Sunday, February 14, 2010

"Trollope is not Proust": Alan Bennett's THE UNCOMMON READER

When one of her ill-tempered corgis runs up the steps of a bookmobile parked outside the kitchen entrace to Buckingham Palace, the Queen is obliged to follow it. Once inside, she meets Mr. Hutchings, who runs the mobile library, and Norman Seakins, a browsing kitchen employee. Her Majesty feels that she ought to borrow a book for the sake of decorum, and she chooses a volume by Ivy Compton-Burnett; opening it, she finds that it has not been checked out since 1989. "She's not a popular author, ma'am." "Why, I wonder? I made her a dame."

So begins Alan Bennett's utterly delightful novella The Uncommon Reader, and so begins the Queen's literary adventures. Aided and abetted by the dutiful Norman, who is promoted by the Queen to the role of personal assistant and literary confidante and whose gayness seems not to bother Her Majesty in the slightest (though she shies away from some of his very gay literary recommendations, like Denton Welch or Christopher Isherwood, the latter because she has "no time for all the meditation"), the Queen finds that more and more of her time is occupied by reading. She takes to keeping a book open on her lap during royal carriage rides, waving out the window while really looking at her book; when she leaves an Anita Brookner novel in the carriage while opening Parliament, it is removed by security and exploded lest it be some kind of "device" -- the Queen's response? "That is exactly what it is. A book is a device to ignite the imagination." She tries to interest anyone and everyone in her reading: her husband, the family, the prime minister (who isn't even aware that Iran was once Persia), and Sir Kevin Scatchard, her bitchy New Zealander private secretary. No one is interested, and what's worse, they all seem to regard her reading as unseemly, even improper. Along the way are delicious jokes about nearly every English literary figure from Austen to Woolf. But, more seriously, reading allows the Queen for the first time in her life to escape her own circumstances and to level the playing field -- she has been separated by her role from the common people (the title of the novella an obvious play on the term "common reader," used by, among others, Ben Johnson and Virginia Woolf to indicate the non-academic reader, the reader who reads for his or her own pleasure and entertainment) and now, for the first time, is able to understand, through her encounters with characters, what other people are like. Such is the power of books.

Alan Bennet, author of -- among many other works -- the Tony-winning The History Boys and The Madness of King George, has written a delightfully witty and often vicious literary satire, one which holds up the British public to an astonishing amount of ridicule but which leaves its heroine, Her Majesty herself, virtually unscathed. The book was published in 2007 after first appearing in the London Review of Books, and one would assume that it rode the crest of revitalized popularity of the monarch. Indeed, I kept thinking as I read of Helen Mirren's performance in Stephen Frears's 2006 film The Queen (Mirren also having appeared, incidentally, in the film version of The Madness of King George), and of the human figure presented there. The Uncommon Reader actually makes me want to read a biography of the Queen, though the Queen herself in these pages deems such biographies "tedious in the extreme." Here, the Queen is plucky, funny, sharp, and surprising, particularly in the book's final moments. I don't want to say anything else about the plot, for I don't want to rob anyone of the book's many pleasures. Suffice it to say that Bennett's work is often laugh-out-loud funny, while at the same time offering a subtle examination of what intense reading can do for a person, both positively and negatively. "Reading was not doing," the Queen thinks to herself, "that had always been the trouble. And old though she was, she was still a doer."

But again, the primary delights are the withering one-liners, most of which are enjoyed -- as with most British humor -- in context. Read the book at once, so that you can experience 120 pages of exchanges such as this one: When the Queen mentions at a formal tea to a roomful of past and present advisors that had she asked Macmillan's cabinet how many of them had read Proust, most would've raised their hands, whereas here, no hands are raised. A former foreign secretary pipes in: "I've read Trollope."

"'One is glad to hear it,' said the Queen. 'But Trollope is not Proust.' The home secretary, who had read neither, nodded sagely."

Friday, February 12, 2010

"If I could learn to twang like a rubberband": Kate Bush's THE LINE, THE CROSS & THE CURVE

The story goes that when Kate Bush finished her 1993 album The Red Shoes (loosely based on the 1948 film of the same name by director Michael Powell), she decided to forego the planned-for tour in support of the album and direct a short film instead, starring herself. She corresponded with Powell to discuss her ideas about the project; she met the director shortly before he died. It's much too harsh to say, as some critics have suggested, that she should have gone on tour. The Line, the Cross & the Curve is a mess, but it's a rather interesting mess.

The film opens with Bush in a studio, rehearsing a deliciously daft dance routine with dancer Stewart Arnold to the strains of "Rubberband Girl," the first track off The Red Shoes. With Arnold glued to her back, flawlessly copying her every move, Bush twists and contorts her body like the eponymous rubberband, but the number, which proceeds to involve a yo-yo and a straitjacket (rather fitting for the artist once dubbed "the madwoman of pop music"), is weirdly interrupted by a gigantic runaway fan which crashes into the studio, scattering the dancers and musicians. Soon after, the power fails, the other performers go home, and Bush is left to sing "And So is Love," while an injured black bird careens about the room before dying at the song's close. A witchy woman appears -- played by Miranda Richardson, looking rather like a drag queen -- through the dancer's mirror and cons Bush into donning a pair of diabolical red shoes which take possession of Bush as the title track plays. The film's title comes from the lyrics to "The Red Shoes": "And this curve is your smile / And this cross is your heart / And this line is your path." Bush loses all three of these things and must reclaim them, following Richardson through the mirror into a campy and surreal fantasy world. She consults a healer in the song "Lily," who tells her what she must do to reclaim her life. The film's loveliest piece of music, the sublime "Moments of Pleasure," features Bush spinning through the air, listing her loved ones who have passed on. She manages to reclaim her path and her heart, but has to chase the increasingly demented Richardson for her smile, winding up dancing in mounds of fruit and swirling her head nauseatingly in the song "Eat the Music." Needless to say, she wins out over the evil Richardson, and, like Alice, winds up on the proper side of the mirror.

To call The Line, the Cross & the Curve uneven is generous. But it's not fair to dismiss the film entirely, as Bush herself has done. She's called the work "a load of bollocks" and has expressed disappointment in letting an actress of Richardson's caliber down, saying that she was only satisfied with four minutes out of the film's 45-minute running time. But for every campy moment -- Bush writhing around on another woman's legs which are meant to be her own, the heavy-handedness of the bird's death, the presence of Lindsay Kemp, Bush's own dance instructor, in the role of a creepy Twin Peaksish "man from another place" -- there are instances of beauty: Bush's long hair blowing in "Moments of Pleasure," her red-shoed feet dancing on a rippling sea of cloth and glitter. What's best about the film is the music itself. While not matching the brilliance of Bush's masterpiece, 1985's Hounds of Love, The Red Shoes is a solid and terrific album, and Bush's voice is strong and mature, while sometimes retaining the girlishness of her earliest work like 1978's "Wuthering Heights." The problem is that the songs don't form much of a coherent narrative. "Rubberband Girl," for all its catchiness and the fun of the choreography, doesn't have much of anything to do with the "plot" of the film; none of the other songs add up to much of a story, either. A much more suitable film project for Bush, to my mind, would have been the song sequence that makes up the second half of Hounds of Love. Called The Ninth Wave (from a line in Tennyson's "The Coming of Arthur"), the sequence describes a woman's drowning death at sea and her subsequent ruminations on her life, her past, and the loved ones who must go on without her. Obtuse as The Ninth Wave often is (though filled with some truly gorgeous music), it is much more narratively coherent than anything Bush is doing in The Line, the Cross & the Curve.

I wish in many ways that Bush would have gone all out, and camped up the project even further. She seems oddly muted next to Richardson, who, fresh off of her bitchy performance in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992), chews the scenery and retains her Crying Game Irish accent, inexplicably. The goofily wide-eyed Bush of her early videos like "Wuthering Heights," "Babooshka," "Army Dreamers," "Sat in Your Lap" and others would have been most welcome here; perhaps Bush felt that she needed to be "serious" when working with a "real" actress. I would've preferred the loopy Bush, for it would have balanced the piece out. Bush herself is quite capable of chewing the scenery -- nay, eating the scenery -- and here the scenery literally deserves to be eaten.

Bush soon dropped out of sight after the critical and commercial failure of The Line, the Cross & the Curve (though the album The Red Shoes did rather well); she did not return with another album until 2005's Aerial. I applaud Bush for making the film, for while it's not a success, it allowed her to expand as an artist, and I don't believe in telling artists not to follow their creative itches, however misguided they may eventually appear. The film is long out of print; I found a used VHS copy on eBay. I believe it can be found in its entirety on YouTube, divided into segments. I attach the link for the first segment, "Rubberband Girl," below. It's all worth a glance primarily for die-hard Bush fans only, of which I am one. Everyone else will most likely be bewildered by it. The best choice is probably to buy The Red Shoes album, listen to it, and conjure up your own images to accompany the music.