It’s been a while since we met, so I hope you’re all doing OK. I had a good weekend visiting my daughter, granddaughter and grandson-to-be (he was a bit quiet though he did kick once or twice) and on Sunday going to the newly-exploded Phoenix cinema and arts centre. This, as its name suggests, has had many incarnations, and the latest is a transformation from a modest two-screen cinema to a four-screen place with a massive cafe. It must have cost a fortune and I hope they haven’t overextended themselves. We went to see ‘Women Talking,’
a stunning film about a Mennonite community of women holding a council of war to decide whether they should stay and forgive the serial rapist who has caused so much harm among them, whether they should fight, or whether they must leave. Fight, flight or submit – these are the choices we all face in a dangerous situation. Unable to take minutes, they enlist the services of August (Ben Wishaw) a sympathetic man who unlike the women has been taught to read and write. August left the community to attend university but came back, it’s not entirely clear why.
In this film the dialogue is the action. Women talk, that’s all; they clash and support each other, fracture and come together, shout and cry and laugh. Some, like ‘Scarface’ Janz (Frances McDormand) refuse to engage; others (Salome, played by Clare Foy) want revenge. Everyone, from teenage girls to elderly grandmothers, plays a part as they sit on hay bales in the barn, deciding the fate of the community. Through a series of brief flashbacks, mimicking the mental flashbacks associated with trauma, we get a picture of the horror that has been visited on them. Some of their stories move the empathic August to tears. I won’t give away the denouement, just to say that I was gripped through every one of its ninety-odd minutes, and all the while behind them sits the vast American landscape, full of possibilities. It’s unimaginable to us to have so much space – everywhere we go there are established communities, many of which are likely to be found in the Domesday book. America seems like a blank sheet, though we know that of course it isn’t.
I’ve seen a few films lately with strong female leads: Women Talking, Empire of Light and Tar, and while I loved them all there are cultural tendencies that worry me. There was controversy about Tar because it showed a powerful woman abusing that power. ‘Why couldn’t they make her better?’ cried some viewers. But I was entirely on board with what they’d done, because if we don’t have complex characters like Lydia Tar a picture emerges of men as abusers and rapists and women as victims, though we know that the vast majority of men are not like that. I worry about what this is doing to boys and young men: don’t they need better role models? But perhaps there are loads of good role models in films I don’t watch, like the Marvel series, for example. I wouldn’t know.
Another thing that really bothers me the increasing willingness to alter texts when they no longer conform to modern principles. The main example before us is that of Roald Dahl, whose works are currently being altered by Puffin books to remove such words as ‘mad’ or ‘fat.’
Yes, in many ways he was a repellent man with some dodgy attitudes, but is this the answer? A five-minute scroll of Tik-tok would likely cause more harm to children than the entirety of Dahl’s oeuvre. This is Bowdlerism by another name, and I agree with Phillip Pullman
rather than altering the stories we should just let them go out of print. Read other things. There are plenty of good children’s books out there – let’s explore them and let the dodgy stuff fade away. Mind you, as far as marketing goes Puffin have played a blinder – not only have they drawn attention to the new editions, they’ve put the uncensored ones on sale as ‘Classic Editions’, no doubt at an inflated price. Now that’s having it both ways.