Tag Archives: Films

Simple but effective

 

Although feminism has been a continuing powerful cultural theme in the 21st century, Hollywood’s earlier treatments of its ideas and values are often seen to be dated, and therefore nowadays rarely seen. Films such as those from the late 1970s and early 1980s such as An Unmarried Woman, Julia, The Turning Point, Norma Rae, Coalminer’s Daughter, Gloria, Places in the Heart, Country. Although Nine to Five is still popular…

One of those neglected films is The Rose, set in the world of rock music. The lead character – a confident and assertive woman on and off stage, a white performer of black R&B influenced music, vulnerable to drink and drugs – was already something of a stereotype at the time of its release in 1979. However, she would probably still be a recognised type today, in the light of the death of Amy Winehouse. She was always presumed to be based specifically on Janis Joplin, who died in 1970.

The lead role was one of the first for singer Bette Midler. In some ways, she was an unusual choice for the character as her own music experience had been at the jazz/cabaret/Broadway end of the spectrum, such as with covers of  “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” and “The Big Noise from Winnetka”.

The most enduring part of the film is certainly its theme song. Written by someone who was and has remained relatively obscure, Amanda McBroom, it is in many ways a mainstream romantic ballad, played on piano and using familiar lyrical imagery. However, for me, it does its job with particular force and with a significant simplicity.

The first stanza offers four metaphors of love. Three of these suggest pain and difficulty and hardship: deep water, a sharp razor blade, the lack of food. The fourth, of a flower, offers potential and growth.

The second stanza is still using abstract nouns but is also clearly addressing individuals, and how people are often too shy and cautious and unambitious, and so will never exploit their full potential. Lack of effort and lack of courage, it bluntly states, will lead to failure.

The third and final stanza begins with more metaphors of physical suffering and difficulty – the long journey, the lonely night, the winter snow – to summarise life’s challenges, but then becomes more sympathetic and more encouraging that these difficulties can be overcome. It ends by repeating the first stanza’s metaphor of hope and potential, a flower, and now makes it more particular, a rose.

As the song progresses, the piano is supplemented , inevitably if not really necessarily, by other instruments and other voices. But it is a strong melody and in the last couplet it is again allowed to be on its own with solo piano and quieter vocals.

The song was a big hit in the USA but not at all in Britain, and my acquaintance and fondness for it was built solely on my then regular listens to the US Charts programme on BBC Radio 1 presented by Paul Gambaccini.

The song has been covered by many artistes, and I can well imagine some performances may have used primary colours rather than subtlety. Its lyrical ideas are not entirely radical or adventurous, but I found (and still find) the song powerful because of how the writer applies those ideas sparingly and simply and clearly. About happiness gained, preferably through intimate and compassionate partnership, but certainly through individual effort, resilience and courage. Many more famous songwriters have done less well.

 

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Some causes and consequences of gambling

 

D.H. Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner, first published in 1925, is an intriguing short story, not least because it has elements of form and content which might not be expected from the celebrated analyst of social class and sexual and emotional intimacy.

For instance, Lawrence used several of the tropes of fairy-tale, or perhaps parable, in his narrative. He opens with, “There was a woman who was beautiful” and continues “there was a boy and two little girls”. The boy appears to have magical, or supernatural powers, which allow him to gain great financial riches, albeit not through classic devices of physical combat or exploration, but through the more prosaic 20th century practice of betting on the results of horse races. The family lives in a house which itself seems to be alive, frequently whispering to all its residents for more money. More personal details about his characters are revealed only slowly.

A story by D.H. Lawrence seems an unlikely source for a horror film, but Anthony Pelissier’s 1949 film version does bear similarities with a couple of classics from the genre of that period. First, with the Ealing Studios compendium Dead of Night, where one story features rooms in a family home which are haunted by a dead child, another where a malevolent mirror transfers the evils of its previous home to its new modern sophisticated owner, and, more peripherally, two others have sports backgrounds! Second, with Victor Fleming’s version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where some of its rather Freudian scenes representing Hyde’s animal appetites seem to have influenced Pelissier in his depictions of Paul’s adolescent physical efforts to bring to mind the name of a money-winning horse.

Lawrence is critical of the materialism of Paul’s middle-class parents and, in general, of people living beyond their means. This couple “lived in style” but “there was never enough money”. The desire for wealth and possessions and status saturates the home – so that “the children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud”. The mother’s greed psychologically damages her young son who is determined to gain money (through luck, not work) in order to help his parents.

Paul makes an astonishing amount of money by predicting successfully the winners of horse races. Half-way through the story Lawrence mentions winnings of £10,000, the equivalent of half a million pounds in today’s money. Where does Paul’s success come from? Perhaps he has inherited it: his Uncle Oscar is clearly very interested in horse racing and bets frequently, his mother says hers was “a gambling family” which suggests the habit goes back at least to her own father. Paul says only that God has told him he is lucky.

So Lawrence seems to hint that Paul’s success in gambling is some kind of spiritual gift. Possibly to underline how the selfish materialism of parents like his leads them to fail to notice or understand their children’s qualities and interests and talents. Religious imagery is frequently used. When Paul’s ally, the young gardener Bassett, talks about the boy’s betting practice, he “was serious as a church…as if he were speaking of religious matters” and explains that Paul gets his betting tips “as if he had it from heaven”. When Paul dies prematurely, Uncle Oscar seems to acknowledge he has gifts from God which have been abused: “a poor devil… (who’s) best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”

Paul introduces the idea of money and luck to his mother “vaguely” and “timidly”, but his behaviour in putting his vision into practice is, in contrast, intense and driven and disturbing. He is described as “in agony” when trying to identify the winner of the Lincoln Handicap, presumably akin to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. He rides his wooden rocking-horse “madly” and “wildly” and in “a frenzy”; his eyes show a “strange glare” as he slashes at it with a whip, a gesture which hints at capacity for violence and an incipient sexual energy. His mother observes the incongruity anxiously: “You’re not a very little boy any longer, you know”.

Other sexual undertones could be interpreted in a description like “his sturdy long legs straddling apart” or in Paul’s statement “I got there…where I wanted to go”. Pelissier’s film certainly follows this line, through close ups, sweeping camera, low angle shots, dark shadows, staring eyes and clashing music. In Paul’s final night-time encounter with the rocking-horse which helps him identify the winner of the Derby, his hair is damp against his forehead, his pyjama jacket is open and his chest is bare.

Pelissier characterises Uncle Oscar, as played by Ronald Squire, as pleasant and supportive but roguish, and inherently as selfish as his sister and brother-in-law. Lawrence’s minor character of Bassett is aged and expanded in the film to exploit the casting of John Mills. Mills usually played characters of integrity and he does so here, as a disabled working-class war veteran who looks after Paul’s winnings and is never tempted to steal any. However, at the end, he shares guilt and regret for Paul’s death. Paul’s mother wants Bassett to burn the banknotes which she sees as “blood money” but Bassett determines to take it to the family solicitor so that the money which “cost (a life) …might (now) be able to save a few lives”.

Although Lawrence’s narrative method is spare, he does include some period domestic details. The father’s workplace is described dismissively as “some office” (probably the character’s view of his work rather than Lawrence’s). The mother does show enterprise and initiative on occasions, such as her venture as a commercial artist. Each parent earns or has inherited some money “but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up”, which is perhaps why the employment of servants has to be “discreet”, since they might have to be dismissed prematurely. The film adds some additional scenes: a debt collector visits unexpectedly so Paul’s mother has to rush off to a pawn broker in a shabby part of the nearest town to raise some money by selling her things.

The film’s closing image of the “funeral pyre” of the burning rocking horse seems to want to leave the audience with the idea that the toy has been the primary cause of the disruption in the family, rather like the haunted mirror in Dead of Night. Lawrence’s story makes clear that “the shining modern rocking-horse” is just one of “the expensive and splendid toys” which has absorbed the parents’ money and distracted them from their obligation to care properly for their children. It has been a device to ignite energy and ideas which were already building just below the surface in Paul’s personality. He is aware of the flaws in his parents’ marriage and therefore in the instability of his family life; he is reaching out to make things better and find his mother’s love through her aloof selfish materialism.

Most online analyses of Lawrence’s story seem to concentrate on the mother’s greed and its consequences for her son. Both the story and Pelissier’s film could also be seen as highly relevant to our present-day concern about the reasons for gambling and the psychological damage it can cause.

 

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Ensemble reading

 

It’s hard to be sure whether the fashion of book/reading groups has passed. Some evidence that it has: it was 15 years ago that the Glasgow-set comedy series The Book Group screened on Channel 4 and then for only a year, the much-publicised book strands of the TV programmes of each of Oprah Winfrey and Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan have long gone and BBC Radio 2 has just ended the book club element of Simon Mayo’s programme. On the other hand, the Richard and Judy Book Club continues as a commercial website, the BBC Radio 4 monthly programme Bookclub presented by James Naughtie is still broadcasting after 20 years, and the Reading Agency charity feels that it is a strategy which is still worth supporting.

I too was once part of the book group phenomenon, for eight years between 2003 and 2010, based at my local library. My initial motivation was that it would give me the opportunity to become acquainted with some less known contemporary writers. In the event, I found myself reading only a small minority of the group’s choices, although I was never disappointed by the monthly discussions.

Book groups were sometimes ridiculed because the novels which were read were perceived to fit a stereotype. Their choices were often set in the past, not too literary in style, perhaps linked to a distinct social/political theme, certainly not too long – all of these features thus providing a sense of the books being educational as well as entertaining. My own experience was that there was some truth to this stereotype.

In addition, certain titles seemed to be recurringly popular, such as Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian; books by Ian McEwan, Tracy Chevalier, Nick Hornby, Margaret Atwood. Publishers sometimes included book group questions in their editions, appearing to see ensemble discussion as more important than individual discovery.

In addition to the enjoyable social interactions, did I gain any literary satisfaction? Well, our group’s very first read was one of my most memorable: Under the Skin by Michel Faber about the extra-terrestrial visitor to Scotland was much more chilling and engrossing than the subsequent film. The other best one was Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, set in a hillbilly poor community in the USA – the meatiness of the dialogue recalled that the same person had written the source novel for Ang Lee’s film Ride with the Devil.

A few other memories? The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón successfully wove its romantic spell partly because I had recently visited Barcelona; The Road Home by Rose Tremain gave a convincing picture of a refugee experience in modern London and Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room an equally believable one of a Glasgow demi-monde; Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama provided more insight about the newly-arrived global cultural superstar. A more established book was Guiseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard whose complexities about 19th century Italian society I would definitely like to explore again one day.

One professional author visited us: Jonathan Falla, after we had read his Blue Poppies, set in Tibet. He talked engagingly about his work in progress, which drew on his experiences with the charity sector working in Africa, and which became Poor Mercy.

Popular books have been adapted into films since the early days of Hollywood. But it is noticeable how many book group favourites go on to be filmed, such as, from our group’s list, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky, The Ghost by Robert Harris, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows. (And there have even been films about fictional reading groups such as The Jane Austen Book Club and the current Book Club!) Are those aforementioned book club characteristics (set in the past, not too literary etc) especially alluring to movie producers? Or are these films just the latest examples of a long tradition?

Of course, with willing participants, interest groups of any sort will thrive. The book group in the aforementioned TV comedy included several members who were not native Scots. By coincidence, the Gramnet research network into migration, asylum and refugees, based at Glasgow University, has a book group which regularly reads and discusses relevant novels on their areas of interest.

 

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Reaching the harbour

 

Portpatrick is a picturesque harbour town in the south-west of Scotland. In the past, as well as being a fishing port, it enjoyed a period as the ferry port to Ireland.

It features as a key location in the last section of the 1950s film Hunted, as a murderer, Chris Lloyd, played by Dirk Bogarde, escapes as far as possible from his crime in London.

The town is not actually named in the film, and we are not even told we are in Scotland: Lloyd says only that he is travelling “north” to where his brother lives. We see only a harbour crammed with fishing boats and hear Lloyd’s information that “the herring fleet’s in” so a boat might be commandeered for further escape. The film is sometimes compared to The 39 Steps , although, since Lloyd is accompanied by a young boy, I was also reminded of Kidnapped.

Seeing the film recently, I was struck how little Portpatrick has changed between its working heyday and its current life as a tourist destination.

 

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Three great film openings

 

Favourite film openings? One obvious one, short but celebrated: Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. The cameras zooming through the familiar tourist sights of central Edinburgh to the drum-driven tune of “Lust for Life”, then onto the five-a-side football field and into the heroin users’ gathering place, accompanying the cynical but revealing narration of Ewan McGregor’s Renton (“Choose life, choose a job, choose a career…”). Until that time I had been familiar with the Iggy Pop/David Bowie track only through its reputation; afterwards, like many people, I could never again separate the music from those pictures. It was especially ironic that, a year or two after the film’s original release,  I heard the song re-employed as the “empowering”(!) soundtrack to my workplace’s corporate start of year presentation!

The second, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven. Not the very first scene in the Mexican village, but the next in the American border town. No flashy camera work here, but just an engrossing narrative. A few minutes in the life of two men who have advanced skills in a very specialised area – shooting accurately to wound or kill – which they rarely need to use, and who are therefore continually searching for any challenge to relieve the boredom while covering their living costs. Yul Brynner’s cigar-smoking Chris explicitly drives the funeral cart to the cemetery simply because he has overheard a conversation and has nothing else to do; Steve McQueen’s Vin accompanies him perhaps also because he wants to display his skill and character to the one other man in the town who might understand and respect him. Like the onlookers, Horst Buchholz’s willing acolyte and the Mexican farmers who are searching for help, we are impressed by the casual way in which Vin waits for the shot from the upstairs window, reasonably confident that the gunman will miss and definitely confident that he, Vin, will not miss. A few minutes later, Chris shows equally astonishing gun skill by firing two shots instantaneously with no apparent time to aim, yet succeeding in wounding the two gunmen in front of him and allowing him immediately to gain control of the situation. Elmer Bernstein’s music cheers his cart back down the hill. The first challenge has been dealt with – but the two mystery men have not yet been pulled out of their comfort zone, and the tasks ahead may be more arduous.

Third, perhaps least obvious, the minutes before and during the opening credits of Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. From the start of his career, Branagh has been keen to show that, although a product of the classical theatre, he can direct a full-length feature film with the same flair and flamboyance as any 1960s cinéaste or any 1990s music video maker. Branagh cast some big Hollywood names not previously associated with Shakespeare: Denzel Washington, already with one Oscar and two more nominations, Michael Keaton just out of Batman, Keanu Reeves just before Speed. Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is one which you could categorise as being about older lovers in the way that Romeo and Juliet is about and for young couples, and Branagh’s version employs a number of eye-catching devices in the opening. First, the poetic lament “Sigh No More” about men’s inconstancy to women is moved from the middle of the play where it is spoken by a minor male character, to the very start, written onto a blank screen as it is spoken by a woman, Emma Thompson, over a light strings backing. When the visuals arrive, it turns out that Thomson’s character, Beatrice, has been reading the poem (in a comic faux-serious manner) to a large picnic gathering of Leonato’s family and household.

News comes of the arrival of the victorious soldiers of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon. This is in line with Shakespeare’s text but depicted with far more spectacle and flourish. The prince’s small Spanish/Italian company is presented more like a US Seventh Cavalry patrol. Flags wave, horses pound, riders swagger. Patrick Doyle’s theme music is brilliantly rich and melodic and powered by full brass orchestration.

The household of Leonato is clearly thrilled to welcome these glamorous visitors. The camera zooms and cuts, picking out characters young and old, male and female; the music has become less bombastic but still urgent, with a background of girlish squeals. The real surprise is the frequent flashes of sensual nudity as both men and women prepare to meet their guests; the soldiers strip off outside and wash alfresco in a long stone water trough, the women do the same indoors. The activities are carried out communally, with gusto and without embarrassment. Editing is fast and flirtatious, contrasting white clothes and grey stone with running, bending, curving smiling flesh.

Now the music changes again as the preparation is almost over. Don Pedro, played by Denzel Washington, leads his soldiers in formation up the steps and into the courtyard of Leonato, played by Richard Briers, while the household arrives from the other direction, pointing from balconies and windows. An aerial shot makes a pleasing X shape of the principal characters together as the music comes to a stop. “Good Signior Leonato, you are come to meet your trouble,” says Don Pedro. “Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your grace,” replies Leonato.

No ordinary film could live up to this incongruously alluring opening, and Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t. So perhaps that means it is actually a poor opening and betrays a self-indulgence connected more to Branagh’s professional and personal confidence at that time, rather than a genuinely fresh and imaginative perspective on Shakespeare’s text?  Certainly I have watched the opening rather more often than the complete film. But actually that also applies to the other two, more famous, examples. That’s probably why they came to mind as Great Film Openings.

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In no man’s land

 

The series of five Westerns which James Stewart acted in for director Anthony Mann in the 1950s are celebrated for how they allowed Stewart to play some more ambiguous, less obviously likeable characters. In contrast, Stewart’s life-long friend Henry Fonda only once acted in an Anthony Mann Western, The Tin Star. Generally regarded as weaker than Mann’s other films of the period, The Tin Star is still interesting for its similarity to the superior Warlock, also starring Fonda, directed shortly afterwards by Edward Dmytryk.

In both films Fonda’s character is a figure who occupies a murky “no man’s land” between legality and crime. In both he visits a town where a group of leading citizens have strong ambitions about how the town should develop commercially.

His character in The Tin Star is Morgan Hickman, a bounty hunter who brings the bad men in dead, in contrast to the legitimate lawmen, who keep them alive, to face trial. He says that he makes a living by “(working) inside the legal system for money” and in that way, he suggests wryly, he is no different from any other businessman or tradesman. However, he is presented as a generally sympathetic character, willing to advise and support the idealistic young sheriff Ben Owens and becoming attached to the young widow Nona Mayfield and her son.

In Warlock, he plays Clay Blaisdell, who has been employed on short-term lucrative contracts as a marshal by several towns, because of his reputation as a skilful gunman who can intimidate and kill troublemakers and criminals.

It is in Warlock that Fonda’s character shows an intensity similar to Stewart’s characters in the latter’s Mann films: a hard, tough face below his blackened coiffed hair and above his expensive clothes, slow and careful in his movements. Whereas Hickman explains that he is a former lawman who turned to bounty hunting to improve his income for his family, Blaisedell seems to have discovered a particular talent which he could best use in only one way. “I’m a simple man, good only with Colts,” he says to his younger girlfriend Jessie. This has led inexorably to his career as an admired and feared gunman who accepts work within the legal system as long as it pays well, and understands that it can come to an end suddenly and bloodily. On more than one occasion he comments bluntly about how he will shoot and kill one of the troublemakers – as long as he is not shot first.

In one scene we see Blaisedell practising shooting, saying to the admiring Jessie, “Just like you practise on the piano, I practise on the Colts; the stakes are a little different but the reason is the same”. In another scene, he is greasing the inside of his gun holster. These are the practical disciplines which help him to feel always prepared and confident. Another is following “the rules”. “I remember when I first killed a man,” he reminisces to the official town sheriff Johnny Gannon. “It was clear and had to be done – but I went home afterwards and puked my insides up… Afterwards nothing was ever clear again.” All that he can do to retain some personal integrity, he adds, is to keep strictly to “the rules” in any gunfight. While striving to stay alive yourself, you give the other (probably inferior) gunman as many chances as possible.

Blaisedell’s fine clothes are part of the evidence that he does not know for sure how long his life will last and it is one way in which he enjoys the material benefits of his violent risk-taking. In contrast, his partner Tom Morgan, club-footed and possibly homosexually attracted to Blaisedell, also appreciates furnishings and art. Despite the danger, Blaisedell does enjoy the status which comes with being a town’s lawman, and disparages alternative peaceful employment such as a shopkeeper, a farmer or a miner. He accepts that his chosen lifestyle is anachronistic and that “times are changing” but feels           “there’ll be enough towns to last my lifetime”.

Hollywood Western narratives reach their happy endings either by community effort or individual heroics, depending on producer, director, star actor or period. In Warlock, made in 1959, these different factors combine to deliver a complex conclusion. Official sheriff Gannon, injured and isolated, hopes that the townspeople will help him quell the rancher McQuown and his lawbreaking employees. Blaisedall says scornfully, “I wouldn’t bet on it” – but that is actually what happens. This shows that it is the community which will enforce legal progress in Warlock and that the era of the star gunman has passed. Arguments between Blaisedell and Morgan lead to the latter’s death at the hand of the former, which effects on Warlock are shown metaphorically by the saloon first being set on fire then extinguished by a thunderstorm. Gannon has been shown to be an inferior gunman to Blaisedell, but the latter has decided that his time in Warlock is over and leaves the town without a fight, tossing his bespoke gold-handled Colt revolvers into the sand.

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A generation further on

 

In the 1990s, there were endless assessments of the century which was reaching its close. Three years ago, Leaf Collecting recalled one such, a season of the best sound films of the 20th century which BBC television screened during 1995.
Three years after that, in January 1998, BBC Radio 3 launched another grand project entitled Centurions, a two-year survey of 100 of the greatest non-music artistes of the century, one per week, focussing particularly on one of his/her key works.

BBC Genome now provides some supporting evidence for these sparse facts. As with the Cinema Century season, schedulers appeared anxious to control audience expectation and, therefore, the risk of boredom. Centurions was broadcast in the same time slot each week, on Sunday afternoons, but the 100 artistes were not covered in alphabetical order. Likewise, a companion series called The Year, providing musical highlights from a particular year of the century, did not observe exact chronological sequence.

I heard almost nothing of the series when it was broadcast, but, as with Cinema Century, I copied the list of those due to be featured, as part of (don’t laugh) my cultural education. It remains a stimulating list to review and re-assess.

Many of the 100 artistes are still familiar and celebrated. Auden, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, Lawrence, Orwell, Miller, Owen, Plath, Steinbeck and Wells are all writers still widely in print and names whom modern art-lovers might still readily come across at school or at university.

In contrast, the long-term reduction in the opportunity to see the drama of the past (either live or on television or in the cinema) has surely meant a decline in the knowledge of Beckett, Brecht, Chekhov, Lorca, O’Neill, Pinter, Shaw and Stanislavski. Foreign language writers have always been a specialist taste, so I would also assume that Borges, Camus, Grass and Sartre are much less known.

Of the English-speaking practitioners in the cinema category, no surprise today to find Disney, Hitchcock or Welles in the list – but striking to remember how Keaton and the Marx Brothers have become so much less seen during the last one or two generations. Possibly the continuing growth in feature-length film animation has made redundant their distinctive styles of living, physical anarchy. And of course all of the previously famous foreign language film-makers have been largely forgotten, even when individual works like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai are still occasionally watched.

21st century students and aficionados of visual art will surely still know and respect Dali, Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso and Pollock, but how many people who think of themselves as arts lovers recognise the architects, sculptors, potters and dancers on the list? Surely very few.

Solzenitsyn was rated highly enough at one time to win the Nobel Prize, but surely that was a political accolade rather than a literary one, as it had been earlier for Winston Churchill. By the end of the century his celebrity, so powerful in the early 1970s, belonged firmly in the past. Damien Hirst looks now like a rather modish millennial name but the status of Charles Rennie Mackintosh has probably continued to grow. And J.R.R. Tolkien, chosen before the release of all those Hollywood blockbusters, is, rightly or wrongly, probably the single Centurion whom the most people of all ages in 2018 would recognise!

The full list of the 100 Centurions is:
Chinua Achebe – novelist – Anthills of the Savannah.
Guillaume Apollinaire – poet.
Anna Akhamatova – poet – Requiem.
W.H. Auden – poet – “In Memory of W.B.Yeats”.
Francis Bacon – artist – Innocent Screams.
James Baldwin – novelist – Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Samuel Beckett – dramatist – Waiting for Godot.
Saul Bellow – novelist – Herzog.
Ingmar Bergman – film-maker – The Seventh Seal.
Elizabeth Bishop – poet – North and South.
Jorge Luis Borges – novelist – Fictions.
Bertolt Brecht – dramatist – The Good Woman of Szechuan.
Luis Buñuel – film-maker – Belle de Jour.
Albert Camus – novelist – The Outsider.
Henri Cartier Bresson – photographer – The Decisive Moment.
Constantine Cavafy – dramatist – Waiting for the Barbarians.
Raymond Chandler – novelist – The Big Sleep.
Anton Chekhov – playwright – The Cherry Orchard.
Joseph Conrad – novelist – Heart of Darkness.
Salvador Dali – artist – Burning Giraffes.
Walt Disney – film-maker – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Marcel Duchamp – artist – Fountain.
Sergei Eisenstein – film-maker – Alexander Nevsky.
T.S.Eliot – poet – The Waste Land.
Wiliam Faulkner – novelist – The Sound and the Fury.
Federico Fellini – film-maker – La Dolce Vita.
Scott Fitzgerald – novelist – The Great Gatsby.
André Gide – dramatist.
Jean Genet – dramatist – The Balcony.
Jean-Luc Godard – film-maker – À Bout de Souffle.
Le Corbusier – architect – Unité d’Habitation.
Martha Graham – choreographer – Letter to the World.
Gunther Grass – novelist – The Tin Drum.
Graham Greene – novelist – Brighton Rock.
Walter Gropius – architect – The Bauhaus.
Seamus Heaney – poet – North.
Ernest Hemingway – novelist – For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Barbara Hepworth – sculptor – Sculpture Garden St Ives.
Damen Hirst – artist – Sharks.
Alfred Hitchcock – film-maker – Rear Window.
James Joyce – novelist – Ulysses.
Franz Kafka – novelist – Metamorphosis.
Vassily Kandinsky – artist – Composition IV.
Buster Keaton – film-maker – The General.
André Kertész – photographer – A Red Hussar Going to War 1919.
Akira Kurosawa – film-maker – Seven Samurai.
D.H. Lawrence – novelist – The Rainbow.
Bernard Leach – potter.
Doris Lessing – novelist – The Golden Notebook.
Federico Garcia Lorca – poet – Poet in New York.
Robert Lowell – poet – “For the Union Dead”.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh – architect – Glasgow School of Art.
Naguib Mahfouz – novelist – The Cairo Trilogy.
Thomas Mann – novelist – The Magic Mountain.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez – novelist – One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The Marx Brothers – comedians – Duck Soup.
Henri Matisse – artist – Music and Dance.
Arthur Miller – dramatist – The Crucible.
Yukio Mishima – novelist – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
Piet Mondrian – artist – Composition in Grey, Blue and Pink.
Henry Moore – sculptor – Atom Piece.
Toni Morrison – novelist – Beloved.
Iris Murdoch – novelist – Under the Net.
Vladimir Nabokov – novelist – Lolita.
Vaslav Nijinksky – dancer – Rite of Spring.
Eugene O’Neill – dramatist – A Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Laurence Olivier – actor/film-maker – Henry V.
George Orwell – novelist – 1984.
Wilfred Owen – poet – “Strange Meeting”.
Yasujiro Ozu – film-maker – Tokyo Story.
Pablo Picasso – artist – Woman in Blue.
Harold Pinter – dramatist – The Caretaker.
Sylvia Plath – poet – Ariel.
Jackson Pollock – artist – Autumn Rhythm.
Ezra Pound – poet – The Cantos.
Marcel Proust – novelist – A La Recherche du Temps Perdus.
Satyajit Ray – film-maker – Pather Panchali.
Jean Renoir – film-maker – La Grande Illusion.
Lucy Rie – potter.
Rainer Maria Rilke – poet – Duino Elegies.
Richard Rogers – architect – Pompidou Centre.
Mark Rothko – artist – Light Red Over Black.
Jean Paul Sartre – novelist – La Nausée.
George Bernard Shaw – dramatist – Pygmalion and St Joan.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn – novelist – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.
Konstantin Stanislavski – actor – A Month in the Country.
John Steinbeck – novelist – The Grapes of Wrath.
J.M. Synge – dramatist – The Playboy of the Western World.
Wallace Stevens – poet – “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”.
Rabindranath Tagore – poet.
Dylan Thomas – poet – Under Milk Wood.
J.R.R. Tolkien – novelist – The Lord of the Rings.
John Updike – novelist – Couples.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – architect.
Andy Warhol – artist – Campbell Soup Can.
Orson Welles – film-maker – Citizen Kane.
H.G. Wells – novelist – The War of the Worlds.
Virginia Woolf – novelist – The Waves.
Frank Lloyd Wright – architect – Fallingwater.
W.B. Yeats – poet – “Sailing to Byzantium”.

 

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Home, sweet home

 

Why did people go to the cinema to see Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter  in 1978 and 1979? Because it was the latest film starring Robert De Niro, one of the big new stars? Because it was a highly praised adult drama – a little reminiscent of those by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, other Italian-American directors of the time? Because it dealt with the still pertinent issue of the Vietnam war? Because of its widely publicised and controversial scenes of Russian roulette? Perhaps yes to some or all of those questions.

Why is it worth seeing now? Because it is a rare example of big-budget Hollywood presenting the lives of the America working-class, and of a working-class experience which has been since the Vietnam war largely decimated through industry closures, unemployment, “globalisation”. A political issue correctly identified by Donald Trump during his US Presidential campaign – although possibly not, as argued by J.D. Vance, one which can be suitably tackled by him.

The Russian-American community of Clairton, Pennsylvania, depicted in The Deer Hunter is one of modest prosperity, mutual support, religion, hard work and hard play. The wedding of a young steelworker, Steven, is the main event of the first part of the narrative and the banner at his wedding reception which also marks the departure of him and two friends Nick and Michael to serve in Vietnam reads “serving God and country proudly”. Many scenes are shown of the church wedding service (presumably in a Russian Orthodox church) and religious choral music serves as a backdrop elsewhere. Several scenes of the location show a landscape dominated by smoking factories, which make people and other buildings seem small and insignificant. Steven and his friends are presented as bound together by work, the wedding, hunting in the mountains and the continual drinking of alcohol.

The Deer Hunter is in many ways similar to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2  – a largely masculine narrative, with the male characters involved in physical activity; the depiction of collectivist values; the influence of Christianity as practised through weddings and funerals; the acting presences of Robert De Niro and John Cazale. However, there are differences. The collectivist values of The Deer Hunter characters tend to be civic and religious rather than family values; the church is genuinely the centre of the community whereas in the Godfather films it is more marginal; characters’ parents are distant or intrusive or violent rather than supportive or influential.

However these positive community values are threatened by forces elsewhere. Two scenes of foreboding intrude into the wedding reception. The friends meet a soldier in uniform to whom they offer a patriotic toast but he brusquely replies “fuck it” – which hints that their eagerness to join the US forces in Vietnam may be misplaced. At the wedding it is traditional that the bride and groom drink from a dual loving cup and must spill nothing in order to guarantee good luck– but Angela the bride spills a little red wine down her white dress. We are reminded of this when we see the blood dribbling down Steven’s face after he is forced by Vietcong soldiers to take part in the Russian roulette game on the Vietnamese river and the fired gun shoots a bullet which grazes his temple.

At the end of Steven and Angela’s wedding, Nick says to Michael that he loves their home town – so it is essential that, if anything happens to him in Vietnam, Michael must not leave him there but must bring him back home. Tragically Michael is not able to do this. In the final fateful Russian roulette game, Michael does use such language to reach out to Nick – “Come home”, reminding him about the “trees” and “mountains” – but Nick’s memory has been fatally damaged by his war experience.

It is perhaps ironic that the one character who travels away from the home community to the battlefields of Vietnam yet does return safely is Robert De Niro’s Michael, since he is shown at the start as something of an isolated outsider. During most of the wedding reception he is observing events while other male friends join in dancing, and, while he loves the group hunting trips, he is still willing to risk spoiling the last one before Vietnam with an argument about sharing equipment. When he returns from battle, he at first rejects his friend Linda’s succouring advances with “I’ve got to get out, I feel a lot of distance, I feel far away”. However, he and Linda do later become intimate and at the end he appears to have found some sort of calm and composure.

The collectivism of the characters is also represented several times through music. “You’re Just Too Good to be True” by Frankie Valli is featured twice, sung together by the friends accompanying the jukebox in a bar, then performed as part of the wedding celebration by a guest singer: Valli and the Four Seasons is appropriately energetic pop music for a 1960s/1970s narrative about a group of male friends from an ethnic working-class neighbourhood just as it was in Sleepers. The deer hunting trip before leaving for Vietnam evokes a more spiritual mood. This is shown, first, by the use of religious choral music while Michael and Nick hunt, then, again, when the group return to the local bar with a deer corpse, by the playing by John, who has already been seen as part of the church choir, of a tuneful but sombre piece of piano music which silences the others into rapt attention – a moment of group harmony and empathy which contrasts with earlier scenes of argument and competition. Finally, at the funeral breakfast for Nick at the close of the film, John leads ensemble singing of “God Bless America” with its final line of “America, my home sweet home” which the group of friends do find consoling.

The Deer Hunter is a flawed film by a director who had an erratic career. The time and money spent immediately afterwards by Michael Cimino in the making of Heaven’s Gate, another narrative about American immigrant communities at a time of conflict, is one of the best-known stories of Hollywood self-indulgence. Although The Deer Hunter was publicised as a film about the Vietnam war, its best parts have long outlasted Hollywood’s fondness for that genre.

The Deer Hunter is one of the many topics of history, politics, religion and culture covered in the excellent weblog of Ross Ahlfeld.

 

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The great over-achiever

 

Richard Curtis must surely be counted one of the great over-achievers, at least in the commercial sense, in UK cinema. He started off on television as just one of the many writers on the Not the Nine O’Clock News comedy show before bagging a high-profile job as the co-writer of the first series of Blackadder with fashionable comic performer Rowan Atkinson. Although the show was at first poorly received, it eventually became a great success with many repeats of its next three series (although this happy result was surely helped significantly by the arrival of co-writer Ben Elton) and with the final series gaining regular credit as an important contribution to the modern appreciation of World War One.

Whereas Blackadder caricatured the customs and peoples of past periods, Curtis’ solo scripts for the films Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill covered the ins and outs of contemporary romance.  Famously their cinematic machineries were oiled by a certain amount of  modern risquéness,  photogenic scenes of the UK, the burgeoning popularity of Hugh Grant and glamorous American co-stars Andie MacDowall and Julia Roberts.

The great success of these films will be at least partly responsible for the fact that Curtis’ next script, Love Actually, was a multi-character narrative, which he had the opportunity to direct himself, and which was able to recruit many big UK acting names, like Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. At the time of its release in 2003, one journalist, David Smith in the Observer, suggested that the starry romantic Christmas story was so perfectly packaged that it might become the best-selling UK film of all time! I don’t think it has reached those heights , but regular TV repeats suggest that longevity is guaranteed.

 From 1985, Comic Relief was the comedy equivalent of the musicians’ Band Aid,  popular professionals co-operating to raise money to help ease the continuing problem of Third World hunger and poverty.  The charity’s website credits Curtis as one of the founders, although in its early years on-screen performers such as Lennie Henry, Griff Rhys Jones, Jonathan Ross, Billy Connolly and French and Saunders were certainly more visible representatives. By the 21st century, perhaps as other people’s profiles had waned, Curtis had become more openly associated, and a TV film The Girl in the Café was a high-profile part of Comic Relief’s association with the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign. Almost as if Curtis was saying, “I know nobody thinks of me as cool and modern, but people should pay attention to my contribution!”

The next film Curtis wrote and directed was The Boat That Rocked, about a pirate radio station during 1966-1967. I would have thought that Curtis is a bit young (born in 1956) to harbour nostalgia for the pirate stations and their musical period, but the answer to the conundrum may lie in the theory, often repeated in the media, that the next series of Blackadder, planned for after World War One but never made, would have been set during those same Swinging Sixties, full of pop music, fashion, youth culture and sexual licence. Certainly here the character of Thick Kevin seems very similar to Blackadder’s Baldric.

The Boat That Rocked allowed Curtis the unlikely chance to blend some old-fashioned narrative ideas of harmless fun oppressed by reactionary authority such as from the St Trinian’s films with others of masculine heroics during maritime danger like from Titanic. Meanwhile, the overall picture of UK society and culture is again a fond and positive one. Alongside the elongated adventures of the staff of Radio Rock are repeated scenes of school pupils, workmates, housewives and teenagers in bedrooms, all gathered around their sets, thus arguing the illegal radio station’s role in bringing the nation together.  

It is historically true that the pop/rock music stations of the period were heavily influenced by US fashion – with the genuinely American “Emperor Rosko” on Radio 1, the faux-American Tony Prince on Radio Luxembourg and almost all other disc jockeys adopting American accents and colloquialisms – so in this case a big American star, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, in the cast could be said to be perfectly reasonable from a narrative point of view, however much it might also be connected with the film’s length, budget and commercial ambitions.     

Curtis is the British Spielberg, TV producer John Lloyd has been quoted as saying, both because he has a golden commercial touch and because he wants to make the world a happier place with his work. Perhaps a fairer reason to compare him with Steven Spielberg is that in neither case would it have been easy to foresee by looking at their earlier efforts how their careers would develop and how much they would produce. One percent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration, as Thomas Edison is supposed to have said about genius. You feel certain it is an adage that both Spielberg and Curtis live by.   

And another Hollywood quote:  George Clooney once said that he knew he would get to “play” with the film-making “toys” for only a little while, so was aware he must make as good use of them as possible. Richard Curtis must also be amazed by his good luck and how long it has lasted. Those of us of Curtis’ age who are ever tempted to sneer at any of his output might reflect that we might not have done any better with the opportunities than he has done. 

 

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Gangsters and their molls in New York and Havana

 

Happy New 2017!

As a theatre lover I recognise that Broadway musical plays of the 1940s and 1950s such as Oklahoma and Carousel are as important pieces in their own way as the work of Brecht and Beckett, but I’ve never really been a fan. Probably to do with the fact that the actors in screen musicals like Howard Keel and Gordon MacRae always seemed a lighter thinner breed in comparison to Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart or Henry Fonda. Possibly also to do with the fact that my teenage pop listening days also included that bizarre later era of musicals when every established dramatic genre was twisted and turned into a musical like Paint Your Wagon or Camelot or Scrooge or Man of La Mancha. 

However, despite not being a fan of most musicals, I am a fan of Guys and Dolls.

This emerged from my great interest in the National Theatre in its early years at its home on London’s South Bank. That interest was spurred by their practice of touring productions to Glasgow plus the fact that one of their three auditoria, the Cottesloe, had a company for many years led by director Bill Bryden from my home town of Greenock. Guys and Dolls, by Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser, was staged at the NT in 1982, directed by Richard Eyre. He discussed it on Desert Island Discs in 1985 in an interview which is still available to hear on the BBC Radio 4 archive.

One interesting snippet from the interview is that Laurence Olivier originally planned to produce Guys and Dolls during his own stint at the National Theatre.  I love Eyre’s anecdote about Olivier’s criticism of his production’s New York accents being “a bit of a melange” and his view that Olivier’s vocal performance, in contrast, “would have been placed exactly to the right street corner”!

 

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The southern half of Manhattan, as seen from the top of the Empire State Building in 2003.

 

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Near Times Square in New York – definitely “Guys and Dolls” territory.

 

The NT was sometimes criticised in its early years for being too dependent on star actors and the cast of Guys and Dolls certainly had some of my own favourites of that time. Bob Hoskins of Pennies From Heaven and The Long Good Friday was Nathan Detroit (perhaps this led to his American characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Mermaids), Ian Charleson of Chariots of Fire was Sky Masterson, Julie Covington of Rock Follies was Sister Sarah Brown. Among the supporting players was Bill Paterson as Harry the Horse.  

This cast did not come to Glasgow but I did see in Edinburgh a touring production in 1985, which Eyre refers to in the radio programme.  I was always struck by that show’s slightly unbalanced casting. The main star billing went to Lulu, then finding her new route between two periods of pop music fame, who was Miss Adelaide. Nathan Detroit was played by long-established TV face Norman Rossington (similar to Bob Hoskins in his earthy persona I suppose, but perhaps then less fashionable). Sky Masterson was the black US actor, then unknown but later more familiar, Clarke Peters. I enjoyed the production although I felt it displayed more of the elements of an old traditional performance rather than a cooler new one. (I think this cast did, however, transfer to London for a time). “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” sung by Nicely-Nicely Johnston is traditionally regarded as the show-stopper song and David Healy had been retained from the original cast, but I definitely recall finding this section technically impressive (with its two encores which appeared to have become standard) rather more than emotionally or artistically.

Soon after I enjoyed the film version, directed by Joseph L. Manciewicz, who was similar to Richard Eyre in being unused to directing musicals.  Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando were paired in the two leading male roles. Sinatra would possibly have been seen as a safe piece of casting as Nathan Detroit being an established performer in screen musicals alongside the fashionable but provocative young dramatic actor Brando, but it’s easy to forget that in 1955 he was still younger than 40 and only two years into the new career which had been launched by From Here to Eternity and its attendant Oscar.

 

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Some old American cars in Havana, Cuba, in 2014. Part of “Guys and Dolls” takes place in Havana, a glamorous spot for American gangsters in pre-Castro times.

 

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The Bacardi building in Havana, built in 1930.

 

As with many folk of my age, my ideas and tastes in theatre were influenced by the writings of Kenneth Tynan, and Tynan’s review of the London premiere of Guys and Dolls still reads well: not just for his confident assessment of the show’s quality – “not only a young masterpiece, but the Beggars’ Opera of Broadway”, but his adoption of the language of its Damon Runyon characters: “Miss Adelaide, his ever-loving pretty who is sored up…”; “…being short of ready scratch, Nathan places a bet…”; “I will give you plenty of eleven to five that it is the first fugue that many patrons…ever hear”…;  “I found myself laughing ha-ha… more than a guy in the critical dodge has any right to”.      

This is probably the most famous work of its songwriter Frank Loesser. Songs as strong as any by more famous musical craftsmen like Rodgers and Hammerstein, the fruity, quirky Damon Runyon dialogue and its exaggerated delivery by the flashily dressed small-time criminals; the New York setting – all combine to keep Guys and Dolls fresh in my affections.

 

Reference:   Tynan, Kenneth (1984)   A View of the English Stage 1944-1963   London : Methuen

 

 

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