Archive for August, 2017

A tender kiss

26 August 2017


While checking an assertion I’d made in my last post, on Robin Hood, I stumbled across a presentation/workshop that Ben Crystal gave to the British Council on Shakespeare’s language and his pronunciation. The whole thing is worth watching, but early on there’s a stunning close reading of the scene in Romeo and Juliet where the two lovers meet for the first time, at the masked ball. As Crystal points out, Shakespeare suddenly breaks stride and has them, in their first conversation, exchange the lines of a sonnet.


[To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.


O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.


Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.


Then have my lips the sin that they have took.


Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.


You kiss by the book.

Here’s his reading of it, helped by a couple of actors. It runs for around 10 minutes.

The image of Romeo and Juliet at the top of the post is from Franco Zeffirelli’s version, in 1968, starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.


Film moment #20: Robin Hood (2010)

19 August 2017

The Robin Hood story is such a familiar myth, and such an open one, that film-makers can fill it with anything they want to. And they do. Wikipedia lists more than 70 film and TV versions.

The 1938 film with Erroll Flynn, even allowing for the anti-Nazi subtext, is more or less the “official version”, with the noble-born Robin of Locksley cast into the woods with his outlaw band, down with the common people under the greensward, with narrow scrapes involving the Sherriff of Nottingham, the Lady Marian, archery and a ton of swordplay. And the returning King Richard, the deus ex machina that fixes the plot. This is the version parodied so brilliantly in Time Bandits.

And, later, of course, by Mel Brooks:

There’s a “one last job” version, with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as the ageing Robin and Marian. In Prince of Thieves Kevin Costner plays it as class war with a diversity twist, Saxons-plus-Moor against Normans in the mud and rain, if memory serves. I’ve seen a 1950s cross-dressing version (spoiler) where they send for Robin Hood’s son and he turns out to be his daughter.

Ridley Scott’s telling of the story feels like the post-financial crisis version. It was much rewritten over a period of five years. He gave up on the idea I read about online of having Robin of Locksley and the Sherriff of Nottingham be the same person, and ends up more or less writing Locksley out completely. Instead an ordinary soldier (Russell Crowe) picks up Locksley’s sword after he is ambushed by the perfidious French on the way back from the Crusades, returns it to his family, and ends up being asked to impersonate Locksley by his family to help ensure their safety. Locksley and his death become the inciting incident, and the film ends up being the prequel to the myth.

This whole plot device deals quite elegantly with one of the big problems of the Robin Hood story. How do you exactly explain the aristocrat who ends up living in the woods, robbing the rich? ( (This works as myth, but not so much as plot). Screenwriter Brian Helgeland fixes this by turning Robin Hood into Everyman. And fabulously, being the post-crisis version of the story, Everyman Hood ends up inventing both the Charter of the Forest and the Magna Carta as part of the plot. At the start of this sequence he even drops a hint to Shelley as well. This is the moment.

I’m not with those people who say that Russell Crowe’s accent is all over the place. It is, by modern standards. But one of the things we know about the early English is that accents were all over the place. And don’t mess with Cate Blanchett, who plays the Marian role here. I love her as an actor, and the way her character develops through the film is well done. Here she is explaining to Russell how things are, after her father has suggested that they need to share a bedchamber to convince the servants that Robin Longstride really is Robin of Locksley.

Cycling books: life in the peleton

11 August 2017

Over the last year or so I’ve read three books written by professional cyclists about the life of the pro: Michael Barry’s Shadows on the Road, David Millar’s The Racer, and Geraint Thomas’ The World of Cycling According to G. With the Vuelta about to start, it seems like a good time to mention them.

Millar and Barry, who used to train together in Girona, are now retired, Thomas is still racing, and crashed out of this year’s Tour after winning a stage in the race and wearing the leader’s yellow jersey for the first time in his career. Each of the three books has different strengths; of the three, Barry’s is probably the best, as you might guess from his previous book Le Metier, with the photographer Camille McMillan.

Read the rest of this entry »

Remembering Atroshenko

10 August 2017

I knew Viacheslav Atroshenko for a while in the late 1980s, a few years before he died. He was a painter who also ran a gallery, in London’s Pimlico, supported by his wealthy patron partner. He oozed exoticism, born in Shanghai of Ukraininan parents. One weekend we went to stay in their house in the country, a modernist masterpiece hidden away in Oxfordshire, the house used to film the notorious rape sequence in Clockwork Orange. All of the internal angles were five degrees away from right angles, which proved to be profoundly unsettling. Outside, Atroshenko had created a Japanese garden. Both house and garden are listed by English Heritage. 

I’m reminded of all of this because I came across two of his paintings on the stairs of Charing Cross Hospital a few days ago, their bright abstraction bringing to life what would have been a profoundly depressing stairwell. A detail from one–Divina Incarnation–is at the top; all of the other–White Light–complete with stair bannister, is here below. I am pleased to remember him like this, through a chance encounter in a hospital. 


Film moment #19: The Boss Baby (2017)

7 August 2017

Sometimes you watch films more or less by mistake. That was definitely the case with The Boss Baby, which my son had bought on iTunes to watch as mindless background while he got on with a university project. As mindless background, it worked. As a film, not so much. It is an animated movie, produced by Dreamworks, which features a baby who is like an old style 1950s manager who drops in on a household for reasons that I think were explained in the narrative sometime after I had lost the will to live.

In fact, once you know the premise, you can pretty much fill in both the plot and all of the jokes. And the main problem with such films is that Pixar has raised the bar so high on the animated film, in terms of depth of story and richness of storytelling, that something like The Boss Baby careens straight under it. 

Almost the only amusement was playing spot-the-reference on the chase sequence. Toy Story, Mary Poppins, ET (well, the chase involved a bicycle, so we were waiting for that) and what definitely looked like an unsubtle nod to Battleship Potemkin‘s Odessa Steps sequence. Again, The Simpsons has upped the game for everyone on this stuff, and I wished they’d put the energy into making the story better. 

So, don’t waste your time watching the film. 

But rules are rules, and I need to find a moment here. I’m going to go for the intro sequence of the babies being processed, because wittingly or not director Tom McGrath had managed to recreate the spirit of the great pre-war dance musicals directed by Busby Berkeley. It never recaptures that brief moment of promise.   

Here’s the babies sequence in The Boss Baby.

And here is something from Busby Berkeley.

The Murder Room

5 August 2017


I read The Murder Room for one of those reasons; I’d recorded the two-part TV adaptation only to discover that the second part didn’t record. So I bought the book against a moment when I felt like reading an English police procedural.

The plot, without spoilers: murders at a fictional London museum, the Dupayne, which mimic famous murders from the inter-war years that are showcased in the museum’s ‘Murder Room’. This is late period P D James; a goodreads review says it is the 12th of her 14th Adam Dalgliesh stories, and it is set in the early 2000s, when it was written.

On the upside, it’s well written, and I kept turning the pages, even though it is not short.  There was also something to admire about the construction, which effectively builds a kind of country house mystery around the characters bound together by the museum.

On the downside, it was hard to believe that Commander Dalgliesh’s Special Investigation Unit would be unleashed on such a case, and although the reason was hinted at, it turned out not to be relevant to the story in any way, even as a red herring. It was hard to care about most of the characters, especially the three members of Dupayne family, whom one would happily have gunned down in the first chapters. I also found it hard to believe that the killer would have killed for the motives ascribed to them. And I’m always suspicious of stories that effectively use coincidence to unveil critical plot points.

But I did care about whether Dalgliesh would succeed in finding love with Emma Lavenham, with his efforts somewhat impeded by the investigation. The resolution of that sub-plot, carried over, apparently from the previous book, was drawn out by one of those London days when none of the transport worked.



Film moment #18: Man Up (2015)

4 August 2017


Sometimes you watch films more or less by mistake. I happened to be in the front room prepping a presentation while my wife was watching *Man Up**, a 2015 British rom-com that owes more than a little to Richard Curtis. (Man Up was like watching the bastard child of Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary, with Rory Kinnear, of whom more in a moment, playing the manic equivalent of Rhys Ifans‘ character Spike. I’ve just had the grim feeling that it might have been pitched like that.) Even the location has a Curtis-like nod to London’s South Bank.

The premise (slight spoiler): Nancy (the American actress Lake Bell, with an entirely credible English accent) ends up on a blind date with Jack (Simon Pegg) because she happens to be in the right place at the wrong time with the right book. Rom-coms have their own rhythm: the couple have to be suspicious of each other, then they have to like each other, then they have to be exasperated with other, and then they have to end up together.


The Observer‘s Jonathan Romney hated it, but there are things to like about Man Up. The characters aren’t that young, or that glamorous (this is not One Fine Day). The film gets more edgy as it goes along, driven by Lake Bell, who does kooky very well. There’s something pleasing about the fact that the action unfolds in almost exactly 24 hours, since you don’t get many films that observe any of Aristotle’s unities. The script moves along quickly.  And the jeopardy gets worse as they end up bumping into Jack’s ex-wife and new boyfriend in a favourite restaurant.


This leads to the moment: the film’s midpoint. In his book Into the Woods, which I’m reading and enjoying at the moment, John Yorke talks about the midpoint as “the point from which there is no going back… A new ‘truth’ dawns on our hero for the first time. But… at this stage in the story they don’t know how to handle it correctly.” 

Jack ends up crying in the (men’s) toilets after seeing his ex-wife, and Nancy goes after him. It’s a surprisingly tender moment, but it also has something of the Greek chorus about it. This extract is from Tess Morris’ screenplay, which is online.

JACK: I’m 40, divorced and crying in a toilet.

NANCY: You’re just an emotional jigsaw at the moment. You’ll piece yourself back together again. (She squeezes his hand.) Just start with the corners. Look for the blue bits. (Jack smiles, squeezes Nancy’s hand back.)

JACK: And where do I find these blue bits?

(They lock eyes. Oh my god, are they going to kiss? Maybe? Yes? Nearly)

TOILET MAN 1 (O.S.) Took me 3 years to get over my ex.

(They look up to see TOILET MAN 1, looking down at them from the next cubicle.)

TOILET MAN 1 (to Jack and Nancy) Jungian Therapy. Two hours, every day, for six weeks.

(Suddenly, another man pops up next to him)

TOILET MAN 2 (madness in his eyes) I burnt her clothes. Twice.

(Jack and Nancy’s ‘moment’ is over.)

This is how it plays on screen. It’s the moment when she wrests control of their relationship from him, and stops being on the defensive.

Oh yes, Rory Kinnear. He plays a barman, Sean, who happened to have been at school with Nancy, and has had a crush on her all these years. You should love your minor characters, says the screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, and Tess Morris poured a lot of love into Sean. Rory Kinnear plays him just this side of obsessive danger. As in this clip, towards the end of the film, when Jack realises that Sean is the only person he knows that might be able to help him find Nancy again.