Regularly added bite-sized reviews about Literature, Art, Music & Film.
Voltaire said the secret of being boring is to say everything.
We do not wish to say everything or see everything; life, though long is too short for that.
We hope you take these little syntheses in the spirit of shared enthusiasm.
(dir. Bryan Singer) (2018)
(Click here for our review of the book of the same name by Lesley-Ann Jones.)
If you don’t get a shiver down the spine during the opening scene of Bohemian Rhapsody, as we follow Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) onto the stage at Live Aid, you don’t deserve Freddie, or this terrific film – a goose-pimpling, foot-stomping bio-pic with heart.
Yes, it follows the usual trajectory of ambitious boys putting their all into their music, despite evil managers and uncaring music company execs. Yes, we know the story, and the film may not be entirely historically accurate, but like its namesake song, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Some viewers may be bothered that Malek doesn’t look a bit like Freddie – he lacks the handsomeness, the hardness and – did Farrokh Bulsara have blue eyes? It doesn’t matter, Malek’s singing, miming and – my word – his prancing, do Freddie proud. Everyone else looks like who they are meant to look like, despite some bad wigs. Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), Joseph Mazzello (John Deacon), Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Ace Bhatti (Bomi Bulsara) and Meneka Das (Jer Bulsara) are standouts. But we give a special special mention to Allen Leech as Paul Prenter, who brings depth to his thankless role as Mercury’s manipulative and ultimately traitorous partner. The final scene between the two, in the pouring rain, is marvellous. Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin does as good a job as can be expected in an underwritten role.
The music is superbly handled – it stops and starts just as it should. The scenes at the Wembley Live Aid concert in 1985, the concert which brought Queen back from near obscurity, are breathtakingly good.
Singer directs with love and zest. Hearts lift when Brian May comes up with the clapping and stomping for We Will Rock You and when John Deacon stops an argument by playing the opening riff of Another One Bites the Dust. Although the story is, as Sacha Baron Cohen famously said, ‘sanitised’, it is not coy about Freddie’s promiscuity. His visit to an Aids clinic and the symptoms of his final illness are treated with delicacy and pathos.
There are in-jokes. When Mike Myers as Ray Foster (a fictional EMI executive) says that he can’t stand Bohemian Rhapsody (although rhapsody is not a word he can get his mouth around) because it is not the kind of song that head-banging kids will listen to in the car, we immediately see Myers as Wayne in the opening scene of Wayne’s World. If you don’t shed a tear when the screen fades to black and the inevitable titles remind us of how it all ended, then you are not worthy.[P agrees, but adds that (1) Joseph Mazzello has grown up since his role in Shadowlands; and (2) He was annoyed by the fact the other band members made fun of Roger Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car – what a great song!] Continue Reading →
By Elvis Costello and the Imposters (2018)
Elvis Returns! With a typically eclectic record containing hints and echoes of the grand past. There’s a little spirit of Painted From Memory, Imperial Bedroom, and Mighty Like a Rose, but the material is still starkly new. We’ve only had time for about 10 spins so far, but at this early stage, we particularly like his #me-too classic, “Under Lime,” about a louche, washed-up star waiting in the Green Room, which is both hip and wise, and witty. Likewise his re-working of “Unwanted Number” is terrific, and we love the melody of “Dishonour the Stars” and “He’s Given Me Things,” and the depth for feeling of “Burnt Sugar Is so Bitter.” Repayment with compound interest on multiple playing. Don’t be put off by his Worst Album Cover Ever.Continue Reading →
A Queensland doppelganger for Paul Kelly, stand-up Carl Barron rapidly (almost obsessive-compulsively) circled the stage at a packed Ent. Cent last night, and his act went over a treat. We might have missed a reference to his titular joke, ‘Drinking with a fork,’ but then, The Varnished Culture was locked-out for 7 minutes with several other unfortunates, having queued at length for some overpriced Bundy-and-Coke (to fire-up for the Man from Longreach’s act) – thanks, Entertainment Centre! Nevertheless, Barron was true to form, and stayed mainly on script, with his usual array of observational and occasionally literate, sometimes scatological, often sideways comedy. His upbringing by fairly pitiless parents featured (His Dad’s chastisements seemed to 10 year old Carl symptomatic of early-onset dementia: “What did I just say?”) as did his knack for puncturing euphemisms, pretension, faux outrage, and cant. And we enjoyed his whining, incoherent country song that seemed to consist of random squawks and mumbling. When asked about his favourite topic for comedy, Barron has said “Me, and how stupid you can be. It’s an endless source of inspiration, because if you bag yourself, you’re bagging everyone.”
East West Street, written by Philippe Sands (2017)
“To do a great right, do a little wrong” (The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1)
It was a dilemma – in the smoking ashes of WWII, there were several handfuls of Nazi insiders scooped-up by the Allied forces. What to do with them? Hitler and his main henchmen were gone, bullets in their brains or cyanide caps twixt their clenched teeth (sometimes both) – and the residue claimed the time-honoured defence, ‘Befehl ist Befehl.’ Whilst the ‘odious apparatus’ of the Third Reich assiduously documented their outrages, prosecutors yet faced awesome evidentiary gaps, witnesses with axes to grind, and the limits of the human brain which found it hard to believe how low human perfidy could go. A new jurisprudence was required (i.e., they had to make some stuff up), and how this was done makes up a large part of this curious but interesting book.
Adding to this, occasionally oddly, are grabs of memoir and thriller. Sands, a human rights barrister in London, recounts the lives of three men from or near the same village in Poland (Lemberg) – his grandfather, Leon, an innkeeper who came to Vienna and then fled west as Hitler’s reach extended; Hersch Lauterpacht, professor of international law, who developed the legal concept of “crimes against humanity” to combat the excesses of the nation state emblematised in Nazi Germany, and Rafael Lemkin, a lawyer and agitator who invented the concept of “Genocide.” (Leon’s and Lautepacht’s family both lived on East West Street.) We get their potted biographies, interspersed with ruminations about the State vs the Individual, and in a cavalcade featuring these and minor players (pawns and rooks), there are no heroes (as Goering said at Nuremberg, those who defied Hitler were heroes, but they are all dead heroes).
An exception to this is a Ms Elsie Tilney, an Oskar-Schindler-character (if not in persona, in courage), a devout protestant and spinsterish lady from Surrey, who carried out missionary work and while interned by the Germans in France after hostilities broke out, managed to smuggle several Jews to safety, including the author’s mother. She (‘une femme remarquable‘) gets a slight but riveting chapter, as do various ghosts – a man in a bow tie, for example; there’s reference to an unidentified girl in a red dress. On the other side of the coin, we have a long chapter on Hans Frank, the “Butcher of Warsaw,” Hitler’s principal lawyer, who was sent to the provinces as Governor-General of that charnel-house known as occupied Poland. Frank, a cultured, educated, cynical opportunist who re-discovered Jesus under the shadow of the gallows, was largely responsible for the notorious Nuremberg Laws, but these were baby steps compared to what Der Führer had in mind, hence the demotion. Frank responded by cheerily shoving Poland’s entire Jewish population (one and half million of them) into ghettos and in his own good time, having them deported for liquidation, meanwhile consigning the remaining Poles as a stock of slave labour.
Sands documents all this, and more – using a number of sources (including Trial Records, Lemkin’s unreliable diary, old photos, museum visits, chats over lunch, a good amount of speculation) and generally barges into the story a tad like Germany barged into Poland, in what we have come to know – and dread – as the “immersive approach,” where the author “pored over archives,” is asked if he’d like to see the classrooms where Lauterpacht and Lemkin studied? “Yes, I replied, very much” and where he says “only now, many years later, have I come to understand the darkness of the events…” “We looked at a few black-and-white photographs I’d brought. One was a postcard of the famous seventeenth-century Zólkiew synagogue in a state of dilapidation. Did she remember the building? ‘No.'” “‘Who was Miss Tilney?’ I asked my mother. ‘No idea,’ she replied, without much enthusiasm.” “I read the poem, unable to discern any immediate clue that might explain his solitary state or the poem’s relevance.” And seemingly every sigh, or shrug of the shoulders, by his interlocutors must be documented, with the fervour of a Hans Frank keeping his lethal diaries.
There is an irritating amount of repetition, sometimes poor use of language. “If occasionally impecunious, McNair helped with a small loan.” “Seemingly on the up…” On a birthday present to Frank, Himmler’s “deep-blue signature, slightly smudged, was unforgiving.” There is a fair helping of bland, unnecessary information. Do we really need to know that “As we talked, Inka poured cups of dark Russian tea,” or that, at Nuremberg for the trial, Lauterpacht “was lodged at the Grand Hotel, an establishment with a fine bar that is unchanged today“? Sands points out, at least 4 times in 2 pages, that Hartley Shawcross based his opening address to the Court largely on text supplied by Lauterpacht.
But despite these flaws, the narrow degrees of separation of peoples, the cultural salad, and sheer magnitude of the depravity, that obtained in the Europe of those days are generously and compellingly told here and, to a commendable degree, humanised. Sands has worn out a lot of shoe leather: he has visited all the key sites, tracked down and talked to as many witnesses as possible, including the sons of Lauterpacht and Frank. The personal approach, whilst almost cloying at times, helps us deal with the ghastly facts. For these reasons, we would – with qualifications – recommend this book.
As an afterthought, we remember the only race of people that really counts is the human race – apt to be forgotten on occasion (Yes, it’s OK to be white, but not at the expense of the spectrum). Sands has some apt words in closing that folks tend to ‘team up’: “…the sense of group identity is a fact…It seems that a basic element of human nature is that ‘people feel compelled to belong to groups and, having joined, consider them superior to competing groups.'” (This is essentially how and why Homo sapiens saw-off the Neanderthals.) We also bear in mind that there are two sides not only to every story, but to every human law. For example, the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights – formulated in the wake of the rise of communism as well as the destruction of fascism – was heavily criticised at the time, particularly by the Left, as a reactionary return to personal rights at the expense of social and collective ones. So it goes, and the tension between individual freedom and social cohesion remains.
We’ll let former Governor-General Hans Frank have the final word, from his gaol cell, where (perhaps) the example of Jesus was beginning to sink in:
“I tell you the scornful laughter of God is more terrible than any vengeful laws of man. Here are the would-be rulers of Germany, each in a cell like this with four walls and a toilet, awaiting trials as ordinary criminals. Is that not a proof of God’s amusement at a mass, sacrilegious quest for power?” [cited in 22 Cells in Nuremberg by Douglas M. Kelley, M.D. (1947) @ p. 150.]Continue Reading →
GU Film House, Hindley St. Adelaide, 15 October 2018
It’s hard to tell a story. It is an Art. And part of the art is in selection and concision. That said, there are several feature films that run for a couple of hours which we never want to end. P feels this way, for example, about Accident, and Vertigo. Others, like Picnic at Hanging Rock, seem to begin and end at exactly the right time…and place. But others are quite long enough, thank you – think Lawrence of Arabia, which L wishes would terminate early, when Lawrence’s motorcycle goes off road (P disagrees). But generally, feature-length films could do with a drastic edit: there’s thousands (tens of thousands?) that could be trimmed to 90 minutes, or less (Darkest Hour and All the Money in the World are recent examples).
Cue the Adelaide Film Festival [place their address into your preferred search engine: http://adelaidefilmfestival.org/program] – Heavily featured are short films, some complete in themselves (an amuse bouche), others episodic, serving as an entree. They have the great advantage of concision, often paring-away the padding that marks time in standard-length fare. There’s simply no space for fat and fluff when you’ve 10 to 20 minutes to tell a story or present a character. They are cheaper to make – digital and other technologies enable auteurs to create without the slog of hawking a project around the festivals or film studios. Short films have their limitations, of course: they need careful handling in a different way to a feature film, in the same way that short stories must be managed differently from a novel. If care is not taken, they can play like a grab from a larger context and leave you wondering why bother with a scenario that was adjudged inadequate to develop more fully. At least one of the short films The Varnished Culture saw this evening fell into that category.
But we can say this about the 9 short films we saw: all were beautifully made (the editing was 1st class, apart from a couple of jump cuts), many were visually stunning, utilising technology and / or South Australian landscapes superbly, and none of them left one wondering about the point, or peering at one’s watch in the murk. Nor, thankfully, were the pieces freighted with agitprop, as can obtain from festivals such as Tropfest.
We’ll attempt brevity in review, in the spirit of the work under consideration:
Davi (See main image) – this for TVC was the hit of the night: a dystopian tale of the Numi, who in a dry forest of the dead, retain the unique ability to produce water (not by micturition) and are hence sought-after by hunters to exploit this resource through subjugation and slavery (think Hunger Games). Tender, violent and moving, it completely satisfied the demands of plot, character and denouement in its 18 minutes. A special shout-out for Holly Myers as the deputy leader of the hunters, in a startlingly lithe and vibrant performance. [Directed by Victoria Cocks **** (4 stars)]
The Big Nothing – We liked this episode concerning an inquiry into murder at a mining station located on a moon of Saturn. This first instalment featured an interview between a (perhaps overly bumptious) investigator and one of the prime suspects. It was well-played, and visually stunning – the planetary images recalled Douglas Trumbull’s brilliant work from Silent Running. [Directed by Lucy Campbell and Peter Ninos ***1/2]
Running 62 – This was basically a short doco about Zibeon Fielding, who attempts to run 62 kilometres through the remote APY lands to raise funds for indigenous healthcare. Mentored by famous marathon runner Robert de castella, Zibeon finds out that such a feat is hell on the feet and the rest of the body…and that the actual distance required is 63k! There’s nothing outstanding about this film (the drone photography was excellent) but the likable people involved and the light, un-fussy way in which they are presented, made it the feel-good piece of the night. [Directed by Zibeon Fielding ***]
A Stone’s Throw – Apart from the odd surrealistic touch, this was a straight little drama about a troubled girl in hospital, and her equally troubled parents. The acting is the star in this one. [Directed by Luke Wissell **1/2]
Freedom – This looked and sounded great – 2 brothers owe a gangster big money, so carry out a robbery. Then they get other ideas and things go pear-shaped. It has real possibilities, extended as a feature or tele-play but didn’t suit the 6 minute format, although filmed and acted with real flair. [Directed by David Muggleton **1/2]
Wild – Although this could easily fit into a skit from “Black Comedy,” that’s no mean feat. A woman turns up at the police station to bail out her truant younger brother; then she decides to inflict a bit of punishment of her own. Funny and over-played well, cleverly balancing the pathos and the comedy. [Directed by Kiara Milera ***]
Lucy and DiC – Lucy is a young (well, 29, going on…30) woman who aspires to self-help, but only with additional help. She’s not served too well by her support drone, DiC, a talking, floating, opinionated bot, the bastard offspring of R2D2 and Wilson from Castaway, who can be a bit like his name implies. This is entertaining, amusing and looks like a series that could be popular, maybe with a few stronger jokes. [Directed by Jeremy Keller-Baker ***]
Small Town P.D. – Very silly, but hilarious: the town’s entire, useless cop-force cracks down hard on misdemeanors (often committed within their own ranks) whilst overlooking major felonies. A cross between Inspector Clouseau, the Keystone Cops and Reno 911. Nicely played and set-up. [Directed by Indianna Bell and Josiah Allen ***]
The Way – Telekinetic couple (lovers? father and daughter?) are on the run but one evening, sick of life in the bush, they check into a small motel, with disastrous results. A little predictable perhaps but faultlessly executed. [Directed by Jeremy Keller-Baker ***]
All in all, a great night – we’d much rather spend 100 minutes with these offerings than sit through First Man or A Star is Born (version # 4) any day! The opening speeches by politicians and various bureaucrats were short and sweet as well. And the after-party at the resuscitated Queen’s Theatre was fun.Continue Reading →
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” – the Theatrical Adaptation (Directed by Geoff Brittain)
Adelaide University Theatre Guild, 6 October 2018
If you don’t know the story, you’ve been living on Mars. Young ladies from Appleyard College set off with some of their teachers to picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s a warm day; the students have been forbidden any ‘tomboy foolishness’ by exploring the Rock; what could go wrong? This saga of Joan Lindsay’s has galvanised generations of readers and film-goers – such has been the hype over the years that people have started to regard the mystery as True Crime. And there is now a pay-TV series based on the 1967 novel, the 1975 film, and the 1900 scenario.
In this theatrical adaptation by Tom Wright, five performers struggle to solve the Big Mysteries: What Happened? Did it Happen? And if it did, where are the three missing ladies?
It deeply disappoints The Varnished Culture in having to reveal that this adaptation fails on almost every level. It represents a desecration of the book, and the film. At times, this production annoyed us materially; at times, it amounted to a surprise (and unintended) comedy hit.
Script-wise, its purpose is opaque, indeed impenetrable: though the cast bear names of contemporary characters, these are virtually irrelevant, and certainly not the names of the principals in the story that they are, apparently, re-enacting. The piece dissolves into tableaux that plod along the well-worn plot path and deposit the weary spectator, 90 minutes later, at (hopefully) the nearest bar. It is not so much an adaptation or a ‘re-imagining’ but a plonking Pathé newsreel of an incident – Marat/Sade without the interest. And whilst the juxtaposition of arrivistes in a strange and savage environment poses one of the dramatic flourishes in both book and film, here it is trashed, at times by sheer negligence and at others by the script’s pandering to a kind of hysterical anti-colonialism. It is difficult to see the point in this mangled re-vamping of scenes from the film.
The set is so dreary as to become almost fascinating: some chairs and an over-used period cot, scrub resembling spinifex and some cheap bark chips scattered about, under a framed backboard that served as something to clamber up, and hovering over it, a curtain on which a hokey (when intelligible) bundle of phrases (meant to represent cosmic wisdom but more closely resembling the fumbling and empty effusions written in the programme by the set designer) are sloppily projected, complete with the same font that obtains from Peter Weir’s film. When Sarah – sorry, “Sara” starts spinning on the floor in a fit of rage, we were reminded of the Director’s earlier offering, The Crucible! (a much better show, by the way). The lacklustre settings didn’t assist the bewildering and disparate scenes to cohere in any meaningful way. Occasionally, some simple lighting effects worked well, but on the whole, the sound effects didn’t enhance either the action or the atmosphere (but at least we didn’t have someone capering on stage dressed as a faun, working the pan pipes. Thank heaven for small mercies).
Direction: The Director’s notes promised “a poetic mystery…a chilling, thrilling, unexplainable horror story, but above all, an entertaining piece of theatre.” Guess you can’t win them all, but sadly, nothing along these lines was delivered, and even someone who had directed nothing before would have a hard time producing something as poor as this.
As for the acting? Well, when neither script, nor staging, nor direction are on your side, it is usually time to start chewing the scenery, such as it is. Usually, but not this night. The 5 actors, who took various roles, tried very hard, were sometimes OK, and often were not, trying far too hard, but not, alas, working very diligently to listen as well as speak. The declamatory style, referred to by Anthony Hopkins as “shouting at night,” recalled panto too often. For example, the interviewing copper had a most intriguing accent and an interrogation method worthy of Keystone. Michael Fitzhubert kept doing florid double-takes at the mention of Miranda. And Mrs Appleyard, dressed in a villainous cape larger than Rodin’s work-smock, stalked about and screeched, a cackling catastrophe, giving us “The Freak” from Prisoner, Snidely Whiplash and the Wicked Witch of the West in one body. At one point, we feared it would not be enough for Appleyard to whip “Sara” with her cane – it seemed she would twirl her moustache and tie the wretch to a railway line.
The Varnished Culture loves the Theatre Guild. We have also seen these same cast and crew members turn in exemplary work, more often than not matching and quite often exceeding that of fully professional production companies. So it pains us to say that this production is an epic fail.Continue Reading →
By George Megalogenis (2018)
First, one disclamatory reason for liking this book. At a pub on the south side of Adelaide on AFL Grand Final day, 2017, I was the sole Richmond supporter (wearing my Glenelg Tigers scarf and barracking for my 2nd team) which earned plenty of dirty looks. Outside a restaurant in town after the match, I caught the eye of an Adelaide Crows fan, bedecked in all the gear, packing his sullen family into a people-mover. Without a trace of sarcasm (because I’ve seen a few losing Grand Finals, and you don’t rub it in in such circumstances), I said to him “Bad luck mate – the Crows will be back.” To which he charmingly replied “You’ll be dead before Richmond win another flag.”
Megalogenis is obviously a Richmond tragic, and it might be the best thing about him. For whilst we here get a potted but entertaining reprise of the Club’s history and travails over their 150 years and 36 year premiership drought, and a fairly glib analysis of how the Board, Football Department and Team turned it around in 2017, this is still a rather silly book. Indeed, it reads like a vanity project, dripping with nostalgia, with a tacked-on argument – the Richmond experience can inform a return to the type of politics the author prefers – that is trite, unsubstantiated, and embarrassing.
Yes, George, it is true – whilst football has (arguably) been refined, developed and improved, our politics have deteriorated immeasurably. Yes George, it is true, its no longer John Curtin and Bob Menzies (see main image and below) in charge over in Canberra, not even Bob Hawke or John Howard. But to suggest that when Richmond President Peggy O’Neal and CEO Brendan Gale held their nerve in 2016 and resisted a challenge to the Board’s direction for the Club, they “conducted themselves like politicians from another age“, it begs the question, “which politicians? Billy Hughes? Neville Chamberlain? Doc Evatt? Arthur Calwell? Billy McMahon?”
The sporting analogy in politics gets pretty tired. And it usually reflects partisanship, the lifeblood of team sport. When the author asserts “Richmond’s premiership contained the very elements of leadership and community that are missing in our politics today – power exercised without ego, a united team, a dash of charisma and a committed supporter base” you know he is thinking of his hero, staunch Collingwood fan Paul Keating (the man who took a vow of insolvency for Australia and then dissipated his term as Prime-Minister in gestures), rather than, say, Tony Abbott, of whom he comments “Every week of the Abbott government felt like White Pride Round.”
Megalogenis concludes with 7 steps that took governance down the low road from 1992 to date: the turbo-charging of Newspoll (i.e debasement of democracy), Bronwyn Bishop’s show-grilling of the Commissioner of Taxation in a parliamentary inquiry (i.e. debasement of the public service), the 1993 scare campaign against a broad-based consumption tax (i.e. debasement of policy and a primer for Abbott on negativism), Howard’s middle-class welfare (i.e. profligacy with the public purse), Labor electing Mark Latham as its leader in 2003 (i.e. factionalism), Howard’s industrial reforms (i.e.union-bashing) and the failure to reduce carbon emissions.
You could counter this by saying, “It was ever thus.” You could counter with a dozen more examples than that which the author has, inexplicably, selected. You could counter that if we scrutinised the ‘Football Solution’, as applied by the AFL, we’d get: a ridiculously biased and Melbourne-centric competition, with heavy overtones of unbalance in scheduling; a nauseating commercialisation, including relentless rule-tinkering, oppressive officialdom, a troubling degree of organised gambling, and deference to the media dollar; a virtual command economy, dictated by the AFL; faddish social initiatives; an illicit drug culture; destruction of loyalty to guernsey; and vast numbers of worthless contests. When the game is good, it is very, very good; when it is bad, it stinks on ice. Like politics, and everything.
Megalogenis has written an entertaining football record. “Go, Tiges!” It’s a pity that he couldn’t resist the temptation, perhaps fostered by the publishers, to append a simpering, soft-left cris de coeur that is, to quote Paul Keating, “all tip and no iceberg.”Continue Reading →
(by Walter Isaacson) (2017)
We picked up this heavy tome in Washington DC and carried it all the way home. It’s well put-together, beautifully illustrated, and fairly well organised. Whilst Leonardo the Man remains opaque, this book manages to avoid drowning in the sea of speculation, as a disastrous recent work on Beethoven does not.
Leonardo da Vinci lived and died 500 years ago, and left behind a tantalising body of mostly incomplete work, in particular, some startlingly radical and luminous paintings, fanatically detailed drawings, and thousands of pages from inspired commonplace books. Although his siege engines and tanks and flying machines, and his mathematics, were mostly twaddle, his relics reveal an astonishing, preternatural polymath, a relentlessly inquiring mind, a perfectionist untroubled by deadlines (to paraphrase Douglas Adams, he liked the gentle whoosh as they passed by).
Isaacson has assiduously pored over the evidence and given a modern gloss on the work, a catalogue raisonné that quite often plods but still reaches apt end-points. However, a very silly decision was made to dress the penultimate end-point with a series of bromides fit for the back of old-fashioned printed bus tickets (of which, more later). It is often, if not always, difficult to write about “Genius” and not sound like a gushing student groupie writing an end-of-term essay, and regretfully, Isaacson falls into this snare on occasion (though who could not?). (In a rather dismissive New York Times review – 1/11/17 – Jennifer Senior suggests that Isaacson “hails many of Leonardo’s creations in the same breathless tone with which a teenager might greet a new Apple product.”) There are also passing descriptions of recent works attributed to the great man (which are mostly best ignored – if they are by Leonardo, and we have doubts, they show Leonardo on off-days).
Vinci had an eagle eye, an enquiring mind and boundless patience. In a brief coda, Isaacson mentions Leonardo’s note to himself to “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” The utility of this task is obviously highly moot, yet it sums up the artist’s unquenchable thirst, the kind of hankering that gave rise to the phrase “Renaissance Man.”
Whilst the paintings are exhaustively deconstructed, this doesn’t fatigue the reader in the case of Leonardo, for whom enigma was a matter of aesthetics just as much as the close reading of nature. He took painting from its designation of mere mechanical art and elevated it, according to the principles of Alberti and along the lines of later Renaissance dicta by the likes of Vasari. There is a superior psychological resonance and greater representational humanity in his works whether complete, half-done, in prototype, or aborted. There are also seminal drafting and painterly techniques that he made or established. His new approach to perspective and portraiture are striking examples. The organisation in the most famous half-use of a restaurant table in all art, The Last Supper, is a magnificent display of both.
The book also examines Leonardo’s many other interests and obsessions: squaring the circle; the anatomy of beasts and humans and how various of their internal parts work; architecture; geometry; physics; hydraulics; theatrical entertainments; the gay life; the need to eat soup before it cools; the travel of light.
Isaacson puts his central thesis quite nicely in the Introduction: “His scientific explorations informed his art. He peeled flesh off the faces of cadavers, delineated the muscles that move the lips, and then painted the world’s most memorable smile.”
Now for the hard part. Chapter 33 offers a conclusion of sorts. Having deprecated that much-bandied-about medallion, “genius,” he pins it to his subject, with the help of famous philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Steve Jobs. Even more haplessly, he finishes with the flourish, “Learning from Leonardo,” where we’re fed 20 aphorisms of a kind which obtain from the more turgid Facebook pages: “Be curious, relentlessly curious…Seek knowledge for its own sake…Retain a childlike sense of wonder…Observe…Start with the details…See things unseen…Go down rabbit holes…Get distracted…Respect facts…Procrastinate…Let the perfect be the enemy of the good…Think visually…Avoid silos…Let your reach exceed your grasp…Indulge fantasy…Create for yourself, not just for patrons…Collaborate…Make lists…Take notes, on paper…Be open to mystery…Try to see the other person’s point of view…” Sorry, that last one popped into our head by accident; it’s one of the thoughts of Kit Carruthers in Badlands. But it seems as valuable as the rest.
We sum up this book by saying it is better to have it than not. In a world saturated with books, this is no praising with faint damns. It is written with confidence, clear, a tad familiar in the American style, opinionated but not lacking in wisdom. It is generally light on context and comparison with fellow contemporary artists (the spat with Michelangelo features) which is a shame. It is therefore not the definitive Leonardo. Kenneth Clark’s 1930s work is probably the best, although now showing its age and dated by the latest research and scientific techniques (although you don’t need an X-ray machine to form a view on the Monna Vanna).
[Leonardo da Vinci – born in Vinci, Tuscany, April 15, 1452; died 2 May 1519 in Amboise, Loire Valley.] Continue Reading →
(Directed by Björn Runge) (2018)
The Nobel Committee stuffs-up again? That’s no surprise – ask Rosalind Franklin! But we doubt the entire world of readers, writers, publishers and critics could be so dumb as to believe Joan Castleman (Glenn Close), married to faux Jewish intellectual Joe (played by Jonathan Pryce as a cross between John Cheever and Howard Jacobson), had nothing to do with his sensitive, deliberately-paced, richly-textured, (almost feminine!) body of work, for which he gets to go to Stockholm and get a medallion handed him by a team of flaxen-haired cheerleaders. This #me-too melodrama is based on the Meg Wolitzer novel, and its big reveal (yes, thanks to renovation-reality shows, “reveal” is now a noun) is an awfully long time coming, and doesn’t pack much of a punch.
What saves the film are a couple of performances, and what almost sinks it are a few other performances. The worst first: the two actors portraying Joan and Joe in their salad days are not up-to the dramatic demands made on them, and as a result, their blossoming romance and strategic deception fully fail to convince: when Joan rejects Joe’s draft novel, her critique awash with cliches, and he rages and wallows in self-pity, the viewer is compelled to conclude that these are not writers talking. (A similar scene in Funny Farm has more emotional and literary resonance). Overall, the flashbacks are artificial, lumpy and ponderous.
Then there’s Joe’s mopey son, mommy’s boy David (Max Irons), who rolls his eyes and spits his dummy when in Dad’s company, Joe yelling at him constantly while explaining to others that sonny is finding his own voice – it’s like a bastardisation of The Jazz Singer! If we have to watch a Close and an Irons, we’ll take Reversal of Fortune thanks.
Pryce plays the puerile, whining egoist on the make quite well, but the script can’t decide whether he’s genuinely deluded (or demented) or simply guilty, and engaged in guilt transference. A stand-out is Christian Slater as the insinuating, slightly damaged, wannabe biographer, who suspects the truth. And we saved the best for last: Close takes the meandering, wafer-thin script and uses it to unravel the character while the character is herself unraveling. From devoted factotum to staunch muse; from coldly insouciant companion to smouldering sphinx, Joan reaches a white hot catharsis in spectacular fashion, and it is gripping to watch. The wife makes The Wife fun, and worth watching.Continue Reading →
A man who has forgotten his name crosses a bridge at night and enters Bellona, a city where something undefined has happened, houses burn down spontaneously and at times there are two moons, one named after George Harrison – not the adorable moptop, but a large black man with a penchant for rape, who features in pornographic posters all over town. The man who has forgotten his name is known variously as the kid, The Kid, Kid and Kidd. With little effort he acquires a reputation as a poet, gang leader and saviour. We are never sure if Bellona is a mental hospital, the afterlife, or a bad, bad trip. The novel is best in its evocation of a deserted town under cover of a heavy, oily smoke and the fabulous scorpions – gangs clothed in (and often only in) holograms:-
“Out on the path, sudden, luminous, and artificial, a seven-foot dragon swayed around the corner, followed by an equally tall mantis and a griffin. Like elegant plastics, internally lit and misty, they wobbled forward. When dragon and mantis swayed into each other, they – meshed!…His hand was on a tree trunk, Twig shadows webbed his forearm, the back of his hand, the bark. The figures neared; the web slid. The figures passed; the web slid off. They were, he realised, as eye-unsettling as pictures on a three-dimensional postcard – with the same striations hanging, like a screen, just before, or was it just behind them. The griffin, further back, flickered: A scrawny youngster, with pimply shoulders, in the middle of a cautious, bow-legged stride – then griffin again. (A memory of spiky, yellow hair; hands held out from the freckled, pelvic blade). The mantis swings around to look back, went momentarily out):”
Kid wanders Bellona with the logic of a dream, wearing a body chain with lenses and prisms, a wrist weapon called an orchid, one shoe and filthy jeans. We don’t know why but his hands are hideous, scabbed and blunt. He falls in with a commune, falls in with a gang of scorpions, acquires a girlfriend and a boyfriend, sees a lot of violence and prays that he is not going mad – again.
Delany’s language is gorgeous, rich and racy, but the sex scenes are juvenile and cringe-worthy, there are too many characters, the whole thing is repetitious, annoyingly enigmatic at times and way too long. If you dislike books with no real plot, or if you are offended by African Americans being called “niggers”, “spades’ and – yes, – “apes”, then this is not the book for you. But if you are able to see it as a work of beatnik rhythm, oneiric and utterly mad, it will delight you. Not quite science fiction, nothing but itself, fascinating and aweful.
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