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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: 45 Years (Movie); The Doomsday Invention (Article); Fifty-Seven (Short Fiction); Tissue Gallery (Poem)

45 Years (Movie) adapted from the short story by David Constantine; script by Andrew Haigh; directed by Andrew Haigh; starring Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay; with Geraldine James, David Sibley, Dolly Wells.

Geoff and Kate, who live in a cozy farmhouse in the Norfolk countryside, are preparing a big party for their 45th wedding anniversary this coming Saturday. On Monday, though, Geoff receives a letter telling him that the body of a woman long dead has been found in a mountain crevasse in Switzerland. He and the deceased had been hiking in the mountain when she accidentally fell to her death. Apparently, it’s because of global warming that a thawing glacier has produced her body. And why is Geoff informed of this so many years later? Because he had told the authorities that he was her next of kin; they’d pretended to be married so that they would be allowed to sleep together in European hotels.

This seems like a lot to reveal in a review on Dilettante’s Diary, where we usually try not to disclose any more plot than necessary. However, this backstory comes in the first few scenes of the movie. The point of the piece is not so much what happened on that mountain in the early 1960s, but what it still means to Geoff, if anything, how this affects his relationship with Kate, and how she copes with that. We follow them slowly, day by day through the week as the ramifications of the matter spread like widening ripples across the calm pond of their life together.

This movie seems like the kind of thing I’m supposed to like. It’s quiet, sensitive and deeply felt. It has been getting a lot of enthusiastic response from people, it would seem, who are especially drawn to high-brow movies. Could it be that some of that appreciation has something to do with the fact that folks are pleased to see that actors in late middle-age can get such good roles? It seems to suggest there’s hope for all of us – especially when we see these oldsters having sex (trying to, at least).

But I did not find the movie all that engaging. Worthy and sincere though their story may be, these two people are more than a trifle boring. True, they do give the sense of a loving, affectionate couple who have a long history together, but their life now consists mostly of mundane pottering about: walking the dog, making tea, eating meals, reading, watching tv. The point is made that they don’t have any photos on their walls. That’s partly the result of their not having children, but it’s emblematic of a certain barrenness in their situation. The many shots of the flat, bleak fields of Norfolk seem almost intended as a reflection on Geoff and Kate’s life, as if the filmmakers are falling back on that hoary device known as pathetic fallacy. (That – in case your high school English studies have faded completely from memory – is a writer’s attempt to portray in landscape human-like emotions that seem to echo the feelings of the characters in a story.)

In the midst of all this plain, ordinariness, there is trouble brewing but it’s mostly in Kate’s head. Very little is said about what’s developing. Perhaps, this situation worked better in David Constantine’s short story, where we might have had access to Kate’s thoughts; her angst would have helped to carry us along. In the movie, we have to infer most of it. That puts a tremendous burden on the actress. Ms. Rampling can be charming when she smiles, but her face in repose often looks grumpy, self-pitying. She mopes a lot. The fact that I don’t feel much sympathy for this character could, admittedly, have something to do with the fact that I’m not a wife who is made to feel inadequate by the discovery of a love affair her husband had nearly fifty years ago. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that Kate was over-reacting.

I also had trouble with the fuss about the anniversary party. Many narratives depend on the momentum towards a culminating event: the race, the competition, the fight, the climb. In this case, the upcoming celebration is meant to provide an ironic contrast to the uneasiness in the marriage, but it seems contrived. What couple would throw a swanky black-tie party, speeches and all, to celebrate their forty-fifth anniversary? The explanation given for this big bash is that Geoff and Kate missed a celebration on their fortieth because Geoff was undergoing bypass surgery. Presumably, we’re meant to accept that Kate and Geoff belong to a social group where a huge commemoration is expected for an anniversary as insignificant as a fortieth. Maybe this, again, is something that could have been handled more believably in a short story. It’s harder to buy in a movie where you’re subjected to so much palaver, such dithering about flowers and music, not to mention the eager expectations of friends.

One of them, Lena (Geraldine James), crops up in a couple of scenes. At one point, she and Kate are browsing the offerings in a dress shop and we’re subjected to confab about how differently men and women approach something like an anniversary and how it’s the women who have to show men what’s important in life. Is this something that could have passed by smoothly and without objection in a short story? The scene in the movie made me want to yell at the scriptwriters: stop trying to tell me what I’m supposed to learn here!

The movie does have its good points, though. Those shots of Norfolk fields are beautifully atmospheric. And the movie benefits from some neat editing. One incident has Kate heading out to see if she can find Geoff, who caught a bus into town, leaving a note on the kitchen table. Kate goes into a travel agency and asks whether her husband might have dropped in. The agent asks: "Would he be the man who was asking about Switzerland?" End of scene. That’s all we need.

When Kate finally does confront Geoff, the drama sparks to life and their exchange is gripping. So is Geoff’s speech at the big party. As an actor, Tom Courtenay handles it well in that, as a character, he handles it not very well; he sounds, in his halting delivery of the corny phrases, like somebody who isn’t used to making speeches. And when the final shot of the movie zooms in on Ms. Rampling, you can see why she’s considered such a great movie actress: her face expresses the turmoil of conflicting emotions that sums up what the movie was trying to say all along.

 

Some New Yorker Notables

The Doomsday Invention (Article) by Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker, November 23, 2015

Time was when I thought every article in The New Yorker was worth reading. If the editors of that august magazine decided that something was important enough to be written about, then I needed to read about it. In recent years, though, there has been a falling off in that sense of urgency about the magazine’s contents. Maybe that’s because of changes at the magazine; maybe because of changes in me.

However, this article by Raffi Khatchadourian strikes me as essential reading for any person interested in where our civilization is heading. It discusses the question of whether or not Artificial Intelligence could outstrip human intelligence and, if so, how soon that might happen and what it will mean for us. Will we be able to ensure that the machines make decisions that are good for humanity?

At risk of simplifying too much – the article delves into an enormous range of problems – one could say that the people most closely involved in the development of A.I. tend to fall into two groups: those who, on the one hand, want to charge ahead as quickly as possible, being limited only by the technical challenges; and, on the other hand, those who take a more philosophical approach, raising serious questions about the ethics of the quest. The main proponent of this school of thought, as expounded in the article, is Nick Bostrom, a philosopher who heads up the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.

It’s frightening to see that A.I. can already trump the human version in so many respects. But I take some comfort from what, if I understand the matter correctly, appears to be a serious limitation of these machines: they don’t yet know how to handle long-range planning, defer rewards and apply learning from one situation to another. Maybe that’s where we humans can hold our own.

 

Fifty Seven (Short Fiction) by Rachel Kushner, The New Yorker, November 30, 2015

How Ms. Kushner gets inside the mind of this man I do not know, but she gives a chillingly real picture of the way a person can, almost unwittingly, become ensnared in the grip of crime. It starts with a murder that’s more or less accidental, certainly not pre-meditated. And that leads to prison life, where it’s almost impossible for the guy to break free of the gang pressure that controls him.

Part of his problem is that he’s not very intelligent but Ms. Kushner shows that even a guy like him is capable of astonishing observations: "Something else that surprised him was how dull it sounded when you stabbed someone with a shank, how dense and damp. Thud. Thud. Thud. Like trying to run through mud in a dream." And, while being transferred from one prison to another, he notices a pelican take flight from the roof of a building: "He can hear the wings like two garbage bags being shaken open to line a can. Fwap fwap. Fwap fwap fwap fwap." These glimpses into his inner life, almost more than anything else, make you feel that you’re in the presence of a unique human being, and that makes you feel all the more acutely the waste of his life.

 

Tissue Gallery (Poem) by Loretta Collins Klobah, The New Yorker, November 23, 2015

I don’t often have occasion to comment on the poetry in The New Yorker. (Roughly half of it I can’t understand.) But this one is a knock-out. At the invitation of a doctor, the poet is having a private viewing of foetuses in jars lined up on shelves in a lab. It seems that some of them may have been aborted intentionally; others perhaps were stillborn. The descriptions of the expressions and the postures on these tiny creatures hit the reader like jolts of pain. Whether or not the poet intends to make an anti-abortion statement, I do not know, but I have seldom read anything that speaks so powerfully of the mystery whereby some of us successfully come through the gestation period into full lives on this earth and some don’t. Harrowing.

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