Sunday, 2 October 2011

Man! I Feel Like A Danish Woman!

Have you any idea how strange it feels when, deep down, you know you'd really like to be a woman?

No no no - I'm not going through any kind of gender / identity / sexuality crisis. Nor is this some kind of drooling, pervy fantasy where I am an 18 year old lingerie model with the interior monologue of an Inbetweeners character. No, this is far more complex than that...

How often do you, and this is applicable to men and women; how often do you watch a film or TV series and think to yourself, "That female character - she's cool. I'd like to be like her." And no, I don't mean in the way that teens look at the Kardashians and say, "I'd like to have their fame, money, augmented busts and inconsequential lifestyle." I mean more in the way that you look at Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry and Gran Torino, or Bogart as Sam Spade, or Leslie Nielsen as Frank Drebin (okay, not so much - that's just a personal one) and you say to yourself, "He's cool. Despite his inherent character flaws, I'd quite like to be like him."

The list of flawed-but-idolised male lead characters is longer than the intro credits of a John Wayne western, but the number of similarly aspired-to female characters could be written in bubble letters of a single sheet of Lidl's basics-range toilet roll. Which is where my latest obsession comes in: DI Sarah Lund, from the Danish crime drama Forbrytelsen: The Killing.

Right now, I'm struggling to think of a comparable character - and if you can think of one, please leave a comment - but I think that Sarah Lund is, unbelievably, a completely original fictional character in film or TV. The fact that she is original is obviously completely outrageous, but I honestly can't think of any female lead to date who has displayed the characteristics that Lund possesses, which are normally associated with flawed-yet-heroic central male characters.

Let's think about the role of female characters in crime / action / thriller films and TV series. Without fail, they fulfill one of a few distinct roles:
  • They provide a romance interest to the main, male, lead (e.g. Franka Potente in The Bourne Identity, who ends up at the bottom of a river)
  • They are lovely, but helpless, weaklings in need of support or rescuing (e.g. Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder)
  • They are dangerous femmes fatales, who are also in need of rescuing (e.g. Bacall in The Big Sleep; any Bond girl)
  • A flawed secondary character who serves to show how brilliant the male lead is (e.g. DS Gray in Luther)
  • Sometimes, they will actually be given some responsibility, but this usually ends up with them having to flirt information out of a drooling baddie (e.g. any Bond girl) or sometimes, just sometimes, they actually have to do something 'un-womanly', such as kill someone, but they'll normally do this whilst looking like they can't make up their mind whether to sleep with, or kill the poor sap (e.g. any Angelina Jolie action role).
Not since Frances McDormand in Fargo (who was still not allowed to be a hero without the responsibility of pregnancy) has there been such an stubborn, single-minded, independent female central character as Sarah Lund. It's also not as though her story is one of 'struggling against the odds in a male-dominated environment'; Sarah Lund isn't 'impressive considering she's a woman' - she's just impressive. Her identity as a woman is never even an issue during the series - she's not a man; she's not a woman. She's just a kick ass main character. So often, when we do come across a fictional woman who's been assigned 'male' attributes, the very fact that she's a woman is the central theme of the story - but not in this case.

A huge amount of credit for this must go to Sofie Gråbøl, who played the character and fought furiously to retain Lund's lack of reliance on any other character. At one point, it was mooted that the writers of the series were going to send Lund into an affair with the main male lead, at which point Gråbøl stormed into their office letting them know in no uncertain terms that this wasn't going to happen - pointing out that Clint Eastwood never needs a girlfriend.

The one thing that has become synonymous with Sarah Lund is her wardrobe. Whereas any British crime drama would without doubt have a female Detective Inspector strutting around in heels and a suit, Lund is never in anything but jeans and her customary cable-knit jumper. Although she's attractive, she has absolutely no need or wish to use it any way.

With Series 2 showing on BBC 4 soon, I can't wait to sit down for another 20 episodes and experience that novel feeling of watching a woman who, if I was still an impressionable teenager, would have me thinking, "When I grow up, I'm going to be like Sarah Lund." In fact, a large part of me still wants to, but I don't think the sweaters would suit me:

Saturday, 30 July 2011

How to isolate people. Without bothering to make friends.

A three-hour National Express coach journey is, for most people, less attractive than a French kiss from someone who brushes their teeth with scrambled egg. Many see the cramped legroom, malfunctioning air vents and borderline insane drivers as a bad thing - but not me. To my mind, every coach journey throws up a series of exciting challenges and, if you choose to travel on Megabus, there is the distinct possibility that you may never arrive at your destination... what could be more exciting?

Challenge 1: Keep the seat next to you vacant throughout the entire journey.
Some naive fools seem to think that, by merely placing a bag or sandwich wrapper on the seat next to them, they can deter fellow passengers from filling it with their often over-sized buttocks. And, unlike on any other form of public transport, a National Express neighbour is a Friend for Life. Or at least until you arrive in London. They mutter to themselves with the concealed agenda of luring you into their dialogue and, once you bite, they never let go. As soon as you engage them in conversation, you lose all rights to privacy and anonymity for the remainder of the journey, which will suddenly double in length. They will start peering over your shoulder at the magazine you're reading; they may offer you one of your crisps before, as soon as you have your hand in the packet, regaling you with their longest and most tedious crisp-related story; they may even make inquiries into where you are going and what you intend to do once your arrive there.

I have become a master in the dark art of National Express Neighbour Avoidance (NENA). I am the Hermione Granger of social avoidance, the Derren Brown of the deterrent discipline. When I step onto a coach, seatbelts recoil in fear at my mere presence. And here's how I do it:

Firstly, whenever the coach stops to allow more people onto it, make sure you are listening to your iPod; this will make people feel rude at having to disturb you to ask you to remove your varied and widespread possessions from the seat next to you. Secondly, regardless of what you are in fact listening to, wear an expression on your face that suggests it might be the sound of someone taking a blunt saw to a pig's shin. If someone considers disturbing you, your facial demeanor should inform them that you're one minor irritation away from flushing them down the chemical toilet. This works perfectly for me, despite the fact that in reality I am a harmless middle-class ponce whose only ever fight was with the lid of a chutney jar.

If none of the above works, and you are still asked if the seat next to you is free, just turn to the offending person and say, "I'd love you to sit next to me; I always like company before I kill again..."

Challenge 2: Avoid the insane.
With every coach journey, there is one crushing inevitability. Sure as eggs are eggs, sure as the sun rises, sure as the depressing certainty that there will be another series of Gavin & Stacey. There will always be one insane passenger on the coach. And I'm not talking NENA-insane; I'm talking genuine insane.

Last week, I spotted her as soon as she stepped onto the coach. A large lady, early 30s, floral print dress which did her no favours. She heaved herself down the aisle, all the while making loud, easily-audible sighing and puffing noises. She flopped down onto a vacant pair of seats and immediately lay down, so that her head stuck out halfway into the aisle. She then loudly demanded that the heating be turned up to maximum because it was freezing. The driver gave us all a worried look, mostly because it was a bright, sunny day and everybody else on the coach was visibly boiling. Somehow he had to come up with an answer that placated the insane lady, but also meant that we didn't spend the next 3 hours in a Hotpoint-on-wheels. What he came up with was by far and away the most inspired piece of quick thinking and blagging I have ever witnessed. "I'm sorry," he said, "but the heating is all controlled by a main computer at the National Express depot. I've no control over it whatsoever." And she actually bought it. The imagination of the man! To come up an alternative reality where, at National Express HQ, minions with long croupier sticks push small models of coaches around a map of the British Isles before someone bursts in crying, "The passengers on the 403 from London to Bath are overheating! Someone decrease the humidity in that coach now!"

But the insane lady seemed perfectly happy with the driver's explanation and, as compensation lay back down and bleated, "Can everybody please close all the curtains - I have asthma." Needless to say, after a moment's pause to consider the links between asthma and direct sunlight, nobody bothered to draw their curtain. A beat later she piped up again: "Okay, at least one?" I watched on with pride as not one of my brave companions, these wonderful people who I'd worked so hard to ensure didn't sit next to me, took the slightest bit of notice of the insane lady, and settled back into their chairs to enjoy a pleasurable three hours in the sunshine.