Monday, February 03, 2014

A Question For Alfie

As in, "What's it all about?"

That's possibly one of the most complicated questions to ask anyone, anywhere, anytime. There are as many answers, obviously, as there are individuals, and no single answer that will bring forth anything close to general acceptance.

In the course of a day, any day, one comes across bits of information that impact the mind so some extent, and then go away. Not vanish, exactly, but recede into near-invisibility. Like one of those insightful, even "brilliant", thoughts one has upon awakening in the middle of the night. I remember reading, many years ago, a note by an author (whose name is long-forgotten) that he had just such a brilliant thought in the wee hours of the new day, found a pencil and pad and wrote down the essence of it. The next morning, he looked at the pad and found that he'd written gibberish. The "brilliant thought" made no sense at all in the relatively bright light of the new day.

It's kind of like the "great ideas" I sometimes have for a story or a new book. I sit down in front of the computer screen and keyboard and start to type (in my hunt-and-peck manner) and an hour later what sits on the screen is something close to gibberish. Which is then consigned to the "miscellaneous" bin.

On the other hand, things sometimes turn out differently. A month ago, after looking at an old family photograph for the umpteenth time, I had an idea for a story, and set to work on same. I wrote intensely for two weeks. Ten drafts and some 15,000 words later I had a long short story based on my mother's family - heavily fictionalised - that I am very pleased with. Three people have read it and declared it good. It still needs some work, of course. (Who was it who wisely said, a story is never quite finished.)

Eventually, after some additional revisions, I will bite the metaphorical bullet and submit it for publication. Somewhere.

But to get back to the fictional Alfie. (I am assuming that our readers all know who "Alfie" is. Alfie is a somewhat odious character created on-screen by Michael Caine in the 1966 film of the same name; and immortalised - perhaps maybe that's a bit strong? - in the title song penned by Bert Bacharach and Hal David, and sung by Dionne Warwick.)

The question, in all its complexity, popped into my head this morning when I reviewed some of my activities from the past week.

Thursday night I spent two hours watching the first two episodes of Luther, Season 3. Luther is the London-based DCI John Luther who is an admirable policeman, but one who will "cut corners" to bring the bad people to justice. He is therefore a target for an internal-affairs investigation. Luther, as I chronicled in an earlier post, is played by the really impressive British actor, Idris Elba.

(Elba, btw, recently portrayed Nelson Mandela in the 2013 biopic.)

I bring the series up in this context because Luther is an extremely violent series of stories, and the villains are an exceptionally frightful lot of twisted criminals. Much of the series context (all three seasons) is truly scary.

In Season 3, the opening scenes have one of the scariest sequences I have ever seen. A late-thirtyish woman comes back to her flat in London, alone. Everything about the sequence is portentous. She locks the door behind her, goes to her bedroom, undresses and climbs into bed. She turns out the light. She falls asleep. The camera lingers on the scene. You just know that something awful is going to happen. And it does. After long moments there is a movement in the room and a man's head suddenly appears from under the bed, then his shoulders, and finally he is standing beside the woman's bed. He is dressed all in black, and ....

Well, watch the episode yourself, and see if you are as shocked and frightened as I was by the sequence.

The question is, why do I/we watch such things? Or put another way, "What's it all about?" The question intrigues me. We read crime fiction and we write crime fiction, and on the face of it, this is really perverse. I am not a violent person; I am actually a very pacific fellow. But I have killed - in fictional context - a lot of people. I have read fiction where vast numbers of people have been killed, and in very violent ways.

(I do have limits, though. The last Patricia Cornwell novel I attempted to read was so gruesome and perverted that I not only could not read it, I threw it away.)

Last month, Suzanne and I watched the first two seasons of Breaking Bad. The series is brutal. Terrible things happen in almost every episode. The lowest ebbs of human behaviour are exploited. And it's absolutely fascinating. And entertaining. We will get back to the following seasons. But first we have to, want to, get through Season 2 of - wait for it! - The Sopranos. The antics of Tony Soprano and his dreadful companions.

Which series, incidentally, last night gave me the answer to the question. Why do we do this? Why bludgeon our senses with fictional violence and bloodshed that scares the bejabbers out of us? Because, as Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Tony's analyst) tells her analyst (played by Peter Bogdanovich), we can have all the thrill of heart-stopping terror, without having to experience any of the consequences.

It's true. We are complex creatures, we humans - who write, read and watch awful things for pleasure. It's always been that way, and always will be.

But I have to say, that nothing I have done or experienced lately in the entertainment field has given me as much pleasure as writing a fictional story based on my mother's family history. A story in which no one at all is murdered. Not one single person.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

Thomas--on Breaking Bad. I'm usually turned off by a lot of violence, but this show is absolutely brilliant. The characterization is flawless and there is a subtle wit throughout the whole series. The humor is dark, but it's there. I think those of us who write crime novels are intrigued by unintended consequences. The use of this technique is masterful in Breaking Bad.

One of the aspects of "taste tracking" that doesn't seem to show up in my profile is whether a show is a romance, a comedy, a drama, a musical, or a really dark crime show--is it any good?