Talking Movies

July 2, 2017

RIP Barry Norman

I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of former BBC film critic Barry Norman. I can’t add to the obituaries, all I can contribute is a personal note on what I think he meant to me and other film fans of my generation.

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Barry Norman for a whole generation was the archetypal film critic. His avuncular remarks from his comfy chair in the studio that morphed with changing fashions over the decades let you know exactly what films were worthy of recognition and championing in the ongoing narrative of cinema. His retirement from the BBC in 1998, volubly aghast at what Hollywood was purveying as their stock in trade, seems like a merciful escape for him now that some American film critics are writing serious thinkpieces about their duty to avoid reviewing much of Hollywood’s current (even worse) stock in trade lest it destroy their critical palate. I watched Film 98 and its previous incarnations religiously, and howled in outrage every summer as Norman buggered off on his holliers just as we all most needed his guidance on what blockbusters were worth watching.

Norman was famously unimpressed by the ego and entitlement of famous actors and directors, from John Wayne to Mel Gibson, and would never have stooped to the recycling of breathless press releases gushing about the all-time record box-office grosses just achieved by … (never of course adjusted for inflation, for painfully obvious reasons) that drives so much of online film commentary. Instead he took the long view, a very long view indeed. His 1992 book 100 Best Films of the Century ostentatiously dwelt mostly in the past; a duty given the tremendous present bias that afflicts our culture; with only 5 films being made after 1980. I read it an impressionable age, and when revisiting it after a decade was aghast/amused/astonished to discover I had been parroting many of Norman’s contentions under the genuine belief they were my own opinions.

Not of the individual films, I hasten to add, but the broad sweep of cinema as outlined in his contextualising introduction to his picks. Some of the lines about certain films still resonate, Apocalypse Now being the best example; I read his piece on it before seeing it, yet frame in my mind in his terms. Barry Norman was such a fixture that something similar happens with Back to the Future II. I didn’t see it in the cinema, but I think of his review on BBC and the scene he picked to illustrate it whenever I see that scene in the movie. What he talked about on Film affected what I thought was worth watching, even if I disagreed. He valorised Woody Allen for years, and I never got it; but I eventually investigated 1970s Woody and thus began to appreciate the body of work. Alas, I never made it to the Helix in DCU years after he’d stopped presenting to see him speak on some of his favourite Old Hollywood films, but I still have his book, and helpfully someone on IMDb has used it to create a watch-list of Norman’s picks: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls055207230/

The Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, The Gold Rush, The General, Napoleon, All Quiet on the Western Front, Frankenstein, Duck Soup, It Happened One Night, The 39 Steps, Top Hat, Modern Times, La Grande Illusion, Oh, Mr. Porter!, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Vanishes, Pygmalion, La regle du jeu, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, The Grapes of Wrath, The Thief of Bagdad, The Bank Dick, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Bambi, To Be or Not to Be, Double Indemnity, Laura, Les enfants du paradis, I Know Where I’m Going, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Big Sleep, The Best Years of Our Lives, My Darling Clementine, A Matter of Life and Death, Great Expectations, Bicycle Thieves, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Red River, The Red Shoes, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Whisky Galore!, The Third Man, Orphee, Rashomon, Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, The Lavender Hill Mob, The African Queen, Jeux Interdits, High Noon, Pat and Mike, Singin’ in the Rain, Genevieve, Shane, Seven Samurai, On the Waterfront, La Strada, Bad Day at Black Rock, Pather Panchali, Richard III, The Searchers, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Nights of Cabiria, Paths of Glory, Some Like It Hot, Psycho, A Bout de Souffle, Lawrence of Arabia, The Leopard, Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Z, The Wild Bunch, M.A.S.H., The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Cabaret, The Godfather, Mean Streets, Sleeper, The Godfather: Part II, Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Gregory’s Girl, E.T, Ran, Hannah and Her Sisters.

While some people may worship at the protean altar of the crowd-sourced IMDB Top 250 or the too cool for film school hipster fashions of the Sight & Sound poll this will always be for me the North Star of cinema. An unapologetic focus on Old Hollywood, foreign films picked because they made a huge impact not because you need to fill a quota, the silent era dismissed in just 5 films rather than (as Sight & Sound’s polled experts are wont) pretentiously behaving akin to a lover of the theatre who bemoans everything since the Greeks, and the recent past put on hold to see how it sets before celebrating it: only 5 films since 1980 in a list compiled in 1992, and only 12 films admitted from the 1970s. Norman never pretended the present moment was uniquely awesome.

Barry Norman’s legacy is to forever be the voice in your head which asks, “Yes, this film is fun, but will it endure?” In a way every Irish film critic of my generation, professional or dilettante, will have internalised for life Barry Norman’s scepticism of commercial success being equated with artistic quality as well as his sardonic “…And why not?”

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May 27, 2016

Tarzan swings in to Bloom

Warner Bros. have commissioned multiple Gold Medal Winners Liat & Oliver Schurmann to create The Legend of Tarzan Garden which will be unveiled as part of this year’s Bloom 2016 Festival on June 2nd. Inspiration for the garden comes from the upcoming adventure film The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård as Tarzan and Margot Robbie as Jane, which swings into Irish cinemas on July 8th 2016.

The garden invites visitors into a verdant African jungle, which incorporates an overhead canopy of foliage and a sparkling water feature, truly a magical place that will inspire the imaginations of children and adults alike. In the distance, an army of gorillas reflects the wildness of Tarzan’s tropical home. The hanging mist and mysterious sounds transport the visitor into the rain-forests of Africa, to experience in person the atmosphere of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ beloved creation. Liat & Oliver Schurmann run Mount Venus Nursery in Dublin, a specialist nursery for unusual perennials and grasses. They have supplied plants to Buckingham Palace, and have won many gold medals for floral displays and exhibits. They design gardens in the public sector as well as providing consultancy and giving talks, and have a reputation for extraordinary design, combining practicality with sustainability.

Bord Bia’s Bloom event will take place in the Phoenix Park, Dublin from Thursday 2nd June – Monday 6th June. This year marks its 10th anniversary, and as Ireland’s largest gardening, food and family festival it is now a key feature of the June bank holiday weekend; with more than 100,000 visitors last year. The annual showcase for Ireland’s horticulture and food industry will feature a range of impressive show gardens, food features, and family entertainment. Tickets are on sale now on www.bloominthepark.com and kids go free. Visitors to the garden will have the opportunity enter a competition to win tickets to the European Premiere of The Legend of Tarzan in London on July 5th.

The Legend of Tarzan finds Tarzan leading a gentrified life as Lord Greystoke with his beloved wife Jane at his side.  But, invited back to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament, he becomes a pawn in a deadly game of greed and revenge masterminded by Belgian Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who has no idea what primal fury he is about to unleash… The question of whether it’s wise to use the unimaginable horrors of the Belgian Congo as so much cod-historical backdrop for an action romp is probably not one that concerned screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. Harry Potter main-man David Yates is directing, not Nicolas Roeg or Francis Ford Coppolla, so such ahistoric set-dressing was never going to yield to an agonised cri de couer like Heart of Darkness.

September 1, 2015

Six Years, what a surprise

Filed under: Talking Movies,Talking Nonsense,Talking Television,Talking Theatre — Fergal Casey @ 10:06 pm
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Previous milestones on this blog have been marked by features on Michael Fassbender and a vainglorious, if requested, list (plays to see before you die). But as today marks exactly six years since Talking Movies kicked off in earnest on Tuesday September 1st 2009 with a review of (500) Days of Summer I’ve rummaged thru the archives for some lists covering the various aspects of the blog’s expanded cultural brief.

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Top 6 Films

There’s been a lot of films given a write-up and a star rating hereabouts. So many films. Some fell in my estimation on re-watching, others steadily increased in my esteem, and many stayed exactly as they were.

 

Here are my favourites of the films I’ve reviewed over the past six years:

 

Inception

X-Men: First Class

Shame

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Skyfall

Mud

 

And that’s a selection from this list…

Iron Man, Indiana Jones 4, Wolverine, (500) Days of Summer, Creation, Pandorum, Love Happens, The Goods, Fantastic Mr Fox, Jennifer’s Body, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Bright Star, Glorious 39, The Box, Youth in Revolt, A Single Man, Whip It!, The Bad Lieutenant, Eclipse, Inception, The Runaways, The Hole 3-D, Buried, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Let Me In, The Way Back, Never Let Me Go, Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D, Win Win, X-Men: First Class, The Beaver, A Better Life, Project Nim, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie, The Art of Getting By, Troll Hunter, Drive, Demons Never Die, The Ides of March, In Time, Justice, Breaking Dawn: Part I, The Big Year, Shame, The Darkest Hour 3-D, The Descendants, Man on a Ledge, Martha Marcy May Marlene, A Dangerous Method, The Woman in Black, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 3-D, Margaret, This Means War, Stella Days, Act of Valour, The Hunger Games, Titanic 3-D, The Cabin in the Woods, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lockout, Albert Nobbs, Damsels in Distress, Prometheus, Red Tails, Red Lights, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3-D, Ice Age 4, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, The Dark Knight Rises, The Expendables 2, My Brothers, The Watch, Lawless, The Sweeney, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Liberal Arts, Sinister, Hit and Run, Ruby Sparks, On the Road, Stitches, Skyfall, The Sapphires, Gambit, Seven Psychopaths, Lincoln, Men at Lunch – Lon sa Speir, Warm Bodies, A Good Day to Die Hard, Safe Haven, Arbitrage, Stoker, Robot and Frank, Parker, Side Effects, Iron Man 3, 21 and Over, Dead Man Down, Mud, The Moth Diaries, Populaire, Behind the Candelabra, Man of Steel 3-D, The East, The Internship, The Frozen Ground, The Wolverine, The Heat, RED 2, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Diana, Blue Jasmine, How I Live Now, Thanks for Sharing, Escape Plan, Like Father, Like Son, Ender’s Game, Philomena, The Counsellor, Catching Fire, Black Nativity, Delivery Man, 12 Years a Slave, Devil’s Due, Inside Llewyn Davis, Mr Peabody & Sherman 3-D, Dallas Buyers Club, The Monuments Men, Bastards, The Stag, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Calvary, Magic Magic, Tracks, Hill Street, X-Men: Days of Future Past 3-D, Benny & Jolene, The Fault in Our Stars, 3 Days to Kill, Boyhood, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 3-D, SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, God’s Pocket, Hector and the Search for Happiness, The Expendables 3, What If, Sin City 2, Let’s Be Cops, The Guest, A Most Wanted Man, Wish I Was Here, Noble, Maps to the Stars, Life After Beth, Gone Girl, Northern Soul, The Babadook, Interstellar, The Drop, Mockingjay – Part I, Electricity, Birdman, Taken 3, Wild, Testament of Youth, A Most Violent Year, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Son of a Gun, Patrick’s Day, Selma, It Follows, Paper Souls, Home 3-D, While We’re Young, John Wick, A Little Chaos, The Good Lie, Let Us Prey, The Legend of Barney Thomson, Hitman: Agent 47.

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Top 6 Film Features

There’s been a lot of film features, from me obsessing over ignored inflation at the box-office and omnipresent CGI on the screen to the twaddle of Oscar ceremonies and thoroughly bogus critical narratives of New Hollywood.

 

Here are my favourite film features from the last six years:

 

A Proof – Keanu Can Act

Snyder’s Sensibility

What the Hell is … Method Acting?

Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree

5 Reasons to love Tom at the Farm

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

 

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Top 6 TV Features

There’s been quite a bit of musing about TV here, usually in short-form howls about The Blacklist or other such popcorn irritants, but sometimes in longer format, like two disquisitions on Laurence Fishburne’s stint in CSI.

 

Here are my favourite TV features from the last six years:

 

TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimensions In Smartness

Double Exposure: Cutter’s Way/House M.D.

Medium’s Realism    

2ThirteenB Baker Street, Princeton

Funny Bones

An Arrow of a different colour

 

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Top 6 Plays

Since I decided to start reviewing plays in summer 2010 there’s been a steady stream of reviews from the Dublin Theatre Festival and regular productions at the Gate, the Abbey, the Olympia, the Gaiety, and Smock Alley.

 

Here are my favourites of the plays I’ve reviewed over the last six years:

 

John Gabriel Borkman

The Silver Tassie

Pygmalion

Juno and the Paycock

The Select: The Sun Also Rises

A Whistle in the Dark

 

And that’s a selection from this list:

Death of a Salesman, Arcadia, Phaedra, John Gabriel Borkman, Enron, The Silver Tassie, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Attempts on Her Life, Pygmalion, Translations, Hay Fever, Juno and the Paycock, Peer Gynt, Slattery’s Sago Saga, Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, Big Maggie, Hamlet, Improbable Frequency, Alice in Funderland, Glengarry Glen Ross, Travesties, The House, The Plough and the Stars, The Lark, Dubliners, The Select: The Sun Also Rises, A Whistle in the Dark, Conversations on a Homecoming, The Talk of the Town, King Lear, Major Barbara, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, The Critic, Desire Under the Elms, Neutral Hero, Macbeth, A Skull in Connemara, The Vortex, An Ideal Husband, Twelfth Night, Aristocrats, Ballyturk, Heartbreak House, The Actor’s Lament, Our Few and Evil Days, Bailegangaire, Spinning, She Stoops to Conquer, The Walworth Farce, The Caretaker, The Man in Two Pieces, Hedda Gabler, The Gigli Concert, A Month in the Country, The Shadow of a Gunman, The Importance of Being Earnest, Bob & Judy, By the Bog of Cats.

 

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Top 6 Colour Pieces

It must be admitted that I’ve written fewer colour pieces for the blog than I would have liked, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the occasional adventures of Hollywood insider Micawber-Mycroft; a homage to PG Wodehouse’s Mr Mulliner.

 

Here are my favourite colour pieces from the last six years:

 

How to Watch 300

Mark Pellegrino gets ambitious

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: Apocalypse Now

Micawber-Mycroft explains nervous action directing

Alfred & Bane: Brothers in Arms

Kristen Bell, Book and Candle

 

Six years, my brain hurts a lot…

October 26, 2012

Skyfall

Director Sam Mendes nostalgically marks James Bond’s 50th anniversary with a typically measured piece of work that is very enjoyable  but which never quite matches the heights of Casino Royale.

The thrilling opening sequence in  Turkey sees Daniel Craig’s 007 implacably pursue a man who has stolen a  hard-drive containing the identities of NATO agents undercover in terrorist  organisations. Unfortunately the pursuit ends disastrously courtesy of the  bungled intervention of his back-up agent Eve (Naomie Harris), carrying out M’s  ruthless orders. Judi’s Dench M is being threatened with retirement by new  Security Chairman Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) over this blunder but Bond, now a  broken man (he has a beard…) and champion of a Turkish drinking game involving  scorpions, only returns when MI6 HQ explodes. Bond returns to a rattled agency,  hiding in Churchill’s old war bunker, and with a ridiculously young new  Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw), who trades barbed insults with Bond and then equips  him with the needful to get back out into the field, where there’s always  terrible wear and tear. Bond’s search for the stolen list of agents leads him to  the sultry Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe) and her sinister employer,  super-hacker Silva (Javier Bardem)…

When reviewing the pointlessly maligned Quantum of Solace I held out the hope that the  ideas surrounding Quantum might lead to a Bond 2.0 film even better than Casino Royale. Well, sadly Quantum and Felix Leiter  are absent from this movie, but one idea from Quantum, that M and Bond have almost a fraught  mother/son bond, has been amplified and given a dramatic counterpoint to power  this film’s twisting plot. Oddly this feels at times like a Nolan Bond not a  Mendes Bond. Mendes has drafted in some regulars: Thomas Newman replaces David  Arnold but fails to make much impact; indeed dramatic strings during the Tube  sequence are uncannily like Arnold’s motif for similar sequences on Sherlock. Roger Deakins though gives the  mirrors motif of the title credits dazzling life in the Shanghai sequence which  is all reflective glass, and blue and green neon, while the night-time Macau  sequence is just gorgeously staged in warm oranges. But the crumbling city where  Silva has his lair screams Inception, a  plot twist is a familiar gambit from The Dark  Knight, and Rises echoes in the  constant references to Bond being a physical wreck, and the persistent  questioning of why this rich orphan continues to risk his life.

The deliberately measured pace of the movie is pure Mendes and he even  produces a trademark move with Silva’s entrance, a slow push-in while Silva  walks towards the camera from a distance. For the most part this approach works,  the first act feels like one of Fleming’s short stories, and the belated  entrance of Silva pays off in some wonderfully discomforting dialogue scenes and  a huge shock. Even Silva as cyber-supervillain works, mostly due to Q’s rivalry  with Silva. But then along comes the third act… Mendes throws everything at  the screen; the full Bond guitar riff, Aston Martins, references to and  borrowings from Goldfinger, Apocalypse Now, and From Russia with Love. But while it’s fascinating in  exploring Bond’s past, and ends fittingly with some in-joke references, the  climactic action just lacks the forcefulness or epic scale of Casino Royale and even Quantum.

Skyfall is a good film, which runs  out of steam somewhat, but it does seem to prove that action directors handling  sharp scripts make for the best Bond films.

3.5/5

June 10, 2011

What the Hell is … Method Acting?

It may seem obvious, as it’s an endlessly cited term, but I’d like to examine it because I’ve been musing for a few years now about a brace of BBC documentaries which seemed to imply there were two styles of acting filed under the one term…

Method Acting was invented by Constantin Stanislavsky who directed the first productions of Chekhov’s four major plays (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard) from 1898 to 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre. So far, so good – you couldn’t hope for a better provenance, and sure enough Stanislavsky wrote numerous books on the more realistic style of acting and staging that he had developed, which focused on emotional authenticity and hyper-detailed/intrusive sound design to suggest the surrounding world offstage respectively. Best to gloss over the fact that Chekhov thought him incredibly ponderous in his staging, and given to destroying comedic scripts by weighing them down with psychological realism. The Method made the leap from Russian into English and from Russia to America and, as taught by Lee Strasberg in the Group Theatre in New York, became a vogue in Hollywood in the 1950s. But what exactly is the Method? The late great Dennis Hopper, in a detailed BBC interview a few years ago spoke extensively of the Method as a way of imbuing acting with felt emotions thru the use of a magic box of memories. In short the actor playing a role mined his own experiences for emotional equivalents and thought of them to achieve the desired emotion rather than trying to imagine out of nowhere an authentic emotional response to a fictitious event.

So if Hopper was told onscreen that his father had died, Hopper the actor wouldn’t start crying because he had intellectually thought about the troubled father-son relationship of his character and conjured an appropriate level of sorrow, he would start crying because he would have thought of the death of a beloved relative and hammered into that memory until real tears started to flow – and the audience would never know that these real tears were being shed for a real person and had nothing to do with the character’s father. Hopper then clarified this point, saying that it was crucial for Method Actors to continually renew their magic box of memories with new emotional triggers because otherwise memories would cease to be vivid and fresh and the resultant acting wouldn’t be authentic but would simply be ‘just acting’.

Fine, that’s good Method Acting, and Brando, James Dean and Hopper all gave great performances in the 1950s, and seemed to redefine the lexicon of screen acting. Except…Marlon Brando wasn’t really a Method actor. Sure he mumbled onscreen like Dean, but not to somehow be in the moment in character, but because of a hilarious inability/refusal to learn his lines. In theatre other actors on Broadway spoke in awe of how he could use tiny details of stage-craft to convey sucker-punches of emotion, how Brando hunched over a counter with his legs wrapping around a bar-stool could convey a helplessness and a weak despair that could reduce an audience to tears. In other words he wasn’t Method acting, he was merely ‘just acting’ exceptionally well. Indeed Brando only spoke of using the Method for one film, Last Tango in Paris, and felt violated as a result of how much of his own life Bertolucci had tricked him (as he saw it) into revealing to millions of people by talking about his own parents when his character spoke about his troubled relationships with his parents. Brando vowed never to make himself that emotionally vulnerable again, and to never dig deep into his own soul for roles in that fashion ever again, before triumphantly boasting that in future he’d ‘just act’, and no one would be able to see that he wasn’t engaging on the Method level – purely because he knew he was that good at regular acting.

Where then does that leave Brando’s performances in Apocalypse Now and The Godfather? Physically changing his appearance to more closely resemble the role as written shows great commitment but it’s not strictly speaking Method acting in the Dennis Hopper magic box of memories sense. Brando’s dismay at his one use of the Method technique of using real emotional traumas mirrors Stanislavsky’s alarm at the hysterical reactions this technique was producing in some of his actors. Ironically Brando’s vow to merely ‘just act’ really well seems, in its emphasis on improvisation and physicality, to actually replicate Stanislavsky’s later emphasis on physical actions and improvisation rather than the magic box of memories to achieve subconscious authenticity. So, as Brendan Behan said of every Irish Republican endeavour thru history, the first agenda on the item was the split – another type of Method.

A type of Method exemplified by those 1970s show-offs Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, and their more recent confreres, Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale. The fact that Al Pacino is the one member of the 1970s generation of Method actors who does the most theatre work, associated with Lee Strasberg, and can still be found at the Actors’ Studio even now, should give the answer to the question of where the dividing line between the two Methods lies. What Hoffman, De Niro, Day-Lewis, and Bale do is not Method acting as Stanislavsky originally understood it; certainly it’s hard to think of Chekhov doing anything but throwing his hands up in even more than usual horror/despair at their antics. Hoffman’s continual improvisations would destroy any Chekhov play, or indeed any play, hence his great difficulty in performing Macbeth on Broadway until another actor menaced him into just finding truth in the words Shakespeare had written for him… Indeed if you watch the extras on Marathon Man you can see Hoffman’s insistence on endless improvisation damn near destroying that film as it leads to endless deleted scenes where the other actors get so rattled by his in-character ramblings that their minds go visibly blank, because they can’t improvise, and they start nervously babbling but all they have to babble as dialogue are the screenplay’s plot points; whose premature disclosure is not advisable in a suspense thriller, and is the reason those scenes were unusable.

Pacino never worked the same way that De Niro and Hoffman did in their hey-day, and that Day-Lewis and Bale still do. What this quartet does can only work for film, it is utterly unsuited to theatre, and given that Stanislavsky was a theatre director perhaps we need a new term for this quasi-hysterical evolution of his later conception of the Method. I’d like to propose ‘Immersive Acting’ as a more accurate term, because that is what they do. They don’t bring their own experiences to the role as Dennis Hopper propounded with his magic box of memories, instead they take the role and bend their own life for a certain period of time to make it the same as the role; think of De Niro driving a taxi, Hoffman long-distance running, Day-Lewis learning the craft of butchery, and Bale losing a terrifying amount of weight; and then they play that, interpreting Stanislavsky’s emphasis on physicality as meaning the actor gaining subconscious authenticity in the role almost thru sheer muscle memory.

Immersive acting produces terrific performances, but I think it needs its own term to emphasise its peculiarity, its curiously self-promoting showiness, as if acting somehow consisted of weight-loss and skills-training. Colin Firth’s reaction to a phone call in A Single Man has nothing to do with physically immersing himself in his role, but it will break your heart. Not bad for ‘just acting’.

November 12, 2010

The Silver Tassie

Druid’s towering production of Sean O’Casey’s 1928 play was a triumph that should re-instate it in the Irish canon and was surely the apex of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

This was the play that infamously saw O’Casey sever his ties with the Abbey after Yeats rejected it – because O’Casey had not fought in WWI. O’Casey’s justly caustic retort, “Was GB Shaw present when St Joan made the attack that relieved Orleans? And someone, I think, wrote a poem about Tir na nOg, who never took a header into the Land of Youth”, obscured that, behind his bizarre hang-up regarding Art and WWI, Yeats’ bluster was probably hiding sheer panic at how badly such a mammoth production would expose his Abbey’s limited resources. And it is a mammoth production as O’Casey uses 19 actors and the 4 Acts beloved of Chekhov but now out of vogue to stage a dazzling array of situations.

The play opens in the archetypal O’Casey setting of a Dublin tenement, with neighbours intruding all the time on a customary self-deluding male double-act -Simon Norton (John Olohan) and Sylvester Heegan (Eamon Morrissey). Syl is quite possibly the most useless father in all O’Casey, and that’s saying something. He is awaiting the return of his son Harry’s football team from their championship game before the entire squad returns to the Western front. The comedy, however, is more abrasive than the endlessly performed Dublin trilogy. Simon and Syl are upbraided by Harry’s jilted girlfriend Susie Monican (Clare Dunne), who has become an evangelical, while their neighbour upstairs Mrs Foran (Derbhle Crotty) cooks in their flat to avoid her husband Teddy (Liam Carney), who she’s desperate to get rid of back to the front. He’s none too happy about this and, being a wife-beater, knocks a bit of the roof down onto the stage in his rage. No one really cares about him smashing her crockery, or giving her a bleeding cut under her eye, just as they didn’t care about her steak burning while they recounted Harry’s heroic drunken boxing exploits. They do care about Teddy appearing downstairs to menace them with a hatchet… Luckily for them the team arrives with the titular trophy won by Harry’s goal. Harry’s new girlfriend Jessie Taite (Aoife Duffin) taunts Susie with PDA of a suspiciously blatant nature for 1914, before Harry’s boasting in almost Syngean language of the game explodes into a musical number which ends with the team in uniform marching out. The 10 minute intermission is filled with groaning and then sulphurous dry ice floats across the audience in the Gaiety. What are they building back there? France…?

The curtain opens to reveal not France but billowing dry ice. Somewhere inside this fog is a green light, and suddenly we can see that a gun turret is trundling out from the side of the stage and over the front resting above the audience and pointed at them. The entire stage is taken up with an enormous tank. A man is tied to it by both arms on the right, and at the top of a ladder on the left Aaron Monaghan’s Harry sits looking like a character from Apocalypse Now with green camouflage face-paint and a red cross daubed on his chest. He begins to quote the ‘dry bones’ passage from Ezekiel and the soldiers beneath him rise up and dance. Having recently fallen in love with Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class I was delighted by these anti-musical numbers coming thick and fast, alternated with not-so-straightforward dialogue scenes with Simon and Syl, out of their bowler hats, as officers and a wonderful Bush Moukarzel as their cowardly superior, who complains in plummy tones about not being allowed to plunge into the action while giving every appearance of being terrified of even moderately loud noises. Pretty nurses arrive in carrying stretchers and lay down their burdens for a chanted lament, as the truth of Declan Kiberd’s observation that “the men’s chants attain an intensity reminiscent of Eliot’s religious poetry” becomes obvious. Everything ends in a panic as the Germans break through the line. The soldiers chant ‘to the guns, to the guns’, and they shin up the ladder on the stage-filling tank which then starts to move, towards the audience, before an almighty bang stops it and the curtain drops for the interval. Francis O’Connor’s set design is thus quite literally show-stopping and by far one of the most impressive sets I’ve ever seen. This act was the lightning rod for hostile commentary in the 1920s but I saw Journey’s End last year and was struck by how it had been utterly destroyed by Blackadder Goes Forth. The working-class characters as mere comic relief and the overall feel of self-pitying public-school tragedy felt antiquated, a time-capsule of a very different way of looking at the war. The Silver Tassie, by contrast, feels so modern in sensibility, so cynical and blackly comic, that if Stephen Fry’s Colonel were to pop up in this second act he wouldn’t be out of place at all. Its violent non-naturalism, especially after the revolution in British theatre in the 1960s, seems not only perfectly reasonable but also a more appropriate response to the horrors of the trenches than RC Sheriff’s stiff-upper lip officers’ quarters complete with servants.

Act three opens in an absurdist hospital. Absurdist, because all the characters from the opening act are here, for no discernible reason… Harry is in a wheelchair with crippled legs that will obviously never kick a football again. Susie has swapped evangelicalism for nursing and is now doing some serious social-climbing as she tries to impress the English doctor, leading to a hilariously scrambled accent which ranges from Gardiner Street to Grosvenor Square within a single sentence. This is plausible enough, but why on earth are Simon and Syl in hospital, still wearing bowler hats over their hospital gowns? Syl is in for an unspecified operation (minor to the point of trivial), while Simon appears to be merely keeping him company, but why are they in a military hospital and are we in Ireland or England? O’Casey gleefully doesn’t care, and neither should you. What you should care about is how quickly Harry the hero is abandoned once he’s wounded. Jessie isn’t visiting him and Susie’s pity is unbearable especially as she will never take him back now an English doctor is in her sights. Teddy makes an appearance, blind, and thus totally dependent on his now all-powerful wife. His honest comments about the minimal chances of Harry walking again after a spinal injury provide the blackest of comedy in this cruel scenario. Finally Brian Gleeson’s Barney arrives, he has an arm in a sling and it becomes obvious that Jessie has abandoned the maimed Harry for the unscathed Barney.

And so O’Casey roars into the final action at the Avondale football club. Another room visible behind the room on-stage presents us with merry dancing on the far side of the divide, while the audience is cut off from it, like the casualties of the war, who engage in desperate boozing on this side of the divide. Harry has no place anymore in this club for which he won the Silver Tassie, just as the wounded soldiers have no place in the world they fought for. Their attempts to remain in that world only discomfort it, exemplified by Teddy’s bandages being replaced by a face-mask with painted-on eyes which are incredibly disturbing. There is some incredibly funny slapstick comedy amidst this bitter tragedy with Simon, Syl and Mrs Foran attempting to answer a new-fangled telephone device, but O’Casey does not pull his emotional punches. Harry’s bitter attacks on Barney reveal Jessie to be as promiscuous as we suspected, Susie has become firmly attached to the English doctor and wishes Harry would leave, while when Harry finally storms off in his wheel-chair with his mother (Ruth Hegarty) following him at the end his once proud father Syl remains behind to enjoy the party. The ending speech of Harry to Teddy seems to offer some sort of Chekhovian wisdom like the closing speech of Three Sisters, but O’Casey has no intention of ending with anything approaching a noble sentiment. Instead Mrs Foran comes on-stage again, to get another bottle of booze, and falls down repeatedly while trying to open it before passing out drunk for the ultimate of low comedy endings.

This is a play which seems to occupy a central but largely unheralded place in the Irish dramatic tradition. The comedy double-act in their bowler hats anticipate the hyper-articulate sardonic tramps of Beckett and are granted routines as funny as their contemporaries Laurel & Hardy, while, as fellow academic Graham Price pointed out to me, the closing exit by the two crippled soldiers recalls the abrasive end of Synge’s Playboy with the two injured Mahons leaving mediocrity behind to strike out for a more heroic world. But O’Casey’s decision to leave us not even with a Pegeen Mike weeping but instead with a falling-down-drunk woman is a kick in the teeth for all but the most Schopenhauerian of audiences. It is little wonder Yeats preferred the Dublin trilogy but this incredibly funny but bleak play is more accomplished dramatically.

Garry Hynes’ direction creates theatrical magic yet again and demonstrates that Sean O’Casey’s forgotten play is arguably his masterpiece.

5/5

August 29, 2010

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: Apocalypse Now

Few people have understood cryptic references in interviews by other actors over the decades to Harvey Keitel’s unusual powers. Keitel is in fact a master of the mystic arts, an American Magus, who has used his powers to escape disastrously prolonged shoots twice in his career…

EXT.PHILLIPINES-DAY, 1976
HARVEY KEITEL, DENNIS HOPPER, SAM BOTTOMS and ROBERT DUVALL are walking thru a jungle with electricity cables and camera tracks running thru it. Disorganised CREW yell at each other about the chaos while various lights fall off of the rigs shambolically connected to the trees.

KEITEL: (looking around him) I have a bad feeling about this…
DUVALL: I passed on that script. I’ll tell you this for free, George is just selling out with that project.
KEITEL: No, I meant I genuinely have a bad feeling about this, right here. I think this film’s going to get badly out of hand. In fact, I’m going to check. (He pulls a pen and paper from his pocket) Sam, can you meet me in my trailer in half an hour with the following items. Don’t stress about the eye of newt if you can’t get it readily…

Keitel hurriedly scribbles a list and hands it to Sam Bottoms who takes off running.

KEITEL: (gravely) Let’s all pray that I’m wrong…. (he holds out his hands)
DUVALL: Pray my ass. I’ve got better things to do, I’m going to go ring George again, make him cry by quoting him at himself again. “Anyone can drown some kittens and make the audience cry”. Oh yeah George, and what do you call the Millenial Falcon swooping in to save the day at the last second then?
KEITEL: Look, just what is this script that you’re so bitter about ‘passing on’?
DUVALL: Doesn’t matter. I passed on it. I did pass on it. It’s rubbish. I’m not bitter. Juvenile trash. Regurgitated Joseph Campbell. Didn’t want to be in it anyway. Only read the script as a favour to him.
HOPPER: Dude, I heard he wanted you to wear a wig for the audition. A wig! Full on Sinatra… (starts to giggle uncontrollably, while Duvall stops and the others do too)
DUVALL: (tense beat) Dennis, remember when you said you were going to strap dynamite to your chest and blow yourself up as part of an art happening, and I said that’s not performance art you moron that’s suicide with the potential to become mass murder. Well, I was wrong Dennis – absolutely do that if it feels right to you.

Exit Duvall, grumbling about space smugglers needing hair to look properly roguish.

KEITEL: (He grabs Hopper before he can follow Duvall) Dennis, I want you to listen to me very carefully. On no account are you to strap dynamite to yourself and attend an art happening.

INT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
One hour later. FREDERIC FORREST walks into Keitel’s trailer to find Bottoms, Hopper, and Keitel, in a hooded cape and muttering readings from a book, gathered around a steaming cauldron, which is placed in the centre of a chalk pentagram.

FORREST: What the hell’s going on here?
HOPPER: He’s using the mystic arts man. Weird sister hoodoo is going on right here.
BOTTOMS: He’s reading the runes, and they are far-out my brother.
HOPPER: Psychedelic indeed, just grasp it – we have an authentic mage in the cast.
FORREST: Huh, trippy man.
KEITEL: Could everyone try very hard to be just a little less of a walking hippie cliché for a moment while I try to concentrate on reciting this Latin right?!

EXT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA is storming thru the jungle with his PA. He is bellowing constantly at various crew members that drop ever more lights off trees in their fright.

COPPOLA: I’m surrounded by incompetent amateurs. Where is my espresso?
PA: We’re in a freaking jungle! Accept that there is no espresso machine here.
COPPOLA: Well, what am I supposed to do to keep alert in this absurd humidity?
PA: Here’s a pill.
COPPOLA: A pill. I ask for espresso and you give me NASA food. What is it?
PA: Do you care?
COPPOLA: (beat) No. (pops the pill) What’s the worst that could happen?

INT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
Frederic Forrest is storming around Keitel’s trailer running his hands thru his hair.

FORREST: HOW LONG ARE WE GOING TO BE HERE?!
KEITEL: A year and a half at least seems to be what the powers are indicating. Divination is not an exact science. It’s not actually a science at all, technically.
BOTTOMS: Oh man, will the drug supply last that long?
KEITEL: Believe me when I tell you Sam that the drug supply will last long after everything else has run out, including sanity.
HOPPER: Oh man, can I righteously wait that long before dynamiting myself?
KEITEL: Not that sanity was in much supply to begin with… Gentlemen, it’s been… peculiar, but, if you’ll excuse me, I have to contrive to get fired as soon as I can.

INT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
Keitel knocks on the door of Coppola’s trailer. He thinks he is interrupting but it turns out that Coppola is merely bellowing orders at a tree thru the window for no reason.

KEITEL: Francis! Glad I caught you. I had some ideas I’d like to run past you.
COPPOLA: Come on in man, come on in! That’s what doors are for!!
KEITEL: (sits nervously) I want to do at least one scene thru interpretive dance.
COPPOLA: Groovy. I love interpretive dance. (He gets up and starts to dance)
KEITEL: I’d also like to juggle chickens during the plantation dinner scene.
COPPOLA: Sure. (He sits down and starts juggling cigarette-lighters, and drops them all quite quickly) Sure, sure, I’m sure you can pull it off with practise. You, man. You. (beat) You.
KEITEL: Yeaah. I, uh, I want to interpret Willard as a tomato filled with self-loathing at his hyphenated status who slowly learns to overcome his liminal status by embracing it. But only in alternating takes. The other takes – I’ll be a French mime.
COPPOLA: Interesting take on the character… Really ties in to the politics of it all.
KEITEL: I also have deep ethical issues with actually killing a cow with a machete.
COPPOLA: You’re fired.
KEITEL: Thank Christ. I was beginning to think I’d never push you over the edge.

Keitel pulls his cloak around him while he stands up and disappears in a puff of smoke. Coppola observes this without emotion, but eventually starts to look askance.

COPPOLA: I’m requesting an espresso machine gets flown in first thing or we’re never going to get any work done around here.

March 22, 2010

The Morpheus Problem

Laurence Fishburne will shortly return to our television screens to continue causing all manner of structural problems for CSI: LV. The Morpheus Problem has become so obvious and acute that CBS and CSI producers actually conducted research during the summer break to see just what problem audiences had with Fishburne’s starring role in CSI as Dr Ray Langston and, more to the point, what they could do to fix the snag. The fix was simple and damn near unanimous – “We’d like to see Ray in more of a leadership role”. It was nearly unanimous because what they really meant was – “We’d like to see Morpheus in more of a leadership role, cos, like, he’s Morpheus…”

How did we get here? William Petersen after 8 ½ seasons of playing Dr Gil Grissom, supervisor of the Night Shift in the Las Vegas Crime Lab, could no longer resist the urge to get back to treading the boards of Chicago’s illustrious Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Petersen also produces CSI: LV so this meant finding a suitable replacement before leaving the cast of the TV uber-franchise of the decade. Fellow Steppenwolf alumni Gary Sinise had already been tapped to headline CSI:NY and there were no obvious fallen stars like NYPD Blue’s David Caruso, who had been resurrected with the absurd role of Lt. Horatio Caine in CSI: Miami, so they got ambitious and drafted in Laurence Fishburne. A worthy replacement in star-power for Grissom’s role, except that crippling stupidity then struck the writers’ room…

A two-part episode saw Grissom retire from CSI to join lost true love Sara Sidle doing scientific research in the rainforest. He passed the torch to criminology professor Dr Ray Langston, but explicitly invited Ray to apply for the Level 1 CSI vacancy, not to replace him as supervisor. Catherine Willows therefore became the new supervisor of the night shift and Ray joined the team at the bottom of the food chain as the new rookie Level 1 CSI. Fishburne of course waltzed into first billing above Marg Helgenberger who it appears will be eternally second-billed as Catherine Willows. But first billed was then depicted making an ass of himself as Rookie Ray who spent his first crime scene investigation involved in a life and death struggle with his latex gloves that just did not want to be put on… This is not a good move, especially as the writers had already given Ray two careers. He was a medical doctor who failed to notice a serial killer at work in his hospital, and his book about how he had failed to piece together the clues that came across his administrative desk somehow secured him a professorship of criminology at Western Las Vegas University, which he then quit for CSI – after failing to notice a serial killer at work in his class… This back-story couldn’t have been designed to create a bigger Morpheus problem. But the writers did quickly drop the rookie shtick and try to fix their blunder

Ray’s medical background allowed them belatedly have him literally fill Grissom’s shoes by attending autopsies with coroner Dr Robbins, before outrageously jump-starting a Grissom/Robbins dynamic by having Ray and Robbins turn out to both be blues fans, who then go on a road-trip to fight crime – while listening to the blues. So far so Grissom but then some Morpheus was added to the mix as a baffling case was solved by Ray lecturing the other CSIs on ancient Greek history and philosophy and then using his reading of Aeschylus to solve the ‘murder’ of a self-proclaimed monk. But these attempted fixes all miss the real problem.

Fishburne is too big a screen presence to be the lowest ranked person on the team, beneath even Lauren Lee Smith. It’s not that Smith hasn’t redeemed herself for Mutant X with fine turns in The L Word and The Dead Zone it’s just that she can’t dominate a scene with Fishburne, few can. Is the Morpheus problem soluble? Can Ray really take over a leadership role without wreaking chaos on the internal logic of 9 years of CSI, or can the writers belatedly contrive as clever an implausible jumping of the ranks as Commissioner’s Gordon’s ascension in just two Nolan Bat-films? And how did this problem arise in the first place, did the writers not realise that sometimes one role really can haunt an actor? That, despite a long and varied career from a thug in Death Wish 2 and the youngest member of the crew in Apocalypse Now, thru the abusive Ike Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It? and the noble Shakespearean tragic hero in Othello, to the untrustworthy spy-master in M:I-3, Fishburne’s kung-fu knowing mentor in The Matrix has seared itself indelibly into the popular imagination.

March 15, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

There’s been an odd prevalence of live blogs surrounding this year’s “goddamn meat-parade” – as George C Scott so memorably described the Oscars. This blog did not do a live commentary on the Oscars for three reasons. Firstly, I rather like sleeping at night and think that many other people share this strange attitude. Secondly, I don’t believe that even Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie writing together could possibly write anything funny or insightful enough LIVE! to justify a live blog. Thirdly, the Oscars are (whisper it) (no in fact bellow it!) POINTLESS!

There are 5,777 voting members of the Academy. These individuals do not have a better idea of what makes a great film than any other 5,777 random individuals around the world. There was a reason that JFK told Ben Bradlee what he’d learned from the Bay of Pigs was this – “Don’t assume that because a man is in the army that he necessarily knows best about military strategy”. If you doubt that consider these three facts.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Alfred Hitchcock, director of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, was not truly exceptional enough in his field to win a Best Director Oscar.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, was.

The Academy nominated both Apocalypse Now and Kramer Vs Kramer for Best Picture of 1979 and thought that the film which would have most impact on popular culture, which pushed the boundaries of film-making, and which would endure and be fondly remembered was…Kramer Vs Kramer. I love the smell of dumbness in the Kodak.

According to the Academy the best 10 films of the Zeros were Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker.

Not Memento, Moulin Rouge!, The Two Towers, Master & Commander, The Bourne Supremacy, Good Night and Good Luck, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

Or Amores Perros, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Rules of Attraction, X-2, Mean Girls, Brick, The Prestige, Zodiac, Hunger and Up in the Air.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that Christoph Waltz gave a great performance in Inglourious Basterds. We don’t need the Academy’s nominations to help us tell the difference between a good blockbuster with commercial clichés and a bad Oscar-baiter with its own set of equally rigid (but more idiotic because they’re ‘edgy’) clichés (Little Miss Sunshine, I’m looking at you). Maggie Mayhem tells Bliss in Whip It “Be your own hero”. Follow her advice, trust your own instincts…

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