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.


[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 |


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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December 29, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Adam McKay) (2018)

Take a piece of South Park, stir in a humdrum Michael Moore mockumentary and add a dash of Saturday Night Live, and Voilá!  You have Vice, not the worst film of the year, but certainly the stupidest and most tendentious.  Director Adam McKay, a graduate of Great Valley High School, Pennsylvania, and a university drop-out, once made a genuinely funny film – Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), but he is out of his depth here, directing his own script, designed as a comedic character assassination on a popular hate-figure, Richard Cheney, Vice President of the United States under George W. Bush. ‘Vice’ is used in the sense of an “immoral or evil habit or practice.” McKay previously wrote (with Will Ferrell, who co-produces here) a similar polemic, on Dubya, called You’re Welcome America. Now he has skimmed a couple of books by progressive journalists and thinks himself ready to encapsulate Cheney, a complex, contentious and rather elusive figure.

McKay calls himself a “democratic socialist” (a Trotskyite, in other words) who supports Bernie Sanders, which is why Hilary Clinton gets a dig in the movie, along with the evil Republicans.  It’s their time, what with the current round of political fraying in America and resultant hopeless division, so we guess that this ridiculous, facile, bigoted, devious, dreary, arrogant (and, unfortunately, unfunny) production will be a big hit. In particular, we predict that:

  1. Christian Bale (last seen by us in the disastrous Knight of Cups) will be nominated for an Academy Award for his by-the-numbers playing of Cheney, largely based on bulking-up and talking out of a crooked mouth;
  2. Amy Adams will also be nominated, for her wonderful fright wig;
  3. The Director / Screenwriter will glance at the United States Constitution, but fail to notice that unitary executive theory derives from Article Two of that document, not the inside of Dick Cheney’s head;
  4. He will announce his next opus, a tirade against the Trump administration, entitled Evil Nazis’ Bad Hair Day;
  5. Focus Group Research will be released, confirming that every critic disliking the film is a Russian Spy;
  6. Harry Whittington will appear under subpoena to declare that Cheney, like Aaron Burr, meant to shoot; and
  7. David Stratton will rate ‘Vice’ 5 stars out of 5.

Of the performances, the less said the better.  But we must mention Sam Rockwell, who plays a guileless Bush as he might in a South Park cartoon, obviously by design, and Steve Carell (as Donald Rumsfeld) who gives us mimicry rather than a portrayal. And, for a film posing as an edgy political comedy, it sure does drag. How many times must we see Cheney’s heart on the slab? Or Condi Rice, frowning and flummoxed? How often must Everyman Kurt (Jesse Plemons) bob-up to remind us of Dick’s perfidy?  If you’re going to do a hatchet-job for laughs, why not go further?  If we’d been in charge, we’d have lightened things-up-a-bit: when Nixon and Kissinger are in a closet dreaming-up the bombing of Cambodia, we would have had them spit-roasting an Asian war-child. We’d have had a young Cheney raping librarians at Yale with Brett Kavanaugh. Cheney would give his gay daughter electric-shock therapy. Napalm deer. Pour oil into Yosemite, to drive the price up. Teach golden retrievers to attack African-Americans. Send Mexicans to gas chambers while trying to scientifically establish that Saudis are Honourary Ayrans.

“Only look up clear; To alter favor ever is to fear: Leave all the rest to me.” (Mr & Mrs Macbeth)

The invasion of Iraq was an awful, shameful, strategic blunder, hazarding and dissipating much blood and treasure, and it deserves to be treated rationally, not as a glib and callous simpleton would. This film is therefore not simply an expensive piece of dreck, but a travesty of history, in which we are expected to believe that a Vice President would subvert the Constitution and sanction War Crimes in order to please his wife and advance his business interests, and that he would puppeteer his Commander-in-Chief to direct an invasion of a sovereign nation because the cloak of an actual country to demonise was required.  Perhaps the film-makers truly believe this. But they show no evidence, nor sign of crediting any genuine motive on the part of their targets. In their righteous minds, people such as Cheney and Rumsfeld are not only stupid, but evil. And that’s what takes this film out of the realm of art, despite the high production values, and drops it in the zone of doctrine. True believers will love it.

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The Righteous Mind

December 18, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | LIFE, Non-Fiction, POLITICS, RELIGION, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Or “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion“) (written by Jonathon Haidt) (2012)

Yes, TVC knows that our reviews are not up-to-date: this book was published in 2012 and it is now several years hence.  Note that we reviewed Indoctrinaire (1971) this year, as well as A Farewell to Arms (1929), and Those Barren Leaves (1925) for example. Why, we only got around to reviewing The Brothers Karamazov (1880) last year. So give us a break – especially since recent events across the world (particularly Tr(i)umphalism, Trump Derangement Syndrome, Brexit, the crisis in Syria, and the Yellow-Jacket revolt in France) have made this book more timely than before.

Warning to skeptics: the author is a “social psychologist,” which to many mixes a word freighted in fraud with an arts degree. However, whatever one might say about the qualifications, or the value of the various psychological ‘experiments’ designed to gauge the moral sense of the human animal recounted here, the book seems to be full of good sense, sound evidence and analysis, genuine revelation, a key-to-all-mythologies and a cri de coeur, summed up in its opening quote of Rodney King, “Can we all get along?

Perhaps the only flaw in the work is that Haidt thinks we can.  No we can’t – of course we can’t. Spend half an hour on any popular social media platform, with any decent history book, or watching, say, Glenelg v Port Adelaide or West Ham v Tottenham Hotspur, and you will be forced to the same conclusion. We can learn from each other: we can respect and admire each other: we can even engage in civil argument, but we cannot all get along and never shall.  But it is helpful to have a sound operating theory why, and this book provides it in friendly, learned, accessible terms.

Haidt posits three basic principles: (1) Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second. Many times each day, we tend to conclude something is right or wrong in an instant, act accordingly (whether we overcome our borgeois scruples is another matter) and rationalise or justify our actions later. Lawyers will tell you the majority of their clients seek their opinion on a contract after they’ve signed it. David Hume (1711-1776) concluded that “belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures.” Haidt concurs and offers an apt metaphor – the Rider and the Elephant, whereby reason tries to steer, or at least influence, the passions, with variable success. His instances (whether from anthropology, experimental psychology, Darwin or life experience) are nearly always apt. For example, as to the inner ‘lawyer,’ or ‘press-secretary’ of the passions, he observes “On February 3, 2007, shortly before lunch, I discovered that I was a chronic liar” and proceeds to explain how and why in brilliant and subtle terms.  In essence, we tend to ‘automatic self-righteousness’ rather than listen to our inner Jiminy Cricket). And, after Glaucon (perception, i.e. reputation, beats reality), Haidt shows that we operate in a moral space not so much on rational or altruistic grounds, but “much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”  Hence ‘confirmation bias’ and the warm inner glow of group-think.

(2) There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. We are multifarious (and contradictory), with varied degrees of empathy and ‘systemizing’. Of the latter tendency, Jemmy Bentham (clinical ‘diagnosis’: Asperger’s) and Immanuel Kant are cited (of Kant’s admonition to act so that every action can become a universal law, we recall Charles Strickland’s response in The Moon and Sixpence; “rotten nonsense.”) Haidt identifies moral foundations that are ‘innate,’ an evolutionary response to adaptive challenges, which resolve into Care and Fairness (the ‘liberal’ pillars) and the other, more conservative bases: Liberty, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. He likens these to receptors on the tongue, themselves adaptive to the palette of tastes in the natural world arising from the evolutionary need to distinguish twist fair and foul. Controversially, but correctly, Haidt criticizes the Left in its limited moral receptors, confined to Care (when at its sometimes misguided best) and Fairness (often disproportionately, and about which you can debate ’til the sun blows up), whilst showing indifference or even hostility to the other moral foundations (particularly the sacred vs the profane). This broader spectrum of moral foundations is what Haidt, a lifelong progressive, identifies as the ‘Conservative Advantage.’ Until liberals (American Democrats in particular) stop treating conservatives as brain-damaged or evil (or both)* and start broadening their campaigns along the moral spectrum (i.e. recognise and respond to issues of individual freedom (but with boundaries), personal loyalty, respect for flag and institutions, and respect or at least tolerance for the spiritual or transcendent), they’ll be in opposition more than in power. (This applies to the Labor Party in Australia as well: they continually gain our empathy with Care and Fairness, which dissipates when they attack the other foundations. Which is probably why, in the 73 years since WWII, they’ve been in opposition two times more than in power.)

(3) Morality Binds and Blinds. We like to ‘team up.’  Whether in the deity you worship, the sporting team you follow or the party you vote for, group adaptation, a kind of multi-level selection made up of complex natural and nurturing causalities, informed by reason and a hankering for the sacred, makes us choose sides. (It is part of why homo sapiens saw-off neanderthals.) We’re 90% monkey but 10% bee. Haidt cites Darwin: “Ultimately our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment – originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit.” Haidt hoes into the ‘New Atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins, who, unlike Darwin, lazily demolish the metaphysical element of belief and reject idealism while ignoring its social and evolutionary utility. Haidt asserts that teaming-up spiritually, as group adaptation, was a major transition up the evolutionary ladder, a once in half-billion year event that resonates today. The binding inculcates trust, and “trust makes people less selfishsimilarly, patriotism and parochialism are good things because they lead people to exert themselves to improve the things they can improve.”

The righteous and unrighteous awake (by Émile Signol)

The author calls progressive and conservative thought the Yin and Yang of contemporary politics. For example, freedom does need fences (conservatives might say) and the liberal preference for regulation provides a legitimate fence in certain circumstances (such as anti-trust laws). But legislators should ‘first do no harm’ – when rules go viral and enmesh all, you get the type of governance described by Ronald Reagan: “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. When it stops moving, subsidize it.”  A good example is offered in the book of the application of a universal healthcare model to groceries – resulting in limited choice, food shortages and skyrocketing costs. Markets only work when they are open and free.  Governments traditionally hijack, blunder into, or relentlessly tinker with, free markets.

Haidt has very little to say generally about a person’s own developmental worldview (e.g., Churchill’s aphorism that a man who is not a socialist at twenty has no soul; a man who is a socialist at forty has no brain) but he certainly records something along these lines in a personal sense.  He’s a lifelong bleeding heart, but read this comment: “Liberals stand up for victims of oppression and exclusion. They fight to break down arbitrary barriers (such as those based on race, and more recently on sexual orientation. But their zeal to help victims, combined with their low scores on the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, often lead them to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions, and moral capital. For example, the urge to help the inner-city poor led to welfare programs in the 1960s that reduced the value of marriage, increased out-of-wedlock births, and weakened African American families. The urge to empower students by giving them the right to sue their teachers and schools in the 1970s has eroded authority and moral capital in schools, creating disorderly environments that harm the poor above all. The urge to help Hispanic immigrants in the 1980s led to multicultural education programs that emphasized the differences among Americans rather than their shared values and identity. Emphasizing differences makes many people more racist, not less. On issue after issue, it’s as though liberals are trying to help a subset of bees (which really does need help) even if doing so damages the hive. Such “reforms” may lower the overall welfare of a society, and sometimes they even hurt the very victims liberals were trying to help.”  

Nevertheless, Manichaeism abounds, which goes some way to explaining the Middle East. But the types of issues mentioned above, at least, can surely be debated civilly, with evidence and reason. Can’t they? The author thinks so, and he has been so fair and persuasive to this point that we fervently hope he is right when he concludes “we all have the capacity to transcend self-interest and become simply a part of the whole.”

We conclude with two other cris de coeur.  One is from The Affair by C. P. Snow (1960) which concerns a trial of a don for scientific fraud at a College. Lewis Eliot, defending, comments on some of the prejudicial evidence about the accused’s political leanings, and says in his closing: “Could the Court really give the faintest encouragement to the view that character and opinion went hand in hand? Wasn’t this nonsense, and dangerous nonsense?…Wasn’t it the chronic danger of our time, not only practical but intellectual, to let the world get divided into two halves? Hadn’t this fog of prejudice – so thick that people on the two sides were ceasing to think of each other as belonging to the same species – obscured this case from the beginning?

The other is from George Santayana, in his essay Intuitive Morality (1905): “Viewed from within, each religious or national fanaticism stands for a good; but in its outward operation it produces and becomes an evil. It is possible, no doubt, that its agents are really so far apart in nature and ideals that, like men and mosquitoes, they can stand in physical relations only, and if they meet can meet only to poison or to crush one another. More probably, however, humanity in them is no merely nominal essence; it is definable ideally by a partially identical function and intent. In that case, by studying their own nature, they could rise above their mutual opposition, and feel that in their fanaticism they were taking too contracted a view for their own souls and were hardly doing justice to themselves when they did such great injustice to others.

[* Haidt quotes Michael Feingold, writing in the ‘Village Voice’: “Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.” – p. 335.] Continue Reading →

A Simple Favor (dir. Paul Feig)

December 17, 2018 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Comedy Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Paul Feig) (2018)

Anna Kendrick’s blinding teeth are not the star of this movie. Nor is Henry Ewan Golding (Sean) who has nothing to do but look frustrated and be sure never to smile. Nor is the fabulous Blake Lively (Emily) the star. The star is the wardrobe of Emily’s dandy suits. She does have a nice black dress too, which miraculously fits and flatters everyone, like those magic jeans in that other film.

It’s no wonder that Stephanie (Kendrick) is immediately smitten by Emily in her three piece suit and fedora. She declares that they are BFFs after just a few weeks. Unlikely as it is that Emily would buddy-up with a homey vlogger, their friendship is amusing and believable.  Stephanie, of course, is not as tight-laced as she looks; there’s only one thing she likes more than a stiff drink.

Although its silly plot twists existed before the Big Bang, and Kendrick overdoes the nervous twittering as usual, A Simple Favor is a gem, marvellously sparkly and smile-inducing. In particular, Blake Lively is perfect as the glamorous, cutting, nonchalant mystery woman. Her taunts based on something nasty in Emily’s past are worth the price of admission alone.

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Sorry to Bother You

December 17, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Comedy Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Boots Riley) (2018)

“Sorry to Bother You.” The lying phrase for the Age, expressed in a myriad settings, via a hundred platforms. Here it is the foot-in-the-door tool for telemarketer Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield, last seen by TVC as the weirdly gentrified young buck in Get Out), a down-and-out (he can only buy 40 cents’ worth of petrol for his heap of a car) who acquires a selling role and a honky patois to match, refined under the guidance of avuncular co-worker (Danny Glover) who teaches him to tele-market in a “white voice.”  Soon that (nasally, slightly peevish) voice has Cash on the fast track to success.  But of course, that comes at a price – Cash has to leave behind his striking co-workers and fall-in with a modern-day version of Dr Moreau.

We were hoping, from the hype, to see a good American film about class (there haven’t been many since Five Easy Pieces). Alas, this is nowhere near that, but has some good things in it: we liked the surreal touches, such as Cash physically dropping-in on his telephone victims at inconvenient moments. We liked the overblown contrasts between the ethnic ‘Povos’ and the W.A.S.P. high-flyers. The morally dubious journey from work cubicle to top floor is nicely done (shades of The Apartment) and Armie Hammer is amusing as evil overlord ‘Steve Lift’, head of “WorryFree” corporation, which runs a sort of company store, with a horrific twist.

“My name is Cash! And I like to…uh…” “Smash!”

The problem here is not that the story is overtly political. And some of the performances are good – we particularly liked Stanfield, a sort of yankee Richard Ayoade from “The IT Crowd.”  The problem is that the back-half of the movie drags, and is not assisted by a ludicrous conclusion that fails to work (unlike Get Out, where it did).  Ideas abound, but many of them are neither fresh nor fully developed. Too much is thrown into the sink, muddying the water.

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Meistersingers of Melbourne

November 27, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Classical Music, MUSIC, Opera, OPERA, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, WAGNER |

Monday 19 November 2018 (Arts Centre, Melbourne)

Royal Opera’s then house director, the notorious Kasper Holten, originally designed this production.  The Spectator’s Michael Tanner declared of the London version, “Nothing could prepare me for so deep an abyss of idiocy.”  We know what he means, but speaking personally, apart from some (very large) grumbles, we were not overly bothered by the sets or the “reinterpretation,” no doubt due to a combination of our own jaundiced lethargy and contempt. Also, Meistersinger is perhaps the only Wagnerian piece which is impervious to Regieoper, even when the Guild Hall in Act I is reconstructed as a men’s health club (all that sauna-like wood) and Hans Sachs’ workshop is fashioned as an industrial-scale factory, with giant automata straight from the world of steam-punk – at the close of Act II, two chaps dangled from a spinning wheel most impressively.

What was lost was any sense of Nuremberg as an actual village of actual people. And when the fight was supposed to break out it looked more like a casting call for a Fellini film, complete with the night watchman (earlier seen on his rounds with what seemed to be a prosthetic heel) reincarnated as Pan, fully cloven-hoofed!  We will give the direction one tick, however – at the conclusion of Act I, when Walther von Stolzing, the knight errant (Stefan Vinke) spurns the Guild Hall in fury and frustration, charging up the stairs to the door while the Mastersingers and their retinue are immersed in hubbub, all of a sudden, as the orchestra swells, the light changes from a warm gold to a metallic blue strobe, and all but Walther freeze as if in an old-fashioned daguerreotype (emphasising that the old order passeth, giving way to new).  It was highly effective, a brilliant touch.  Alas, they tried something similar at the close of Act II, without success.

Act III had problems too. The first half was rather anodyne; the second had colour and pizzazz, yet lacked emotional resonance because Hans’ longing had been a little too muted, the setting lacked cohesion and the pomp was too redolent of a night at the Grammys. But the greatest error was yet to come. When Walther has won the contest (Hanslich’s…sorry, Beckmessers’ disastrous rendering of the prize song had pretty hilarious adulterated lyrics) he is prevailed upon to accept the laurels and enter the Mastersingers’ guild.  But Eva, whom he has also won, spurns him as though he has joined the Hitler Youth.  It is a piece of textual vandalism; not because Herr Holten has changed the libretto – even Wagner could stomach that – but because the new scenario is simply ludicrous.  Eva has reluctantly bowed to her father’s wishes to marry the winner of the songfest – she has wanted Walther to win, or failing that, widow and Mastersinger Hans Sachs, as a consolation prize – so why at the successful realisation of her hopes does she turn and run? Why the sudden contempt for tradition? Is this some dumb #MeToo / New Feminist trope, or worse, an adaptation of Godwin’s Law?  If so, it shows once again how some progressives fall into the trap of believing we’re all as stupid as they are.  ‘Enjoy other people’s pain: go to the opera’ was a Staatsoper Stuttgart  tagline that Holten adores: he seems to wear it as a personal badge of honour.  Only he’s the one having fun: we suffer.

Natalie Aroyan as Eva and Dominica Matthews as Magdalene

We can’t much criticise any of the musicians or players (full list below).  Conductor Pietari Inkinen and an expanded Orchestra Victoria were first class, as were the members of the Opera Australia Chorus.  Michael Kupfer-Radecky wasn’t quite up to Sachs, his voice at times smothered by the goings-on and his acting daftly muted – the performance of Shane Lowrencev in the concertised version of Act III in Adelaide struck us as superior. Natalie Aroyan was splendid as Eva (she had the good grace to look a little dazed at her absurd exit at finale), Stefan Vinke gave us a cardboard knight but sang extremely well, and Nicholas Jones was droll as the Master’s Apprentice.

Warwick Fyfe was the hit of the evening in the comically villainous role of Beckmesser. Fyfe is the Peter Lorre of contemporary opera, creating a burgeoning gallery of operatic rogues and rascals: Klingsor in Parsifal, Alberich in The RingFalstaff, and Dr Bartolo in The Barber of Seville. He was perfect here in his malice, paranoia and isolation. He also had to deal with mock-playing of a celeste, a trickier matter than playing ‘air-lute.’  His “song” was a laugh riot and his pedantic adherence to old rules and forms would have even made Wagner chuckle.  Another great turn from Mr. Fyfe.

CAST & CREW (Thanks to Opera Australia’s website):

CONDUCTOR Pietari Inkinen
DIRECTOR Kasper Holten
SET DESIGNER Mia Stensgaard
EVA Natalie Aroyan
DAVID Nicholas Jones
MAGDALENE Dominica Matthews
HANS SACHS Michael Kupfer-Radecky
VEIT POGNER Daniel Sumegi
NIGHTWATCHMAN Adrian Tamburini
HERMANN ORTEL Michael Honeyman
HANS FOLTZ Gennadi Dubinsky
HANS SCHWARTZ Richard Anderson

Opera Australia Chorus

Orchestra Victoria

[Photos by Jeff Busby] Continue Reading →

First Reformed

November 24, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Written and directed by Paul Schrader (2018)

As Chesterton is said to have said, ‘When you stop believing in God, you start believing in anything.’ This small but intense film about loneliness, isolation and moral agony, centred upon a narrator in crisis, echoes to an extent Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver, and its catharsis is similarly flawed, albeit more ambiguous. Much of the initial reaction has been to declare this film Schrader’s masterpiece, but we are of the view that his best film by far is the superb Affliction (which, again, bears some superficial resemblance to that on display here).

Ethan Hawke (in an internalised, trembling, taut performance) is Reverend Toller, in charge of a dinky little church in a dinky little parish, more visited by passing tourists than his flock. Toller has lost his wife and son and is rapidly losing his faith, seeking to view his despair as the necessary adjunct to hope, finding solace in the bottle.  He starts a journal (always a bad thing for loners) and becomes embroiled in pastoral care for a man ( Philip Ettinger) who has worshipped at the altar of dangerous anthropogenic climate change.  He tries to assuage but ends up absolving, and the audience, believers or not, hanker for some old time religion, a bit of blood and thunder, dispensed by, say, Max von Sydow from The Exorcist or Elmer Gantry or the honey-and-horse-sense of W.G. Fay in Odd Man Out.  Of course, Toller’s help is no help – a fish out of water cannot assist another – and after his parishioner blows his brains out (as Noel Coward might say, he must have been an incredibly good shot) – Toller and the widow (Amanda Seyfried, good in a muted role) discover a suicide vest secreted in the garage. That vest becomes a sort of plot trope and emblem of Schrader’s theme of destruction and despair, as it did briefly in Wiener Dog.

Here the film veers into knight-in-shining-armour territory. Like Travis Bickle, washing the scum from his cab, deciding to go postal and wash the scum off the sidewalk, the reverend becomes the defender of Gaia herself, leading the charge against the various (small town) corporate forces degrading the earth.  It is tempting to see this not-so-smooth segue in purely subjective terms, a measure of Toller’s confusion and need for certainty, meaning and a mission – a defiant signal of virtue; alas, it seems all-too clear that we are meant to spoon-down the gruel of Schrader’s eco-message, one that shows considerably less courage than might have been applied, with more interesting results. It does facilitate the entry of handy villains in the form of the local industrialist who quarrels with Toller about climate change, and the ‘enabler,’ a very likable, common-sense, flexible, and thus dangerous Church leader (Cedric Kyles, in a terrific performance).  

But despite flaws and uneven tone, First Reformed is still of definite morbid interest, beautifully shot and played, with surreal touches on the nature of faith, transcendence, blood and soil, and a finale that resonates without inspiring, where Hawke wrestles with both angels and demons in the vestry, while the various evil dignitaries await him in Church, and there is terror, frustration, flagellation, and a kind of freedom.

“Mark, ix, 43…’

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La Bohéme

November 23, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | MUSIC, Opera, OPERA, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Melbourne, 20 November 2018

An interesting but not trouble-free evening at the Arts Centre for the virtually indestructible La Bohème. Pointlessly but harmlessly ‘re-imagined’ (by director Gale Edwards) to Berlin in the last days of the Weimar Republic, 100 years after the work is actually set, and not in Paris (the cast still sing incongruously in Italian – why not stage it in Rome and replace Benoit with Mussolini?). Sets were appropriately stark (the garret – it still looked like a garret to us, and the tollgate, replete with pretty and lethal snow falling outside) and lush (the Café Momus, looking more like the Folies Bergère than Cabaret, in an ‘AO’ scene possibly designed for chaps arriving late from the races) and most of the cast were in fine form.  There’s no flat spot in this work, and whilst the story is close to the purest sentimental trash, what trash it is!  The Higher Trash, in fact, and better than most works of Art.

Conductor Pietro Rizzo helped Orchestra Victoria bring out all the creaminess of the score, Puccini’s various musical flourishes well interspersed so as to complement the singing. It has been noted that his Bel canto can be difficult to sing, often reaching points of white-hot intensity that it can be more of a strain than much in, say, Wagner, which tends to be more deliberately-paced. Alas, so it proved this night, when South Korean tenor Yosep Kang, obviously most comfortable in the middle register, showed signs of breaking down in Act I, during the great love duet with Mimi, O soave fanciulla. Kang creaked, and laboured, and we feared for him, but he manfully avoided disaster and closed-out the wonderful conclusion to the Act.  But after the interval, Lyndon Terracini (no less)* came out to explain that Kang had retired hurt and a replacement – whose name we are still endeavouring to ascertain – would carry on as Rodolfo. (Already Tom Hamilton had replaced the first choice for the minor character Alcindoro). Thus another fellow from the interchange bench rose, and would provide the haunting O Mimì, tu più non torni and seek to persuade us that after splitting-up with Mimi, he was a changed man. The voice was a tad weaker but entirely adequate, and worthy of the warm applause he received at finale for a true trouper’s effort.

The stand-outs on the night were Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska as Mimì, baritone Christopher Tonkin as Marcello and Soprano Jane Ede as Musetta – they were all very fine and strong of voice and whilst the roles don’t require much nuance, they do call for natural playing and a touch of charm, which they provided.  Richard Anderson, a plangent bass, was also a stout Colline (looking with his full beard like Durin in Moria).

In sum, a pleasant and moving, conservative production, that is free from too-much tinkering, and which paid entertaining and apposite homage to one of Opera’s pillars.

[* Mr. Terracini made a pleasantry about Kang getting hay fever from Melbourne’s plentiful plane trees, but we wondered if something more fundamental was going on.  After all, Terracini wouldn’t often be called on to front a crowd with such bad news, even if Melbourne is much more forgiving than Milan.  As Gough Whitlam commented when the coalition government drafted Garfield Barwick into its ranks: “The Government must be in trouble. It has long been said in the courts: ‘If you are in no trouble any lawyer will do, but if you are in real trouble send for Barwick.'”] [Photos by Jeff Busby] Continue Reading →

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