A quiet passion (Terence Davies, 2016)

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A quiet passion, directed by Terence Davies (2016).

Score: a quiet snore.

The biopic is a very ungrateful genre. Writers who pursue it insist in cramming a seventy-odd-year lifespan in under three hours of awkward storytelling, which requires swapping actors, copious amounts of makeup and children who don’t look like their adult counterparts. Emily Dickinson’s biography is also extremely dull and this film didn’t choose to delve instead into her poetic work, artistic convictions or life choices, which are indeed interesting.

Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) received a formal education, went back home and took care of her family. She rarely left the house and eventually she rarely left her bedroom and wrote feverishly. She barely published anything during her life, never married and died of Bright’s disease at fifty-five. There’s not much more to it unless you choose to examine her intellectual life, which this film didn’t.

Technical aspects are good. Production design is lush and beautiful, and part of the movie was shot on location in the Dickinsons’ homestead, which is now a museum. The acting is correct. Some of the actors resemble the real people they play remarkably, such as Duncan Duff (who plays Austin Dickinson), Keith Carradine (Edward Dickinson) and Noémie Schellens (Mabel Loomis Todd). Nevertheless, the characters look too old when the actors are swapped and their ages only look appropriate by the end of the movie.

Since it’s a movie about a poet, everyone in it has to speak like they’re in a Romantic theatre play. I understand the movie isn’t pretending that those people really spoke like that at home after supper and I get where this is coming from, but it didn’t work for me. Still, the dialogue sometimes doesn’t make sense. Cases in point: at the beginning of the movie, Emily is roasting her Aunt about a poem she got published and then gets very upset and offended when her Aunt despises her own poems. What did she expect? Why did she want approval from someone she clearly scorns? Later on, female dandy Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) dances a ninety-second polka with a gentleman; we can see that their lips are not moving and the piano is loud but when she comes back it turns out they have had time to discuss Ptolemaic astronomy. At some point Emily says something along the lines of “I rarely see anyone”, when five minutes earlier she was having the time of her life at a party. The plot they try to squeeze out of her family’s story, which is mostly accurate, is uninteresting.

Dickinson’s seclusion and white dress are only shown when she’s already near the end of her life, while in reality it started while she was still young and went on for decades until her death. This change serves a deeper purpose in the plot: this movie looks to portray Dickinson as a bitter woman who sighed for a husband and whom nobody loved because she was too ugly. Having the doors of love and marriage closed to her forever, the poor thing had to resort to writing poetry and being a genius, which is the only thing ugly women get, and is barred to beautiful women. By moving her decision to seclude and write further into the future, the screenwriter makes sure that this is a consequence of a failed relationship, not a conscious decision she made while still young because she refused to be a wife and subservient to a husband.

Dickinson was intellectually aristocratic and felt suspicious of fame and glory, while in the movie she craves for it and is mostly misunderstood and underestimated. Her intellectual prowess is nowhere to be found and one of her most famous poems in which she expresses this suspicion ([…] How dreary – to be – Somebody! / How public – like a Frog –  / To tell one’s name – the livelong June –  / To an admiring Bog!) is wasted on her newborn nephew like a nursery rhyme. Her sensitivity towards nature isn’t there, nor her interest in death and her morbidity, though her lack of faith is extensively discussed. Her real-life best friend, confidant and intellectual peer, Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), is reduced to a demure cuckquean who lies on her back and thinks of England. Instead, Emily is given sassy Oscar Wilde expy Miss Buffam to follow around and look at admiringly. Miss Buffam is assertive and sharp but ends up succumbing to marriage in order to drive deep this idea that you can run but you can’t hide unless you’re ugly like Emily Dickinson.

Too long, didn’t read: wouldn’t recommend.

Que Dios nos perdone (Rodrigo Sorogoyen, 2016)

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Que Dios nos perdone, directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen (2016).

Score: outstanding.

Madrid, summer of 2011. The city is upturned by 15-M social movement and the imminent visit of Pope Benedict XVI for World Youth Day. Homicides agents Velarde (Antonio de la Torre) and Alfaro (Roberto Álamo) come to investigate the death of an old woman and find out she has been raped. Alfaro is violent, impulsive, short-tempered and coarse. Velarde is fastidious, intelligent, socially inept and has a speech impediment. As more old women turn up dead and raped, they must fight the impediments their own department sets up for them in order to find the murderer.

What sets this movie apart from others of the same kind is that it’s as much about the two detectives as it is about solving the crime. It constantly seeks to oppose characters and situations to one another in order to break that opposition and reveal a disturbing equality instead. Alfaro and Velarde look like polar opposites, just to be shown to be the same. They believe themselves to be unlike the killer they’re pursuing, only to find out they share some motivations. It is a movie about men. About ruthless men, about men incapable of tenderness, empathy or love. It’s a movie about men who hate women, who are incapable of protecting or respecting women. It’s a movie about men with no feminine qualities to them. It’s a movie about toxic and oppressive masculinity.

Antonio de la Torre is brilliant. It’s not only the way he stutters. It’s the way he looks, the way he walks, the way he smiles. He’s a totally different person from anyone else he has ever played and he manages to be endearing and despicable almost at the same time. Roberto Álamo is up to the challenge. He lives and breathes his character, his boiling rage comes out of the screen at you.

The film’s pacing is more than correct and the length is appropriate. The way I experienced it, the emotional climax happens much earlier than the reveal and that brings you in a relaxed state to the unveiling of the killer, which feels weird but is not necessarily bad.

To wrap it up, totally recommended.

***SPOILERS***

I would like to examine some of the techniques that the writers used in order to contrast and then equal the three main characters: Velarde, Alfaro and the killer.

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“After the ball”, by Lev Tolstoi (1903)

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Analysis: “After the ball”, by Lev Tolstoi (1903).

This short essay was written in the context of MUEC and with the assistance of Professor José Manuel Mora-Fandos.

“After the ball” is a short story in which Ivan Vasilevich tells the story of his failed love story with Varenka B., which he claims proves that circumstances are more important than upbringing. The story is divided in two halves, one that explains what happens in the ball (preceded by a short section set in the present that frames the story) and another that explains what happens after the ball. which is shorter but more important.

At the beginning of the story, we are told that Ivan didn’t marry Varenka in the end, which makes us expect that this will be the story of how she breaks his heart. We also expect that it will explain precisely why circumstances are more important than upbringing.

The story is very rich in adjectives and adverbs, which serve the purpose of making us feel precisely what Ivan feels. He makes picturesque descriptions of the hosts, the ball and the other guests. He also describes the kind of music the orchestra plays, the clothes Varenka wears and his mood as happy, satisfied, grateful, tender, only capable of good. Here we must pay attention at the symbolism posed by gloves: the ones Varenka wears, the ones Ivan wears and the ones the colonel wears. When Varenka dances with her father, he’s described in very endearing terms: tall and handsome, with blush cheeks and combed-forward sideburns. He dances clumsily and with energy, and that only makes Ivan admire him more. Ivan even supposes that the reason the colonel is wearing such old boots is so he can pay for his daughter to have an active social life, but we have no further proof of that.

Varenka gives Ivan a feather from her fan as a present, which he keeps inside his glove: why there instead of a pocket or satchel? Later on, Ivan keeps one of Varenka’s gloves along with the feather, which at that time was a symbol of commitment. Why does Ivan not try to get engaged with Varenka, or at least try to get closer to her father while in the ball? Bearing in mind what happens later, that might be another link in the chain of coincidences that change Ivan’s life.

There are two mild instances of foreshadowing almost at the exact middle of the story: Varenka’s father has to leave because he must get up early the following morning and Ivan mentions the only thing he fears is something that spoils his happiness.

Ivan is so excited he can’t sleep, so he goes for a walk in the early morning. The descriptions in this segment are so plastic and colourful there is no doubt Tolstoi is a master of style. Every adjective choice might seem obvious, but at the same time it’s spot-on. Soon there is a change in tone: there is music in the street, and it is morbid and ominous, as opposed to the happy, festive music that was played at the ball. Ivan witnesses the colonel leading the running of a gauntlet to a Tartar that deserted. We could expect that Ivan’s description of the cruel event is as colourful as his depiction of the ball, but it is objective and succinct. The reason this works is because when one is in love one is eloquent and enthusiastic, but when one is horrified they don’t feel like speaking that much. If he were as talkative as before, it wouldn’t feel as appropriate.

The colonel is described in the same terms as before, but everything about him has changed. He’s wearing the same kind of kid gloves as Varenka in the ball. Ivan says he feels ashamed as if he had done something execrable. He’s telling his story in the present and by the way he tells it we know that he hasn’t, but the colonel did something reprehensible instead. But back then, Ivan can’t cope with the fact that he has seen a person he admired doing something so horrible, so he feels guilt instead. Ivan describes feeling nauseous and physically ill as a consequence. The effect is even stronger because the was blissful a few pages before.

Ivan tries to find a justification for what he has seen. Interestingly, he does not appeal to morality (”he did what was his duty”) or politics (”he did it to protect us from our enemies”) but to reason: “he must know something that I do not”. But Ivan is an older, wiser man now, and he doesn’t right away tell us that he despises the colonel’s cruelty, but he simply says that the witnessing of these events convinced him that he couldn’t become a soldier or a politician. The other people at the gathering mock him for being useless as a citizen, revealing they haven’t understood Ivan’s concerns.

Tolstoi hides the main motif of the story near the end of the story and makes it look like it’s unimportant. Ivan has revealed that circumstances are more important than upbringing because it was just a coincidence that caused him not to marry Varenka and not to become a soldier, while all of his upbringing had worked towards those goals. But more importantly, Tolstoi has spoken about how the real monsters might be your friends, family and neighbours. Monsters are not always cruel, but they’re all the more scary because they are capable of love and affection. Ivan renounced a woman he loved and a career he coveted out of fear to become such a monster. And from the way he speaks in the present, he’s proud of the decision he made.

Last but not least, intertextuality enriches the text: Tolstoi decides to set the story on the last day of Carnival, therefore the following morning is the first morning of Lent. The flogging of the tartar is reminiscent of the Passion, where he addresses the onlookers as brothers, as well as other Biblical references.

The dark forest (Liu Cixin, 2008)

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The dark forest, by Liu Cixin (2008).

Score: outstanding.

The second novel in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy after The three-body problem, The dark forest is a risky bet that Liu took on and won. Compared to its predecessor, The dark forest takes its sweet time to develop: some characters that are presented from the beginning only become important in the final third of the novel. The first two-thirds are set-up for the glorious last third and the reward for your patience is worth it. You’ll do well to trust Liu because everything he does in the novel he does for a reason.

***SPOILERS FOR THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM***

It is already clear that Trisolaris has launched an invasion of Earth that will arrive in over four centuries, and humanity needs to prepare for war. Intelligence gathered from the ETO has also revealed that Trisolarans are a telepathic species and therefore ignore the difference between thinking and saying, missing on the whole world of lying, scheming and deceiving. This prompts the international community to create the Wallfacer Project: four people are chosen to each devise a plan against Trisolaris but that plan cannot leave their respective minds, so the sophons won’t be able to figure it out. The Wallfacers are British neuroscientist Bill Hines, former US Secretary of Defense Frederick Tyler, former Venezuelan President Rey Díaz and Chinese astronomer Luo Ji. ETO launches the Wallbreaker Project: three ETO members will monitor the first three Wallfacers to crack their strategy. Luo Ji is thoroughly uninterested in the project and decides to spend the budget he’s assigned on a mansion in the woods, so the ETO ignores him.

The dark forest has traits of First Contact, alien invasion, military sci-fi, high strategy, space opera, low-speed interstellar travel and futurism tropes and they’re all finely tuned. Liu sets a very high bar for himself and is up to the challenge. He has thought of every detail thoroughly and built his characters with great care. Changes of mood and tone between the second and third parts are spot on in the sense that they lull you into false confidence and then you don’t know what hit you. The timeline is really clever and so is the way it is revealed to the reader.

It does have some flaws: it’s overpopulated with middle-aged male scientists with a military background. So much so, it’s easy to get them mixed up. It can get so slow and tedious at times it is at great risk of losing the reader so they won’t reach the awesome climax. I’m not sure whether Luo Ji’s love story with an imaginary woman makes any sense and/or is relevant to the story but there it is.

I’m so damn hyped at this trilogy. The moment I finished this I bought Death’s end and started it even though I’m supposed to be reading The sound and the fury for one of my classes. Don’t let your friends tell you all about it and dive into these great novels now!

Extra: Waterdrop, a tribute short movie produced by Wang Ren.