Monthly Archives: February 2013

Engrenage/Spiral – Season 4 – State of Terror

I imagine that if you tried to market a TV series called “Cogs,” everyone would think it was the bicycle version of Top Gear.  Instead, the makers of the French cop drama, Engrenage, currently occupying the Scandi drama slot on BBC 4, have opted for the imperfect English translation, Spiral.

Now broadcasting Season 4, State of Terror, this series reveals a side of Paris that most tourists won’t even know exists and a million miles away from the absurdly sentimental world of Amelie and Woody Allen’s Midnight in ParisEngrenage pits battle-hardened cop, Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and her team against the likes of lawyers Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Flouret) and Pierre Clément who are so hooked on money and success that they are drawn to defend high paying underworld criminals.

In Engrenage the cops are forced to pursue their suspects in the kind of car that Jeremy Clarkson wouldn’t be seen dead in.  It’s the detailed portrayal of the day to day working lives of police officers that makes this such an engaging series.  I don’t know any other cop drama that has got so close to the reality of the level of trust that team members have for their colleagues.  Laure and her colleague “Gilou” are always at each other and it must drive their colleague “Tintin” up the wall.  But you know that this is just a way of alleviating tension, a release after the stress of the day job. You know that if it came to it, Laure would lay down her life to save Gilou and that he would do the same for her.

Laure and especially Gilou live their professional lives on the edge: when Laure pulled the trigger on a sadistic killer a second too early, it is Gilou and Tintin who are prepared to lie and say that they witnessed the killer aiming his weapon at Laure.  It’s just a shame that Gilou, who has got himself in way too deep with the Sarahoui clan – (by providing them with an illegal weapon), can’t ‘fess up to Laure and tell her what’s going on.

Laure is tenacious and brave on the beat but has a tendency to fall apart back in the office.  Her bête noir is lawyer Joséphine Karlsson, who has tried on more than one occasion to go after Laure for police brutality.  It is Laure’s bad luck to question a suspect and then find out they are being defended by Karlsson.

Josephine reminds me of a female lawyer in Melbourne who made a very good living out of defending one particularly notorious family in the criminal underworld.

These women, with their designer wardrobes and killer heels, seem happy to have made a pact with the devil: they thrive on the power, notoriety and fame that their underworld clients bestow upon them.  Their lives are never dull: there’s the danger   and excitement that goes with defending the most indefensible of dangerous gangland bosses.  It doesn’t seem to occur to them that should they get the wrong result for their clients that their own lives might be in danger.  Joséphine, I suspect, probably does know this – and makes darn sure that she doesn’t lose a case.

But the character who is perhaps the most intriguing in Season 4 is Pierre Clément, who has gone into business with Joséphine, and gone from upstanding prosecutor to gun-for-hire defender of low-life.  But I suspect that like the title – these two are heading for a fall, spiralling their way down, out of control.  It’s compelling stuff.

Engrenage is currently screening on BBC 4 Saturday nights at 9.00pm in double episodes.


Non-US Self-Publisher? Tax Issues Don’t Need to be Taxing

I’ re-blogging this as the advice is so good. The options when the IRS finally do answer the phone (my call took 25 minutes on a Thursday night at 22.00 UK time to get through) have recently changed. You now need to Press 1 to get an Employee Identification Number.

Sainsbury’s Launches EBook Site

As those of you, trying to reach out to new readers will know, they’re never going to find your books if they don’t know they exist in the first place.  Before the ebook revolution, readers relied upon professional reviews and bookshop in-store promotions.

In the digital age, it’s got a whole lot harder for authors to make their work stand out from the crowd, as so many more books are being published.  If you sell books on Amazon you have to put your faith in machines to attract attention, such as the ‘Customers who bought this item also bought’ algorithm.  Now, I know enough about technology to realise that a human had to design the recommendation algorithm in the first place, but even so, when I get emails from Amazon suggesting different books to me, I’m often puzzled by the selections.

According to the Codex Group, which tracks book-buying, ‘only 7% of books sold online were discovered online.’ (Source: James Bridle writing in The Observer, 3 February 2013 -We’re all talk when it comes to buying online).

If I had the choice, I would far rather have advice from a fellow reader whose opinion I respected.  So it can only be good news to hear that Sainsbury’s, which took over the reading social networking site, Anobii, last year, has launched eBooks by Sainsbury’s.  Not another social networking site, I hear you say. Won’t it just be yet another distraction to keep me from writing?

It’s early days yet for the site so it’s too soon to judge how effective it will be as a way to attract new readers.  But, on a positive note, when I wrote to Sainsbury’s, asking what their policy was on promoting the work of indie published authors, this is what they had to say:

“We are only able to sell ebooks via publishers or aggregators at this time; however, we are currently looking into establishing partnerships with aggregators that distribute self-published writers (SmashWords, Author Solutions etc.).  If you are signed up with such an aggregator, it will be our pleasure to offer your books for sale on Ebooks by Sainsbury’s once we have the partnerships in place.”

From the website:

“If you would like to display and sell your ebooks through our site we will require the following: country you are based in (for the moment we can only sell in the UK, but we welcome publishers from all over the world)extent of your digital catalogue file formats available (we accept epub/ pdf) metadata format (onix 2.1 is mandatory) any aggregator you use (we are implementing a number of them and so might be distributing your titles soon anyway).”

Whether or not eBooks by Sainsbury’s is going to attract a big enough readership to make it worthwhile for authors to come out of Amazon KDP Select and distribute their work through an aggregator, like SmashWords, remains to be seen.  But let’s hope so.

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins

Rupert Everett’s international film career was launched with Another Country, back in 1984, when he was both young and beautiful.  Although never able to make the grade as a romantic lead – Hollywood was notoriously conservative back then and couldn’t risk the wrath of a potential right wing backlash if they cast an openly gay actor.  Nevertheless he went on to have his fifteen minutes of fame in Hollywood, where he briefly held court in Camelot.

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins describes in detail, hanging out with his famous gal pals – from Madonna to Sharon Stone.  So far, so celebrity memoir, you would think. Whatever you think of Rupert’s acting abilities (and he is endearingly self-deprecating on that topic), this man can surely write.

On his privileged upbringing:

‘After ten years of prep and public school you were part of the gang; and if you weren’t, you were a freak or a fairy. Luckily for me I was both.’

On the movie business:

‘The movie business is a strange affair, demanding total dedication from its lovers, although it gives none in return.

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins manages to be both witty and sad, sweet and endearing as well as achingly funny.  It doesn’t sound like his younger, self-absorbed self would have been much fun to hang around with but all that changed when his beloved Mo, a black Labrador, came into his life. As he so rightly states, once you have another being to care for, it turns you into a better, less selfish person.

Although it’s fascinating to read about his early Hollywood career, hanging out with legends of another era, like Orson Welles, I just loved, that in that crazy mixed up world in La La Land, a black Labrador (a signifier of a British rural upbringing – if ever there was one), got to fly on Concorde and hang out in A Listers pools. 

Zero Dark Thirty: she finds her man but at what cost?

Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty is challenging, as it lays out, in an unflinching way, the sort of personal characteristics you would have to have to carry out the CIA’s dirty business of torturing detainees.  And by telling the story for the ten year hunt for Osama Bin Laden through her female protagonist Maya, Bigelow challenges her audience to confront an unpleasant truth: that women are as capable of acts of torture as their male counterparts.

Mark Boal’s screenplay puts two female characters centre-stage of this action thriller. Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is the older of the two, a veteran CIA analyst who although devoted to her job and despite her gung-ho choice of occupation, is depicted as the only one who doesn’t seem unduly damaged by her experiences.  That is one aspect of this challenging film that has so far been overlooked.  Jessica is able to do other things besides work. Although we don’t find out this until later, Jessica had three kids waiting for her at home.

And it is perhaps in the character of Jessica that we have to confront the realisation that even women who come across as warm and personable, with functioning relationships and home lives, were complicit in the torture of detainees.  Although the camera shows Maya, rather than Jessica taking part in the torture scenes, Jessica knows exactly what’s going on there in the backroom where the CIA carries out its dirty business.  The very act of being there means she is complicit.

There is one particularly telling point in the film when Barack Obama comes on television to boast that in his new regime, ‘America doesn’t do torture.’  As Jessica and Maya react, in an exchange of incredulous glances, body language challenging the hypocrisy of the Commander-in-Chief’s statement, they seem to be saying, ‘perhaps you’d better come out here and take a look yourself.’

Amongst the other criticism of  Zero Dark Thirty I have read recently, one came from fellow colleagues of the woman CIA officer whom Jennifer Ehle’s character is supposedly modelled upon.  Jennifer Matthews was CIA Station Chief at Chapman Base in Afghanistan and like Jessica, she had a family, but was killed by a suicide bomber at the base.  She was a serious-minded and formidable agent and her former colleagues, it has been widely reported in the press, found the portrayal of her as a lightweight in Zero Dark Thirty to be disrespectful.

However much a character may appear to be modelled upon a real person, a character in a dramatic screenplay can only ever be a composite.  Jessica and Maya, for dramatic reasons have to be polar opposites.  Jessica is old school, one of the guys, and even though she’s a CIA agent, she comes across as human – an older colleague trying to make a younger one feel at ease.  In contrast, Maya is withdrawn and monosyllabic.

In the office Jessica turns to her new colleague and asks in a benevolent way, “you got any friends at all?” You can almost see Maya’s thought processes, clicking and whirring, until she concedes that she is in fact, friendless. At a later point Maya joins Jessica for a meal in a hotel and, as Maya launches into a discussion about work, Jessica stops her in her tracks and asks if they can’t talk about something else. Jessica is curious to know whether or not her new protégé has a boyfriend and asks Maya whether she’s “hooked up” yet with any of her colleagues. “A little fooling around wouldn’t hurt you,” she says. Maya replies, “I’m not that girl…. it’s unbecoming”.

This is pared back characterisation and storytelling, and one that makes demands of its audience.  Mark Boal shows writers that contrary to the “rules”, you don’t have to show a character’s backstory.  We meet Maya in the present – we don’t know where she’s from.  She has no personal life, no family and is a free agent, able to travel for work at a moment’s notice.  Work is what drives her and what self-belief she has is framed through her determination to find the world’s most dangerous man.  Maya’s character is defined by what she does, not by who she is. All that we do know about Maya was recruited straight from high school into the CIA.

Mark Boal’s taut and fast-paced screenplay doesn’t patronise its audience: its up to you to fill in the gaps. You get the impression that Maya’s knowledge of world affairs is a one-sided, narrow one, based on working in a hermetically sealed bubble in Washington.  Maya, like George W. Bush, before he came to power, probably didn’t even have a passport, before she went to work at Langley.

When Jessica puts her trust in an unknown source and is killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, Maya is even more determined to find Osama bin Laden.  We see Maya lead an ever more lonely existence: she sleeps in her office, she eats standing up in the kitchen eating white toast, licking food off a knife.  For Maya food is fuel, to be eaten on the run.  In what passes for downtime we see her slumped on her shabby sofa, eating junk food and drinking from a can while watching the TV news.  Hers is a joyless existence.

The most powerful scene comes at the end when Maya’s assignment is over and she has an enormous transport plane all to herself to take her home.  But just where is home? When the pilot asks her where she wants to go that we finally see that Maya is a human being, capable of empathy, after all. As the tears stream down her face we know that now the mission is over, that the only answer that Maya can give the pilot is: nowhere.  She knows no other life. And although she got her man, at what cost?