Monthly Archives: October 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin: Seeing Red

One should always be careful when deploying strong adjectives but I don’t think it’s too controversial to describe Lionel Shriver’s 2003 We Need To Talk About Kevin as searing. The book is written from the point of view of the mother of a teenager who has perpetrated a high school massacre and brilliantly distills a whole spectrum of uncomfortable and socially frowned upon feelings that the narrator has towards her chillingly blank and sociopathic son Kevin. It’s artfully structured as a series of letters addressed to the boy’s father, who appears blind to the warning signals that are gradually becoming clearer and clearer, and becomes more and more gripping as it builds towards a climax that includes some elements you can anticipate from the very start of the book and some that pull the rug out from you entirely. It’s one of the most harrowing things I’ve read recently, and one of the best.

Given the form of the novel, and the wordiness and occasional discursiveness of the highly articulate narrator Eva, a totally successful screen adaptation was always going to be hard to pull off, and Lynne Ramsay’s new film isn’t quite it, although it gets the unsettling tone spot on. Tilda Swinton is absolutely perfect casting as the nervy and rattled Eva, and she spends the entire running time looking pinched and stressed out, her occasional rictus smiles communicating anything but happiness. Ramsay directs a lot of her, and consequently our, attention towards a couple of striking visual motifs: again and again we see close-ups of foodstuffs being broken up and pummelled and ground disturbingly onto and into household surfaces, and again and again we’re treated to viscous red substances oozing across the screen – tomato juice, ink, jam and the paint that vigilantes use to vandalise Eva’s house. We can identify with Eva’s isolation both in her situation before her son commits his atrocity, when she spends much of her time rattling around in a huge, modern and characterless country house, and in the year or two after, when she’s living in reduced circumstances due to her son’s notoriety, and making regular and painfully awkward visits to the facility where he’s serving his sentence. Her lack of ease is underlined by the bursts of background noise that regularly seep into the soundtrack: a pneumatic drill, a lawnmower, the ominous clicking of a garden water sprinkler.

Where the film falls down a bit in my opinion is in its failure to really articulate the details of Eva’s growing disquiet and the very specific nature of her son’s dysfunction. There’s reams of instances in the book of the narrator describing how her efforts to convince her husband that their child’s behaviour is serious cause for concern are falling on deaf ears, and how the boy is actually highly intelligent, to the point of deliberately under-performing at school in order not to draw attention to himself, but there seem to be a shortage of equivalent scenes in the onscreen version. The massacre itself is meticulously and ingeniously planned and it’s a shame the film shies away from a full depiction of how coldblooded and organised Kevin is about it. And the incident involving his younger sister’s injury seems curiously downplayed – in the book, it’s highly traumatic, whereas in the film it seems almost glossed over.

Still, it can’t be denied that it could have been a whole lot worse and Ramsay deserves credit for her boldly arty touches and not resorting to voiceovers to paper the cracks. Swinton’s performance is entirely convincing, and Kevin himself is vividly brought to disturbingly Satanic life by Ezra Miller and a couple of young and unsmiling boys. Not exactly a feelgood film, but definitely worth a look.

Contagion: this society is sick I tell you

Back in the 70s (as I seem to have a habit of saying) there was a brilliant science fiction drama series called Survivors, concerning a world where 99 per cent of the population had been wiped out by an airborne virus. You may have caught the recent re-make which was all-right-I-suppose but not a surgical patch on the original for out-and-out bleakness. The title sequence of the original series alone is one of the most terrifying things ever seen on television: a montage of short shots of a Chinese scientist lifting and then dropping an ominous looking beaker of liquid before catching various aircraft and getting passport stamps from every major city on Earth, over which a bombastic, authoritative-sounding, current affairs style theme tune plays. You should YouTube it straight away if you don’t know it.

Compared to Survivors the new film Contagion, which plays out a very similar scenario, is somewhat lighter on the shock value and consequently a lot less gripping. This is for the main part admirably sober and well-researched, with director Steven Soderbergh seemingly going out of his way to avoid melodrama and tension-filled climaxes. The most out-and-out dramatic scene comes only about ten minutes in, when Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, who has seemingly come down with a bug she picked up in Hong Kong, is rushed to hospital after collapsing at home and shortly after dies (this isn’t really a spoiler, it’s in the trailer). Henceforth, individual deaths are not dwelt on and the movie spends its time on the doctors and scientists who are struggling to replicate the virus and come up with a vaccine, the effects on society as people start dying in their millions, and the establishment’s efforts to combat a troublesome blogger (Jude Law) who claims that an effective antidote already exists but is being suppressed for political reasons. There are a number of plot strands, the action is split between the USA and South-East Asia, and an impressive roster of big name stars on display: Laurence Fishbourne, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard. The script is intelligent, the direction is restrained and nothing really feels clunky or over-contrived.

Despite all this, I found the film curiously uninvolving. This is partly because it seems to be neither one thing or another – if you’re going to be sober and unsensational, then use a less recognisable cast, don’t be so meticulous with your compositions and colour schemes and above all, don’t lay in doomy-sounding music to underline your point that things are VERY SERIOUS. And it’s partly because the various narrative threads don’t really go anywhere that interesting. It’s all as credible as a Hollywood film is ever going to be on this kind of subject, but I’d have liked a bit of government conspiracy, or massive medical cock-up, or actual collapse into anarchy. I mean, I would probably be complaining that it just wasn’t realistic if I’d been presented with some cartoony bad guys or cannibalistic tribes but it might stopped Contagion being just a little bit dull and worthy.

Morgan Howell and the art of the big hit single

I don’t know much about art and most of the time I’m not very sure if I know what I like, but the work of English artist Morgan Howell is sure as hell right up my lapsed-obsessive-record-collector street. Howell specialises in painstakingly accurate reproductions of 7 inch singles from the 60s and 70s, by which I don’t mean picture sleeves but the classic flimsy paper housed artefacts that required one to examine the label showing through the central circular hole in the cover if you wanted to identify them. These are three dimensional objects, not paintings, and Howell’s attention to detail is fastidious, down to the authentically distressed and creased canvas that stands in for the paper sleeves and the tiny imperfections round the edges of the labels on the foam board records – the one tiny thing that might tip you off that his artworks aren’t the real thing is their size: 27 inches square, with smaller reproductions available at 16 inches by 16. A very pleasing detail on some of the latter is the inclusion of a rendering of the shiny rounded record spindle you get on some players, which is painted to show the reflection of the room beyond.

I went to an exhibition of Howell’s work at the Williams Art Gallery in Cambridge where the walls were covered in these enormous singles and found it tremendously evocative. Apart from anything else, Howell is to be commended for his taste in subject matter: the reproductions included “Heatwave” by Martha and the Vandellas, Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, The Who’s “I Can’t Explain”, “Gangsters” by The Specials and rather excitingly for me “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” by The Clash, which I’ve previously rambled on about at some length. Buying works of art is a ridiculous bourgeois indulgence but I couldn’t resist splashing out on one of the cheaper reproductions of this one. If you love old singles and you get the chance you should definitely go and see Howell’s work. He even takes commissions!

Sleeping Beauty: them night shifts can be a right killer

Sleeping Beauty, written and directed by novelist Julia Leigh, is a bit of an odd one and not just because of its unconventional subject matter. The film deals with Lucy, a student who appears willing to consider more or less any type of employment to supplement her income (the first scene shows her participating in an icky medical test that involves a researcher inserting a long plastic tube down her throat), and who has no scruples about hiring herself out to sleazy men in bars if the price is right. Eventually she attracts the attention of the madam of a high-class and particularly pervy bordello where she initially finds herself pouring wine for rich looking diners in her underwear before agreeing to submit to being drugged unconscious and put at the disposal of the clients.

This is an Australian movie but it somehow feels more like the work of a highbrow European auteur like Pasolini or Michael Haneke or Peter Greenaway. The scenes tend to play out in long single shots with a minimum of camera movement and close-ups, and there are deliberate distancing effects that prevent one from empathising with any of the characters. The motivation for Lucy to subject herself to the various abuses she suffers remains murky, and she herself is fairly unlikeable throughout, which means that when we get to a pay-off for her moral compromises it doesn’t really register emotionally, and even the scenes where she’s brutalised by her distinctly strange and seedy customers aren’t anywhere like as disturbing as they would have been had we been more invested in her. It’s a shame, because the film is undeniably well-made, but it seems to fall between stools a bit – it’s too left-field for us to really believe in, and it’s not weird enough to be enjoyably arty.

Half Man Half Biscuit: 90 Bisodol (Crimond)

It’s taken a few plays but I’ve now finally clicked with the new Half Man Half Biscuit album, the cryptically titled 90 Bisodol (Crimond). This band is still best known for Back In The DHSS, a record released over a quarter of a century ago which achieved cult status partly because of its deadpan and hysterically funny lyrical content (the songs tended to be concerned with exquisitely chosen minor TV celebrities and obscure sporting figures) and partly due to the low low low production values and lurchingly incompetent musicianship. HMHB’s frontman and chief songwriter Nigel Blackwell became increasingly uncomfortable with the media attention the band started getting so a few months after the release of the LP he sensibly announced the group were breaking up, only to quietly resurrect the brand a few years later. The new album is their tenth since 1990 but you’d have to have been paying close attention to have noticed the previous nine – Nigel remains indifferent at best to publicity, and they’re still signed to the genuinely independent Liverpool label Probe Plus, essentially a one man operation with a non-existent promotional budget (the one man in question is Geoff Davies, and a nicer person you couldn’t wish to come across. He once rang me up to personally apologise because a CD that I’d ordered from him was temporarily out of stock).

These days Half Man Half Biscuit are actually technically pretty adept but happily they have the good judgement to keep their playing functional and their arrangements basic so that nothing distracts from Nigel’s magnificently pithy, minutely-observed and breathtakingly well-turned lyrics. In broad terms he’s a satirist sending up pretension both in individuals and society in general, but part of the delight to be derived from his words is in the way he avoids easy targets like X Factor winners or politicians and invariably nails universal truths you recognise but would never have occurred to you. He’d really hate the accolade but he’s as much of a national treasure as Alan Bennett or Jarvis Cocker.

Ironically the reason 90 Bisodol (Crimond) didn’t make as much of an impression on me initially as previous collections such as 2002’s (sorry but I’m going to go there) majestic Cammell Laird Social Club is I think because it’s noticeably their most professionally produced album to date, and while it ‘s still difficult to manage it making the playlist on Radio 1 it’s significantly closer to your standard slick indie guitar band sound and thus easier to let slip into the background. It’s worth making the effort to concentrate on it a bit though – as ever, there are catchy tunes and nicely non-fiddly riffs here in abundance, and an almost embarrassing wealth of brilliant lyrics that make you beam with glee. I’m not even going to quote you any because that would be tantamount to a plot spoiler, but I will throw you a few song titles: Something’s Rotten At The Back Of Iceland, Left Lyrics In The Practice Room and Rock And Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools, this last being a climactic full-on anthem on a par with previous epic album closers like National Shite Day or We Built This Village On A Trad. Arr. Tune. There are poignant tales of thwarted or usurped love (RSVP, The Coroner’s Footnote), descriptions of wholesome activities for all the family that promise more than they deliver (Fun Day In The Park) and the most charming and sympathetic account of necrophiliac practices you’re ever likely to hear (Excavating Rita). In a world where so much that is good is sacrificed in the name of progress it’s beyond reassuring to find that HMHB are as true as they’ve ever been. You can really taste the hops.

Alexander Masters: The Genius in my Basement – the biography of a happy man

Alexander Masters’s first book Stuart: A Life Backwards, a highly idiosyncratic account of the brutal and often farcical life of a homeless man living rough in Cambridge was a bit of a miracle: from a truly bleak, hopeless and eventually tragic situation Masters somehow managed to conjure up something funny and life-affirming, but at the same time always unflinchingly honest and never sentimental. The author seemed to throw most of the conventional rules of biography out of the window, including the one about presenting events in chronological order, and made himself and the writing of the book unashamedly part of the narrative. He developed a close personal relationship with his subject but at the same time maintained a critical distance and never stood in judgement over him, even when several instances of violence and abuse perpetrated by the luckless Stuart came to light. It’s a book like no other I’ve come across, and if you haven’t read it yet you should really make an effort to.

Masters’s new book The Genius In My Basement by contrast concerns itself with a much gentler and less troubled soul, to wit the author’s landlord Simon Phillips Norton, who occupies the basement rooms of the house Masters lived in in Cambridge. Norton, like Stuart, has what might be seen as an unconventional life story: a fantastically talented mathematician, he contributed massively to groundbreaking research in group theory in his youth before becoming somewhat estranged from the Cambridge mathematical establishment. He’s spent the last twenty-five years or so as an independent researcher and committed campaigner for public transport who has been able to support himself via the rents he collects on the two houses he owns via inheritance. His living quarters are badly maintained and are ceiling deep with decades of accumulated clutter (bus timetables feature prominently), he subsists mainly on tinned mackerel and packet rice, he has no partner and seems entirely asexual, and has little grasp of standard conversational technique and codes. He is however, as the subtitle of the book suggests, entirely contented with his life and both his sanity and his mathematical powers seem entirely unimpaired by his lifestyle.

Here I should add a personal note, as I’m possibly not the most unbiased of reviewers for this particular tome: like Norton, I studied Maths at Trinity College, Cambridge (though on a much more pedestrian level) and still live and work in the city, and while much of the unique selling point of Masters’s book is its presentation of an eccentric and socially-challenged mathematical prodigy I’ve got to say that a lot of the unusual behaviour that’s described seems pretty much par for the course for Cambridge mathematicians. I used to encounter distracted wild-haired brainboxes who communicated chiefly in non-sequitors and abstract analytical insights on a daily basis and I still run across them fairly frequently. If anything, Norton seems more engaged with the outside world than most, given his penchant for day trips on buses and attending meetings put on by anti-car pressure groups. And here are another couple of personal resonances while I’m here: I was startled to read that Norton at one time lived at a house that I once had a room in, and I was fascinated to find out that he favours Batchelor’s Chinese packet rice, which I’m also quite partial too and have been unable to find for the last few years. What supermarket does he shop at?

Nevertheless, even if you’re over-familiar with the milieu this is a cheerful and breezy portrait of an undeniably fascinating character. Masters really goes all out on the quirkiness – the text is littered with typographical games, photographs, hand-drawn diagrams attempting to explain group theory in terms of knicker-bockered triangles and reproductions from Norton’s childhood exercise books, and as in Stuart the chronology is deliberately disrupted with the present-day Norton often interrupting the flow to offer niggling criticisms and corrections and general disparagement of Masters’s efforts. The style does settle down after a while and a life story starts to emerge which describes but doesn’t explain Norton’s singular talents and behavioural anomalies. Norton himself seems pretty indifferent to his history and exists entirely in the present tense – he can’t understand why anyone, least of all himself, would be interested in his biography. What tension there is in the book arises from the conflict between Masters’s journalistic urge to unearth some hidden source of Norton’s eccentricity and his realisation that there probably isn’t one – it’s not much of a plot engine, but it’s enough to keep you turning the pages, along with the author’s always engaging and often very funny writing style. The Genius In My Basement is recommended as an accessible description of an extreme but hardly atypical example of a Cambridge mathematician, and you might even learn something about groups too.

Peter Doggett: The Man Who Sold The World – David Bowie And The 1970s

When I was 13 I was obsessed with David Bowie. The first album I ever owned that wasn’t by a current chart band was Hunky Dory, which I bought on the strength of the mysteriously beautiful and moving Life On Mars, and it seemed like an impossibly cool artefact, from the cryptic handwritten annotations on the back cover to the unapologetically pretentious and impenetrable (though often very funny and always effortlessly memorable) lyrics to the clutch of hip name-dropping (Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Nietzsche, Crowley). I put away my Human League and Soft Cell records and concentrated on what seemed to be the source of all that was esoteric and challenging and stylish and non-pedestrian in music, gradually acquiring all of Bowie’s 70s output, from the breakthrough Ziggy Stardust through to the complex and magisterial post-punk Scary Monsters (which actually came out in 1980, but for sake of the book under discussion let’s pretend the 70s started with 1969’s Space Oddity and ended here). It all seemed touched by magic to me, and in retrospect 1982 seems like the perfect time to have discovered it all, what with Bowie having temporarily retreated from music before coming back in 1983 with the nakedly commercial Let’s Dance and subsequently falling to Earth by establishing himself as the very type of hyper-successful mainstream rock star he’d previously gone to pretty extreme measures to avoid becoming. As the 80s progressed I lost interest in his music, preferring to seek out stuff that had more of an air of authenticity and commitment to it than Bowie’s unashamedly artificial devices.

I’ve recently found myself listening to Bowie’s old albums again for the first time in decades really and have been kind of astonished to discover how much I still like them, and how well I know them. I can’t have heard Diamond Dogs start to finish, for example, for about twenty-five years, but I’m still able to sing along to it and relish ludicrously overwrought lines like “you’re dancing where the dogs decay/defecating ecstasy”, and the best albums like Hunky Dory and Station To Station seem close to immaculate masterpieces (Station may only contain six songs but all of them are brilliant, and I can’t offhand think of any other albums with as clean a hit-rate). It’s the quality of the songwriting that took me my surprise more than anything – there are pretentious and dilettantish concepts being thrown about like confetti on these records, but there also well worked out and pleasingly unpredictable structures and chord sequences and melodies and harmonies and that goes a long way.

The publication of Peter Doggett’s detailed and impressively well researched new book The Man Who Sold The World, which works its way through Bowie’s 70s output, is therefore sweetly timely for me. The format of the book is borrowed unabashedly from Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head, which analysed the songs of The Beatles within the context of the 1960s: there is an entry for every song recorded or written by Bowie within the time-frame, presented in chronological order of recording (or best guess where the order isn’t clear). Doggett has also added several essays covering the separate albums, significant and relevant themes (sexuality, art movements, politics) and key individuals (Andy Warhol, Iggy Pop and so on). It’s pretty exhaustive – out-takes and songs written for protégés are covered whether released or not, and all Bowie’s formative, and some might say callow and embarrassing, 60s recordings get their own entries in an appendix. Doggett’s clearly a major fan and throws in some amazingly detailed snippets (the precise fingering guitarist Carlos Alomar uses for an F# chord in Golden Years, anyone?) among some interesting and explicit biographical sections and some lucid analysis of the shifts in culture of the time period. If you’re a Bowie freak it’s a must-have.

The trouble is, and I hate to nit-pick such an assiduously assembled piece of work, the book’s not really that much fun. It suffers badly by comparison with Revolution In The Head, which is not necessarily that damning an observation given that MacDonald’s is certainly the best book I’ve ever read on popular music, and to be honest one of the best books I’ve ever read on anything, but even so – MacDonald had a knack of distilling the essence of what made a song great, or disappointing, or engagingly terrible, into a incisive and clear-eyed set of paragraphs that made you immediately want to jump up and listen to the song in question, while Doggett tends to ramble earnestly around a song’s theme for ages before he gives you some details on its recording, and it’s rare that you pick up much of a sense of what makes these records really live. If you weren’t already familiar with them, you probably wouldn’t have much of an idea what they sound like just by reading these entries. His essays however generally read much better than his song entries and display a fair amount of insight so the book’s worth sticking with, but it’s certainly not for someone who’s just got a casual interest for the subject. I wonder who’s next for this kind of treatment – Leonard Cohen? Tom Waits? Spandau Ballet?

Update 19th May 2012: I’ve now read Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money, about the break-up of the Beatles, which is a much more successful book, maybe because he’s not having to write about the music. Review is here.