Monthly Archives: October 2012

Guest blog! Madam Maxon reviews Hazel O’Connor at The Junction, Cambridge, October 26th 2012

One of my vivid childhood memories is of stomping around my parents’ garden as a twelve year old singing Hazel O’Connor’s smash hit Eighth Day while the family cat roamed around and looked at me bemused. Not being averse to seeing artists I admired in my youth, I was delighted to discover recently that O’Connor was going to be playing a mile or so from my front door.

O’Connor’s Breaking Glass and Greatest Hits tour has been doing the rounds for about two years now. Some of my friends had seen her perform last year in London but I did not hear any details about the show from them so I was unsure what to expect.

The support act for last night’s gig was Tensheds. With a handle like that I was expecting a large band to appear on stage but instead just one man, a tall, thin, gothic figure reminiscent of a character from Mervin Peake’s Gormenghast, wearing a black shirt, black glittering waistcoats and a long black multi-button tailcoat entertained us. His Tom Waits style vocal, Dylanesque guitar and harmonica numbers were toe-tappingly good while his dramatic Rachmaninov-like and then terrifically fast blues keyboard tunes were impressive enough to almost make you believe he had sold his soul to the devil.

Just after nine o’clock Hazel and her band walked on stage, gender equality seemingly playing a part as they were comprised of three women and three men. My first impressions of O’Connor were of a post-punk, new wave Bet Lynch; personable, determined, frank and funny. Opening with the catchy Give Me An Inch, the band continued alternating one-off hits including D-Days and Cover Plus with Breaking Glass songs, and here and there throwing in cover versions of Hazel’s favourite songs including Jimmy Webb’s Do What You Gotta Do, The Stranglers’ Hanging Around, Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars and Nina Simone’s Feeling Good.

The songs’ arrangements varied, sometimes jazzy, sometimes with a reggae beat, but all were performed with O’Connor’s trademark theatricality. The aggressive songs describing a chilling robot-run future from Breaking Glass gave way to optimistic and sometimes incredibly moving pop ballads such as the classic Will You and the more recent I Give You My Sunshine which was written during a visit to O’Connor’s dying mother in a hospice a few years ago. O’Connor has lived all over the world and towards the end of the show we hear a song obviously influenced by her Irish roots and County Wicklow where she now resides. Acoustically Yours is drummed and sang by O’Connor, Clare Hirst and Sarah Fisher in a traditional Irish jig style. Fisher, here on keyboard, and the incredible Hirst on saxophone and clarinet also perform with O’Connor as part of The Bluja Project.

Throughout the show songs were introduced with interesting, hilarious and heartfelt anecdotes. O’Connor’s openness is refreshing and comic by turn. This was demonstrated by her unabashed telling of the embarrassing incident when she stood up to a standing ovation at Cannes film festival sans pantaloon and her memories of briefly dating Hugh Cornwell, the duration of their relationship cut short due to Cornwell’s prison sentence. The overt anti-Thatcherite stance which motivated O’Connor’s songwriting in her youth was recaptured when she explained that Monsters In Disguise was written after seeing a news item about the government proposal to bring back capital punishment.

At the end of the show, the band lined up and bowed to their appreciative audience and O’Connor appeared off stage to sign the fans’ merchandise. She chatted individually to all who crowded round to meet her. I bought her recently published autobiography for a friend who could not be there, and knowing Hazel would be around after the gig, I had brought my vinyl copy of Breaking Glass. Meeting one of my heroines was not a daunting affair. Hazel was so genuine and down to earth I felt I had known her for years. It was like meeting an old friend.

John Cooper Clarke and Mike Garry, The Junction, Cambridge, October 27th 2012

The last time I went to see national treasure John Cooper Clarke he didn’t turn up. He was supposed to be supporting The Fall but apparently got lost somewhere between Colchester and Cambridge – it was a shame, but kind of added to the weird tension of a gig that turned out to be a real cracker so I didn’t hold it against him. Seven years later he’s headlining at the same venue as part of a tour promoting National Poetry Month and I figured it was worth a gamble. He’s a poet, you know. He’s allowed to be a bit flakey.

As it turns out the gig’s sold out and this time he’s even got a support act of his own. And not a bad one either: Mike Garry claims the stage with a brash Mancunian confidence that in some ways belies the quality and formal craft of his verse, which observes and comments on the lives of the under-privileged of his home town with wit, compassion and well-directed anger. He speaks of bad nightclubs and underage criminals and seamy rites of passage with an energy and humour that transcend the potentially depressing subject matter and his skill at varying the dynamics of his performance and ease with which he’s able to project to the back of the room make it a bit surprising when he outs himself as a former librarian. He’s clearly in love with the possibilities of language, delighting in expressing his intent as much through the sounds and rhythms of his lines as through their literal meanings, and while he’s as influenced by his co-star as any streetwise performance poet of the last thirty-odd years these extended pieces seem both more ambitious and more subtle than JCC’s barrages of internal rhymes and pithy punchlines. More often than not they hit home, even the stuff about football, a subject on which I’m pretty ignorant. His eulogy to Anthony H. Wilson on the other hand had me grinning like a loon at the alphabetically arranged cascade of namechecks.

This is all however just a prelude to the headline act, who comes on after the interval after a quick introduction by former Clash road manager Johnny Green, whose burly tuxedoed appearance inevitably reminds you of a Hale and Pace doorman. JCC is instantly recognisable, and would be even in silhouette with the trademark pipecleaner-thin legs, sunglasses and Ron Wood style backcombed bouffant still in place decades after he established his place as the UK’s premier punk poet. It’s really quite reassuring, as is his heartwarmingly shambolic presentational style which has far more in common with the schtick of a Northern workingman’s club comedian of the 1970s than it does with the genteel manner of   the host of a more conventionally highbrow literary event. JCC takes his time between poems, cracking off deadpan one-liners and playing with the audience’s perceptions of what people might expect from someone of his years and somewhat dubious former lifestyle. He enjoys extending the introductions to readings to ludicrous lengths and repeating what he’s about to do so often that these lead-ins start becoming pieces themselves, and while it takes a little time to get adjusted to this mode of presentation it’s worth it: some of the material in the intros is as good as that in the poems themselves, particularly when the man in the shades stumbles into a digression that evolves into a mini stand-up routine, such as the one about seventeen TV channels devoted to Shark Attack programming. The poems he does get round to reading are a mix of old and new, delivered in his familiar 120mph Salford monotone: a longish rant about life being rotten and/or OK in jail holds its own with old faves like Evidently Chickentown and Beasley Street (which now features a second part called Beasley Boulevard reflecting the gentrification of Manchester). JCC rambles and stumbles about on stage a bit but the fact that he retains the ability to fire these screeds off at such speed gives the lie to the running joke about his encroaching senility, and he seems to be enjoying himself too, which is nice to see. Long may he continue, and let’s hope he’s got a sat-nav installed now.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Beasts Of The Southern Wild (directed by Benh Zeitlin from Lucy Alibar’s play “Juicy and Delicious”) is a bit of an oddity, a strange mash-up of styles and ideas that’s certainly original but doesn’t always hold your attention as well as it might, despite some eye-catching locations and boldly realised flights of imagination. It’s set in a fictional (but probably perfectly representative) bayou community on the coast of one of those American deep South states that are particularly vulnerable to tropical storms and the use of non-professional actors and free-flowing camerawork give it the surface feel of a documentary about the aftermath of a Katrina-style catastrophe. We see jerry-built shacks that have been reduced to ragged planks, farm animals wandering around incongruously in swamps and families clinging on to life in motley collections of improvised vessels. It seems however that the rising waters may be down to more than just one errant hurricane: a voiceover and several cutaways to scenes of ice calving dramatically into the sea at the poles imply that these people’s plight may be the result of a more global environmental change, and a dash of magic realism is stirred into the mix when we learn of the presence of Aurochs – vast and voracious hog-like beasts – in the ice.

Despite the apocalyptic subject matter the tone of the film is actually pretty upbeat for much of the time, possibly because we’re seeing the scenario through the eyes of the six-year old Hushpuppy (an amazing performance from Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her caring but strangely volatile father Wink in a couple of propped up caravans in the heart of the swamp. Her neighbours are kind and generous of spirit and there are plenty of opportunities for the little girl to have fun and express herself, even after disaster strikes. Her main concern is the health of her father, who’s prone to moodswings and abrupt disappearances and it’s this that provides what passes for a narrative backbone for the film, which otherwise seems fairly content to freewheel its way through some admittedly very authentic and convincingly detailed sequences showing life carrying on through chaos. It reminded me quite a lot of one of Werner Herzog’s projects, what with the muddy and implacable waters surrounding everything, the lived-in and natural appearance of the characters and the emphasis on observing real lives as opposed to forcing along a plot for the sake of the audience’s attention.

All of the parts of the film that deal with Hushpuppy’s story and how her community copes with its disaster are fine, although there’s maybe a little too much dispensing of folksy wisdom for my taste. Less successful, however, are the intercut sequences showing the mighty Aurochs gradually making their way from the icecaps to the lagoons – it was always going to be difficult to graft a fantastical conceit like this onto something so naturalistically realised, and although the film-makers do their best with dramatic close-ups, and slow-motion and big, rumbly sound-effects it’s got to be said that these behemoths do look a bit like pot-bellied pigs with horns stuck on their foreheads. Thankfully they don’t appear very much and don’t actively derail proceedings, but I do wonder why they bothered as there’s plenty of visual stimulation to be had elsewhere in the film. As a sum-up: Beasts is unusual and striking, and shows a part of the world you don’t get to see much on the big screen, and for this it’s definitely worth a look.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is just lovely, the most successful and surprising re-invention of the American high school movie I’ve seen since Donnie Darko. It’s told from the point of view of the troubled Charlie (a brilliant and subtle performance from the appealingly-named Logan Lerman), who’s starting at a new school after a period of forced withdrawal following a family tragedy, and while the themes of not-necessarily-requited love and the struggle to find ease within oneself are fairly familiar they’re handled here with rare sensitivity and effectiveness.

Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky (actually an adaptation of Chbosky’s own 1999 novel of the same name), Perks includes all the elements common to this kind of set-up (a shy but bright new-comer, a quirky group of outsider students, a sympathetic English teacher mentor, a stoner party, some bullying and family conflict) but somehow manages to make every significant encounter, confrontation and emotional turning-point ring true in a way that that had me totally unravelled. It’s probably to do with the careful understated manner that Chbosky draws his characters and has them interact – nothing here seems forced or overdone, and for once everyone on screen seems utterly believable and convincingly nuanced in their relationships with the world. Even Ezra Miller’s flamboyant and attention-grabbing Patrick, who comes across as a camp caricature to start with, is eventually shown to be generous of spirit and capable of getting hurt as badly as anyone else in the throes of post-adolescent self-discovery (a far cry from his satanic turn in We Need To Talk About Kevin). Emma Watson is pretty good too, with her new post-Harry Potter hairstyle and a passable American accent, as the close friend that Charlie finds himself forming what may be an inappropriate attachment to. I’m not too sure exactly what period the film is set in – the presence of mix tapes as an important signifier of personality suggests the 80s, but one or two songs on the soundtrack indicate that it’s probably a few years into the following decade – but it doesn’t really matter as its appeal is pretty universal. This is both a smart and in places a powerfully affecting film which captures the pain and joy of being a teenager without resorting to shock tactics or melodramatic plot twists. Go see it, even if you can’t stand The Smiths.

John Cale, The Junction, Cambridge, 10th October 2012

I was  a bit surprised at how few people there were in attendance on walking in to take my place in the audience for John Cale at The Junction last night – I mean, surely this man is cast-iron rock royalty? He was in no less than The Velvet Underground, wasn’t he? Supplying all those rigorously horrible viola and organ noises and bowel-looseningly monolithic bass parts on those first two albums? He produced The Stooges and The Modern Lovers for God’s sake! He produced bloody Horses!

But then this formidable Welsh master of uncomforting sounds has also always seemed to have had a refreshingly short attention span when it comes to his own past work, scything his way through styles and genres and fashions in a way that ought to embarrass his contemporaries in the rock genius stakes like Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney. It becomes pretty clear pretty early at this show that anyone’s who turned up to hear what I’ll rather inaccurately describe as “the hits” is going to be disappointed. This is in the main a brisk and clipped run-through of material that he’s released only in the last year or so, and while his distinctively unsentimental baritone means it’s still unmistakably Cale it bears more similarity to both cutting-edge modern dance-rock and, somewhat curiously, alternative 80s synth-based Goth than it does to Cale’s glory years of the 60s and 70s.

Cale dominates proceedings, spending most of the set behind a keyboard at the front of the stage to which various bits of paper (lyrics? chord changes?) have been gaffer-taped. He retains his imperious beakiness, but seems more avuncular and willing to acknowledge the crowd than when I’ve seen him previously, and his pot belly and slight bow in his walk when he crosses the stage to switch over to stratocaster or acoustic makes him seem more like a hipster gnome than an avant garde wizard. His extraordinary facial expression when he’s hitting a high note does however remind me unfailingly of the transformation sequence in An American Werewolf In London.

In purely musical terms this is a top-notch performance, and happily it benefits from a strong and clear mix from the sound crew. Cale can still produce florid keyboard passages to put ELP in their place, but none of these new pieces come off as self-indulgent noodling – they’re all strongly structured, usually with definite hooks that may not be conventionally catchy but give you convenient entry points to the songs. The three-piece backing band (Dustin Boyer on guitar, Joey Maramba on bass and Alex Thomas on drums) are impeccably proficient and versatile, varying the approach when needed and supplying spot-on harmonies. There’s a laptop visible on stage, and often synthetic beats augmenting the drums in the mix, although it’s not clear how these are being controlled (possibly they’re triggered from Cale’s keyboard). A song starts, makes its point and finishes, then the master of ceremonies issues a quick introduction to the next one before cracking things along. The new album Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood sounds a bit over-produced and murky to me (autotune? really?) but tracks like I Wanna Talk 2 U and December Rains make a lot more sense when they’ve been de-cluttered in the live environment, and the selections the band plays from last year’s Extra Playful EP such as The Hanging and Whaddya Mean By That really rock. Cale even gets away with some cod-rapping on Hey Ray. It’s a big, and sometimes challenging, sound that this group puts out, but the discipline that’s always evident keeps you tuned in for the main part. And he does after all throw in some oldies, without ceremony but with all due efficiency: Helen Of TroyGuts and a closing Dirtyass Rock’n’Roll.

At 70, John Cale is probably the oldest rock’n’roll act I’ve paid money to stand in front of but on the evidence of this gig there’s no sign that he’s slowing down or losing his mojo. Shame more folk didn’t turn out to see this rare phenomenon: a true rock legend, with no trace of queasy nostalgia.

Geoff Dyer: Zona, a book about Tarkovsky’s Stalker

You’d have to be pretty confident to attempt something like Zona, Geoff Dyer’s 200-plus page account of his experiences of and reactions to StalkerAndrei Tarkovsky’s solemn and cerebral sort-of sci-fi film from 1979. As becomes apparent fairly quickly once you start reading Dyer doesn’t lack confidence – fortunately he’s also talented enough to get away with what could easily have been a horribly self-indulgent folly. I tend to find books about film to be either impenetrably pretentious or just lists of minutiae and snippets of received opinion and either way I couldn’t imagine reading one start to finish: Zona, on the other hand, I saw off in a couple of sittings.

Of course it helps that I really like the subject matter. Tarkovsky is right up the sharp end of the spectrum of difficult, arthouse, uncompromisingly uncommercial film-makers, and though all of his films are worth a look just for the many beautifully composed and photographed sequences of an opaque and possibly even spiritual nature Stalker‘s the only one that holds my attention all the way through. This may be because its plot is uncharacteristically linear and pared-down for Tarkovsky: in a remote run-down Soviet-style country an unspecified extra-terrestrial visitation has caused the creation of a dangerous and uninhabitable zone, at the centre of which is rumoured to be a room in which one’s deepest wish will be granted, should one be brave and lucky enough to reach it. Only a few individuals (referred to as “stalkers”) possess the gifts necessary to navigate through the zone, though these powers seem to come at the price of a certain amount of physical and mental anguish. Stalker the movie shows the journey of one such man as he attempts to guide a writer and a scientist through various hazards to the room in question. This bare description might lead you to expect to see silver suits, death rays and spectacular explosions on screen – Tarkovsky, however, had a pretty dismissive attitude towards science fiction and its trappings (he considered Solaris his worst film) and made a point of excluding any futuristic imagery or cheap thrills. Other than a short chase involving a beaten up jeep and some Cold War era soldiers and weaponry the closest Stalker gets to an action setpiece is three middle-aged men in charity shop clothing stumbling around and whinging in an overgrown meadow or some dank subterranean passageways. Somehow, it’s absolutely enthralling.

Dyer thinks so too: he’s seen Stalker numerous times in the last thirty years, in cinemas in many cities across many countries, though never on the television (in one of several disarmingly honest and self-aware passages in the book he confesses to being a snob about such a practice). If he knows it’s going to be showing somewhere he’ll make a point of turning up, even arranging his social schedule weeks in advance around a screening. Zona makes clear his abiding love of the film, but he’s not sentimental or gushing about it: the backbone of the book is a hilariously literal transcription of the film’s action (if you can call it that), in which he commendably avoids ascribing meaning to what’s going on, although he does offer down-to-earth commentary on what the characters might be thinking every now and then. Tarkovsky angrily rejected symbolism and attempts to foist interpretations on what his films really “meant” and Dyer respects this, making clear that the associations and memories that Stalker inspires in him are all his own. He’s compulsively readable, even when he’s unapologetically referencing Flaubert or Milton or any number of highbrow directors, because his prose always seems grounded in his own experience, and his matter-of-fact accounts of some of his formative experiences are often quite moving. Only once, when he gets into describing the wish that he’d like the room in the zone to grant from him, does he stray into too-much-information territory, but this slightly seamy detour does underline his commitment to honest reportage where he feels it’s appropriate.

Plus, I got to learn quite a bit about the making of the film, and its troubling foreshadowing of certain tragic events. It was, frankly, a nightmare production, even by the standards of control freak extraordinaire Tarkovsky, what with a director of photography walking out and the bulk of an arduous shoot being rendered unusable due to technical problems with the film stock, thus occasioning what was effectively a full re-shoot, all while the director was capriciously changing his mind about aspects of the script and principal location. There’s the suggestion that contamination in the rivers the crew was filming around later led to the early deaths by cancer of several key players, including both Tarkovsky and his wife. And only a few years later the incident at Chernobyl resulted in a real-life zone of danger and mystery that inevitably colours one’s viewing of the film now. It’s remarkable that Stalker even got finished, and its enduring power and beauty is testament to the fact that even if Tarkovsky was a bloody-minded cuss he knew what he wanted and how to get it. Geoff Dyer would seem to possess something of the same clearsightedness, and Zona is a must-read for any fan of the film (you even get to find out how they achieved that incredible final shot with the little girl moving the glasses across the table via telekinesis).

Looper: dead on time

Must be great fun mucking about with time travel scenarios if you’re a writer, particularly if you’ve got the wit and discipline necessary to convince your audience that you’ve successfully resolved all the headachy paradoxes that tend to crop up when you send people back into their own pasts. Who knows, you might even come up with something as brilliant and fun and clever as Back To The Future, or as terrifying and fun and clever as Blink (still Steven Moffat’s greatest contribution to Doctor Who), or as heart-tugging and fun and clever as Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I liked so much I couldn’t bear to watch its big screen adaptation.

Or, and a bit more pertinently to the subject at hand, maybe something as narratively corrugated but emotionally resonant as Terry Gilliam’s rendering of David and Janet Peoples’s script Twelve Monkeys, in which Bruce Willis gets sent back in time in order to prevent a catastrophe, but ends up spending much of his time shuffling about in a bruised and drugged-up state, failing to convince anyone of anything much between being moved to tears by hearing old rock’n’roll songs on the radio. Bruce takes another trip to his own past in writer/director Rian Johnson’s new film Looper too, though he’s not nearly so sympathetic in this one. Looper has been touted as a bit high-concept, with publicity and reviews proclaiming its rigour in addressing and working out its knotty chrono-contradictions. It’s certainly something you have to keep paying attention to in order to reap full benefit, though I’m not sure it’s quite as ingenious as the hype suggests.

Looper‘s set a bit in the future, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Joe earns a living bumping off blindfolded and trussed-up victims that get sent to him through time by shadowy crime bosses thirty years even further into the future. It’s quite a tidy set-up actually – no inconvenient corpses hanging around for the bosses, and a body with no identity attached to dispose of in the nearest furnace for the hitman, or looper as they’re known. The twist in the tale comes when it becomes clear that the bosses have started to clear their houses by sending back future versions of the loopers for disposal, often by the younger version of the same man – inevitably Joe gets forced into desperate measures when his older self (hello, Bruce) appears and manages to dodge his fate.

This is all pretty intriguing, and as a bonus Johnson has realised an effective and credible vision of a run-down future, where homelessness, drug addiction and general moral malaise co-exist with sleek, beautifully designed technology and the inevitable souped-up hoverbikes. It’s nowhere near as immersive as Blade Runner, but it’s up there with Minority Report. And the plot mechanics are worked out pretty well too, with just enough voice-over and flash-backs (or are they flash-forwards?) to carry the exposition without spoiling the flow. Given the amount of time given over in the first half to establishing a grimy urban milieu it’s surprising and refreshing that the last act takes place mainly in the sun, around a quiet isolated farmhouse. Despite a couple of chase’n’fight sequences this isn’t really an action film and its best scenes are those featuring just two people talking quietly, of which there are a number. Emily Blunt plays the woman living on the farm with just her young son for company and she’s really good, although she didn’t half remind me of Uma Thurman at times. Gold star to the little boy playing her son too, and to a wonderfully rumpled Jeff Daniels, who gets all the funny lines in the film as a world-weary local mob boss.

But despite all this thoughtfulness and care I couldn’t really warm to the film, probably because of the over-riding tone more than anything else: it’s just too goddamned noir. I had the same problem with Johnson’s previous film Brick, in which everyone seemed to be in a competition to out-pokerface each other with ultra-laconic put-down lines and pithy and fatalistic character summaries. Gordon-Levitt’s obviously gone to a lot of trouble to perfect Willis’s mannerisms (and the prosthetic team have given him a rather splendid flat-ended nose to help sell the illusion) but I just didn’t like his character, and once Willis starts acting like the Terminator (hey, another time-travel reference), blowing away teams of hired goons in order to protect just one person, I went right off the older version too. I guess you have to be Bogart himself too really tickle the gland in me that reacts to hard-boiling. And if that wasn’t enough to put me off, I also didn’t much care for the fabled denouement, which is simple and brutal (good), but doesn’t have nearly as much effect on the supporting players and the world they live in as it ought to have (bad). In my opinion.

So: not enough jokes, too much cold-blooded killing and not a flying DeLorean to be seen anywhere. But anyone who’s been pining for the sight of Bruce Willis in a blood- and sweat-stained white T-shirt should step right this way.