Talking Movies

July 10, 2014

Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater unveils a coming of age film 12 years in the making and the result is a dazzling technical achievement of great heart; whose humour belies its length.

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Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) is a normal six year old living in Texas with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and bullying sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). He only sees his divorced dad Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) at weekends, and enjoys escaping from his proper mother’s care to the more freewheeling parenting of his muscle-car driving father. It’s a normal boyhood, and time rolls by… And it really does roll. Mason Sr becomes more responsible, Mason’s mom finds happiness elusive, Samantha becomes an ally not a nemesis, and Mason Jr starts to develop his own personality in response to the various people who surround him and the times he lives in (the transition from Bush to Obama, anger to hope to disillusionment). To reveal more details would deprive you of the pleasure of Linklater’s seamless transition between years, teasing misdirection, and subtle reveals.

Astonishingly Linklater made 10 films while chipping away at this film; yearly vignette by yearly vignette. His absolute faith in child actor Ellar Coltrane, and his own daughter Lorelei, are rewarded by performances that begin in wonderful comedy and grow, through some shocking scenes, to encompass genuine depth of feeling as their characters mature. Lee Daniel and Shane F Kelly meanwhile manage to shoot Texas with such rigorous continuity that at times the joins between years aren’t even noticeable if Mason Jr hasn’t changed hairstyle or grown a few inches. This is a rare occasion when the term novelistic is deserved. Boyhood has the narrow focus on a handful of characters and their interactions of The Art of Fielding, but the longer span of time to probe psychological formation of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’s bildunsgroman; and Linklater’s innovation of charting the passage of time by the actual passage of time is jaw-dropping. Arquette’s entire run on Medium is encompassed (and observable in her varying hairstyles) as her character grows older but more brittle not wiser, and skinny Hawke noticeably physically fills out in a career-best performance of serious comedy. Boyhood is also richly novelistic with interpretation…

Mason Sr at first seems an archetypal deadbeat dad. But over time we see he’s quite wise; his rebelliousness is very much a surface affectation thrown off for mellow acquiescence with the way of the world. Which leaves you wondering, will Mason Jr follow that same arc? Arquette’s mom seems to be the sensible one, but over time we see she’s actually sensible in everything except matters of the heart where she’s quite hopeless. And, in a sly critique of divorce, what Mason Jr would regard as his unique personality; artsy, ditching Facebook to live an authentic life, given to paranoid riffs about the evils of the NSA;  is largely a rebellion against the hypocritical, brutal, ‘Duty, Honour, Country’ Christian authoritarianism foisted on him by stand-in fathers. But the amazing late exchange between father and son – “Yep, I’ve finally become the boring, castrated guy your mom always wanted. And she could have had it too, if she’d just been a bit more patient, and a bit more forgiving.” “And it sure would have saved me a parade of drunken assholes” – obscures the fact that an unexpected gift, not from Mason Sr, is what helped Jr find his metier in life…

Boyhood is probably the film of 2014. See it on the big screen to be wowed by life itself; your own nostalgia mixes with Mason Jr’s impressively realised youth.

5/5

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February 11, 2014

Close-up: Iconic Film Images from Susan Wood

An exhibition of work by New York photographer Susan Wood is now open until the 22nd of February in the Irish Georgian Society’s City Assembly House on South William Street, and Wood will give a free admission lunchtime talk about her life and work on Friday 14th February at 1pm.

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Close-up is part of the JDIFF programme and is a collection of iconic 1960s film images from movies including Leo the Last and Easy Rider, representing milestones in American photography over a period of more than thirty years. Under contract to Paramount Pictures, United Artists and 20th Century Fox, Wood’s assignments allowed her to capture remarkable, unrehearsed shots of some of the era’s most unforgettable personalities – Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Monica Vitti, Marcello Mastroianni, Billie Whitelaw, John Wayne, Billy Wilder, and Joseph Losey. The pictures are on display as a group in this exhibition for the first time ever. Wood’s editorial, advertising, and fashion photography has appeared in LookVoguePeople and The New York Times and she is known for her portraits of John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Susan Sontag, and John Updike. A founding member of the Women’s Forum, Wood was friends with many of the vanguard of the feminist movement, including Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. This exhibition, presented with the Irish Georgian Society, has been curated by Irish photographer Deirdre Brennan, who has worked with Wood’s archive for the past decade. Wood says “I am thrilled that these photographs, lovingly curated by Deirdre Brennan, will be seen together for the first time in Dublin and I’m honoured to be one of the first artists to exhibit in this wonderful new space at the Irish Georgian Society.”

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Wood is the winner of many Art Director and Clio awards, and her work has been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. Throughout the 1970s and 80s she was a regular contributor to New York magazine, and did a notable cover story on John Lennon & Yoko Ono for LookMademoiselle her as one of their ‘10 Women Of The Year’ in 1961, and she went on to interview and photograph Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer, as well as delve into investigative reporting for the celebrated New York magazine expose of medical malfeasance, “Dr. Feelgood”. She is the co-author of Hampton Style (1992), a Literary Guild selection, for which she took over 250 original photographs of houses and gardens on the East End of Long Island. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Yale School of Art, her work is in the Library of Congress and her own website www.susanwood.net.

Brennan is an NCAD graduate who worked as a photojournalist and documentary photographer in New York for over a decade before returning to Dublin in 2008. On contract with The New York Times since 2000, her work has been published throughout the world in NewsweekMarie ClaireThe Smithsonian and the Sunday Times. Brennan is currently working on a photo documentary entitled Ulysses Map of Dublin, utilising the map and structure of James Joyce’s novel to consider politics, race and class in the modern capital. She has been a member of New York’s Redux Picture Agency since 2000. (Seewww.deirdrebrennan.com)

July 27, 2013

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

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Maeve’s House 24th September – October 12th Peacock

Another theatre festival, another show about Ranelagh native and New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan. Gerry Stembridge directs Eamon Morrisey’s one-man show about growing up in the house that Brennan set many of her biting short stories in. Morrissey promises to properly incorporate some of her stories into the performance, something which was quite badly needed in last year’s The Talk of the Town.

Winners and Losers 26th – 29th September Project

This sounds like a contemporary spin on Louis Malle’s 1981 film My Dinner with Andre. Canadian actors and writers James Long and Marcus Youssef sit at a table and play a friendly game; dubbing people, places and things winners or losers. Friendly, until making monetary success the sole nexus of human relations gets too close to home, and things get personal and ugly…

The Threepenny Opera 26th September – October 12th Gate

Mack the Knife graces the Gate stage, but in this instance Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s classic scabrous Weimar Republic musical has been given a makeover by Mark O’Rowe and Wayne Jordan. The combination of the writer of Perrier’s Bounty and director of Alice in Funderland doesn’t entice, but Aoibhinn McGinnity belting out Weill’s fusion of jazz and cabaret is practically irresistible.

riverrun 2nd – 6th October Project

Actress Olwen Foure’s premiere of Sodom, My Love at the Project underwhelmed so expectations should be lowered for her new one-woman show. Now that Joyce is finally out of the dead hand of copyright she adapts Finnegans Wake with an emphasis on the voice of the river, Anna Livia Plurabelle. Expect some physical theatre to complement and parallel the ‘sound-dance’ of Joyce’s complicated linguistic punning.

Three Fingers below the Knee 2nd – 5th October Project

As Portugal lurches about in renewed economic crisis this is a salient reminder of how dark many of our fellow PIIGS’s recent past is. Writer Tiago Rodrigues directs Isabel Abreu and Goncalo Waddington in an exploration of power and expression based on the records of the censorship commission of Salazar’s dictatorship; thoughtfully probing their editing decisions for plays old and new.

Waiting for Godot 2nd – 6th October Gaiety

Probably, along with The Threepenny Opera, the flagship show of the festival as Conor Lovett and his Gare St Lazare players take on Beckett’s most celebrated play. It’s always worth seeing Vladimir and Estragon bicker as they wait for the unreliable Godot, and be driven mad by Lucky and Pozzo’s eruption onto their desolate stage, but you feel Barry McGovern has copyright here…

Desire under the Elms 2nd – 13th October Smock Alley

Corn Exchange bring their signature commedia dell’arte style to Eugene O’Neill’s early masterpiece about a love triangle akin to Greek tragedy playing out in an 1850s New England farm. Druid came a cropper with Long Day’s Journey into Night at the 2007 festival and Corn Exchange’s 2012 show Dubliners was incredibly uneven. This could be great, but let’s employ cautious optimism.

The Critic 2nd – 13th October Culture Box/Ark

Well, this looks eccentric. Rough Magic throws Talking Movies favourites Rory Nolan and Darragh Kelly at a Richard Brinsley Sheridan script. Nolan was superb in 2009’s Abbey production of The Rivals, but director Lynne Parker is going for a far more postmodern effect here as the characters leave the theatre to watch Dublin’s premier college troupes perform the preposterous play within a play!

Neutral Hero 9th – 12th October Project

Writer/director Richard Maxwell made the New York Times’ Top 10 Plays of 2012 with this picaresque tale of a young man searching for his father in the contemporary Midwest. New York City Players are known for their experimental style fusing text, movement and music; and the 12 cast members play characters that are all revealed to hide mythic importance behind their initially humdrum facades.

The Hanging Gardens 3rd – 12th October Abbey

Frank McGuinness’ adaptation of John Gabriel Borkman stole the 2010 Festival, but does he really have a great new original play in him? Talking Movies favourite Marty Rea reunites with his DruidMurphy sparring partner Niall Buggy. Three children competing for their parents’ approval sounds like a parody, but so did Tom Murphy’s The House which then revealed itself to be far more layered.

December 1, 2012

Dubliners

Corn Exchange’s flagship production of Dubliners at the Gaiety for the Dublin Theatre Festival was desperately uneven as overplayed slapstick often trounced Joyce’s muted epiphanies.

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Performed under heavy face-paint on a minimalist set by Joe Vanek (that relied on expressive lighting and shadows) the show distractingly had characters narrate their own dialogue, drowning conversations with endless, unnecessary, and literal instances of he said/she said. In its defence this strategy allowed the narrator of ‘Two Sisters’ to deliver Joyce’s delicate prose, and he was cleverly also made the narrator of the next vignette, ‘An Encounter’. But the encounter is with a paedophile, played with malicious suavity by Mark O’Halloran, and the commedia dell’arte exaggerations deployed to create a crippled predator resulted in the unnerving spectacle of the audience of Joyce newcomers laughing heartily at this creation before being audibly horrified as they realised he’s not a mere eccentric. This misjudgement presaged later missteps but the painful yearning of ‘Eveline’ expertly played by Janice Byrne quickly dispelled any misgivings, and ‘Two Gallants’ saw Stephen Jones on fine swaggering form, which he continued in the ‘The Boarding House’ as the landlady’s menacing son. O’Halloran was on top comedic form opposite him as the rent-skiving actor, while the heightened slapstick style elevated the black comedy of Joyce’s hapless lodger Doran being trapped into proposing onto a much funnier plane.

After the interval that slapstick approach was imposed on stories that it defiantly did not suit. ‘Counterparts’ was rendered as stark nonsense. It was amusing to see O’Halloran never finish a sentence and dash about panic-stricken as the chief clerk, but there are things that one must not do to get a laugh, and among these is going so far over the top as to end in low-earth orbit. At first I was prepared to grant Mark Lambert as domineering lawyer Mr Alleyne the same privileges of blustering abusiveness as Will Forte as Ted Turner on Conan, but when he actually chicken-stepped around the stage in a comic fury at a slight from his subordinate I had exhausted any possible exculpatory comparisons. This was too OTT to amuse, but not his fault. Ruth McGill as his secretary used the same leer as she did as The Duchess in Alice in Funderland, and if the same expression can find equal purchase in Alice in Funderland and an adaptation of Joyce then it’s a sure sign that the adaptation of Joyce by Michael West and director Annie Ryan has strayed farcically far from the ‘scrupulous meanness’ and understated compassion of Dubliners.

Which leads one to conclude that Mark O’Halloran as an actor is truly immense. By sheer force of personality he dismissed ‘Counterparts’ to make the audience feel the tragedy of ‘A Painful Case’ as his fastidious Duffy sabotaged a relationship with Derbhle Crotty’s neglected housewife. O’Halloran made you so empathise with this cold character that when he spoke the final words of Joyce’s narration you could hear a pin drop, and hearts break. But then ‘A Mother’ painfully wasted the great Crotty’s talents by piling on the excessive slapstick to produce a painfully protracted skit devoid of any dramatic momentum, though at least it lacked the cognitive dissonance of the bungled traumatic ending of child abuse after clowning of ‘Counterparts’. ‘The Dead’ began with McGill’s performance of ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ as the story was pared down to Greta’s revelations after a party that leave her husband Gabriel stunned at how his wife was loved before she met him. O’Halloran’s delivery of the famous closing monologue ended the play on a triumphant note, and highlighted O’Halloran’s towering pre-eminence in the ensemble, the emotional power of Joyce’s material, and the frustratingly inconsistent fidelity to Joyce which held back the show.

Throughout, actors delivered their dialogue to the audience and then looked at the actor they’d been addressing, a technique Corn Exchange use in rehearsal; which made this feel like a quasi-workshop. Replacing ‘Counterparts’ and ‘A Mother’ with ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ and ‘Clay’ would immeasurably strengthen reprises…

2.5/5

August 7, 2012

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Beyond the Brooklyn Sky 25 Sep – 6 Oct Touring

Peter Sheridan directs a production that is touring between the Civic, Pavilion, Draoicht, and Axis theatres. Listowel Writers’ Award-winner Michael Hilliard Mulcahy has been supported by Fishamble in developing his debut play about returned emigrants who left Brandon, Kerry for Brooklyn, NY in the late 1980s. There are thematic similarities with Murphy’s The House as a visit by an emigrant who remained in Brooklyn ignites tensions.

Dubliners 26 Sep – 30 SepGaiety

Corn Exchange tackles Joyce’s short story collection in an adaptation by playwright Michael West and director Annie Ryan. Judging by Mark O’Halloran’s make-up this is an almost commedia dell’arte take on Joyce’s tales of paralysis in a dismally provincial capital. This features Talking Movies favourite Derbhle Crotty, who should mine the comedy of Joyce’s seam of dark, epiphany ladennaturalism. This is an experiment worth catching during its short run.

The Select (The Sun Also Rises) 27 Sep – 30 Sep Belvedere College

Hemingway’s 1926 debut novel gets adapted by Elevator Repair Service, the ensemble that performed F Scott epic Gatz in 2008. On a bottle-strewn stage America’s ‘Lost Generation’ carouses aimlessly around Paris and beyond. The maimed war-hero’s girlfriend Brett is as exasperating and alluring a character as Sally Bowles so it’ll be interesting to see how she’s handled. Her, and the Bull Run in Pamplona…

The Talk of the Town 27 Sep – 14 Oct Project Arts Centre

Annabelle Comyn, fresh from directing them in The House, reunites with Catherine Walker, Darragh Kelly and Lorcan Cranitch for Room novelist Emma Donoghue’s original script. Walker plays real life 1950s writer Maeve Brennan who swapped Ranelagh for Manhattan, becoming a New Yorker legend before fading into obscurity. The rediscovery of her chillingly incisive stories has revived her reputation, so Donoghue’s take on her intrigues.

The Picture of Dorian Gray 27 Sep – 14 Oct Abbey

Oscar Wilde’s only novel is adapted for the stage and directed by Neil Bartlett. Bartlett as a collaborator of Robert Lepage brings a flamboyant visual style to everything he does, and he has a cast of 16 to help him realise Wilde’s marriage of Gothic horror and caustic comedy. I’m dubious of the Abbey adapting Great Irish Writers rather than staging Great Irish Playwrights, but this sounds promising.

Tristan Und Isolde 30 Sep – 6 Oct Grand Canal Theatre

Wagner’s epic story of doomed romance between English knight Tristan (Lars Cleveman) and Irish princess Isolde (Miriam Murphy) comes to the Grand Canal Theatre boasting some remarkably reasonable prices for a 5 hour extravaganza. This production originates from Welsh National Opera, and if you’re unfamiliar with Wagner let me tell you that this houses the haunting aria Baz Luhrmann used to indelible effect to end Romeo+Juliet.

Politik 1 Oct– 6 Oct Samuel Beckett Theatre

I’m sceptical of devised theatre because I think it removes the playwright merely to privilege the director, but The Company are a five strong ensemble who won much acclaim for their energetic As you are now so once were we. This devised piece is a show not about living in the ruins after the economic tornado that hit us, or chasing that tornado for wherefores, but building anew.

DruidMurphy 2 Oct – 14 Oct Gaiety

Garry Hynes again directs the flagship festival show, 3 plays by Tom Murphy, which you can see back to back on Saturdays Oct 6th and 13th. Famine, A Whistle in the Dark, and Conversations on a Homecoming tell the story of Irish emigration.Famine is set in 1846 Mayo. The second crop of potato fails and the unfortunately named John Connor is looked to, as the leader of the village, to save his people. Whistle, infamously rejected by the Abbey because Ernest Blythe said no such people existed in Ireland, is set in 1960 Coventry where emigrant Michael Carney and his wife Betty are living with his three brothers when the arrival of more Carney men precipitates violence. Conversations is set in a small 1970s Galway pub where an epic session to mark Michael’s return from a decade in New York leads to much soul searching. The terrific Druid ensemble includes Rory Nolan, Marty Rea, John Olohan, Aaron Monaghan, Beth Cooke, Niall Buggy, Eileen Walsh, Garret Lombard, and Marie Mullen.

Hamlet 4 Oct – 7 Oct Belvedere College

The play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the Wooster Group making their Dublin debut. Founded in the mid 1970s by director Elizabeth LeCompte, who has led them ever since, this show experiments with Richard Burton’s filmed 1964 Broadway Hamlet. The film footage of perhaps the oldest undergraduate in history is rendered back into theatrical immediacy in a postmodern assault on Shakespeare’s text which includes songs by Casey Spooner (Fischerspooner).

Shibari 4 Oct – 13 Oct Peacock

This Abbey commission by Gary Duggan (Monged) slots perhaps just a bit too neatly into what seems to be one of the defining sub-genres of our time. A bookshop employee, a restaurateur, an English film star, a journalist, a Japanese florist, and a sales team leader fall in and out of love as they accidentally collide in an impeccably multi-cultural present day Dublin. Six Degrees of Separation meets 360?

June 20, 2012

Travesties

Rough Magic bring Tom Stoppard’s 1975 play Travesties to the Pavilion Theatre to mark Bloomsday but Joyce is a minor character in a play too clever for its own good…

1975 finds aged British civil servant Henry Carr (Will Irvine) unreliably reminiscing about his time in the British consulate in Zurich in WWI. Carr really did act in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest staged by James Joyce (Ronan Leahy), and they really did get into an absurd lawsuit over a pair of trousers used in the show, but everything else Carr remembers … unreliably. Yes, Lenin (Peter Daly) and Tristan Tzara (Ciaran O’Brien) were in Zurich at the same time promoting Communism and Dadaism respectively. No, they weren’t intimate acquaintances of Carr, and they certainly weren’t all playing parts in a real life Earnest type romantic comedy of mistaken and assumed identities as everyone attempted to woo Joyce’s helper Gwendolyn (Camille Ross) and Lenin’s acolyte Cecily (Jody O’Neill). Carr remembers all this in a series of deliriously repeated scenes as his shellshock and a cuckoo clock restart the action to be ‘accurate’. It’s unnerving to sit thru a comedy where people aren’t laughing, but a delightful wordplay on Bosh and Bosch was just one of many of Stoppard’s hyper-literate gags, most involving Ulysses and Earnest, which proved too smart for the room.

The over-emphasis on Joyce in this show’s promotion probably accounts for the air of bemusement that greeted Carr’s dominating presence throughout as Joyce made only comedic cameos. Leahy milked comedy from his role but his accent roved mightily, and unsatisfactorily when it rendered the Clongowes and UCD old boy as a Roddy Doyle character. Irvine was on fine dramatic as well as comedic form, making Carr’s sudden surges of panic about being back on the Western front as important as his foppish obsession with his many stylish trousers that were ruined in the trenches. Jody O’Neill was equally impressive with magnificently clipped delivery as Cecily and superb timing in a scene where Bennett the butler (Philip Judge) beats time in the act of serving tea to Cecily and Gwendolyn as they fight in song lyrics. That scene occurs in the second act which houses all the play’s funniest scenes including Joyce quizzing Tzara over Dadaism in the style of the ‘Ithaca’ chapter of Ulysses and giving an impassioned speech on creating Ulysses.

Poor old Tzara also gets it in the neck from Carr with a devastating speech that makes a hilarious analogy with redefining the meaning of ‘flying’ to condemn modern art as shifting the goalposts of art to allow talentless people pass themselves off as artists. Art’s purpose is the main theme of a play constructed from other works and daffy showboating like dialogue in limericks. Tzara wants to make art random and democratic, Joyce regards the artist as having a sacred duty to speak truth, and Lenin the revolutionary privately likes his art conservative in form but publicly insists it be engaged in social critique. The momentum killing excessive quotation from Lenin in order to skewer his intellectual dishonesty by his own words seems a very 1970s brush-off to Soviet fellow travellers who attacked Stoppard for lack of political commitment, but Daly generates enormous melancholy from Lenin discovering that his beloved Pushkin, as a ‘bourgeois individualist’, has been supplanted by a futurist poet in curricula. Director Lynne Parker designed the set’s pitched platform which in representing Carr’s home and the Zurich library creates an appropriately surreal atmosphere in which she draws the best from her actors.

Stoppard’s plays always dazzle with their bravura mix of wit and learning but this is a solid production of a script that, unlike Arcadia, engages only the head, not the heart.

3/5

Travesties continues its run in the Pavilion Theatre until June 23rd.

February 8, 2012

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg and a stellar cast tackle a clash between two heavyweights of 20th Century intellectual history, but this film punches just below its fighting weight.

Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley is their shared patient (and alleged muse) Sabina Spielrein in a riveting drama about the disagreement between the two great founding fathers of psychoanalysis that split the medical movement at its founding. Atonement scriptwriter Christopher Hampton adapts his own play which begins with Sabina’s arrival at the Swiss clinic where Jung works. This allows him put Freud’s untested theory of the ‘talking cure’ into practice, leading to a meeting with Freud that sees the two men become friends and colleagues. Freud, however, sends a deranged colleague Otto Gross (played by an unruly Vincent Cassell) to Jung for treatment, and after their bruising debating sessions Jung succumbs to his darkest desires with Sabina, who is on her way to becoming an analyst herself; and a disciple of Freud…

Knightley, sporting an impressive Russian accent, gives a startlingly alien performance as the hysterical girl who slowly transforms herself into Jung’s intellectual equal. Her attacks of hysteria include a disturbing jutting of her jaw that conveys a body almost breaking in trying not to scream. Sabina’s recovery allows Knightley to play a nuanced fragility. Fassbender (looking oddly like James Joyce) is assured as a clever, kindly man corrupted by his own darkest desires. Viggo has a determinedly supporting role as Freud, but is droll in delivering put-downs, and wordlessly noting the class and religious divide between himself and Jung; which are slightly overplayed. He also excels at making Freud charismatic but ambiguous; did he send Gross to corrupt Jung because Jung threatened to undermine Freud’s sexualised theorising?

There is minor body horror in Sabina’s account of a waking hallucination of a mollusc attaching itself to her spine, but the real Cronenberg touch is the S&M between her and Jung. Cronenberg’s triumph is using deep focus in the therapy sessions so that we can observe the faces of both Jung and Sabina, and in foregrounding consistently compelling verbal fencing between characters who professionally dissect language for its nuances. Emotions trump ideas though… Freud’s insistence on total obedience or excommunication, his dogmatic atheism, his refusal to abrogate sexual interpretations to anything, and Jung’s counterpointing of a spiritual instinct and metaphoric rather than literal readings of Oedipus complexes are never adequately explored. Jung’s empirical discovery of the complexes is glancingly depicted, but his theory of synchronicity (a psychic echo of physical events) is rendered as stark gibberish, while Freud’s concept of the death drive and Jung’s anima/animus theory become Sabina’s ideas…

This is an excellently played drama that is always absorbing, but more detail about the ideas of the characters rather than just their emotions would have made it truly great.

4/5

December 5, 2011

Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree

Gladstone in the Disestablishment debates of 1869 was fond of referring to the Irish Church as the Upas Tree, a popular contemporary botanical metaphor based on an Indonesian plant that poisoned everything else that tried to grow in soil around it even as it thrived…

I’m tempted to rename The Tree of Life to Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree because I’ve been complaining for a while that a too rigid adherence to an eminently predictable three-act structure is a major source of Hollywood’s current woes, and that loosening up the structure of mainstream cinema would be an exciting development, only for Malick to drive audiences demented with his unstructured rambling magnum opus. During the summer reports of walk-outs, sarcastic laughter, ironic applause, and worse floated in from all quarters as responses to Malick’s film. I heard of three men getting as far as the appearance of the dinosaurs before one went, “Ah, here. Scoops?”, and they just got up and left. I was at one of the last screenings in the IFI in its tiny second screen in the afternoon with an audience of Malick devotees. I’d been trying to concentrate on just luxuriating in the visuals of the creation of the universe montage and trying not to think too critically about it. The choral soundtrack got louder and louder and I was thinking about how on earth Malick was achieving this, was he adding in extra singers for each verse, when a man a few seats down from me turned to say to the woman next to him, “Oh, this is just pretentious f****** nonsense! It really is…” Unfortunately, in a hilarious occurrence straight out of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film, at that precise moment the soundtrack went mute and his shouted whisper bounded around the entire room and was heard by everyone. You could feel the audience stiffen in their seats, some offended by this philistinism, but many more I think suddenly roused, out of somnolent acceptance of Malick’s montage as Art, back into consciousness and a critical evaluation of what the man had just said – and do you know what, I swear that I felt most of the audience suddenly silently agree and think, “It is pretentious f****** nonsense, isn’t it?!”

The first 30 minutes of the film are largely dispensable, as are the last 20 minutes. The creation of the universe montage is not art but empty bombast masquerading as profundity, while the end of the movie hilariously resembles an advertisement for life insurance as white-suited people walk around a beach smiling beatifically at each other. There is a decent movie buried in between these two extremes about a 1950s Texan adolescence, but it’s not a great movie. It wouldn’t be great, even if you could unearth it, because the central child becomes a deeply unpleasant protagonist who, in shooting his guitar-playing brother in the finger out of jealousy and spite that this bonds the younger brother to their music-loving father, approaches borderline psychosis. The most egregious failures in The Tree of Life are the least mainstream elements, while what little that works does so because it’s mainstream. Just like Let the Right One In critics have been praising as creative ambiguity what is in fact terrifying vagueness. I was stunned to discover in the credits that Fiona Shaw was the children’s grandmother, from the movie that’s not at all obvious, she appears to deliver a horrendous line to Jessica Chastain merely as an awful neighbour who is quite rightly never seen again by the family. As for what happened to the brother…as with people reading meanings into 2001 that they got from Arthur C Clarke’s novel, people saying the brother obviously committed suicide only think that from knowledge of Malick’s own life. It is not in the movie. Sean Penn is absolutely right in saying he doesn’t even know why he’s in the movie, but his comments about a dense and beautiful script which does not appear on screen are infuriating because they suggest that Malick once again signed people up for one film and then shot too much unscripted, irrelevant, but pretty material and edited together from endless incoherent footage an entirely different, philosophically slight, and inferior work.

Malick’s ideal viewer would appear to be an agoraphobic shut-in, with no access to the many nature or physics documentaries on TV. Be brutally honest and you will admit that the creation of the universe montage is so deliberately vague in its focus on the micro rather than the macro that if you didn’t know what it was beforehand you’d be unlikely to find out from watching it. The mind boggles that Doug Trumbull was involved in making that sequence as it’s inferior to depictions of the self-same cosmic events on most television documentaries. The dinosaurs are more convincing than Terra Nova’s creatures but they’re curiously inert so let’s not kid ourselves that the CGI is that much better than the Discovery Channel benchmark. An even greater problem is Malick’s apparent belief that pointing the camera upwards at the slightest provocation plus blasting majestic John Tavener choral works at ear-splitting volume equals Transcendence. Do you ever look up at a tall building, feel dwarfed by it, and go ‘whoa’? Do you sometimes walk around after heavy rain to appreciate how all the foliage looks somehow greener? Do you occasionally look up at the sunlight coming thru the leaves of trees in dappled patterns? Do you always slow down when walking so as not to scare a wild animal in order to fully appreciate stumbling across it by observing it? Congratulations, you have reached a state of deep commune with nature that Malick thinks few people ever have. Worse still, the great philosopher-poet of cinema, as the adulatory reviews would crown him, spends two and a half hours in tangentially making the point that Moulin Rouge! only needed a rhyming couplet to deliver – ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.’ The conflict between Nature and Grace outlined in voiceover by Jessica Chastain at the beginning needs dialogue to be developed. Instead Malick thinks he can explore it with clichéd and irrelevant nature imagery.

My objections to the idea that complex ideas can be communicated visually rather than verbally are old, but watching this movie I also discovered something new. I am so decadent as to require a smidgen of narrative amidst visual paeans to the beauty of nature. This is why I dub what Malick has produced an Upas Tree. He may bask in the glory of his film being a philosophical masterpiece saturated with, and directing people’s attention to, the beauty of nature, but anyone else attempting to throw away the three-act structure will now be instantly reminded that The Tree of Life proves that you can’t abandon it and be stopped dead in their tracks. Hunger may have rewritten the possibilities of cinema, but it retained the bare bones of a three-act structure to supply narrative momentum, and realised that one extended dialogue scene discussing ideas could support far more screen-time devoted to art installation style visual explorations. The Tree of Life though eschews either that sense of narrative drive or that necessity for dialogue in the exploration of ideas, and by its failure seems to proclaim that abandoning the three-act structure is not the way to go, and, at a time when its detailed proscriptions badly need re-inventing, that makes me mad. Steve McQueen’s work seems to demonstrate that the classic three-act structure is not always necessary, but some semblance of artistic purpose is indispensible. Graham Greene’s definition of a film as a series of particular images assembled in a particular way to achieve a particular effect still holds true. One could contrast McQueen’s tightly controlled visions with Malick’s free-for-all ‘shoot everything and find the movie in the editing room’ approach. The true contrast between them though is that McQueen finds beauty in the mundane and ugly, so that you go ‘whoa’ watching a floor being disinfected, while Malick finds beauty in the beautiful – which recalls Joyce’s dismissal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as propaganda for that which needs no propaganda…

Terrence Malick is now making two more films rather quickly. He may have deeper philosophical messages to impart from his life experience, I certainly hope he does, but I think he would be well advised to re-watch his debut Badlands and remind himself that having a sense of narrative drive, be it e’er so dreamy is not a bad thing.

March 4, 2011

Personal Movies

What then might a ‘personal movie’ be?

I would define a ‘personal movie’ as a film which may not be that great objectively, but which holds for you a deep personal meaning; which is either enigmatically inexplicable, or, is incommunicable except in emotional connection with a time, place and person. A work of art can often become a kind of mental hook on which we hang experiences. I first read Brideshead Revisited mere days after picking up my Leaving Cert results and then immediately afterwards buying Blur’s Parklife album. To this day there are times when I’ll be reading Brideshead and the sound of the brass intro to ‘Badhead’ will float through my head, not as a discordant note in a story set in the inter-war period, but as an essential part of my first experience of reading this rich novel while I waited to start college. I’m sure everyone has similar Proustian moments of hearing a song and instantly associating it with a certain time and place.

I think the same is true for personal movies. They will take on a resonance which can be almost completely unrelated to their quality, and the resonance of that first encounter will forever echo thru subsequent viewings. A friend of mine became hopelessly devoted to The Holiday, fully aware that it’s a terrible film, because of the emotional resonance of particular architecture featured in the film as well as its theme of betrayals in love. Another friend had something of a Joycean epiphany while watching Betty Blue as a teenager and has, perhaps not coincidentally, ended up living in France. Resonance can come from within a film or be introduced into it from without, and sometimes can just be a matter of timing. I avoided the release of Almost Famous in early 2001, and only finally saw it on television in early summer 2004, which meant that the film resonated with me more than it ever could have in 2001 as in the interim I had discovered Led Zeppelin…

Just over a year ago, as preparation for my Top 10/Worst 10 Films of the Decade one-off return to the University Observer, I posted Films of the Decade? This provisional list of 20 films featured a few personal movies but I felt I could argue they were also either great movies or reflected the decade exceptionally; in other words that there was some sort of Eliotian objective correlative for the personal meaning they held for me. I saw Roger Avary’s 2002 film The Rules of Attraction just days before my birthday during its extremely limited release in 2003. I’ve since heard others say it’s the best film from Bret Easton Ellis’ work and an improvement on the source novel. The film’s unflinching bleakness struck a chord because I was at a low ebb when I saw it; tremendously frustrated with problems in writing my PhD dissertation. Since then it has repeatedly aired on TV, uncannily nearly always when I’ve felt hopeless, and the ecstatic bliss of its nihilism has lifted me out of my ruts.

I think everyone has a stack of personal movies like this, and who knows, perhaps the reason old classics are classics is simply because, however odd it may sound, they are deeply personal movies – for millions of people.

December 15, 2010

Space, Technology & Modernity in Irish Literature & Culture

I delivered my paper ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ to the ‘Space, Technology & Modernity in Irish Literature & Culture’ conference held in University College Dublin in May this year. With that paper now revised and submitted as a journal article I thought I’d look back at the proceedings held at the Humanities Institute of Ireland in UCD and organised by Graham Price and Liam Lanigan.

HI

Friday 21 May

Panel 1: Beckettian Aesthetics
Chair: Dr Stanley van der Ziel (University College Dublin)

‘‘‘Antiquarians and Others”: Beckett’s Irish Modernists’
Alan Graham (University College Dublin)

‘The Phenomenology of Pain in Beckett: The Tedium and the Message’
Siobhan Purcell (University College Dublin)

Panel 2: Gender, Culture & Society in Ireland
Chair: Dr Anne Mulhall (University College Dublin)

‘Desire Lost and Found: Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris and Kate O’Brien’s As Music and Splendour’
Maggie O’Neill (NUI Maynooth)

‘Kate O’Brien’s Modernism – Selves, Subtexts, “Mixed Media”’
Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka (Independent Scholar)

‘“A Sweet Colleen and a Salty Sinner”: Conceptions of Irishness, Catholicism, Homosexuality and Modernity in the Fiction of Emma Donoghue’
Annie Galvin (Trinity College Dublin)

Panel 3: Comparative Modernisms
Chair: Dr Sharae Deckard (University College Dublin)

‘“A Place on the Road to Somewhere Else”: The Fictional Writing of Colm Toibin in the “World Republic of Letters
Sonia Howell (NUI Maynooth)

This Side of Princeton: Ireland and F Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise’
Gavan Lennon (University College Dublin)

‘Adding “new beauties”: Joyce and Rushdie’s critical works’
Pauric Havlin (University College Dublin)

Keynote Address: Moynagh Sullivan (NUI Maynooth)
‘Space & Interspace: Medbh McGuckian’s Poetics, Maternal Aesthetics, and Matrixial Borderspaces’
Chair: Dr Graham Price (University College Dublin)

957894

Saturday May 22

Panel 4: The Evolution of an Irish Modernist Aesthetic
Chair: Dr Lucy Collins (University College Dublin)

‘Modernism and Modernity in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland
Stanley van der Ziel (University College Dublin)

‘“Pealing out a living message”: Sean O’Faolain, The Bell and The Artist’s New Ireland’
Muireach Shankey (University College Dublin)

‘“Dear Dirty Dublin” or “The Parable of the [Fair Trade] Plums”: Representing Dublin in Ulysses
George Legg (Trinity College Dublin)

Panel 5: Consumption, Globalisation and Tradition in Recent Irish Fiction
Chair: Dr Graham Price (University College Dublin)

‘“A Simple and Genuine Sense of Homecoming”: Transition in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer
Eoin Delap (Trinity College Dublin)

‘Binge and Purge: Excess, Ekstasis, and the Celtic Tiger’
Niamh Campbell (Trinity College Dublin)

‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’
Fergal Casey (University College Dublin)

There were a number of universities represented at the proceedings and an even greater number of writers. Beckett finally triumphed over Joyce by getting his own panel which illuminated his off-beat early literary criticism and the philosophy of pain in his mature work. Kate O’Brien, Elizabeth Bowen and Emma Donoghue were usefully placed in a continuum of female writers complicating received notions of gender and sexuality. Joseph O’Neill justified the Gatsby comparisons for Netherland by not feeling out of place after a paper on F Scott which brought out his Irishness to a surprising degree. Moynagh O’Sullivan’s keynote address meanwhile was a suitably dazzling display of theoretical fireworks used to illuminate the dense rich poetry of Medbh McGuckian. My own panel looked at work by Brian Friel, Kevin Power, John McGahern and Paul Murray, proving that not only is Irish literature engaging with modernity, despite the constant complaints by some commentators, but that a hefty reading list of must-read Irish novels of the last decade could be jotted down from texts cited in discussion of any one panel of this conference.

Ireland remains a republic of letters…

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