Theft by Finding

April 12, 2020 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Fiction, LIFE, Non-Fiction, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

By David Sedaris (2017)

Having caught his act just before plague was upon us, TVC thought it a lucky ‘Rabbit Rabbit’ move to read his paean to serendipity, Theft by Finding. These are diaries kept by him (much winnowed; the originals comprise 8 million odd words, or 8 Clarissas) from 1977-2002 and as he so rightly argues in his introduction, diaries – proper diaries, the best diaries (Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank) – are written to find oneself, never with an eye to publication.

From his wastrel twenties to his successful mid-forties, his circumstances change but he hardly does, either in style or outlook, suggesting heavy edits of the early stuff. But the diaries (approached by us initially with dread, as with all diaries) are fascinating and compelling, deadpan funny in the most rough-and-tumble way.  A good review of the book in The Guardian was preceded by the following sub-title or watermark: “The humorist’s material includes drug addiction, crazy jobs, his eccentric family and homophobic abuse – but much is achingly funny” which seems to us a deliberately virtuous fudging, in that the drugs, squalor, insane relatives and aggressive sexual weirdness are all achingly funny.

We recommend a reading of this from go to whoa, and you see a life unfolding in a sort of real time, camouflaged but not blotted-out by a myriad distractions and situational cul-de-sacs. Or you can read it in a random fashion, like digging for truffles; it is a rich field. Some examples we hope suffice to demonstrate the point:

I’m in a seafood place drinking coffee. I need to get to Raleigh, but so far rides are sparse. I have a joint and $3. I remember being appalled when David Larson hitchhiked to North Carolina with $1 in his pocket, and now here I am. I started the day with a ceramic pig but abandoned it after it got to be a drag to carry.” (Dec. 1, 1977 West Virginia)

While listening to a country music station, we heard a talk/song narrated by our flag. “I flew proudly at Iwo Jima and on the blistering deserts of Kuwait, anywhere freedom is threatened, you will find me.” The flag recounted being torn into strips to bandage wounded soldiers and then it explained how it hurts to be burned and trampled by the very people it works so hard to protect. When given a voice, our flag is not someone you’d choose to spend a lot of time with.” (Oct. 28, 2002 New York)

The woman at the phone company addressed me as “Mrs Sedaris” until I couldn’t stand it anymore and corrected her. That always happens. They think I’m a woman – a woman named David.” (Jan. 13, 1982 Raleigh)

Harry Rowohlt, the fellow who translated my book into German and is reading with me on my tour, told me that when someone on the bus or at a nearby table in a restaurant talks on a cell phone, he likes to lean over and shout “Come back to bed, I’m freezing.”” (May 18, 1999 Cologne)

Last night I went crazy for marijuana. I was Jack Lemmon tearing up the greenhouse in Days of Wine and Roses. I looked for (and found) pot in the folds of album covers I had used to deseed long-ago ounces and quarters. I found some under the sofa cushions. Then I pulled out the couch and looked under the radiator. I turned the place inside out and got a little stoned but not much.” (Feb. 15, 1982 Raleigh)

Last night, after finishing the cabinets, I went to the little market around the corner for beer and found $45 on the floor in front of the checkout counter. I thought I’d dropped it, and by the time I discovered it wasn’t mine, I was back home. First thing today I went out and blew it. I bought: 1. two pounds of goat meat 2. more beer 3. Fires by Raymond Carver 4. the New York Review of Books 5. hardware 6. groceries 7. a magazine called Straight to Hell in which gay men recount true sexual experiences, many of them outdoors and in cars or under bridges” (Jan. 22, 1984 Chicago)

I’d never noticed that Ronnie had a mustache, but still it upset her. When she got home she told Blair, who said she’d probably feel better after a shower and a shave.” (July 4, 1988 Chicago)

I will never again drink at a party I am hosting. I will never again drink at a party I am hosting. I will never again drink at a party I am hosting.” (Jan, 15, 1989 Raleigh)

Walking down 8th Avenue, I fell in behind two muscled gym queens. When a a car alarm went off, one of them turned to the other, saying, “That’s the Puerto Rico national anthem.” “Really?” the other guy said. “That’s actually their anthem?”” (Sept. 4, 1992 New York)

Meanwhile, channel 13’s Nature special was devoted to cats. Hugh and I switched back and forth from musical to musical to the mother calico teaching her young to hunt. It’s a lesson that Dennis, our cat, apparently slept through.” (Feb. 10, 1998 New York)

The teacher threw a lot of chalk today, but none of it at me. We have a new student, a German au pair, and I wonder what she must think, watching people get yelled at and hit with things. Our last homework assignment was handed back, and though I’d technically made no mistakes, she still found fault with it. I’d written, for example, “You will complain all the time, day and night.” Her comment read, in angry red pen, “Pick one or the other. You don’t need both.”” (Sept. 14, 1998 Paris)

On the way to the bookstore I asked Frank, the escort, what he thought of my bow tie. He hesitated for a moment and then said, “A bow tie tells the world that the person wearing it can no longer get an erection.”” (June 13, 2001 San Francisco)

I think in Hungary they give a star for electricity, a star for heat, a star for running water, and so on. The fourth star signifies that the Astoria has cable TV. They boast forty channels, not mentioning that twenty-three of them broadcast the exact same programs. Our hotel is fronted in scaffolding, and our rooms offer a view of a mangy, narrow side street. The one thing they excel at here is stoking the furnace. It’s below zero outdoors, while inside our rooms we could roast chickens by leaving them on the nightstand. There’s a large group of French people at the hotel and I heard one woman saying she’s so heat-swollen that her rings no longer fit.” (Dec. 17, 2001 Budapest)

Little, Brown forwarded an envelope of mail, and I realized after reading it over that every single letter wanted something from me. The senders included: a college student writing an article on magazine readership. “I’m on deadline so email me as soon as you get this!”…an Indianapolis  human rights group wanting me to attend their rally. “Your agent says you haven’t got the time, but I suspect you do.”“(March 9, 2002 La Bagotière)

Dad has rented an apartment to Enrique, one of Paul’s employees, and Enrique’s mother…She’s in her early sixties and was recently hospitalized for depression…it’s hard to adjust when you have no friends and can’t speak the language. Dad decided that her problem was low self-esteem. Work would make her feel needed, so he hired her to scrape paint. It was only a two-hour job, a $16 opportunity, but after ten minutes he snatched the tool from her hands. “This is how you do it!” he yelled. “Like this.” When she failed to catch on, he screamed at her all the louder. “Oh, get off it. You know what I’m saying.” The episode left her more depressed than ever, which, Paul says, is the way it works with the Lou Sedaris Self-Esteem Program. “You’re a big fat zero is what you are, so here, scrape some paint.” A foreigner will learn the phrases “Can’t you do anything right?,” “Everything you touch turns to crap,” and “Are you kidding? I’m not paying you for that.”” (June 13, 2002 London)

Theft by finding

[And by the way, with the profoundest respect, the diarist is wrong: The Wire was overrated.] Continue Reading →

The Madness of Crowds

(The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray) (2019)

Murray’s enjoyable book is a start. A comprehensive book on the madness of crowds would comprise a 100-volume set, and require Edmund Burke as co-author. Why, this book doesn’t even analyse the French Revolution! Instead, the author takes to task those modern curios, identity and ‘intersectionality’, explains how the current thinking is to ‘unlock these oppressions’ after which something will happen (but what that is, no one is sure – modern Marxists being like the dog who chases the stick – once gathered, what next?) The work is largely impressionistic but then, we are dealing with the so-called social sciences.

Murray’s focus is the gridiron of modern identity – Gays, Femininity, Race and Transsexuals. While much of the discussion and the many illuminating cases he offers seem part of a long historical thread, some new wrinkles are posited; the End-of-History resurgence of Marxism and its mission to turn the post-neo-mercantilist world into a toxic, irrational confusion; and social media noise, with its concomitant rushes to judgment and rejection of forgiveness. (Incidentally, Murray correctly notes that rushes to judgment, coupled with the lack of clemency, when proven wrong, never evoke an apology, even and perhaps especially if once widely held and supported; only silence. So it is possible that climate-doom sceptics, and maybe Cardinal Pell, will await amends in vain.)

Murray identifies a new strain of an ancient social phenomenon. It is not that we are being fed some new ‘ism,’ but rather we are invited (putting it mildly) to accept black is white as a matter of fact as well as faith; “we are being not just asked, but expected, to radically alter our lives and societies on the basis of claims that our instincts all tell us cannot possibly be true.’’ Old hat notions and nostrums of objective truth are replaced by a new existentialist paradigm, because truth is a ‘construct’ of the ‘Euro-West,’ as students at Claremont McKenna College in the U.S. put it. And we suffer “ever fiercer campaigns and ever more niche demands.’’

Whilst some on the left side of the spectrum might scoff at Murray’s sense that “something strange and vaguely retributive is in the air,” you don’t have to be a contented, ‘privileged’ white male to catch the strong whiff of leftist payback. Murray cites plenty of evidence that identity has become the new weapon in the power struggle, with ‘class’ transmogrifying to ‘privilege.’ And in an interlude entitled ‘The Marxist Foundations,’ he uncovers the fraudulent and hypocritical theory underlying these new trends. Perhaps cruelly, he quotes gobbledygook from gender or race ‘theorists’ to show how their impenetrable verbiage is, at a certain level, fraud. And he draws a comparison between the pile-on against a white actor trying to defend “coloured actors’’ when he should – for shame! – have said ‘’actors of colour,’’ as against people (using phrases such as ‘cancel white people’ or ‘kill all men’) let off the hook because they come from the woke end of the spectrum.

Even more interesting are the examples where collisions occur at the oppression intersection. Just as claims of human rights violations happen in inverse proportion to the number of human rights violations, there is an increasing number of examples of intersectionality, like an alligator, eating its own. The female academics and journalists vilified and hunted-down for daring to suggest that cutting one’s dick off doesn’t let you say ‘I Am Woman,’ or at least say it and be taken seriously. The gay businessman sent back to the closet for supporting Donald Trump. The progressive white lecturer run-off campus for not observing an enforced ‘day of absence.’ The aim of ‘problematizing whiteness.’ The religious fervour with which any expressed, tiny doubt, that a 12-year old wishing to transition may just be going through a phase, is denounced as ‘hate speech.’  The extraordinary bias against straight white people of Google’s ‘Machine Learning Fairness’.  Karen White, a convicted rapist who identifies as a woman, being transferred to a women’s prison despite not having gender re-assignment surgery, where he sexually assaulted 4 female inmates. The dismissal of Thomas Sowell’s book ‘’Intellectuals and Society’’ as offering opinions that are “easy for a rich white man to say.” People identifying as things they don’t seem to possibly be.

‘’Easy for a rich white man to say.’’ Thus the review of Thomas Sowell’ s book ‘’Intellectuals and Society.’’

Whilst modern anger has its place, given the various iniquities of humankind to date, its forms of expression are invariably unhelpful. And as Murray shows, the certainty, the ferocity, the virulence, the sanctimoniousness, the aggression of the promulgation of these novel and angry delusions, and the catastrophic claims made in defence of them, are destructive and probably intentionally so. If let pass with the casual attitude we have hitherto taken to attacks on freedom of thought and expression, or even Covid-19, the results could be fatal.

Loathing in Midlothian…”The Porteous Mob” by James Drummond (1855)

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The Anarchy

‘The Relentless Rise of the East India Company’

(By William Dalrymple) (2019)

“Don’t Be Evil.”  The motto of Google, Inc., which has become something of a cocktail-party joke. At least the British East India Company never pretended to run India for the Indians.

There’s a risk in applying contemporary morality to historical figures and events. This is not to say History will be kind to, say, Mao, but a true fair history has to take a walk in the target’s shoes.  In this deep and worthy book, Mr Dalrymple tracks the serpentine path of the British East India Company, the first joint-stock private company to run a country – in fact, an Empire, in fact, several Empires (Mughal et Maratha).

A series of English sorties culminates in Clive, Hastings and the Wellesley boys carving up the sub-continent like a Christmas pudding, robbing its rich resources and sending a fortune home to Blighty. It is a well-researched and well-told tale, but the author is so much on the side of the natives that he seems to overlook the fact that it was basically the decadence of the various dynasties that opened the door to the commercial marauders in the first place.

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The Doctor

March 8, 2020 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | RELIGION, THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Adelaide Festival Theatre (5 March 2020)

(Written and Directed by Robert Icke; adapted from the play “Professor Bernhardi” by Arthur Schnitzler)

This piece is a playground for ethicists, a sociologist’s paradise, and a nod to Lord Melbourne, who said of Macauley, “I wish that I was as sure of any one thing, as Tom Macaulay is sure of everything.”  Whilst a contemporary adaptation of a 1912 play, set in the antisemitic and ferociously Catholic Austrian Empire, takes hostages to anachronism, the dilemmas raised remain fresh and probably insoluble.

Dr Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson) is the founder and head of the prestigious Elizabeth Institute (in the original, named after the Empress Elisabeth, now conveniently apt for the English monarch), which works towards a cure for the raft of brain maladies we call dementia. She is brilliant, precise and – pardon the euphemism – she does not suffer fools gladly.  She refuses admission to a Catholic priest (Jamie Parker) who has come to give the last rites to a 14 year old girl (at the request of her parents) dying from sepsis caused by a botched abortion. The Priest and the parents obviously believe that “these sacraments provide the forgiveness of sins, help the individual to prepare for death, and bring peace and courage to the sick person as the Holy Spirit guides them on their final steps to eternal life*.” We don’t know what the patient believes but we know what Dr Wolff – a woman of science, a Jewish unbeliever – thinks of it all.  She has no sign the patient wishes for this and fears it will disturb her right to a peaceful death. Thus she imitates Gandalf at the Bridge, such that ‘none shall pass’, and so the patient passes without the benefit of extreme unction, etc.

The parents complain. The matter goes ‘viral’ as things always did, and do these days only more so. The Institute’s Board is concerned. The Executive is all a-flutter. Dr Wolff thinks it a storm in a teacup but her colleagues – jockeying for position, anxious about the damage to institutional reputation and funding – don’t circle the wagons so much as throw Dr Wolff under them.  The Doctor, meanwhile, sticks with the “Never apologise, never explain” rule.

The Second Act starts with a Q & A style programme where Wolff is fed to the wolves of a TV panel, the most ill-advised participation of its kind since Prince Andrew sat down before the cameras.  She wants to assert the primacy and purity of Hippocrates but her inquisitors are off into other issues, of gender fluidity, power imbalance, racial-identity politics and ‘intersectionality.’  The trolling continues apace, and gets physical: the patient’s father gives her a punch on the snout, her car is daubed with a swastika, her cat is given some amateur surgery and her house is assailed with bricks. The doctor is rusticated from the Elizabeth Institute, struck-off the medical register, and, with nothing to fall back on but her own resources, finds those offer little with which to break her fall.

There is a rich grab-bag of “issues” arising here, including: Was the Priest shoved?/Would she shove a white man?/Is there a Jewish cabal at the Institute?/Would things spiral out of control if a man had barred the door?/Would it have hurt to let the exorcism proceed?  All this is complicated by the toxic mixture of modern identity politics (what Douglas Murray has written of as the ‘Madness of Crowds.’)  Assumptions are constantly made and challenged, going beyond religion to matters of race, gender, class, and ‘privilege.’  For a long time, one feels (with the Doctor) that this noise poses an insane distraction (it recalls the great Elaine May line:  “It is a moral issue and to me that’s always so much more interesting than a real issue.”) This is enhanced by a device that could have been tiresome, but here becomes intriguing – characters are played against type (women take male roles and vice versa; coloureds (whites) play blacks and vice versa) which accentuates the sense of dissonance and confusion.  Indeed, the whole is a sort of entitlement car crash, where ‘rights’ rush towards the intersection, and all the lights are green.

Our essential reservation about the play, which was never less than interesting, is that it lacked synthesis. A morality play, to work effectively, has to cohere in an argument. In widening the scope from the original, there was an attenuation. And the shit-storm hitting the doctor seemed disproportionate, even out-of-date, in such a secular age.  These defects might have sunk or at least damaged the play, but then, we were lucky in the actors’ performances. Anni Domingo was great as the demonstrative bureaucrat in Act 1 and the strident panellist in Act 2.  Parker as the Priest (doubling as the enraged, vengeful father of the patient) was spot-on. Chris Colquhoun, as the voice of reason on the Executive, and TV moderator, was excellent. Liv Hill as the gender-confused tyke that hangs out with the Doctor at home, was splendid. Mariah Louca, Daniel Rabin and Millicent Wong as medical colleagues (and later panelists) were fine, as was Naomi Wirthner as Dr Wolff’s chief antagonist. Joy Richardson was amusing in the Alan Rickman role from Truly, Madly, Deeply, and Shelley Conn was suave as the treacherous Minister.

Save the best for last: Juliet Stevenson is on stage almost for the duration (even at interval), and manages to draw together the strands of a complex and contradictory personality and its trajectory, from her brusque and exasperated displays of invincibility to her initial stirrings of doubt and realisation.  As magnificently rendered by this actor, the Doctor is not a heroine; she is not quite a victim; and she is certainly not the villain as cast by forces beyond her comprehension let alone control.  What she is, and here Stevenson’s skill is to the fore, is a human under considerable external pressure and internal chaos, a catspaw for all the righteous minds and “all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”**

The wood-paneled setting (by Hildegard Bechtler) is simple and uncluttered, refectory-style tables and chairs serving to suggest various hospital rooms, the TV studio, and Wolff’s home; the use of spotlights and freezing of action in moments of violence are well-worn but were effective. The use of jazzy percussion (by Hannah Ledwidge) from above the stage was apposite.  Overall, this was first class, enthralling and moving entertainment.

[* Oregon Catholic Press website.] [** George Orwell, Essay on Charles Dickens.] Continue Reading →


Adelaide Festival Theatre, Friday 28 February 2020 (Directed and designed by Romeo Castellucci)

Mozart thought he was being poisoned by instalments, so that his death would adjoin completion of the Requiem in D minor (K.626). In other words, he was commissioned by the Next World to write his own funerary music. He was obviously paranoid by then, but the ‘anonymous’ commissioning of the work (by an agent of Count Walsegg, who knocked on Wolfgang’s door), and his own serious illnesses, may have informed the beauty and brilliance of the piece: a hotchpotch to be sure, and an incomplete one, but inspirational nonetheless, despite it not striking the ear as particularly sacred, or ecclesiastical, for a liturgical piece. Yet “[t]he total impression remains. Death is not a terrible vision but a friend.”* Actually, parts of the work bordered on blasphemy, at least at the time, when that was a Thing, but its shining virtue, 229 years on, is the glorious music, the musical structure, and the feeling of re-birth and renewal, that is the hallmark of World Art.

At the Adelaide Festival, these aspects were wonderfully rendered. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Rory Macdonald was magnificent, at its very best. So were the singers: Sara Mingardo, Martin Mitterrutzner, David Greco, and Siobhan Stagg, superbly supported by the Adelaide Festival Chorus. (A list of the main credits is below). This alone would have been sufficient (a few other Mozart liturgicals and incidentals were sprinkled in) but we had the added frisson of staging by Romeo Castellucci, that avatar of the avant-garde, which The Varnished Culture had been dreading a little. Castellucci’s vaunted ‘colossal, pioneering, visceral, revelatory imagination’ struck us as quite earthbound at times (at times, literally), but the overall effect of his work, carried out by spirited dancers with ingenious props and flourishes, was delivered, as promised: “a ritual of life and death, extinction and the possibility of rebirth”, in ways which were satisfying and even moving.

Certainly, we had some quibbles. These reflect upon your reviewer more than the Director, perhaps. Some of the tropes were so obvious as to be trite. For example, the battered black automobile of death (see below) that obliterated the cast, all dressed in white – they bounced artistically off the bonnet, one by one, and laid themselves low in the firmament for a dirt-nap en masseTVC had a panic-flashback to the disastrous ENO Don Giovanni, complete with clapped-out Ford Consul, rolling onto the stage.  (For a moment, it seemed Castellucci was unmasked as Calixto Bieto, only with taste).  Dervishes whirling around a maypole may signify the circle of life, of course, but in a requiem mass?  And a full-scale disrobing?  A troubled lad kicking a skull around (it’s been done)? The projecting of things past (cities, languages, architecture, etc., all commemorated in crisp TimesNewRoman font) to remind us of mortality? A faux Pietà? Pondering such touches, we considered them visually impressive but thematically silly.

Nevertheless, these jarring notes were dissolved in the fluid state of the whole, with the overall effect dreamlike and thought-provoking: The stark opening with an aged lady abed, a nearby discarded orange symbolic of past fertility; the rear wall a backdrop for splashes of colour (by lighting, paint, dirt, and so on) that ultimately tilted to dump its accumulated detritus onto the stage, as would a gravedigger; the dancers in full attire, marching or skipping in formation; gyrating ‘shakers’ spreading dirt artistically across the length and breadth of the earth’s floor, or dancing around lush, verdant fruit trees; and, at finale, though once again rather obvious and derivative, the cute Tot, alone, centre-stage, doubtless forgetting his lines, who closed the circle of the thesis (vide: 2001: A Space Odyssey).  At curtain, the Festival first-night crowd of the Great and Good (Our current Premier, the former Premier, Festival Director Armfield, Geoffrey Rush, David Marr, et al) rose almost in unison at this highly impressive meld of old and new. Amadeus, possibly the only Catholic Freemason in the history of Music, would have worn a Heavenly Grin.


Conductor Rory Macdonald

Stage Director, Set, Costume and Lighting Designer Romeo Castellucci

Associate Director and Costume Designer Silvia Costa

Dramaturge Piersandra di Matteo

Choreographer  Evelin Facchini

Revival Director Josie Daxter

Costume Designer Assistant Elisabeth de Sauverzac

Associate Lighting Designer Marco Giusti

Chorus Master and Associate Conductor Brett Weymark

Image Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2019 © Pascal Victor


Soprano Siobhan Stagg

Alto Sara Mingardo

Tenor Martin Mitterrutzner

Bass David Greco

Featuring Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Adelaide Festival Chorus and dancers from Australian Dance Theatre.

[*Einstein, Mozart – His Character; His Work (1946), p. 354.]

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The Lost Weekend

February 21, 2020 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Classic Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Billy Wilder) (1945)

An early Wilder classic; one of the first great Drunk Films, and one that has hardly dated in its universal relevance.

A middle-aged drunk can recover an awful lot of esteem by calling himself “a writer” (as this reviewer knows). In The Lost Weekend, Don Birman (Ray Milland) is a ‘drunk-called-writer’, who gives his brother Wick (Philip Terry) and his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) the slip, so he can carve-out a few days to write that novel about his battle with the bottle.  But since Don always struggles with paperwork, he decides to just hit the bottle instead, at home and in visits to his local watering hole, run by Nat (Howard Da Silva).

“As long as you’re up, can you get me a Grants?”

Weekends are short, but this one is too long: Don’s out of cash half-way in, resorting to petty larceny, and he’s hopeless at that as well. He can’t even hock his typewriter because the pawnshops are closed for Yom Kippur. (Oy! How to atone or repent without a little drinkie?) Don gets a charity tipple from Nat and then a loan from an old flame, but he crashes and burns, waking up in the Alco-Ward. There he spurns the tough love on offer and flees “Hangover Plaza” for more liquid pastures.  He’s getting better at larceny; pilfering a whisky, weaving down the lazy avenues, he slinks back to his apartment and settles in: but then the walls start crawling and the bats start swirling as the DTs hit.  We leave Don (in the care of Helen, returned to collect compensation for the pawn of her coat), hovering between hope and oblivion – courtesy of the Hays Office we’ll assume a positive outcome, but we have our doubts.

Beautifully scripted and structured, the movie combines stark and brutal reality with the surrealism of alcoholism (its joys and terrors), and a deep, wise compassion that somehow never lurches into classroom moralising. Dark, hip and witty, the overarching strength of the piece comes from Ray Milland’s astounding performance. From the bon vivant charm one got used to from his previous films as a “light romantic second lead,” to the snarling, desperate, crafty soak after the booze beckons, his is a Jekyll-and-Hyde characterisation both utterly credible and utterly compelling.  (“I’m not a drinker, I’m a drunk!”)

“Nobody’s perfect.”

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Salvador Dali – In Search of Immortality

February 18, 2020 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | ART, Documentary, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by David Pujol) (2018)

Mercury Cinema, Adelaide, 17 February 2020

As Dalí maintained, he was surrealism.  It was probably his only constant in life.  He was born 11 May 1904 in the Catalonian town of Figueres, named (‘reincarnated’) after a brother who had died a year before, aged two, doted on by his mother (who died when he was 16: “the greatest blow I had experienced in my life. I worshipped her… I could not resign myself to the loss of a being on whom I counted to make invisible the unavoidable blemishes of my soul.”)  His father was a martinet, but he allowed Dalí to attend art school where he showed great drawing skills (a talent in which he exceeded all other surrealists and every abstract dauber to hold a brush ever since).

His influences ranged from the classical (Raphael) to the baroque (Vermeer) to Spanish Masters such as Zurbarán and Velázquez, thence to Picasso, Miró and Cubism. His work became increasingly vivid, detailed, and impenetrable; revealing, in Gombrich’s apt phrase, “the elusive dream of a private person to which we hold no key.”

He met and married Elena Ivanovna Diakonova (“Gala”), 10 years his elder, his muse, mother-figure, protector and agent, who seems to have suffered him through the years, in exchange for fortune and fame (there must be compensation for being wooed by a self-confessed charlatan using a love unguent comprised of goat excrement and fish glue). Repudiated by his father (they later reconciled), he and Gala decamped to a fishing hut in Port Lligat, on the Costa Brava, in 1929.  His success enabled him to buy the hut, and then another, and so on, such that eventually, the additions meant, like the priest in “Father Ted,” his house was in a circle.  He added to and decorated his beloved villa over the decades, including the building of a high studio with all mod cons.  It eventually became Camp Dalí:

This documentary has several very good things going for it, and some drawbacks. Of the former, a wonderful array of stills and footage of Dalí and his cohort; sumptuous visual guides through his house and gardens at Port Lligat, the castle he bought and renovated for Gala in Púbol, and his Theatre and Museum in Figueres (where he ended his days on 23 January 1989, listening to Tristan und Isolde, where he is buried, across the street from the church where he was baptised, and up the street from where he was born). There are nice photographs of some of his more celebrated works, and we are given hints about the psychological stimuli behind them (his confused religious feelings, his relationships with his family, the influence of Gala, his need for comfort and succour, his striving after immortality).

We do not get much true biographical detail (hence our little sketch above) and we have even less information about his method, his fanatical egotism, his madness, or his views. Of the latter, we concede that he was wildly inconsistent and elusive about that: much derided by his surrealist colleagues who attacked him from the left, he earned scorn for bugging out of (or returning to) war zones in Spain and France (Orwell wrote of him that “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.”)

The editing might have been a tad tighter – there is repetition without effect, the piece is about twenty minutes too long and the soundtrack is a little slurpy. There’s no particular argument in play; the film takes a curiously passive approach for such a controversial figure. And we could do without the wittering circle of experts…talking in endless metaphysical circles, here on the beach at Port Lligat, there on the terrace at Casa Dalí…in the rooms they come and go, not talking about Michelangelo…One can picture Dalí, the great poseur yet one of genius, delighting in all the attention but inwardly smirking at the faux exegeses on his life and art.

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The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers)

February 10, 2020 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama Film, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(2019: Australian Release February 2020)

If, like us at The Varnished Culture, you’ve pictured yourself tending a lighthouse on a breezy, picturesque island away from the rat race; climbing the steps with a dainty lantern; reading by the fire at night while the rain tinkles against the windows, this film will give you something to think about. [And finishing that novel, as in Poe’s unfinished lighthouse story, or else something like an action / adventure / comedy, perhaps called “The Big Heist” – Ed.]

We saw The Lighthouse with a theatre full of excited film students who tittered and crackled popcorn until two minutes into the film, at which point they were sobered into a silence, from which they did not emerge until they stumbled from the theatre, wondering if being an accountant in daddy’s firm wasn’t so bad after all. For if watching was strenuous work, filming The Lighthouse must have been gruelling. The island off the coast of Maine on which the lighthouse is situated is freezing, blustery, eternally wet. It’s the 1890s. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a newcomer to the trade of  ‘wickie’, lugs coal, digs the frozen soil, cleans the foghorn, scrubs the floors, paints the bricks, tends the sump, hauls oil and empties the chamber pots. The senior wickie, old sea captain Thomas Wake (Willem Defoe) gleefully barks orders and tortures the sullen, almost silent Winslow. Wake alone actually tends the swooping light, which is a kind of deity.

All is black and white, rainy, rocky and oneiric.  From the drawn-out, existential pensivity of the men’s arrival at the foggy island for a four-week (extended) stint, the pace changes to an eccentric, Beckett-like battle between the two miserable misfits, a dance of demented, doomed souls, watched by an evil one-eyed seagull and a ghastly mermaid (Valeriia Karaman). The beam of the lighthouse circles, the men climb the spiral staircase (an example of the golden mean, the only beauty in the movie). The fresh water source is poisoned and Winslow has to join Wake in drinking rum and ultimately, kerosene, day and night. The real, supernatural and delusional become increasingly entangled, as bad weather keeps the relief boat from landing.

The Lighthouse is un-classifiable, brilliantly acted, and unique. Reminiscent of Joseph Losey’s magnificent 1960s power-struggle film “The Servant” (also in black and white) and Eugene O’Neill’s 1912 bleak play “The Iceman Cometh” (published in 1946) and overlaid by themes from Coleridge’s “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner”, it is as dazzling and dangerous as a 1,000 watt globe.

“Yo-ho, yo-ho, a wickie’s life fer me…”

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Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach)

February 10, 2020 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |


Baumbach’s second Academy-Award nominated feature begins with a to-camera monologue by Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and then the same from her husband Charlie (Adam Driver), each telling a mediator what they first liked about the other. The close-ups are inter-cut with scenes from the marriage, all undercut by sentimental music which rises to a cloying crescendo whenever we see the couple – either together, or independently- cosseting their over-indulged, bratty son Henry (who, at eight years of age is rewarded with a present each time he ‘poops’).

The mediator to whom the couple are talking (Robert Smigel) is helping them adjust to the end of their marriage, so it is no surprise to find that the things that attracted them to each other, have deteriorated to the things that drive them apart. The apparent bone of contention is Charlie’s adamantine refusal to consider life any place but New York, where he is the owner of a dinky avant-garde New York theatre and, like Baumbach himself, is too involved as writer, director and producer to see the flaws in his creation. Nicole is tired of acting in Charlie’s theatre and wants to return her hometown and the place where she found some fame of her own long ago – Los Angeles. Beneath this of course simmer the real issues which explode in the best scene of the movie, set in an almost empty room, when the couple’s resentful attempt at negotiation escalates to a brutal excoriation of each other.

Charlie and Nicole flounder about for a while, mistakenly thinking that they can “sort things out for themselves”, but Charlie is too self-absorbed and Nicole too spoiled. So lawyers become involved. Good lawyers, who give wise advice in their individual ways. Papa Bear Jay Moratta (Ray Liotta) is too aggressive, Mama Bear Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) is too cuddly, and Baby Bear Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), although just right, is ignored. The husband and wife hide their respective nastiness behind their lawyers, each acting surprised at a judge-mediated meeting when his or her own version of the truth comes out. Even the judge says he can’t handle it and walks out.

The performances are all over the top: Baumbach lets his cast off the leash. The Grand Prize for most ridiculously flappy and hysterical performance of the year goes to Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s mother, Sandra. The best of the scenery-chewers are Johansson (mainly seen with swollen eyes and dowdy clothes), Liotta as the $950-an-hour attorney (to paraphrase – “If you have any stupid questions, ring my associate”) and Martha Kelly as an awkward, wooden social worker who evaluates and reports on each household to the court – an invasive and unhelpful process.

One of the few engaging and real moments belongs to Merritt Wever as Nicole’s sister, Cassie. Unhappily tasked with serving the Divorce Application on the unsuspecting Charlie at Nicole’s family home, Cassie wavers nervously toward him, hiding the envelope by carrying a pie on top. Bemused, Charlie asks what kind of pie it is. “Pecan” shouts Cassie. At a loss, Charlie asks, “did you bake it?”  Cassie responds in confusion, “I don’t know”.

The movie is rife with the kind of scenes beloved of American screenwriters to show us the passage of time in the homey suburban lives of their anything-but-homey-suburban characters – Halloweens feature, heavy on the hearty kitsch.  The handsome, overwrought couple own a New York apartment, which we suspect they couldn’t possibly afford, and mooch about in a sanctimonious, privileged gloom.  Are we in a Woody Allen movie? It’s hard to care.  Like Nora Fanshaw, A Marriage Story is thin and long, competent but not at all original and overdressed.

[ED.: Sounds more Kramer vs Kramer than Scenes From a Marriage – too bad.  Julie Hagerty has been bad in lots of films – her cameo in Reversal of Fortune comes to mind.  Also, Laura Dern just picked up a Best Supporting Oscar, if anyone cares. TVC recommends you read Married Life instead.]

[Now, here’s a little ditty you can sing to the tune of “All My Friends are Getting Married” by Skyhooks:

Well, all my friends are now uncoupled,

Yes, they’re all growin’ cold,

Out on work days and on every weekend,

No longer doin’ what they’re told.


Well I looked up from my beer the other night

And I saw an old familiar face,

He said “How are you doin’ Pete my boy?”

“Are you still scribbling at the same old pace?”

I asked him why he looked so smug,

He told me he had left his wife at last,

Held his phone up so I could more easily see

His crop of contacts till I was aghast.


Well sometimes I feel like I’m left behind

And sometimes I feel like I just left school,

But then again I’m smiling, fine, and grown-up,

Maybe: it’s not me that feels the fool…

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A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles)


In 1922, at the age of 33, the urbane Count Rostov is exiled by the People’s Comissariat for Internal Affairs to the Hotel Metropol, Moscow for life upon pain of death.  He is spared immediate execution only because he is known as the author of a poem in praise of the pre-revolutionary cause:-

“Alexander Ilyich Rostov, taking into full account your own testimony, we can only assume that the clear-eyed spirit who wrote the poem Where Is It Now? has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class – and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused.”

Rather unlikely, you say.  Yes, as are the in-house adventures in which the Count engages over a number of years with the unchaperoned daughter of a Ukrainian bureaucrat. Nina approaches the Count’s table in the hotel dining room when she is nine-years old and blessed with a governess who should be sacked. Nina is a girl of preternatural coolness and curiosity.  This  sequence is most reminiscent of Salinger‘s “For Esme – with Love and Squalor“. The difference is that the Count and Nina remain friends, meeting when Nina is resident at the hotel, the two of them running wild upstairs and downstairs, breaking into suites, investigating the cellars, setting geese free, that sort of thing.

The generally unruffled Count is offended by the decline in the standards of the Metropol resulting from the war and Bolshevism:

Today, the dining room was nearly empty and the Count was being served by someone who appeared not only new to the Piazza, but new to the art of waiting. Tall and thin, with a narrow head and superior demeanor, he looked rather like a bishop that had been plucked from a chessboard. When the Count took his seat with a newspaper in hand – the international symbol of dining alone – the chap didn’t bother to clear the second setting; when the Count closed his menu and placed it beside his plate – the international symbol of readiness to order – the chap needed to be beckoned with a wave of the hand; and when the Count ordered the okroshka and filet of sole, the chap asked if he might like a glass of Sauterne.  A perfect suggestion, no doubt, if only the Count had ordered foie gras!

‘Perhaps a bottle of the Château de Baudelaire,’ the Count corrected politely.

‘Of course,’ the Bishop replied with an ecclesiastical smile.”

The Count (who is suffered to retain his title but not the honorific “Your Excellency”) acquires the Master Key to the Metropol from Nina – yes, unlikely, we agree. And so, even when she is not present, he is free to roam the hotel at will. The intricacies of his life in the hotel as honoured guest, then insouciant captive and finally, expert waiter are entertainingly described in clear and uncluttered prose.

The novel was a best-seller.  Such is its readership’s interest in the elegant suites, the servant’s room with hidden study in which the Count lives for decades, the Shalyapin bar, the Boyarsky restaurant, the behind-the-scenes rooms and even the stairs of the Metropol that the hotel now offers ‘Gentleman in Moscow’ packages, advertised on its website as follows:-

“The Metropol invites its guests to follow the footsteps of Count Rostov, the main character of the Gentleman in Moscow novel by the American writer Amor Towles…Feel yourself in the middle of the novel by staying in one of the Metropol rooms.The offer includes: accommodation in a room of the chosen category…” (“Of the chosen category” – thank goodness that Russia has been cleansed of the corruptions of class.)

The set pieces – the Count’s liaison with a ‘willowy’ actress, meetings with his friend Mikhail Fyodorovich Mindich, sessions tutoring a party official and chance meetings with foreign hotel guests, allow Towles to digress on aspects of Soviet politics and repression.

It would be giving too much away to mention a special (and unlikely) relationship which changes the Count’s life, or to hint at the skillful manner in which Chekov’s guns all come together at the end, providing a satisfying surprise or two. This is a witty and elegant novel, flawed but so are all fairy tales.

[Here’s a review of the Metropol from Tripadvisor : The worst concierge service ever seen!||I am a hotelier in a 5 star hotel in Italy but I have never ever had experienced such a bad, unfriendly un professional concierge service in my life. Please improve this service! ||The hotel is beautiful, the rest of the staff is kind, the service is good too.  But there are many glowing reviews also – Ed.] Continue Reading →

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