Gilbey on film: A matter of life and death

Kazuo Ishiguro and the cinema of mortality.

According to Stephen King, the first contact he ever had with Stanley Kubrick came shortly before the director filmed his adaptation of King's novel The Shining. (Which, by the by, gives me a great excuse to link to this fake trailer, much-circulated but still hugely amusing, imagining that bright-lit horror as a cockle-warmer à la Regarding Henry or A Good Year or Dan in Real Life.) King tells the story of how Kubrick called out of the blue one morning to posit the theory that all works of the supernatural must be inherently hopeful because they propose that there is life after death.

This thought occurred to me a few weeks ago while I was watching Biutiful, which is approximately 99 per cent grim, with a crucial 1 per cent of hope provided by the knowledge that all the suffering endured by the characters will be followed by serenity -- at least if there's any truth in the brief glimpse the film gives us of the afterlife. The spirit may begin its journey clinging to the ceiling, like something nasty you get in your hotel room on a cheap package holiday to Gran Canaria, but at least one dead character ends his days in a peaceful, snow-covered woodland clearing, which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film's locations: sweatshops, funeral parlours, immigrant detention centres and cramped urban apartments at which even a battery hen would turn up its beak.

Another, more transparently reassuring film about the afterlife -- Clint Eastwood's Hereafter (the placatory spiritual content of which is discussed here) -- also opened last week. Put aside the latter picture's shameless piggybacking on disasters natural (the 2004 tsunami) and man-made (the London bombings on 7 July 2005) and it's clear that Hereafter is providing a necessary and traditional service. On one hand such movies offer the same balm in troubled times as a great work such as A Matter of Life and Death, which in 1946 reassured audiences grieving over wartime losses that an afterlife resembling their mortal existence, right down to the meddlesome bureaucracy, awaited them at the top of a vast staircase. But there is always the question of tone: while Powell and Pressburger's film brings a warm, wry wit to bear on its fantasy, and leaves ample space for the viewer's good-natured incredulity, Hereafter depends for its success on being watched straight; in that context, it leaves you feeling you've been taken for a sucker.

At the other end of the scale on the subject of spirituality and the afterlife is the forthcoming adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which opens on 11 February. Look out for it: despite the shocking snub it received from Bafta, and the fact that its distributor is effectively throwing in the towel by releasing it on the same day as the Coen brothers' True Grit, with which it will compete for the same audience, it has much to recommend it. Certain details from Ishiguro's novel have been compromised: the main character, for example, has been weirdly stripped of her sexual promiscuity in the apparent interests of good taste, while a key moment pertaining to the title has been completely undermined.

But what remains undiminished is the source material's staggeringly sane perspective in the face of death. The film's director Mark Romanek has already explored death and its attendant taboos from unusual angles -- first in his whimsical 1985 debut Static (a highly original work which, outrageously, he now omits from his CV) and then in the mighty video he directed for "Hurt" by Johnny Cash. Without lessening the cosmic dread around the subject, Never Let Me Go brings to it a sense of resolution, even positivity.

Some reviews of the novel were understandably circumspect in discussing the story's surprises, which were revealed only gradually, but I can say upfront -- because the film does -- that it begins at a boarding school for children who have been cloned to provide organ donations when they reach adulthood. As the characters grow up, their struggle to come to terms with their premature deaths (well, premature to us, but natural to them) mirrors the futile wrestling match with mortality in which we all engage.

"I think we're offering a fairly optimistic story," Ishiguro told me last year.

"How the characters behave to each other provides an optimistic view of human nature. They're not all fighting for their little bit, they're not grasping at material possessions; what they really care about is each other, and if they've done something wrong they want to apologise and put it right. That's why the bleak backdrop is there. It's so we can watch what matters to people when they know they're down to their last few moments. There's a big metaphor about mortality, the human lifespan, in the book but for me the point of the story isn't to say, 'Look folks, we're all going to die, just wanted to remind you!' It's not that. It's more that given we only have limited time, how should we use it? What's actually important? What are human beings like?"

Never Let Me Go is released on 11 February.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times