Ready Player One (dir. Steven Spielberg)

May 3, 2018 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

For our review of Ernest Cline’s book (and an outline of the story), and our comments on Steven Spielberg’s infantalising influence, please click here.

Spielberg started this movie, then left it while he popped out to make Transformers: The Last Knight, The Post and possibly a few others. And it shows. Spielberg’s story-telling is almost always childish, repetitive, and thin*.  It’s even poorer than usual here, as is the over-used, tediously monumental CGI (perhaps Ready Player One is meant to be seen on a 3D or iMax screen?  It looked wobbly round the edges and blurry at our viewing).

The film (co-scripted by Ernest Cline, disappointingly) departs from the book to its detriment. Do see our review for more detail of the plot of the book but, in brief, in a dystopian future, many millions (Americans only in the film) escape the poverty of their lives by engaging in the OASIS, a suit-yourself, virtual reality universe developed by James Halligan (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg).  Morrow retires from the project and when Halliday dies, he ‘bequeaths’ the whole shebang to the first ‘grunter’ (egghunter) to find a cyber Easter egg which is hidden somewhere within the vast OASIS. Grunters immerse themselves in scouring the pop culture of Hallligan’s favourite era – the1980’s – for clues.  A grunter, Wade Watt (whose OASIS avatar is known as Parzifal) finds the first of three keys.  Then the evil mega-corporation IOI is out to get him, in order to enable it to take over the OASIS.

The 1980’s literary and more obscure cultural references of the book are dumbed-down in the film to giant T-Rexes, Transformers (natch) and a reset of The Shining. Technically impressive – but why? The first 1980’s video-game challenge becomes a 2010’s car and motorbike race (just so that we can see a giant King Kong from above and below -again, who cares?).

In the novel Wade Watts/Parzifal (Tye Sheridan) fights it out in the cyberworld of OASIS with his avatar cohort, whom he does not meet in the real world until late in the story.  However in the film, Wade meets the people behind the avatars in a suitably cheery real-life scene early in the movie which, from that point, deteriorates into a mixed-race-gender buddy-fight movie.

The visit to Halligan’s childhood home is stripped of purpose and instead provides a vehicle for poor Mark Rylance to play out the film’s most sugary moments – no, wait, the most diabetes-inducing ones are preserved for Simon Pegg  right at the end.

The clues are solved by Parzifal and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) in ridiculous finger-snapping moments of revelation, with the assistance of a virtual reality museum of moments in Halligan’s life – (which replaces The Anorak Almanac of the book) – an unwieldy idea which is not handled well.

Careless simplification of the plot leave viewers who have not read the book wondering why Wade sleeps on a washing machine and where he gets his money from.

The supposed ‘un-attractiveness’ of the female characters is ridiculous – in reality a young man could look at these girls without wincing if they would just have a bit of self-respect and put on some makeup and a nice dress. Ironic, really, given that Tye Sheridan plays Wade as a  really unprepossessing, pudgy-faced, open-mouthed dolt. The unfortunately Disney-like, huge-eyed sprites and Bluto meanies of the avatars seem to belong in a different movie.

Ready Player One was partly made in Australia and that shows too. Wade Watt’s avatar Neo, sorry, Parzifal, takes the pill, puts on the VR goggles and has to defeat the evil Mr Anderson Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his corporation.  It all ends in a mega, over-the-top, battle for Mordor the fortress.  A round object is dropped into, and consumed by flames, whereupon everything blows up.  Game over.

[*We will except Duel and Schindler’s List (as Director) and The Money Pit, True Grit, and The Lovely Bones (as producer).] Continue Reading →

In Search of Wagner

(By Theodor Adorno) (written 1937-38) (Rodney Livingstone translation) (2005)

Whilst Adorno (1903 – 1969) was a thinker of wide learning and deep perception, here he is defeated by Wagner, as well as by his own Frankfurter-Marxist dogma and drab obsession with the dialectical. He’d love to dismiss RW as repulsive, dangerous, tin-eared, a Jew-baiter and Jew-hater, formless and, worst of all, bourgeois; yet a kind of intellectual honesty keeps creeping-back in to Adorno’s highly profound skull that undermines all of his grumbling. Wagner is not only sui generis; he is unimpeachable; Adorno’s brilliant attacks, often highly personal, fail utterly, proving our point beautifully. (Wagner would have laughed till he wet his silk underpants).

This book is ponderous, over-freighted with theory, and whilst short, is written in a dense fashion that often collapses under the weight of too many concepts advanced at one and the same time, and bent-out-of-shape by Adorno’s desire to crush the Maestro. Yet all he does is demonstrate how, beneath the barnacles of his apparent musical formlessness, artistic revanchism, anti-semitism and other personal odious qualities, Wagner remains one of the four greatest musical geniuses of history*. Michael Tanner in Wagner rightly says: “Theodor Adorno’s In Search of Wagner is important because of its author, showing how a thinker of genius can be led by reacting to Wagner’s art into wild postures of rejection, and sneaking admiration.” (p.225)

My German is far too weak to read Adorno in the original and comment on the translation by Rodney Livingstone (‘das ist schade’) but I suspect that Adorno is the one to blame for swampy paragraphs such as this:

The melodic endings within the unending melody are all too apparent. They are only just negotiated by stereotyped interrupted cadences, such as the ‘resolution’ of the dominant seventh onto the second inversion of the dominant seventh of the dominant.” (Forget the technical nature of the opinion, just consider the horrendous syntax, so horrendous as to be truly German.)

However, Adorno has a hell of a lot of fascinating things to say, and whilst he largely stirs a storm in a Nymphenburg tea-cup, he identifies several things about Wagner that, in the final analysis, don’t matter, but cannot be ignored:

Item One: His persona

He is accused (and surely, rightly convicted) of sentimentality, particularly in the cadging for sympathy. Yet off-putting and, indeed, sinister as that quality is, you excuse it in Wagner, who set himself one of the greatest tasks in the history of Art, a re-making of old forms anew. For that, he gets a special pass in TVC’s opinion. Be that as it may, Adorno does pin the butterfly adroitly, especially in his account of Wagner’s perverse sense of humour that appalled his friends, Liszt and Nietzsche among them.  Adorno properly cites the weird, cruel and stupid cat-and-mouse game with Hermann Levi, when “every soothing word is accompanied by a new sting…[showing a] sadistic desire to humiliate, sentimental conciliatoriness and above all the wish to bind the maltreated Levi to him emotionally…”

The anti-semitic and rascist streak will always loom large in Wagner, of course. It’s the worst thing about him. Adorno finds his proofs of an all-encompassing pathology in the form of Alberich and Mime from The Ring, and Beckmesser from Meistersinger.  (In addition to the fruitful harvest from his many tasteless essays.) To us, Wagner’s prejudice smacks of theory rather than practical malignity, akin to the chap who says “All lawyers are lying, robbing swine; My lawyer, however, is terrific.” In other words, we find his Jew-hate detestable but not subversive of his works, and in practical terms, not necessarily evil or universal. (Adorno might like to read some of his pal, Karl Marx, for perspective on this.)

Item Two: Formlessness

[In Wagner] all true polyphony is frustrated…Wagner’s melody is in fact unable to make good its promise of infinity since, instead of unfolding in a genuinely free and unconstrained manner, it has recourse to small-scale models and by stringing those together provides a substitute for true development.”  (Arguably correct, yet polyphony in many operas is just showing-off, and Wagner had a higher purpose.)

Item Three: Lack of harmony

“…there is an absence of tension in Wagner’s harmony as it descends from the leading note and sinks from the dominant into the tonic. It is the fawning stance of the mother’s boy who talks himself and others into believing that his kind parents can deny him nothing, for the very purpose of making sure they don’t.”

Well, for one I’d suggest that Ted has another listen to the Liebestod, the Siegfried Idyll, Act II of Götterdämmerung, the Fire Music, Trauermarsch, the overtures to Tannhaüser, Lohengrin and Meistersinger, the Good Friday music, even the Ride of the Valkyries, and then shut the heck up!

Item Four: The Dilettante

This is a serious charge, also made by Thomas Mann, who had a bit of time for Wagner (but also for Adorno). We find ourselves voting ‘not guilty,’ purely on the basis that perhaps only Leonardo could reach across such divides as Wagner did in his effort to attain gesamtkunstwerk. The old crack that Wagner was ‘impressionistic’, writing for the ‘unmusical,’ to be heard from a great distance rather than the Viennese chamber, fails to persuade, even though we concede that with Wagner, one often does not surf the wave but watches it from the shore. So what?  As for Adorno’s charge that “garrulousness and complacency…mar Wagner’s work at every point,” we say, with the very profoundest respect: “Get your hand off it.”

Item Five: Theatricality

Adorno believes this “repellent aspect of his grounded in this regression...a museum of long-forgotten gestures…”  We would dare to suggest that more theatricality (which in our book means a better sense of a complete presentation of emotion-evoking technique) would have enhanced the operatic work of one whose music attained similar heights…say, Mozart?  Wagner’s music-dramas, with influence from Beethoven, Weber and Jew-Boy Mendelssohn, made cinema intellectually (perhaps even to an extent technically) possible, so consider this statement by an early master of that genre, as to theatricality: “I have this terrible sense that a film is dead – that it’s a piece of film in a machine that will be run off and shown to people.  That is why, I think, my films are theatrical, and strongly stated, because I can’t believe that anybody won’t fall asleep unless they are.  There’s an awful lot of Bergman and Antonioni that I’d rather be dead than sit through. For myself, unless a film is hallucinatory, unless it becomes that kind of an experience, it doesn’t come alive.  I know that directors find serious and sensitive audiences for films where people sit around peeling potatoes in the peasant houses – but I can’t read that kind of novel either.  Somebody had to be knocking at the door – I figure that is the way Shakespeare thought…”** We venture that Ted’s “embarrassing feeling that someone is constantly tugging at his sleeve” when listening to Wagner, merely reflects his own aridity of feeling.

Item Six: The Enemy of History

Adorno and his ilk are the o-so-clever suppressors of the human spirit; naturally Wagner is accused as “not only the willing prophet and diligent lackey of imperialism and late-bourgeois terrorism…[but he] also possesses the neurotic’s ability to contemplate his own decadence and to transcend it in an image that can withstand that all-consuming gaze.”  His music, Adorno bleats, is the ‘commodity’ and exchange mentality of ‘high capitalism.’ Oh dear. Perhaps Adorno would rather sit with Brecht, Grass, and the East German artistic cabal that used to lick Erich Honecker’s boots (figuratively speaking), and watch a Maoist staging of Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, rather than, for example, attend a good production of The Valkyries, Parsifal, or Tristan und Isolde. It is true that Wagner tended towards a nihilistic weltanschauung; to deride him as a Hobbesian ‘apostate rebel’ is a tad rich.

But Adorno comes around, and verifies or identifies the following:

[Wagner remarked] that, when listening to Mozart, he sometimes imagined he could hear the clatter of dishes accompanying the music. Contemporary attitudes towards the musical inheritance suffer from the fact that no one has the confidence to be so disrespectful.

“…the characteristic chord with the allegorical rubric ‘Spring’s command, sweet necessity’ in The Mastersingers, which represents the whole element of erotic passion and hence summarizes the whole action…is indeed the epitome of the musical modernity of the nineteenth century, [which] did not exist before Wagner…few aspects of Wagner’s music have been as seductive as the enjoyment of pain.”

The art of orchestration in the precise sense, as the productive share of colour in the musical process ‘in such a way that colour itself becomes action’ is something that did not exist before Wagner.”

And, writing in exile before Hitler’s final conflagration, there is at last, this insight:

Anyone able to snatch such gold from the deafening surge of the Wagnerian orchestra, would be rewarded by its altered sound, for it would grant him that solace which, for all its rapture and phantasmagoria, it consistently refuses. By voicing the fears of helpless people, it could signal help for the helpless, however feebly and distortedly. In doing so it would renew the promise contained in the age-old protest of music: the promise of a life without fear.”

(We add that the Verso edition of this book has an excellent forward by Slavoj Žižek, who is inclined to be less dogmatic than Adorno.) All in all, an interesting and provocative read, but ultimately wrong, invariably Dead Wrong!

Ted by Leandro Gonzalez de Leon

[* Need you ask? Wagner, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart (with Schubert, Mendelssohn, Handel, Haydn, Chopin, Rossini, Grieg, Puccini/Verdi and Tchaikovsky in close pursuit…)] [**Orson Welles.] Continue Reading →

The Party

April 23, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Comedy Film, Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Sally Potter) (2017)

Contrivance is self-evident in this short, slight, by-the-numbers retro film, a kind of cross between Albee, O’Neil and The Strange Death of Liberal England, looking almost as if staged during the Thatcher years.

Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is Labor’s new Shadow Minister for Health, and pads about her inner London kitchen, preparing party snacks and smugly taking celebratory calls. Why this poisoned chalice without power is a cause for celebration is not clear. Certainly Janet’s cynical pal, April (Patricia Clarkson) doesn’t get it, but she keeps busy spraying about witless witticisms that prompt the odd nasty snicker but rarely a genuine laugh. (Everyone acts as though they’re drunk before the party started, yet all are too old to be pre-loading Jäger-Bombers). April hates, yet seems to stick with, silly New-Ageist Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), who grins idiotically whilst deprecating western medicine and being generally as ineffectual as mystic Marion from Kath and Kim.

Meanwhile, Janet’s husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), supposedly a brilliant professor of dialectics, sits and stares, catatonic and withdrawn. And then we have lesbian mothers-to-be Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer) who are having a crisis of confidence. Finally, Tom (Cillian Murphy), the token Tory amongst this den of Doris Lessing types, looms, sweaty, coked-to-the-gills and clearly having a crisis of his own, considering the gun that he keeps either fiddling with or tossing in Bill and Janet’s recycling bin. Tom’s gun, and Tom’s absent wife, serve here as the MacGuffin.

A lot of the hour was like this, unfortunately..

In the course of 70 minutes or so, the whole melange dissolves with a tedious predictability. Psychologically, the scenario collapses completely. These are motifs, not men; gestures, without ideas. The serious actors, we assume, are not at fault – we suspect the director instructed them to mug as if on a sitcom. Even so, Scott Thomas and Ganz actually manage to rise above the material, which telegraphs its denouement (via SMS) well before the hour strikes. The actors get to do the stuff they love – snarl, snort, spit, drink, cry, vomit, slap, emote. We don’t suggest that The Party is not to be preferred over the depressing trawlers of car chases and comic-book films, but we don’t know why those get made either.

We’d rather be at this party


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Cosi fan tutte

April 6, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | MUSIC, Opera, OPERA, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, TRAVEL |

At the Metropolitan Opera, NYC, April 2018 –

Mozart, the Met, and Spring in New York…what more could one wish for?  Some Spring weather, perhaps?

Cosi Fan Tutte has the most preposterous plot in all opera, which takes in a lot of territory. But Mozart’s music rolls along so merrily that it doesn’t matter, and the piece can survive, and even be enhanced by throwing the switch to vaudeville, as director Phelim McDermott does here by re-imagining the action in 1950s Coney Island.

Lucy and Desi and Ethel and Fred…ah, no, sorry, let’s start again: Ferrando (Ben Bliss) and Guglielmo (Adam Plachetka) plan to wed beloved sisters Fiordiligi (Amanda Majeski) and Dorabella (Serena Malfi) but cynic/realist Don Alfonso (Christopher Maltman), with the help of knowing maid Despina (Kelli O’Hara) plan to undermine the lad’s sanguinity concerning the faithfulness of their fiancés.  That’s basically it, but the great, cheesy sets (by Tom Pye) encapsulate the horrid 1950s well, added to which we have a carnival atmosphere reflecting the saltiness of the story.

The obvious stand-outs on the night were Majeski and O’Hara, great actors and wonderful singers, but the entire cast were superb, including non-singing support. Credit also deft and amusing directorial touches and great playing by the Met orchestra under David Robertson, which made it a great evening. To this Wagnerian, Cosi is wafer-thin but a lot of fun.

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The Book of Mormon

April 5, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | MUSIC, RELIGION, THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49th Street, New York, 3 April 2018 –

TVC, being fans of Big Love, were naturally drawn to this sly musical blend of Americana and wacko cult. Joseph Smith would not approve, and frankly, anyone with the gift of real faith, of any sort, would smell blasphemy here. Yet this show is tight, hilarious and brilliantly conceived, staged and performed.

From the prologue where we learn that Jesus, after the disportation, buzzed over to the States and handed a golden book of plates to the Mormons, through an intricate opening number where freshmen Elders ring doorbells to tell the sinners about it, and by way of several sensational musical numbers, this 2 hour show is a monster hit; funny, literate and hip.

Neat, clean, handsome Elder Price (a bumptious and charismatic Dave Thomas Brown) is destined for big things. He dreams of Heavenly Father sending him to save the sinners in his Favourite Place in the Whole Wide World (we won’t reveal where that is, but having been there once, we can verify that, in this context, it’s perfect). However, Heavenly Father has other plans.

The entire cast is superb – we particularly liked Cody Jamison-Strand as Elder Cunningham, a classic loser and hanger-on who turns out to be the only Mormon in Uganda actually baptizing the locals, due to his pudgy charm and habit of bowdlerising the Good Book; Derrick Williams as the General, bemused, dangerous, and looking a lot like “The Duke” from Escape from New York, Stephen Asfhield as Elder McKinley, struggling (vainly) with ambivalent sexuality; Billy Eugene Jones as the village Chieftain and Nikki Renée Daniels as his daughter, both in very fine voice.  But really, all played well.

The singing and dancing is perfect, especially in that the dancing is not quite perfect.  A selection of song titles and lines will give you a clue to the feel of the show: “There’s no limit to what we can do. Me and You, but mostly ME…!”, “Hasa Diga Eebowa (F..k You God)”, “Turn it Off [doubts, bad feelings] like a light switch”, “Sa Tlay Ka Siti”, “Just Like Jesus, I’m Growing a Pair…Man up!”, “You’re Making Things Up Again, Arnold”, “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”, “I’m Wet With Salvation”, “Tomorrow is a Latter Day” and “I Am Africa…Just Like Bono”.  A packed house had a great night. A certified hit.

Before the Show


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Darkest Hour

April 2, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, HISTORY, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(2017) (Directed by Joe Wright) –

For high drama, it would be hard to beat the events of May and June 1940, when Churchill, newly-installed as Prime Minister in charge of a wartime coalition cabinet and facing the rampaging German army just across the English channel, had to confront the possibility of the total defeat of his defences, the scuttling of his navy, and invasion of his sceptered isle.  There was pressure on Winston to sue for peace but he drew on his natural bellicosity, pugnacity and good sense to resist that siren’s lure and declared that England would fight on, “if necessary for years, if necessary alone.”  It is one of the great speeches of history of which The Varnished Culture has written before, so it is sad to see it very badly fumbled here.

Gary Oldman plays Churchill like a cross between Micawber and old Mr Grace from Are You Being Served? – he twinkles, he rages, he makes over-optimistic predictions – and whilst you’d concede it as a performance of competence, he doesn’t capture the essence of the great man, not by a long chalk.  Instead, we have endless exposition and back-story, and when history fails to fill the bill, the screenwriter engages in fantasy fiction.

“Remember, we’re not fighting for France, we’re fighting for champagne…and some better lines…”

We have a nervous new personal secretary (Lily James, the allied version of the bunker stenographer from Downfall), mangling dictation but handing Winston his King’s summons; a non-stuttering George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, rather good as always), expressing dismay at his new PM’s drinking habits and lack of title; meanwhile Kristen Scott Thomas, as Clementine Churchill, essentially reprises her role from Four Weddings and a Funeral, with a dash of Helena Bonham Carter from The King’s Speech whisked-in. Stephen Dillane as Halifax is silkily intimidating and effective as Halifax. You can’t honestly rubbish the playing, but it all rings false; glossy and false.

The culprit is the script. We’re served-up numerous Tories tut-tutting about how unsound Winston is. Halifax and Chamberlain are gulping down the pasta with Mussolini’s minions, trying to cut a deal. They are ready to have Churchill rolled in a non-confidence vote, with the Viscount poised to assume stewardship of Blighty as some sort of western Gauleiter, Oswald Moseley alongside as a factotum no doubt. George VI visits and encourages the PM to consult the people. This he does by taking the tube to Westminster Station, sounding out the passengers as to whether they will fight or yield. By the time his fellow commuters have said their spirited piece, Churchill is emboldened, and makes his speech. Yay! cue credits!

But there is a fundamental problem here. This scenario is ludicrous. Churchill was always a contentious figure, certainly, but he had plenty of friends, and he’d been consistently correct about Hitler. Plenty of Tories who wanted him to replace Chamberlain. There is no evidence Chamberlain and Halifax were treating with Hitler or circling about Churchill’s premiership with a view to a coup. George VI didn’t ‘drop in’ on anyone and he was no believer in mob rule. As for Churchill taking soundings on the tube, seeking to gauge and garner popular support – fiddlesticks!  (The screenwriter must be thinking of the time Nixon dropped in at the Lincoln Memorial around dawn during the Vietnam War, more a product of his deep depression than outreach by a friend of the people. Also, see below.)

These fictions add nothing but they subtract plenty, undermining what could have been high drama but which comes out of the can as low treacle.

[As legends in their own mind about making a pitch to Hollywood, TVC suggests further revisionist biopics, tailored to the times. With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of America’s Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., looming, we thought an action film based on the shooting in Tennessee might work, perhaps involving a car chase in which Jesse Jackson catches and takes down James Earl Ray.] Continue Reading →

A Farewell to Arms

(by Ernest Hemingway) (1929) –

His robust, muscular and terse style?  Give us a break!  This is his opening paragraph:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

We counted the word “and” 15 times.

No wonder he blew his brains out.  The thing is, he must have been an incredibly good shot.  A mannered one. J. B. Priestley felt that Hemingway’s ‘style’ “were like some magical coat of mail, not keeping its wearer active in the battle but preserving him from threatened collapse“,* which tells you a bit about Priestley.

James Wood has his own favourite of Hemingway at his worst in Farewell:

He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew.”  His comment – “…there is a point beyond which pressurised shorthand is no longer an enrichment but an impoverishment, and an unnatural containment.  It is the point at which ellipsis becomes a formalism, a kind of aestheticism, in which fiction is no longer presenting complexity but is in fact converting complexity into its own too-certain language.”**

As for complexity, we have an ambo falling in love with a cipher, a cardboard cut-out of an English nurse.  All we know is that she is very pretty, and violently resists Henry’s charms, till she does so no longer.

According to his biographer, he started writing this thing after a head wound.^  It figures, and it shows.

“…will I ever get the hang of this?”

There are some good bits, snappy dialogue and curious wanderings, redolent of Joyce’s Ulysses.  This is done in the now familiar chatty patois of America’s lost generation.  We have in mind the stream of consciousness that concludes book one, or random shots like:

I tried to tell about the night and the difference between the night and the day and how the night was better unless the day was very clean and cold and I could not tell it; as I cannot tell it now.”  (Indeed.  A clear case of aphasia, they might say, and this even before the infliction of the wound.)  You can see why J. D. Salinger couldn’t resist using the book as a joke in Franny and Zooey:

I hate this rain.  Sometime I see me dead in it.

My dear, isn’t that a line from A Farewell to Arms?

[* J.B. Priestly, Literature and Western Man (1960), p. 435.] [**James Wood, The Irresponsible Self (2004), p. 238.] [^ A. E. Hotchner, Papa Hemingway (1968), p. 51.] Continue Reading →


16 March, 2018 at “Jade”, Adelaide Fringe

Raw, but we ate it up. This performance was one of those closest to the spirit of the Fringe, where non or semi-professionals can test their abilities, and material, in front of an Adelaide crowd, a crowd that is no pushover, albeit less querulous than Milan and less violent than Edinburgh.

Co-producers Simon Coad and Adrian Nippress, in collaboration with Simon Goodes, created the gruesome conceit of a mock ‘Telethon,’ with all the forced striving to entertain and chaotic variety which that entails, and whilst The Varnished Culture had reservations (of which more shortly), it was a damn good college try.

Adrian and Simon introduced the telethon and then lounged in easy chairs (see main image) to exchange humorous inanities, occasionally taking a call on the dedicated phones, seeking donations to “make Adelaide great again” – a Donald Trump line eerily apt in view of the general election scheduled for the following day. Coad returned with a routine (or ‘rant’) but for us, this didn’t gel – the material (e.g. bad coffee on planes) seemed tired and the delivery not as tight as it should have been.  The stand-up elements obviously need work to strengthen the jokes and the overall structure, but we think it won’t be work wasted.

Coad, Nippress, Taylor – making Adelaide great (again)

Coad was joined by vocalist Bec Taylor for a rap number, and Taylor also delivered a solo, “The Bare Necessities” (from the Disney version of The Jungle Book, again, a judicious thematic choice). Taylor’s costume seemed to fit either a 1970’s telethon or talent show – take your pick – but her vocal delivery was top-notch, and had the audience tapping toes, clapping hands and clinking wine glasses.  There was also – consistent with the ‘variety’ offered by telethons – a couple of professional improv artists from the Fringe (see below), who took suggestions from the crowd and performed to them (if you’ve ever seen Whose Line is it Anyway? you’ll get the picture).

Nippress returned in blue-collar gear and High-Viz as “Hubert Sprogg,” spokes-bloke for the Department of Transport Planning & Infrastructure. In a highly-charged segment, Sprogg told us why we were dead-wrong to complain about the superbly-planned city of Adelaide and its current “development.”  There was a touch of Dickensian anger in this act, and why not? Some luvvies in the crowd shifted a little uneasily – this was, after all, a somewhat lethal poke at the incumbent government – but High Tories in the crowd such as L and the remaining free-thinkers found some of the material too true to be funny, albeit some of it too funny to be true.

All in all, this was an aspirational, probationary effort that requires work, which it doubtless will receive.  We, and clearly most others, had fun, and enjoyed the laid-back funkiness of the venue to boot. The run has ended, but keep an eye on this mob in future.

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Those Barren Leaves

By Aldous Huxley (1925)

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;

Or surely you’ll grow double:

Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;

Why all this toil and trouble?

Enough of Science and of Art;

Close up those barren leaves;

Come forth, and bring with you a heart

That watches and receives.”

[William Wordsworth, The Tables Turned (1798)]

Huxley’s sojourn among the leisured and treasured and their hangers-on, impoverished chancers all, stationed above the Tyrrenhian Sea, whilst as “clever but ephemeral”* as all his books, is still a hoot, a wiry satire of cultural elites who talk of art but think of money, sing of love whilst planning sex, approbate and reprobate, philosophize and rhapsodize. In short, they indulge in omphaloskepsis.  Huxley subjects them all to aloof evisceration, vivisection, examination, and condemnation.

Mrs Lilian Aldwinkle inhabits the palatial Cybo Malaspina, perched high on a cliff bordered by pines and olive trees, high above the village of ‘Vezza’.  There she smothers her gathered menagerie, waxes lyrically, and generally unreliably, about great Art (“with that large and indistinct enthusiasm evoked in her by every masterpiece“), and devotes herself to her young poet, Francis Chelifer, washed up on the Tyrrenhian shores like Shelley, who between composition makes ends meet by editing The Rabbit Fancier’s Gazette, and who is immune to his host’s charms:

Religion, patriotism, the moral order, humanitarianism, social reform – we have all of us, I imagine, dropped all those overboard long ago. But we still cling pathetically to art. Quite unreasonably…”

those barren leaves…

Miss Mary Thriplow, novelist, is researching dedicated amorist, Mr. Calamy:

And there were moments when she half believed that he really would kill her. It was a new kind of love. She abandoned herself to it with a fervour which she found, taking its temperature, very admirable. The flood of passion carried her along; Miss Thriplow took notes of her sensations on the way and hoped that there would be more and intenser sensations to record in the future.”

The novelist, must above all (after Mrs Aldwinkle), be able to feel:

She could not help suspecting, when she read Dostoievsky and Tchehov, that she was organized differently from these Russians. It seemed to her that she felt nothing so acutely, with such intricate joy or misery as did they. And even before she had started reading the Russians, Miss Thriplow had come to the painful conclusion that if the Brontë sisters were emotionally normal, then she must be decidedly sub-normal. And even if they weren’t quite normal, even if they were feverish, she desired to be like them; they seemed to her entirely admirable.

Mary falls for Mr Calamy, who flees, literally heading for the hills, but she still has heaps of useful notes in her commonplace book that she can use.

Mr Tom Cardan, an old flame of Mrs Aldwinkle, is meanwhile engaged upon a venture towards the securing of a comfortable dotage.  At first, this is to be in the form of an old piece of sculpture kept by a local grocer – this turns out to be a hackneyed, wavy-haired travesty of a poet.  “If I had ever adopted a profession…I think it would have been art dealing. It has the charm of being more dishonest than almost any other form of licensed brigandage in existence.”

But fortunately, in his tramping of the plain to find his precious artefact, Cardan stumbles upon a tragic, rich imbecile, Miss Elver, whom he inveigles back to Cybo Malaspina to clean up for nuptials:

He might make a slave of the poor creature, might keep her shut up in a rabbit-hutch, and, provided he showed himself now and again to be worshipped, she would be perfectly happy. The thought made Mr Cardan feel strangely guilty….[from the passenger seat of Mrs Aldwinkle’s car, Miss Elver] waved handkerchiefs and shouted as though she were on a char-à-banc. Miss Elver even waved at the cows and horses, she shouted even to the cats and the chickens.”

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier

By way of contrast, we see real love unfolding between Irene, Mrs Aldwinkle’s long-suffering niece, and the devoid of guile Lord Hovenden.  The callow young aristocrat is most at ease tearing along in his Vauxhall Velox: “All his victories had been won while he was in the car. It was in the car – eighteen months ago, before he came of age – that he ventured to ask his guardian to increase his allowance; and he had driven faster and faster until, in sheer terror, his guardian had agreed to do whatever he wished.” Now his lordship is taking part in Mrs Aldwinkle’s convey to Rome, the lovely Irene alongside in the Velox.  He can’t pronounce “th” so he says “vat,” “vese” and “somefing.”  Due in Rome for an International Labour Conference with his mentor, Mr. Falx, his Lordship plays truant, returning to Mrs Aldwinkle’s ensemble and Irene, whose decision to marry him will prove particularly galling to Mrs Aldwinkle, losing all of her retinue as the clock ticks, “getting old, getting old.”

Meanwhile, in the mountains, Mr Calamy has been musing: “Your mediaeval theologian made up for his really frightful cynicism about this world by a childish optimism about the next…”  And Mr Chelifer proposes: At one time and in one place you honour your father and your mother when they grow old; elsewhere and at other periods you knock them on the head and put them into the pot-au-feu.”  During the interminable philosophy and theosophy, one is reminded of George Eliot and The Key to all Mythologies.

In the final analysis, Huxley is a little too cold and calculating, didactic and overly cerebral, and too much the laboratory man with a microscope, and one does not feel his characters in the gut (much like D. H. Lawrence said of Huxley’s Darwinian exegeses).  But this is an unhurried, witty book, and a modest pleasure to inhale.  In that sense, it has tended to outlive his better-known novels, such as Brave New World and Point Counter Point.

Painting of Huxley by John Collier

[*John Sutherland, Lives of the Novelists, (2011) p. 384.] Continue Reading →

I, Tonya

March 12, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Craig Gillespie) (2017)

We laughed more than cried. Low comedy is more the order of the day here, rather than the high drama of the Great American Will to Win. Doubt is cast on Tonya Harding’s complicity in the cynical assault on her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, leading-up to the 1994 Olympic Games. Two borderline mental defectives drove to Kerrigan’s training rink, and while one waited with the motor running, the other gained access to Kerrigan and smashed her knee in (an act of bastardy to which these film-makers seem strangely dispassionate).  OK, it wasn’t quite a Texas Mum exterminating her daughter’s co-cheerleaders, but still.

It’s all about Tonya, unreliably recounted in cinéma vérité style by Tonya (a terrific Margot Robbie), her mother La Vona (Allison Janney, see below), her quick-with-his-fists hubby (Sebastian Stan) and various marginal types who populate Tonya’s trailer-park world. Cigarettes (good for the skater’s figure), cheap bars, bad hand-made clothes, waitress jobs, toxic friends, pick-up trucks and shotguns abound. Harding’s Mum pays a rinkside lout to heckle some motivation into Tonya; Husband Jeff pays $1,000 to friend, ‘bodyguard,’ and certified idiot, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) to engage in a little psychological warfare with the Kerrigan camp. Whether Tonya and Jeff knew that the psychological was going to stray to the physical (threatening letters transmogrify to bashing) is left up in the air, doubtless prudently from a legal point of view.  Viewers will either drink-up the version that paints Harding as an innocent, unknowing victim; or they will suspect her as another Henry II, needing to do penance.

The stand-outs are Robbie and Janney as the protagonist and her tough love = no love Mom.  Janney must have felt like Dustin Hoffman handed the part of Ratso Rizzo: “I mean…there is so much you can do with a part like that.”  The great thing about her performance is to do less, and let her wintry soul shine.  Pitiless towards Tonya, everyone around Tonya, and even herself (P would like her on the coaching panel of the Glenelg Football Club), hers is a stunning turn as a deeply damaged woman who will always let you down.  Robbie (well-prepared for playing a pikey from her time on Home and Away) persuades you, almost, of Harding’s artless moxie and makes a stout attempt to tone-down the glamour. And her skating scenes are very impressive, at least to this amateur, who never saw Ice Castles but has seen Blades of Glory.

Motherly advice from La Vona to Tonya: “You fuck dumb, you don’t marry dumb.”

In some ways, I, Tonya harkens back to Five Easy Pieces and Six Degrees of Separation in that it tries to say something about class in America, a largely forsworn topic. (Tonya has to sew her own sequins; Nancy is an Eastern grandee who sulks at winning silver.)  On that point, we would have appreciated a little less Tonya (she has too many scenes; where those shears and blue pencil?) and a bit more Kerrigan, in order to appreciate the magnitude of the fallout from the squalid affair. After all, doesn’t having your skating legs trimmed to effectively one and still finishing second deserve a bit of screen time?  And the tightly-edited first half unravels somewhat by the time Tonya appears to be in the ascendant, selecting more tasteful costumes and music for her routines. In the end, the film runs out of puff; having performed its triple-Axel, it meanders off the ice and towards the exit.

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