Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Day 26: Everybody Come Watch The Killing

Forbrydelsen, or to give it it’s English title, The Killing, is a Danish TV series currently airing in Australia, every Wednesday night, on SBS. As far as I’m concerned, you can take your CSI’s and NCIS’s and do what you will with them, cos’ none of them hold a candle to this exquisitely-crafted, simply executed idea.

The story spares us nothing, throwing us straight in at the deep end: high school student Nanna Birk Larsen is raped and murdered. Each of the subsequent 20 episodes then deals with a day in the life of the investigation and, everyone, from Nanna’s father, a Muslim schoolteacher and a candidate running for mayor are under suspicion.

Scandanavian crime is the crime du jour at the moment, indeed some have made it into a literary genre of it’s own? Does this mean that there are now genre’s dictated by location? What about San Francisco crime, LA Crime....and that most genteel of location-genre candidates...Midsommer? Should I ever feel the desire to be murdered, let me tell you that I’m off to Misommer where the worst that can happen is that I’d meet my demise down a well or I’d come to an end, poisoned by some noxious weed or other, in a greehouse. Should I be stabbed with a letter opener, then let Detective Inspector Barnaby avenge me. Midsommer deals in murder writ nice (I don't think I've ever seen an Uzi in Midsommer).

But back to Scandinavia, where it’s even colder than the leafy lanes of England. Of late, Henning Mankell paved the way for the Stieg Larsson "Dragon Tattoo/Millenium" trilogy juggernaut and now, every Icelandic, Norweigan, Swedish and Danish crime novelist that publishers can lay there herring-smelling-hands on and defrost, can be found on your local bookseller’s crime shelf. Right now, the body count is higher up around the Baltic that even Midsommer.

The Killing is tight, simple, dramatic, not-glossy, painful and dramatically erudite. For those of you following this Blog outside of Australia, fear not, as the interweb can take you to www.sbs.com.au where you can watch episodes in full, free of charge.

What is it about Scandinavia that resonates so at the moment? It’s bleak, spartan, cold, it’s very very very existential, and it’s nothing new in terms of drama and crime. Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö began their ‘Martin Beck’ series of detective novels, with the riveting Roseanna, back in the 1960’s, copies of which I’ve seen around most bookstores at the moment.

On a slightly different tack, let me refer you to my film of the year for 2009, Thomas Alfredson’s Let The RIght One In. Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, it’s as perfect a film experience as you’re likely to have. Don’t be put off when I tell you that it’s a vampire movie of sorts; please set aside any preconceptions based on that other topical literary and film juggernaut, the Twilight series, this is vampire as though done maybe by Ken Loach. But, see the film first, then read the book. And then read Lindqvist’s next book (both set in Sweden), Handling The Undead. He swaps vampires for zombies this time.

Not since ABBA and A-Ha, has Scandinavian culture come in from the cold with such popularity.

Day #26 Tip: Immerse Yourself In The Work Of The Great Scandinavian Dramatists.
Ibsen, Strindberg, Bergman. Three jolly writers to conjure with. I’m actually being sardonic and if truth be known, I have no idea whether these men were jolly or otherwise, it's their work and themes that I refer to..

It’s said of Henrik Ibsen, that he was the first playwright to write tragedy about ordinary people in prose (not poetry - one or two other dramatists had beaten him to that). Strindberg’s plays are often referred to as “tense, psychic dramas”. And as for Ingmar Bergman, that king of “haunting imagery and symbolism”, well he was, lauded film writer and novelist, William Goldman’s favourite screenwriter of the last century, primarily because Ingmar “slugged a critic”.

Chekhov was, of course, a peer and near-neighbour in Russia, but that would be cheating to add him into the mix...geographically tempting, but cheating.

Ibsen: The Wild Duck, The Master Builder, A Doll’s House, Peer Gynt and my favourite, An Enemy Of The People. I revere Ibsen, nearly as much as I do Chekhov, because, well because they could write. An obvious statement, I know. Like tracking down Chekhov, I believe that you have to go a long, long, long way to hit a great production of one of their plays. I know when I have seen such a production...because I have to be hosed off the floor after.

Arthur Miller obviously thought the same too as he crafted a wonderful adaptation of An Enemy Of The People and let’s face it, Miller was no slouch in the playwriting and plotting department. I can see the attraction of the themes that would have appealed to Arthur Miller in that play and I can only urge you to discover them for yourself. Please don’t take the short cut of watching the Steve McQueen film version. As much as I loved Steve McQueen, I don’t know that he should have taken on Ibsen.

Bergman I’ll save for another day; Ingmar and The Seventh Seal will keep. I'll add this though: when thinking of a nifty sound-bite that I could use to inspire myself about the film that I'm currently writing, I came up with this: "it's a detective movie as though written by Ingmar Bergman". Let me just take a step back and clarify that I am not presuming to be a writer anywhere near the calibre of Ingmar, it's simply a reference point to remind me of the story's temperature. That statement, I've printed out and stuck on my keyboard where I can see it every day. It's a "true north" of my writing compass for now. I only need look at it to remind myself "...right, that's what I'm doing."

I implore all writers: read the great playwrights. See how they plot, listen to their story craft, marvel at their examination of the human condition, but endeavour to see productions of whatever level you can, because these writers live and fly on the stage not the page.

And, by the by, Detective Sara Lund (played superbly by Sophie Grabøl), in The Killing, is a great investigative creation of a 3-dimensional character.

Head north everyone.

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