Michael Wood

Michael Wood is an emeritus professor at Princeton.

Historians​ are often suspicious of the notion of the counterfactual. It’s hard enough to establish what happens, they suggest, without having to worry about what might have happened. The facts are the facts, aren’t they? When we have agreed on what they are, of course. But then contemporary historians inherit a large legacy of hubris, the knowledge of ‘how it really...

At the Movies: ‘Da 5 Bloods’

Michael Wood, 2 July 2020

Spike Lee’sDa 5 Bloods (on Netflix) is an extraordinary mixture: a swashbuckling pirate movie about buried gold and a shoot ’em up Western mysteriously transplanted to the East. But then where do the landmines come from? Oh yes, from the war film. Even with the lively incursions of other avatars, this is supposed to be one, or at least a film in which warriors visit an old...

At the Movies: ‘Arkansas’

Michael Wood, 4 June 2020

Many​ new films have deferred release dates, and cinemas keep reminding us to watch at home the films they can’t show. ‘The olden days,’ Anthony Lane said in a recent, very funny New Yorker piece, ‘ended a few months ago.’ Those were the days when ‘humans went to the movies’. It’s also true that the olden days had long been invaded by other...

Waiting for Valéry

Michael Wood, 21 May 2020

Yeats​ was a great admirer of Paul Valéry’s poem ‘Le Cimetière marin’ (‘The Graveyard by the Sea’), but only up to a point – the point where he thought that the poem’s main injunction was not about lingering among the tombs and talking to the dead, but about getting on with life, or trying to. ‘After certain poignant stanzas,’...

Asmartly​ dressed man, wearing suit, tie and hat in the 1920s fashion, walks towards us along a New York street, accompanied by a stylish woman. Suddenly, he is flat on his back. He gets up, dusts himself off, and walks on as jauntily as before.

What happened? Well, in the two-dimensional world in which he lives – this is a movie – he stepped on a banana peel. In the slightly...

In​ Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and in the myth he was staging, the Furies that drove vengeance and justice are appeased, and converted into the so-called Kindly Ones. Pier Paolo Pasolini accepted this story as still current in Italy in the 1960s, but with an important variant. The transformation did not mean the Furies were any the less ‘irrational and archaic’, only that instead...

The critic​ Richard Brody suggested recently that cinema needs to be de-Nazified, to abandon its habit of using Hitler’s followers as ‘instant avatars of evil’. ‘Some of the very worst movies of recent years,’ he wrote, ‘have used depictions of Nazis … as a short cut to gravitas.’ And not just those of recent years, we might add, and not just...


Michael Wood, 6 February 2020

When​ a film begins in a basement and ends in the mountains, we know that a spatial metaphor or two may be in the offing – as in Bong Joon-ho’s earlier work The Snowpiercer (2013), where social classes are marked by their location (front and back) on a long train, and defined by a grim and nasty talk (given by Tilda Swinton with a Yorkshire accent) about who is the head and who...


Michael Wood, 2 January 2020

‘What is​ a ghost?’ Stephen Dedalus asks in Ulysses, and promptly answers his own question. ‘One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.’ Not a figure who is entirely unreal, just one who has become a little faint, lacking in physical immediacy. Perhaps someone who lives in the memory only, not an inconsiderable form...

At the Movies: 'Marriage Story'

Michael Wood, 2 January 2020

Wehave seen so many other worlds in movies recently that shabby domestic realism, showing the details of a marriage and its break-up, real streets and familiar furniture, can come as something of a shock. The shock is all the greater when the leading characters, like Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, come from those other worlds. Johansson has...

At the Movies: ‘The Irishman’

Michael Wood, 25 November 2019

Thecamera proceeds down a corridor in a nursing home. It isn’t in a hurry but it is looking for someone. It veers slightly to the right towards an alcove, decides it doesn’t need to go there, and continues straight ahead. It turns left into a larger room and moves more confidently towards an old man in a wheelchair, seen from the back. The camera circles round him and pauses...

Bernard de Fallois​, a legendary French editor and publisher, died in January 2018. He worked for a long time at Hachette, and set up his own company in 1987. At one point, he was considering doing postgraduate work on Proust; he said in one of the lectures now published as Sept conférences sur Marcel Proust that he had been ‘tempted to conduct … a university exercise...

At the Movies: ‘Non-Fiction’

Michael Wood, 7 November 2019

The film​ begins with some anxious jokes about the changing times. The ancien régime is mentioned, meaning both the political order before the Revolution and yesterday’s state of play in French publishing and digital media. The possibility is floated that Twitter will usher in a new golden age of the epigram, make brevity the soul of wit again, rather than give people permission...

In​ 1979 the makers of Alien, Stalker and, it might also be said, Apocalypse Now invented worlds we thought we wanted to know about but couldn’t inhabit. Domestic quarrels and the musical had their day too (in Kramer vs. Kramer and All That Jazz), and we may feel that Roman Polanski’s Tess belongs to both old and new worlds, but still: it was a good year for otherness.


It was​ so quiet that night, we learn in Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the Manson murders of 1969, that you could hear the ice rattling in cocktail shakers all the way down the canyon from Cielo Drive, Los Angeles. At least this is what ‘one of the killers would later say’. In Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, we...

Salman Rushdie’s ‘Quichotte’

Michael Wood, 12 September 2019

‘One​ can feel that there is always a camera left out of the picture,’ Stanley Cavell writes in The World Viewed. He is writing of a literal movie camera, but he suggests a metaphorical reach for the claim too. The missing camera is ‘the one working now’, and its recurring absence makes Cavell feel there is ‘something unsaid’. We could put the currently...

At the Movies: Agnès Varda

Michael Wood, 1 August 2019

A recurring​ effect in the films of Agnès Varda, especially her documentaries, is a kind of hesitation between photography and moving pictures. A shot looks like a still – the opening image of Daguerréotypes (1975), say, showing a couple behind the glass door of the perfume shop they work in. The wife shifts her head slightly but that’s all she does, and the man...

Robert Hamer​’s Kind Hearts and Coronets was first released in 1949, and the current celebratory showings in various London cinemas are more than welcome. There is something a little odd, though, in associating this film in any close way with ordinary, consecutive time. It was elegantly old before it was born, and it hasn’t got any older. It is based on a 1907 novel, which it...

‘And the humans,​’ a dark deep voice asks at the beginning of the film, ‘what can they do but burn?’ The answer is quite a lot, especially when they are defended by superheroes. Still, many of them do burn, and the film itself, The Avengers (2012), directed by Joss Whedon, quietly raises the issue of collateral damage. Did the superheroes have to fight their war to...

Towards​ the end of Blade Runner the actor Rutger Hauer, playing a replicant whose programmed life is fading, says he has ‘seen things you people wouldn’t believe’. ‘All those moments,’ he adds, ‘will be lost in time, like tears in rain’: memory and knowledge, the replicant has understood, are part of what constitutes identity. The same actor makes...

Sartre’s Stories

Michael Wood, 18 April 2019

Sartre​ published his novel Nausea in 1938. His plays The Flies and No Exit were first performed in 1943 and 1944, and Being and Nothingness appeared in 1943. This material is enough to eclipse almost anything and Sartre’s volume of short stories from 1939, The Wall, has not entirely escaped this fate – no doubt because, apart from the competition, we have been taught to think...

At the Movies: ‘Swing Time’

Michael Wood, 4 April 2019

Watching​ Astaire and Rogers films again, especially the classic trio of Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936) and Shall We Dance (1937), leaves all kinds of old impressions intact. The air is light, the stars are perfectly matched in their plot-driven attempts not to get along with each other except when they’re dancing. Rogers needs to be sulky a lot of the time, but that makes her...

Brecht’s Poems

Michael Wood, 21 March 2019

Your spectator is sitting not only In your theatre, but also In the world.

‘I live​ in dark times,’ Brecht said, but he liked to believe the darkness would end. In the poem containing those words, written in the 1930s, he apologises to ‘those born after’, saying that

Hatred, even of meanness Makes you ugly. Anger, even at injustice Makes your voice hoarse. Oh,...

At the Movies: ‘Vice’

Michael Wood, 21 February 2019

We may​ think all biopics are biofantasies, in which case the opening title card of Adam McKay’s new film Vice will have us laughing already. After all, he is the former Saturday Night Live writer who made The Big Short, a very funny movie about the 2008 financial crisis. The card says: ‘The following is a true story.’ If we aren’t laughing, we may be wondering,...

At the Movies: ‘Roma’

Michael Wood, 24 January 2019

Alfonso Cuarón​ likes to travel in his films: to outer space in Gravity (2013), to Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), to a bleak future world in Children of Men (2006). But in Roma he stays at home, or goes back home: to Mexico, to the past, to the family. The title may not suggest home to many of us: we’re not bound to know that Roma is the name of a...

Iris Murdoch’s First Novel

Michael Wood, 3 January 2019

Jake Donaghue​, the endlessly discomposed hero of Under the Net, is a careful composer when it comes to his narrative, as distinct from the life he has notionally been living. He refers to ‘earlier events related in this story’, restricts himself to what is ‘of any interest from the point of view of the present story’, and describes his feelings as they were...

The​ first feature-length film by RaMell Ross, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, has been praised for creating a new genre within the documentary form and evoking with unusual clarity the life of a particular community. I wouldn’t dispute the general sense of these claims, but there is something too grand and final about them, an implication that we know what the film is about...

At the Movies: ‘Some Like It Hot’

Michael Wood, 22 November 2018

Billy Wilder’s​ Some Like It Hot, now showing in a new print at the BFI, was based on a German film called Fanfares of Love, first made in French in 1935 and then remade in 1951. Wilder, in 1959, was thinking mainly of the original, which he said was ‘deliriously bad’. Coming from him this was a compliment rather than a complaint, and he certainly found in the old...

‘The Third Man & Other Stories’

Michael Wood, 8 November 2018

I don’t think the story offers any serious competition to the wonders of the film. But it no longer serves as a draft or a blueprint, and it holds its own very well among Greene’s or anyone else’s short stories. It’s waiting for us, asking us to read it, and reread it, even if it was initially supposed to disappear into the machinery of movie-making, like Harry Lime slipping off into the sewers of Vienna.

At the Movies: ‘A Star is Born’

Michael Wood, 25 October 2018

The​ story is old and always violent, and in a favourite modern version acquires a dark particular twist. The king must die but he also has to collude with, even create his assassin. Early on in Bradley Cooper’s first film as a director, a new rendering of A Star Is Born, Cooper himself, playing a crumbling rock/country legend, sings a weary, winsome number about changing styles,...

At the Movies: ‘BlacKkKlansman’

Michael Wood, 27 September 2018

Spike Lee​, as befits a film school graduate, is a master of montage. His cuts and juxtapositions often say more than his dialogue does, perhaps more than any dialogue could. This is especially marked in BlacKkKlansman, which has been widely hailed as Lee’s return to form after a spell in the movie wilderness.

The film opens with a shot of a railway yard littered with bodies,...

Did​ someone say familiarity breeds contempt? In the cinema it often breeds attraction and money. The film series called Mission Impossible began in 1996, picking up from a television show that ran from 1966 to 1973 (171 episodes), and the new, sixth movie (Mission Impossible: Fallout) had as of 15 August made $458 million worldwide (it cost $178 million to make).

Of course there have been...

Fernando Pessoa

Michael Wood, 19 July 2018

In​ 1968, when not too many people outside Portugal had heard of Fernando Pessoa, now regarded as one of the great Modernist poets, the linguist Roman Jakobson, in collaboration with Luciana Stegagno-Picchio, wrote an essay centring on Pessoa’s use of oxymorons. The piece was a complex formal study of a poem from Mensagem (1934), the single volume of verse Pessoa published in...

At the Movies: ‘Pandora’s Box’

Michael Wood, 21 June 2018

Pandora’s Box, G.W. Pabst’s great silent film from 1929, is a classic portrait of the femme fatale. Or is it? The new print showing at the BFI allows us to think again, and the film now seems rather sceptical about fate, and much devoted to the ideas of chance and greed and obsession.

The old story of Pandora’s box, an urn apparently until its Greek turned into Latin, was...

Leo McCarey’s​ Duck Soup (1933) has one of the cinema’s great moments of sceptical philosophy. Chico and Harpo Marx, both disguised as Groucho, are in Margaret Dumont’s bedroom, though Chico is hiding under the bed. Harpo departs and Chico suddenly appears. Dumont is shocked. Didn’t he just leave? Chico says he didn’t, and Dumont says she saw him with her...

Once upon a time​ in the western we knew where we were. We were in the old days. We were west of civilisation in the United States, stranded in a place where law was unknown, or had just arrived, or immediately been superseded by galloping, ill-organised crime, quite different from the tidy, housebound business of the east. If we were allegorically inclined we knew some sort of fable of...

Di Benedetto’s Style

Michael Wood, 5 April 2018

Introducing​ a 1999 edition of Antonio Di Benedetto’s The Silencer, first published in 1964, his fellow novelist Juan José Saer saw the work as belonging to ‘a sort of trilogy’. The idea caught on, and in 2011 Zama (1956) and The Suicides (1966) joined The Silencer in a single volume advertised as a ‘trilogy of waiting’. Whether this event or any other...

In​ his speech accepting this year’s Oscar for best director – The Shape of Water also won the Oscar for best picture – Guillermo del Toro offered a kind of parody of the mode of the film itself. He thanked the executives at Fox Searchlight for listening to ‘a mad pitch’, and for believing ‘that a fairy tale about an amphibian god and a mute woman done in...

At the Movies: ‘Phantom Thread’

Michael Wood, 22 February 2018

A middle-aged man​ looks insistently at a young woman. He doesn’t speak. He is smiling slightly, playing with her, but also seeking to trouble her. After a moment she says: ‘If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.’ After a much longer moment he laughs. Has he found his match? Does she understand him, or does she just know how to play this...

‘The Americans​ really know how to do things,’ the central character thinks in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), now available in an elegant new print. He is a Cuban living in Havana in the days after the Bay of Pigs disaster, but he is not being sarcastic. He is not actually thinking about the Americans at all, and says later in the...

John Banville

Michael Wood, 4 January 2018

A rich​ old American in John Banville’s new novel makes an amused distinction between money and small change. Asked what money is, he just laughs. This is not malevolent laughter but he does do a dangerous thing with his money. He leaves a lot of it, when he dies, to a young American niece. She is grateful, of course, and the money enhances her freedom – at first....

‘Proust and his Banker’

Michael Wood, 14 December 2017

The​ title of Gian Balsamo’s intriguing book is staid enough: Proust and His Banker. The subtitle – ‘In Search of Time Squandered’ – promises all kinds of adventures and invites us to toy with various riddles. When is an opportunity cost – a favourite term with Balsamo – not an opportunity cost? Perhaps when the opportunity turns out to be a...

The great detective​ never rests, and perhaps doesn’t want to, although in Kenneth Branagh’s new film he does express a wish for a day or two off. No such luck, of course, something has to happen even in a slow and glossy movie. He starts off by dealing with a theft in Jerusalem, runs into the titular murder on the Orient Express, and at the end is summoned to a sequel, I mean...

At the Movies: ‘Blade Runner 2049’

Michael Wood, 2 November 2017

It’s​ 35 years since Blade Runner was released, and we are now very close to 2019, its once futuristic setting. In this framework the sequel seems a bit overdue, and the time of the sequel’s action, 2049, not all that far away. The new movie, directed by Denis Villeneuve, goes out of its way to bypass the first impression and to insist on the second. The weather is still...

At the Movies: ‘Detroit’

Michael Wood, 20 September 2017

Kathryn Bigelow’s​ impressive new film, Detroit, is full of disturbing violence, but its most disturbing moment is entirely non-violent. It comes too late in the film to help in any way, and just in time to worry us. It is a sentence on a title card explaining that some of the facts in the historical situation at the heart of the film are still in dispute. We knew the movie was a...

L’affaire Dreyfus

Michael Wood, 6 September 2017

The event​ was ‘foreseeable and scandalous’, a wonderful combination in its way, and we might apply the phrase to many incidents in our world. I didn’t find it in yesterday’s newspaper, though. The historian Marcel Thomas uses it in his remarkable book, published in 1989, on Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the man who was the spy that Alfred Dreyfus...

At the Movies: ‘Dunkirk’

Michael Wood, 16 August 2017

Christopher Nolan​’s Dunkirk is worth watching for its final sequence alone. The three stories being told throughout the film intersect rapidly, and no easy solution or reflection results. A young man walks into a newspaper office in Weymouth and hands over a school photograph, pointing out one boy. A Spitfire prepares to land on a French beach, gliding, its propeller still, because...

At the Movies: ‘Wonder Woman’

Michael Wood, 12 July 2017

Towards​ the end of Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman (2016), when the two heroes have finished their petulant squabbling and bouts of throwing each other off high buildings, they are joined by Wonder Woman in a battle against a creature from another world. ‘From my world’, as Superman says with a mixture of pride and associative guilt – the creature is a cyber...

Diana Trilling

Michael Wood, 28 June 2017

It was​ an anxious, analysed time, where everything was shifting and complicated except the enduring family romance, the troublesome siblings, the failure to escape the baleful relation with mum and dad. It was a time, as Natalie Robins says in one of her wry moments, ‘when paediatricians functioned as parents, psychiatrists and book critics; when psychoanalysts functioned as judges;...

The date​ of the story in Ridley Scott’s new alien movie is 2104, ten years after the messy, murderous events that put an end to the previous prequel, Prometheus (2012). True to the tradition of the franchise, virtually the whole crew of a spaceship is wiped out in both films.

Alien (1979) ended with Sigourney Weaver’s voice saying into the ship’s log: ‘This is...

At the Movies: ‘Blow-Up’

Michael Wood, 17 May 2017

‘I’ve​ gone off London this week,’ the central character announces in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), released in a new digital transfer by the Criterion Collection. A local antique dealer wants to get away, to Nepal maybe. When told that Nepal is all antiques, she says she thinks she’ll try Morocco. The film itself doesn’t seem to share these moods at all,...

Empson’s Buddha

Michael Wood, 3 May 2017

‘There is​ something very Far Eastern about this,’ William Empson says in Some Versions of Pastoral, meaning the manner of Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’. The remark is mildly intriguing but pretty loose, and even if we think of Empson as having the thought while he lectured to his Japanese students before he wrote it down, the Orient still seems stereotyped and...

Fritz Lang and the Life of Crime

Michael Wood, 19 April 2017

As far​ as we know, Fritz Lang’s life of crime was confined to his films, although there was some gossip about the circumstances of his first wife’s convenient death. The familiar phrase has many uses and meanings, of course, and we might say the more the better. The lives we imagine for crime may help us to see in it and around it, and thinking about crime may help us to think...

At the Movies: ‘The Salesman’

Michael Wood, 29 March 2017

Asghar Farhadi’s​ The Salesman is too poised and immaculate for its own good, but full of disturbing undercurrents all the same. Of course, since the film has just won the director his second Oscar – the first was for A Separation (2011) – we could also say it knows exactly what’s good for it, but the two thoughts are perhaps not entirely opposed. Poise and...

At the Movies: ‘Moonlight’

Michael Wood, 16 February 2017

Moonlight is full of amazing silences, at times almost a silent movie. Until the last section, when it is so obvious what the characters are thinking that they might as well be shouting. As in the Billy Joel song they are sharing a drink they call loneliness but it’s better than drinking alone.

The first person we see in the film talks a bit but we learn far more from what we see of...

At the Movies: ‘La La Land’

Michael Wood, 19 January 2017

‘Gotta dance,’​ Gene Kelly shouts towards the end of a famous Hollywood movie. He’s right, he doesn’t have any option, he’s in a musical, and he’s been dancing (and singing) since the film started. But that’s not what the words mean for his character. They mean that dancing is his dream and his destiny, he will be nobody if he doesn’t dance....

At the Movies: ‘Napoléon’

Michael Wood, 15 December 2016

One​ of the lasting impressions left by Abel Gance’s film Napoléon (1927), now showing in a new, digitally remastered print at the BFI and the Lumière, is that it consists solely of close-ups and crowd scenes. This impression is too simple, but it doesn’t go away when you correct it with the modest, more diffuse truth. There are shots that do not linger on iconic...

Roland Barthes

Michael Wood, 17 November 2016

On​ 2 December 1978 Roland Barthes reported to an audience at the Collège de France on his desire to change as a writer, and told them about a specific moment when the thought of a ‘conversion’ hit him: 15 April that year.

Casablanca. The sluggishness of the afternoon. The sky clouds over, a slight chill in the air … a kind of listlessness … bears upon...

At the Movies: ‘The Innocents’

Michael Wood, 17 November 2016

We know​ what black comedy is but I wonder whether some stories don’t call for another colour. Pale grey, for example, might be about right for Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery (2014), a stately, not obviously funny film in which an English woman stumbles into Flaubert’s plot and dies not deliberately by arsenic poisoning but accidentally by swallowing, or rather failing to...

At the Movies: ‘De Palma’

Michael Wood, 19 October 2016

Good humour​ comes to seem relentless if it isn’t interrupted once in a while, and this is one of the interesting effects of the film De Palma, a feature-length account of the director’s work. It opens with screaming orchestral music over the title, followed by a clip from the beginning of Hitchcock’s Vertigo – James Stewart climbing onto the roof from which his...

At the Movies: Victor Erice

Michael Wood, 21 September 2016

The first thing​ Estrella remembers being told about her father, in Victor Erice’s shadowy masterpiece The South, is that before she was born he predicted her sex and gave her a name. ‘It is a very intense image,’ she says in voiceover at the beginning of the film, ‘that in fact I made up.’ She made it up, but we have just witnessed the scene, the pregnant...

At the Movies: ‘Muriel’

Michael Wood, 10 August 2016

One of the​ remarkable things about Alain Resnais’s film Muriel (1963), now released on Blu-Ray and DVD in a new print by Criterion, is that it doesn’t grow on you. It’s just as strange on a second or third viewing as on the first, and part of the reason is its cosy, well-dressed look. The characters wear fur-coats, silk scarves; they seem constantly on some sort of...

Shakespeare’s Vows

Michael Wood, 27 July 2016

‘There is a touch​ of Shylock in this,’ John Kerrigan says of a moment in King Lear. There are touches of Shylock in many places outside The Merchant of Venice, and indeed outside Shakespeare altogether, but this one is of unusual interest. It is in Cordelia’s speech responding to her father’s question about which of his daughters loves him most – well, to be...

At the Movies: ‘Nostalghia’

Michael Wood, 13 July 2016

Andrei Tarkovsky​ made his last two films, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice, in Italy and Sweden, and never returned to Russia. He died in Paris in 1986, aged 54. He was out of favour with the Soviet authorities then, later lionised as a master, and placed in the company of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, though his approach to film can seem antithetical to theirs. His work is often thought to be...

There​ appear to be two main rules for superhero films. One is shared with many action movies: there has to be a lot of damage to property. Cars burn, streets are ripped up, tall buildings flame and topple. This is great fun, like smashing all your toys so you can get another set, and it allows you to make terrific noises on the soundtrack. The other rule is that there has to be a good deal...

At the Movies: ‘Miles Ahead’

Michael Wood, 18 May 2016

The places​ were Philadelphia and New York, the names were John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and a few others, heirs to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, spoken of with awe in every version of the story. Something called West Coast jazz, thought by many to be an oxymoron, was making itself heard in the persons of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shelly Manne and Dave Brubeck. Davis made...


Michael Wood, 4 May 2016

‘The​ king died and then the queen died’ is a story, as E.M. Forster told us long ago. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. Another plot, a little more reticent about causality, would be: ‘The king died and the queen married his brother.’ This would include Hamlet’s version of what happened in Elsinore – my uncle killed...

At the Movies: ‘Anomalisa’

Michael Wood, 20 April 2016

‘We’d​ all be human if we could,’ a sinister character sings in The Threepenny Opera. His hypocrisy is unmistakable, but the ironic implication may also be right. We don’t all want to be human, even if it’s possible. We have other ambitions. Still, the relevant characters in the singer’s world and in ours are human in the standard, technical sense, even...

At the Movies: ‘Hail, Caesar!’

Michael Wood, 17 March 2016

Eddie Mannix​, in the Coen Brothers’ new movie, Hail, Caesar!, is not a devout or informed Catholic but he does like to confess. He’s not doing well with his plan of giving up smoking, as he promised his wife he would. The first words we hear in the film come from an unseen priest behind the screen in a church: ‘How long since your last confession?’ Mannix, his face...

At the Movies: ‘The Big Short’

Michael Wood, 18 February 2016

Hindsight​ is a fine thing, and hindsight about a bit of foresight is even better when it comes to storytelling. There was a time when nobody knew anything about what was happening, whatever it was – except for the few people who did. The difficulty with such a story is that the ones who know are likely to appear so wise as to be inhuman, and the ones who don’t know seem more...

Empson’s Intentions

Michael Wood, 4 February 2016

‘What is a hesitation, if one removes it altogether from the psychological dimension?’

Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem

There is a moment​ in William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity when he decides to linger in Macbeth’s mind. The future killer is trying to convince himself that murder might be not so bad a crime (for the criminal) if he could just get it over...

At the Movies: ‘Le Mépris’

Michael Wood, 21 January 2016

Jean-Luc Godard​’s Le Mépris has many admirers, and a restored print of it gets star billing in the BFI’s current season devoted to the director. Certainly it offers some fine quirky moments and angles, but it seems too distracted and awkward to count among Godard’s best films. He is too far away from his movie home. But then he was the one who chose to wander. He...

At the Movies: ‘The Hunger Games’

Michael Wood, 17 December 2015

Perhaps​ because it’s based on a lively trilogy of novels for supposed teenagers, more probably because its writers and directors knew how to have a good time with stereotypes, The Hunger Games movie series is attractive because it is so eclectic, because it raids whatever cultural bank or shopping mall is handy. The heroine’s name combines a plant with a character from Thomas...

At the Movies: ‘Mulholland Drive’

Michael Wood, 19 November 2015

There​ are some fine shots of the title thoroughfare in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), a new release from the Criterion Collection. It’s all bushes and darkness and bends in the road, various cars’ tail-lights appearing and disappearing. Anything could happen there, especially since there are some very posh residences among the shrubs. But the view from Mulholland...

At the Movies: ‘The Martian’

Michael Wood, 21 October 2015

Martians​ have been invading us for longer than most of us can remember; but when did we invade them? Or when did we become certain that there were no Martians to invade or be invaded by? The time setting of the story told by Ridley Scott’s The Martian is scrupulously unmentioned in the film or in the Andy Weir book it is based on, but nerdy fans have figured it out from internal...

‘Ever go​ to the movies?’ the gangster says to the waiter in a small-town diner. ‘Once in a while,’ the waiter replies. ‘You ought to go to the movies more,’ the gangster says. ‘The movies are fine for a bright boy like you.’ The gangster has just announced that he and his companion are going to kill someone who usually eats at the diner. The...

The New Formalism

Michael Wood, 26 August 2015

‘Structures​ don’t take to the streets’ was a famous Paris slogan of 1968, ‘Les structures ne descendent pas dans la rue.’ The implication was that structuralists didn’t take to the streets either, that current thought and theory represented only quietism. There was an echo here of a grand debate between Sartre and Lévi-Strauss, in which Sartre...

At the Movies: ‘Touch of Evil’

Michael Wood, 29 July 2015

In​ a memo about Touch of Evil, Orson Welles asked Universal Studios to pay attention to the ‘brief visual pattern’ he had drawn, suggesting improvements for the film. This was probably the last sort of help they needed. They wanted a beefy blockbuster and here he was talking about a sliver of art. The studio had added scenes to his work, re-edited others. He was no longer...

Harold Shand​, the fictional chief mobster in The Long Good Friday (1980), now showing in a restored version at the BFI, is played by Bob Hoskins in one of his great early performances. It’s hard to imagine that another actor could have displayed the required combination of energy and disarray so well. This character’s problem is that he doesn’t know what’s...

At the Movies: Asgar Farhadi

Michael Wood, 3 June 2015

The​ films of the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi keep us guessing in all kinds of interesting ways, but also make us wonder whether guessing is what we should be engaged in. The questions the plots may or may not answer are not the same as the ones that keep bobbing up in the narrative gaps or on the margins. The act of lying or withholding the truth, for example, is almost always part of...

Majestic,​ awesome, sublime. Ah, the triviality of human existence compared to the aloof grandeur of the Alps. Words and thoughts along these lines are what the carefully stereotyped photography of two much discussed new films seem to want to provoke in us. To provoke and then dismiss. The point would be some sort of historical commentary. The romantic sublime left its viewers speechless....

At the Movies: ‘It Follows’

Michael Wood, 8 April 2015

We are looking​ at a broad, empty suburban street, plenty of trees, houses set well back from the road. You might guess it was America, and the reviews tell you it’s Detroit. The movie itself isn’t saying. A girl suddenly runs out of one of the houses, looking backwards, obviously terrified. She is wearing only a slip and pants, and high heels – a nice touch. Her father...

Erich Auerbach

Michael Wood, 5 March 2015

Erich Auerbach​’s criticism offers a remarkable mixture of caution and daring; it’s very modest and very grand. He doesn’t believe in large, baggy words, at times is sceptical about the very concept of a concept, but he writes about nothing less than ‘the representation of reality in Western literature’, and doesn’t hesitate to make large claims about...

At the Movies: Katharine Hepburn

Michael Wood, 5 March 2015

On screen​, Katharine Hepburn looks as if she has made a curious contract with time. She has promised not to change, and time has promised not to count properly. Of course time can’t halt entirely. It’s a long long way from May to December, as the song says, or from Bill of Divorcement (1932) to Love Affair (1994), and you can see much of the road in the current season of...

At the Movies: ‘Inherent Vice’

Michael Wood, 5 February 2015

There​ is a difference between being slow and being sluggish, although it’s not easy to define. Perhaps we’re sluggish if we’re failing to make progress. If we’re slow, there may not be any progress to make. In a slow movie, we can pay attention to the scenery, the outfits, the accents and think about what’s in the corner of the frame. We can remember there...

Paul de Man

Michael Wood, 8 January 2015

‘How often in my life have I said those words, and yet?’

John Banville, Shroud

‘I had jumped​,’ Conrad’s Jim says of his abandonment of his ship, adding a moment later: ‘It seems.’ Marlow, the narrator of the novel who is listening to Jim’s story, says: ‘Looks like it.’ This is one of many instances where Marlow’s...

At the Movies: ‘Leviathan’

Michael Wood, 8 January 2015

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s​ Leviathan begins and ends as a harsh parable of the isolated individual’s losing battle against a corrupt, tentacular system. The director himself, in a press release, invites us to look to Hobbes for the meaning of the title. We have swapped our freedom for the security provided by a sovereign state – in this case an illusory exchange. But when...

At the Movies: ‘Playtime’

Michael Wood, 20 November 2014

Monsieur Hulot​, with his manic politeness and his endless, baffled curiosity, loped into movies in 1953 in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. He became instantly familiar, although there was a lot we didn’t know about him, like his first name or where he lived, or how he paid for his smart jackets and too short trousers. He bowed a lot and lifted his hat, he walked like a kangaroo...

Letters to Véra

Michael Wood, 22 October 2014

There’s​ a French translation of Anna Karenina that offers an interesting version of the novel’s first sentence. ‘Tous les bonheurs se ressemblent,’ it says, ‘mais chaque infortune a sa physionomie particulière.’ All happinesses are alike but every unhappiness has its own features. The more usual translation includes the idea of the family, as in:...

At the Movies: ‘Gone Girl’

Michael Wood, 22 October 2014

Warning: Even more spoilers than usual.

‘One can feel​ that there is always a camera left out of the picture,’ Stanley Cavell wrote in The World Viewed, ‘the one working now.’ The proliferation of selfies has familiarised us with first-person photography but nothing so far has solved the problem of first-person narration in film. Whatever subjective-looking angles the...

At the Movies: ‘A Most Wanted Man’

Michael Wood, 24 September 2014

At​ the centre of a wide shot, near the centre of the film, stands Philip Seymour Hoffman: scruffy, genial, large, mildly enigmatic. He is in a city park, trees all around him, leaves beneath his feet. He is waiting for something, or watching for something. An abduction performed by members of his team, as it happens. But alone there in the shot, he seems to be waiting for us. Should we go...

At the Movies: ‘Boyhood’

Michael Wood, 16 August 2014

The opposite of time-lapse photography would seem to be slow motion, but there is an alternative: elision. You can lose time or hide it, put it away for two years or nine years, and then invite it back for a visit. Movies (and novels) do this regularly as a matter of narrative efficiency: you cut out the ‘and then and then’ and go straight to the next chosen moment, from the take-off to the landing say, without the details of the long flight. But they don’t always invite you to ponder the missing minutes or years, as Richard Linklater’s films do.

At the Movies: ‘Judex’

Michael Wood, 16 July 2014

Georges Franju​’s Judex (1963), expertly restored and newly released by Criterion, invites us to time travel of a double kind: into the 1960s, when it was made, into the 1910s, where it is set and where its stylistic loyalties lie. The film was respectfully received when it first appeared – no French critic wanted to attack the man who, with Henri Langlois, had founded the...

At the Movies: ‘Fading Gigolo’

Michael Wood, 18 June 2014

John Turturro​’s Fading Gigolo is a delicate movie about indelicate matters. No, wait, perhaps it’s an indelicate movie about delicate matters. The uncertainty does the film no harm but it seems to have prompted critics to simplify their doubts and decide they have seen it all before. It’s true the film owes a lot to Woody Allen, and not just because he has a major acting...

What does​ a wedding look like in an Ozu film? Two large hired cars outside an anonymous block of flats. Inside the building, father and elder brother in sleek Western morning suits, younger brother in smart but more casual clothes. Sister-in-law very tidy in black traditional Japanese dress. Bride cloaked in a mountainous confection of pink and white silk, topped by a hat that looks like a...

Proust’s Noisy Neighbours

Michael Wood, 7 May 2014

‘It’s really​ a miniature novel,’ we read in the introduction to this collection of Marcel Proust’s newly discovered letters, ‘C’est un vrai petit roman.’ It’s such a perfect novel that it looks like a hoax. Twenty-six letters from Proust to his upstairs neighbours at 102 boulevard Haussmann, none of the letters heard of before, many of them...

Once​ upon a time there was a place called Europe. All the paintings there were by Klimt and all the music by Mahler. No, there were also special Richard Strauss evenings, and the cafés played Johann Strauss waltzes all the time. Everyone was analysed by Freud, but it didn’t make any difference. They were very rich and they had terrific furniture. Many of them were waiting for a...

Asked​ for his response to those critics who saw in The Wolf of Wall Street an undiluted celebration of the bad life – drugs, sex, money, jewels, a very large yacht and expensive suits – Leonardo DiCaprio said: ‘If they don’t get the irony of it, sorry.’ He was right to refute the idea the film is a simple celebration, but there isn’t any irony either....

At the Movies: ‘12 Years a Slave’

Michael Wood, 6 February 2014

For much of the time Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave strikes a curiously stately rhythm, as if it didn’t want to be a movie but an art exhibition or a class in design. The frame fills with colours and lines, gold, green, black, yellow, dusty grey, sharp, blurry, fading. The effect is one of pure abstraction, and very beautiful. This effect remains even when the colours and lines...

Fredric Jameson

Michael Wood, 9 January 2014

The beauty of style indirect libre or free indirect discourse is that it seems to tell the truth without equivocation, to have all the certainty we could wish any third-person narration to have, and then strands us in complicated doubt. Dark clouds ran across the face of the moon; day broke; his teeth chattered; Frédéric bent forward; the parapet was a trifle wide. Straightforward...

At the Movies: ‘The Innocents’

Michael Wood, 9 January 2014

Deborah Kerr had been around by the time she came to her role in The Innocents (1961). In the movies, I mean. She had been in love with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, swooned over Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember, and sung and danced with Yul Brynner in The King and I. This is a way of saying she wasn’t the twenty-year-old girl of ‘The Turn of the Screw’, had not lived what James called ‘a small, smothered life’, and was most unlikely not to have seen herself full-length in a mirror before she got to the haunted house at Bly.

At the Movies: ‘To Be or Not to Be’

Michael Wood, 5 December 2013

‘My Nazis are different,’ Ernst Lubitsch said in reply to critics who hadn’t liked his film To Be or Not to Be. The critics thought he was failing to be funny about what shouldn’t be laughed at anyway, the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Lubitsch – we can read his response in the material accompanying the recently issued Criterion DVD version of the film...

Operation Massacre

Michael Wood, 7 November 2013

‘From here it is possible to love Buenos Aires, if only for a moment.’ ‘Here’ is a tenth-floor apartment with a view to the river and the city in the evening. No people in sight, no politics, no struggles for power. What sort of city would you love only under these conditions, what sort of history would it need to have? Why would you think of loving it at all? As if...

At the Movies: ‘Blue Jasmine’

Michael Wood, 23 October 2013

Many critics and viewers have felt that Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s best film since Match Point. The accompanying implication is that the intervening works – seven movies, starting with Scoop and ending at To Rome with Love – are just international chaff, too lightweight to get interested in. If you think, as I do, that such a judgment confuses solemnity with seriousness,...

At the Movies: ‘Upstream Colour’

Michael Wood, 26 September 2013

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour, like his first film Primer (2004), is a curiously patient, unindustrial affair, even if it cost a little more money to make. Carruth wrote both films himself, starred in them, composed the music as well as directing them, or perhaps we should say meticulously arranging them. Upstream Colour, in particular, feels like a jigsaw puzzle of which some pieces...

At the Movies: ‘Only God Forgives’

Michael Wood, 29 August 2013

‘Only God forgives’ could be the motto for many crime stories, starting with Dostoevsky and perhaps earlier. One of the most pointed if least high-toned of its meanings suggests that human forgiveness is bad for business in the underworld, because it undermines discipline and encourages rogue initiatives. Better leave it to God and stick to punishment instead. The fantasy here,...

Chinese Whispers

Michael Wood, 8 August 2013

Borges said his essay ‘The Homeric Versions’ represented his first appearance as a Hellenist. ‘I do not think I shall ascend to a second,’ he added. This modest forecast was based partly, as Borges recognised, on his ‘convenient ignorance of Greek’, but his tone allows all kinds of intriguing questions to creep in. What kind of Hellenist could one be...

At the Movies: ‘Cleopatra’

Michael Wood, 8 August 2013

Age cannot wither her, but it doesn’t improve her much either. Not when she is Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. Age seems simply to have left her alone, as it often does with movie actors. But then the chance of time travel is very real, especially since a restored print of the film is now showing at various cinemas around the country. The trip doesn’t have to be nostalgic. It...

At least three different films are competing for the same slot in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, one about glamour and kitsch, one about marital fatigue and one a sort of vampire tale. Unfortunately, the middle one gets the most time and a lot of solemnity and the third vanishes almost as soon as it appears. The first is by far the most interesting and Soderbergh knows this,...

Octavio Paz

Michael Wood, 4 July 2013

In 1950 André Breton published a prose poem by Octavio Paz in a surrealist anthology. He thought one line in the work was rather weak and asked Paz to remove it. Paz agreed about the line but was a little puzzled by the possibility of such a judgment on Breton’s part. He said: ‘What about automatic writing?’ Breton, unperturbed, replied that the weak line was ‘a...

The two characters at the centre of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, seen in a restored print at the BFI Southbank, are so nasty to each other in their half-polite way that you long for them to flare up, throw things, become violent, turn the film into the melodrama it seems to want to be. They don’t, though. When they agree to divorce it’s as if they were ordering a meal in a...

At the Movies: ‘The Servant’

Michael Wood, 9 May 2013

Joseph Losey’s The Servant hasn’t lost any of its mystery over the years since 1963; it might even have gained a bit. This is odd because the film seems in many ways so obvious, giving off unmissable hints and signals at almost every moment. But then this obviousness itself is not what it seems to be. What’s obvious about the hints and signals is that this is what they are. But...

Julian Barnes

Michael Wood, 9 May 2013

Julian Barnes invites us to visit what he calls a ‘tropic of grief’ that is wilder and bleaker than anything in the pages of Lévi-Strauss’s great memoir. But Barnes does not refuse the word ‘sad’, because, he suggests, one of the first things we should understand about grief is its banality, its need of ordinary old words that may seem flat but will not...

Why does the world exist?

Michael Wood, 21 March 2013

It’s easy enough to prove that the external world exists. Doors, rocks, other people, we keep running into them. But that’s not much of a proof. It doesn’t show that any particular piece of the world exists when we are not there to perceive it, and it doesn’t show why its existence should matter. It’s just in the way. The proof helps us still less with Stephen...

Nothing in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew quite lives up to its first few minutes, but getting anywhere near them is quite an achievement. And this static, mysterious movie, now showing at the BFI as part of a Pasolini season, becomes quite hectic at the end, as if impatient to finish, to run away from a story it now finds crowded rather than interesting....

At the Movies: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Michael Wood, 21 February 2013

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is based, a title-card tells us, on ‘first-hand accounts’, but it’s not a documentary film. It’s a sort of revenge western, clean, elegant, relentless. Loved ones are killed, a lone hero, in this case a heroine, sets out to find the killer or the man behind the killing; finds him, has him executed. Bigelow and her writer Mark...

At the Movies: ‘Django Unchained’

Michael Wood, 24 January 2013

This year’s discussions of the Oscar nominations, especially before they were announced, centred on the notion of American history and managed somehow to suggest that this is both a very strange subject for mainstream movies to take on and something they do all the time. Slaves are freed in Lincoln, a slave takes operatic revenge in Django Unchained, Osama bin Laden is traced and killed...

At the Movies: ‘Lincoln’

Michael Wood, 20 December 2012

There’s a lot of waiting in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln: for news, for a decision, for a vote, for an opinion, for the end of the Civil War. Not much happens during the waiting. People articulate positions, let us know what they stand for. Lincoln himself doesn’t say much. He listens, does quite a bit of walking off down lonely corridors, plays with his small son, gets...

Proust, Dreyfus, Israel

Michael Wood, 20 December 2012

‘Profonde Albertine’, the narrator writes close to the end of Proust’s novel. By ‘deep’ – profonde – he means ‘unreachable’. She was mostly that when she was alive, and has assumed this quality as a permanent attribute now that she is dead. But he can still be tortured by his memories of all he didn’t know, for a while at least:...

At the Movies: ‘Skyfall’

Michael Wood, 22 November 2012

When Daniel Craig took on the role of James Bond in Casino Royale (2006), there was much talk of the real thing. Here at last was the mean, lethal, almost banter-free figure we thought Ian Fleming had invented, the ruthless, funless fellow we imagined we had always wanted. He had a licence to kill but his real licence was his angry work ethic. He was going to get the job done and nothing...

At the Movies: ‘The Master’

Michael Wood, 11 October 2012

People weren’t walking out in droves from the suburban cinema in which we saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master because there weren’t droves there: just perhaps eight or nine people. But they did all walk out, in a slow trickle that started about halfway through the film. Staying there made us feel like loyalists in a lost cause – the future of film perhaps...

James Fenton

Michael Wood, 13 September 2012

One of the great attractions of James Fenton’s verse is the way it manages so often to be both plain and cryptic at once. It urges us to think about what we can’t quite know, and it favours certain strategies for doing this. ‘It is not the houses,’ Fenton writes in ‘A German Requiem’. ‘It is the spaces between the houses.’ He repeats this...

At the Movies: ‘The Lodger’

Michael Wood, 30 August 2012

The Lodger (1926) was Alfred Hitchcock’s third film, following The Pleasure Garden (1925) and the lost Mountain Eagle (also 1926). He made six more silent films before turning to sound. He told Truffaut that The Lodger was his first exercise in his own style, adding: ‘In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture.’ The film certainly has all kinds of...

Geoff Dyer’s ‘Zona’

Michael Wood, 19 July 2012

If we leave aside some notes and references at the back, Zona seems to close, appropriately, with a description of the end of a film: ‘her eyes, her watching eyes, and her face and head, resting on the table, watching us watching her, fading to black’. The film we have been seeing through these two hundred pages of Dyer’s memory and prose is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker...

At the Movies: ‘Prometheus’

Michael Wood, 5 July 2012

Ridley Scott says his new film, Prometheus, is not a prequel to his 1979 Alien. It just has ‘certain strands of Alien’s DNA, so to speak’. Fans of the first movie and its recurring avatars have been worried about this, and anxious to prove him wrong. This is easy to do in a narrow sense. The dates are right, the human story of Prometheus beginning in 2089 and ending in 2094...

At the Movies: ‘The Dictator’

Michael Wood, 7 June 2012

There is a tradition of dictator jokes in Latin America (‘What time is it?’ ‘Whatever time you say, General’), and there is even a genre known as the dictator novel, of which Autumn of the Patriarch is no doubt the most famous instance. When it was learned that the remains of Carlos Fuentes, who died last month, were to be taken to Montparnasse Cemetery, observers were...

Where is the corpse? Who was the man? Why did this woman die? How did she die? These questions are all raised and answered in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia, but they are constantly displaced during the running of the movie by other, more abstract riddles. Why is this film noir so preoccupied with light? Why is it so busy making squalor look beautiful? Is beauty a...

Lana Turner walks out of the shadows into a pool of light then into the shadows again. Into another pool of light and a second set of shadows. She is wearing an overcoat, walking the streets, looking troubled. This must be a film noir; the only real questions are where the corpse is, and what she has to do with it. None of these details is accidental or unimportant for the film we are...

Proust and His Mother

Michael Wood, 22 March 2012

There are texts that seem to require a certain craziness of us, a mismeasure of response to match the extravagance of their expression. But can a mismeasure be a match? All we know is that we don’t want to lose or reduce the extravagance but can’t quite fall for it either. An example would be Walter Benjamin’s wonderful remark about missed experiences in Proust: ‘None of us has time to live the true dramas of the life that we are destined for. This is what ages us – this and nothing else. The wrinkles and creases on our faces are the registration of the great passions, vices, insights that called on us; but we, the masters, were not at home.’

‘Nice story’, Freud says when Jung gives him an account of a patient’s pathology. The tone is amused, but a sense of shock lingers, an ironically disguised disapproval of everything the master learns about transgressive behaviour. Jung is shocked too, but also excited. But then the patient is Jung’s, a disturbed woman not at all underplayed by Keira Knightley. The...

At the Movies: ‘The Artist’

Michael Wood, 9 February 2012

The plot line is a bit schematic, resolute in its avoidance of swerves and complications. A new movie star is born, an old star fades. Time passes, technology rules, the talkies are here. Still, there are plenty of twists and nuances in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, and the plot feels really dogged only when it takes its pathos too seriously, inviting us to invest all our sympathy...

Mervyn Peake

Michael Wood, 26 January 2012

Mervyn Peake, the son of a medical missionary, was born just over a hundred years ago in Kiang-Hsi Province, China. The family moved back to England when he was 12. He attended the Royal Academy and served in the British army in the first years of the Second World War. He suffered from severe mental illness periodically from that time on, spending various spells in a series of remarkably...

At the Movies: ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’

Michael Wood, 5 January 2012

In the summer of 1771 William Constable had just returned to Burton Constable, his house in the East Riding of Yorkshire, after a lavish Grand Tour. He and his sister Winifred had spent £7000 and came home laden with pictures, sculptures, books and miscellaneous antiquities. Constable now regarded himself as a connoisseur or, as he put it, ‘a bit of a Vertu’. When the treasures were unpacked and tastefully disposed around the house, he turned his attention to the view from the windows and decided that it too needed bringing up to date in line with informed modern taste.

Must we pay for Sanskrit?

Michael Wood, 15 December 2011

A couple of markers may help. We are all situated somewhere, even if we see ourselves as cosmopolitans emancipated from mere biography. I was a beneficiary of the old idealistic British system, a grammar-school boy who went to Cambridge in the 1950s when not too many people were so lucky. If we can’t afford such a system any longer because we wish to make a good education available to...

At the Movies: ‘The Ides of March’

Michael Wood, 1 December 2011

George Clooney’s The Ides of March is a slow and modest political drama that often feels like a faster and better thriller. There’s no crime, just misbehaviour and deals and dangerous knowledge, but it generates quite a bit of the suspense and discomfort we associate with crime movies. We don’t want the truth of the story to be true, and we wish the characters would not act...

At the Movies: At the Morelia Festival

Michael Wood, 3 November 2011

I remember Morelia, in Mexico, from visits long ago: a fine old colonial city which seemed to have a crumbling convent or modest palace on almost every corner. It went through a bad patch in the early years of this century, even before narcoviolence made life difficult there as in so many parts of Mexico. But the city cleaned up its streets, activated the tourist trade, and thanks to much...

Nothing in the new film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is quite as compelling as the posters for it. Well, there are compelling moments in the movie but they keep losing their allure by reuse; they just go on telling us there is a mystery while the posters picture it. The posters show Gary Oldman as George Smiley – or rather they show him as Alec Guinness made a little taller,...

Julian Barnes

Michael Wood, 22 September 2011

Julian Barnes specialises in Englishness the way some doctors specialise in broken bones or damaged nerves. Like many actual English people, he’s not a chronic sufferer from the complaint, which in any case is a matter more of temperament than passport. But he is endlessly fascinated by it, and no one knows the dark, quiet corners of its pathology better than he does. We can think for a...

That two films about human entanglements with chimpanzees, a feature-length documentary and a fiction feature, should be showing in London at the same time is presumably an accident of distribution. That the two works, James Marsh’s Project Nim and Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, should resemble each other so closely begins to look like a message or a clue, a...

At the Movies: ‘The Tree of Life’

Michael Wood, 28 July 2011

There is a mystery about Terrence Malick’s new movie, but it has nothing to do with life, death and the wonders wrought by the maker of the universe, which are the film’s modest ostensible subjects. The mystery about The Tree of Life is how a work that is truly terrible in so many respects can remain so weirdly interesting. Interesting only to some, certainly; and maybe not...

At the Movies: ‘Senna’

Michael Wood, 14 July 2011

You might think one big difference between the biopic and the documentary life is that in the latter all the characters are allowed to play themselves, and that when they die, we see their actual friends and parents weeping. You wouldn’t be wrong to think this, and after the title-figure of Asif Kapadia’s Senna has failed to survive a high-speed crash into a barrier at Imola in...

At the Movies: Carlos Saura

Michael Wood, 16 June 2011

In Carlos Saura’s film Tango (1998), the chief character is making a musical about making a musical. The film is shot (by Vittorio Storaro, cameraman on The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now and many other movies) as a sort of designer’s dream, full of bright, shifting colours, ubiquitous mirrors, many set-pieces. It’s hard to tell whether any particular...

In a poem from the early 1960s, ‘On the Circuit’, W.H. Auden describes himself as ‘a sulky fifty-six’, who finds ‘A change of meal-time utter hell’, and has ‘Grown far too crotchety to like/A luxury hotel’. There is plenty of self-parody in this picture – a little later in the poem he identifies his worry about where the next drink is coming from as ‘grahamgreeneish’ – but this was a time when Auden was rearranging his sense of himself and of his world. Comedy was one sort of arrangement, and an important feature of his view of life; but he was seriously ‘unsettled’, as Edward Mendelson says, and had acquired ‘a profound new sense of menace and dread’.

I’m not much given to feeling that images make words look poor – often they make them look rich and friendly – but that was certainly my response to two recent viewings of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), to be screened again at the BFI Southbank from 29 April. Of course the words that look poor here are quite particular: the weakly loaded phrases of the...

At the Movies: ‘The Tempest’

Michael Wood, 31 March 2011

The finest moment in Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest occurs when the story has ended. Behind the credits a book drifts down through water, its leather covers separating from its bound pages. Beth Gibbons sings the play’s last lines – ‘lyrics by William Shakespeare’, the acknowledgment reads – with their plea for mercy and indulgence:

And my ending is...

At the Movies: ‘Les Diaboliques’

Michael Wood, 3 March 2011

‘Don’t be diabolical,’ a title card says at the end of the film. ‘Don’t destroy the interest your friends might take in this film. Don’t tell them what you have seen. Thank you on their behalf.’ This kindly instruction must refer to the tricky ending rather than the whole movie. It can’t spoil things if we say we have just seen Henri-Georges...

Dr Zhivago

Michael Wood, 17 February 2011

Pauline Kael took against the rainbow at the end of David Lean’s film Doctor Zhivago. It was a ‘disgraceful effect’, she said, ‘a coarse gesture of condescension and appeasement to the Russians’, and she asked if Lean and Robert Bolt would have placed a rainbow ‘over the future of England’. Actually it’s difficult to think of David Lean placing...

At the Movies: ‘True Grit’

Michael Wood, 3 February 2011

‘Pastoral scene of the gallant South’, Billie Holiday sang, evoking a landscape of lynched bodies. This was the ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’. Certainly a dark version of pastoral but well within the mode’s capacities. If traditional pastoral often idealises the simple life, it never quite chases the shadows of cruelty and corruption away, and...

The employees gather outside the shop in the morning, waiting for the boss to arrive and let them in, and already a curious sort of time travel begins, memories of what will be this film’s future, its remakes and derivatives, among them Are You Being Served? and You’ve Got Mail. You try to shake these associations off and concentrate on the film itself. This should be easy,...

Finnegans Wake

Michael Wood, 16 December 2010

Lewis Carroll seems an obvious precursor of James Joyce in the world of elaborate wordplay, and critics have long thought so. Harry Levin suggested in 1941 that Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty was ‘the official guide’ to the vocabulary of Finnegans Wake. Why wouldn’t he be? He was the inventor of the portmanteau word (‘You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word’), an inspired parodist of what Saussure later called the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign (that is, its being grounded in nothing but convention) and extremely proud of his ability to ‘explain all the poems that ever were invented – and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet’.

At the Movies: ‘The Peeping Tom’

Michael Wood, 2 December 2010

Fear, like happiness, has its anniversaries, and 1960 was a good year for watching frightened women’s faces: first Peeping Tom and then Psycho. The second movie is far more famous and more violent, but unsettling only in the ways Hitchcock intended. People walked out of Peeping Tom, distinguished critics were disgusted (Dilys Powell wrote that the director, her namesake, could not...

At the Movies: ‘The Social Network’

Michael Wood, 4 November 2010

David Fincher’s The Social Network, which tells the story of Facebook, is fast and intelligent and mean, a sort of screwball comedy without the laughs. It’s written by Aaron Sorkin, whose credits include The West Wing and A Few Good Men, and based on a novelised history by Ben Mezrich, The Accidental Billionaires. As long as it stays with the details of its tale – the faces,...

At the Movies: ‘Certified Copy’

Michael Wood, 7 October 2010

Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy makes you squirm with embarrassment: at the bad acting, the bad writing, the falsity of the tones and tantrums even within the story, the ugliness and unkindness of the behaviour on display. Still, it’s authentic embarrassment, the real insidious thing, and it tempts us to believe the effect is intentional.

As it must be in part. Just when a...

Memories of Frank Kermode

Stefan Collini, Karl Miller, Adam Phillips, Jacqueline Rose, James Wood, Michael Wood and Wynne Godley, 23 September 2010

Stefan Collini writes: ‘Yes, I’d like that very much. That really would be something to look forward to.’ Frank was already weakened and wasted by throat cancer, but my suggestion that we go to watch some cricket at Fenner’s did seem genuinely to appeal to him. There wasn’t much to look forward to by this point. On the appointed day the weather was kind, and...

At the Movies: ‘Five Easy Pieces’

Michael Wood, 9 September 2010

There are wide orange skies, long arching beaches seen by night and day, and amazing silhouettes of people, pumps and scaffolding. It’s as if John Ford had decided to start a western among the California oil rigs, and track his story up the West Coast to Puget Sound. The space around the people in this movie is so large and so unambiguously beautiful you have to wonder what story it is...

Memories of Camus

Michael Wood, 19 August 2010

The last piece in L’Eté, a collection of Camus’s essays first published in 1954, ends on a characteristic note of risk and grandeur: ‘I have always had the impression of living on the high seas, threatened, at the heart of a royal happiness.’ The high seas and the happiness frame and reduce the threat, perhaps even make it part of the glamour, part of the...

At the Movies: ‘Breathless’

Michael Wood, 22 July 2010

We are supposed to remember the jump cuts, the hand-held camera, the fast editing, and the airy sense that in the right kind of film nothing can get a bad man down. Everything is accident and freedom, until the last accident, which is death. Our man casually kills a policeman because he can; because there is a gun in the car he has stolen; because he wants to be a gangster; and because he is...


Michael Wood, 8 July 2010

When Jorge Luis Borges was dying in Geneva in 1986, a friend committed an elegant Freudian act of homage. He mentioned Borges’s book of poems The Golden Coin and was instantly corrected: The Iron Coin. The friend was embarrassed but Borges reassured him: ‘Don’t worry. You did what alchemy was unable to do.’ The remark perfectly catches Borges’s quickness, grace,...

Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant provokes two questions even before we’ve thought much about the film. Both are about timing. Why did it take the best part of a year after its US premiere to find a screen in the UK? And why does the film itself take so long to find out what sort of work it wants to be? It becomes a pretty amazing movie when it does find out, but – this would...

‘Treme’ and ‘The Wire’

Michael Wood, 27 May 2010

A detective is chatting to a young local at a crime scene, the body a few feet away, all the technicians and policemen going about their business. What has happened, the boy says, is that the dead man, who has been coming every Friday to a craps game on the street and snatching all the money as soon as the pot grew large enough for him, got killed because one of the other players ran out of...

The car ferry looms towards the camera, head-on, lights glittering in the pouring rain. It’s a figure of menace, looks like a Transformer about to sprout arms and a face, but it’s just a way of getting from the mainland to the island. It lifts its moveable snout and the cars start to pour off. All except one, stationary, driverless. In the next shot we see a body washed up on a...


Michael Wood, 22 April 2010

Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) was in many ways a farewell to paranoia. Not the paranoid style in American politics, to quote the title of a famous essay by Richard Hofstadter (how could anyone say farewell to a mode so lavishly on the rise?), but to the paranoid fictions that animated DeLillo’s own novels The Names (1982) and Libra (1988), and went all the way back to...

The title of Tim Burton’s new film plays an elegant and dizzying little game, entirely in keeping with its tone and theme. This movie shows us Alice in Wonderland but it is not a film of Alice in Wonderland, or indeed of Through the Looking-Glass, although most of its characters are drawn from these two books. The screenplay is by Linda Woolverton. Alice is 19 now, she has been dreaming...

At the Movies: Yasujiro Ozu

Michael Wood, 25 February 2010

Many film-makers create worlds we imagine we could inhabit, and some of them specialise in this effect, set up whole colonies of the imagination for us. We experience the eeriness of an empty street and we know we are in a Hitchcock movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example. Certain steep angles of vision make us think we must have stepped into Citizen Kane, and there are forms of panic...

At the Movies: ‘Avatar’

Michael Wood, 28 January 2010

The first time the name appeared in the movie I thought I had misheard it. The second time also. It was only when I read a few reviews and plot summaries that I could confirm that I wasn’t dreaming, inserting an unlikely joke where there couldn’t be one. The precious mineral found only on the planet Pandora which would, if mined and transported, cure the wrecked energy system of...

Nabokov’s Cards

Michael Wood, 7 January 2010

One of the attractions of Nabokov’s view of literature is that although (or because) he scoffed at any idea of readerly independence he scarcely ever wanted to separate the writer’s interests from the reader’s. He was prepared to indulge in a kind of crazed fusion of the two in his commentary on Eugene Onegin, and to parody that madness in Pale Fire. When in his afterword to...

The Subtleties of Frank Kermode

Michael Wood, 17 December 2009

Frank Kermode is too multifarious a writer to have anything as dogged as a theme for his critical work; too sane and stealthy to boast of anything as limiting as an obsession. But there are persistences, continuities, as he calls them in the title of one of his books. There is an interest in difficulty, for example, and especially the difficulty of understanding – either oneself or...

At the Movies: ‘A Serious Man’

Michael Wood, 17 December 2009

There is a certain kind of Jewish joke that doesn’t end, but peters out in a shoulder-shrugging way, as if to say: ‘You thought this was going to be a joke?’ I’ll spare you the details of the one about what is green, hangs on the wall, and plays the violin. These jokes are not funny, just mildly desperate. Except that of course desperation is funny too, if you tell it...

T.S. Eliot’s Letters

Michael Wood, 3 December 2009

Eliot was working full-time at Lloyds Bank, where he stayed until 1925, and editing the Criterion in the spare moments he didn’t have. This tale of time swallowed up, what Eliot calls ‘the prison-like limitation of my time’, is one of the two chief themes of the second volume of the Letters. The other is the competitive invalidism the Eliots have instead of a marriage.


Michael Wood, 19 November 2009

It’s easy, and usually rash, to use the word ‘unforgettable’, or even ‘memorable’, since we can forget anything. But then what we hang on to becomes all the more remarkable, and Barthes, like Cole Porter, was the author of phrases and rhythms that for some of us will not go away until we do.

At the Movies: Agnès Varda

Michael Wood, 5 November 2009

‘I inhabit the cinema,’ Agnès Varda says at the end of her autobiographical film, The Beaches of Agnès. ‘It’s my house. It seems I have always lived here.’ Of course we understand her metaphorically, even if we wouldn’t put it past the bag-lady character she plays at various moments in this work to set up house inside some forgotten foyer. At...

At the Movies: ‘District 9’

Michael Wood, 8 October 2009

The spacecraft hangs above Johannesburg, like a relic from Star Wars that couldn’t find the parking dock. It manages to look both otherworldly and scruffy, battered, rusting. Unplugged cables dangle down like weeds. It isn’t going anywhere, it can’t go anywhere. No one in the movie is very interested in the spacecraft, it just hovers like persistent bad weather. It...

Short Cuts: Delete!

Michael Wood, 24 September 2009

I don’t know what it’s like at your end of the global village but I keep coming across extraordinary instances of evolutionary good cheer. The optimism doesn’t involve the theory of human origins or the longed for decline of the theology of intelligent design but the simpler assumption that adaptation is an ongoing success story. Human beings, it seems, are all right. We may...

At the Movies: ‘Inglourious Basterds’

Michael Wood, 10 September 2009

What would you get if you combined The Great Dictator with Pulp Fiction and shifted the scene to France? One answer might be Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Inglourious Basterds, but it’s not a great answer because the film itself is so many things. Of the identifiable movies within its fanciful confines, one is rather good, another is so bad you have to like it and the third is...


Michael Wood, 6 August 2009

This intimately funny and desperately sad novel opens with a parade of visitors to Ilya Ilich Oblomov’s Petersburg flat. Most of them are introduced, in this new translation, by the phrase ‘in walked’, which creates a wonderful sense of flatness, repetition and invasion. All but one of the visitors are busy in some way or other, full of talk of the world, parties, work, the...

The chief pleasure of the new version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the sight of John Travolta as the model bad guy. He is genial and livid by turns, entirely persuasive in both moods, the very image of crazed behaviour, and far more engaging and unhinged than he was in Pulp Fiction. That film brought certain of his earlier roles to mind, but this one makes us want to rethink

A number of New York subway trains currently have posted in them an advertisement for a suspense novel (Brad Meltzer’s Book of Lies) said to be a combination of The Da Vinci Code and North by Northwest. We know about the huge success of the former, especially in its book shape, but it’s reassuring news that a 50-year-old film is still taken to be a household, or rolling stock...

The Oresteia according to Anne Carson

Michael Wood, 11 June 2009

Some time ago the scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant reminded us that Greek gods are not persons but forces; and in Anne Carson’s Oresteia, her sharp, sceptical, often laconic version of three plays about the legacy of Atreus, one each by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, as well as in her translations of four other plays by Euripides,* I kept hearing an invitation to extend and refine the...

Can you die in a synecdoche and would it be a good thing if you could? Would it be like dying in a parenthesis, as Mrs Ramsay does in To The Lighthouse, or would it be entirely different? At the end of Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s first film as a director, Caden Cotard seems to die as a theatrical version of himself inside a replica of Manhattan in a warehouse in Manhattan. A...

Vampires seem to be making a comeback these days, and not just at night and from the grave. In broad daylight you see sleek sets of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels everywhere, and the first of no doubt many movies based on the series opened at the end of last year.* But vampires haven’t really been away. From Dracula to Buffy they have sustained an extraordinary attendance...

G.K. Chesterton

Michael Wood, 9 April 2009

‘I have often had a fancy,’ G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy (1908), ‘for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.’ The man would arrive, ‘armed to the teeth and talking by signs’, and try to plant the British flag on...

A spectre is haunting the action film these days. It’s not violence. There is nothing spectral about the ubiquitous crashes and bangs, the insistent maiming and killing of persons, the wholesale destruction of posh cars and real estate. The spectre is sorrow. From Batman to James Bond, every hero is grieving, stricken by a loss from which he can’t recover, whether of parents,...

At the Movies: ‘The Class’

Michael Wood, 12 March 2009

The Class, known in France as Entre les murs, literally ‘between the walls’, more colloquially ‘inside’, as of a prison or a fortress or a city, is an intelligent, subdued film that sets out to trouble us. It certainly succeeded with me, but I’m not entirely sure I got the right trouble. There is a neat little irony in the movie’s being nominated for an...

The Part about Bolaño

Michael Wood, 26 February 2009

Roberto Bolaño likes to prolong his jokes well past the moment when even the slowest reader has got the point. Nazi Literature in the Americas, for example, looks like a single gag – the brief deadpan biography of an imaginary Fascist or near Fascist writer – multiplied by 30-odd cases over 200 pages. But then it dawns on even the slowest reader that what looked like the...

At the Movies: ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

Michael Wood, 12 February 2009

As the credits appear at the end of the movie, it turns abruptly into what it was always longing to be: a musical. The bright colours and the noise become decor and disco. The railway station, once the location of panic and poverty and violence, becomes scenery. The beat is heavy and fast, the hero and heroine line up together, happily stomping and pumping in the front row of a vast dancing...

‘The Alexandria Quartet’

Michael Wood, 1 January 2009

‘At night,’ Roland Barthes once wrote, ‘the adjectives come back.’ It’s an eerie and sobering thought for writers who have been trying to clean up their act during the day, but for Lawrence Durrell as for Conrad adjectives don’t come back because they never left. If there is a mystery in Conrad it’s inscrutable, if there’s a tangle in Durrell...

At the Movies: ‘Milk’

Michael Wood, 1 January 2009

Gus Van Sant’s new film, Milk, is thoughtful, patient, funny and touching, and both Sean Penn and James Franco should get Oscars, but it doesn’t answer the questions any biopic raises for me: what’s it for and why now? Or perhaps it does have the answers, but we have to do our own digging for them.

Harvey Milk was an elected official of the city of San Francisco, said to be...

Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma

Michael Wood, 4 December 2008

Whatever else it may be, Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (now available on DVD from Artificial Eye) does not resemble the afternoon bill at the old Plaza or the new Cineplex. He first thought of creating a history of cinema in 1978. It would be told, he said, ‘archaeologically and biologically’. In spite of the metaphors, the plan seemed conventional enough: an...

Kafka in the Office

Michael Wood, 20 November 2008

It’s certainly an excellent arrangement,’ the official says, ‘always unimaginably excellent, even if in other respects hopeless.’ We can easily picture, or even recall, arrangements that are excellent for some and hopeless for others, and that is what the phrase ‘in other respects’ invites us to do. But the larger rhythm and grammar of the sentence ask us to go beyond this option, to think both contrary thoughts at once, taking excellence and hopelessness as partners in an intricate dance, each calling for and implying the other; as if the arrangement is excellent because it’s hopeless, hopeless because it’s excellent. Can we manage this logical feat? And where are we?

At the Movies: Fernando Meirelles

Michael Wood, 6 November 2008

There are several excellent reasons for not wanting to make a film based on a book called Blindness, and Fernando Meirelles knows them all. But knowing them, and even treating them as challenges, is not quite the same as putting them to rest. Saramago’s novel (1995) is sly, oblique, consistent in its courtship of cliché, an apparent allegory that can’t be allegorised....

At the Movies: Max Ophuls

Michael Wood, 9 October 2008

Lovers of the films of Max Ophuls always return to La Ronde (1950). Its intricate, revolving story, visually represented by a highly stylised carousel, is certainly gracefully told. Each character in the film moves on from one partner to another, prostitute to soldier to servant to rich young man to erring wife to worldly husband to midinette to writer to actress to foppish aristocrat and...

At the Movies: ‘Man on Wire’

Michael Wood, 11 September 2008

The police report hovered, as such documents often do, between literal description and bewilderment, showing the letter of the law to be touchingly at odds with what the felon was up to. He certainly ‘performed a high-wire act’, but was it with ‘intent to cause public inconvenience’ and did he actually create ‘a hazardous condition which served no legitimate...

On ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’

Michael Wood, 14 August 2008

Then … now … what difficulties here, for the mind.

Samuel Beckett, Happy Days

The Irish propensity for violence is well known; at least to the English.

Charles Townshend, Political Violence in Ireland

In 1934, Marina Tsvetaeva wrote an essay called ‘Poets with History and Poets without History’. All poets, she said, belong to one or the other of these...

At the Movies: ‘The Dark Knight’

Michael Wood, 14 August 2008

‘Unhappy the land that needs heroes,’ Galileo says in Brecht’s play of that name. Galileo wasn’t thinking of superheroes, of course, but Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, the writers of The Dark Knight, the new Batman movie, are certainly thinking along Galileo’s lines. What is Gotham City to do without a hero, since organised crime is always, it seems, far too...

At the Movies: David Lean

Michael Wood, 3 July 2008

A recent Italian book on the films of David Lean is called Colour and Dust, and with an amplification or two the phrase offers a pretty good description of his later work. The colour is mainly orange, and a lot of the dust is sand, especially in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). More generally, of course, the phrase evokes the director of swirling epics, a sort of Cecil B. DeMille with taste,...

The devil is in the detail, they say, and this is certainly the case with the films of Robert Bresson. And if the devil is there, God can’t be far away. Or can he? These are very curious details, bits of the real but not part of any attempt at realism, pieces of a puzzle that may not even exist. Feet, legs, hands, sand, straw, mud, laceless old shoes; dulled or hallucinating faces...

Tolstoy’s Malice

Michael Wood, 22 May 2008

‘If the world could write by itself,’ Isaac Babel said, ‘it would write like Tolstoy.’ The remark is quoted at the head of Richard Pevear’s introduction to this handsome new translation of War and Peace. I should like to think Babel meant that if the world was given to intricate thematic contrasts and parallels among its materials, to careful cross-cutting between city and country, high society and hunting, the salon and the racetrack, home and abroad, it would have written War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But I’m afraid he meant something simpler and more familiar: he was making the old, strange claim that Tolstoy, more than any other writer of fiction, reproduces the world just as it really, unarguably is. He is the world’s best secretary, this argument goes, better at the task than Balzac and Zola, also supposedly eager contestants, and certainly better at it than Dostoevsky and Dickens, who never applied for the job at all.

At the Movies: ‘Stop-Loss’

Michael Wood, 8 May 2008

American films about the war in Vietnam were slow in coming. Saigon fell in 1975, and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter both date from 1978. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was 1979. In their separate ways these films were all about damage done to Americans; any damage done to others was incidental, part of some larger story that wasn’t...

At the Movies: ‘The Conformist’

Michael Wood, 20 March 2008

There is a fine, far-reaching moment in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, handsomely set up by the director and beautifully spun out by the actor. Peter Sellers, as the creepy and protean Clare Quilty, has struck up a conversation with James Mason, as Humbert Humbert. The latter is in no mood for any kind of conversation, since he is just marking time before he returns to his hotel room to have...

At the Movies: ‘No Country for Old Men’

Michael Wood, 21 February 2008

Joel and Ethan Coen often look like moviemakers in search of a movie; as if their perfect film were waiting for them out there and they had to do something while they were looking for it. What else could have driven them to their 2004 remake of the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers? Even if Tom Hanks is funnier in that film than our idea of Tom Hanks ought to allow, he’s not Alec Guinness....

At the Movies: ‘Lust, Caution’

Michael Wood, 24 January 2008

In the film moderately scrutable orientals play inscrutable orientals pretending to be inscrutable orientals

Eça de Queirós

Michael Wood, 3 January 2008

Balzac is named several times in The Maias. Two characters are said to have a ‘Balzacian eye’, and Balzac is elsewhere called a ‘prodigy of observational powers’. A love nest is called the Villa Balzac, an intricate, critical irony because the owner of the house is a ‘great fantasist’ far from fully aware of what he is doing when he adopts the great realist as his ‘patron saint’. The book itself, I should say, is subtitled ‘Episodes from Romantic Life’, so these touches are important. ‘Romantic’ in this context has all kinds of associations, and its near-synonyms could include ‘poetic’, ‘stylish’, ‘idealistic’, ‘liberal’, ‘deluded’. As in ‘all English songs were alike, they always struck the same sorrowful romantic tone,’ or (spoken of a poem that has just been recited) ‘such romantic outpourings’. ‘Literature,’ we are told, ‘used to be all about the imagination, fantasy, ideas. Nowadays, it’s all about reality, experience, facts, documentation.’ And about money, which is this character’s main translation of ‘facts’. But then he calls it ‘marvellous money’, slipping unconsciously back into the romantic mode, in spite of his attempt at irony. Eça de Queirós’s chief question, perhaps, is whether realism is possible in Portugal, in literature or anything else, and his mischievous suggestion is that ‘Portugal’ may just mean ‘romantic’ – there couldn’t be episodes of any other sort of life there. He is doing this, however, with sly intelligence, in an undeniably realist Portuguese novel.

At the Movies: the gangster movie

Michael Wood, 13 December 2007

Ridley Scott is always a director to watch. This proposition includes watching for things to avoid, especially when he goes for history and costume, as in 1492 and The Kingdom of Heaven. But there were also The Duellists and Thelma and Louise; and Blade Runner, it seems, is always showing up in a new version. A ‘final cut’, following on the studio cut and the director’s cut,...

At the Movies: ‘Eastern Promises’

Michael Wood, 15 November 2007

Horror movies are often about materialisation in a very particular sense, the grisly acting out of fears and phobias that in daily life are kept safely (if painfully and disastrously) in the mind. No director realises this more clearly than David Cronenberg. He is best known no doubt for The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988) and his much vilified Crash (1996), but some of us have a soft spot,...

The reasons usually given for the death or dearth of westerns is that the genre deals in stark old allegories of good and evil and we are all moral sophisticates now who know the world isn’t like that. If this is our explanation, we don’t have an explanation at all. The world is more infested with allegories of good and evil than at any time since the last crusade, and that...

Coetzee’s Grumpy Voice

Michael Wood, 4 October 2007

A new novel by J.M. Coetzee is always an event, although often a disconcerting one. ‘Disconcerting’ will be too polite a word for many readers, who can’t bear the chill that emanates from these works, especially Disgrace (1999), Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Slow Man (2005). The same chill can be picked up in Coetzee’s critical essays, where it is likely to appear as...

William James

Michael Wood, 20 September 2007

‘He was always around the corner and out of sight,’ Henry James wrote of his older brother William as a child. ‘He was clear out before I got well in.’ The philosopher C.S. Peirce said something similar about the grown man. ‘He so concrete, so living, I a mere table of contents.’ Josiah Royce, a life-long friend and Harvard colleague of William James, with...

At the Movies: Bergman and Antonioni

Michael Wood, 20 September 2007

It’s too late to climb on the bandwagon now, and it wasn’t much of a bandwagon to start with. If cinephilia is dead, as Susan Sontag some time ago suggested it was, who cares about the simultaneous death of two cinéastes? Still, no reader of signs can resist a coincidence, the image of a meaning that can’t be there. Michelangelo Antonioni (born 1912) and Ingmar Bergman...

At the Movies: ‘The Simpsons Movie’

Michael Wood, 16 August 2007

It’s early evening. The family races home from its daily pursuits: Bart and Lisa from school, on skateboard and bike respectively; Homer in his car from his job at the nuclear plant; Marge in her car with baby Maggie from the supermarket. They all arrive at precisely the same time, and make a dash for the living-room sofa, all five hitting it at precisely the same moment. It’s a...

At the Movies: Marlon Brando

Michael Wood, 19 July 2007

Marlon Brando didn’t believe in acting, except in real life, and he took every opportunity, in interviews and his autobiography, to trash the profession. It’s tempting to say this is why he was a great movie actor, but the story is more complicated. For much of the time he performed on screen like a person who didn’t believe in acting, and threw a lot of his career away. But...

Tony Harrison

Michael Wood, 5 July 2007

One of the great pleasures of reading Tony Harrison is the sense of quick passage between worlds, the sudden switch from the local to the international and back. At one moment he immerses us in a Northern (or Midlands in my case) English worry about what happens to us socially when we drop our ‘h’s and pronounce our ‘u’s as in ‘wuss’ rather than as in (the...

When critics accused Jean-Pierre Melville of shooting his characters as if they were in a gangster movie, he didn’t take the remark as a compliment. ‘Absolutely idiotic,’ he said. He was right in a sense, because the critics were not intending a compliment, but what was he resisting? Melville’s best-known films – Le Doulos (1962), Le Samouraï (1967), Le...

At the Movies: ‘Spider-Man 3’

Michael Wood, 24 May 2007

Money talks, but it doesn’t write all that well, and it can scarcely direct a movie at all. Spider-Man 3, which we are told is the most successful new film release in history, beating even Pirates of the Caribbean 2, and prompting Sony Pictures to offer three more sequels straight off, is more of a mess than you can quite believe. Pieces of plot float in from nowhere, supernatural...

At the Movies: ‘300’

Michael Wood, 26 April 2007

Memory is a large part of it. Herodotus tells us the name of Leonidas, the king of Sparta who died at Thermopylae in 480 BC, not exactly holding the multitudinous Persians at bay but at least showing how it might be done. Herodotus also says he has ‘learned the names of all the three hundred’ Spartans who fell with their king. He doesn’t list the names, and he doesn’t...

When I left the cinema I had a title of Flannery O’Connor’s running in my head: A Good Man Is Hard to Find. But there is another title that provides a much better clue to the moral preoccupations of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first full-length film, The Lives of Others: Brecht’s Good Person of Szechuan. It was Brecht, too, who in response to the distribution of...

Richard Powers

Michael Wood, 22 February 2007

At one moment in Thomas Pynchon’s novel named after them, Mason and Dixon pause to wonder what history’s verdict on their most famous work is likely to be, its ‘assessment of the Good resulting from this Line, vis-à-vis the not-so-good’. A voice, apparently coming from nowhere, says: ‘You wonder? That’s all? What about “care”? Don’t you care?’ The surveyors explain to the voice that surveying is what they do. They have clients, they meet their clients’ requests. Just doing their job. There aren’t too many significant resemblances between Pynchon and Richard Powers – Powers’s imagination is deeply invested in the local and in Pynchon the local is always about to become something else – but the passage about the Line and the Good finds an interesting and no doubt unintended commentary in The Echo Maker. A woman reads a series of books about strange mental conditions by a fictional writer not entirely without resemblance to Oliver Sacks. She greatly admires the books but is even more amazed by the selfless devotion of the friend who drew her attention to them. ‘She was in Daniel’s debt again … And she, once again, had given him nothing … Of all the alien, damaged brain states this writing doctor described, none was as strange as care.’

At the Movies: Kurosawa

Michael Wood, 22 February 2007

It wouldn’t work without Toshiro Mifune. In this role he remains perfectly Japanese but also manages to look like a mixture of Clark Gable and Gary Cooper – the sly, amused Gable of screwball comedy and the weathered Cooper of the Western. And then he looks a little like, actually prefigures, someone else, whom I’ll get to in a minute.

Mifune sometimes ambles, sometimes...

At the Movies: ‘Babel’

Michael Wood, 25 January 2007

We are on the edge of the Moroccan desert. Bleak, low mountains, vast sky. A flight of birds fills the screen, and then is gone. Two boys prepare to take a herd of goats to find what food they can on the hillside, and I think: let’s stay here – although I know we won’t. We don’t. Before long we are in San Diego, California, where a middle-aged Mexican nanny is putting...

The Amazing Thomas Pynchon

Michael Wood, 4 January 2007

Many readers can’t bear whimsy and never make it far into books containing cute animals and characters with funny names. I’m not wild about whimsy myself, and a first glance at Thomas Pynchon’s new novel had me worried. I could scarcely be surprised by the funny names or the animals, since Pynchon’s early fiction had people called Dennis Flange, Rachel Owlglass and Emory Bortz, and in Mason & Dixon there is a considerable speaking role for Vaucanson’s mechanical duck.

At the Movies: ‘The Prestige’

Michael Wood, 14 December 2006

In Christopher Nolan’s movies men are always losing their minds: to revenge and an old phobia in Batman Begins; to a clinical condition in Insomnia; to the vagaries of a crippled short-term memory in Memento. The hero of this last film can drive a car and kill people, remember how his dead wife looked and what she said; but he doesn’t know where he is at any given moment, or why he...

At the Movies: Scorsese

Michael Wood, 16 November 2006

You don’t have to love The Sopranos to see that screen gangsters are a lasting feature of American mythology. And yet a mystery remains, even after all those hits and deaths. The allegorical message is obvious and has been since the great mob movies of the 1930s: there are gangsters everywhere, and there are more than we think, since many of them are called businessmen, politicians,...

At the Movies: the films of Carol Reed

Michael Wood, 19 October 2006

‘If the world should end tomorrow,’ James Agee wrote in the Nation in 1947, ‘this film would furnish one of the more appropriate epitaphs: a sad, magnificent summing-up of a night city.’ A little earlier and in another paper he had called the film’s second part ‘half-baked’, and what’s interesting is that there is no real contradiction between...

At the Movies: Almodóvar

Michael Wood, 21 September 2006

‘Your town,’ the TV presenter says to her guest on a live talk show, ‘has the highest incidence of insanity in the whole of Spain. Do you think this fact explains the story you are about to tell us?’ The guest, as it happens, isn’t about to tell a story at all, since she suddenly decides not to spill her local beans and walks off the set. But we’re already...

At the Movies: ‘Miami Vice’

Michael Wood, 17 August 2006

There are all kinds of differences between movies and television, and one of them is that TV thrives on situations, faces, interruptions and short-term drama, which is why games, soap operas and interviews make such ideal material for it. What TV doesn’t seem to need is a world, a created visual space with its own aura and co-ordinates. The world it has is enough, our world caught on a...

At the Movies: ‘Rebecca’

Michael Wood, 20 July 2006

‘It’s not a Hitchcock picture,’ the master told François Truffaut. He was being a little cagy, but in one sense he was right. Rebecca, now showing in a brand-new, sharp-focus print at the National Film Theatre and the Screen on the Hill, was a David O. Selznick film, ‘a picturisation’ as the title credits have it, of a very successful novel. ‘We...

Freud’s Guesswork

Michael Wood, 6 July 2006

“In 1936 Freud wrote a letter to Romain Rolland, offering him a speculation about a particular memory as a 70th birthday gift. The memory concerned a trip Freud took to Athens with his brother, and his own ‘curious thought’ at the sight of the Acropolis: ‘So this all really does exist, just as we learned in school!’ Freud describes himself as two people, one making the comment and the other perceiving it:

and both were amazed, although not by the same thing. One of these persons behaved as though … he was obliged to believe in something the reality of which had until then seemed uncertain to him … But the other person was rightly surprised, because he had not known that the real existence of Athens, the Acropolis and this landscape had ever been a matter of doubt.”

The great secret of Ron Howard’s movie version of The Da Vinci Code has nothing to do with murders, cryptology, the Templars, Opus Dei, Mary Magdalene, or the idea that Christ might have been a practising heterosexual. It’s a masterly piece of Hollywood hokum, spoiled only slightly by the fact that it appears to be taking itself seriously.

Paranoid delusions in Howard’s A...

‘When there’s blood on the streets, buy property.’ This sturdy piece of advice becomes a refrain in Spike Lee’s new movie, Inside Man, where it is ludicrously literalised by the attempt of a bin Laden nephew to purchase an apartment in Manhattan, and grimly moralised in the story of an American banker who made a fortune by trading with the Nazis, and indeed by trading...

Anonymous city, handheld camera, actors who scarcely seem to be acting: we may think we know where we are, more or less. This is surely the New Wave by way of Neo-Realism, early Truffaut chasing late Rossellini. Didn’t we get over this? How could a film in this vein, namely L’Enfant, written and directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, win the Palme d’Or at Cannes last...

The Craziness of Ved Mehta

Michael Wood, 23 February 2006

In a famous poem by Hopkins, a child called Margaret is rebuked for grieving over the fall of leaves. Leaves fall; stuff happens; we get over it; or, to stay with Hopkins’s idiom, the heart ‘will come to such sights colder/By and by’. The child will one day find better reasons for her tears, including the fate of humankind, falling and falling again since its first lapse in...

Joan Didion

Michael Wood, 5 January 2006

Grief has its reasons, or rather its mode of reasoning. The premises are wild, but the logic is irresistible. This is what Joan Didion means when she writes, in her title and on the page, of ‘magical thinking’: ‘thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome’. She also calls it ‘disordered...

Stanley Cavell

Michael Wood, 20 October 2005

The ordinary slips away from us. If we ignore it, we lose it. If we look at it closely, it becomes extraordinary, the way words or names become strange if we keep staring at them. The very notion turns into a baffling riddle. Shall we say that the ordinary doesn’t exist, or that it exists only when we don’t look at it closely? Stanley Cavell has been thinking about the ordinary...

James Meek

Michael Wood, 21 July 2005

“Late in The People’s Act of Love, two Czech soldiers in Russia learn the details of a systematic act of cannibalism and are ‘surprised and properly nauseated at the revelationí, yet within moments they are ëused to it already’. ‘It was like a story in the yellow press,’ the narrator says, ‘always lit up as something that had never happened before,’ which paradoxically means it must be a recurring event, ‘because the novelties of this age of wonders came with the assurance that just as such things had never happened before, they were certain to happen again.’ This is the world of Kafka and Primo Levi, where the impossible keeps happening without damaging the idea of its impossibility. ‘The implausibility of their actions,’ Adorno astutely says of the National Socialists, ‘made it easy to disbelieve what nobody . . . wanted to believe.’ When the impossible keeps happening it doesn’t become normal, but you do have to adopt, if you can, the tone of normality.”

Henry James and the Great War

Michael Wood, 2 June 2005

The story opens on a picture of a very large young lady, ‘a truly massive young person’, crossing from one house to another in Newport, Rhode Island, site of ‘florid’ villas and other structures ‘smothered in senseless architectural ornament’. On the verandah of the second house she finds her father, an inordinately rich man, sourly awaiting the death of...

The Project of Sanity

Michael Wood, 21 April 2005

‘It is, and is not,’ Ezra Pound wrote in a short poem called ‘Sub Mare’, ‘I am sane enough.’ What ‘is, and is not’ is the eerie landscape of the piece, a shifting underwater place; ‘sane enough’ is designed to allay but not entirely disperse our suspicions. It means the speaker is sane enough for the job in hand, which is the...

Versions of Proust

Michael Wood, 6 January 2005

What was it Proust said about paradise? That all paradises are lost paradises? That the only true paradise is a lost paradise? That it isn’t paradise until it’s lost? That paradise is a name for a favourite form of loss? He can plausibly be read as saying any of these things, and perhaps more than one at once. But the propositions are not identical, and it’s not easy to...

“But what’s astonishing is still the quiet domesticity of the story and its telling. The small scale of these lives almost allows us to miss – and this is the point – the large scale of the threat. History is not only what happens to everybody, and not only the narrative of fear; it is also, seen from another angle, the way we tame our surprises. America is bowled over by Lindbergh’s landslide victory, but ‘by the day after . . . everybody seemed to understand everything.’ And what is studied in schools, Roth says, is ‘harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.’ For this very reason, The Plot Against America refuses the epic note and proportion.”

Neruda’s Hocus Pocus

Michael Wood, 2 September 2004

Ilya Ehrenburg had a complaint about his friend Pablo Neruda’s work. ‘Too much root,’ he said. ‘Too many roots in your poems. Why so many?’ Neruda, reporting this remark in his memoirs, took it as a joke, which it probably was, and as a compliment, which it probably wasn’t. Isla Negra has a whole section, originally a separate volume, called ‘The...

García Márquez tells his story

Michael Wood, 3 June 2004

“In an aside on interviews, García Márquez says that he doesn’t believe in their usefulness, and that he considers the many interviews he has given as belonging to his ‘works of fiction’. This book is perhaps best described as a long interview with himself, but the idea of fantasy gives too much away . . . We are witnessing a triumph of performance, and this is what living to tell the tale means: that what should have been said is part of life too, and there is a real poverty in our forgetting or denying this.”

‘The Master’

Michael Wood, 18 March 2004

“This James certainly has his secrets, and likes the idea of secrets. ‘Everyone he knew carried with them the aura of another life which was half secret and half open, to be known about but not mentioned . . .’ He recalls the attraction he felt, when young and in Paris, for Paul Joukowsky, who had invited James to his room. James waits on the street, looking up at Paul’s window, simultaneously knowing he will not go up to the room and storing up memories which will later make him wonder ‘if these hours were not the truest he had ever lived’. This is ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ with a difference: not a life frozen by waiting and denial, but a life haunted by the memory of frightened desire.”

Literature and the Taste of Knowledge

Michael Wood, 18 December 2003

If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue. It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world, derived from the rocky breasts forever, flowing and drawn, and since our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Elizabeth Bishop, ‘At the Fishhouses’


Diary: in the City of Good Air

Michael Wood, 20 November 2003

When asked what I was planning to do on a brief trip to Buenos Aires, my first visit, I said I was going to take the Borges tour. I thought I was joking but soon learned that in Argentina it isn’t easy to be sure of such things. I am sitting in a café which already seems more like the sheer idea of a café than the real thing could quite be. Red velvet chairs and benches,...

Edward Said

Michael Wood, 23 October 2003

“I remember a long argument we had at the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords. The thing went on for about four hours, Edward pacing up and down in his apartment drinking glass after glass of orange juice. I was looking for hope but looking in the wrong place. In the end, I said: ‘But Edward, you’ve got to believe that some day, somehow, things are going to get better.’ He looked at me as if I was mad, and said: ‘Of course I believe that. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t be doing any of this.’”

Katharine Hepburn

Michael Wood, 11 September 2003

There is something slightly wrong with the apparently impeccable Philadelphia Story. The film works so well for everyone – director, actors, audiences – that the flaw must be very slight, and perhaps even an advantage, a wrinkle that enhances the smoothness of the rest. But it’s there and it’s this. The heroine is bright, rich, funny, classy, but a little censorious...

Andrew O’Hagan

Michael Wood, 5 June 2003

“To put it far more crudely than the novel ever does: if you can drown in fame as easily as in the sea, if fame is a form of drowning, then what’s the difference between success and failure? This is a question, not a rhetorical way of suggesting there is no difference.”

Italo Calvino

Michael Wood, 17 April 2003

A certain monotony characterises saints’ lives, at least when viewed from the outside, and the same goes for writers. The chosen career flattens out the visible differences. If it wasn’t for the lion who traditionally accompanies St Jerome, Italo Calvino suggests in The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1973), you could hardly tell him from St Augustine. Both saints are often pictured...

Thomas Mann

Michael Wood, 6 February 2003

It’s worth pausing over the thought of Mann as a Joyce in disguise, a Joyce masquerading as a Galsworthy, say. What would happen to a literary form like the novel if it was invisibly hollowed out rather than brilliantly exploded? Could there be a Modernism that looked like its opposite?


Michael Wood, 5 September 2002

‘The mind is a scoundrel,’ Dostoevsky wrote in his notes for The Brothers Karamazov, ‘but stupidity is straight and honest.’ This wasn’t what he himself thought, or rather, it was only one of the things he thought. In the novel the line is given to Ivan Karamazov, who explains to his younger brother Alyosha that he began their conversation about religion...

Mario Vargas Llosa

Michael Wood, 9 May 2002

All long-term dictators are alike: all short-term dictators vanish in their own short way. This at least is the assumption of many writers and readers, and in Latin America it amounts to something like a political faith. Of course there is nothing peculiarly Latin American about dictators of any kind; but Latin Americans often believe, with feelings ranging from outrage to fascination to...

The aphorisms of Karl Kraus

Michael Wood, 7 March 2002

Karl Kraus had many enemies, but his friends and admirers are something of a liability too. They insist on his unremitting probity and passion for justice, but his justice was all his own – there was no one else on the bench. ‘His vision was never unsteadied by scepticism,’ Erich Heller wrote. Walter Benjamin asserted that ‘Kraus never offered an argument that had not...

Apocalypse Regained

Michael Wood, 13 December 2001

You have only to watch a few frames of Apocalypse Now, in either version, to realise you have caught a high point of American filmmaking. The lighting is wonderful, the editing precise and inventive. Individual shots are full of things to look at, large and small; you can feel the patient care behind every set-up. The actors, even the toughest, look frail and haunted, and the voice-over...

Jacques Derrida

Michael Wood, 1 November 2001

In 1995, Derrida wrote of Lyotard and himself as the last survivors of a generation, although he also worried about ‘that terrible and somewhat misleading word’. The word is terrible, presumably, because it conceals death in its very announcement of life: ‘those dying generations’, Yeats wrote, but then all generations die, that’s what they do. And it is...

Contemporary Indian English novels

Michael Wood, 19 April 2001

In Anita Desai’s recent novel Fasting, Feasting, there is a delicately framed moment of what looks like reconciliation. An unmarried daughter has seen her last chance of a career and a life independent from the family vanish into the demands of her mother’s real or feigned illness. Feigned, the daughter is sure: the crafty parental stranglehold. But then daughter and mother attend...

Anthony Powell

Michael Wood, 8 February 2001

Reviewers are always sternly instructed to check page proofs against finished copies of books, and I do, I will. But the proofs of Anthony Powell’s A Writer’s Notebook provide, along with numerous unimportant oddities of phrase and spelling which seem to be errors of transcription from script to voice to type to print (‘I would like to thank my wife, who read the manuscript...

Patrick Modiano

Michael Wood, 30 November 2000

Patrick Modiano’s fiction is intricately caught up in time, as he himself says. ‘The great, the inevitable subject of the novel, is always . . . time.’ And more interestingly, less portentously: ‘I had the mania of looking back, always that feeling of something lost, not like paradise, but certainly lost.’ In fact, time is less his subject than his...

Conversations with Don Luis

Michael Wood, 7 September 2000

‘Studio Vingt-Huit – high up a winding street of Montmartre, in the full blasphemy of a freezing Sunday; taxis arriving, friends greeting each other, an excitable afternoon audience’. The description is Cyril Connolly’s, the occasion a showing of Luis Buñuel’s first film, Un Chien andalou. The audience seemed baffled at the end, and some of its members were angry, unprepared no doubt for what Connolly called the ‘destructive reverence’ of the film. ‘With the impression of having witnessed some infinitely ancient horror, Saturn swallowing his sons, we made our way out into the cold of February 1929, that unique and dazzling cold.’’‘


Michael Wood, 20 July 2000

The story so far is this. Johann Wolfgang (not yet von) Goethe, the prodigiously talented son of a prosperous Frankfurt citizen, startles his compatriots with a furious and rambling play, Götz von Berlichingen (1771), which effectively inaugurates modern drama in Germany. He then writes The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a melancholy novel in letters, and becomes an immensely influential European figure, a provoker of fashions in dress and suicide, a sort of Byron before Byron. He is 25. Troubled by this success in print – Götz was published to great acclaim but not staged for some time – Goethe seeks a different public and a different relation to the world. He moves to Weimar in 1775, where he becomes confidential adviser and then minister and privy councillor to the Duke. He is made a baron in 1782. Weimar at this time is a city of 6000 inhabitants, compared with Frankfurt’s 36,000. But Weimar is also the centre of a duchy, which includes the territories of Jena, Eisenach and Ilmenau. It is a little world but it is a world. Goethe occupies himself with mines, politics, the development of the University of Jena. He starts several lengthy writing projects but finishes few, although at this time as at all times he writes remarkable poems in many genres. He becomes frustrated, both by the burdens of office and by the stranglement of what appears to have been a long Platonic affair with a married court lady, Frau von Stein. He longs to travel in Italy, a journey he has often imagined, and which he postponed when he came to Weimar. Finally, in 1786, he asks for and is given a leave of absence and takes off for the better part of two years, visiting Verona, Padua, Venice and Naples, and staying for some time in Sicily and (twice) in Rome. He finds a new life among German artists in Italy – ‘artists’ here means painters and sculptors, but Goethe, and Schiller soon after him, convert the word to something like its modern meaning, where it includes writers and film-makers, for example. ‘I have found myself again,’ Goethe writes to the Duke, ‘but as what? – As an artist!’ This is a declaration of independence of sorts, but Goethe knows he can’t stay in Italy. He returns to Weimar, works again on his Faust, finishes other plays (Iphigenia in Tauris, Egmont, Tasso), elaborates an early version of his novel Wilhelm Meister, and publishes his Collected Works in eight volumes. He also grieves extensively for the warm, permissive South and his lost artist colony in Rome, but realises, on a brief return trip to Venice, that his future lies in Germany. Italy had been paradise, or rather a proof that paradise exists and can be abandoned. Goethe is happy with the sterner North, or says he is. ‘The Duchess is well and contented,’ he writes of his employer’s mother’s homecoming from her Italian trip, ‘as one is when one returns from paradise. I am now used to it, and this time I was quite happy to leave Italy.’ Used to his return, he means, and used to the absence from paradise. The words I have just quoted are the last words of the first volume of Nicholas Boyle’s biography of Goethe. The date is June 1790, and other things have been happening in Europe, to which Boyle immediately turns in his new book.’‘

Woody Allen

Michael Wood, 27 April 2000

The films of Woody Allen are dedicated to the proposition that life is both alarming and boring. Is this possible? Surely alarms are at least interesting? Nothing is interesting in Allen’s imagined world except the nervousness of the mind observing the banality, the sheer invention with which the imagination pictures its cage. The comedy arises constantly from the gap between where we might have been and where we ended up. In the film Love and Death (1975), the hero’s idea of a miracle is that his Uncle Sasha should pick up a check. In one of Allen’s stories, the lack of a sense of humour is defined as believing that Zeppo was the most amusing of the Marx Brothers. When a man tries to rob a bank in Take the Money and Run (1969), he is foiled because he gets into an argument about the handwriting of his stick-up note. In Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) the Diane Keaton character has a wild idea and is advised to save some of her craziness for the menopause.

Billy Wilder

Michael Wood, 2 March 2000

‘He’s a clever, lively director whose work lacks feeling or passion or grace or elegance.’ This is Pauline Kael on Billy Wilder’s One Two Three (1961). Wilder himself seems to agree about this film, ‘It’s a kind of sporadically good picture.’ And: ‘It was not funny. But just the speed was funny.’ Of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) he says, rather more fondly, that it was ‘a wonderful picture, too long’, and that it was ‘the most elegant picture I’ve ever shot. I don’t shoot elegant pictures. Mr Vincente Minnelli, he shot elegant pictures.’‘

Antonio Machado

Michael Wood, 25 November 1999

Translation is often thought to be impossible, an ideal, hopeless task. What we get in its name is a pale substitute, a distant echo of a lost original. ‘A poem,’ Don Paterson says in his afterword to The Eyes, ‘can no more be translated than a piece of music.’ Poets have only to think of the lines ‘in which they take most pride … to realise they could not possibly find even their roughest equivalents in another tongue’. There is a loyalty to the density of language in such a sentiment, and it’s certainly a good corrective to the notion, if anyone holds it, that translation is the faultless reproduction of the effects and meanings of one language in another. But of course a poem, like any other arrangement of words, can be translated. Rough equivalents can be found, have to be found, because that’s what translation is. What’s impossible is not translation but the fantasy of perfect duplication, in which languages would miraculously and exactly map onto each other, as if the Tower of Babel had never been built and ruined. Translation can’t aspire to abolish the differences among languages, because it is itself a result of those differences, even, in strong cases, a measure of them.‘

Headlong by Michael Frayn

Michael Wood, 14 October 1999

In Michael Frayn’s first novel, The Tin Men, there is a character who is supposed to be writing a novel, but mainly concentrates on devising the blurbs and reviews for the as yet unstarted book, as if the work itself was merely the plodding cause of a glittering celebrity effect, and ideally could be dispensed with altogether. Frayn specialises in this kind of comedy, the mind racing ahead of its occasions and then coming a cropper as the occasions catch up. I’m not sure who else works in this mode at the moment, but the fiction of Laurence Sterne is full of it, and its most notorious modern instance occurs in Duck Soup, where Groucho Marx, invited to hold out the hand of friendship to an enemy, imagines himself doing it, imagines the enemy’s response, imagines himself responding to the response, imagines a response to that, and by the time the enemy materialises has talked himself into such a state of indignation that he slaps the fellow’s face. The enemy himself has played no part in this little drama.

Eyes Wide Shut

Michael Wood, 30 September 1999

‘I can’t say he’s reasonable,’ a colleague remarked of Stanley Kubrick, ‘I can only say he’s obsessive in the best sense of the word.’ Because he was obsessive without being crazy, many people have thought Kubrick was a genius, but the word is chiefly a gesture of admiring incomprehension. What Kubrick’s films suggest is that he was some kind of meticulous master, but a master of the obvious, and anyone who is surprised by the ponderousness of his new work, Eyes Wide Shut, must have forgotten what the other films were like. Vincent LoBrutto, from whose biography (Faber, 1998) I’ve borrowed the above quotation, inadvertently sums up a whole career when he says: ‘Stanley Kubrick didn’t take vacations.’ We could sum up the master’s film style by saying: ‘Stanley Kubrick didn’t hint.’‘

Women writers

Michael Wood, 19 August 1999

‘It is fatal for a woman,’ Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘in any way to speak consciously as a woman.’ Fatal for her as a writer, Woolf meant, but even so, not many people will now agree with this view. Not all that many, perhaps, will understand it straight off. How could it be fatal? How could you not write or speak as a woman if you were one? Except by pretending to speak or write as a man. But Woolf didn’t want women to write like men. ‘It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?’‘

What Kind of Guy? W.H. Auden

Michael Wood, 10 June 1999

That is the way things happen,’ Auden writes in ‘Memorial for the City’, a poem Edward Mendelson dates from June 1949,‘

Musil starts again

Michael Wood, 15 April 1999

Writers in the early part of our century fell in love with the interminable work, the book that seemed infinite. The Cantos, Remembrance of Things Past, The Man without Qualities were all tasks designed to last the writer’s lifetime, and they did. But there are degrees and differences among these projects. The Cantos were a ragbag, as Pound once half-mockingly called them, into which he could throw the contents of his mind in the form of poetry, but they were a ragbag that dreamed of a secret ordering. Remembrance of Things Past was in one sense finished as soon as it was started, the circle of its story complete. Proust spent all the time that remained to him filling out the middle. The Man without Qualities, however, turned gradually into a work that was genuinely, irremediably endless. Somewhere in his forties, Musil developed an incomparable talent for beginnings, and after that he wrote very little else. The results were lengthy and wonderful, whole novels in themselves, but they were, as Musil himself kept saying, only a start.

Borges and Borges and I

Michael Wood, 4 February 1999

‘Not everyone can be Whitman,’ Borges said in an interview in London long ago. He paused, pretending to reflect. ‘Not even Whitman could be Whitman.’ We knew Borges was only pretending to reflect because we recognised the joke and the timing as belonging so perfectly to him, a Borges short story in miniature, a shortest story. And also because, if we were still sceptical, we could find the joke in his writings. In ‘The Simulacrum’, which Andrew Hurley translates as ‘The Mountebank’, a man arrives in a small village in northern Argentina and exhibits a blonde doll in a cardboard box which serves as her coffin. People file by, offering their condolences, addressing the man as ‘General’. He shakes their hands, murmurs a platitude, and they drop their two pesos in a collection box. The time is July 1952. But this ‘funereal farce’, as Borges puts it, is of course not the real thing. ‘The man in mourning was not Perón and the blonde doll was not the woman Eva Duarte, but then Perón was not Perón either, nor was Eva Eva.’‘

The Comic-Strip Proust

Michael Wood, 26 November 1998

There are all kinds of things to do with books apart from reading them, and one of the most pleasurable is to dream of reading them. Many of us keep scribbled or notional lists of such dreams, and happily speak of rereading works we haven’t read even once. In If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Calvino steers his reader and chief character through a bookstore, past heaps of dangerous objects identified as, among other things, Books You Haven’t Read, Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages, Books You Want to Own so They’ll Be Handy just in Case, Books You Mean to Read but There Are Others You Must Read First, and Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them. Even great readers can fall into this mode, and even books we have read can be dreamed. At one point in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, Roland Barthes casually said: ‘The other day, I reread ‘The Magic Mountain.’ I’m sure Barthes had read The Magic Mountain, probably many times, but I’m equally sure he didn’t reread it ‘the other day’. That day he just remembered reading it, or perhaps skimmed a few pages. He joined the club of dreamers.‘

Primo Levi

Michael Wood, 1 October 1998

Myriam Anissimov’s biography of Primo Levi, first published in French two years ago, begins with a kind of stutter surrounding the writer’s end. The book’s Introduction, prologue and opening chapter all invoke his death, as if it were a threshold that had to be crossed but couldn’t be crossed without returning. ‘On 11 April 1987 Primo Levi plunged down the stairwell of the house where he was born and had always lived’; ‘It was this man who on an April morning, after a period of dreadful depression, suddenly “exited life by the window”, in the words of the Italian critic Cesare Cases’; ‘One Saturday morning in April 1987, a tragedy disrupted the peace and quiet of the Corso Re Umberto. Primo Levi had taken his own life.’‘


Michael Wood, 3 September 1998

‘Remember the Maine’ was the slogan, but what exactly was to be remembered? That the US warship of that name sank in Havana harbour on 15 February 1898? That the Spanish blew it up? That such things will happen as long as there are remnants of old empires in the Western hemisphere? That North Americans, always too trusting and too kind, need to get a little tougher? ‘Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain’ was the complete couplet, printed in William Randolph Hearst’s New York journal on 18 February.‘

Film theory

Michael Wood, 2 July 1998

The names of the actors appear briefly on a dark screen. We hear the sound of a car on a road. A title reads: ‘This film is based on a true story.’ Then we see a large American car from the back, driving at night on the wrong, that is, on the left side of the road. The car swerves into the right lane, the camera stays in the left, catches up, comes alongside the car. The screen goes dark again and a tide says, ‘New York, 1970’. Now we get a view of the moving car from the front, outside the windscreen, the camera slightly off to the driver’s left. Ray Liotta, looking young and spruce but tired, is at the wheel, his face well lit. Robert de Niro, in the passenger seat, is asleep. Joe Pesci, in the back seat, is nodding off. A thumping noise is heard, and Liotta says, ‘Jimmy.’ De Niro wakes up. Liotta continues: ‘Did I hear somethin’?’‘

Out of the Lock-Up: Wallace Stevens

Michael Wood, 2 April 1998

Asked in 1933 what his favourite among his own poems was, Wallace Stevens said he liked best ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’, from Harmonium (1923). The work ‘wears a deliberately commonplace costume’, Stevens said, ‘and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry’. He didn’t remember much about writing the poem except ‘the state of mind from which it came’: ‘I dislike niggling, and like letting myself go.’ I don’t think this means he never niggled, always let himself go – rather the opposite. The poem conjures up a happy liberation from correction, in poetry and elsewhere, and gaudiness and freedom are seen to go together.’‘

Underworld by Don Delillo

Michael Wood, 5 February 1998

‘There is a world inside the world,’ Lee Harvey Oswald repeats in Don DeLillo’s novel Libra (1988). The phrase suggests wheels within wheels, partly because Oswald is obsessively riding the New York subway when we first hear it. ‘There’s more to it,’ David Ferrie says in the same novel. ‘There’s always more to it. This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.’ Surface and secret: even when people dispute the details, the names and the numbers, they accept this two-world structure. Larry Parmenter, another character in Libra, believes ‘that nothing can finally be known that involves human motive and need. There is always another level, another secret, a way in which the heart breeds a deception so mysterious and complex it can only be taken for a deeper kind of truth.’ This is getting a little fancy, but then Libra is perhaps the last really good novel of the great age of American paranoia, the age that began just before the Kennedy/King assassinations, and faded away somewhere in the early Nineties. It’s not that the Forties and Fifties didn’t have their paranoias, or that we are short of paranoids now. It’s that people didn’t always believe, and don’t have to believe, that what they don’t know is the deep, secret, missing truth. In less paranoid ages ignorance may just be ignorance.‘

‘L.A. Confidential’

Michael Wood, 1 January 1998

‘Some men get the whole world,’ Kim Basinger says. ‘Others get an ex-hooker and a trip to Arizona.’ The camera pauses on the man who has got the world, an ambitious, heroic, decorated and promoted policeman. The actor is Guy Pearce, his face narrow and eager, all sharp planes and angles. He doesn’t look too pleased. The film ends.

Living in the Enemy’s Dream

Michael Wood, 27 November 1997

‘Maybe this is a detective story,’ a character thinks in John Edgar Wideman’s novel Philadelphia Fire (1990). It’s a reasonable suspicion, and would be for anyone in any of Wideman’s books that I’ve read. But they are not detective stories. Often structured around a quest, for a missing child, a vanished woman, a former self, a meaning, an answer, they finally take the form of a flight, as if from a horror too great to bear or name, a shock one can only circle again and again, and at last abandon. ‘Do I write to escape, to make a fiction of my life?’ Wideman asks in his memoir Brothers and Keepers (1984). ‘Wasn’t there something fundamental in my writing, in my capacity to function, that depended on flight, escape?’ But Wideman is not avoiding the shocks and horrors, he is allowing himself to be haunted by them, evoking their aftermath in a series of deft and ingenious pictures, taken from all kinds of angles by a restless imagination. The aftermath, though, is as close as he gets, and the need to flee even from that is a measure of the force of the original blast.‘

Sounds like hell to me

Michael Wood, 13 November 1997

You step up to the wooden door, a heavy, rustic affair set in a brick arch, and you peer through two small holes conveniently set at around head height. You do this not because you are a snoop, but because this is an installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Even so, you feel like a snoop, and worse. As Calvin Tomkins says, no amount of practice or mental preparation will diminish the complicated shock of what you see on the other side of the door. This has to do partly with the meticulous realism of what is in the foreground, partly with the tacky artificiality of the background; and has everything to do with the failed combination of the two, with your inability to get them to go together or even cancel each other out. The moment you reach for an overall interpretation, you feel you are losing the stubborn individuality of the bits of the scene, their separate stories. If you decide the stubborn bits are all there is, you feel you are missing a larger message, and trying to make yourself comfortable when you are not.

Sympathy for the Devil

Michael Wood, 16 October 1997

In an early chapter of Mikhail Bulgakov’s funny and frightening novel, The Master and Margarita, written between 1928 and 1940 and now available in four different English translations, a character loses his head – literally. He slips on a Moscow street and is hit by a tram. His last thought is ‘Can this be?’ and his severed head then bounces away across the cobblestones. The question and the grisly performance of an answer are characteristic of this remarkable book, which Bulgakov described as his ‘sunset novel’. He was writing it, without any hope or thought of publication, in a time and place where arbitrary arrests and disappearances were a common occurrence, and yet where people managed to devise for themselves, as they had to, a fable of normality. Bulgakov confronts this fable with a further fable, registers the fantastic nature of his historical world by conflating it with inventive variants on more traditional forms of fantasy, of the kind we may associate with Hoffmann or Gogol. The man who loses his head has also met the devil an hour or so earlier – a busy day for a man described as being ‘unaccustomed to unusual happenings’. When one of the devil’s assistants says to a young woman that he has been sent to see her ‘regarding a certain small matter’, she understands him immediately, albeit wrongly. Obviously he has come to arrest her. What a relief when she learns that he hasn’t; better the devil than the secret police.’

When the Balloon Goes up

Michael Wood, 4 September 1997

A young woman is shaken in her understanding of who she is and what she wants. The walking holiday she and her husband have planned now seems, Ian McEwan says, ‘a pointless detour from her uncertainty’. The phrase is full of trouble, of precise and elusive implications. Uncertainty is a path, a destination, a need. Of course we may not like the thought, and many of us will prefer to see our detours as chosen directions, uncertainty as something to be shaken off rather than returned to. But truths can often be measured by the urgency of our desire to avoid them, and sometimes only by that.

You see stars

Michael Wood, 19 June 1997

In the early Eighties, British novelists worried a lot about history. Where had it gone, why had it left so few traces, why did it still hurt? How could it simultaneously seem so irrelevant and so inescapable? ‘The past is a receding shoreline,’ the narrator says in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), but he was busy replaying a story a hundred years old. In Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983), history is being ‘cut back’ as a school subject at the same time as it invades all the lives in the book. But behind these worries was still another one, not yet focused but beginning to loom pretty large. Something was taking the place of history, some hefty compound of nostalgia, propaganda, heritage, sheer imagination, which made it look as if we had always been, until recently, just what we wished we had been – or what some of us wished we had been. History was becoming an Edwardian calendar, the long afternoon of empire, when children obeyed their parents, everyone could spell, there were no drugs, and socialism was something intellectuals played at in the evenings. Free enterprise was sufficient, and entirely amiable – and when it wasn’t amiable, it was still all right, because it knew what was good for us, it didn’t tolerate slackers. Whatever was wrong with the present could be seen as a betrayal of these golden days, a failure to hang onto our glory.’

Life on the Town

Michael Wood, 22 May 1997

This long novel is haunted, dedicated to the dead, but quite without nostalgia, almost without grief. It starts with an intimate loss (‘I’m beginning this book on All Saints’ Day in Paris, six months after Brice’s death’), and with a visit to a commemorative plaque in the Père Lachaise cemetery. The narrator looks at a photo left there, and thinks it may represent ‘one of the other dead young men’. A few pages later, recalling his seemingly interminable early sexual adventures, he says: ‘I suppose most of them are dead now, all those young bodies I touched and undressed and tucked in when they fell asleep.’ ‘They were all dying,’ he says of the men he used to know on Fire Island. ‘They all died.’ The echo of the chiming roll-call at the end of Remembrance of Things Past is quietly deliberate, but of course the characters in Proust died of time, not of Aids. White wants to register the disaster, but refuses to memorialise the dead only as victims. The title of the novel, as we learn on one of the last pages, comes from Haydn: ‘I kept thinking of Haydn’s The Farewell Symphony. In the last movement more and more of the musicians get up to leave the stage, blowing out their candles as they go. In the end just one violinist is still playing.’ They ‘get up to leave’. They steal away, are not stolen. The narrator also recalls Diaghilev’s last secretary, a man in his nineties, saying: ‘You must understand I don’t want to meet new people. I prefer the company of the dead.’ The narrator comments: ‘And although I’m not quite there yet, I know what he means.’ What the narrator knows is not only the allure of memory and the past, but the curious fact that the dead, if properly entertained, make excellent company.

I just worked it out from the novel

Michael Wood, 24 April 1997

It’s easy to feel that life leaves too many traces or too few, scarcely ever the right amount: either fingerprints everywhere or total erasure. In such a mood your memory itself becomes a double agent, and you may be ready, like the hero of Orson Welles’s Mr Arkadin, to hire a private eye to explore your own past or, like the hero of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas, to welcome the devil as your research assistant. You could also just read one of the formidably intelligent works of Javier Marías, expert in what he calls the ‘shadows’ of the untold story. He is the author of eight novels, the last three of which are available in English (from Harvill) as All Souls, A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. All three are admirably translated by Margaret Jull Costa, who not only catches the meanings of words with grace and precision, but gets rhythms of thought, and even better, rhythms of afterthought to carry over into English. Marías writes the kind of old-fashioned, speculative prose we associate with Proust and Henry James, all qualifications and revisions, no assertion that can’t be infinitely embroidered or unravelled. But he also deals in violence, historical and personal, and in the movie titles, politicians, brand-names and underwear we connect with a quite different kind of writer. The King of Spain (identified only by various nicknames, Solus, the One and Only, Only You, the Lone Ranger and so on), appears in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, and Mrs Thatcher (recognisable from her lipstick, her manicure and the fact that she is called ‘the British leader’) in A Heart So White. In All Souls people die and are remembered, strange coincidences link the past to the present. In A Heart So White a remote and lurid suicide finds echoes in apparently unconnected lives. In Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me a man discovers he has a corpse in his arms and spends the rest of the novel trying to find a tellable story for this uncomfortable fact. All of these books are impressive, but the latest, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, probably offers the deepest immersion in Marías’s haunted universe.

Not Saluting, but Waving

Michael Wood, 20 February 1997

Nothing became her life like the remaking of it, but there were so many remakes. The latest stars Madonna, but the earliest starred Eva María Duarte herself. Or was that María Eva Ibarguren? She was María Eva Duarte de Perón on her marriage certificate, but then she also took three years off her age on that occasion. Some of this is easily unravelled, and a number of the remakes are easy to name: country kid to city girl, dancer to actress, brunette to blonde, actress to politician, President’s wife to secular saint. But none of this is easy to explain, and all of it turns to myth at the slightest touch. Even her body had its long adventures: laboriously embalmed at her death in 1952, it began its mysterious travels when Perón fell in 1955, was dug up in Italy in 1971, although Perón didn’t take it back with him to Argentina when he was reinstalled in 1973. That act of piety was left to his widow, his second wife Isabel, who became President in 1974 and had Eva Perón’s corpse buried (at last) in a Buenos Aires cemetery.

Tiff and Dither

Michael Wood, 2 January 1997

It may be that only the truly self-absorbed can make art out of self-effacement. This at least is one of the suggestions of the first volume of Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries, a whingeing, inward-bound mammoth of a book, where the author laboriously chronicles and inspects his every moment for changes in the moral and spiritual weather. Well, it can’t be his every moment, but it feels like it. Here are a handful of phrases, literally taken at random: ‘I have never been able to grasp any idea except through a person’; ‘I’ve been looking forward to this outing for several weeks, and now that I’m here I find I’m bored’; ‘A morning of pathological sloth. What brings on this disgraceful, paralytic laziness?’; ‘Certainty my mind is softening, weakening. I have so little co-ordination that I putter around like a dotard’; ‘I wish I could get rid of this tickling cough’; ‘I do wish I didn’t feel so fat’; ‘Every day I feel worse. Miserable loneliness’; ‘Elsa Lanchester to supper last night. Not a success. Don had fixed shrimp jambalaya and Elsa immediately said she couldn’t eat garlic and implied a reproof because I hadn’t remembered this’; ‘Well, of course, everything is all right today – it really is, I believe.’ Certainly anyone who has kept a diary or even a notebook has written stuff like this, except the bit about having Elsa Lanchester to supper, but then the question is: what else did we write?’

Nice Guy

Michael Wood, 14 November 1996

Rehearsing his part in a production of The Birthday Party at Scarborough, the young Alan Ayckbourn asked Harold Pinter for a little more information about the fictional character. Pinter said: ‘Mind your own fucking business. Concentrate on what’s there.’ It’s a good answer, and Ayckbourn no doubt took it kindly and got the point. But it bothers Michael Billington, who can’t tell the story without cleaning it up, indeed turning it into a testimonial. ‘That was not brusqueness or rudeness – Ayckbourn testifies that Pinter was an extremely nice guy – but simply an absolute belief in the self sufficiency of the text.’’

Family Values

Michael Wood, 17 October 1996

‘We were the last romantics,’ Yeats said, but he spoke too soon. We might feel the same about the situation proposed by the title of Mario Puzo’s new novel, now sitting comfortably at number four in the New York Times bestseller list. Don Domenico Clericuzio, the ageing mobster grandee in this book, is said to have led his family to ‘the very heights of power’, using only the instruments of ‘a Borgialike cruelty and a Machiavellian subtleness, plus solid American business know-how’. He has also probably watched the Godfather movies several hundred times. How could we ever tire of such a figure, what would stop his replication? The idea of the last Don is like the idea of the last cliché.

Misinformed about Paradise

Michael Wood, 5 September 1996

In the old times, long before the birth of the Irish Free State, a young woman called Brigid McLaughlin went down from Derry to work in southern Donegal. Her job was to look after two children, a girl and a boy, aged nine and seven, orphans. ‘The children were beautiful,’ we are told, ‘especially the girl. She was dark, the boy was fair. They spoke Irish only.’ Fortunately, Brigid spoke Irish, too. She had a year’s contract, ‘but she was not, for all of that year, to leave the children out of her charge and was never to take them away from the house itself.’ The children were charming and well-mannered, and every day they visited their parents’ grave behind the house, and sat there for a long time. On a bad day in autumn, rain pouring down, Brigid forbade them to do this, and had her first quarrel with her charges. Not only that. In the morning they had exchanged their hair colour, the boy was now dark, the girl was fair. And yet they insisted that they had always been that way, that nothing was different. When Brigid took them to the priest, they promptly switched back again to their original dispensation. Later the children exchanged voices, even sexes, and Brigid discovered that they could not be seen in a mirror. ‘She knew now that she was being challenged by evil, and the children were being stolen from her by whatever was in that grave out the back.’ Finally, the grave won out, and the children were gone for good. Brigid returned to Derry ‘completely strange in the head’, and gave up talking. Once a year, on the anniversary of the children’s disappearance, she would sing an Irish song the children sang just before they left. No one in Derry understood the words.

We have all kinds of images of the modern poet, little mythologies made out of snatches of the life and work and reputation. The figure is hieratic and austere, like Maillarmé and Valéry, inward and intricate like Eliot and Pessoa, serenely eccentric like Marianne Moore, public and overflowing like Neruda and Pound.

The Life of the Mind

Michael Wood, 20 June 1996

The screen shows a flat, empty road from a very low angle, a torn tyre lying on it like a piece of junk sculpture. Then the towers of a city in the distance; then a set of ramshackle houses; a pasture and a farmhouse; the white screen of a drive-in; a field full of oil pumps. A drawling voice, all wide vowels and unclosed consonants, starts to philosophise: ‘The world is full of complainers, and the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee … Something can always go wrong … What I know about is Texas, and down here you’re on your own.’ These are the opening moments of Blood Simple, Ethan and Joel Coen’s first movie, released in 1983, and they look like an agenda, an announcement of work to come. They look that way only now, though, when we have seen the later films; learned that the appearance of raw and gritty realism in that first movie was deceptive. We were never in America, only ‘America’, a place full of stories about itself, none the less mythological because historical reality every now and then manages to catch up with it, or incorporate a piece of its gory or flamboyant action. The ‘down here’ in the voice-over now sounds like a giveaway, since it implies an awareness of other places, even an anxiety about them, about the way Texas may look from a different region. Of course there’s boasting in the claim too, a pride in the fact that chainsaw massacres, for instance, don’t happen just anywhere.

A Sort of Nobody

Michael Wood, 9 May 1996

Criticism for Frank Kermode is the articulation of assumptions, a sort of phenomenology of interpretative need. Its job, as he says in The Sense of an Ending (1967), is ‘making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives’. It involves close reading, discriminations of value, a practised affection for old and new texts, but its chief quarry is the turn of a culture’s mind, one of those trains of thought which Conrad thought could not be false – because even when they look horribly false they are embedded in arguments or entailments we need to believe are true. ‘I thought I could see a new way of looking at certain assumptions,’ Kermode says in Romantic Image (1957). He could; he did; and he has kept doing it. The world, he says at the end of The Genesis of Secrecy (1979), ‘is our beloved codex’:’

Like Apollinaire

Michael Wood, 4 April 1996

Perhaps all books are messages from other times and places, even the ones written yesterday and just down the road. But these three works by Kenzaburo Oë, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, have an unusual flavour of missives cast into the sea long ago, only now arriving on our island beach. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids was published in Japan in 1958, and is now translated for the first time. A Personal Matter was published in Japan in 1964, and in an American translation, here reprinted, in 1969. Hiroshima Notes was published in Japan in 1965 and first translated, in this version, in 1981. So the youngest of the books is thirty years old, half Oë’s own age. The effect of reading them now is not to make us feel we have been there before, because we haven’t, even if we have been to Japan and read other Japanese novels. The effect, on me at least, was to make me try to remember these books’ English and American coevals, whatever it was we were reading in the wake of Sartre and Camus, and before the Sixties became the Sixties. William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Thomas Pynchon, who else?

Going Wrong

Michael Wood, 7 March 1996

It’s always risky to think of films as signs of the times, when they are mainly signs of what someone thought would sell. It’s particularly risky when the films manifestly see themselves as signs of the times, heavy-breathing comments on the way we live now. These three new thrillers are all worth watching, but they are a little over-ripe, and they make you feel you might have got the wrong door, and gone to church instead of the movies.