Talking Movies

March 22, 2016

Any Other Business: Part XI

What is one to do with thoughts that are too short for  a proper blog post yet too long for Twitter? Why round them up and turn them into an eleventh portmanteau post of course!

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, Tom Hollander as Major Corkoran, Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall, Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, and Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper - The Night Manager _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: Mitch Jenkins/The Ink Factory/AMC

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, Tom Hollander as Major Corkoran, Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall, Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, and Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper – The Night Manager _ Season 1, Gallery – Photo Credit: Mitch Jenkins/The Ink Factory/AMC

The Height Manager

At first I thought The Night Manager might be a good three episode show trying to escape from a six episode run. But then, as I found myself fast-forwarding through sweeping shots apparently accompanied by mislaid John Barry Bond cues, I started to doubt that. As I started fast-forwarding through protracted suspense sequences and pointless tracking shots I thought there might be a decent movie buried trying to escape from John Le Carre’s story. As I started fast-forwarding through dialogue scenes because a piece of spy-craft involving ice creams resembled an SNL sketch I stopped thinking and just hit delete on the DVR. I will remember little in a few months of The Night Manager except how director Susanne Bier dealt with Elizabeth Debicki’s great height: never stand her directly next to Hugh Laurie or Tom Hiddleston if possible, and if they must stand beside each other, cheat. Debicki stood in bare feet next to Laurie standing in shoes, so that both were standing at the same height. And, even more farcically, Debicki walked beside Hiddleston on a steeply sloping beach, but closer to the ocean so that he appeared fractionally taller. Jed “I don’t care who sees me naked, I do care who sees me crying” Marshall brought to mind Richard Yates’ castigation of Hemingway’s Catherine Barkley as not a real character but merely a ‘high-school masturbatory fantasy’. It’s baffling that Debicki chose to slum it in such a vacuous role, but what exactly is the fuss about female directors all about when Bier so ridiculously upholds the convention of leading man looming over leading lady?

Jerk-Ass Seeley

Bones has long been a startling exemplar of decline without any obvious parallel. In its marvellous first season it was a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags delivered by complicated characters. In its current eleventh season it is an average intelligence forensics sitcom with constant average gags delivered by characters whose level of complication can be gauged by new addition FBI Agent Aubrey being defined as gourmand. Bones’ trajectory has been so consistently downhill that each season is observably slightly worse than its predecessor. Forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember social niceties and her conversation suffered from total ignorance of pop culture. By season 6 she was, so to speak, consciously unconsciously anti-social. And it’s only got worse. After 11 years of working with Seeley Booth, during which she has observed his example of what to say and how to act in nearly every conceivable circumstance, she has not only not learnt, but has regressed: becoming ruder and given to hideous attempts at humour. But a recent NSA episode, transparently about Snowden, was truly jaw-dropping. The penultimate episode of season 1 tackled the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. By contrast the NSA episode of season 11 saw Booth snarling like a deranged bear at everyone, and Hodgins deferring meekly to Booth’s party line that if you didn’t serve, you have no right to speak. Given that the leak in question was about not just illegal spy programs but an NSA hit-squad operating without Congressional oversight you have to wonder if Booth just wants all but a handful of his Army Rangers buddies disbarred from voting. After all if you didn’t serve, are you really worthy of voting on where to support the troops next? How did Bones get to this state of shocking disrepair?

MARVEL'S AGENT CARTER - "Better Angels" - Peggy's search for the truth about Zero Matter puts her on a collision course with her superiors as Howard Stark barnstorms in, on "Marvel's Agent Carter," TUESDAY, JANUARY 26 (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Kelsey McNeal) HAYLEY ATWELL, REGGIE AUSTIN

MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER – “Better Angels” – Peggy’s search for the truth about Zero Matter puts her on a collision course with her superiors as Howard Stark barnstorms in, on “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” TUESDAY, JANUARY 26 (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Kelsey McNeal)
HAYLEY ATWELL, REGGIE AUSTIN

Agent Carter: LA Noir

“I drove across town to La Brea then straight north to Hollywood. The canyon road was narrow and winding but there was no traffic at all. We hadn’t even seen a police car on the ride and that was fine with me, because the police have white slavery on the brain when it comes to coloured men and white women.” – Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins noir novels, is set in Los Angeles in 1948. Mosley was born in 1952 and published his book in 1990, but he was interested in capturing a sense of the lived reality of black life in the era of Raymond Chandler’s PI mythologies. The second season of Agent Carter is set in Los Angeles in 1947. Except it’s not. Agent Carter is interested in the 1940s purely for set-dressing and steam-punk plotting. When black scientist Wilkes instantly hits on Peggy Carter and she reciprocates the show doesn’t hear historical accuracy alarm bells ringing. Indeed it goes out of its way to have a white guy make racist assumptions about the pair because he’s a horrible racist, and Howard Stark treats Wilkes like he would a white scientist because Stark’s a great guy. More people will casually watch Agent Carter than will actively read Devil in a Blue Dress, so surely it matters that history is being made into pigswill. And surely it matters that people will be soothed by the idea that people were always decent but a few racists made trouble, when the man who accosts Wilkes and Peggy is representative, not exceptional. Michael Portillo was told in a BBC documentary that there were no signs indicating segregation in Washington DC in the 1940s, black people just knew where they weren’t allowed: racism didn’t need to physically accost, it already had a policing voice mentally inside its victims. I can think of few more terrifying, gut-churning scenes of fiction than Easy waiting to meet DeWitt Albright and hoping upon hope that a bunch of white teenagers will not approach him, only for a white teenage girl to strike up an aimless conversation with him that nearly sees Easy lynched on the pier. It’s depressing to think that having Wilkes means Agent Carter scores a tick on the diversity checklist, regardless of the opiate ahistoricity of his use.

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November 19, 2014

Any Other Business: Part IX

john-finn-copy

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 ninth portmanteau post on television of course!

Celtic Noir

It seems I wasn’t hallucinating at the cinema a few weeks ago when I saw a teaser for An Bronntanas; in which a severed arm floated past with dead fish on a conveyor belt, a reveal I’d been expecting from the music and cinematography of the sequence; and immediately thought that was something that belonged in a Nordic Noir. TG4’s Deputy CEO, Pádhraic Ó Ciardha, says the series has broken new ground for the channel by establishing a new genre: Celtic Noir. “The direct audience feedback on social media, as well as in media commentary and reviews at home and abroad, confirms to us that An Bronntanas has hit the spot,” he said. “Regular viewers of our channel confirm that it delivers on their requirement for a súil eile approach to drama. Others remark on the innovative visual style and unique dramatic atmosphere – the Celtic Noir that has grabbed their attention in ways not unlike some recent Scandinavian TV crime drama”. TG4 has, as usual, gazumped RTE in showing the likes of Borgen and The Bridge, so it’s unsurprising that its audience noticed the family resemblance. Series Producer Ciarán Ó Cofaigh says, “We believe that we have delivered a drama series that can compete on a world stage. Personally, it is particularly satisfying to achieve this through the Irish language.” TG4 commissioned Fios Físe, a viewer panel solely comprising fluent Irish speakers, and found An Bronntanas being watched by over 60% of the panel, with approval ratings over 90%. Official TAM Ireland figures show the contemporary thriller has been seen by 340,000 people during the opening four episodes, making it one of TG4’s most popular original drama series ever. The show developed by Galway production company ROSG and Derry’s De Facto Films, cannily cast Cold Case star John Finn (famously unexpectedly fluent in Irish) alongside Dara Devaney (Na Cloigne), Owen McDonnell (Single Handed), Janusz Sheagall, and Charlotte Bradley; and added an impeccable sheen through cinematographer Cian de Buitléir capturing Connemara for director Tom Collins (Kings). The series finale of An Bronntanas airs tomorrow, Thursday 20th November, at 9.30pm on TG4. Check it out – its ambition stands in stark contrast to the drivel being perpetrated by RTE2 these days.

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Bright Lights, Tendentious Theses

I’ve been stewing in annoyance at Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities for some months now; and perhaps it’s the fact that rival art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has lately completed the second of two far superior BBC 4 shows (Art of China, The Art of Gothic) which has finally brought my ire with Dr James Fox’ series to the boil. Fox set out to show that the 20th Century had been shaped by events in three cities in three particular years: Vienna 1908, Paris 1928, New York 1951. So far, so interesting. Fox, however, frequently seemed to be less interested in presenting a coherent argument than in maintaining his snappy title’s cachet. Jack Kerouac, probably the worst case, was shoehorned into New York 1951 by dint of the fact that he wrote On the Road in 1951. On the Road was published in 1957. How can a work be influencing the zeitgeist if it’s not been published? It doesn’t matter when it was written. For all we know JD Salinger wrote the Great American Novel in 1985 but it’s lost in a steam-trunk in his old shed. But if it was published now it would be coming it devilishly high to talk about it as a critical intervention in the culture of Reagan’s America. Kerouac was the worst but by no means only example of Fox’s tendencies: Brando’s 1951 film performance in A Streetcar Named Desire was hailed, and the fact that he’d originated that part on Broadway in 1947 ignored; Lee Strasberg and his Method were hailed, and the fact that his pupil James Dean didn’t become a star till 1955 ignored; the Method was hailed in vague terms, but any in-depth analysis was eschewed – especially the cult-like tendencies of its adoption in America. The Sun Also Rises was too early for Paris 1928, so instead A Farewell to Arms was praised to the skies; despite being verily self-parody, and featuring a heroine rightly dismissed by Richard Yates in writing workshops. Gershwin’s An American in Paris was rendered more important in the scheme of things than Rhapsody in Blue because it fit Fox’s thesis; and to hell with any internal logic between shows as having bowed down to Schoenberg’s atonal serialism in the previous episode Gershwin’s melodicism was now equally valid – what is ‘modern’ is always wonderful, even if it contradicts what was ‘modern’ last Tuesday (which is no longer modern and therefore no longer valid). Fox is absorbing when he talks about art, but when he ventures into other fields he should take Andrew Graham-Dixon’s lead and, instead of creating titles that act as prisons, embrace wide-ranging titles that allow you to link between a few but carefully selected ideas in service of a convincing argument.

May 26, 2014

Fast Intent presents Zelda

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Before she was Zelda Fitzgerald, she was Zelda Sayre. Before she was a Riviera socialite, she was a Southern belle. Before she was F Scott’s crazy tormentor, she was his beloved muse. And both personae are explored in Eddie Naughton’s new play, Zelda, based on Zelda’s life and own writings.

I’ve been poring over Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates (A Tragic Honesty) again recently, and was struck by the notion that Yates had modelled himself so much on the doomed F Scott as a writer that his entire life started to slide into equal drink-fuelled catastrophe. Yates, of course, was compounding his own mental illness with drinking that erased his medication’s benefit; and Zelda’s own slide into madness was not dissimilar. But there’s another striking note in Bailey’s book; the idea that every writer has some essential tale to tell, that can be disguised in any number of interesting ways – but will always be at the core of their best work. For F Scott, that was his love for the unattainable Zelda; and The Great Gatsby was F Scott spinning out that epic romance into a piercing continent-encompassing metaphor.

Naughton’s play strips away the Daisy Buchanan facade to examine the real woman in a script which puts Zelda in a hospital room telling her story. Zelda Sayre was a Southern belle who became internationally famous alongside her husband F Scott Fitzgerald whose stunning debut This Side of Paradise mythologised their romance; casting Zelda as the archetypal flapper. Their life together was a never-ending parade of alcohol-fuelled jazz-scored parties, with F Scott’s talent keeping them in a luxurious lifestyle; in New York, Paris and the Riviera; previously reserved for the self-indulgent robber barons. Friends with Cole Porter, Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, a writer and painter, dancer and mother, it should never have ended in a fiery death at a psychiatric hospital; but such was the price of alcoholism and escalating mental illness. Naughton resurrects the biting wit before that curtain.

Zelda seems a perfect fit for Fast Intent. Fast Intent was set up in 2011 by director Sarah Finlay and actors Ger Adlum and Nessa Matthews. Their previous productions include Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes (The Complex), Family Voices and One for the Road (New Theatre), Jean Anouilh’s The Lark and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (both Smock Alley), and an adaptation of Dracula for the Bram Stoker Festival at Dublin Castle; part of a residency there which included Shakespeare by Candlelight in December and a series of monologues for Culture Night in September. Zelda joins Joan of Arc as another radical heroine for Fast Intent to explore in their pared down style that focuses on ideas and emotions. Zelda is performed by Sharon Coade, directed by Sarah Finlay, and produced by Gerard Adlum and Keith Thompson, with Lights, Sound, and Set design by Eoghan Carrick, Nessa Matthews, and Aoife Fealy respectively.

Zelda runs at Theatre Upstairs from Tuesday the 3rd of June to Saturday 14th. Performances are at 1pm, Tuesday to Saturday, when the ticket price of €10 includes a light lunch. There are 7pm performances from Thursday to Saturday. Bookings can be made at http://www.theatreupstairs.ie.

July 12, 2011

Richard Yates Studies and Hollywood’s Gravity

It seems absurd to quibble about Richard Yates Studies when it’s such a triumph that there finally is such a field as Richard Yates studies, but I fear Hollywood’s gravity…

I fear it for this reason:
ACADEMIC 1: I’m speaking tomorrow on the comparative panel.
ACADEMIC 2: Who are you talking about alongside John McGahern?
ACADEMIC 1: Richard Yates, American writer, roughly contemporary.
ACADEMIC 2: Ah, yes, yes. (beat) What did he write?
ACADEMIC 1: (strained pause) Revolutionary Road.
ACADEMIC 2: Oh yes, the one with-
ACADEMIC1: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, yes…

It’s a simple truth that, despite the glorious Vintage reprints of the past few years, the long critical neglect of Richard Yates has left its mark. And it’s all too easy for the fact that the first (incredibly belated) film adaptation of his work was of his debut novel, about the 1950s, to perpetuate the unfair perception that Yates wrote one great novel in 1961 and then deservedly disappeared. This ignores his bibliography. His stunning trio of novels Disturbing the PeaceThe Easter Parade  and A Good School, which between them incisively dissect American life from the 1930s to the 1970s, all appeared within three years of each other in the second half of the 1970s.

It’s also a danger that Sam Mendes’ film will type Yates as a gloom-merchant of unrelieved tragedy. Yates is the poet laureate of failed dreams, but, as I’ve noted elsewhere in relation to the film, there is terrific comedy on the path from hope to disappointment that his writings customarily traverse. I saw the 1972 film adaptation of Peter Barnes’ demented play The Ruling Class just before the New Approaches to Richard Yates conference last year. I thus suggested to David Fernley that a way to correct any Mendes-inspired popular perception of Yates as miserabilist would be to quickly film Disturbing the Peace with non-naturalist sequences drawing out Yates’ dark humour. After all Peter O’Toole’s description of The Ruling Class as black comedy with tragic relief fairly characterises some of Yates’ work.

Finally I fear Hollywood’s gravity could unbalance Richard Yates Studies on two fronts. It’s easier to write on an obscure text by a well-known author, because there are less existing critical readings defeating your attempts to say something original, but it’s also easier to write on a well-known text by an obscure author than it is to write on an obscure text by an obscure author. Name-recognition does count at some level, even if it’s in the subconscious of an academic planning an article for a refereed journal and worrying that an examination of two short stories by Yates might prove just too niche for a non-Yates journal. I plan to yoke together Revolutionary Road and A Special Providence because they nicely link for an unusual argument, but I’m convinced I thought of that argument because I subconsciously also felt that Revolutionary Road would add weight to A Special Providence in the same way that John McGahern said short stories in a collection can lean on each other for support.

The second front is a more consciously considered problem than the prospect of everyone writing about Revolutionary Road to improve their chances of publication. It is the problem of getting Yates onto curriculums. Getting a non-canonical writer onto an American Literature course wins plaudits but in a world of modularisation it’s not as simple a task as it might once have been when core courses covered a canon and selected alternatives to that canon at the whim of the lecturer(s). If students have a choice of competing modules common sense and basic economics says modules will start to bend towards attracting students by including books, canonical and alt-canonical, they’ll want to read. Revolutionary Road rather than The Easter Parade will always appear then because, thanks to the Hollywood hype machine, students will recognise one title and not the other.

Those are my fears about how Hollywood may skew Richard Yates Studies, but the wider idea of cinema bending literary studies will be returned to…

New Approaches to Richard Yates

I delivered my paper ‘Revolutionary Road: Modernist Novel, Realist Film?’ to the New Approaches to Richard Yates conference held in Goldsmiths University of London in June last year. With that paper since revised and submitted as a journal article, I thought I’d look back at the illuminating proceedings organised by Leif Bull and Catherine Humble.

Saturday 5 June

Plenary Speaker: Jo Gill (University of Exeter)
‘“The Important Thing Was to keep from Being Contaminated” –
    Suburban Malaise in the Fiction of Richard Yates’
Session 1: An Old Fashioned Realist

‘The Metarealism of Richard Yates’
Leif Bull (Goldsmiths University of London)

‘What’s Wrong with the Suburbs: Living the Dream Down Revolutionary Road’
Catherine Humble (Goldsmiths University of London)
Session 2: Revolutionary Road on the Big Screen

Revolutionary Road: Modernist Novel, Realist Film?’
Fergal Casey (University College Dublin)

‘Undermining Hollywood: Richard Yates’ Project of Exposure’
Kate Charlton-Jones (University of Essex)
Session 3: Suburban Dreams

‘Generational Confusion in the Work of Richard Yates’
David Fernley (University of Nottingham)

‘Liquid Lunch: The Collapse of Capital and the Rise of Suburbia and Consumer Culture in the Writings of Yates, West and Ellis’
Dean Brown (University of Sussex)
Summary Note: Leif Bull
Richard Yates’ long and shameful neglect by a modish academia is thankfully coming to an end and this conference demonstrated that far from being easily dismissed as a ‘mere realist’ there is in fact rich grounds for many critical schools in the work of the Yonkers native. Indeed it was striking that even though a number of us covered the same text, the inevitable Revolutionary Road, our papers all approached it from radically different angles. Plenary speaker Jo Gill noted the language of disease used by Yates to describe suburban psychological malaise on the part of men and women in Revolutionary Road and a number of other texts, and incisively located this in both the explicit health concerns behind the rise of suburbia in post-war America and the coded racist concerns about desegregated education post-1954. Catherine Humble gave a rigorous Lacanian psychoanalytic reading of Revolutionary Road that saw the infamous symbolic picture window receive appropriate scrutiny, as well as bringing out the difference between Frank’s rebellion, satire of society without change, and that of April. I read debts to the high modernism of F Scott Fitzgerald into Revolutionary Road’s temporal fluidity, ironic tone, characters with shifting identities and ambiguity of plot, while examining how Sam Mendes’ film simplified precisely those elements to achieve Hollywood realism. Dean Brown placed Revolutionary Road in continuum with The Day of the Locust and American Psycho and dazzlingly contextualised the progress of the rise of credit consumerism contemporary to each text allied to decline in self-generated identity in their characters.

Other speakers focused on other works with equally kaleidoscopic approaches. Leif Bull examined Disturbing the Peace and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness to show Yates’ blending of objective reality and literary history delivering satirical black comedy with an emotional weight and meta-textual awareness that anticipates the new postmodernism of DF Wallace. Kate Charlton-Jones used the short stories ‘A Glutton for Punishment’ and ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’ to illuminate Yates’ abiding concern with the damage done to people by imitating cinematic archetypes which amplified a simplistic political message of hope and re-invention. David Fernley persuasively used Disturbing the Peace, The Easter Parade, and Young Hearts Crying to rescue Yates from being a spokesman for the 1950s by showing Yates satirising in his work characters who foolishly fossilised themselves in constructed generational roles. Richard Yates is not just a realist linked to his time. He can be subjected to hard-core theory, explored for modernist currents, located in the material realities of his time, and read for meta-texuality and characters that resist easy categories. Richard Yates studies, long delayed, is here in force now…
Postscript:
Goldsmiths College is located near enough to Greenwich on the Tube for a Master & Commander fan like me to connive to stay in Greenwich and exult in the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory, looking at old ships, old naval clocks, and even the coat Nelson was shot in. If you’re staying in Greenwich I highly recommend the lovely (and highly literary) B&B where I stayed, No 37.

April 30, 2010

Revolutionary Adaptation

Revolutionary Road was acclaimed by Kurt Vonnegut as The Great Gatsby of his generation, but does that classification beside a totem of modernist literature suggest that filming Richard Yates’ novel in a straightforward realist fashion is doomed to failure?

Watching Revolutionary Road you wish you knew more about how the Wheelers came to this point, the substance of their dream and their complaint about suburbia, and you wish that the supporting characters were more fleshed out. Then you read the book and find that a third of the text, if not more, is taken up with flashbacks showing how each character came to this point. The Wheeler children are barely characterised in the film but an undercurrent in the book is the damage that Frank and April’s fighting inflicts on their children. There are heartbreaking descriptions of how they simply crumble when their parents fight, and in one devastating scene it’s implied that April’s behaviour will be faithfully replicated in the future by her daughter Jennifer – she will always do whatever she feels like doing.

Yates is a masterful writer. His language isn’t as gorgeous as the heights reached by his hero Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby but his prose is so wonderfully incisive that you find yourself reading a paragraph repeatedly for its insight. Asides from an unfilmable delicacy with language Yates treats his characters with a universal sympathy hidden beneath endless irony. Mrs Givings is a mere figure of fun to be scorned in the film but Yates manages the nigh-impossible feat of making you laugh at characters for their self-delusions, and in the next paragraph feel pity for them. These characters know they are deceiving themselves, but they must do so in order to go on living. Compared to this Tolstoyan compassion Mendes’ film makes characters and events far simpler and clear-cut. The film removes much of the sting from the fights because we are not privy to Frank’s constant despair that April may leave him at anytime simply because she feels like it – she is a master of mental torture, and even her line about his recourse to physical abuse against this is cut.

The comedy of the novel, such as the epic shirking of work at Knox by Frank, Jack Ordway, and all the other staff, is almost completely lost in the film. Yates’ novel is extremely funny throughout, and its lengthy description of how Frank organises his desk to avoid work is side-splitting stuff. Instead Mendes presents Frank’s Toledo memo as nonsense, when it is the only genuinely good work he has done in years for the company and so merits the attention it bestows on him. Also lost are Frank’s qualms as he runs through various possible comments in his head before delivering horrendous lines for his appraisal of the performances of the Laurel Players and Maureen Grube. Modernist literature is defined by its concern for interiority and the loss of that inner perspective hurts the film by making Frank seem a good deal more callous than Yates intends him to be.

Can a faithful treatment really ignore so many elements of its source? Can a blackly comic novel be truly rendered as an unremitting tragedy? Can a modernist novel be adapted at all without drowning a realist film in voiceover and flashback? Adaptation is always a perilous task but Revolutionary Road suggests that adapting modernist novels is impossible to do within the accepted confines of Hollywood realism…

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