Stan & Ollie

March 11, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(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.


“Stan, I’d rather work with a sick elephant.”

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.

“Did you see them in ‘The Big Noise’?” “Did anyone?”

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):

[* David Robinson, Sight and Sound (1954), quoted in David Shipman, The Great Movie Stars -The Golden Years (1982).] [**Shipman, op cit. page 345.] Continue Reading →

The Light and The Dark (C P Snow)

(1947)

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 →

Kosky Blows His Magic Flute – And it’s a Catastrophe

March 2, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Opera, OPERA, THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(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.

The Queen of the Night (not from the Komische Oper production)

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 →

At Eternity’s Gate

February 24, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | ART, Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(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.

Here we peer, there we trudge, seeking to clear away the smudge

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?

“How terrible art thou in thy works!”

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.

At Eternity’s Gate

[*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).]

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The Aerodrome

February 17, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Fiction, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, WRITING & LITERATURE |

(by Rex Warner) (1941)

Prima facie, this is a poor book: clunkily written, slurpily edited, wildly uneven, as devoid of depth in characters or the forces moving them as any book can be. And yet, it has something; it tackles the great theme of the 20th Century, and beyond – totalitarian cohesion and ‘cleanliness’ vs the chaos and mud of ‘normal’ humanity.  And the dry, deadpan way in which high tragedy and low comedy are presented here seem in a screwy authentic way to mirror the keep-calm-and-carry-on fashion of the time in which it was written.

Roy (i.e. Rex) is an orphan brought up at the Rectory in the kind of rural village one finds in Boulting Bros. comedies, adjacent the sinister Aerodrome, which steadily acquires and reshapes its ground and mores. The Air Vice-Marshal is the implacable overlord – his crimes must continue so that the world may be clean. By ‘clean’, he means free of the detritus of the old way, such as family, home, love and marriage, deistic traditions, private property: all words without wings, not to be uttered or indulged by airmen.

Roy, close to a blank-slate, becomes a Speer to this Hitler-figure, who will ultimately be disappointed in him (as all fathers and sons eventually are in the other). It is not just Roy who has a patchy past – the village could have been named Peyton Place.  And up at the Aerodrome, despite all the Gestapo-style gung-ho, there are secrets and lies too. The scofflaw Flight-Lieutenant, a cipher if there ever was, has his fingerprints everywhere, including on Roy’s fiancé. At one stage, he accidentally kills the Rector whilst demonstrating a machine gun at a village fair (naturally) and informs the victim’s putative son, Roy: “Of course, it was quite unintentional, but I can’t help feeling a bit cut up about it.”

The plot, loopy and jerry-built as it is (Nineteen Eighty Four it ain’t) has Roy lapsing in his fascistic fervour (which disappears as fast as it arose) and choosing the natural muddle of mankind, the old world, “clean…and most intricate, fiercer than tigers, wonderful and infinitely forgiving.”  Warner was a Kafka groupie but unlike his idol, he is an optimist, and so the underdogs muddle through to triumph, though without honour, or much of it.

“The man is dead. His family is, I believe, well provided for. That, on this subject, is all, I think, which needs to be said.”

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Eurovision Australia 2019

February 11, 2019 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | AUSTRALIANIA, Modern Music, MUSIC, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
[Eurovision Australian Heats, February 9, 2019.]

Since Australia’s first Eurovision entry in 2015 Guy Sebastian’s “Tonight Again’, we have cheered Dami Im (second in 2016 (she was robbed)) and have cringed at Jessica Mauboy, notably referred to by ‘The Spectator’ magazine as a ‘vast caterwauling aboriginal‘.

Finally we antipodeans have had the opportunity to vote (as if it hasn’t all been decided beforehand) on our entrant. The final, from the appropriately kitsch Gold Coast, Queensland, was shown on SBS and hosted by a chipper Joel Creasy (“trilingual” in English, Millenial and Drag-Queen) and an uncomfortable Myf Warhurst in unflattering hot pink.

Each of the ten entrants was introduced with cheery footage of them at their usual daily activities aboard a rollercoaster, on a segue, in a harness, and so on.

We explain our Euro Points System here.  But really it’s the vibe of the thing. This year we scored each act out of 5.  We also awarded Song Points, that is to say, the higher the score, the more likely that we could bear to listen to this song in the real world, when not suffering ‘Eurovision Delusion Syndrome’.  We also noted Euro quotes this year.  These are the usual vapid and cliched statements made by the contestants. There is an exception. We were too gob-smacked by Ella Hooper’s camel toe to recall a word that she had said.

So here we are – The Official TVC Australian Eurovision Final votes for 2019

1 – Ella Hooper, (ex Killing Heidi) plump in a curious lace leotard-legging outfit with an unfortunate centre seam – Eurovision gold!! 1 Song Point for a forgettable number, Data Dust.  3 Euro Points for the outfit, the Ruby Wax look alike on guitar and a mosh pit dive.

2 – the duo Electric Fields  with 2000 and Whatever. 3 points for a not too bad song, despite its being incomprehensible whether in English or indigenous language.  A massive 4 Euro points for gender fluidity, a big hair reveal, bad dancing and lava lamp backdrop. Electric Field’s Euro quote – “Cos at the end of the day we are more similar than we are different”.  (This sentiment must be uttered during every Eurovision telecast, at least once. Preferably in French).

3 – Mark Vincent with This is Not the End.  Mark has the speaking voice of Santo Cilauro and the singing voice of a psuedo opera singer.  3.5 for a pretty decent James Bondish song. 1 Euro point – for the Khamal-like effect. Euro quote – “Music for me is everything.  It is my life”. This is also a compulsory Eurovision statement.

4 – Ayden.  Ayden believes the urban myth that affecting a single name improves a mediocre act’s chances of winning Eurovision. It doesn’t . You see, ABBA were appealing and talented. Ayden is neither. Ayden worked his way through Dust, using every trick Ayden learned at Boy Band School, pointing at the camera and at random 12 year old girls in the crowd, and casting smouldering, self-loving looks. Nil points for the song. Nil Euro points. Ayden’s Euro quote – “I feel like I’m starting to discover my sound”.

5 – Courtney Act.  We smiled at Courtney’s pre-song film when she wobbled across a rocky coastal outcrop wearing 4 inch stilettos, and that was the end of the amusement.  Courtney cannot sing and her Fight for Love was blah. 0 for the song. A solid 4 Euro points for the creepy, crotch-skimming shiny red rubber outfit, the contortionists (!), more gender fluidity and releasing a red heart-shaped balloon. Courtney’s Euro quote was the weakest attempt of the night – “[I’m] fighting for refugee rights….it’s kind of a protest song”.  Sigh.

(We pause here for Myf’s Euro quote :  “There is such a diverse range of genres on stage tonight”, and Joel’s lovely reference to “fruity lexia and a cube of cheese” (Although in true Eurovision style this does not seem to be entirely original. We suspect Mr Creasy of owing something to Two and a Half Men’s “box of wine and can of aerosol cheese”).

6. Leea Nanos, a halfway decent turn. Leea, who is 16, as we were constantly reminded, had her hair done-up like Get Smart’s Barbara Feldon, put on Agent 99’s lace-up jumpsuit and warbled Set Me Free. A bit Italian Variety Style but worth 3.5 for the song. 3 Euro points for the huge backside, a lot of hopping up and down, odd gestures and laser effects. Because she is 16, Leea gets more than one Euro quote: “I can express myself through music the best…I’m not the best with words”,  “[It’s about] my own experience with a guy I liked”, and “I may be 16 but I’m chasing my goals.” Bless.

7.  Sheppard.  A true (does that mean fake?) Eurovision contender here – one band member wore a crown and blue hair, another gamely donned a sequinned mini dress and strummed a guitar. On My Way gets an average 2.5 Song Points but the whole effort gets 4.5 Euros. Their Euro quote is suitably odd. “We’re actually siblings”. Hmm.

8.  After banging on and on about his nonna, Alfi (on no! Ayden will be angry), an over-muscled narcissist, sang To Myself (no surprises there). Lyrics included the lines, “I can’t blame nobody else. Did I do this to myself? It was wrong”. We think he was referring to his astoundingly complex facial hair. Finishing with a seductive look to camera, Alfi gets 0 points and 0 points. Alfi’s quote is beautiful- “It goes down into the roots of my teenage years and struggling with my sexuality”.

9.  Kate Miller-Heidke (see main image).  Now, this is Eurovision.  It is no spoiler to tell you that Ms Miller-Heidke won the Australian final and is odds-on to win the whole thing. Wearing a 12 foot high Statue of Liberty get-up and doing a fabulous squeaky impression of that other Kate – Bush – she fake-operetta’d her way through Zero Gravity, backed by a dark shadow witchy person on a bendy stilt. Again, there is nothing new in Eurovision and we were reminded of Estonia’s Elina Nechayeva in Lisbon in 2018. Kate is not the opera singer she thinks she is, but she IS Eurovision, also giving us the grown-up version of one of Leea Nanos’s Euro quotes (Leea is 16), “it uses the metaphor of a bad relationship”. But that’s not Kate’s Euro quote, her winner in that category is another Eurovision compulsory, “It’s a hard song to sing”. 5 for the song and 5 Euros.

10 – Tania Doro.  Poor Tania.  She had to go on after the dark shadow on the bendy pogo stick…also she is too old for Eurovision.  (Leea Nanos is only 16.) Tania’s song, Piece of Me was ok, as was her voice. 2 points for that. 2 Euro points for the weird fat dancers and asymmetrical purple pant suit. Tania’s Euro quote though is a Eurovision rhinestone!! “We’ve had quite a bit of interest from it including JLo” and the ever-wonderful, boast “…as a working mum…”.

Left to Right above then Left to Right below: Kate Miller-Heidke; Mark Vincent; Electric Fields; Courtney Act; Alfi; Ayden; Leea Nanos; Ella Hooper; Tania Doro; Sheppard.

SBS did a terrific job.  Joel and Myf are likeable, although Myf was nervous. Julia Z and Sam P were missed.  The show was snappy and awkward, glitsy and quick.  In particular, the voting was mercifully fast, although we would have enjoyed some Face-time links, “Hello from Pymble and thank you SBS for a great show….”  4 Euro points.

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Bohemian Rhapsody (by Lesley-Ann Jones)

“Bohemian Rhapsody.  The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury” (by Lesley-Anne Jones) (1997; recently re-issued)

This biography (not to be confused with the 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody – click here for our review) is a sympathetic look at the life of the Queen front-man, from his lonely boyhood as Farrokh Bulsara, diligent Parsee schoolboy at an Indian boarding school, to his lonely death at age 46 as Freddie Mercury, adored British rock star. Some of those from his Zoroastrian background do not see this as an upward trajectory – his cousin Diana said, “He gave up his family name.  He did not live like us.  He was nothing at all to do with us.  He never came back.  He wasn’t proud of Zanzibar.  He was a stranger.  He was of another life.”  Certainly, Freddie kept his sexuality and the more sordid aspects of his lifestyle from his conservative parents as well as he could, although it is hard to believe that they were as naive as he hoped.  They could read the newspapers, after all.

It’s always a mistake to call a biography “definitive”.  (See our review  of Gold Dust Woman : The Biography of Stevie Nicks although Jones’ book is much better than Davis’s).  Several earlier biographies are mentioned by Jones, “Mercury and Me” 1994, by Mercury’s partner Jim Hutton (and Tim Wapshott) apparently is an undignified tell-all about their sexual practices and Mercury’s final days.  This one, although not “sanitised” sufficiently to horrify Sacha Baron Cohen (see review above), is light reading and not sensationalist. It is kind and generous to Freddie, who although kind, generous and polite himself, could be vicious and demanding – not surprising given that he was part of a multi-million dollar business which sent tens of tons of equipment by sea and air in advance of international dates.

The pivotal place of Mary Austin, an early friend and former lover, in Mercury’s life is well-documented. The image of Mercury in his long-haired, velvet-and-satin bohemian days lunching with Mary in the Rainbow Room is too much for this Biba aficionado. Mary was with Freddie until the end, finally as a sort-of paid friend and hard-edged keeper of the door. It is suggested that in part she used Mercury’s guilt about having not fulfilled his promise to marry her to retain her closeness. Mercury’s liaisons with Jim Hutton and countless nameless men are well known. Less well-known and surprising is his relationship (and yes, it was sexual) later in life with Barbara Valentin, a plump, middle-aged former actress whom he seemed really to have loved.

Jones’ book suffers from the fault of all biographies written by an “I was there journalist”, who really wasn’t there all that much. A breathless piece in the Introduction details the conversation Mercury had with Jones and other journalists who happened to be in the same pub (Mercury having apparently not yet “sussed” them). Jones –  “We were keeping a lid on it. Trying to be cool. Willing the killer instinct to subside, the one that would have had us flying at the phone to call our news editors with the scoop of the year, that we had rock’s most sought-after showman cornered in a foreign boozer; we swallowed a couple more shots and waited.  This was a priceless opportunity”. And the off the record – until now – scoop?  Freddie ‘mused’, “I’ve created a monster.  The monster is me.  I can’t blame anyone else.  It’s what I’ve worked for since I was a kid.  I would have killed for this.  Whatever happens to me is all my fault.  It’s what I wanted.  It’s what we all strive or.  Success, fame, money, sex, drugs – whatever you want.  I can have it.  But now I’m beginning to see that as much as I created it, I want to escape from it,  I’m starting to worry that I can’t control it, as much as it controls me.”  Freddie, no more naive than his parents, could read the papers too.

As is usual in this sort of biography, there is a lot of regurgitating of things said by the subject’s fellow band members, family, assistants, managers, hangers on and other musicians – usually not to Jones herself.  Oddly, photographs of Jones with these types of people (none with the subject of the book) are included in the photos. These, and other pictures should have been excised and the money saved spent on better quality paper.

Criticisms of the book have included the claim that it jumps around time-wise. That is so, but typical for this kind of soft biography. There are a helpful Chronology and Discography and an unhelpful Index at the back. A list of the major players would have helped, as the various sound engineers, managers, PR people, musicians and accompanists quoted are difficult to differentiate. Perhaps Jones should not have asserted that in the film to be made after publication of her book, “Freddie is played by Borat and Bruno star Sacha Baron Cohen…”

From this reviewer’s personal point of view, it is surprising that there is no mention of Queen being booed off the stage in Victoria, Australia in 1974 (“go back to Pommyland, ya pooftahs”).  Nor is there mention of Queen’s tour of Australia in 1976, which the reviewer knows happened, because she saw them on stage in Adelaide on the 15th April that year.

Naturally, a book about Freddie Mercury will contain much about his sexuality and partiality for orgies. This is not a book for musicians, but perhaps a little more about the actual mechanics of Queen’s music and Mercury’s talent would have brought it up a stage.

This seems a lot of criticism for a three star book. Do not let these fore-warnings deter you if you are a Queen devotee or simply interested in the horrors of the rock world.  It is an ordinary rock biography, just a cut above average, unlike its subject. On other hand, it is charming and fast-moving, like its subject.

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Seiobo There Below (Laszlo Krasznahorkai)

Whereas Krasznahorkai’s  The Melancholy of Resistance  is a profound and hilarious whole, Seiobo There Below is a profound and melancholic collection of vignettes.  Each of the 17 short fiction pieces (numbered on the Contents page according to the Fibonacci sequence*) captures the inexpressible numinosity of artistic creation, the quality that lies just beyond our ken.  Krasznahorkai contemplates the ineffable in a heron’s stillness, the impossibility of comprehending the Acropolis, the ritualistic carving of a theatre mask, the never-resting practise of Noh, the magnificence of the Venus de Milo. A man’s insanity becomes manifest upon a viewing of Rublev’s Troika (or is it a copy?):-

“…and he also saw how in the middle of the big painting, and to the right, the colours were somewhat faded; then there was the staircase again, but now it was winding downward, and the gold leaf on the pictures gleamed, but what disturbed him the very most was that in between all of these simultaneous pictures flashing again and again were the three angels, as they bent their heads to one side, or more precisely, as the middle one and the one on the right bent their heads toward the one on the left, who bowed his head toward them, then all three of the angels looked at him, but just for a second, because almost immediately they disappeared only the colors remained, the luminous blue and crimson of their cloaks – of course not just any old luminous blue or any old crimson, if these were even blues or crimsons at all, he wasn’t even sure of that, and not even sure that it was even colors that he had seen, he wasn’t certain of anything at all, because they just flared up and then flashed away, but in such a way that the other pictures were flaring up and flashing away at the same time, with such speed in his head…”

The expression of an ancient statue of the Buddha restored in the most minute details is more than the sum of its parts –

“…the only problem is that when Master Fujimori stands behind the back of the young restorer and leans forward above his shoulder to examine the head and the two eyes, the words choke in his throat; the eyes, that is, really are finished, there can be no doubt to an expert, as Fujimori is himself, that his subordinate spoke correctly, the restoration of the two eyes is complete; it is, however, difficult to say exactly how this can be known, yet in any event, it is sufficient merely to look at the head of the Buddha affixed to Koinomi’s worktable, the diadems are still not screwed back into place, as someone else at another table is stabilizing their surface; it is enough to cast one glance to know perfectly that Koinomi is speaking the truth – the gaze is exactly what it should be, as it might have been originally in that year, sometime around 1367, when an unknown artist sought out by the Zengen-ji or recommended to them carved it; someone standing near the back formulates this thought in a muted voice when, at Koinomi’s announcement, everyone gathers around Koinomi and the workshop director: the gaze has ‘returned’ and everyone is visibly in agreement; indeed, captivated, they stare at this gaze, this look that ascends from below the two half-closed eyes, the gaze of this looking…”

The best pieces are those concerning Japanese rituals.  Krasznahorkai (being himself a master of meticulous detail) depicts the ponderous attention to minute details of half-understood traditions in looping, glittering streams of breathless prose. Krasznahorkai does not wear his learning lightly.  The stories can be difficult to read, replete as they are with the knowledge of painting, sculpting, and theatre that the author must have researched to the quantum level.

Stellar.

[We had to look up “Fibonacci sequence” – each number is the sum of the two preceding ones, starting from 0 and 1 – Ed.] Continue Reading →

North by Northwest

January 5, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Classic Film, FILM, THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Staged at Adelaide Festival Theatre, 4 January 2019 (Directed by Simon Phillips)

(1959 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

Everybody knows the story: Manhattan Ad-man Roger O. Thornhill is mistaken for a (non-existent) government agent, kidnapped, framed and chased across the country by Cold War heavies. Hitchcock’s romantic thriller is a classic, featuring legendary scenes such as the interlude on the train to Chicago between Thornhill (Cary Grant) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), the attack on Thornhill by a crop-duster, and the chase over the Mount Rushmore monument. And besides Grant and Saint, there were James Mason as a suave villain, Martin Landau as his lethal secretary, Jessie Royce Landis as Roger’s doubting Mum, and Leo G. Carroll as the Intelligence Chief.

Even with the magic of film, this big production created difficulties and blew-out the budget. Although the Director was one of the greatest handlers of film that ever lived, there were a number of hurdles and exigencies. For example, the authorities banned Hitchcock from filming any scenes on the monument, after some locals grumbled. But Hitch had MGM studios as a backdrop where he could fabricate outdoor locations, and he also had real New York and Chicago locations to boot. It made for a lush, grand, suspenseful adventure in the old style, reminiscent of The Master’s films The Thirty-Nine Steps, Notorious and To Catch a Thief, and it was one of his biggest successes.

Cue the Kay + McLean Production of North by Northwest on stage at Adelaide, a play of the film (reversing the norm) adapted by Carolyn Burns, directed by Simon Phillips. If one is familiar with the film, and we are confident most of the large audience last night were, the challenges of a stage version seem daunting, not only due to the large number of scenes, the dizzying pace, and technical problems with sets, but also the memory of the film’s lead’s charismatic quality. TVC is relieved and pleased to say that these challenges were well-met indeed. From the homage to Saul Bass’s titles, presented in semaphore by the entire cast at the start, to the cliffhanging finale, it was clear that the players were going to have fun with it, and eventually they carried-along even the staunchest of curmudgeons in the crowd.

Of the cast, we have to shout a well-done for the sheer energy, poise and technical skill displayed. Apart from Matt Day as Thornhill and Amber McMahon as Eve, and the key villain Philip Vandaam (Jonny Pasvolsky), in the main the others had to take on a staggering raft of walk-ons and offs, bearing with them the infrastructure for the frequent scene changes. We can’t recall such frenzied stage kinetics since The Last Confession, and this was even faster. The roles were all done well – we had concerns with Day in the first half, who seemed tentative and ill-at-ease, but this may well have been deliberate playing, an everyman out of his depth – he was more assured and satisfying after interval. McMahon and Pasvolsky were splendid as were Tom Davey (the oily Leonard), and Nicholas Bell, playing almost everyone else. But, really, the whole cast was terrific.

Ernest Lehman’s original script is hardly changed – some extraneous touches here, some superfluous exposition here, but the additions didn’t detract and the subtractions didn’t matter. Bernard Herrmann’s glorious score is retained, and some scenes from the film serve as useful prop devices. There is no way you can render the story realistically on stage, so the producers made a virtue of necessity and revealed the normally hidden machinery. And what ingenious and amusing machinery it was, often simple, sometimes breathtaking, a featured player in itself! The scenes involving planes, trains and automobiles were inspired, along with the various dramatic spaces, exits and entrances. The famous crop-dusting episode, with its conflagration, was both hilarious and sensational. But whoever dreamed-up the theatrical solution to the various problems in staging the Mount Rushmore scenes deserves a Tony, an Olivier and a Helpmann Award for that alone.

All in all, this was great fun, a worthy proof of live theatre, and made a most entertaining evening. Mr. Hitchcock would have been impressed.

Thankfully, they didn’t miss the bus with this one

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The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

January 3, 2019 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Comedy Film, Drama Film, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(2018)

Lanthimos’s Anne (Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland from 8 March 1702 to 1 May 1707, and thereafter of Great Britain and Ireland to 1714) is bloated, dull and not fit for purpose.  Just like his film about two women’s rivalry for her favour.

We decided to give The Favourite 2 stars, calculated as follows:

+1 star because we love you, Yorgos, for The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer;

+1 star for effort;

+1 star for most of the performances (in particular, Olivia Colman as Queen Anne);

+1/2 star for the black, white and grey costumes;

-1/2 star for allowing Mark Gattis to pretend again that he can cope with serious roles (sensational though he is in the black comedy League of Gentlemen);

-1/2 star for the ravingly silly ending; and

-1/2 star for the plinky plinkety-plink-plink music.

“May I guess? We are amidst a Peter Greenaway production…”

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