City of Glass

1 May 2017


There’s a scene half way through the new theatre adaptation of City of Glass where you realise that you’re watching (spoiler alert) a man disintegrating psychologically rather than trying to prevent a potential crime being committed. But I’d better rewind a bit first. City of Glass is an version for stage of Paul Auster’s novel adapted by the writer Duncan MacMillan and directed by Leo Warner; it is staged by 59 Productions, which specialises in combining technology and art to tell stories in a range of disciplines. The play opened at HOME in Manchester and is playing at the Lyric in Hammersith until 20th May.

It tells the story of a 35-year old writer, once known as Daniel Quinn, who is living on his own after the death of his wife and young son, unexplained in the play, who has given up a literary career to write detective novels under the name of William Wilson, which happens to be the name of a New York Mets player. At least, this may be true. One day he takes a call at home from someone looking for the Paul Auster Detective Agency, who fears that her husband’s life may be in danger. He takes the case. Well, you can see where this might be heading. (And I should add that I haven’t read the book; I’m reviewing the play here.)

In fact Auster appears in the play, as he does in the novel, and has a conversation with Quinn/Wilson explaining an elaborate theory as to why Don Quixote goes to such lengths to pretend that he’s not the author of the book within a book in Don Quixote:

AUSTER: The theory I present in the essay is that Sancho Panza Dictated the story to the barber and the priest, Don Quixote’s friends

AUSTER, talking across the NARRATOR (the script says he’s momentarily drowned out by the narrator): … They had the manuscript translated into Arabic. Cervantes found the translation and and had it rendered back into Spanish, and then published the book The Adventures of Don Quixote.

NARRATOR, talking simultaneously with AUSTER: Auster was obviously enjoying himself, but the precise nature of that pleasure eluded Quinn. It seemd to be a kind of soundless laughter, a joke that stopped short of its punchline.

QUINN: But why would Sancho and the others go to all that trouble?

AUSTER: To cure Don Quixote of his madness. The want to save their friend. [Emphasis in the script.]

The moment you realise that we ae watching a breakdown is when Wilson starts tracing the routes around New York that the routes followed each day by Stillman, the man he’s been tailing–and we see all of this back projected on the stage, for the video design,  isby Lysander Ashton, is a star of the show–spell out the words “The Tower of Babel,” the very same thing that Stillman had written a controversial book about. It reminded me of nothing so much as the sequence in A Beautiful Mind where we start to suspect that John Nash is delusional about working on a top secret national security project.

It’s not always an easy play to watch as much of it is told in voiceover, which I realise now, writing this, may well have been voice in Quinn/Wilson’s head. But it is a compelling piece of theatre, precisely because it disturbs our expectations about theatre and partly because the outstanding lighting and video design give it the feel of a film, or of a hallucination.

The image at the top of the post is courtesy of the Lyic, Hammersmith, and is used with thanks.


Buddies: ending Broadchurch

20 April 2017

8517645168_5891cfbb07_b

There was a writer’s moment right at the end of Broadchurch (right at the end, so no spoilers here) that said quite a lot about how the writer, Chris Chibnall, thought about the drama.

After three series, and twenty hours of drama, and after solving their latest and last case, Miller (Olivia Colman) and Hardy (David Tennant) are sitting on a bench, not that close,  with the cliffs behind them.

MILLER: I could do with a drink. Do you want one? We could go to the pub, we’ve never been to the pub.

(Pause)

HARDY: Nah.

MILLER: Nah.

(Pause)

MILLER (getting up): I should get back for Daisy.

HARDY (also getting up): I should get back to my boys.

The detective series that always ended with the detectives having a drink, of course, was Morse, and that tradition carries on with its offshoot Lewis. Morse and Lewis are puzzles to be solved, and the pint is like a reward for finishing a difficult crossword.

I think what’s going here is a writer’s side-swipe: Chris Chibnall is saying that those shows where they have a pint as mates after the case is solved are just stories. The narrative gets closed as the case is cracked. Life, on the other hand, isn’t tidy: the case may be over (Hardy says just before , “We did our job, Miller, we got the people responsible, that’s all we can do”) but life carries on. Drama is closed but life is open. In other words, Broadchurch isn’t just another one of those television cop shows.

Of course, it’s a writer’s conceit, since obviously Broadchurch is another television cop show. But because the detectives’ family lives have been so much a part of the story (unlike Morse) it’s a conceit that works.

The image of Miller and Hardy on the poster is by Mikey, and is published here with thanks under a Creative Commons licence.


Moment#2: High Fidelity (2000)

17 April 2017

High_Fidelity_poster

Moments No. 2. Stephen Frears directs a version of Nick Hornby’s novel, relocated to Chicago with John Cusack as Rob, the owner of the struggling record store, breaking up with his girlfriend Laura (played wonderfully by the Danish actress Iben Hjejle). The Chicago version of the record store is still called “Championship Vinyl,” which can’t translate well across the Atlantic. Although set in a nominal 1990s present, High Fidelity is more an elegy for a lost 1970s and ’80s world of vinyl records and small independent stores run by fans. At heart, film and book are about growing into adulthood and accepting the pleasures of commitment.

Formally, the film’s interesting: the novel’s interior monologues are translated into speeches direct to camera; Bruce Springsteen pops up to give advice (shades of Woody Allen); some scenes replay several times in Rob’s head. Some critics found this irritating but it worked for me. No reason why mainstream cinema shouldn’t break the fourth wall.

Two moments: number one, when the neighbourhood skateboarders shoplift some records, but when they’re noticed they leave a skateboard in the shop in their rush to escape. There’s a standoff and the skateboarders put the stolen records down on the pavement. “I think you have more”, says Rob. One of the skateboarders throws down a dogeared copy of “The musician’s guide to home production.” It’s a visual gag, yes, but it’s also a joke that turns out to be a plot point.

Second: after Laura leaves, Rob rearranges his record collection. His record store colleague Dick drops by to invite him to a gig:

Dick: It guess it looks as if you’re reorganizing your records. What is this though? Chronological?

Rob: No…

Dick: Not alphabetical…

Rob: Nope.

Dick: What?

Rob: Autobiographical.

Dick: No fuckin’ way…

Rob: …If you want to find “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac you have to know that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 and then didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.

Dick: That sounds- –

Rob: –Comforting.

Though I’m not sure that Rob would actually have Rumours in his record collection. Joan Cusack–who also lights up The Runaway Bride–is terrific as Laura’s fried Liz.

Script courtesy of Springfield Springield


Moment#1: The Runaway Bride (1999)

16 April 2017

Runaway_Bride

Moments #1. I keep forgetting which films I see, so here’s a small project. In the spirit of the film critic Manny Farber, who thought that film was about moments, I’m going to try to do a short post about a particular moment in the film when I watch something. Think of it as a deliberate strategy to try not to write too much.

The Runaway Bride teams up Richard Gere and Julia Roberts nine years after Pretty Woman, borrowing the plot of a 1947 Ginger Rogers’ film, It Had To Be You.

He’s a columnist on a big city paper. She’s the woman who keeps ditching her would-be husbands at the altar (three and counting). He knocks up an inaccurate column about her, she complains (in the sort of witty letter-to-the-editor you only get in movies), he gets fired, he decides he needs to go and meet her to find out the truth. It’s not a great film, by the way. As the vastly lamented Philip French put it, “Scene after scene falls flat, and promising situations are set up only to expire like deflating balloons.”

It’s a romantic comedy, so you can fill in the rest of the plot right from there.

The moment (and massive spoiler alert): She’s about to marry him (like I said, you can fill the rest of the plot right there) but she runs away from the church and gets a lift from a FedEx van.

“Where’s she going?” asks a guest.

The reply: “I don’t know, but she’s guaranteed to get there by 10.30 tomorrow morning.”


Lumps of energy

3 April 2017

7703604304_e1747f161d_z

I’m always interested in how professional sportspeople think about their craft. It’s intrinsically interesting, and sometimes there are life lessons to be taken from it as well.

So I was interested to see Lizzie Armitstead talking in a Guardian interview this weekend with Simon Hattenstone, about using energy, or conserving it, during bike races.

She refers to racing as a game rather than a sport. “It’s like chess on wheels. Imagine your energy as a big block of sugar. You can only chip away at it a couple of times, and you need to use that energy at the right time. If you have the instinct and logic to attack 20km into a race, it might look like a strange move to somebody else, but if it pays off, there is nothing better. It’s very tactical. On the road, it’s not always the strongest person who wins.”

It reminded me of the period after my son was born. He didn’t sleep at all well for the first eight months or so, and so I was always tired. (To borrow her phrase, my energy had become quite a small block of sugar). I found that managing my effort at work was essential if I was to function in the job I was doing at the time. My solution was to focus on the one or two things that actually mattered each day, rather than spreading my concentration and application too thin, and making sure my energy went into those.

The image of Lizzie Armitstead (left) on her way to winning silver at the 2012 Olympic Games is by Doug Shaw and is published here under a Creative Commons licence.


Shooting the past

26 March 2017

Theresienstadt_film_crew

There’s a scene in Mark Herman‘s 2008 film The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas in which the concentration camp commander plays for his family and officers, by way of an after-dinner entertainment, the Nazi propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City. It is a fabricated account of Theresienstadt which portrays life in the camp as a kind of Butlin’s with a dash of Mittel European cafe culture. (23 minutes of rushes survive; there is an extended sequence on youtube.)

In the context of The Boy it is a moment in which a half-fiction is wrapped inside a half-fiction in pursuit of a greater truth. Theresienstadt was briefly converted into a model camp in 1944 as a result of political and diplomatic pressure by the Danish government, which wanted assurances about the well-being of Danish citizens sent there. With hindsight it is interesting that diplomatic pressure by the government of an occupied state had such an effect on the German government during wartime.

Most of the prisoners who did the work of sanitising the camp were shipped out immediately to Auschwitz, including the director of the film Kurt Gerron, a Theresienstadt inmate, and his family, who were murdered on their arrival there. The Nazis thought about distributing the resulting film, but decided against; it’s not clear, at least from some brisk online research, how the rushes were found.

When Herman decided to use sequences from the Theresienstadt film as part of his version of John Boyne’s novel, he found (unsurprisingly) that the surviving prints were old and scratched, and would not have looked good cut into a modern feature film. So they set about re-shooting the Nazis’ propaganda film. There are scenes from this modern shoot on the DVD of the movie. Mark Herman said that re-making it made him feel uncomfortable. I bet it did.

The image of the crew shooting The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a Village is a public domain image via Wikipedia.


Painting modernity

19 February 2017
the-menin-road-1919-by-pa-001

Paul Nash, ‘The Menin Road’, 1919. Tate/Imperial War Museum.

The painter Paul Nash was lucky to survive World War 1, if anyone who fought in the trenches can be described as “lucky”. He broke a rib in a fall at the Front, and was sent home to recuperate. While in Britain, many of his comrades in his regiment, the Artists’ Rifles, were killed in an attack on Hill 60. Whatever else it did, the war transformed his painting, from the relatively delicate pre-war landscapes to hard angular representations of the war, notably in his “memorial” painting, ‘The Menin Road’, commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee after the war. It dominated the room it was hung in at the Tate, as I suspect it also dominated the exhibition in which which it was first shown.

The war seems to have made a modernist of him. The Unit One group—which he formed with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Edward Burra,  Edward Wadsworth and the architect Wells Coates—asked the question, as Jenny Uglow notes in her NYB review of the show, “Whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’”. The Tate has a room hung with works representing the Unit One exhibition, and it’s easier to see what they are against than what they are for, but the pieces exude a modern sensibility in ’30s England, when such things were as contested as they are now.

Nash had moved to the Kent countryside after the war, as Uglow notes, “[e]xhausted, his lungs damaged by gas, his mind in meltdown,” and some of the landscapes from there are as good an answer to his own question as any. His angular paintings of Dymchurch and the Rye Marshes catch the shapes that lie beneath, conveying the sense that this landscape is made and remade by man.

id-27_web

Paul Nash, ‘The Rye Marches’, 1932. Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.

Nash was also a contributor to, and organiser of, the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, although you get the impression from the Tate exhibiton that he liked the idea of surrealism more than the thing itself. His own surrealist paintings feel more like a series of technical experiments rather than a commitment.

The sense of the modern continues into the Second World War, where he was again a war artist, as he had been at the end of World War 1. He became fascinated by planes and the aerial war. The Tate show doesn’t include his large canvas of The Battle of Britain, which captures magnificently the chaos and confusion of a large scale air battle, at least one fought at the speed of propellors rather than turbines. But it does have several of his other wartime works, including ‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea),’ of the graveyard of shot-down German planes near Cowley, Oxford, which T.J Clark celebrates in a slightly overworked review in the LRB.

[T]he sea of machine parts shimmers in the moonlight… Gun-metal greys are played off against cartoon greens, blues, pinks, wintry dead browns; the dune yellow is savage, with a horror-movie shadow louring at its edge and great gashes of red traced across it.

id_129rt2

Paul Nash, ‘Totes Meer,’ 1940-41. Tate Gallery. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

His other World War II pictures on display here are on the edge of abstraction (for example his 1944 work, ‘The Battle for Germany‘. I liked them, although the War Ministry did not. T.J. Clark suggests that

it seems that the 20th century only came to Nash, as something paintable, in the form of total war… part of me regrets, I admit, that Nash never encountered another, more ordinary form of modernity – the edge of the city, the clank of the combine, the exhausts of suburbia – that he felt he could put in a picture.

But I think he’s wrong about this, at least on the evidence of the Tate exhibition. The same modernity that’s seen in the war pictures is also there in Nash’s landscapes, in the paintings of Dymchurch and Avebury, or even in ‘Landscape at Iden‘, with its pruned orchard trees and chopped and stacked logs. Modernity doesn’t require machinery.

‘Paul Nash’ is at Tate Britain, in London, until 5th March, at The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, from 8th April to 20th August, and then at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, from 9th September until the end of January 2018.

The images are used with thanks. They are all from publicly owned collections and have been acquired with public money or gifted.


The Atkin-James song book

12 February 2017


I have been a fan of the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James for all my adult life, ever since a friend turned up at a flat I was living in in my late teens with a copy of their second LP, Driving Through Mythical America. It was obvious at first hearing that these were songs of a different order, from the very first song, ‘Sunlight Gate’, a lyric about the Vietnam war which never names it and manages, at the same time, to be timeless. And that’s not even one of the best songs on the record, by some way.

So I’ve been looking forward to reading Ian Shircore’s book, Loose Canon on their lifelong collaboration. I wasn’t disappointed.

These lyrics aren’t a sideline for James: while I tend to think that his poetry is over-rated, the constraints of the song lyric seem to suit him well. As he said on the John Peel Show in 2000, “This is the work I’m known least for, but which is closest to my heart.” Atkin’s arrangements, which are given good consideration here, are often rich and subtle.
Read the rest of this entry »


Quentin and Roald

5 February 2017

img_20170204

I’ve always loved Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl’s children’s books. They are the way we see these stories: the two men are joined together in the same way as A.A. Milne and E.H. Shephard, or Lewis Carroll and J.C.Tenniel.

For a few weeks more (until 1st May) the British Library is displaying a set of 10 further portraits of Dahl characters that were commissioned from Blake to mark the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth in 2016.

No claims for the quality of these images, snapped on a phone.

In a note that accompanies this small (and free) exhibition, Blake says,

The Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits ask you to imagine that a number of Dahl’s characters have been invited to come and sit for their portrait; they are depicted, not quite as they appear in the illustrations, but more formally. The perceptive spectator may notice that one celebrated couple declined to appear together, and another formidable personality obviously disapproved of the whole venture. Nevertheless, I hope you will be happy to see this group of well-known characters treated as though they were real people—which, of course, to many of us they are.

Anyway, Charlie is at the top of the post, and here are two more of the characters that did turn up for their new portraits. Matilda, of course:

img_20170204_2

And Danny, the Champion of the World, with his father.

img_20170204_3

 

 


Big band Christmas

30 December 2016

Guy Barker Big Band Christmas SpecialThe trumpeter Guy Barker must be well on his way to becoming a national treasure, at least in those parts of Britain where jazz trmpeters are treasured.

He’s played with everybody, of course, from Frank Sinatra to Georgie Fame to Sting, but he’s also a composer and an arranger. I’m particularly fond of his Soundtrack CD (2001) of themes for a couple of imaginaryfilms. I’ve seen him play a couple of times in the last year or so, taking the Bix Beiderbecke role in the Jazz Repertory Compay’s reconstruction of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, and with Mike Westbrook.

But the prompt for this post is his Big Band Christmas show at the Royal Albert Hall in mid-December. When I say, ‘big band’, I mean big: some 40 players on stage, including two drummers, two pianists, two banks of brass and an 18-piece string section. Barker was mostly conducting rather than playing, and the repertoire had a Christmas feel to it. A selection of vocal guests, including Kurt Elling, Wayne Peters and Vanessa Haynes, the vocal group Accent, and the saxophonist Soweto Kinch, appeared from the wings. The singer and broadcaster Clare Teal co-hosted with Barker and also sang some numbers.

guy-and-soweto-kinchOf course, there were some standouts. A fabulous version of ‘All The Way’, more or less a duet between Kurt Elling and the double bass; the recreation of Charlie Parker and Kenny Dorham’s bebop version of ‘White Christmas’, originally performed live on Christmas Day 1948, with Kinch taking Parker’s part and Barker playing Dorham; and Vanessa Haynes lit the place up every time she came onstage, notably on a version of ‘Heaven Help Us All’.

But mostly, the event was about the power of a big band being given permission to swing, in that way that jazz musicians can. You wonder how much time a band of that size has managed to find to rehearse, but the arrangements wer rich and the playing tight. And the musicians also seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Just before the end, just before they tipped some theatrical snowflakes on to the stage from the bridge for the final number, Clare Teal asked if we’d like the show to become an annual event. By then it already felt like a Christmas institution.

Images: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall.