Thursday, 30 March 2017

REVIEW: Jens Lekman at Oval Space

Wednesday 29 March



Jens Lekman is back and this time it's personal. For me.

My little brother's been a fan for years: a decade ago, I got him Lekman's second album, Night Falls Over Kortedala, for Christmas, and last year I bought him tickets to this show. He invited me to come with him, so I thought I better do some homework. For a month I listened to almost nothing else, first through a desire to not be bored at the show, and then after a few days because I'd fallen for his music: his wordplay (like Billy Wilder, in his second language, ffs), his absurdism and offbeat sentimentality, like a Wes Anderson film brought to life, but without the posing. As much as I love music, and as many gigs as I go to, it isn't often that I'm so attuned to an artist's music at the exact time their show rolls into London. So I was excited.

And then Jens came on stage at 9:15, to announce that he had flu, but was determined to do the show, provided he was sure that "you have my back, London". As he struggled manfully through a delicate 'To Know Your Mission', accompanying himself on guitar, my heart began to sink. He was nasal and a little laboured, with a severely compromised mid-range (or 'chest voice') that even his playful self-referencing − pointing to himself as his in-song avatar enters the action − couldn't distract from. And yet within minutes we, and apparently he, had forgotten all about his flu, his all-female band joining him on-stage and launching into a run of reworkings of songs from his new record, greeted with a succession of deafening ovations. He played just 70 minutes in total, but the audience left murmuring that it was one of the best shows they'd ever seen.

Oval Space, the venue, is a strange, erm, space. I imagine it's trendy. It's airy, with quite a high ceiling, and flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows on its right hand side, orange lights from houses hanging in the distance. So while it may lack the visceral, punky immersion of a dank, hot, low-ceilinged cellar, on the plus side it's actually quite pleasant to stand in. Jens comes on stage in a white t-shirt and black jacket, a black cap pulled down over his pale, shaven scalp. His face is slim and angular, full of striking planes, and when he takes off his jacket, he doesn't fill out his t-shirt. Nowadays every singer-songwriter seems to spend most of the time in the gym, working on their biceps, whereas Jens looks reassuringly and appealing like a man who spends his time writing songs and (according to a friend of a friend who knows him, washing-up at other people's house parties).

His first song with the full band is an extended version of 'What's That Perfume That You Wear', the most popular song on his new record, if Spotify is a decent barometer. I find the first half of its chorus a bit trite − it sounds like someone reading out a shelf at Boots − but then the pathos kicks in and half destroys you. Live, it's joyous, its quiet sorrow cowering behind an amp as Lekman's constantly pogoing bassist drives that highly danceable riff. We get a jangly, rocky 'Evening Prayer' − probably my favourite song on the album, a tale of empathy and 3D printers − a passable 'Hotwire the Ferris Wheel', and a committed 'How We Met, the Long Version', now given the epic sweep that it deserves as a musical equivalent of Malick's Tree of Life. 'Dandelion Seed' is beautifully rendered too, though Jens loses either his voice or his place for its key line ("I built a bomb-shelter under every dream"), robbing it of its climactic power. The other of the seven songs from Life Will See You Now is 'Wedding at Finistère', one of those songs you feel like you've always known, with an ingenious structure a perfect chorus. Here the choruses − accompanied only by claps − lack the certainty and rhythmic relentlessness of the record, but the song's still great fun, and Jens flashes his guitar angularly to drag us gracefully and stylistically back into each verse.



I've rarely seen a backing band look happier: the grinning drummer on backing vocals, the keyboardist pounding out Lekman's climbing melodies, and the leaping bassist's chemistry with Jens apparent, as she calls for us to celebrate his genius, and he skips over to give her a kiss on the cheek, in a fug of mutual fondness. Jens, meanwhile, swaps between electric, acoustic, and a keyboard/sampler/synth.

As a performer, he's as you'd expect from his autobiographical songs: playful and friendly, but also a showman, with star quality and ineffable, effortless cool that comes not from an arrogant self-regard, but his charisma and talent. On stage, he's intimate, conversational and even kind − standing on the raised stage telling us to look after one another in this scary world, saying a polite "welcome" and "welcome back" to fans news and old, and telling us, "I want to grow old with you people" − but he's also politely unapologetic about approach to his art. When he welcomes Parisian support act, The Dove & the Wolf, to join him for an old song, two fans begin yelling requests. "There's actually a song we've rehearsed," he says gently, but sarcastically, and they launch into one of them: 'Black Cab', his anthem of anxiety, self-loathing and catharsis, from his first real EP in 2003. He allows the audience to sing that great, self-referential line, "Oh you're so silent, Jens" (later the title of his early years retrospective_, with his backing singers helping him to belt out the plaintive chorus: those words "black cab", again and again, a clarion call for a man who just wants to get the fuck out of this party. It's pretty spectacular, and so is the atmosphere.

There are other early songs too, and he reshapes them all. "Don't let anyone stand in your way," he says, before launching into 'A Postcard to Nina', his tale of being the world's worst beard for a lesbian friend, which contains another masterpiece of self-reflexion ("Yours truly, Jens Lek-man"). He plays a stripped-down, apologetic 'I Know What Love Isn't', which he introduces by saying "I was in a cynical period when I wrote this" and then sitting on the stage for the second chorus, before climbing down to offer the proposal to a man at the barrier ("Let's get married… I'm serious…"). It segues into perhaps the best song of the night, 'The Opposite of Hallelujah' transformed from a passable 2007 single into a raucous, floor-shaking crowdpleaser.

Another highlight is 'Maple Leaves', which is charming and timeless on that 2003 EP, but live becomes a joyous, shimmering thing, Lekman's voice riding a wave of sound that recalls My Bloody Valentine or Jesus and Mary Chain. That closes the first encore, while the second finds him alone again for a song he hasn't played live in years ("so I'm sorry if I forget the words"), 'Cold Swedish Winter' from his debut album. It's soothing and touching and snowy and weird, and it ends with him singing the chorus more and more quietly, as the pink lights slink off his cheekbones to leave him in shadow. Glorious. Imagine how good he is when he doesn't have the flu. (3.5)

***



I caught half of The Dove & the Wolf's support set: they'd left their band in Philadelphia (which is a very rock 'n' roll thing to do), so it was just two women with reverb-heavy guitars singing haunting, introspective songs, silhouetted against great orbs of light.

***

Thanks for reading.

Ten things I learned about Gas, Food Lodging

The latest in my now-almost-regular series. Recent articles include The Crying Game, Peter Lorre and Lillian Gish.


Yes, I do have excellent seats, thank you for noticing.

Allison Anders’ 1992 indie has been a favourite of mine for years. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched my battered, pan-and-scan VHS copy, taped off Channel 4 a few years later. I love Anders’ unique viewpoint – empathetic, unsensationalised, real – her film’s delicate balancing of emotions, and its aesthetic and emotional treats: Jay Mascis’s spare, evocative guitar score, Dean Lent’s decolourised, subtly beautiful cinematography, and Fairuza Balk’s performance, the greatest of a sporadically spectacular career in which she has been unfailingly fine, but in films only sometimes befitting her transcendent gifts.

She’s the teenage, introspective Shade, who lives with her sister Trudie (Ione Skye) and their single mom (Brooke Adams) in a New Mexico trailer. Like River Phoenix’s hero in Idaho, Shade is also searching for a family, but in an inert, haphazard way that keeps her within the boundaries of a drab, colourless small town. Ione, the town slut, has regular shouting matches with her witty, loyal, self-pitying mother, but both are masking a desperate pain, scrolling through romantic misadventures much like Shade’s heroes, those characters depicted by glamorous Spanish movie star Elvia Rivero in the local fleapit.



It’s a series of glorious vignettes – held together within an ingenious, elasticated structure – from those gloriously-realised films-within-a-film, a romantic encounter in a cave lit by violet light, and Adams’ charmingly weird ‘first date’ with an old flame, to Balk’s hilariously incompetent, profoundly moving seduction of Darius (Donovan Leitch, Jr.), and her gradual discovery of a soulmate in the shape of cherubic ‘cholo’ Javier (Jacob Vargas). Balk dominates throughout, with a performance of startling depth and beguiling sensitivity, though I don’t see it as the whole show, as I think I used to. Skye and Adams are both terrific (despite the odd wooden line-reading), James Brolin is superb as a benevolent stranger and, seeing the film as it should be – on a big screen, in a sumptuous new digital print – one is struck by the clarity of Anders’ artistic vision, her lack of judgmentalism, and her consummating shepherding of her creative collaborators, their talents drawn out and drawn together in the service of the story.

That story seems fresh now, was ahead of its time even in 1998, and must have been positively revolutionary six years earlier. Just watch Trudie’s departure for Dallas, a sequence that Kelly Reichardt would be proud of in 2017, and see how Anders deals with these female characters frankly and honestly, employing a deft, humanist poetry born of mutual dependence, pragmatism and real love, in place of the trite sentimentalism that dominates so much of cinema. And watch Balk trailing off into the brush, her ferocious loyalty and protectiveness of her spiky, abrasive older sister paying off not with a Hollywood ending, but with one that’s ultimately more satisfying, because it’s honest.

It's a great film. One of the great films. And, like Idaho, it's not flawless, but it's more important than films which arguably are.


That absolutely American DVD cover (it's never been released over here), with a misleading photo and a dreadful tagline: "When Shade's good, she's very good. But when Trudi's bad, she's better."

On Tuesday, the BFI held a special 25th anniversary screening. Here are 10 things I learnt from writer-director Allison Anders’ post-film Q&A:


1. Learning on a Wim
Anders was mentored by arthouse giant Wim Wenders, after a sustained campaign to win his favour that include writing him letters up to 30 pages long, and – with two of her friends – winning grants to study with him on the set of Paris, Texas, without asking him if it would be OK. When she did, Wenders looked into the distance, and said: “Oh well, you better come along then.” Dean Lent, who went on to shoot Gas, Food Lodging, studied cinematographer Robby Müller obsessively on the set of Paris, Texas. Her second mentor was Martin Scorsese. His Universal deal in the mid-1990s included the capacity to produce five smaller-budget features. His then-girlfriend, Ileana Douglas, asked for a meeting with Anders, they got on well, and decided to make Grace of My Heart (Anders’ 1996 movie, set in the Brill Building). Scorsese had planned a Lieber and Stoller biopic himself, but couldn’t get the knots out of his story. When Anders was briefly away from the Grace set, star Matt Dillon found himself working under Scorsese. “I can’t believe you left me with this hack,” he told her.


2. Chicago fired
Anders’ Belgian producer, Carl Colpaert, picked up Gas, Food Lodging’s source novel – Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt by Richard Peck – at a thrift store for 10 cents, and optioned the rights. Anders wrote two drafts of the script, in the process scrapping the Chicago setting, streamlining Trudie’s character – “you can’t be both the town slut and the most popular girl in school”, adding a sex life for the mum (“a tired woman who just worked and raised the kids”) – and removing a third kid “because to be honest, [the mum] had enough to do”. By the time filming commenced, almost all of the material was her own.


3. ‘I’m never gonna cease to roam’
The film was set in New Mexico “because the producers wanted to go to New Mexico”. Anders was determined not to shoot somewhere too beautiful, like Santa Fe, as the basic drabness of the setting was integral to her vision, which coupled the mundane and the magical. The scenes set inside the trailer were filmed in a trailer home, put in a warehouse for absolute control over the setting.


4. Caving in
Nick Cave was the original choice for Robert Knepper’s character, an English rock-collector, which would have been ideal, as he spends most of his time in caves. An unnamed, high-profile English actor was then cast, but then dropped out at the last minute. Anders apologised for Knepper’s accent, but it’s actually pretty good.


5. Balking at Barrymore
Anders tested "every actor of that age who is now famous" for the part of Shade, including Drew Barrymore and Reese Witherspoon. She wanted the character to have a range and complexity that was beyond the capabilities of everyone aside from Balk. "All the actors were either bubbly or dark, but Fairuza had that lightness and depth." In my question, I'd said that Balk was "so good" in the film. "Isn't she?!" enthused Anders, adding that she is "great in everything". (I've discussed Fairuza's erratic career here.) She singled out the scene in the hospital room (perhaps the greatest thing the actress does in the picture), joking that she was "incredibly grateful to Milos Forman, as he had taught her to cry effortlessly on demand" while filming Valmont. Anders said Balk's performance resonated so much because "she was quite like that character, and she had been raised by a single mum", as had Skye, while Anders and Adams were both single parents themselves.


6. Darius' vassal
Is Darius, the object of Shade's initial affections, gay? Anders and her editor, Tracy Granger decided in the edit that it should be unresolved. And Leitch, in his performance, had done the same thing. "He's camp, and he's probably gay, but maybe he's just a New Romantic," Anders said.


7. Up to scratch
Granger 'aged' the Elvia Rivero footage by scratching it with her stepdad's Victrola. He was Richard Brooks, and it was the one he had used on the set of In Cold Blood. Her parents, incidentally, were two greats of the British screen: the ethereal Jean Simmons, and matinee idol Stewart Granger.


8. Lost in translation
Anders' one regret with the finished film is that she didn't subtitle the Spanish dialogue (though the Rivera sequences were subtitled when it screened on Channel 4, and I have the beaten-up pan-and-scan video to prove it). The reason, apparently, was money, and Anders' concern that audiences weren't used to watching subtitled films. Mascis was particularly disappointed when he saw the completed version, saying that it spoiled the climactic scene between Shade and Javier.


9. Allison's starting to happen
Having studied the French New Wave, German New Cinema and British Free Cinema at UCLA, Anders (top of frame) wanted to be part of a movement "and then I was": the American arthouse scene of the early '90s. She's directed seven features in total, as well as three TV movies, and has directed episodes of The Mentalist, Orange Is the New Black and a certain vapid show about four single women exploring Manhattan's dating scene. Though Anders isn't a big fan of TV, those four Sex and the City episodes keep the money rolling in even now, and have presumably helped her to realise other, more personal, projects.


10. Terrence's stamp
An essential 10th insight courtesy of the Telegraph's Tim Robey, who asked Anders about the apparent influence of Terrence Malick's breathtaking Days of Heaven, perhaps the most beautiful colour film ever made, which he'd spotted in Shade's voiceover and the final shot. You're right, said Anders, and it was intentional.

... and finally...


Those are not typos above. After all these years, we FINALLY have an answer on the title. It is not 'Gas Food Lodging' (as in the BFI's programme) or 'Gas, Food, Lodging' as it's frequently written but, erm, 'Gas, Food Lodging' (kudos to IMDb, who have it correct). "We couldn't afford a second comma in the credits," according to Anders, which is NOT an explanation and renders the above poster INACCURATE.
***

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Rauschenberg, Moonlight and Simon Pegg's epiphany – Reviews #260

Cultural excursions, 11 March to date. I also have this stupid thing called Choose Your Own Twadventure, which you can take part in here.

FILMS



CINEMA: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) – An intensely beautiful, compassionate film in three parts about a quiet, 'soft' African-American boy being battered by the inner-city experience as he tries to deal with his tortured sexual awakening.

Barry Jenkins' movie has something of Soderbergh's captivating coming-of-age film, King of the Hill, and the same poetic eye as Killer of Sheep and Half Nelson – a camera lapped by waves or jostled by a crowd of laughing boys, fingers spreading in the sand during orgasm – but it feels revelatory and revolutionary in its subject matter, its impeccable structural control and its innate sensitivity, which strips away the distancing, self-mythologising bravado of gang culture to find something vulnerable, human and humane.

Three generations of Chirons and Kevins lead a flawless cast, and from the breathless dash for the sanctuary of a junkie's den to that steadicam shot trailing Black as he heads to the climactic encounter, Moonlight is masterfully directed: an enveloping, once-in-a-lifetime film about the constancy, malleability and complexity of human nature, the pain and ecstasy of love, and the world's vicious but not quite unrelenting assault on the weak. (4)

***



CINEMA: Raising Arizona (Joel Coen, 1987) – This early Coens comedy is sometimes too cartoonish for my own dubious taste, but how do you criticise something that’s clearly exactly what the makers wanted it to be – and so damn good most of the time?

Simon Pegg presented Raising Arizona as part of the BFI’s Screen Epiphanies strand, explaining that it paved the way for Shaun of the Dead, opening his eyes to the fact that even cuts and camera angles could be comic, then took his seat in the auditorium, hooting with laughter throughout. The film has some of the best lines the Coens will ever write (“Do these balloons blow up into funny shapes?” “No... unless round is funny”), a lovely performance from Holly Hunter as a straight-shooting cop who wants a baby so badly that she crosses to the other side of the law, and a genuine sweetness too often absent from Joel and Ethan’s films, particularly in its beautiful closing sequence. It also has Trey Wilson as unpainted furniture tycoon, Nathan Arizona (catchphrase: "... or my name ain't Nathan Arizona").

But at times it’s too noisy, mannered and self-satisfied to get truly lost in, yelling its own subversiveness and invention in your face, or sometimes just yelling for no good reason. It’s possible to be madcap without just being annoying, as Carole Lombard can tell you, and there’s so much here that’s original, interesting and affecting that I wish the Coen Bros had wanted to make a slightly different film, one that I’d really like (I appreciate that this is a selfish, unrealistic proposition).

As a man immune to the self-mythologising post-modern joke that is Nicolas Cage, I’ve got to admit that at times he can be just great, and here (a year after his very worst performance, in Peggy Sue Got Married) he finds a truth in caricature, like Mike Leigh or the young Johnny Depp, that’s really impressive. There are great gags all over the place, showy shots – including that one over the car, up the ladder, through a window and into Florence Arizona’s mouth that the Coens put in as a challenge to Sam Raimi, who bettered it in Evil Dead 2 – and then there’s Holly Hunter singing Down in the Willow Garden. For that I can forgive, if not forget, John Goodman’s endless shouting or those moments when even the leads are asked to push it just a mite too far.

BONUS QUOTES:

“I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno. They say he's a decent man, so maybe his advisors are confused.”

"Need a beer, Glen?"
"Does the Pope wear a funny hat?"

(3)

***



Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Alex Gibney, 2010) – A standard Alex Gibney doc, this time about disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, with the usual questionable pacing and shambling structure, but also a typically fascinating subject and the filmmaker’s strong journalistic insights in his favoured areas of capitalism, corruption and moral capitulation.

Spitzer was a crusading DA known as ‘the sheriff of Wall Street’ who sought to curb the spectacular, immoral excesses of AIG, Merrill Lynch et al, only to be turfed out of office for using prostitutes. Starting, peculiarly, at the end of the story, and then sort of running in loads of different directions at once, Gibney examines who Spitzer was, what he stood for and why he threw it away, while underlining the hypocrisy and dubious practices of corporate America.

The subject, to give him credit, is fairly frank about his failings, and blames no-one else for his downfall, which feels like not just a betrayal of his family, but also a dereliction of duty as the sub-prime scandal set to blow. The flipside, of course, is that Spitzer bothered to go after these companies like no-one ever had before, so in political terms we're judging him by his own high standards.

There's the usual strong, confessional interview footage, full of Gibney's precise, probing questions, as well as some solid material, though the scuzzy direction doesn't always make for the most coherent storytelling, let alone alight on the most telling juxtapositions. There's a good story here, though, told without sensationalism or triviality, and with a gallery of interesting, colourful supporting characters, including giggly, morally bankrupt pimp, Cecil Suwal, and peroxided right-wing weirdo Roger Stone, who's a fantastic character and also a massive twat. (3)

See also: I wrote about Gibney's 2013 film, The Armstrong Lie, here.

BOOK



Anthem by Ayn Rand (1937)
– Rand’s short dystopian novel is a short, precise critique of totalitarianism, anticipating both 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, and climaxing with the heavy-handed ‘anthem’ of the title: a two-chapter crystallisation of the philosophy that she would late name ‘objectivism’, in which the ego is king. Here the style is substance, the story written in the first person plural at irregular intervals, as Equality 7-2521 – working by candlelight, underground – attempts to understand their flaws and sins, borne of a latent individuality in the age of the masses. There are allusions to the hypocrisy and anti-intellectualism of Soviet Russia (a Russia that robbed the Rand family of everything it had), but it’s not the box-ticking revenge porn you might fear, setting its sights higher and broader than just Bolshevism, with allusions to the torchlight regressiveness of Nazi Germany, and a firm grasp of an alternative ideology, even when pitting it against her usual straw man.

Rand hadn’t fully mastered English when she first wrote the novel, so she returned to it in 1946, after the success of The Fountainhead (1943), cleaning up passages while retaining – as she was clear to stress in her foreword – the meaning of the book. Though the allegory here is cleaner than in The Fountainhead, it’s primarily because Anthem is more simplistic and mannered, lacking the colour, depth and scope of character of that daring, problematic odyssey, and with a climax that seems more like over-the-top wish-fulfilment than an inspiring call-to-arms. For all that, it’s a distinctive and memorable work that does what it’s trying to, highlighting the ideological failings of populist extremism (while extending them to anyone exhibiting basic empathy), with flashes of stark, brutal poetry as Equality 7-2521 learns to love and question and create. (3)

Next up: Just Kids by Patti Smith. I'm nearly done.

***

EXHIBITION



Rauschenberg (Tate Modern)
– Another trip to the Tate Modern, where I stand forever suspended (or rather furiously oscillating) between the opposing schools of ‘This is extraordinary’ and ‘This is pretentious bollocks that means nothing’. I always like it if there’s a good painting somewhere, for the assurance that the other forms of expression are an artistic choice and not a necessity born of basic talentlessness. Rauschenberg’s tactile, 3D works in constant motion are really strong and alive (a bubbling pit; stainless steel machinery reassembled, water running through it forever) and some of his transfers and screen prints are a striking, even overpowering synthesis of ancient themes and modern style, multimedia news and disposable pop culture ripped free and fused to depict a time of drowned hope, desperate sorrow and impotent rage.

Often you see a burgeoning new style develop across a single series of works: his 34 modern illustrations for Dante’s Inferno begin as bitty, exploratory and hard-to-follow; by 32, the painting is tying together the disparate borrowed visuals (transferred from newspapers using lighter fluid and pressure from an empty ballpoint pen) into something cohesive, immersive and provocative. At other times, context makes us at least contemplate the dynamic he is attempting: a wooden box parodying similar holders of religious artefacts but filled with dirt could be a comment on the irrelevance of faith, but seems here to be about the miracle of nature, Picasso’s “found objects” given an earthy, pastoral grandeur. Elsewhere he utterly lost me, with ‘sculptures’ that were just a couple of cardboard boxes – one complete, one disassembled – and ballet routines (captured on video) rendered stale by crass camerawork, the performers’ dated stylistics and choreography that seems turgid, limited and graceless.

As an overview, this exhibition is sumptuously put together, and (as a newcomer to this work) seems close to definitive, but Rauschenberg didn’t move me like Malevich, Matisse or much of the Abstract Expressionism I saw at the Royal Academy last year. It did, however, include the greatest artwork description in the history of the world:



(2.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 17 March 2017

REVIEW: An American in Paris at the Dominion Theatre

Wednesday 15 March, 2017



This explosive, intelligent stage version of MGM’s 1951 masterpiece, direct from Broadway, sags now and then in its book, but offers unmissable entertainment of a type rarely seen in the West End.

We began in the tumult of postwar Paris, less the escapist playground of the film and more a ravaged battleground where demobbed soldiers try to forget the war, women feel in perpetual danger and collaborators are being beaten and getting their heads shaved. Craig Lucas’s script offers a rejigged, re-ordered narrative that adds extra Gershwin songs (the film doesn’t have nearly enough), underscores the action with a battle fatigue that accentuates its more carefree moments, and leads to a putting-on-a-ballet climax that’s imaginatively conceived in narrative and artistic terms.



Its great masterstroke is turning the sardonic narrator from the grouchy, alienated middle-aged Adam played by Oscar Levant into David Seadon-Young’s war vet (above, left), an inspired innovation that lends a far greater heft to his sequences, if rather undermining the appeal of Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild), one of three protagonists now in love with the same woman, the gamine ballerina, Lise (Leanne Cope, a worthy successor to Leslie Caron). Jerry is a painter who truly cares for Lise, but when you put this character into a more realistic, grounded world of Nazis, collaborators and the battle between duty and romance, his charming rom-com stalking comes off as a little thin, selfish and, y’know, sexist. The other romantic possibility for Lise is her fiancée, Henri Baurel (Hayden Oakley), a French aristocrat who dreams of being a musical-theatre star, and who here is a nervous, cautious man with a rather abrupt back story.



Fairchild and Cope (above) both originated their roles on Broadway, and they’re superb dancers, while transmitting the basic traits that make their characters appealing: Jerry’s ease in his skin, his irreverence and athleticism, Lise’s combination of the elfin and the erotic, a latent fire burning beneath an ethereality that – like Audrey Hepburn’s – seems dictated by the privations of war. Their characterisations can’t quite bridge the shortcomings of the script (Jerry’s quite selfish, Lise is something of a cipher), but their song-and-dance talents are unimpeachable. The moment that the climactic ballet explodes into sensual life is pure exhilaration, with shades of Bob Fosse’s revolutionary, finger-clicking goodness in Kiss Me Kate. In support, Zoe Rainey makes for a sparky, hugely appealing Milo (younger, and funnier, than Nina Foch), Oakley is pretty good balancing the inconsistencies of his character, and Seadon-Young is simply terrific as the lovelorn, limping war vet who channels his unhappiness and romantic impotence into his art.

The staging is similarly superb, making the most of the stage’s depth through some striking compositions, and mixing the irregular patterns and primary colours of ‘50s art with the more impressionistic style of the MGM film, and many of its most enchanting, striking and transportative effects achieved through brilliant projections and lighting. That sense of intelligent, contextualised innovation extends to the musical numbers, which are an absolute knockout. Beginner’s Luck is the epitome of vibrant, perfectly choreographed, 1950s-style showstopping magic, as Jerry crashes Lise’s workplace at the Galleries Lafayette perfume counter, turning the room into a riot of colour, extravagant hoofing and umbrellas.



When Henri makes his live debut, we get all the art deco razzmattaz of a ‘30s Warner musical, but framed in the realism of an awkward, halting first show that explodes into fantasy. It’s lovely too that its post-modern but idealistic escapism extends to Adam losing his limp and getting to share the spotlight (though it loses a fraction of a point for Oakley being unable to hit that climactic top note, instead going down an octave). I Got Rhythm too tinkers with the film’s formula, bringing all three love rivals together for the first time and incorporating an inspired, hushed, candlelit middle-eight with diegetic sound. Character-led, grounded numbers that still thump it out of the park are about the best thing that musicals can offer, and there are several here. And though we don’t get the breathtaking Seine-side dance to Our Love Is Here to Stay that’s one of the MGM movie’s great virtues, this stage version does incorporate several Gershwin songs from other shows, including his fondest, saddest, most romantic creation – Our Love Is Here to Stay – as well as The Man I Love and, erm, Fidgety Feet. The vocals are strong while retaining a fair amount of the subtlety and personality that can be lost in musical theatre, and the orchestra is fantastic: punchy and precise, like John Wilson at his considerable best.



The show climaxes with a ballet that’s still a hypnotic fantasy of love, but now coupled with a putting-on-a-ballet climax, as Lise makes her first public performance, but can only acquire the requisite passion by calling Jerry to mind. For a little while you wonder if they’ve botched it by junking the movie’s journey through different artistic styles – though Singin’ in the Rain is now the best-loved and most-respected of all MGM musicals, in the ‘50s it was An American in Paris, and particularly this sequence, that was regarded as the studio’s supreme achievement – but with Jerry’s entrance it becomes a powerful, extremely sexy and all together beguiling proposition: the bob-haired Cope draped across Fairchild, or swaggering, shoulders-back, towards us, as he pirouettes furiously, exuberantly around the perimeter of the stage.

It’s a stunning highlight of a show that’s less slick, seamless and smooth in the book than it needs to be – the jokes are patchy, and a laboured subplot about Henri’s parents isn’t helped by shallow sentimentality and broad playing – but knows its strengths, with some intelligent weighting towards the political context, fine acting, and musical moments that are everything they should be and more. And since I was lucky enough to land a ticket for the first night, I also got to see Leslie Caron come and take a bow. (3.5)


(Pic credit: Heidi Bohnenkamp)

***

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 10 March 2017

John Huston, Casque d'Or and Peckinpah's last Western – Reviews #259

That's it. There is nothing else.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)



I wrote a piece earlier this week about 10 things I'd learned from reading Paul Seydor's recent book on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but I fancied sharing some of my own thoughts on the movie, and what better way than by treating myself to a home viewing of the 1988 Turner Preview cut:

*A FEW SPOILERS*

When the world’s premier director of Westerns announced that he was making a movie about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it seemed the perfect marriage of artist and endeavour, but everything went wrong. Studio politics, an influenza epidemic and Peckinpah’s own self-destructive behaviour turned a dream project into a nightmare, and when a truncated version of this bleak, knackered Western about the dying of a world reached cinemas, it left critics fuming and audiences cold.

Fast forward 15 years to 1988 and Turner’s unveiling of a version hurriedly prepared for the first test screening, which ran 16 minutes longer and included several unseen or extended sequences, including the ‘Tuckerman’s Hotel’ chapter featuring Elisha Cook, Jr, an epilogue that revisits the prologue, creating a full framing device, and longer versions of the first scene in Fort Sumner, the prison escape and Peckinpah’s appearance as the coffin maker. Less auspiciously, the edit was missing the scenes between Garrett and his wife, Chisum (Barry Sullivan) and prostitute Ruthie Lee (the former cut in error), and wasn’t looped, fine cut or finished, slightly undermining the idea that it was somehow a definitive version of the film. As Peckinpah scholar Paul Seydor has made clear in his fine book on the film: there is no definitive version.

In any edit, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a compromised, sometimes confused film that manages to both debunk and pay homage to the mythos of the Old West, as newly-elected sheriff Pat Garrett slowly circles his old friend Billy the Kid who is, in the words of Townes Van Zandt, “just waiting around to die”. Garrett, as realised by James Coburn, is implacable, instinctive and methodical, effortlessly in command in any scenario, for all the good it does him. He is a man who is never at peace, and whose only evident ethos is to do a job well. Billy (Kris Kristofferson) is a round-faced, carousing kid gone slightly to seed, whose much-heralded freedom seems simply to be the freedom to bum around whoring and shooting up places, his existence essentially meaningless and inert, as he threatens revenge or revelation, but only ever acts to reinstate a status quo.

This episodic movie alternates between the protagonists, and though some of the chapters are sluggish or lacking Peckinpah’s usual punch (the prostitutes montage is absolutely shit), there are several masterpieces: Charlie Bowdre’s death scene; the murders of Bell and Ollinger with a line torn from history (the pre-emptive: “And he’s killed me too”); the taut, hard-nosed suspense sequence and gun duel at Horrell’s trading post, featuring Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam); the pastoral but ominous, eerie raft scene (which plays perfectly without words, a late decision by Peckinpah); and the climactic passage, which floors and astounds me, no matter how many times I see it. Though the death of Slim Pickens’ Sheriff Brady by the river is my favourite scene in the picture, it plays so much better in the 2005 Special Edition, which simply added several missing scenes to the extant theatrical edit (as well as re-cutting the prologue), and so features Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ vocal here, as well as possessing a vibrancy in the colours that has been lost in the degrading stock of the Preview edit (only one copy of which ever existed).

Those passages of sustained brilliance, and the film’s general audacity of vision – entirely shorn of glamour and romance – are allied to a presentation of the West that I find both horrifying and seductive. Leonard Maltin complained in his review of the film that “there isn’t enough contrast in the two low-key performances”, but it’s that complexity of characterisation I find so fascinating. Peckinpah and screenwriter Wurlitzer show legality and wrongdoing as simply a matter of timing, deftly and superbly articulating the ease with which outlaws and lawmen swapped places.

Peckinpah never finished the film and never made another Western, but what he left here (quite literally, actually, quitting the film after the second preview) is a remarkable if uneven achievement. He only told Seydor that he regretted the film sinking from trace because it was “one of Jimmy Coburn’s best performances” and I’d go further – it’s simply his best. Nothing else he did approached the multi-faceted, morally labyrinthine Garrett, the character’s inner life laid bare across 122 minutes, and though Kristofferson can’t match him and Dylan can’t act (or at least can’t speak dialogue, his Chaplinesque presence is genuinely effective), the supporting cast is one for the ages, with fine work from Sullivan, Elam, Pickens, Cook, Chill Wills, Katy Jurado, Paul Fix, Harry Dean Stanton and Gene Evans. The film can be shabby and shambling and silly, frustratingly imperfect and banteringly macho in the most tiresome way, but it’s also one of the most original, important and poetic Westerns ever made: the slow, circuitous slaughter of a man resigned to his fate by another trying to change his destiny and his duty. (4)

***



CINEMA: Casque d'Or (Jacques Becker, 1952) – Man, I love French films: their easy sensuality and heavy irony, their crushing cynicism and sparkling wit, and the apparently effortless technical fluidity that so often leaves their British counterparts trailing in the dirt. This one is from Jacques Becker, whose other best-known movie was the film noir Touchez pas au grisbi, and for a long time it's wonderful: a crime-flavoured turn-of-the-century rom-com based on a notorious tabloid scandal, and full of sex and danger and moustaches.

Simone Signoret is absolutely enchanting as Marie, a prostitute in the Paris of 1902 (her blonde hair the 'golden helmet' of the title), who ditches brutish pimp Raymond for carpenter Manda (Serge Reggiani), a man who really loves her. Their halting romance leads to tragedy, thanks in part to the machinations of local crime kingpin Leca (Claude Dauphin), a sadistic, manoeuvring misogynist so utterly vile he should be in Trump's cabinet.

It's a film full of surprises, of irony and of heady moods, each one effortlessly evoked by Becker's thoughtful direction and Signoret's intoxicating performance: she falls in love with us on a dancefloor (her eyes somehow trained unstintingly on us, and on Manda, even as she turns), surprises us in a blissful bucolic neverworld, and watches from the window of a cheap hotel as fatalism plunges her into the unthinkable.

It's such a superb performance, perhaps the best of hers that I've seen: playful, amusing and appealing, her Marie so ridiculously sexy and thoroughly decent, yet also largely credible as a powerless whore in a brutal, unforgiving man's world that may be stylistically sanitised for '50s cinema, but is just as emotionally uncompromising as it should be, Becker steadfastly refusing to sugarcoat or dress up the compromises she's forced to make, most strikingly in one particularly sickening moment in Dauphin's apartment. That it follows hot on the heels of that utterly beautiful sequence in the church (my favourite scene of the film) makes it even harder to take.

It's the story that lets Signoret down, the plotting starting to plod after a lo-fi prison escape attempt, as if someone nudged Becker and handed him a checklist of film noir clichés and weepie tropes, compounding the compromises of a slightly synthetic period atmosphere (despite a compressed, repressed intensity about Reggiani, in this distracting get-up it's hard to be immersed in his plight). There are still a couple of fine, wry touches in the closing reels, but the final third lacks the distinctiveness and novelty of what precedes it, and gives its star less to do − or at least less interesting things to do.

Tragedies, least of all conventional ones that force her to suffer, were never really Signoret's forte: she was too lively and saucy and tough-but-tender. When I say I love French films, that encompasses so many of hers, but I'll always love the acidic tang of Les Diaboliques, La Ronde's effortless panache, the weighty dynamism of Melville's Army of Shadows and this one's irresistible first hour more than, say, the formulaic functionality of Thérèse Raquin or Casque d'Or's over-familiar closing reels. (3)

***



CINEMA: Fat City (John Huston, 1972) – An unglamorous, unsentimental and uncompromising boxing flick, with John Huston trying on some New Hollywood togs and finding that they suit him just fine. For an hour, he bobs and weaves – playing much of the story for laughs – before whacking us repeatedly in the solar plexus, as his film finds both its rhythm and its raison d'être.

Stacy Keach is down-and-out ex-boxer, Billy Tully, his zigzag descent into manual labour, irreleverance and alcoholism contrasted with the similarly haphazard ascent of pretty-boy pugilist, Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges). We never see Bridges win a fight, and we never see Keach lose one, but by the end of the film, one has the American Dream and the other is fagged out and fucked.

I'm not an enormous fan of that first hour: it commences with back-to-back scenes soundtracked only by songs – while both sequences are fine in themselves, that quirk is without real artistic or dramatic value – and when the film does get going, its moments of everyday tragedy are somewhat lost in an episodic structure and a style that leans too much towards the glib and cartoonish.

It's not unusual for Huston to segue from comedy to pain (as I believe Tom Jones once sang): he did it in his two great late films, Wise Blood and The Dead, but there it was underscored by melancholia, rather than interrupting it. It doesn't help that several of the bit players can't really act.

In the final 40, though, the gloves come off, and the film's punches begin to really land. The virtues that have been obscured by padding and side-stepping become blindingly obvious: Keach's bruising, multi-layered performance, the bitter poetry of Leonard Gardner's dialogue, Susan Tyrell's fantastically annoying turn as the tragic, throaty, and self-pitying Ona, and Conrad L. Hall's sumptuous cinematography, which captures both the glory of a Californian summer and the horror of perhaps cinema's worst home-cooked meal.

These final reels hinge on a thrilling, gruelling and magnificently ugly fight, and the unceremonial slide to the bottom that follows it, closing with one of my favourite unresolved endings (or is it? From this one scene, perhaps we can plot these characters' next 10 years). But what heralds them is a scene every bit as remarkable, as Keach's manager turns up to drag him out of a bar, and the grey-faced, drink-sodden fighter lets it all hang out. "Ever since my wife left me, it's just been one thing after another," he says, and it's so raw I had to catch my breath. (3)

***

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Ten things I learned about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

The latest in my semi-regular series.



I stumbled across Paul Seydor’s book, The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (2015), while passing time between BFI screenings. Since it was 35 quid, I bided my time and purchased it from the morally reprehensible tax-avoiding online behemoth Amazon, which was selling it for just £16. The blurb promised an examination of Peckinpah’s final Western that would trace a line from verifiable fact through a deluge of fiction (beginning with Pat Garrett’s own ghostwritten book, published five years after he killed Billy the Kid) to the legendary, technically unfinished 1973 film.

It does that in a different way to how I expected – after a chapter on near-contemporary retellings, there’s little on treatments of the story besides the three which directly shaped Peckinpah’s movie – but Seydor methodically and often thrillingly examines the way that the project developed. Along the way, he sheds light on how metamorphosing Billys and Garretts play into different interpretations of philosophy, mythology and American history, offers a rare insight into the collaborative process that is moviemaking (through interviews and his own insights as a respected Hollywood film editor), and delivers a respectful but frank and unsentimental portrait of a master director who was also a tragic, tragically self-destructive alcoholic.



I embarked upon the book expecting a chronicle of how Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett have been portrayed in literature and cinema, culminating with a recreation of life on the set of the 1973 movie. Instead, I got a lesson in Peckinpah, movie editing and the endless evolution of a film that has never seemed greater – nor more flawed – than it does in Seydor’s telling. It’s more academicised than most of the film books I read, but it’s never pretentious, and if his chronicling of script revisions is only for diehard Sam fans and film nerds, those fans should find it invaluable, because of the way Seydor demonstrates that even small changes can disrupt a film’s balance or enrich its dualities. Regular readers may know that I was bored out of my wits by Todd McCarthy’s Howard Hawks biography, which managed to turn one of the most fascinating Hollywood careers into a dispassionate, insight-free collection of names and dates. Seydor’s prose style can get a trifle wearying (he loves a list of job titles), but at others it’s scintillating, and there’s no questioning his passion, intelligence and insight. The sections in which he responds to criticism on the internet are also delightful – he deals with criticism about as calmly and rationally as me (please don't get me, Paul, I liked your book).

Here are 10 things I learned:


1. Bloody well-educated Sam
I didn’t know much about Peckinpah’s background, and was surprised to learn that the hard-living, foul-mouthed, macho director studied drama at the University of Southern California, and began his career as a stage director, producing a well-received, hour-long version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie during his senior year, followed by the playwright’s Portrait of a Madonna for his master’s thesis. He was also a fan of foreign films – particularly Rashomon (above, Kurosawa), The Magician (Bergman), La Strada (Fellini), Red Desert (Antonioni) and Pather Panchali (Ray) – and, despite preconceptions to the contrary, a liberal Democrat.


2. Pat Garrett and Peckinpah the Kid
Peckinpah first approached the subject of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid when he was asked to adapt Charles Neider’s novel, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones – a barely-veiled treatment of the subject – in 1957. When Stanley Kubrick took over the project, he chucked out Sam’s screenplay, before leaving the project himself after clashes with his star, Marlon Brando. When the film eventually appeared in 1961 as One-Eyed Jacks, it had little of Neider and virtually nothing of Peckinpah. One of the few lines from Sam’s script to make the finished project was Brando’s “Answer me, you big tub of guts,” which is admittedly memorable but not representative of his remarkable and elegiac adaptation.


3. Blood and Gore
Arthur Penn helped usher in the New Hollywood era with the bloody Bonnie and Clyde, a new milestone in movie violence until Peckinpah far surpassed it with The Wild Bunch. Penn made his own Billy the Kid film in 1958, The Left-Handed Gun, which perpetuated one popular myth (William Bonney was right-handed, but the existing, mirrored portrait of him is rarely corrected) while offering more then-popular Freudianism than anyone can handle. Scriptwriter Gore Vidal brilliantly described it as "a film that only someone French could like".


4. Playing the Wurlitzer
Rudolph Wurtlizer’s script for Peckinpah was originally just called ‘Billy the Kid’, and detailed a man in decline, his shooting and his behaviour becoming similarly erratic as he slipped into alcoholic dissipation. As he had done with his Hendry Jones script, Peckinpah removed all scenes of Billy’s drunkenness – and in fact, all references to Billy drinking at all, bar two. Seydor argues convincingly that the director found the material too painful to deal with, being in 1957 a functioning alcoholic wracked by fears over his own self-destructiveness, and by 1972 fully aware of how his drinking was affecting his work and indeed his life.


5. 'Ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence'
Among the actors suggested for Billy were Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Don Johnson, though the two closest to getting the part were Jon Voight and Malcolm McDowell, whom Peckinpah had so much admired in if…. and A Clockwork Orange. Apparently he wasn't aware of how intense Peckinpah's interest was, as he prepared for and filmed O Lucky Man!. "I would have died to have worked with Peckinpah," he told Seydor. "He was a genius, one of the greatest directors who ever lived. It's a regret I will always have that it didn't happen." Marlon Brando, Jack Palance and particularly Rod Steiger were considered for Garrett, though Coburn was always the director's first choice.


6. Print the legend
There are many ludicrous myths about the film, from a lost four-hour cut that never existed, to the idea that MGM took the film out of Peckinpah's hands and re-cut it (actually it was recut by his own editors – more below – after he walked off the project), and the idea that it was a prototype Heaven’s Gate, going massively massively off schedule and over-budget. Production did run to 72 days, rather than the completely unrealistic 58 days imposed on Peckinpah and his crew, but 8-12 days involved Sam reshooting footage ruined by a faulty lens so the film could be properly finished, three were caused by a stoppage due to an influenza epidemic that killed a crew member, and several days were lost due to bad weather (under the idiotic, obnoxious James T. Aubrey, above, MGM had just removed the 5% budget overage intended to cater for inclement conditions). The extra $1.6m spent the production is about what it would cost for an extra 14 days of shooting. Editor Roger Spotiswoode sent a brilliant, pissed-off memo to production head Dan Melnick – reprinted in the book – which details a litany of impracticalities in the post-production schedule, ending with the hilariously wide-ranging and unequivocal: “Finally the schedule is totally unrealistic and impossible in all areas”.


7. The check’s in the post
The main reason for the film’s artistic failings – and indeed its commercial ones – was the ridiculous deadline imposed by MGM for post-production. For The Wild Bunch he had had a year, and in 1973 (as now), 40 weeks was considered comfortable, 30 weeks do-able and 20 tight but possible. Pat Garrett was given 16, and by the time scheduling conflicts had been resolved and re-shoots completed, it was 13. The last dailies arrived back from Mexico a week after the first cut was supposed to have been completed. MGM needed profits from the movie to help pay for their new hotel in Las Vegas so, unwaveringly committed to the Memorial Day release date supposedly (but not actually) perfect for Westerns, Aubrey threw money and staff at the project, but what it needed was time. Roger Ebert famously mentioned in his damning review that the film credited six editors: actually only three worked creatively on the film, two were hired due to union rules and a sixth helped to implement changes late in the process.


8. The first cut is the deepest?
There is no definitive cut of the film. Aside from a TV edit dictated purely by a two-hour run-time and a ban on nudity and ultra-violence, three different versions exist. The theatrical version wasn’t “butchered”, as many contest, but was carefully completed by Peckinpah’s three editors, each of whom was committed to protecting his vision, while managing the studio’s demand to lose a half hour of the running time. In the end, they compromised at 20 minutes, bringing in a cut of 106m. Wikipedia suggests that Peckinpah regarded the 122m version screened at the first preview (aka the ‘1988 Turner Preview’, after its US TV air date) as definitive, but this is nonsense. He shared it on video with friends simply because it was the only longer version of the film he had access to after walking off the project. That version is missing the scene with Garrett’s wife (excised by mistake, then returned for the second preview), has a flabbiness born of the hectic editing schedule (Peckinpah had requested fine cuts which weren’t done), features an instrumental version of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door – sans Dylan’s vocals – over the greatest scene in the picture, and closes with an epilogue improvised in post-production, which (sort of) frames the movie as a flashback. In 2005, Seydor was asked by Warner Home Video to prepare a Special Edition, for free and with literally one hour at the controls (which just shows what contempt studios have for their audiences). He compiled a list of scenes which should be reinserted into the theatrical version to make it more complete, and recut the prologue so it was more clean, logical and thrilling, while turning the credit text yellow, as Peckinpah had wanted. None of the versions are finished, but it’s the 2005 one – which runs 115m – that I tend to watch, as it seems the closest to the director’s grand and complex vision (though who can really say).


9. 'Well there was this movie I seen one time/About a man riding 'cross the desert'
Bob Dylan, who contributes a sometimes majestic score and some of the worst line readings in movies, asked his friend Wurlitzer to get him on the project, as he was so interested in Billy the Kid. The decision was greenlit by producer Gordon Carroll, but wound up Peckinpah, who had his own pet rock star on set (Kris Kristofferson) and greeted Dylan by telling him that he was "big fan of Roger Miller". In fact, when Wurlitzer and Monte Hellman initially devised the film as a follow-up to their classic B-movie Two-Lane Blacktop, the idea was to tell a story of burnt-out rock stars using Garrett and The Kid as surrogates. Peckinpah's memos show that he thought Dylan's score needed "sweetening" (open to interpretation in a dozen ways), and on the advice of regular collaborator Jerry Fielding took the singer's vocals off the great death scene, because they were too on the nose. He later questioned the decision, but by then the vocals were back on the soundtrack, and he was off the film.


10. 'C’mon, you lazy bastard'
The book's most remarkable revelation is that when Charles Aubrey left MGM in November 1973, seven months after the film had disappeared from theatres amidst critical opprobrium, public disinterest and financial catastrophe, studio intermediary (and Peckinpah sympathiser) Dan Melnick offered Sam the chance to come back to the studio and create a definitive version. He let the chance slide, his collaborators suspecting that he knew there were unfixable problems with the film, and this way he had an easy out: he would have created another masterpiece, but the fucking studio wouldn't let him.

***



Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Peter Lorre, Sunset Song and an enrapturing trip to 1900s Brazil – Reviews #258

More erratic adventures in culture, including – but not limited to – Terence Davies's worst film, Peter Lorre on the big screen, and one of the most beautiful books I've read in years. I've just signed up for Goodreads too, I'm over here if you're interested, but the reviews will all end up on here eventually.

FILMS



Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015)
– I was lucky enough to interview Terence Davies in 2006, and even then – sidelined by the film industry and at a notably low ebb – he was talking about turning Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song into a movie. It took him nine years to realise that ambition, but I’m not sure why he bothered, or indeed what the point of this film is. I will always dearly love his early movies, and talking to Davies was one of the true highlights of my career as a journo (before I got tired of the stress and moved into creative writing and a job in the arts), but this film is not a highlight of anything, not even my weekend.

Agyness Deyn is Chris Guthrie, a rural Scottish lass who feels at one with the land, but not at one with her tyrannical father (Peter Mullan) – shades of Davies’s own childhood, so heartbreakingly rendered in his first film proper, Distant Voices, Still Lives. As everyday tragedy visits her family, she falls for sweet-natured neighbour, Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), but this is 1914 and damn it if the drums of war aren’t pounding in the background.

The film begins promisingly, but becomes increasingly boring as it progresses, with virtually no dramatic impetus. It’s no coincidence that the good scenes here – a sumptuous opening shot, soundtracked by the wind swooshing over a field of grain, the beautiful musical sequence that ends with a congregation walking into a church – are, like the great scenes in Davies’s earlier work, wordless.

Think of the ‘Tammy’ set-piece in The Long Day Closes (the greatest three minutes in ‘90s British film), the death scene in The Neon Bible, the sequence set to Peggy Lee’s ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill’ in Of Time and the City, or the funerals in both Distant Voices (cut to Jessye Norman’s ‘There’s a Man Goin’ Round’) and his Trilogy (to Doris Day’s ‘It All Depends on You), and they are all just stately, beautifully composed shots set to music. Davies is a genuinely great and utterly distinctive director, but as he’s moved to more conventional narratives, his work has lost not only its brilliance, but also its coherence. He has little talent for filming drama and none for shooting sex scenes: the first half of Sunset Song builds to a night of passion which, as I’d been warned, begins with a close-up of a man’s hairy arse.

There are moments when the film gets to you. The compositions by Davies and Winter’s Bone cinematographer Michael McDonough are at times breathtaking (the horses in the thunderstorm!), and you’d have to be extremely hard-hearted to find none of the plot developments affecting, but even when Guthrie is changed shockingly by the war, there’s a suddenness and silliness that prevents you from fully investing in the story. Likewise, though Deyn is mostly in fine form, she’s wearing more – and more artful – make-up than is surely realistic, and has at least one moment of farcical overacting that wrenches you out of the story. And though Mullan is pretty commanding as the cruel patriarch, and the scenes in which his rage is only enhanced by becoming a tubby, floppy invalid are genuinely scary, he’s… y’know… a bit much.

I haven’t seen A Quiet Passion yet or, indeed, Davies’ Terence Rattigan adaptation, The Deep Blue Sea. But of his others, this is the weakest, and I say that as no fan of The House of Mirth. It’s a beautiful-looking piece of nothing, depressing without being insightful, eventful without being dramatic, and slow without being a slow-burner. (2)

***



Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967) – Each of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass TV serials was made into a movie: The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2 had been monochrome outings starring fading Hollywood star, Brian Donlevy, each following two years after the small-screen outing. This one took four times as long to bring to movie audiences, and though that was down to money troubles, by 1967 Hammer could afford colour film, while the financial necessity of incorporating an American star had apparently evaporated, leaving the producers to make a purely artistic choice in Andrew Keir. (Fans remain divided on Donlevy – he has so much of my goodwill from movies like The Glass Key that my judgement may be clouded, but I enjoyed his stolid doom-mongering.)

The film begins at (the fictional) Hobbs’ Lane tube station, where TFL engineers unwittingly uncover a human skull, then another, and then a huge, unexplained… thing. The discovery brings together rocket scientist Prof Bernard Quatermass, the tiresomely officious and closed-minded Col Breen (Julian Glover) and a palaeontologist (James Donald) and his assistant (Barbara Shelley), the group remaining divided as to whether the untorchable, untouchable object is a V-1 bomb, a black propaganda exercise or the key to all human existence.

It's somewhat garishly shot and Kneale himself described the special effects as “diabolical”, but with 50 years’ hindsight, I found the technical primitiveness rather charming, while the film is unquestionably full of fascinating ideas about extra-terrestrial life, the occult and the evolution of man. Despite its general tendency to be somewhat static and talky, it also has several knockout set-pieces, the odd jump scare nicely complementing the eerie atmosphere generated by Tristram Cary’s score, and the mix of folklore, mysticism and science in Kneale’s politely whacked-out, cerebral script.

It’s not quite a great film, I don’t think, but it’s unusually innovative and intelligent, with one of my all-time favourite titles: you can read it a dozen ways by the end, and they’re all valuable insights into the film. (3)

***



CINEMA: The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946) – Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) is a war hero turned bedraggled bum who gets a gig driving around absolute psycho Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). When Roman's wife (Michèle Morgan) tries to take a powder with the help of her chauffeur, we relocate to Havana, as Cummings flees for his life, with pop-eyed henchman Gino (Peter Lorre) on his tail.

This proto-Lynchian headfuck, based on a Cornell Woolrich story, starts promisingly, begins to flounder, explodes into life through a dazzling twist and then fails to adequately deliver on its vast promise and possibilities. It also has a little too much silliness to keep you truly immersed (special mention for the additional accelerator in the back of Cochran's car).

The Chase is an interesting and largely entertaining noir, though, with artful direction, some very effective flourishes in the script, and a decent cast – Lorre is absolutely sensational, yet again. His timing, his counter-intuition (funny when he could be frightening, moving as he chills the blood, menacing simply at will) and his ability to steal a scene using only a cigarette are the stuff of legend. (3)

***

BOOKS



Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson (published 2013) – A collection of many of Ronson's finest features for the likes of the Guardian and GQ, from a deeply upsetting, unsettling investigation into sub-prime loans – published two years before the financial crash, and inspired by the suicide of a family man deep in debt – to the aftermath of a planned school shooting in a Christmas-themed town. Other pieces are more light-hearted, like his adventures with real-life superheroes and Deal or No Deal contestants, but none are trivial, each revealing something about humanity or the world we inhabit, whether looking at bravery, open-mindedness or the rationalisations we make for being callous.

Ronson's writing is as it always is: perhaps a little formulaic in structure, but crisp and economical, righteously angry and hysterically funny, with rich veins of humanity and self-deprecation running parallel through each story. It's his wit, honesty, basic decency and genuine curiosity that makes these stories work, preventing them from reading like exploitation or sensationalism, even though he exists to document the extremes of human behaviour. At least four of these articles have been included in previous compilations, but there are a total of 26 in the second edition of Lost at Sea, and it's worth every penny.

In recent years, Ronson has had major success with full-length books (The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Psychopath Test and So You've Been Publicly Shamed), but he does still write stand-alone stories, and his gift for getting to the heart of a story, and a person, over just a few pages remains utterly remarkable. (4)

***



Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson (2001) – A beguilingly beautiful children’s novel about orphan Maia, who travels to Brazil in the early 1900s to stay with distant relatives. There, she’s tormented by her new-found family, but finds solace in her friendships with governess Miss Minton, a child actor named Clovis King, and a mysterious boy named Finn, while discovering escape in her exploration of the seductive, enrapturing world of the Brazilian jungle.

Ibbotson’s plotting is meticulous but effortless, her prose clean and economical, and her worldview exaltingly humane, without ever being cloying or naïve. She wrote the book when she was 76, but got the idea years before, entranced by the idea of the Manaus opera house, a home for the arts in the most chaotic and supposedly uncivilised of natural environments (the building was also the inspiration for Werner Herzog’s astonishing 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo.

I got hold of Journey to the River Sea to help me pitch my own kids’ book, and began reading with a sense of duty, but it knocked me absolutely sideways, and by the end I was choked to let it go. It’s timeless but modern, character-led but immaculately constructed, and paints a vivid and unforgettable portrait of early 20th century Brazil, while drawing much of its humour and conflict from the virtues and vices of Englishness. It’s unquestionably a great book, but perhaps more importantly it’s a good book: rich in human decency, and as deeply and desperately moving as anything I’ve read in years. A masterpiece. (4)

***

Now reading: The Authentic Death of Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, by Paul Seydor.

***

Thanks for reading.