Elly McDonald

Writer


Leave a comment

Six Flying Dragons (Korea, 2015) and Tree With Deep Roots (Korea, 2011) – spoiler-free

All the virtues of adventure costume drama with the added value of surprise.

Incredible sets, costumes, gorgeous young actors, swashbuckling action sequences, revenge, romance… and the whole way through I was trying to imagine how Korean audiences, knowing the framework of historical fact, would be interpreting characters and events.

Then when I realised I was watching the two shows in reverse order – Six Flying Dragons is a prequel to Tree With Deep Roots, made by the same team – I realised Korean viewers watching SFD would already know the fates of key characters, removing elements of suspense I found excruciating, but adding poignancy.

The entire political history of Korea would inform Koreans’ understandings of these dramas. I don’t have that. So my responses are naive, in the sense of… uneducated.

FB_IMG_1571532665835

The FB diary:

“… starts off playing like a kids’ adventure yarn then turns into an examination of political morality, dissidents, the nature of power, the nature of courage, wrapped up in an origin story of the [medieval] kingdom of Joseon (Korea). (The actual founding of the Joseon dynasty differs in marked ways from the hero tale of Six Flying Dragons.)

“This is gathering in power episode by episode and the climactic sequences in Ep4 – the music! – are killing me.

“Some parts so far are so pertinent to what’s happening in Hong Kong but the political parable is encompassing.”

“Rock stars. Amazing. I think I prefer it to GoT.

“12 episodes into Six Flying Dragons and it’s striking to contrast its female characters with how women were presented on GoT.

“Not many female characters in SFD, but those there are, are strong and complex, and respected: a woman spy master, a woman master spy, a peasant village leader, a peasant family matriarch, a resourceful peasant in a player troupe, a very young political ‘genius’ (so described by her father’s retainer).

“There’s a dorm-full of women spy-assassins but no overt prostitution, no femme fatale, no fallen women, no nudity. No conniving queen. The only sex has been one implied rape, off camera.

“Plus one young woman who appears to have an orgasm when the [much higher status] man who is patiently courting her assists her in fitting her first real pair of shoes. But I’d lose it too if I were that particular young woman and that particular young man was fondling my feet.”

“Things are turning very bleak in the last 10 episodes of Six Flying Dragons.

“The essential questions: What constitutes a righteous action? Does loyalty to an ideology take precedence over loyalty to loved ones? Capitalism vs Communism?

“Does a person become evil by performing evil acts or were they evil already?

“And the perennial: Who will live? Who will die violently?”

“Traumatised by Ep48 of Six Flying Dragons then cried the whole way through Ep50, the finale. [And kept on crying for 24 hours.]

” ‘We are stronger when we have someone to protect.’ ”

images.jpeg-4

“In my quest to become an overnight expert in Early Joseon I have done a deep dive into art history books, Wiki and Korean film and TV series beyond Six Flying Dragons.

Tree With Deep Roots picks up in time where SFD left off. I was going to say it presents a very different interpretation of King Taejong/Yi Bang-won but actually, the characterisation has a certain continuity, for obvious historical reasons. From this perspective, it makes SFD a romantic origins story.

“TWDR a.k.a. Deep Rooted Tree (a nice ironic pun) is more Alexandre Dumas.

“I also tried the popular Netflix series Kingdom, which has the apt conceit of making a Joseon crown prince a raving zombie. I applaud the idea – the entertaining Inspector K: Secret of the Living Dead turned Joseon nobles into vampires – but I couldn’t cope beyond the first ten minutes.

“However (Korean: honne), I am not surprised Kingdom has just been renewed for a second season. Maybe I’ll work my way up to it.”

Tree With Deep Roots turns out to be a conspiracy thriller about… literacy?

“Could you stake your life the pen is mightier than the sword, that debate trumps torture, that a good man can survive wielding power?

“Would you?”

FB_IMG_1571532771925

Seoul Broadcasting System


4 Comments

Review: Then It Fell Apart (2019), by Moby

At end May, in reaction to controversy, Electronica DJ and author Moby cancelled all remaining dates of his book promotion tour and announced he was “going to go away for a while”.

There’s so much in Then It Fell Apart that is interesting and well written that it’s sad to dismiss the whole book due to its failings.

It does have manifest failings. I’ll outline them, but again, it feels sad to write off the whole project, and sad to lash an author who makes so naked his frailties.

In the Preface, Moby writes that after finishing his first memoir, Porcelain, “rather than go back to therapy, I kept writing”. That’s where the problems start. Much of Then It Fell Apart reads like therapeutic writing, best discussed between client and therapist, or as a starting point for meaningful private conversation between Moby and significant individuals in his life.

I don’t think Moby was well served by editors or publishers with this book. He’s keen to set out the full extent of his drug-fuelled behaviours and emotional issues. He recognises his desperate drive for validation, for affirmation. As readers, we did not need to know everything he chose to tell. Editors were needed to set boundaries. Publishers needed to put in place fact checks.

The most obvious area is how he writes about women. The controversy that resulted in Moby retreating arose from how he wrote about film actress Natalie Portman, introduced on p.30.

He wobbles on the tightrope for a few paragraphs before things fall apart.

‘She smiled again and looked straight into my eyes. “I’ll be in New York too. Can we meet up?” ‘

Moby remembers Natalie as “flirting”. Subsequently he remembers them as “dating”, albeit briefly. He writes sentences that can be read ambiguously, that read as disingenuous:

‘[…] he stared at me blankly and asked, “Are you with Natalie Portman”

“I guess so,” I said.’

‘I’d had an amazing night with Natalie in Cambridge […]’

‘At midnight she brought me to her dorm room and we lay down next to each other on her small bed. After she fell asleep I carefully extracted myself from her arms and took a taxi back to my hotel.’

He remembers himself as 33 and Natalie Portman as 20.

Natalie remembers things differently.

For starters, she’s clear she had just turned 18. She told Harpers Bazaar UK

“I was surprised to hear that he characterized the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school”.

Fact checks conducted by the Washington Post confirm that across the few weeks Moby refers to, Moby was touring in support of his hit album Play and Portman was making a film. The two met up in New York a few weeks after the initial backstage meeting, not a few days. They both attended the MTV Video Music Awards.

As Portman recalls, it was not her suggestion that they “meet up”:

“I was a fan and went to one of his shows when I had just graduated. When we met after the show, he said, ‘let’s be friends’. He was on tour and I was working, shooting a film, so we only hung out a handful of times before I realised that this was an older man who was interested in me in a way that felt inappropriate.”

You only have to see the photo Moby posted in rebuttal, showing the two of them backstage, him with his shirt off, her with a small, uncomfortable smile, to know the truth of this. It’s a fan pic: Moby, with his jaw-wide, rectangular grin, is the fan; Portman, so young, is the star.

I recognise these photos. I have several where I look just like Moby does here: an ecstasy of adulation; an instinctive professional pose in response.

Moby 3

This is part of the sadness of this book. Moby is a fan to the core, and some of the best chapters in Then It Fell Apart are accounts of growing up into fandom. The chapters that tell of teenage trips to New York nightclubs, the teen teaching himself DJ skills, even the chapters about his early exposures to music and the genesis of his record collection – all are wonderful.

As are accounts of having dinner with David Bowie and Iman, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, and singing on-stage with New Order, channelling Ian Curtis.

Moby as fan is endearing. Moby as creepy older guy is not.

But he keeps doing it. He keeps introducing us to beautiful young girls, some famous (Christina Ricci, Lana Del Rey), some not, salivating on paper as he writes of their exquisiteness, implying he slept with them.

Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. But he didn’t inform any of them a book was coming out with his version of whatever happened between them, or that his version implied sexual relations. His publisher didn’t inform them. Apparently no one had the opportunity to veto or correct.

In his Preface, Moby writes “I’ve changed some names and details out of respect for other people, but all the stories in this book actually happened.”

Memory doesn’t work like that. All recollections are reconstructions. Reconstructions are coloured by fantasies, desires, fears. Reconstructions are configurations of neural pathways. The neural pathways of a man who by his own account consumed massive quantities of alcohol and drugs on a daily basis for decades are shredded.

As for respect… is it respectful to recount an anecdote from a specific UK tour, where individuals can be identified, about a threesome on a tour bus with two female record company staff? Just how many female record company staff accompanied his entourage on that tour bus?

‘I looked down at my naked body. There was shit on my legs and on my stomach. Either I had engaged in messy anal sex that I didn’t remember, or somebody – possibly me, possibly one of the women – had shat on the couch we’d had sex on. It smelled like an open sewer, and I had to fight the urge to vomit.’

That anecdote goes on. And on. Did we need to read it?

Or

‘She looked at the sheets. “Oh, sometimes when I have sex I get these burst cysts in my vagina. Or I got my period,” she said with disconcerting calm.

There was more blood than I’d ever seen in one place. It looked like a cow had just given birth. There was blood on the sheets. On Pam. On me.’

 

There are other tales of menstrual mess on couches, on sheets, of explosive diarrhoea, of the aptly-named Andy Dick, a comedian, attempting to shit on Moby’s birthday cake, pissing into Moby’s champagne.

There’s a tale of “knob-swiping”, a game whereby a man is dared to wipe his naked dick against another person in public, without that person’s awareness. Moby knob-swipes Donald Trump. First time I’ve been on The Donald’s side. More particularly, Moby writes with courteous restraint of Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is kind to him, then launches into telling about dick-wiping her dad. I bet Ivanka does not feel respected.

There are so many tales of hookers, strippers, desperate housewives, mobsters, molls… Did we need quite so many tales?

We get it. Moby was unable to sustain any kind of couple relationship with any woman. He panicked. He could only have promiscuous sex, sex with strangers, sex with what he calls “degenerates”, occasional sex (or implied sex) with women he idealises, sex that goes nowhere … except for that ex-girlfriend, the on-off girlfriend who lasted several years, who he calls Kellie. Kellie must hate this book.

My editing solution:

Condense the narrative about the boy growing up to two chapters: early childhood; then high school years and the brief attempt at college.

Condense the account of stardom and self-destruction. Keep the star-as-fan accounts of his brushes with fame, appropriately framed (fact-checked). Keep representative accounts of self-destructive behaviours and alienation.

The Lana Del Rey (Lizzy Grant) episode is good. If Lana/Lizzy is good with it.

Keep the context of Moby’s lifelong extreme anxiety disorder. Don’t over-egg it. Don’t let it turn into self-excuses.

I would much rather have read less about the hell of being an addict celebrity and had Then It Fell Apart be a three-strand volume: the childhood; the story of a crash; then the story of how Moby constructed an equilibrium, even if precarious.

I don’t need a happy ending. But I need more balance. As a reader, I know there is more to this story, because I made it to the final page. I imagine it was Moby’s intent to write a third volume, the volume of his recovery.

After the controversy prompted by how he wrote about Portman, and after his pledge to “go away for a while”, that book might never be written, or, if written, might never be published. Which is truly sad.

moby 4

As a reader, I’m left with the overwhelming impression of unmanaged anxiety, a man self-medicating with toxic substances, self-loathing, an eating disorder mentality (I don’t doubt Moby is sincere in his veganism on principle, but it does seem to me he’s a case-book male eating disorder), revulsion at bodily functions, and madonna/whore flip-flopping between idealisation of women and fury at women – ironic, given the feud that resulted when Moby accused rapper Eminem of misogynistic lyrics.

But then, he does say he had thought he and Eminem had much at core in common:

“Apart from misogyny and homophobia, I felt a strange kinship with Eminem. We’d both grown up in grinding suburban poverty. We both had complicated single moms. We’d both found refuge in music […] All along I’d assumed Eminem hadn’t really been that upset with me and that someday we’d meet up and have a friendly conversation […] We’d talk about growing up poor and scared, and maybe even become friends”.

Moby 2

While I don’t doubt at all that Moby grew up scared and poor, especially in the very early years, neglected in a chaotic environment, acutely feeling the disparity between his circumstances and the prevailing norms in the prosperous Connecticut county that was home, he never discusses the elephant in the room: his mother lived in Connecticut because that’s where she grew up, and her affluent parents were just up the road in their 10-bedroom mansion, where she and Moby apparently lived for long stretches.

Moby writes of his grandfather with respect and love, writes less of his grandmother – but what was the deal? Why was the child experiencing grinding poverty while living under his grandparents’ roof and later, in a modest house purchased for his mother and him by his grandmother, with his mother earning as a secretary?

When he writes of their temporary relocation to a somewhat less prosperous Connecticut county, he makes the point that he moved from an all-WASP school to a school community that was 90% Black and Hispanic. But then he goes and adds that none of his Black and Hispanic classmates were as poor as he was. Which is just embarrassing. It pushes the self-pity meter way, way up. Words like “entitlement” spring to mind…

Moby 1

So was Moby the little white prince, displaced? Is his rage and his desperate, driving need for validation a consequence of “I *should* have been pampered in the castle!”?

He does write at length about his envy of the billionaire set, despite seeing clearly at close quarters how wretched the billionaires are. And he writes of purchasing a castle, the top five floors of an iconic Gilded Era New York building with views all across Manhattan and the Hudson, and of how living in the castle failed to salvage his soul.

If we take the end page at face value, what salvaged his soul, finally, was AA.


2 Comments

Mystify: Michael Hutchence – a documentary by Richard Lowenstein

Today I attended a Melbourne media preview for Mystify, director Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about his friend Michael Hutchence, lead singer of the band INXS, who died by suicide in 1997.

Michael was my friend once, too. We were a year apart in age and we met not long after we both moved to Sydney in 1979. Back then, I was an Australian rock music writer.

As a rock writer, I wrote a number of articles about Michael and about INXS. More recently, I’ve written two memoir pieces about Michael as I knew him [links at bottom]. Today, I was fortunate to attend the preview as the guest of my friend Jen Jewel Brown, a prominent Australian rock music writer (writing as Jenny Hunter Brown or Jenny Brown), who also knew Michael back in the day, and who co-wrote the 2018 Michael Hutchence biography Michael: My brother, lost boy of INXS, with Michael’s sister Tina Hutchence.

At the end of Mystify, Jen and I sat transfixed. Afterwards, we talked for hours.

I sincerely hope Richard Lowenstein’s sensitive, intimate portrait of Michael as recalled by the people closest to him reaches its audience.

It would be a travesty if Mystify got lost in the wake of the many previous accounts of Michael’s life.

In addition to Tina and Jen’s book last year, published biographies include: Toby Creswell’s Shine Like It Does: the life of Michael Hutchence (2017); Michael In Pictures – A Celebration of the Life of Michael Hutchence by Richard Simpkin (2015); Total XS by Michael’s brother Rhett Hutchence (2004); Paula, Michael and Bob: Everything you know is wrong by Gerry Agar (2003); Michael Hutchence: Just A Man: the real Michael Hutchence by Tina Hutchence and Michael’s mother Patricia Glassop (2000); Michael Hutchence: The Devil Inside by Vincent Lovegrove (1999); and The Life and Death of Michael Hutchence by Mike Gee (1998), also released as The Final Days of Michael Hutchence.

There have been TV dramatisations and documentaries: The Day the Rock Star Died (2019); The Last Rock Star (2017); the mini-series Never Tear Us Apart: The untold story of INXS (2014); Autopsy – The last hours of Michael Hutchence (2014); The Life and Death of Michael Hutchence (2014); Behind The Music Remastered (2010); True Hollywood Story – Michael Hutchence (2004); True Hollywood Story – Rocked To Death: Michael Hutchence (1999).

Some of these accounts are outright exploitation. Others are attempts by people who knew Michael to tell his story as they understood it, or as they want the public to perceive it. Michael’s story is highly contested: it’s been told many different ways.

In Mystify, Richard Lowenstein presents Michael through footage filmed by friends and family, and outtakes from live performance and music video shoots. His friends, lovers and bandmates provide commentary superimposed on images from the time.

Some of the footage, photos and mementoes are breathtakingly personal. Kudos to the women with whom Michael had significant relationships who have chosen to speak honestly and insightfully, and who gave permission for private mementoes to be featured.

That they do this from love, not from any self-serving motive, is abundantly evident.

Kudos to the band members and fellow musicians who speak about Michael as they knew him, for better and for worse.

Kudos to Lowenstein (director of numerous INXS videos, Michael’s director in the feature film Dogs In Space), whose voice is not heard but whose commentary is expressed through his editing choices and the narrative structure.

A few things are brutally clear. Michael’s life was irrevocably altered by Acquired Brain Injury (ABI). He acquired brain injury in 1992 when a Danish taxi driver knocked him down on a cobblestone street in Copenhagen. His partner at the time, Danish supermodel Helena Christensen, recalls blood coming from his ears and his mouth. She recalls him insisting on leaving hospital, being nursed by her at home for the following month. He kept the extent of his injury from others. Perhaps he never fully recognized the extent to which head injury damaged him. But the brain scans exist: Michael had frontal lobe damage, which will have affected his emotional regulation and behaviours. He lost the sensory perceptions of taste and smell, which, for a sensualist like Michael, was tantamount to losing who he was.

In truth, the Michael I see in footage from the last years of his life is not the Michael I knew. His bandmates say it isn’t Michael as they knew him, either.

The Michael presented in those final years is panicking, desperate, lost, humiliated.

For those of us who cared for him, it’s hard to watch.

Afterwards, I felt like I’d been hit by a cannonball. “I feel sick,” I said to Jen. She felt sick, too.

I told Jen the last time I saw Michael was during the recording of their mega-album Kick, in 1987. He was walking up William Street in Sydney, towards Kings Cross. I was walking downwards, towards him. He was wearing a long loose beige coat. I was wearing red. He invited me to join him at Rhinoceros Studios, to help him fill in time between takes, chatting.

Or maybe it was that time when he stopped by my table in a crowded restaurant, and everyone in that room craned to check out who he’d deigned to talk to, strained their ears to hear what we talked about.

But actually, that wasn’t the last time I saw Michael. The very last time was New Year’s Eve 1988, when we were both at the same party at a fancy harborside mansion. He arrived trailing his model of the moment, an Amazon with sky-high cheekbones. We nodded. But by then INXS were major international stars, and I turned away without speaking to him.

Michael Hutchence was a real person, very real. I’ve heard him dismissed as a poser, a wally, a twat. For me, he was a sensitive, talented, inquiring young man, entranced by glamour, dreaming big. For years I thought the life he lived after that New Year’s Eve epitomized success: Michael living happily ever after, in the sunshine of the south of France.

I was disabused of that belief when Michael died.

In Mystify, I now see those years presented as a drawn-out descent into exhaustion and eventual dehumanization, as the tabloids chewed him up.

In one of the Mystify reviews I’ve read, it’s suggested Michael made a Faustian pact: “success”, at the cost of a life worth living.

I’m not sure who it’s implied is the Devil in this pact. I don’t think it’s “the devil inside” (to quote the song).

I do know fame’s a bitch.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Link to my blog tribute to Michael Hutchence, with personal reminiscences – Someone Famous, With Girl (2014) https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2014/06/05/someone-famous-with-girl-for-michael-hutchence/
  2. Excerpt from my blog post W for War (2017). In its totality, this piece is not about Michael and there is some repetition with my Mystify blog post and my blog post Someone Famous, With Girl, above. W for War is, I suppose, about my own personal disillusion with previously held notions of “success” and “glamour”. It’s quite naked and wasn’t really written to be read (true confession!):Let’s begin with Michael Hutchence’s death. That’s a cynical place to begin, because of course it – any “it” – began much earlier. But this is a cynical tale, so let’s start where Michael ended.

    One morning late in 1997 I arrived at my Knightsbridge [London] workplace – the office with W emblazoned above the reception desk – and the tabloids on the foyer table screamed that Michael Hutchence was dead. Found hanged behind a hotel room door. I don’t remember much of that day but I do remember getting home at about 7.30pm and crying hysterically for two hours.

    Michael had been an acquaintance, possibly a friend, of mine. He was a year or so older than me and we’d arrived in Sydney at much the same time. In my first week in Sydney I saw Michael and his band, INXS, play at the bottom of a four-band bill at the Stagedoor Tavern. I say “saw”, but the Stagedoor was so crowded, so dark, I couldn’t see the stage.

    I became a rock music writer, Michael became a rock star. I interviewed him when the band were unknowns, then when they achieved national fame; I hung out with him while INXS recorded their international breakthrough album Kick, I met up with him occasionally and we nattered.

    I wrote him a poem, at his request:

    stops at the sound of
    his name called by
    a stranger – then
    recalls
    who she is and forgets
    himself: it’s you
    he smiles (he always means it)
    he laughs (and feels abashed)
    her eyes mirror his
    she is his (they always are)
    they are both young
    veterans
    they both can
    remember
    moments of belief, of the only kind
    he’ll know
    all strangers
    his kind. He is
    kind, or he could be, this singled out
    outsider
    he takes her
    camera and asks
    Am I in there?

    Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)

    In 2014 I wrote a blog about Michael that stops at that poem and bears its title.

    The last time I saw Michael was New Year’s Eve 1988. I was at a party at a Sydney harborside mansion. Michael was there, with model-actress Virginia Hey. I was femme’d up – stiletto heels, a satin bubble skirt, ‘80s long hair – and we exchanged formal nods. My heels sank into the lawn and mosquitoes bit my shins.

    As INXS conquered the U.S. charts, and as stories about Michael’s jet-setting lifestyle cluttered the tabloids, I came to see Michael as symbolic of “success”: Michael was the one who’d made it. I envied him his home in the south of France, his London pad, his famous friends. I envied him the Good Life with the Beautiful People. Even when paparazzi ambushed him and Paula Yates that notorious Sunday morning on their weekend ‘getaway’ (as if), even as I grew anxious for his well-being, I still saw Michael as representing success, and I still saw success as luxury and celebrity.

    That night, after Michael’s death, I had a nightmare that another of my rock star acquaintance-friends, a peer of Michael’s, Marc Hunter, had hanged himself too. (Marc died a few months later, of throat cancer; I didn’t know he was ill). I wore black to work the next day, and a small cross, and Liza Minnelli sad eyes, and I told my boss and another workmate about my nightmare. Michael’s death was all over the papers, or should I say, the papers were all over Michael’s death. I worked at a media planning agency, with 50 young men, two young female media planners, and four admin support staff (all female). Almost all staff were aged under 30. There were jokes about rock star deaths.

    Rock star deaths proved such a hit that our Xmas Party Social Committee decided to make that the Xmas party theme: Dead Pop Stars. The 33 year old who headed up the committee announced his intention to go as Michael Hutchence, in blue face, with a rope around his neck. I said that if Dead Pop Stars was the theme, I – the marketing director – would not attend the Xmas party. The theme was amended simply to Pop Stars.

    My boss told me other staff complained I was making something out of nothing. They didn’t believe I’d known Michael Hutchence. My boss told me to buck up. I decided to use the shock of Michael’s death to make changes in my life. I took to jogging around the Serpentine in Hyde Park during my lunch break, a short-lived practice.

    On about my second run I emerged from the lift and stepped into the office foyer as my boss was waiting to take the lift down. I glared at him; I was embarrassed at being seen in lycra shorts.

    My boss asked, “You look at me as if you hate me. But I’m the only friend you have around here.”

    That, I think, is a truer beginning.


Leave a comment

Review: The Lost Ten (2019) by Harry Sidebottom

Harry_Sidebottom_The_Lost_TenHarry Sidebottom is an academic specializing in the 3rd Century Roman Empire who has written two popular novel series: the best-selling Warrior of Rome series (seven novels centered on a Germano-Roman general named Ballista), and the Throne of the Caesars series (three novels charting the tumultuous times between Alexander Severus and the Gordian emperors).

This year, a stand-alone novel was published (through Zaffre / Allen & Unwin), loosely connected to the Ballista tales, and titled The Lost Ten.

The cover blurb for The Lost Ten reads: ‘A crack squad. An impenetrable fortress. A desperate mission’.

Inevitably, this blurb conjures up sword’n’sandals Guns of Navarone or Andy McNab ripping yarn, which is probably how this title was pitched. In much the way his previous novel, The Last Hour, can be dismissed as Jack Reacher in Rome.

But I like Harry Sidebottom as a writer, and I like the way he evokes his ancient Rome, and I think it a mistake to dismiss these books.

Sidebottom writes in a fine tradition of historical fiction descending from Alexandre Dumas and Sir Walter Scott, through Robert Louis Stevenson to Patrick O’Brian and Bernard Cornwell.

At his best, in the Ballista novels, Sidebottom’s work is characterized by a keen eye and sense of humour, teamed with research-based authenticity, a confident, lucid writing style, rollicking plots, a moral awareness, a degree of sensitivity, and a grounding in the genres of contemporary popular culture, notably the Western.

The Ballista novels seem to hold a special place in the hearts of Sidebottom fans. With The Throne of the Caesars trilogy, he explored a weightier, more ponderous format, and my guess is it bit him in the butt commercially.

There was a change in publisher. The first two novels with the new publisher, Zaffre, are a bid to reassert the thriller creds of the Sidebottom brand. They seem to me directed to a target audience that is mostly (but not wholly) male, whose reading is perhaps (but not always) confined to military adventure novels and graphic novels, and really wants a fast page-turner.

Both The Lost Ten and The Last Hour deliver to that demographic.

For me, I think it would be a shame to consign the Sidebottom output solely to that demographic, however. In my humble opinion, there are rewards to reading Sidebottom novels that extend well beyond.

I look forward to whatever Sidebottom writes next, and to rejoining Ballista’s continued adventures.


4 Comments

Female sociopaths on TV: Luther (2010), Killing Eve (2018), Sherlock (2016), Elementary (2013), Atomic Blonde (2017)

sZslsTJ9FU8l

Killing Eve’s Villanelle (Jodie Comer)

Today, as I write, the second season of Killing Eve debuts on American television.

A Variety article online warns “a brutal killing changes our obsession with Villanelle”, the whimsical assassin played by Jodie Comer.

What could change our love for Villanelle? What could counter her playfulness, her venom, her charisma?

Villanelle is without question the best thing Killing Eve has going, and Killing Eve Season 1 is a cornucopia of good things.

Yesterday, nine years after its debut in 2010, I binge-watched Season 1 of the UK TV crime thriller Luther. Luther stars Idris Elba, who has had me in the palm of his hand (I wish!) since he co-starred in the 1998 UK 10-parter Ultraviolet, where we met him as a Desert Storm veteran hunting vampires in ‘90s London.

Idris Elba is a good thing. But the Luther character I love, my obsession, is Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan. Like Villanelle, Alice is a sociopath. She executes her parents and the family dog. And that’s just for starters.

images.jpeg

Alice is at it again – Ruth Wilson in Luther

The female sociopath on TV is compelling and unabashedly entertaining. She’s the female unconstrained by social convention, the disinhibited Id. She charms, she flirts, but she does not make nice. She’ll kill as readily as smile. She’s the female without fear, the female who turns the tables on men. The female who rejects expectations of kindness, courtesy, forgiveness, gentleness.

In the first episode of Luther Season 2, Abby, a beautiful young art school student out and about in London’s famed Petticoat Lane, is taking photos for an art assignment. Abby is accosted by a young man who persists in trying to monopolise her attention. At first he’s an interruption, then an irritation, then he’s harassing her: she wants him to desist but she cannot say outright “Stop. Go away.” And if she did, he – and any witnesses – would consider that an overreaction, an unnecessary aggression. So he keeps being in her face till she turns away, strides away, retreats to a quiet recess. Where he reappears and kills her.

Alice would not be caught dead that way.

Alice would entrap him. And gut him.

Be like Alice, we think, we women watching.

Like Season 1 Killing Eve, Season 1 Luther is sublime. It works as a brilliant ensemble piece – not only Ruth Wilson and Idris Elba, but Indira Varma, Paul McGann, Steven Mackintosh, Saskia Reeves – and also as a contemporary reworking of Othello, with plot twists. It takes the familiar tale, with its emotionally volatile hero and his doe-eyed wife who ends up dead, and turns our expectations inside out. And it adds in Alice. Perfect.

After Season 1, in my opinion Luther lost the plot. There is no storyline as compelling as the false friend and the slain wife to drive the narrative forward. There remains only increasingly pointless “psychosexual” nastinesses and, infrequently, Alice. Not enough Alice. And even Alice seems adrift.

Luther’s creator and showrunner, Neil Cross, has said he sees Luther as having a touch of the Sherlocks. That’s interesting, though arguably C21st television features a surfeit of Sherlocks. Obviously, there is Benedict Cumberbatch’s eponymous Sherlock, which offers a version of the female sociopath: Lara Pulver as “the woman”, Irene Adler. Then there’s Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary, where ‘Irene Adler’ is uncovered as Sherlock’s traditional archenemy Moriarty, recast as Natalie Dormer. Most recently the Cumberbatch Sherlock has been revealed to have a sociopath sister, more brilliant than the Holmes brothers Sherlock and Mycroft: the evil genius Eurus, played by Sian Brooke.

images.jpeg-5

Irene Adler, “The Woman” – Lara Pulver in Sherlock

Eurus seems to me in direct line from Luther’s Alice Morgan. Eurus was a freakish intelligence from the outset, terrifying in her freakness. She has the ability to manipulate almost anyone into doing almost anything. Alice was a child prodigy, at Oxford by age 13, at 18 a PhD in the astrophysics of dark matter. Alice explains to Luther she is fascinated by Black Holes:

This is a black hole. It consumes matter, sucks it in, and crushes it beyond existence. When I first heard that, I thought that’s evil in its most pure. Something that drags you in, crushes you, makes you nothing.

It doesn’t take a “psychosexual” expert to figure that a “black hole” is a metaphor for woman. For Alice, her definition of a “black hole” is almost a mission statement. (Reminding me of the wonderful British columnist Lynne Truss, who in the ‘90s referred to a character in the long-running BBC radio soapie The Archers as “Jolene Rogers, not so much a name as a mission statement”.)

One of the promo straplines for Luther is a quote from Season 1, “What if you were on the Devil’s side without knowing it?”

Alice is, arguably, the devil in female form. She’s seductive, beautiful. She’s charismatic. She charms Luther, and they form an alliance. But Luther believes in the value of life, and in love. Alice’s modus operandi is to take what matters and crush it to nothing.

Luther is all stamping bull, stomping forwards, foregrounded. Alice is absence, negative space.

Eurus, likewise, is an absence, physically “missing” from Sherlock’s life, erased from his psyche.

Villanelle is a kind of absence in that she is the mystery Eve seeks to expose. Eve’s job is to trace her, to track her, to entrap her.

I saw a film on TV this week centred on a female assassin and briefly I wondered where she sat in relation to Alice, Eurus, Villanelle, Adler and Dormer’s Moriarity. The film was Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as a triple agent in a comic strip (graphic novel) version of Cold War Berlin. Theron is wonderful to watch, with her action goddess physicality. But the character is intentionally all surface. There’s no mystery there. Face it, a M16 superagent named “Lorraine” lacks all credibility. We know this Atomic Blonde is American, a male fantasy, Debbie Harry as action figure toy. She doesn’t charm, she does not delight, there is no real intrigue.

The Theron character operates through force, not manipulation. She lacks the black hole power to suck us in.

Once we’re truly sucked in, it’s hard to imagine what fictional misdeed could change our obsession, our crush.

The female sociopath crushes it.

f0a8a494b43fbcf85cdd53a3f7d8b082

Eurus Holmes (Sian Brooke) in Sherlock


Leave a comment

Review: Counterpart Season 2 (TV series, 2018) – 24 February 2019

I don’t usually like Season 2 of a TV series better than Season 1. GoT, Vikings… but often I feel as if a series explored its key themes adequately in the first episodes and left itself nowhere as interesting to go.

Counterpart S1 was a terrific series. IMHO, Counterpart S2 is better.

Episode 6 is a stand-alone episode providing back-story. It’s the pivot episode, midway through the 10-part season. It states the main themes explicitly.

In Counterpart, we visit parallel worlds linked by a derelict tunnel called ‘The Crossing’. The Crossing is a closely-guarded state secret on both sides. Most of the inhabitants of the two worlds are unaware there is a counterpart world, and counterpart selves, a phenomenon that occurred in an instant 30 years previous.

At first the two worlds continued on much the same trajectory. Then a flu pandemic killed hundreds of millions in one of the worlds, traumatizing its inhabitants and wreaking havoc with its economy and politics.

Episode 6 shows us how the split occurred, why the two worlds developed differently, and the origins of the flu virus. This sets the viewer up to better understand how we reach where we are: a grey grim world, a prosperous world, a spy state, a terrorist movement.

There’s an allegory here about our contemporary real world, as there always is in Sci-fi. How do we manage difference? How do we address historical wrongs? How to make reparation for ongoing grievances? Can it work to build walls? Is it safe to integrate?

These are obvious questions in a post-colonial, post-Imperial world. There are obvious historical parallels: post-War Germany; Israel and Palestine; Fortress Europe; Australia and its so-called ‘boat people’; the United States and Central America… to name just some.

At the heart of these issues is the question, can we ever embrace the Other, or is the Other always, irredeemably, a threat?

In an unfair universe, where advantage and disadvantage persist, and where one people’s advantage is very often built on another’s disadvantage, can the disadvantaged overlook the happy state of the more advantaged? Or will envy and a sense of injustice always result in retribution?

For that matter, can the advantaged be humble in their privilege and engage with the less advantaged in ways that don’t exacerbate the wounds and that seek to redress harms done?

These are questions that play out at the state level, at the socio-economic level and at the individual level. If I met someone who was just like me – in Counterpart, if I met my own personal Other, the Other with identical DNA, born into identical circumstances, the Other with whom I was One until that fateful split – and if my Other was faring much, much better than me, could I bear that? Who could I blame? What would it mean about me – both of me?

Counterpart S2 asks, if I met my Other, would there not be aspects of my Other’s life that I envied so fiercely, coveted so bitterly, that I might cross all moral boundaries to reclaim that for my self?

Can we share?

Can we play fair?

Counterpart S2 suggests the future of humanity depends on it.

Samuel_Roukin_Yaken_Counterpart_Season2_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Samuel Roukin as Yanek (when young) in Counterpart Season 2 Episode 6, ‘Twin Cities’. James Cromwell plays Yanek aged.


Leave a comment

I Know Who You Are (Se Quien Eres, Spanish TV series 2017) Episodes 1-10 – 9 February 2019

Se_Quien_Eres_Elly_McDonald-Writer

A man lurches down a road. Blood streams down his face. Something awful has happened, but he can’t remember.

The 10-part Spanish TV series I Know Who You Are (Se Quien Eres) is clever, alarming and moving, with beautifully scripted – and acted – dialogue between parents and children, siblings and cousins, lovers, colleagues. Let’s get that out of the road (so to speak): watch this series if you can.

For my purposes, the interest lies in its themes.

Can we ever truly “know” who another person ‘is’? If so, do we ‘know’ instinctively, or through long experience? Is love the gateway to ‘knowing’?

On a pragmatic level, in this scenario, is the amnesia feigned? If not, is it possible that losing memory can in effect re-set a man’s ethics? Can a bad man who can’t remember who he is, become good?

Was Elias a “bad” man? Or was he a reasonable man who did the best he could with his circumstances, in a compromised world?

Is human nature essentially “good”, or are we born wired to different moral frequencies?

Are we born innocent, the famed tabula rasa (blank slate) of philosophy? If experience is erased, do we recover innocence?

If we recover our memories, do we reclaim our guilt?

Elias’s most immediate problem is that his crashed car contains his niece’s cellphone and traces of her blood. And his niece is missing.

Under the Spanish investigative and legal system (which is unlike the legal systems I’ve encountered), he is immediately charged with her murder.

Almost every person in this series is a lawyer, ranging from Elias himself to high court judges (Elias’s wife) to law students (including the missing girl). A given in this moral universe is that lawyers are despicable.

Some law firms are corrupt (but successful and high profile), others start relatively idealistic (but shambolic, a joke, out of their depths).

So at another level, I Know Who You Are is an indictment of Spanish institutions, the Spanish establishment, and of the privileged classes.

Is it just white privileged people who are, arguably, born bad? Hard to say, as no ethnicities appear other than white Spaniards, and the poor are all but invisible (glancing glimpses in late episodes).

The family in Spanish culture is an obvious metaphor for various ties that bind.

We have groups of affiliation, the strongest and most traditional being the family. (Others being social class, gender, ethnicity, profession…) Does ‘for the family’ justify any action? What does it mean to say, “I know who my family is?”

It is not a shock to hear at one point a reference likening family to “mafia”. Or to see a jailed family member behave like a mafia don. It’s not a shock that this family’s home looks and functions like a bunker.

On a literal level, does ‘family’ extend to blended families? Are step-siblings our brothers and sisters? Are step-cousins even relatives? What are our obligations to those not of our blood within the extended ‘family’?

It’s no coincidence the character who symbolizes innocence in this scenario is an orphan.

Family becomes a metaphor for community, and for society more broadly. Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There is no such thing as society”. She meant, ‘There are only individuals making choices in their self-interest as best they see it in their circumstances.’

I Know Who You Are is an acting out of Thatcherite philosophy.

It asks the questions, What are our obligations to those outside our affiliation groups? To human beings broadly?

Do we have an obligation to behave like a decent human being, even if we suspect we are not?

Se_Quien_Eres_2_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Alex Monner as Pol, the extraordinary Blanca Portillo as Alicia, Noa Fontanals as Julieta, Francesc Garrido as Elias

There is a Series 2.

UPDATE: In Australia, I Know Who You Are went out in two parts – Episodes 1-10, then, later, Episodes 11-16. So it wasn’t two series, just one longer series, broken into two parts.

IMHO the platform, SBS On Demand, was wise to break this 16-part series in two. The first 10 episodes focus on one specific crime (though other crimes are committed), with one lead detective, and a tight focus on the existential questions I’ve spelled out above.

Episodes 11-16 shift focus to a different crime (though the crime that launched others is still critical), with a different lead detective (though the initial detective is still active), and really homes in on privilege and corruption. I say “homes” in, because ‘family’ continues to be the prime metaphor for corruption and entrenched privilege in Spain. The action becomes increasingly heated, melodramatic, an allegory of Hell.

In the end, it’s a very dark satire: Lucifer at home, with family.