Right Ho, Jeeves

(Written by P.G. Wodehouse) (1934)

Your correspondent has a terrible confession to make.  The unburdening of this shocking secret, whilst cathartic, may very well lead to a global un-platforming.

No, I haven’t been selling or buying on the Dark Web; I’m not a secret member of Antifa or Neo Nazis; I didn’t cast 134,000 votes for Joe Biden just before dawn the day after the U.S. election.  It is much worse: I recently read “Right Ho, Jeeves” and didn’t find it funny at all.  It’s about as funny as a child molester, actually.

Which is not to say it isn’t a light, pleasant read. Idle rich dolt Bertie Wooster wishes that his valet, Jeeves, would jolly well stop interfering with Bertie’s attempts to match-make, in two cases: of his old pal Gussie Fink-Nottle with soppy Madeline Bassett, and alumnus Tuppy Glossop with Bertie’s cousin Angela. Why someone asexual as Wooster would be any good at it is unexplained, but he certainly isn’t.

Hilarity ensues as Wooster works his magic wand, with unfortunate results.  But the impassive, implacable Jeeves comes to his idiot Master’s rescue and all’s well that ends well.

Wodehouse has a nice line in the type of upper-class tweeting one expects from an upper class twit in the 1920s, and there are some amusing set pieces – Fink-Nottle’s drunken speech to the boys of Market Snodsbury Grammar School, Tuppy’s attempts to thrash Bertie when he thinks the latter has designs on Angela, and the exasperation of Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia are good examples, but frankly, this sort of stuff dates cruelly.  Furthermore, one suspects that it appeals in particular to the type of clubbable English chap who schooled at Winchester, Stowe or Dulwich College.  Elites in England love Bertie Wooster, without recognising him in themselves.  And the sort of uncomplaining, attentive, discrete competence that Jeeves possesses went out with the days of indentured servitude, decent public education and heroic mercantilism.

“So what’s wrong with a white mess jacket?”

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Brian Pern: A Life in Rock

November 12, 2020 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Comedy Film, Documentary, FILM, MUSIC, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

BBC TV (2014 – 2016)

These 3 series, following, in semi-documentary style, the musical wanderings of Stowe-educated prog rock mystic and pain-in-the-neck Brian Pern, is one of the most hilarious things on TV, a worthy descendant of This is Spinal Tap, only better because it is not so loosely based on Peter Gabriel.

The [Genesis/Thotch] pastoral schoolboy silliness of the early seventies gives way to the Great schism of 1977, allowing Brian Pern to pursue both solo career and role of secular saint and activist, where his insane lack of sense of linear time drives record producers, his former band, his manager, family, his documentary filmmaker, Martin Freeman, and a myriad others, up the wall.

Simon Day (whom you will probably remember from the sketch/pastiche “Fast Show” – think Carl Hooper from “That’s Amazing”, the annoying fellow in the pub who “helps” with the pinball and quiz machines, vaudevillian Tommy Cockles, Dave Angel – Eco Warrior, John Actor, the chap who thinks every girl in the office is coming on to him; many more) is just great as Pern, with his naive, childlike, over-earnest, entitled and megalomaniacal take on the world – he’s even got Gabriel’s slow sludgy voice down pat, at its most sublime when explaining, on some piece to camera, his latest dopey scheme such as recording apes or staging a live concert on top of Mount Kilimanjaro. In a rich and rollicking cast, we shout out to the remaining members of erstwhile prog band “Thotch” who are a treat: Paul Whitehouse as the peevish Pat Quid, Nigel Havers as a randy keyboard player, 2 others whose names no-one recalls – as are Michael Kitchen as the put-upon and derisive manager, Lucy Montgomery as the bizarre Pepita (and others), Jane Asher as ex-wife Cindy Pern, Adam and Shelley Longworth as estranged children Tallow and Ripple (shades of the Osbournes? but for heaven’s sake don’t let them near a recording studio) and Simon Callow as crazed ex-Thotch member Bennet St John, now reduced to appearing as Henry VIII at a roast beef and ale restaurant, still dreaming of a comeback.  There’s even a nice turn by Roger Moore, sending up Richard Burton’s work on War of the Worlds.

It is convenient (thanks to Wikipedia), to summarize the 3 series thus:

Series 1

1  ‘Birth of Rock”  – we are introduced to Thotch frontman Brian Pern as he takes a look at how the genre of rock music was born.
2 “Middle Age of Rock” – Brian takes a look at protest songs and charity singles including his own, “Succulent Chinese Meal”, the most famous charity single of all time, “Doctor in Distress”, and the most obscure charity songs like “Snooker Loopy” by Chas & Dave, which isn’t a charity single at all. Brian also looks back at 1985’s Live Aid concert and reveals how Russia tried, but failed, to put an end to the so-called “Global Jukebox” by almost killing Phil Collins as he travelled to the US leg of the concert via Concorde.
3 “Death of Rock” – Brian looks at how aging rock bands reform after not performing for many years.

Series 2

1 “Jukebox Musical” – We join progressive rock band Thotch as they stage their own jukebox musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh and directed by comedienne Kathy Burke. Unfortunately things don’t go to plan as Burke decides to drop all the songs as they were all too long and lead singer Brian Pern is wrongfully arrested under a police operation called Operation Bad Apples.
2 “The Day of the Triffids” – Brian decides to perform his unreleased rock opera The Day of the Triffids, based on the book of the same name, at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro with a warm-up show at Wembley Arena scheduled for Friday 6 June 2014 with former James Bond actor Sir Roger Moore as the narrator. Unfortunately, things take a snag when manager John Farrow informs Brian that Moore is stuck in New Zealand filming and cannot make it to the Wembley show but has agreed to fufil his role in his hotel room via Skype. After Brian appears on an episode of The Wright Stuff, he is accidentally racist about clothing store Blacks during a conversation with Farrow. He later effectively apologizes during a guest appearance on The One Show. At the show, during the drum solo on the song “Triffid Crackdown”, Brian is busy running to the middle of the Wembley Arena floor when he is met by a Russian security guard who doesn’t let him back in the auditorium until he shows him his bottom so 1980s stars Mark King and Paul Young go on stage instead.
3 “Bi-Polar Polar Bear Aid” – Brian decides to release an album of Christmas songs to raise funds for bi-polar polar bears. Brian enlists the help of musicians such as Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt and Melanie “Sporty Spice” Chisholm. After the album is complete, Brian suffers a heart attack and is taken to hospital where in an interview with documentary maker Rhys Thomas OBE, he announces his retirement from the music industry.

Series 3

1 “Festivals and Fans” – We join Brian as he prepares to celebrate his 45th year in music by performing at the 2015 Isle of Wight Festival and at the 2015 V Festival in Manchester. But when Brian, new wife Astrid and Thotch fan club president Perry Boothe are making their way to the V Festival, the train suddenly stops as a herd of cows had strayed onto the track. Eventually, Brian does perform at the V Festival.
2 “Breaking America” – We look back at Thotch’s unsuccessful attempt to break America: following lead singer Brian Pern’s departure from the group in 1977, the band were forced to hire US singer and “cokehead” Lindsey Simon, whose bottom and nose famously fell out during two of the band’s concerts. While this is going on, Brian is celebrating his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Brian decides not to attend the ceremony because of the backlash that his children, Tallow and Ripple, receive after their purely instrumental song is played on the radio by Zane Lowe: Brian sends Spandau Ballet bassist Martin Kemp to the ceremony in Los Angeles instead. We also see Brian influence 1990s indie music by releasing an album called “Get Real Quick” which included the songs “Maraca Man” and “Poundland Polly”.
3 “The Thotch Reunion” – We join Thotch as they announce they are going to reform for a Wembley Arena concert scheduled for Saturday, 10 December 2015. Brian only agrees to do the concert when manager John Farrow informs him that guitarist Pat Quid has been diagnosed with dementia. Brian then releases his autobiography and gets actor Martin Freeman to narrate the audio version of it just because he “sounds like Martin Freeman”. We later learn that there was a sixth original Thotch member called Bennet St John. The band eventually do the concert but during the performance of “Rock this Nation”, St John appears on stage followed by a security guard and is yanked off. At the end of the series Brian’s bête noire, Peter Gabriel, appears in menacing fashion while appearing to be both the driver and passenger of a kidnap car.


“Keep Trying”

Hats off to Peter Gabriel for letting this happen, including the less than complimentary references to both his life and his records.  Try his take on Don’t Give Up with Kate Bush, for example, which plays as Brian wailing “Keep Trying”, or the very rude segueway (pun intended) about the break-through MTV phase (“Spirit Level” for Sledghammer, plasticine-and-all):

Relentlessly and joyously silly, Brian Pern: A Life in Rock flashes light and lashes out at every hole and corner of the pop music business: the cack-handed charity events; the casual fraud; the enormous egos; the lameness of jukebox musicals; the pretensions of genre rock; the shotgun marriage of pop and fashion; the silliness of ‘world music’; the idiocy of pop-stars in protest.  Unlike one of Brian’s (own) songs selected by him for Desert Island Discs, “Succulent Chinese Meal,” this show is delectable.


Pern and Gabriel: Segway Face-Off

Now let’s enjoy some Brian Pern from 1980 with Modern Love – er, sorry, “Love is Modern”:

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Animal Crossing New Horizons

November 5, 2020 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, VIDEO GAMES |

(On the Nintendo Switch Lite)

[See TVC’s review of an earlier emanation here]

A Millennial may annoy with ‘their’ incapacity to deal, and impatience, with technology older than today, but that level of irritation is as nothing compared to that engendered by an adult of the Silent or Boomer generation who says, upon facing an item of technology newer than the fax, “I’ll have to ask an 8 year old how to do that!” (this would be said with an implied LOL if that weren’t something that only the under -10s understand).

Even Lynn Barber of that generally old-person-friendly magazine The Spectator reports proudly (23/5/20), when playing a video game for the first time: “But luckily I have some grandchildren to advise mefirst I have to FaceTime grandson Max to ask where to insert the tiny sim card. He manages not to roll his eyes.” I do not manage it. I don’t even try. Why are our elders so proud of this learned helplessness when dealing with post-911 technology?  Why do they make no further effort after prodding ineffectually at a screen for two minutes?

So‘” continues Lynn, “I switch off and go and have lunch. BIG MISTAKE. When I switch on, I have to go through it all again from the beginning because I failed to save itMax has warned me I must always remember to press the save button….”  (Does Ms Barber write her features, columns and books on a slate?)  Hence she is “FaceTiming Max again to ask how I am supposed to move.” Maybe just press some of the very few buttons on the Switch? Has the woman no pride?  What if Face Time goes down?  How long will it take to get to Max’s house in her four-in-hand?

On my bucket list of things to never do before I die (and it will be difficult to do them afterwards, I suspect) is, “do not look at a gadget and say ‘I can’t use that, we didn’t have those when I was a girl, the old way involving slavish levels of labour was better, I can’t understand this stuff, and I can’t be bothered.” So yes I have a Switch Lite, the descendant in a long straight line from my beloved GameBoy, and I play games, all at an age well past Max’s.  Children are better at this stuff than are luddites like Lynn, not because of any innate ability or techno-age birthright, but because they have more free time and less on their minds.  Nor are they afraid of, or bored by, the Switch and its friends. They’ll give it a go and are curious enough to keep on with a game which they hope will reward them down the track, rather than dropping it in frustration as Lynn did when it was not immediately fascinating. There’s the irony.

And of course my favourite game is the one that Ms. Barber was unconvincingly giving a try:  Animal Crossing New Horizons.  Ms. Barber really ought to call Max again, or some two year old, and have another go. It is magic.  Every day the diligent player collects and sells fruit, waters flowers, talks to villagers, sells and buys, decorates the house, improves the scenery, fishes and catches bugs. But the ability to terraform one’s endlessly mutable island with ledges, waterfalls, bridges and inclines, is the primary improvement on the game’s parent, Animal Crossing New Leaf.   Ms. Barber refers to “indentured servitude“.  At the beginning of the game there are tasks which must be performed and bells (the in-game currency) which must be earned, in order to learn the mechanics and principles of the game.  After that, bells are required for purchases and the building of island infrastructure.  Animal Crossing has long described as a capitalist game, but self-improvement and self-determination are the point. The Big Guy is a raccoon, Tom Nook, who seems to live in the main office with his colleague Isabelle, a yellow dog, who may or may not be his wife. The game’s beautiful, seamless graphics and rolling perspective allow the player to build a pretty island peopled with animals in dresses. There are players who strive to make their islands ‘spooky’ or ‘industrial’, but really, if you don’t like flowers and kawaii overload, don’t play.

It is not necessary to go online in order to play. However, being able to visit other islands to sell turnips at a high price (called ‘playing the stalk market’), to collect otherwise unavailable items, or just to look at some of the truly incredible works of art which the game has spawned around the world, make it worth the $5.95 per month (or $29.95 annually) Nintendo membership. Also, there’s a really, really clever grandchild common to us all. Its gender free name is Google. You really won’t need to Google to learn how to move or attend to the basics, they are self evident, or learned through the early ‘indentured servitude’, if you put just a little effort in. Beyond the basics, though, the game is so potentially complex that you might want to google Feng Shui principles for your house or the genetic code of the flowers if you wish to breed hybrids.

The gameplay is superbly constructed. Shadows move according to the time of day, items are sharp in-close focus, flowers and trees wave independently in the breeze.  Your island operates in real time, with southern or  northern hemisphere seasons and regular ‘visitors’. Nintendo sends updates for short-term events, such as cherry blossom season.

There are minor flaws – repetitive dialogue, some clunkiness in the terraforming mechanics and insufficient design spaces.  But this is a magnificent game, A thousand kudos to the Nintendo boffin who said’, ’Let’s make a girl’s game‘,* playable every day without boredom for a year, free from combat or racing, devoted to design and useful living’ and a million to the one who says, “Let’s make another game along the same principles, but different.  Not everyone playing video games wants to shoot stuff or look at boobs.”.  May that next game sell millions: one of those copies will be mine.  And I’ll play its descendants on the remote descendants of that beloved GameBoy for as long as I am able.

[*yes, we know.  Max can play too.]




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The Trial of the Chicago 7

October 27, 2020 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Aaron Sorkin) (2020) (Netflix)

Ah, Hollywood. They’ve been dreaming-up stories of white hats vs black hats since the days of Tom Mix.  In this rather ho-hum court room film, there are plenty of black hats to go around: John Mitchell, vindictive Nixon Attorney-General, who wants a Show Trial of the Yippies: His sundry henchmen from the Justice Department; Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and his police goons; Chicago undercover cops who infiltrate the activist groups and in some cases shamelessly tempt them; Judge Julius Hoffman (played by that all-purpose villain of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, Frank Langella); the enthusiastic purveyors of the Vietnam War.

Setting a film around a trial is a convenient organizational ploy: it lets you flash-back, flash-forward and flash-sideways, and a trial’s adversarial nature keeps you in tune with the white and black hats, even when you forget (or don’t care) who is whom.

Unfortunately, a lot of the film was like this

The really interesting story was the lead-up to the confrontations at the 1968 Democratic Convention in ‘Fort Daley’ (a year, like ours now, graced with the unreliable rubric “unprecedented”), involving endless political permutations, jockeying, threats of violence and rebellion, and the cataclysm of LBJ’s decision not to seek re-election, but the film skirts all that, possibly because it wants to avoid showing the insurgents’ sizeable chunk of blame for the resulting shambles*, albeit less than Daley’s over-the-top, stupid, brutal, almost berserk police force.

The peace-in-Vietnam activist groups descending on Chicago that summer included the Yippees, led by Abbie Hoffman (no relation to the judge; described thus in An American MelodramaWith his long, curly black tresses and sharp, intelligent face he looks rather like a Semitic Charles I”), and Jerry Rubin; David Dellinger (Quaker and head of ‘National Mobilization’), his lieutenants Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden; some minor ‘conspirators’ (Lee Weiner and John Froines); and the founder and head of the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale (who was there by accident, gagged and bound by the Judge and removed during the proceedings, turning the Chicago 8 into the Chicago 7).  We don’t learn a hell of a lot about any of them, and we certainly don’t find ourselves on the edge of our seats fearing for them: they’re here to be monstered by the black hats, and absolved in the closing credits.

As for the trial itself, starting as a circus in the autumn of 1969 and ending as an obsequy several seasons later, it is mostly a series of snappy vignettes; snappy glances and grins, bon mots, gavel-banging by the frustrated and impotent old judge.  The defendants range from suited Quaker, to clean-cut organizer (a crypto-Obama, if you will) to goofy hippys, and a real terrorist. Their inter-action is strictly by the numbers however, as are the performances by the attorneys for both sides (Mark Rylance doing his version of Thomas Cromwell in a cheap suit), plus Sacha Baron Cohen playing a dramatic role in a comedic way.  Eddie Redmayne, as Hayden, comes across like an earnest, worried sufferer in an antiperspirant commercial. Michael Keaton appears in a cabaret turn as Ramsey Clark.  The whole melange fails to satisfy, persuade, or inform.  At the end, we shared the contempt both Hoffmans felt and showed throughout.

“Yippee Ki Yay!!!!”


[* There were in fact a number of calls that might be characterized as amounting to incitement.  For example, Bobby Seale called on Chicago demonstrators to “go barbecue some pork….pick up a crowbar. Pick up a piece. Pick up a gun…If you shoot well, all I’m gonna do is pat you on the back and say ‘Keep shooting.’ You dig?”  Jerry Rubin held formal seminars on the construction of Molotov cocktails. Hayden spoke from Paris in the middle of the year of a revolutionary takeover of Chicago. During the drama of the convention, someone raised a Vietcong flag. After Rennie Davis was beaten to a pulp by police, Hayden called on the crowd: “Let us make sure that if blood is going to flow, let it flow all over this city.” (He forgot to say “our” before “blood”, according to the film.) Fires were lit in Lincoln Park and Grant Park.  In Playing With Fire, Lawrence O’Donnell observed (p.346): “The protestors kept raising the rhetorical stakes. They informed Daley’s office that three hundred thousand protestors would arrive in Chicago even though they expected less than a hundred thousand. Rumors flew of plans to put LSD in the Chicago water supply, attack the convention hall, and trash high-priced stores on the Loop. “The North Vietnamese are shedding blood,” Tom Hayden said. “We must be prepared to shed [our?] blood.” MOBE assembled a raft of protest marshals to teach protestors not only how to resist passively but also how to fight back if necessary, and how to break through police lines.”] Continue Reading →

Wagner’s Parsifal

(The Music of Redemption) by Roger Scruton (2020)

Some Brief Words From the Wise on Holy Communion

…it belongs to that class of myths which have been dramatised in ritual, or, to put it otherwise, which have been performed as magical ceremonies for the sake of producing those natural effects which they describe in figurative language. A myth is never so graphic and precise in its details as when it is, so to speak, the book of the words which are spoken and acted by the performers of the sacred rite.”*

It would indeed be impossible to devise a mystery capable of keeping men more effectually within the bounds of virtue.“‘**

Combined with the recollection of the Passover and of the first covenant, [The Eucharist] is lost in the remoteness of time; it reproduces the earliest ideas of man, in his religious and political character, and denotes the original equality of the human race. Finally, it comprises the mystical history of the family of Adam, their fall, their restoration, and their reunion with God.”^

Working Out the Weirdness of Wagner

In these times of pestilence, it has been an additional blow for The Varnished Culture to have suffered cancellations of the production of Lohengrin in Melbourne and Opera Australia’s production of The Ring in Brisbane.  First World problems, we know, but it brings additional sadness.  Still, there are compensations, including Roger Scruton’s last book. While Roger’s writing style makes the reader feel s/he is walking through 2 solid feet of brimstone and treacle, it is a pretty wonderful, dense book, with very many good things to find about Wagner’s last, and possibly his best, and indubitably his weirdest, opera: Parsifal, first performed at Bayreuth on July 26, 1882 under the auspices of the Maestro’s catchy tagline – ”ein Bühnenweihfestspiel.

The author in 2002

Roger Scruton has thought long and hard about this work and pondered the nature of religious/spiritual belief, finding therein a kind of soulless solace. Wagner was something of a one-man cult who borrowed (with sublime irreverence) from myth to create, in his music-dramas, a counter-myth: not a God, but a ‘Godliness.’  Where Dostoevsky strove to ‘find the man in man,’ Wagner – certainly not a Christian – looked for God in man. It was his heroic quest, and reflective of his respect for religion and myth as spiritually true. He read deeply in the grail oeuvre: Troyes, Boron, Eschenbach, Malory, and rejected the mere mercantile world in which he so often became personally embroiled, desiring instead, or to add, a heroic consecration. Wagner is a sort of Secular Church.

Certainly, he is far from the Christian archetype. Art trumped God, or, rather, was God. Scruton cites Wagner’s 1880 essay ‘Religion and Art’: “it is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images which religion would wish to be believed as true are apprehended in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols art reveals the concealed deep truth within them.”  The central paradox of Parsifal, that clings to the mind like chewing-gum to the sole of a shoe, is that Wagner, rather prone to self-pity, saw himself as the Great Redeemer of German and indeed World Art.  The termination of the show brings forth the phrase ‘Redemption to the Redeemer.’ A plausible case can be made for this, though Scruton cites Nietzsche on the obsequies when the Maestro died: “Many (strangely enough) made the small correction [to the wreath]:”Redemption from the Redeemer.” One breathed a sigh of relief.”  And many no doubt later inhaled through the mouth at the inevitable stench of Hitler declaring he had built his own deification project on the footings of Parsifal.


Scruton repeats himself a fair bit in this book (it probably needed some final polishing at the time of the author’s death early this year) and whilst he gives a potted synopsis of the opera’s plot (invariably a bad idea) in his first chapter, he gives an even longer exegesis in the next.  One wanted to close the book and go watch the opera.  Still, along the way he interprets the action with such learning and erudition that it becomes an invaluable annotation both to the score and the libretto. For the uninitiated, we’ll sketch the story here in its Trinity of Acts:


King Titurel was given the Holy Grail to keep safe at Montsalvat, guarded by knights headed by the King’s son, Amfortas. One knight (Klingsor) went off the reservation and was outcast, even after emasculating himself to simulate chastity, or recover it. In a fury, he created a magic castle of earthly delights, with which he tempted and corrupted the knights, including Amfortas, who was seduced by Kundry (Klingsor’s love slave) and ambushed by Klingsor, who wounds him with the Spear that rent Christ’s side on the Cross.

Now Amfortas is house-bound with a wound that won’t heal (his musical motif “wobbles on its augmented triad as if every note were a jolt of pain“), and Montsalvat has fallen into despond. Kundy drops in with some balm – she’s torn between loose and clean living, but the senior knight, Gurnemanz, says only a holy fool can cure Amfortas and the rest. Enter Parsifal, in trouble for straying in the sacred grove and shooting a swan into the bargain (Lohengrin wouldn’t have done that). On questioning, he appears to be as incoherent, indifferent and grumpy as Kaspar Hauser. He’s taken to the Grail Hall and given marching orders.


Parsifal wends into the Waste Land of heathen Spain, cuts his way along the ramparts of Klingsor’s Castle and into the garden, where he resists the flower maidens. Meanwhile, evil puppeteer Klingsor has directed Kundry to set him up as they did Amfortas. Kundry (the serpent in the garden, linked to Tannhäuser as Parsifal is to Lohengrin) is wracked with guilt (having mocked the man on the cross, and sundry other misdemeanours) and filled with passionate yearning and intensity, but Parsifal, in a remarkable musical sequence, rejects her, deflects Klingsor’s spear, and with a papal gesture turns Klingsor’s edifice to dust. Thus he paves the way for Kundry’s eventual redemption, as she has paved that course for him.  Meanwhile, we imagine Klingsor as Herman Hesse imagined someone like him:

Wandering long, I have done and suffered much,

Now at evening I sit, I drink, and wait

Fearfully till the flashing scythe

Parts my head from my leaping heart.”^*


Good Friday. Parsifal, at the end of a long wander, meanders in to Montsalvat; this time he has the spear. He absolves Kundry, even though she reminded him his neglect killed his mother. On a roll, he attends the Eucharist and heals Amfortas by laying the spear on his wound. Kundry dies cleansed, expiated in holy service to the Grail and its temple, a true reformed heroine. Time (chronos) becomes space (kairos); even Titurel briefly resurrects. The Grail is illumined. Parsifal, the holy idiot, has been transformed into a wise man through compassion (durch Mitlied wissend).


For The Varnished Culture, Parsifal is Wagner’s most wondrous and enigmatic work, containing his most subtle and beautiful music. If you are not in the right mood, however, it can strike as trite, pretentious, overblown, and almost nauseating; in the wrong frame of mood, you wish to eliminate metaphysics (Scruton sums up some opinions of the work: “provocative, holy, religiose and blasphemous“). In actual fact, Parsifal, more than any other of Wagner’s works, needs to be treated with reverence: no Regietheater treatment can work in this space, as Scruton points out.

But what does it all mean?  That which cannot be articulated, in sum, but Scruton (who has been described as “the knight errant of western civilization“) can clothe the central mystery with fine words and thoughts, woven into a complex portrait of musical structure, the collision between myth and humanistic philosophy, and the mystery of redemption. From the initial three chapters:

“[Wagner] understood, as few before or after him have understood, that the sacred, the sacrificial and the sacramental are aspects of a single world-changing endeavour: the endeavour for which ‘redemption’ was Wagner’s name. He had the uncanny ability to explore beneath our sophisticated rituals, in order to discover their roots in the pre-history of humankind. And in doing so he revealed what our rituals mean. Wagner regarded the concept of the sacred as indispensable to human relations. But he also believed that it is we who render things sacred, and that no God has a part in it.” (at pp. 37-38).

The music (Act II) weaves together the sacred and the desecrated, the pure and the polluted, the giving and the refusing. We hear the holy as it changes to the unholy and yet remains the same. Such enharmonic changes of the passions, are delivered by the enharmonic language of the score, and the uncanny sense of unity between all that we hope for and all that we fear is in the end what Parsifal is about. ‘You know where to find me,’ says Parsifal – namely, in you.” (at pp. 52-53).

“…the Percival legend is given an allegorical form, telling just the same story as the books of alchemy, and as the tales of Oedipus, Antigone and the rest – the story of the self in its search for the anima that completes it, healing the wounds of separation from the mother, so as to become the ‘divine son of the mother’ as in a pietà.” (at p. 70).

Roger Scruton’s fourth chapter, ‘Sin, Love and Redemption,’ parses the real meaning of Wagner’s explicit and implicit references to compassion, sympathy, empathy, agape, as forms of endogenous knowledge.  Wagner might appropriate godliness to humans, “But human creations include some very real and lasting things, such as St Paul’s Cathedral.”  “The gods come about because we idealise our passions, and we do that not by sentimentalising them but, on the contrary, by sacrificing ourselves to the vision on which they depend. And it is by accepting the need for sacrifice that we begin to live under divine jurisdiction, surrounded by sacred things, and finding meaning through love. Seeing things that way, we recognise that we are not condemned to mortality but consecrated to itthe redemptive quality of sacrifice does not consist in conveying us to another world where we live in bliss for ever, but in transforming our vision of this world.”

It cannot be right that “In the innermost core of Wagner’s idea of redemption dwells nothingness” (Theodor Adorno, of whom we have spoken in sorrow before, and whom Scruton deals with justly and dismissively). Rather, the substance of Parsifal, whilst elusive, is reflected in Scruton’s peroration at the conclusion of his last chapter of substantive thematic discussion (later chapters concentrate on musicology, including enharmonics, consonance and tonal grammar, and the leitmotifs, beyond the scope of this review and beyond the wit of this reviewer):

We have been called not to explore the world, but to rescue it. In doing so we emerge from our trials and conflicts in full possession of our social nature. Like the Redeemer, we make a gift of our suffering, through an act of consecration that brings peace to us all. Whether or not there is a God, there is this hallowed path towards a kind of salvation, the path that Wagner described as ‘godliness’. That is the path taken by Parsifal, and it is a path that is open to us all.” (at pp. 124-125).


[* J.G Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890), chapter 612.] [** Voltaire, Questions sur l’Encyclopedie (1770-1774), Book IV.] [^ Chateaubriand, The Genius of Christianity (1802), Chapter VII.] [^* Hesse, Klingsor’s Last Summer (1920).] Continue Reading →

How to Lose Interest in 15 minutes

September 18, 2020 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Comedy Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” (Directed by Donald Petrie) (2003)

At a cottage in the Barossa Valley, The Varnished Culture found 4 Rom-Coms to watch, and chose this one, largely based on the likeability of the two leads (and Kate was in a decent film about magazine writers once). We liked them less after 15 minutes: they’re too old for these shenanigans, and too old to, seriously, strike job-on-the-line wagers to win, woo / spurn a partner in record time. She has to start a romance and dump him; he has to win her.  She conducts herself such as to almost persuade us of the mythical patriarchy; he has spontaneous orgasms at the prospect of tickets to see the Knicks play at the Garden. All this to provide the bases for a soft magazine piece and a new tagline to sell diamonds. Despite the odd funny bit, and a decent cast, the scenes, the script, and the characters, are all dreamed-up by idiots – also not a little slimy – and by the way, basketball has to be the dumbest sport ever invented!

‘No kibitzing’

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August 31, 2020 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | FILM, THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Written and directed by Federico Maria Giansanti of FMG, an Italian independent theatrical producer) (2020) (A one-woman performance, filmed play, link below)

At an indeterminate time, in an isolated mountain hospice a young nun (Valeria Wandja) is alone, taking care of two people.  The other characters, – a man Paul (“a pure soul” who “takes a bit longer sometimes”) and a bedridden, terminally ill patient, Mrs Parker – are neither seen nor heard.  We know them through the nun’s responses to them.  The three are the final survivors of a larger community.  The nun (“Sister Daisy”, although her name is not heard in the production) calls out to those others who died of an “evil, silent, invidious virus” which is returning her world to a place of “prehistoric desolation“.  Communications with the larger world are “shut”.   We are privy to her prayers and her spoken thoughts.

Wandja is as alone as Sister Daisy, and her solo performance, in precise, accented English is a tour de force.  It lacks nuance perhaps, but Wandja carries the physical burden of the play as Sister Daisy carries the eschatological burden of the three doomed lives, and their souls.

The stage is sparsely lit, barely furnished, the corners and background dark.  The black, beige, and red pallet; the wan face of the white head-dressed nun, at times recall a Dutch painting.  The freezing exterior is effectively represented by a small flight of steps, and plastic for snow.  There is little sound beyond the nun’s voice in prayer and in response to the unheard voices of her charges.  There is occasional baroque music, which enhances the slow and mannered mood.  Once, bells are heard – are they far down the mountain or outside of the theatre?

Sister Daisy enters the stage carrying the candle of her faith.  Between scenes she is spot-lit praying aloud behind a rudimentary red cross.  By the end the candles are gone.  The food and heating went long before.  Sister Daisy relentlessly reassures her charges, “I’ll take care of you“.  She cleans, washes, disinfects and cooks what little they have.  Her self-abnegation, work and faith are the only bulwark against complete nihilism. She says, “I want to believe everything is going to be fine, even though I know it’s not” and, “It’s going to be alright.  We have to have faith.

Daisy is pious but not a saint.  Frustration and bewilderment live side by side with her exhaustion and fear. She answers a question from Mrs Parker  with, “for the nine-thousand millionth time…”   In the face of a particularly devastating event she swears, screams and shouts an ironic version of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

The flashback scenes to the nun’s unhappy childhood and adolescence would be better excised: they are somewhat predictable and break the mood. Her profound thought (that to live a life of ease, after much suffering,  would have been to neglect herself) would be more thought-provoking without the somewhat histrionic setup.

As the nun despairs, her courage and faith remain but she re-considers her purpose.  She has done what was asked of her, and has helped others.  She questions her motives: “their gratitude fed me“, and “to be honest their deaths have relieved me.”  She says that she would “do it all again, but would she be safe?”  Of course, we must ask, ‘what is safety?’  We shall all die. Daisy prays: “Stay home.  Stay safe.  The last words we’ve heard. “Please help me understand these words.”

“Safe” is a fine example of the capacity of theatrical minimalism.  As a performance which premiered online at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival and won both the “Best of Fringe Festival Award” and the “Audience Choice Award”, it is also an example of how the arts can be kept alive at this time when we are told, “Stay home.  Stay safe”.  Giansanti and Wandja are both likely to do great things.

A recurrent theme, which resonates with effect in these pestilential times, is that of hope.  And, as Emily Dickinson reminds us:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all...”

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Knives Out

August 30, 2020 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Rian Johnson) (2019) (Foxtel)

Paterfamilias Christopher Plummer (in a customary sleek, silky, telephoned-in performance) has gathered the family, hinting at some amendments to his testamentary dispositions (shades, but only shades, of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas). When he turns-up dead in his cramped but sumptuous study, throat cut, suicide appears likely, at least to the police in charge of the case.  But wait! What’s James Bond doing in the background, tinkling at the piano?  It’s private sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, joining the Honour Board of British actors undone by attempting a southern drawl in public: think Michael Caine in Hurry Sundown or Richard Burton in The Klansman). Blanc has been summoned by persons unknown (perhaps the casting directors wanted to remain anonymous) and he has a fine time carrying out some Columbo-style harassment of the old man’s nurse, ‘Go’ partner and possible amanuensis, Marta (Ana de Armas, as incongruous here as was Pilar Estravados in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas).

The family were all, of course, a disappointment to the old fellow, and played accordingly to type (out of a decent cast, Don Johnson appears the only one to be having a bit of fun with the role) and we have to roll around the inanities of will-reading, recriminations, reconstructions, interminable interviews, the odd car-chase, and various twists before the inevitable (and somewhat incomprehensible) exposition.

The gang’s all here, and ready to rumble (Jaeden Martell, Riki Lindhome, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford.) (Unfortunately, much of the film was like this).

Stylistically, the film owes a lot to Sleuth, Deathtrap and Clue, but there’s not much of any of those in the way of substance. This film has proved popular, just as the Masque of the Red Death was during an earlier plague. Hopefully not-untalented film makers will resist the temptation to farrago a sequel: after all, the film contains its own two best critics, who express themselves far more eloquently here than we can. After the aforesaid car chase, detective Lakeith Stanfield (seen to advantage in Get Out and less so in Sorry To Bother You) describes it as the silliest ever. And Marta cannot stop vomiting. Knives Out is neither classic whodunnit nor comedy-thriller; neither police procedural nor dramatic chase; neither drawing-room melodrama nor genre spoof. It is refreshing to have a film that defies categorization, if you’re a librarian: but to most viewers, a film that truly does not know what it is supposed to be must go back in its box.

“O, for a quantum of solace…”

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Solid Gold

The Glenelg Football Club 2019 Premiership Yearbook

(By Peter Cornwall, Andrew Capel & Zac Milbank) (2020)

We have banged-on far too much about the Glenelg Tigers’ brilliant championship season of 2019 – you can read all about it here.

So let someone else do it, only better: “Solid Gold” by experienced professional sportswriters Cornwall, Capel and Milbank, is a great keepsake for fans as well as a comprehensive record of a thrilling season. Beautifully designed in burnished gold and jet black, shaped like an EP vinyl record cover, it is especially evocative in this plague year.

For once, the advertising for this book is no bumpf, so we cite from it here: ‘SOLID GOLD captures the action, emotions, memories and celebrations from the Bay’s unforgettable drought-ending 2019 Premiership season, culminating in winning its fifth flag at the Adelaide Oval against arch rival Port Adelaide.’

Along with an introduction by Club President and Great, Peter Carey, it features a superb game-by-game wrap of the minor and major rounds (by Cornwall), player profiles and statistics, a review of the teams in all competitions, Hall of Fame inductees, and accounts of a club coming up for air after years of stultifying debt and defeat.  It is packed with great photos by the Ansel Adams of Sport, Gordon Anderson.

While Solid Gold serves mainly as an aide memoire, it contains one actual revelation. We will only summarize it here. In an article, “Honesty is the best policy,”  Zac Milbank reports that the Senior Coach had promised to tell the team what it needed to hear, and he invited ‘Honest Feedback‘ in return. Be careful what you ask for. As he admits, Mark Stone could at times become apoplectic when things weren’t carried out as he wanted: “…while I’m sure all coaches get frustrated, it would get the better of me. I would come out in a way where that frustration would bear itself in a pretty unproductive way.”

So mid-way through the season, the leadership group went to the Coach and outlined the issue, and Marlon Motlop told him, “You need to plan for this.”  It takes actual courage to tell someone that out-ranks you they have a problem. Yet as we saw, and the book shows, the 2019 team had more than skill, smarts, fitness and grunt – it had real courage as well.  And it would also have needed courage, and maturity, for the Coach to take that feedback on board. It was a bridge that had to be crossed, and strikes us as an influential moment, since the Tigers were sorely tested in the last half of the year and invariably found a way to cut through.

The Varnished Culture recommends this book to Glenelg fans over the globe. (Tigers fans should spoil themselves when they can.)  And buy some extra copies: Christmas isn’t far away…

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The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

July 21, 2020 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Werner Herzog) (1974)

[He did exist: and his back story, true identity, and untimely end remain a mystery. Various suppositions and theories have all been unmasked as absurd.  Be that as it may, the myths around Kaspar offer a useful trope for film-makers. And in the case of Werner Herzog, it inspired his best film (along with Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo). The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser features all of his most infuriating flourishes, yet it manages to move and fascinate. Its a kind of Pygmalion-meets-The Wild Child-and-Bad Boy Bubby, with a dash of Ruprecht-the-Monkey-Boy from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.]

It opens with Kaspar, an adult with arrested development, chained in a stable, fed on bread and water, and playing with a wooden horse.  This in itself is ludicrous: he would be in pretty poor shape if this was his diet for any extended time.  Eventually his anonymous ‘carer’ teaches him to walk and speak the odd word: he is sent packing to Nuremberg with a letter of introduction (Herzog insists on a ponderous reading and transcription), comprising two historically real (but fake) notes: “He was brought to me October 7th, 1812. I am but a poor laborer with children of my own to rear. I beg you to keep him until he is seventeen. He was born on April 30th, 1812. I am a poor girl; I can’t take care of him. His father is dead.

As in all foundling stories, our lad is taken in and given a good classical liberal education, featuring a hefty dose of Christian dogma, which sits ill with the young philosopher, more naturally inclined to a Rousseauian world-view (the film paints him as a sort of seer, a home-made logician, the town anchorite, a Steppenwolf in opposition to and an indictment of bourgeois society).

Eventually he acquires a place in village society; he is even feted by the great and good (and the very peculiar Lord Stanhope). But essentially he remains a rough and unready outsider; strange, stubborn, and gruff: freed from his cage, he dreams only of its bars (and similar prisons: the pilgrims struggling up the mountain, the blind man leading a caravan out of or further into the wilderness, the stork snaffling a frog).  His end comes almost as a relief, to him, the villagers, and the viewer.  But along the way, apart from the deliberately stark and disjointed manner in which Herzog unfolds the mysterious events, one is captivated by the director’s most audacious touch: the casting of a gadabout orphan street performer with mental issues, known only as Bruno S.  Herzog copped flak for this – it was considered exploitative – but Bruno’s role is to be incongruous and this he does magnificently, with a vast, grotesque and completely authentic collection of ticks, shrugs, blurted bon mots, crazy sideways glances and catatonic, faux, brown studies. His performance supplies the revelation that the unresolved life of Kaspar Hauser lacks.

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