The Wife

August 17, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Björn Runge) (2018)

The Nobel Committee stuffs-up again? That’s no surprise – ask Rosalind Franklin!  But we doubt the entire world of readers, writers, publishers and critics could be so dumb as to believe Joan Castleman (Glenn Close), married to faux Jewish intellectual Joe (played by Jonathan Pryce as a cross between John Cheever and Howard Jacobson), had nothing to do with his sensitive, deliberately-paced, richly-textured, (almost feminine!) body of work, for which he gets to go to Stockholm and get a medallion handed him by a team of flaxen-haired cheerleaders. This #me-too melodrama is based on the Meg Wolitzer novel, and its big reveal (yes, thanks to renovation-reality shows, “reveal” is now a noun) is an awfully long time coming, and doesn’t pack much of a punch.

What saves the film are a couple of performances, and what almost sinks it are a few other performances. The worst first: the two actors portraying Joan and Joe in their salad days are not up-to the dramatic demands made on them, and as a result, their blossoming romance and strategic deception fully fail to convince: when Joan rejects Joe’s draft novel, her critique awash with cliches, and he rages and wallows in self-pity, the viewer is compelled to conclude that these are not writers talking.  (A similar scene in Funny Farm has more emotional and literary resonance). Overall, the flashbacks are artificial, lumpy and ponderous.

Then there’s Joe’s mopey son, mommy’s boy David (Max Irons), who rolls his eyes and spits his dummy when in Dad’s company, Joe yelling at him constantly while explaining to others that sonny is finding his own voice – it’s like a bastardisation of The Jazz Singer!  If we have to watch a Close and an Irons, we’ll take Reversal of Fortune thanks.

Pryce plays the puerile, whining egoist on the make quite well, but the script can’t decide whether he’s genuinely deluded (or demented) or simply guilty, and engaged in guilt transference. A stand-out is Christian Slater as the insinuating, slightly damaged, wannabe biographer, who suspects the truth. And we saved the best for last: Close takes the meandering, wafer-thin script and uses it to unravel the character while the character is herself unraveling.  From devoted factotum to staunch muse; from coldly insouciant companion to smouldering sphinx, Joan reaches a white hot catharsis in spectacular fashion, and it is gripping to watch.  The wife makes The Wife fun, and worth watching.

“All I need is plot, characters, structure, an agent, and Dad’s love.”

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Dhalgren by Samuel R Delany

A man who has forgotten his name crosses a bridge at night and enters Bellona, a city where something undefined has happened, houses burn down spontaneously and at times there are two moons, one named after George Harrison – not the adorable moptop, but a large black man with a penchant for rape, who features in pornographic posters all over town. The man who has forgotten his name is known variously as the kid, The Kid, Kid and Kidd. With little effort he acquires a reputation as a poet, gang leader and saviour.  We are never sure if Bellona is a mental hospital, the afterlife, or a bad, bad trip. The novel is best in its evocation of a deserted town under cover of a heavy, oily smoke and the fabulous scorpions – gangs clothed in (and often only in) holograms:-

“Out on the path, sudden, luminous, and artificial, a seven-foot dragon swayed around the corner, followed by an equally tall mantis and a griffin.  Like elegant plastics, internally lit and misty, they wobbled forward.  When dragon and mantis swayed into each other, they – meshed!…His hand was on a tree trunk,  Twig shadows webbed his forearm, the back of his hand, the bark.  The figures neared; the web slid.  The figures passed; the web slid off.  They were, he realised, as eye-unsettling as pictures on a three-dimensional postcard – with the same striations hanging, like a screen, just before, or was it just behind them.  The griffin, further back, flickered:  A scrawny youngster, with pimply shoulders, in the middle of a cautious, bow-legged stride – then griffin again.  (A memory of spiky, yellow hair; hands held out from the freckled, pelvic blade). The mantis swings around to look back, went momentarily out):”

Kid wanders Bellona with the logic of a dream, wearing a body chain with lenses and prisms, a wrist weapon called an orchid, one shoe and filthy jeans. We don’t know why but his hands are hideous, scabbed and blunt. He falls in with a commune, falls in with a gang of scorpions, acquires a girlfriend and a boyfriend, sees a lot of violence and prays that he is not going mad – again.

Not this George

Delany’s language is gorgeous, rich and racy, but the sex scenes are juvenile and cringe-worthy, there are too many characters, the whole thing is repetitious, annoyingly enigmatic at times and way too long. If you dislike books with no real plot, or if you are offended by African Americans being called “niggers”, “spades’ and – yes, – “apes”, then this is not the book for you. But if you are able to see it as a work of beatnik rhythm, oneiric and utterly mad, it will delight you. Not quite science fiction, nothing but itself, fascinating and aweful.

Samuel R Delany

 

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Act III From “Meistersinger” – Mastered!

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Act III, Adelaide, 4 August 2018.

The ASO and State Opera triumph again!  Our slate is free of crosses!  A dramatic version of Act III of Wagner’s magisterial comedy was beautifully presented on Saturday night, with Nicholas Braithwaite and the ASO, having had about 5 minute’s practice, fully on top of Wagner’s complex, rich sonorities, polyphonic master-touches, and yes, humour, and humanity.  Whilst The Varnished Culture overheard one dowager claiming afterwards that Hitler used to turn up for Act III alone (to absorb the finale’s Message about the retention of Pure Germanic Art), we have always considered that Der Führer’s appropriation of that closing-piece a typically ignoble, life-hating, Nazi-misreading.  Rather, it is Hans Sachs, who has forsaken his own love for Eva to ensure that Art and Love shall triumph, chiding Walther for his insouciant attempt to spurn the prize he has justly won, who makes the proper point. Hans, here perfectly played, straight (with a dash of mischief), by Bass-baritone Shane Lowrencev, completes the circle and sends us Wagner’s ceaseless exhortation, “Ehrt eure deutschen Meister!” (Honour your German masters!), although he forgets to add Wagner’s other recurring theme, “Kannst du zehn Dollar sparen?” In other words, Meistersinger is about the Triumph and Power of Art over the false triumphalism and feeble, transient power of Kings.

Because Meistersinger is easy to stage, it is apt to ‘concertise’ without reducing the production to a ‘reading.’ On this night, the ASO stayed well in the pit and we had, for Scene One, Sach’s workshop / office, a little reminiscent of the Doctor’s study in Gounod’s Faust. The setting was just so. The acting was not the ‘schmacting’ that can obtain in concertising, but full-hearted realisation. In this action-packed Scene, which starts in the aftermath of Act II’s town riot, Sachs sits (looking pretty much like Lowrencev would on the street, but for his shoe-maker’s apron – see image below) and sulks? reflects? on the madness of the world, while the glorious prelude is respectively ominous and light. In sneaks David (a lively, ardent and full-voiced Sam Sakker), to chat about not much, and Sachs is then jolted from his funk by Walther (a very good Bradley Daley, albeit a tad short for a Franconian Knight), who, after a warbled discussion with Sachs about romantic music, tries his Prize Song out for him. Then Beckmesser (a grumpy, funny Andrew Shore), looking like a cross between Dr. Evil and Uncle Fester, peers in Sach’s window and trousers the score Sachs has written down based on Walther’s draft. He then accuses Sachs of deceit (Notice how villains invariably accuse the innocent of the precise no-good they themselves are up to?).

The finale of Scene I is sublime, and so it was here: Eva (a lovely Kate Ladner) comes by, complaining about the pinching of her tootsies from her new shoes (a likely story).  She’s here to make goo-goo eyes at Walther, which she does to the full, while Hans sets about fixing a non-existent problem with the shoes.  Eventually, there is a magical quintet of longing (Selig, wie die Sonne), featuring Hans, Eva, Walther, Magdalena (the fresh but accomplished Fiona McArdle) and David, magnificently organised and modulated, entwined perfectly with the orchestral reprises of the Prize Song, which for us was one of the two highlights of the evening.

Scene Two had us in an imaginary meadow (suggested by a simple royal blue back-light, and bleachers). The Chorus assembled, after some hocus-pocus with Guild choruses, fanfares and some rough-and-tumble. On strut the Master Singers (the best of them Sachs, appropriately decked in Yellow-and-Black!) and the competition begins.  Beckmesser messes up triumphantly, with his grotesque song, and is quickly shuffled-off so Walther can be choreographed on stage by Sachs to sing the Prize Song.  This, for us, was the other highlight: the moment Walther sings the song, before the assembled throng, Eva gazing at him from the dais, unfettered by worries or circumstance, is very moving, just as Wagner intended and in this case, it did not disappoint.  It is probably the sweetest moment in Wagner’s entire oeuvre (apart perhaps from the Siegfried Idyll.)

We have discussed the players, the orchestra, and the conductor. We have implied that the discreet staging easily surpassed the monstrous revisionist chauvinism of much modern Wagner full-productions. (Cast and Crew are listed below). It remains, before we allow for a minority opinion, to praise the choral work, which has to be near-perfect in a successful Meistersinger.  It was.

[Minority Report by Eduard Hanslick:

A ridiculous evening. This noise on stage is not true music as Mozart, or his true heir, Brahms, would have it. I don’t know what the composer is trying to say here, and the music, while noisy and occasionally melodic, does not seem to follow traditional rules of composition, despite the pretense of tradition. The best thing about it was the lute song by the serious and senior Mastersinger, despite the adolescent hooting from the cheap seats. Otherwise, it all seems to be a monumental attempt to deify The Artist at the expense of the critical sensitivity, managing effects without causes.  I should add that despite a good tram service, to get to the Festival Theatre, I had to push through an enormous throng of adult idiots, wearing scarves that said either “Adelaide Crows” or “Port Power,” and put up with their hilariously unoriginal jibes to the effect that I was “going the wrong way.” But the new bar facilities within are vastly improved.”]

“A flea looked down Upon my crown…”

Creatives & Cast

Conductor – Nicholas Braithwaite
Director – Andrew Sinclair
Lighting Design – Donn Byrnes
Chorus Master – Simon Kenway
Repetiteur – Andrew Georg

Eva – Kate Ladner
Magdalene – Fiona Mcardle
Walther Von Stolzing – Bradley Daley
David – Samuel Sakker
Hans Sachs – Shane Lowrencev
Sixtus Beckmesser – Andrew Shore
Veit Pogner – Pelham Andrews
Fritz Kothner – John Bolton-Wood AM

Kunz Vogelgesang – Robert Macfarlane
Balthasar Zorn – Hew Wagner
Augustin Moser – Adam Goodburn
Ulrich Eisslinger – Andrew Turner
Konrad Nachtigall – Jeremy Tatchell
Hermann Ortel – Daniel Goodburn
Hans Foltz – Joshua Rowe
Hans Schwarz – Robert England

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The Children of Dynmouth

(by William Trevor) (1976)

There’s a moment in All The President’s Men, released the same year as Mr Trevor’s (Cox’s) novel, where Carl Bernstein says: “All these neat little houses in all these nice little streets, it’s hard to believe that something’s wrong in some of these little houses…” to which Bob Woodward replies, “No it isn’t.”

That is encapsulated neatly in The Children of Dynmouth, a wonderful little piece, where Child-From-Hell, Timothy Gedge, terrorizes a small town along the lines of the feral lads in Peter Weir’s cult classic, The Cars That Ate Paris (1974).  But whereas the lads in Paris are physically intimidating, Gedge is more of a mental sadist, a macabre serial pest.

William Trevor, Irish master of the short story, expanded one such into this masterful novella, where Timothy (with his relentless and hideous joviality (‘Cheers!’); wistful sociopath’s smile; snooping; habit of talking his victims into flight, especially when he airs embarrassing and possibly artless disclosures about them in the presence of third parties; dreadful jokes) turns little Dynmouth upside-down.  He’s always underfoot, prone to be trampled, and yet there’s some internal, infernal resource through which he springs free again.

The book commences, deliberately we think, in the most prosaic fashion; neat little houses, nice little streets – the first couple of pages read like a travellers’ guide or a pamphlet put-out by the local Chamber of Commerce. But then we start drilling down, intimately, into the lives of adults and their day-to-day, and various children, with their more timeless outlooks.  And, appropriately on page 13, we meet lonely Timothy – “a youth of fifteen, ungainly due to adolescence, a boy with a sharp-boned face and wide, thin shoulders, whose short hair was almost white.  His eyes seemed hungry, giving him a predatory look; his cheeks had a hollowness about them.”

Gedge, without apparent skills, confronts a likely working life at the town’s sandpaper factory, and dreams of stardom at the Spot the Talent comp held at Dynmouth’s annual Easter Fête. God knows why – it invariably features a lady singing Austrian songs in costume, a harmonica-player, a local pop band, an amateur conjurer, a man doing dog impressions, a schoolteacher reciting The Lady of Shalott, and last summer’s carnival queen singing Tie a Yellow Ribbon round the Old Oak Tree.  Be that as it may, Timothy proposes a sock-o act, something different – a gruesome comedy turn that promises to be funny as a child molester.  For that, he needs certain props, and sets about ‘persuading’ various townsfolk to assist, on the basis that he’ll keep their secrets.

Trevor unfolds this superbly, yet with humour and genuine compassion. There are no heroes and villains here, just humans, with all their joy, longing, despair, anger, frustration, guilt and terror.  All wonderfully depicted, in a terse, dry style, free of flourish. And life in Dynmouth, more or less, goes on…

“Cheers.”

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Beethoven: The Man Revealed

By John Suchet (2012)

This “biography” is a sub-Wikipedia standard, slapdash tract that wouldn’t pass muster as an afternoon talk to Kiwanis with early onset dementia. We’ve developed a drinking game for those who choose to peruse it:

When the author says “it seems” or something “might have” been, or is “likely,” “possible,” “probable,” or words to that effect, you have a beer.

I had a beer on pages 4, 17, 26, 30, 41, 48, 50, 54, 56, 76, 83, and 100;  2 beers on pages 5, 6, 36, 47, 51, 82, and 105; 3 schooners on page 82, and 4 pots on pages 3 and 7.

When the author says “we don’t know” or “can’t be sure or certain” or something “is likely” you have a glass of wine.

I had a wine on pages 3, 8, 10, 18, 20, 27, 50, 51, 57, 69, 82, 83, 85, 101, 102, and 104; 2 glasses on pages 5, 55, 65, 76, and 84, and a full bottle of cabernet sauvignon on page 15.

When the author says “presumably,” “it seems,” something is “almost certain” “surely” or “there’s no doubt“, you have a cider.

I had a cider on pages 7, 11, 17, 18, 26, 29, 33, 40, 45, 48, 57, 59, 67, 68, 74, 78, and 86; 2 ciders on pages 5, 12, and 72; 3 on page 60.

When the author says “there is no evidence,” or something “would” / “could” be or “must” have happened, you have a whiskey.

I had a whiskey on pages 5, 22, 34, 45, 50, 52, 53, 58, 74, 77, 80, and 88; 2 shots on pages 6, 8, 9, 12, 47, and 72; 3 belts on pages 21 and 60, and bottle of Chivas Regal on page 55.

When the author says “I think,” “I believe,” or “assume” or “suspect” or “conjecture” or “one can imagine,” or “I will now indulge in speculation”, you have a champgne.

I had a champagne on pages 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 16, 17, 22, 40, 54, 66, 68, 69, 70, 74, 83, and 95; 2 champers on pages 18, 52, 53, 56, 73, 85, and 94; 3 slugs on pages 55, 80, and 100, a bottle of Veuve Clicquot  on page 86, and a magnum of Dom on page 47.

I can’t remember marking any more howlers, being by then somewhat under the affluence of incohol, but you perhaps get the point. If not, to get a better sense of what they call Suchet’s “conversational approach,” try this, his “account” of the meeting twixt Mozart and Beethoven:

“…in the myriad of (sic) biographies of Beethoven…(t)he encounter with Mozart barely rates more than a swift paragraph…we know virtually nothing…(b)ut I believe [it] deserves as close an examination as possible, with speculation allowed after that…[I’ll] allow myself to put a few speculative clothes on the bare bones of what we know…That is shameless fictionalising, I readily admit, bit it gives a flavour of what I believe probably happened.” (pp. 52, 53, 54).

Or what about Suchet’s “account” of the meeting between Haydn and Beethoven:

I shall now shamelessly indulge in speculation…Haydn then says, ‘Look, it is a bit late now, and I have to leave early tomorrow, but I’ll tell you what I’ll do. On my return journey I’ll make sure I come via Bonn, and I would very much ike to look at the cantatas, see the manuscripts. Would that be alright?’  I confess the conversation and that last quote are drawn from my imagination…” (pp. 68, 69).

“Tell you what I’ll do. Write up your bio on ‘Music Express.’ OK?”

I’ll tell you what I’ll do: throw this trash in the bin, or drop it off at Oxfam.  Why publish something like this? Better a novel or short story than this parody of a Hollywood biopic. Try the 30 page chapter on Ludwig in Michael Steen’s The Great Composers if you want hard facts, and save the understandable gush about a truly great composer for some soft Classic FM show.

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Hereditary

June 15, 2018 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(dir. Ari Aster) (2018)

Aster’s first feature performs well on The Babadook Horror Movie Scale.  There’s a large, unnaturally dark house, the topography of which is unclear, with curtains, a basement and lamp-lit corners; an insect invasion or two; a cute shaggy pet dog (not long for this world), and a creepy kid. Hereditary reminds us though, to add to the list – a medium, a séance, lights which might be ectoplasm, reflections of faces, a room which must not be entered until The Big Reveal, books which no-one opens until The Big Reveal, and old photographs which are just lying about, un-examined, until The Big Reveal.

Yes, it’s that By the Numbers.  The family living in the woods in the immense gloomy wooden house are challenged by something which is hinted at and hinted at. The mother Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has a family history of madness which she blurts out to strangers in expository fashion; her recently deceased Mumsie (who lived with them) was pretty nasty, apparently. The father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is stoically holding it all together. The teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) is acting a bit weird, and the thirteen year old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) – well. Something’s up and we’re given pretty shouty hints – Toni Collette’s necklace, used to much poorer effect than the necklace belonging to her character in The Sixth Sense, a name, a post on the roadside, a nut allergy. Knowing the horror genre as we all do (sigh) it won’t be long before the viewer has worked out which of these tropes it’s gonna be: –

  1. Vampires (ridiculous, unless the film is Dracula or Interview with the Vampire,which this isn’t);
  2. Madness (more of an element in every horror film.  Splendidly used in a masterpiece such as The Shining, which this isn’t, and a snore in a film as poor as The Babadook, which this isn’t quite);
  3. Ghosts (effective in a great film like The Sixth Sense or The Others, which….you guessed it..);
  4. Total confusion (as in Personal Shopper which this is quite like);
  5. Something original (as in Get Out which leaves this for dead), or
  6. Witchcraft (ho hum, unless the film is Rosemary’s Baby, which this isn’t).

Into the “total confusion” category we can dump the utter freaking weirdness of the daughter Charlie, the obvious ethnic difference of the son, Annie’s level of knowledge of it all and a hugely odd plot point concerning something left in a car,

Toni Collette plays three scenes to devastating effect, but her otherwise astoundingly over-the-top twitching and grimacing is just bizarre.  Gabriel Byrne does not have much to do, other than stare sadly, which he does to great effect. Alex Wolff as the son has much the same role, but I cannot say how well he played it, given that I was so distracted by the big black mole above his lip (from which I expected spiders to spring).

Annie’s career as a miniaturist seems to be set to tell us something which it never does, although it gives some scenes a nice play-like quality.  There are heavy-handed references to Greek plays and we all know that it is best to beware of the kindly middle-aged woman who jumps up out of nowhere, don’t we?

The final scenes are rather good, in an awful way, and quite hard to watch, but it’s not enough and it takes too long to get there. And it’s no surprise that the peculiar outfit which Toni Collette is wearing turns out to be stunt-woman friendly.

M. Night Shyamalan started with his best, the classic The Sixth Sense and then went downhill with laughable shockers The Village and Signs.  It is to be hoped that Ari Aster is working the other way.

Charlie is Freaking Weird.

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Chappaquiddick

(Directed by John Curran) (2018)

We all know what we know of the story: in July 1969 Edward Kennedy, Senator for Massachusetts, competed in the annual Edgartown Yacht Club Regatta.  Most of the Senator’s entourage were staying at a hotel on the mainland.  A cottage on Chappaquiddick Island (near to the larger island of Martha’s Vineyard) was hired for a reunion of The Boiler Room Girls, six single women in their twenties who had worked for Robert Kennedy during his fatal presidential campaign. At sometime during the night of Friday July 18, the Senator and a secretary, Mary Jo Kopechne, left the party in the cottage and headed back to the mainland. Kennedy said that Kopechne asked for a lift to her hotel. (Why, then, did she leave her handbag and keys in the cottage?) On the way, Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile off the dinky little Dike Bridge  into the tidal Poucha Pond. The car landed top down; Kennedy got out, Kopechne did not.

Unlike the rumours, this film does not have Kennedy drying off and rejoining the party, rather he calls out his lawyer, cousin Joseph Gargan and his lawyer friend Paul F. Markham and takes them to the scene. They dive fruitlessly, trying to open the doors underwater, while Kennedy wallows on the bridge.

Jason Clarke’s Kennedy is a sad, confused man, none too bright; his life blackened by the gloom of the long shadows cast by his more able brothers, Joseph Jnr, John, Bobby and their deaths. Clarke plays him, at least in the early parts of the film, with rather more Kennedy charm than we remember Ted as possessing, and in the later scenes, as every bit as arrogant as any Kennedy we have known. (He wears a new neck brace to Kopechne’s funeral).

Bruce Dern turns in a tour de force performance as the crippling and crippled Joseph Snr, Ted’s none-too sympathetic father. As does Andria Blackman as Ted’s beautiful and none-too happy wife Joan (although she doesn’t have much to do, being a Kennedy wife and all).

In flashbacks we see versions of the incident – Ted diving and trying to open the doors, or not; Ted and his accomplices rowing across the channel or Ted swimming it alone; Ted and Mary-Jo getting close, or not.

There’s no doubt that Kennedy drove negligently – stoned, drunk, sleepy or zoned-out, he missed that sharp turn and went over the edge of a poorly designed, rail-less bridge. But, as we know well from later American presidential types, it’s not the initial error, bad as it might be, but the cover-up and the lies that’ll drown your career. Clarke’s Kennedy is aptly inscrutable as he goes about in the midnight hours after the accident. He bathes and dresses before calling his father (Kennedy apparently called several people) but doesn’t call the police. He seems to think that the car just might not be traced back to him. The team assembled by the all-powerful Kennedys, (Sorensen, etc) mucks things up even more. Kennedy gets a few months suspended sentence and goes on Massachusetts TV [quoting from Profiles in Courage! – Ed.]

Kate Mara plays the short-lived Kennedy groupie Kopechne with insight and in a bad blonde wig. Her drowning will never leave you. Nor will Kennedy’s call to her mother. Mary-Jo’s friend Rachel Schiff is played with verve and panache by Olivia Thirlby, whose greeting to Senator Ted is always, “how’s your wife?”

This is a very beautiful movie – the pastels of Massachusetts in the 1960s, and the glistening waters, are a lovely and sedative background to the dark horror of the incident and the callous washing of the blood from Kennedy’s hands.

It’s a thin story, stretched too far and simplified even further, but made well and subtly damning of yet another Kennedy.

[“They needed Peter Lawford to ‘clean-up'” – Ed.] Continue Reading →

Wings of Desire

June 13, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Classic Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Wim Wenders) (1988)

Having recently seen the great Bruno Ganz In some OK and under par films, TVC decided to attend the closing night of the German Film Festival in Adelaide and get amongst the champagne and canapés (and we should confirm that we did not, and do not make a habit, of accepting free tickets or hospitality).

Wings of Desire is Wenders’ great masterpiece, in which two “recording” angels, Damiel (Bruno) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), swan about Berlin (an historic and increasingly bizarre town, described by its Mayor a while ago as “poor but sexy.”) The photography of the city is sublime.

Like sunbeams, they provide some succour to the humanity sprinkled about the grey metropolis, without ever being able to find out what it is to be human (shades of Brunnhilde!).

Then Damiel falls for a lonely trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and starts to tinker with the idea of capturing the joys and terrors of carbon-based life, mentored by Peter Falk (a superb performance as himself by Peter Falk), in an earthly haze of coffee and cigarettes.

Wings is a wonderfully fresh, wry and tender rumination on the joy and pain of life.

The film is a trifle overlong – in true Teutonic manner, it sledgehammers home its pure and simple theme with an excess of closing dialogue (one could do without a couple of Nick Cave numbers with all due respect, and when Dommartin is talking to Ganz in the bar, you want him to kiss her and shut her up) but patience is generally well rewarded.

Rilke’s poetry served as partial inspiration to scriptwriters Wenders, Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger. Dare we suggest that might include the Duino Elegies, one and ten in particular, and I am, O anxious One. Don’t You Hear My Voice:

I am, O anxious One. Don’t you hear my voice

surging forth with all my earthly feelings?

They yearn so high that they have sprouted wings

and whitely fly in circles around your face.

My soul, dressed in silence, rises up

and stands alone before you: can’t you see?

Don’t you know that my prayer is growing ripe

upon your vision, as upon a tree?

 

If you are the dreamer, I am what you dream.

But when you want to wake, I am your wish,

and I grow strong with all magnificence

and turn myself into a star’s vast silence

above the strange and distant city, Time.

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Peter Lawford – The Man Who Kept the Secrets

By James Spada (1991)

This is a dense, fact-packed, competently written but somewhat pedestrian account of a very strange, sad man.

Lawford (1923 – 1984) was an urbane English actor with more charm than talent, as can be seen from his mediocre filmography (reasonable performances in MGM confectionary like The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), quite moving as the doomed soldier; Good News (1947) with June Allyson (see below); Easter Parade (1948), and Royal Wedding (1951), and effective 2nd lead roles in It Should Happen to You (1954); Exodus (1960), a neat turn as a nasty, bigoted officer; The Longest Day (1962), suave as Lord Lovat; Dead Ringer (1964), and Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell (1968) – balanced against such deplorable fare as Kangaroo (1952), Ocean’s 11 (1960), The Oscar (1966), Skidoo (1969), and a slew of other films that should have gone straight to video, if that – one pathetic late appearance was the 1979 exploitation flick Angels Revenge, a pallid rip-off of you-know-what, with Lawford as a drug kingpin, a piece later parodied as an episode of the ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ series.)

Lawford’s life was far more fascinating than anything he ever did on film. Born out of wedlock to an aging war hero and a frigid, aloof, monstrous woman he described as “a dreadful snob,” his birth was both unwanted and difficult (to revive the newborn, the nurse splashed him with brandy – an early omen), and his nomadic upbringing was one of isolation and training in mores better fitted to early adulthood:

“…Peter refused to play with a little girl aboard ship because she was wearing denim slacks. “She’s an abomination unto the Lord!” he cried. “It says so plainly in the twenty-second chapter of Deuteronomy!”

“Êtes-vous aussi fade que vous le semblez?”

However, Lawford stowed his Biblical scruples early on. Sexually baptised by a German governess when he was ten, he grew into a right pervert, preferring his raft of wives, girlfriends (and perhaps, occasionally, boyfriends – his mother, May, tried to ‘out’ him to L.B. Mayer), and, of course, call girls by the score, to engage in kinky games of a wide variety. Keep that Cepacol handy! Booze and later on, drugs, accompanied his slow descent into dissolution. But what prompted that slide into depravity?

After a disastrous childhood, surely there was nothing more wholesome than growing up under the tender mercies of Louis B. Mayer, whose diet, according to Herman Mankiewicz, “was his fellow man.”  The MGM dream factory had a way of driving its stars around the bend, Lawford and Judy Garland, two seemingly nice people with massive inferiority complexes, being prime examples.

“Don’t sing anymore Frank. Tell the people about the good work the Mafia is doing.”

The 1950s were bleak for MGM, so Lawford, not the most versatile of stars, hit the bricks, eking out a living making bad television (and he turned-down the role of James Bond). But then he got hitched to Patricia Kennedy (daughter of Rose and Joseph, sister of Jack, Bobby, Ted et al – a newsreel screamed “Pat Kennedy Marries Actor”) and by virtue of his 1954 entry into that powerful clan, insinuated himself with the Rat Pack, where his thick charm and thin talent were right at home (a light voice that “occasionally fails to land squarely on a note”, modest soft shoe and dramatic ability posed no threat).

Lawford got on best with JFK (he marshalled the celebrity vote in the ’60 election, and gave him crucial tips about presentation during the key first TV debate) who even forgave him his separation and eventual divorce from Pat. After his death though, the family closed ranks and Lawford was excluded from the magic circle of Camelot, and thereafter, banished from Sinatra’s company as well (Frank never forgave Peter for having a fling with Ava). In fact, it seems as though Lawford became a whipping boy for a lot of things he had nothing to do with. As a result, he seemed to behave badly, as typecast. Dropped like a stone by Lana Turner, for example, he turned this shattering event into a practice of dropping partners in a similarly cruelly casual manner.

Yet there are plenty of people – and it seems the author has spoken to almost all of them – willing to state that Lawford was sweet, loving and honourable. Too many concrete examples are offered of this to wave them away. And he clearly was cursed with a filament-like sensitivity as well.

The most notorious example of this is the death of Marilyn Monroe. Peter knew her for years and introduced her to JFK, who eventually ‘handed her over’ to RFK. Lawford blamed himself for her deterioration after the Kennedys cut her loose, and always felt an absolute heel for not having done more for her. It is pretty clear that he was the last person Marilyn spoke to before her death, cold in her bed from barbiturates with the receiver still in her hand, and all through that long night he looms as a key figure – prevaricating about going round there, being talked out of it by his Manager, eventually getting an ‘order’ to go and ‘clean up’ before the police arrived. Monroe had a tell-all diary, mementoes of Jack and Bobby, and possibly left a note. Lawford ensured that the mise-en-scène stayed pristine. This and the links between the Kennedys and organised crime suggest that Lawford kept quite a lot of secrets, the kind of things that make Watergate look like a Christmas pageant.

Despite Frank Sinatra cutting Lawford off, when his son was kidnapped, it was Peter he called. Lawford interceded with Bobby who mobilised the FBI, and restored Frank’s son. Sinatra threw a party to thank everyone who had assisted, but Peter wasn’t invited.

“Mr. President, the late Marilyn Monroe!”

His failures, fears, poverty, ill-health, unhealthy lifestyle and loneliness left him sliding into an abyss:

His Manager saw him about 7 o’clock in the morning, getting ready for a day’s filming in New York, chugging Tanqueray: “It was like he was drinking soda-gulp, gulp, gulp.”

He kept asking me why his life was falling apart. First he lost his friendship with Sinatra, then Marilyn died, then Jack was murdered. And his marriage was over.’

When Pat left the matrimonial home in Santa Monica and moved to New York, she took with her far more than expected, even the wire hangers. “But Peter made sure he had the last word. A few days after Pat had settled into the Fifth Avenue apartment, she was notified of a delivery from California. Outside her building, three burly, sweating men worked to unload a truckload of five-gallon plastic containers of water- fifty in all. When Pat protested that she hadn’t ordered any water, one of the deliverymen handed her a note that had come with the shipment. It read: “Dear Pat: You forgot to drain the swimming pool.””

Diagnosed with cirrhosis, Peter asks liver specialist Dr Norcross: “Can I have a glass of wine with dinner?” “You can’t even have a piece of rum cake…if you continue drinking, you’ll die.” Stunned  by the severity of Norcross’s warning, Peter resolved then and there to stop drinking. A few days later, he and Ebbins [his Manager] left the clinic. The first thing Peter did on the way home was stop at a bar and have a martini.”

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In Times of Fading Light

June 3, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Directed by Matti Geschonneck (2017)

Ah, yes, the fall of the Soviet Union and its running dogs: one never regrets a chance to enjoy a reprise. In this elegiac, allegorical piece, hardline Stalinist Wilhelm Powileit (Bruno Ganz, in a terrific performance) is celebrating his 90th birthday at home with his loving family and respectful party apparatchiks. There’s a nice spread on the rickety old dining table (furniture that should have been assembled by grandson Sascha (Alexander Fehling) – he’s the only one with the know-how, but Sascha is not there, having apparently gone off his feed about his marriage, work, and life in general.)


 

Sascha’s lugubrious father Kurt (Sylvester Groth) thinks Sascha is mentally ill. Why else would a young man spurn the embrace of the intellectual and material paradise that is the German Democratic Republic? Because he understands that the East German Workers’ Paradise is a sun about to flame out, that’s why. It is 1989 and the Marxist edifice, built on misery and lies, is less than another birthday away from extinction.

Wilhelm is sliding into dementia yet senses the end of things, lapsing into generational recriminations, mild sexual harassment, nostalgia and the singing of old love songs favoured by Stalin. His wife, Charlotte (Hildegard Schmahl), takes the opportunity to wistfully imagine paths she might have taken, without her heroic husband whom she is trying to poison. And Kurt is like a deer in the headlights, torn between fears for his son, daughter in law and Russian lush of a wife, Irina (Evgenia Dodina, in a tour-de-force of alcoholic insouciance).

This is a good interior tale of a people awakening from collective slumber, some grumpily, some still dazed from sleep. The production hammers home its theme much like Wilhelm crudely drives nails into the creaking dining table – the faded light, the dying foliage, the peeling paint and crumbling buildings, the birthday flowers waved away as vegetables for the cemetery, the collapsing table as a young lad (the future) reaches over to select something choice – it’s all there and yet the metaphors don’t get in the way too much, so good is the ensemble, so ruefully amusing the script, and so neatly filmed the scenes, stagey as they are. There is an eerie sense of sheep released from a pen, not having a clue what to do now. The party winding-down before Death pays a visit – the old grandma heading off into the street and vanishing – Irina drinking the house dry and then heading back to the old country one last time but unconscious – this is how Communism ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

I’ll shuffle right, you keep staring blindly left

 

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