Talking Movies

April 30, 2018

Why Fund the Arts?

A little over two years ago a post here bemoaned the impact of austerity on the arts. Now I’d like to re-examine the topic with a considerably more critical eye.

The clash between Minister Hacker and Sir Humphrey still carries much weight. Art subsidies can easily be presented as a middle-class rip-off.  Take the funding of cinema, distribution rather than production that is. Cinema is not in any trouble. Well, historically it is, but let’s not open that can of worms here. Cinema is not in any trouble. (Hear, hear) There are cinemas everywhere, and people go to them ever Saturday night.  Advertisements for cinema roar at you from buses and phones, radios and televisions, billboards and newspapers. You would have to be in a coma not to have some subliminal awareness of what blockbuster is playing right now. Cinema is not in peril. What is in peril are unpopular films. Now, I like unpopular films. I routinely end up in screen 3 of the IFI, watching the films that are the most unpopular in the home of unpopular films. When the IFI writes to the Government they are obliged to camouflage their simple request for subsidies that they may show films nobody wants to see. That is brutal, but it’s the truth. I personally benefit enormously from this; I saw Alex Ross Perry’s masterful Queen of Earth during its six day run in the IFI. I am an appreciable percentage of its entire Irish audience. But should everybody else have to pay so that I can indulge my obscure tastes? Is that right and proper that Sean Citizen stump up so that I can watch a film flickering on the big screen as intended by ARP rather than get with the programme and just watch it on Amazon video?

A key argument against cutting arts funding in the last decade’s ceaseless austerity was that art develops empathy, and is therefore very useful for society. But the current obsession here, in England, and in America with *representation* completely vitiates that contention. I have identified completely with Seth Cohen, Rory Gilmore, Louis de Pointe du Lac, Esther Greenwood, and multiple characters in Brideshead Revisited and Michael Chabon novels. But the American Jewish experience is alien to me, as is the small town New England female adolescence. I know nothing of vampiric existential angst, or of 1950s female depression. I am neither a gay English aristocrat, nor a depressed creative writing student. I can look at all these characters that not like me, in nationality or gender or class or era or humanity or life experience, and empathise… But *representation* can be summed up by Mark Waid celebrating the much loathed character of Rose Tico purely because young Asian-American girls can look at an Asian-American woman onscreen and empathise – with themselves. That is not empathy. There is a GK Chesterton quote that hits this at an angle: “They say they wish to be as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe as weak as themselves”. Representation is the opposite of empathy because it demands that art be a mirror held up to the person consuming the art. No work of empathy is to be done in imagining themselves in someone else’s life, and looking in this solipsistic mirror they expect that art will be representing them with positive feedback only, please; this is a safe space, you know.

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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.

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

July 31, 2015

Don’t Mess With Veronica Mars

The second novel in the Veronica Mars mystery series has been published, and creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell are talking about reviving the TV show for an 8 episode run in the vein of True Detective. What better time to fondly remember one of the last decade’s best shows? Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on Veronica Mars.

Logan: I thought our story was epic, you know? You and me.

Veronica: Epic how?

Logan: Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, blood shed. Epic! But summer’s almost here. And we won’t see each other at all. Then you’ll leave town, and it’s over.

Veronica: Logan…

Logan: I’m sorry. About last summer. If I could do it over…

Veronica: C’mon… Ruined lives? Blood shed? You really think a relationship should be that hard?

Logan: No one writes songs about the ones that come easy.

It may seem odd to talk about Veronica Mars as a romantic show, but there’s a reason the ‘epic love’ scene was reprised in the 2014 movie; the show could be swooningly romantic, as evidenced by the giddy crane-work when Veronica kissed Logan for the first time in season 1. That was also one of the most shocking moments of season 1, not only because it felt like Veronica was betraying her dead best friend Lily by moving in on her boyfriend, but also because the pilot had introduced Logan with Veronica’s caustic voiceover: “Every school needs its psychotic jackass. Logan Echolls is ours”. Veronica’s on-off romance with Logan was not unlike Rory Gilmore’s with the equally charismatic but erratic Jess. There were nicer boys than Jason Dohring’s movie-star scion Logan, like Teddy Dunn’s Duncan Kane and Max Greenfield’s rookie cop Leo, but Leo’s fate was the voiceover gag; “It’s the old story. Girl meets boy. Girl uses boy. Girl likes boy. Boy finds out, girl gets what she deserves”; while Duncan’s entanglement with the ill-fated Meg saw Veronica nobly sacrifice her own relationship with Duncan to help him and his baby daughter evade the FBI and the Manning family, sadly pinning to her mirror a note saying ‘True love stories never end’. Season 3’s ‘nice boyfriend’ Chris Lowell’s Piz was the nicest boyfriend of all, and, in incredibly revealing commentary on the season 3 finale, Thomas noted that when Logan extravagantly apologises to a bruised Piz for beating him up earlier over a leaked sex-tape, Piz looks totally defeated; because he knows that Veronica, well-intentioned but ruthless, is the kind of girl who will only ever end up with the kind of guy who, repeatedly, has beaten people to a bloody pulp with his bare hands for hurting her.

Click here to read the full article on how Veronica Mars handled female friendship, a father-daughter detective agency, and how the sunny setting belied a dark heart of noir cynicism.

October 8, 2014

Spinning

SPINNING-DTFestival

Karl Shiels, Fiona Bell, Caitriona Ennis and Janet Moran are the weighty cast in Fishamble’s contribution to the Dublin Theatre Festival; a meditation on grief.

Conor (Shiels) arrives unannounced in an unnamed small town and heads for the seaside cafe run by Susan (Bell), who nearly collapses from shock – as he is the man responsible for the death of her teenage daughter Annie (Caitriona Ennis) some years before. Conor has just been released from prison for his role in her death, and has come to return Annie’s locket; and to try and explain what happened. Flashbacks that disrupt their confrontation help the audience piece together the closeness of Susan and Annie, and the courtship, marriage and divorce of Conor and Jen (Janet Moran). As more and more pieces of the puzzle are thrown at us the imminence and inevitability of tragedy weighs down on us; leading to a merciful lie and perhaps a suicide after that redemptive gesture – perhaps not; the crashing waves are ambiguous.

Sabine Dargent’s set impressionistically creates a seaside cafe with table and chairs on a raised platform; but for all other scenes the audience has to do the heavy lifting. Jim Culleton’s direction focuses attention on the great actors, but they’re not miracle workers. Deirdre Kinahan has crafted an intelligent structure, but unlike Our Few and Evil Days she hasn’t filled the structure with any surprising content. Susan and Annie’s close relationship is uncomfortably akin to Gilmore Girls, down to the decent absent father having proposed marriage and been rejected before fleeing; in this case to Melbourne. Annie is a less adorable and smart version of Rory Gilmore; and her plea that they should move to Melbourne because “Our life here is totally crap!” is unintentionally funny; even though Ennis essays a spirited teenager and Bell adeptly alternates tender with traumatised.

Spinning is so rife with cliché that it doesn’t reprise Kramer Vs Kramer or Blue Valentine so much as it descends to the level of soap opera. Moran is awful because she’s given a shrill social-climbing cipher to play. The pantomime ‘oooh!’ reaction of the audience to Conor’s “I let you go back to work” was particularly depressing. Jen insists they pay for a crèche rather than let Conor’s mother babysit, she volubly disparages his family business before happily snaffling up money and house derived from it, and full custody of daughter Kate to boot (odd that people still seriously talk about patriarchy when such sexism is legally enshrined by the courts daily isn’t it?). But all this was seemingly outweighed in the audience’s estimation by Conor’s line, even though she went back to work late hours with her ex-boyfriend.

Spinning is only 75 minutes long, yet I found myself almost checking a phantom wristwatch from its first scene; it was that quickly obvious that this wasn’t top drawer.

1/5

Spinning continues its run at Smock Alley until the 12th of October.

December 4, 2013

Black Nativity

Langston Hughes, the Horace of Harlem, wrote Black Nativity as a play, and it’s turned into a sort of musical here with decidedly odd results.

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Moody Baltimore teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) faces eviction just before Christmas. His single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) in desperation sends him on a bus to New York City to stay with her estranged parents while she tries to raise $5,000 to save their home. Langston, however, no sooner arrives in NYC than he’s jailed for doing a good deed while black. He’s rescued from sparring with fellow prisoner Tyson (Tyrese Gibson) by the arrival of Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), who is more than a bit aggrieved to meet his grandson for the first time when bailing him out of lock-up. Arriving back to their imposing Harlem brownstone grandmother Aretha (Angela Bassett) is overwhelmed with joy by Langston’s arrival, but he is stunned at the wealth on display. Will he be tempted to appropriate some to bail out his mom?

Black Nativity is a sort of musical because, despite writer/director Kasi Lemmons co-writing a number of original songs, it’s as embarrassed at being a musical as 2002’s Chicago. People burst into song, and nobody notices, or (confusingly) some people notice and join them on backing vocals as everyone else continues about their business oblivious, until in the finale everybody notices – and joins in, like a deleted James Brown scene from The Blues Brothers. It’s hard to know what the intention was, initially it seems to be a hip-hop opera, then it reverts to traditional songs, before abandoning music to become a poor man’s riff on Gilmore Girls as Rory Langston gets to know his well-to-do grandparents and understand their estrangement from his single mother. Will he discover the truth about his father? Hard not to, it’s signposted in flashing neon….

There are some things that work amidst the derivativeness, clichés and confusion. Vondie Curtis-Hall is on fine form as a wise pawnbroker, and Romiti has a good scene as compassionate cop McDaniels. A hallucinatory sequence in which the agnostic Langston imagines the pregnant busking couple Jo-Jo (Luke James) and Maria (the distractingly pretty Grace Gibson) transforming into Joseph and Mary, with Mary J Blige becoming an angel and Nas the street prophet Isaiah is interesting. But still it doesn’t come close to the BBC’s barmy but effective ‘Passion to the sounds of Madchester’ from a few years back. Ultimately Rev. Cobbs, at his celebrated Black Nativity, addressing his Christian flock, yet referring to the Nativity story as happening just before the beginning of the ‘Common Era’ by which he means the Birth of Christ, sums up Black Nativity – wilfully perverse.

Despite Kasi Lemmons assembling a veritable A-list of black acting/music talent for her bold Langston Hughes reinvention, this film about a minister’s family must be reckoned a curate’s egg.

2/5

December 4, 2012

Conversations on a Homecoming

Druid’s lightest outing of the Dublin Theatre Festival at the Gaiety saw their sterling ensemble assemble in a 1970s pub for Tom Murphy’s serious comedy about unsuccessful emigration, a tightly-knit group’s failed dreams, and the illusory promise of their mentor.

conversations-on-a-homecoming-druid-murphy

Michael (Marty Rea) has arrived home after 10 years in New York pursuing an acting career. He finds all his old cronies more or less stuck where they were. Tom (Garret Lombard) is still teaching at the local school, and still engaged to Peggy (Eileen Walsh), and showing about as much likelihood of moving on to the next step as Rory Nolan’s Junior is of finally getting his parents’ farm.

The one person who seems to be going places is Liam (Aaron Monaghan), who seems to have absurdly as many jobs in the town as Kurt in Gilmore Girls. Michael is insistent that they can do all better if they remember the example of JJ, their mentor, who established this pub The White House with their help a decade before as a forum for ideas. Tom violently disagrees, disowning radicalism.

It’s remarkable to see Nolan and Lombard who were terrifying as ignorant thugs in Whistle transform into an amiable old duffer and an intellectual scrapper respectively in this play. Rea is as reliable as ever, his half-romance with Beth Cooke’s barmaid Ann being nicely underplayed, and his sparring with Lombard on the merit of over-reaching ambition carries some nice emotional charge to go with the wonderful barbed insults flung about.

Murphy’s play, performed without an interval, would please Aristotle in observing the classical unities but its night at the pub offers both insight and comedy under Garry Hynes’ direction.

4/5

July 2, 2010

Eclipse

David Slade, director of Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, succeeds in returning some of Catherine Hardwicke’s viciousness to Eclipse but takes the romance tongue-in-cheek seriously…

The opening reinstates the nastiness that Hardwicke made so crucial in the first film by depicting a savage vampire attack that agonisingly turns new villain Riley. From there Slade alternates sappy romance with something that New Moon so badly lacked – a plot. The same plot broadly as the first film mind, killing spree heralds vampires heading towards Forks who target Bella, but a plot nonetheless. Slade gleefully ret-cons the vampires into ice-cold beings who shatter like glass when hit hard enough, which allows for decapitations aplenty with exploding heads and nary a drop of blood, and doesn’t make a lick of sense given that they mop up the red stuff, but why complain when it allows a lead vampire to very painfully lose an arm to a werewolf.

Slade also fleshes out the Cullens, giving Rosalie a chance to stop pouting and become a character by revealing her back-story. The real revelation though is Jackson Rathbone as Jasper who after doing a Harpo Marx impression for two films is finally given dialogue and, in revealing his Civil War past in Texas and his experience in training newborn vampires, turns out to be ridiculously charismatic. He’s matched by Xavier Samuel as Riley, who raises an army of insanely destructive newborn vampires that cause such mayhem in Seattle that sinister vampire overlords the Volturi dispatch Jane (Dakota Fanning) to kill them. Whisper it, but Fanning displays an un-nerving flair for sadistic villainy – far surpassing Bryce Dallas Howard’s underwhelming cameo as Bella’s vampire nemesis Victoria – with one moment in particular almost an exorcising of her past career.

Such almost fourth-wall breaches litter Eclipse as Slade is aware that these characters have taken on a life outside their fictional framework. When a hypothermic Bella needs to be warmed up and over-heated werewolf Jacob tells Edward “We both know I’m hotter than you”, you almost expect both actors to look directly at the audience and then return to the scene. Slade knows that teenage girls will wildly cheer Jacob’s first appearance and his first shirtless scene, especially Edward’s reaction by engaging in an epic make-out session with Bella. It is hard not to suppose that Slade and his writing associate Brian Nelson did a dialogue polish as there are tart put-downs at all these moments which make Taylor Lautner’s Jacob a more sardonic and charismatic presence here than in the previous film despite having less screen-time and also give Robert Pattinson something to play other than brooding. New Moon was unintentionally funny in its awfulness but Eclipse’s intentional comedy reaches exquisite heights in a scene when the always droll Billy Burke as Bella’s father tries to discuss accidental pregnancy with Bella while they both die of embarrassment.

Reviewing the performances of Pattinson and Lautner is of course redundant and it could be argued that the unashamed objectification of them is a positive development, but, this conflict between a dependable pretty boy and a moody pretty boy was done far better in seasons 2 and 3 of Gilmore Girls, which only highlights the enormous problem that is Bella Swan. Kristen Stewart’s original turn masked the fact that Bella is a bafflingly anaemic heroine, the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend…

This surpasses New Moon but favourable comparisons to that are like saying fewer people died when the Lusitania sank than when the Titanic went down. Eclipse isn’t as good as Twilight but it’s a qualified success as a horror film spliced with a romance that needs to wink at the audience. But when a romance needs to wink at the audience it means that you’re liable to spend as much time anthropologically observing the audience’s fevered reaction to the movie as actually watching the movie.

3/5

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