Tuesday, 21 February 2017

And introducing... #1. John Ford

About five years ago, I used to write a regular series for the now defunct Eat Sleep Live Film, and since I want to run more features here alongside the usual reviews, I thought I'd revive it. It's called 'And introducing...', it shamelessly apes the Guardian's Pass Notes, and it's a beginner's guide to some of my favourite people in the movies.

#1. John Ford



Who?

The great American director. Asked which filmmaker had most influenced him, Orson Welles once replied: “The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.” Ford’s career – which sprawled across more than 50 years – produced more cast-iron masterpieces than any other, and covered almost every genre conceivable, though he remains best-known for his Westerns. As a person, he was a ludicrous caricature of the tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold, prone to acts of remarkable humanity – like filling a funeral with his own friends after the death of a lonely acquaintance, in order to comfort the widow – but in everyday terms was prickly, awkward and really liked to tell lies.

Lies? What like?
He claimed to have been born Sean Aloysius O’Fearna, in Ireland. Actually he was a second-generation immigrant, whose birth name was John Martin Feeney. Such myth-making was intrinsic to Ford’s persona and to his nostalgic films, which – if not the way things really were – were perhaps the way they should have been. Except for the bits where all the white guys shot all the Native Americans.



How can I spot a Ford film?
His movies are characterised by devastatingly effective sentiment, folksy humour, distinctive visual motifs – including extreme long shots, and photography that focuses on the eyes (but not in a stupid way, like Sergio Leone) – and an obsession with both the family unit and the outsider hero. There’s are motifs and rituals he returns to countless times from communal meals to poignant farewells, but the greatest is that of his protagonist talking to a lost loved one, while gazing at a painting or kneeling by a grave. The most exalted example is in Young Mr Lincoln, as a camera focused on the water segues from summer romance to brutal winter, and Henry Fonda’s Honest Abe is left alone on a frozen riverbank (above). It’s worth adding that if you’re watching a movie where everyone suddenly starts singing Shall We Gather at the River, then Ford almost certainly made it, and his films are also chock-full of boozing, brawling and bawling (like I said, his parents were Irish).

Talk us through Ford’s career, Troy McClure-style.
A pleasure. You may remember him from such Westerns as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine and his masterpiece, The Searchers, a staggering odyssey of revenge and redemption that marked the high-point of his many collaborations with John Wayne.

Mates with John Wayne, eh? Was he also a right wing tub-thumper and massive racist?
No. Towards the end Ford veered rather to the right, becoming friends with Richard Nixon, but in the ‘30s he described himself as a “socialist democrat... always left”, and he made the most radical movie ever to come out of Old Hollywood, The Grapes of Wrath, ably assisted by the brilliant, union-bashing producer Daryll F. Zanuck. One of Ford’s last – and worst – films, Cheyenne Autumn, was ironically a noble but boring attempt to right the wrongs of his “manifest destiny” Westerns, by sympathetically depicting the Native American experience, while The Searchers and Sergeant Rutledge – though each complex and contradictory – argue that the people of the West can only be free when they let go of their racism. Even The Prisoner of Shark Island, which houses perhaps the most troubling views of any Ford film (anti-slavery campaigners are the bigots, apparently), focuses on the growing respect between hero Warner Baxter and his former slave (Ernest Whitman). After the pair return home, following years away, Ford saves the last shot of the picture for the reunion of the African-American family: a gesture you’re unlikely to find in many American films of the 1930s.



“Not a racist.” I’m nearly convinced. Anything else?
Biographer Joseph McBride argues that Ford purposefully cast friend, red-hunter and all-round objectionable bigot Ward Bond in aggressively progressive roles, as a punishment for his more unpleasant behaviour.

That should do it. Sorry, I seemed to touch a nerve there.
Well, Ford being a right-winger is a common misconception, and one still perpetuated by superb film director and absolutely terrible historian, Quentin Tarantino. I’ll admit that Ford did play, erm, one of the ‘heroic’ Klansmen in the most racist film ever made, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a movie that almost single-handedly revived the KKK (he's on the right of frame, below). But which of us can honestly say we haven’t done that?



I have rarely, if ever, appeared in a racist D. W. Griffith film, but let’s move on. Aside from Wayne and Bond, who else did Ford hang out with?
The John Ford Stock Company comprised more than a dozen performers, who turned up time and again in his films, from Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr to Jack Pennick, Mae Marsh and Ford’s brother Francis. In terms of leading men, Ford first worked with Harry Carey, Sr, then Will Rogers, and later enjoyed a remarkable, oft-overlooked collaboration with Henry Fonda, before his shifting priorities saw him forge a remarkable working relationship with Wayne. Ford himself claimed that it took seeing Wayne in Howard Hawks’ Red River to realise that the “big son-of-a-bitch” could actually act.

Some would disagree.
And they would be wrong. Watch She Wore a Yellow Ribbon if you’d like your eyes comprehensively opened. Ford was fascinated by the idea of toying around with Wayne’s screen image, casting him variously as a Swedish sailor, a tormented divorcee, and a tormented, lovelorn ex-soldier corrupted by racism. Compare that with regular Wayne screenwriter James Edward Grant’s memorable formula for creating the actor’s vehicles: “All you gotta have in a John Wayne picture is a hoity-toity dame with big tits that Duke can throw over his knee and spank, and a collection of jerks he can smash in the face every five minutes. In between, you fill with gags, flags, and chases. That’s all you need. His fans eat it up!” Grant was only allowed to write one John Ford film, Donovan’s Reef, and that was comprehensively re-written by the director, who preferred to work with either Frank Nugent – the brilliant, left-leaning former journalist – or the notorious but talented James Warner Bellah, a man described by his own son as “a fascist, a racist and a world-class bigot”.



I place unnecessary weight on gold statuettes. I don’t suppose John Ford ever won any of those?
Yes. Four Best Director Oscars for starters. And none of them for Westerns.

Any of them for sentimental dramas about Welsh coal miners, released the same year as Citizen Kane?
Well, it’s funny you should mention it… People make a big fuss about How Green Was Valley landing Best Director and Best Picture the year that Citizen Kane was up for both, but it’s a matchlessly poetic movie, albeit one that doesn’t seem to know much about Wales. Still, without Ford, Kane wouldn’t exist. Welles recruited the same cinematographer as Ford’s The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath (Gregg Toland), while his preparation for making The Greatest Film Ever Made™ had been to watch Ford’s earthshaking anti-isolationist masterpiece, Stagecoach. Fifty times. Stagecoach notably popularised deep focus photography, and ceilinged sets, which gave filmmakers carte blanche to devise avant garde camera angles that would augment a scene’s atmosphere, like so:



I see. So he devised putting a ceiling on some walls. He doesn’t sound as good as my favourite director of Westerns, Sergio Leone.
Compared to John Ford, Sergio Leone was a derivative, adolescent hack, and I’m not entirely sure that he wasn’t one even when not compared to John Ford, who effectively invented the epic Western with The Iron Horse, retooled the entire genre with Stagecoach and then endlessly interrogated its priorities, preoccupations and prejudices across 25 years. His Cavalry trilogy (1947-50) remains one of the outstanding, unsung achievements in American film, and from gentle, lyrical screen poems (Wagon Master) to race relations Westerns (Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn) and the richly nostalgic but clear-sighted genre deconstruction that was 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he turned the oater into an artform. Whereas Leone turned it into a badly-dubbed parade of clichés lit by occasional moments of visceral excitement and lent an air of artistry by Ennio Morricone’s sumptuous scores.

I think you were telling me about Oscars, weren’t you? Before you got distracted. What were his other gongs for?
Arty IRA flick The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, and that supreme slice of blarney, The Quiet Man. He also landed a further two documentary Oscars – and a Purple Heart – for his World War Two escapades.

What did he do?
Ford headed up a photography unit making propaganda films, and was wounded whilst pointing his camera at the Battle of Midway.



What are his best movies?
How long have you got? Ford’s pre-war filmography alone takes in silent epics 3 Bad Men and The Iron Horse, exalting, legal-minded Americana like Judge Priest and Young Mr Lincoln, Stagecoach (above), three groundbreaking collaborations with the legendary Gregg Toland (The Informer, The Grapes of Wrarth and The Long Voyage Home), and neglected gems like The Prisoner of Shark Island and Steamboat Round the Bend, the latter a rich slice of southern fried escapism. He made one of the great WWII movies, They Were Expendable, then focused mainly on the Western for the final 20 years of his career, with the spectacular results I mentioned before. He also popped off to Ireland in the middle of all that to shoot The Quiet Man, which it would be fair to say continues to polarise audiences.

Why? Not Irish enough?
Actually, the opposite appears to be true.



That big list of films sounds tiring – where do I start?
Not as tiring as this list. But start with Stagecoach: a subversive skewering of American hypocrisy, dressed up as a slam-bang Western, and featuring some of the coolest stuntwork you’ll ever see. Then try Liberty Valance, The Grapes of Wrath and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. The best of the best is The Searchers, which for some reason I wrote 4,000 words about here. It's not the best place to begin, but it is among the most beguilingly beautiful films ever made, its sumptuous Winton C. Hoch cinematography and latent humanism offset by moments of chilling brutality.

Was that his personal favourite?
Probably, but he was such a committed contrarian that he told Peter Bogdanovich that the most cherished of his films was the forgotten medical drama Arrowsmith, and once claimed that the only movie which turned out how he wanted it to was the botched Graham Greene adaptation, The Fugitive (based on The Power and the Glory), a film notable only for its breathtaking chiaroscuro photography. Ford’s fondness for The Sun Shines Bright, a remake of Judge Priest for the cheapo studio Republic, was genuine, and gave him the chance to realise passages excised from the earlier film by the censors, including a beautiful sequence set around a prostitute’s funeral (below).



Any weird ones in his back catalogue?
A few. In 1928, he tried to emulate then mentor F.W. Murnau by stuffing his sentimental WWI film, Four Sons, full of technical innovations, and keeping his camera in almost perpetual flight. It isn’t very good. Then in 1937, he made two films: a South Seas disaster movie called The Hurricane, and an adaptation of Wee Willie Winkie, starring Shirley Temple. Neither are what you’d expect from him, but both bear his unmistakable stamp, and both are fantastic. The Edna Ferber-like family saga, The World Moves On is another curio – stuffed with contrivance, bad dialogue and several of the most potent, heightened romantic scenes in cinematic history – while Tobacco Road, from 1941, is half transcendent Americana and half baffling, misanthropic filth, but it’s kind of fascinating. McBride calls it The Grapes of Wrath’s “evil twin”. Ford also shot an Army information film entitled Sex Hygiene. I haven’t seen that one.

Which ones should I avoid like gonnorhea?
The Black Watch, an early talkie released in 1929, which is notable for some of the most uncomfortable, unwatchable sound sequences in cinema history (many featuring future romantic comedy icon Myrna Loy), though it picks up every now and again. Mary of Scotland is essentially just a series of lingering close-ups of star Katharine Hepburn, who was Ford’s girlfriend at the time. The Long Gray Line and Cheyennne Autumn just aren’t very interesting.

Tell me one other brilliant factoid with which I can impress all of my mates down the pub. Certainly. The only on-screen pairing of future legends Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart was in Ford's 1930 film, Up the River, Tracy's first film and Bogart's second.

That’s all very well, but what does the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, think about John Ford?
By a remarkable coincidence, he loves him. Pickles chose Ford on Radio 4’s Great Lives back in 2012. To his credit, he showed an impressive knowledge of the director’s oeuvre. To his discredit, he’s still Eric Pickles.



What to say: “John Ford invented the modern Western.”

What not to say: “Wasn’t he a racist?”

***

Thanks for reading. Subjects of future beginner's guides are up for grabs, so tweet me any you'd like to see, or comment below. I'm not doing Mel Brooks.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Ten things I learned about The Crying Game

*Warning: plenty of spoilers in this one, please see the film first*



Last night I was privileged enough to attend the BFI's very special cast and crew reunion celebrating 25 years since the release of The Crying Game, the seminal Irish film from Neil Jordan. It's a movie so good that Jordan, who finds it almost impossible to watch his own work, managed to sit through the whole film. Star Stephen Rea said that back in 1992 he thought it was a good little film, but it's only now that he can appreciate it as a masterpiece.

I've already said everything that I want to about this genre-hopping, gender-warping classic, one of the greatest movies ever made about love, but the Q&A was extremely enlightening, so I thought I'd share its greatest insights here. The greatest thrill was an unexpected appearance from Jaye Davidson, who walked away from a film career two years after receiving an Oscar nomination for the film, and who has largely avoided being in the public eye ever since.

This is an occasional series I do on the blog. Previous instalments are on Michael Winterbottom, Woody Allen, Sense and Sensibility, Warren William, Peter Lorre, Alfred Hitchcock and Lillian Gish (she got two obviously, here and here).


1. Behan inspired
Jordan explained that he was initially − if unwittingly − inspired by Frank O'Connor's short story, Guests of the Nation, and the Brendan Behan play that grew from it, The Hostage, which both dealt with the relationship between a British soldier and the IRA operative who's taken him hostage. In his initial drafts, the IRA operative met up with the soldier's widow (a hairdresser, as in the finished film), but that character wasn't a male transvestite. The change was inspired, he thinks, by seeing the Pulitzer-nominated M. Butterfly on stage. "We're often inspired by things and don't even realise it, that's not uncommon," he said. Another influence were those post-war American crime films. "When Miranda turns up in London, it turns into a noir," Jordan said. "There are shadows everywhere, and she's wearing that Joan Crawford jacket with the shoulders," added Rea. He had been Jordan's number one choice for the role of Fergus since the off. Woolley recalled constant calls from the actor's agent asking if the project was finally going to happen, because he'd been offered another play or film. "I'd say 'yes'," and before I could say, "but it's not going to be for a while", she'd have hung up.

2. A Dil pickle
Jaye Davidson was part of punky arthouse filmmaker Derek Jarman's coterie, and was spotted by Jordan at the wrap party for Edward II. When Jordan invited dozens of transsexuals to a casting call, Davidson "knew every one of them". The casting of a black transvestite as the love interest confounded potential financiers. Several studios, including one of Britain's biggest, agreed to back the film if they would swap Davidson out for an actress, who would wear a prosthetic in the movie's grand unveiling. Jordan refused. Stephen Rea shared a story about how a 'red-blooded Irish male' in one early screening said he fancied Dil and that Davidson was clearly a man, pointing to the mention of 'prosthetics' in the end credits to back his case. Due to the problems with finding backers, the film was made on a tiny budget, with producer Stephen Woolley giving costume designer Sandy Powell cash in hand to buy the movie's quietly iconic outfits.


3. Can't see the Forest for the trees
Jordan was criticised by the press for giving an American, Forest Whitaker, a role that a British actor could have played. Miranda Richardson chipped in to say that she was criticised for playing a role that an Irish actress could have played. And Stephen Rea recalled that Irish audiences and critics complained that the men were too feminised and the women too masculine.

4. All's fair in love and war
The opening fairground sequence was shot in three days in November, "and somehow we got the sunshine we needed," Woolley recalled.

5. Dudley and more
Composer and Anne Dudley worked on her song routine together in Islington, though nobody can remember who sang the vocal that he mimes to. Lots of the background music during the film is unreleased offcuts supplied by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, who also produced Boy George's cover of the title song, which plays over the end credits.

6. Giving films a bad name
The working title was 'The Soldier's Wife' (which is clear from the closing credits, which contain the words at least a half-dozen times!). Stephen Woolley (producer): "Neil thought that we should change it because people would expect a war film." Neil Jordan: "No, I wanted The Crying Game because that's its name."


7. Bombing in Britain
The film got mixed reviews in Britain and only found an audience after it exploded in America. Jordan says it was seen in the States as a story about gender and love. In a Britain still living in the shadow of the Birmingham bombing, the threat from the IRA was real, so audiences found it difficult to accept Stephen Rea's Fergus as someone human. Davidson said that a similar film today could succeed in Trump's America, because there are still "intelligent and interesting" people in every society. He added, though, that when visiting and later moving to America, he was struck by the lack of integration between different races, even when just walking into a bar. Jordan wasn't surprised by the film's success, because he believed everyone in the world would watch it, "or what's the point of making it", though Jaye only signed up for the project because he thought no-one would see it.

8. Gene therapy
Richardson remembered that Gene Hackman was incredibly taken with Jaye at the Oscars ceremony. "He was very sweet," said Davidson with a smile.

9. Jaye rights
I've always been interested in Davidson's decision to walk away from the career he could have had, so I asked him about that, and how he looked back on his time in the movies now. "There were few roles for black men and even fewer for gay black men," he said. "I don't think there was a career for me, and I didn't want to scrub around for a few weak roles, so I got out. To me it was a long time ago, and I don't regret it, because I'm happy with my life now."


10. Rea of sunlight
Did Fergus love Dil? "I still do," said Stephen Rea.

***

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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Emily Watson, Fences and Hollywood alienation – Reviews #257

I went to the BAFTAs this week – yes, nice, thank you. Then I pathologically reviewed all of my other cultural endeavours. Here you go:

BOOK



The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939) – A nasty, nightmarish blast of Hollywood alienation, full of foreboding, about Tod Hackett, a hulking set-designer on the fringes of Hollywood, who falls in love with cruel aspiring actress Faye Greener while fraternising with a panorama of grotesques: the detritus of tinseltown. Written in Hollywood’s greatest year, the near-mythical 1939, it’s an unremitting horror story in economic sentences: an acidic counterpoint to Steinbeck’s contemporaneous novels, depicting the unified masses not as a humane, nourishing whole, but as a blankly vicious mob, hooked on an unfulfilling dream, and chillingly ripe for fascism. The characters in the foreground all seem ripped from some forgotten B-movie, each one warped, pathetic or both. Most memorable of all is an ailing ex-accountant who moves to California for his health, and finds only emotional brutalism and unfulfilled longing. His name? Erm, Homer Simpson. (3.5)

West's other best-known book, Miss Lonelyhearts, was adapted twice for the screen. The first version gave its name to my blog (though I was also riffing on the fact that those smitten with Old Hollywood often find a solace in it that others find in love), though the film was a faithless cash-in looking to repeat the success of Lee Tracy's breakthrough vehicle, Blessed Event. The second version stars two of my favourites: a post-accident Monty Clift, and Myrna Loy in one of her sporadic character parts.

***

FILMS



CINEMA: Fences (Denzel Washington, 2016) – An astonishing drama, based on August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which tells an archetypally American story in the manner of Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller, but does so to elucidate the African-American experience, which as 13th so eloquently expressed, is the result of decisions that have never been in their hands.

Denzel Washington is Troy Maxson, an unyielding, fiercely proud working-class black man in '50s America, who's the king of his castle, a house he bought with his sweat and blood and the $3,000 his brother got for having half his head blown off in the war.

Across 140 minutes, via dazzling set-pieces both restrained and marauding, Wilson lays bear the virtues, vices, triumphs and compromises of Troy's existence, and that of black Americans both then and now: poverty, incarceration, brutal fathers, restricted choices and mistakes inherited and repeated across the generations. Viola Davis, who like Washington played her role on Broadway in a 2010 revival, is Troy's wife Rose, a fond, no-nonsense and fiercely loyal co-conspirator whose entire worldview is about to take an almighty beating.

To say more would be to undermine the film's ability to astound and confound, so I'll add simply that it is both extraordinarily original and utterly timeless, with a polemical power that comes along rarely, and two of the finest performances in years. Davis won a BAFTA at my office last night, but Washington is every bit as good, and probably even better – presumably the reason he's not scooping every gong going is because his character is so complex, and decidedly difficult to like. There are passages here that mesh together every emotion of a sidelined people fighting for self-worth: righteous but corrosive anger, well-earned but worthless pride, a cod-Biblical relationship with mortality and temptation that runs the gamut from twinkly-eyed gameplaying to supernatural terror.

He's haunted by his father, and he haunts his son.

There's superb support too from the likes of Stephen Henderson and Mykelti Williamson, and while the film perhaps has a couple of endings too many (with shades of Edna Ferber sagas or The Place Beyond the Pines' daddy issues), its epilogue does ultimately justify itself, at least in giving Davis another chance to shine, and articulating Wilson's final verdicts on manhood, on creativity and on Troy.

Fences must have been staggering on stage back in '83 and in its 2010 revival, but this filmed version is about as good as you could imagine – a little obvious symbolism here and there, like the rose falling to the floor – utilising cinema's virtues (close-ups, full sets, cuts and multiple takes) without sacrificing the intensity or authenticity of the material. Fences stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the great American plays of the mid-20th century; now in 2017 it can tell the kind of story that was kept off our cinema screens for too damn long. (4)

Many thanks to the NSPCC for inviting me to their preview screening.

***



The Great Lie (Edmund Goulding, 1941) – A far-fetched melodrama, in which an affecting Bette Davis unfathomably feuds with concert pianist Mary Astor for the affections of smugly stolid George Brent, the most objectionable leading man in ‘40s Hollywood. The first half is good fun, reaching its apogee with a beautiful wedding sequence augmented by dramatic and audial grace notes – a little black kid in a tree singing a spiritual as the newlyweds recline on a first-floor patio – but the film goes increasingly awry, degenerating into histrionics and inexplicable plot developments, and then failing to deliver the cathartic climax that would have made that halfway worthwhile.

There’s a fair amount going for it, including one of Davis’s most appealing characterisations: her Maggie is defined only in relation to a man, which is a missed opportunity in the writing, but her performance is perfectly balanced: joyous, explosive, then noble and sad: marinaded in misery, commandeered by confusion. The film is further enhanced by Max Steiner’s lush score, fitfully thoughtful direction– with crane shots and intelligent Tony Gaudio compositions, around a third of the time – and particularly Hattie McDaniel’s lovely supporting turn, the great African-American actress mining humanity from a role as Davis’s housekeeper that on paper’s not much more than a ‘mammy’ stereotype.

Unfortunately the story, the casual misogyny and the limp dialogue prevent it all from amounting to very much, a problem compounded by two of the central actors. Astor is promisingly cast as the villain, but her one-dimensional, Oscar-winning (!) performance becomes merely annoying after a while. It’s also oddly sterile: I remain baffled that possibly the most sexual woman in Hollywood doesn’t know how to be sexy on camera. When it’s beside the point – as in The Palm Beach Story or Midnight – she sizzles, with an offhand attitude that’s immensely attractive, but when it’s demanded of her to be alluring, she ballses it up: in The Maltese Falcon she’s neurotic rather than fascinating, here’s she’s superficial and irritating in a way that fatally undermines an already compromised script. Despite her shortcomings, though, Astor’s character remains a passionate artist, and the idea that these vital women would be warring over someone as unappealing as Brent’s vapid, uninspired and casually sexist aviator is altogether incredible.

It’s still just about worth it for the film’s virtues, the greatest of which is Bette at her lofty zenith.

See also: I write about Bette Davis a lot, like here, for example.

***



CINEMA: Her Man (Tay Garnett) − A stunning little Pre-Code movie from Tay Garnett, with Helen Twelvetrees utterly irresistible as a hard-boiled waterfront prostitute who spies escape from under the heel of brutish pimp Ricardo Cortez when charming, fairheaded Phillips Holmes sails into town.

This is the meeting point of von Sternberg's vivid, melodramatic Docks of New York and Garnett's own ship-based romantic tragicomedy, One Way Passage, with a rich atmosphere created through Edward Snyder's sumptuous, jawdropping tracking shots and Twelvetrees' tough-but-tender characterisation.

It's messy as hell, with a touch of the stiltedness inevitable in early talkies, plenty of incomprehensible comedy from James Gleason and Harry Sweet, and ad-libbed crowd dialogue three years after that stopped being a good idea, but it's also remarkably innovative, in both its technical wizardry and the story such mastery is serving. It begins novelistically: opening on a man dropping his luggage into the ocean, zoning in unerringly on Marjorie Rambeau's dipsomaniac, and then roaming around the busy Havana streets in search of its heroine.

And though the comic passages have a distressingly low hit-rate, despite an amusing bit for Franklin Pangborn and a Tashlin-esque climax, the central story that renders them a nuisance also makes them an irrelevance.

It's really something: deeply affecting and enduringly fresh, as Twelvetrees' archetypal bad girl − her eyebrows at right angles, her upper lip curling into a sneer − is transfigured and transformed by love, while Holmes goes all gooey and Cortez's knife-wielding psychopath prepares for war.

That story, based unpromisingly on the murder ballad, Frankie and Johnny, is augmented by some gorgeous photography: a hatless corpse spreadeagled on a barroom floor; Twelvetrees' ecstasy turning to veiled terror as Cortez approaches her in a broken mirror; the pain in her eyes as she rearranges her face, while preparing to break Holmes's heart. (And a brunette Thelma Todd in a backless dress, because why not?)

It ends with carnage, Holmes like a prototype of Mitchum's he-man in His Kind of Woman as he bulldozers his way through a barroom full of heavies, using cans, a table and eventually just his fists, before Rambeau laughs, sighs and says those words we've been waiting for. (3)

***

TV



Apple Tree Yard (2017)
− I watched this four-part BBC serial because of Emily Watson, whose performance in Breaking the Waves 21 years ago remains perhaps the finest characterisation I’ve ever seen (Robards, Gish, Rylance, Henry Fonda and Wendy Hiller are all in with a shout too), and whose subsequent career has been littered with breathtaking work. I think there’s an argument that she is the best actor around today, or at least the actor working today who has scaled the greatest heights; admittedly the past five years have offered few parts worthy of her virtuosic talents. This is more of the same: she’s given a prominent role, which is welcome, but the programme is bafflingly erratic: compelling one minute, repellent the next; so passionate that its stilted writing brushes erudition, then so laboured that it’s utterly embarrassing (a special mention for the awful girl talk sequences between Watson and best bud Susan Lynch).

Watson plays Dr Yvonne Carmichael, a married mother – and renowned gene specialist – who falls for mystery man and apparent spook Ben Chaplin (giving a forced, detached fraction of a performance), after meeting him in the Commons lobby. Their passionate encounter in the Emily Davison broom cupboard sparks a destructive chain of events, which begin with a truly horrifying scene that has polarised audiences. My feeling was that it was entirely justified in the context, but others who are better placed to comment think otherwise. The series then plods along for more than two hours: two hours dominated by heavy-handed writing, but punctuated by both tragedy and the odd moment of insight, before juddering into life for its final half-hour.

At its best, it’s thoroughly worthwhile: its depiction of the dehumanisation and persecution faced by rape victims is timely and fittingly nauseating, the shifting dynamics of Carmichael’s relationships are effective, and there are small moments of moral grace (a postcard, a gesture from the public gallery, a dinner party rant), before an ending that tries to be maturely unresolved and then opts for being gleefully trivial and yet altogether unforgettable (who cares about social polemicising when you can Shyamalan the shit out of it). But taken as a whole, it’s absolutely all over the shop: a baggy, plodding, self-satisfied series that seems to regard its every move as remarkable or revelatory, when we’ve seen the vast bulk of this before: a woman violently punished because she steps outside the accepted social norms. Apple Tree Yard doesn’t think that’s acceptable, but it’s still the story it tells, rather than another one.

Watson can’t always wring quality from a script this weak, directed in such a pedestrian fashion (she somehow managed in Julian Fellowes’ risible Separate Lies, though was sunk by Miss Potter, having been overlooked for the main part, *sigh*), but she has some fine moments, particularly in the courtroom climax. Next time, why not give her something better to work with? (2.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Ayn Rand, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the 13th Amendment – Reviews #256

Hello there. Below you'll find some stuff about books and films, mostly focusing on The Fountainhead. I've also written a couple of blogs in other places. Here's one about legendary composer Elmer Bernstein, and this is a chat with filmmaker Christopher Nupen about Jacqueline du Pre. The 80-second film he made for BBC Music Magazine is truly beautiful too, it's here.



BOOK: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1943)
FILM: The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949)


Ayn Rand’s book, The Fountainhead, is absolutely fascinating: a strident, remarkable, often ridiculous crowdpleaser that lays out her philosophy of ‘objectivism’, in which self-interest is the driving force of progress.

It centres on a visionary modernist architect, Howard Roark, who wants to be judged solely on his work, without forging the personal relationships and making the compromises that he – and Rand – see as fraudulent and antithetical to great art. His counterpoint is Peter Keating, the golden boy of the architectural world, who excels at Stanton (from which Roark is expelled for insubordination), rises to fame and glory, and then receives an almighty comeuppance, as his nemesis blasts through society’s barriers to take his rightful place at the peak of the world.

Along the way, Rand fires spectacularly and relentlessly at social responsibility, at the masses and at socialism, the latter represented by Ellsworth Toohey, an apparent hybrid of Alexander Woolcott and Bernard Shaw: a hideous, brilliant bird of a man whose motives are kept murky until a stunning speech to the bereft, swollen Keating, 664 pages in. Charity is a way to absolve oneself of guilt or provide meaning to a mediocre life, the masses are revolting, stupid and feral, and socialism is a way to rob man of his individuality and thwart his potential, she argues.

While I find her polemicising utterly lacking in the empathy intrinsic to basic humanity (and perhaps informed by the Bolsheviks seizing her family’s possessions in the ‘20s), there’s no denying that her way of viewing the world is explosive and even revelatory, and it’s hardly surprising that this visceral but cerebral book has become a bible for libertarians. It is, above all, a hymn to individual freedom and a condemnation of society’s skewed priorities – which will fight for an unwed mother but not a beautiful building – with architecture a richly symbolic field in which to state the case for human progress rocketing skywards thanks to the work of a few great men.

It dips massively during two laughable, comically sincere sequences – the first dealing with Roark’s mutually sadistic courtship of journalist Dominique Francon, the second his love-in with Hearst substitute, Gail Wynand – and sometimes slips so deeply into a recounting of Rand’s ‘objectivist’ philosophy that it becomes a textbook rather than a novel (most damagingly during Rourk’s climactic speech), while inescapably featuring an idealised ‘great man’ who’s a rapist.

But it’s also enormously readable – far more so than I was expecting – with a patented contrariness and counterintuitiveness in its language and ideas, a starkly impressionistic vocabulary full of “smears” and “smudges”, “parapets” and “porticos”, and bursts of sudden, shocking violence: in its architecture, its relationship with an imperfect world, its characters’ creativity and cruelty. The first time that Roark reshapes a hackneyed, ignorant design by slashing thick black lines through it, you can’t help your heart beating a little faster.

Rand's contention that the point of life is to create is one that many of her critics will still be able to relate to, though she argues extremely persuasively that this is something one should do for oneself and not for others: anything else is a betrayal of the self, and that is the most heinous betrayal, the gravest sin of which man is capable. She elaborates in her introduction, written in 1968, by saying that religion too is an abuse of man, since it involves us apologising for and debasing ourselves before a higher power. In The Fountainhead, Roark's visionary design for the Stoddard Temple naturally causes outrage – stirred by Toohey, and Wynand's flagship tabloid, The Banner – because it is a temple scaled to man's proportions, which glorifies humanity, and not God.

Donald Trump has said recently that the film, and book, have been a huge inspiration for him. I'd say the chances of Donald Trump having read a 725-page book about philosophy are exactly zero. If I'm wrong and he has, then he must have missed the part in which Rand says that the worst of all the "second-handers", those inferior specimens whose self-worth is based on the approval of others, is he who seeks not just vindication, but power. Hilariously, he even sought to stress his similarities with Roark by quoting an unnamed journalist who thinks that he is terrific:

He then recounted a call he received from a liberal journalist: “How does it feel to have done what you have done? I said what have I done. He said nobody ever in the history of this country has done what you have done. And I said, well, if I lose, then no big deal. And he said no, no, if you lose, it doesn’t matter because this will be talked about forever.

His love of the book, he said, was because "it relates to business (and) beauty (and) life and inner emotions. That book relates to ... everything." As indeed do most books.



In 1949, the book was adapted for the screen, and the subsequent film is fascinating, though not in the same way. When I heard about it, my fear is that it would lose the ideological imperative in translation, but actually the opposite is true: only the ideology remains intact, characters just yelling political slogans in one another’s faces for two hours. When you realise that Rand adapted the book herself, and essentially took over the direction from King Vidor, that makes more sense. Even so, you’d think that a cinephile like Rand, who saw up to 200 movies a year in the cinema, might have learned how to write one. Gary Cooper is simply miscast as Roark: in the book, a gaunt, upright, red-headed, ferociously dedicated, single-minded force of nature who lives only to create, and eschews compromise, populism and personal ties in his pursuit of greatness. Cooper trials to dial down his ‘aww shucks’ charm and his inherent nobility, but there’s nothing in its place: his Roark seems slow-witted, shambling and lacking the enormous creative dynamism that typifies the character. Kent Smith is also spectacularly wrong as the banal but beautiful Peter Keating, playing the ethereal, ringleted fraud as a sort of desperate, sweaty jock gone to seed, while Ellsworth Toohey, the piece’s seductive socialist straw man, chrome-domed Robert Douglas has a few witty one-liners, but is a simple two-faced villain rather than the insidious reptile of the page. Rounding out the tone-deaf silliness is Henry Hull, whose rapidly receding Henry Cameron (Roark’s mentor) is among the worst of his many bad appearances in 1940s film.

There are two quite good turns, though: a disorientating, pained performance from Patricia Neal as Dominique – whose storyline poignantly and uncomfortably mirrors her real-life adoration of Cooper – and Raymond Massey’s imposing turn as self-made newspaper baron Gail Wynand, eventually stirred to start a public crusade he actually believes in, by the persecution of the film’s hero.



I don’t really mind that the film is camp and overblown to the point of hysteria. Even when junking much of the book’s first half and stretching the last quarter across the second hour, there is way too much plot and almost no credible dialogue, but that’s part of its batshit appeal. Instead, what I found most damaging was that it missed surely the greatest opportunity of all, which was to realise on screen the buildings that Rand could only write about. In true Roark style, Frank Lloyd Wright (the inspiration for his character) asked for $400,000 to draft the designs – a tenth of the budget. Baulking at the idea, Warner just did the best they could, producing results that Rand described as “horrible” and which architectural critics pointed out would be unable to remain standing for longer than a few seconds. By contrast, the gothic and renaissance reproductions are supposed to be revolting, but because they’re such cartoonish parodies, the exercise seems utterly fraudulent.

I find it fascinating – and a little terrifying – that in the HUAC era you had a man like King Vidor working on The Fountainhead. By 1949, he was a member – with Rand and Cooper – of the MPA, the red-hunting organisation that facilitated the Hollywood blacklist. Just 15 years earlier, he had directed unquestionably the most radical Hollywood film of its decade, Our Daily Bread, which despite featuring the ‘man of destiny’ not uncommon in his oeuvre, was also explicitly and proudly pro-communist. Even then, the film was considered too controversial for a major studio to handle, so he produced it independently and released it through United Artists.

To see Vidor, of all people, directing a hymn to individualism, a film with such vitriolic contempt for solidarity, empathy or even basic human decency, is absolutely shocking. At times, I found myself genuinely astonished at how sinister and terrifying The Fountainhead is, especially as an example of mass market entertainment. That it was bankrolled by Warner Bros, the socially-conscious studio responsible for the likes of Wild Boys of the Road, Heroes for Sale and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang tells you basically everything you need to know about late-‘40s Hollywood.

It isn’t, by any criteria, a good film, but it is a compelling social document, with a few minor artistic virtues: Neal’s performance, some avant-garde framing and set design, and a stunning final shot of sheer, jaw-dropping fascism. By contrast, the book it’s based upon is a genuinely important artistic and political statement, however repellent and ridiculous it may be.

Incidentally: halfway through the film, a guy in front grabbed the bloke next to me by his shirt and threatened to punch him in the face if he didn't stop kicking his chair. Typical Ayn Rand crowd.



Book: (3.5)
Film: (2)


***



"What's a Tupac?"
"He's just like this really cool rapper and he's pretty much my best friend."
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016) – A winning, unpredictable and disarmingly hilarious Kiwi comedy from writer-director Taika Waititi, about unwanted 10-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) going to stay in the country with a new foster family, only to end up on the run with grumpy, taciturn father figure 'Uncle Hec' (Sam Neill).

It's packed to bursting with brilliantly unexpected jokes (“Are you gonna manslaughter him?”, "Well, they got that wrong because you're obviously white”), balanced by moments of universality and deft sentiment, and accompanied by a lovely musical score, coming off as a sort of more genuine, less antiseptic cousin to Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.

The only shortcoming lies in the (admittedly amusing) climax, which narrowly misses the target, and a wrap-up that contains one soppy callback too many. It's a wonderful film, though. (4)

***



13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016) – This Netflix documentary about the prison-industrial complex argues, quite brilliantly, that the 13th amendment which abolished slavery never really did, since it removed human rights from those sent to jail, and then began to systematically imprison African-Americans, first to prop up the post-Civil War economy, then to undermine the Civil Rights movement, and finally – and most dangerously – via the ‘War on Drugs’.

Between 1973 and 2014, the prison population rose from 300K to 2.3m (while violent crime actually decreased, a point not made in the film); as bills backed by private prisons saw ever-harsher law and order measures, including ‘three strikes’, an accent on plea bargaining, and a drive to make offenders serve 85% of their stated sentences. Today, 1 in 3 black men in America will go to jail at some time during their life.

Ava DuVernay's film uses archive footage, and testimony from politicians, academics and activists (Angela Davies!), to make a strong polemical case that lacks some of the virtues of similar recent documentaries – The Interrupters’ accent on human stories, The House I Live In’s unerring focus on the drug issue – but offers greater context, more wide-reaching analysis and, crucially, an unfailingly African-American perspective, as those two earlier works, magnificent though they were, came from white documentarians.

Like Spike Lee’s recent Chi-Raq its use of on-screen hip-hop lyrics (in a kind of ‘dissolving chalk’ aesthetic) is a major boon, though unlike Chi-Raq it doesn’t include an incredibly boring central story about a sex strike. And the (slightly disingenuous) sequence in which Donald Trump's petulant speech about beating up protesters soundtracks a montage of Civil Rights-era outrages is simply a wonderfully visceral bit of filmmaking.

It’s also nice to see Lillian Gish’s consummate artistry being introduced to a new audience: that’s her celebrating with the Ku Klux Klan in D. W. Griffith’s abhorrent white supremacist masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation. I can lend you more of her work if you’re interested. (3)

***

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 6 February 2017

REVIEW: Richard Thompson at Cadogan Hall

Sunday 6 February, 2017



A slightly disappointing acoustic show, sat on a broken seat, listening to an erratic setlist, with RT wrapping it up and going home a good half hour before the curfew. Perhaps I'm just spoiled, as I saw him put on a truly wonderful show at the Bridgewater Hall a decade ago, and I wish I was still there.

Thompson’s singing is still pretty good and his guitar-playing is – of course – unparalleled, but for someone who has the songs that Thompson has, it seems odd that he would choose to play these ones – especially compared to the setlist of his Christmas shows in the States. Dressed in army trousers, a denim vest and the obligatory Kangol beret, he comes on grinning and relaxed, but the first half hour is deathly dull aside from a welcome, fingers-afire 'Vincent Black Lightning 1952', and though the show picks up after a delightfully offhand 'Crocodile Tears' and a rocky 'Wall of Death', he doesn't mine his rich stock of beguiling ballads at all: there's no 'End of the Rainbow', 'Al Bowly's in Heaven' or 'Waltzing for Dreamers' (the closest we get is ‘Tore Down the Hippodrome’), and so there's little real variety of tone or tempo, the gig just sort of plodding along.

It doesn't help that his solitary guest, Liverpudlian vocalist Siobhan Maher Kennedy, offers merely nondescript backing, and doesn't seem to have rehearsed. Their badinage, accentuated by Thompson's good humour and ready wit, is charming, but their collaboration is flat and uninspired, typified by their final number together. Considering that there are nine great songs on Richard and Linda Thompson's 1973 album, I Want to See the Bright Lights, it's perverse that he would choose the other one: the uplifting but uninspired title track. I know that art is subjective, but I’m not alone in this contention, especially when we’re talking about trading the acoustic, egg-shell majesty of, say, ‘The Great Valerio’ for an acoustic version of an electric song.

Then he's gone, re-appearing only for an uproariously updated version of his antique anti-Trump song, ‘Fergus Lang’ – appropriately enough, perhaps the evening’s highlight, sample lyric: “Fergus he builds and builds/Yet small is his erection/Fergus has a fine head of hair/When the wind’s in the right direction” – and for a single fan request: ‘Shoot Out the Lights’. Many see Richard Thompson live for the frenetic fretwork of the master guitarist. While the BBC session of Mr Lacey remains one of the most exhilarating examples of guitar play ever committed to tape, my interest is more because he’s a great writer – and singer – of sad and funny songs. There’s little of that tonight. It’s fine, but I want better than fine.

In support, Australian folkie Emily Barker was parachuted in at short notice after WildwoodKin cancelled. Dressed in a rigid silver skirt, her hair swept into a blonde bob, she begins a little blandly, but reaches a tremendous crescendo, sitting at a piano for ‘Precious Memories’ – a catchy, heartfelt paean to blues guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, from the point of her view of her closest friend – and then offering a gorgeous a capella take on ‘Disappear’. (2.5)

***

Pic from here. Thanks for reading.

Friday, 3 February 2017

REVIEW: Martha Wainwright and Ed Harcourt at the Roundhouse

Thursday 2 February, 2017



This was an often brilliant evening in the company of one of the 21st century’s most compelling performers, ably supported and assisted by multi-instrumentalist Ed Harcourt, who has never quite done what I fervently wished he might, but does what he can quite brilliantly. He was on the expansive, semi-circular stage first, for an hour-long set based around the David Ford one-man-band model of building a looped backing track on drums, guitar, and sometimes bass and keyboards, and then finally coming to the mic, when the music and expectation hit fever pitch. On paper it threatens to be a laborious, potentially tedious way of playing live, but in practice it rarely is, especially with a musician of Harcourt's prodigious talents.

I bought his first two records, Maplewood and Here Be Monsters, all those years ago, when he was tipped alongside Ryan Adams as the Next Huge Thing. He’s never quite become that, perhaps because his lyrics aren’t good enough and his worldview isn’t very interesting – which is odd, given he's the son of a diplomat, and spent his formative years travelling the world – the between-songs banter suggesting a certain poverty of insight and incisiveness, straining constantly for a humour that he doesn’t really possess (in one early interview he speculated about two bands he’d made up: ‘Limp Wristed’ (“don’t print that, the PC brigade will lynch me”) and ‘Rage Against the Washing Machine; give me strength). He's undeniably a special musician, though, and seems to have acquired a shabby cool as he’s aged: coming on stage in a half-buttoned blackshirt and white suit jacket, his greying hair and thick beard making him look like a hybrid of Jeff Bridges and the young Tom Waits. Then opening his mouth to reveal a plummy middle-England accent.

Interest ebbs and flows during his set, which kicks off with Antarctica – as good an advert as any for his lyrical poverty – but there are fine moments, Harcourt enthusiastically ripping up the received wisdom about how these songs go, with a tightly-packed Apple of My Eye (debuted on Maplewood, perfected on Here Be Monsters), and a climactic Crimson Tears, expanded and turned into a languidly lost jazz track. Loup Garou, his werewolf song, is a simple, sexy rocker, the lovely, Waits-ish Until Tomorrow Then reveals unexpected depths, and new song Velvet and Gold finds him in atypically political mode – bluntly if powerfully taking aim at Tony Blair’s life and legacy – though it’s his tender list song about love, Murmur in My Heart, that sticks in the memory the longest, his guitar whining and throbbing as he moves from the offbeat poetry of “She’s the buzz from my guitar” to the plaintive, desperate “She’s the murmur in my heart.”

***



Like her backing band, Martha’s wearing a grey-blue jumpsuit, a large autumn leaf necklace in Native American style hanging over her chest, her hair half-up, that imperious nose and wicked mouth wrapping around scaling melodies, turning warm when she sings of her children, barking in that way she does when she’s mad. She plays a few from her new record, including a charming Francie – shades of Kate Bush’s glorious, transcendent Bertie – and a playful, old-fashioned version of Francis (written for the same son), composed by her brother Rufus, and surely the best Cole Porter song he didn’t actually write since Tom Waits’ A Foreign Affair. Not all of the new material is so persuasive. Her new record is patchy – procreation and motherhood taking rather up her time and talents – and Window, which was written for her elder child and sounds on the record like it is being made up on the spot, has neither a proper tune nor any good words, and ideally you’d want both.

She is such a mesmerising performer, though, that she can wring brilliance from almost anything, her hips rotating sensually, her foot coming off the floor and her knee up towards her chest again and again in a mannerism that seems both inexplicable and inevitable, as much a part of her act as her easy humour, constant between-songs swearing and that unapproachable voice, racing over the octaves, blasting the roof off the Roundhouse or staying husky, deep and disgruntled somewhere in her larynx. The response from a sold-out crowd in an all-seated Roundhouse? Almost nothing, the audience bafflingly muted and inert, feeding off Martha, perhaps, but feeding nothing back.

She barely seems to notice. Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel #2 is the highlight: among the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen or heard, at a gig or anywhere else (even after a false start in which she leaps straight into the second verse). At one point she’s crouched on the floor, her voice somewhere in the rafters, her heart somewhere in Hell. There are versions of it on YouTube, one from 10 years ago, another when she started doing it again live in December – clutching a lyric sheet, skitting around the tune – but nothing will ever come close to the way she sang it last night. It was revelatory.

She's backed by Bernice, a Canadian band who've also been touring with her as support act, and whose singer, Robin Dann, looks – in the words of my concert buddy – "like she is about to do science": thick glasses, tied-back hair, and overalls with sensible shoes. The rest of the band also seem to have been allowed out of the lab at short notice to create an unsatisfyingly muddy, murky sound, but there's clearly talent in there, especially from guitarist and keyboardist Thom Gill. It's he alone who accompanies Martha on Chelsea Hotel, switching to piano and offering a blissful counterpoint to the fuzzy swampiness that dominates. At one point Martha breaks out a cheap electric guitar she got from her first boyfriend, and it makes a little more sense.



Another new song, Look Into My Eyes, is based around a short keyboard riff and a snatch of lines written by Martha’s aunt, the legendary Anna McGarrigle, later worked into a song by the pair and Anna’s daughter Lily Lanken; played live, it’s somehow both luscious and haunting, like a newly-minted Kate and Anna song from the Matapedia era. She stretches back to her second record for a bracing, confessional Jimi, then invites Harcourt on for a half-hour jam that includes a duet at the piano on Gram Parsons’ heartbreaking A Song for You (Ed playing and singing, Martha straddled on the end of the stool, facing him, crooning quietly into the mic), a new co-written song that took Martha an hour to write and Harcourt two weeks to finish, and a rousing reading of one of my favourites: the proudly, coldly and euphorically alienated Factory, from her first record.

She finishes with the last song her mother ever wrote, Prosperina, a song of beguiling simplicity, like the saddest nursery rhyme ever written. When Martha sings it, she’s stripped down to skin-tight tartan trousers and an MW t-shirt that she’s customised with the words ‘Fuck the president’. It seems to say something profound about her resolve, her fearlessness, her duality, her complete and stark difference to just about anyone else around: her mother’s rich sense of musical heritage and profound spiritual innocence, her father’s foul-mouthed non-conformity, her own immutable beauty and singularity. She’s erratic and as much so in concert as on record, playing songs she’s barely rehearsed and others that sound like writer’s block, backed by a sterile, unsuitable ensemble, but just try to take your eyes off her, or think of anyone who’s a third as good as she is when she’s on song. Here that transcendence was periodic, most striking at the Chelsea Hotel, where:

You were famous, your heart was a legend
You told me again you preferred handsome men
But for me you would make an exception.


(3.5)

I pinched that shot at the top from these fellas. It's from her date at the Gateshead Sage.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Kate Hepburn, 11/22/63 and Elia Kazan's America – Reviews #255

I've been busy writing, reading and working, but I found time to watch a few films too.

BOOK



*A FEW SPOILERS*
11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)
– This is the first Stephen King book I’ve read (though I’ve seen plenty of films based on his writing), I was drawn in as a fan of American history and a sucker for time-travel stories. Jake Epping is an English teacher in 2011 who’s shown a portal into 1958, located at the back of short order cook Al Templeton’s storage cupboard. He steps through and emerges in a world of tailfins, Lindy Hopping and harrowing domestic violence. His aim: to stop JFK’s assassination by monitoring and disposing of psychotic, communist mummy’s boy, Lee Harvey Oswald – if he can survive the interventions of an obdurate past that will sling all manner of abrupt, improbable obstacles into his path. First, though, he’s got some errands to run and a librarian to boff.

11/22/63 is overwritten and overlong, with clunky prose, a silly climactic dystopia and a lot of superfluous, blunt humour, but it’s also blessed with a gripping, meticulously plotted story and an unexpected moral grace. Its treatment of time travel is interesting too, as well as creating rules of the game that give melodrama a free pass and make coincidence almost profound, building to a climax of thrilling alternate history, before proceeding to go on for another 90 pages. Along the way, there are sly winks to cinematic history (Epping’s alias, George Amberson, is surely a reference to the character in Orson Welles’ vandalised masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, the first cultural object I’d save, given a time portal) and historical novels dealing with the period (Dwight Holly from James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand makes a cameo), before a bittersweet ending that has more than a hint of Somewhere in Time - a much-maligned time-travelling romance with a devoted following. The book could be more economical and precise, and less hackneyed in its phrasing, sentiments and imagery, but King creates a compelling story set in an often vividly-realised world, and with an undeniably atmospheric, race-against-time crescendo best filed under ‘D. W. Griffith Does Dallas’. (3)

Next up is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I'm 300 pages in and it is ridiculously readable, ideologically terrifying and a little preposterous.

***
FILMS



CINEMA: Holiday (George Cukor, 1938) – A truly beautiful, thoughtful and romantic film that deals with politics and philosophy through the prism of a wealthy family, while doubling as an utterly captivating rom-com. Cary Grant is Johnny Case, a working class boy made good, who meets privileged Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) during the first holiday of his life, forcing him to choose between a life of capitalist conformity and the idealism represented by Julia’s free-spirited sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn).

Based on a 1928 Philip Barry play, and adapted by the great liberal screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, it’s a remarkably deep, wise and incisive work that transcends its simple three-act structure, its running time and even its own story, seeming to live way beyond its boundaries in all directions. We encounter entire decades of these characters’ lives, to either side of the few weeks seen on the screen.

Though almost the entire cast are astonishingly good, the film is dominated by Hepburn’s magnificent characterisation, arguably the greatest thing she ever did on film. Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go) introduced the film at the BFI as part of the Screen Epiphanies strand, and eulogised her acting style during this period: innumerable emotions clashing beneath the surface. Later, he said, she either lost that virtue or abandoned it, shifting to a style of “one shot, one emotion”.

Linda is a woman shackled and patronised by her family, who finds solace only in the fourth-floor playroom created by her late mother, and escape in Johnny’s infectious zest for living. She idolises and idealises the shallow, grasping Julia, while her desperate fragility breaks more than once into quivering tears. But she’s also a ferocious fighter, fiercely individualistic, with a righteous anger and a devastating wit. “I beg your pardon,” says her father as Grant obligingly engages in a discussion about his suitability as Julia’s suitor. “I should think you would,” counters Hepburn, in just about the finest tone of sardonic disgust I’ve ever heard. Occasionally she traverses into a private school manner that I find a little much (“I do, reaaaally”), but Linda’s pretty much my ideal woman – intelligent, open-minded, loyal, funny and equipped to do a forward roll or an impression of a giraffe when duty demands it – without ever seeming like a caricature or mere wish-fulfilment.

Lew Ayres is almost as good, playing her despondent, booze-marinated brother, Ned. Prohibited from following his ambitions by his father, and with his lustre drained by alcoholism, his waning energies are channelled into sad reflection and bitter observation that’s both heartbreaking and hilarious. It would be easy to be turned off or alienated by a materially privileged character stewing in listless self-pity, but as a New York Sebastian Flyte, Ayres is so specific, so assured, so intensely, insanely likeable that his scenes aren’t just tolerable, they’re tear-jerking and timeless. “He’s in a spot, isn’t he?”, he asks Linda at one point, bleakly surveying Johnny’s chances of emerging with his principles intact. Later, as she flees the nest, the catharsis tempered by his inability to break free, she tells him: “I’ll be back for you.” “I’ll be here,” he murmurs into his glass.

Grant’s Johnny is a similarly vibrant, vital creation. Before the actor became waylaid by a tedious mahogany suavity, he was the best light comedian in Hollywood, and a dramatic actor of unheralded brilliance, and he makes Johnny’s plight remarkably real. This isn’t the fast-talking, exaggerated Grant of His Girl Friday, the stylised nebbish of Bringing Up Baby or the charmingly omniscient rom-com lead premiered in The Philadelphia Story, it’s the most human and appealing character he ever played, with more to say about his world and his times than any other role he was ever given.

Holiday is a snapshot of inter-war America, and yet it endures more than probably any other American film of its period. It’s an assault on conformity, rapacious materialism and – more subtly – fascism, as the odious Seton Cram (sometime Moriarty, Henry Daniell) memorably opines that he could make a lot more money “if only the right government was in place”. It’s also a film about the purpose of living, and especially the purpose of living in a capitalist world that values acquisition beyond accomplishment. Seton Cram’s antithesis is liberal professor Nick Potter, realised by regular Fred-and-Ginger foil, Edward Everett Horton, giving the straightest (in both senses of the word) and deepest performance of a spectacular career. He’s the only actor remaining from the 1930 version of the film, and knows the material inside out. He is warm, loyal, whipsmart but deceptively shambling, his intelligence and charm put to proper use, rather than commandeered in the service of business. His partnership with Jean Dixon – as screen wife, Susan – is immensely rewarding, their relationship like a sort of unglamorous, red-brick Nick-and-Nora, blessed with immaculate chemistry and impeccable timing. There’s one small shortcoming in this film, and that’s Julia’s character. She’s instantly dislikeable, where a superficial or eroding charm would have worked far better, and you wonder whether Mary Astor might have made more of the role in the 1930 film, her ethereal beauty and undeniable sensuality hoodwinking Johnny and the viewer more convincingly than Nolan’s shrewish reading of the character.

Ishiguro was keen to explain that ‘screwball comedy’ doesn’t mean ‘screwy comedy’, it’s a spin ball (from the baseball terminology) in which events have unexpected consequences, in which entertainment meets serious ideas, in which female characters are strong and intelligent and funny, and taken seriously. He listed Holiday as one of his three favourite, alongside It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday, and reserved a special level of ire for The Philadelphia Story – which reunited the same playwright, screenwriter, director and stars, and revived Hepburn’s flagging career, two years later – a work he sees as the reassertion of capitalist and chauvinist values after the Depression (I’d argue that it’s more complicated than that, but his extreme stance is a fun starting place for a discussion).

Holiday is very funny when it wants to be, and exceptionally romantic when it needs to be (that New Year’s kiss…), but it’s the film’s intelligence, erudition, humanity and philosophical daring that sets it apart. It’s obviously derived from a play, but it’s not overly talky and Cukor’s presentation is as cinematic as it needs to be, with some fine use of close-ups. He was Hepburn’s favourite director, having introduced her in 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement, and knew how to get the best out of her: how to capture that vulnerability, that ephemeral, quicksilver quality, and that intellectual alertness that characterised both her characters and herself. There are dozens of Hepburn performances that I admire, and a half-dozen I truly love, but for me she reached a peak in 1937 and ’38 – ironically the most difficult part of her professional career – with this and Gregory La Cava’s astounding comedy-drama Stage Door.

It is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind, lightning-in-a-bottle film, catching four Hollywood acting legends – Hepburn, Grant, Ayres and Horton – at the zenith of their artistry, given room to live and breathe by Cukor, and fed almost the last word in articulate, humane and liberal mind-fodder by two writers of uncommon quality. (4)

***



The Catered Affair (Richard Brooks, 1956) – A sort of Mother of the Bride, translated to a working-class Bronx household, with Bette Davis as a harsh but loving mother who decides to pull out all the stops for daughter Debbie Reynolds’ wedding. She wants Debbie to have something she’ll remember all her life, but the process of planning it begins to alienate her friends and family: her older brother (Barry Fitzgerald), the matron of honour (Joan Camden) and Davis’s own husband (Ernest Borgnine) – a cab driver whose life savings, meant for his own cab, are about to be splurged on one meal.

This impressively low-key drama, originally filmed for TV with Thelma Ritter, made the transition to the big screen after the success of Marty – also written by Paddy Chayefsky. He characterised The Catered Affair as “an unfocused piece, in which the first act was farce, and the second was comedy-drama and the third was abruptly drama”. There’s some truth in that, but I think the celluloid version – adapted by Gore Vidal – is more coherent and cohesive than he’s suggesting (aside from a cheering but tonedeaf ending). Its problems are more an overabundance of similar viewpoints, Debbie Reynolds’ character – who seems to have wandered in from a frothy rom-com – and the fact that it just isn’t very funny; Fitzgerald’s scheming and scowling is good value, but the rest of it is either too vague or too stressful to make you laugh.

It is, however, an unusually thoughtful, honest and poignant film, set largely in an admirably scuzzy little apartment and with fine work from Fitzgerald, Borgnine, Camden (in an arresting bit part) and Davis. Her identikit line-readings struck me at first as a shortcoming, but that’s not typically a problem she has an actress, and I came to think of it as the key to her character. That rasping, dropping voice is a positive choice Davis has made to hammer home Agnes’s weariness and emotional repression. With her usual – and indeed increasing – lack of vanity, she looks dowdy, even haggard as she crafts a character who’s neither a selfless saint nor a mommie dearest, but a real person blessed with few illusions and beset by the chronic, thankless monotony of life. When she responds to a private character evisceration by wordlessly plaiting her frazzled hair, it is a moment of rare profundity: I’ve found that tragedy is usually and perversely accompanied by such shell-shocked mundanity. (3)

See also: Ritter and Davis starred together in All About Eve, the best movie ever made about the theatre.

***

I was supposed to be seeing this at the BFI, but TFL cancelled all the trains, so I streamed it on Amazon instead. £3.49 in HD if you want to do the same:



America, America (Elia Kazan, 1963) – Kazan’s epic, based on his uncle’s journey from Anatolia to America, is uneven but unforgettable, with many fine moments and astonishing Haskell Wexler cinematography. The director’s style seems so effortlessly virtuosic, juggling moods from absurdist comedy to frenetic violence, rhapsodic joy and despair, or else conjuring them from thin air through immaculately composed monochrome imagery and remarkable but unshowy editing.

The film suffers a little from formal artificiality – everyone speaks English, the accents are a shambles and the juxtaposition of location photography and synthetic studio sets in the early stages is frustrating – but the cast looks just right (no Hollywood glamour here), and from Fordian or Seventh Seal-ish silhouettes on a hillside to that quietly overwhelming kiss of the turf, the film shows a man whose command of his medium is absolute – the climactic coughing montage on the boat a simply extraordinary bit of filmmaking.

As you might expect from the late Kazan, though, he remains transparently tortured by the shame and guilt of his appearance before HUAC, in which he ‘named names’ of fellow communists. When the hero (Stathis Giallelis) says he keeps his honour ‘safe inside him’, he is echoing not only the character’s collaborationist father, but also the writer, director and producer, who oscillated endlessly between seeing his own actions as cowardly or heroic.

It is, ultimately, a film about the opportunities that America affords immigrants, and the hardships it is worth enduring to get there, which is both an enduring message and one likely to ring bitterly hollow for the foreseeable future. There’s also a bit where someone's told that they'll have to change his name from ‘Kardashian’ if they want to make it in America. (3)

***



*ONE SPOILER IN THE FINAL PARAGRAPH*
Drive a Crooked Road (Richard Quine, 1954) – A very worthwhile and unexpectedly moving little noir, with Mickey Rooney typically excellent as a badly-scarred, self-loathing and possibly autistic mechanic, who's recruited as a getaway driver by ruthless playboy criminal Kevin McCarthy and his hard-boiled moll (Barbara Foster).

At times its low-budget is a hindrance – with an endlessly repeated musical motif and a pathetic opening set-piece dominated by lousy back-projection – while Jack Kelly's part as McCarthy's wisecracking heavy is basically just annoying, but Blake Edwards' story is genuinely affecting, there's some quietly iconic imagery and breathless action (the climactic drive is heart-in-mouth stuff, despite its overall vagueness and process shots), and Rooney is enormously touching as the lonely, unloved dupe whose great love is just a sham.

At his best, Rooney was arguably the finest screen actor in America (Young Tom Edison, The Human Comedy, National Velvet), but he typically needed both good material and a director who could rein him in. Here he seems to have both, and compared to his other best-known noir, Quicksand, in which he's supposed to be sympathetic but is written rather like a psychopath, this one comes off very nicely. It's rare to find such a gentle, sweet-natured, and quietly and consistently moral crime film; one that's about love, dreams and goodness, rather than lust, money and man's dark heart. Warner arguably did something similar with probably the oddest film in its '30s/'40s gangster cycle: Brother Orchid.

It'd be nice if Columbia and director Quine had put a bit more care into the finished product – even the impressive finale has one incompetent bit of staging that should have been re-done, as a man 10 yards away is shot by a bullet that goes directly upwards – but the film is sufficiently distinctive and original enough to succeed anyway, while leaning on all those noir tropes that I love so dearly.

***



"I never thought I'd make a killing on some guy's 'integrity'."
Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957) – A spectacularly cynical late noir, with Tony Curtis's best dramatic performance, as gorgeous, amoral press agent, Sidney Falco, who slimes his way around a vividly-realised, nocturnal NY, trying to save his own skin. He'll do whatever it takes to break up the romance between an idealistic jazz guitarist and a fragile young woman (Susan Harrison), in order to win the favour of her brother: all-powerful, creepily possessive Broadway columnist, J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), one of the movies' most frightening villains.

Director Alexander Mackendrick called satire "the snarl behind the smile", and here that snarl is barely concealed, as he mercilessly drags tabloid muckraking, capitalist compromise and phony patrotism under the lens. It's the feel of the thing too, though: a sweaty, desperate, and seductive trawl through the seething, rancid underbelly of urban America. It's in the striking performances and the avant garde angles (some of which are positively Wellesian). It's in the textures and timbres of Elmer Bernstein's classic jazz score. It comes from the peerless NY flavour, with stunning use of street locations by the great James Wong Howe; the bruising, blistering dialogue from regular Hitchcock collaborator Ernest Lehman (who wrote the original novella) and legendary playwright Clifford Odets.

It's also an enormously entertaining film, once you become attuned to its eye-watering misanthropy (or at least that of its characters), until it begins to stop and stutter with 20 minutes to go. Characters had to be punished in this era, and the tricks that the script has to play in order to do it are worse than fraudulent, they're laboured. There are flashes of inspiration and irony in those last two reels, but the intrusion of bathos into this nightmare vision has never worked for me. This is one movie where comeuppance should be outlawed; where sweetness doesn't spell success. (3.5)

***

TV



Sherlock: Season 4 – A disappointing fourth series of what used to be the best show on TV, with flashes of brilliance but an awful lot of self-satisfied nonsense and bum-squeaking tedium.
The Six Thatchers – Mary’s got a secret and apparently we care. This opener was difficult to follow and had far too many platitudes in its script (a major problem with Gatiss’ writing), though it was terrifically acted and the music was fantastic.
The Lying Detective – An hour of light-hearted escapism about Jimmy Savile (terrifyingly rendered by Toby Jones), followed by an insanely good closing 30 that made this whole series worthwhile. The reveal was astonishing.
The Final Problem – Silly, disengagingly overblown, self-parodic silliness, with our heroes forced to play The Crystal Maze with Ayn Rand. The closing montage is a reminder that Sherlock was most fun when he, y’know, solved crimes. (2)

***

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