Auto de Fe (Elias Canetti)(1935 – trans. into English in 1946)

A surreal representation of pre-World War 2 Mitteleuropa (specifically Germany), Nobel Prize winner’s novel Auto de Fé is an intense and disturbing stew of poverty, insanity and brutality.  Dr Peter Kien, who is (at least in his opinion), the world’s greatest Sinologist, leads a strictly structured, hermetic life of study and paper-writing. He subsists on an inheritance, treating offers of professorial chairs with contempt. Although his housekeeper Therese has shown no attention  at all to Kien’s 4-room library  during the eight years she has lived in his apartment – other than in assiduously dusting it, Kien is enchanted when she pretends interest in a book (“The Trousers of Herr von Bredow”) and marries her. In fact, Therese is virtually illiterate and assuredly insane.

“Her favourite letter was O.  From her schooldays she had retained some practice in writing Os.  (You must close up your Os as nicely as Therese, teacher used to say.  Therese makes the best Os.  Three years she stuck in the same class, but that was no fault of hers.  It was teacher’s fault.  She never could stand her, because in the end she made her Os better even than her.   All the children had to copy her Os.  Not one of them wanted to copy teacher’s Os anymore).”

When Therese (whose chief components are “skirt, ears and sweat”) excludes Kien from all but one room of his library he marshals his 25,000 volumes with a rousing speech delivered from his library ladder. The Buddhist texts flinch from battle. The war does not go well for the Sinologist.

” Later, despite violent shooting pains, he managed to bend the upper part of his body so far forward that he could see a part of the opposite wall in the adjoining room.  Not very much seemed to have altered in that direction.  Once he dragged himself out of bed and tottered to the threshold.  Full of joyful anticipation, he hit his head against the edge of the door frame even before he had looked through it.  He collapsed and fainted away.  Therese found him soon after and to punish him for his disobedience let him lie there for another two hours.  Then she shoved him back towards the bed, lifted him onto it and tied his legs firmly together with a strong cord.”

Kien is finally driven out into the world, willingly assisted by a red-fisted caretaker whose greatest joy is beating women to death, and a hunchback cripple who aims to become world chess champion. Everyone robs Kien blind. (Perhaps this is why the German name of the book is “Die Blendung” meaning, “The Blinding”?  Although of course during an earlier period Kien trained himself to get around most of his apartment with his eyes shut in order not to see the furniture bought by Therese). This middle section of the book – a long mess of extreme violence, fury and weird, dark ambling – is hard to read (leavened only by the humour of Kien’s attempts to save books from being pawned.)  The ending comes as a relief to all.

Aside from being too long in parts, this is a superb, absurd, sometimes funny and always fascinating novel of the ilk of (the more accessible) The Melancholy of Resistance by Krasznahorkai or Moravagine by Cendrars. The first section in particular, is magnificent  Throughout, Canetti’s prose is crisp and his vision profound; deftly translated in the Picador issue by C V Wedgwood.

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David Sedaris

January 20, 2020 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide 18 January 2020)

The Varnished Culture initially knew David Sedaris as the brother of Amy Sedaris, the author of the most sublimely hilarious hospitality book of all time, I Like You. David has shot ahead of his precocious siblings through sheer output, and a rather endearing sensibility. Open one of his books at random – Calypso, say, or the funny-sad Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (we’ll never try to be rude about Jazz again), and you can see a humour that is gentle and yet sharp, generous and yet angry.  (In Calypso, he recounts how his partner and he like to have guests stay – at one of his many houses – but it’s an act, where they pose as the ideal couple. When a lady friend stays and witnesses David losing his rag, he recalls: “after she left I considered having her killed. “She knows too much,” I said to Hugh. “The woman’s a liability now and we need to contain her.”‘)

On last Saturday evening, this small and modest man wandered onto the empty stage before a full house, stood behind an old-fashioned lectern, and read from notes for two hours. Sounds banal, right? Particularly when he comes across as part Woody Allen, part Truman Capote, in a gruesome coat and clown culottes. But the wisdom of his words, the humour in his observations, and the humanity in his voice, won everyone over. He began with a think piece of the type he presents on a US news opinion programme (self-censored) in which he deconstructs the new world of forbidden words – “R”, “N”, “T” etc., and shared two embarrassing examples of misunderstanding – one where a lesbian carried-on with a man for some hetero-action, which guilt-free affair crashed when he used the “L” word – (“Love”), the other where a lady at a signing told Sedaris her partner shied away from the “C” word. “C**t?” inquired David, reactively. “No….Commitment” came the appalled response.

Sedaris delved into his bulging folder of material and pulled out gems at random. All were funny and thoughtful. You don’t need to sign-up to his Lib-Lab, anti-Trump weltanschauung (he’s brilliantly referred to Conservative bow-ties as ‘the pierced eyebrow of the Republican Party’) to love his act; his act would be lovable, one feels, if he were an unrepentant Stalinist or friend of Harvey Weinstein. (As we continually remind ourselves, having read The Righteous Mind, opinion does not = character. And we are none of us, as a former Australian Prime Minister so wisely yet wrongly said, the Suppository of all Wisdom.)

Sedaris took some questions at the end of his performance, but first he selected some poignant and riotous extracts from his 2003-to-date diaries, which will form the sequel to his ‘Theft By Finding; Diaries 1977-2002.‘ He gets a lot of material from book signings; the rest from the world on-line and at large (he likes to visit two countries he’s not seen each year, and recently has shown a predilection for the former eastern bloc). We liked his take on people presenting at hospitals with an object wedged up their bottom, due to some weird ‘accident’: he posited that if he soaked his naked body in oil and held 2 greased pepper-shakers in his hands as he tumbled down the complete stairwell of the Empire State Building, he’d still arrive in the lobby with an empty rectum.  And we also liked his ex post facto mea culpas – he genuinely regrets his occasional offhand rudeness, when frazzled or tired, in response to bland cheesy inquiries such as “How’s Your Day Going?” –  and he had some pretty devastating accounts to offer as to why we should not forget that we’re all members of the human race and that each of us has our own crosses to bear.

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Morning Wars

January 19, 2020 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | POLITICS, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(aka The Morning Show) (Various Directors Apple TV+, 2019)

As Bert Newton once said, “Morning TV? Surely Death is next.”  The Varnished Culture staff are owls, not sparrows, so we’ll take word of mouth that morning news shows offer relentless cheer, soft items, group-think and bonhomie – but deep nastiness off screen.  “Morning Wars” starts and ends as conventional soap opera, but of certain high standard. The proven anchor team – Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) and Alex Levy (Jennifer Anniston) is rent asunder when Kessler – playing every philanderer confused by the #MeToo paradigm, or perhaps just Matt Lauer – is told to hit the bricks for his octopodal sexual shenanigans, and Levy, in a fit of pique disguised as a power play, plucks plucky Bradley Jackson (Reece Witherspoon) – a hack redneck from the sticks who ‘tells it like it is’ and leads with her determined and capacious chin – to be her co-host in the ratings juggernaut that daily awakens the Big Apple.

But Kessler is not going quietly, and the show develops into a kind of glib thriller as to who knew of his harassing and who else will take the fall. Naturally, Mitch’s journey is also becoming self-revelatory; He’s gaining insight, slowly and unevenly, evidenced by his tête-à-tête with old buddy Dick Lundy (a creepily good Martin Short). Mitch fulminates: “This whole #MeToo thing is so fucking puritanical and myopic, and no one is addressing it! A woman can say one thing about you — doesn’t matter what her motivation is — and everything you’ve done in your life, gone. Your career, erased.” But as the two men drink and chat, it seems clear that Lundy is unrepentant. You are actually a predator, and people are going to want you to own that.” “As opposed to — what are you exactly, Mitch?”  Well, at this point at least, we and Mitch don’t know.  

The whole melange is very watchable, like a train wreck or slow-moving floodwaters, but at times it seems like refugees from “The Newsroom” sat amid too many pots of coffee and wrote too many scenarios that they later focus-tested. The sub-plots are endless, the ‘Burning Issues’ too numerous (and casually turfed as soon as one inevitably comes into conflict with another). The production is superb and the acting generally very good.  Anniston seems to have always been a good actress working with abysmal material. Here she shines as paranoid, damaged, devious, and guilt-ridden, an intelligence stultified by years of early-morning inanity. She huffs and puffs a tad excessively though. Witherspoon is parachuted-in as a sort of cross between Eliza Dolittle and Vicky Lester, and that renders her character not so much unbelievable as chaotically unformed. Billy Crudup is good as the Svengali-like director of news and really, from victims to villains to in-betweens, the whole cast play very well.

But the fundamental flaw in the piece is that it is in a civil war with itself.(‘Sic semper tyrannis‘ says fired Director Chip Black for emphasis.) Morning Wars can’t seem to settle on what it is about, or whose side it’s on (which could reflect a balanced approach, but that doesn’t ring true either). The females are almost all vaguely hysterical (”Help me: I’m bi-polar, it’s awesome!”).  All the black characters seem token.  The reportage seems to ignore the golden rule that opinions are free but facts are sacred. And the anger of white people paid millions of dollars a year to read cue-cards, whether they come from the Upper East side or out of the crackerbarrel, is not the stuff of which truly great drama is made.

“Confused? Me Too.”

Your correspondent has learnt a lot from this series:
1. Getting up for work at 3.30 in the morning reeks, and does long-term psychological damage to the human soul.
2. Journalists are more sanctimonious than bishops or bicyclists.
3. The best journalists are never the story.
4. The ways and means of human hierarchies will outlast and outlive any human.
5. News used to tell you what happened, and you had to decide what to think about it.
6. Now news tells you what to think about something and you must decide if it actually happened.
7. Men cannot be alone with a child.  Soon they won’t be allowed unaccompanied near a woman. That’s progessive, if not progress.
8. Women will always need the Patriarchy, or else they’ll simply turn on each other.
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Patrick Melrose

January 16, 2020 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Edward Berger) (Showtime, 2018)

Patrick Melrose is a poor little rich boy with issues.  Why does he abuse substances so spectacularly?  Why such a jaundiced eye towards Mummy and Daddy? Why the failed relationships, the ferocious anger, the lurch at self-destruction?

Well, we do find out. Edward St. Aubyn’s five novel-trajectory of Patrick’s story is compressed into 5 hour-long episodes, starting with a catastrophic journey to New York to collect father’s corpse and get on the junk.  Benedict Cumberbatch has a lovely time as Patrick: he’s flip, witty, manic, and sad. As we whizz, so very briskly, through his redemptive journey, the whole piece seems agreeably patchy and incomplete, like the story of a valued but doomed friend who you see mainly from afar and up-close only now and then.

The lives of the leisured and treasured upper class twits, juxtaposed with Patrick’s alternate cohort of down-and-outs, are jumbled in a myriad vivid scenes. Most of the cast and settings are just backdrop, however: marriages and affairs come and go; people die or disappear – there is little sense that we are delving substantially into anything apart from the interior life of one abusive nuclear family. As to that, the key figures in the series are Patrick and his parents. The Varnished Culture thought Jennifer Jason Leigh was just right as Eleanor Melrose, the wealthy but worthless soak of an American, who finances and fears her husband, the latter being qualified as a doctor, talented as a musician, but entirely occupied as a wastrel.  Mum is the key role in this Freudian saga, and her wretched decline, while unlikely to be to everyone’s taste, is beautifully done.

Which brings us to Hugo Weaving as David Melrose. We’ve seldom seen a more satisfying portrayal of a truly, madly, deeply, wicked man. In the second episode, when we get to meet David in all his odious glory, Weaving manages to scare (and scarify?) with a mere glance, turn-of-phrase, or sneer. Golden moments (such as when, from his French provincial balcony, he gazes ceaselessly, interminably, at the terrified French maid holding a shaking tray, perversely declining to dismiss her from his clutches and her misery; or he chides Patrick for a confected misdemeanour – squishing a fallen fig; or regales his equally atrocious friends with stories from his gruesome past) are here in wondrous array, and then there’s of course worse to come.  We can’t recall having a better time seeing an actor have a great time. The Melrose saga might be greater in parts than the whole, but on the whole, we’ll savour those parts.

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The Unmaking of a Mayor

By William F. Buckley, Jr (1966)

New York may well be the greatest city in the world. The Varnished Culture loves it, as we have said again and again and again and again. But we are unlikely to have loved it in 1965. Then, as erudite Tory gadfly Buckley pungently puts it in his floridly verbose and fascinating account of that year’s Mayoral election, “You can’t walk from one end of New York to the other without a good chance of losing your wallet, your maidenhead, or your life; or without being told that white people are bigoted, that Negroes are shiftless, that free enterprise is the enemy of the working class, that Norman Thomas has betrayed socialism, and that the only thing that will save New York is for the whole United States to become like New York.”

“Fun City” (© NYC Mayor John V Lindsay, his best and as far as we can recall, only joke), was in the 50s and 60s much like its sister, Chicago – a large urban centre with sprawling boroughs, racial and ethnic enclaves, a hierarchy of bosses, and a virtual emperor at its head. Awash with crime, narcotics and under-policing, housing shortages (including ‘affluent ghettoes’ protected by rent controls), inadequate water storage and metering, a colossal and stretched welfare net, failing schools and transport systems, dirty air and waterways, excessive taxes and extravagant spending. Mayor Robert Wagner (not the actor) had ruled over the Democratic stronghold of NYC since 1954. Of his three terms, Buckley writes, “…the trouble in New York was – is – not so much with maladministration as with a frozen ideology.”

Who then to challenge that stasis? After Wagner decided not to run for a 4th term, 3 men stepped forward to vie for the Mayoral robes; Abraham Beame, the Democratic nominee and political heir to Wagner, was a decent if colourless fellow with the advantage of incumbency, union support, and most of the Jewish vote. Also, John V Lindsay, “glamorous” Congressman and R.I.N.O. (‘Republican In Name Only’* as Buckley points out, appending a key portion of JVL’s congessional voting record to the book), representative of New York’s ‘silk stocking’ district (upper East side of Manhattan), whose key selling point was; “He is fresh, everyone else is tired.”  Lindsay had glamour and a profile as a Congressman – even better, he had refused (though an elected ‘Republican’) to support the right-wing Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election, Goldwater being less popular in NYC than the Boston Strangler; hence he could pose as a moderate Republican while garnering support from the left-of-Democrat Liberal Party, while appealing to his own elegant constituency in Manhattan, lovingly lassooed by Buckley as the “densest national concentration of vegetarians, pacifists, hermaphrodites, junkies, Communists, Randites, clam-juice-and-betel-nut eaters.”

And the Third Man? Believe it or not, Buckley himself, the hard-line conservative warrior with no direct political experience. Columnist and magazine (National Review) editor. New England patrician and collector of enemies. Running on the shoestring Conservative Party ticket, he was asked, early on, what he would do if elected Mayor of New York. He replied that he would “demand a recount.”  With that kind of attitude, it becomes clear – in retrospect –  that Buckley wasn’t out to win, but to take some paint off the other candidates, formulate some genuine policy ideas for the flailing city, gain some insight into a political campaign, and perhaps enhance his reputation and editorial platform.

The Book is structured, broadly, thematically and chronologically. After an interlude in which Buckley is “hobgoblinized” and thereby discovers – or purports to discover – “a lackadaisical concern for the truth…[and]…the general journalistic indifference that immediately descends on the discovery that, after all, there wasn’t any scandal there at all, and never mind the incidental victims of the flurry“, a theme that recurs here and there in the book, he reviews the parlous state of NYC and the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of much of the political scene in 1965, compares himself with John Lindsay (well worth a read, for nasty snickers), and deconstructs the touchy issues of race and religion. There follows a rather dry (but thoughtful) summary of the various positions of the 3 candidates on urban issues (race, welfare, crime, transport and so on), and concludes with notes on the campaign and the result of the election.

Buckley dispensed with the usual disciplines and strictures of modern electioneering. He tossed off ideas and bon mots with abandon. However, 10 years of policy work at the National Review (often carried out under spirited debate) enabled the candidate to propound serious policies. Some of Buckley’s ideas appear impractical, some unsettlingly repugnant. However, many were thoroughly sensible – his thoughts on welfare resonate today – and others (such as dedicated bikeways in Manhattan) ahead of their time. Throughout, while Buckley drips with contempt when discussing Lindsay (especially) and Beame, he does offer enough evidence of his rivals’ bromides and lack of hard ideas to justify the following comment in a 2015 foreward to the book by his campaign manager, Neal Freeman; “At first a few reporters, and then more, and then at last the full mewling herd began to concede that maybe, just maybe, Bill’s was a serious campaign. One reporter, the legendary McCandlish Phillips of The New York Times, began to toy with another idea. Perhaps Bill’s was the only serious campaign.”

The book is a terrific read, and in addition, valuable as a primer on political campaigns, an autobiography of an electoral neophyte, a delectable series of poison-pen correspondence, and a relic of mid-century American conservatism, which at the time was thought dead but was merely playing possum. Viewed through the high-resolution retrospect-o-scope, it also presages the shift in politics in the US (and beyond) that Buckley dissects among the voting patterns (though only yet impressively getting 13% of the vote, or 340,000 votes, especially among those later identified as ‘Reagan Democrats’) whereby the Left, always tending to the elitist, has become increasingly exclusively so.

Some of Buckley’s more inspired lines in the book:

“…Mayor O’Brien, whose daze during the entire period was symbolized by his speech to the Greek-American society in which he confessed his lifelong devotion to ‘”that great Greek poet, Horace.'”

But nowhere does one find any identification of Lindsay with a set of ideas designed to deliver New York from the succubi that had been emaciating the city.

“…the point might be made that there is no extant Republican philosophy, and that Lindsay is its prophet.”

Not only have I been unrewarded in the Times, I have not ever discovered, in all of America, from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam, a single “ultraliberal”…”Ultra'” (or “extreme”)…is exclusively reserved (a) for the unfashionable right (e.g., the Goldwaterites), or (b) as a dainty way of handling the Communist left (“the ultraliberal Paul Robeson...”)”

Political leverage tends to gravitate to the wealthy, to the influential, to the organized, to the (upper case) Minority.”

“…it is especially easy to apply a double standard, to disdain the moral and rational powers of the one class of voters – because its choice of candidate is different from your own…” [‘Basket of Deplorables’]

(On a muddled attack by Lindsay); “So help me, I could not believe my eyes. The sheer, utter, hopeless, humorless, philistine fatuity!

I was to learn that punctuality is yet another sign of the non-serious candidate.”

I had …an invaluable advantage, namely that I did not expect to win the election, and so could afford to violate the taboos.”

(After a superb lunch with senior people at The New York Times, unanimously hostile to him, Buckley was asked how he felt); “As though I had just passed through the Berlin Wall.”

Conservatism in America is rather a force than a political movement….I greatly regret the prospective decline of the GOP, because the alternative is likely to be a congeries of third parties, adamantly doctrinaire, inadequately led, insufficiently thoughtful, improvidently angry, self-defeatingly sectarian [in Australia, One Nation comes to mind – Ed.]…[Republican setbacks] might better have been absorbed as a necessary convulsion, a prelude to the crystallization of strong new programs distinctively Republican – bracing, realistic, courageous, strategically adventurous. Such programs at a national level should be delineated; and, if they aren’t soon, by more experienced men, I suppose I shall have to threaten another book, if not another campaign.”


[P.S. After his 2 terms as NYC Mayor, and an abortive run for President (as a Democrat), Lindsay tried acting, appearing in the critically panned Rosebud. Richard Schickel, reviewing the film for Time Magazine, opined; “John V. Lindsay plays a U.S. Senator pretty much as he played being Mayor of New York City – like a B-picture leading man.” – From The Golden Turkey Awards (1980) by Harry & Michael Medved (granting Lindsay the Award for ‘The Worst Performance by a Politician’).] [P.PS. The incisive 1972 political drama, The Candidate, in some ways resembles WFB’s 1965 NYC election (rookie draft pick, no chance to win – say what you like, etc, etc.) Did writer/director Michael Ritchie read Buckley’s book?] [*Think Malcolm Turnbull as a progressive posing as a conservative.] Continue Reading →

Blonde (Joyce Carol Oates)

November 25, 2019 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Fiction, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, WRITING & LITERATURE |

(published 2000)

We at TVC have never been charmed by the pasty, lumpy creature ‘Marilyn Monroe’; the bundle of affected moues, fleshy wiggles and whispers that the Frankenstein Studio reportedly stewed-up from some bits of lovelorn redneck Norma Jean and handfuls of sexpot glamour queen Marilyn.  Other than her almost-acting in “The Misfits” and her quite realistic impression of a starlet in “All About Eve“, her performances are tedious repetitions of wide-eyed Marilyn cooing and writhing her way through a sea of leering men.

So, while we have little faith in Marilyn’s ability ever to inspire, we have much in Joyce Carol Oates’ ability to inspire – sometimes. When she is good, she is very very good. And her ‘biographical novel’, Blonde, is very very good. Oates has said that her interest was in how pretty, illegitimate Norma Jean Baker became the mega-star Marilyn Monroe, dead at 36. How did a poverty-line teenage wife morph into the global sensation who, sans shame or underwear, breathed ‘Happy Birthday’ to her lover, the President, in an obscene nude dress? But in Blonde, Norma Jean herself never ‘becomes’ ,’morphs’ or is ‘made into’ into the ghastly, livid construct MARILYN MONROE (the name in caps by the end of the novel). MARILYN MONROE is a skin that she puts on, requiring years of work, hours of makeup, hair-dressing, costuming, cosseting, dieting, drugs and true acting.

Oates’ sympathetic insight softens her presentation of the cruel ambition which this woman must have used against others. Some may feel that she glosses-over the psychic damage caused by the abuse which the foster child and studio bit player suffered; but Oates’ Norma Jean is not defined by either of these aspects of her personality. Her rise to the spotlight is both a hard-won surprise and expected by her at the same time.

Events of Monroe’s real life are followed in broad strokes. The nameless character standing in for joltin’ Joe DiMaggio is a peasant boor. The Arthur Miller character is treated more kindly – she dumped him. Don’t read this book if you dislike reading unkind words about JFK. Monroe’s famous tardiness and tantrums are a logical consequence of her circumstances, although we can understand why actors such as Tony Curtis loathed her.

Blonde races at the speed of the deadly courier in the first pages. Its’s real page-turner, but it is not pulp. Its few faults are the annoying use of italics and some unlikely inventions – a series of letters, a long-term three-way relationship, but this is fiction after all. The final scene, insidious and lovely, is another invention – but entirely credible.

The early chapters are the less successful passages – unhappy childhoods are all alike (pace Tolstoy – Ed.) – but persist – Norma Jean did. Bravo.

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O Lucky Man!

November 17, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Lindsay Anderson) (1973)

(Seen at the Britsh Film Festival, Palace Nova Cinema, North Adelaide, November 2019)

We still can’t believe we saw this freak-show, so overlong that afterwards you need immediately to check-in to an oxygen tent.  Whilst we rather liked Lindsay Anderson’s If..., the first ‘instalment’ of the Michael Travis ‘Trilogy’ (if that doesn’t sound too grand), as to this sorry excuse for a film, one can do little more than plunder from a review of the generic Anderson approach, written by Clive James*:

If Anderson had brought nothing but his talent to the job, the show would have been all over in five minutes. Luckily he had something more formidable to contribute – the power of his intellect. Anderson is certain that Bourgeois Society is crumbling. His way of conveying this is to give you a close-up of a ceiling cracking. It would be a trite image if it were merely casual, but supported by the focused energy of the director’s mind it attains a pinnacle of banality that can only be called heroic.  Actors love Anderson. They give him everything. Such force of personality is not to be despised. But actors are not necessarily the best judges of a director’s quality…[or of a script, eh, Mr MacDowell? – Ed.]…People like Lindsay Anderson can never learn what people…should know in their bones: that common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.”  [Take note, Warner Brothers – Ed.]

Well, there you have it.  O Lucky Man! is so humourless, so trite and incongruous in every department (including musically – Try “Poor people are poor people – They don’t understand” or “There’s a lot of poor people who are walking the streets of my town Too blind to see that justice is used to do them right down” – haunting), such a chaotic mish-mash of straw targets (Imperialism, Racism, Capitalism, but not Sexism, certainly not an attack on Sexism) for the Director to puncture, such a waste of actors like Malcolm MacDowell, Ralph Richardson, Arthur Lowe, Rachel Roberts, Helen Mirren, Graham Crowden et al, that we’ve virtually nothing to add. So as to justify our own review, here’s some lyrics you can hum along to**:

If you’ve not spent 3 hours, watching this hodgepodge – 

You are a lucky man!

And if you managed its high idiocy to dislodge – 

You are a lucky man!

Actors and viewers and Warners might bleed,

They’re much better off simply reading Candide,

If you’ve got the option, go instead for a feed –

Stay a lucky man!

“You recall ‘A Clockwork Orange’, don’t you?”

[* Review in “The Observer” of The Old Crowd, 4 February 1979.] [** To be sung to O Lucky Man! by Alan Price, 1973.] Continue Reading →

The Aspern Papers

November 17, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Julien Landais) (2018)

“…So Percy Shelley, his wife Mary and their friend Edward Trelawny indulged in a little Venetian ménage à trois…” No, start again.

Shelley washes up from the Golfo dei poeti, in the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea, where his wife finds a portrait and a satchel of early drafts“…This won’t do.

Henry James was bedazzled by European sophistication and scared of its vestiges in formidable and incorruptible women, so one day he decided to revamp Madame Merle and Isabel Archer within a literary mystery of elegant design, where the papers of debauched dead poet Jeffrey Aspern would be pursued in extremely tasteful surroundings.” Okay, we rather like that.

(…But then he found that a nouvelle such as he had done would make an inadequate, ineffectual film, and thereby became demented.)

Alas, yes, whilst this picture is very Merchant-Ivory pretty, with Venice’s gardens, palazzos and watery by-ways featuring heavily, to the swells and swoons of, inter alia, Tristan und Isolde (a very Richardson effort!), it doesn’t seem to hang together very well.

We didn’t mind the playing: Vanessa Redgrave, as Mrs Bordereau, was aptly pugnacious, sharp and suspicious; Joely Richardson as her daughter was coy, a-tad-past-winsome, vague and yet wily; everyone else was dressed beautifully and mooned about in a statuesque manner. 

We did not even mind (too much) the weird playing (and accent) of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in the Jamesian role of literary detective, though we wondered if that was tobacco he constantly puffed or something stronger.  James, after all, is wordy and arch, and so was this. Yet with the crucial additions of dull sluggishness, some of the strangest plotting and mise en scène imaginable, and an abject failure to point-out anything which might excite the vaguest interest in Aspern, his decadence, or his quill-scratched tottings.

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The Double (Jose Saramago)

November 13, 2019 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Fiction, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, WRITING & LITERATURE |

(English translation: 2004)

Secondary-school history teacher Tertuliano Maximo Afonso (almost always referred to by his full name) is depressed and apathetic. He cares little about his work (believing that history should be taught in reverse not forward), neglects his mother, can’t remember what led him to get married, forgets why he got divorced and is trying to dump his girlfriend, Maria da Paz (also almost always named in full). He lives alone and spends most of his free time listlessly plodding through a large tome on Abyssinian history. His only friend, a fellow teacher, suggests that he is out of sorts: I have been feeling a bit low, Health problems, No, I’m not ill as far as I know, it’s just that everything tires me and bores me, the wretched routine, the repetitiveness, the sense of marking time.

The dialogue is all like this – no quotation marks or dashes are used. The reader must pay attention to work-out who is speaking. The effect, together with that of Saramago’s long, looping, orotund sentences, drag the reader along on a kind of dull and pointless trek, rather like Tertuliano Maximo Alfonso’s life. At his almost-friend’s suggestion, Afonso hires a video. The video store assistant sneers at him, in particular at his outdated name. The film (The Race is to the Swift) is a second-rate comedy. Tertuliano Maximo Afonso becomes obsessed with the actor playing a minor character. Does this all sound familiar?   Yes indeed, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso has a double – Giles De’Ath from the marvellous film Love and Death on Long Island (1997, director Richard Kwietniowski)*.

Unlike Dr De’Ath, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso is not fascinated by the actor’s beauty. Rather, he is knocked for a hoop by the actor’s perfect physical and vocal resemblance to himself. At this point we are reminded of Hermann Hermann in Nabokov’s Despair (and, again, a superb 1978 film adaptation by Rainer Werner Fassbinder).

The jacket blurb on our 2005 Mariner edition (translator Margaret Jull Costa) says, irritatingly, that Tertuliano Maximo Afonso is awoken by the VCR replaying the video. This erroneous, supernatural suggestion jars with the tone of the book, which is affectless, bearing a lassitude sometimes suggestive of mental illness.

Tertuliano Maximo Afonso plods off in search of his actor double. Each of them finds the idea of a twin abhorrent and unendurable, particularly the possibility that one is the ‘original’ and the other the ‘copy’. Each is horrified by the prospect of being seen with the other. Their loathing and suspicion compound. The plot, although tortured and peculiar, is consistent with the characters’ circumstances until a point at which it goes off its double rails – rather as if Saramago ran-out of ideas, resorting to sensationalism and leaving plot holes that a double-decker bus could be driven through. The very end does redeem the book somewhat, but by then it is too late.

Saramago’s exploration of identity, self-perception and delusion make this a worthwhile work, but I’d prefer to stick to the originals.

Dirk Bogarde in "Despair"

Speaking of originals, we’ll take Nabokov’s “Despair” where the protagonist seizes the chance to change places with his double (who looks nothing like him).

[*We at TVC must admit to not having – yet – read the source material for Love and Death…,  i.e., the book of the same name, by Gilbert Adair.] Continue Reading →

Russian Roulette

(by Michael Isikoff and David Corn) (2018)

This is an absorbing, readable and – remarkably – balanced account of the 2016 US election and the possible effect of Russian or Russian-sponsored hacking and disinformation.

The existence of actual collusion between the Trump campaign and Putin’s apparatchiks relies on a number of guilt-by-association inferences, commercial ties with Russian oligarchs, and meetings attended by the numerous idiots connected with the campaign. Ultimately, the authors leave open the question both of direct collusion, and of the causative links of Russian meddling to Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

Which is not to say there isn’t plenty of circumstantial evidence as to Russian perfidy: after all, disinformation, sabotage and espionage have been hallmarks of Russians since the days of the Cheka*. And Putin embodies the old saw – “Once KGB, always KGB” (res ipsa loquitur). As the book acknowledges, elections are often targeted by foreign intel – the US has been known to do it, too.

Plenty of folks have misread this book as a damning indictment of Trump and his cohort. Respectfully, this is likely to be a symptom of Trump Derangement Syndrome, the epidemic paralysing the brains of liberals and country-club Republicans alike. In fact, the biggest losers emerging from this squalid story are: 1. The US Intelligence Community; 2. Barack Obama, and 3. the Clinton Campaign.

The FBI et al

American power and majesty, unlike with other empires, do not primarily rest on the keeping of secrets, which the Yanks are not good at. So whilst the Russian hackers got access to the Clinton trove of confidential stuff via the extraordinary lapses of the Clinton Campaign (of which, more below), it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Russkies could have got there by subscribing to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. (Especially since the Muscovite trolls were ‘schooled’ in US politics by binge-watching House of Cards.)

FBI head James Comey, it seems, took seriously a bunch of secret reports by former British spy Christopher Steele, who a decade previously had done good work investigating the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko by Russian agents, but was now ex-MI6, described by his business partner as a ‘boy scout,’ and seemingly galvanised by salacious Rick-James-type stories about Trump getting-off watching lesbian marathons in a Moscow hotel suite (when Trump defended that charge on the basis that he – a germaphobe – would never countenance ‘golden showers,’ it struck us as so insane that he might be telling the truth).

Steele’s 3-page memo, and his breathless follow-ups, were raw, unsourced, florid, and described by an intel agent as “pillow talk.” They seem as credible as Tony Blair’s ‘sexed-up’ dossier on Iraqi WMDs. In any case, the FBI did a sloppy job of looking into the Clinton email scandal, dropped the case and then, sensationally, picked it up again and informed Congress – a week out from the election. That smothered Trump’s ‘locker room talk’ imbroglio that pundits said would destroy his campaign, and Clinton’s late lead of 4.7% was shaved to 2.9% – within the margin of error.

Furthermore, though the FBI, CIA and NSA all had solid evidence “that the Russians were mounting an aggressive and wide-ranging effort to interfere in the election”, there seems to have been a turf-protecting approach by the various intel agencies. Operating from silos, a lack of integration, a failure of imagination, and a certain naivety prevailed. By the time a co-ordinated effort was agreed, to present the evidence and response plans to President Obama, it was August – just over 2 months to election day – and the Commander-in-Chief was holidaying on Martha’s Vineyard.

Barack Obama

The biggest do-nothing President since Eisenhower had clear and cogent evidence of Russian hacking and disinformation, well ahead of polling day. The intelligence services, Congressional leaders, and the Clinton campaign, all wanted Mr. Obama to do something about it. A range of options were presented: Obama ‘shirt-fronted’ Putin at a G20 summit and warned him not to cross the line.

Previously, the President had warned President al-Assad of Syria not to ‘cross the line’ on chemical weapons ‘or else’: Assad unduly crossed, and nothing stopped him. (By then, of course, the US had bugged-out of Iraq and outsourced middle-eastern policy to Putin, paving the way for ISIS and the rise of the Caliphate).

Same here: when national security officials finally presented their evidence in co-ordinated and compelling fashion, that Putin and his running dogs had ‘crossed the line’, Obama, having mocked Republicans in the 2012 election for daring to suggest Russia remained a substantial adversary, took no action, to the shock of his staff and the exasperation of Clintonites.

Hillary Inc.

And how did the Russian hackers and troll farmers get into the DNC and Camp Clinton in the first place? Through Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta! Chapter 5 of the book succinctly demonstrates how easily one can open the digital gate to the barbarians:

“…for some reason Podesta clicked on the link in the phony [sic] email and used a bogus site to create a new password [no doubt, ‘password’]. The Russians now had the keys to his emails and access to the most private messages of Clinton World going back years.”** Yes, and to secret communications of a former Secretary of State and a leading candidate for President of the United States.

The Clinton response to this – ignore the emails, concentrate on Russian / Trump interference – show her to be “ingrained…not to take responsibility, but to deflect” – which sums up the meretricious nature of the candidate. In fact, if you used the description: ‘glib, sloppy, crafty, unscrupulous, boorish, negligent, hypocritical, vain, vindictive, devious, self-obsessed and egomaniacal,’ you could be talking about either Clinton or Trump. Indeed, this book conveys the strong impression that the 2016 Presidential nominees were very much alike.

And the wash-up? There isn’t and can’t be credible evidence that the digital invasion flipped the result – unless you assume Trump voters wear tin hats and willingly take their instructions from Moscow. The Varnished Culture suggested in July 2016 that Trump could win because he was articulating the rage of the American people, and add a fairly unlikeable opponent (with indifferent support from her President) who had a sense of disbelief that she could lose, the result is explicable even without bringing-in the theory of malign revenge by Putin on the woman who had compared him to Hitler and supported economic sanctions against his nation.

The authors have little faith in any of the principals in this saga, but ultimately leave it to Robert Mueller, ex-FBI Director, who had “one supreme passion in life: making criminal cases and putting malefactors behind bars.” (We all know how that turned out.)

In the same case? (Pencil art by Salavat Fidai)

And another thing:

One wise thing said after the election – where the votes were fairly even, narrowly favouring Clinton, but Trump scooped the Electoral College – was that whereas Clintonites and most pundits took Trump literally but not seriously, many voters took him seriously but not literally. Most Presidents put on an act, pre and post election: Trump just takes that to the max. Freddy Gray in The Spectator referred to Trump’s “addiction to Twitter, his rolling-news attention span, the backlit narcissism of his reality-TV presidency.“*** Trump knows he creates a firestorm every time he opens his mouth and thumbs out a tweet – it’s his strategy. And for the past 3 years the Democrats have bitten the baited hook, every time.

It is TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome). People just can’t accept that he won. Angus McIntyre posted this on election day as the result was crystallising: “Just stress-ate 3 quarts of ice-cream, a bag of frozen peas & an entire tube of Crest toothpaste. Also, 2 sachets of silica gel & my phone.” At least Angus was amusing. What about Dianne Feinstein? The Senator announced she would vote against any Trump nominee for the Supreme Court, irrespective of his or her qualifications (Imagine if Trump had nominated someone like Ruth Bader Ginsberg – who, to her credit, attended Brett Kavanaugh’s swearing-in, implying what she thought of the Kafkaesque disgrace posing as the Judge’s confirmation hearing.)

In a way, this describes why there was so much noise about Russian interference after the election – because no-one predicted the result. Mueller opened a can of worms but it lead to no charges. Yet the Democratic Leadership now brings impeachment proceedings based on Trump’s phone call to the Ukraine President (or, more accurately, hearsay about the phone call). The hypocrisy is breathtaking, and the ‘process’ (compared, say, to the Watergate inquiry, which was at least prima facie bipartisan) has already been lashed by that well-known Trump supporter The Washington Post. (Naturally, Trump, having tagged the Mueller probe a ‘witch hunt,’ now calls the Ukraine thing a ‘lynching,’ doubtless knowing this will send the ACLU and others batshit-crazy.)

The accepted interpretation of the law against soliciting ‘money or other value’ re an election is that such doesn’t include information, so Trump’s prurient interest in dirt on Joe Biden’s son, Hunter – unlike ‘Sloppy Joe’s’ apparent boast that as VP he’d threatened to withdraw aid to Ukraine unless they sacked the prosecutor looking into Hunter’s alleged corruption – couldn’t amount to ‘high crimes or misdemeanours’ – and if it did in Trump’s case, a conviction in the Senate – by a 2/3rds majority under Republican control – is only going to stand if no-one turns on a fan.

What it will do is what nobody dreamed possible – get the country to start feeling sorry for The Donald (‘he lowered your taxes, raised employment, and hurt your feelings’), and vote him back in 2020. Nice one, Nancy! No wonder you fought like a steer to avoid the farce of a ‘Trumped-up’ impeachment charge.

[*See “KGB” by John Barron.] [**Russian Roulette, p. 67.] [*** 28/9/2019.] Continue Reading →

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