Same again, please!

You only have to take one look in Waterstones to realise the effect that EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey had made in the trade publishing industry.

Bared to You… Reflected in You… Entwined with You… a trilogy by Sylvia Day.

Eighty Days Yellow… Eighty Days Blue… Eighty Days Red… a trilogy by Vina Jackson.

Erotic fiction, mummy porn – whatever you want to call it – has undeniably taken off.  No longer does that category refer to the obscure titles secreted on a top shelf, but to world-known titles that unashamedly smack you in the face when you enter any high street bookstore.

First, 50 Shades made a striking appearance, selling over half a million copies per week at its peak.  Then, Bared to You by Sylvia Day became Penguin’s fastest selling paperback for a decade.  And now, Day’s second installation, Reflected in You, sells at an even faster pace, surpassing the first week sales of 50 Shades with ease.  I question how such irrefutably mediocre literature has had such achievements.  The success of EL James’ (or should I say Snowqueens Icedragon’s) Twilight fan-fictionseemed surprising enough, so how have subsequently inspired publications enjoyed even more success?

Is it that James has opened a door onto the complex issue of female sexuality that requires further exploration?  In a way, yes.  But also, in a way, no.  She has simply turned a huge spotlight on something that has been there all along.  She has turned the unspeakable into one of the hottest topics of 2012.

So where do Sylvia Day and Vina Jackson fit into this?  They might be taking the opportunity to further explore the issues that James has brought to light.  Or they might just be proactive individuals who know a good opportunity when they see one and don’t mind setting pen to paper to make a bit (understatement) of money.

In reference to the impressive sales of Day’s e-books (75,000 digital pre-orders), Tom Weldon, the c.e.o of Penguin UK, who publish Day’s novels, argues ‘This is not copycat publishing. In a digital age, this is giving readers what they want straight away.”

But just because they are supplying a new and heavy demand does not mean that this doesn’t qualify as ‘copycat publishing’.  Yes, they’re giving the readers what they want as fast as they can, but what the reader wants – and probably won’t deny – is more of the same.  They want to continue the 50 Shades experience, just in the same way that EL James wanted to continue the Twilight experience (with a side order of BDSM).

And the authors and publishers are clearly aware that they are getting in on the demand created by EL James.  Just look at the titles.  Smell the reek of associative marketing.  All three examples I have given are trilogies, with titles only changing slightly – by one key word – each time.  In Jackson’s case, Eighty has replaced Fifty (because Fourty would just be too obvious). To stretch it, there is an undeniable rhyme between Days/Day and Grey and Shade.  And finally, the use of colours: yellow/red/blue… grey.   I may be overanalysing, but it all seems a bit suspicious.  The covers are also suspiciously comparable to those of the 50 Shades trilogy… and Twilight for that matter.

While James owes her success to Twilight, an imagination I don’t wish to analyse, and a dash of bravery, Day and Jackson owe theirs to common sense and the market already established by James.  The publicity received by 50 Shades not only boosted its own sales, but also those of future erotic fiction books.  50 Shades created hype as well as an audience, and books from the likes of Day and Jackson simply take advantage of this.  It just goes to show that even bad publicity is publicity nonetheless.

As a final note, and disclaimer, I would just like to say that this article is not based on the contents of the books, but a reflection on the current trend.  I have not yet had the privilege of reading the books in question for the purpose of criticism, as I am still recovering from trawling through the Twilight series for that very reason… three years ago.

The Cinephile Club

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

If a film references another film but there are no cinephiles around to notice, is it still there?

Can something exist without being perceived?

Along a similar line of philosophical thought, there is a famous quote from Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, that you may or may not know:

Knowledge is a curious thing.  To extrapolate, Rumsfeld’s statement suggests that a fact, though unknown, still exists as a fact.  It can exist without being perceived.

This is rather circumlocutionary groundwork to reach what I actually want to discuss: films that reference other films.

As a consequence of watching more and more films, I am acquiring a heightened sensitivity to traces of films that are subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) dropped into other films.

It’s as though there is a secret society – a sort of club for cinephiles – that you’re either in or you’re not.  You don’t really know it exists until you’ve earned your membership badge and you begin mutating into one of those people whose know-it-all laugh is the audible tumbleweed in an otherwise silent cinema.

Now that I have started noticing how many references there are, I am beginning to wonder about all the other film tributes I have been completely oblivious to.

Without knowing the film that is being referenced, you won’t perceive the reference.  It will pass, unnoticed and unappreciated, as if it were never there.  It will remain the “unknown unknown”.  The falling tree that no one heard.

In some cases, even if you know about the existence of such filmic references, you won’t be able to track their every move.  You might know you’re missing out on something, but you won’t know what, when, or where.  It is the “known unknown”.

But some enjoy only the “known known”.  As patronising as it sounds, I like to see filmic references as rewards given by the film industry to its trusty and committed patrons.  Such references add an additional dynamic to a film, not only embedding and situating it within the history of motion pictures, but also by providing another point of interest, perhaps another message or symbol for those who notice.

At the end of Casino Royale (2006) – which I have only just watched for the very first time and thus only just discovered – there is a reference to Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same nameBond follows the red figure of Vesper through the narrow Venetian streets in just the same way that John Baxter chases the elusive red-cloaked dwarf that he mistakes for his dead daughter.  To me, the reference seems explicit and anticipates the revelation of Vesper’s true identity that is brought by the following scene.

I know I’m an English graduate, but these references aren’t thrown in haphazardly without any concern about their implications.  Don’t forget that film directors were most likely humanities students too!

Intentional filmic references are rife.  If you don’t notice them, they are still there.  If you do notice them, they are beautiful treats.

Please comment below with any inter-film references you have noticed.  I want to know what I’m missing!

Judging by the Cover

Sitting alone in a café the other day, at intervals between reading, I took to my penchant for people-watching.  In walks a guy, roughly my age, with a unique ‘clothes-that-don’t-match-the-seasonal-weather’ look and a lack of socks.  He’s carrying a thick book, with a plain, brownish cover – just the kind of understated, academic brick that I’m likely to find myself exiting the library with.  Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps?  War and Peace, even?  Or maybe a Keats poetry anthology?  My mind makes tenuous leaps and assumptions, exploring the potential avenues opened by his appearance: what sort of book would ‘suit’ him?

I was reading him through what he was reading.  In just the same way as society has assumptions, or even prejudices, about certain appearances, clothing styles, brands, and tastes in music, in public, reading is not a private pleasure, but a form of identity construction, whether intentional or not.

I am reminded of a moment in Pride and Prejudice, when Mr Darcy takes up a book after tea, and Miss Bingley follows suit.  Miss Bingley’s interest, Austen remarks mockingly, is in engaging and impressing Darcy, not in her book, which “she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his.”  By no means am I suggesting that public reading is always a vain, impression-making practice, but Austen is aware of the social implications of reading in the presence of others.  Unintentionally, we can make statements about our identity and personality through what we read in public.

On a recent train journey, I was reading a graphic novel, something I am admittedly quite self-conscious about, because of the associations of trivial, childish comic trash that immediately spring to the minds of many people.  My niggling sensation of being judged was confirmed by the passenger opposite me, who kindly decided to inform me of the fact that I was reading “a comic book”.  (Well done, sir!) Certain books probably do draw attention to themselves; for example, something like War and Peace is likely to imply intellect, ambition and sheer determination, whereas a light-hearted mainstream holiday read isn’t likely to shout out at all.  It’s the same with clothes: there’s always a choice between blending in or standing out and making a statement about oneself.  But of course, sometimes it’s just a case of wearing, or reading, whatever you want.

So, I eventually discovered the book of my café friend.  As he folded back the unmarked cover, the dust jacket gaped slightly to reveal the letters “HAR” in an all-too-familiar font, format, and colour.  It was the third instalment of J. K. Rowling’s much-loved Harry Potter series.  Not quite what I expected, to be honest, but it serves my point.  Your character will be judged by the cover of your book.  Disguising it simply acknowledges this fact.

This article has been published on Intuition and can be viewed online at http://www.intuition-online.co.uk/article.php?id=2508

Page and Screen: The Symbiotic Relationship

Watching TV gives you square eyes.  This is a common “truth”, supported by strict parents and any cynics whose childhood was already a distant memory by the late-50s, to sway impressionable children and grandchildren from the lure of the screen.

TV and film, by absorbing an average of four hours of each citizen’s day, are accused of the crime of tearing the nation away from old-fashioned books, thus breeding a generation of illiterate children, causing reduced concentration spans, the inability to absorb large quantities of text and even weight issues.  I don’t disagree, but I don’t think it’s all bad news.  Can these forms not reopen doors for the discovery of literature?

The television and film industry of today practically gorges on the publishing industry of the last few centuries.  We all know that Bridget Jones’ Diary is based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and that 10 Things I Hate About You mirrors Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.  And there’s about a billion TV dramas based on nineteenth and early twentieth century classics, such as Cranford, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Lark Rise to Candleford, Brideshead Revisited and so on.

These productions may be perceived as indulgences or guilty pleasures, but the idea that the literary connections legitimize their mass consumption is not an unreasonable one.  It is argued that people don’t have the patience or ability to consume these stories in their original form, and instead settle for the easy option.  Conversely, I believe that these adaptations can encourage a rediscovery of the classic texts on which they are based.  They provide the link between never even considering reading a particular book and inquisitively picking it up off a shelf in a bookshop.

Contemporary adaptations make classic literature seem accessible, relevant, and consumable.  By breaking down any previous negative assumptions, the only thing left to conquer is the more time-consuming text.  But the beauty of books is that they release their pleasure more slowly; watchers who were sad to see a story end, can – with their newfound readership – experience it again, but differently, and indulge in it at their own pace.

Yet it is not only adaptations that can pull back the dusty gates of literary avenues.  And now comes my primary motivation for approaching this subject at all: I am completely hooked by Gilmore Girls.  Miles behind the bandwagon, I know, but it’s true and I can justify it.

Anyone who has ever watched an episode will be aware of the bombardment of literary references, both overt and veiled.  Books and films are referred to in every single episode and although I cannot speak for everyone, I know I am not alone in being inspired and intrigued to read and watch things I feel that I probably should have already.  In fact, a quick Google search will demonstrate that there is even such thing as ‘The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge’, and I was quite disappointed to find that I wasn’t the first person to have this idea.

Nevertheless, I have just begun reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; last week I watched Casablanca; this week I borrowed a copy of Proust’s Swann’s Way from a friend.  And it is thanks to this “American trash” that I renewed my desire to one day read War and Peace.

Gilmore Girls is proving to be great for recommendations; I’ve begun compiling a list, which is turning into a full-blown reading project.  So over the next few weeks and months I am going to be reading and reviewing books and classic films that I have been led to through what some may refer to as the ‘cruder’ media and art forms.

Excessive TV watching might give you square eyes, but it might also encourage you to have a well-rounded cultural knowledge.

Blazing Saddles

I walked in on my housemates watching Blazing Saddles some time ago, but being uninformed and probably half asleep, I failed to grasp that it wasn’t a traditional western film.  I stood, utterly bemused by the famed tollbooth scene, with questions running through my mind faster than The Waco Kid’s bullets.  This incident led to a mockery that lasted over a year, until I watched in from start to finish last week, and dispelled the theory of my lacking humour!

Blazing Saddles (1974) is a western satire directed by, and starring Mel Brooks, so it’s following in the wake of the western genre’s 1930s to 60s peak.  Set in 1874, the film mirrors a traditional plot outline, wherein the sheriff and the townsfolk fight against the men who want to build a railroad through their town, but deals with this material in its own unique way. 

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, the tollbooth scene depicts the successful attempt of the sheriff of Rock Ridge to delay the approach of the corrupt Attorney General’s army of rogues and criminals.  But his methods are peculiar.  A tollbooth (garnered from somewhere) is installed in their path towards the town.  Not only does the tollbooth stand out as a comical anachronism, but also it is dealt with so beautifully deadpan.  Taggart, the leader of the group, requests someone to head back to ‘get a s**t load of dimes’ so that they can pass through one by one on horseback, which they do, apparently oblivious to the fact that they could easily go around it.

In a way, this scene epitomises the humour of the whole film – dry, self-mocking, and based on the sheer randomness of the situation and the characters’ idiosyncrasies.  Meta-cinema plays a large part in the comedy; the film’s western tributes are self-consciously transformed to satire, as it parodies, twists, and pulls apart the generic features with little restraint. 

In the most striking instance, the sheriff rides his horse in the country, beaming with success, with cheerful jazz music setting the mood.  Viewers always buy into this convention, unaware, or at least not thinking about the fact that soundtracks are a convention… until the sheriff rides past the band performing, led anachronistically by none other than Count Basie.  Suddenly I’m aware of the conscious effort behind all film soundtracks, and at this point of minor enlightenment, the film is simultaneously comical and astute.

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In contrast, the character that appears purely to point out the obvious or to fully explain the plot developments does not emphasize any filmic trope.  Rather, he undermines the convention of ‘implication’, by thoroughly explaining what the audience would otherwise be left to infer.  I am specifically thinking of his long-winded explanation of why they are going to build a replica of the town – basically that the oncoming attackers will think it’s the town, but it’s not the town, but only they will know that it’s the fake town… to paraphrase.

Blazing Saddles is a brilliant film, and I have only touched on a few of its highlights.  The racial commentary is acute, and delivered with taste, and there are so many meta-cinematic features scattered throughout the whole film.  As baffling as it is, I cannot think of a better finale to the film than the mass destruction of the fourth wall that ensues.  This film is finely crafted, and I implore you to watch it!

Mortal Engines: A Nostalgic Revisiting

I was both anxious and excited to discover that Peter Jackson is currently nursing the rights to adapt one of my favourite childhood books, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines.  When it comes to film adaptations, I always have mixed feelings.  And in this case, I hastened to read the book again first.  Before the film overrides the need for my imagination, I wanted to enjoy it just how I had enjoyed it the first time.

At heart, it is a tale of adventure.  In Reeve’s post-apocalyptic world, where natural resources are scarce, towns and cities have donned a set of wheels and now chase, consume and digest each other in order to stay alive.  Tom Natsworthy, a likeable apprentice historian from London, after being ‘accidentally’ exiled becomes involved in the revengeful ambitions of the scar-faced Hester Shaw, and tramps across the Out-Country, hopping from town to town, in search of Thaddeus Valentine, the man who murdered Hester’s mother.  Back in London, Valentine’s daughter Katherine sets out to discover the truth of London, and the missions her father secretly undertakes on behalf of London’s Mayor.  By alternating between the adventures of Tom and Katherine and the human relationships they build along the way, Reeve skilfully maintains suspense to the very end.

The teen romances now seem rather cliché and lacking, but as I had hoped, the charming touches and details that Reeve adds to his fantasy futuristic setting are satisfying.  The characters’ unfamiliarity with “a thing called a blue whale”, their historical inaccuracies, for example their belief that Pluto and Mickey are “animal-headed gods of lost America”, and the adaptation of familiar phrases, such as “a rolling town gathers no moss”, provide snippets of amusement throughout.  Furthermore, the steampunk element to the book is pleasingly subtle.  Until you start looking out for it, there is simply a delightful je ne sais quoi to the anachronistic technologies, the combination of progression and archaisms, and the pseudo-Victorian Dickensian characters.  It turns out there is a name for such a multi-temporal mishmash!

I’m glad I still found the book’s premise and story engaging and so wonderfully thought-through, otherwise I would have ruined a lovely childhood memory.  But I discovered so much more in this book that has now tainted my remembrance of it… in a good way.

Unbeknown to my thirteen-year-old eye, Mortal Engines introduces issues familiar in more mature literature.   Posing questions to social class inequality, the tiered cities literalise the social hierarchy by placing the wealthy few at the top, and the poor masses at the bottom, but throughout the novel, there are numerous characters who breach the divisions.  Also, I was surprised to find that Tom was not the protagonist I remembered; to challenge the tradition of male adventure heroes, Katherine and Hester are both stronger characters and lead the action forward far more than the slightly pathetic Tom.  And the opposition between science and history, progression and stasis, new and old that cleverly permeates the entire book not only gives food for thought in terms of the ethics of scientific development, but also subtly reinforces the book’s steampunk style.  The technological development revealed at the book’s climax is particularly pertinent to a 21st Century reader (bearing in mind Mortal Engines was published in 2001).  London’s Guild of Engineering has developed a weapon against which every other Traction town and city, and the Anti-Traction static settlements, will be powerless.  Essentially, a weapon of mass destruction.  At one point, Reeve explicitly refers to the terrible weapons of the “old American Empire”, but this is executed with the subtlety that characterises the whole book.

As I await more news of the film adaptation, I wonder if Peter Jackson will employ the same subtlety.  His taste and talent for fantasy and adventure is a known quantity… But is he going to draw out the more serious issues and accentuate these sensitive connections with our present?  We’ll have to wait and see.

This article has been published on Intuition and can be viewed online at http://www.intuition-online.co.uk/article.php?id=2508