What’s Missing from Movies

I was engaged in a recent chat about this subject when I met a colleague I’ve been working with as I stopped for a bite to eat in one of the canteens on the college campus here. We got talking about some excellent movies from the past; black and whites, such as first makes of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca,’ and Agatha Christie’s ‘Witness for the Prosecution,’ and outstanding Ealing Comedies like ‘The Ladykillers.’ Sadly, however, they tend to be largely overlooked these days, and even forgotten.

What is common about these movie examples is that they all have unusual or unexpected endings which also might be called ‘carefully crafted,’ although it’s not the only attribute. The other quality or qualities which they possess are good acting, good drama and perhaps, arguably, the most important ingredient – an excellent script. Good dialogue, together with speaking talents, in my view, are the cornerstone of what holds a good movie together; successfully captivates both the listener as well as the viewer.

The above, by the whole, seems to be what is lacking in films made today. Beautiful drama or action gets mostly overtaken by hyperbole in explosions, a car chase or some gun shoot-out or other by some hero; a single location coupled with creative and innovative props gets swamped by some expensive hi-tech special effect that turns out to be anything but effective, but rather dull or bland. A good script gets overshadowed by idle talk and excessive bad language. A stirring musical score which helps to enhance a scene or a setting is virtually non-existent.

Having a particular interest in history and historical matters, I felt inclined to watch Martin Poll’s 1968 production of James Goldman’s play ‘The Lion In Winter.’ Based mostly on the tumultuous relationship between two old monarchical figures: King Henry II, played by Peter O’ Toole, and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, played by Katharine Hepburn.

The game, vis-à-vis the movie, also centres around the equally tumultuous relationship between their three surviving sons – a rivalry about who should succeed Henry, a dispute influenced by Queen Eleanor herself which is why Henry keeps her shut up in prison. Such plotting and intrigue make a good storyline as well as the medieval era in an age of chivalry, providing a colourful backdrop. There was a remake in 2003 starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close. Nothing, however, could replace O’ Toole and Hepburn. Peter O’ Toole already had experience playing Henry, the Angevin King, in a 1964 film called ‘Becket’ alongside Richard Burton in the title role.

Towards the end of the movie, Eleanor stages another coup by attempting to incite the sons to rebel once again after they’ve become hostages once Henry impulsively decides to head to Rome to ask the Pope for an annulment of his marriage and orders his wife back to prison. While she’s packing, she hides three daggers inside her jewellery box, and with the assistance of her bodyguard, visits her sons held captive in the dungeons of Chinon Castle in France where she’s let out of jail to join the Royal Family and court for Christmas. She hands over the daggers inciting the sons to engage in a duel with Henry when he enters the dungeon. He defeats and apprehends John who Eleanor somewhat double-mindedly suggests ‘execute him,’ for his treasonous act, although he wasn’t her favourite to succeed Henry. Two of the sons, Richard and John, did succeed Henry, but they were no match for their father’s ability at astutness, how to keep an empire together. Richard squandered his kingship by fighting insatiable religious wars; John fell into being somewhat of a hostage by dissaffected barons.

The next morning Eleanor heads back to her prison in Salisbury Tower in the barge that brought her. It’s the first barge scene as she arrives that’s one of my favourites because it is enhanced by the clanging of bells from Chinon Castle and some of John Barry’s fitting and creative musical score to the film being medieval in style, having hints of Gregorian Chant. Little seems necessary except a grandiloquent wooden barge, several hooded rowers, two maids of honour and a queen sitting centrally and resting on a large wooden seat going smoothly down a river in glinting sunlight enhanced by an original and effective music. It seems to win hands down over the overblown hyperbole used in movies nowadays. Eleanor steps down from the barge after she sarcastically greets Henry with the words: ‘How dear of you to let me out  jail.’ John Barry went on to compose other humdinger musical scores for films, such as another historical, ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ released in 1971, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. Jackson, in my view, gave a much more outstanding and convincing performance as an actress than an MP.

On a final note, it’s a shame, if not a tragedy, (another of the lamentable ones going on nowadays) that those making movies seem incapable of embracing talented acting, creative musical soundtracks, good speaking with a message inside as they once did, not just entertainment overshadowed by filthy lucre for their own sakes.

David Butterworth

My book: ‘WALKING COAST TO COAST: Adventures Along Wainwright’s Trail Across Northern England’ has been republished as a second kindle edition. A paperback version should be available soon. It’s available on Amazon, and the first 20% can be read on Smashwords.com. If you’re interested in hiking, heritage sites or the Outdoors, please visit Amazon or Smashwords.

Transportation The Chinese Way

I’m not that convinced how useful it is writing about this experience but for the purpose of letting people know about what can go on here in China regarding taking buses – local or otherwise – to experiencing road jams or bottlenecks. It rarely, if ever, surprises me why people here can’t seem to fathom out how going without using a car would be much better than using one, thus making road usage and bus travel a lot more efficient, straightforward or just plain simpler. Is it because cars cause some weird status orientation, or that car owners  here can’t seem to see past the idea that cars are convenient when in fact, they are just the opposite?

Last Sunday, I decided to take a trip to one of the nearest supermarkets which are on one of the local bus routes, so a trip there and back should be relatively straightforward – or so you might think. I hopped on the next bus which is quite a regular service and regularly overcrowded – more about this later. The bus reached the main road, and it wasn’t long before it drove into a traffic pile-up which had been going on for quite a while. The driver, following the bus’s route, broke free of the congestion eventually and continued on the way with little bother.

When leaving the supermarket, I got onto the next available bus. I didn’t think there’d be any difficulty in getting back to the college campus where I’m living and working,  until the bus hit the traffic problem which was still going on. As it went at a snail’s pace, I toyed with the idea of getting off the bus and walking the rest of the way. Once the traffic did get moving, the driver followed the route but then suddenly ignored the turn-off to and up the road which goes past the campus. There was no way of getting off the bus, and there was no nearby stop.

The only way to get back to the campus – so I thought – was to get another bus back the other way. Getting off at the next stop, I waited for the next bus, but it also avoided following its usual route because the traffic problem outside the college hadn’t cleared. It dropped me at the nearest stop not far from the traffic jam. I waited for the next bus. Despite being overcrowded the driver still let on people. One woman was one too many. She prevented the front door from closing for several attempts. Although I’d seen this situation before, I was baffled why the driver allowed this. The jam continued. The bus hardly made any progress. I’d had enough so got off and walked back. A return journey that should have taken no more than an hour took three.

The following morning I asked the students if they could fill me in regarding the problem. They confirmed the clutter of cars outside the campus was why the bus was re-routed, although they couldn’t answer or give a solution to what passengers were going to do if they wanted to get to the campus.

I can give the reason for the multi-problem, and it’s an age-old one – self.  If we thought less about ourselves and more about each other or each other’s problems, these situations would be virtually non-existent. It’s worse here because, one, there just isn’t the volume of people in the western world as there is in this country, and two, road users here don’t follow or respect the road laws or rules as they should, so they  add to the chaos that hinders or inconveniences everyone else. It’s been going from bad to worse, causing much distress and perplexity.

But if there could be a pause; if there could be a reflection, how people might consider, give this problem some attention, then it might be bettered or improved. However, I pessimistically think this is a pipe dream.

David Butterworth


The Accommodation Scene for Foreigners in China

I’ve now returned to Xi’an, the capital of Xaanxi Province, China, where I’m currently living and working. Oh! and a happy Chinese New Year, by the way; celebrations which are still going on. Most businesses are closed for at least a few more days as Chinese get together for a catch-up with distant family members. The university campus where I’m teaching, and usually swarming with students, feels like a ghost town.

I must say I’ve had a really enjoyable, and somewhat adventurous time, spending most of the Chinese New Year holiday staying with a couple of foreign teacher friends, a husband and wife, to celebrate Christmas who I met while teaching in Wenzhou, a long way to the southeast of here. Then I went off to hang out in two of my favorite Chinese cities, Hangzhou and Chengdu, because of the rich cultural diversity that can still be found in those places. However, the time with the foreign friends was not without drama, and you have to spend some of the travel time making sure you don’t lose your passport or your wallet – or else you’d be sunk. That goes without saying! After returning and unpacking my stuff, I found a metal backscratcher I took with me – something I was fond of – had gone missing.

Since China opened its doors to foreigners thirty to forty years ago, it has made significant inroads, making them feel welcome as guests and also to come here to work. However, this is not without shortcomings or contradictions. As Nancy Ps Hopp pointed out in her blog Post Inauguration Blues – Despair  VS Hope, we can’t escape from the fact that we continue to live in a divided world.

The foreign friends wanted to take a trip to spend a day or two with another friend they’d made a few years ago while working in another school in another area of China, as they hadn’t seen her in awhile. The wife got one of her Chinese assistants who helps her do tutoring of children’s classes to book a hotel for a couple of nights. I was quite happy to tag along with her and her husband, and the hotel booking went smoothly – no questions or implications were asked.

Until we arrived at the hotel reception where we were frankly told we couldn’t stay at the hotel! Naturally, we were shocked, stunned, and couldn’t believe it. My hands started to shake, then we kicked up a fuss – at least the wife did. ‘Why did you process our booking and take our money?’ ‘You knew by our names we weren’t Chinese!’ ‘We don’t smell. We’re clean.’

The hotel management wouldn’t back down and were awkward about refunding our money, and told us to go to an expensive hotel (because we were foreigners). I was beginning to think we’d end up on the streets at this point. The wife was convinced that the attitude by the management had been a scam to make us pay more. Anyway, after an unpleasant confrontation in which she went into tears, she got the police and the immigration authorities involved. After a tortuous dispute that took a few hours, characteristic of Chinese, we finally got our rooms. When getting back to Wenzhou, the wife said she curl up in front of the hotel entrance until something got done.

But the fact remains, how do foreigners know which moderately priced hotels in China accept foreigners and which don’t? It seems like a lottery. This is the first time I’ve had this problem here because I’ve always traveled cheaply, staying mostly in international youth hostels which have to accept foreigners in any case. But whether staying in ‘international’ accommodation or not, Chinese should accept foreigners wholeheartedly in all their hotels or not at all.

However, I need to end this on a positive note. Although there are problems, as there are everywhere, and that incident at that hotel might indicate otherwise, I don’t wish to detract in any way how Chinese can be the friendliest and hospitable of hosts anywhere on the planet, as borne out by being invited to partake in two Chinese Spring Festival (New Year) meals at a hostel in Chengdu where I stayed. As the premises includes Chinese-style dormitories and teahouses, I found it to be one of the warmest, relaxing, and uniquely Chinese places to accommodate anyone. And although the security was lax, no one stole anything.

How inconsistent and how ironic

David Butterworth