Vienna Again …

 

Of the various things Molly and I wanted to do and see in Vienna, two were triggered by movies: the Ferris Wheel from Carol Reed’s The Third Man of course, in one of the cabins of which Orson Welles defends his illegal sale of penicillin on the black market to Joseph Cotton and makes his famous speech about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock; and the Bruegel room in the Kunsthistorisches Musuem, so central to Jem Cohen’s excellent 2012 film, Museum Hours.

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The Ferris Wheel, as it turned out, was a disappointment, standing as it does on the edge of the Prater Amusement Park, half-hidden amidst a loud and garish collection of roundabouts and rides and fast food outlets, and, thus, sadly devoid of atmosphere. 

Gallery X on the second floor of the Kunsthistorisches Musuem, however, with its collection of eleven of Bruegel’s paintings, more than lived up to expectations. The paintings themselves – which include ‘The Tower of Babel’ and the marvellous ‘Hunters in the Snow’ [but not ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, which is in Brussels] – bristle with life, a kaleidoscope of activity shot through, here and there, with humour, with small moments of scatological delight. And all so true to Cohen’s film – he is basically a documentary film maker after all – that we found ourselves looking round, if not for the museum guard as portrayed by Bobby Sommer in the movie, then, at the very least, to work out where he would have been sitting.

We saw Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial on the first day.  A large, solid construction, it stands at the centre of Judenplatz,  a square of grand houses [like so many in Vienna] which would have been home to Jewish intellectuals and members of the professional classes.

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Also known as the Nameless Library, its walls are cast from library shelves facing outwards and filled with identical books that face inward, untitled and unreadable. It is a testament both to the loss of knowledge and the nameless lives of those who died in the Holocaust.

 

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On the base of the Memorial, in front of heavy concrete doors that will never open, is a brief text in German, Hebrew and English with a Star of David at its centre …  In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945 … and the names of the many concentration camps are engraved at the rear of the plinth and along the sides. But it is the solid weight of the building that impresses most, forcing you to walk around it, stare at its bulk, its walls of forbidden books, a metaphor in concrete that it is hard to ignore or deny. A work of public art with great significance and purpose.

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Six Months of Good Stuff …

Here’s a list, for those who like lists, of the movies, music, books and exhibitions that have given me the most pleasure in the first half of the year; given me pleasure and, more often than not, stopped me in my tracks.

BOOKS
An American Marriage : Tayari Jones
Long Bright River : Liz Moore (proof copy – pub Jan 2020)

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FILMS
Hale County This Morning This Evening : RaMell Ross
Foxtrot : Samuel Maoz
Dirty God : Sacha Polak [mainly for the extraordinary performance by Vicky Knight]

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MUSIC
Blues & Roots Ensemble w. Alice Zawadzki : Pizza Express Jazz Club
Viktoria Mullova : unaccompanied Bach on violin : Sage, Gateshead

Two CDs by writer Willy Vlautin’s band, The Delines
Colfax (2014)
The Imperial (2019)

Delines

ART
Harold Gilman – Beyond Camden Town : Djanogly Gallery, Nottm.
Albert Irvin & Abstract Expressionism : GWA, Bristol
George Shaw – A Corner of a Foreign Field : Holbourne Gallery, Bath
Joan Mitchell : Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

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George Shaw
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Joan Mitchell

PHOTOGRAPHY
Don McCullin : Tate Britain
Dave Heath – Dialogues with Solitude : Photographers’ Gallery
Chris Killip – The Last Ships : Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle
Luigi Ghirri – Cartes et Territoires : Jeu de Paume, Paris

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Dave Heath

 

 

 

Don Shirley at the Piano

No call to bring down further scorn on the Academy’s choice of Green Book as Best Film; Spike Lee’s already handled that in his own, well, spiky way. And the truth is there’s not too much wrong with Green Book as pleasurable movies go – nice performances and along the way an interesting  insight into what passed for middlebrow entertainment in the early 1960s, in this case the rather flashy neo-classical piano style of Don Shirley. As the jazz pianist Ethan Iverson points out in an article in the current issue of the New Yorker, Shirley was “one among dozens of pianists who were popular at mid-century, a moment when the piano was at its zenith in American life.” In America it would have included Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein on the more traditionally classical side of things and light music specialists such as Carmen Cavallaro, whose best-selling recording was his version of Chopin’s Polonaise, Op. 53., and who, of course, paved the way for Liberace, all simpering smiles and glittering arpeggios.

In England there was the duo, Rawicz and Landauer, dispensing popular versions of the classics to radio audiences through the middle years of the century, and Alberto Semprini, whose radio programme, Semprini Serenade, introduced with the words, “Old ones, new ones, loved ones, neglected ones”, began as a Sunday afternoon feature on the BBC Light Programme in 1957 and continued for another twenty-five years.

Iverson is interesting discussing Don Shirley’s singular piano style, which leaned towards jazz and popular music, but interpreted through the prism of his classical music training. He quotes the saxophonist Branford Marsalis as saying, “Don Shirley’s music is a joy to listen to. It’s not jazz, and his approach is clearly influenced through classical training. Because he is not a jazz soloist, he has to create momentum through color and melodic exploration.”

It could well have been that, instead of carving out a career as a popular attraction, Shirley could have played in more conventional classical surroundings, but it seems that his colour was against him. As the jazz bassist Ron Carter, whose first choice would have been to have played the symphonic repertoire, was told by no less than Leopold Stokowski, the classical world was “not ready for a colored man to be in their orchestra.” In the UK, the Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell, though classically trained, found herself held back by similar prejudices, which resulted in her – not, I imagine, totally unhappily – performing a succession of ragtime compositions that topped the charts and propelled her to huge popularity, especially in Australia, where she settled in the 1970s, becoming an Australian citizen two years before her death.

 

Movies of the Year, 2018

Here they are, in order of seeing, the best, to my eyes, of this year’s new releases; the films I enjoyed most and would happily see again.

Loveless : Andrey Zvyagintsev
Western : Valeska Grisebach
BlacKkKlansman : Spike Lee
Cold War : Pawel Pawlikowski
The Rider : Chloe Zhao
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
: Desiree Akhavan
Lucky : John Carroll Lynch
Nae Pasaran : Felipe Bustos Sierra
Skate Kitchen : Crystal Moselle
Shoplifters : Hirokazu Koreeda
Disobedience : Sebastian Lelio
Roma : Alfonso Cuaron
The Old Man and The Gun : David Lowery

Okay, I know the last mentioned is a little on the lightweight side, especially when compared to a heavy-duty [but brilliant] film like Loveless, or Cold War, or Cuaron’s Roma, but it does have an absolutely sparkling performance by Sissy Spacek, who – excuse the cliché – lights up the screen whenever she appears. And hey, I’m of the age when I can happily take sustenance from watching someone of, shall we say, advancing years running the screen and living a mostly happy and fulfilling life – even if that life does comprise robbing banks. I felt the same about the Harry Dean Stanton character in Lucky, just as I did about the real-life Rolls Royce workers who refused to handle airplane engine parts that were destined to be used by the Chilean government against their own people. Watch those deeply principled yet otherwise ordinary, now elderly men finally getting their due recognition in the final scenes of Nae Pasaran and hold the tears back if you can. More movies for old geezers, that’s what I say!

And the most disappointing film of the year? For me, without a doubt, Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s The Wild Pear Tree. After watching his marvellous Once Upon a Time in Anatolia for the third time just a few days before, I was hoping for something more striking and cinematic than his previous effort, the dull, overly-Chekovian and aptly titled Winter Sleep, which won the Palme D’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Sadly, no such luck.  Until – far too late – the last twenty minutes or so, Ceylan’s latest film revolves around three hours of argument and aimless conversation, relieved only by his trademark shots of empty and beautiful Turkish countryside.

Alex Prager at The Photographers’ Gallery

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Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach) 2013 Alex Prager

If one of The Photography Gallery’s ambitions when setting up it’s current pair of shows  (until 14th October, 2018) was to establish the widest possible contrast between two artists’ practice, they could hardly have chosen better than to focus on Tish Murtha [whom I wrote about in my previous blog post] and Alex Prager. Murtha is firmly in the school of documentary realism, black and white, working class, political, small scale in image, universal in reach and meaning. Prager, in contrast, is high colour, glossy, large scale, concerned with politics of gender and deeply indebted to film imagery and technique – not any kind of film, but that exemplified by Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk – technicoloured melodramas that simultaneously present a heightened version of real life at the very same time as they foreground the means they use (colour, lighting, mise-en-scene) to point up its falseness, its fakery. Gendered Hollywood fairy tales. [Like all fairy tales?]

Shots like the one above were made on a sound stage using up to 150 extras.
Images such as the one below, which could almost be a production still from The Birds, make explicit not just Pragers’ obsession with Hitchcock, but her obsession with his obsession – young blonde women under threat, held under the camera’s gaze.

The section in The Photographers’ Gallery regular booklet series, Loose Associations, which deals with Prager’s work, includes extracts from feminist film critic and academic Laura Mulvey’s key 1975 article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which dissects the ways in which classic Hollywood film positions women at the ultimately passive receiving end of the all-powerful male gaze. And that’s a three-way: male behind the camera; male within the narrative; male in the audience. Hitchcock – for Prager, whose concerns, one suspects, are similar to Mulvey’s  – is, of course, the perfect subject, the perfect example, perfect for them both, in that he is transparent as to both ends and means. After several viewings, it seems to me, it’s difficult not to see Vertigo, for instance, as an object lesson in just how male dominance of the female in terms of image, action and emotional response can be achieved.

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The Big Valley: Eve 2008 Alex Prager

It’s no surprise that Prager moved from photography – the kind of large scale, pre-planned and well-resourced still photography that is well displayed on two floors at TPG – to film itself. Short films with large crews and real stars. For Touch of Evil, commissioned by the New York Times, she managed to nab a host of A-listers including Jessica Chastain, George Clooney, Kirsten Dunst and Rooney Mara. The ‘star’ of Face in the Crowd, one of the films showing at TPG, is Elizabeth Banks, playing an attractive blonde woman (what else) forever, seemingly, trapped behind a wall of glass, while around her – the film is shown on three screens, central, left & right – various crowds are shown on the beach, at a ball game, crowds from which individuals are intermittently seen in close up, expressing their doubts and fears to camera.

Is it possible to look at Prager’s work and see only the surface, enjoy the size, the visceral pleasure, the high-gloss slickness of it, and not be concerned with what rides beneath? That, after all, would be the mainstream Hollywood way. But here we’re not submerged in the dark. We’re in a gallery and this is art. As well as responding on an immediate love, we’re expected to think. And we do.

 

A Few Thoughts on Colm Toibin, “Brooklyn” and Adaptation

Brooklyn

I watched John Crowley’s film version of Colm Toibin’s novel, Brooklyn, again the other night, after reading an interview with Toibin in The Guardian Review. I was particularly interested in his remarks concerning the screenplay, written by Nick Hornby, and the ways in which the film’s ending differs from the original.

Unable to find suitable work at home, Eilis [Ey-lish] has emigrated from her home in south-east Ireland to Brooklyn, where a priest has found her both employment and  somewhere to live. Once settled, she falls into a relationship with Tony, a young man of Italian descent, and, though uncertain of her feelings, when she is called back to Ireland due to the death of her sister, she agrees to marry him, hastily and secretly, before she leaves. Once home, she  resumes her old life with a new maturity and greater self-confidence; a good job presents itself, along with a dependable man of a higher station, whom she likes and who would marry her. She has not told anyone – not the man, not her mother – that she is already married. It’s as if she herself has forgotten: has chosen to forget. Her husband’s letters are shut away, unopened, in a drawer. But gossip and rumour seek her out and Eilis has to decide what to do, which course to take. In this, her dilemma is not unlike that of Isabel Archer at the end of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady [both author and novel much beloved of Toibin] though Tony the plumber is, thankfully, neither as mendacious nor manipulating as Gilbert Osmond.

In both novel and film, she returns to America: there seems to be no viable alternative. But in the novel, her feelings about this are ambivalent at best; the film recasts this in the far more positive light of an inescapably happy ending. Eilis, unburdened by doubt, stands in bright light on the opposite side of the street from the building supplies store from which Tony and one of his brothers emerge, talking; it takes a few moments for the brother, and then Tony, to realise Eilis is there. Almost unable to believe his eyes, Tony, bedazzled, hastens into Eilis’ arms and the final clinch of an unambiguously happy ending.

What does Colm Toibin think of this?

“I’m interested in what Nick [Hornby] did with the structure of it,” says Toibin, “which is so brilliant; how much he left out, how he moved the drama on. But I tear up for the very last section, that I didn’t write.” He doesn’t mind that it changed the novel? “It’s gorgeous. And what were they meant to do, have an ending with her sitting on the train feeling smug: look what I’ve just done to everybody?”

This recognition that different forms of media have different requirements is something that writers perhaps find easier to accommodate than readers, whose reaction, more often than not, is less generous, less understanding; they are more likely to want the film, radio or television version to be as close to the original as possible and expect the author to feel the same.

Over the past years I’ve adapted the work of a number of authors: Arnold Bennett and Ruth Rendell for TV; Graham Greene, Paul Scott, Qiu Xiaolong and A. S. Byatt for radio. The majority of those, sadly, are no longer in a position to complain, and those that are, to the best of my knowledge, have refrained. When Antonia Byatt’s Frederica Quartet was being broadcast, and she was asked about it on Woman’s Hour, she was careful to make clear – before making comments which were, thankfully, positive – that’s John Harvey’s Frederica Quartet, not mine.

With other writers’ work, my process has always been to strip the story down it basic elements, then begin to build it up from there, with the demands – strengths and weaknesses – of the particular medium in mind. Where adapting my own work is concerned – two books for television, two books and three short stories for radio – I think I have been more successful with the latter. When I was writing the screenplays based on the first two Resnick novels, Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, I was guilty of forgetting my own rules at times and sticking too close to the originals; favouring a speech, a scene, an exchange of dialogue, because I liked it rather than because it contributed towards an effective piece of film. Which is why, whenever the Resnick books have been optioned by this or that television company since – as has fairly frequently been the case – and I’ve been asked if I would be interested in writing one or more of the scripts, I’ve always said thanks, but no thanks – someone else, experienced and coming to it with a fresh eye, will likely do it better.

Movies of the Year, 2017

  • Manchester By The Sea : Kenneth Lonergan
  • Twentieth Century Women : Mike Mills
  • Hidden Figures : Theodore Milfi
  • Moonlight : Barry Jenkins
  • Certain Women : Kelly Reichardt
  • Graduation : Cristian Mungiu
  • I Am Not Your Negro : Raoul Peck
  • The Levelling : Hope Dickson Leach
  • In Between : Maysaloun Hamoud
  • On Body & Soul : Ildiko Enyedi
  • Mudbound : Dee Rees

These are the films I enjoyed most this year (some of them first released in 2016) listed in the order I saw them rather than in any hierarchy; with the exception of ‘On Body & Soul’, which was streamed on Mubi and deserves to be shown far more widely, they were all seen in one cinema or another. If I were forced to choose a top three or four – Go on! Make me! – they would be ‘Graduation’, ‘In Between’, ‘On Body and Soul’ and ‘Manchester By The Sea’.

I could make a list of almost equal measure of those movies that, to my eyes, were over-hyped, over-rated or just plain bad.  Top of that list would be Pablo Lorrain’s ‘Jackie’, a wooden study in hagiography almost equalled by the same director’s pompously ‘arty’ ‘Neruda’ – quite a feat to have two lousy efforts released in the same year. Despite some considerable critical acclaim, Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ was as unpleasant and exploitative as I should have anticipated – can we just see that rape scene from a different angle one more time, please? Both ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ were as empty as they were over-long and overwrought and I’m sorry but, in the face of much positivity, I almost totally failed to ‘get’ ‘Toni Erdmann’.

Next year, must try harder.

Looking for Charlie Resnick: Slow Burn

Some nights, Resnick thought, you knew sleep wasn’t destined to come; or that, if it did, it would be haunted by dreams pitched just this side of nightmare, broken by the startled cry of the telephone heralding some new disaster, awful and mundane. So there he was, at close to two a. m., ferrying through the sparsely filled refrigerator for the makings of a snack, during cold milk – yes,milk – into a glass, opening the back door so that Pepper could join Dizzy in a little night-time prowling, hunting down whatever was slower or slower-witted than themselves. Miles and Bud were upstairs on his bed, missing, perhaps, his bulk and warmth while relishing  the extra space.

Carrying his sandwich through into the front room, he pulled an album from the shelf and slipped the record from its tattered sleeve. The Thelonious Monk Trio on Prestige. Through the smeared glass of the front bay, he could see the outlines of houses left and right along the curve of street, roofs bulked against a city sky that was never truly dark. Faint, the hum of occasional cars, one block  away on the Woodborough Road. Monk’s fingers, flat, percussive, treading their way through ‘Bemesha Swing’ like an overgrown child lurching along the pavement, crack by crack. It was no surprise when the phone finally rang, nor that the voice at the other end was his sergeant’s, weary and resigned.

That deep into the early hours it was no more than a five minute drive to the old Lace Market, the corner of Stoney Street and King’s Place and the Victorian conversion that for years had housed Jimmy Nolan’s jazz club and bar. Acrid and pungent, the scent of burning struck Resnick as he climbed out of the car. Smoke eddied on the air. Fire officers, purposeful yet unhurried, damped down smouldering wreckage; making safe. Resnick knew they would already have isolated, as far as possible, the area where the fire began. The building itself was little more than a blackened shell.

Four cats still rather than just the one; vinyl albums instead of CDs, back before vinyl was the trendy thing: Resnick in 1999. A while ago.

‘Slow Burn’, the short story of which this is the beginning, actually began life a year earlier, as a 60 minute radio script written for BBC 4 producer, David Hunter, which was originally broadcast in 1998 and has been repeated on several occasions, most recently  this week on Radio 4 Extra. You can still catch it on the BBC Radio iPlayer, where it’s available, from today, for another 27 days.

David Hunter was the producer who marshalled my dramatisations of two Resnick novels onto the airwaves, Wasted Years in 1995 and Cutting Edge in 1996, each in several parts. Slow Burn followed these in 1998 and my original radio script became a short story, which was first published a year later in the collection, Now’s the Time, by my own small press, Slow Dancer, that collection being reprinted, in an enlarged edition, by William Heinemann in 2002 and in 2013 the Arrow paperback below.

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There has only been one representation of Resnick on screen [so far – hope springs eternal et cetera] that by Tom Wilkinson in two television adaptations – Lonely Hearts & Rough Treatment, produced by Colin Rogers for Deco Films and TV and the BBC, and shown in 1992 and 1993 respectively. Tom reprised the role in the first of the radio versions mentioned above [Wasted Years in ’95], after which Hollywood beckoned and Resnick was personified first by Tom Georgson in Cutting Edge, then Philip Jackson in Slow Burn, and, finally, Keith Barron, in two other dramatised short stories, Cheryl (2001) and Bird of Paradise (2002).

Keith Barron, who sadly died just yesterday, November 15th, was the reader of two abridged versions of the novels Cold Light and Living  Proof, released by Reed Audio in 1995, and Philip Jackson the reader in the excellent ten-part version of Wasted Years, adroitly abridged and directed by Gordon House for BBC Radio 4 and since repeated on a number of occasions.

Most recently, Resnick was brought to the stage by David Fleeshman in the Nottingham Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness, directed by Jack McNamara. That’s David, outside the Playhouse, immediately below, and, with Simone Saunders as Catherine Njoroge, in a scene from the play.

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And here’s Tom Wilkinson in Resnick guise, first in a BBC publicity shot and below on the jacket of the French edition of Lonely Hearts, Coeurs Solitaires.

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Last Dozen Films I Saw …

  1. Graduation : Cristian Mungiu (2016)
  2. I Am Not Your Negro : Raoul Peck (2016)
  3. A Quiet Passion : Terence Davies (2017)
  4. Clash : Mohamed Diab (2016)
  5. Bunch of Kunst : Christine Frantz (2016)
  6. You Have No Idea How Much I Love You : Pawel Lozinski (2017)
  7. Their Finest : Lone Sherfig (2016)
  8. The Levelling : Hope Dickson Leach (2016)
  9. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold : Martin Ritt (1965)
  10. A Place in the Sun : George Stevens (1951)
  11. The Other Side of Hope : Aki Kaurismaki (2017)
  12. Beyond the Hills : Cristian Mungiu (2012)

 

Last Dozen Films I Saw

 

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Blood on the Moon : Robert Wise (1948)
To Have & Have Not : Howard Hawks (1944)
Manchester by the Sea : Kenneth Lonergan (2016)
Red Road : Andrea Arnold (2006)
Parisienne (Peur de Rien): Danielle Arbid (2016)
Cinema Paradiso : Giuseppe Tornatore (1988)
Jackie : Pablo Larrain (2016)
Toni Erdmann : Maren Ade (2016)
Thumbsucker : Mike Mills (2005)
Portrait : Sergei Loznitsa (2002)
Twentieth Century Woman : Mike Mills (2016)
Old Joy : Kelly Reichardt (2006)

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