Masters of Atlantis (by Charles Portis)

Everyone knows that the real Atlantis is preserved in a Dubai hotel
(Picture by Rokaszil)

(by Charles Portis) (1985)

Yes, you do know something of Charles Portis’ work – he wrote the novel True Grit which was made as a film in 1969 and again in 2010.   Rooster Cogburn is shrewd.  Lamar Jimmerson, from Gary, Indiana, Master of Atlantis, is not. True Grit is poignant and amusing. Masters of Atlantis is hilarious, a gloriously weird child of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and Blaise Cendar’s Moravagine written by a kinder, more whimsical grand master of the hilariously absurd and deluded.

(This is a long review, with more of the plot than we would usually include (no real spoilers), to convey this amazing book’s rich accumulation of ridiculous, deadpan pathos and comedy. We highly recommend that you read the book itself.)

When young Lamar is serving in Chaumont, France (Portis is quite specific about place) during the Great War, he offers Nick, an Albanian, a meal. Nick, it turns out, is actually Mike from Alexandria, an Adept in the Gnomon Society, and he repays Lamar by showing him the Codex Pappus, which contains the secret wisdom of Atlantis, in impenetrable Greek and diagrams of cones and triangles. Mike then confesses that he is an Armenian called Jack, on a mission to determine if any of the Americans in Chaumont are worthy of being initiated into the Society.

After the Night of Figs and the Dark Night of Utter Silence, Lamar becomes Jack’s sole Initiate. Jack is now free to admit that he is in fact Robert, a French Gypsy, who must hasten back to Malta to report the success of the American Mission to the Gnomon Master. Lamar pays Robert in advance for his ceremonial robe – ‘a bookkeeping technicality’.  Lamar hears nothing further but isn’t worried, because he has the Codex and Robert’s ‘Poma’ – a conical goatskin cap, which Lamar understands to signify high office. After the war, Lamar goes to Malta, but no-one responds properly to his carefully executed secret Gnomon salutes, the Poma or even the Codex.

Lamar meets an Englishman, Sydney Hen (later Sir Sydney Hen, Baronet) and initiates him into the Gnomon Society.  After some time and study, Hen reveals that he must be a Hierophant of Atlantis and Lamar realises that he himself has been Master of Gnomons for perhaps as long as six weeks. They separate, in order to take Gnomonism to the world. Lamar returns to Gary, Indiana and establishes further Pillars of the Gnomon Society across America with the help of his second-in-command, the enterprising draft-dodger and master of disguise, Austin Popper. Jimmerson sets up a temple in Burnette, Indiana for the Gnomon Society and gets down to business on his new book, The Jimmerson Spiral (later joined by The Jimmerson Lag, the lag can be expressed as .6002). Sir Sydney establishes a London Temple for the Gnomon Society (‘Amended Order’).

Jimmerson is joined by further “great seekers of truth”, not least of whom is Professor Golescu. The Professor is an accomplished man, a card-carrying member of many arcane societies, expert in several esoteric arts, and a multitasker: “‘See, not only is Golescu writing with both hands but he is also looking at you and conversing with you at the same time in a most natural way. Hello, good morning, how are you?  Good morning, Captain, how are you today, very fine, thank you. And here is Golescu still writing and at the same time having his joke on the telephone. Hello, yes, good morning, this is the Naval Observatory, but no, I am very sorry, I do not know the time. Nine-thirty, ten, who knows?  Good morning, that is a beautiful dog, sir, can I know his name please? Good morning to you, madam, the capital of Delaware is Dover...”.

As Golescu says “Romanians are known all over the world for their hilarity“; but his abiding interests are alchemy and the lost civilisation of Mu, on which he has given learned lectures throughout southwestern Europe –

‘Go to Bucharest or Budapest and say ‘Mu’ to any educated man and he will reply to you, ‘Mu?  Ah yes, Golescu.’  In Vienna the same, In Zagreb the same. In Sofia you shouldn’t waste your valuable time. The stinking Bulgars they don’t know nothing about Mu and don’t want to know nothing.'”

Jimmerson knows nothing but disdain for a man who can believe that Mu was the original civilisation on earth, “25,000 years before Atlantis crowned its first king!  What a hoax!…How was it that the American government couldn’t put a stop to these misrepresentations and this vicious slander of Atlantis?  Or at least put a stop to these cocksure foreigners coming into the country with their irresponsible chatter about Mu?

Popper and Golescu go to the all-but abandoned mining town of Hogandale, Colorado at the headwaters of the ‘Pig River’ or ‘Nasty River’ to harvest gold from bagweed. They will of course release the gold in ‘measured driblets’ so as not to ‘swamp the market’. Popper refuses to believe that Golescu is not an Arab Muslim whose name means Not Many Camels.

By way of a cover story, Popper introduced himself to the citizens of Hogandale as Commander DeWitt Farnsworth of Naval Intelligence, lately wounded in the Philippines. He affected a limp and wore a soft black hat and Lincolnesque shawl. He had come to the mountains to convalesce in the sparkling air, as well as to help his refugee friend, Dr. Omar Baroody, with his sticky experiments in weed saps, from which he hoped to develop a new kind of rubber, so desperately needed in the war effort. Herr Hitler and General Tojo would give a good deal to know Dr Baroody’s location. As it turned out, no one in Hogandale cared.”

In the meantime, Sir Sydney has been travelling between Toronto and Mexico, (where he is known as “the Sphinx of Cuernavaca”). While travelling, “…he paced the forward deck in thought. He walked back and forth in the rain, with a point of light, a bit of St. Elmo’s fire playing about on the brass button atop his Poma’.

Popper is becoming disillusioned and applies for admission to a school for radio announcers in Greenville, South Carolina.  “The school was owned and operated by an old army friend.  A prompt reply came, offering him the position of dean of the school.”  When Popper returns to Jimmerson’s temple after an absence of four years, and reveals himself through the secret dialogue, Popper asks Jimmerson about the former leader of a  Gnomonic Pillar –

‘Tell me, how is Mr Bates?’

‘He’s in a nursing home.’

‘You’re not serious.’

‘His back was hurting and so they pulled all his teeth.’

‘Doing fairly well now?’

‘His back still hurts. He can’t eat anything.’

‘But coming around nicely? Getting proper care?’

‘They don’t turn him over often enough.’

‘He’s bedfast?’

‘Not exactly.

‘Gets up every day and puts on his clothes?’

‘Not altogether, no.  Not every day.’

‘Off his feed, you say.’

‘No, he stays hungry. He just can’t chew anything.’

‘But his colour’s good?’

‘Not real good’.

But otherwise fit? Has all his faculties? Takes an interest in community affairs?’

‘Not much, no.’

‘How I’ve missed the old Red Room...’

It is Popper who, at a Senate hearing, gladly admits that the gnomonic writings contain “filler material in the ocular mode”, in order to protect the secret knowledge.  “We are obliged to put a lot of matter in there to weary and disgust the reader.” The initiate needs the key to the text, and of course, the key to the key.

Jimmerson decides to run for governor, and a candidate needs a biographer.  A journeyman writer friend of Popper’s, (Dub Polton, who also uses the noms de plume W.W. Polton, Jack Fargo, Vince Beaudine, Dr. Klaus Ehrhart, Ethel Decatur Cathcart) writes the biography (Hoosier Wizard) –

His methods of inquiry were odd, or so they seemed to Mr. Jimmerson.  He rejected all suggestions from the subject of the biography and he refused to read any of the Gnomic texts.  Whenever Mr. Jimmerson ventured onto that ground, Polton cut him short. ‘Nobody wants to hear about those triangles, Jimmerson.  Do I have to keep saying it?.”

Mr. Jimmerson felt that the questions were all all wrong. For one thing, Polton seemed to have the idea that Gnomonism had come out of the Andes. He kept asking about ‘your curious beacons’, landing strips in Peru’, ‘the pre-Incan race of giants’ and ‘the sacred plaza of Cuzco.’ He pressed the Master about his ‘prophecies’ and his ‘harsh discipline’ and his ‘uncanny power to pick up signals from outer space, a power which Mr Jimmerson had never claimed to possess. At the same time Mr Jimmerson had to admire the man’s virtuosity as a reporter, “for in all these hours of grilling Polton took not a single note“.

Some characters are captured in a sentence. Jimmerson and his erstwhile wife (Sir Sydney’s sister, Fanny) do not see their son often, “…he had his own life now in Japanese puppet theatre, and of course his own chums in the close-knit puppeteer community in Greenwich Village“.  A Senator speaks with “that bass organ note that had caused so many cheap radio speakers in west Texas to shudder and bottom out“,

Others require more description, often very funny indeed –

“The confidential records showed that Ed had been discharged from the Army for attempting to chloroform women on a government reservation. The police in several cities suspected him of stealing car batteries and of vinyl slitting. His mother kept a costume jewellery stall at a flea market in Omaha and Ed had once tried to run her down with her own car, while she was in the stall. He had destroyed the fixtures in a North Platte bus station after losing some money in a vending machine, and had twice set fire to his hospital ward. The medical report stated that…while working as a hospital orderly he had a recurring daydream in which he was a green-smocked physician with flashing scalpel. It went on to speak of his ‘rabbit dentition’, to describe him simply as ‘odd’, and to say that he was ‘disgusted by people crazier than he is.’ Ed’s trade was vinyl repair, learned in a government hospital, though it was indicated in the records that Ed had opened many more breaches with his razor blade than he had ever closed with his invisible patches, so called, which leaped to the eye and never held on for long, anyway,” Ed’s conversation with another acolyte, Babcock, in their final journey from the Temple is worth the admission price alone.

Any novel which can be likened to an O’Connor / Cendars hybrid can be expected to wind down to a grim and shabby end, but it’s all funny. Very, very funny and you should read it.

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Wiener Dog

September 18, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Comedy Film, Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
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(Directed by Todd Solondz) (2015)

A film of many dog day afternoons, with a docile, uncomplaining dachshund the trope for hope and the lifting of spirits, this beautifully shot but slurpily-cadenced film is a poignant dance through a series of sad-funny lives and circumstances.

From his first rejection (taken in the back of a ute from a farm to the shopping mart featuring a Chuck E Cheese, a 99c Store, an Armed Forces Career Center, ‘My Urgent Care Walk-in Medical’, ‘Vitamin World’, ‘Shoes etc’, AT&T, Liquor and, relevantly, a “Shake A Paw”), wiener dog is shuttled around. First there is a messy, disastrous stay at the sterile home of tight-arsed (pet-hating) control-freaks whose son is recovering from cancer (a recurring theme); then a rescue by downhearted vet assistant Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), who identifies the pet as a soul-mate and lucky charm. Dawn is driven to accompany ex-school bully Brandon on a road trip to Ohio. At first we think Brandon (Kieran Culkin) wants the Wieners along as cover for his drug forays – then we find something much more awful and truly human. (No, we don’t mean the homesick Mariachi band that also tags along – possibly Solondz’s homage to the hitchhikers in Five Easy Pieces). Brandon’s downie brother and his downie wife are sweet but frightened, and unfulfilled, even though they get to feast on hot dogs and cokes for every supper.

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“You’ve got to break them.”

Whilst the young couple, even more alone now thanks to Brandon’s unhappy news, are momentarily enlivened by assuming the care of wiener dog, suddenly he turns up in the doomed and stricken life of failed screenwriter (and failed film-school tutor) Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), who will use his only friend to leave the world a farewell message that vindicates his much-maligned ‘What If?” approach to screen narrative art.

Wiener Dog as terrorist

Wiener Dog as terrorist

Then wiener dog ends-up in the comfortable lap of a rich, elderly dowager (Ellen Burstyn), who finds him a warm and ingenuous companion, a comfort amid her visitations by the unwanted and the portentous. These take the forms of flaky granddaughter Zoe and her no-good installation artist, who come looking for dough, and a number of fairies representing the person the old lady could have been. By the time the fairies have flown, wiener dog has again moved on, but as to where, you’ll have to watch.

The Varnished Culture was unfamiliar with the work of Todd Solondz, but on the strength of this entry, it is obviously well worth investigating. This piece is a little overcooked, but nevertheless brings us a rich array of human hope and human despair whilst slyly insinuating that Man’s best friend might be a little more discriminating in choosing friends.

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Salinger

JDsmokes

(Documentary by Shane Salerno, 2013)

(The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, 1951)

The consolation of philosophy.  That gave Salinger some peace from his war-borne PTSD, his difficulty with close relationships, his hankering for younger women, his feather-like sensibilities and his disdain for almost any other living writers. It also gave us his best book, Franny and Zooey (1955), but regretfully, it conferred upon him an unwholesome permit to abjure the world, retreat to a snow-bound hut and write for the sake of writing. Alas, he may have been clapped-out by the time he perfected his Unabomber impersonation – his 1965 story, Hapworth 16, was widely viewed as a career-end shocker.

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In this well-made but pretty conventional documentary, we learn that J.D. was a recluse – but not a recluse.  A charmer – but fairly cantankerous. A family man, who allegedly, according to his daughter, called her “nothing but a neurotic malcontent.”*  A writer who spurned the phoniness of publishing for fame, acclaim and riches, but hoarded a trove of unpublished work, apparently, to preserve them for fame, acclaim, and riches.**

This doco is watchable but wan, evocative yet glib, factual but empty. You could pick a well-known author out of a hat and render it to a like piece (OK, perhaps some young female scribbler wouldn’t gush about receiving a note of career advice from Count Tolstoy or Franz Kafka). Salinger was really a wealthy insider who grew grumpier with age. Fancy. He remained fairly free to do his own thing for 45 years, which is a neat trick in anyone’s book.  The documentary suggests that 5 important new works are in the charge of Salinger’s literary executors, for publication between 2015 and 2020.** Yet as far as The Varnished Culture is aware, nothing has appeared so far. In 1992, Salinger referred to a hoard of 25 years’ worth of unpublished writing surviving a fire at his home, yet his literary agent declared in 2011, “There is no J. D. Salinger archive anywhere.”

It would be wonderful, of course, were this to be proved untrue, and it would allow a fuller assessment of his place in the Canon.  Personally, we would look forward to more on the edgy and neurotic Glass family than a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye.

Holden Caulfield is a psycho, of course, but a lovable one (if that is possible).  He is like the lad from Bigger Than Life, albeit a bit more grown-up and more damaged.  The 1950s don’t come out too well from Holden’s account of his long weekend frolic, but in retrospect, Salinger might have realised it would be all downhill from there.

Anthony Burgess wrote perceptively about Catcher:

The Catcher in the Rye was a symptom of a need, after a ghastly war and during a ghastly pseudo-peace, for the young to raise a voice of protest against the failures of the adult world. The young used many voices – anger, contempt, self-pity – but the quietest, that of a decent perplexed American adolescent, proved the most telling.”

For a nice mini-thesis (albeit a tad ironic) on The Catcher in the Rye that accords with our view, more or less, see this scene from Six Degrees of Separation (1993):

https://youtu.be/arPhzlHlyEY

[*Margaret A. Salinger, Dreamcatcher (2000), p. 416.] [**The documentary suggests that the new books will be:

  1. A counter-intelligence agent’s diary (nb: Salinger reputedly left his first wife when he learned that she had links to the Gestapo);
  2. A World War II love story;
  3. A religious manual re the Vedanta;
  4. The complete chronicle of the Glass family (including 5 new stories); and
  5. ‘The Last and Best of the Peter Pans,’ an updated account of Holden Caulfield.

It’s a Wise Child who would put a bet on publication missing the proposed deadline.] Continue Reading →

Six Four (by Hideo Yokoyama)

September 14, 2017 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Fiction, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, WRITING & LITERATURE |
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Six Four, a best-selling sensation in Japan, is the first of Hideo Yokoyama’s novels to be translated into English. Yokoyama previously worked as an investigative journalist for a regional newspaper, and the main theme of his book is the relationship between a regional police force and the media.

Superintendent Yoshinobu Mikami having been a detective for over twenty years is,  for reasons which are not clear (at least not to him), appointed Media Relations Director in the Administrative Affairs department of his local Prefecture.  He is the unhappy liaison between the local and Tokyo-based TV and press on the one hand and the police on the other.  At the same time he is distrusted by the bureaucrats in Administrative Affairs and derided by his old colleagues in Criminal Investigation.

The book begins on a snowy night, when  Mikami and his wife MInako are called to examine the body of a dead girl who may be their missing daughter, Ayumi.  The scene is well drawn and affecting, and the Mikamis’ fear helps us sympathise with the superintendent as he is drawn-in to the never ending saga of the Prefecture’s greatest failure – Six Four – code-name for the unsolved kidnapping and murder of a seven-year old girl fourteen years previously.  As we see more of Mikami’s workstyle, however, we begin to glimpse why he may have been taken out of active service. He is moody and irascible to the point of violence; he flies off the handle at important junctures without, as Ricky Roma would say, “knowing what the shot is”.   He is easily manipulated, when not being entirely obtuse.  Much of the 634 pages cover Mirakami’s brooding and incessant calculation – which often leads him into serious error. He doesn’t know his wife or missing child; his wife’s one searing comment flies right over his head. He believes in submersion of the individual to the system but ignores and defies commands.   He marches in and out of his seniors’ offices aggressively and mainly to little effect. Pieces of news which are no surprise to anyone else rock Mikami to his core. It may be that some of the subtlety of all this is lost on the average civilian (and, in particular, the non-Japanese) reader, who can’t be sure what Mukami’s relationship is to his many colleagues – including  Ishii,  Akama, Tsujiushi,  Itokawa, Futawatari, Matsuoka, Urushibara,  Odate and Arakida. The fraught patterns of command, rivalry and suspicion which exist between the various police officials, and between the police departments are murky and frustrating. The book would really benefit from a hierarchical chart.

There’s a great deal of shouting, particularly on the part of the reporters and journalists who, if their characterisation in this book is anything to go by, are far more unreasonable, abusive and lazy even than those in the west.

The final action scenes are well handled page-turners. The ‘twist’ is not entirely a surprise (to anyone but Mikami, who has to be physically restrained from ruining it all). The ending, also in the snow, but with the promise of spring, is poignant.

On the whole the prose is fast and clear, the translation by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies smooth. There is the occasional miss – “Mikami’s eyes fell to the floor”.

The anonymous phone calls, missing girls and occasional surreal touches (including Minako’s midnight musing as to Ayumi’s fate) are reminiscent of Huraki Murakami.  This is an amusing and unusual book.  If intra-office politics, the handling of police news by the journalists who drink with them in karaoke bars, issues of responsibility and grief  float your boat, this is the book for you.

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Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Novel)

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By Henry Farrell.

The critic Judith Crist said, “the guignol is about as grand as it gets”. Film buffs, was Crist talking about Henry Farrell’s short novel, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” or the 1962 film which it inspired?  Neither.  She meant the film “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte’ which Farrell co-wrote with Lukas Heller, the screenwriter for “Baby Jane”.  But Baby Jane Hudson is more gothicly horrifying on a good day than Charlotte and her lot on a Halloween killing spree.

Blanche Hudson, a beautiful and feted film star of the 30s and 40s, has spent twenty dreary years in a wheelchair after suffering a spinal injury.  Her sister Jane shares Blanche’s gloomy Beverley Hills mansion and cares for her – after a fashion.  Jane was, before Blanche outshone her, a wildly popular child star on vaudeville and jealousy has rotted through her hinges. Blanche decides to sell the house. Jane decides that’s not going to happen. Blanche decides to call the doctor. Jane decides to take the other phone off the hook. Jane decides to revive her career and employs a deadbeat accompanist, Edwin Flagg. Blanche decides she’s in trouble and her desperation spirals like the stairs she can’t manage.

At the very end the story takes a twist, which, like all good twists, makes the reader or viewer rethink what they have understood all along.

And all this comes from Henry Farrell’s effect on Jane Winslow, who was then the very young daughter of friends of the Farrells’. Jane is quoted in the introduction by the literary agent, Mitch Douglas; “‘I was told by my mother and others that every time Henry came visiting, I would run screaming from the room.'” This melodramatic reaction reminded Henry of Baby Jane types of the vaudeville and silent movies, and set an idea in motion.

The film has incidents which the book does not. Events are rearranged. The hint of incest is stronger. The dark and corvine Joan Crawford isn’t much like the blonde and limpid Blanche of the book.  None of this is a surprise.  But the mood of the book is – be afraid, be surprised – darker than that of the film, at least at first, when Blanche’s fear of Jane is stronger and the shadowy corners are more alive than in the early part of the film.

Anyone who has seen the film will know that Blanche has reason to be wary of Jane’s cooking:-

And then, almost exactly at the moment when the last faint traces of daylight faded from the room, Jane’s footsteps approached with sudden briskness through the lower hallway and across the living room to the stairs.

Blanche reached out quickly to the bedside lamp and switched it on, commanding herself at the same time to be calm and composed.  She watched shudderingly as the circle of light dashed itself out into the room, reaching, it seemed, with soft fingers for the dark and the repugnant tray.

She could not guess what Jane’s attitude might be, what she might say or do. Taking up the book form her lap, she propped it firmly against the arm of her chair in an effort to keep it steady.

When Jane came into the room, Blanche kept her eyes rigidly lowered to the book.  Even so, she felt the panic rise again within her, suddenly, sharply.  In an effort to hold it back, she told herself that she must not let herself be hysterical.  There was noting, really, to be frightened about.  Nonetheless her hands tightened their hold upon the book, as if in an effort to brace her entire being against the assault of any word or gesture that might come from Jane’s direction.

Jane, meanwhile, showed no inclination at all toward communicativeness.  Carrying a new tray –  Blanche’s dinner tray this time – she crossed directly to the desk and put it down beside the one already there.

At the corner of Blanche’s eye there appeared two monstrous mounds of white horror in the shadows beyond the reach of the light. And then, taking up the dreadful lunch tray, Jane, still without a glance in Blanche’s direction, turned and made her way out of the room. Not until her footsteps has faded off down the stairs did Blanche let the book fall from her trembling hands back into her lap.”

Farrell’s prose is brisk and expressive.  Lights, shadows, stairs all lurk. Each character’s psychological truth is demonstrated in clear and lucid terms.  We know – or think we know – why they do what they do, fatally ridiculous though it may seem to us and utterly opaque as it is to those who suffer as a result.  Blanche’s timid forbearance and inaction, Jane’s dangerous moods, Edwin Flagg’s not running away the moment he spots his new employer. These all make sense in the light of their backstories and memories.

“Jane’s face, as she sat there, seemed to hang haggardly upon itself like a tattered cloth. her eyes were dull, shielded from the light by the forward inclination of her head. She was lost.  Lost and terribly frightened.  In her fright, she turned back upon the bleak vista of the day, trying to discover by what wrong running she had arrived at this final moment of lonely desolation.

Once the way was known to her, perhaps she would be able to retrace the minutes like steps so that tomorrow she would arrive back at today’s bright beginning.  The harder she stared, though, the more obscure the path became to her. It was a shadowed lane that she had travelled blindly.

She had been led, helplessly, by elements and forces beyond herself.  None of it was her fault; it had been forced on her, relentlessly, cruelly.  But forced or not, she saw in her fright that she must turn back, or even turn in a new direction; she must escape while escape was still possible.  Blinking, she stared harder, harder…”

The book is certainly recommended, but we suggest that you see the film first, for its dramatic visuals, more intricate plot, melodramatic turns, for Bette Davis’ rendition of “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy”, Victor Buono’s ghastly Edwin Flagg, and the scene on the beach.

[P adds: Yes indeedy, the Robert Aldrich film is an eerie, icky, squalid masterpiece, with a great twist. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Victor Buono are sensational.]

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Zulu

August 17, 2017 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Classic Film, FILM, HISTORY, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
"The Defence of Rorke's Drift" by Alphonse de Neuville (1879-90)

(Dir. Cy Endfield) (1963)

This episode in the Anglo-Zulu War pitted some 4,500 against about 150, which shows how important fortifications (strategically useless) can be tactically decisive. The film is a pretty good treatment of the heroic skirmish, in which 11 Victorian Crosses were garnered, and great and good actors display stiff upper lips on both sides: we single out for praise Stanley Baker as the leader of the British defence (a much nicer role than his slimy turn in Accident), Michael Caine as the second in command, the wonderfully named Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead…

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…Nigel Green as the stern, stout Colour-Sergeant, and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi as the Zulu chieftain (who was his great-grandfather in real life). Many “types” fill the other spots and Richard Burton supplies mellifluous narration.  This is L’s father’s favourite film, and while it shows its age, its terrific location and finely filmed battle-scenes still stir the blood.

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Parsifal Swans in to Sydney

August 15, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | MUSIC, Opera, OPERA, RELIGION, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, WAGNER |
"Give me an hour, and you'll forget all about that silly mug..." (Temptation of Percival by Arthur Hacker, 1894)

(Concert version, Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, 14 August 2017)

We landed in Sydney secure in the knowledge that Jonas Kaufmann was already here and in fine form.  Out initial impressions of Sydney town c. 2017 were as favourable as always, except for the subsequent days when “strategic, environmental burn-offs” doused all in plumes of thick blue smoke, smoke much less tasty than that found second-hand in a cigar bar.

Our 'harbour glimpse'

Our ‘harbour glimpse’

In any case: Parsifal. This, Wagner’s “work of farewell to the world” has managed to become P’s favourite Wagner Opera, despite Tristan, despite Meistersinger, yes, even despite the Ring. Its music is so subtle, so insinuating and yet moving, its take on personal redemption and human mysticism so weirdly powerful, that you find tears wrenched out of you in the unlikeliest moments, Wagner’s revision of Christian myth managing to be even ickier than the original iterations. The plot is crazy of course, magnificently crazy, and we wondered what could be done with a mere concertized version, having watched the great Met production over and over.

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Opera Rock Star – Jonas Kaufmann

 

 

 

 

 

 

A large and appreciative audience (we spotted Wagnerians, arts luminaries, directors, politicians, Judges) were treated to a very fine rendering that managed to convey the visceral pull of the work.  The Opera Australia Orchestra, relieved and pleased, perhaps, at their liberation from the constricted hell-hole of the opera theatre pit, relished the space and challenge and rose magnificently to the task set them by the superb Pinchas Steinberg, who kept the tempi and sound levels just right (and jolted to life an initially flat and flabby flute section). He also wrangled a wonderful choir of adults (plus,initially, children) to great advantage, particularly in the very chromatic, and hauntingly beautiful, first Act.

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Sydney Opera House Concert Hall…’The Varnished Culture’ was placed in the box to the immediate right of the stage.

 

 

 

The strictures of the concert hall were ameliorated by thoughtful staging and lighting. We liked the dramatic placement of Titurel and Klingsor behind the chorus under intense lighting at key moments, and the stately way the singers made their way on and off stage, enhancing the hallowed aspect of the production.

Which brings us, last but not least, to the singers.  Jonas Kaufmann has made the role of Parsifal his own, but although it sent a thrill through all when he sallied forth in the first Act, those unfamiliar with the opera might have been surprised at how little he had to do. Yet his dramatic and nuanced playing established Parsifal’s nature (the fool who learns compassion and thus will become the redeemer) and managed to convey the development of his character as the story progressed (Act 1 is rather a musical lurch, although sublime for all that; things really got going in Act 2) and his singing matched that effort; though at times he seemed to be reining himself in, this was apt to the material and there were plenty of moments of sacred anguish for his voice to soar and fill the auditorium. His was a great performance.

Matching it, in our view, were Michelle DeYoung as Kundry, magnificently teaming with Kaufmann to essay her character’s unrequited, lacerated soul, which helped convey the otherworldliness of their interaction. Korean bass Kwangchul Youn was awesome as the noble, bereft old Knight, Gurnemanz (he got the biggest acclaim at finale) and Warwick Fyfe added to his impressive stock of Wagnerian villains with a ferociously malevolent, formidable, life-hating and ignoble Klingsor.  Sterling in support: Michael Honeyman moderated his delivery to brilliantly convey the diminished, wretched state of the perpetually wounded Amfortas; David Parkin was remote, regal and majestic as the old king, Titurel; Stacey Alleaume, Jane Ede, Anna Dowsley, Eva Kong, Julie Lea Goodwin and Dominica Matthews made fetching, sonorous flower maidens and esquires and all other supporting knights and esquires were solid and fine.

We can dream of a full Parsifal but we’ll take this any day meanwhile – a first rate performance, full of light, shadow, fire and feeling.

[Quibble: who do you have to sleep with to get a drink at interval in the Opera House? Strewth!]
"Is that the Grail's castle there? Cos I've got a thirst you can photograph..." (by Hans Thoma, 1899)

“Is that the Grail’s castle there? Cos I’ve got a thirst you can photograph…” (by Hans Thoma, 1899)

 

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Chicken People

August 13, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Documentary, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
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(Dir. Nicole Lucas Haimes) (2017)

We’d rather fry it than spy it. A shotgun wedding of Best in Show and Brother’s Keeper, Chicken People is a massively inconsequential account of the hopes, dreams and struggles of a few select oakies, trying to breed the best bird in class and ultimately, in show.  Full of “characters,” the film, though competently made and shot, can’t disguise the fact that it would struggle to make it to prime time free-to-air, let alone the cinema.

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Three Tall Women

August 10, 2017 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, Uncategorized |
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(By Edward Albee) (Adelaide University Theatre Guild premiere, 9 August 2017)

Albee’s slices of New England life, where families light up and tear each other down, succeed on the whole because he was a master of exteriors that demonstrated the angst within. With this unsatisfactory work of his later period, however, he is working from within and as such the play never catches fire.

An act of ‘exorcism’ to help the playwright debride the memory of his domineering adoptive mother, the first part has a bedridden old lady (aged 92? 91?) attended by her former self and misunderstood by her younger incarnation.  In Act Two, the stricken relict takes the form of a cushion, whilst the three tall women assume her forms in earlier decades.  (The estranged, errant son sits silently at the bed, gazing at the stroke victim with the comfy face.)

There are hints here of a life, and the different facets of a soul along the scale of time are cleverly done.  But truth be told, this is milk-and-water Albee.

The playing of the matriarch (by Jean Walker), all beady eye, confused anger and cackling reminiscence, was very effective. Rachel Burfield (‘B’) was solid in support; Jessica Carroll, as the young emanation (‘C’), had little to do.  The east coast accents need a little work.  The sets were minimalist (especially compared to the first productions in the 1990s), but were handled with typical Theatre Guild wit, taste, and economy.  We enjoyed the evening but there are no real insights in this piece; indeed, for Albee, the observations are awesomely trite.

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The Fireside Book (of David Hope)

We're missing a deer.  The Fireside Book of David Hope 1975.

The first Fireside Book of David Hope (“A picture and a poem for every mood, chosen by David Hope”) was printed and published by D C Thomson & Co Ltd (Dundee and London).  The copy which L owns and treasures has “Christmas 1967” hand-written inside the front cover, although the book itself is not dated.  This copy (below) came into the TVC household decades after its birth, when P found it in a second-hand bookshop.

fireside-34Our very first Fireside Book was given to L for Christmas 1972.  The dust jacket of this 1973 edition tells how well-loved it has been.  It has been admired, treasured and memorised.
fireside-31How evocative those images are – they were the cultured, fairyland England of my childhood imagination –
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Some of these poems are in my mind to this day. “Deep in heaven now I lie, while the white clouds billow by…”
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Although I was given one or two more of these precious tomes during my childhood –  I remember having a library full – years later, as an adult, I found an issue which I didn’t have.  Then P discovered a few.  One day he came home with an astonishing pile hidden behind his back.

“England” to me then was the numinous, the picturesque, Oxford, the past and the future.  Fay Inchfawn, John Betjeman, Eleanor Farjeon, Edna Jaques – these great invokers of an England which never existed wrote these poems for me, and artists unknown illustrated them.  Themes emerge across the years – the allure of the wild hills, the longing of a urbanite for the countryside, the cosy home on a cold night.
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I felt an occasional jolt when I learnt that a poem which I thought belonged exclusively in my Fireside books, is owned by the world –
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The books even granted me a glimpse of my future husband –
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Every month (April is a favourite) and season (autumn rules) has its poems.  Deer, robin redbreasts and snow are essential to the  Christmas illustrations. Cricket (“The Game that’s Never Done” – how true), lawnbowls, gardening, visiting, rambling, gazing about in a pensive manner, reading and sailing are our pastimes.  Jody the tabby kitten, Hamish the Scotch terrier (who is chasing rabbits in heaven) and faithful horses are our friends.

My initial reluctance to look at the later editions when they came into my hands was, sadly, justified. The nostalgic, pretty sentiment of The Fireside Books of the 70s and 80s has almost entirely gone but its replacements are not improvements.

Some changes are laudable – by 1996 an index has appeared (although it is ugly) and some of the artists are named (although others are communally referred to as ‘staff artists’). By 2008 the Fireside Books are no longer “of David Hope”.

As  early as 1989, there are occasional odd touches.  The readership seems to be changing – brides have become grandmothers, shining up one’s cosy home is now just a lot of housework and melancholic musing gives way to bereavement; although surely not even a grieving stair-scrubbing nanna would accept that the “shy” Regency Place goes wandering off at night…

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“…I can imagine, one fine night,

When the air is cool and the moon is bright,

Regency Place will stealthily glide

Away to the sleeping countryside;

Return it will, by a secret lane,

To its native fields and streams again.”

We at TVC  do not have the early 1990’s editions, but by the late 1990s the binding has faltered and the art (for the most part) is weird and somehow resentful…
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…poorly executed…

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….hideous, murky and slapdash…

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That’s not to say that the earlier artwork was always terrific. In 1982 these lumpen freaks represented The Girls of Donegal, fairer than those of all Ireland and North America –
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…and this picture was used not once but twice (1974 and 1977)…
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There was this chap in 1983…

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and this one in 1977…
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For all their twee silliness, The Fireside Books before a certain date are worth 5 stars for their sense of the profound, their attention to detail and their beauty. Hope is not lost. The TVC collection is not complete.  Volumes from the 1970s and 1980s wait out there for us and when we find them, the nostalgia will be real.

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