Regularly added bite-sized reviews about Literature, Art, Music & Film.
Voltaire said the secret of being boring is to say everything.
We do not wish to say everything or see everything; life, though long is too short for that.
We hope you take these little syntheses in the spirit of shared enthusiasm.
(Directed by Dexter Fletcher) (2019) *** & 1/2
This H[B]ollywood-style biopic (with a dash of Across the Universe, in its random song-and-dance numbers performed by the cast) neither persuades nor informs: instead, it scopes back from a stagey Rehab group – showing Elton John at an even lower ebb than when he released the notoriously awful record Victim of Love – and traces his life up to the 1980s, when he roared back with Too Low for Zero and staged a faux wedding to a woman.
Boxes are ticked: there’s the early austere home life with two egocentric parents (very much not in love with each other), reminiscent of the quiet domestic life in The Young Poisoner’s Handbook. Young Reginald shows some ability on the piano, discovers his sexuality, finds he can set music to words, and finally hits the big time.
The Big Time is served with all the trimmings – the curiously placid friendship with his writing Partner, Bernie Taupin, squabbles with the record company, the arrival of Elton’s Svengali, John Reid – and of course, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
The story is well-known and well-worn, but it doesn’t really matter. Taron Egerton is terrific as Elton, whether decked-out in his outrageous stage-gear or getting coked-up and drunk at home, all pudgy attitude and grotty charm. The songs don’t line up chronologically at all, the surreal touches seem out of place, and the script leaps broadly beyond the realm of authenticity, but you can’t help being moved when Elton nails the tune to Your Song – he and Bernie exchange a look that suggest they feel like Paul McCartney did in the early days when he heard the milkman whistling one of his tunes – or when he apologises to his tearful ‘wife’ Renata at a hearty breakfast of gin and orange – or rips into a live, whirling version of ‘Pinball Wizard’ while changing costumes a half-dozen times – or comes out of the closet on the phone to Mum, who airily waves that away as unimportant. Every mother doesn’t want a boy like Elton, but any human will be enthralled by Elton’s journey. In the final analysis, the colour of this corn is gold.Continue Reading →
Wagner’s most human work in the Ring cycle, the hub of the wheel, a pivotal moment when the increasingly out-of-kilter world of gods gives way to the chaos of man. We have described The Valkyries in more detail elsewhere, so we turn without further ado to this excellent film of the performance at the Met in NYC in March 2019, based on the original 2011 production.
‘The Machine’ is back: a spidery bundle of rectangular rods, like giant railway sleepers, that spin and flutter to address the comparatively austere settings imagined by the story. These were not entirely satisfactory, but they did nicely set the scenes, with the add of projected images and back lighting: at attention as trees in the snowy forest; inverted to make the roof of Hunding’s hut; as various mountaintops (in Act III, complete with impressive silent avalanches of snow); as the ‘horses’ bearing the Valkyries to Valhalla, and at the finale, raised to display Brünnhilde’s enforced billet. The cast were clearly a little wary of The Machine – during some of the interviews between acts, a performed recalled that presenter Deborah Voight, as Brünnhilde, tumbled off it during the first production. Even now, with ‘safety modifications,’ there was evidence of circumspection: Greer Grimsley as Wotan crept about the slanted mountain top as though he was tackling the North face of the Eiger, a prudence even more obvious after his spear clattered from its temporary resting place to the main stage. But there is great uncertainty and a sense of global disruption in Die Walküre, and so this tentativeness is not out of place.
In general, however, this was a solid and moving production, with only a few minor glitches in design (the zip atop Wotan’s tunic, the Dunlop Volley-style soles to Brünnhilde’s boots, the fairly unnecessary curtain calls at the end of Acts I and II). But the cast was a dream (set out below), as were the orchestra under Philippe Jordan. At the conclusion, when Wotan has to turn his back on his favourite, embracing and kissing her to render her mortal before leaving her trapped in fiery sleep, it almost plays like early Arthur Miller, and one can see why there were tears and cheers at the curtain.
Christine Goerke (see below) struck just the right note, and all the right notes, as Brünnhilde.
Eva-Marie Westbroek and Stuart Skelton were superb as Sieglinde and Siegmund.
Greer Grinsley achieved a fine sense of the power and confusion of Wotan.
Jamie Barton was an imposing and persuasive Fricka.
Gunther Groissböck was a very impressive and nuanced Hunding.
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Apparently a psychopath feels negative emotions such as fear or disappointment only slightly, but experiences the highs of (say) skinning people so very much that he or she continues to take risks which neuro-normals wouldn’t countenance. Clearly, having learned so little from the decidedly negative emotions I suffered upon reading Seveneves and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., and being so ridiculously hopeful that the latest Neal Stephenson novel will be another Snow Crash, I must be a psychopath.
Again: Great idea – Drab execution. Richard Forthrast, billionaire (previously met in Reamde) has instructed that, upon death, his remains are to be treated in such a manner that, when possible, he shall be brought back to life. The scientific means develop from chopping heads off and putting them in the freezer with the pies, to the ionisation of the cells of the brain, and Forthrast gets ionised. His “programme” is booted up, and he enters the cyber afterlife.
This is food for thought, and Stephenson chews it. The beginning of the book (when this happens), and the occasional returns to the dilemmas faced by the foundation which Forthrast created to support the digitally resurrected, are the best parts of the book. The treatment of Forthrast’s return to consciousness, fundamentally influenced by his life as a video game developer, is top-notch Stephenson. The creation of the digital afterlife, “Bitworld” (which, via a sort of hologram, can be viewed by those still in “Meatworld”) is top-notch Stephenson. The problems raised about energy, memory and and identity – gold Stephenson.
But. It all spirals and noodles and meanders into a baffling battle in Meatworld between the various foundations interested in the afterlife business. There’s a road trip which only exists to show us what the USA might become. Bitworld turns into a deathly dull analogy of the Bible or Paradise Lost and then an astoundingly dreary Tolkien Quest leavened with heavy heavy doses of geography. Finally there’s a massive battle and….who cares? There is a great deal of expository dialogue and (a pet peeve here at TVC) a lot of it is accompanied by shrugs, shrugs, shrugs and sighs, sighs, sighs.
The plot holes are too tedious this time to even mention, except for one – no spoiler here, it’s right at the beginning and it’s the initiating event – Richard Forthrast, the brilliant billionaire dies because he chooses not to tell anyone at a medical clinic that he has eaten, (when he was supposed to be fasting), despite signs at the clinic reminding him to. [It’s “The Verdict” all over again – Ed.] What a waste. Of Stephenson’s talents.
** [2 Stars]
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Music and Dance provided by alumni of Kalalaya School of Performing Arts, 6 April 2019, Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Theatre
The Varnished Culture has great admiration for Indian accomplishment (mixed with a fair bit of ignorance, but profound for all that). But we were not quite prepared* for the Amazing India experience, pretty much a Hindustani eisteddfod featuring all levels of students and tutors of the local Kalalaya School of Performing Arts. From old-style classical dance forms such as Bharatnatyam and cadenced Kathak, to modern, salacious Bollywood numbers, an enthusiastic (at times, overly enthusiastic) audience were treated to 140 minutes of some 20 different numbers of variable quality in a packed programme that pleased, and occasionally palled.
Many of the costumes, particularly the traditional garments, were dazzling in their flowing colours. When the tots, some too young for primary school, came on stage in their pattu langa, they were as cute, small and (choreographically speaking) random as buttons. The numbers ranged from dances of religious significance, modern dance numbers and soft rock riffs made for Eurovision, variety Indian style torch songs and a fusian of twirling. The dancing was a tad patchy – the singing, in the main, was good.
Overall, this was an entertaining evening (despite the continual use of smart-phones to make blurred films of the proceedings for posterity in the darkened auditorium), but we have a few quibbles. The length was inordinate, some 30 to 45 minutes too long. Certain of the acts seemed repetitive; it struck us that the School wanted to ‘give everyone a go’. Much time was expended moving the stage for instruments from and to the wings; some rearrangement of the running order would have limited this. There was a screen at the rear of the stage that could have been used better: the sponsors were credited a number of times but each of the 21 performances could have screened the title and a brief description – many in the crowd used their phones as torches to peer at the 5 page programme in small font provided. And the screened photographic backdrops, whilst often showing the flower of Hindu sculpture and architecture, also roamed weirdly over inapt scenes as diverse as Paris, New York, Vienna, and Shiva knows where else.
(Directed by Neil Jordan) (2018)
This tedious, derivative piece of trash begins when nice, naive young Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz, using every tic and twitch she can summon, and that’s a lot) finds a chic handbag in a subway carriage. Oddly enough, no-one else is interested in it. Even more oddly, all of the lost luggage offices in the entire New York subway system must have been permanently closed, if this film is to make any kind of sense at all. But there we are. Back at home in their luxurious loft apartment, Frances and her flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe, a poor man’s Chloe Sevigny) argue about what to do with said handbag and they continue arguing, although they really love each other, as will be proven in the not-sock-o-certainly-did-see-that-coming-ending. Frances returns the bag to its owner, Greta (Isabelle Hupert gamely slumming it) at her home and goes inside for a cup of tea. Sigh. “No, stupid!” We shout at the screen. “Have you never seen a stalker film? Don’t you know what happens when you befriend a kind, lonely stranger who has a silly accent and cakes?” We weren’t surprised though, that knowing, foreign Greta is just a bit whacko and becomes fixated on the twitcher. We won’t tell you anymore. It’s not because we expect that you will fall for the misleading advertising and go to see this turgid rubbish, and so are avoiding spoilers; but to be honest, it’s because we can’t be bothered. Read the following list of bad stalker movie tropes if you really want to know where it goes from there, but you already do.
In the style of The Babadook List of Bad Horror Movie Tropes we give you The Greta List of Bad Stalker Movie Tropes. There is of course an overlap with the Bad Horror Movie Tropes, viz –
Using Greta as our template, we add, to the Bad Stalker Movie tropes, in no particular order:-
If some sadist ever gags you, ties you to a bed in a small room, and forces you to watch Greta, squeeze your eyes shut really tightly and hum loudly to yourself throughout, but for the obligatory scene when Greta goes nutso and starts shrieking and tossing crockery around in frustration. That’s the one good bit. We think that that was not acting on Mme Hupert’s part.Continue Reading →
Daisy Jones and the Six is a fictional 1970s Fleetwood Mac style-ensemble fronted by a bewitching, raspy voiced woman (the eponymous Daisy) and a handsome, brooding guitarist-singer. The number is made up by a less ravishing woman on keyboards and a couple of other people not worth bothering about. Don’t bother reading Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel either, just wait a while and you can watch it. The front cover declares deliriously that Renaissance Woman Reese Witherspoon “devoured” this book in a day, and you can bet that she’s put it on her shelf marked Miniseries? Netflix? Role for Ava? We suggest that Ms Witherspoon should eat food, rather than paper, and learn to read more discerningly. For her assistance though, here are our casting suggestions (we’ll assume that this is a magic world and all of these actors are still alive, the right age and can at least hold a guitar or mime along. This is soft rock n roll, after all.)
DAISY JONES (Vocals, Tambourine and Stomping) – Amy Adams.
Daisy is rich, tall, thin, has wavy red hair, defined cheekbones and REALLY blue eyes. “Stunning big blue eyes – dark, cobalt blue.” “They looked like the middle of the ocean. Not the shoreline, not that light blue. They looked like the dark blue of the middle of the ocean. Like deep water.” We are constantly told (often by Daisy) that she is gorgeous and naturally talented. She’s impulsive and her own woman too! “I had absolutely no interest in being somebody else’s muse. I am not a muse. I am the somebody. End of fucking story”. As Daisy always said, “The Italians know hair”.
BIILLY DUNNE (Vocals) – Rufus Sewell
Billy is dark, handsome, smouldering, brooding, obsessive, dictatorial and charismatic. He’s slim, muscular, confident and has lovely eyelashes!
GRAHAM DUNNE – (Lead Guitar) – Jeff Bridges
Billy’s younger brother Graham is sexy and handsome in a broad-shouldered, rough-around-the-edges kind of way. Looks a little dangerous, but is actually very gentle.
KAREN KAREN – (Keyboards) Ali MacGraw
Graham: “Karen Karen was a great addition to the band. Made everything better. And she was beautiful too. I mean, in addition to being talented. I always thought she looked a little like Ali MacGraw…Karen was so fucking sexy in those turtlenecks”.
PETER LOVING (Bass), EDDIE LOVING (Rhythm Guitar) and WARREN RHODES (Drums) – Anyone Really
The other three. Resentful Eddie, quiet Pete and cynical drummer Warren.
SIMONE JACKSON (Disco Star)
Daisy’s concerned friend. Never described.
CAMILA MARTINEZ DUNNE (Billy Dunne’s Girlfriend, then Wife). Holly Marie Combs
Camila has long brown hair and brown eyes, is wifely and maternal, earthy-smelling. She is endlessly patient and persuasive, if not pushy. Knows how to get her way…Camila “I think you have to have faith in people before they earn it. Otherwise it’s not faith, right?”
TEDDY PRICE (CEO, Runner Records) – Richard Griffiths.
Tall, fat, ugly, British. We can be sure that he will either (a) cheat the band, or (b) die tragically.
Despite Ms Witherspoon’s confusing pies and prose, this is pulp at its most “devourable”. It takes little effort to digest. The chronologically sequential parts, from 1965 to 2012, take us through Daisy Jones’ rise from wild child bumming cigarettes on the Sunset Strip, to Lori Mattix type groupie, to Stevie Nicks style rock goddess and beyond. Daisy meets The Six, clashes with Billy Dunne, has a hit song with him and then joins the band (although her top billing seems unlikely). The band reaches juggernaut status and then implodes.
The novel is devised as a series of grabs from interviews with the band members and their associates (similar to the style of Funnymen by Ted Heller, although Funnymen is a much better novel). This construction is, of course, annoying and artificial; the interviewees would have to have been present at the same time, commenting on each other’s remarks. But if this gimmick is overlooked, the various commentators’ contradictions, lack of insight, misunderstandings, resentments and false memories work quite well. The dialogue is not without wit, including gems like – “[she had a] smile like a virus”, “showing up on time is something she does by accident” and “men often think they deserve a sticker for treating woman like people”. The time is evoked well. Venue names include The Cow Palace, the Inn of the Beginning and Exit/In. Bands are called Midnight Dawn, and the Breeze. Tours, albums and songs by Daisy Jones and The Six include Seven Eight Nine, Aurora, Chasing the Night, Turn it Off and Impossible Woman.
There should have been less exposition about the writing of nonexistent songs which cannot be heard (full lyrics are given at the back – Ms Witherspoon take note) and more about the actual intricacies of this kind of multi-player endeavour. As anyone who has read a decent rock bio knows, the day to day, week to week, month to month lives of the members of major bands are complicated and multilayered. This book is not.
Much of the book consists of Billy twaddling on about his born-again sobriety; his shame and remorse for the past; his struggles with temptation and his love for his wife and children. Camila goes on a lot about trust within a marriage and the redemptive love of a good woman and daughters. Daisy witters on about how wonderful it is to get high, until it isn’t. We at TVC have not read Reid’s other books, but suspect that this preachy tone may be typical.
There is a silly minor ‘reveal’ at the end of this novel and a nod toward a romantic sequel. While waiting for the miniseries, do read this or this or this or this rock bio instead of Daisy Jones etc (but give this one a miss).Continue Reading →
(Directed by Jon S. Baird) (2019)
“Stan’s cry, or the frequent sight of Oliver, prostrated and turning up his face in speechless appeal, may seem unfunny at first acquaintance, but gradually grow upon one until they are hilarious, irresistible, looked-for, and cherished.”* And once you watch a few of Laurel and Hardy’s short and longer films (try Way Out West (1937), which we watched to get in the mood for the film under review, or Laughing Gravy (1931), which you can see on YouTube), the appeal starts to soak in: you sense something deep and loving under the chaos, peevishness, and incompetence – whether in the odd pace-changes from the manic to the introspective, as in a Ren and Stimpy cartoon – or the peculiar and destructive havoc they wreak à la the Dumb and Dumber franchise – or the “funny and astonishingly beautiful dance duets, moving ever more ecstatically into their private world…“** (see below).
Which brings us to this account of the team’s dog days in post-war Britain. Long after the heady days when they were among the top ten box office draws, Stan & Ollie presents the lads well past their prime, reprising their routines on the minor music hall circuit. Laurel, the soulful, creative one (Steve Coogan) still simmers with resentment over the time when, at their peak, Hardy (John C. Reilly) failed to support him in his fight for a better deal with studio head Hal Roach (Danny Huston) – Ollie is vexed that the schedule for their comeback film about Robin Hood seems so vague and fluid. We get the highs and lows of the tour, the spats, the run of the PR mill, the heart murmurs and heart-warming reconciliation, and that’s about it.
There’s really nothing exceptional about the film – even the well-made scenes of post-war Britain and Old-Hollywood seem fake, and with such a thin and predictable plot, filled with mawkish sentiment, one finds oneself hankering for the one-reeler where the real Laurel & Hardy deliver a piano. That means the actors must come to the fore, and of course here the two leads have to carry the piece, but there’s a problem: Steve Coogan, for all his comic brilliance, is not a good straight actor. To put it bluntly, his response to the less-than-heavy dramatic demands of the bitter, alcoholic Stan Laurel, is to play a querulous customer in a Lancashire pie shop. Reilly has natural charm, but the role is one-dimensional. Of the supporting cast, most are ‘types’; but we liked Nina Arianda as Stan’s exotic wife, Ida – she had a good double-act going with Ollie’s missus, Lucille (Shirley Henderson) – and Rufus Jones, obsequious and shifty as their English booking-agent, Bernard Delfont.
About 40 minutes in, The TVC reviewing staff whispered to each other: “We’ve made a dreadful mistake.” The film actually improved after that, but by then, we viewers doubtless had come to accept it in its own limited terms. Neither noxious, nor incompetent, nor opportunistic, it had some nice things in it, certainly, but ultimately ’tis bland and inconsequential as dust.
Now let’s cheer up and watch the original cabaret turn from Way Out West, which Coogan and Reilly do quite nicely in Stan & Ollie (and then again, but not as well):
Roy Calvert has a light, quick, graceful stride. He is over middle height, slightly built but strong, upright and slender, full of ease and grace. His eyes glint a clear transparent hazel yellow and his expression is mischievous and grave when it is not sad, grave, stricken and haunted by a wild melancholy. His voice is clear, light and reedy. His smile is intimate and kind, or it might be demure and secretive*. His is a style of extreme elegance and ease, he hits a cricket ball with statuesque grace and measured power. He is young, gifted and high-spirited. His creator, Sir Charles (“C P”) Snow is fond of adjectives.
Calvert is an oriental scholar, a member of the Cambridge college of which his friend the narrator, Lewis Eliot, is a fellow. Much of the plot of the first part of the novel is concerned with Calvert’s application to be elected a fellow of the College. The several fellows entitled to vote are, despite their over-description, difficult for the reader to distinguish (the preparation of a reference list is advised). Calvert is admired by some and disliked by others. He bemuses and repels the more “stuffed” fellows by mocking them in a tone of “mystifying solemnity“. For Calvert, despite his many clearly-indicated good qualities, is his own worst enemy and does not resist the temptation to parody and antagonise. He suffers a bipolar or manic-depressive sort of condition which causes him periods of agonising despair, culminating in the bouts of sparkling cheerful malice which Eliot has come to dread. Snow’s prose is leanest and best when showing us Calvert enduring his terrible bouts of blackest depression.
Despite the pitiless bombardment of adjectives, Snow conveys incisive psychological insight. The wife of the Master of the college, Lady Muriel, is stiffly built, a formidable and grandiose snob, a woman of character and power but “there was something baffled about her, a hidden yearning to be liked – as though she were a little girl, aggressive and heavy among children smaller than herself, unable to understand why they did not love her.” So Roy, who is acquainted with suffering, and who delights in Lady Muriel for her heavy-footed, unperceptive self, also “came into immediate touch with her as with so many people. He knew how she craved to be liked, how she could never confess her longing for affection, fun, and love. It was his nature to give it. He was moved deeply, moved to a mixture of pity and love, by the unexpectedly vulnerable, just as he was by the tormented, the failures and the strays.”
The Light and the Dark is the fourth (in narrative time) of the Strangers and Brothers sequence. The back of our 1964 edition tells us that Sir John Betjemen called it a “novel written with the intuition of a woman and and the grasp of broad essentials generally reserved for men.” Lady Muriel similarly declares (on behalf of the author, we feel), that intellect is for men, while woman have intuition.** Her daughter Joan (diffident, whose glance can be heavy, brooding and possessive, who has a strong coltish gawky gait) is the foil to Rosalind, (nervous, kind, sensitive in her fashion, hard, ruthless, determined, single minded and unscrupulous). But both are desperate to marry, and they each sit around patiently waiting to be insulted and used and abandoned by Calvert. But to Snow’s credit, Rosalind is good at her job and Joan is permitted to be intelligent (but not attractive at the same time). Snow is also less than PC about the lower classes. The one servant we meet is a thief. But we do not confuse the art with the artist and Snow is a very good artist.
Eliot is really a fleshless cipher and sounding board: his wife’s death is a throwaway line. But this book is not about him; he is the Nick Carraway, and here he is at his best when engaging with Lady Boscastle (sister in law of the Master and Lady Muriel). Lady Boscastle was once a great beauty but now, Snow tells us, she is delicate and frail, with brilliant porcelain blue eyes, puckered brown skin and resembles a delicate humorous and distinguished monkey, with a faint, sarcastic and charming smile (phew). We can say that she is an engaging and brittle character, as well possessed of intellect and as interesting as any man in this story.
The latter part of the book deals with the outbreak of World War II and is less successful than the first part. The panelled, candled rooms of Cambridge give way to dull sojourns in Germany and some silly spy stuff. Calvert toys with Nazism. It’s all rather leaden and we wish everyone back safely in Snow’s college – given over to beauty, learning and exclusivity.[*Just for the exercise, try to smile in a “demure and secretive” style. Difficult.] [** Vide Prof. Christopher Riley in Shadowlands who explains the ‘otherwise puzzling’ difference between the sexes thus: “Where Men have intellect, Women have soul.” (!) – Ed.] Continue Reading →
(Directed by Barry Kosky, Festival Theatre, Adelaide, 2 March 2019)
A filthy hot early autumn, Adelaide buzzing with stock car racers; construction blocking easy access to the Festival Theatre, its bars cash-free to absolve staff from learning to do sums in their heads; refugee photos on the gallery walls; no paper towels in the men’s to conserve resources (you use a dodgy blower the size of a cigarette packet – wonder what is available in the ‘female and unisex’ facility?) and a sweaty, sun-burnt matinee crowd, applauding every number performed by the ‘B’ team – What else could one add to the mix?
Well, Mozart for one thing. His fantasy opera has some of the most glorious music, from brilliant overture to the moving final chorus, with a number of famous pieces along the way (the Queen of the Night’s famous aria, for example). As long as one doesn’t take the fantastic elements of the libretto too seriously, rejects the bait of hidden motifs and freemasonry, and retains the sense of humour and fun without sledgehammering them, you can’t miss.
Director Kosky, regrettably, has a ‘german’ sense of humour, and here he served us Mozart with a noisy, distracting, infantile production, full of visual touches and daddy jokes straight out of early Disney, middle Warner Bros., late Terry Gilliam and the lesser films of F. W. Murnau.
Kosky gets that The Magic Flute was designed “to amuse suburban audiences by means of machines and decorations, a bright and variegated mixture of marvellous events and coarse jests…”* but he doesn’t seem to understand that it is so much more.
So we have comedy flourishes straight out of Weimar cabaret, moving animation that alternately pleases and palls, interesting exits and entrances at dizzying heights, and visual comedy below high-school level. It does not help that there is always someone (seated quite close) who laughs uproariously, like an orientalist^, at comedy already leaden when Schikaneder penned the libretto. The animatronics quite overwhelmed the production, which was otherwise pretty good: the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Hendrick Vestmann was fine; so was the Komische Oper Berlin Chorus. Of the players, we were impressed with ‘Mum and Daughter,’ (Christina Poulitsi as the Shelob-like Queen and Iwona Sobotka as Pamina), Insung Sim as a grave and sonorous Sarastro, and Ivan Turšic as the Nosferatu-like Monostatos (a Moor in white-face, in a bit of reverse racism).
Someone needs to take out an intervention order against this director, on behalf of opera houses everywhere.[* Alfred Einstein, Mozart; His Character, His Work (1946), p.464.] [^ Now, that’s a joke – from Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger ] Continue Reading →
(Directed by Julian Schnabel) (2018)
It takes some men a long time to grow up. Julian Schnabel began his career as an artist, allegedly; his notorious ‘plate paintings’ moved Robert Hughes to say of him: “Schnabel’s work is to painting what Stallone’s is to acting: a lurching display of oily pectorals.”* Then he produced a memoir, when only aged in his mid-thirties, without having achieved anything of note – if you want a nasty laugh, read Hughes’ review of it in The New Republic.** Then he found the medium of film, where his talents and sensibilities obviously lie: after Basquiat (1996) a poor biopic of the completely talent-less American pop-artist, he showed promise with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). Now he turns his attention to a true Giant, Vincent van Gogh, in a new bio-pic that strays from the path of fact but manages to find new truths.
In short, happily (perhaps miraculously), Schnabel’s film is magnificent, a truly moving, revelatory work of art that manages to persuade us of, though not necessarily prove, Vincent’s compulsion to ‘rest the imagination’ through his pictures, to “express what he felt, and if distortion helped him to achieve this aim he would use distortion.”^ Much of the film is dialogue-free, and we get numerous scenes of the artist out bush, communing with and imbibing nature, straining to paint what he sees. The script, incidentally, is not often more than adequate, but what works so well is the “vibe” – the pulse of Gogh’s genius and madness that drive him to do ugly things, paint some very ugly pictures, and produce at least a dozen masterpieces, the stuff that will one day make and break the fortunes of others.
Schnabel uses a restless, almost too inquisitive camera, resting on characters’ chins and stalking them through the shrubbery. P liked, although L didn’t, the director’s conceit of a partially smudged camera, especially when we viewed the world through the artist’s eyes, a comment perhaps on defective vision, frustrated comprehension or simply post-impressionism. Like the dissonant musical score, a splash of piano keys and the odd violin beaten black and blue, the home-craft nature of the production sorts beautifully with the rural squalor on show.
Time to do what actors most like: talk about them. Willem Dafoe is magnificent as Vincent. Though much older than the artist in his last years (Kirk Douglas looked much more like him in Lust For Life) Dafoe channels him perfectly, capturing all of his fears, inhibitions, his social ineptitude, crazes, anger, sense of doom, gentleness and fervour. We see an almost comprehensive sketch – a minor miracle in film biography, as he moons about the countryside; crouches defensively in the asylum or the rectory; and talks with his gentle and protective brother Theo (Rupert Friend) or his painter colleague Paul Gauguin (Oscar Issac, below, in a quiet but sharp performance, rendering the brilliant synthesist in a much kinder portrait than we find in, say, The Moon and Sixpence). Defoe’s playing is so good that we confidently expect him not to win an Oscar, even as a late career present*^.
A number of actors appear, amusingly, as the models for some of Vincent’s greatest hits (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Vincent_van_Gogh): Dr Gachet, Madame Ginoux, the mad soldier in Saint-Paul Hospital, the postie Joseph Roulin. Vincent’s paintings are his biography, so much of the visual script, mainly locations in Paris and Arles, has been done already. But Schnabel’s taste and discretion make a hitherto rare break from cover in this film: we are generally spared touristy flourishes – no bedroom at Arles, thank god. What we do see is the driven genius, happily free from cliche. For example, when Vincent returns to a grim, mistral-frozen, window-rattling, spartan room, he doesn’t make a fire and take a little wine: he takes off his boots and starts, and finishes, a picture of them. By the way, the painterly and sketching activities are beautifully done.
There are some odd jarring notes. When Mads Mikkelson (below), as a priest supervising the artist’s treatment, suggests gently (but persistently) that perhaps Vincent has missed his calling, he draws a riposte from Gogh that he will be appreciated by later generations. This struck us as as a flourish: false, and dumb…not Vincent at all. Dare we suggest that the script was channeling ‘the Plate Man’ at that point?
And the conclusion was somewhat odd. There is no evidence that we know of to suggest that Vincent was shot dead by two boys playing Cowboys and Indians. And we did not quite know what to make of the last scene: a closing-down sale of Vincent’s paintings, with the artist lying in his coffin amid them. This a shot at the rapacious modern art world, we guess, but it sat ill. The better end came after the credits: an epitaph spoken by Gauguin, the screen painted a luminous yellow, Vincent’s favourite colour.[*Time, 7/8/2012.] [**1987: Hughes’ review is reproduced in his collection Nothing if Not Critical (1990).] [^ E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (1950), p. 423.] [*^ As we predicted, Dafoe did not win. As Vincent might have said: “Zo is het leven” (that’s life).]