Talking Movies

July 21, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XVII

As the title suggests, so forth.

A supposedly fine film I’ll never view again

I keep coming back of late to  a thought by GK Chesterton that I can’t seem to pin down anywhere in his voluminous writings. In which he said he didn’t mind how far an artist dipped the human soul into the mire so long as he didn’t break the mechanism. Well, Robert Bresson, J’accuse! You have broken the mechanism, and on purpose. I staggered out of Au Hasard Balthazar in the IFI this week considering that one ought not to praise excessive cynicism in art, because it is merely the other side of the coin of excessive sentimentality. If you want to criticise Spielberg or Capra or Dickens for sentimentality, that is to say painting in black and white with outrageous villains and suffering heroes, and no grey area of nuance, then you must also criticise Bresson for painting in black and black with outrageous villains and suffering jackasses (literally in this case) without any silver lining, a portrait painted entirely in black lacks also grey nuance, it is merely a picture of pitch. The rapist, thief, and murderer Gerard outdoes anything Dickens presents in Uriah Heep or Bill Sikes. He is pure evil, he inflicts suffering because he enjoys watching people and animals in pain, except that his blank face doesn’t seem to register much enjoyment of it. I have no idea what Bresson was getting at it in presenting Gerard’s rampage of brutality in southern France. And no interest in thinking more about this movie in order to find out.

The Wasp cries to be implicated in such mendacity

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Kevin Feige et al boasted at Comic-Con yesterday that Avengers: Endgame had just beaten Avatar to become the most popular movie ever. No, it didn’t. Because they didn’t adjust for inflation. It’s a lie. It’s not that hard to adjust for inflation, go to boxofficemojo.com and then plug the relevant figures into westegg.com/inflation/. It shouldn’t take you even two minutes. If you would be happy to never have your salary adjusted for inflation then by all means repeat this Marvel talking point. (Which is a lie.) If not…

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/avengers-endgame-passes-avatar-become-no-1-film-all-time-1225121

What is a film?

This may sound rather like a film critic having an existential crisis but it seems like a rather pertinent question now that we’re drawing the curtain on two decades of the 21st Century. Not least because the idea that Twin Peaks: The Return is one of the best films of the 2010s seems to collapse all ideas into gibberish. The idea that a film is real physical action captured in camera on a piece of celluloid, with additional material added to it later as it’s assembled into a coherent assemblage of images, before being run thru a projector and by flickering light taking up a huge space in a public place where an audience of strangers sit without interruption for 2 hours to watch a story that only needs 2 hours of motion doesn’t seem to hold true anymore – it’s a very 20th Century notion. What is a film now? By the year 2030 we might have to define it as something released by Disney into cinemas where disruptive, almost exclusively under-20s, audiences play with their phones while flickering light projects a digital record of a semi-coherent assemblage of digitally animated landscapes populated by digitally animated characters with occasional humans interspersed to keep the pretence that the digitally animated action unfolding onscreen means something. And as many of these pieces of art (sic) will not be remotely self-contained stories within 2 hours, the MCU having revived the idea of the matinee serial but made it into the main attraction, that won’t even hold true for a definition of this brave new world.

June 30, 2019

Notes on Yesterday

Richard Curtis’ Beatles rom-com Yesterday was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Danny Boyle may be the director but this is a Richard Curtis film, and it would be much better if it weren’t. A world in which The Beatles have been erased from existence save for the memory of one struggling musician is a high concept comedy, but Curtis insists on making it a ho-hum rom-com. Kevin Willmott’s CSA showed that you have to rein in the butterfly effect for alternate history because everything would become unfamiliar. Would the Beach Boys be as important without Pet Sounds, their riposte to the Beatles? Curtis displays no such interest, save an Oasis joke, in exploring the butterfly effect of his own bloody high concept. Kate McKinnon is the most reliably comic element of this film, and she is lip-smackingly playing a caricature record executive – Hunter S Thompson’s famous jibe mixed with notes of her SNL Hillary Clinton. But then all the characters in this film are caricatures. This poses a problem when Curtis wants you to care about the romance as if it involved characters with some humanity.

The romance is already scuppered by Jack (Himesh Patel) and Elly (Lily James) patently having the chemistry of hopeless dreamer and dutiful girlfriend in the opening scenes, until it’s bafflingly revealed they’re just friends. They do not hold themselves as fast platonic friends like Holmes and Watson in Elementary. When she complains she always wanted more, and Curtis writes improbable scenes doggedly making this fetch happen he, like Nick Hornby in Juliet, Naked, defies the felt experience of human nature. But this aggravating drive to the grand romantic gesture reaches a new low for Curtis. GK Chesterton once quipped that art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere. I draw the line at Curtis; in the vein of his Doctor Who episode in which he shamefully zipped Van Gogh to the future to hear Bill Nighy valorise him then returned him to the past to kill himself to general hand-wringing; resurrecting the murdered John Lennon as septuagenarian sage giving Jack a pep talk to make the finale’s grand romantic gesture. No… No. No. No!

Listen here:

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.

September 10, 2017

Any Other Business: Part XII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a twelfth portmanteau post on television of course!

“I know, it’s not pretty, but that is the next scene in the script and we’ll just all have to grit our teeth and get thru it together.”

American Asinine

The first time I became aware of American Assassin was when the trailer pounced on me in the cinema a few weeks ago. I was incredulous that it had been made, and was being pushed as a big deal movie, let alone that Michael Keaton was in it. Then on a TV spot the other day I saw the words “CBS Films” and suddenly that déjà vu feeling that this concept belonged on TV, maybe in an episode of Blindspot, Person of Interest, et al, suddenly made sense…

EXT.CBS BACK-LOT- DAY.

TITLE: 2016 SUMMER PRODUCTION HIATUS DAY 1

Delaney hurries through the back-lot looking stressed. He is speed-reading the first few pages of various scripts, and tossing them over his shoulder, as he walks. Suddenly he notices a group of men smoking beside beat-up cars and oil drums.

DELANEY: You can’t be smoking here!! Do you know how much f****ing ether we’ve got in this lot?

BORIS: We’re not going to set anything on fire or blow anything up unless we mean to, man, we’re professionals.

DELANEY: Hang on, I know you, you’re that slacker stuntman. What are you bums doing just hanging out here on the lot?

JOHNSON: No need to get hostile, we’re paid to be here.

DELANEY: Wait, what? I’m paying you to sit around smoking?

BORIS: Contract is for 12 months man. Not our fault there’s a production hiatus in the summer.

DELANEY: Now wait a goddamn minute! You mean I pay the actors to do TV, then they bunk off and someone else pays them to do films, but I have to keep paying you to do nothing?

JOHNSON: Hate the contract, not the contractors.

DELANEY: No, no, no. I didn’t get where I am today by not sweating people for the last ounce of blood from their contracts. You’re going to do some work!

BORIS: Hey dude, chill, there’s no TV happening, and CBS is a TV network. There’s nothing you can do.

DELANEY: Oh yeah?!

JOHNSON: Cool it Boris. Look, Boris doesn’t mean any offence. We think CBS is a fine network. We’re happy here. You’re happy with our work. The audience is happy with the procedurals and spy shows. Let’s just all – take a step back.

Delaney walks up to Johnson and pushes one finger into his chest.

DELANEY: You can take one step back, and then keep stepping back, until you reach the production offices. You, buddy boy, are making a movie.

BORIS: WHAAAT?! CBS doesn’t make movies, CBS is a network.

DELANEY: CBS is whatever I need it to be. And right now it’s a film studio. I’ve got scripts coming out the yazoo here. All of them bad. (throws all the scripts in the air) (to Johnson) Pick them up, bring them to the production office, that’s what the staff writers are going to turn into the screenplay you’re filming during this ‘hiatus’.

JOHNSON: (beat) You’ll never get away with this. This is stepping over so many union lines.

DELANEY: When they see I’ve called Hollywood’s bluff and simply stitched together rejected TV scripts and sent out it there as a blockbuster at a fraction of their budgets all your precious unions will beg me for a Blumhouse deal. Go to work…

 

#InPlayWithRay

I’ve been watching the US Open on Eurosport for the last while and laughing myself sick every time Ray Winstone appears to advertise Bet365 because he seems to have mixed up his script with the copy for an NSA recruitment campaign: “You can find us in every corner of the world. Watching. Listening. Analysing. We are … everywhere. And we … see everything. We are members of the world’s most feared spy agency favourite online sports betting company. And we gamble responsibly at Bet365.”

 

“Male player”

It is unfortunate that, in the midst of watching the US Open, and being reminded of Andy Murray’s idiotic “Male player” interjection at his losing Wimbledon press conference, I also saw episode 5 of David Eagleman’s series The Brain, which dealt with empathy. Very simplistically, when you see someone in pain, the pain matrix of your brain lights up as if you were in pain; much as your face unconsciously mirrors expressions to figure out what others are feeling. However, while we care about other people in pain, if in-groups and out-groups are introduced, we care about people in our in-group but shut down empathy for people in our out-groups. Eagleman noted an atheist cares more at seeing a hand stabbed if that hand is identified as atheist than if it is identified as theist. And social rejection hurts our brain in much the same manner as physical pain. Now, what was Murray up to with his bizarre interruption? As Nick Cohen said of Russell T Davies censoring Shakespeare, he was creating an imaginary crime to prove his moral superiority by having noticed the imaginary crime, which you did not. Murray was shaming the journalist for ‘casual sexism’, and google displays journalists fawning over how Murray schooled this male journalist for ‘casual sexism’. But the journalist was not guilty of casual sexism. He was guilty of casual logic: talking to a male player about the male draw, listing the precedents of male players in the male draw. Murray was being as illogical as if he’d attacked someone for not noting a French woman winning Best Supporting Actress when people were discussing French women winning the Best Actress Oscar. But to notice the imaginary nature of a crime is to become guilty. A witch-hunt can’t truly work until people who know there aren’t any witches join the hunt out of fear that if they refuse to hunt they’ll be accused of being a witch too. That fear of swimming against the snowflake tide explains some journalists turning on their colleague. But remember GK Chesterton’s contention that journalists parroted conventional wisdom because it saved time on a deadline; sheer idleness prioritises cheerleading nonsense over critical dissections, plus it gets clicks via headlines that pander to the internet’s emptiest vessels. Murray was being a bully, a boor, and a hypocrite. He was inviting online witch-hunters to burn this journalist, who did not deserve that abuse, and as a happy side-effect downgraded what Sam Querrey had accomplished in beating him. But because the journalist was tagged as out-group setting him on fire online was a virtuous act: who cares about the hurt feelings of bigots? It is good to hurt bigots. Any actions, however ugly, that bring about a bright future are to be applauded. The ends justify the means. (Except in Guantanamo). It was the ungracious act of a sore loser to belittle Querrey’s achievements, but Murray’s shaming action tagged himself in the angelic in-group: if you thought his behaviour bullying and conveniently self-serving you proved yourself a bigot. As for hypocrisy, well, in 2012 Murray became the first Brit to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry. Sorry, male player, male player. He became the first Brit to win Wimbledon since Virginia Wade. But that’s less impressive, isn’t it? Bridging a gap of 35 years rather than 66 years, but such questions of vanity didn’t concern Murray, did they? He naturally corrected anybody who tried to congratulate him based solely on the perspective of the male draw, didn’t he? To paraphrase James Gogarty’s memorable testimony at the Flood Tribunal – did he f***…

October 3, 2016

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Director Sean Holmes returns to the Dublin after his bold version of The Plough and the Stars some months back, but this show seems to indicate he was on his very best behaviour for that…

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The implacable Duke of Athens Theseus (Harry Jardine) is distracted from his upcoming nuptials to Hippolyta (Cat Simmons) by romantic problems in his court, specifically the complaint of Egeus (Ferdy Roberts) that Lysander (John Lightbody) has wooed his daughter Hermia, despite Egeus sanctioning her betrothal to Demetrius. Hermia and Lysander run away to the forest beyond the writ of Theseus, but a jealous Helen (Clare Dunne) betrays her erstwhile friend Hermia by telling Demetrius of this deception. As the four lovers stumble thru the forest they fall foul of the machinations of quarrelling fairy royal couple, Oberon and Titania (Jardine and Simmons again). Oberon, aided by his faithful spirit Puck (Roberts again), amuses himself toying with the mortals’ affections, and humiliates his Queen into the bargain by making her fall in love with Bottom (Fergus O’Donnell), transformed into a donkey.

Well, that’s the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Holmes and co-director Stef O’Driscoll don’t seem to have much interest in that. Instead the focus is on Ed Gaughan as Peter Quince, Fergus O’Donnell as Bottom, and Keith De Barra as Keith the gentlest drummer in Wicklow three years running – aka The Mechanicals. Who doesn’t love a high concept ditched at the first sign of trouble? Well, I don’t when a large portion of the running time is spent in setting up the conceit that O’Donnell is a Mancunian musician stepping in from the audience to keep the show going after we’ve been told guest star Brendan Gleeson is trapped in a lift and can’t play Bottom so the show can’t go on, and that concept then fades into air, thin air, after generating too much ‘meta-fiction’ hot air.

To paraphrase GK Chesterton, I will not say that what occurred at the Grand Canal Theatre the other night was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but rather a mixture of stand-up comedy, slapstick nonsense, sub-D’Unbelievables audience interaction, and musical numbers, into which iambs from A Midsummer Night’s Dream were introduced from time to time with a decent show of regularity. If, like Blackadder, you cannot find comedy in Shakespeare’s comedies, you don’t have to do them; you can do something else instead, maybe something that’s more your cup of tea, like Noises Off. I gave tgSTAN’s Cherry Orchard and Holmes’ Plough & Stars enthusiastic standing ovations, but I did not stand and clap this, because to deliver a bold and vibrant interpretation of a classic it is first necessary to engage with the actual text of the classic.

Cat Simmons was magnificently cast as Titania, someday I hope to see her perform the role in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

2.5/5

February 25, 2016

Austerity and the Arts

The Journal has compiled a handy guide to various political pledges on arts funding. But take all with the caveat of Pat Rabbitte’s infamous slip on farcically utopian bait-and-switches, “Sure isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

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Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture at the British Library last year excoriated politicians, especially the Tories, for wanting to bask in the reflected glamour of cultural icons, and boast about the money such activity makes for Britain, both in its own right and in attracting tourists via a sheen of national creativity, without ever wanting to invest in it. According to him these people believed artists magically appear, and start providing a return without requiring any initial capital outlay; an impressive economic conjuring trick to be sure. Whereas, he pointed out, Roxy Music would not have come about without a previous generation establishing a whole gamut of public investment in the future: the NHS, Arts Schools, libraries, galleries, museums, and the dole. According to the Social Democrats there has been a 55% cut in arts funding since 2008 in Ireland. Such cuts dramatically change the cultural current. Take Annabelle Comyn.

Annabelle Comyn was the founding artistic director of Hatch Theatre Company in 2004. She directed a number of contemporary British plays (by Martin Crimp, Dennis Kelly, David Greig, and Zinnie Harris) with regular collaborators including set designer Paul O’Mahony, sound designer Philip Stewart, and actor Peter Gaynor. Then in 2009 Hatch Theatre Company saw its grant slashed from €90,000 to €20,000. After that there was no funding for any projects submitted, and Comyn, who had also directed Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Caryl Churchill’s A Number for the Peacock in 2006 and 2007, took the hint. As she told the Irish Times in a 2014 interview “I remember thinking that the work I had done with Hatch – predominantly contemporary British plays – wouldn’t get funding.” So began two years in which one of Ireland’s best theatre directors didn’t work as a director.

And then Abbey artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail offered her the chance to direct Pygmalion at the Abbey’s main stage in 2011. So began a new phase of Comyn’s career. Her version of Shaw’s comedy emphasised that Henry Higgins really is stripping Eliza Doolittle not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims. The coldness of Charlie Murphy’s Eliza to Higgins in their final scenes captured the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on, and was an unexpected touch. 2012 saw her back on the Abbey main stage reviving Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commission The House. This Chekhovian tale of social climbing and the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s saw Comyn add new strings to her bow as she blocked 13 people for a chaotic drunken speech and fight. Comyn’s interpretation of Murphy’s melancholic character study with barbed commentary on societal failure saw her win Best Director at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. And yet…

DG declan conlon and Catherine Walker

A director who specialised in premiering contemporary British plays is now (with the exception of 2012’s The Talk of the Town) exclusively reviving classic texts. A cultural current in Irish theatre has been diverted, and you can be sure that nobody returned to Dail Eireann after tomorrow will have as a priority allowing it to resume its original course. Does it matter? Well, John McGahern, the Irish novelist par excellence, would not have become the writer he was had he not been exposed to the works of Flaubert, Camus, and Hemingway. It matters if our theatrical landscape suddenly has a Berlin wall of austerity erected cutting off consistent interaction with new British writing. In the grand scheme of things cutting a €90,000 grant has had a larger effect than the latter-day Gladstone who made that retrenchment could ever have imagined.

To quote the two voices at the end of GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The other voice replied—

“The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost.”

December 31, 2015

‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ published in Irish Studies Review

I’m pleased to belatedly report that my essay ‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ has been published in a special issue of the Irish Studies Review edited by Catherine Wilsdon and Giulia Bruni.

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G.K. Chesterton’s 1936 Autobiography affectionately re-creates his first meetings with W.B. Yeats, whose critical thought Chesterton parsed in his 1905 book Heretics. Chesterton was dubious about Yeats’s occultism, but attracted by the Irish Revival’s linking of cultural reawakening with small-scale economic independence. His criticism of Yeats’s linking of nationalism and mysticism anticipates Benedict Anderson’s seminal theorising of nationalism. P.J. Mathews’s Revival locates texts in the context of separatist agitation against Joseph Chamberlain’s Boer War. Chesterton’s 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill can be read as a parallel text, explicitly rebutting Chamberlain’s imperialist philosophy, but also repurposing elements of Yeats’s critique of Matthew Arnold’s Celt/Teuton cultural binaries for application to English classes. Declan Kiberd’s idea that Wilde exposed England as deeply colonised by the British Empire usefully situates Notting Hill‘s anti-imperialism. Chesterton grants the English populace the Hellenistic spontaneity of consciousness Arnold denied them, and sets forth a vision of English nationalism that even contains a critique of Anderson’s “official nationalism”. Notting Hill‘s politico-cultural revolution, led by Wayne, a poet-warrior, and Turnbull, a visionary shop-keeper, defeats the forces of imperialist politics, plutocratic economics, and empiricist philistinism, and acts as an English parallel in its concerns to Yeats’s decolonising process.

June 25, 2014

Aristocrats

Director Patrick Mason returns to the Abbey for a new production of 1979’s Aristocrats, Brian Friel’s Chekhovian study of a Catholic Big House in decline.

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The peculiarity of Ballybeg in having a Catholic Big House has attracted Chicagoan academic Tom Hoffnung (Philip Judge). As he researches the history of the well-to-do O’Donnell family since 1829, he is privy to gossip from helpful local fixer Willie Diver (Rory Nolan). Willie is devoted to the eldest daughter Judith (Cathy Belton), whose life is now spent caring for her invalided father (John Kavanagh) and the eccentric Uncle George (Bosco Hogan). Tom’s visit is peculiarly opportune for getting family gossip as youngest daughter Claire (Jane McGrath) is getting married, and so middle daughter Alice (Rebecca O’Mara) and oddball son Casimir (Tadhg Murphy) have returned to the fold. However, while Casimir has left wife Helga in Hamburg, Alice has brought acerbic husband Eamon (Keith McErlean). And Eamon is a truth-teller when it comes to his peasantry and the O’Donnell gentry…

Uncle George who shuffles about silently avoiding people is a character straight out of Chekhov. But Aristocrats, while it has some very funny moments (not least imaginary croquet), is primarily a very sad play. Judith’s speech about how she manages to be ‘almost happy’ within a strict routine of servitude, which she does not want disturbed, is made all the more heart-breaking by the ingratitude of her stroke-stricken father; who continually refers to Judith’s great betrayal, unaware that it is she who tends to him. Casimir’s relating how his father told him his eccentricities could be absorbed in the Big House whereas he would be the village idiot in Ballybeg is equally distressing as it has led him to narrowing his life to avoid pillory. And, in Sinead McKenna’s evocative lighting design, behind everything – Judith’s past role in the Troubles.

Francis O’Connor’s set, a detailed drawing room with abstracted staircases and doors behind it and an imaginary wall to a lawn, strikes a balance between verisimilitude and artifice that my sometime co-writer John Healy pointed out to me was reflected in the acting styles; naturalistic for the ‘native peasantry’ Willie and Eamon, more mannered for the self-conscious gentry in decline – especially Alice’s performative alcoholism and Casimir’s apologetic tics. The set also reflects Friel’s concern with the ghostly technology; absent daughter Anna (Ruth McGill) can record a message, Father’s rantings can be relayed downstairs. Catherine Fay’s 1970s costumes (especially for Alice and Willie) are impeccable, while Mason lives up to Eamon’s programmatic ‘This has always been a house of reticence, of things left unspoken’ by offering muted hints that Eamon fathered Judith’s child, and that Eamon and Alice will be happy.

My fellow academic Graham Price would no doubt note the contrast between McGahern’s vision of the Big House; a place of learning; and Friel’s vision; a place where objects are named after Chesterton, Hopkins and Yeats, but it is severely doubtful that the self-absorbed status-conscious O’Donnells who did so ever emulated their intellectual curiosity.

3.5/5

Aristocrats continues its run at the Abbey until the 2nd of August.

December 31, 2013

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

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

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

September 24, 2013

Berkhamsted Revisited

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

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Prof. Peter Evans and Dr. Fergal Casey

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

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

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

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

Fergal_Casey2a

Lee Langley and Fergal Casey

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

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

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