Talking Movies

March 21, 2015

JDIFF 2015: Barry Lyndon 40

If there’s a better way to see Barry Lyndon for the first time than on Screen 1 of the Savoy with Ryan O’Neal and Jan Harlan being interviewed afterwards by Lenny Abrahamson then I’d like to hear it.

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

Whatever I knew about Barry Lyndon from reading a biography of Stanley Kubrick over a decade ago had long since fallen out of my head, so it was a treat to be able to approach the 1975 classic not having a clue what to expect. The first thing I didn’t expect was an intermission. The second thing I didn’t expect was that the first part of the movie would be quite so funny; I nearly fell out of my chair when I realised that Leonard Rossiter was playing an important role. Yes, Kubrick directed Dr Strangelove, but thereafter the black comedy in his films always seemed to me to be muted by his increasing desire to showcase an emotional detachment from the material. But Barry Lyndon is a hoot. The duelling in the first part doesn’t get as nonsensical as that in another 1975 period piece, Woody Allen’s Love & Death, but it’s started down that road with Rossiter’s craven attempts to buy his way out of gaining ‘satisfaction’. I also hadn’t expected the film to be quite so picaresque. Little wonder that Bret Easton Ellis repeatedly holds up 1975 as a golden year for Hollywood compared to the current predictable to the page number beat by beat method of screenwriting, as Kubrick faithfully reproduces Thackeray’s approach of depicting a series of misadventures that romp across countries and introduce new characters and throw away old characters, before sometimes bringing them back, whenever Thackeray damn well feels like it. Here is the early ramshackle Pickwickian Dickens’ approach to plotting, rather than the High Victorian rigour and schemae.

I was less enamoured, however, with the second part. Jan Harlan made the observation that Barry Lyndon should not be considered an oddity in Kubrick’s ouevre, but a vital entry in a continuing exploration of the frailty of the individual in the face of the pressures of a corrupt society. In this sense he said all of Kubrick’s films were political message movies. Barry Lyndon, he said, is a good man, a young boy in love, manipulated by his cousins, uncle, friends, and then brutalised by English and Prussian military, until it is inevitable that he becomes a conscienceless rake. But even then he is capable of acts of goodness, which cause him the two most crippling misfortunes in his life. All of which is true, and yet I couldn’t help feel that the second part was Thackeray fulfilling a Victorian desire to punish the wicked, and, especially in the detestable Lord Bullingdon, to assert the privileges of aristocracy over the nouveau riche. Given how Dan Gilroy ended Nightcrawler you feel that if (somehow) Barry Lyndon was made in 2015, the movie would end roughly 10 minutes into its second part. Indeed, given how Kubrick ended A Clockwork Orange in 1971, with the rake triumphant, it’s odd to see him follow a Victorian prescription to moralise…

Lenny Abrahamson handed over questions to the audience at a surprisingly early stage, with regrettably few questions being directed to the erudite Harlan. Harlan interestingly explained that Irish actors were plucked from the theatre because Kubrick, who’s not usually positioned in that world rather than photography and cinema, knew that the Abbey and Gate would provide interesting character actors.O’Neal, meanwhile, got the bulk of the questions, and gave every indication that his recurring role as Brennan’s roguish father Max in Bones is the closest a dramatic persona has got to approximating his own personality. The experience of playing Barry Lyndon changed his life, but he couldn’t say how. Marisa Berenson has very few lines, because women weren’t allowed to talk much back then. The film looks like paintings from the 18th century, because Kubrick would compose shots to resemble paintings; in one case forcing O’Neal to hold a tea-cup in his right hand because it matched the painting – O’Neal being left-handed this was extremely awkward to pull off…

But when he stopped giving comic and/or comically short answers he elaborated with two anecdotes. For six months he trained at fencing, including at nights with the University of Kansas at Lawrence coach while working on Paper Moon. When he arrived to meet Kubrick he was so cocksure of his ability that he refused to wear a mask, “Barry Lyndon wouldn’t wear a fencing mask”, only to be forced to don one by the British Olympic fencer who was to teach him and refused to fence without one. Harrumphing at this nonsense O’Neal donned the mask, struck his stance, and was disarmed within two seconds. So much for impressing Kubrick with his great swordsmanship. O’Neal also responded to a question about how he cried during a death scene by saying he thought of dead puppies, and tried like hell to ignore the noise of chattering monkeys floating in from outside. For they were filming at Longleat with its animal park. Eventually Kubrick had enough of the audio recording being ruined by simian gibbering and asked someone to sort it out. The ingenious solution? Throw the monkeys more bananas than they’d ever seen in their lives, and this would keep them too occupied to interrupt the scene with their cackling. The next day Kubrick and O’Neal got ready to go again. The tears flowed, the raw emotions were captured, and then an “Oh! Ohhhhh. Uggggh. Uuuuhhhh” floated into the air. The monkeys had eaten too many bananas and were now volubly gassy, stuffed, and digesting…

And yet, out of such chaos, Kubrick’s insane repetitious takes with no direction, and lighting and relighting scenes for hours with actors not stand-ins, came a film of some beauty and much wit.

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November 13, 2014

World Book Day coming to Dublin

Dickens_bckgrd

World Book Day has revealed the live tour line-up for 2015’s The Biggest Book Show on Earth, which will live up to its name by featuring over 40 top authors and illustrators visiting ten locations throughout the UK and Ireland.

The Biggest Book Show on Earth was first established by World Book Day in 2012 in London. The first tour in 2014 saw the show visit five regions, and in 2015 events will run from 23rd February – 6th March; including a stopover in Dublin on March 4th which will feature Steven Butler, Derek Landy, David O’Doherty, and Chris Judge with more authors to be announced early 2015. Derek Landy, author of the Skulduggery Pleasant series, says: “I’m delighted to once again play my part in my home town for World Book Day, one of the most wonderful, positive campaigns going.”

The Biggest Book Show on Earth was conceived by Kirsten Grant, Director of World Book Day, alongside hand-picked local partners who will work with local schools to fill venues and coordinate book-selling for each event. Grant says: “World Book Day’s ultimate mission is to encourage a love of reading in all children, and by doubling our tour stops we’ve made a major step towards achieving this ambition. We’re bringing an amazing selection of children’s author and illustrator talent to over 14,000 children in the UK and Ireland. I hope that enjoying performances by so many brilliant authors will inspire children.” Bob Johnston, Chair of Bookseller’s Association Irish Branch and Dublin co-organiser, says: “We’re thrilled The Biggest Book Show on Earth is crossing the water and joining us in Dublin this year! World Book Day is a hugely popular event in Ireland and the tour means that we can celebrate it on a huge scale. With a stack-load of great authors taking part and hundreds of children coming along to participate we’re already getting very excited.”

World Book Day was designated by UNESCO as a worldwide celebration of books and reading, and is marked in over 100 countries by a partnership of publishers, booksellers, and interested parties encouraging children to explore the pleasures of reading by providing them with the opportunity to have a book of their own. To mark World Book Day on Thursday 5th March 2015 school children are entitled to receive a €1.50 Book Token provided by Irish booksellers. It can be exchanged for one of eleven specially published World Book Day titles, or against any book or audio book of their choice costing 3.99 or more at participating bookshops or book clubs.

More details about World Book Day and The Biggest Book Show on Earth can be found at www.worldbookday.com.

December 9, 2013

Christmas Movies in Meeting House Square

MHS Screen 2

‘Christmas on the Square’ takes place this year in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar from December 17th – 21st. 11 festive screenings over 5 days will play Old Hollywood gems such as Some Like it Hot and Holiday Inn alongside more recent classics like Annie Hall and Die Hard and perennial family favourites such as Elf and The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Online booking is now open at www.entertainment.ie/meetinghousesquare. Free blankets will be handed out to keep warm and a selection of hot drinks (including traditional mulled wine, hot chocolate, tea, and coffee) and festive food will all be available for purchase.

Tuesday, December 17th

How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 5pm

Ron Howard’s remake of the classic cartoon about a creature intent on stealing Christmas throws a ton of CGI and crazy sets at the screen and elides a good deal of the absurdity of Dr Seuss’ original rhymes, but Carrey’s improvisations impress.

Cast: Jim Carrey and Taylor Momsen

Running time: 104 mins

Cert: PG

Holiday Inn, 8pm

At an Inn which is only open on holidays, a crooner and a hoofer vie for the affections of a beautiful up-and-coming performer. Based on a story idea by Broadway song-writing legend Irving Berlin this flick also includes an animated sequence mocking FDR.

Cast: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds

Running Time: 100 mins

Cert: G

Wednesday, December 18th

Elf, 5pm

After inadvertently wreaking havoc on the elf community due to his ungainly size, a man raised at the North Pole is sent by Santa Claus to the U.S. in search of his true identity. Can he romance a cute colleague (Zooey Deschanel) and reconnect with his father?

Cast: Will Ferrell and James Caan

Running Time: 97mins

Cert: PG

Some Like it Hot, 8pm

When two musicians witness the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, they flee 1920s Chicago in an all female band disguised as women, but complications set in when they meet singer Sugar Kane… Think of it as Billy Wilder doing Shakespeare’s cross-dressing rom-coms.

Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis

Running Time: 120 mins

Cert: PG

Thursday, December 19th

Polar Express, 5pm

On Christmas Eve, a doubting boy boards a magical train that’s headed to the North Pole and Santa Claus’ home. Director Robert Zemeckis uses motion capture to allow Tom Hanks play multiple roles but the uncanny valley phenomenon sinks scenes that aren’t spectacular musical numbers.

Cast: Tom Hanks and Chris Coppola

Running Time: 100 mins

Cert: PG

Bridget Jones, 8pm

A British woman is determined to improve herself while she looks for love in a year in which she keeps a personal diary. King of the British rom-com Richard Curtis pens the screenplay for this incredibly commercially successful contemporary riff on Jane Austen scenarios.

Cast: Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant

Running Time: 97mins

Cert: 15

Friday, December 20th

The Muppet Christmas Carol, 5pm

The Muppet characters tell their idiosyncratic version of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of an old and bitter miser’s redemption on Christmas Eve. Michael Caine is rather good as Scrooge, but this is all about Kermit, the Great Gonzo and Miss Piggy as Dickensian characters.

Cast: Michael Caine and Dave Goelz

Running Time: 85

Cert: G

Trading Places, 8pm

A snobbish investor and a wily street con artist find their positions reversed as part of a bet by two callous millionaires. Writer/director John Landis came to this off a streak of classic comedies that included Animal House and The Blues Brothers.

Cast: Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis

Running Time: 116 mins

Cert: 15

Annie Hall, 11pm

Neurotic New York comedian Alvy Singer falls in love with ditzy singer Annie Hall in Woody Allen’s classic 1977 breakthrough. The many highlights include the Marshall MacLuhan cameo, Christopher Walken’s crazed monologue, and Alvy’s flashbacks to his Brooklyn childhood; depressed by the universe’s finite expansion.

Cast: Diane Keaton and Woody Allen

Running Time: 93 mins

Cert:  PG

Saturday, December 21st

Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 8pm

Brian (Graham Chapman) is born on the original Christmas, in the stable next door to Jesus. He spends his life being mistaken for the messiah, but along the way gets lessons in Latin from a centurion, and ponders Roman’s rule’s good points.

Cast: Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Michael Palin

Running Time:

Cert: 15

Die Hard, 11pm

Vacationing NYPD cop John McClane tries to save estranged wife Holly Gennaro when her office party is taken hostage by German terrorist Hans Gruber during a Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles. Director John McTiernan spectacularly orchestrates arguably the ultimate action film.

Cast: Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman

Running Time: 131 mins

Cert: 15

Ticket prices:

Adults: 5 euro

OAP/Student: 4 euro

Child: 3 euro

Family (2&2): 15 euro

Group of 10 people: 45 euro

Meeting House Square (MHS) is a unique outdoor space and venue in the heart of Temple Bar, Dublin’s Cultural Quarter. You can simply turn off the rain at the flick of a switch as the new bespoke retractable canopy blooms on Meeting House Square.

‘Christmas on the Square’ is presented by Temple Bar Cultural Trust and Dublin City Council.

July 13, 2013

Too Cool for Film School

HIPSTER SKETCH

There’s a certain attitude towards cinema which drives me to despair, which I’ve previously dubbed ‘too cool for film school’…

This peculiar mindset is one that would rather watch an obscure bad movie ironically than spend that same 2 hours watching a universally lauded good movie. So, instead of sitting down to watch Southern Comfort you’d instead waste your life suffering thru Streets of Fire. Instead of enjoying Scorsese at his best with Goodfellas you’d be tortured by Scorsese at his worst with New York, New York, supposedly so that you could spend your time laughing at its awfulness (except that it’s too awful to even sneer at, you just sigh; depressed and confused). Preferring to watch an obscure bad movie ironically than a universally lauded good movie I find inexplicable. It’s the same impulse that would en masse see a faculty meeting to decide a Victorian literature course begin with “We can all agree, no Dickens”, and a cheer.

Is it a hipster mindset? This is The End has a wonderful barb when Emma Watson accuses Jay Baruchel of being a hipster by asking him if he loathes films that are universally beloved. And that is certainly part of the thinking that prevailed when the Screen cinema in 2010 did a season of 1980s action movies, and left out Die Hard. Now Die Hard was an obvious choice, but that’s because it’s so obviously better than every other action film from that decade; especially Red Dawn, which was screened, presumably because it’s so bad it can be watched with impeccable irony. We seem to have reached belatedly in the cinema the position literature reached years ago where to be popular is in fact a mark against a work in critical esteem, unless it’s a critical intervention elevating low culture.

It’s a mindset of two halves. What is important is that, having eschewed what is popular, the people who are too cool for film school reveal their superiority of taste to the easily pleased and shallowly-informed rabble by unveiling an alternative which few people have either heard of and which may be offbeat or just plain awful. What’s truly terrifying is that it really doesn’t matter whether the film is either offbeat or just plain awful – the difference between good and bad, garbage and quality has been erased; it just needs to be something that few people have either heard of in order to get the kudos of really knowing your movies. It seems the advent of Netflix, and its padding of its catalogue with terrible old films they were able to scoop up, is only encouraging this viewing mindset.

Hollywood Babylon, Dublin’s Midnight Movie Film Club, is tonight once again hosting a Saturday night screening at 10:45pm at the Lighthouse cinema focusing on 1984. Their schedule is somewhat baffling. There’s good movies to be sure; Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom (September 14th), The Terminator (October 19th); but there are also questionable choices; Dune (August 17th), Revenge of the Nerds (July 13th); and then there’s the plain ghastly picks – Purple Rain, Streets of Fire (October 19th). What exactly is the purpose of choosing Purple Rain or Streets of Fire? Or even Dune or Revenge of the Nerds? There are better films from 1984… For a fun Saturday night why not pick Ghostbusters or Gremlins? For something more offbeat why not pick Luc Besson’s freewheeling debut Subway? Is it impossible to have fun without being ironic?

I’m not saying that if we want to watch movies from 1984 that we have to watch The Killing Fields, The Natural, and 1984 and nod our heads respectfully before turning to Broadway Danny Rose for some relief. I’m just saying we should exhaust the good movies that we all know are out there first before we all start scrabbling around to find justifiably forgotten bad movies to watch ironically.

July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

It turns out that re-watching Batman Begins and reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is actually the perfect way to warm up for Christopher Nolan’s Bat-swansong.

The Dark Knight Rises finds the reclusive Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) unnerving faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) with his Howard Hughes impersonation. Wayne’s life has been in stasis for eight years after the death of Rachel Dawes, and his psychological damage is equalled by his physical injuries, he needs a walking stick after destroying all the cartilage in his knees. Wayne Enterprises is similarly burdened following an unsuccessful punt on a new type of fusion energy with fellow billionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is also reaching the end of his tether with valorising Harvey Dent in order to keep the mob foot-soldiers off the streets and in prison. Indeed Mayor Garcia (Nestor Carbonell) plans to forcibly retire Gordon as a relic of a grim time. But, just as Bruce returns to his long-abandoned business and high society circles after a delightful encounter with cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), grim times return to Gotham with the appearance of the masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy). If Kyle, a cat-burglar who occasionally plays nice, puzzles Bruce’s moral compass, the analgesic-guzzling man-mountain Bane provides a true north of depravity. But just what is his plan for reducing Gotham to ashes, and can an out of shape Bruce really don the cowl again and stop him?

This film is a retrograde step away from the realism of The Dark Knight to the mythic elements of Batman Begins. Legends of impossible feats in Oriental prisons loom large, and Ras Al’Ghul’s League of Shadows return to destroy Gotham at the third time of asking. Bane is impressively brutal in his fighting style and his commitment to causing mental anguish but his muffled dialogue is still incomprehensible in places and, though Hardy adds a few sardonic notes, as a villain he doesn’t match the Joker; even his repetitive rhythmic theme fails to match the Joker’s musical motif. We also have to wait for the first appearance of Batman for an extended period of time only for him to be then immediately absented for acres of screen-time as the Nolans and Goyer get fixated on following other characters, especially Gordon’s young detective protégé Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), suffering under Bane’s Reign of Terror. Dickens, though, explicitly wrote for an audience familiar with Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution. Here we’re fast-forwarded thru Bane’s destruction of Gotham with a total lack of detail of how this is really happening. And the references to Dickens aren’t subtle. The arbitrary show-trials that scream Two Cities even feature a character named Stryver, just in case you didn’t get the homage.

The Dark Knight played like a crime thriller, but this film is less interested in nitty-gritty realism, and more with surfing the Occupy zeitgeist and imagining revolution, however ingenuous, in a modern metropolis. There is a lot to like in this film, but it’s a bit of a mess; so busy that it somehow never actually attends to business. Despite featuring some startling Bat-pod chases it lacks a truly jaw-dropping action sequence, even if, like its predecessor, it does have a number of wonderfully cross-cut shocks and some nice plot twists. The Dark Knight Rises falls down badly though where its predecessors excelled, in giving memorable lines and moments to each member of a large ensemble. Juno Temple, Matthew Modine and Nestor Carbonell are particularly ill served, but even Caine and Cotillard feel desperately under-used, while the relationship between Batman and Kyle is undernourished even if their chemistry convinces. I’ve previously speculated about the ending of this film, and the three strands of the ending cover nearly all the story bases; and, yes, one strand is explicitly Dickensian. The finale does satisfy, but the sense of fun that surely must be part of what keeps Bruce Wayne being Batman is almost entirely absent from this movie, and that loss of espirit is most lamentable.

Christopher Nolan’s final Bat-instalment is a good film, but you can’t help feeling that it’s two movies: a Bat-movie, and a fantasia on the collapse of privileged society.

3/5

August 9, 2011

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Peer Gynt 27 Sep – 16 Oct Belvedere College
Rough Magic’s writer Arthur Riordan updates Ibsen’s most fantastical play about loves lost and folkloric psychosis. Talking Movies favourite Rory Nolan plays the titular delusional hero and Tarab, not Grieg, provide a live musical accompaniment. Phaedra last year was a misfiring production with a similar blend of ingredients so this 3 hour show is a recommendation, with caveats…

The Lulu House 27 Sep – 16 Oct James Joyce House
Selina Cartmell, who wowed the Fringe last year directing Medea, returns with another femme fatale. Lorcan Cranitch and Camille O’Sullivan star in a mixture of musical, drama and film inspired by German playwright Wedekind’s original character and also Pabst’s silent film Pandora’s Box. This only lasts one hour, but it should be a visually rich experience.

Donka, A letter to Chekhov 29 Sep – 2 Oct Gaiety
The traditional circus spectacular at the Gaiety comes from Russia, and is one of two Festival shows about Chekhov. Clowns, acrobats and musicians not only create the world of Chekhov’s characters but, by using his diaries, portray his inner emotional world. Writer and director Daniele Finzi Pasca has previously helmed a Cirque de Soleil show and Broadway musical Rain so this should be dazzling.

Testament 29 Sep – 16 Oct Project Arts Centre
Colm Toibin writes a play, Garry Hynes directs it and Marie Mullen performs it. What could possibly go wrong? Well…. Toibin’s not a playwright, Druid do occasionally screw up, and Mullen destroyed 2007’s Long Day’s Journey into Night with her hammy turn. This is a 90 minute uninterrupted monologue with Mullen as the Virgin Mary (or maybe not, it’s vague) which could become very long…

Juno and the Paycock 29 Sep – 15 Oct Abbey
The Abbey team up with Southbank’s National Theatre for this co-production of Sean O’Casey’s old war-horse. A starry cast includes Ciaran Hinds as Captain Boyle, Risteard Cooper as his drinking buddy Joxer and Sinead Cusack as Mrs Boyle. Druid and Abbey regulars like Clare Dunne and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor fill out the ensemble grappling with melodramatic misfortunes in the middle of the Civil War.

The Speckled People 29 Sep – 15 Oct Gate
Patrick Mason is a great director, and Denis Conway, John Kavanagh and Tadhg Murphy accomplished actors, but it’s hard to regard Hugo Hamilton’s adaptation of his own memoir as anything but ‘ugh, complain theatre’, to paraphrase Clueless. Stephen Brennan will undoubtedly play the ultra-nationalist Irish father oppressing his son’s German identity, probably as a variant on his abrasive patriarch from Phaedra.

La Voix Humaine 29 Sep – 2 Oct Samuel Beckett Theatre
Jean Cocteau’s celebrated story of a desperate woman making a last-ditch phone call to her ex-lover is performed with surtitles by acclaimed Dutch actress Halina Reijn. This is a bit pricey (2 euro a minute) given that’s it’s an hour long monologue with minimalist set, but Ivo van Hove is a celebrated director and will play on the audience’s voyeuristic instincts to achieve catharsis.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets 29 Sep – 2 Oct Project Arts Centre
Theatre company 1927’s macabre cabaret style unfurls a bizarre tenement story that’s a mixture of Fritz Lang, Charles Dickens and Tim Burton. A mix of live music and performance with pre-recorded film and animation this might be the most distinctive show of the festival aesthetically. Again nearly 2 euro a minute…

16 Possible Glimpses 30 Sep – 15 Oct Peacock
Chekhov is highly regarded at this year’s festival, but that doesn’t stretch to any of his plays being performed. Instead a second play about his life and work sees Abbey favourite Marina Carr thankfully eschewing misery in the midlands for an imaginative fantasia on Chekhov, using a series of vignettes to throw his most haunting characters into his turbulent productive life.

Slattery’s Sago Saga 6 Oct – 16 Oct Rathfarnham Castle
In our end is our beginning, Arthur Riordan re-writing an old master, here adapting an unfinished novel by Flann O’Brien. Rathfarnham Castle? A dashed odd place for a play you’d say, unless you knew that this was the site-specific Performance Corporation unleashing a surreal political satire involving the quiet life of Poguemahone Hall being shattered by a T.D. with an insane plan. It involves sago…

July 6, 2011

On Reading

I’ve just failed, yet again, to achieve one of my long-standing perfect reading scenarios and it’s made me reflect about my various ways of reading novels.

The perfect reading scenario in question involves reading F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while listening to Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin. This of course involves reading the sparkling prose of the poet laureate of the Jazz Age to the accompaniment of the music of the Jazz Age’s pre-eminent composer, whose works might well have been performed at Gatsby’s parties. This should be done lounging outside in the sunshine; usually possible if done on the 4th of July – which is a vital component of this scenario; and drinking something deliciously iced, but undertaken; as ‘a broken series of successful gestures’ if you will; over the course of an afternoon and evening so that you get to Nick Carraway’s magnificent peroration about night falling on Gatsby’s mansion just as the sun goes down…

Oddly enough, purely by accident, I achieved a perfect reading scenario recently for Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon; in this case the scenario being entirely weather appropriate. I read the first 70 pages outside in the summer sunshine, perfectly suiting the reminiscences by Grady Tripp of his Kerouac wanderlust youth. The second half of the book, however, found me reading and reading on a thunderously wet day even as Grady Tripp, Terry Crabtree and the other characters resolved all their complicated problems during a terribly rain-sodden Pittsburgh weekend. And then, amazingly, just as Tripp achieved a final epiphany during the downpour I heard something. Birdsong. The rain here had stopped, the sun had come out, the birds were singing their relief; and damn if Chabon’s epilogue didn’t immediately return to a sunny small town in Pennsylvania.

That sort of thing, however, hardly ever happens. Most of the time the way I read is decided by the book’s length, not esoteric synchronicities. A short book like I Am Legend or Fight Club I tend to blast thru in one sitting. Meanwhile Robert B Parker’s Jesse Stone novels, masterpieces of pared-down quip-laden pulp fiction, are best devoured in three (one hundred-page) sittings over three days. Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan thrillers are longer and more substantial, so they’re best lapped up over two consecutive weekends. Finally there’s the way to read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander novels. A chapter or two at a time, but spaced out so that the entire ten chapter novel takes at least two weeks. Only that way can one truly savour the flavour of each chapter, and O’Brian’s hilarious predisposition to writing chapters that deliberately ignore the preceding chapter’s cliff-hanger.

Nearly all these ways of reading require setting aside a chunk of time for that purpose. But of course one could say the same about writing anything worth reading…

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

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