translation into SF terms. Lafferty is dealing with the complex subject of Myth, and how and in what way it can survive into the age of hard SF.
And Roadstrum and his crew are rampant brawlers, vulgar and excessive, not that Lafferty ever recognises the restriction embodied in describing someone or something as excessive. They treat danger and death casually, and there’s plenty of the latter as they career from planet to planet, as six space hornets, each with its own Captain and crew, reduces slowly to one, with two Captains and a reduced number of crewmen.
The book itself is not epic, running to a mere 123pp in the old Dobson Books hardback (Dobsons published a lot of Lafferty in the early Seventies, and I got them all at the time, which has saved me an enormous amount of money). It’s very episodic, and the stories are strung out between lines of ramshackle, rumbustious verse, bursting with gusto and relish.
Nor does Lafferty confine himself to Greek mythology, though this is the biggest part of the story. Early on, the crewmen land on a planet of giants who battle all day until all are dead in bloody conflict, only to be resurrected overnight: this is, of course, a version of Valhalla, only rendered as a wonderful demotic.
And those who remember Alan Moore’s Abelard Snazz series in 2000AD will find themselves reading the original of the third Snazz story that Moore originally restricted reprinting, after realising he’d unconsciously stolen it from Lafferty. It comes from the installation of a wonderful device in Roadstrum’s hornet, which allows him to turn back time and select other options (especially in a casino), under the wonderful title ‘Wrong Prong. Bong Gong.’
There will be those who will criticise Lafferty for loose ends and imprecision, without taking into account that this is all part of his Tall Tales manner. More than once in Space Chantey, Lafferty tips his spacemen into impossible situations and gets them out with the equivalent of ‘With One Mighty Bound…’ Actually, he doesn’t even do that, he will just switch to another scene, another planet, another stage with nothing but a cheery and dismissive line about how nobody knew how they did it! This attitude to the impossible – i.e., completely ignore that it’s impossible and carry on – is fundamental to Lafferty and the reader who can’t take that in his stride is advised not to bother. Lafferty is about the implausible, about what in a lesser writer might be called miraculous.
Personally, I find Space Chantey to be the least of the three novels of 1968, although were I more familiar with the Odyssey as I ought to be, I may find more correspondences in it than I do. It was, of these three, the first I read, and I would end up getting this initial set in reverse order of publication, and in ascending order of depth and satisfaction.
But no Lafferty is worthless, and Space Chantey is at the very least fun and bemusement, and its ending differs from the Odyssey by not having the Great Road-Storm sink into peace, what, not a great Captain such as he, but returning to space, to adventure and a crashing conclusion. If you believe Lafferty’s closing verse, and not even he suggests it is to be taken as gospel…