Monthly Archives: February 2011

Excursions in right-on comedy: Mark Thomas and Mark Steel

How about this for an exercise in compare-and-contrast: last week I went to two stand-up comedy gigs at The Junction 2 in Cambridge, featuring two marginally-celebrated left-wing London performers of similar age, appearance, accent and name. I even sat in the same seat for both shows. I therefore felt thoroughly equipped to hold forth on the huge similarities and minute differences between their acts that I fully expected to observe. However…

…the two shows were of course completely different. Mark Thomas (who I saw on the Tuesday) was there to give an account on his latest stunt: an attempt to walk the length of the huge security wall that the Israeli government has recently erected within the West Bank in order to eliminate the risk of Palestinian terrorism (or so they say). Thomas is a confident and very funny raconteur, and his story was full of colourful characters and hair-raising anecdotes, often involving misunderstandings and breaches of protocol with the Israeli army. He’s an old hand at playing the cheeky English chappie abroad in order to extricate himself from trouble, but he does relate a couple of episodes where it seems he, his cameraman and his guides were in serious danger of going to jail. Along the way he met many native Palestinians and Jewish settlers and he got a view of both sides of this very divided society, and observed firsthand how the route of the wall has been engineered so that Israeli settlements have been unofficially claimed back into the Jewish state. A large map showing the route of the walk and the boundary of the West Bank was helpfully displayed at the back of the stage, and I came away thinking that I had actually learned something. Thomas has a book coming out soon, and while one suspects that the content of this show was largely lifted word-for-word from it, this was a much more engaging evening than your standard book reading.

In contrast, Mark Steel (who I saw on the Friday) presented a much more interactive and congenial figure. As he tours the country he’s been collecting odd facts and opinions about the towns he’s visiting via Twitter, and a surprisingly large proportion of his show was dedicated to material pertaining to Cambridge. He relished some of the quotes he’d been sent (“I’ve just had a spectacular brunch”) and seemed surprised by the audience’s hostility to punt touts. The show frequently became somewhat free-form as audience members started to realise that Steel positively enjoys riffing on their contributions, and the evening ended up overrunning by about half an hour (I didn’t care). The rest of Steel’s routine consisted of some slightly predictable, but brilliantly delivered, material about the annoyances of modern life (call centres, remote controls, Subway sandwich bars, the Coalition) and some very funny observations of the many places in the United Kingdom he’s taken his act to. He has an amazing facility with accents, and a highly pleasurable way of spinning out absurd metaphors to ridiculous lengths. I laughed long and hard, and have been unexpectedly recalling funny bits for a couple of days now.

So this was always going to be a specious comparison. Both these men are highly talented, concerned and very funny and either would make a fine guest at your next BBQ, but their current shows are really nothing like each other.

Animal Kingdom: and you thought your family was dysfunctional

Animal Kingdom is a raw, naturalistic drama from Australia about a supremely messed-up family who make a living out of violent crime and drugs, and the consequences of their inevitable confrontation with the police on their youngest member, teenage Josh. Under a shaky veneer of normality the lives of these people are filled with routine brutality, and the stakes are raised once the police squad investigating them show themselves to be equally ruthless at inflicting abrupt violence, particularly once the nervy and sociopathic Andrew (nickname “Pope”) gets hold of the reins of the family. The deaths that occur are shocking for their suddenness and lack of telegraphing and for the way that the family’s matriarch Janine (a study in the banality of evil by Jacki Weaver) is able to calmly assimilate them, and even plot out breathtakingly extreme measures to ensure that her freedom and comfort isn’t compromised. This is a gripping film, despite the bleak picture it paints of humanity’s capability for callousness, and writer/director David Michôd never lets the characters descend into caricatures or the situations become overly contrived. True grit.

PJ Harvey: Let England Shake

How many albums has Polly Jean Harvey put out up to now? Nine, is it? Ten? Shouldn’t she be settled well into a rut, set on repeat, with any new album being basically a safe re-iteration of past glories that can be dismissed as harmless and reassuring? She certainly shouldn’t be casually releasing masterpieces like Let England Shake twenty years into her career as if she’s only just now worked out how great her talent is and how to harness it effectively. This is by some way the best album she’s ever made and that statement is by no means meant to belittle the many and varied great works that came before it.

Harvey’s always had a pathological dread of repeating herself and in the same way that the roughed-up grunge of Rid Of Me was a shock after the spare jazz-rock of Dry and the ghostly White Chalk seemed to come from a different dimension to that of the sassy Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea this new album bears scant resemblance to anything else in her discography. A few constants remain, most significantly Harvey’s at times extraordinary vocals (I can’t imagine any other singer attempting the stunning high-register pyrotechnics in the first verse of On Battleship Hill without it sounding like a sterile opera exercise), but the sound here is much more reined-in and disciplined. There’s usually a band playing on these tracks (Harvey plus long-time multi-instrumentalist collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey) but the arrangements are so taut and stripped-down that they never call attention to themselves and the necessary space is made for Harvey’s amazingly assured and original new compositions to make their full impact.

These songs are quite something. I hate to use terms like “concept album” but there are undeniably two strong themes running through the lyrics that have the effect of unifying the individual tracks into a coherent whole. One is a sense of melancholy and regret for the loss of an ancient country’s natural, pre-industrial habitats – the word “England” occurs repeatedly in song titles and words, and there are many mentions of trees, fields, rivers and hills. The other is the futility and waste of modern warfare, with particular reference to the trenches of the First World War. The lyrics are littered with stark, unvarnished imagery that recalls Goya’s Disasters of War sequence: young men’s bodies as lumps of meat, damp and bloodied earth, death waiting in the smoke. After years of writing about personal and often impenetrable themes Harvey’s new found clarity is startling.

The subject matter of this record as described above probably makes it sound like it’s a depressing, dirgy sort of listen. It’s really not. This is the most accessible and uplifting music Harvey’s ever put out, even more so than the conventional indie guitar rock of Stories From The City…, which was sneered at in some quarters for being some kind of sell-out. The album’s rife with inventive yet catchy melodies set to clear, fluent and uncluttered arrangements which deftly dodge the hokey folk or music-hall adornments you might expect given the elegiac nature of the lyrics, but at the same time find room for plenty of unexpected and idiosyncratic details: the riff of the title track is borrowed from novelty song Istanbul (Not Constantinople), there’s a trumpet playing reveille here, a quote from Summertime Blues there, some sampled chanting providing an effective counterpoint in Written On The Forehead. Harvey clearly knows how powerful her material is, as she doesn’t indulge in any unnecessary vocal histrionics and for the most part sings in a restrained manner that’s almost deadpan and is the perfect delivery method for this particular batch of songs. The Glorious Land sounds like a classy indie floor-filler until you process the lyric and its mournful images of lost youth, and the muted Hanging In The Wire is almost overwhelmingly beautiful, with its evocation of a misty and hopeless no-man’s-land set to a simple piano-led theme. Only the closing The Colour Of The Earth with its military drum pattern and folky trappings fails to pull off the trick of sounding both completely modern and timelessly affecting.

PJ Harvey already has one of the most surprising and rewarding discographies of anyone making rock music over the last two decades. Let England Shake makes it feel like she’s only just now getting going. I await her next album with awe.

Stewart Lee: How I Escaped My Certain Fate

Stewart Lee is currently one of the most critically acclaimed stand-up comedians working in the UK and this book provides a fascinating insight into both his creative processes and the evolution of so-called alternative comedy from the 1980s to the present day. Lee’s act is most assuredly not for everybody: he has a detached, measured and analytical style that could easily be interpreted as smug intellectualism and he enjoys undermining audience’s expectations and occasionally testing the limits of their patience with routines that can take half an hour or more to reach a pay-off. He’s always worth staying with though, for his unusually subtle and non-ingratiating takes on modern culture and for his disarming absurdist humour.

A short description of How I Escaped My Certain Fate makes it sound like a deeply self-indulgent and narcissistic project: the bulk of the book is made of word-for-word transcripts of three of Lee’s shows, complete with running footnotes that probably take up more space in the book that the transcripts themselves. Every “err”, every “um”, every half-finished sentence is painstakingly reproduced. There’s also an introductory essay explaining how Lee got into comedy in the first place and how he gradually worked his way back into stand-up after a period of disillusionment, a couple of sections setting the scene for each individual show, and a few appendices that elaborate on some of the individuals and routines he mentions here. What redeems the book is Lee’s rigorous objectivity and deadpan writing style – he doesn’t do self-deprecation in an aw-shucks manner, but he is brutal in identifying parts of his act that don’t work and his accounts of how routines are honed into shape, with enough details left variable to retain his interest, are fascinating.

The other reason this book is so readable, despite the odd footnote structure which requires a lot of going back and forth, is that these routines are consistently brilliant and frequently hilarious. I think I saw him do two of these shows in Cambridge and it’s a delight to be able to revisit them (his account of his meeting with Christ at the end of “90s comedian” is one of the funniest and most risky bits of comedy I’ve ever seen). It’s also very interesting to read about Lee’s influences and the comedians he admires the most, who tend to be figures on the fringe who never had any particular inclination to make it big: Ted Chippington, Simon Munnery, Michael Redmond.

Stewart Lee is now probably a bigger name than he ever expected or wanted to be, with a second series of his typically uncompromising and intelligent Comedy Vehicle about to be aired by the BBC. Anyone interested in truly challenging (as opposed to just “controversial”) stand-up comedy should make an effort to watch it, to go and see Lee live, and to read this book too.

Inside Job: management anger

Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job is an exemplary documentary examining the causes and effects of the 2008 global financial crash. It provides a detailed and thorough explanation of the various deregulations and amalgamations that allowed a handful of megabanks to play fast and loose with astronomically large quantities of imaginary money without ever getting bogged down in technicalities, while also giving vent to the film-maker’s considerable anger at the relatively small number of individuals who enabled the sorry situation and walked away with stupefyingly large compensatory packages. I had no idea that the former CEO of Lehman Brothers was awarded a quite incredible 485 million dollars after he guided his bank to a spectacular collapse – you could fund quite a few libraries and hospitals for that, no?

Ferguson secured interviews with an impressive roster of former bank chiefs, government advisors, commentators and experts and has skillfully intercut these with sequences from old news footage and hearings in the US senate. Time and again you find yourself gasping when he forces an immaculately groomed city boss to face up to the consequences of their greedy and short-sighted policies – some dissemble ineffectually, some stumble revealingly over their words and some drop their professional demeanour and demand an end to the interview. It’s staggering, and depressing, that the very men (and it does always seem to be men) who constructed the whole pyramid of dodgy loans and impenetrable derivatives were then put in charge of sorting the mess out by the US government. This film has the dread appeal of a disaster movie, but in this case the disaster is ongoing – there’s no sign anywhere that the obvious lessons have been learned.

Margaret Atwood: The Year Of The Flood

I love dystopias, me. Post-apocalyptic scenarios with society reduced to ragged bands of survivors struggling to scratch out an existence, bring ’em on I say: The Day Of The Triffids, John Christopher’s The Death Of Grass, Terry Nation’s Survivors, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it just seems to work for me every time. I’m also very fond of Margaret Atwood, so when she started writing novels roughly in this genre a few years ago I was bound to start salivating.

The Year Of The Flood is a follow-up to Atwood’s 2003 novel Oryx And Crake, in that it is set in the same projected future and location, when genetic meddling instigated by big corporations has unleashed a pandemic (the flood of the title) that has virtually destroyed humanity. A big difference between these books and my pet disaster tales listed above is that much, and in the newer book’s case, most, of the action takes place before the apocalyptic event, not after. This doesn’t mean that we’re presented with a sudden shift from order to chaos, however: society has already devolved into a fenced-off and privileged scientific elite and a messed-up bulk of humanity, living in urban sprawl, for whom life has lost its meaning and values. The earlier novel had its focus inside the scientific compound and described the circumstances of the disaster – in contrast The Year Of The Flood is reported from the point of view of two of the outsiders, one of whom has found refuge in a cod-religious community that has found a relatively safe site at the top of a tall building, and the other of whom is forced to work as a dancer in a seedy bar by some deeply unappealing gangsters. Both manage to survive the pandemic, but find that it’s just the nature of their hazardous environment that has changed, not its deadliness.

Alongside the deft renderings of all this misery and desolation The Year Of The Flood also contains much black comedy and vivid wit, and a lot of the pleasure of the book is in the inventive and savage satires of a consumer society gone mad. The names of the many leisure companies, pursuits and products are brilliantly credible (HelthWyzer, ANooYoo, Painball, SecretBurgers) and the environment is rich in baroque detail, such as the genetically-spliced hybrid animals that have been created for man’s convenience but have now become predatory. While certain aspects of the basic scenario may be familiar there’s an abundance of bold and imaginative ideas here (the inter-chapter sermons given by the leader of the God’s Gardeners cult are particularly fine).

Atwood often interleaves two or more parallel timelines in her novels and she does the same here, cutting back and forth between before and after the flood. This means that it may take you a chapter or two to sort out what’s happening when, but the technique does work well to break up the narrative. Certainly, once I got going with this book I found it compulsive reading and finished it in a handful of sessions. Hope she writes another one soon.

The Go! Team: Rolling Blackouts

Rolling Blackouts is the third album by Brighton collective The Go! Team and it’s absolutely more of the same: a glorious mash-up of cheerleader-style chants, hip-hop and Motown beats, big, chunky authoritative-sounding keyboard riffs that sound like themes to lost 70s kids’ TV shows and melodies that go straight to your pleasure centres. The only difference is that it’s possibly a bit better produced this time. Apart from the almostly obscenely hooky lead single Buy Nothing Day I haven’t got a clue what any of these songs are called and if you told me that they’d already released them on their first two records I wouldn’t question it, but that’s all a bit beside the point when you feel the sheer physical effect of this album – it’s like snorting lucozade and sherbet in a spin drier. I’ve been playing this incessantly in the kitchen for the last couple of weeks with the effect that every member of my household has started involuntarily dancing like a maniac. Happy happy music.

True Grit: class on a horse

You don’t get too many Westerns coming out these days, but if anyone can pull it off it’s the Coen brothers. True Grit plays to their strengths – it’s meticulously crafted and beautifully shot, with large chunks of pleasurably ornate dialogue delivered by a host of colourful and/or grotesque characters. It’s a simple story of a teenage girl who hires the most ruthless man she can find in an Arkansas frontier town to go after her father’s killer, but the appeal of the film is not so much in the plot as in its rendering. Jeff Bridges has the standout role as the hard-drinking marshall Rooster Cogburn, a role for which the word “ornery” may well have been devised, and he’s an utter delight, sleeping in a butcher’s storeroom, mumbling in his beard, falling off his horse but still being able to hit moving targets long-range and always displaying a shrewd survival instinct. It’s the 14 year old Hailee Steinfeld, however, who really impresses: she’s onscreen more or less all the time and is amazingly assured without a hint of irritating precocity. Matt Damon’s also along for the ride as a straightlaced Texas ranger who’s also looking for the wanted man.

The film wastes no time in setting up the story, and the early scenes of the girl recruiting Cogburn and raising the money to pay him are brisk and efficient. Once the manhunt begins the pace does seem to slacken, with a lot of scenes of two or three of the characters riding through forests at a leisurely amble, but the stunning scenery, highly entertaining performances and occasional bursts of sometimes quite shocking action stop the film from getting boring. The eventual denouement arrives suddenly and is over very quickly and there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s just a symptom of the trend for most modern action films to have shamelessly over-extended climactic sequences that this felt a bit perfunctory. The Coen Brothers should now be forced to remake every classic Western ever, it’s clearly what they were put here to do.

Never Let Me Go: sometimes less is less

Never Let Me Go is a reasonable enough adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s brilliant and understated novel but it adds nothing to the book and in places badly fumbles its key revelations. The story concerns three friends who grow up together at what appears to be an exclusive and unusual private school and gradually come to realise why they can never fully be part of normal society (apologies for vagueness, but it would be a major spoiler to go into detail) and Ishiguro’s prose is masterful: the events are described from the point of view of one of the friends, who sees nothing peculiar about her circumstances and her projected future, and the hints about what’s really going on are worked in with admirable subtlety.

The film certainly captures the tone of the book. The school seems believable, terribly English and polite, probably located in the Home Counties. A lot of the activities that make up the children’s day seem unorthodox, but hardly perverse or extreme, and the headmistress figure (played by a pitch-perfect Charlotte Rampling) is an archetypal firm-but-fair disciplinarian. It’s initially quite intriguing – or would be if the first thing we see on screen wasn’t an expository caption that gives far too much away. And if that wasn’t enough, we fairly quickly get a full-on info-dump from one of the teachers that robs the narrative of any mystery, and the film of any tension. Oh, and in case you were having trouble keeping up there’s regular voiceover from Carey Mulligan explaining where we are and who’s in a relationship with who. By the time we get to the third act, when the friends have reached adulthood and are meeting their destinies, the pacing has gone out the window and the film is seriously becalmed, with no real conflict and a pervading sense of inevitability. Turning up the strings on the soundtrack and getting the actors to cry a lot didn’t really elicit much of a response from this viewer, at least.

Still, it looks pretty good (lots of countryside and beaches) and the acting’s generally great (particularly Andrew Garfield as the shy and inarticulate Tommy), and I guess you’ve got to give them credit for being generally faithful to the source material and not introducing contrived dramatic episodes in order to keep the audience’s attention. Maybe some books just make better films than others.

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna tells the life story of writer Harrison Shepherd via the journals and letters that his faithful personal assistant Violet Brown has carefully collated. Shepherd is a fictional character, but during the course of his adult life through the middle years of the twentieth century he finds himself at or near the centre of more than one significant historical event, and some of his experiences chime with those undergone by many writers in America in the late 1940s and 50s.

Shepherd has a colourful early life, spent for the main part in Mexico in the pre-war period, where he is brought by his impulsive Mexican mother after her marriage to his American father breaks down. He eventually befriends the communist-sympathizing painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and via them the fugitive Leon Trotsky, who is on the run from Stalin’s assassins. After the war he starts afresh in the USA, but certain authorities won’t allow him to settle into a quiet writer’s life.

This is a painstakingly constructed and researched novel, and I’m reluctant to go into much detail about specifics as much of the delight of it is in the gradual revelations of both the form and content of Shepherd’s personal writings. It took a while to come into focus for me – the first section of the book for example is written in a deliberately contrasting, more self-consciously literary, style to what follows, and the mysterious archivist notes that crop up between chapters are at first quite disorientating. This is a deliberate effect on the part of Kingsolver, and eventually the shape of the novel becomes clear, so please stick with it if you feel the first hundred pages or so don’t seem to be going anywhere. There are clues here that pay off handsomely by the end of the book.

In case the above makes this sound like a “difficult” novel I should add that Kingsolver generally writes in a clear and uncluttered style, and doesn’t let her structural devices get in the way of telling a good story. Ultimately this is an unusually involving read, and the 670 page length of it doesn’t feel in anyway gratuitous. Highly recommended.