Behold such riches as have rarely been seen on Advice to the Lovelorn: one of my favourite 20 movies, two fantastic books, and the amazing psychedelic folk records that one of them has turned me onto. I also enjoyed a phenomenally intense Yasmine Hamdan performance at London's sweaty, sensational Scala, and saw the Moomin exhibition at the Southbank and the sensational butterflies at the Natural History Museum. Those sojourns will turn up in my review of the year, but for now let's talk films, books and music:
The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960) – I will never get over how much I love this movie: a film about unrequited love, with Jack Lemmon taking a verbal and physical pummeling to protect the elevator girl he loves, the beautiful Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).
She's the one left holding the sleeping pills after his spineless corporate climbing – achieved by leasing the titular abode to horny company executives – and her naïve romanticism bring them into the circle of all-time business shitweasel, Mr Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, cast brilliantly against type). Recovering in Lemmon's apartment, MacLaine begins to fall for the poor fool, but damn it if he can't quite untangle himself from acquiescence, subversience and the hollow, ill-gotten glories of corporate success, and become a mensch.
The greatest of Wilder's many masterpieces (I'd say he made nine), it's a perfect marriage of cynicism and innocence, with Lemmon perfectly balancing his character's myriad complexities, making us feel sorry for a fawning, amoral and (admittedly) piteous schmuck for 20 minutes, transmitting his character's innate sensitivity and subsequent moral awakening – inspired by his beautifully unselfish love for the bob-cutted, pixie-ish Miss Kubelik – and negotiating the frustration of a hero who'll try to set up the love of his life with his arsehole boss out of pure selflessness, then enjoy the societal and financial rewards. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Lemmon needed a tight rein on him or it was all overbearing humming and unbearable mugging. Here he does a little of that, but it's part of the densely-packed mesh of a believable, human character.
MacMurray too is superb as the evil, ageing twin of his character in Remember the Night (my favourite film), who abandons his suicidal mistress on Christmas Day and tries to fuck her on New Year's Eve. Best of all is MacLaine's performance, which she has never come close to approaching, despite decades of fine work. Her haircut might be pure MPDG, but she's a real woman, with real difficulties, delusions and selfish impulses, real pain and anger shining from those eyes, and a real, rewarding sweetness, tenderness and humanity.
In its gorgeous widescreen, monochrome, city-based cinematography and perfectly-timed blasts of melodic jazz, it anticipates Woody Allen's Manhattan, and its ending has the same joyous dash towards romance, the same profoundly understated, compassionate, off-kilter pay-off. (It's in a constant conversation with cinema too, being inspired by an incidental element of Brief Encounter and explicitly referencing MGM's all-star 1932 movie, Grand Hotel and the westerns of John Ford.) This whole film feels like perfection, but its last 10 minutes especially so, as every seed that Wilder has sown throughout the past 115 bursts into bloom, as MacLaine sprints through the streets, a crown on her head, the camera shaking as it struggles to keep up. A mention too for the scene with Lemmon, MacLaine and the broken mirror, in which every element is so perfectly integrated, from language to image to performance. I'd die happy if I could ever write something just a tenth as good.
It's a film about gentlessness, stoicism and the need to tell power to take a running jump. My film. And as good as it gets, cinema-wise. (4)
This was #19 on that all-time top 100 I put together last year.
Awakenings (Penny Marshall, 1990) – An effective, sentimental story about awkward, passionate doctor Robin Williams getting a job in a chronic hospital in the Bronx, and realising that the supposed vegetables peopling the ward – including former encephalitis patient Robert De Niro – might be alive in there after all.
For more than an hour it's like a lighter, extremely entertaining variation on One Flew Over, as Williams fights the authorities for the right to administer untested medication in an attempt to “awaken” these trapped souls, and modern-day miracles begin to happen. Then the movie becomes darker and more troubling, making it a richer, more human and more profound film, but notably less comfortable viewing.
Williams' closing speech is the kind of vague, wooly, catch-all bollocks I can't stand (who, precisely, has forgotten “work, play, friendship, family”?! Even Hitler was a fan of all four), but the rest of the film is extremely well done, with strong performances, a familiar but slick script, and some thoughtful direction, Marshall's Hollywood instincts and visual shadowing of moods augmented by some artistic touches, including fine, subtle use of handheld camera.
Its overall presentation is none-more-1990, with some of the broad strokes (and subsequent distancing) you’d expect, but also the attendant entertainment value, as the film’s edge, basic commitment to the facts and underlying sincerity begins to work away at you. (3.5)
(This viewing was in the annual pre-Eurovision slot, with my friend Vicky, following last year's acclaimed screening of We Bought a Zoo.)
CINEMA: Adam & Paul (Lenny Abrahamson, 2004) – Michael Smiley introduced this at the BFI, saying it was a film that gave him a funny feeling inside, and a movie he’d shared with friends, always asking them to pass the DVD on, rather than giving it back. Justin Johnson, chief programmer at the BFI, said people could regard it as the most hilarious film ever made, or the most heartbreaking. For me it’s not quite either, though it does have a special something about it.
It’s essentially Waiting for Godot relocated to junkie Dublin, as two addicts who’ve been missing for a month wander the streets looking for their next hit. They are gentle, meek, apologetic Paul (Tom Murphy) and the taller, quieter, grumpier Paul (Mark O'Halloran, who wrote it), and the day we spend with them is poignant and troubling and sometimes hysterically funny. The leads aren’t unfailingly convincing, but they have just the right mix of sensitivity and selfishness, as O’Halloran’s script traverses comfortable ground, then expects us to navigate abrupt, discomforting developments, like the pitiful, pitiless mugging of a kid with Down syndrome). Adam and Paul are loveable in their innocent, Laurel and Hardy-ish way, but that scene reveals a cruelty born of desperation just beneath the surface.
The film was directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who’s since gone on to big things with Frank and Room, and while you’d never mistake it for a film with a big budget, its low-rent look and the drab Dublin it presents suit the subject matter. When there is a need to slip into something more cinematic, he really delivers: the mini-flashback (or flash-forward?) in the baby sequence is a jolt of auteuristic brilliance.
Adam & Paul is a little shabby and at times too much a melange of styles (the comic scene at the gas station is superbly done, but out of step with the rest of the picture), but there’s a great feel to it: sad and humanist and quietly absurd, with a cleverly contrarian treatment of tropes: we want these characters to be happy, but their goal is the worst possible thing for them; we want them to have friends, but if they reconnect with Janine (Louise Lewis), the new mum is likely to get hooked on heroin again. That uneasiness, our complicity in it, and the touching (if not entirely original) unspoken bond between Adam and Paul – deep, unconditional, unspoken – may well account for that funny feeling, as I got it too. I suppose I'm one of Smiley's people. (3.5)
I'd also like to mention here that my tweet about the film (and Tim Farron) got RTs from Smiley and O'Halloran. But I won't, that would be both insufferable and pathetic.
CINEMA: Chinese Roulette (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976) – All the elements are here for another fine Fassbinder film – an intriguing set-up, an amusingly subversive villain, Anna Karina looking hot in a cool black bandana – but it never quite gets there, and in the meantime it’s all v-e-r-y s—l—o—w.
A married couple (Alexander Allerson and Margit Carstensen) each take a lover to their country estate, where they’re joined by their malevolent ‘crippled’ daughter, her governess, the housekeeper (Brigitte Mira) and the housekeeper’s son (Volker Spengler), an aspiring author. It sounds fascinating, but it flails impotently for an age, with Fassbinder abandoning his usual precise, methodical approach, taking a stab at a kind of cerebral Godardianism, his portentous, nebulous script directed at a halting face suffused with pregnant pauses.
Its characters are mysterious and craftily unexpected enough for it to gather momentum at times, but its intriguing dynamics and occasional surprises (a brief but brilliant off-the-wall dance sequence underlining its strong use of music; an unforgettable close up on a beaded hair net after an explosive tragedy) are bogged down by a laissez faire approach that obfuscates when it should elucidate, expecting us to basically make up both the story and what all of it means. This is typified by the titular, climactic game, which reaches a fairly worthwhile crescendo but takes an interminable amount of time to get there, forcing us to slog through synthetic dialogue, snail-paced delivery and endless silences.
It is fascinating and eerie to watch Mira standing there as Fassbinder invokes Nazi collaboration, though. The half-Jewish actress was a key performer in Goebbels’ state propaganda series, Liese und Miese, as the ‘bad’ citizen whose behaviour was a cautionary tale for German audiences.
From what I’d read, I was expecting something twisted and refreshing, with the best kid villain since Bonita Granville’s malicious gossip in These Three. What I got was less elusive than illusive, a slip of a film that you can read a lot into, much of it perhaps not really there. (2)
Electric Eden by Rob Young (2010) – This is a rare gem of a book: a beautifully-written, passionately-argued history – and defence – of British folk music from its origins in the pastoral socialism of William Morris and classical composers Holst, Vaughan Williams and Delius, through to Kate Bush, Julian Cope and Talk Talk in the 1980s. The meat of the book, though, is a conversational, amusing and astute evocation of the British folk boom of 1965-74, with vivid, condensed portraits of the likes of Pentangle, Fairport Convention, John Martyn and the Incredible String Band, their origins, obsessions and place in the canon impeccably but accessibly explained and elucidated, alongside that of an abundance of odd, often forgotten contemporaries, from the bleak and furious art rock of Comus to, erm, a moonlighting Playaway presenter involved in naked pagan rituals (these sequences are occasionally laborious or tenuously linked, but far more often utterly fascinating).
Young does a simply extraordinary job of stripping away decades of murkiness and myth, tracing an elegant through-line from 1890 to the 1980s, and confronting and considering many of the questions and controversies that dog the genre, tackling supposed middle-class hijacking – and Victorian sanitisation – of working class song preserved in the oral tradition, dismantling the associated notions of ‘authenticity’ that dominated folk in the 1960s, and repeatedly defending Morris dancing (he’s a braver man than I). He writes brilliantly about music too. There are a few too many 'tendril's and 'brew's, but his ingenious use of the pastoral vernacular, and his creating of neologisms and metaphors by riffing on album titles, is a joy to read: colourful and ambitious but precise, without the meaningless pretension of, say, '80s NME, or the drab, dryly factual contextualisation which seems to serve as music journalism today. He also takes an enormous gamble (in non-fiction terms) by slipping into allegorical fiction during the Rocket Cottage chapter, a stylistic quirk that is, if not a total success, extremely memorable.
Though a few furious pedants have found errors in the book, I’d argue that it’s better to write a passionate, revelatory book casting extraordinary light on British culture than to not bother because some bores might get cross. And while – due to the subjective nature of music – it inevitably becomes at times a personal history (Young omits June Tabor, has little time for Sandy Denny’s extraordinary second album, and neglects to even mention Fotheringay’s ‘Banks of the Nile’, perhaps the towering achievement of the era), its forays into the wider cultural context are extraordinarily invigorating, with the inclusion of A Canterbury Tale, Bagpuss and the films of Humphrey Jennings – allied to the genre’s root in socialism and a pastoral, nostalgic vision of Albion – suggests that everything I like is in some way related to British folk music.
The greatest joy of this book is the wealth of wonderful music it has inspired me to investigate. Best of the lot is the Incredible String Band, whose outrageously original psychedelic folk is illuminating each walk to and from work. Here's your four-step guide to becoming a fan:
a) Put on 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion
b) Do not turn it off
c) Do it again
d) You are now a fan
Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (1957) – This impeccably restrained, richly ironic novel is the story of Angel Deverell, a 15-year-old liar and aspirant author who seeks to transcend the pathetic life of servitude mapped out for her, through sheer, incandescent genius. Her genius, though, isn’t for art but for matching the taste of the public, which greets her epic, florid, ‘risqué’, wildly inaccurate tour-de-force, The Lady Irania, with little short of hysteria, catapulting the waspish, selfish and humourless egomaniac into a life of which she has merely dreamt, and yet has dreamt relentlessly.
Taylor’s writing is intoxicatingly crisp and precise, allowing her to define character, invoke laughter or evoke tragedy with a minimum of language or apparent effort, as she traces Angel’s path from the deprivations of working-class Volunteer Street to the peak of renown and ridicule, and then on, towards desire, rot and ruin in a landscape blanched by snow, as lives fester beneath delusion, but compassion flowers from the muck.
In Angel’s world, horrors are envisaged then never arrived upon, as others emerge from the shadows; no passage goes where you expect it to, or elicits the emotion you anticipated; and Taylor creates not so much a cautionary tale as a devastating character study: the writer as a monster, chained to her art, anti-social and self-obsessed, in communion with herself, and fashioning the world as it should be, not as it is, both on the page and beyond.
It’s exquisitely beautiful, piercingly funny, and segues from brutish to elegiac quite seamlessly, Angel’s story peopled by vividly-realised supporting characters: her protective editor, Theo, with his perfectly-manufactured kid gloves; Nora, whose blinkers are replaced by perpetual martyrdom; lazy, deceptively doting Marvell; and that callow, listless and dissipated prettyboy, Ésme. In tone, style and subject, it’s like nothing else I’ve read. (4)
Thanks for reading.