Monday, 31 January 2011

Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn: review

Here's a link to my review of Anthony's Quinn's second novel, Half of the Human Race, which I did for the Financial Times. It's cut from the same cake as the nation's new opiate, Downton Abbey. Click HERE

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Black Swan: Review, and The Problem of Fantasy

I've only seen Swan Lake on the stage once, which was the Matthew Bourne version at a theatre in Moscow a few years ago. The audience was positively thrumming with jollity; it was a production that highlighted the light touches. Not so Black Swan.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, an ingenue who, still mother-bound, dreams of success (right at the beginning she sees a poster advertising the prima ballerina; Portman conveys her character's suppressed ambition brilliantly with the tiniest of moues.) She dances in a company full of rivalries (overt and hidden). Her director (Vincent Cassell in "I am European" mode) is so sexually manipulative it's a wonder anybody can stand up when he's around. Since he's European, he's obviously a scheming arch-fiend with a Plan. In order to pull out the cash from his uber-rich benefactors, who presumably haven't been coughing up quite so much since his previous darling (Winona Ryder! Who sticks things into her cheeks to prove she's a psychopath!) is almost over the hill, he decides to put on Swan Lake. It's over done, but the public love it.

Poor sweet little Nina! She sleeps with a music box by her bed that her mother winds up for her every night. How is she going to get in touch with her Dark Side so she can play the Black Swan effectively? Darth Vader comes in the form of a loose, free and easy ballerina from California, who takes Nina out to a party and - shock! - gives her drugs! And talks about sex! Nina begins to go doolally. She appears to actually be metamorphosing into a swan, at times, even finding a small black feather growing out of her shoulderblade. She is haunted, too, by a doppellganger, like James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner; or, if Cassell is Archimago, like a wicked Duessa. For this is a film about defined opposites: a chess board, with no grey areas in between.

One ought not, of course, to take Black Swan seriously. It's actually gloriously rendered, almost dripping with luxury and menace, and it's as tightly wound as a ballerina's dancing shoe.

It also brings up the interesting question: why is it only in dancing films that critics mutter, 'oh, she isn't a proper dancer?' Well, no - she's an actor, and actors tend to do things on screen and stage that they are not properly qualified to do in real life. This is something called 'acting', which is 'pretend', and it's something that most of us have done from a very early age. It's not as if watching The Bill people go - 'hang on - he's not a proper policeman - how can he possibly arrest that man?' Or, to take a closer example, pianists. People complain about 'the world portrayed' in films - since when has a film had to be true to life? This is a problem that seems increasingly to be infecting criticism (in general and on the page) - as if people have almost forgotten that a film or a book can be purely fantastical. Black Swan is a gloriously fruity, magic, wedding-cakey confection of tinsel and glitter. It's as real as the Easter Bunny, and just as sick-makingly enjoyable.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

J D Salinger: Letters

Here's a link to a little thing I've written in response to the unveiling of some letters written by Salinger. I've always been of a mind that one shouldn't let biographical considerations get in the way of work - yes, it can be helpful to understand why certain things are as they are, but on the whole I prefer not to know about somebody's personal habits. Click HERE.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Apocalypse for Beginners by Nicolas Dickner: review

I've reviewed Nicolas Dickner's Apocalypse for Beginners for the New Humanist: here's a link to the website.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Thomas' Battersea: Readers' Cup Challenge

Today brought a visit to Thomas' Battersea, to attend the Readers' Cup Challenge, a competition which is a sort of cross between University Challenge and a very polite riot. I was given an extremely warm welcome by the staff, and led into their very impressive hall. There were four teams, each representing a house in the school (and all named after famous Thomases - Lawrence, More, Hardy and ... the other one escapes me). The teams had to answer some extremely tricky questions about the three set books, which were: I Am David by Ann Holm, Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce, and.... The Other Book by, er, you know, that chap, er, what's his name? er... Philip something... oh yes, Philip Womack.

The questions were answered with speed and depth. I confess I'd forgotten the answers to a couple of them. What were the names of Wentlake de la Zouche's dogs, I could remember - Blanche and Fairfax; but I hadn't remembered that Edward's toy is called Milo the hippo. I was also able to fulfill one of my dreams, which is to be as much like Bertie Wooster as it is humanly possible to be (hence the picture: obviously I was wearing a very similar get-up): step one, give the prize away at a school speech day. It wasn't technically a speech day, but still. Next I need to buy some purple spats...

So an enormous thank you to the staff and pupils of Thomas' Battersea, and keep on reading.

Monday, 17 January 2011

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done: review

A man wielding a samurai sword talks to his hick uncle about giant chickens whilst a dwarf stands mutely in the background on top of a giant hewn tree stump: yes, it's what we've all been waiting for - Philip's dream diary! Actually, no, come back - it's what we really have all been waiting for - a collaboration between oneiric aeronauts Werner Herzog and David Lynch. When I heard about this film (from one of those snazzy little New Yorker reviews that make you realise why you shell out five quid for it every now and again) I stuck the review to my board and waited and waited... I got the DVD for Christmas, and watched it last night.

On one level, it is supposedly a true story, about a young man who goes insane and kills his mother in front of their neighbours. On another, it is a retelling of Aeschylus' Oresteia. This is the level I was most interested in (although it would be fascinating to read details of the case). There was no suggestion of a skeleton in the family closet: Brad (played with astonishing, almost automaton-like power by Michael Shannon) was a strange man who lived with his mother in a house inhabited (and decorated) by flamingos. It was his closeness to his mother that provided the necessary motive, (rather than Clytemnestra's killing of Agamemnon.) She was ably played by Grace Zabriskie as a neurotic, gurning control-freak who swanned around in padded dressing gowns and twisted her hands a lot. She reminded me, in fact, of a detail from a performance of the Oresteia I saw about eleven years ago, when a camera was used to focus in on Clytemnestra's twisting hands as she talked to the audience. Brad, perhaps escaping his mother, perhaps seeking something else, goes to Peru with some friends; when they all die, drowned in white water rapids, except him, he believes he has been saved by an 'inner voice'. He starts to obey this voice, which causes him to change his life drastically.

The action takes place from the finding of the body of Brad's mother; a siege of Brad's house begins; it ends with his arrest (unity of time and place). There are suitable flashbacks as narrated by the two people closest to Brad (apart from mummy dearest, of course): his girlfriend (acted with gamine charm by the doe-like Chloe Sevigny), and a theatre director (Udo Kier looking and speaking with a high degree of European camposity.) Willem Defoe plays the (extremely polite) policeman. The diction is often quite high - the title of the film comes from the last words Brad's mother says to him as he kills her.

Brad has taken the lead role in a production of the Oresteia: its themes and resonances begin to obsess him deeply. They fit in with his own increasingly skewed view of the world, in which he must 'razzle them. Dazzle them.' His hallucinations lead him to see God in a can of oatmeal; his uncle provides a disturbingly vivid vision of the apocalpyse (which, despite it concerning giant chickens, is oddly effective. Hence the dwarf and the stump. You'll just have to watch it.)

When the SWAT team swarms over Brad's bright pink house it's as if the Furies have descended upon the house of Atreus - that house, bathed in blood from Tantalus to Orestes, generation after generation of cannibals, killers. (Incidentally, I've often wondered what it would be like to sit in on a gathering of the Atreidae. 'So, Electra, been up to much recently?' 'Well, after Orestes and I killed mum, we thought we'd go and visit our supposedly dead sister - it turned out after all that daddy hadn't killed her, instead Artemis - thank the gods - had substituted a deer! Fancy a chop? I hope that grandfather hasn't gone wild again... talking of which, anyone seen Pelops?')

Whereas the end of Aeschylus' play suppresses the terrible wild justice of the Erinyes, and replaces it with the formal justice of Athena, here there was ambiguity. Would Brad's insanity play a factor? A final image, of a basketball left by Brad in a tree in the hope that a boy would find it, provides a haunting sense of tantalising (ha!) redemption - but compromised. When a boy does pick up the ball, is he merely carrying on the cycle, or is he ending it?

All in all, a psychotically interesting brew, scored with jazz and cellos blazing, and with sudden static moments underscoring the action that are striking when they happen and gain a new layer of meaning at the end. A loopy delight. Now, back to those chickens...

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? [DVD] [2009]

Friday, 14 January 2011

Everything in Between by No Age: review

I haven't been listening to much new music recently, but this album has really taken control of my consciousness. I've been listening to it almost every day since I bought it. No Age are an American two piece, but this record sounds as if there are twenty of them. Scuzzy, stylish guitars hook and wriggle through fuzzy distortions; lilting tunes arise out of chaotic rumbles. 'Glitter's elegant songline sounds lazy and sharp at the same time; 'Fever Dreaming' is pure hectic riff joy; 'Valley Hump Crash' is almost a surfing love song - (almost). It also appears to be addressed to 'Catilina' - surely not the Roman Catiline? Well, I hope it is. They are, quite frankly, my New Favourite Band. And they even aurally quote Sonic Youth at one point, with a sound from 'Goo' appearing on one of the songs. And this can only be a good thing! Now, when will No Age come to England so I can go and watch them? Very soon, I hope. (And, ideally, supporting Sonic Youth... come on!)

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Travel Secrets by Tanya Rose

Well, January has been pretty, well, January-like, so far, with one regretful face looking back at the past year, and one hopeful face looking forwards. And hopefully an omen of things to come, a delicious slice of luxury arrived in the post today, hinting at wonderfully louche and / or exciting travels around the world: Travel Secrets by Tanya Rose, who brings a veritable dragon's hoard of golden travel tips out into the open. The book looks beautiful, a serious, solid hardback, interspersed with carefully chosen, enticing photographs; it's also an excellent reference book, giving travel tips for hotel and tour companies across the globe, with addresses and contact details. Whilst being lovely and tangible (which, in this world of e-readers and so forth, is increasingly become a rare and hence delightful thing), it is small enough to carry with you as you jet from Belgium to Brazil. There are guest spots from people as diverse as Tim Rice, Anya Hindmarch, Ed Victor and Tamara Mellon, revealing their favourite travel tips - you can find out about Tim Rice's cricketing experiences in St Petersburg, for example. It's an elegant, sophisticated book that is both functional and aesthetically stylish: a rare thing indeed these days. And now, with it on my desk, I look out of my window at the grey skies of Whitechapel, and in them I see New York, Nassau, Nairobi, and much, much more...

Monday, 3 January 2011

Snowdrops by A D Miller: review

And here is a link to my review of A D Miller's Snowdrops, a novel about a rather depraved lawyer approaching middle age in Moscow, who becomes embroiled in some dastardly schemes. It was for the Telegraph: click HERE

The London Train by Tessa Hadley: review

And the most splendiferous of New New Years to you all! For the Romans, 'novus' meant 'strange', as everything new was by definition strange; interesting that we've lost that sense of it. Anyway, here is a link to my review of Tessa Hadley's exquisite novel, The London Train, on the Financial Times website: click HERE