Talking Movies

July 20, 2018

At least we still have… : Part IV

The fourth entry in an occasional series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

As I wrote in my Top 10 Films of 2012 here when praising Damsels in Distress, the desire of Greta Gerwig’s daffy character to improve the global psyche with her creation of future international dance craze the Sambola seemed rather less daft after PSY’s eccentric ‘Gangnam Style’ stormed the world after the film’s release. Featured prominently at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang some months ago, this still led to an irresistible grin whenever played; despite the fact nobody has ever known what the lyrics are about, other than the vague impression that this is the Seoul version of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly.

And if I think of the 2012 election duel between Obama and Romney I will immediately think of this parody. Sure, not all of College Humour’s video works as well as you’d want, but when it hits the heights of this particular verse it’s irrepressible:

I got distinguished hair

And a private jet that flies me way up in the air

Buy and sell your company with so much savoir faire

I bought a mansion for each one of my two dozen heirs

Romney’s wrong-footing of Obama in the first minute of the first debate is almost worthy of a mention here in its own right. Obama had clearly prepped to face off against the accustomed robotic Romney. Little did he suspect that Romney’s operating software had been given a Reagan upgrade – and when his handler keyed in the command for ‘execute joke’ he did it perfectly, leaving Obama stunned; he was not prepared for this level of charisma. Obama staggered thru that debate looking punch-drunk before recovering his poise for the next two, but to think that Romney was pilloried in 2012 for his ‘binders full of women’, and everyone was glad that the RNC intimated that he should stop seeking to run again in 2016. Oh, what people wouldn’t give now to have had Romney as the GOP candidate in 2016 rather than Trump and his ‘binders full of payoffs to women’ (sic).

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June 17, 2018

Notes on Jurassic World 2

Jurassic World 2, aka Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, certainly is the 800 pound gorilla at the moment. It was playing in the three biggest screens in Movies@Dundrum last night simultaneously. Here are some notes on’t, prepared for Dublin City FM’s breakfast show with the inimitable Patrick Doyle early this morning.

JA Bayona directed 2008 chiller The Orphanage so he knows his way around suspense horror. There is free-floating camera-work that made me dizzy when we follow the shiny new dinosaur Indoraptor. It clambers over the roof and then hangs down over the side to look in a window, and the camera floats with it, behind it, above it, in front of it… There are some delirious moments where characters can’t see dinosaurs just behind them in the shadows, but we keep glimpsing them in flashes of lightning or rains of lava, and so are fully aware there’s a dinosaur sneaking up behind the oblivious characters. Having mentioned shadow though, and aware that Bayona actually used a lot of animatronics, there’s a bit too much CGI vagueness going on. Always be suspicious in a modern creature feature when you end up at night in the rain for your big finale. It’s like Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, they don’t want you to see the monster too well because they have no confidence their graphics are up to snuff.

There’s a lack of crispness about this sequel despite having the same writers, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. They’ve lifted very heavily from the structure of The Lost World. A cold open where people encounter dinosaurs on an island that they are not prepared for. Cut to an old British Person guilt-tripping someone into going to said island to rescue the dinosaurs or something. They meet dodgy mercenary types, and then all hell breaks loose. They bring some dinosaurs back to the mainland, and then all hell breaks loose. They even have Jeff Goldblum for 3 minutes for heaven’s sake because he was in The Lost World. Let us have Goldblum to the full! This is the sort of fear of originality that also bedevilled Star Trek into Darkness with its mirror photocopy routine on Wrath of Khan. Except here, unlike JJ Abrams going big, Bayona goes small, and the dinosaurs don’t run amok in San Diego, they just do it in a stately home. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Bad Times at the Hearst Mansion.

I like The Lost World but why so slavishly follow its exemplar when an even older flaw is apparent? Since Henry IV: Part 2 400 odd years ago sequels have seen characters that went on an arc, reconciled with each other, and looked forward to a happier future together, start the sequel back at each other’s throats, because the writers only knew how to send them on the same character arc, again. Owen and Claire begin the film reset to where they began the last one, and it’s maddening when put beside a wider sense of dissatisfaction. If you read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre at an impressionable age its theory of horror becomes part of your mental architecture: Apollonian order being disrupted by Dionysian chaos until eventually order is re-established. Is it therefore more dramatically satisfying to witness a functioning park descend into chaos like in Jurassic Park and Jurassic World than just have characters walk into existing chaos and get jump-scared constantly? It’s zombies running: it makes it too easy to scare the audience.

I didn’t get to chat about all of these points, but we did cover most of them. Tune into 103.2 FM to hear Patrick Doyle’s breakfast show every Sunday on Dublin City FM, and catch up with his excellent Classical Choice programme on Mixcloud now.

June 8, 2018

At least we still have… : Part II

The second entry in an occasional series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

Why, there’s Dom and Nic’s trippy video for the Chemical Brothers’ ‘Setting Sun’, prominently featuring the vocals of Noel Gallagher. The autumn of 1996 in a bottle. I still don’t really do dance music, but this was the first single I ever bought (and on tape!). It had the power to move me to cross the dug-in trenches of genre. It seems odd I never knew they were directing so many key videos; ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’, ‘Ava Adore’, ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, ‘D’You Know What I Mean’; but it seems odd now that MTV played them!

And then there’s the immortal Snoopy Dance. Some weeks ago a younger co-worker did an end of shift dance which I thought was like the Snoopy Dance. She was highly offended by this, which was puzzling. When she did it again later I used her term, the end of shift dance, only for her to call it the ‘Stupid Dance’. Ah! Sorting out this mishearing involved grabbing a co-worker closer to my age who knew what the Snoopy Dance was and instantly pulled up on his big-screen laptop the above clip to showcase the glory of Charles Schulz’ creation. On seeing it there was a pause, and then an admission that that was kind of like her dance alright… On reflection the end of shift dance is probably closer to Jenny Lindberg’s dance in Warpaint’s ‘Disco//Very’ but that’s another post.

April 30, 2018

On Urbanity

Prefacing my attack on Legion last month I noted decorum was important, and that urbanity was important as a stylistic and aesthetic goal, and noted one could stretch to call it an ethical goal too.

What then is urbanity? When I was writing for the University Observer I used to think our house style was aiming for the droll elegance of the New Yorker.  I’m not sure anybody else did. I’m not sure I would even have been able to pin down where I got that notion of the New Yorker from, possibly a refracted Dorothy Parker vibe from the Gilmore Girls. Having recently, deliriously enjoyed James Thurber’s The Years with Ross I think that I wasn’t far off in my peculiar sense of the magazine’s house style. Although it may have been just Thurber himself rather than the New Yorker writers en masse in possession of that style. Certainly the current New Yorker writers are en masse in possession of a house style, and the deployment of it by Gladwell, Gopnik & Co can be maddening in its repetition.

The New Yorker film reviews these days mostly overshoot urbanity and instead sound jaded, and snobbish. Richard Brody’s review of Ready Player One is a recent particular lowlight. Brody seems to have the shakiest of grasps on the commercial realities of movie-making, and indeed how movies are remembered by non-critics. His notion that a blockbuster themed around 1980s nostalgia should chuck The Shining for Jim Jarmusch’s oeuvre is tragicomic; once you stop laughing in astonishment, you realise he’s serious, and then need to lie down. But how should one write film reviews? I went from writing a movie column for the University Observer titled ‘Fergal’s Guide to Misanthropy’ to reviewing for InDublin. In thrall at the time to Hunter S Thompson I wrote reviews in a style that I would now never countenance. Hunter S Thompson is a great stylist, but he is not urbane.

It doesn’t matter that Hunter S Thompson is not urbane, because he is Hunter S Thompson. But it matters a great deal when people who are not Hunter S Thompson are neither urbane nor Thompsonian despite their best efforts. And those best efforts usually betray fierce labour as they attempt to do the Gonzo style without being the man who was Gonzo. As I wrote more and more film reviews for InDublin I began to appreciate that reinventing the wheel with snark and wildness each time was not sustainable. So, as I have recounted before, I turned to an earlier mentor, Michael Dwyer. I pored over his 300 review in an effort to understand how it worked, and especially how he could write so many reviews with such apparent ease; given their clarity and simplicity. I adopted my interpretation of his technique as my model.

Initially though the interpolated technique was all structural. It was only over time and ever more reviews for Dublinks.com and Talking Movies that the mature style revealed itself; borrowing a structure from Michael Dwyer had seamlessly led to an Augustan style. Films were reviewed without hyperbole over their strengths or hysteria over their weaknesses. As a result they could be reviewed with astonishing speed; my review of Prometheus took 26 minutes from first keystroke to published post. It wasn’t vitriolic, like so many reviews, it maintained an even keel. But it had taken 5 years to get to the point where that review could be penned in 26 minutes. What one looks for in urbanity is the appearance of effortlessness concealing much effort; the sprezzatura of Castiglione so promulgated by WB Yeats as the ideal of lyric poetry. Which brings us back to James Thurber…

Thurber’s droll story ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ concerns a bear that gets too fond of honey mead at the local bar:

He would reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

But our hero sees the error of his ways. He becomes a teetotaller, and a physical fitness freak, and boastful of how the two are connected:

To demonstrate this, he would stand on his head and on his hands and he would turn cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down on the floor, tired by his healthful exercise, and go to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

The simplicity of the gag makes you feel like you always knew it just after you first read it, and of course belies what must have been careful paring and paring by Thurber to get it just right. That is the key. It appears effortless; elegant, graceful, simple; and it took much effort to make it appear so. Thurber was in a contract with himself as much as the reader not to let go of the piece until he’d finely chiselled it to perfection and then polished it to remove all trace of the chisel marks. And it’s that determination to do oneself and others justice that I argue can move urbanity from aesthetics to ethics. To write urbanely is to do more, to be beneficent.

PG Wodehouse once wrote “The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well”. One might advance a similar notion when it comes to urbanity. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s painfully laboured non-apology apology for the Cambridge Analytica flap:

“I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it”

A billionaire, surrounded by expensive lawyers and media consultants, who can take five days (which I like to imagine were spent brainstorming on a luxury houseboat moored in the dead centre of Lake Tahoe), to write and/or approve something as inelegant as that italicised sentence… Well, I opine, in identical manner to the man who cheats at golf, a man capable of writing like that is capable of anything.

John McGahern is the endpoint of the notion of urbanity as an ethical goal. His description of fictional Leitrim farmer (and, as Graham Price persuasively has it, dandy) Jamesie sitting in Ruttledge’s passenger seat on their way to the market I have characterised in my Irish University Review article ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ as a Stoic benediction: “He praised where he could, but most people were allowed their space without praise or blame in a gesture of hands that assigned his life and theirs to their own parts in this inexhaustible journey”. That may be the ideal of urbanity I wish for in journalism. How it got muddled together with Thurber’s New Yorker drollness in my head is a puzzler, but there it is. Socrates said that nobody would willingly commit evil. An evil-doer is in possession of imperfect information. Nobody sets out to write badly, paint badly, compose badly, or to direct a bad film. In reviewing one should try to nudge where possible, and always offer solutions when identifying problems. One should only eviscerate if something is positively harmful, and even then try to do it with a light touch. A bad review done with urbanity is a judo flip. Identify what is obnoxious, and, if possible; and it is surprisingly often possible; see how the work can be read against itself, so that it is condemned out of its own mouth.

April 10, 2018

What becomes a Christie most?

Can the melancholic approach taken in Murder on the Orient Express work for a proposed Death on the Nile sequel?

I was quite surprised by the melancholic tone of Branagh’s first Poirot outing, but that, more than anything else, even his energetic performance as an exacting, physical Poirot, was what made the film work. And with a 350 million return on a 55 million budget it is inevitable that the sequel set up in its final scene will happen – Death on the Nile. Discussing this prospect with occasional co-writer Friedrich Bagel (which I still strongly suspect of being an assumed name) he opined that it would be better to go for a Christie mystery that has not been filmed, like The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Sadly, I opined right back, two things stand in the way of that – people would riot in their cinemas at the finale of Ackroyd, and marketers would riot in their boardrooms at the prospect of actually having to do their job rather than utilise the name recognition of already beloved properties. Alors, Nile

One hopes that someone in Burbank isn’t thus scrolling through Peter Ustinov’s IMDb profile. Ticking off Evil Under the Sun and Appointment with Death as the final entries in the Branagh Poirot quadrilogy, sneakily noting Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man’s Folly, and Murder in Three Acts as potential TV specials to cross the street with to HBO if the Branagh Poirots hit a wall at the box office, or God help us looking about for young Branaghs for a potential prequel Mysterious Affair at Styles. We know that Michael Green will again be adapting Christie’s novel for Branagh to star and direct. Reviewing Murder on the Orient Express back in November I noted that Green redeemed himself from the double whammy disasters of Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049 with his melancholic interpretation, which saw Branagh and composer Patrick Doyle render the murder almost as a mourning ritual. But that card can only be played once, leaving an obvious possibility that will annoy the purists.

That card is the trump that left the London Times spitting blood this Easter weekend when the BBC changed the identity of the killer in Ordeal by Innocence. It’s impossible to change the killer in Murder on the Orient Express, and one would think the same applies to Death on the Nile, but a severe rewrite (in the order of the tortures visited upon Stoker for Laurence Olivier’s Dracula) could yield anything. It is disconcerting when screenwriters assume they know better than the Queen of Crime who done it, but then there is a general tendency to sniff at Christie’s writing as being mere three-card-trick-plotting, overlooking some wonderful sly comedy as well as much darker effects of suspense, paranoia, and cynicism in The Hollow and And Then There Were None. No, if Green were to change the identity of the killer in Death on the Nile it wouldn’t be totally inadmissible, but it would be a hefty task of rewriting to keep Christie’s logic intact.

It is a matter of opinion that the melancholic card can only be played once. Green’s invented character arc for Poirot, where he admits shades of grey into a Manichean worldview is similar to the moral agony endured by Suchet’s Poirot on the same case. But Suchet’s crisis was explicitly Catholic while Branagh’s was, predictably for Hollywood, a crisis in the secular Markwellian ethics of consistency; allied to the writing of Poirot’s OCD as the scrupulosity of consistency in all things. (Although I vigorously object to the tendency to dub any and all devotion to precision as OCD, rather than, say, a devotion to precision.) I hold that the senseless murder of a kidnapped child naturally occasions a melancholic atmosphere in a way that a twisted love triangle climaxing in slaughter does not, but as Green threw out large chunks of plotting and minutiae to focus on a mood, it would not be outrageous to think he could do much the same thing for Nile.

Bagel took me to task for harping on Branagh as a physical Poirot, declaiming that Poirot was a policeman so he should be able to chase people, and that Christie herself admitted she’d blundered with his age, being retired in 1920 he would be 105 when solving crimes in 1960s Chelsea; a mistake akin to PG Wodehouse initially locating Blandings Castle damnably far from London for later plotting purposes. I retorted that Branagh’s physicality distinguishes his interpretation. Peter Ustinov naturally brought a raconteurish quality, and his bumbling was a play on how Christie made Poirot exaggerate his foreignness to trick villains into complacency. Suchet, lacking that flaneuring spirit, emphasised Poirot’s prim and proper sedentary use of the little grey cells; more true to the retired from active duty to pure consultation of Christie’s first forays with the detective. Branagh takes some of the fire from Suchet’s Poirot, indignant at evildoers expecting to get away scot-free, and makes his Belgian less retiree, more Fury at large.

To end where we began Herr Bagel wrung his hands that there is no decent actor who can play Hastings, the Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock, without being ‘annoying’. Hugh Fraser was perfect in the part for ITV, and, by indirect associations; he had previously played a villain in Edge of Darkness, he was tall where Suchet was small; I led myself to the only candidate (sic) for the part – Toby Jones. Who, by good fortune, was recently in Witness for the Prosecution for the BBC, and previously played opposite the great David Suchet on ITV’s Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh is Poirot, Jones is Hastings, the sun is high, the Nile water deceptively calm…

February 23, 2018

Lady Bird

On an avalanche of hype Greta Gerwig’s second film as director finally arrives here, depicting the senior high school year of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson.

Sacramento native Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who insists on referring to herself by her new self-given given name of Lady Bird, is returning from scouting California colleges with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) when she breaks her arm being melodramatic. Further misadventures involve falling out with her fat best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and falling in with the rich, pretty, vacuous Jenna (Odeya Rush) while she goes from romancing charming co-star Danny (Lucas Hedges) to moody musician Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). She is determined to go to college on the East Coast despite money worries caused by her father Larry (Tracy Letts) being let go, and further family tension owing to her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his live-in girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) working checkouts despite having Berkeley degrees because of the ‘jobless recovery’. This is 2002/3, you see. 

Among the baneful distortions of reality the Oscars cause is the unrealistic hype that can destroy some films, which can never live up to expectations like ‘the greatest screen performance of all time’ Daniel Day-Lewis supposedly gave in There Will Be Blood. Lady Bird is at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes among critics, it’s meant to be the feminist film of our times, the antidote to Trump’s America, take your pick of whatever hyperbole attaches to it online. But after Frances Ha and Mistress America this film is a disappointment. Sam Levy, who shot those two as well as Maggie’s Plan, casts a hazier light over proceedings here which matches Gerwig’s impressionistic portrait of a year with vignettes and montages. But too much of Lady Bird is populated by stock characters, a vague backdrop outside the only carefully etched relationship: mother-daughter.

It’s odd that, after Twilight (!), Gerwig sees fit to also rehash Gilmore Girls’ exemplar: the dull dependable boyfriend versus the edgy erratic boyfriend. More predictable is that, like Wish I Was Here or Middlesex, Lady Bird presents an artist’s abandoned religion as ancient nonsense/psychotic cult. In this case juvenile anti-Catholicism leads directly to a terrible misstep. Lady Bird is horrible to her best friend when she’s chorus and Julie lead in their school musical, she’s horrible to her brother when failing at college admission, and, in one of the most repellent scenes I’ve ever seen, especially for a ‘charming indie’, she’s horrible to anti-abortion speaker Casey (Bayne Gibby) whose very existence she dismisses as a joke. Lady Bird isn’t very funny, talented, smart, or nice. And as this film is steadfastly uninterested in developing anyone else that’s a problem…

‘Important’ films are rarely good, and sadly it seems Gerwig is being feted for making an important film, because this falls short of what she’s done in the past.

3/5

September 1, 2017

How Will Game of Thrones End?

It should be obvious by now that George RR Martin is never going to finish his series, because he patently has no interest in writing it when he could be having far more fun not writing it. But if he did write it, how would he actually end the saga?

“Kill me now…”

Now, Friedrich Bagel (which I strongly suspect of being an assumed name) is a man who knows something about not finishing a writing project; we have been assiduously not finishing our masterly screenplay for the great Irish short film for some nine years now. Moved by Martin’s plight he has suggested some endings, and I have helped out some. So, for the consideration of the blocked GRRM, here are some ways to fill the blank page of the final page…

 

Hard Boiled Manner

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Jon Snow was. But the old Targaryen didn’t have to be. She could lie quiet in her canopied bed, with her bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. Her heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. Her thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while she too, like Jon Snow, would be sleeping the big sleep.

 

Augustan

Last, o’er the urn the sacred earth they spread,
And rais’d the tomb, memorial of the dead
(Strong guards and spies, till all the rites were done,
Watch’d from the rising to the setting sun).         1010
Kings Landing  then moves to Cersei’s court again,
A solemn, silent, melancholy train:
Assembled there, from pious toil they rest,
And sadly shared the last sepulchral feast.
Such honours Westeros to her hero paid,         1015
And peaceful slept the mighty Jon Snow’s shade.

 

Elegiac

And as I sat there brooding on the old, and new, gods, I thought of Melisandre’s wonder when she first picked out the white fire hidden in Jon Snow’s afterlife. She had come a long way to this Iron Throne, and her dream must have seemed so close that she could hardly fail to grasp it. She did not know that it was already behind her, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond Kings Landing, where the dark fields beyond the Wall rolled on under the Night’s Watch.

Melisandre believed in the white fire, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning –

So we charge on, knights against the dragons, borne back ceaselessly into the Targaryens.

August 22, 2016

Graham Greene Festival 2016

The Graham Greene Festival returns after a sojourn last year for another hectic long weekend of events in Berkhamsted organised by festival director Mike Hill.

the-main-street-in-berkhamsted-25884

Hill says of this year’s event “In The Third Man, Graham Greene lampooned earnest literary gatherings by sending a writer of cheap novelettes to answer questions on James Joyce and the stream of consciousness. He might forgive us for organising a literary festival in his honour, an event now in its eighteenth year. People from all over the world will again descend on Berkhamsted to celebrate his life and works – many of them seasoned Greene Festival-goers, some first-time visitors. All are welcome, and all assured of a varied and interesting programme. There may be some earnestness, but there will certainly be friendliness and laughter. I hope you will come along.”

The festival is organised by the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust as Berkhamsted was where 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, returning to it imaginatively in late novels The Human Factor and The Captain and the Enemy. The four-day festival is only a half-hour train ride from London Euston, and is well worth the attention of all Greene fans in the Home Counties and beyond. As well as film screenings, gala dinners, and talks by both Greene scholars and film-makers involved in adaptations of his works, the festival has become a venue for launching new works of academic Greene scholarship.

This year’s highlights include the coup of a talk by Labour Big Beast, political biographer, and proud Yorkshireman Roy Hattersley on the recusancy of Shakespeare and the 20th Century revival of an English Catholic literary tradition. There is also an interview with Greene’s daughter and nephew, and a rare chance to see a 1961 version of The Power and the Glory starring Laurence Olivier and George C Scott, as well as two episodes from the 1970s Thames TV series Shades of Greene. The 2014 Festival innovation of a Greene book club is retained and expanded to include eight different titles (including my personal favourite The Ministry of Fear). Festival venues will feature exhibitions including ‘Greene in Theatreland’, and alongside the Festival bookstall’s recherché joys will be Richard Frost’s bookstall, with a large selection of books by and relating to Greene.

 

 

Thursday 22 September

Court House, The Gatsby, The Rex Cinema

Afternoon session (Cost: £5)

Court House, beside St Peter’s Church

2.15 ‘Graham Greene’s Common’: a guided walk (under three miles; includes WW1 trenches) led by Brian Shepherd, with readings from A Sort of Life and The Human Factor by Judy Mead and Richard Shepherd.

Assemble outside the Court House for introduction. Cars/lifts and stout walking shoes required for the start of the walk at Inns of Court War Memorial, New Road car park. If wet, illustrated talk with readings in the Court House.

 

Evening session

The Gatsby

5.30 Social gathering and buffet supper at The Gatsby. -7.15 Two courses and a glass of wine; vegan/vegetarian option. (Limited to 73 tickets. Book by Thursday 15 September at the latest.) Cost: £16

 

Film Night at The Rex Cinema

7.30 The Power and the Glory (CBS Television, 1961 – 90 -9.30 minutes) Director: Marc Daniels. With Laurence

Olivier, George C. Scott, Julie Harris, Cyril Cusack, Roddy McDowall.

Introduced by Professor Neil Sinyard. Cost: £9

 

Tickets are available for purchase online at www.grahamgreenebt.org, or by telephone: 07988 560496

 

Friday 23 September

The Town Hall, The Civic Centre

Morning session (Cost: £15)

The Town Hall

9.45 Journey With Maps: the beginning of Greene’s Quixotic holidays: a talk by Professor Carlos Villar Flor on Greene and Father Leopoldo Duran.

10.45 Break for tea and coffee

11.15 Travels with Auntie: the BBC’s James Naughtie interviews Nick Warburton about his writing career and his radio adaptations this year of The Honorary Consul and The Power and the Glory.

 

Break for lunch

 

Afternoon session (Cost: £15)

The Town Hall

2.30 The Catholic Muse: a talk by Lord (Roy) Hattersley.

Why, until the end of the nineteenth century were there so few distinguished Catholic writers and why were so many of the Catholic poets and novelists of the twentieth century converts? Roy Hattersley – carefully distinguishing between Catholic writers and writers who were Catholics – offers answers to those questions and tries to resolve the age old conundrum, was William Shakespeare, in the language of his age, a Papist?

3.30 Break for tea and coffee

4.15 Graham Greene Book Club: eight discussion groups, each focusing on a different Greene novel: The Man Within, England Made Me, The Power and the Glory, The Ministry of Fear, The End of the Affair, Our Man in Havana, The Human FactorThe Captain and the Enemy.

 

Evening session (Cost: £10)

The Civic Centre

7.45 Film night: two episodes from Shades of Greene -9.45 (Thames TV, 1975-6): Two Gentle People (50 mins), with Harry Andrews and Elaine Stritch, and Dream of a Strange Land (40 mins), with Ian Hendry. Introduced by: Dr David Rolinson of

Stirling University.

 

Saturday 24 September

Deans’ Hall and Old Hall, Berkhamsted School

(Castle Street)

Morning session (Cost: £16)

Deans’ Hall

9.30 Current Greene Research: presented by a University of North Georgia panel of students and faculty.

10.30 Break for tea and coffee

11.00 Graham Greene remembered: Vincent McDonnell, author of The Broken Commandment, interviewed by Mike Hill.

12.00 Launch of Graham Greene Studies by Professor -12.15 Joyce Stavick.

 

Break for lunch

 

Mid-afternoon session (Cost: £16)

Deans’ Hall

2.15 Greene and Jews: a talk by Professor Cedric Watts on the paradoxical treatment of Jews in a number of Greene’s nonfictional and fictional works, including The Name of Action, Stamboul Train and Brighton Rock.

3.15 Break for tea and coffee

3.45 Regarding Graham: Caroline Bourget, Greene’s daughter, and Nick Dennys, Greene’s nephew, interviewed by Dr Jon Wise.

 

Late afternoon session (Cost: £12)

Deans’ Hall

5.00 The Birthday Toast: by David Pearce.

5.15 ‘I’ve always wanted to be in a publisher’s office’ (Graham Greene, 1933): a talk by Professor Judith Adamson on Greene the publisher.

 

Evening session (Cost: £35)

Old Hall

7.45 Festival Dinner: three courses with wine and coffee; vegan/vegetarian alternative. (Limited to 60 tickets. Book by Thursday 15 September at the latest.)

 

Sunday 25 September

Careers Library and Old Hall, Berkhamsted School

(Castle Street)

Morning session (Cost: £15)

Careers Library (next to Old Hall)

10.00 ‘Something to catch hold of in the general flux’: Greene’s presentation of religious ideas and longings in his first three novels – The Man Within, The Name of Action and Rumour at Nightfall: a talk by Dr Alice Reeve-Tucker.

11.00 Break for tea and coffee

11.30 Taking liberties: two controversial film adaptations of, and by, Graham Greene: a talk by Professor Neil Sinyard.

 

Lunch (Cost: £24)

Old Hall

1.00 Farewell Lunch: cold buffet, wine and coffee; vegan/vegetarian option. (Limited to 60 tickets. Book by Thursday 15 September at the latest.)

 

 

Tickets

Tickets are available for purchase at http://www.grahamgreenebt.org, or by phone: 07988 560496. A Season Ticket to all events, excluding the film at The Rex and meals, is available for £95. There is free admission to Festival events (excluding the film at The Rex and meals) for under 21s and holders of the Dacorum Card.

Enquiries: grahamgreeneboxoffice@gmail.com

 

Friends

Become a Friend of the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust at http://www.grahamgreenebt.org and receive a quarterly newsletter, a Festival discount of £1 per event (for up to five events), or a Season Ticket to all events, excluding the film at Thee Rex and meals, for £95.

 

Graham Greene Birthplace Trust

On the website (www.grahamgreenebt.org) there are further details of the talks, interviews and speakers, online ticketing service, and information on any changes that may arise. Tickets will be on sale at the door for all events other than the meals and the Rex film, but it would be preferable to book in advance online from the website. Season tickets are available for those who plan to attend all the talks.

June 20, 2016

The Saddest Writing in the World

What is the saddest writing in the world? I think there are two answers to that question. The first consists of just three words -‘in happier days’. That phrase as caption pushes the photo below towards farce in the best Marxian sense of tragedy recurrent. But in this age of constant, nay obsessive photography there are surely vast digital archives, never printed out and never properly examined, which, when the selfie-stick snappers wade thru them some rainy Sunday afternoon in the future, will cause many a wince when the omnipresent applicability of ‘in happier days’ becomes apparent.

rummy-and-sadam

Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, in happier days

Few photos will rebound as viciously as Rummy and Saddam’s handshake, but ordinary life has its fair share of unexpected transformations of friends into enemies over the long run. What when perusing old photos and running into any number of problems (graduation photos uncomfortably shared with colleagues who later attempted to plagiarise your work, wedding photos uncomfortably showcasing a guest who later became a reactionary lunatic, fun holiday snaps uncomfortably co-starring someone who cut you out of their life with surgical precision and zero explanation) is one to do exactly? The wonders of digital photography makes it ever easier to take the Stalinist approach, cropping in tight to cut people out of the past without any messy cutting up of physical pictures, hiding someone in a deep shadow without having to use Stalin’s patented airbrushing. Sadder still, especially if delving into pre-digital archives, are the snapshots of people who have simply done an unbidden Stalin purge and disappeared from your life. Each of those polaroids screams out to have ‘in happier days’ scrawled on the back.

The second answer to the question what is the saddest writing in the world isn’t a maxim, but a wide category – inscriptions in books in second-hand bookshops. It is remarkably depressing to pick up a book you’d like to buy and while checking the price scratched in pencil inside notice a careful, loving inscription by one person to another, and realise that the person receiving this gift obviously didn’t feel the same way or the book wouldn’t currently be residing in the suddenly melancholy hands of a perfect stranger. Buying a book and inscribing it bespeaks a volume of thought completely absent from sending someone a Kindle read, or a voucher. A voucher declares ‘I have no idea what you like, but would like you to have something that you like’. A specific gift declares ‘I have a very good idea what you like, know what you have, and think this is right up your alley; you just haven’t reached it yet so let me bring it to you’. And an inscription further nails that certainty by making it impossible to exchange the defaced book. But it also adds a personal note for posterity. If the discovery of writing enabled people to live on and impart their wisdom beyond the end of their own lives, then an inscription allows a friend to provide a reminder of their love even after they’re no longer physically present, whether by distance or death. You can trace a friendship by comparing the inscriptions on various books, and noting changes in tone, and even the calibre of book. You can shelve together entire mini-collections provided by one person for another. And you can notice how suddenly one inscriber can disappear forever and shed a tear at a friendship sundered.

And so to throw away a book with an inscription seems an act of unconscious callousness on the part of a relative getting rid of an unwieldy estate bit by bit, or an act of deliberate rejection by the inscriptee of all the inscripter’s aims: their certainty of familiarity, of second-guessing taste, and, most importantly, of reciprocal esteem and love. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” and all that…

 

April 15, 2016

Master & Commander: good solid research

Australian director Peter Weir’s 2003 film Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World is noteworthy for being remarkably faithless to the letter of the novel on which it is based, The Far Side of the World, and yet admirably faithful to the spirit of the Aubrey/Maturin series of which that novel is the tenth instalment. Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on that adaptation.

It is hard not to watch Weir’s film and be struck by how he is picking lines of dialogue and character moments from disparate books all across the series: one deleted scene alludes to the future laudanum addiction of a supporting character. One of the subtlest joys of the movie is the depiction of Jack dining with his officers, only on repeat viewings do you note definitively that all concerned are never entirely sober in any of these scenes; a consequence of the endless series of ‘A glass with you, sir’ toasts O’Brian presents. And so is presented in the best context the infamous weevil joke, “Do you not know that in the service, you must always choose the lesser of two weevils?” This is word for word as O’Brian wrote it, and Weir has Stephen riposte it with a quote from a different book – “He would that make a pun would pick a pocket.” Stephen critiques Jack’s corny wit in The Far Side of the World, with a quote applicable to all the officers across all the books, “Shakespeare’s clowns make quips of that bludgeoning, knock-me-down nature. You have only to add marry, come up, or go to.” And yet the humour of the books is based on solid research. Some of the peevish admirals Jack encounters in the novels recall Lord Chancellor Thurlow’s outburst at a deputation of Nonconformists, recorded in TH White’s The Age of Scandal, “I’m against you, by God. I am for the Established Church, damme! Not that I have any more regard for the Established Church than for any other Church, but because it is established. And if you can get your damned religion established, I’ll be for that too!”

“He will continue to respect historical accuracy and speak of the Royal Navy as it was, making use of contemporary documents” promised author Patrick O’Brian in his introduction to The Far Side of the World. And indeed not many pages pass before a reference is made to the late 18th century concept of ‘bottom’; which TH White defines as not just a precursor of the modern concept of ‘guts’, but also a marker of financial resources and emotional stoicism. But it is in rendering dialogue accurately that O’Brian is a marvel, men of the Napoleonic Wars speak as they would have done, of the things they would have spoken of, and with the gradations of class that would have inflected their dialect; so that when O’Brian describes the intake of the Defenders to the Surprise, the narration becomes coloured by the slang and sentence structure of the able seamen, “A few were striped Guernsey-frocked tarpaulin-hatted kinky-faced red-throated long-swinging-pigtailed men-of-war’s men, and judging by their answers as they were entered in the ship’s books some of these were right sea-lawyers too.” By hewing so closely to O’Brian’s dialogue, Weir adds unusual authenticity to a Hollywood historical action adventure, from the cries of ‘Huzzay’ to Jack’s ‘Thankee, Killick’ to his servant.

Click here to read the full piece.

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