READING AND SEEING, SEEING AND READING: A NOTE ON DOCUMENTARIES

I love documentaries. Not nature documentaries, whether they are of the cute, cheesy variety or of the ultra realistic kind –which, for some reason or other, always include grisly scenes of bigger animals killing smaller animals. I mean culture documentary films. My second dream job after university teacher, is ‘documentary film maker’. (Actually this is what I wanted to be in the first place though I never found out how to set about becoming one. Too late!)

Anyway, I find documentaries a very good complement to reading non-fiction and, generally essays, as this what they are: ‘audiovisual essays’. Of course they are films (they have two Oscar categories for short and long), and, thus, not to be confused with print essays, yet the point is similar: offering information articulated on the basis of a thesis supported by plenty of research. This morning, for instance, I have seen an excellent production by Jordi Fortuny, La gran aventura de la Canadiense (2012, RTVE, TVC and Batabat) which narrates how a combination of local engineering talent and the visionary energy of American entrepreneur Frederick Stark Pearson resulted in the building in the Pyrenees of the dams that brought electricity to Catalonia in the early 20th century (http://www.tv3.cat/videos/4368090/La-gran-aventura-de-La-Canadenca). I had previously read Xavier Moret’s also excellent Dr. Pearson, l’home que va portar la llum a Catalunya (2004) but missed an audiovisual illustration to this volume, so I’m happy that Fortuny has supplied it. And, outlandish as the subject may seem, believe me, it is very interesting –as a Catalan, I have learned about the modernisation of my country, and as a specialist in English Studies, I have also learned that the hand of American industry reached unexpected places in the 20th century.

YouTube is, of course, a wonderful tool regardless of all its illegalities and I have enjoyed three very good hours this week watching the BBC’s mini-documentary series Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs (2012). This is particularly touching, as the presenter, Dr. Pamela Cox, explains that she would like the series to be seen as an homage to women like her two grandmothers, both lowly maids of all work . If you think that Upstairs, Downstairs, or Downtown Abbey are reliable guides to the British class system this series has much to teach you. If you have read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Dr. Cox provides a fascinating complement, teaching you for instance that Darlington Hall is after all, a little miracle as 1,000 big houses like that have been pulled down since World War II. Also, that very rich people were (or are?) amazingly stingy with those who, literally, cleaned up their shit. (I was myself an au-pair for one year … and that’s a subject for yet another mini-series.)

All this is a sort of overlong prologue to what I really wanted to comment on today. I read a comment on You Tube by an American viewer, thanking (piratical) YouTubers for uploading thrilling material. If it weren’t for you, this person writes, “I might have to read a book to learn!”. To be fair, I think this person means that without the UK YouTube pirates, s/he would miss much of interest for him/her at the other side of the Atlantic. In the same way, I would never have seen Servants (not available on DVD) and so, if interested in the topic, should have read instead, for instance, Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney (2011), or the similarly titled Life Below Stairs: The Real Lives of Servants, the Edwardian Era to 1939 by Pamela Horn (2012). I want to believe that this person is NOT saying that documentaries make reading unnecessary particularly because, well, it takes plenty of reading (yes, research) to make a documentary. I don’t know, by the way, whether I’ll read Maloney’s and Horn’s books, but Dr Cox’s documentary certainly got me interested in Margaret Powell’s 1968 best-seller Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid –which, ironically, seems to be one of the sources for Downtown Abbey.

In my own cultural practice, in short, there is an absolute continuum between reading and seeing. I want to believe this is the case with most educated people and that the separation between seeing and reading is not as widespread as I fear. Simply, reading a book-length essay, which may expand for many hours, tends to offer much more detail than seeing a documentary (even a mini series), whereas seeing may offer audio-visual documents that print texts cannot accommodate (not to mention the fact that those that can be indeed offered, like photographs, are still absent from most academic writing). To go back to my first example, I have learned much more from combining Fortuny’s documentary with Moret’s book about Pearson that I would have learned by consuming them in isolation. It’s only common sense, isn’t it?

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DAENERYS AND ALL THE REST: ON READING/SEEING GEORGE R.R. MARTIN’S A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE (UM, OR IS IT A GAME OF THRONES?)

Last Christmas holiday I published a post on the Harry Potter series which has led to my teaching next academic year an elective subject on Rowling’s dark yarn. Having enjoyed season one of TV series A Game of Thrones, I told myself that perhaps soon it should be the turn for George R. R. Martin’s dark saga, A Song of Ice and Fire. This consists of seven volumes: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998), A Storm of Swords (2000), A Feast for Crows (2005), A Dance with Dragons (2011) and the still unwritten The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. This will amount to between 9,000 and 10,000 pages, maybe more. So far I have read volume one, seen season 2 of the TV series –and decided to stop until Martin is done.

I was among the fortunate few to see Martin when he visited Barcelona back in July 2007. I knew about his very high reputation among fantasy fans and so queued patiently with them. The house (library Jaume Fuster) was packed, the interview was highly enjoyable. I did not start reading the saga then, though, simply because I find pseudo-medieval fantasy too suspiciously patriarchal. Then, there’s the matter of the dragons, which I, an SF reader, don’t much appreciate. I did grasp, however, the very clear impression that Martin is delivering an exciting story that might eventually become the next Lord of the Rings. When he’s done.

The TV series, a mere summary of the novels, is a good aid to navigate the densely populated feudal universe that American Martin has imagined (he is the chronicler that an imaginary medieval USA would have needed). The girl Daenerys is the one that (logically) got me hooked, as she starts off as a princess sold by her brother to a tribal warlord but soon becomes an ambitious contender for Westeros much disputed throne. I even enjoy her role as the ‘mother’ of three cute little dragons. Then, there’s the spunky Arya Stark, her patient bastard brother Jon Snow and, surely, the best character: the cynical but humane dwarf Tyrion Lannister, played by that immense actor, Peter Dinklage. Reading the first novel, however, was not the enriching experience I expected.

Martin writes soap opera, very easy to digest once the reader gets over the hurdle of remembering who is who (the actors’ faces do help…). Yet it’s nothing but soap opera. An Amazon reader described his fiction as fast food and I share that impression. It’s not fast food of the Da Vinci Code denomination, as Martin has, at least, made the impressive effort of imagining a myriad characters and subplots. Still, beyond the platitude that people will do appalling things to access power, there not much else. When this is narrated against a historical background (think The Tudors, or The Godfather trilogy) we gain a deeper insight into human psychology but when narrated against a fantasy background, we just get a gigantic cliché.

The other main problem, or perhaps merit, is that Martin has the habit of killing off his main and second-tier characters at an alarming speed. This is indeed how History functions but makes me wary (and weary) as a reader of investing too much emotional energy on his characters. His saga also has in common with History the fact that he has no real protagonist. I have told myself that A Song… will turn out to be the story of how Daenerys finally becomes the Queen… but I worry it might well be Ned Stark’s ‘lost’ dream before dying. Or even worse: that it is as pointless as History.

And something else: Martin is an unhealthy-looking 64-year-old individual too fond of writing overlong books with too little discipline. The man does not even know whether the saga will really stop at book seven and although he has written a basic summary for his TV producers just in case his ticker collapses too soon, once more, I’d rather he finishes before I continue reading/seeing the saga.

I may be totally missing the point and failing to see that Martin is the real post-post modern writer, offering not so much a well-crafted story with a sense of closure but a storyline that must be enjoyed at particular points, or scenes, with no expectations about where all this is going. Once more: this is exactly how soap opera works, imitating life’s entrances and exits (or History’s). The problem, for me, is that I grow increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of investing so much time on an ongoing series (TV or print), particularly after the Lost fiasco. So, yes, I’ll wait until he’s done and then we’ll see. Or read.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them first for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. If you like my blog, you can subscribe using the RSS feed (right-hand column, below Blogroll.) You’ll get an email message for every new post. VISIT MY WEB: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/