Acting the Apostle

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On DVD I finally watched God Help The Girl, the musical conceived by Stuart Murdoch, the primary songwriter of Belle & Sebastian. This project seemed to take a long time to happen. Looking it up online now, I see that the idea started in … 2004! Then the record LP of the songs was released as long ago as June 2009. I can recall the interest in that record; hearing it with uncertainty and disappointment; periodically going back to it and getting more from it. But that LP is now the best part of a decade old! Impossible how time passes now. But the point, I thought, was always the film. Apparently that didn’t start shooting till 2012, and wasn’t released till 2014 (which by the accelerated standards I’ve mentioned seems all too recent; I’d have guessed at 2011). Now that I’ve at last caught up, I offer these quick reactions to the film.

1: It’s not that good. The script is rarely inherently interesting. Few lines of dialogue sparkle. The acting is fine, in a way – the actors don’t seem damagingly ‘amateur’, or if they do, that is even good for the ‘realism’. But the words they have to say are not terrific dramatic dialogue, and the story that they play out lacks urgency and coherent drive. Here is an example of very bad dialogue. Cassie (Hannah Murray) has declared on a boating trip that she feels like Tom Sawyer, then she drinks some wine. Now she reports that she feels ‘Like Tom Sawyer … when he’s drunk’. The film lingers over this moment, irising out, making the woeful clunk of the line resound all the more. The prevailing idea that I’ve heard here and there that this is ‘am-dram’  or ‘Children’s Film Foundation’ fare, though not strictly true of the production values, is understandable.

2: There is a kind of underlying unspoken fact about this film, which perhaps extends to much that Murdoch has done but is far more emphatic here. Namely: it puts young, slim, attractive women (‘girls’, even) centre stage and photographs them admiringly. I am unsure what is the proper reaction to this. Part of me thinks, roughly, that it is ‘sexist’, an example of ‘the male gaze’ and so on. It is relevant that the girls typically wear stunningly attractive outfits which often display their long legs (and they never seem to wear the same outfit twice). Yet it is hard to substantiate this objection. I can easily imagine that the actresses would entirely reject it and say that it’s a great enabling film which valuably puts female characters at its centre and is thus actually some kind of pro-feminist work. I can imagine some female viewers saying the same. Fair enough. The trouble is, as a heterosexual male, I think I can see through Murdoch’s motives and tastes all too easily, because they are exactly the same things I am, let’s say, conditioned or predisposed to like and desire myself. If I happened to be in his position with the chance to make such a film, I think I would be embarrassed to do what he has done, because I would know that people would accuse me of indulging my own aesthetic tastes which are also, in this instance, libidinal tastes – and they would be right. So I find the film somewhat ‘suspect’ even as, or rather because, I think it is often good to look at.

3: There is one thing that Murdoch could have done to head this off or complicate matters – namely, put a less typically photogenic female character into it, amid the very photogenic ones. For instance he could have featured someone less slim and more fat. He hasn’t chosen to do that – in fact there isn’t a single young character in the film who is even slightly overweight. I don’t care about that particular point, or wish to prescribe what can be in people’s stories – maybe it’s important for people to be free to populate their stories as they want. But I do think it is circumstantial evidence that he has indulged himself by allowing his film to spend most of its time looking at girls he (like almost everyone else) thinks is attractive. And given that the film supposedly has some interest in people’s struggles and difficulties, maybe it would have had more purchase on these things if it had featured people who look less perfect.

Then again, maybe the point is that it’s a musical, hence something of a fantasia, in which daft things happen like a dog being sent waddling off down the street to bring his mistress to a disco, or a ludicrous chase scene in homage to the start of A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Why shouldn’t you populate such a film with the best-looking people you can find? Maybe Murdoch would say: ‘This is my film, it’s the only one I’ll get to make, so I’ll put who I like in it (literally) – if you have a more worthy agenda, make your own film.’

One other note on gender: it is slightly surprising how Murdoch doesn’t do more with the relation between the two female leads. He gives them little screen time alone together; in the couple of scenes they do get, there is some promise. The lack of more such dialogue seems a missed opportunity, also a dramatic flaw in that the relation between the two girls could be established more strongly. As it is, much more time is given to scenes between the female and male leads.

4: The central male character is James (Olly Alexander, who I am subsequently told is also in a real pop group). As is usual, the male collapses the idea about ‘everybody looking perfect’, as he mostly doesn’t look good at all to me. Actually there are moments when he does look OK, so maybe his unappealing appearance is more about skilful method acting and getting into character. But beyond mere looks, I’m afraid this character is very irritating. It doesn’t help that he has an English accent, despite supposedly being technically Scottish. His voice is unpleasant to listen to, not just for the accent but for the general whining, self-indulgent, ironic way he talks. Even when he delivers a line something like ‘I just wanted to plant my little flag in the timeline of pop history’, a sentiment I can actually understand having done it myself, it is ruined for me by his delivery. Admittedly I think all kinds of other actors would have been equally irritating in this role. Even a Scottish version of the character could still have been bad, but not this bad. But it is fair to report that he is by some distance the least appealing part of the film.

5: The film centres on Eve (Emily Browning) moving from a hospital (a specifically psychiatric hospital, I think) to form a band with Cassie and James, then, after a relapse, moving to London. The narrative is driven in some sense by the idea that Eve is a great songwriter: her songs are played by the band which becomes God Help The Girl (the name is taken up without any fanfare or discussion, despite an earlier discussion about the complexities of band-naming), and her two main bandmates revere her talent. The judgment is fair enough in a way: the songs are by Stuart Murdoch, who is a great songwriter, and if someone in Eve’s position came up with such a consistent body of work you would think it was remarkable. Of course this also means that the acclaim for Eve’s songs is self-congratulatory on Murdoch’s part, though that’s probably an inadvertent side-effect of the story he’s set up.

The move from ‘writing songs’ (which we see her doing a bit at a hospital piano) to ‘making a tape’ to ‘forming a band’ (just the three of them) might be plausible, but the further shift to the full band God Help The Girl is not. Drums, bass, guitars, strings, backing singers – in effect, I suppose, Murdoch has created a recapitulation of the expansiveness of Belle &  Sebastian themselves. But the transition from bedroom composition to on-stage orchestras took Murdoch years. Indeed anyone who saw Belle & Sebastian from c.1995 to 1998 will remember them being shambolic in a way that was unique among major pop acts, and their transformation into a slick orchestral outfit that could play any of thirty songs at the drop of Murdoch’s hat – from c.2001? – was an extraordinary feat whose incongruity one tends to forget. It’s somewhat annoying to see the supposed ingenues of this film achieve this shift in a week or two. There is never any serious sense of ‘rehearsal’, or of the business of teaching a band to play your song – which is hard enough with simple songs, but with this complex compositions and arrangements would be like a full-time profession. It’s just a fantasy, it doesn’t matter. But it bothers me slightly, as the whole film is built around the musical journey, how Eve rises to the challenge of getting her songs heard – but it then doesn’t take these challenges seriously.

6: The other issue that drives the story is Eve’s illness. I’m not convinced that the film handles this well. She tells her doctor at the hospital that she has been unwell since she left home. Why did she leave home, and why not go back if leaving might have caused a problem? No indication except a couple of opening-credit seconds visually endorsing the line in ‘Act of the Apostle’ mentioning her parents’ tendency to argue. What is her medical condition? We can arguably perceive two things: depression and anorexia. Depression can be very bad, and is often treated with medication like the tablets Eve takes, but it isn’t usually a cause for hospitalization. And insofar as she has a depressed view of the world, it’s not made clear why. No significant issues in her past that might affect this are revealed or even mentioned. Anorexia is another (though presumably connected) matter. But the film doesn’t really tell us anything about it. If we start from the premise that this is a serious condition that needs sensitive treatment on screen, I don’t think the film performs adequately. It doesn’t show us the roots or causes of the condition, the reality of experiencing it, or any detail about how one recovers from it. Again – why should a film do those things? It’s just a musical. Right. But it’s a musical that has chosen (as it didn’t need to do) to focus on someone with a supposedly debilitating medical condition, then not really bothered to explore it properly and help the audience to understand what the character might be experiencing. In this regard the film fails. And this has a dramatic effect as the central character, her struggle, her ‘journey’ are all less substantial and credible as a result.

Perhaps one could even go further and say: It is often stated that anorexia and eating disorders arise in part from (mainly) young women feeling pressurized by images of women that they see in the media, in which slimness is valorised and ‘normal-sized’, ‘plus-sized’ women and so on are at a premium. If one accepts that premise, then what is the logic in making a film which is about anorexia but which also centres on two beautiful slim young women? Doesn’t this risk compounding the problem even while appearing rather desultorily to address it? Perhaps this charge would be unfair and excessive – but again, it arises from the fact that the film has very deliberately chosen to base itself on this medical condition, a choice that one might think would then bring responsibilities.

But as I say, my main problem here is just a ‘dramatic’ frustration: having founded its story on illness, the film doesn’t bother to represent it properly as part of what happens. It thus makes Eve seem merely glamorously moody and self-indulgent, which is probably not what people who are really ill seem like.

7: There is one other incongruity about this film that I have glanced at: none of the main characters sounds Scottish. Eve is Australian. Cassie is apparently English, with a family that holidays in Bordeaux. James sounds utterly English despite his weak claims to Scottish identity. It goes on: even the fourth most visible character, rock singer Anton, is described as Swiss German (but played by a French actor who doesn’t seem to be working especially hard at a Swiss German accent). This is very odd in a film so resoundingly set in Glasgow, made by one of the most Glasgow-centric figures in popular music of the last decades, who has featured bagpipes on a track and launched a set of Scotland’s For Me! merchandise promoting an album. If there was one thing you would have predicted about a B&S musical, it was – well, the first thing might be the prevalence of young women in Nouvelle Vague clobber, but the second would be lots of Scottish voices. The few Scottish voices in God Help The Girl are marginal: Eve’s doctor (Cora Bisset: seeming a more seasoned and substantial actor than most here, but unable to improve her clunking script much), the odd oldster, a trio of working-class ‘Neds’ seen on a canal bank. The occlusion of local accents is so thorough that one feels that there must be a deliberate strategy here – but what would it be? If it’s to show Scotland as more cosmopolitan, then middle-class English people aren’t going to be the most popular instances of that, and seeing them donning tartan to walk the hills probably doesn’t help. In fact their centrality makes the whole thing bizarrely akin to the phenomenon that Alasdair Gray was attacked for attacking: English people going up to Scotland as arts administrators and, in Gray’s view, lacking roots or commitment to the country. I don’t know the ultimate rights and wrongs of that debate, but can repeat: it is bizarre to see a thoroughly Glaswegian film, by a writer very patriotic about Glasgow, in which almost no-one sounds like they’re from Glasgow.

8: It’s evident that I was often doubtful about this film. And yet I don’t wholly dislike it. It has left something positive in the mind – in fact the positive feeling far outweighs the negative. I find that this can happen with some works of art, like films – that they leave a better aftertaste than seemed likely at the time. I think for me that even applied to Godard’s Bande a Parte (1963), which might be one of God Help The Girl‘s models. What are the good things in God Help The Girl? I propose four.

9: The story does somehow gain conviction in the last reel – when Eve decides to leave Glasgow for London, and, importantly, she doesn’t go for the romance with James. She says something like ‘The time for that was ages ago’, and brushes it off. I like this. It’s a healthy refusal of narrative expectations of the formation of the couple (which are explicitly raised by Cassie a couple of scenes earlier). The fact that Murdoch refuses this norm and sends his characters away down different paths, I find quite creditable. It allows for the last five minutes or so to have a different mood, somehow more mature and honest because not locked into ticking narrative traps.

10: The music is often very good.  It’s dispersed through the film in different ways – often just playing tinnily on a background radio, for instance. It’s quite ingenious to set up a fictional world where all the music that plays is your own music. More centrally, of course, the songs are sung by Eve, and to a lesser extent Cassie and James. There are different sets of norms within the musical genre, with songs motivated by characters performing within the narrative, songs unmotivated by any realistic scenario, and slides from one to the other. This film has both of those options, but if anything is more reliant on ‘motivated’ song and less on random non-realistic bursts into song than I had expected; which relates of course to its being a ‘Let’s form a band’ story. I’ve said that the ease with which the full band comes together annoys me. But they sound good, and the songs they play here can make more sense here than they did on the soundtrack LP: ‘Come Monday Night’, ‘I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie’ (a soaring performance that I come to think is the high point of the whole film), ‘A Down and Dusky Blonde’, ‘I Just Want Your Jeans’. The unmotivated performances can also work: the chorus of ‘Pretty Eve In The Tub’ replenishes my respect for Murdoch. Perhaps one of the film’s greatest virtues, then, is making the album seem better than it did. I’d really like to hear it again now. I think I’ll buy it on CD. In fact maybe I’ll buy the other version, the Original Soundtrack version! Or both!

11: Glasgow. However bad the film gets, it is almost always taking place amid the beautiful brown tenements, green parks and grey churches of this city. For me this creates a slight dissonance, as the poverty of the dialogue makes me want to dislike the scene in a way that’s prevented by the richness of the setting. Put it this way, you could take the characters out of the film, maybe make just a little montage of the brief connecting shots showing trees and tower blocks, and you would still have something valuable. ‘Glasgow Plays Itself’ – in a way that, in begrudging mood, I feel gives the film too easy a victory. But then, who else but Murdoch has asked Glasgow to play itself this way? Frankly, in fact, without Murdoch’s bringing the city to a particular kind of attention, I myself would not have the familiarity with and love for it that I do, which now, absurdly, gives me a proprietorial sense that Murdoch shouldn’t be using it this way … No, that can’t be right – he of all people, besides Alasdair Gray, has earned the right to put the West End of Glasgow into art.

12. The first thing you encounter in the film, with the screen still black, is the voice of Stuart Maconie. Followed by the voice of Mark Radcliffe. This amazed me. I had been listening to them on the radio a few hours earlier; and the day before, and many other days before that. From an initial scepticism, I have developed a great affection for their reassuringly formulaic and predictable radio dialogue. And here it is, the first thing in the film! At first I imagined that this might be an extract from a genuine Radcliffe & Maconie programme, but soon it became apparent that it was specially recorded for the film: presumably improvised, playing themselves, from an initial theme. They sound terrifically realistic, like themselves. Yet, oddly, they are not playing themselves. The credits confirm something that is obscurely said during the film: that they are playing two disc jockeys called Findlay and Donovan. (In an extra wrinkle, the film is credited to Findlay Productions.) It’s problematically obscure during the film because the viewer doesn’t know that Radcliffe & Maconie have been renamed, and might well assume that Eve, when talking of the urgency of getting a tape to Findlay and Donovan, is referring to some other pair of people that we haven’t encountered yet. Possibly they’ve been renamed because they are playing figures of lesser cultural stature than they have in real life (though an early reference to being ‘in Glasgow’ gives the impression that they’re not local DJs but national broadcasters who are just visiting).  But the viewer experiences them not as fictional characters, but as Radcliffe & Maconie! It’s all odd, a contribution to the paradoxes of the theory of fiction. But in closing, to put it simply: I can’t be entirely negative towards on a film that uses Radcliffe & Maconie this way.

 

Aikea-Guinea

In recent days I have heard a few songs on the radio (BBC radio 6music, to be honest) that have touched me.

1: Late the other night I heard a song that sounded like … college rock? Garage indie rock? It sounded like it was from the 1990s, a contemporary of R.E.M. It moved me with a sense of familiarity, of an auditory world somewhat lost. At the end of the track I heard that it was All About Chad. That’s not a good band name! The best I can say for it is that it’s like a parody of All About Eve, which while drawn from a film was a proper band name. Looking up the band online, I find the song: ‘Embarrassing Moments’, self-released in 1991. This at least fits the milieu it sounded like to me.

2: Today on the Radcliffe & Maconie programme I heard a song in a certain generic mode. Tons of reverb, perhaps artificial but maybe supposed to sound as though the band is in an old school studio. A garage sound again, even a bit of a surf sound. A generic sound like Dum Dum Girls had. I couldn’t help liking it. It made me think of US indie rock fans I like – people like the music producer Archie Moore who was in Black Tambourine. It made me yearn for a world I associate with those people and their past – a world of porch parties and indiepop barbeques in summer. The song turned out to be ‘Boyfriend’ by Best Coast. I’m not sure they’re great; I’m hardly even saying the song was worthy of the false memories it made me yearn for.

3: That was enough for me, but the next song they played was ‘Can You Dig It?’ by The Mock Turtles. Now this is much more standard UK radio stuff than the previous two records. It would have been on BBC Radio 1 in 1991 (I see that it was released around the time I turned 18; I’d have guessed it was a year or two earlier), played on evening indie radio if that was around but quite likely also during the day. It’s not much less standard an item of UK pop than for instance The Charlatans’ ‘The Only One I Know’. So it’s nothing to express too much surprise about. But it touches me. So much of it, I think, is in the opening riff that goes round and round through the song’s verses: up and down the three notes, G#, A, B, A, all rooted in the E chord. Then so much of the groove is easy and welcoming. And the drama of the chorus’s minor chord section is so corny. The song is so simple to enjoy. And yes it’s another period piece; the year is the same as All About Chad but this is so English where that was so American.

4: That was enough for me too, but I’ll add that the thrills went on. The next song that Radcliffe & Maconie played was ‘Dreams Tonite’ by Alvvays. I can take ‘Alvvays’ but I’m not keen on ‘Tonite’. But the song had such romantic grandeur, it could make one feel that pop is still as fresh as ever, that there is no aesthetic exhaustion, that the feelings go on.

5: Then the song blended into another, which sounded almost equally good, in a different way, yet continuous with it. After some seconds of its deep sound’s progression I realized that it was … The Cocteau Twins! I had never heard the song before. That’s true for me of so many of their songs: it’s one major band I have never had the measure of enough fully to know one record from another. It turned out to be ‘Aikea Guinea’, a single from March 1985.

It was remarkable to have heard these three tremendous records in a row on the radio – only one of which I had ever heard before. It made me think about how much music can still move and impress me. I thought also of how the other day I had been thinking of the melody’s expansion in the latter half of the first track on the first Chapterhouse LP, and how its up and down movement sounds to me like the world of Norwich I lived in when it came out. I now see that the lyrics include:

Love me warm in cold daylight
Soft as skin and safe inside
Smother silky sin so fine
Make believe that you are mine

 

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Moneyball

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Last weekend (around Saturday 13th August) the Premier League soccer season began. At noon I turned on BBC1’s Football Focus, as I have done for decades. When it was over, I turned on BBC Radio 5live for about four hours. The next day at 12:15 I turned on Match of the Day 2Extra for 45 minutes. When that finished I turned on 5live again for another 2-3 hours, with commentary on Newcastle United vs Tottenham Hotspur. At 10:45 I watched a delayed Match of the Day 2. The next evening, Monday 14th, I listened to 5live’s Monday Night Club for two hours, partly because Andy Townsend was on it. The former Ireland captain and maligned television pundit finds new vivacity and drollery on radio.

That catalogue makes it look like I watch and listen to too much BBC football coverage. I think I do it not just from a love of the game, but from a kind of patriotic loyalty to the BBC itself. But my own media excess is not the subject of this post. My concern here is how much of those acres of coverage was taken up with talking about transfers, contracts and money.

Actually transfer gossip isn’t the problem. It is normal for sports fans to be interested in transfers between clubs. It’s somewhat normal to be intrigued by the fees. It all goes with one’s interest in one’s team and how it can be tinkered with and improved; and with the logical interest in how the same thing is happening at other clubs. I can understand all this like anyone else. It’s also the case that during the close season, transfer talk is the most evident topic of current conversation, aside perhaps from friendlies which typically have a low level of interest; and that, for instance, on the last day of a transfer window, there is some soap opera (or is it game show) fun in seeing what deals are being done (often not many). So my complaint is not with people gossiping about transfers, as such.

The complaint can be more specifically focused around my own club, Tottenham Hotspur. During all that media coverage I consumed, various clubs would get a slot for discussion, and Tottenham would come up periodically. Almost all of it, on programme after programme, centred around ‘that interview by Danny Rose’. Apparently Tottenham’s left-back, who has been injured and hasn’t played since January, had given an interview to the Sun newspaper in which he had complained about wages at the club being too low and suggested that he might like to move. I won’t go into more detail because I don’t want to go and look at the Sun. One of the distasteful things about this whole phenomenon, remarked on by no one at the BBC or elsewhere, is that that Murdoch organ is driving the news agenda and getting its own profile raised every time the supposed story is mentioned.

But the content of the story and the ensuing discussion is the bigger issue. The discussion, which in my daftly excessive media experience I heard over and over again, says: ‘Danny Rose has a point, doesn’t he? Tottenham’s players are not paid more than £100,000 a week. They look around at players at other clubs, they talk to them on international duty, and they find that players who have done much less well for their clubs in the last couple of seasons are on two or three times as much money. It’s natural to be aggrieved, isn’t it?’. (Typing this out I can hear it all again; it’s infuriating.) It goes on: ‘Yes, he’s only thinking what anyone would think in that position’; ‘Those players have taken Spurs to a new level, they’re entitled to want a reward’; ‘Tottenham need to change their policy on wages or they’re not going to be able to hang on to these players’. This message was not just aired once: it was aired at length on just about every football programme I consumed on the BBC over the weekend.

Here are some things I don’t like about this.

1: It is a substitute for talking about actual football. Many of the pundits, of course, are former players. Others are fans in some sense. You’d think they would be keen to talk about the actual playing of the game: things that happen on the pitch, players’ specific qualities of pace, heading, defending, shooting, or tactics. This talk of contracts utterly occludes that, sucks away the time that could be given to it and replaces it with something much more foreign to the game itself, much more ignoble. You would think that the people engaged in such discussion would feel somewhat dirty afterwards, as though they had wasted precious time; you’d want them to wish that they had talked about the experience of running around a green field.

2: It’s bullying.  These media people are creating a climate of opinion against the policy of a football club with which they have no connection. Note that this isn’t over an issue of high principle, like, say,  whether a club must ban a player accused of racism. Even on such issues, a club can feel bullied and defensive (hence Liverpool’s Suarez T-shirts) – but this is clearly different. A climate oppressive to the club and its stable management is being built up on no ethical imperative at all.

3: There are no serious countervailing voices. True, there is sometimes a semblance of ‘debate’, and the main such voice was Alan Shearer on MotD2 arguing that players like Rose should not be demanding more money as they haven’t won anything yet. He also pointed out that we’ve seen pictures of a sequence of Tottenham players happily signing contracts over the past couple of years, so it doesn’t make sense for them now to complain about the terms of their contracts. Shearer’s message is sensible as far as it goes. But we need more. We need someone in each of these discussions to say: It is obscene that you are talking about someone giving a whingeing interview to a Rupert Murdoch newspaper complaining that he is only paid £80,000 a week.

Such a message – that footballers’ salaries are far too high, that it is wrong to wish them them even higher, and further, that this whole discourse exemplifies the economic inequality of our society – would not be popular among the people on these football programmes. But hold on. Maybe that fact is a problem with the programmes. Maybe the media needs more ‘diversity’ here. Maybe it’s shameful that media coverage of a multi-billion pound industry doesn’t have much more space for voices taking a different view of the ethics of the money involved. In the many years before his surprise rise to prominence, this is the kind of role that Jeremy Corbyn MP would often play on news and current affairs programmes: genuinely challenging a consensus and bringing an ethical perspective otherwise absent.

The BBC is famously supposed to  strive for ‘balance’ in the opinions represented on it. This policy is often presented as hapless and flawed. But a genuine attempt at ‘balance’ would nonetheless improve the discussion here. The people who casually, disdainfully say that players should be downing tools unless a wage cap of £100,000 per week is broken should be challenged, put on the back foot, made to realize that their position is not normal. The lack of serious contrary voices has allowed these discourses about pay to be normalized, in a way that would not pass without comment on Today or Newsnight. In truth soccer programmes are quite bad at structuring discussion; they don’t have the seriousness or expertise of the people who manage Today or Newsnight and try to make discussion go somewhere. That’s OK, it’s only football. But as I’ve said: it’s not football. That’s the trouble. They’re talking about money and, implicitly, about obscene wage inequality, and discussions of this should take place in a proper economic, political and ethical context, in a way that discussions of zonal vs man to man marking need not.

4: There is a last irony. All this is taking place on the BBC – which only in the last month experienced something of a storm about its own salary levels. Some of that anger was about a gender pay cap, some about other kinds of diversity. Some of it is just about people getting paid so much – people like Gary Lineker, for instance. I like Lineker quite a bit, but it is fortunate for him that his particular MotD role doesn’t leave him space for discussion about whether people should settle for £100,000 per week. It would be apparent that there was something inappropriate or dubious about someone so extravagantly paid talking about the even more extravagant pay of others. Actually, perhaps that’s true of Shearer too: after all, he’s contributed to the discussion, and most people think the BBC pays him too much. Perhaps (though I doubt it) that’s even a reason he’s taking a bit of a stand against players’ demands for higher pay.

In general there should be a dissonance, a disquiet, about the BBC hosting this consensus of casual greed: not just because of its own high pay but because it is a public service broadcaster which implies social values. The BBC should not be a place where people can talk blithely about adding zeroes to payslips as though it doesn’t mean anything. There should be much more doubt, shame and anger about all this. And on football programmes, there should be much more talk about football.

 

 

Mutinous Winds

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The Tempest at the Barbican Theatre

Like many people I think of myself as revering William Shakespeare, and also imagine that I know the outline of his late play The Tempest (c.1611). But a few minutes into the current RSC production at the Barbican, directed by Gregory Doran with Simon Russell Beale as the wizard Prospero, I started to realise that I hadn’t seen Shakespeare on stage for some time, and haven’t looked closely at the text of The Tempest for still longer. Watching Prospero provide lengthy back-story to his daughter Miranda, I had no doubt that Shakespeare’s magniloquence was reliably in place in every line on the page, but was less sure that rattling through it in a lengthy monologue, voice straining on a bare cavernous stage, was a good mode of narrative exposition. Maybe, I thought, I’d watched more superhero movies than was good for my ability to concentrate on this stuff. For that matter, before the play I’d spent four hours with Martin Keown and Kevin Kilbane on Radio 5live: perhaps this hadn’t left my English at Shakespearean levels.

A gain from my long separation from The Tempest, though, was frequent surprise at what actually happened. When Prospero’s slave Caliban lay under a sheet and was discovered by a clown with painted face and horn, I felt bewilderment  and intrigue: was this clown indeed, as Caliban himself says, a spirit of Prospero’s island? Only gradually did I realize that the clown was Trinculo, yet another of the dispersed survivors from the opening shipwreck (and actually named as a Jester in the dramatis personae). Did you remember that Ferdinand and Miranda have a wedding ceremony blessed by a set of goddesses who appear out of nowhere and sing opera? (In the text a stage direction stipulates: Juno’s car appears in the sky, which seems at least as ambitious as Exit pursued by a bear.) Or that Caliban, Trinculo and their fellow chancer Stephano are deterred from an attack on Prospero by the spirit Ariel conjuring a blitz of raucous barking dogs? (Enter divers spirits, in shape of dogs and hounds, hunting them about.) Quite possibly, but you still might never have seen these moments realized in such spectacular form as in Doran’s production. Screens, projections, graphics, lights: Ariel’s magnified image floating in a great cylinder, looking like the Silver Surfer and giving me hope that this play wasn’t so incompatible with superhero movies after all. The plainness of Prospero’s first scene was transcended by all these, but also, for me, by the simple interest of character and action. How would Caliban’s motives emerge? What would transpire amid the party of royal shipwreck survivors? Would Miranda’s high opinion of Ferdinand dip if she ever saw another man? By the late scene when Prospero abjured his magic and broke his staff, the dynamics of character and emotion had become compelling, and I had even caught up with the language, ascending from Keown to appreciate the tremendous chunky vividness of this:

                                                            I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt: the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar.

        A standard Michael Billington review of a play like this will say something like: ‘Watching Gregory Doran’s production, I came to realize how much Shakespeare’s play is about the power of art’. Sure. But my reaction was more literal. Watching this production, I came to realize how much the play is about magic. Dancing spirits of wood and water taking over the action from human beings; spells cast to put people to sleep or paralyse them. This was striking, because I don’t especially associate Shakespeare with the supernatural but with secular reality: merchants, rogues, deals, motives high and low, realpolitik, negotiation, battles, beer – the kind of thing that fills Henry IV. To see a Shakespeare play so magical is to realize how un-magical most of Shakespeare is, with a few important exceptions, even though it derives from a world where more people believed in both angels and alchemy than they do now. I also started to reflect that The Tempest belongs to the literary history of fantasy. Put simply, when Prospero’s dull cloak had stopped reminding me of Ben Kenobi, his staff and books (unseen here, apparently stored on high) reminded me of Gandalf. Not that The Tempest can be a key progenitor of this mode, a role more solidly occupied by Old Norse sagas and Arthurian romance, but perhaps it shares in the same tradition. This in turn made me wonder if Shakespeare could be related to the other major modern genres. Henry V and Anthony Cleopatra are evidently historical fiction, Much Ado About Nothing romantic comedy, Macbeth Gothic or Horror; how about Measure for Measure as crime (with The Merchant of Venice launching a sub-genre of courtroom drama) and Othello as erotic thriller? Science fiction is another matter, relying on a post-Shakespearean level of technological development, but there remains an imaginative dialogue between them – most evidently in Forbidden Planet’s remake of The Tempest itself.

The one thing I had remembered about The Tempest all these years was less magical and more ‘materialist’: the idea that it dramatizes a colonial situation, exemplified by Caliban’s resentful insistence that he has learned his masters’ language  in order to curse in it. Doran’s production seems to take this head on, with a black actor (Joe Dixon) as Caliban – albeit clad in a tight beige suit with swollen belly. It seems a standard view that the play was inspired by attempts to colonize the Americas, yet this is not explicit in the script, whose reference points are from Milan and Naples to Tunisia: the sea in question is evidently the Mediterranean, not the Caribbean. I was reminded of how awkwardly Shakespeare’s narrative fits with any well-meaning postcolonial analysis, but that the awkwardness can be part of the point. Thus Caliban’s faith in the drunken sailor Stephano as a new master sees him cry ‘Freedom!’ with a doomed poignancy I can still feel, remembering the scene days later. Shakespeare seems to be playing on a standard carnivalesque trope of inversion, with the clowns deluded that they can get the upper hand. Viewed politically, Caliban’s new subservience to Stephano (peculiarly reminiscent of, and perhaps a direct influence on, Gollum’s to Frodo as they cross the Dead Marshes in The Two Towers) is painfully humiliating. Yet I wonder if it encodes a reality of master-slave relations, in which the oppressed is all too ready to follow a new master as the price of escape from the old. The would-be comic structure might get at something troubling but insistent about colonial psychology.

Caliban’s very last appearance marks a change. Chastised by Prospero to return to his cell, he suddenly rises to full height, looking taller than everyone else on stage. Prospero and the rest step back in trepidation. It is as though, from all the grovelling enslavement, Caliban has become Shelley’s lion after slumber, realizing his potential power over the oppressors – though in this case they are many and the oppressed few. Towering over Prospero, Caliban speaks his lines of deference – ‘I’ll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace’ – with a new self-belief and scorn, disdainfully snapping logs of wood  as he stalks off stage. If anything, the implication is that to be ‘wise’ is to gain a better consciousness of his oppressed condition, and the ‘grace’ he seeks would be authentic liberation. Perhaps the recent adventure with a failed rebellion has transformed his understanding. None of this is specified in the script, but the reinterpretation of the scene echoes the notorious difficulty at the end of The Taming of the Shrew, where Kate’s declaration of subservience to her husband is nowadays often played for irony. At this historical moment, in both cases, it seems necessary to find something in the script to redeem it. The effect of Caliban’s transformation, though abrupt, is powerful.

Yet still more than Caliban, Ariel is the production’s wandering star. His presence is assisted by special effects, but the actor Mark Quartley himself is at the heart of it: constantly on tiptoe, always poised to fly from one location to the next, a creature made of potential movement. I know that all the actors on stage will have learned to adapt their bodies to move in different ways – not least Dixon’s hunchbacked and loping Caliban – but Quartley takes this to another level. He’s like a ballerino, seamlessly conveying  a sense of living on another plane from the human beings he floats among. It’s curious that the magic is supposed to be Prospero’s, but so much of it seems reliant on the agency of this dazzling figure: almost as though, like Caliban, he has never realized the true extent of his own powers.

 

Children of Dessinée

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

An early sequence in this film sees the title character, special agent Valerian, on a desert plain dotted with people. Thanks to a hi-tech implant he is also experiencing what seems to be a virtual reality: a vast multi-level bazaar called Big Market (not necessarily modelled on its near namesake in Newcastle) populated by garish creatures and enthusiastic shoppers. As Valerian tumbles into gunbattles in this apparently imaginary place, it is not easy to discern anyone’s motives; but the narrative difficulty is doubled by the fact that we regularly cut back to the calm desert where his partner Laureline is casually walking around him. The juxtaposed spheres of space are hard cognitively to unify. This didn’t make me feel encouraged about my chances of following this film, but it did feel like a distinctive approach to narrative. In retrospect I realized that it was also a model of the production of this whole spectacular feature film: the characters in the desert are equivalent to the actors before the computer-generated imagery has been thrown up around them. One of the lead actors had commented, before the premiere, that they were interested to see what the film looked like: the apparent implication was that its world had been as invisible to them as Big Market is to Laureline. 

Luc Besson’s 137-minute film is derived from a science fiction comic book that ran in France from 1967 to 2010. Evidently a much-loved part of the bande desinée culture, but little known in the Anglosphere, it has inspired a vast French-centred production with the largest budget ever spent on a European film. The story pivots on the planet Mul, which an early sequence shows us to be an agrarian utopia inhabited by elegant grey humanoids so benignly pacific they might recall the decadent Eloi of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895). This race comes to be referred to as ‘Pearls’; their civilization also centres on the pearls that they fish from the sea and that can generate matter and energy.  In the 28th century AD, Mul’s utopia is disrupted by war above the planet: a space battle between humans and another species sends starships crashing explosively down through orbit. To save the humans’ cause in battle, their commander orders the firing of fusion missiles, which defeat the alien fleet but also destroy Mul. It is a narrative nuance that the Pearls’ world is destroyed not by deliberate colonization but by accident: they are collateral damage in the maintenance of human influence in the galaxy.

Commander Filitt, little troubled by these consequences and played by a peculiarly cantankerous Clive Owen, goes on to take charge of an immense space station, Alpha, which is also infiltrated by the small group of Pearls who survived their planet’s destruction.  These survivors are interested not in revenge on humanity but in engineering the recreation of their lost world. This they achieve at the end, though Filitt has tried to destroy them to cover up his previous crimes. The Pearls are ultimately helped in this goal by military agents Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne), who go through a series of space opera scrapes on the way to the denouement of these central, somewhat ethically charged issues.

Alpha is one of the film’s finest ideas: an abundance of interlocking platforms and craft, a mechanical world that grows as though organically. The film briefly describes its zones, but doesn’t give a full sense of its diversity as a space. But, getting some of its best moments out of the way as early as possible, the picture starts with a montage showing Alpha’s origins, in near-Earth collaboration between different human ethnicities. Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern astronauts come on board and shake hands: as the years tick past in a corner of the screen, these are followed by a series of extra-terrestrial races, at the end of which Alpha has become too big for Earth’s orbit and sets off to a new berth 700 million miles across the galaxy. The ‘city of a thousand planets’ is thus akin to the cosmopolitan description of London as ‘the world in a city’. But it’s one of the far-fetched film’s most charming gestures to tie this development back into a real event in human history, starting it all off with real footage of astronauts and cosmonauts harmoniously docking in 1975. Behind all this David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ plays, if anything an excessively obvious choice: why not ‘Loving the Alien’ or ‘New Killer Star’?

Evidently the film partakes in what the novelist and critic Adam Roberts has named as one of science fiction’s great themes: alterity, and the way that the extra-terrestrial ‘alien’ can help to reimagine earthly difference and vice versa. In its treatment of the Pearls the film takes a solid enough stand for the rights of an oppressed species. Yet it’s fair to add that the narrative deals with alterity on its own, limited terms. The oppressed species is an elegant grey humanoid (with an excessively cutesy mascot animal): the equivalent perhaps of what ecologists call charismatic mammals, while the protagonists are thoroughly human – for that matter white and heterosexual with American accents. (The senior human seen in the film, though, is a government minister played by an African-American: the jazz musician Herbie Hancock. He looks pretty well, considering that he was already considered a veteran cameo when he played on a Simple Minds record in 1982.) The closest to a central figure of otherness is the shape-shifting nightclub singer Bubble, a self-declared ‘illegal immigrant’ who when assuming conveniently human form looks exactly like the pop singer Rihanna. If pushing the critique of the film’s lack of imagination of otherness, you could question why Bubble – who seems naturally to be a blue blob – has to take such photogenic human form, even at the moment of death. But perhaps such questions aren’t meant to be insisted on too much in an episodic space opera like this.

The casual viewer of that sub-genre could reasonably think that this film resembles Star Wars. A galactic nightclub of aliens (as in A New Hope and The Force Awakens), a space battle above a planet (Return of the Jedi, Rogue One), a fat alien crime lord (Return of the Jedi), robot soldiers somewhat more efficient than those in Attack of the Clones, squads of uniformed officials in control rooms and corridors (passim, though the ‘Federation’ here is more in tune with Star Trek); the superficial resemblance is plain enough, and even extends to the heroes tumbling down a garbage chute inside a space station. Yet – even though the original comic book is said to have been one of the young George Lucas’s many sources – it doesn’t feel like Star Wars, lacking that saga’s Manichean frame and the sense of momentousness it brings even to what would seem daft derring-do by the standards of other aesthetics. There is always something more picaresque about Valerian, as though it’s making itself up as it goes along; the freewheeling flavour may well relate somehow to the source material, closer to Barbarella than The Empire Strikes Back. As Valerian tells Bubble at one point when she protests the need for method acting and rehearsal: there’s no harm in a bit of improvisation.

That seems potentially a gentle joke about Rihanna as anxious thespian. But the actors from non-traditional backgrounds are certainly not a significant problem in this world of spectacle. ‘Model / actress’ seems to have become a satirical Lost in Showbiz phrase for C-list celebrities who do little of note, but Cara Delevigne here is a successful model who seems more than adequate as an actress too. Nothing in her performance – physically energetic, punctuated with wryness at her partner – makes her seem a dabbling amateur. She even turns out to have creditably sung the song over the closing credits, which I’d been thinking sounded like Sophie Ellis-Bextor. If only it were a cover of ‘Loving the Alien’.

 

Easter 1916

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Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (2005, revised edition 2015)

The Easter Rising of late April 1916 is regarded as the founding act of the modern Irish state, and stands as probably the most iconic event in Irish history. It has also been enduringly controversial: from the senior members of the republican Irish Volunteers who fiercely debated whether it should go ahead in the first place, producing a bizarre sequence of orders and countermands, to the amorphous shifts in public opinion in the following weeks, as many seemed to turn from disdain or indifference to admiration for the rebels; and latterly in the historical and cultural disputes between supporters of the Rising and those ‘revisionist’ sceptics who seek to cast doubt on its legends and explore nuances that they see as whitewashed out of the nationalist narrative.

Numerous historians have written on the Rising, but Charles Townshend’s book is useful in its combination of focus and range (it is centred on the Rising, but contains enough bookending to set it amid the whole revolutionary period); in its specifically military expertise (Townshend is noticeably fond of service jargon: brigades muster and battalions mobilize); and in its ability to make sophisticated reference to the extensive archival documentation available to the historian today in a way that would have been less familiar a few decades after the event. In particular, writing for a 2005 publication and then revising his book for 2015 in time for the centenary, Townshend makes use of the witness testimonies of Ireland’s Bureau of Military History, in which dozens of veterans of the struggle for independence recorded statements that were only released for study decades later. His book has a continuous anecdotal richness as the words of relevant players at the time are woven through his deft, careful, occasionally wry narrative.

Near the end of the book Townshend defends revisionist historians – notably their doyen R.F. Foster – as scholars prepared ‘to correct the distortions involved in the creation of national foundation myths’ and suggest ‘the complexity out of which an alternative story could have emerged’ (353). Across the book, Townshend himself frequently strikes me as relatively revisionist in tone, by which I primarily mean that he often seeks to see things from the British point of view. Townshend’s tendency to talk of England’s peaceful political traditions being unable to comprehend the violence of Irish passions may make some sense in terms of a comparison of English society to various more turbulent European neighbours, yet neglects the fact that this supposedly benign hegemon had slashed its way around India and Africa by force (a fact often pointed out by Irish nationalists, including Sir Roger Casement who had witnessed Empire around the world). At one point (300-1) Townshend even goes out of his way to try to see the virtues of the notorious General John Maxwell, the military governor who arrived on the fifth day of the Rising and oversaw Britain’s perilous response to it in a period of martial law. Yet Townshend’s determination to understand Britain’s management of the crisis, rather than condemn it out of hand, in fact does his book much credit: he offers a wealth of insight into the thinking of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, the Chief Secretary to Ireland Augustine Birrell and his lieutenant Matthew Nathan, as well as the numerous military and police commanders whose forebodings and furies have entered the record.

In a sense so much is known about the Rising that a wholesale new interpretation of it would be difficult to produce (though Foster’s 2014 study Vivid Faces arguably pointed towards one by reading the independence movement as a generational and countercultural revolt of youth). Townshend’s work is thus more an elegant synthesis than a radical challenge. Then again, in other ways too little is still known about the Rising – with, for instance, the failure of any rebel battle plan to survive and offer substantial insight into the reasoning behind their occupation of particular locations. Here Townshend the military historian comes into his own, puzzling carefully through each element of rebel strategy and often falling back into questions that he cannot answer. Thus, for instance, why did the squadron dispatched to take Dublin Castle retreat at the first sign of trouble though this most crucial strategic location was virtually undefended (163)? Why did the Irish Citizen Army dig trenches in St Stephen’s Green rather than occupy the well-fed heights of the Shelbourne Hotel (169)? For that matter, why did the British Army respond so inflexibly to its ambush at Mount Street Bridge, one of the deadliest assaults inflicted on it by Irish nationalism to that date (198)? The ongoing unknowability of these cases does much to preserve the Rising’s fascination, and Townshend does justice to this.

Beyond the battlefield, other parts of the tale are stranger still. Was the leaked British document that proposed to crack down on republicans and thus helped provoke the Rising a forgery, or somehow adapted from fact (133)? Did Eoin MacNeill, the man who influentially countermanded the Rising, really say that he was ready to take part in it, a day or two before it commenced (135-6)? The reader in 2017 may also wonder (though it does not detain Townshend) how regular communication remained so possible across a bullet-strewn urban battlefield, with messengers rapidly travelling between rebel HQ and its outposts despite the British ring of steel. To communicate so intensively without even a working telegraph seems unfathomable in the era of Whatsapp and Twitter, and makes the Rising an intriguing instance of media as well as military history.

Perhaps most mysterious is the ill-fated arrival of a German arms shipment, along with Casement in the U-Boat that had sunk the Lusitania – a tale with the tang of John Buchan more than Eric Hobsbawm. Casement, having travelled underwater all the way from Germany, was arrested almost as soon as he stepped on Irish soil; no local Volunteers managed to signal to the boat bearing arms; a motor car of activists sped off a pier and into the sea in the dark; and a local rebel commander launched a one-man armed campaign to free one of his comrades from a local police station which Townshend calls ‘almost farcical’ (130).

That note often recurs in the story of the Rising, even as Maud Gonne judged that it had restored ‘tragic dignity’ (345) to Ireland. Apart from his continual measured assessments and unostentatious but sizeable expertise, what Townshend most memorably brings to the story is an endless series of details and vignettes – all the way to the rebel, deep into Easter Week, who entered a pub round the corner from rebel HQ to seek directions as, incredibly, ‘there were men still drinking pints’ (210). The scene is straight out of Sean O’Casey but apparently real. They warned him, Townshend tells us, to beware of ‘them milithary in Capel Street’.

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Pinakothek der Moderne

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Just to the North of the old centre of Munich is an expanse of land hosting several major art galleries. They include the Alte Pinakothek (apparently holding Old Masters, though I’ve not been in), the Neue Pinakothek (an early-1980s building offering a substantial journey through 19th-century painting), the fabulously multicoloured exterior of the smaller Museum Brandhorst, and the Pinakokthek der Moderne – the region’s major gallery of modern art, which I visited during a brief stop in the city. The building is an immense concrete block, yet its uncompromising physical character doesn’t make it feel brutal; it retains a great calm grey elegance. The doors from one part of the museum to another are so heavy they feel like a contribution to a day’s exercise, yet the round atrium at the centre provides another kind of lightness as it rises to an extraordinary circular ceiling, sky pouring through the glass.

The gallery’s divisions are diverse; I managed to see many of the contrasting elements making up its current displays. The basement holds a design museum in which cars are mounted for inspection: the sleekest among them a white Citroen DS comparable to the one Roland Barthes rhapsodized about in the 1950s. Modernist furniture seems to go on for miles: a minimal Frank Lloyd Wright stool, elegant chairs and dressers by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his collaborators, and countless desks and bookshelves in styles somewhere between Bauhaus and 1960s Sweden, angled and shaped in ways that defy our typical expectations about these objects. A long vitrine holds smaller everyday items, notably a remarkable range of modernist coffeepots and tea sets. Some look like what a Vorticist tea party would have craved to drink out of in 1914, while actually dating back three or more decades before that; I’m surprised at how early these minimalist and angular signatures of the ‘modern’ were first written into household design. Stark typewriters that might have pleased Ezra Pound suggest an alternative aesthetic history of the writing machine. Audiophiles would savour the various record players, radios and stereos ranged through the basement, from portable gramophones to long cream hi-fi platforms from 1960s Italy. After all this, the visitor is still to reach a memorable temporary attraction: the House of Wonders, a sort of playful model for utopia, with quirky domestic objects slowly cycling round a transparent elevator between levels. A bookshelf is made of books held together with bulldog clips. A stubby robot dressed in a colourfully knitted jumper poses with watering can, gardening the household plants of the future. Digital technology has been banished; all is deliberately analogue and tactile.

The ground floor incongruously offers a temporary exhibit of the Renaissance Dutch engraver Lucas van Leyden, beside another showing models for urban growth in the developing world. A single large room stages a confrontation between the abstract paintings of Fabienne Verdier (Mélodie du Réel, a kind of white waveform on black) and Sigmar Polke (cloudy monochrome smudges cut across by black squiggles). But it is the first floor’s more long-standing collection that really compels. Several rooms of modernist painting from the late 19th centuryon offer a rich series of works by major artists, with no guessing quite who will turn up next. Pained or vivid Expressionist figures, faces, animals and places recur, not least from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Muted brown-grey Cubist canvases by Braque and Picasso, as often, hang yards apart and are hard for the novice to distinguish. Picasso goes on through other garish phases. Salvador Dali and Max Ernst dominate as painting turns queasily surreal. A room of black and white portrait photographs of German avant-gardists of the Dada era feels decades ahead of its time. Another room holds a unique combination of diverse paintings from the Nazi period, whose complicity with the regime is hinted at – including a landscape showing the construction of a motorway bridge, and a classical pastiche depicting the four elements of nature as Aryan women. Beyond these in turn are the Abstract Expressionist swirls of De Kooning, the doodles of Cy Twombly (another link to Barthes, who tried to paint in a related style) and very late Warhol (an advert for Converse boots combined with a headline about AIDS, all topical in the mid-1980s), while Dan Flavin’s ‘Monuments for Tatlin’, pinned to the walls in fluorescent tubes, glow like the tops of old Manhattan skyscrapers.

Outside, on the grass, one last space oddity: the Futuro House, advertised as a flying saucer in town. Designed as a ski lodge in 1965-7, the white bubble represents a 50-year-old fantasy of the future, a small mobile chunk of science fiction architecture. People lounge on the sunny ground around it, as though happy to welcome our new extra-terrestrial overlords.

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