Archive for the literature Category

Beck X: Curtain Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2022 by dcairns

STOCKHOLM MARATHON begins with a tense scene of a clearly traumatised girl escaping from a window and walking across the roof of a glasshouse… the glass starts to crack…

It’s effective, though it doesn’t extend itself to breaking point and the music is unhelpful, and then the inevitable slomo… it also has nothing to do with the supposed source novel, The Terrorists, the final installment of The Story of a Crime, the ten-volume adventures of Martin Beck by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö. Start as you mean to go on. The entire movie has nothing to do with the book, despite a Stan Lee type cameo by Sjöwall.

Somebody in charge of this series of (straight-to-video?) Martin Beck films, starring Gosta Ekman, made the decision to strip out the CONTENT, the political attitude underpinning the detective story. No doubt the filmmakers weren’t Marxists. But you don’t have to be a communist to agree with a lot of the authors’ critique of Swedish society and western civilisation in general. In fact, rather than pushing their own worldview (Wahlöö “a little bit Stalinist” according to his partner), the authors mostly confine themselves to taking satiric/despairing potshots at the status quo, only offering a solution in the last word of the last book, in the form of a crossword puzzle solution, the single word “Marxism.”

Like most of the books after the first three, The Terrorists hares off in various narrative directions, splitting up the protagonists and assigning many of the key scenes to characters other than Beck. This apparently seems like a problem to those adapting them, but needn’t be: the most faithful films seem to be the most successful.

One strand omitted by screenwriters Rainer Berg & Beate Langmaack is the story of the naive girl done in by society. It’s central to the novel, showing how social services, the police, the justice system, can conspire to destroy one powerless individual. The heart of the book. Parallel to that is the story of the terrorist gang, the only thing retained by the moviemakers, though in fact their story about a threat to the Stockholm Marathon (shades of FOUR LIONS) is nothing to do with the novel’s scheme about assassinating a controversial American politician.

The big ironic twist in the book — spoiler alert — is that after Beck and his team manage to thwart the highly-trained assassins, a lone nut — the girl whose life has been ruined — slips past them and murders, not their right-wing yank, but the Swedish prime minister.

I can see how, just eight years after the real assassination of Olof Palme, the real Swedish prime minister, as he exited a middlebrow Swedish comic film, THE MOZART SISTERS, Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s childish glee at offing the country’s leader might have seemed in poor taste. All the more reason to do it!

The filmmakers double down on the “lone nut” approach in order to deliberately rob their story of any political significance. They really have a genius for finding the least interesting direction at any turn. Since there’s not much of value that can be said about an artefact like SWEDISH MARATHON, there now follows a short disquisition on the dramatic vs. the interesting.

“Many things in life are interesting; not many things are dramatic,” said Dan O’Bannon in an interview for, I think, Screenwriter or Screenplay magazine which condensed all the insights from all the screenwriting books on the market into a few short paragraphs. O’Bannon promised that by following the principles of dramatic structure, pretty much any chump could write an entirely worthless script which the reader would nevertheless feel compelled to finish, or at any rate were the atrocity to be committed to celluloid, the viewer would find themself watching to the end (and probably cursing themself for it).

Raul Ruiz, meanwhile, asked why only a three-act structure based around a central conflict could be interesting? Why couldn’t a film detailing all the activity in a Brueghel painting be interesting, for instance? O’Bannon has the answer: interesting, yes, but not necessarily dramatic.

Ruiz is not primarily a dramatic filmmaker, I’d say: he does something harder, I think, because he has to sustain the audience’s interest with less obvious hooks. Where he does detail dramatic problems, there are likely to be lots of small ones rather than one big dumb one. There are plots, often quite complex — related events unfolding sequentially, but a synopsis of a Ruiz film might indeed end up sounding more like a description of a huge, detailed painting.

We’ve all seen too many films where the filmmaker hooked us and reeled us in, but offered no reward for the journey. Since the three-act structure is a boringly familiar trope (one reason it works so well may just be that we’re subconsciously familiar with it, so that it’s comforting to know where we are in the story), it’s incumbent upon anyone using it to offer some Ruizian INTEREST — in the form of psychological or social insight, ideas of any kind, aesthetic surprise, behavioural authenticity, something thematic or stylistic out of the ordinary run, possibly connected to but extending beyond mere PLOT, which E.M. Forster, citing the example of Scheherezade, justly defined as a trap for brutes.

Sjöwall & Wahlöö obviously used their narratives for a sociopolitical purpose, which seems one of the most suitable uses for a detective story. Psychology is certainly possible, but the Mechano-set construction of a cop story can get in the way of that. Which makes it an even better trick if you can do it. These Martin Beck movies offer plots which, fascinating on the page, become sterile when rendered on the screen with the INTEREST strip-mined away, cardboard characters moving along the string of a murderboard without a centre.

Beck 9: Cold Call

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2022 by dcairns

I’m sorry but the Martin Beck adaptations with Gosta Ekman are just NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO WATCH.

Apparently original co-author Maj Sjowall appears in all of them, like Stan Lee, but I haven’t spotted her. I don’t really know what she looked like in the nineties but she was cute as a button when the books were being written.

POLISMORDAREN aka THE POLICE MURDERER, adapted from the novel generally translated as Cop Killer, is completely without interest, except where it’s purely incompetent. The novels mix tones quite freely, but Sjöwall and partner Per Wahlöö always know what effect they’re after, even when mingling violence with humour. But this straight-to-video yawn, directed by Peter Keglevic, stages a key shooting incident with both tragic flute and slomo for epic tragedy, and slapstick pratfalls for farce. There might be a way to make that work, but not here.

One good thing: this geezer looks exactly the way I pictured him in the novel.

The book has some fun stuff — the killers from the first two novels in the series reappear. One is chief suspect in a sex killing in an out-of-the-way village. He’s done it before, served his time, but due to Sweden’s forgiving laws, been released as no longer a threat to society. Now, that book has been filmed as ROSEANNA in 1967, but it had also been adapted as an Ekman vehicle in 1993. But they could hardly feature the same killer in this piece, made a year later. Swedish justice isn’t THAT lax. The journalist killer from the second novel, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, also appears, still working for the press, under a new identity. Both characters really do seem to have settled down, though “the man called Folke Bengtsson” is still deeply weird.

So, none of that features in this adaptation, and I guess it couldn’t. What’s left? There’s a petty crime spree that ends in fatalities, and it’s tied in a coincidental way to the initial sex murder (staged with an unwelcome lasciviousness). One crime provides a clue to the other, a trick Sjöwall & Wahlöö were very keen on, as in The Man on the Balcony, where the witness who can identify a child killer is himself a violent robber.

This isn’t the strongest of the novels — the series is probably at its best from around volumes three to seven. But it’s very engaging. The film version, not so much. It reminds me way too much of nineties episodes of Taggart, Scotland’s own cop show, which outlasted its leading man, who was visibly dying of alcoholism onscreen (his afternoon closeups were rumoured to be filmed with a crewman on each side holding him up by the arms). The show went from dingy video in its early days to a glossier preudo-cinematic look which never achieved actual style or scale: much like this.

Also, we say “Polis” in Scotland too. Pronounced “Poe-liss.” So the cop cars in Beck are strangely amusing.

Michael Tapper’s book Swedish Cops dishes up an impressive amount of backstory — the various true crimes that inspired Sjöwall & Wahlöö, including the case that gave us the concept of Stockholm Syndrome, though the book and the show never get as far as a hostage situation.

“More than in the novels,” Tapper writes, “the films linger on Beck as a tragic hero, living the lonely, heartbroken and empty life of an inspector. Only his daughter comforts him from time to time. Repeatedly, we see images of Beck’s sad face accompanied by a melancholy piano score, in hindsight almost a blueprint for the sad, lonely and frequently ill Swedish inspector in innumerable novels and films. During the completion of the films, a statue called Det svenska tungsinnet (“Swedish Melancholia”) with actor Gosta Ekman’s features was completed by the actor’s wife, director and artist Marie-Louise Ekman. It is installed in the Altona Park in Malmö.”

Perhaps worth mentioning: the eighth Beck novel, The Locked Room, was adapted for Czech TV as Záhada zamčeného pokoje in 1986. I don’t think it looks very interesting — people in rooms talking in flat, uninflected shots — but you could argue that’s a decent approximation of the novels’ prose style and their dour hero. Anyhow, it’s here if you want to try it. Let me know if it turns out to be gripping.

One more to go!

Wank with Mank

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2022 by dcairns

I read and enjoyed Walter Wanger’s My Life with Cleopatra, having previously enjoyed The Cleopatra Papers. That movie is so much more fun to read about than to watch. I watched it once and have forgotten almost everything.

The Wanger book — sloppily put together (he keeps changing from present to past tense) but fun, if you enjoy dismay as much as I do — led me to finally pick up my long-ago-purchased copy of Pictures Will Talk, Kenneth L. Geist’s Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which I knew was going to be enjoyable from its Acknowledgements page. Geist writes there, “My qualified gratitude to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who granted me eleven interviews […] My unqualified gratitude to Christopher Mankiewicz, who, unlike his father, has made the many hours in his company constantly pleasurable.”

Geist’s irritation at his subject, no doubt partially justified, is amusing, because we can’t really sympathise — Geist is the one thrusting himself into JLM’s company, not the other way around.

Joe and Mank

As a sample of how much value the book has for the lover of gossip and smut and trash, here’s a story told by JLM about his brother, Herman J., which unaccountably didn’t make it into Fincher’s MANK. It’s more disturbing than funny, possibly.

Herman was a heavy gambler — several entries in his filmography were written purely to pay off his gambling debts to the studio bosses. One home he played at belonged to such a mogul, and came with the disadvantage of the titan of industry’s small son, who would wander into the room where poker was being played, picking up chips, asking questions, generally being a distracting nuisance.

Nobody felt they could tell off the boss’s kid.

Fed up with this, Herman took the kid by the arm and led him away. Came back alone. The other players asked him how he’s managed it — violence, hypnotism, bribery?

“Easy,” said Herman. “I just found a private spot on a back stairway and taught the kid to masturbate. He took to it like a duck to water.”