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Scandinewvian

Hi there. It’s a time when many people eat too much, drink too much, and are miserable for lots of other reasons too. If this is you, I really am very sorry and hope things improve soon. You can console yourself with the thought that this occasion only comes once a year.

I’m no expert, but the occasion of this occasion is the birth of someone who remarked that he brought “not peace but the sword”. He went on to give some unpleasant details about this, and how right he has been proved! The “Prince of Peace” said he wasn’t, straight out, but for some reason people keep wanting to not believe it.

It is true that we don’t have to think like this. We don’t need to feel that we’ve got to get down with the swordplay, and that makes it our own doing, that we go on  doing terrible things. It’s our fault – all sides. We really can do something about it, if we want to.

This year, 2016, is about to conclude, and it won’t be back. Good.

While it’s been unraveling before my astonished gaze, I’ve been watching a Danish “noir” television series, The Killing. This had three seasons and I’ve brought the lot on DVD after seeing the final ten-part epic.

Generally I don’t watch television – see my blog post, “Scandinoirvian nights”. But like the Swedish police thriller Wallander, The Killing lifted television beyond its limitations to reach the standard of fine film-making – just. Television’s self-imposed limitations are present in The Killing, especially the apparent need to follow a template – each episode repeats the format so that by the end of the second installment the structure is an obstruction, artifice standing squarely in the way of art: the same music at the same place, the way the opening is interfaced with credits, etc. A film doesn’t have to succumb to this allure, though “franchises” inevitably face the same dilemma – witness the “Indiana Jones” spinoffs, or Star Wars, or James Bond: the very qualities that make the first take  a success, tend to render successors trivial. These challenges to film are however splattered all over television series as if they are de rigeur, and it’s not pretty.

Despite this, The Killing is worth watching. It is unlike Wallander in that the episodes are not complete in themselves; each of the three series needs to be seen entire. Fortunately the template was tweaked for each and the last series – which your unworthy correspondent saw first – is better than the first.

The Killing has a lot to say, but it is not always clear whether it means to say it. The series focused on a police homicide detective, Sarah Lund, who was the only woman on the squad. The acrress portraying her, Sophie Grabol, said that initially she had a hard time working out Lund’s personality, but when she realised the character was a man in a woman’s body, it became easier.

The brains behind the series, Soren Sveistrup, might or might not have enjoyed this characterisation. Certainly Lund is a fractured person with an intensity of focus that rattles her colleagues; once the bit is between her teeth she doesn’t let up, even when she is suspended. She is a genius at solving horrific murders, sees things others miss, and is thus invaluable. . .but. . .well, I’m not going to offer any spoilers here.

The series succeeds despite its limitations. If it is to be believed, Denmark is a festering sinkhole of envy, intrigue and corruption – still rotten despite Hamlet’s stable cleansing efforts all those centuries ago. The police force is not only not exempt, but also so flagrantly incompetent it is a wonder any crimes are ever solved, leaping to conclusion after conclusion in the rush to get a conviction. Innocent suspects are dragged into the station to be verbally abused and often have their lives ruined, to be replaced by other innocent suspects, while the police officers spend a lot of time blaming and talking past each other, when not ordering someone else to do something. Meanwhile, victims’ families’ lives are torn apart, politicians are dragged into the affair, while the culprit’s machinations suggest that Hamlet’s* ability to concoct and carry out an involved plan behind a facade was not a one-off and may even be a Danish character trait.

So Sarah Lund succeeds in a man’s world by being more than a man, and it is hard on her psyche. This says something, and for those of you who have followed this blog, you will know what I think, or if you don’t, try “Grand Larssony” and “Toiling with Troilus”. We are talking epochal realignments here, true progress – or not.

Scandinoirvian crime depiction is gruesome. Both Wallander and this series feature murders ranging from draining the blood of the victim while still conscious, torture and dismemberment, to the most brutal rapes and beyond. That the true focus lies in the human relationships of the series verges on contradiction, but ultimately that is the underlying point, and it is a political one, whether authors mean it or not. Certainly Henning Mankell, the man behind Wallander, was a “leftist” radical, and Millennium trilogy author Stieg Larsson’s politics were also well out there.

All this blood and guts and tension, and the year we are finishing up has included a new word imported from Danish into English: “hygge”, which means a kind of comfort that one finds in mug of tea and a blanket on a cold night, especially when shared with loved ones. In Norwegian the concept is given a name that is a semi-cognate of our “cosy”.

The murderers may go out and do despicable things before heading home for a quiet cuppa and a nuzzle with someone dear.

Hopefully this isn’t you, dear reader. Please enjoy this time, and head into 2017 with hope in your heart, a smile on your beautiful lips, and a song in your throat ready to greet the world.

 

*It has always seemed to me that Hamlet has been unfairly maligned for his supposed inability to act. On the contrary he was plainly a genius who overcame many obstacles to avenge the murder of his father and clean up a corrupt regime, though he was thwarted and died in the attempt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Getting on with it

Henning Mankell died recently. He was 67. Mankell wrote dozens of novels. plays, and television and film scripts and has a non-fiction book yet to come on the illness that took him away. He was not only an author, but from what I can tell, a very nice person. Take it from me – writers are not always nice people.

Mankell’s best-known creation was a detective in the small Swedish city of Ystad, Kurt Wallander. Wallander made the switch from novel to television not only in Sweden but also in Britain where the title character was portrayed by Kenneth Branagh.

The Swedish series made it for me, someone who loves film but usually finds television unbearable. Wallander was not just human and fallible, he was declining in his powers of detection and the empathy, that he had used so brilliantly in his long career. His dedication to his profession destroyed his marriage and his daughter, coming to work with him, was not always charitable about his failings.

To this wannabe novelist with eight thrillers on offer in the e-universe, Mankell is both an embarrassment and a prompt. To have written so much and to have died relatively early – my slight (and so far unsuccessful) output pales in contrast. It is true he started writing fiction much earlier than I did, but so? He had the gumption to do it, while your unworthy correspondent hid his sublime light under not one but at least two scruffy bushels.

Other people in my life have also provided me with Mankell’s prompt: Celine’s most famous remark was that “the truth of this life is death” and when this insight is combined with stark reality, it definitely does focus the mind. I have been fortunate not to have a use-by date yet, but friends and loved ones have done, and the example of Mankell says to get with it.

There has been a nip of the wringer for me recently – a detached retina in one eye that has kept me from writing much. It could have led to blindness in that eye and that was a great pause for me – but since the operation I have scarcely put e-pen to e-paper. Yes, I can wriggle out from under a bit – the garden needs serious attention and I need to do some other domestic chores that matter.

But what I mean to do is to write – write fiction. It’s what I meant to do when I was fifteen years old, and it’s I what I’ve tried to do for around 15 years now, and when I’ve been able I’ve put my head down and got stuck into it. The more one writes, the better the writing is likely to be.

My eye is not still not well. It is weird. Two little bubbles dance around in it as if they are happy cells that have just divided and would like me to notice. When I go out in the noonday sun, I realise that I am neither a mad dog nor an Englishman, but am dazzled by the spectacle and without shades can not make my way. It is getting better but as with some other aspects of my life, getting better can be a long, long process.

Henning Mankell’s prompt says even if it is not improving at all, it is time to move.

Thanks for reading.

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Scandinoirvian days and nights

When I was a lot younger than I am today, I was a fan of a detective series written by a Swedish couple, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. They have pretty much faded from memory now apart from one particularly chilling story, The Man on the Balcony, and a passage on child-rearing from that or another of the ten novels in the series.

The series they wrote was within the genre “police procedural”, which may more appropriately be thought of as a sub-genre within the detective story, which may be thought of as a sub-genre within the mystery genre, which may be considered a sub-genre of the thriller, which may be considered a sub-genre of sub-literature, a sub-genre of literature! which –

Enough. My point, insofar as I have one, is that these are shifting categories that can exist in their own rights or within larger “theoretical” constructs. They can overlap and never fit perfectly.

Between these two writers’ work and today Swedish fiction and film adaptations of it have till recently pretty much passed me by. I’ve had other concerns, and once I started writing my own thrillers, I left off reading them almost totally.

Stieg Larsson brought Swedish crime fiction back into focus for the rest of the world; I picked up on his trilogy only through word of mouth and then the films made from them – see my earlier post “Grand Larssony”. By then I had run into some other products of the criminal creative genius of what I have decided to call (and claim the credit for, deserved or not*) Scandinoirvian.

There’s a lot of it about. I haven’t seen much of it that has gone on TV as I don’t watch TV very often, and as I haven’t been reading them, the novels they are based on have also been foreign to me..  A Danish series that is raved over has completely missed me, for example, and only lately have I seen the series based on the Swedish novelist Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander character.

These are pretty good**, and I’ve now seen the lot – around 35 episodes that have had a beginning, middle and end, as a novel might. Living within the rules and realities of TV means individual episodes that are self-contained, while allowing for “development” in the lives of the characters. The characters have turned out to intersect with the lives of some of the actors portraying them, in one case tragically.

What most makes for the popularity of Wallander is Wallander, an all too human detective whose failings are acknowledged by the man himself and whose professional life ends in a bittersweet denouement it hurt me as a human to watch. The “police procedural” aspect is there, but it is there for Wallander to ignore…his “hunches” lead to solving the cases.

The cases usually involve awful crimes – abduction and enslavement of young girls, sexual predators and murderers of young boys, cults, and the like. They are frequently more bizarre than would ordinarily allow viewers or readers to suspend disbelief, but work because of the human focus rather than the procedural.

The series as film is also for the most part extremely well done, and a credit to the producers, who were also responsible for the Millennium trilogy. Acting is of high quality and the more technical aspects of filming – location, shot composition, sound and so on, are often stunning. Many of the actors through the second of three seasons featured in the Millennium trilogy, but by the end the producers had run out of them and were using newbies for the most part. In media as elsewhere, success breeds success and the worldwide bonanza of the trilogy seems to have brought new blood into the industry.

Despite all this, Wallander is still television, substandard compared to film, though well beyond the quality of what one has come to expect from TV. It was one of the striking features of the Millennium trilogy that the second and third were made for TV yet worked as film – largely, it seems to me, because they were edited down in time and gained a tightness and intensity that would have been missing otherwise. The full versions have been released but I can’t be bothered watching them for precisely that reason

Sweden has not got a monopoly on Scandinoirvian even if it dominates it. I recently saw a not bad Danish film that appeared as a pilot for a series on TV, but the real deal for me is from Iceland, where Jar City is set. It is a terrific police procedural that turns out to be a genetic sensation. While the author of the novel has written a number using the same detective, so far as I can tell there has been no other film.

But there is another, in a league of its own: Noi the Albino. It is a thriller and not a police procedural, and its astonishing climax is among the most eye-opening and jaw-dropping of the century. Like Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s take on the Trojan War, it is arguable whether the blackness of this film is comic, or not. This simply-made but genuinely shocking film points a way forward for thriller writers and film-makers. That means it could take a generation for anyone to notice.

Thanks for reading.

*No hits on Google, unless this one makes it. As the mad scientist raves in Help! it is mine! Mine, do you hear? Except that it’s not – found it after a different order of search…sigh…

** The British series, starring Kenneth Branagh, has got rave reviews but I watched only one episode and dropped it. Too far-fetched and Wallander, despite Branagh’s acting talents and all the kudos, did not seem anything like fully realised.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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