Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


And that my friends is why one should never write blog posts at 3 in the morning after a skinful of ale.

Maudlin in the Wee Hours

Very, very tired.
Right now listening to John Martyn's 'Small Hours' as I am nothing if not a man for the appropriate.
Very, very, very tired.
Reading a little of Philip Roth's description of Bernard Malamud today. Apparently 'Bern' was an 'Insurance Salesman'. So was Charles Ives. Hell, maybe there is something to that profession. (Before you comment I know Bern wasn't; Ives was though.)
Giving up the ghost.
Robert Charles Wilson is a competent, very competent sci-fi writer, but of much more I am unsure. Knows his characters, but they're all the same.
Why the hell do I stay awake?
Fair dues to Ireland today. The stuff of fiction, but crazy all the same. That last kick....
Why do we even play the game, any game?
Sleep is Death's gift to Humanity.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Presdigitating! Prestigious! The Prestige

The Prestige by Christopher Priest
The Prestige: Watch Carefully!

I really wanted to write about the 'Watchmen' film adaptation, but having just finished reading 'The Prestige' I have to comment on that first.
Despite being a 'Hollywood blockbuster' I know precious few people who have actually watched the movie, 'The Prestige', starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman and directed by Batman's Christopher Nolan. That bewilders me a little as, despite a 'twist' you can see a mile of, it is a wonderfully entertaining piece of filmmaking. Certainly it has weaknesses, but there are too many wonderful ideas going on and such an appropriate atmosphere, that I have to confess to watching it several times now.
Christopher Priest, the author of the novel on which it is based, is an interesting sci-fi writer. He was appointed the Vice-President of the international H. G. Wells Society and, with 'The Space Machine', wrote a fun homage to the master. However, he has also visited darker more psychological territory in his time, as with his 'A Dream of Wessex' and 'Fugue for a Darkening Island'. I was intrigued to see what his original novel was like.
Firstly, and in total contrast to 'Watchmen', the movie is very different to the novel. I had expected this to an extent, having read that the novel dealt with the magicians' descendents as well as the turn-of-the-century milieu inhabited by rival conjurors Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden. But the extent to which they differ is amazing, particularly as both works stand strong on their own merits. In many ways, Nolan did an excellent job taking many of the most arresting elements of the book and staying true to its spirit. In the process he disguised flaws and emphasised themes that catch the imagination. The novel, with a longer time frame, and a wilder storyline, nevertheless has a few tricks up its sleeve.
With regard to similarities first, the two main plot contrivances, one biological, one technological, are still in the book. As a result of a dark encounter in their past (a different cause here from the film), two turn-of-the-century magicians, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, become deadly rivals. One sabotages the other's performance, the other retaliates. When Alfred Borden achieves an apparently impossible trick, transporting himself from one location to another practically instantaneously, his rival strives in his way to replicate this feat. Ultimately he does, but with bizarre consequences.
The feud between the rivals is far richer and more convoluted in Priest's work. The weaknesses of both contrivances are also easier to discern. Borden's deception is very clear from the outset, but Angier's analysis of the situation shows just how crazy, and impossible, Borden's lifestyle is. However, the device devised by real-life scientist, Nikola Tesla is the devil and the angel of this piece. Put simply Tesla's device is perhaps the greatest fantasy invention ever invented. Yet in the novel not only does Tesla knock it up in a couple of weeks, but he, and practically everyone else, fails to see the importance of the discovery. In the book the financial possibilities of the device are hinted at (something the movie wisely left out of the picture, concentrating instead on the Gothic effect), but these possibilities serve to highlight just how ludicrous a plot that sees such a device used purely for 'magical' purposes truly is. Indeed Tesla refuses to explore these possibilities, possibilities that could produce unlimited wealth, apparently on moral grounds, despite having to 'disappear' to avoid creditors. Priest paints a fairly convincing portrait of late Victorian naivete, but that cannot excuse the blindness of all concerned.
Nevertheless there is much to applaud here. The ideas being thrown around, doubles and duplicity, living a lie and lies living, are all concepts beloved of late 20th Century culture, and Priest handles them in a fresh way, combining fantasy, science and Gothic Horror to do so. Priest is an exceptional writer, and he does approach the possibilities his themes offer in terms of literary conceits, but ultimately he never engages properly on this level. This is to the novel's detriment, but still makes for a more lively and entertaining narrative. The epistolary nature of the novel (it is made up of journals and first-person accounts) allows Priest to cloud the veracity of many events in the tale, leaving the reader to choose the truth, to take sides depending on their own loyalties. What is remarkable is how fairly he portrays each of his antagonists. Given our omniscient perspective we reach the conclusion these two enemies would have been far better as friends much earlier than either of the rivals. Given the completely different storylines, it seems strange that 'Wuthering Heights' somehow came to my mind as a comparable work, but with that epistolary structure, the melodrama and the sense of the crimes of the father being visited upon the children, it's probably not that strange after all. And then there's that ending in the crypt.
That sealed it for me. Yes, the plot has holes; yes, there are missed opportunities in terms of literary complexity; and yes, some questions are left unanswered; but that ending was masterfully chilling. The final section, 'The Prestiges', manages to bring the hokey supernatural elements hovering at the edges, the science and the feud all together in one wonderfully sustained passage of ambiguous, and touching, horror. Of all the 'Wuthering Heights' elements, that put me most in mind of Catherine's ghostly appearance near the start of that novel. I mean a crypt lit by electric lightbulbs should not be so affecting, but Priest shows us that even in the 'Modern Age' some feelings (and some prejudices) are hard to dispel. Magical stuff that makes those few flaws just vanish. Just like that!

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Reading the 'Watchmen'

I finished reading 'Watchmen' this morning. I am not really a comicbook fan, but friends have been telling me to read it for years, and I have already read Alan Moore's 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'. He knows his stuff, does Mr Moore. In 'TLOEG' he showed an encyclopedic knowledge of late Victorian literary culture; several Wells' novels collided joyously with creations by Verne, Doyle, Hodgson, etc.. With 'Watchmen' he shows he has digested the Twentieth Century's media just as completely with everything from Pynchon and Vonnegut to the whole comic book tradition.
Though a 'graphic novel', 'Watchmen' has been frequently compared to traditional novels. Certainly it is long, psychological and philosophical. For me though it is just as much cinematic (no doubt the comic book tradition really showing through) with voiceover, visual cues and editing used to great effect. Though I will trundle off to the cinema tomorrow for the adaptation, I already feel like I've seen the movie. And read the book.
Moore's understanding of his medium is awe-inspiring. Small characters and peripheral storylines remained in my mind long after I finished (the 'Bernards', Malcolm, the pirate story), while the slightly mechanical approach of dealing with each major character in each issue somehow works brilliantly as it seamlessly integrates with the major narrative. I challenge anyone to forget Rorschach's furious face near the novel's end.
Which is not to say it is without faults. I am not persuaded by the resolution, though I had heard about it long ago. It is 'comic book' in the most sensationalist sense of the term. Nevertheless there is so much craft on display that I cannot but respect the whole work and understand that this is Moore's ultimate intention, a horrible joke in every sense. (His own characters comment on the lunacy of the solution.)
This is work that could not be done easily in a purely textual medium and may not work completely on the screen. But in the graphic novel format, it works in a way as rich and thought-provoking as the best of either of the other two media. I know I am echoing a lot of what has already been said about 'Watchmen' (and for a long time too), but it really is a showcase for what the graphic novel can achieve.
I am not a graphic novel fan by nature though. Literature and cinema form the foundations of my narrative adventures. This work uses the best devices of both to achieve something neither could probably do on its own. However, I responded to those borrowings (borrowings that to some degree probably gave from the pictorial tradition ultimately). The written word alone probably couldn't do as much, but cinema can come close. Emphasising again that I am not talking about the film adaptation (yet), this work somehow reinvigorated my love for cinema again. (I'd probably suggest this as a text on my scriptwriting course, if I ever get to teach it again.)
Like the Rorschach test so key to the story, a lot of what you get from 'Watchmen' depends on what you see in it. The thing is, Moore (with his artist, Dave Gibbons, and colourist, John Higgins), has put a hell of a lot in there to see.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Four Exclamation Marks!

After the last three posts it just seemed right.

Monday, March 02, 2009


I presume I'm not the only who laughed to hear Corpus Christi College, Oxford were disqualified after winning University Challenge. Made my day, that did.


Just back from a wonderful trip to Munich. Many thanks to Phil, Felicity and the family. Highlights? There were many, but some include:

  • Visiting the wonderfully restored Residenz. We talk of wealth now, but the wealth that created that place is mind-boggling. Das ist verboten, Lulu!
  • Dragging the kids up the steep staircase of the Toy Museum.
  • Eating the traditional Munich breakfast of weisswurst, weissbier, a bread pretzel and sweet mustard at the Viktualienmarkt. Unlike those who do the done thing I did not skin my weisswurst. (Brings tears to the eyes just thinking of it!)
  • Queueing for, and getting into, a pretty comprehensive Kandinsky exhibition and a four year old's subsequent near destruction of a foremost masterpiece of the 20th Century.
  • Schweinshaxe.
  • Weissbier.
  • Schweinshaxe und weissbier.
  • Visiting good old Zweitausendeins on Turkenstrasse. Resisting buying this time.
  • Family friendly brunch on Sunday.
  • Italian show business. Sha-sha-sha-sha!
  • And most especially just seeing the team. What's going to work?

Shucks, I feel all domesticated now.