Friday, 26 February 2010

The Last Station of the Tolstoys, and a Single Man

Given the weather forecast I was delighted to be greeted by a bright day and to find that it was not cold. I not only enjoyed two pan au chocolats for breakfast but by ten had eaten the remaining two salami, cucumber and mustard rolls which I prepared before commencing the travels. Early on I also decided to journey to Clapham Junction station and Wandsworth shopping centre by bus for the first two of four films - A Single Man and the Last Station. It was a bold move as I can remember only once during the past five years and then since the 1960’s watching two films back to back. During my childhood and as a young man, cinema’s showed continuous programmes comprising a second feature, usually in black and white, and a main feature in colour with in between a newsreel, adverts and trailers. Usherettes, with torches would show people to seats when they arrived, although there was a break between programmes where the ladies would serve ice creams and sweets for trays over their shoulders. There was usually a male doorman or two in a fine uniforms and hats. Most adults smoked and it was only later that no smoking areas were introduced.

According to Travel London the journey to Clapham would take one and quarter hours so with the first show at 1pm I thought leaving at 11 would provide sufficient time allowing for additional traffic delays and the short bus ride from Clapham to Wandsworth shopping centre where the cinema is located. As I exited the Travel Lodge I noted the required first bus, a 109, leaving a stop across the road, so I was pleased to find that during the working day, these buses were timed every 4 to 8 minutes, and there was only a little wait before another arrived. There are few seats downstairs to accommodate a good number of standing passengers and remembered from previous experience not to sit on the five seater at the back which is uncomfortable when fully occupied, especially by those of similar size to me.
Last summer, on a similar long bus journey through south London, English was only spoken once, even by the minority of white faces, on this occasion the foreign voices were a minority but the white faces getting on or off the bus was less than ten percent on the route along the main London Road, from West Croydon, through Thornton Heath and Norbury, to Streatham, an almost continuous shopping street, full of international stores and restaurants. This dramatic change has taken place in the past decade. Most people only used the bus for a few stops and there appeared to be no one else taking a longer journey.

I knew the stop to leave the bus because it was shortly after the road from Mitcham joined in the road and which continues along the High Street to Brixton where there is choice between going on to the West End or the City. I was not sure where the next bus, the 319 could be taken and this resulted in a short explore before working out the direction and finding out that because of the one way system there was one stop with buses travelling in both directions so it was important to get on the right one. There were 9 buses listed on the electronic notice board and the order changed as information was received on a number of traffic delays.

The second journey was very different from the first because leaving the area of the High Street we reached the first of a series of Commons and parks- Streatham, Clapham and Wandsworth. There were also areas of good housing with gardens so that the racial mix became more balanced. At Clapham we came to the familiar main road via the main shopping road junction with Debenhams to one side. I did not have to wait long at the bus stop before the first to arrive had via Wandsworth written on its side. On getting off at the stop after the Southern entrance to the shopping precinct I was able to call in at a news agent local shop for a cold can of Pepsi 60p which I drank en route stopping to take gulps and arriving at the first floor cinema entrance with five minutes to spare. There was no one serving at the ticket office but the ice cream sales counter at the entrance to the concourse provided printed ticket receipts. There was an excellent audience for the film- A single Man, arising from Colin Firth winning the best actor Bafta. At the award ceremony he told the story that having been asked to undertake the role he had decided it was not for him and prepared an email saying so when the fridge repair man arrived, or was it is washing machine, anyway by the time the work was completed he had changed his mind and accepted the part.

In the film Colin Firth plays a homosexual college professor who is trying to recover from the death in a road crash of the younger man with who he not only lived with for sixteen years but had the kind of close, loving and compatible relationship which most heterosexual couples, especially those portrayed in EastEnders, will dream about. The character had not been allowed to say goodbye to his former partner, as the accident happened while the young man was visiting his parents and they refused to allow Colin to visit or attend the funeral. Fortunately he was able to share his grief with a neighbour, and the only woman with whom he had a brief affair in his youth when they were both living in London, by a created literary coincidence. The film is based on the Christopher Isherwood novel set in 1962, at the time of Cuban Missile crisis, and the friend, Charlie is divorced and lives alone drinking and making herself look good and wishing Colin was not gay. They are the kind of friends who late in the film can get drunk together, dance but also tear into each other about limitations and differences of viewpoint.

The film is excellent at showing the inner life of the main characters. Colin has decided that life is not worth living and systematically and methodically plans his day to end with shooting himself. He removes all his papers and valuables from his bank deposit box, and then sets out all his papers on his desk writing letters to those who matter to him and working out how best to shoot himself without creating too much mess for his housekeeper.

At the college he is advised that a student has asked for his home address and it has been given. The student has a pretty face but appears to have a regular heterosexual relationship, yet the young man appears to be pressing an interest which Firth rejects given his intentions for the day. Firth calls in at a liquor store for a bottle of gin for his party a-deux with Charley, played by Julianne Moore, and is picked up or appear to pick up, a pretty Spanish boy who he also rejects given his plans. After the dinner, drinking and soul searching he goes to the same bar, where post war, he met his former partner. He orders cigarettes and a bottle of scotch which he then cancels when the pretty student comes in and they go down to the beach for a swim and to his home for a couple of beers and gradually he switches from the grief from what was lost to the hope of the new. He locks away the gun in the desk drawer, with all the bullets purchased earlier. He has changed his mind. All day people have been telling him how unwell he looks, the housekeeper, a work colleague, the two young men. Colin dies from a heart attack. It is an appropriate end for him.

The story is contrived but the acting and the direction suburb. I cannot say I enjoyed the film which is not a great one but I am glad I arranged to see it using a ticket voucher, via the credit card.

Colin Firth is a remarkable actor with a career which ranges from St Trinians, Bridget Jones and Mama Mia to The English Patient and Dorian Grey. He became a sex idol with his TV performance as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. He has been married twice living in North America and Italy as a consequence as well as London. He has already won a half dozen awards for the role and is set to win several more with Golden Globe and Oscar Nominations among them.

There was forty minutes before the next showing of the Last Station, a film I have looked forward to seeing since it was announced. I was hungry again and went out to adjacent Mac D for a cheeseburger and coffee, £2.69 or £2.79 , and then had a quick look around Waterstones’ before returning to the theatre for the second film based on the last year of the life of Count Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and the father of non violent anarchism and socialist collectivism based on the Sermon on the Mount and whose work was to have such a major influence on the lives of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and me.

I had been independently moved by the Sermon having been brought up a devout Catholic and only learnt about the life and works of Tolstoy, several years after, and after having read the war crimes reports on Concentration camps as an adolescent school boy. Just as with creative contemporary art, I had moved to similar position and beliefs in my own way and time.

In the film of that last year is recounted through the thoughts and feeling of the man employed as his secretary Valentine Bulgakov who I believe is a fiction creation and not to be confused with the Russian play writer and author, the revolutionary activist Mikael Bulgakov. In the film Valentine is recruited by Vladimir Chertkov, the man who carried forward Tolstoy’s ideas and wishes for some three decades after death of the great man. Chertkov selects Valentine because he is an idealist and innocent who attempted to put and appears willing to spy on the Countess for him. Chertkov was the literary executor and personal secretary who headed the Tolstoyian institute and became recognised as being a stronger believer is putting the ideas into practice that Tolstoy himself, who was something of a hypocrite, something which in the film his wife points out. I am yet to read the available sources in an attempt to establish the truth from the fiction.

I have not read the novel by Jay Pareni, or the official biographies of Tolstoy. There are two important contemporary sources by those closest to him although both posses strong reasons for providing us with a particular viewpoint. In 1922 Chertkov published a book about this last year but the story ended before Tolstoy’s death in 1910. He then published a booklet which is available on line, covering the remaining months. The Countess also wrote an autobiography which is available in a new printed or on line free and can be down loaded for free.

Tolstoy and Chertkov were part of the Russian nobility, and while Tolstoy founded a socialist collective and Institute and gave generously to the peasantry as well as speaking for them, he lived the good life, largely because his wife was forced to manage his landed estate profitable for then as she had given birth to 13 children, 8 of whom survived childhood. The film is primarily about the decision of Tolstoy, under pressure from Chertkov to change his will so that the substantial earnings from his literary work would go to the Institute and not to the family as the Countess wanted. The Will is changed but according to end of film credits, the decision was reversed by the Russian Parliament after his death. However in order to escape her influence Tolstoy left the family home and went on the run from her with Chertkov, Valentine and one of his daughters who supported Chertkov against her own mother. They were followed by world media and reach the a town in southern Russia where he became ill and died. His wife was not allowed to see him, although in he film this happens in his dying moments although the priest she brought with her remained in the private train. Valentine also finds it difficult to maintain the Tolstoyian belief that the institution of marriage was wrong because it promoted private property or celibacy and chastity when he comes under the influence of a school teacher.

As with A single Man I do not rate the film as a great one but the performances of Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as his wife are outstanding and merit their Oscar nominations. I have always felt that Plummer is always Plummer in whatever role he has played until this film, when it is impossible to tell it is him. I was reminded that I need to read the original source material if I am to write more confidently about the link between him, Gandhi and my own thinking.

Afterwards I called in at the main M and S at Clapham for some chicken wings for the evening meal, and grapes as well a triple pack of sandwiches for the morning. It was the first occasion I saw the available options for the two dine for £10 which includes a main course, a side dish, pudding and a bottle of wine which is a very good deal. M and S also had on display large bottle of water for 35p another tremendous offer. I became indecisive over when I would see the remaining two films, The Hurt Locker and An Education. I have wanted to see the British Music experience 1945-2010 where the advertised full price has varied from £15 to £20 since it opened with £10 to £13.50 for concessions depending of bought through ticket master, and paying by credit or cash. The free London evening standard had an advert offering entry for £1 with the voucher. There was a showing of the Hurt Locker for £8 at the Odeon Tottenham Court Road, at 6p with earlier performances at the Odeon Leicester Square with the tiny auditoriums and small screens for £11. I could also see An Education the following lunchtime at the Odeon Swiss Cottage although travel on the Saturday is horrendous with a large number of underground line closures. I would leave the decision taking until the morning having made notes on the options available.

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