Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Wish Lists

Having been given carte blanche from you lovely lot to keep on keeping on – and that fact that both Marks & Spencers and Aldi have already got their Christmas aisles groaning with mince pies and Lebkuchen respectively – I am happy to share with you my Christmas wish lists. Here are the movies and the books that I have missed this year and which I am desperate to see or read. Please feel free to add suggestions in the comments – I welcome your thoughtful tips for both. Please note that on the movie front, I am an “easy listening” watcher. I don’t do violence, torture, sex marathons, zombies or slashers. However, I can cope with very edgy humour – welcome it, in fact.

Without further ado, here is my movie wish list:

1. The Kids are Alright

2. Bridesmaids

3. Beginners

4. We Need to Talk About Kevin

And now for the books:

1. Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson.

2. Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma. Nova is long-term blog friend, who is rapidly becoming a YA superstar. Imaginary Girls is her second novel published under her own name.

3. Deep Country by Neil Ansell. Neil’s a Litopia connection, but I read the Guardian review before he joined the writing site and earmarked the book then and there.

4.  A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth

5.  Darkside by Belinda Bauer. I loved her debut Blacklands and can’t wait for this.

6. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman. This is the Booker Prize shortlister that appeals most to me.

7. Reading Women by Stephanie Staal. A history of feminist writing.

8. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

9. A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

I have just reactivated my Goodreads account, so if you are there, do let me know. I’ve just lost half an hour wondering around reading everyone’s recommendations, so will reserve the right to update my wish list according to what I find there and what you recommend.

What’s on your watching and reading wish lists?

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Holla back!

What’s wrong with this film review published in today’s Observer? Can you spot the anomaly?

Michael Rowe, an Australian writer-director currently resident in Mexico, won the Caméra d’or last May for best first film in the official programme at Cannes for this chamber film. All but the opening scene set in a supermarket takes place in the cramped Mexico City flat of freelance business reporter Laura, a single woman of peasant stock from Oaxaca, an impoverished state in the far south. Through loneliness and low self-esteem, this broad-hipped young woman with large, firm breasts picks up lovers for the night, or in some cases hour-long stands. They look down on and patronise her, and when one of them, the preening, would-be actor Arturo, starts abusing her physically, she draws him into an increasingly dangerous sadomasochistic relationship to win his approval and elicit a little tenderness. It’s an intense, powerful and at times deeply painful movie, a serious exercise in sexual politics, and Mónica del Carmen as Laura gives an outstanding, brave performance.

If it read like this instead, would you notice?

Michael Rowe, an Australian writer-director currently resident in Mexico, won the Caméra d’or last May for best first film in the official programme at Cannes for this chamber film. All but the opening scene set in a supermarket takes place in the cramped Mexico City flat of freelance business reporter Laura, a single woman of peasant stock from Oaxaca, an impoverished state in the far south. Through loneliness and low self-esteem, this young woman picks up lovers for the night, or in some cases hour-long stands. They look down on and patronise her, and when one of them, the preening, would-be actor Arturo, with a bulging package, starts abusing her physically, she draws him into an increasingly dangerous sadomasochistic relationship to win his approval and elicit a little tenderness. It’s an intense, powerful and at times deeply painful movie, a serious exercise in sexual politics, and Mónica del Carmen as Laura gives an outstanding, brave performance.

My question is this: how is the size and shape of the young woman’s breasts even vaguely relevant to the film, to the actress’s performance or to the review? They clearly enhanced the reviewer’s personal enjoyment of the movie but describing them is more than a Freudian slip, it’s a huge bloody pratfall, that in filmic terms would be signalled by bananas, Peter Sellers and mocking laughter.

In Anna Karenina, Tolsoy describes the work of the peasants in the fields and at one point lovingly describes the shape of a young worker’s breasts. Having never once described, or even alluded to the breasts of the upper-class and noble women in the novel, this brief sentence starkly signals the author’s prejudices: young peasant women represent sex and sex that is to be appropriated by the ruling class.

However, we are a long way from 1877. I don’t expect to find superfluous breast descriptions in my Sunday Observer. It spoils my morning and I lose respect for people whose intelligent reviews I have enjoyed for a long time.

Don’t do it, Phillip French.


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Feeling It – Prose versus Film

 

Thanks to Mourner for the pic

One of my favourite writer-bloggers, Roz Morris, often talks about how watching and unpicking well-made films can be instructive for writers who are serious about their craft. Roz says in this post that film does have advantages over prose. There can be lots of characters in one scene without it becoming confusing for the viewer, choppy action scenes work well to layer up tension and, most powerfully, the camera acts as a narrator, telling us, as the passive audience, things that the characters might not know.

She also says that prose has its own advantages:

Novels go deeper than films; they are less literal too. A novel about scientists trying to control the weather, for example, can also make you feel it’s about humanity wrestling with randomness in their lives. Novels set the story going inside you rather than show it to you finished. This makes prose an incredibly powerful medium. Novels can take you right inside what people are feeling in a way that movies can’t.

While I have seen films that have completely swept me away and left me gasping, I agree with Roz that fiction can take you deeper into a story.

This weekend I went to see La Vida de los Peces, the Chilean film that is headlining the Mannheim/Heidelberg International Film Festival. The Life of Fish is the fifth film by director Matias Bize. It was rapturously received in Chile and was shown to great acclaim at the Venice film festival. Bize said in the public interview session afterwards that he believes it is his best film because it is the most personal and the most intimate. The compere who spoke before the showing said it was an incredibly emotional film and we were all guaranteed to cry.

The Life of Fish tells the story of Andres (Santiago Cabrera) who is trying to leave a birthday party in Chile to catch a plane back to Berlin where he lives and works as a tour guide. However, Andres’ old life keeps hooking him and he spends the 83 minutes of the film failing to leave, as old friends and their wives and children catch him in their nets of conversation. The person he most wants to see is his old girlfriend Beatriz (Blanca Lewin) whom he still loves but who is now married with two children. In the last third of the film, Andres persuades Bea that their love is still real and that she should leave with him that night. She agrees, but at the door, changes her mind.

It is a beautiful film and Bize has acheived his desire to make it intimate, poetic, minimalist. The entire film is shot inside the party and is made up mostly of head and shoulder shots. It is all about faces and glances and words. Andres is shown up as a tourist in his own life, someone who chooses to make his emotional commitment when it is already far too late.

But here’s the problem: I didn’t feel it. I’m speaking as someone who is totally susceptible to emotional cues. I cry in beer adverts, in Sex and the City, when I’m reading to my children, but for some reason Bize’s intimate portrayal didn’t move me. By choosing never to move out of the party, to keep it intimate and claustrophobic, Bize chose not to show how deep Andres and Bea’s connection was. As the audience we have to believe from what they and other people say about their emotional connection.

There are two things missing in The Life of Fish that are essential to a novelist’s craft: showing and back story. A novelist would have shown how much they loved each other – perhaps by including a scene from their past, or Andres in Berlin fingering Bea’s photo while one of his lovers brushed her teeth in his bathroom, or Bea walking along the beach with her daughters, her heart full of memories of her teenage love. The back story of their love would have shown us how momentous the moment was when Bea chose not to follow him back to Berlin, and Andres’ tears might have been our tears.

I think that Bize was too in love with his set-up (everything must take place at the party) to pay full attention to his story and the universal story form (the audience must believe in Andres’ and Bea’s love for the climax to have meaning). He forgot to kill his darling and, in so doing, made a film that is beautiful but cold.

As writers, we have the amazing opportunity to evoke emotions in others and we must use all the tools we have – cleverly, subtly – to do so.


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The Life of Others

After I graduated from university at the end of 1989, I left South Africa and went travelling. My stated goals were to bring home a piece of the Berlin Wall and Christian Slater. It was quite something launching myself into the world in 1990, a world where Nelson Mandela had been released and the Berlin Wall had fallen, a world of thrilling potential and opportunity. I came home without visiting Berlin, because I ran out of money in Italy after ten months of waitressing and travelling, and I needed to start my journalism degree. I also came home without Christian Slater, but brought with me instead an English boyfriend who horrified everyone by hitch-hiking across South Africa alone, while carrying all his belongings in a plastic Spar packet.

While my need to be around dubious men has disappeared, I have always nursed the dream of Berlin and I finally got there last year in April. Since then I have been back three times, and I will continue to go at every opportunity I get because there is something about Berlin that makes me feel alive. As a South African, I think I relate to a city that is coming to terms with its divided past. Just one walk around the Jewish Museum demonstrates how Berlin looks backward with respect, sensitivity and compassion. At the same time, the many new buildings in the city, the sites with their looming cranes, and empty lots still waiting for development are testament to the city’s future. The Berlin of right now makes the word vibrant redundant; it is pulsing yet relaxed, colourful but with bleak pockets, hysterically busy yet relaxed, edgy but friendly. Berlin is not always beautiful, but it is welcoming and it doesn’t judge. I feel at home there, more than anywhere else in Germany, a country that has been good to me but is often still alien.

Today is Germany’s 18th day of National Unity, a public holiday celebrating the country’s reunification. According to Wikipedia, an alternative day to celebrate would have been November 9, the day the Wall came down in 1989. November 9 has other good resonances for Germans – it coincides with the anniversary of founding of the Weimar Republic in 1918 and with the defeat of Hitler’s first coup in 1923. However, November 9 was also the anniversary of Kristalnacht, so the day was considered inappropriate for a national holiday. This year the Tag der Deutschen Einheit is being celebrated in Hamburg, but Berlin will always remain the symbol of the Cold War, the division between East and West and the fall of communism.

All this is a long preamble to a movie I want to talk about: the Oscar-winning Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Directed by the spectacularly named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the film is set in East Berlin in 1984 and centres on a Stasi loyalist Gerd Wiesler who is detailed with spying on playwright Georg Dreyman and his lover, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland. The pair, who are suspected of disloyalty to the state, are placed under 24-hour surveillance, their every word and deed recorded, right down to when and how they have sex. Wiesler, whose life is dedicated to the Stasi and who returns every night to his own depressingly empty life, slowly grows fond of the pair on whom he’s spying. Their vivid love-life throws his own sad use of prostitutes into relief, and their warm, friendly home makes his lonely flat seem increasingly cold. Theirs is a life of literature, love and ideas, which they manage to enjoy despite the Stasi net that tightens around them.

After the suicide of another playwright whose right to work has been taken away by the State, Georg and some companions write an article on East German control of the arts, which they smuggle to the West for publication. Wiesler is aware of what they are doing, but is torn: does he reveal their actions to his Stasi bosses in exchange for promotion, or does he protect the people to whom he is becoming more attached? The decision he makes sets in motion a series of events, some of them tragic, others redemptive.

Das Leben des Anderen is a slow burner, but it is gripping. Ulrich Mühe plays Wiesler with a buttoned-up, blank intensity, conveying his volte-face in creeping degrees. Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck are excellent as the lovers, while Ulrich Tukur as Wiesler’s boss is in turns ebullient and despicable. It’s a small, strong ensemble cast.

In many other Berlin movies (Wings of Desire, Goodbye Lenin, Lola Runs), the city also plays a starring role. It must be hard for a director to resist shots of the iconic Brandenburg Gates, the TV Tower or Checkpoint Charlie, but Henckel von Donnersmark does, restricting the action to the inside and outside of Georg’s flat, Wiesler’s apartment, one pub, a couple of theaters and some anonymous Stasi buildings. I don’t know whether these were artistic or budgetary restrictions, but they work. By keeping the locations intimate, and avoiding the sweeping views of Berlin, he recreates the intense, cloying atmosphere of late-era East Germany, where neighbours spied on neighbours and no-one was to be trusted. There are no ecstatic Wall-breaking scenes, just a voice-over on the radio that underscores how the fall of the Wall, while symbolic for the world, was for Berliners an intensely personal event.

Das Leben der Anderen is a testament to the human spirit. In the bleak days of surveillance, spying and thought control, it shows how there will always be those who do not allow their spirits to be broken, and who pursue the dream of free speech and liberation on behalf of the greater population. Today, in Germany, those people now live free, and we give thanks for that. They have earned their freedom. As a citizen of a land where freedom is still new, that speaks volumes to me.


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Five Bits of Fluff

I think memes are the popcorn of the blog world. And since there are five kids in my sitting-room, eating popcorn and watching Free Willy, I’m going to indulge in some fluffery of my own. My friend Loren, a food blogger from San Francisco (the US city I most want to visit) charged me with the Five Things meme. I have done this a few times before, but, like popcorn, it’s a meme that’s moreish.

Five Fluffy Things About Me:

1. Having just seen the Sex in the City movie, I am currently working my way through all six seasons of the TV show. My favourite of the gals is Miranda, Charlotte makes me laugh and I am sooooo jealous of Carrie’s legs. I’m not mad about Samantha, but I like the way she embodies female desire. On that topic, Mr Big is far and away the hottest man on the show, but I’d give Steve the bartender the time of day. In the movie, the scene between him and Miranda on the bridge made me cry so hard that my nose ran.

2. I really like dancing. At a party, I am guaranteed to be first on the dance-floor. And I’m a cheap drunk, so basically, I’m great value.

3. The tree pose always reminds me of my past life as an Indian yogi.

4. If I had to choose between having an uninterrupted hour to write or eating the best chocolate in the world, I’d take the hour.

5. If I were a house, I would be chintz. And proud.

Now I am supposed to tag five people, but I don’t do that anymore. So I’m stealing from YogaMum. Consider yourself tagged if:

1. You have had a conversation about Sex in the City in the past week.

2. This makes you feel like doing silly dancing:

3. If you have done the tree pose today.

4. If you have refused chocolate in the last hour.

5. If this looks like heaven to you.


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Confessions of a Slacker

722 words. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

I’ve also been slacking on the blogging front. This is probably the first time – apart from holidays – that I haven’t blogged for a whole week.

Instead of writing and blogging, I have been doing some living. In the style of the lovely Ms Make Tea, here are some random items of life that have got in the way:

  • A morning at Daisy’s kindergarten, making her Schultüte with her. The Schultüte is a cone-shaped object, decorated according to the child’s fancy, that is filled with goodies and presents, which the child takes to their Einschulungsfest. This is a special day to celebrate starting school. It involves a church service, a walk to school carrying both Tüte and spanking new backpack (the Rantzen), a ceremony of welcome and a visit to their classroom with their new teacher. Then they go home, have coffee and cake with the family, and unpack the Tüte. Daisy’s is beautiful: a winter ice-skating scene with sparkling ice and mountains, all in white, blue and silver. She is clearly moving out of the pink princess phase, which is a relief.
  • A visit to the Auslaenderamt to renew my Aufenthaltserlaubnis. Yes, that is as stressful as it sounds – German officials are very officious and I always tend to arrive minus the one vital piece of paper that would ensure having my residence permit renewed on the spot. However, the guy in charge of surnames N to P, which encompasses us, is the most relaxed official in Germany, and the whole thing was achieved in five minutes. Afterwards, we sat in the sun in Heidelberg cafe and breakfasted. Lovely!
  • Three jogs and a yoga class with my very lovely yoga teacher (I have to say this because she now reads my blog and doesn’t want to be cast as one of the nasty Germans in the drama that is Life in the Burg – and she is very lovely). All my runs have been outdoors and I have loved the sunshine, the green hills and the swift wide Neckar river.
  • Going through the children’s clothes, putting outside the old and outgrown ones for charity (and placed these on the street for removal today) and replacing winter clothes with summer ones. It is lovely to see everyone running around in sandals, short sleeves and sunhats.
  • Planning and booking our family’s visit to Berlin and Luebeck next week. We are staying in holiday apartments rather than hotels, which, I discovered on my last visit to the Hauptstad, is the way to go. I am dreaming of Berlin.
  • Watching DVDs! I laffed my way through the first season of Flight of the Conchords, which is a hilarious programme about two New Zealand musicians trying to make it in New York, with the help of their abjectly useless band manager, Murray. I also watched Babel, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, which is an excellent and sobering film.
  • Discovering the Love Food Not Waste website, which I am plundering for tips on how not to waste food, in light of Emily’s EcoJustice Challenge. Broccoli stalk soup anyone?

And now I’m off to lie in the hammock.


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The Eponymous

This weekend I took my daughters to see the eponymous Charlotte’s Web, except in Germany it is called Schweinchen Wilbur und seine Freunde, which really doesn’t have the same ring to it. I was a little nervous because the last time I took them to a movie (The March of the Penguins), Daisy was hideously bored and spent her time breathing hotly down the necks of the people in front of us, craning round to stare at the people behind us, talking loudly, squirming and generally indicating that she would rather be having her toenails pulled out. This time both she and her older sister were gripped.

I wish I could say I had been. While it was delightful and enchanting and well worth seeing, the German habit of dubbing all movies rather than providing subtitles means that, for me, something is always lost in translation. At least, since most of the cast are animals, I didn’t have my usual trouble trying, but failing, not to lip-read in the hope of catching what is really being said. I understand and speak German, but the English-speaking part of my brain is dominant and is always double-guessing the German bit. So instead of relaxing and enjoying the movie, I’m party to an exhausting internal dialogue. This is the main reason why I don’t watch many movies in the cinema anymore (not to mention the small babysitting issue), and why DVDs rule.

I think for a grown-up, half the fun of Charlotte’s Web – the Movie is the actors who voice the animals: Julia Roberts as Charlotte, Oprah Winfrey as Gussy the Goose, Steve Buscemi as Templeton the Rat and John Cleese as Samuel the Sheep. Seeing the German dubbed version also means missing out on Sam Shepard as the narrator and Robert Redford as Ike the Horse, which is a pity. It looks like I’ll be buying the DVD.

The movie, every bit as charming and whimsical as its reviews suggest, is slighter than the book, which I read to my girls last year and which I loved as a child. The movie focuses less on the family (Fern’s troublesome big brother Avery is much more anodyne, Fern’s emotional problems are not intensely dwelt upon) and more on the animals. However, Wilbur’s story is very well told, his relationship with Charlotte is sweet and the scenes of her spinning words in her web are lovely. The three of us wept when she died.

The movie does adhere to the message of the book: miracles are possible, friendship can transcend barriers and words are powerful. When my teacher read Charlotte’s Web aloud to my class in Grade 4, I fell in love with the book. I quickly got over the fact that Charlotte was a spider, but what always appealed to me was that she was a writer and a good friend. She was tiny and insignificant, but she made great things happen and she used words to do so. She looked at someone who was ordinary, and by carefully selecting the perfect words to describe him, she showed that he was special. Where everyone else ignored him or couldn’t be troubled to become his friend since he was going to the smokehouse to turn into the Christmas roast, Charlotte made the effort to be his friend. She looked at his heart, instead of at his pigginess, and saw the goodness there.

For what is really just a children’s story, the messages are so powerful and inspirational. When it came to naming my blog in March last year, I didn’t even have to think. It could only be Charlotte’s Web – a place where I come to write, where I try to see the good in the ordinary, where I try to be a friend, where I select my words carefully. I want my world to be a bit terrific, to be somewhat radiant, but also to be a little bit humble and I try to reflect that here.