Thursday, 22 June 2017

Bruce Dern, The Fire Next Time, and Fritz Lang being silly – Reviews #269

A mini-update, with a book and two movies.

BOOK



The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1962)
– This masterly work by James Baldwin, the poet-philosopher of the Civil Rights Movement, may seem superficially dated – written at a time when blacks couldn’t vote – but remains enduringly relevant, articulating the lot of the oppressed black American, but also the white, trapped in a prison of his own making, the shortcomings of his life and society twisted into antipathy against those who have nothing.

Across two letters – one to his nephew and namesake, the other to us – he talks passionately and persuasively of the beauty and strength of the black population, in contrast with the spiritually bankrupt, artistically sexless, self-denying, self-deluding dominant race, drowning in hypocrisy and given its moral authority by a Christianity whose white God has abandoned his black congregation. He rails at the supposed beneficence of RFK – lauded as a civil rights champion – and his ilk, asking why a negro can become President 'in 40 years' time'. Why only one man, exalted above others? Why should they be grateful for this endorsement? And why 40 years? Why not now?



Baldwin rejects, though, Elijah Muhammad’s call for vengeance, demanding instead that blacks and whites re-examine their roles, their relationships and even their lives, in order to forge an understanding, and so an America fit for both. He is writing, really, for a white audience: trying to articulate for them what it means to be black, to have been brought to the country in chains, to still bear the name of those who owned your ancestors, to be without a voice and a vote, feared and loathed and dared to ascend above your allotted station, so they lock you up or beat you down. It’s heartbreaking to read Baldwin’s contention that the state can hardly lock up all African-Americans, and then consider the spiralling prison population documented in the recent film inspired by the author’s work, I Am Not Your Negro.

The Fire Next Time is obligatory reading not just because of its prescience, but due to its far-reaching implications. Its thoughts on the legitimacy of experience, the ‘innocence’ of malignant privilege and the damage that we do by taking refuge in – and taking our cues from – a toxic status quo are messages not just for the far-right, who won’t read them, but for those well-intentioned people who speak when they should be listening (I count myself among them).

Interestingly – and crucially – though, the book isn’t purely polemical. It’s also personal, its conclusions elucidated through memoir: passages recalling Baldwin’s early years caught between the streets and the church, and addressing his relationship with his younger brother – an extraordinarily touching passage alighting upon universal experience. Man can Baldwin write. But more than that, he can think. (4)

***

FILMS



*MINOR SPOILERS*
CINEMA: The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978)
– This chilly, existential ‘70s car film was the inspiration for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, being the story of a nameless, impassive getaway driver (Ryan O’Neal), whose style, arrogance and motoring chutzpah make him a Person of Interest to both criminals and cops. You can see the influence of Melville’s sleek, sad Le Samourai, of Bullitt – which had ignited America’s interest in car chases (though it isn’t actually very good) – and of Hollywood’s new model crime film: violent, ironic and lacking in conventional heroes, from Charley Varrick to The Silent Partner.

The supporting cast here are wooden and O’Neal himself wasn’t much of an actor (his first line, following a long, wordless opening, serves to instantly puncture the impression), but he brings a certain sad-eyed weariness to a role where an absence of expression is a virtue, and Bruce Dern is excellent as the sardonic, garrulous detective who hates O’Neal’s guts – though when wasn’t he? Not all of its script lands, but it mixes terse philosophy with cynicism and black comedy quite effectively, and Walter Hill’s handling is first-rate. I speculated at first that it had traded fatalism for twists, and wondered whether that was a good thing. On reflection, I think you get the best of both worlds: the unpredictability and entertainment value of a script whose destination is unknown, but also an ending that's far deeper than it first appears: its storyline as circular and eternal as a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.



It’s particularly great to see this on the big screen (as part of Edgar Wright’s season of car pictures at the BFI), which throws you into the breathless, exhilarating, squealing car chases that are its raison d’être. A few years ago, I’d have said that nothing would bore me more, but after Fury Road and – curiously – realising during Tabu just what a difference screen size and environment makes to seeing a motorbike ride, I’m coming around. (3)



See also: Dern is an actor I like more and more. I first came across him in Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, in which he poured delightful levels of scorn upon the idea that Jack Nicholson was becoming a movie star. Then I saw Silent Running (above) as part of the first live Mayo and Kermode show, at Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. Later I tracked down Posse, an ingenious revisionist Western, and saw how his countercultural leanings, and his representation of the promise of the '60s – gone to seed – helped to shape the New Hollywood. He's still immense today, in the likes of Nebraska and The Hateful Eight. Seeing The Driver got me thinking about when Dern wasn't excellent: after all, I'd asked the question. Well, he's cut adrift – hackneyed and toothily irrelevant –in Hitchcock's last film, Family Plot, and conspicuously dreadful in Joe Dante's The 'burbs. I wouldn't advise starting there.

***



CINEMA: Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921) – This Fritz Lang silent, based on an old German folk song and recently fully restored by the Murnau Foundation, is certainly an experience. The first 20 minutes is unbelievably boring and stilted, as two young lovers encounter Death (Bernhard Goetzke) – who's just stuck up a massive wall around his domain, like a less objectionable Donald Trump – and we encounter primitive direction, bad acting and dozens of wordy intertitles. If you thought talkies were talky, you should try silents.

Then Lang remembers he's a film director, jarring us out of our stupor by turning a beer glass into an hour-glass, before – from nowhere and nothing – creating one of the most moving moments of his whole career, as grieving fiancée Lil Dagover tries to clutch the spirit of her lost love (Walter Janssen), only for it to pass right through her. Having failed, she next turns to poison, hoping to join him in the afterlife. Instead, the gate opens, she ascends the steps and she meets the reaper, who amidst the burning candles that are human lives, offers her three chances to save her lover's life – all she must do is outwit Death once. The film is in six chapters (Lang clearly ripping off Tarantino, like everyone does), and these fantasy sequences form 3-5, with Dagover trying each time to save Janssen from death. Or should that be 'Death'?



The first, in Egypt, is a sort of Arabian Nights pastiche (but must be set more recently, as Janssen has a gun) – and it's lively enough, with some suitably grand sets. The second, set in Italy around the masked balls of carnival (prefiguring >Black Orpheus, which relocated the Orpheus myth to the Rio Carnival), is a little melodramatic and predictable, but easily the best of the three: compellingly told, with Lang's visual imagination augmenting the story. The third and final episode is just absolute shit, unless you're a fan of trick photography and offensive Japanese stereotypes, as our heroes try to evade a waddling racist caricature who looks like a fat, anthropomorphic mole.



Thankfully that's not the end of it, as Lang drags it back for the final chapter, adroitly and intelligently articulating the film's powerful, humanist message – facilitated by a respectful, even humane Death – while serving up an action climax with more than a hint of Griffith and DeMille (it's tinted red too, as was a similar scene at the end of that classic Kong-for-kids movie, Mighty Joe Young). At their best, both Dagover and Goetze are very persuasive, complicit in a sort of unstoppable melancholy, his weary and hers frenetic. The story is complemented, too, by a fine new score that builds impressively and helps the film to attain an overall coherence, while mirroring its various worlds.

I'm not quite sure how to judge a film that takes so long to spark into life, only to do so with a vivid verve, anticipates The Seventh Seal before tossing away our goodwill with interminable low comedy about the Japanese and their funny ways, and encompasses some of the worst of silent film, then turns out to be uncommonly profound: particularly about mortality, though also about love.

Two-and-a-half stars, I suppose. (That is a joke. But also what I'm giving it.) (2.5)

See also: 'Arabian Nights,' you say? Why yes, I have written about Doug Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad (I'd forgotten that it begins with the line "Put a shirt on, man", for which I would like to congratulate myself.

***

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Thandie Newton, Russian Revolution, and an evening with Elmer Bernstein – Reviews #268

Revel in my balanced lifestyle, as I review a film, a TV series, a novel, an exhibition and a gig.

FILM



The Mouthpiece (Elliott Nugent and James Flood, 1932)
– I have such a soft spot for pre-Code movies, and especially the pungent, abrasive, censor-baiting comedies starring the likes of Lee Tracy (Blessed Event, The Nuisance, Call All Wires!), William Powell (Jewel Robbery, High Pressure) and Warren William (Beauty and the Boss). Though not uniformly, these had a tendency to be extremely funny and cynical, before discovering a latent tenderness that at its best was knitted into the fabric of the film, and at its worst saw the piece unravel into soapy melodramatics. Few, though, were ever as sweet and affecting as this one, in which William’s noble prosecutor reacts to tragedy by reinventing himself as an amoral shyster for the underworld (with a moustache, naturally), only to be changed back by the guileless southern office waif (Sidney Fox) he’s been trying to shag. It’s a little clumsy in places, and mistakes audacity for humour, but it’s saved by the performances.

Fox, a short-lived punchline remembered if at all for her sexual affairs with Universal execs, is hesitant and naïve in a way that might not all be intentional, but works its magic upon you, her innate ethereality, uncompromising morality and unexpected sexual potency convincing us unfailingly that a rich, powerful, overbearing and unapologetically unyielding lawyer would be desperate to sleep with, protect and be forgiven by her. As the lawyer, William dominates as he has to: he’s witty, assured and prepossessing, while allowing self-debasement and self-disgust to bleed into his performance, and he’s supported by the great Aline MacMahon, characteristically brilliant as she turns the somewhat familiar role of the lovelorn, patient secretary into something indelible. In these studio films, MacMahon often gave the impression of having just wandered in from real life: she could have the lightest touch with comedy, and spit out Warner Bros’ snappy zingers, but she was at her best when playing something heavy and truthful and whacked out.

Warren William didn’t star in as many – or as good – tailor-made comic vehicles as Tracy and Powell: his greatest roles were topping the bill in ensemble, state-of-the-nation films like Employees’ Entrance, which bristled with energy, anger and social comment, even if his megalomaniac sex pests powered these movies, and are what you remember of them (indeed, he returned to unrepentantly terrorising virgins in Skyscraper Souls later in 1932). The Mouthpiece is a leaner, slighter and simpler film, which zeroes in on the star, shows him through the eyes of two good women, and allows him an emotional sensitivity that was usually off limits for the pre-Code William. It’s not perfect, but it holds a special place in this cycle of films, and it has several beautiful moments, infused with a sweetness that’s tantalisingly bereft of saccharine or soap.

See also: I read the only existing Warren William biography a couple of years back. He really didn't have a terribly interesting life. For what's it's worth, Powell made a similar film to The Mouthpiece the same year, 1932, the stolid Lawyer Man, which gets a shot in the arm from Joan Blondell's sensitive, erotic performance, but is hampered by for some reason omitting any scenes that take place in a courtroom.

***

TV



"I'm interested in one thing, and only thing only: bent coppers."
Line of Duty: Series 4 (2017) – I wonder if this is the series to which we’ll look back and see that Line of Duty was beginning to go awry*, when a show that traded on an insider feel jettisoned any genuine concessions to realism, and became too daft and melodramatic and big and yet somewhat unconvincingly inter-connected. That’s its overall impact, but this season is packed with memorable characters, so stuffed with incident that it’s jawdropping in the moment, and yet still quietly dominated by Thandie Newton’s performance.

Newton is Roz Huntley, an arrogant, assertive DCI still scrambling to catch up after taking years off to start a family. When she gets the chance to close a serial killing case, she takes it, arresting Michael Farmer (Scott Reid), a learning-disabled loner incapable of riding out the interrogation (as Series 3 dealt with both Operation Yewtree and the Mark Kennedy affair, so this plot-thread appears inspired by another topical case, that of Making a Murderer’s damaged, eager-to-please, patently innocent Brendan Dassey). Enter AC-12, who have a few concerns about the strength of the evidence.

Line of Duty’s central triumvirate – Steve (Martin Compston), Kate (Vicky McClure) and Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) – are fantastic characters, but here they mostly just plod along. Earlier seasons perhaps saddled them with overly soapy subplots, but this time there’s very little character development, beyond the manufacturing of some unconvincing competition between the two junior officers. Things happen to them, but they don’t change.

Despite that, both Compson and Dunbar are excellent, with Hastings’ broiling sense of rectitude cleverly cast into doubt, and Steve’s somewhat squat stoicism – coupled to an impressively realised impetuosity – once more the defining flavour of the series. A mention too for Paul Higgins, memorable as the vituperatively violent Jamie in The Thick of It, whose patronising faux-earnestness pours out in overbearing, over-familiar line readings that might just be brilliant. Certainly his voice becomes a central part of the programme’s atmosphere, its feel and its identity.

Newton is given an exceptionally tricky role, so much of it internalised, so much of her character’s appearance being for the benefit of others, the actress variously asked to mask, contort, unshackle or abruptly unveil her feelings. Sometimes she’s barely allowed to give a performance at all, being asked to keep the audience in a permanent limbo, dropping clues or red herrings instead of inhabiting a role. And yet when it matters, as in that climactic interrogation, in which she suddenly becomes recognisably ‘feminine’ for the first time, she shows why she was an indie darling, Hollywood star and a stellar coup for Jeb Mercurio and co. That level of acting is rare, even in a show as lauded as Line of Duty (and especially compared to fellow guest star Jason Watkins, who has won a BAFTA and an Olivier, but is desperately unpersuasive here).

Series 4 feels like a bit of a dip after three compelling seasons: there are too many scrawny or barely-tied plot threads, its perhaps noble attempts to look at race and sexism come off more like window-dressing – a concession to ‘serious’ television, rather than state-of-the-nation polemicising – and its culprits are obvious in a way that they haven’t been before. But while its total impact is muted by these shortcomings and its sojourn into the incredible, it’s still cracking, addictive TV. Fella. (3)

*like Sherlock's third series, which was great in itself, but had sown within it the seeds of its own destruction

See also: I talked about the first three series here. My statistical survey on BAME characters in Line of Duty being mostly cowards, informers or bent coppers will have to wait, as I've realised that also describes the majority of the white characters.

***

BOOK



Often when the Spectator says something is brilliant, like the free market or Toby Young's new column, they're wrong. They're not wrong here.

A Long Way from Verona from Jane Gardam (1971) – This is such a special book: like Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel (one of my discoveries of this year), its heroine is a brutally honest teenage writer in a vanished England: and an outsider because she isn’t like anyone else. Like Angel, too, it has an innate, fierce unpredictability and a rapturously distinctive voice (ideally utilised in a first person narrative) which, by definition, make it nothing like Angel. Its wartime Yorkshire setting is intrinsic – the story set against the mercilessness and the brutal lottery of war, even on the Home Front – and it crashes into the narrative, but it isn’t a book about war. It’s a book about Jessica Vye and the world she inhabits, ridicules, abhors and attempts to negotiate, with uncertainty and arrogance and perseverance, and a conviction that never shakes, but does latch onto passing whims, and falls prey to her explosive temper. It is fascinating and funny and spectacularly unsentimental, as well as uncategorisable in the best possible way. (4)

***

EXHIBITION


Lenin's lovely manners

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths (British Library) – I studied Russian history at GCSE, A-level and university (my undergraduate dissertation was on Stalin’s show trials), so I was very excited about the British Library’s exhibition, 100 years on from the revolution. They didn't let me down.

It’s vividly staged – in the space where I saw the Gothicism exhibition in 2014 – with digital screens and photographic lightboxes, all framed in vivid scarlet, enticing you in and guiding you through the story, beginning in a Tsarist Russia of unbelievable inequality, charting the mounting division and discontent, and then exploding into revolution, and the five years of bloodletting that were the Civil War (an oft-overlooked part of the story, dealt with in due detail here). Crucially, Russian Revolution does a formidable job of being a paper-led British Library exhibition without just showing you a lot of books.


The Whites' propaganda was largely rubs. Here's an exception.

There are books, papers and some irresistibly arresting posters, but also dozens of other artefacts – a Red Army cap; a peasant’s cheap, woven shoes; a wooden gun so alarmingly primitive it induces panic; a free gift given away at the Khodynka Field tragedy, the cheap tankard juxtaposed with one of Tsar Nicholas’s own immaculate regal glasses – listening posts, a giant digital map showing the marauding Red Army’s progress during the Civil War, and a climactic screening room, with Shostakovich on the PA and classic propaganda films by Eisenstein (October) and the Vasilievs (Chapaev, Stalin’s favourite on the big screen).


The greatest excuse of all time.

Now and then the exhibition text is a little drab or clunky, or begins discussing events or institutions before defining what they are, but the wealth of material is astonishing, and I got a particular visceral thrill from seeing the handwritten notes by Trotsky and Lenin – the latter applying under a pseudonym, extremely politely, to be a BL reader in 1902 – as well as those propaganda posters in the constructivist style, much homaged or parodied, but still bracingly and instinctively powerful. Like this one:



That constructivism I bum off so much

My main take-aways:

a) my uncontroversial view that the ‘communist’ experiment in Russia was essentially just a disaster (and one which continues to plague socialist causes) doesn’t look like being challenged any time soon

b) the reviled Tsar Nicholas II, later executed for his crimes against the workers, visited the wounded a day after a tragedy... *whistles*

(4)

***

LIVE



The Best of Elmer Bernstein (aka The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and more!)

at the Royal Albert Hall, Sun 18 Jun, 2017

This was such a fantastic show, and it’s been a pleasure to work on too, allowing me the chance to chat to luxuriate in the movie music of the incomparable Elmer Bernstein, who has been a favourite since my teens (I often work to his music, particularly The Man with the Golden Arm, a hypnotic, unrelenting jazz offering that simply changed the way movies were scored), and to chat to the great comedy director, John Landis, who worked with Bernstein on 12 films, and was one of the co-hosts of this concert. The other was Peter Bernstein, Elmer’s son and John’s schoolmate, who shared funny, moving stories about his bold, brilliant, blacklisted father, as well as conducting the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. With Peter on the podium, Landis shamblingly shuffling papers and regaling us with big, well-trodden showbiz tales, and a setlist showcasing Elmer’s pioneering work in everything from epics to comedies, Westerns to romances, and nature documentaries to sweaty, cynical, claustrophobic fag-end noirs, it was cosy, conversational and emotionally overwhelming in turn.

Some of the music was merely pretty and well-played, the show kicking off with a trio of pieces that have no real resonance to me – the theme from the Nat Geo TV show, a suite from The Ten Commandments, and the main title music from the bloated disaster movie, Hawaii, but everything that happened after that was wonderful in one way or another. Bernstein’s rhapsodic homage to/pastiche of classic Hollywood music – evoking the very history of Hollywood and composed for a ‘60s TV show called Hollywood and the Stars – was a revelation, captivating me with its sweeping, Steiner-esque beauty, and was followed by three cast-iron classics. The Man with the Golden Arm rapped and stuttered, its snares and cymbals mirroring the stabbing pain and breathless desperation of addiction (the film’s theme). To Kill a Mockingbird showed Elmer’s innate understanding of cinema, the composer isolating that the story’s raison d’etre is to deal with adult themes from a child’s perspective: the suite, then, for all its tension and frantic menace, is dominated by the music-box cues and elegiac simplicity of his main theme. And The Magnificent Seven, which closed the first half, was an explosion of exuberance: the piece seeming fresh and new all these years, as if heard for the first time. In this setting, one could appreciate not only Bernstein’s instinctive genius, but also his intelligence and craft: the violins leaping up for the final go-round, as the seven ride to the rescue.


I took this picture of the orchestra. It's not very good, is it?

The second half, once more peppered with Peter and Landis’s reminiscences, observations and easy badinage, was a similarly eclectic mixture of unassailable classics and genuine curios. The sleazy but rousing jazz of Walk on the Wild Side was followed by From the Terrace – intended to showcase the ‘romantic’ Bernstein, but a little dull (I know of the film only as an unapologetic Myrna Loy completest) – before a spirited take on the End Title music from ¡Three Amigos!, Landis’s favourite Bernstein score written for him, being that very post-modern thing: a gentle spoof of Elmer Bernstein’s Western scores. After that, we got the director’s favourite Bernstein score of all, a glorious new arrangement of Bernstein’s music for Scorsese’s period drama, The Age of Innocence, followed by a previously unheard – and unused – piece of music written for the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London (“I used Sam Cooke instead – it took a couple of years, but Elmer forgave me,” as Landis remembered), its pained, violent and discordant death-throes wrapped up in the eerie soundscapes we already know and love. And then it finishes as it must, with an exuberant Great Escape suite, rich in delayed gratification, as we hang on and on for that famous "Dah dah, dah dah dah-la-dah" only to find it fully reclaimed from the dire dirge of an England defeat, and reborn as the triumphant, playful, rousing anthem it once was.

That gets the biggest reception of the night, and so Peter steps back on stage to conduct one more: the scintillatingly sordid Sweet Smell of Success, Bernstein's other great jazz score of the '50s. It's a fitting climax to this celebration of a great artist, which gives us everything we could want, aside from Far From Heaven (my absolute favourite Bernstein score), and salutes his creativity without sugar-coating his personality. Elmer is painted as a man who fought endlessly against pigeon-holing, evaded easy categorisation, and was only able to forge the path he did by taking chances, erecting a wall around himself, and coating his brilliance in an impermeable level of arrogant authority. Bernstein wasn't needlessly abrasive like his predecessor and admirer, Bernard Herrmann (Peter recalls his dad once ringing Herrmann to say thank you for recommending him for a commission, to which the older composer said something along the lines of: "If I didn't think you could do it, I wouldn't have said you could. Now go away"), but from Landis's stories he emerges as a necessarily tough cookie, insulated from creative interference by his crusty self-confidence. I sat there thinking that I'm glad he was, because the cinematic landscape would be a much blander, duller place without him.

Then Landis came back on stage to shout "Go home", so we did. (3.5)

See also: I wrote about my favourite Bernstein piece for the Royal Albert Hall blog here.

***

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Dustin Hoffman, The Black Dahlia, and bent coppers – Reviews #267

... in which I arrive five years late to the Line of Duty party to find that all the bent coppers have already been caught.



Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel (2003/2015) − In 2003, former LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel held a press conference to announce that he had solved perhaps the most notorious unsolved murder case in American history: the 1947 slaying of the 'Black Dahlia', an aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short, whose brutally mutilated body was found in a parking lot in Los Angeles. The unforgettable appellation − often misattributed to tabloid hacks repurposing the film noir title, The Blue Dahlia − was actually Short's nickname in life, and, with the singularly horrifying manner of the body (cut in two with surgeon-like precision), may explain why it became such a sensational newspaper story. Yellow journalism fanned the flames of a tale that had everything − a beautiful victim, a sadistic villain, and innumerable conspiracy theories − turning the hunt for the killer into a dark parlour game, rather than it remaining what it should always have been: the search for justice after the death of a young woman, almost certainly murdered by an abusive ex-boyfriend. By 1950, she was a line in Sunset Blvd. Four decades later, James Ellroy revisited the crime in the dark, semi-fictional opening novel of his LA Quartet.

Hodel's theory, which made his book an international best-seller, is that the killer was his own father: a doctor, former musical prodigy and bona fide genius, by the name of George Hill Hodel. And for a third of its 500-page length, Black Dahlia Avenger − the name the killer gave himself, and Steve's self-appointed role here − is a gripping read: clumsily written and riddled with typos, but presenting a compelling narrative piecing together a timeline from innumerable press cuttings, fascinatingly documenting George's past, underscored by Steve's uneasy but loving relationship with him, and incorporating a remarkable gallery of supporting players, from Maltese Falcon director John Huston to surrealist, sadistic photographer Man Ray, and the big players in law enforcement in 1940s LA.

Then we get to the 'evidence' and it's sketchy as hell, Steve consistently going about a third of the way to proving something, and then considering the job done, and calling back to it, with an "as I have shown". The bits at the beginning were decidedly questionable too, including two supposed pictures of Short in George's personal effects which don't look like her at all (one of them has since been proven, by Steve himself, not to be her), but I'd hoped that was just the catalyst for his investigation, not a central part of it. Parts of the investigation at least support the case for further analysis of Hodel, Sr as a suspect − particularly handwriting comparisons − but the author seems conspicuously unable to differentiate between credible evidence, coincidence and batshit conspiracy theory. He'll also do things like (on p. 275 of the 2015 edition) show how his dad looked just like a composite picture, by airbrushing out his dad's moustache. Yes, OK, but your dad had a moustache. At one point he suggests, without further elaboration or investigation, that the "wealthy Hollywood man" being sought by police must have been his father.

"Who's your father?"
"George Hill Hodel."
"Ah yes, George Hill Hodel, the only wealthy man in Hollywood."

I do have some sympathy for Steve. His dad was clearly an awful, awful person − as evidenced by his rape of Steve's 14-year-old half-sister, of which he was cleared, but clearly guilty − and he may well have been capable of this crime. He may even have done it. But the author's obsessive attempt to link him to every unsolved rape and homicide in LA in the 1940s is less than convincing. His cries of a cover-up, as supposedly evidenced by the 1949 grand jury hearings into the failure to find the killer, are also patchy. In the 'Aftermath' section, added in 2005, we hear from Lt Jemison, appointed by the DA's office to look into the initial LAPD investigation, who attributes the failings to incompetence, rather than wrongdoing.

It's in the Aftermath section − missing, of course, from the original 2003 edition − that we realise Steve wasn't as mad as we thought. He may have begun the investigation because he decided that a photo of a random woman was Elizabeth Short, but his father really was a suspect, to the extent that he was bugged, and his phone tapped, by the DA's investigators. And there, in the transcripts, he seems to hint at some complicity in the Black Dahlia killing ("Supposin' I did kill the Black Dahlia? They couldn't prove it now"), while practically confessing to the murder of his secretary, Ruth Spaulding. But, as we see from Jemison's subsequent report, something cleared Hodel, Sr from suspicion, and he was eliminated as a suspect. Steve's contention that Jemison was being forced to drop the investigation into his father, and used the phrase "tends to eliminate him as a suspect" to show his unease, is unconvincing and not backed up by any evidence.

It's a frustrating book, then, and by no means 'case closed'. And while Steve clearly cares about Short, and makes a good fist of reclaiming her as a lovelorn young woman, rather than the dissolute slut painted by misogynistic cops and writers down the decades, he also wallows in the depravity and sadism of her murder and countless other murders of young women. I was suckered in by my fascination with Ellroy, LA noir and an unsolved mystery, but found myself feeling sickened, exploited and depressed by the end.

Hodel has since alienated most of his defenders by asserting that his dad was also the Zodiac Killer. (2.5)

See also: For a long time I avoided 'true crime', because it made me feel either guilty or unhappy. Those concerns were overridden by a couple of books which sounded too fascinating to neglect: Michael Finkel's True Story and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Now I may be back where I started.

***



The Folks That Live on the Hill by Kingsley Amis (1990) – Amis’s blinding wit can’t always rescue this poisonously misanthropic book about outwardly avuncular academic Harry Caldecote and his troubled family: the bereaved Clare, alcoholic Fiona, henproteckted Freddie, brutalised Bunty, and feckless, possibly criminal Piers, who exist in a Torily-realised London of crushing mundanity, waspish disgust and drab, brownly toneless multiculturalism. And at times even that voice fails altogether, turning in on itself to birth such laboriously self-satisfied sentences as the Amis of Lucky Jim would himself have lampooned, and necessitating that one read each of them several times to unpick the text, subtext, etc. That’s a parody of one of them.

There are others when the author’s unparalleled, deliciously English turn of phrase still dazzles, Amis cramming deadpan observations and dismissive putdowns into exposition and description, places where most other writers wouldn’t dare (or indeed bother). But he’s forever punching downwards, the malevolence and jaundice of his worldview rendering his work less than human, while he articulates the working class experience about as effectively as David Mitchell attempting a cockney accent. Or Andrea Leadsom. Occasionally, particularly towards the end, he offers his characters a little solace and understanding – if not a lifeline – but for far too long Amis seems to treat his characters with contempt, smugly revelling in not only their imperfections, but in the misogyny and absence of compassion that he mistakes for charming roguishness.

It’s also boring: rooted in a time and place (the Primrose Hill of 1990) that seems not only fleeting but also desperately uninteresting, people by characters whom it’s difficult to care about, since the man who created them can’t really be bothered. Amis displays flashes of lucid empathy – particularly in the deeply moving final chapter – where he effectively humanises and empathises with Clare, while I found the passages dealing with why an alcoholic like Fiona drinks truthful and even profound, but the bulk of this detached, inert book has uninteresting characters doing almost nothing aside from thinking about why they dislike one another, a prejudice that ultimately I couldn’t help but share. (2)

***

FILM



CINEMA: Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970) – This revisionist Western from Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn is unfocused when it should be freewheeling, and cartoonish in a way that undermines its seriousness and integrity, but it has a few vivid moments, and helped pave the way for not only Blazing Saddles and Altman's Buffalo Bill, but Jarmusch’s deadpan Dead Man and Costner's brilliant Dances with Wolves, which also portrayed the bluecoats of the U. S. Cavalry as lying, duplicitous murderers.

Dustin Hoffman is Jack Crabb, at 121 years old the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn (or 'Custer's Last Stand'), that monument to arrogant, genocidal, imperialist complacency. During the film's 139 minutes, Crabb becomes a multitude of genre archetypes, from orphaned pioneer kid to gunslinger, Indian to Indian Fighter, medicine man to town drunk, hermit to trail scout, as the film swings wildly between sincerity and surrealism, subversion and sex comedy.

It’s possible to be both cartoonish and deftly satirical – Frank Tashlin did it with his 1957 masterpiece, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? – but Little Big Man is far too erratic to sustain that for more than a few minutes of time, drifting from its fine opening 30 into spoofs of Stagecoach, Shane, The Searchers and My Darling Clementine and some risible sex comedy little better than what you’d find in a Carry On film (the same year, Peckinpah interrupted his superb, elegiac Western, The Ballad of Cable Hogue with Benny Hill-like inserts), even if having Faye Dunaway deliver it means that you can at least gorge yourself on her translucent beauty (those cheekbones, fuck me).

Its passages in the Indian camp are often affecting, sensitive and richly ironic, deeply rooted in a wise, glowing humanity, and blessed with a fantastic performance from Chief Dan George as Hoffman’s adopted grandfather (George played a similar role in Clint’s The Outlaw Josey Wales). There are also flashes of brilliance in Penn’s direction: Sunshine framed in the tepee doorway, silence after a killing, and the chilling and unforgettable first appearance of the cavalry – announced by Hoffman’s desperate sprint through the camp-site, which is captured on handheld camera, and eerily, masterfully utilising the music and iconography of the bluecoats familiar from a hundred films in which they were the heroes (perhaps most memorable, Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

But the film as a whole is a bit of a shambles: tonally incoherent, frequently and offputtingly aloof, and rarely as pointed and furious as it needs to be: Richard Mulligan’s Custer is amusingly trivial, but playing him as a vainglorious imbecile makes him seem more like Maid Marian and Her Merry Men’s Robin than the deluded, arrogant bigot of history, and the climactic battle – crucial to the whole picture – is irritating and badly-staged, trading comprehension for what it imagines wrongly to be visceral excitement, and then trading any vestiges of that for low comedy and sledgehammer satire.

Hoffman is also way out of his depth for much of the film. Perhaps he’s here as a post-modern joke – because you wouldn’t expect to find a titular Jewish nebbish as a Western hero, because his recognisable persona only really makes sense in 1970s America – but he seems merely miscast, and cast adrift by a script that chucks out its sense of anger and purpose not only at will, but for not discernible reason, aside from the instant gratification of a cheap laugh. (2.5)

***

TV

Here are some thoughts on Line of Duty. My 8,000-word fan theory on how the length of Vicky McClure's hair relates to the scale of her inner turmoil is still to come.



Line of Duty: Season 1 (2012) – OK, I'm finally diving in. A principled counter-terrorism officer (Martin Compson) botches a case and winds up in anti-corruption, where he's asked to investigate the charismatic, popular Tony Gates (Lennie James), whose crime-solving stats are off the scale. It's not great timing for Tony, who's just helped his mistress (Gina McKee) cover up a hit-and-run, or perhaps for ambitious young cop Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), trying manfully to get on his team. This gripping, consistently surprising cop series is simply too far-fetched and melodramatic at times, but it's also beautifully acted – especially by James and McClure – with above-average dialogue from creator Jed Mercurio, and intelligent, extremely effective direction, with a blue tint to proceedings, and characters up-close-and-personal, or dwarfed by monolithic buildings or the enormity of their burdens. Its greatest virtue, though, and it has a few, is its scope of characterisation. It's not non-judgemental, exactly, it's more that it's even-handed, with Mercurio assured in his ability to economically, and without warning, skewer our sympathies: to engender sympathy for a villain or cause us to rage at a hero's sanctimony. That shifting perspective, allied to an impeccably-plotted narrative, saw me race through the bulk of this in one sitting. (3.5)

***



Line of Duty: Season 2 (2014) – A sometimes stunning second season: a bit messy, a bit silly, but keeping you guessing throughout, and with a fantastic performance from Keeley Hawes. She’s DI Lindsey Denton, the sole survivor of a hit on a protected witness, and so ripe for investigation by Steve (Martin Compston), Kate (Vicky McClure) and their hard-nosed, Roman-nosed boss (Adrian Dunbar). But is she a criminal mastermind, a victim or something else entirely? Line of Duty can be gimmicky at times, with a bit of screenwriting-by-the-book – the oldest trick in that book being to give every supporting character a quirk (like the pathologist with a heavy cold in the first series), or to half-inch your highlights, the hospital sequences here using tricks familiar from both The Godfather and Nighthawks – but it’s also thrilling and gripping and with truly great set-pieces, including the powerhouse interview sequences that are its calling card, and are now prefixed by that ominous, unpleasant honking on the tape.

The show does a good job, too, of drawing you in, both by developing its characters and by withholding information about them: that tends to work better when you’ve got an actor like Mark Bonnar (as a questionable DCC) rather than Sacha Dhawan (whose performance I found both flat and unconvincing), a truth underlined by McClure working wonders with a somewhat underwhelming subplot about an affair. Former Ken Loach discovery, Compston, is also so effective – and defines the tone and feel of the series – with a very definite style that initially struck me as woodenness, but is a sort of unyielding, unpolished and awkward stoicism. The important thing, I think, is just how wrapped up in this all I became: it’s possible to pick holes in it, perhaps even to pick it till it unravels, and I don’t think it quite matches The Shadow Line – that weird, dark and bleak vision of endemic moral and professional corruption – but I just can’t wait to return to it. I’ve started Season 3 already. (3.5)

***



*A FEW SPOILERS FOR SERIES 1 AND 2*
Line of Duty: Series 3 (2015)
– One of my problems with the (delightful) French cop drama, Spiral, is that is has no memory: it ended its first series on a cliffhanger that was never mentioned again, while undercover agent Sami disappeared from the series for four years, and wasn’t brought back again until the writers got a bit stuck in Series 4. Line of Duty looked to be going down the same route for a while, but by the beginning of Series 3 it became clear that the revelations of its past two seasons hadn’t been forgotten about, they’d just been put on a timer, and they were about to blow. The result is the best season yet, taut, compelling and compulsive, giving two knockout characters – historically corrupt DI, Dot Cottan (Craig Parkinson), and it’s-way-more-complicated-than-that DCI Lindsey Denton (Keeley Hawes) – extraordinarily gripping storylines.

This one kicks off with hotheaded, bullying tough-nut Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays) shooting dead a suspect, and dressing it up as self-defence. As always, it takes a little time to acclimatise to the new characters (I just want to see Ted, Steve and Kaaaaaate), but Mays is explosive and arresting (ironic, really), and his storyline’s topicality is just the sort of thing TV should be doing, even in this showy, tabloid way. The other new cops are less than convincing – with the supporting cast members either average (Arsher Ali) or actively poor (Leanne Best and Will Mellor, who was once excessively rude to my secondary school am-dram group at a charity event) – but our intense personal investment in these people (and particularly the relationship between Steve and Kate) informs the programme’s balance of characterisation and rug-pulling revelation, which reaches fever pitch in the final two episodes (the last a bumper edition).

Its imperfections, particularly its underwhelming bit-players and concessions to ridiculousness (not to mention unnecessary inaccuracy) can frustrate, because it is so nearly great. As it is, it’s great fun: addictive, immersive and with passages of brilliance. A mention too for Neil Morrissey, whose supporting bits are always welcome, even though the second series changed his storyline from one of quiet, bitter pathos to one of astounding and off-putting cynicism. (3.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

David Ford + Michele Stodart & JP Ruggieri at Islington Assembly Hall

Friday 2 June, 2017


(L-R) JP Ruggieri, David Ford and Michele Stodart.

It took seeing David Ford live to turn me into a fan. That was in 2015 when he played a one-man-band show at Soho’s underground Borderline club, looping his multi-instrumentalism in a sweaty, intense show that revealed the unusual potency of both his performance style and his protest-songwriting. Watching him is like witnessing Tom Waits’ soul trapped in the body of Dermot O’Leary. I haven’t seen Ford since, though I’ve listened to him a lot. His new thing is a three-hour, 30-song ‘roadshow’ tour featuring two support acts, a drummer and himself, accompanying one another throughout all three sets. I found JP Ruggieri’s the least compelling: he’s a fine guitarist whose technical prowess perfectly complemented the later two performances, but his own songs are a little pedestrian, and he’s a pleasant rather than dynamic vocalist. Dynamic, though, is the perfect word to describe Magic Numbers alumnus Michele Stodart, whose magnetic presence, arresting mid-Atlantic twang and slew of singular mannerisms – from singing out of the side of her mouth to marching on the spot like a turbo-charged Jona Lewie – lit up the place. There were real echoes of Janis Joplin in her performance, and comparing someone to perhaps the most mesmeric live performer of all time is not something I do lightly.

At around 9:30, Ford takes centre-stage to play “a lot of new songs and a few old ones”, kicking off with a thrilling take on the sub-Waitsian ‘Let It Burn’ and torturing his fretboard for the benefit of the photographers in the pit. The new songs, from ‘Animal Spirits’ – a forthcoming ‘concept album about macro-economics’ – are a mixed bag, with the sleazy, somewhat platitudinal funk-rock outweighing the thoughtful ballads, and the oldies aren’t all his best, but ‘Pour a Little Poison’ (containing perhaps his signature line, “I’m just a whiny little English boy singing the blues”) is raucous, ‘I Don’t Care What You Call Me’ desperately sad, and ‘Waiting for the Storm’ blessed with an eerie foreshadowing and a weary poignancy. The audience misunderstands his desire to ‘not do an encore’ (meaning that he’ll do the songs without pretending to go home), leading to a delightfully silly bit where we have to stay as quiet as possible while he’s off stage in order to coax another song. He does an exuberant 'My Sharona'* with a full band ("Playing this has been a dream of mine for years"), then comes out – unplanned – for another by himself, as a result of the cacophony, breaking his pledge not to play a song with swearing in it as he blasts out ‘Every Time’, his unexpected, unapologetic, counter-intuitive anthem, which seems conventional in its sound and language, but almost revolutionary in its theme and ideas: that fame isn’t for him, and he doesn’t want your pity, that in order to get it he’d ruin the present and break up his happy life. It gets faster and faster, Ford spitting out the vituperative, sincere, self-justifying words as he cranks up the atmosphere and the angst.



It’s what’s been missing during his enjoyable but faintly pallid set: the singer-songwriter having traded the taciturn mystery of 2015 for a languid, appealing but less explosive approach, which befits the roomy, high-ceilinged venue with its proscenium arch, but perhaps isn’t what David Ford is for. It does, though, mean that we get some of his insights on current affairs: I thought I was bored of people just calling Donald Trump names now, but he really is “a fucking toilet with hair”, so thank you to David for that. I imagine that this show will get better and it better as it progresses, since the band had had just a day and a half to rehearse, but this second date was good enough: occasionally slightly scrappy and rushed, but also affable, great fun and with some truly special moments, thanks to Ford and particularly Stodart. (3.5)

*'My Sharona' by The Knack was a post-punk single by The Knack that got a second wind from its inclusion in the glossy, Hollywoodised but near-iconic Gen X film, Reality Bites. Tarantino had been about to include it in Pulp Fiction, but frustratedly dropped the idea as it no longer seemed fresh.

***

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

REVIEW: Seu Jorge at Royal Albert Hall

Tuesday 30 May, 2017

‘Intimate, conversational, just about perfect’ – Seu Jorge headlines the Royal Albert Hall with sensational Bowie tribute show



Brazilian guitarist Seu Jorge brought his Life Aquatic show to Europe for the first time last night, paying tribute to David Bowie, his father, and the victims of the Manchester attack during a moving and memorable evening.

2003. Seu Jorge was in his flat in Rio when the phone rang. “I was playing PlayStation, so I ignored it. It carried on ringing. My ex-wife said: ‘Aren’t you going to answer it, you lazy…’ – in the end she picked it up herself. She passed it to me: ‘Someone in America is making a movie and they want to know if you would play Pelé.’ I said: ‘I can’t play soccer.’ I’m Brazilian, but I was never any good, except on PlayStation.”

That ‘someone’ was Wes Anderson, and the ‘Pelé’ he wanted Seu to play was not the three-times World Cup-winner, but a maritime safety expert and guitarist in the indie filmmaker’s upcoming movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The catch: the character’s main role is as an on-screen troubadour, crooning David Bowie covers. “At the time I only knew two Bowie songs – I was a black kid from a favela, we didn’t hear rock and roll – but I fell in love with him.” The film became a cult favourite and Seu released an album of his solo, acoustic, Portuguese-language Bowie covers the following year – but he had never played them live in Europe until this month.



The compère introduces the show as “a concert from two artists: one in person and one in spirit” and then Seu strides on, dressed in the Team Zissou outfit of red beanie heat and ice-blue short-sleeved shirt and trousers, looking like he’s just got off the boat. The atmosphere is intimate and conversational: it’s just him and his guitar on a little square platform ringed with fairy lights that masquerade as candles, two small piles of seafaring paraphernalia either side, the songs alternating with stories about his life, his Life Aquatic and his relationship with Bowie’s music.

The highlights are legion, and there’s vast variety in Seu’s approach, which takes counter-intuition to a new level, his deep, soulful voice the only constant. ‘Changes’ is sadder than Bowie’s original, though with the same cathartic sense of release. The slutty glam-rock of ‘Suffragette City’ is subsumed by tenderness in a gentle, finger-picked version. ‘Five Years’ is transformed from a claustrophobic, piano-led indictment of groupthink into an insistent, anthemic lament, while ‘Space Oddity’ - which gets the biggest cheer of the night – would be a sing-along if we could only speak Portuguese.


Space Oddity

Other songs are introduced with reminiscences. The bossa nova take on ‘Rebel Rebel’ was improvised on the spot on the first day of filming (“There were two or three songs I hadn’t learned properly. Wes Anderson said to me: ‘We’d love to do one of your songs today, how about ‘Rebel Rebel’? And I was like ‘Haha, yes, of course… Holy s***!’ I looked up to the sky: ‘Please God, give me inspiration’, and what I came up with was this…”), ‘Lady Stardust’ – which emerges as a hymn to women – was inspired by watching Cate Blanchett working relentlessly on-board the set, four months pregnant. He dedicates a show-stopping ‘Life on Mars?’ to “you, the people of Manchester, Bowie and my father” – his dad, “who made me what I am”, having passed away just three days after the Thin White Duke.

It’s a beautiful evening. Uplifting, unique, but deeply moving too: speaking very personally to the sell-out crowd, many of them sporting those iconic red beanies. “I am glad to see so many members of Zissou Team here,” says Seu. (A Team Zissou member calling Team Zissou 'Zissou Team” is the most Team Zissou thing ever). As he leaves the stage, holding up his guitar like the spoils of battle – or as if it has done all the work – the audience rises to its feet. And then a hidden screen comes down and, when he returns for an encore, his backdrop is The Life Aquatic and you realise that though it’s only 13 years, it’s already 13 years, and that the passing of time set to music is a rhapsodically poignant thing (think of Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ or Terence Davies).

Seu takes the word ‘encore’ delightfully literally, performing ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ for a second time, then closes with a lengthy, mesmerising ‘Queen Bitch’ that prompts another standing ovation. He yells a final: “Thank you, London!” into the mic.

It’s been joyous and enrapturing, but with an undertow of poignancy that constantly tugs at Seu and at us. It’s been just about perfect. Thank goodness his wife picked up that phone. (4)



Setlist:

Ziggy Stardust
Changes
Oh! You Pretty Things
Rebel Rebel
Starman
Lady Stardust
Rock 'n' Roll Suicide
Suffragette City
Quicksand
Space Oddity
Five Years
Life on Mars?
When I Live My Dream

Encore:
Rebel Rebel
Oh! You Pretty Things
Queen Bitch

***

I wrote that for the Royal Albert Hall blog (it's accompanied by some shots from acclaimed rock-and-pop photographer, Christie Goodwin). I've added a few personal thoughts here, as I didn't want to bore the hell out of our visitors (but you are my people):

The 50th anniversary release of Sergeant Pepper is just landing on doorsteps as I write this, a cover sticker informing purchasers that this is “Sergeant Pepper as you’ve never heard it before”, as it is has been “remixed from the original tapes”. Excuse me while I take a seat. Remixed, you say? From the original tapes?! Now call me Philistine McGrumpy, but I fear we’re in danger of making “as you’ve never heard it before” lose its currency. But when you apply it to Seu’s Bowie covers, it’s utterly true, and in the finest possible sense of the phrase. The old adage with cover versions was always “either do it different or do it better”. By doing the first so committedly, he makes the second almost impossible to judge, but it’s these versions I’m more likely to pop on in the flat.

For me, Seu’s music is one of The Life Aquatic’s most apposite idiosyncracies, and one of its great virtues. What sounds hipsterish and gimmicky on paper becomes utterly genuine – and devastatingly, quietly effective – in the hands of Jorge and his director. The offbeat beauty and deceptive humanity present in this music, and the way it’s employed as an on-screen soundtrack, is the key to Wes Anderson’s films, which are often celebrated – or derided – for their micro-managed compositions and impeccable, much-parodied stylistisation. Critics rage at how mannered and self-satisfied his films feel, missing the point that many of us keep returning not for the outfits and tracking shots, but for the movies’ quiet, straightforward sincerity and unique sense of humour.



My relationship with the film is intensely personal, all tied up with my life and the relationship I was just starting when I saw it. The imperfect film you see, with those mundane, prosaic failings, isn’t the same as my Life Aquatic, which is a bigger, greater, more sprawling thing: a series of elements that transcend celluloid and have flooded into my own life, into my vernacular, my image-bank (the second death scene, the stop-motion sea dragon) and even my character. If I’d thought, as a 20-year-old discovering this film, that one day I’d be running the press office at the Royal Albert Hall, as Seu Jorge – in full costume – played these beautiful songs to 5,000 people, it would have blown my tiny undergraduate mind.

The handling of the film footage is a little mystifying – with irrelevant, ‘trippy’ effects, bad drawings of crabs and a decision to screen part of the credits through a mock porthole, so you can only read half of the words – but the weight of the footage, the 46-year-old Seu sitting in front of the 33-year-old one, snapshotted as a person who never existed, but feels a part of my life, is unconquerable.

***

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Allan Ahlberg, High Fidelity, and a bundle of old things – Reviews #266

Three all-new reviews, and a few I've had lying around since last year.

FILM:


O.J. "in full Naked Gun mode", as the film so superbly and disgustedly puts it

O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, 2016) – While the montaged credits and eerie theme tune suggest that this got green-lit because ESPN wanted the closest thing they could find to Making a Murderer, this complex, even-handed and multi-faceted five-part documentary portrait of O. J. Simpson is really an exceptional addition to the recent spate of documentaries about African-American history (The 13th, I Am Not Your Negro), viewing his remarkable story – quite reasonably – through the prism of race.

It’s all here: exhilarating footage of Simpson at his athletic zenith, the Hertz ads (“Go, O. J., go!”), the Naked Gun years, the Bronco, the trial, the glove and the acquittal – which the film convincingly argues only makes sense in the context of post-Rodney King L. A. The narrative of his football career could be neater, and the convoluted Las Vegas debacle doesn’t exactly emerge in crystal clarity here, but the crux of the series – his abuse of his wife, the subsequent double-murder and the trial – is simply hypnotic*: brought to life through recordings, court footage, rare documents, news reports and a brilliant selection of interviewees from jurors to laywers to journalists and preachers (Jeffrey Toobin and Rev Mark Whitlock are my MVPs), who don’t just contextualise the trial, but seem to embody the very viewpoints they’re espousing.

It remains a heartbreaking indictment of America that the only black man to benefit from its justice system was a multi-millionaire who had refused to engage with the civil rights movement, purposefully become an honorary white and only reconnected with his proud heritage to avoid being convicted of murdering his wife. His acting, cunning and cultivation of distinct, useful personas is chilling and extraordinary. Did I mention that he is an absolute piece of shit? And his nickname’s rubbish. I only learned recently that he’s called ‘The Juice’ not because of his stamina and speed on the football field, but because in America they call orange juice ‘OJ’. Also lol at the court clerk fluffing her one line, that gets me every time.

*especially for a legal or quasi-legal nut like me: I love courtroom dramas, have been obsessed with HUAC for years and did my undergrad dissertation on Stalin’s show trials

***

BOOKS:



High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (1995)
– “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Rob Fleming is a 34-year-old North London record store owner whose life is dominated by rejection, top 5 lists and music: pop, rock, Motown, STAX, oddities, dance numbers, floor-fillers and melancholy, idealistic, shimmeringly beautiful songs that have given him some unrealistic ideas about love, lust and break-ups. Unceremoniously dumped by girlfriend Laura, a former human rights lawyer who has grown out her spiky hair and moved into corporate work, he muses about men, women and relationships, while hanging out with exes, prospects and the two losers who work in his shop.

Hornby’s neatly-titled 1995 novel – made into a Hollywood film starring John Cusack four years later – is remarkably incisive, insightful and honest, in a way that makes me wish I’d read it 10 years ago and not turned my personal life into a binfire… and then makes me realise that basing our life choices on popular culture is exactly what this book is guarding against. It’s very 1990s – with a Harry Enfield cover quote and a left-leaning hero who’s unapologetic in his maleness, rather than drowning in self-loathing like the contemporary equivalent – and Hornby’s irritating, pedantic riffing on familiar phrases is a stylistic shortcoming (that “negative interest scenario” passage), but High Fidelity is also fast and funny and subversive, breaking the fourth wall while allowing us to judge the selfish, self-justifying Rob, and stripped of extraneous elements like lengthy scene-setting or laborious description.

I expected it to be funny and accessible (and London-centric and nerdy about music), but its concentration of hard-earned wisdom took me completely aback. (3.5)

***



The Bear Nobody Wanted by Allan Ahlberg (1992) – This children’s classic concerns a nameless bear who arrives off the production line feeling smug and superior – after all, a bear’s character is defined by his facial features – only to be tossed in a bin, rescued, rejected, burnt, used as a duster, savaged by a dog, repaired, briefly welcomed, relegated, forgotten, lonely, nameless, catatonic and bombed by the Nazis, on the way to a cathartic and happy ending. Telling the story in the third person but from the bear’s perspective, Ahlberg’s prose is beautiful, witty and whimsical, offering a lesson in humility and empathy, and peppered with memorable, perfectly-sketched characters and bits of human (or bearish) warmth – even as the story becomes perilously melancholy and dark.

It also economically evokes the vanished Britain of the author’s childhood: that world of smoking chimneys, cobbled streets and poky working-class houses which he wrote about so memorably in his great memoir, The Boyhood of Burglar Bill (and its sister title, My Brother’s Ghost), while ushering in a little of the timeless warmth of contemporary popular song, from 'My Blue Heaven' to 'Look for the Silver Lining'. It’s an offbeat, timeless and chokingly poignant book, and the line drawings by Janet Ahlberg (Handsome bears staring out of giant windows? Check. Chubby women with chubby sock noses? Check) are the perfect accompaniment. (4)

***

OLD REVIEWS COVERED IN COBWEBS

And now some odds and ends I saw or read last year, but never wrote about, because I was citing the books in the pitching of my novel, because the films were presents and I felt bad for criticising them, and because I forgot I'd written the one about the McGarrigles DVD.

FILMS


When you're playing an impoverished Irish waif but you're a star in 1930s Hollywood.


The Plough and the Stars (John Ford, 1936) - An abrasive, tone-deaf and dreadfully conceived film about the Easter Rising, which condenses Sean O'Casey's four-act play into just over an hour of shouting. There are a few passages of quiet lyricism, one memorably utilising the beautiful old Irish song Kathleen Mavourneen and another trading on Barbara Stanwyck's miraculous sensitivity, but for the most part it's loud, unconvincing and ugly: where badly framed bombs meet bombastic Blarney. (1.5)



Frontier Blues (Babak Jalali, 2009) - Proof that you can make any old shit and if it's in a foreign language it'll find an arthouse audience (1.5)

***

DVD



A Not So Silent Night (Gerard Schmidt, 2009) - Well that was extremely disappointing. I had high hopes for this December 2008 Christmas concert from the McGarrigle clan – Kate, her sister Anna, her children Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and assorted relatives – but it’s just completely shambolic: not in the charming, ramshackle manner it might have been, but in a crowded-stage, everyone-singing-from-sheet-music, Anna’s-lost-her-voice, tons-of-tuneless-guest-stars kind of way. Occasionally it does spark into life, with Lily Lanken kicking arse on 'Cherry Tree Carol', Rufus doing a heartbreaking 'What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve', and Martha singing 'I’ll Be Home for Christmas' with a crack in her voice, before a storming, punk-inflected Christmas Wrapping (the effect is of Greta Gerwig playing Patti Smith and just as wonderful as that sounds), but four songs out of 24 isn’t a great success rate, and the direction is lifeless and witless, fading out between songs to ensure that we don’t hear any cheering or really feel like we’re there. (2)

See also: I wrote about the obscure McGarrigles documentary from 1982 here.

***

BOOKS

I was reading lots of kids' books to help me pitch my own novel for eight to 12-year-olds (no, nothing yet, though Miranda Hart has a book deal).



Timecatcher by Marie Louise Fitzpatrick (2010) - An enjoyable, flavourful children's book, set in a Dublin-button-factory-turned-detective-agency, about a lonely girl who becomes involved with ghosts and a time travel portal. The writing is mediocre, relying on cliché and with a dubious understanding of how modern children talk, but the plot is exceptional, with a succession of brilliant twists and a most satisfying conclusion. (3)



Dead Man's Cove by Lauren St John (2010) - A magical detective story with a rich sea-swept atmosphere, in which 11-year-old heroine Laura Marlin finds her first permanent home − in St Ives, with a mysterious, brooding uncle − while pursuing a mystery just as dark and fascinating as the novels that have given her such welcome escape. It was sold with Blyton comparisons but aside from the title, a couple of minor plot elements and a helpful canine companion, it's not very similar and indeed dynamically subverts such expectations, while creating a gripping plot, an endearingly imperfect protagonist and the welcome promise of much more to come. There's one development near the close that I found simply too twee and clichéd, but for the most part it's an absolute winner. (3.5)



Kidnap in the Caribbean by Lauren St John (2011) - A dire sequel to the delightful Dead Man's Cove, which seems to have been written in one hell of a hurry. Laura Marlin is tricked into attending a pleasure cruise to Antigua, and from there on in it's all predictable plot-twists, painful expository dialogue and interminable polemicising about why we should protect sealife. Don't get me wrong, we should, but not like this. (1.5)



Skellig by David Almond (1998) - This short, simply-plotted story about a boy who finds a mysterious, winged man in his garage has a deceptive emotional impact. Some of that's down to Almond putting a seriously ill baby in the centre of his story - not perhaps the most subtle way of pulling at our heartstrings - but even if I'm not quite sure that Skellig is the unassailable, timeless classic it's often painted as, there's something special about it, in its intuitive understanding of childhood emotion, the author's graceful, spare and precise prose (when it isn't just going on about dead bluebottles again), and an agreeable lack of sentiment in its treatment of the titular character. (3)



Magyk by Angie Sage (2005) - A long, richly-textured book - attractively written and gorgeously designed - about a 10-year-old princess and the family of wizards who raised her and are now trying to keep her alive in the face of deathly danger, with the help of a ghost, an arrogant ExtraOrdinary Wizard in snakeskin boots, and a brainwashed former army cadet called Boy 412. Its big reveal is obvious, its villain is cliched and it sometimes feels as if Sage is making up the rules as she goes along, but its world is a fun place to visit, it's stuffed with incident and there's a pleasant unsentimentality about the book's emotional subtext, which manages to move you without being maudlin or mawkish. Sage also makes the most of the endless possibilities of writing, with an extremely ambitious action climax that comes off fairly well. (3)

***

Thanks for reading.

Next time: Line of Duty: Series 1 (I'm diving in at last), and a book by an LAPD detective who is convinced his dad committed the perhaps most notorious unsolved murder in American history.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

REVIEW: Angel Olsen at the Roundhouse

Wednesday 24 May, 2017



I thought the communality and specificity of a gig, coupled with a visit from teary-voiced alt-troubadour Angel Olsen was what we needed to heal the pain, but it all felt amiss. She got the tone wrong from the start. There was no reference to the victims in Manchester, no acknowledgement of how people were feeling, no ‘thank you for still coming out’ – though a lot of ticket-holders hadn’t turned up due to unease or fear or a feeling that a gig wasn’t where they wanted to be. In fact, Angel’s only veiled nod to the tragic events of Monday was that the world’s scariness “makes me realise what I have”, which is a commendable attitude but seemed myopic and self-centred, just as her banter with her guitarist came off as irritatingly trivial and irrelevant.



I appreciate that it can be hard to gauge the atmosphere in a foreign country, that my self-righteousness can be unbearable, and that one might not know quite how to navigate the aftermath of a tragedy, but for me the omission started to sour the experience, coupled with some more prosaic failings. For an hour this much-anticipated gig was largely a slog: the sound was muddy and Angel looked bored, not to mention confused by the dazed audience, who didn’t appear to want to be here (as I said, I was having second thoughts myself). There was no gentle balladeering to soothe the soul, or an opening blast of sound to wash the pain away: instead she started with a plodding, 10-minute version of ‘Heart-Shaped Face’, which is the worst idea an Angel’s had since getting kicked out of Heaven.



Angel has a fair stab at her most popular track, ‘Shut Up, Kiss Me’, murmuring “Well that’s out of the way” as soon as it’s over (partly in jest), lashes out the stabbing, relentless climax of ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ with real anguish and intent, and ends with a scintillating, sexy version of ‘Total Control’ by The Motels, sitting on the drum platform with legs apart as she delivers the vocal in this fabulously offhand, conversational but compelling way, then breaks out into a joyous keyboard duet with her backing vocalist. But the rest of it’s mostly monotonous, and Angel largely inert: standing out front with a guitar, occasionally sinking to her knees behind the keyboard stand when lead guitarist Paulie takes over (he’s an exceptional musician, and the star of the light blue-suited, string-tied backing band, who are ultimately more like an ensemble). The audience emit embarrassed lone whoops fading to nothing and, perhaps as a result, the set is flat, a disappointment… and such small portions too, wrapping up in just 55 minutes.



But then she’s back, for a five-song encore that just about drags it out of the bag. Angel’s alone on stage for a long, heartbreaking ’Lonely Universe’, before the band join her – backing vocalist first, the others quickly materialising – midway through ‘Unfucktheworld’, her signature song sounding stark and acidic and arresting. ‘Fly’ is mediocre, but next she breaks out ‘Tiniest Seed’ – my absolute favourite, from her 2012 debut – refashioned from a plaintive folk lament into a hard-edged, Nashville-tinged thing with echoes of Emmylou Harris (or Lucinda Williams with less throatily objectionable vocals). I enjoy that more than many, but everyone loves the closer: a sultry, exuberant ‘The Waiting’, Olsen walking around, mic-in-hand, bellowing: “I want to be the one who knows the best way.” It doesn’t seem like she does, quite, but on another day in another city I suppose this might all have worked. At least she got halfway there in the end. (2.5)

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