New Year’s Resolution: if you can’t find anything interesting to say then keep it short.
Case in point: 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of nineteenth century black musician Solomon Northup’s 1953 book of the same name. Northup was kidnapped and sold to a succession of plantation owners, under whom he witnessed and experienced barely imaginable cruelty. The film’s been garnering five star reviews for months and is as surefire an awards-magnet as I’ve ever seen for its theme, its pitiless but never gratuitous depiction of the barbarity and degradation of slavery, the skill and judgement of its makers (despite all the horrors here they still managed to bring it in as a 15 certificate) and the quality of the acting, particularly Chiwetel Ejiofor as the brutalised Northup, Michael Fassbender as his drunk and sadistic “owner” Edwin Epps and Lupita Nyong’o as an unfortunate girl who Epps has taken a perverse shine to. I could go on for another few hundred words, many of which probably be along the lines of “searing” and “unflinching”, but others have said it much better elsewhere. It’s pretty much a bulletproof classic. I will however throw in a couple of observations: firstly, that I did very much enjoy Paul Giamatti’s cameo as a silver-tongued slave dealer (“my sentimentality is the length of a coin”) and secondly, that it did leave me with a yen to dig out the old mini-series Roots. My guess is that while it would probably come across as a lot more stagey and a bit less intense than McQueen’s film it would still make a good point of comparison and stand up well, if only for showing the monumental effects of slavery on successive generations rather than one displaced man.
At one point in Annie Hall Woody Allen’s character muses that life is essentially divided into the horrible and the miserable. On the evidence of The Casual Vacancy J.K.Rowling would seem to agree, though possibly with the caveat that a lot of us are often both. This is a novel that’s hyper-caustic in its anger and disgust at the hypocrisies and insularity of small-town attitudes, but it also reads like a veritable encyclopedia of woe, with even the more sympathetic characters given enough flaws and weaknesses to make you want to withdraw from human relationships altogether and go and live in a yurt on a mountainside somewhere. Redemptive it most surely isn’t.
It is however a testament to Rowling’s skills as a storyteller and a close observer of the awkwardnesses of social interactions that the book turns out to be as grimly compelling as other famously winceworthy entertainments, such as Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen or Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings. The setting is the well-to-do market town of Pagford and the plot is kicked off by the sudden death by aneurysm of a popular and progressive local councillor, whose support for a down-at-heel estate notorious for being a den of vice and immorality has long been a thorn in the side of the more conservative elements of the town’s citizenry. The book doesn’t really unfold in the way you might expect, as an account of an election campaign to fill this “casual vacancy” – instead it uses the unhappy event as a catalyst to expose a number of underlying tensions and rivalries and to give a few of the less privileged inhabitants of the town opportunities to puncture the ambitions and pretensions of those who assume they have an automatic right to authority. The story is impressively multi-stranded and holds together convincingly and unpredictably, although one or two of the plot contrivances seem slightly unlikely and the ending is a bit close to straight melodrama.
Where the novel really impresses, and at times shocks, is in its vivid depictions of cruelty, callousness and depravity. We get school bullying, parental abuse, joyless teenage sex, self-harm and heroin dependence just for starters, all described unflinchingly, though without gratuitous relish. Later on things get even worse. Rowling gets inside the heads of her characters and we can usually see what’s motivating them to visit misery on their families or acquaintances at the same time as being appalled by it. She’s got a knack for distilling the techniques people use for dodging serious engagement with each other (I particularly like “it was wonderful how you could obscure an emotional issue by appearing to seek precision”) and some of the abrasive encounters are presented in such a raw and acute manner that you feel that they must be drawn from her personal experience.
Whether Rowling has any solution to, or strategy for, the dreadful and unnecessary woundings that people inflict on each other and themselves she provides copious examples of here is, on the other hand, not that clear. This book feels more like a rant or a roar than a manifesto. Whatever it is, it’s effective. I wasn’t expecting much more than a well-plotted social satire from The Casual Vacancy, but it’s clearly a book coming straight from the heart.
The Desolation Of Smaug, the second and middle part of Peter Jackson’s ludicrously over-extended adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is just as padded out as its predecessor with gratuitous sequences of horrible orcs hunting our heroes but nonetheless seems to flow considerably better. This may be because it’s starting to feel that Bilbo and his dwarfy mates are actually getting somewhere in their convoluted journey to the Lonely Mountain and the usurping dragon within, or it might have something to do with the variety and richly textured realisation of the places we get to visit: a spooky, cobwebby forest, the treetop palace of an Elven lord, the damp and rundown platforms and walkways of Laketown (particularly liked this location, a bit like a Poundland Venice in the Fens) and finally the treasure strewn halls of the dwarves’ former kingdom. We get man-eating spiders, spectacular flypasts round forbidding ruined castles precariously balanced on the sides of mountains, about half a dozen long and complicated battle bits in which Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly prove over and over and over again how great elves are at kicking goblin butt and, as the master of Lakeland, Stephen Fry doing his addled aristo routine in a quite awesomely preposterous wig. Best of all we eventually get a one to one between Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and the Benedict Cumberbatch voiced dragon Smaug (Watson, meet Holmes), and like its counterpoint Bilbo/Gollum scene in the first film it stands head, shoulders and menacing scaly appendages above everything else – it’s creepy, unbearably tense and was the only point in the film when even the young children in the audience I was in fell silent. Elsewhere, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf continues his tradition of abandoning his charges just when they need his help most in order to keep mysterious appointments in pointlessly perilous places, and Richard Armitage’s Thorin carries on managing his team badly with a winning mixture of impulsiveness, resentment and arrogance, like he’s been hastily over-promoted. This is a film that there’s really not much recommending, as you’ll either not be interested or will have bought your ticket and ordered the DVD already, but it delivers more or less everything you require it to and once someone’s done a fan edit that cuts out all the endless crossbow and beheading bits it’ll be pretty damn zippy. My chief worry is that we leave the story very close to the end of book, if I’m remembering it rightly – how on Middle Earth is Jackson going to wring a final three hour film out of one dragon attack, one battle and a bit of mopping up? Will it turn into a musical?
I’m a bit wary of award winning literary novels, usually finding myself bewildered by the glacial pace and the sense that terribly sophisticated insights into human nature are sailing several miles over my head whenever I attempt to give one a go. I did however find myself becoming more and more fascinated by Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries the deeper I got into it, to the extent that I wanted to read it again as soon as I’d finished it, and for an 800 page doorstop of a book like this that’s pretty impressive.
The Luminaries is a historical novel, set in a remote New Zealand gold-mining settlement in 1866 where a chain of mysterious and possibly nefarious events have aroused concern among certain of the community’s professional men. There’s a death, a disappearance, a fraud, an opium overdose and sundry other vendettas and loyalties to be considered and to this end a meeting has been called in the parlour of a hotel, a meeting that is inadvertently interrupted by a new arrival in town. Sensing that this smart, discreet and intelligent young man might prove a useful neutral sounding board the motley fellowship consent to relate to him their various involvements in and viewpoints on the situation and gradually a bigger picture starts to emerge. Over the course of the next two months other dramatic incidents thicken the plot further: a seance, a court case and at least one crime of passion. It’s all pretty complicated, with particular events often being multiply reported from different points of view, but the strands eventually weave together delightfully and logically, and my slight confusion at the end about some of the finer detail is certainly down to me skimming some of the set-up chapters rather than any failure of Catton.
The novel reminded me in quite a few ways of Wilkie Collins, particularly The Moonstone, though there’s much less overt comedy here and probably not so much interest in satirising social hierarchies. What Catton brings instead is a formidable mastery of structure: while the first, long, section feels slightly rambly it becomes clear as you press on that the drawstrings on the drama are being incrementally tightened, with action and revelation taking more and more precedence over description and atmosphere with every new chapter. Each of the twelve sections is shorter than the one before, in imitation of a waning moon, and there’s also a handy character chart whereby all the main players are associated with either an astrological sign or a celestial body – while it’s not necessary to take any notice of this in order to read or understand the book it certainly helps as an organising principle and as a way of keeping track of who’s who among the many characters (it also makes sense of the somewhat cryptic chapter titles). Her writing style is clear and fluent, and while it’s as convincing as it needs to be as a genuine nineteenth century confection it never distracts by lapsing into pastiche.
In some ways its effect is similar to dense, multi-layered films like Magnolia or The Prestige or Nashville in that a second viewing in each of those cases really helped to clarify and cast light on a whole bunch of complicated and intricate connections and relationships. I’m not a particularly patient reader and have a bad habit of speeding carelessly through passages that seem overly descriptive and mood-setting but by the closing sections of this book I wanted to make sure I paid close attention to every detail, such was the care and ingenuity the author had put into her precise and pleasingly labyrinthine plotting. This is a book to take with you if you ever have to spend a week or two somewhere remote, rainy and lacking internet access – while it’s slow to get going it will repay the dedicated reader who can resist distraction handsomely.
About eighteen months ago I was quite sniffy about the first Hunger Games movie, mainly because I was disappointed that a promising future world scenario, in which random young people from the oppressed outlying districts of a decadent dictatorship were forced to fight to the death, had fizzled out in an over-extended arena sequence which seemed to go out of its way to dodge the potential moral challenges that Jennifer Lawrence’s gutsy heroine Katniss should have had to face. Fortunately author Suzanne Collins’s books form one of these modern Harry Potter style franchises, so here’s another film in which they get to have another go at the same basic storyline (or a pretty familiar-feeling development of it, anyway) and this time round it seems to me to come off a lot more satisfactorily.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire follows straight on from the events of the first installment and assumes that you’re up to speed on who’s who and what’s what without so much as a title card to break the ice. It’s framed as a conflict between Katniss, who is becoming the unwitting figurehead for a nascent revolution since her wily gambit at the end of the previous games saved her life and that of her fellow tribute Peeta, and the cruel and manipulative President Snow who was only a shadowy presence before but gets buckets of choice dialogue scenes and lingering malevolent close-ups here. This is good news as Donald Sutherland can do unsettling and controlling as well as anyone in the business, and he’s not the only heavyweight delivering a classy performance as we also get Stanley Tucci reprising his role as a brilliantly oily TV presenter and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the hard-to-read games designer Plutarch Heavensbee, which is incidentally the most preposterously enjoyable character name I’ve come across in a good while.
Anyway, whereas in the first film we got a gripping set-up followed by a lame pay-off, here it’s the other way round. The first half of Catching Fire seems unremittingly drab and dour and bleak as we witness the various deprived regions suffering brutal reprisals for the mildest acts of dissent against the state while the plot weaves its way through the contortions necessary to contrive a reason to send Katniss back into the arena of death again. None of this is poorly thought out or badly staged, and in a lot of ways it even feels emotionally convincing, but Lord it’s grim, with the only light relief being the bizarre costumes and hairstyles of some of the privileged capital dwellers and the odd moment of deadpan black humour. It really ramps up though when we eventually get to the main event – this time The Hunger Games themselves are meaner and altogether zippier, taking place in an ingeniously deadly environment and involving a much more interesting bunch of competitors than previously. Hell, some of them are even middle-aged or older! One of them even wears glasses!
The last hour or so of the film is as inventive and engaging as you could hope for, even if the overall tone remains firmly in the zone marked bleak, and there’s real uncertainty as to how the story will resolve. Without wanting to spoil anything, there are another couple of films in the pipeline and this one ends with the sort of revelations that some folk like to call “game-changing”. This isn’t exactly the cheeriest night out, and don’t even think about going to see it if you haven’t seen the first film, but it’s nice to see a sci-fi blockbuster that’s taken the trouble to establish characters as complex and subtle as some of those presented here, and to not make it too obvious which ones are going to win out in the end.
I’m getting to really love The Portland Arms as a venue. It’s just the right size to accommodate a band and an audience that’s still able to see the whites of the musician’s eyes even from the back of the hall without it feeling like you’re squashed into someone’s front room, and you generally get excellent sound too. After getting up close and personal with The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band and The Wave Pictures in recent months I went to see Sweet Baboo last night and it was every bit as great a gig as those that went before it.
Sweet Baboo is the stage name of Welsh singer-songwriter-guitarist Stephen Black, and he’s been releasing singles and albums containing charming romantic ballads and boppers for a few years now. He’s been playing live for ages too, though I think this is his first tour as a headliner rather than a support act, in promotion of recent album Ships and the EP Motorhome. On the evidence of this show he and his tastefully minimal band (just bass and drums) deserve their top-of-the-bill status for sure – despite arriving to the venue late due to traffic snarl-ups on a cold and miserable evening and thus failing to get a soundcheck and being forced to set up in front of a waiting crowd they deliver a beautifully rounded set of what sound like instant classics to me and have the good taste to keep it short (I think they were done within an hour) and leave the people wanting more.
I was in fact really taken aback by how much attack and focus the band had, and how skilfully they managed to vary the dynamics. On record, Baboo’s songs run the risk of sounding a bit winsome and lightweight to me, with his clever way with a mundane metaphor (“this is a song about the Cardiff University electric library”) sometimes standing out as much more interesting than the pleasantly strummed guitars that form the basis for most of the backing tracks. On stage however the band properly rocks and at times even convincingly wigs out – that impressive array of effects pedals is not just there for show – but this is never at the expense of the songs and their melodic and lyrical charms. Baboo turns out to be, like David Tattersall of The Wave Pictures, a really impressive guitarist, capable of lovely flamenco and country flourishes on the acoustic guitar he picks up for the “mellow” section of the set, while his band prove themselves to be positively supple, grooving where appropriate or dialing it down for the quiet numbers (incidentally, I’m very taken with that black Epiphone bass guitar, though I’m not sure I’ve got the funds or houseroom for it). Despite all this conspicuous flair, Baboo maintains a convivial if slightly reticent tone to his between-song chat, as if he can hardly believe that anyone would bother to come out and see him play, though the fact that the room isn’t quite packed is probably more down to the weather than to him.
Baboo rounds the evening off with a solo encore of Tom Waits Rip Off and then heads straight over to man the merch stall, in typically self-effacing style. It’s been a brilliant gig. In one of his songs he’s got the line “Daniel Johnston has got loads of great songs, and I’ve got six” – I think he’s seriously underestimating himself. Catch him while he’s still playing in rooms at the back of pubs.
David Byrne’s How Music Works couldn’t be more different to the last music-related book I read, which was Morrissey’s Autobiography…actually, that’s wrong, if that last sentence was true Byrne’s book would have to be an iceberg or a classification system for light aircraft or a herbal treatment for verrucas, whereas it is, like Mozzer’s, largely an account of the late 20th century music business written by the former singer of an original, literate, musically accomplished and critically adored band. But you get my point. Morrissey’s effort (or at least the second half of it) is a hilarious and highly subjective broadside against the massed incompetent and grasping industry forces that he perceives to have been responsible for sabotaging his career and indeed life over the last quarter century. Byrne’s on the other hand is perky, user-friendly and downright educational, consisting as it does of a series of self-contained chapters that each address one aspect of how music is made, appreciated and marketed. You can imagine these units starting life as a lecture series, to be delivered alongside audio-visual material organised via Powerpoint – there are even helpful, referenced, illustrations of the type typical of this sort of presentation included in the book.
Despite its preppy, slightly earnest approach though How Music Works turns out to be an excellent read, putting forward some genuinely revealing and valuable insights into what makes musical performances and recordings really live and hacking efficiently through some of the mysteries and contradictions of record company practices. Byrne is fascinated by the way that collections of noises and voices can combine to make compelling tunes, grooves and atmospheres and uses his own experiences and those of many artists he admires to illustrate the sometimes random and unpredictable nature of creativity. He starts with the history of music and over the course of the book takes in anthropology, architecture, astronomy, computer science and even some politics, all of which is admirably well-researched and explained in clear, and often unexpectedly funny and self-deprecatory, prose. A central theme is that our appreciation of music both recorded and live is highly dependent on context and nebulous variables such as one’s mood – a piece that has a room full of people happily dancing for ages in a nightclub may well sound bizarre and repetitive if one heard it played in a cathedral or at a dinner party. One therefore shouldn’t set too much stall in establishing critical hierarchies or canons of acceptable work in any genre as it’s just as possible that you’ll come across a life-changingly wonderful song in a disco or at a local jam session in a bar as in an opera house. In the spirit of encouraging serendipitous collisions of musical ideas the author also provides some advice on how to set up and foster a thriving music scene, based on what he observed back when Talking Heads were a regular band at CBGBs in New York (a good tip: provide customers with pool tables to give them something else to do when the groups are playing other than just being a captive audience for a bunch of malnourished freaks).
Byrne’s candour about his working practices and many collaborations extends to a willingness to discuss the economics of being a musician, using himself as an example. In one chapter he provides detailed breakdowns of the costs involved in making two of his albums, one funded by a record company in the traditional manner and one a self-released project with Brian Eno which the two of them paid for themselves: although the two sold a comparable number of copies he made much more on the second, which demonstrates why a lot of record labels are getting hot and bothered these days about the ease with which the internet has allowed artists to bypass them. Byrne has decidedly mixed feelings about innovations like Spotify which provide ultimate convenience to consumers but don’t necessarily pay the people who actually made the music anything more than pin money but on this issue, as on all others that he covers, he keeps an open mind and argues his case fairly and convincingly (it would be hard to imagine Morrissey, say, taking such a balanced approach if he had suspicions he was being ripped off). How Music Works is ambitious, detailed and wide-ranging and it’s a must-read if you want to know about the nuts and bolts of how and why you get to hear the songs and pieces you love and the various creative and financial challenges of the artists who make them.