Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A movie and a book

Having heard good reports about A Song for Marion (also known as Unfinished Song) I was surprised at how disappointed I was.  It's mostly about Terence Stamp, a grumpy old man who seems to have no good reason to be so grumpy.  The script never actually gives him a reason, so Stamp is forced to  be grumpy just because he is. Vanessa Redgrave plays his wife who loves him dearly (he seems to love her greatly too); she dies fairly early on from a cancer that's returned after remission. Gemma Arterton plays the young schoolteacher who takes a community choir that Redgrave enjoys going to, and Christopher Ecclestone plays Stamp's son; at one point he asks the obvious questions as to why his father is so grumpy, but since Stamp isn't given any reason in the script he doesn't get a response (!)

The movie swings between delineating the realities of old age, and patronising old people: why is it filmmakers think old people want to do heavy metal songs or songs where sex appears in every line?  The two best songs in the movie (one sung by Redgrave and one by Stamp) are both much more worthy of inclusion than the rubbish ones the choir is supposedly learning.  Stamp and Ecclestone bring reality to their characters (it's a pity the mending of their relationship takes place off-screen) and Redgrave is good in the short amount of screen time she gets. The rest of the cast (including Arterton) seem to have forgotten that when your face is blown up on a cinema screen there's no need to gawk and gawp and overdo every reaction.  I lost count of the number of times people reacted in an actorish way (rather like people in bit parts in the worst kind of amateur theatre); presumably the director thought this was good.  Or else the movie was made for television primarily, where such reactions aren't so overblown.

I'd been told it was a film needing a box of tissues.  Nope, it isn't.  In contrast, I finished Chaim Potok's massive novel, In the Beginning, last night.  The end of this book definitely requires a couple of tissues (well, a handkerchief in my case, since I still use those now-seemingly-despised objects).  Potok seems to take a long time to get to the end; some judicious cutting would have helped, I think, but he weaves and connects themes and images constantly throughout the story, and perhaps without the space to do so the book wouldn't have been so effective. 

It's a pretty gloomy piece: the Jewish narrator, Daniel, is injured in a fall as a baby and damages something in his nasal area, meaning that he is prone to illnesses throughout his childhood.  The operation to cure this only happens in the last fifty pages of the 450 page novel.  His father was once a soldier fighting against the Polish Cossacks, back in his home country of Poland, and he has formed a group to bring his Jewish friends and their families to America, which is supposedly a land where Jews are treated better.  He has been greatly successful in this, and works as a real estate agent in the US.  There's a great sense of Jewish community and fellowship throughout the book, as well as the huge strength of family.  However, Daniel's grandparents on his mother's side are still in Poland, along with a number of other relations.  They dither and shilly-shally about coming to the US until it is too late.  Hitler comes to power, and the Nazi concentration camps come into existence.

We discover that Daniel's mother had been married before, to her current husband's brother. Confusingly he was also called Daniel, and Potok plays with this confusion a number of times in the book.  Daniel was killed by the Cossacks, and in proper Jewish tradition, Max takes his brother's wife as his own.  It wasn't that he had to; he could have put the tradition aside.  But there is obviously great love between Daniel's parents; it's never considered to be a marriage of convenience. The older Daniel was set to be a great scholar, and the younger Daniel inherits his uncle's brains. This turns out not to be such a good thing; he is bullied often in school, and despised for knowing more than those who have to work hard to study. And as he comes into manhood, he makes a decision to study outside the world of Judaism, in order to understand the Torah in a much deeper sense. We don't know whether he truly believes that the Torah is God's word (his younger brother tells him, eventually, that he doesn't, but he keeps up the traditions all the same); rather he is concerned for the argument, the jot and tittle of debate, the disagreements between ancient Jewish scholars, the reading between the lines, the working out why the Torah appears to contradict itself and much more. We read about a good deal of this during the book. Daniel soaks up all this kind of information as he grows, reading deep into the night, and causing those around him bewilderment.

The book almost seems like a biography, though one told in fictional terms. There is no plot as such, and yet in the last pages of the book, what we have learned over many pages about Daniel and his extended family causes us to be deeply affected as we read the last few events. The book is full of vivid characters, of wisdom and a deep understanding of people, particularly Jewish people. The book is soaked in the traditions and teaching of the Jewish people, and in their longstanding complaint against God and the world as to why they are treated so badly. There are no answers to this question - different characters offer different views on it, on why it should be so, and what can be done about it.  None of these things actually alter the suffering of this people.

Reading this book is like going on a long journey: there are varied discoveries, there are people you meet and get to know for a time who then vanish completely, there is a sense of humanity and warmth, and of travelling immense distances from one event to another.  Though there were times, as I've noted above, when it seemed a drawn-out journey, at the end it proved to have been worth the effort. 

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