Plath’s anti-novel still relevant to pill-popping generation

Fifty years after its publication, The Bell Jar is still one of those novels that has the ability to shock because of its brutal honesty and forensic depiction of depression.

Sylvia Plath’s only novel was completed just weeks before she took her own life so the authenticity of its execution probably elevates it into unique territory in terms of trying to find truth in art.

The novel itself feels like a stealth bombing. The first part mundane, but necessary, as Esther Greenwood, a young girl from Boston, travels to New York for an internship at a magazine. Esther’s first person narrative feels restrictive and there’s little in the way of narrative momentum or dramatic power as most of the other characters are dull or non-existent.

But slowly, Esther’s mask begins to slip and, once she suffers a skiing accident about halfway through the book, the novel hurtles at breakneck speed towards a blistering and harrowing climax.

The suicidal tendencies, the electric shock therapy and the well-meaning doctors are all-too familiar to anyone who has suffered mental illness in all its terrifying guises. You may say shock therapy has been consigned to the past but today’s anti-depressants are a more palatable form of the same bitter medicine.

The Bell Jar makes this helplessness so raw and so complete that you’re desperate for Esther to somehow come out of the other side and throw off the dark, all-encompassing blanket that’s suffocating her.

But it doesn’t happen.

And that’s why the novel still has an unrelenting power today. We are no closer to finding a magic pill for depression. Even more of us are suffering and the crushing loneliness of the condition can make it isolating and even more frightening.

Which is what happened to Sylvia Path. Or Esther Greenwood. Or was it Elly Higginbottom?

We can never be sure – because the author may not have known who she was when she wrote it. But one thing’s indisputable: this anti-novel is still a towering work half a century on.

The Magnificent Andersons

No, this isn’t a sequel to Orson Welles’ butchered classic starring Joseph Cotten – it’s about the strange phenomenon of the surname ‘Anderson’ and how it’s produced some wonderful artists, actors and musicians.

Take the always fragrant and dazzling Gillian Anderson who showed her mettle, poise and authority in the BBC crime drama The Fall (pictured). This was a performance of subtletly and skill as she played a London detective diving into a hornet’s nest of politics, murder and intrigue in Belfast.

Generally her TV work (The X-Files, Bleak House, Hannibal etc..) has overshadowed the cinematic sweeteners but the criminally underrated The House of Mirth, where she plays Lily Bart, felt like the best performance of the lot. A scintillating actress.

Next it’s those three amigos in the film world: PT Anderson, Wes and, my personal favourite, Lindsay, who was once dumped by Wham to make a film in China (it went ahead with another director).

PT Anderson has a style of his own: a distinctive, semi-epic mosaic seen in the likes of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood and it’s this kind of singular vision that makes him stand out from the Hollywood crowd.

Wes Anderson too is a class apart, although some of his so-called best works like The Royal Tenenbaums left me a little cold. However, Moonrise Kingdom was a woozy, head-swirling treat and, again, he is a true original.

Which brings us nicely to Mr Original himself: Lindsay Anderson – the director of the blistering, scathing trilogy of If, O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital. These films have a unique quality to them – a brutal social and satirical sensibility – that makes them stand apart in British cinema. Some people may find them messy and sprawling – they’re all those things – but they also humane and majestic. Anderson was crushed by the British response to Britannia Hospital (released in 1982) but he’s still one of this island’s true visionaries.

Another visionary, but this time in music, is Kenny Anderson, otherwise known as King Creosote. The Scottish singer blends lyrical depth with delicate melodies and his albums, including Diamond Mine and KC Rules OK, are wistful and utterly compelling.

So the spooky artistic prominence of the Anderson surname is alive and well. How about cheating and putting a trio of Scandanavian supremos like Benny Andersson (Abba), Hans Christian Andersen and Roy Andersson, director of the brilliant You The Living and other weird and wonderful pictures?

Or what about brilliant Suede frontman Brett Anderson, Thunderbirds supremo Gerry Anderson or acclaimed classical composer Julian Anderson? Or delving further into absurdity and enlisting two sportsmen like Jimmy Anderson and Viv Anderson (one will become England’s greatest wicket-taker barring injury and the other was England’s first black player to start an international for his country)? Is that going too far? Probably. And I haven’t touched on the celebrity juggernaut that is Pamela Anderson yet.

But the point, barring a stray Clive Anderson oddity, is that this surname offers some sort of artistic integrity in a spooky, X-Files sort of way.

Who knows they could be part of one, huge dysfunctional family?

Just like in Welles epic The Magnificent Ambersons.

No Interiors as Woody Doc serves up a Sleeper

The BBC’s Imagine documentary on the legend that is Woody Allen was generally well received by critics but it’s mind-numbing three and a half hours gave it a comatose feel that was unworthy of an artist noted for brevity.

Allen likes to shoot his films fast – and the documentary illustrated this many times, most notably when the director urges his actors to deliver their lines quickly so he won’t miss his beloved New York Knicks playing basketball. Watching this, made me think only one thing: If Woody Allen doesn’t care about his own work these days then why should we?

Fans would obviously say that his stupendous body of work gives him the freedom to do what he wants in the twilight of his film career and this is a fair argument. Some of the work is indeed spectacular because it sprinkles his lifelong intellectual obsessions with sparkling comic insights and messy romantic entanglements. Personal favourites include Love and Death, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Crimes and Misdemeanours. Even in his ropier efforts (and in the last couple of decades they’ve reached well into double figures) there’s always a funny gag or an insightful line to keep us on our toes.

Yet there’s always a nagging doubt in his films that he’s making the same film over and over again, more than what would be acceptable for other artists. The flimsiness and frothiness of most these projects also casts doubts on whether he is serious about making good cinema or he’s just serving up his annual dish of stale panto because he needs to show he’s still got what it takes.

In the documentary, there were also a galaxy of stars including Diane Keaton, John Cusack and Penelope Cruz lining up to lavish praise on the angular auteur. That’s not a surprise considering he gives them such an easy ride. They usually end up being tourists in one of the most beautiful cities on earth. The New York love-in has been exhausted, now it’s a European picture postcard.

And all this before we get onto Allen’s leading man syndrome: a desire to appear time and time again as a bumbling, neurotic semi-intellectual who always gets the girl falling for him. The three jewels that fell onto set for him made him: Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway and Mia Farrow. Their vulnerability and charm in the films they appeared in elevated those movies onto another level.

Yet Woody Allen wrote those films. Without his talent for writing female parts would the likes of Keaton and Farrow be lesser actresses today? Probably, because on balance, we remember Farrow for Hannah and her Sisters rather than Rosemary’s Baby. And Keaton for Annie Hall rather than The Godfather. Which is not to say they weren’t good in the heavier films.

So Woody Allen’s legacy and talent are not in doubt – it’s just whether he has much more to give, and whether this Robert B Weide’s documentary was a fitting tribute to a relentless filmmaker.

It wasn’t because Woody Allen is the classic example of an artist who should remain in the shadows. He had little to say and, for a three and a half hour epic, this didn’t make for compelling TV. A snappy 90-minute run through of his films, without the waffle would have sufficed.

Just like the philosopher in panto prefers his own movies.