Talking Movies

April 10, 2014

Calvary

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John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson follow up The Guard with an episodic metaphysical drama punctuated by blackly comic diversions.

Fr James (Brendan Gleeson) hears the confession of a parishioner who was sexually abused as a child by a priest. Except this isn’t a confession – the unseen parishioner informs James that he will kill him on their beach in one week: ‘Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.’ James knows the identity of the parishioner, but, despite the flawless logic of his Bishop (David McSavage) that if no confession was made the seal of the confessional lapses, he will not reveal the identity of his designated assassin. Instead he goes about his pastoral duties, attempting to spiritually salve wife-beating butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), cynical atheist doctor Frank (Aidan Gillen), ailing American novelist Gerald (M Emmet Walsh), and jaded ex-financier Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran); none of whom want his counsel. One person who badly needs him though is his visiting suicidal London-Irish daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). James became a priest after his wife’s death, leaving Fiona feeling abandoned…

Calvary is fantastically well acted by a truly impressive Irish ensemble, but is far removed from The Guard. There are dementedly funny scenes, like misfit Milo (Killian Scott) trying to convince James that wanting to kill people really badly would be a plus for being accepted into the army – ‘like an engineering degree’. But there are many more scenes addressing knotty theological concepts of fate, free will, evil, and forgiveness: a prime example being James’ fraught encounter with jailed cannibal serial killer Freddie (Domhnall Gleeson). I haven’t seen so many ideas thrown at the screen since I Heart Huckabees, but I’m unsure what McDonagh’s larger purpose is. Fr James, like Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory whiskey priest, is being shepherded towards his own squalid Calvary. But Greene’s imitation of Christ drew attention to the potential for holiness in a flawed man; James is marked for death because of his virtue – a good man expiating the sins of many.

But… this reading is undermined by a jaw-dropping scene where an irate stranger tars James with the general brush of ‘molesting cleric’, shocking the audience who’ve seen his deep compassion. The assassin’s wish to punish a good priest for the misdeeds of bad priests will be utterly lost, because outside their community everyone will assume James was a bad priest. But this may be deliberate. James seems at times to be an argument for married clergy, witness his comforting of newly-widowed Frenchwoman Teresa (Marie-Josee Croze), but then his daughter insists he put God above family. Refn’s DP Larry Smith captures the Sligo landscape to amazing effect, especially Ben Bulben – almost creating an Eden. But this is Eden where Sin has been banished as a concept. Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) provokes James with her public promiscuity, her lover Simon (Isaach De Bankole) distinguishes between believing in God and acting morally, and James himself tells Fiona too much stress has been laid on sin. James thinks forgiveness need emphasising, but publican Brendan (Pat Shortt), who now espouses Buddhism, beats the bebuddha out of people with a baseball bat – with no guilt; sin is passé, and forgiveness requires sin.

Calvary might deserve four stars. I don’t know. It’s more ambitious than nearly any other Irish film, but it outsmarted me; I feel I need to do extensive reading in Jean Amery and Fyodor Dostoevsky to apprehend McDonagh’s quicksilver.

3.5/5

March 28, 2014

The Baz Aesthetic

THE GREAT GATSBY

I’ve considered myself a fan of Baz Luhrmann for a long time, but after Australia and The Great Gatsby, I’ve become sceptical that the ‘Red Curtain’ trilogy was really a deliberate trilogy – I think all of his films reveal the Baz Aesthetic; and it’s being imposed on increasingly unsuitable material.

Deleted scenes are often the most revealing features on DVDs. Baz Luhrmann deleted the scene in The Great Gatsby in which Jordan and Nick’s romance ends. He shot it as Nick taking the phone away from his ear, and hanging up on Jordan. Because in the book it says Jordan’s voice faded away and then they weren’t talking anymore. I always thought that Nick spaced out thinking about Gatsby’s fate and Jordan hung up on him, because that seems far more in character – but Baz went with what is a very literal interpretation. It transpires Luhrmann also cut Gatsby’s famous line “Her voice is full of money”, because it complicated a scene – but only because Luhrmann had put the line in a different scene to begin with… So this is an adaptation in which the text is taken literally, but all the meaning and nuance lost – not unlike Zack Synder’s worst missteps with his Watchmen.

But it is also an adaptation in which Luhrmann’s particular aesthetic is mercilessly imposed upon a text for which it is radically unsuitable. Why does Nick Carraway suddenly want to be a writer? Duh, so that the film can be framed, like Moulin Rouge!, with him depressed, and then, by writing his story, redeemed by art at the end with his completed manuscript representing his salvaged personality. But … what was wrong with F Scott’s original novel that it needed to be Moulin Rouge!’d? Nothing, that’s just the Baz Aesthetic… How else could one justify transforming the small smoke-filled restaurant that Gatsby and Nick dine with Wolfsheim in into a raucous Jay-Z booming speakeasy with black strippers twerking onstage? How else could one explain turning the grand piano in Gatsby’s mansion into an organ that would look outsize in the Albert Hall? How else could one excuse ditching the actual glorious popular music of the 1920s for terrible anachronistic Jay-Z drivel, and replacing the fiendishly complicated dance moves of the Charleston (which are quite the spectacle when choreographed en masse) with pathetic ‘raise your hands in the air’ hip-hop stylings? How else could one make sense of using so much unnecessary CGI that you feel like Avatar had more of a sense of physical reality, and of deliberately ditching the iconic flapper look of the 1920s for more cleavage because ‘sexiness’ is all that matters?

The Baz Aesthetic is excess – everything has to be excess. And that’s fine as an aesthetic; when it synchs with the material, but here it doesn’t. Gatsby gleefully tosses his shirts down a floor to Daisy leading to her tears over the shirts, and Nick adds a helpful line to tell the audience her line about the shirts is stupid – but in the novel Gatsby is distractedly tossing shirts about because he’s in a trance, and Daisy cries because she can’t articulate what she feels and she says a stupid line knowing it’s a stupid line. Baz Luhrmann doesn’t do subtlety or nuance, and that’s not a problem for Moulin Rouge! But if you’re going to shoehorn every property into the template of Moulin Rouge! then that is a problem.

December 31, 2013

‘The “Greening” of Cardinal Manning’ published in Irish Catholic Identities

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I’m pleased to report that my essay ‘The “Greening” of Cardinal Manning’ has just been published as a chapter in the Manchester University Press book Irish Catholic Identities, edited by Oliver P Rafferty. My IRCHSS-funded thesis on the Irish influence on GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc delved into how they creatively used the English Catholic tradition of Cardinals Manning and Newman, both of whom had extensive dealings with Irish culture and politics. I delivered the papers ‘Same Time, Same Place: Manning & Marx’ and ‘Angry Letters to The Times‘ to successive Arts Postgraduate Colloquiums at UCD in 2004 and 2005, and ‘Strange Attraction: Cardinal Manning & Karl Marx’ to to the School of English Research Seminar in UCD in 2005, so it is a pleasure to see some of that material appear in print, alongside substantial new research, as part of the book chapter now published.

What does it mean to be Irish? Are the predicates Catholic and Irish so inextricably linked that it is impossible to have one and not the other? Does the process of secularisation in modern times mean that Catholicism is no longer a touchstone of what it means to be Irish? Indeed was such a paradigm ever true? These are among the fundamental issues addressed in this work, which examines whether distinct identity formation can be traced over time. The book delineates the course of historical developments which complicated the process of identity formation in the Irish context, when by turns Irish Catholics saw themselves as battling against English hegemony or the Protestant Reformation. Without doubt the Reformation era cast a long shadow over how Irish Catholics would see themselves. But the process of identity formation was of much longer duration. The twenty-two chapters of this work trace the elements which have shaped how the Catholic Irish identified themselves, and explore the political, religious and cultural dimensions of the complex picture which is Irish Catholic identity. The individual essays together represent a systematic attempt, unique in the literature, to explore the fluidity of the components that make up Catholic identity in the Irish context.

‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ published in the Irish University Review

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In 2010 I delivered my paper ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun‘ to the Space, Technology & Modernity in Irish Literature & Culture conference in the Humanities Institute of Ireland, UCD. I’ve written about that very stimulating conference in a previous piece on this blog, and now I’m pleased to report that a revised version of my paper has just been published as an article in the 2013 Winter edition of the Irish University Review. The online version can be read here.

This essay takes up the challenge of Joe Cleary’s provocative characterisation of John McGahern’s work as naturalism that retreats into pessimistic fatalism by instead considering Rising Sun as the end-point of a career-long journey fraught with Kierkegaardean implications. Kierkegaard’s concept of infinite resignation in Fear and Trembling is noted in McGahern’s characters Bill Evans and Johnny Murphy, but John Quinn raises ethical problems soluble only by considering the co-existent presence of precepts from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. This Stoicism, it is argued, is Aurelian through the prism of O Criomhthain’s An tOileanach, which McGahern greatly admired, so the characters are religiously Catholic and simultaneously philosophically Stoic in response to the harsh landscapes that order their lives. The inhabitants of this lakeside community lead messy spiritual lives that are Stoic and Kierkegaardean, with the Catholic Church continuing to be an important source of ritual. This eclectic but harmonious combination represents a hopeful new mode of life as play, exemplified by Jamesie, which is worth passing on. Rising Sun can thus be read as the end of a Kierkegaardean transition from infinite resignation to exulting in finitude through a vision of the absurd.

October 31, 2013

Danse Macabre

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I thought I’d mark Hallowe’en this year not by unveiling a list but by quoting one of my favourite passages from Stephen King’s Danse Macabre.

Danse Macabre is a fascinating book from the early 1980s in which King throws in a good deal of anecdotage as he unveils his own Apollonian/Dionysian theory of how horror works, and dissects classic horror across media from novels, short stories and comics to television, radio and film to show how that binary dynamic operates. Horror cinema is always slightly disreputable, except at this time of year. But there’s a good argument for it being closer to the Hitchcockian ideal of pure cinema than any other genre. So, if someone tells you tonight that they’re not scared by horror films – just think of this paragraph.

“I tell people who say that horror movies don’t scare them to make this simple experiment. Go see a film like Night of the Living Dead all alone (have you ever noticed how many people go to horror movies, not just in pairs or groups, but in actual packs?). Afterwards, get in your car, drive to an old, deserted, crumbling house – every town has at least one (except maybe Stepford, Connecticut, but they have their own problems there). Let yourself in. Mount to the attic. Sit down up there. Listen to the house groan and creak around you. Notice how much those creaks sound like someone – or something – mounting the stairs. Smell the must. The rot. The decay. Think about the film you have just seen. Consider it as you sit there in the dark, unable to see what might be creeping up…what might be just about to place its dirty, twisted claw on your shoulder…or around your neck… This sort of thing can prove, by its very darkness, to be an enlightening experience. Fear of the dark is the most childlike fear. Tales of terror are customarily told ‘around the campfire’ or at least after sundown, because what is laughable in the sunshine is often harder to smile at by starlight.” (212)

Happy Hallowe’en…

October 18, 2013

Axis Cinema

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Axis Cinema on Ballymun Main Street is home to The Pictures, which started as a monthly film club and has grown to become a great social network for the over 55s in Ballymun. The Pictures will be presenting a season of ‘book to film’ screenings, including The Commitments, in partnership with access>Cinema and, for the first time, Ballymun Library; who will be making copies of the books available to borrow the month before the film.

 

Dracula (with short film Suansceal)

Presented by Dublin City Council Arts Office and axis in association with access>Cinema and Ballymun Library

Date: 21st Oct 2.30pm

Tickets: €2 Members / €4 Non-Members / Membership: €3

October’s ‘Book to Screen’ film is, very appropriately, Hammer Horror’s Dracula starring an enigmatically terse Christopher Lee as Bram Stoker’s vampiric Count and Peter Cushing as his nemesis Van Helsing. Few actors have ever inhabited those parts to such indelible effect, and this is a rare opportunity to see Hammer’s lurid blood-soaked vision on a big screen. This screening will be preceded by Irish short Suanscéal, a visually beautiful, delicately told, tale of a young boy’s need for companionship and an old man’s need to leave his legacy. Director Colm Ó Foghlú will be in attendance on the day to introduce the short as part of Borradh Buan, axis’ Irish language festival; celebrating its 10th anniversary.

 

A Scare Before Bedtime: Axis Horror Screening

Presented by axis in association with access>Cinema

Date: 30th Oct 9pm

Tickets: €2

This is a chance for audiences to feel the fear at a secret screening of a favourite horror movie! As Halloween approaches, axis will be asking the people of Ballymun to vote for their favourite horror film to show on the big screen. I’d vote for Scream, but with the new Carrie coming out soon that could be a contender. What will win? All will be revealed on the night!

 

The Commitments

Presented by Dublin City Council Arts Office and axis in association with access>Cinema

Date: 25th Nov 2.30pm

Tickets: €2 Members / €4 Non-Members / Membership: €3

November’s ‘Book to Screen’ film is British director Alan Parker’s celebrated 1991 adaptation of The Commitments, Roddy Doyle’s 1980s novel of recessionary north side Dublin. Only the music scene is rich in this landscape, and so Jimmy Rabbitte envisions combining the raw talent of musicians, including Glen Hansard, Bronagh Gallagher and Maria Doyle Kennedy, with soul music to shake the Hibernian metropolis.

 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Presented by axis & Dublin City Council Arts Office in association with access>Cinema and Ballymun Library

Date: 16th Dec 2.30pm

Tickets: €2 Members/€4 Non-Members / Membership: €3

December’s ‘Book to Screen’ film is Blake Edwards’ 1961 toned-down adaptation of Truman Capote’s scandalous novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audrey Hepburn’s most iconic poses, costumes and (dubbed) singing are modelled against a fantasy NYC as Holly Golightly’s naive eccentricity bedazzles George Peppard’s struggling writer when he moves into her apartment building. Try to ignore Mickey Rooney’s outrageously racist Japanese character…

 

Anna Karenina

Presented by axis& Dublin City Council Arts Office in association with access>Cinema and Ballymun Library

Date: 27th Jan 2.30pm

Tickets: €2 Members/€4 Non-Members Membership: €3

January’s ‘Book to Screen’ screening is Joe Wright’s 2012 film of Anna Karenina. Anna (an on-form Keira Knightley) falls uncontrollably in love with Count Vronsky (a callow Aaron Johnson), with tragic consequences when she leaves husband (a surprisingly empathetic Jude Law). Leo Tolstoy’s classic story of doomed love is adapted by the great Tom Stoppard as a determinedly theatrical tour-de-force; to hit-and-miss effect.

 

axis: Ballymun is a creative hub of stage, galleries, workshop spaces and a recording studio. More information at http://axis-ballymun.ie/, and do follow @axisBallymun on Twitter.

October 10, 2013

Did Theodor Herzl Propose Israel as a Kickstarter Project?

Theodor Herzl

Simon Schama’s recent documentary The Story of the Jews piqued my interest in Theodor Herzl’s 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State, but, interesting as the text is, I didn’t expect it to feel quite so contemporary…

Herzl, writing in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, advocated systematic transference of Jewish people and their property to a newly constituted homeland in either the Argentine or Palestine. To carry out this massive exodus he proposed two massive organisations, the Society of Jews and the Company of Jews, be formed. The Society of Jews would be the diplomatic and spiritual face of the Zionist enterprise, charged with encouraging Jewish emigration, and convincing the international powers to facilitate the creation of the new nation, while the Company of Jews would be the practical holding company concerned with arranging transportation, construction in the new state, and, most importantly, the systematic realisation of Jewish assets in their adopted countries to enable wealth to transfer to the new homeland without massive economic disruption in their adopted countries or unnecessary impoverishment of the new homeland. And it’s in describing how the massive working capital for the Company of Jews might be raised that I did a double-take on recognising a very familiar contemporary concept….

“The Company’s capital might be raised, without the intermediary of a syndicate, by means of direct subscription on the part of the public. Not only poor Jews, but also Christians who wanted to get rid of them, would subscribe a small amount to this fund. A new and peculiar form of the plebiscite would thus be established, whereby each man who voted for this solution of the Jewish Question would express his opinion by subscribing a stipulated amount.This stipulation would produce security. The funds subscribed would only be paid in if their sum total reached the required amount, otherwise the initial payments would be returned. But if the whole of the required sum is raised by popular subscription, then each little amount would be secured by the great numbers of other small amounts.” (p.60)

So, um, did Theodor Herzl sort of propose the state of Israel as the first Kickstarter Project back in 1896??

September 26, 2013

Graham Greene Festival 2013

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I’m off to Graham Greene’s birthplace Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire for the Graham Greene Festival 2013 which takes place this weekend.

I’ve been commended in the playwright category of this year’s creative writing awards, for my short satirical script The Bungalows of Old Hollywood, but this festival, which is only a half-hour train ride from London Euston, is well worth the attention of any Greene fans in the Home Counties. The always interesting line up of talks and screenings this year notably includes Greta Scacchi attending a screening of her 1985 Greene film Dr Fischer of Geneva, and the book launch by Pierre Smolik of Graham Greene: the Swiss Chapter, which covers the little researched Swiss sojourn of the adventurous writer.

Thursday 26 September

5.15 The Festival Gathering Supper at the Kings Arms Hotel 
Chicken casserole, apple crumble, wine and coffee; or vegetarian option of pastas or risotto.
This is a very happy social occasion when old friends meet, and new ones are introduced to our Festival good cheer. It is a chance to meet up with some of those at the centre of the Greene world. All are most welcome. We need to know numbers for certain by Thursday 19th September. There is a maximum of 70 tickets.

The position of the Kings Arms is marked on the map on the Venues page.

Cost: £18

7.15 Film Night at the Civic Centre 
Film: Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party (1985) 
Director: Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Starring: James Mason, Alan Bates and Greta Scacchi.
Greta Scacchi, who takes the role of Anna-Luise, has promised to be with us. This film combines Greene’s witty and cynical observations on human greed with a touching love story. The plot was conceived at a Christmas party when Graham was with his daughter and grandsons. Caroline Bourget (his daughter) and Andrew (grandson) will be with us this evening, and so the story comes full-circle – and in Berkhamsted. This will be an entertaining evening when we, the audience, can – after the film – participate in some of the fun. Members of Equity, the Musicians’ Union and the Writers’ Guild are entitled to a discount of 25% of the cost of their ticket for the screening of Dr Fischer of Geneva. This may be claimed at the door if a valid union card is shown. The film will immediately be followed by a ‘Question and Answer’ session between Greta and Quentin Falk. They will discuss the film and its making. Quentin is well known to Festival-goers, and he has the distinction of having interviewed Graham Greene. His book, Travels in Greeneland: The Cinema of Graham Greene, is the bible of Greene’s Cinema. He is the film critic of the Catholic Herald. Richard Broke, the Producer of the film, will be present.

Cost: £8.

Friday 27 September

Talks at the Town Hall, Berkhamsted

Morning Session

9.30 Book launch: Graham Greene: the Swiss Chapter by Pierre Smolik.

How did Greene – cosmopolitan author, roguish adventurer, journalist and witness to the great world conflicts of his time – wind up on the gentle banks of Lake Geneva? He liked to be most where genuine change might take place, the fundamental upheaval. Hardly Switzerland. This new book covers the less well researched part of Greene’s life. There is much interest in the book in Switzerland and at the Swiss Embassy in London. Now the author, Pierre Smolik, and publisher, Patrick Moser, together with Alexander Harbaugh will introduce the book to us. Greta Scacchi, who stars in the film Dr Fischer of Geneva, has a place in this ‘Swiss chapter’, and she will be with us. This is an opportunity to acquire a significant first-edition together with autographs of the author, the film actress, and the Greene family. There will be a book signing after the talk, and the publishing team from Call me Edouard Editeurs | Publishers will be present all day to respond to interest.

10.15 Greene’s Magic places – a talk by Professor François Gallix

Break for tea and coffee

11.30 Travels with my Priest: Greene’s Spanish trips, 1976–1989 by Professor Carlos Villar Flor

Cost: £12

Break for lunch.

Afternoon Session

2.15 The Heart of the Matter – the James Tait Black Novel of the Century? by Professor Randall Stevenson
In this last year he has been one of the panel of judges to pick the outstanding novel of the 20th Century from the annual winners of the James Tait Black Prize which is awarded by Edinburgh University and had been celebrating its 250th Anniversary. Greene’s The Heart of the Matter won the Prize in 1948, and was one of six novels selected for this Anniversary honour. We know now that it did not win, but Randall Stevenson will talk about the qualities of the novel that made it a finalist. (The film of the novel will be screened at 7.30 p.m.)

3.00 Discussion of the Novel and of the Qualities that might make for Greatness in a Novel. Panel: Professor Randall Stevenson, Mike Hill (former Festival Director), Professor Richard Greene of Toronto University. David Pearce will chair the discussion. There will be every opportunity for members of the audience to express views.

Break for tea and coffee

4.15 Greene and Israel by Frances Assa

Cost: £12

Evening Session at The Civic Centre

7.15 New Film – A Little Place off the Edgware Road

A16 minute big-screen adaptation by writer-director Tim Hewitt of a tale from the 21 Stories collection. A writer of crime fiction (Paul McGann) is suffering from writer’s block. Haunted by dreams of his wife and child, he seeks solace in a Hitchcock Festival at his local cinema as well as in regular sessions with his therapist. A disturbance outside his flat leads to a strange encounter, blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Paul McGann and Ronald Pickup co-star in the film, which Tim Hewitt will introduce.

7.30 Film: The Heart of the Matter (1953) 
Director: George More O’Ferrall. Cast: Trevor Howard, Elizabeth Alan, Michael Hordern (who once lived in Berkhamsted), Denholm Elliott and Peter Finch.
The film will be introduced by Professor Neil Sinyard, Reader in Film Studies at the University of Hull, and well known to all Greene Festival-goers

Cost: £8

Saturday 28 September

Deans’ Hall, Berkhamsted School (Castle Street)

An exhibition of Greene’s Berkhamsted will be on show

Morning Session

10.00 ‘Memory cheats’: deception, recollection, and the problem of reading in The Captain and the Enemy by Dr Frances McCormack

Break for tea and coffee

11.30 Graham Greene’s writing: the theatre of the mind. ‘I write in the way that I do because I am what I am’ by Professor John Batchelor

Cost: £14

12.30: Sandwich lunch by courtesy of the Management of the Kings Arms Hotel

Early Afternoon Session

2.30 An American investigates Graham Greene’s Aversion to America by Professor Joyce Stavick

Creative Writing Awards presentation by Professor Joyce Stavick

Break for tea and coffee

3.45 ‘We Catholics are damned by our knowledge’ by The Revd. Dr Michael Bowie

Cost: £14

Late Afternoon Session

4.45 The Birthday Toast to Graham Greene

5.00 From Buenos Aires to Berkhamsted: a personal journey by Nicholas Shakespeare

Cost: £12

Evening Session

Old Hall, Berkhamsted School

7.30 Hot Buffet Dinner, with diversions

Four courses: soup, buffet beef/salmon, dessert, cheese wine and coffee; or vegetarian option of risotto and cheese
(Maximum number: 70. We need to know numbers by Thursday 19th September.)

Cost: £33

Sunday 29 September

The Old Hall, Berkhamsted School

Early Morning Session

9.00 Tour of Greene’s School – the parts that Greene would have known – by David Pearce
There is no charge for this. Those coming should gather in the car park in front of Old Hall and beside the chapel

Break for tea and coffee

Morning Session

The VIth Form Centre – Upstairs from Old Hall

10.15 Insights into recent Greene research by Professor Richard Greene

11.00 ‘Green Shoots’ opportunities and a discussion about the structure of the 2014 Festival

11.30 The Overpowering Smell of Cooked Ham, a talk with film excerpts by Professor Neil Sinyard

Cost: £14

12.30 The Farewell Lunch in Old Hall 
Cold buffet meats, cheese, wine and coffee; or vegetarian option of a selection of quiches. (We need to know numbers by Thursday 19th September.)

Cost: £22

September 24, 2013

Berkhamsted Revisited

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Prof. Peter Evans and Dr. Fergal Casey

‘Only beggars and gypsies say that one must never return where one has been before’ – Soren Kierkegaard

The annual Graham Greene Festival at Greene’s birthplace (Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire) is about to kick off, so I thought I’d cast a belated backward glance at the 2012 Festival. I travelled to Berkhamsted at the end of September to collect two prizes in the Festival’s Creative Writing awards. I won best short screenplay for Sir Joshua’s Macaw, a comedy of bad art criticism, and best prose fiction for my comedy of workplace anxiety, ‘For Whom H.R. Tolls’. I had previously won the best prose thriller category in 2011 for my story of murderous identical brothers ‘Dieu et Mon Droit’.

The festival is organised by the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust as Berkhamsted was where two different branches of the extended Greene family lived, and Graham’s father was headmaster of the venerable public school which Graham reluctantly attended; a deeply unhappy experience immortalised in the 1971 autobiography A Sort of Life. Greene mellowed towards his hometown though and returned to it imaginatively in the last decades of his life in books like The Human Factor and The Captain and the Enemy. The four-day festival includes film screenings and gala dinners, and many talks by both academic Greene scholars and film-makers involved in adaptations of his work. It has become a venue for launching new works of Greene scholarship, and having completed a PhD on the Irish influence on GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc in 2007 in UCD such a milieu of intense discussion of an English Catholic writer feels very familiar.

I was aware of Greene’s great liking for Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill but had never studied Greene academically, remaining merely an avid reader and fan of works like The Ministry of Fear and The Third Man. I didn’t attend any lectures last year, but in 2011 I had the good fortune to hear Professor Michael Brennan’s lecture on Greene’s creative use of the Manichean heresy, in Brighton Rock and Stamboul Train among others, which was a truly stunning piece of scholarship. His patient explanation of the bizarre beliefs of the Manicheans and careful analysis of just how Greene used this good/evil, soul/body, man/woman set of dichotomies for his own (occasionally mischievous) purposes was one of the most dazzling lectures I’ve ever attended.

A major draw of the festival’s programme for me was a day-long creative writing workshop with two of the judges of the creative writing awards, novelist Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone and screenwriter William Ivory. The creative writing awards emulate Greene’s own range and include screenwriting, travel writing, and two prose categories – for fiction and thriller; much like Greene’s inimitable distinction between his novels and his ‘entertainments’. 2012 saw Lattin-Rawstrone and Ivory focus on Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man and his short story ‘The Basement Room’ to examine the importance of story and character in their talks on how to write convincing characters, who are then sent on meaningful journeys. The importance of tactile detail in communicating emotion was hammered home, as was the equal importance that when an important event befalls a character the reader should also viscerally feel just how important it is. The workshop includes an intense practical component in the afternoon. I did the screenplay option with Made in Dagenham screenwriter Ivory, who is a true disciple of Greene in his use of philosophical and theological concepts in his gritty screenplays. He also throws his pupils in at the deep end, plotting out an original movie scenario and characters from some pictures of actors; and then asking everyone to write a sample scene after some group discussion to fine-tune the characters and plot.

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Lee Langley and Fergal Casey

Away from this intensive writing in the basement theatre of Berkhamsted School (irresistibly reminiscent of UCD Dramsoc’s now lost LG1 space), in the Civic Centre I greatly enjoyed seeing on a big screen Lee Langley’s 1980s adaptation of Greene’s lost 1940s ‘scriptment’ into the complex and tense film The Tenth Man starring Anthony Hopkins and Kristin Scott Thomas; not least as Langley had presented me with my Creative Writing prize in 2011 and the exhortation to keep writing. As an added bonus director Jack Gold was on hand to discuss the film, revealing some of Anthony Hopkins’ acting mannerisms along the way. Once all the prizes had been given out, the birthday toast proposed, and the talks concluded it was time for the Gala Dinner in the luxurious surroundings of Berkhamsted’s venerable Public School, with an after-dinner talk by actor Clive Francis. I had the good fortune to be seated for it alongside Cathy Hogan, a previous winner in the writing awards, and Dermot Gilvary, previous director of the Festival.

I think everyone will find that there is one Graham Greene work that speaks to them. For me it’s The Ministry of Fear, for other people I know I could say The End of the Affair or Twenty One Short Stories. Why not find out which one speaks to you?

August 31, 2013

On Ben Affleck Being the Batman

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I’ve been musing with John Fahey about Ben Affleck returning to blockbuster leading man roles by playing Batman, and I feel Affleck’ll probably nail it.

I was, of course, initially disappointed by the casting announcement. But not for the same reason that most people who vented their spleen early on seemed to be disappointed/outraged. It seems harsh on the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt to have spent an entire bloody film being taught how to be the Batman by Christian Bale only to be shafted immediately by Warner Bros at his first chance to be the Batman. The hysteria surrounding Affleck’s casting struck me as very odd; like many people were still stuck in 2003 and reeling from the awfulness of Gigli and Paycheck. Announcing Affleck as the lead in Batman Begins back then, well, yes – outrage entirely justified. But this is 2013, the second act of Affleck’s cinematic life. Have people forgotten Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo only months after everyone loved him for accepting the Academy’s snub to his directing with dignity?

Ben Affleck has much in common with the equally maligned Mark Wahlberg. They are not the greatest actors in the world, but they’re certainly not bad actors. Yes, they can be acted off-screen by most any actor willing to stop yawning on set and make the effort. But that willingness to be out-acted is important, they provide an invaluable still centre. John C Reilly appeared at Trinity College a few years back and recounted bullying a theatre director into finally giving him the lead in a Restoration comedy, only to be bored silly on realising Congreve gave the best lines to supporting characters. Reilly’s function was to hold the chaos of the comedy together by being the still centre; and he immediately returned to his comfort zone of playing one of the supporting characters upstaging the romantic lead. Wahlberg and Affleck have given memorable supporting turns (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees, Good Will Hunting,Hollywoodland), but as leading men they don’t mesmerise; but that’s not necessarily always bad. Argo couldn’t support Goodman, Arkin & Cranston’s scenery-chewing profane quipping without Affleck quieting it, and The Fighter’s Bale, Adams & Leo OTT-competition would’ve gone into low-earth orbit without Wahlberg’s stoicism grounding it.

And Batman is, to a large degree, cinematically a still centre. The complaint oft made of Bat-movies – that the villains always walk off with the film – is exactly the complaint you’d expect to recur if a character is a still centre enabling craziness around him. (Affleck suddenly sounds like a very good fit…) Batman’s strength derives in part from his silence. Ninjas aren’t chatty. He lurks in shadows, and pounces on people when they least expect it. Batman doesn’t say much; he just appears and beats people up, that’s what makes him intimidating – he’s almost a pure physical presence to criminals, even those who never encounter him but whose imaginations he vividly inhabits. And in the comics even in the privacy of his own thought bubbles he usually thinks like Hemingway clipped some of the floweriness off of Raymond Chandler prose. And if you’ve read Jeph Loeb’s Hush and Superman/Batman you’ll note that a lot of Batman’s dialogue is sarcastic commentary on Superman’s problem-solving abilities. That sounds a lot like Affleck’s main function in Argo.

But whither Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne? He can’t very well play a billionaire playboy as a still centre, can he? Well, Christian Bale has hammered home the difference between private and public Bruce Wayne so this shouldn’t actually be that major a problem. It would, after all, feel like a waste of everyone’s time to have Robert Downey Jr play public Bruce Wayne the way he plays Tony Stark and then morph into terse earnestness for the other two parts of the Bat-persona. Affleck’s performance in The Town is probably a good model for his private Bruce, and if Argo cohort Bryan Cranston really is playing Lex Luthor then life as public Bruce Wayne gets a lot easier for Affleck as he can bounce quips off a fellow billionaire with whom he has existing good comic chemistry. Even if Cranston’s not Lex, Affleck has absurdly essayed an appropriately insouciant charm. Imagine a combination of Affleck’s Click ad for Lynx, his role in Argo, and the end narration of Daredevil and you have his Batman.

And that’s not bad. With the juvenile Zack Snyder directing it’s the Batman we deserve, but not the one we need right now probably the best we could hope for.

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