Frank, My Dear, We Don’t Give a Damn

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.

“I declare myself not guilty.”

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.]

Corpses at Treblinka Death Camp (Frank’s territory)

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Adelaide (Short) Film Festival Thoughts

October 16, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Comedy Film, Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

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:] – 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.

Rave On

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More Hanging Than Picnic

October 7, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | AUSTRALIANIA, THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

“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.

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The Football Solution

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.”

Navy blue-blood

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Leonardo da Vinci

(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.

An apt pupil…Leonardo’s contribution to Verrocchio’s “Baptism of Christ” was the True Angel, the nether Jesus and the background wilderness

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).

Early errors: still a fairly pleasing “Annunciation”

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).

“The most revolutionary and anti-classical picture of the fifteenth century” (Kenneth Clark) – “Adoration of the Magi” (unfinished)

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.”

‘Let’s point at the show-off’…”Virgin of the Rocks” (Louvre version)

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 curiousSeek 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 →

The Wife

August 17, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(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.

“All I need is plot, characters, structure, an agent, and Dad’s love.”

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Dhalgren by Samuel R Delany

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.

Not this George

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.

Samuel R Delany


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Act III From “Meistersinger” – Mastered!

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Act III, Adelaide, 4 August 2018.

The ASO and State Opera triumph again!  Our slate is free of crosses!  A dramatic version of Act III of Wagner’s magisterial comedy was beautifully presented on Saturday night, with Nicholas Braithwaite and the ASO, having had about 5 minute’s practice, fully on top of Wagner’s complex, rich sonorities, polyphonic master-touches, and yes, humour, and humanity.  Whilst The Varnished Culture overheard one dowager claiming afterwards that Hitler used to turn up for Act III alone (to absorb the finale’s Message about the retention of Pure Germanic Art), we have always considered that Der Führer’s appropriation of that closing-piece a typically ignoble, life-hating, Nazi-misreading.  Rather, it is Hans Sachs, who has forsaken his own love for Eva to ensure that Art and Love shall triumph, chiding Walther for his insouciant attempt to spurn the prize he has justly won, who makes the proper point. Hans, here perfectly played, straight (with a dash of mischief), by Bass-baritone Shane Lowrencev, completes the circle and sends us Wagner’s ceaseless exhortation, “Ehrt eure deutschen Meister!” (Honour your German masters!), although he forgets to add Wagner’s other recurring theme, “Kannst du zehn Dollar sparen?” In other words, Meistersinger is about the Triumph and Power of Art over the false triumphalism and feeble, transient power of Kings.

Because Meistersinger is easy to stage, it is apt to ‘concertise’ without reducing the production to a ‘reading.’ On this night, the ASO stayed well in the pit and we had, for Scene One, Sach’s workshop / office, a little reminiscent of the Doctor’s study in Gounod’s Faust. The setting was just so. The acting was not the ‘schmacting’ that can obtain in concertising, but full-hearted realisation. In this action-packed Scene, which starts in the aftermath of Act II’s town riot, Sachs sits (looking pretty much like Lowrencev would on the street, but for his shoe-maker’s apron – see image below) and sulks? reflects? on the madness of the world, while the glorious prelude is respectively ominous and light. In sneaks David (a lively, ardent and full-voiced Sam Sakker), to chat about not much, and Sachs is then jolted from his funk by Walther (a very good Bradley Daley, albeit a tad short for a Franconian Knight), who, after a warbled discussion with Sachs about romantic music, tries his Prize Song out for him. Then Beckmesser (a grumpy, funny Andrew Shore), looking like a cross between Dr. Evil and Uncle Fester, peers in Sach’s window and trousers the score Sachs has written down based on Walther’s draft. He then accuses Sachs of deceit (Notice how villains invariably accuse the innocent of the precise no-good they themselves are up to?).

The finale of Scene I is sublime, and so it was here: Eva (a lovely Kate Ladner) comes by, complaining about the pinching of her tootsies from her new shoes (a likely story).  She’s here to make goo-goo eyes at Walther, which she does to the full, while Hans sets about fixing a non-existent problem with the shoes.  Eventually, there is a magical quintet of longing (Selig, wie die Sonne), featuring Hans, Eva, Walther, Magdalena (the fresh but accomplished Fiona McArdle) and David, magnificently organised and modulated, entwined perfectly with the orchestral reprises of the Prize Song, which for us was one of the two highlights of the evening.

Scene Two had us in an imaginary meadow (suggested by a simple royal blue back-light, and bleachers). The Chorus assembled, after some hocus-pocus with Guild choruses, fanfares and some rough-and-tumble. On strut the Master Singers (the best of them Sachs, appropriately decked in Yellow-and-Black!) and the competition begins.  Beckmesser messes up triumphantly, with his grotesque song, and is quickly shuffled-off so Walther can be choreographed on stage by Sachs to sing the Prize Song.  This, for us, was the other highlight: the moment Walther sings the song, before the assembled throng, Eva gazing at him from the dais, unfettered by worries or circumstance, is very moving, just as Wagner intended and in this case, it did not disappoint.  It is probably the sweetest moment in Wagner’s entire oeuvre (apart perhaps from the Siegfried Idyll.)

We have discussed the players, the orchestra, and the conductor. We have implied that the discreet staging easily surpassed the monstrous revisionist chauvinism of much modern Wagner full-productions. (Cast and Crew are listed below). It remains, before we allow for a minority opinion, to praise the choral work, which has to be near-perfect in a successful Meistersinger.  It was.

[Minority Report by Eduard Hanslick:

A ridiculous evening. This noise on stage is not true music as Mozart, or his true heir, Brahms, would have it. I don’t know what the composer is trying to say here, and the music, while noisy and occasionally melodic, does not seem to follow traditional rules of composition, despite the pretense of tradition. The best thing about it was the lute song by the serious and senior Mastersinger, despite the adolescent hooting from the cheap seats. Otherwise, it all seems to be a monumental attempt to deify The Artist at the expense of the critical sensitivity, managing effects without causes.  I should add that despite a good tram service, to get to the Festival Theatre, I had to push through an enormous throng of adult idiots, wearing scarves that said either “Adelaide Crows” or “Port Power,” and put up with their hilariously unoriginal jibes to the effect that I was “going the wrong way.” But the new bar facilities within are vastly improved.”]

“A flea looked down Upon my crown…”

Creatives & Cast

Conductor – Nicholas Braithwaite
Director – Andrew Sinclair
Lighting Design – Donn Byrnes
Chorus Master – Simon Kenway
Repetiteur – Andrew Georg

Eva – Kate Ladner
Magdalene – Fiona Mcardle
Walther Von Stolzing – Bradley Daley
David – Samuel Sakker
Hans Sachs – Shane Lowrencev
Sixtus Beckmesser – Andrew Shore
Veit Pogner – Pelham Andrews
Fritz Kothner – John Bolton-Wood AM

Kunz Vogelgesang – Robert Macfarlane
Balthasar Zorn – Hew Wagner
Augustin Moser – Adam Goodburn
Ulrich Eisslinger – Andrew Turner
Konrad Nachtigall – Jeremy Tatchell
Hermann Ortel – Daniel Goodburn
Hans Foltz – Joshua Rowe
Hans Schwarz – Robert England

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The Children of Dynmouth

(by William Trevor) (1976)

There’s a moment in All The President’s Men, released the same year as Mr Trevor’s (Cox’s) novel, where Carl Bernstein says: “All these neat little houses in all these nice little streets, it’s hard to believe that something’s wrong in some of these little houses…” to which Bob Woodward replies, “No it isn’t.”

That is encapsulated neatly in The Children of Dynmouth, a wonderful little piece, where Child-From-Hell, Timothy Gedge, terrorizes a small town along the lines of the feral lads in Peter Weir’s cult classic, The Cars That Ate Paris (1974).  But whereas the lads in Paris are physically intimidating, Gedge is more of a mental sadist, a macabre serial pest.

William Trevor, Irish master of the short story, expanded one such into this masterful novella, where Timothy (with his relentless and hideous joviality (‘Cheers!’); wistful sociopath’s smile; snooping; habit of talking his victims into flight, especially when he airs embarrassing and possibly artless disclosures about them in the presence of third parties; dreadful jokes) turns little Dynmouth upside-down.  He’s always underfoot, prone to be trampled, and yet there’s some internal, infernal resource through which he springs free again.

The book commences, deliberately we think, in the most prosaic fashion; neat little houses, nice little streets – the first couple of pages read like a travellers’ guide or a pamphlet put-out by the local Chamber of Commerce. But then we start drilling down, intimately, into the lives of adults and their day-to-day, and various children, with their more timeless outlooks.  And, appropriately on page 13, we meet lonely Timothy – “a youth of fifteen, ungainly due to adolescence, a boy with a sharp-boned face and wide, thin shoulders, whose short hair was almost white.  His eyes seemed hungry, giving him a predatory look; his cheeks had a hollowness about them.”

Gedge, without apparent skills, confronts a likely working life at the town’s sandpaper factory, and dreams of stardom at the Spot the Talent comp held at Dynmouth’s annual Easter Fête. God knows why – it invariably features a lady singing Austrian songs in costume, a harmonica-player, a local pop band, an amateur conjurer, a man doing dog impressions, a schoolteacher reciting The Lady of Shalott, and last summer’s carnival queen singing Tie a Yellow Ribbon round the Old Oak Tree.  Be that as it may, Timothy proposes a sock-o act, something different – a gruesome comedy turn that promises to be funny as a child molester.  For that, he needs certain props, and sets about ‘persuading’ various townsfolk to assist, on the basis that he’ll keep their secrets.

Trevor unfolds this superbly, yet with humour and genuine compassion. There are no heroes and villains here, just humans, with all their joy, longing, despair, anger, frustration, guilt and terror.  All wonderfully depicted, in a terse, dry style, free of flourish. And life in Dynmouth, more or less, goes on…


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Beethoven: The Man Revealed

By John Suchet (2012)

This “biography” is a sub-Wikipedia standard, slapdash tract that wouldn’t pass muster as an afternoon talk to Kiwanis with early onset dementia. We’ve developed a drinking game for those who choose to peruse it:

When the author says “it seems” or something “might have” been, or is “likely,” “possible,” “probable,” or words to that effect, you have a beer.

I had a beer on pages 4, 17, 26, 30, 41, 48, 50, 54, 56, 76, 83, and 100;  2 beers on pages 5, 6, 36, 47, 51, 82, and 105; 3 schooners on page 82, and 4 pots on pages 3 and 7.

When the author says “we don’t know” or “can’t be sure or certain” or something “is likely” you have a glass of wine.

I had a wine on pages 3, 8, 10, 18, 20, 27, 50, 51, 57, 69, 82, 83, 85, 101, 102, and 104; 2 glasses on pages 5, 55, 65, 76, and 84, and a full bottle of cabernet sauvignon on page 15.

When the author says “presumably,” “it seems,” something is “almost certain” “surely” or “there’s no doubt“, you have a cider.

I had a cider on pages 7, 11, 17, 18, 26, 29, 33, 40, 45, 48, 57, 59, 67, 68, 74, 78, and 86; 2 ciders on pages 5, 12, and 72; 3 on page 60.

When the author says “there is no evidence,” or something “would” / “could” be or “must” have happened, you have a whiskey.

I had a whiskey on pages 5, 22, 34, 45, 50, 52, 53, 58, 74, 77, 80, and 88; 2 shots on pages 6, 8, 9, 12, 47, and 72; 3 belts on pages 21 and 60, and bottle of Chivas Regal on page 55.

When the author says “I think,” “I believe,” or “assume” or “suspect” or “conjecture” or “one can imagine,” or “I will now indulge in speculation”, you have a champgne.

I had a champagne on pages 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 16, 17, 22, 40, 54, 66, 68, 69, 70, 74, 83, and 95; 2 champers on pages 18, 52, 53, 56, 73, 85, and 94; 3 slugs on pages 55, 80, and 100, a bottle of Veuve Clicquot  on page 86, and a magnum of Dom on page 47.

I can’t remember marking any more howlers, being by then somewhat under the affluence of incohol, but you perhaps get the point. If not, to get a better sense of what they call Suchet’s “conversational approach,” try this, his “account” of the meeting twixt Mozart and Beethoven:

“…in the myriad of (sic) biographies of Beethoven…(t)he encounter with Mozart barely rates more than a swift paragraph…we know virtually nothing…(b)ut I believe [it] deserves as close an examination as possible, with speculation allowed after that…[I’ll] allow myself to put a few speculative clothes on the bare bones of what we know…That is shameless fictionalising, I readily admit, bit it gives a flavour of what I believe probably happened.” (pp. 52, 53, 54).

Or what about Suchet’s “account” of the meeting between Haydn and Beethoven:

I shall now shamelessly indulge in speculation…Haydn then says, ‘Look, it is a bit late now, and I have to leave early tomorrow, but I’ll tell you what I’ll do. On my return journey I’ll make sure I come via Bonn, and I would very much ike to look at the cantatas, see the manuscripts. Would that be alright?’  I confess the conversation and that last quote are drawn from my imagination…” (pp. 68, 69).

“Tell you what I’ll do. Write up your bio on ‘Music Express.’ OK?”

I’ll tell you what I’ll do: throw this trash in the bin, or drop it off at Oxfam.  Why publish something like this? Better a novel or short story than this parody of a Hollywood biopic. Try the 30 page chapter on Ludwig in Michael Steen’s The Great Composers if you want hard facts, and save the understandable gush about a truly great composer for some soft Classic FM show.

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