Monthly Archives: October 2013

Morrissey: Autobiography

MorrisseyAutobiography

The tremulously awaited Morrissey autobiography is now with us and it’s everything you wished for and everything you feared. This is a door-stop sized dollop of full-on Moz, not ghost-written and I’d be willing to bet not even edited, a vast slab of melodramatic and self-pitying soul baring that would be almost completely preposterous and laughably self-serving if it wasn’t so saturated with wit and passion and sheer outrageous conviction. It’s pretty damn well-written too, even if the author has a somewhat cavalier approach to strict chronology (and even what tense he’s writing in) and clearly finds the notion of dividing one’s magnum opus into easily digestible chapters hopelessly pedestrian. While you sometimes find yourself craving a bit more detail on the nuts and bolts of making those extraordinary records it can’t be denied that Autobiography is several cuts above your average plodding rockstar career summary.

Or at least it is for the first half of the book. In these first 225 pages Morrissey achieves the tricky feat of tempering his relentless denouncements of the various establishment forces that he transparently feels are working round the clock to deny him fulfilment (you know, schoolteachers, record label bosses, meat eaters, people like that) with frequent flashes of self-deprecatory humour and turns of phrases that bolster his reputation as one of the greatest of lyricists. One of his teachers will “die smelling of attics”. Another is “a sexual hoax”. The release of the first Smiths single Hand In Glove shattered their staunchly alternative label Rough Trade’s afternoons of “wok rotas, poetry workshops and Women’s Hour”. David Bowie “feeds on the blood of mammals”. It’s bracing, hilarious, fiercely non-ingratiating stuff that cedes not an inch to the many commentators who dismiss him as a one-note miserabilist and the style couldn’t be mistaken for that of another human being on the planet.

And once you’ve acclimatised yourself to the style you get quite a bit of insight into the formative years of a sensitive Mancunian lad raised in the 1960s within an extended Irish family dominated by doughty women. If the young Mozzer’s chief sources of misery were school and the brutal attitudes of teachers and would-be teenage gang leaders alike his salvations were television, books and particularly 45 rpm records, which he collected and studied obsessively. Later he would fall under the spell of The New York Dolls, Jobriath and other strange, sexually ambiguous acts on the margins of rock music, but his tentative attempts to establish himself as either writer or singer didn’t come to much until Johnny Marr came knocking on his door in the early 80s. Morrissey conjures the whirl and creative flood of the early days of the group he’ll always be best remembered for with rare economy and flair: “The Smiths’ sound rockets with meteoric progression; bomb-burst drumming, explosive chords, combative bass-lines, and over it all I am as free as a hawk to paint the canvas as I wish.” Autobiography captures the emotional highs and lows of the band’s stormy five-year lifespan brilliantly even if it leaves it up to the reader to remember or research some of the prosaic discographic facts (anyone wanting a more objective summary of these years is hereby directed to Tony Fletcher’s excellent A Light That Never Goes Out).

After the group breaks up however the book becomes considerably less essential as Morrissey’s sense of being wronged by the world in general and by a long list of former collaborators, judges and media figures in particular starts to colour everything. It’s still a more or less entertaining read but the dramatic tension is gone with the narrative flitting around between perceived slights that people have made against Moz’s character and, fatally, a fifty page account of the court action initiated by Smiths drummer Mike Joyce in pursuit of what he claimed was his fair share of The Smiths’ earnings that ends with judge John Weeks finding against the singer and branding him “devious, truculent and unreliable.” Morrissey does not like this one little bit and goes into obsessive, nit-picking detail about the spuriousness of Joyce’s case, repeating himself and restating his unimpeachable arguments over and over and over again. Sometimes, the reader is forced to conclude, it’s better to just let something go.

To be fair though, the book is not all Morrissey railing at the world. There are some unexpectedly tender passages scattered here and there amongst all the disappointment and bile. The singer pays moving tribute to the much missed Kirsty MacColl and several other prematurely deceased friends such as producer Mick Ronson, manager Nigel Thomas and video director Tim Broad, and is constant in his devotion to members of his family. There are also one or two accounts of Moz helping injured and distressed birds and animals, another constituency that he’s always been a fearless defender of.

But in the end you can’t help feeling that the book, despite delivering a surface punch as powerful and witty as anyone could have hoped for, has missed its mark ever so slightly. It’s a shame, because without the court case section and with some judicious trimming and collation of the isolated, loosely strung-together events and impressions that make up the back end of the book Autobiography would have been a genuine instant Penguin Classic, worthy of the imprint that Moz insisted on as part of the publishing deal. As it is, it’s closer to something like The Kenneth Williams Diaries – an insight into a unique and unmistakable British recording artist who’s as incapable of mellowing with age as a neglected stub of camembert at the back of the fridge.

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Captain Phillips

CaptainPhillips

Captain Phillips is Paul Greengrass’s dramatisation of a 2009 piracy incident off the coast of Somalia and as you might expect from the director of two of the Bourne films and the utterly harrowing 9/11 reconstruction United 93 it’s a tense and involving bit of work that earns much of its edge through the care that’s gone into making everything ring as true as possible. Tom Hanks is perfect everyman casting as the level-headed and surprisingly wily captain while the desperate gunmen who attempt to take control of his goods ship are given a background and convincing motivation that’s rare for movie villains. Their leader Muse is keen to give an impression as a reasonable man who’s just conducting a bit of business (at point he refers to the loot he’s after as a tax on Americans for sailing in his country’s waters) even while his more impulsive accomplices have got their guns rammed in the crew-members’ faces.

Truth be told though I did feel a little weary by the end of film despite its obvious intelligence, depth of research and craftsmanship. The first half is just fine, with the scenario economically set up and the peril expertly escalated into a gripping game of cat and mouse in which we get some pleasingly inventive feints on the part of Phillips as he tries to gain the upper hand on the intruders. Eventually however the options close down into a much more claustrophobic milieu and much of the second half comes across as basically just reinforcing the unpleasantness and tension of the situation before the inevitable denouement. The manner of how the situation is going to be resolved is telegraphed pretty clearly a good twenty minutes in advance and most of that time is then filled with various parties shouting and shoving each other about just to keep the ball in the air so to speak. It’s probably a more representative reflection of the time it actually took in real life but it felt very drawn out to me. A shame, as this is generally a cracking action thriller with both heart and brain in the right place.

Fishskin Trousers, Brighton Emporium Theatre, October 17 2013

FishskinTrousersA couple of nights ago I went to the Emporium Theatre in Brighton to see Fishskin Trousers – not, as you’d be forgiven for assuming, an experimental noise combo much beloved by John Peel, but a haunting and cleverly written theatre piece. Elizabeth Kuti’s play consists of three intertwined monologues delivered by three characters from different points in time who all have a connection with Orford Ness, Suffolk (also the subject of Thomas Dolby’s The Invisible Lighthouse which, bizarrely, I saw him presenting live only about three weeks ago). The director is Robert Price.

I’m not too big a fan of theatre in general, which I think is down to a failure of imagination on my part as I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief when I’m watching two or more people conversing on stage in an improbably well-enunciated and over-projected manner, but I really really liked this: it seemed to have more in common with something like Robert Lloyd Parry’s sublime performances of the ghost stories of M.R.James than it did with what I’ve seen of modern stage-bound drama. The three characters in this piece are Mab, played by Jessica Carroll, a 12th Century serving maid, Ben (Sean Ohlendorf), an Australian radar scientist posted to the Ness in 1973, and Mog (Eva Traynor), an early 21st Century school teacher, with the starting point for the piece being Mab’s description of the capture of a strange and bedraggled man of the sea in the nets of some local fishermen. The three take in turns to relate sections of their stories and at first there’s no connection apparent between them other than the local geography, but as the piece develops you start to realise how events in one strand affect those of another and by the end the three accounts form a satisfying whole. They’re also variously grotesque, funny, haunting, surprisingly educational and ultimately very moving due to the quality and accessibility of the writing and the acting, with the metaphor of murky coastal waters for suppressed secrets and traumas proving highly effective.

The staging is minimal – only three chairs and some subtle flickering light effects to suggest water – and there’s no point during the hour and a quarter duration of the play that you find your concentration wandering. The Emporium Theatre is a converted church, with what used to be the nave given over to a cafe and the theatre not much more than a few rows of chairs in what would have been the altar area and it’s a highly appropriate setting for a stripped down piece like this, with nothing to distract you from the performers. Very glad I went to see this, even though I’m now stuck with the voice of John Peel in my head telling me that that was Fishskin Trousers in session, and there’ll be two more from them later.

Look! Who’s back!

WebOfFearThe last week or so has been just about the most exciting time to be a hardcore longtime fan of Doctor Who ever: at midnight last night after months of frothing online speculation it was finally confirmed by the BBC that nine previously missing episodes of the show from the late 60s Patrick Troughton era had been recovered. And if that were not enough to cause severe palpitations across a large swathe of middle-aged men around the world the Beeb also announced that the episodes would be made available via iTunes with immediate effect, with DVDs to follow in the next few weeks.

Some context is probably called for here. Back in the days before home video players television was considered a pretty ephemeral medium and the idea of preserving and archiving entertainment programmes didn’t really exist. The videotape on which shows were recorded was expensive but reusable so it made sense to wipe the tapes of broadcasts after a respectable interval had passed – the BBC even had a policy agreed with the actors’ union of not repeating programmes more than once, as it was felt that repeats cut down the time available for new commissions. Subsequently by the mid-70s the cupboard was pretty bare of vintage Who, though some episodes had managed to hang on to existence by dint of being transferred onto film for potential sale in other countries. By 1978 when the Corporation woke up to the possibility that they were destroying an exploitable asset there were only 118 black and white Doctor Who episodes known to exist, with 135 missing. Over the next few years recoveries were made in dribs and drabs from overseas television stations and private collectors, with the most notable find being all four parts of the Troughton story The Tomb Of The Cybermen which was reclaimed from Hong Kong in 1992. After this last though it looked like that was that: in the next twenty years only another four episodes were located and by last year it seemed pretty unlikely that the missing episode count of 106 would be whittled down any further.

However. Doctor Who fans are nothing in not tenacious, and one in particular had the time and resources to actually travel to broadcasting companies across world in search of missing TV programmes. Philip Morris started his epic hunt round about the time that the successful revival of the programme hit our screens and has been trawling archives across Africa and beyond. His dedication paid off: the trail eventually led to a TV station in Jos, Nigeria where he found some highly interesting cans of film. The full results of his labours are yet to be revealed (one persistent rumour suggests that he’s dug up something like ninety of the missing Who episodes, along with tonnes of other programmes that went AWOL in the 60s and 70s), but the discovery of just these nine episodes is mind-boggling enough, particularly as they represent the complete restoration of one Troughton six part story The Enemy Of The World and the near-complete restoration of another, one of the fans’ absolute Holy Grails, The Web Of Fear (aka The One With The Yetis In The London Underground. You know, the one where the Doctor meets the Brigadier). I know it’s basically just a children’s TV series we’re talking about here, and a fairly cheaply made one at that, but for those of the anorak persuasion this is on the order of someone suddenly popping up with ten hitherto-unsuspected Shakespeare plays, or five unreleased Beatles albums, or a revised version of the 1990 World Cup which shows England beating Germany on penalties in the semi-final and going on to lift the trophy. The 50th Anniversary year of Doctor Who has until now been something of a disappointment, with not even the casting announcement of the fabulous Peter Capaldi (surely one of the two men on the planet best equipped to play the Doctor, and Benedict Cumberbatch has already let it be known he’s not interested) really making up for the paucity of new episodes and the slightly so-what quality of those that have been screened, but it’s hard to imagine a better end to it than this.

I haven’t downloaded the material as it perversely seems a bit too…well…easy, and I prefer to watch things on DVD rather than on computer screens anyway, but I’ve seen a few clips from the recovered stories and they look bright, shiny and as in good nick as any of the stuff that’s been available for years. Pat Troughton looks like he’s having a whale of a time and is uncannily reminiscent of Matt Smith in places…or should that be the other way round? This is an amazing find, and the possibility that it might just be the tip of an iceberg may be enough to make the whole of Who fandom spontaneously combust. Mr Morris, we thank you very much.

Blue Jasmine

BlueJasmineIn Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine Cate Blanchett gives a bravura performance as a woman some way over the edge of a nervous breakdown. Previously married to a fabulously well-to-do New York banker Jasmine has the rug pulled abruptly out from under her when he’s indicted for fraud leaving her effectively homeless and with no option but to move to San Francisco and seek shelter with her sister Ginger, who leads a somewhat less privileged existence to the one Jasmine’s become accustomed to. She’s visibly traumatised by the sudden reduction in her circumstances and finds it hard to adjust to a life where everything isn’t handed to her on a plate but opportunities to re-establish herself do emerge and her position isn’t hopeless as long as she’s able to present herself honestly.

Blue Jasmine is interesting for starting at the point where a more conventionally shaped narrative might end. Jasmine’s back-story, which unfolds in flashback throughout, would in itself make a perfectly satisfying movie with a standard issue moral about the perils of hubris: a haughty and materialistic woman suffers a humiliating downfall when the lie that her lifestyle is based on is exposed. We’ve seen this kind of thing before but it’s less common for the aftermath of such a collapse in status to be examined and although there are elements of the situation that Jasmine finds herself in that seem a bit one-dimensional (the portrayal of Ginger and her various friends as lovable dopes comes off as a bit patronising) she’s seen to remain true to her character, with no sappy epiphany about true family values bolted on. Blanchett really owns the movie, oscillating between high-handed disdain and tear-stained nervous collapse in a way that makes for distressing but compelling viewing and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else being able to carry it off (the closest performances to this that I can think of are Julianne Moore in Magnolia and Judy Davis in Allen’s Husbands And Wives).

In terms of tone this a comedy of manners as much as it is a drama I guess although there aren’t many explicitly funny lines in the script and most of the laughs that arise come from the strained and awkward interactions between the hyper-tense Jasmine and the gauche but usually generous-spirited people she finds herself having to live and work with. On several occasions you find yourself laughing involuntarily at something really quite inappropriate, such as an argument about what the precise cause of death is when a person hangs themself. There’s also, unusually for Allen, a slight suggestion of topicality with the theme of unsustainable wealth being bought at the cost of ordinary people’s lives being played on every now and then, and while this isn’t explored deeply it helps to  make this a significantly more relevant and probing a film than most of his recent output. I’m not sure that Blue Jasmine is a film I’m going to want to come back to again and again in the same way as Annie Hall or Hannah And Her Sisters – its definitely an abrasive watch as opposed to a comforting one – but it’s great that he’s still able to make a film now and then that’s got real content.

 

Hannah Arendt

HannahArendtThere’s been no shortage of dramas made about Nazis down the years but not too many about twentieth century political theorists, and certainly none as handsomely put together as Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt. Arendt was a Jewish student of Martin Heidegger who managed to flee to America with her husband when World War Two broke out, albeit via a spell in a French detention camp. She thereafter taught in a number of universities and published some highly regarded books that probed the nature of evil (it was Arendt in fact who coined the phrase “the banality of evil”). When the Israeli security forces captured Adolf Eichmann, one of the initiators of the holocaust and minute-taker at the infamous Wannsee conference, Arendt felt compelled to cover the subsequent trial in Jerusalem and offered her services as reporter to The New Yorker, who were delighted to accept. The article she filed however, met with widespread condemnation, as Arendt’s subtle but rigorously researched and reasoned arguments that Eichmann was not much more than an incurious civil servant and that the Nazis had debased morality to such an extent that some Jewish leaders had become in some ways compliant with the planned extermination of their people went over many readers’ heads.

Von Trotta’s film depicts both the trial and the following controversy over Arendt’s account of it with intelligence and sensitivity and succeeds in making a thought-provoking and involving drama out of some potentially quite difficult material. There are thankfully no grainy sequences of ghettoes being liquidated or over-packed trains pulling out of stations (though there are one or two possibly unnecessary flashbacks to encounters between the young Arendt and  the Nazi-sympathising Heidegger), but there is some grimly fascinating footage from the actual Eichmann trial integrated into the reconstruction in which you get to see the man himself attempting a defence for his actions. It may be down to judicious editing but his pedantic insistence on clarifying points of procedure and lack of interest in anything falling outside his immediate brief (like, you know, what’s going to happen to the people at the end of those train rides he’s been organising) does underline Arendt’s impression of him as an unremarkable middle manager.

Mostly though the film remains in a lushly photographed, Mad Men era, New York – apartments, drinks parties, slicked back men and twin-setted women, and lots and lots of smoking. Barbara Sukowa gets the plum role of Arendt and does it brilliantly, switching fluently between German and English, expressing complex nuances of philosophy forcefully but never stridently, fearlessly taking on her critics but also projecting vulnerability and a very touching tenderness towards her husband Heinrich (played by Axel Milberg). It’s quite a talky film, and to be honest at times some of the dialogue felt a bit over-expository to me, as if the scriptwriters were nervous about the knotty subject matter and thought that the audience might need a few pointers to guide them through, but the climactic setpiece is worth it: the lecture Arendt gives to justify her article and make clear that she has not betrayed her ancestry or sympathies. It’s a really powerfully written scene, delivered with nerve by Sukowa. I was slightly worried that this film might be a bit of a dry history lesson but it’s as watchable as a good thriller and I learned some important things anyway.