Talking Movies

November 19, 2014

Any Other Business: Part IX

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!

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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.

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December 1, 2012

The Select: The Sun Also Rises

Hemingway’s first novel was transformed at Belvedere College into one of the highlights of the Dublin Theatre Festival by New York troupe Elevator Repair Service.
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Hemingway’s picaresque tale of America’s ‘Lost Generation’ carousing aimlessly around 1920s Paris and Spain was vividly brought to life within an impressively detailed set of The Select bar where these expats spend so much time drinking. Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson) is our narrator, a maimed war-hero now earning a living as a writer. Jake spends his days drinking with his quasi-friend Robert Cohn (Matt Tierney) and Cohn’s verbally abusive girlfriend Frances (Kate Scelsa), and flirting ineffectually with native women (Kaneza Schall), but life becomes far more complicated for all these characters when Lady Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor) breezes back into town… Jake is hopelessly in love with Brett, but his war-wound renders him impotent, and so, in one of literature’s most heartbreaking thwarted romances, Brett, despite being truly in love with only Jake, turns to many men to do for her the one thing he can’t. Her impending marriage to fellow rich Briton Mike Campbell (Pete Simpson) might perhaps stop her wandering eye but in the meantime she gets entangled with Cohn, which ensures a very tense visit to Pamplona for the Fiesta for the entire expat group; including Jake’s sardonic, macho, shooting and fishing friend Bill Gorton (Ben Williams).

This show put the other high-profile adaptation Dubliners to shame. Director John Collins begins with Jake’s casual narration straight to the audience, and then strips it away to stage dialogue scenes that use sound effects to conjure what cannot be staged, with the narration used for comic effect as Jake comments on conversations from within or for scene-setting until the climactic bullfight when, deliriously, a sports microphone appears as Jake and Brett sit together commentating using Hemingway’s narration as the star bullfighter takes on an intimidating bull; which is a table with horns being dashed about the stage by Ben Williams stomping the ground. The sound effects are truly spectacular, whether it’s glasses that don’t touch clinking together, a man stepping away from a typewriter which continues typing and when he announces in response to a question that he’s finished rings the end of a page, to the sloshing of the endless booze drunk by the characters, the lapping water and splashes of struggling fish in a pastoral idyll, and the roar of cheering and animalistic grunting from the bullfight. Small wonder that once Cohn’s role is finished Tierney stays on stage so we see him operate the live sound-work.

But this is theatricality that illuminates the novel. The dance to what would have been the catchiest song on the Continent in 1926, which continually interrupts the conversation between Brett, Jake and the Count (Vin Knight), is both a delight of ensemble choreography and encapsulates the frustrating allure of Brett; a moving target of a romantic lead who can’t be tied down by any man. Taylor’s Brett, all short blonde hair, clipped accent, and passionate recklessness, is well nigh definitive, while Iveson is immensely sympathetic and charismatic as Jake. In support in the first act Kate Scelso plays the Ugly American stereotype with astonishing gusto in a lengthy harangue. I didn’t remember Bill being a funny character, but Ben William’s performance was so modern that it was compared to Sam Rockwell and Will Arnett by my companions. Williams only features in the second act but he finds the sardonic humour and hidden tenderness in Hemingway’s declarative hardness, the highlight being his deadpan questioning of a telegram in Spanish – “What does the word Cohn mean?” The entire ensemble excelled though, not least in the amazing Fiesta sequence of pulsating lights, mass shuddering primal dance, and furious ecstatic noise; including Simpson drumming thunderously on a chair. But for all the triumphant sound and fury that created Pamplona’s excitement the heart of the play comes with lighting reduced to mere spots on Jake and Brett as they whisper their agonising unrequitable love for each other – an astonishingly intimate ending for such an expansive and exuberant play.

I had to read The Sun Also Rises for a course, which is always a good way to ruin a novel, but this production was so electric it’s actually forced me to re-evaluate and increase my estimation of Hemingway…

5/5

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