Saturday, October 15, 2016

Sharon Horgan's Divorce: Sex Goes Upstate, or Husbands and Wives Sideways

When Sharon Horgan was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme, she was asked whether it was possible to make divorce funny. Horgan’s reply, like her writing, was a masterpiece of vague certainty and unbending doubt. She cited a remark made by Gwyneth Paltrow - the actress who coined the phrase “conscious uncoupling” to describe her own emotional trainwreck. Paltrow reportedly asked her father Bruce how he managed to stay married for 33 years, and he replied. “Well, we never wanted to get divorced at the same time.” 
SJP and THC: Lacking in TLC
Horgan’s Divorce (Sky On Demand/Now TV) is funny, but the humour is tempered by an undertow of sadness and an emotional complexity. Also, it stars Sarah Jessica Parker, an actor whose reputation rests on her turn as the sexy, insecure singleton in Sex and the City; the show which turned feminism into a gay fantasy of shagging shoe-fetishists, while falling back always on the comforting notion that everything could be fixed with a cuddle from Mr Big. Chris Noth, aka Mr Big, subsequently became the semi-corrupt ham that Julianna Margulies had to stand by in The Good Wife, so Parker’s progress is overdue, but there are signs that she knows what she’s is escaping from. Her character, Frances, isn’t Carrie, though there is a joke about her laptop being thrown through a window. Meanwhile, upstate, she’s older and sadder, and marooned in parenthood, still bewildered, and incapable of holding onto a thought for more than 10 minutes. That’s where the tragicomedy lies. The fact that Parker’s character is married to, and in the business of uncoupling from, Thomas Haden Church (the dude from Sideways) is equally appropriate, because Church - as Robert - now represents dull dependability and flattened fury, where once he was a charmingly straightforward fool. 
Is it really funny? It is, though the bittersweet notes are dialled up. “I want to save my life,” says Frances, “while I still care about it.” So, yes, everyone is self-involved, and blind to their own failings, hankering for romance in the snowdrifts of midlife. For Frances, this includes a miscalculation about a long-term affair in which she says “I love you, I think”, and he orders an 18 inch thin-crust Hawaiian. Is it possible to laugh about divorce? It is, and it’s also the only sane way to approach it. For Horgan, it represents a more mature approach to comedy, though the script is still speckled with explosive indiscretions. Watch out for the tongue darts. 
The first series of The Missing (BBC iPlayer) started with a fictional parallel to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and developed into a fraught drama about parental fear. Dramatically, it went awry, though it was a good vehicle for James Nesbitt as the dad who Took Things Too Far. Happily, the reboot sees the retired French detective Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) returning, eased out a retirement in which he smashes up his beehives while shouting “I cannot bring us honey, I can at least bring us firewood.” This time, he’s investigating a decade-old double disappearance, which includes the return from the dead of a girl who claims to have been kept in a dungeon. 
It’s not a simple case, and it’s made no easier by the fact that the action flits between time periods and locations. Happily Baptiste shaves his head as he goes gallivanting in Iraq. (‘You’re looking at a dying man,” he says, which may explain his obsessive risk taking). Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey are the distraught parents. Hawes has a mother’s steely determination. Morrissey has plastic surgery and a shifty look. 

Serial Box 
Well, National Treasure (All 4) ended as it had to, with a verdict in the case against the despicable comedian Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane). No spoilers, but he was obviously guilty of being a duplicitous rat, though those were not the charges on which he was facing trial. There was fine writing in Jack Thorne’s Yewtree drama, particularly the speech from Paul’s long-suffering wife Marie (Julie Walters) about the three layers of Finchley’s character (“there’s this third layer, and on that, you’re capable of anything”). The acting was terrific, with Coltrane’s slow-dissolve encouraged by Walters’ acidic gaze, and the cinematic direction was notable, with cameras peering unwanted though doors. The scene of Coltrane observing himself in a mirror through bloodshot eyes while shaving was extraordinary. 
Publishedin the London Evening Standard on 14 October, 2016

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The new Westworld is an entertainment about entertainment, a shoot-’em-up about shoot-’em-ups, an artificial intelligence about Artificial Intelligence

Ooh er: Thandie Newton
You might think that the first episode the handsome android theme park drama Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) would be about the scenery, or the sex, or the stylised violence. Or perhaps you’re more into logic, the intelligence rather than the artifice, so you’d care to venture beyond the saloon, over the gorgeous horizons of Moab, and into the stuff about existence, and consciousness, and narratives, to a place where it’s possible to appreciate that when the computerised humanoids start to have odd thoughts, and one of them says, “These violent delights have violent ends,” it’s a nod to Romeo and Juliet, and not a pull-quote from the cover of a video nasty. 
All of these vistas are on view, and all are enticing in their way. But in the end, after the scalping and the stabbing and the hanging and the rutting and the boozing and the endless cycle of pianola tunes soundtracking the witless paintball hedonism of the rich and idiotic in some near-future dystopia, the point of Westworld can be located in the death of a fly. To be fair, the fly makes several entrances, so it’s not exactly a shock when it makes an exit, particularly when it looks so out of place in such a manicured environment. (Michael Crichton, the creator of Westworld, wasn’t keen on people messing with nature). And then at the end, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a pretty robot who is starting to develop glitches in her software, swats and kills it. And Dolores, like the rest of the “hosts” in Westworld, is meant to be incapable of causing harm. The violent end signals the deepening of the violent delight.
As well as being a story about stories, an entertainment about entertainment, a shoot-’em-up about shoot-’em-ups, Westworld is an upgrade of Crichton’s 1973 film, in which Yul Brynner, with a black hat on his billiard-bald head and Alka-Seltzer fizzing on his beautiful hard face, went a bit funny. The reboot, by (Christopher’s screenwriting brother) Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, tilts its sympathies more towards the androids, known as “hosts”, who have the benefit of misunderstood machines. The humans, known as “Guests”, are merely spoilt thrill-seekers. And between these two groups there is a third category - the theme park workers, who get to set the narratives and play God. Any similarity to filmmakers is entirely deliberate, and forgivably indulgent, though it is noticeable that the show is at its most entertaining when it is trading in crude fantasy, and at its most artificial when it tries to evinced the intrigue of futuristic office politics. Anthony Hopkins is a fine Dr Frankenstein, and Ed Harris is the psycho in the black hat whose stylised brutality takes things to another level. Harris is a fabulous monster, but the design of the show places audience sympathies on Thandie Newton’s robot tart, who seems intent on acquiring a heart. 
Fans of 24 will be alarmed to discover that Keifer Sutherland has been reinvented as a fading politician with an interest in affordable homes. Happily, in the admirably schlocky Designated Survivor (Netflix), the President is wiped out in a terrorist attack, so Keifer has to evolve from a busy dad who cooks bad eggs and makes weary parent eyes at Natascha McElhone, into the leader of the free world. The transformation is easier than you might think. First he takes off his hoody and borrows a suit. Then he stares down the camera. But something’s wrong. “Mr President,” says a flunkey, “your glasses. They’re not very presidential.” 

Serial Box 
The emotional manipulation continues in the post-Savile celebrity abuser drama National Treasure (All 4). It’s clear now, that Paul (Robbie Coltrane) is guilty of many things, though not necessarily the thing he is accused of. His wife, Marie (Julie Walters) - whose marital status comes with the prefix “long-suffering” permanently attached - has started to remember uncomfortable things, and Paul is certainly guilty of emotionally abusing his addict daughter Dee (Andrea Riseborough), regaling her with a tale of his own childhood abuse in order to win her sympathies. It’s self-serving, but that doesn’t mean it’s untrue. And what of Paul’s comic sidekick Karl (Tim McInnerny) who keeps flirting with Marie, while hinting of the things he could have told the police? He looks a punchline in search of a joke. 
(Published in London Evening Standard, Friday 7 October, 2016)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Interviewing Sydney Devine: A Morality Tale Involving Squirrels, Drownings and Nescafe

This is a story about Sydney Devine. Except that it isn’t. It’s a story in which Sydney Devine plays a starring role, but is incidental. It is a story about journalism, and interviewing. 
There’s a truism about interviews. Just as fiction writers are said to be writing about themselves, interviewers are asking questions about themselves. Or - and this is where it gets complicated - they are asking questions about their imagined reader. The most successful newspapers have a very clear idea of who their imagined reader is. A former editor of The Scotsman with a background at the Daily Mail once explained this to me. “Dennis Waterman,” she said, “never gets old.” 
So it was 1994. I did interviews for Scotland on Sunday. I had a lot of freedom, which was good and bad. If things worked, it was me. If things went wrong, the same deal. 
I decided to interview Sydney Devine. These days, Sydney needs a bit of explanation. Perhaps he did in 1994, too. Sydney was, and is, a Scottish country’n’western singer. He was extraordinarily popular. How this came to be is hard to explain, but essentially he was the Woolworth’s Hank Williams, an entertainer who cut his teeth in the working men’s clubs having first come to notice as a talented mimic of bird calls. In his early teens, he appeared on BBC Radio Scotland performing with Ronnie Ronald on the song 'If I Were A Blackbird'. Sydney was the blackbird. At 13, he represented Scotland in a four-nations talent contest called All Your Own, performing live on television at a time when most people didn’t have televisions. He came second to Alex Harvey in a contest to find Scotland’s Tommy Steele.
And so it goes on. Sydney doesn’t earn much, but he keeps performing. In Dundee, he is paid a wage of two packets of chewing gum for a show. He traverses the Central Belt, playing the circuit of old folks’ homes. All of this while he is still at school. Then, at the age of 15, he gets a part in Wild Grows The Heather in London’s West End. It is 1955. £28 a week is a lot. Sydney’s voice breaks halfway through the run. He becomes a light tenor, or, as Sydney likes to say “maybe a fiver”. 
The Sydney story really starts around 1969-70, when he tours South Africa with Andy Stewart. (That sentence poses a few questions of its own, but let’s ignore them). Sydney is given some studio time, and records around 20 songs. That’s the moment when the teenage warbler who performed in American Army bases as The Tartan Rocker becomes the Rhinestone Ploughboy, a country entertainer whose arrival in a white spangled jumpsuit ($700 from The Alamo, Nashville) is heralded by a blast of 'Also Sprach Zarathustra', just like Elvis. 
Apparently, it happened quite naturally. In the myth, which must be true, a woman (also called Devine, but unrelated) in the Glasgow branch of Woolworth’s takes a liking to Sydney’s album and starts playing it. He becomes a local phenomenon, a big star in a wee picture. “There was Harry Lauder,” Sydney would tell me. “After Harry Lauder came Robert Wilson. After Wilson came [Kenneth] McKellar. After McKellar came Andy Stewart. After Andy Stewart came me.” 
So here I am, outside Sydney’s house in Ayr, with a duffel bag full of prejudices. Sydney is, in 1994, a bit of a joke, albeit a joke in which he is complicit. As often as not, he will provide the punchline, though you might - with a bit of sensitivity - detect a note of insecurity in his responses. His appeal, he would tell me, was based on the fact that he was ordinary. Well, “bordering on ordinary”. But consider also that he played guitar on Andy Stewart’s novelty hit 'Donald Where’s Your Troosers?' and you get a sense of the unholy mess of cringes and genuflections that are involved in appreciating the divine Sydney, never mind being him.
It’s true. I’ve come to his suburban home in Ayr to laugh. If Sydney wants to play along, all the better. If he doesn’t, well, we’ll see. That’s the game.
Before I get into the house. I notice something strange. There is a squirrel on Sydney Devine’s driveway. It is dead, an ex-rodent, squirrel mortis. I make a mental note. (A symbol of what happened to Sydney’s career after the advent of Daniel O’Donnell, perhaps?) Better use it with care, though. Sydney had retired to run his hotel in 1991 after a heart attack, and un-retired after bypass surgery. When I ask how he is, he replies quickly: “Why? Have you heard something?”
We go into Sydney’s house. It is a nice house, modern and clean. No one else is home, so Sydney repairs to the kitchen to make the coffee. I scan the room for evidence, noting the unending luxury of the deep shagpile carpet. When he returns with the coffee, I clock that it is Nescafe. There is a plate of biscuits. There is something funny about the biscuits, too. I take it all in. 
We talk, awkwardly, as if Sydney is aware that he is being set up and is determined to knock himself over first. We talk about singing, and whether Sydney can. “I could sing ‘One Fine Day’ from Madame Butterfly if I thought it would pay the wages,” he says. 
“Don’t you sometimes miss the notes?” I suggest, gingerly.
“Miss them?” he retorts. “Intentionally.”
“I maybe just felt like it. The perfect record has never been made.” 
He tells me an extraordinary story about the time he went swimming in a river with Jimmy Shand’s son Erksine, who took cramp. “I can swim,” he said, “but I’m not that strong. I’m not a lifeguard.”  Erskine swam ahead, so Sydney could help if he got into further difficulties. Halfway across, the cramp struck again, and he slid under the water, pulling Sydney down with him. They were about four feet from the bank. “And for a second, my whole life was there, my mother, all my brothers and sisters, it was incredible.
“It was the most unnerving thing in my whole life. I went under, but how long I was under for I don’t know. How long I was dead for, I don’t know. My whole life, just snap. I could see my family, my wife, my kids, everything there. As if somebody had just gone shhhhh with a paintbrush.” 
So here’s the thing about interviews. They are not ordinary conversations. Michael Parkinson says something about them being an exchange between two consenting adults, and that is true to extent, but works better for television, where the to and fro of the conversation is there for all to see. In print, you need to get something. You need material to mould. If you have a nice chat, a nice chat is all you’ll have. If the person is famous, you’ll feel good that you got on, but when you transcribe it, there will be nothing there. So interviewing is a process. You may have a checklist. Have I got an intro, an ending, a revelation? (When I stopped working for Scottish newspapers and did some interviewing for London titles, an editor boiled the purpose of an interview down to one question: “What is your guilty secret?”)
So here I am, with Sydney, and I have questioned his singing ability, and he has responded by mentioning the 3.5 million sales of his Crying Time album. His version of the Buck Owens' title song was, he says, “very ordinary. In fact there’s probably nine or ten punters up at Annfield could sing it better, but nobody buys their record.”
And then it happens. Sydney asks me whether I would like to hear his new album. There is no way to say no, so we move from the drawing room into a narrow annexe, which is decorated with gold discs, a silver salver for breaking the box office record at the Glasgow Pavilion, and a framed portrait of Sydney, the child performer. He has a C90 of his record, and spools through it, trying to find his version of a Neil Sedaka song. And I stand there awkwardly, in very close proximity to Sydney, and I notice something terrible. He smells like shit. It is really bad, and really very awkward. There is nowhere to go in that annexe, so we stand next to each other, saying nothing, breathing in the foul air, as Sydney winds and rewinds the cassette, frantically trying to find the song he likes. The musical bit is awkward enough. How will Sydney cope with a Sedaka number? But the smell is something else. 
I’m relieved when Sydney can’t find the song - the quick bursts of ‘Crazy’ are more than enough - and we get out of the confines of the annexe, back into the drawing room, where I spot a framed motto on the wall: “Today is the day you dreamed about yesterday,” it reads, “and all is well.” (Mental note - a good ending). We shake hands and I make my escape down the driveway, past the mortified squirrel, away to the train home. 
Interviews are exhilarating, occasionally nauseating, and this encounter has been no exception. So I take a deep breath, and start to think about putting the conversation in some sort of order. I have an ending. Do I have an intro? What did I get? What really happened? 
It’s at this point that I cross my legs to rest my notebook on my knee, and the awful smell hits me again. I look down. My shoe is covered in dogshit. Well, not entirely covered. Much of it has come off on the deep shag of Sydney Devine’s drawing room carpet, and Sydney, dear old Steak’n’Kidney, has endured, inhaled, and will now have to Hoover away the filth that I have tread through his otherwise spotless house. 
I’m sorry Sydney. I really am. 

I told this story at a journalists’ awards ceremony once. Afterwards, I was accused of making a metaphorical attack on the ethical code of my editor. Perhaps that was my intention. Oh, all right. It was. But mostly I just wanted to say, in the homespun manner of the Ayrshire Hank Williams, be careful of the stones that you throw. 
So, the moral, journalism tip #57: when you smell shit - check your own shoes.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Academy Awards Are Like Buses, Leonardo DiCaprio Is An Apprentice Brian Blessed; Quentin Tarantino, What Happened?

The Oscars are marketing, so to comment on the nominations is like comparing Flash to Daz. But, since my exposure to contemporary cinema is roughly confined to reading the sides of buses, I do feel qualified to offer an opinion or two. So, obviously Leo DiCaprio will win in the Best Male Actor Who Got Fat and Looked A Bit Wild Like Brian Blessed category. Eddie Redmayne will not, even though he's on the side of every 271 (Highgate Village) bus. I would like Jennifer Lawrence to win in the Pretty Lady With Pluck category, because I saw her phone her dad in the Edinburgh Filmhouse to tell him where she was, and she looked quite thrilled about it. And Cate Blanchett is very nice and supersmart. But apparently Brie Larson is going to win, and not just because she is named after a versatile and inoffensive cheese.
But mostly, what I want to say is, Quentin Tarantino, what happened? The Hateful Eight has been on the side of every 43 bus for ages, and it's only nominated for hiring Ennio Morricone to do the music (and he will win, because everyone loves the spaghetti westerns, even if they considered them to be trash at the time) and cinematography, which is like saying, yeah, you made your film in an obsolete format so nobody could screen it, but that shows you have taste. But nothing for the crackpot video store jive talk dialogue or the actors dancing with their mirror images and being offensive in a postmodern way, forcing you, the director, to be defensively offensive or say nothing, which is roughly the same thing. And this is your masterpiece, which must now be known as your overlooked masterpiece. Surely, QT, this ain't how it was meant to be?
On another note, I was in 99p Stores today, looking for marshmallows and wooden kebab skewers, and I noticed they sell preloved DVDs. They had The Road. I was going to buy it, but then I thought, is it worth 99p? I mean, I loved the book, but do I need to spend almost a pound to feel desolate, when I could just leave the shop and walk down Holloway Road, watching buses in the rain?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The (Slightly) Hidden Homoeroticism of Warhol's Sleep, by John Giorno

I wrote about Slow TV recently, for which I dug out an old interview with John Giorno, who starred in that slowest of slow films, Sleep, in which he snoozed for six hours or so. Anyway, what he said was interesting, so here it is, starting with his memory of seeing the film in its restored state at the Whitney museum.
"It was really beautiful. When Andy showed it, it was just a work print, and then when he needed copies he would make a copy of the work print from the work print, so it looked something like a 1920s' movie. When they restored it, they went to the original negatives which hadn’t been touched since 1963. Forgetting the content, just looking at it, the black to white, and all of the subtleties, was exactly like a great photograph, like a Cartier-Bresson. I hadn’t thought of that, so I was shocked, it was so beautiful.
"I had seen a little bit of it in 1989, when they had a 40 minute clip, and then I was looking at this person who looked like a big baby, and it sort of embarrassed me. When I saw it again, I saw all these things where Andy didn’t know what he was doing. It was his first movie, and he was just grappling with how do you make a movie, and he took all these rolls and they didn't fit together - he was using a Bolex 16mm wind-up camera and it was interesting to see how he was able to construct it.
"He was terrified. He didn’t want it to be seen as a gay movie, or about a gay man making a movie about another gay man, so it’s very abstract. There’s a shot of a ribcage straight on. It reads a lot like what his intention was - to make an abstract painting in black and white. In a sense, to pander to the art world, because in those years, this is 1962-3, the art world was very homophobic. The abstract expressionists - de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Jackson was dead - they were these really macho straight guys who hated fags. They knew a lot of gays - all their wives had gay friends, but fags are fags. Fags are the friends of the wives, or they’re funny to be with, but [they thought] 'a fag can’t be a great artist like me'. De Kooning, or Rothko - they were all
like that, and that terrorised the gay men. Andy Warhol, Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were three gay men. Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper were lovers in the late 1950s. No gay content ever has appeared in their work, nobody was supposed to know. They didn’t try to hide it, but it was kept a big secret that they were lovers, because they didn’t want to be seen as fags, because as fags they would be dismissed, and their careers would end. So when Andy was making Sleep, this was very much what he was thinking about. He didn’t want it to have any taint of being gay. The way he got around it, rather than making the body beautiful from a class(ical) view, it was treated as an abstraction, a study in black and white. 
"Andy was as sharp as a nail, a spike. He suffered a lot. He was horribly tortured in the last years of his life, because you think of this famous Andy Warhol, but the art world still hated him. You'd think that somebody like Andy in those latter years would not be pained by rejection - not the case. As well as his sexuality, in the 1950s, long before I knew him, he had a lot of affairs that were horribly unhappy for him, and he decided to turn that switch off - sexuality and love affairs. And drugs made that easy."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Kurt Cobain, the myth explored and expanded

See here for my interview with Montage of Heck director, Brett Morgen.

Friday, August 22, 2014

In Hugo Blick's The Honourable Woman, Which Woman Was The Most Honourable?

As The Honourable Woman draws to a close, many questions remain unanswered. That is to be expected of a drama which seeks to explore the complexities of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but writer/creator Hugo Blick has done more than that. After the testosterone-driven Shadow Line, which was all about men behaving disgracefully, he has turned the genre of the spy thriller inside out. As much as it is about politics, the Honourable Woman is about women - powerful women, principled women, career women, compromised women - all of them operating in a world where honour is scarce. 
“I was very intrigued by the characters that presented themselves to me,” Blick explained. “They were women, because by definition they had to be, but that was very exciting - to place that psychology under exploration.”
At the centre of his story is Nessa Stein, (icily played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), an Israeli philanthropist exploring the possibility of reconciliation in a clearly intractable political problem. In the first episode, she was elevated to the House of Lords. In the seventh, she was blown up - apparently killed - by a Palestinian bomb, but not before compromising her integrity. Blick has hinted that the title of the series might be a bit of misdirection - the correct form of address for a Baroness is “The Right Honourable” or “The Lady” - which leaves open the possibility that Nessa is not, after all the most important female in the story. So, as the drama concludes, it seems fair to ask: just who is the honourable woman? 

Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) 
Clearly, the story centres around Nessa, a woman with a vacuum at the core of her personality. She dresses like an angel and lives like a ghost. She has suffered terribly, on account of her name. Her father, an Israeli arms dealer, was murdered. She was kidnapped by a Hamas-like group, raped, and surrendered the resulting child to her (also kidnapped) Palestinian pal. Then, years later, the boy is kidnapped too, leaving poor old Nessa running around Hyde Park looking absolutely alone. That’s quite a lot of bad luck to be going on with, which explains Nessa’s glacial persona. She exists on the bruised side of numbness, rarely displaying anger, whatever the provocation - and the provocation she endures is extreme. Certainly, she embodies the drama’s theme of reconciliation, heading up the family foundation, which is behind the symbolic establishment of a communications cable running between the disputed territories. She shows her principled (gullible?) side early on, by deciding not to offer the contract to her surrogate uncle, Shlomo Zahary, on the basis of bogus intelligence. Later, she finds herself blackmailed into a grim and fateful deal with Palestinian businessman Jalal El-Amin, which shows that her sense of honour has its limits. Though,  to be fair, she didn’t have much choice.  Also has trouble with relationships, possibly due to the horrors she has endured. Indulges in anonymous, masochistic sex with strangers, which goes wrong when she is recognised and raped again. But also has a very close relationship with Atiki Halibi. Is she in love with her? 

Atika Halibi (Lubna Azabal) 
Atika is the most vividly-drawn character. She was incarcerated along with Nessa, and agreed to act as mother to the son Nessa had after being raped by her kidnapper. Also works as nanny to the children of Nessa’s brother, Ephra, who proves unable to resist her charms. So she lures him to a rendezvous at his holiday house, and has back-bending sex, knowing that a plastic-faced Palestinian hitman is about to appear and assassinate him at the precise moment Nessa is being blown up by a bomb. Not, on the surface of it, the most honourable CV. But Atika is a woman of strong principle, and while her methods are extreme, they are not unfathomable in the context of the middle east. On the plus side, she spared the life of Ephra’s wife, Rachel, and helped her give birth to the next scion of the Stein family in rather trying circumstances. (Two dead men next door. Armed men bursting into the room). Is Atika a lesbian? Possibly not.  She proves quite adept at heterosexual activities - both the theory and the practice. But there is a real intimacy with Nessa.

Rachel Stein (Katherine Parkinson) 
Ephra’s wife has one of the more traditional female roles, being an attractive, supportive spouse whose pregnancy is always threatening to explode into the plot. However, on discovering just how friendly Ephra has been getting with Atika, her fury builds. It explodes when she is told that Kasim, the missing child who should be at the centre of the plot but somehow isn’t, belongs to Nessa, not Atika. She flips her wig. By the time she’s tracked Ephra down to their second home and caught him in an advanced yoga position with Atika, she is transformed into a suburban Tank Girl. And who could blame her? Nothing dishonourable about her at all, even if she does kill a man. 

Monica Chatwin (Eve Best) 
If this was a cowboy film, Monica would be riding the black horse. She is, or appears to be, the most clearly-defined villain of the piece, happily betraying her colleagues in order to advance her own career. She is also a double agent, employed by the British, but working for the Americans, while always working for herself. She was happy to see Nessa die in order to promote the prospects of Palestine being fully recognised as a state. So you could argue that her deceptions were carried out in the service of higher principle. Not honourable in the conventional sense, and not a code of ethics that would get her a degree in moral philosophy, but representative of the cynicism of state secret services. 

Dame Julia Walsh (Janet McTeer). 
Dame Julia is head of MI5, a job filled by Dame Judi Dench in the James Bond films, so they’re clearly quite used to having a lady around the place. In early episodes, Dame Julia acts as the punchline to the joke in which Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle is alleged to have slept his way to the top, before finding herself earmarked for retirement to satisfy the ambitions of the ruthless Monica. But as the plot develops, Dame Julia comes into her own, playing Sir Hugh and Monica off against each other, and proving herself to be more than equal to her foreign counterparts. Her importance to the architecture of Blick’s feminist design is proved by a one-liner she is given in tonight’s concluding episode, which is delivered with so much comedic zip that it invites a drumroll and a clash of cymbals. Still, that shouldn’t detract from Dame Julia's competence and grace, even if she seems to be contractually unable to stand up unless everyone else is sitting down. (McTeer is 6’ 1”). 

Frances Pirsig (Genevieve O’Reilly)
An honourable mention to Nessa’s unflappable private secretary, media advisor and confidante, who keeps the show on the road while her boss is floating around in an ethereal fog. Poor old Frances has to witness the moment where Nessa sells out her principles, and - as a good professional must - buttons her lip and moves on. 

Anjelica, Lady Haden-Hoyle (Lindsay Duncan). 
It’s a sign of the strength of the cast that Blick could afford to keep Lindsay Duncan is what is little more than a supporting role as the estranged wife of Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, who spies on her through binoculars in the hope of being forgiven for his time on the casting couch with Dame Julia. In truth, Anjelica doesn’t do much except repel Hugh with ever-diminishing force. 

Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea). 
It may not be Blick’s intention, but the fact remains that in a drama in which the traditional roles of the sexes are reversed, Rea’s shambolic nightwatchman of a spy employs feminine wiles. He is accused of using his sexuality to advance his career, and finds himself discarded once the novelty has worn off. In this carefully-constructed inversion of dramatic norms, he sticks doggedly to his task in the hope of redeeming himself. He also does the traditional spy stuff, which mostly amounts to mumbling to his foreign counterparts on park benches and gazing wistfully at the Thames. He is honourable from the tips of his flip-on sunglasses to the soles of his Ampleforth socks, and in a world where all the men are women, he is a chap perennially in search of his testicles. Who do you trust? Sir Hugh, if you’re wise. He is The Honourable Woman’s best girl. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Matthew McConaughey's Long, Cool Ride: From Surfer Dude to Suffer, Dude

You might, with some effort, be able to find a flicker of sympathy for Pi
With Willie Nelson in Surfer, Dude
ers Morgan. Not long before his CNN talk show was canned, the celebrity celebrity interviewer interviewed Matthew McConaughey. It should have been a simple assignment. McConaughey was there to bask in his own success; a career turnaround which has seen him transformed from romcom hunk to Oscar front-runner in Dallas Buyers Club.

Dutifully, Morgan gushed, calling McConaughey the best actor on the planet. “Thank you,” the actor replied. Tumbleweed blew. Empires fell. Unabashed, Morgan tried again. “Can you quite believe where you’ve got to?”
“Yeah,” McConaughey replied flatly. “I believe it. One hundred per cent I believe it. I in no way feel this is a surreal moment. I’m very engaged in what’s happening. Extremely appreciative. Understand what the reasons are…”
This is not the way these things generally go. But then, the re-routing of McConaughay’s career is an extraordinary thing, and on the evidence of Dallas Buyers Club, it was a deliberate act of reinvention. He lost 47lbs to play Aids-sufferer Ron Woodruf. The transformation was extreme; an actor so often cast for his beauty became ratty and lean. But something else happened too. Deprived of his natural beauty, McConaughey’s talent became evident. Or as he told Graham Norton, another talkshow host in pursuit of a punchline: “It quickly became something more than the Matthew McConaughey got skinny film.”
It’s not just Dallas Buyers Club. The thin McConaughey also lights up True Detective (currently screening on Sky) alongside his frequent sidekick Woody Harrelson. He plays a nihilistic undercover cop, and there is talk of an Emmy nomination for that. Then there’s his turn as Leonardo DiCaprio’s amoral boss in Scorsese’s cartoonish Wolf Of Wall Street. Filmed when he was only halfway to featherweight, McConaughey squats beneath one of Christopher Walken’s old haircuts, identifying the keys to success as masturbation and drugs. “Tootski?” he suggests over lunch, before recommending a professional diet of “cocaine and hookers”.
This is not how we used to think of Matthew McConaughey. His career began when he was enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, and was cast in Richard Linklater’s 1993 slacker movie Dazed and Confused – a part he got after meeting the casting director in a margarita bar. He played a lawyer in Joel Schumacher’s 1996 Grisham adaptation A Time To Kill, and found himself on the cover of Vanity Fair – an early sign that his cheekbones would dictate his career.  The film grossed $108m and for a time he was the toast of Hollywood. He was talked of as the heir to Paul Newman, though he told an interviewer that his other hero was the incredible Lou Ferrigno: “He turned into the Hulk twice a show, and he’d always throw those big air tanks.”
The first phase of his career ended with the failure of Linklater’s 1998 bankrobbing drama The Newton Boys, and Ron Howard’s 1999 comedy EdTV. Unabashed, he fine-tuned his ambitions, and became the go-to guy for romantic comedies (notably The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.) These films made money, but it took a brave critic to notice that McConaughey brought a level of playfulness to his characterisations that went beyond the requirements of the genre. One such was David Edelstein of New York magazine, who noted “a kind of wildness, a way of laughing at himself, a touch of gonzo”.
McConaughey doesn’t disparage his romcom period, talking instead of the difficulty of making something fresh from a predictable formula. But he clearly had broader ambitions. He launched his own fashion line j k livin, which supports a non-profit organisation offering after school fitness programmes in deprived areas. He also put money towards a pet project, Surfer, Dude, which can be viewed as the bridge between his pretty boy period and his current acclaim. True, it’s no masterpiece, being a stoner surf movie with faint philosophical ambitions, but you don’t have to be a Malibu shrink to view it as a McConaughey’s comic commentary on the business of celebrity. More importantly, it’s a lot of fun. McConaughey remains shirtless throughout, has a bleached mullet, and is managed by the even more sartorially extreme Woody Harrelson. In the end (spoiler alert) he finds peace tending goats with weed-dealin’ Willie Nelson, who exhales some Zen advice: “What goes down, gotta come up.”
And so it proved, after taking a break from acting to recalibrate his ambitions, McConaughey decided to concentrate on films he might like to watch himself. His performance in Exorcist director William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012) changed his reputation, if not his bank balance. He was acclaimed for his roles in Bernie and The Paperboy, and brought a note of dangerous intensity to the coming of age drama, Mud, playing a hunted man who lives in a boat in a tree (“I shot a man, ah kill’t a man.”) And there was (unfounded) talk of an Oscar nomination for his role as a former stripper in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. There was an element of physical transformation here, too. "Celebrity trainer" Gunnar Petersen put him through what called a "2 week to 6-pack abs: Insane training" programme, to turn his already toned physique into prime beefcake. It involved a great many planks, squat presses and shouts of "Whoo-hoooh!"
Then comes Ron Woodruf, and once again, McConaughey finds himself cresting a wave, and being warned this week by Forbes magazine that he has the most to lose if his status as the Best Actor favourite isn’t converted into a gold-plated statuette.
Would he care? Possibly. For a laid-back dude with his own line in flip-flops, McConaughey does seem to take his work very seriously. But his future projects look intriguing, among them Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees, and Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar. And, while he can no longer claim to be an underrated actor, as a man, he still seems determined to write his own script.  McConaughey’s foundation, and his clothing line, are named after the line he coined at the climax of his first film: “The older you get, the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin’ man, l-i-v-i-n’” Dazed? Maybe sometimes. Confused? Not so much.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Take It To The Bridge: Saga Noren and Martin Rohde Turn TV Detective Fiction Inside Out

Sofia Helin is Saga Noren, the detective at the centre of The Bridge, the brilliant Scandi-noir series which just concluded on BBC4. Except that she isn’t, obviously. Saga doesn’t have an emotional radar. She is blunt to the point of rudeness, obsessive about her work, and disarmingly pragmatic about sex (if she wants it, she has it, with no care for social niceties). Sofia is different. She doesn’t wear leather trousers. She has clean hair. She is, by all accounts, a warm and emotional woman.
So it’s a little disconcerting when she declares, a propos of nothing much, that she has a question. A Swedish question.
“Normal families,” she says, fixing me with her cool green eyes. “Do they walk naked around the house?”
Perhaps not, I suggest. This is England. “So tell me,” she continues forensically, “if you are having a shower, you bring the clothes into the shower room? Or you have your towel around? Because when I was a child, I remember I was in the puberty years. And my mother and her friends were in the sauna and they were sitting naked and they said ‘get undressed girls’ and we were so embarrassed because it was a nude body and I didn’t want to do that.”
Helin is in London for Nordicana 2014, a festival of Nordic drama, which also includes Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen, and various noirish luminaries. Kim Bodnia, who plays Saga’s Danish sidekick Martin, is here too, in the restaurant of a West End hotel, offering emotional context, just as he does in the series. “You know what?” he says. “We have so many beaches in Denmark where you are not allowed to have clothes on. Nothing.”
“Really?” says Helin, still sounding like Saga and sucking  Diet Coke through a straw. “You are not allowed? Well, Denmark is much more liberated than Sweden. It’s so crazy, Denmark. When I was doing my first sex scene in the first season, I didn’t dare to say no to certain things because I was thinking, she’s Danish, the director, and in Denmark they are so free, so maybe I should just do it.”
And do it she did. The scene was extraordinary. Explicit without being exploitative, functional rather than erotic, and novel because the woman was in charge, behaving like a man.
“What you did in that scene is so amazing,” says Bodnia. “I was totally surprised when I saw you acting like that – it was so fantastic. But no actor in Denmark had ever done it like you. It was only because you thought we were thinking like that. All Danish actresses are afraid of getting naked, so what you did was amazing, because you just did it, and you went the whole way.”
Of course, The Bridge isn’t really about sex. It offers a new spin on the TV detective series, by inverting the roles of the sexes, while not making a fuss about it. And it creates a brilliant (actually murky) fictional landscape in the edgelands of Sweden and Denmark.
Initially, the show was created by Hans Rosenfeldt as a vehicle for Bodnia, an actor well-known for hardman roles, notably Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 drama Pusher. “All men between 30 and 50, Kim is their idol,” Helin says. “Everywhere we go they’re falling on their knees saying ‘Oh My God, I’ve seen Pusher, you’re so cool.’”
So, Bodnia was played against type, to distinguish him from the generic TV detective, who is an opera-loving emotionally bereft alcoholic male in his fifties. (See: Wallander, K.)
“Kim’s a middle-aged white male so we wanted to make him a little more emotional, a family man, and somebody who wants to smalltalk and chit-chat,” says Rosenfeldt. “He’s a softer detective. So we did that and then thought, what are we going to put him against? We knew we wanted a female detective on the Swedish side, and then we came up with the idea, what about a female detective with absolutely no social skills? She’s brilliant in what she’s doing, and everything that she can learn by reading, she will be excellent in, but everything else, when it comes to interaction between other people, she just can’t get it.”
When she was offered the part, Helin refused.  “I told Hans, no one will like her. Then I started to try to think the other way round and it opened up a universe of other ways of seeing things.” She experimented by playing the character in her everyday life. “I went and did normal things – throwing out the garbage, shopping, I went to the swimming hall. What happened was, I felt a big loneliness. If you don’t respond to people, the other person’s eyes, they die. You just feel they’re not interested anymore.”
And loneliness, Helin suggests, is the key to Saga’s character. “Big loneliness. That’s the amazing thing, when Martin shows up.  I think he loves her, and she feels that, although she doesn’t know it. So, through him, she dares to do new things.”
Saga and Martin are a double act, but there’s no doubt that Saga dominates. Partly this is due to Helin’s extraordinary performance, and the way she blunts her beauty, but it’s also down to the design of the character.
“When we started, they had an inspiration book,” Helin says. “They had a lot of time to work out how they wanted it to look and be. They already had the car for me, then the car and the clothes wanted to fit together. I know Charlotte Sieling [the show’s first director] wanted Saga to be a hjort, a deer. And then I was thinking about Clint Eastwood, about Dirty Harry.”
Saga’s wardrobe is not unimportant. She invariably wears brown leather trousers and a flapping green coat, all the better to camouflage her under those dark tobacco skies.  “I need the clothes to be her now,” says Helin. “Both the coat and the trousers. It was hard this season, since she got shot, I had to wear something else underneath. I was never really content with what we found, actually.”
“But the trousers are there!” Bodnia ejaculates. “They are so Saga! They are so fucking sexy! It’s not only because you’re a woman. Leather follows the body very nicely, and because it’s an animal, it’s very emotional, very nice.”
The subtle feminism of the show extends to having several bosses in the story who are female, though their sex is never mentioned. They just happen to be women.
 “That’s something that I and Charlotte spoke about when we were going to do the first season. I said ‘Have you noticed how there are so many men [in the script]?’ She said yes, and she changed it. Some people say it’s hard to write a woman boss – I don’t know why. But you can just change the name – its’ no problem. It’s even more interesting. I think that’s why people find me interesting when I’m doing Saga because I’m doing something that’s s far from who I am. So giving a part that’s written for a man to a woman; that’s the complexity of it.”
“If  you look at Martin,” says Rosenfeldt, “he has more female characteristics. We really turned the genders around a little. And when we did that, we played with the clichés of Danes and Swedes. In Sweden, everybody thinks that the Danes are laid back, they are like huggingly nice people. And In Denmark, everybody thinks that in Sweden we follow every rule, and are really cold and stiff and hard. We tried to get away from the gender clichés, and we walked into the country clichés instead, and I think that’s better!”
 Over the show’s two seasons, events have conspired to make Saga and Martin’s emotional worlds overlap. In Season 2, Martin was emotionally frozen, after the murder of his son, while Saga was experimenting (unsuccessfully) with a cohabiting relationship. The clear suggestion was that if you put both characters together, you’d have a whole person.  “Yeah,” says Helin. “It’s like Yin and Yang.”
But wait, did Helin just say that Martin loves Saga? No spoilers, but does she think anything could ever happen between them?
“I don’t know,” Helin deadpans. “You’d have to ask Martin.”
“What are you talking about?” says Bodnia.
“Sexually, you mean?” says Helin.
“I never thought about Saga as a woman,” says Bodnia, slipping into his character. “I thought about Saga as a child. From the beginning she was like my daughter, so I never think like that. It would be very strange. But when I travel around, especially In Norway, they are waiting for Martin to get on Saga.”
“Or maybe Saga to get on Martin,” says Helin.
“Something is wrong with Norway,” says Bodnia. “Something is wrong with these guys that they want that to happen. It cannot happen. It’s a love story between two people who are trying to be together and work together, because Martin is the same way that Saga is. Totally into the work. Totally into trying to save the world through not having killers around. But I fuck my life up, and I cannot be as concentrated as Saga, because she is so focused. That’s why I admire her, because she doesn’t have the same way of fucking up her job. I do it all the time. I admire her because her life isn’t fucked up, but then it turns out that she is.”
And that, really, is the key to The Bridge. It’s not really about crime. It’s about emotions.
“I really have to force myself to get interested in the plot,” Helin confesses. “We have to explain it to each other sometimes because we’re so dumb with those things.”
“It’s like we are a couple,” says Bodnia. “In the bus we have our space; we only talk about senses and feelings, and we come on set and it’s a crime. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I know that, but…’”
Helin completes the sentence, for once sounding nothing like her make-believe self.  “What am I doing with this fucking gun?”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

My Top 11 Albums of the Year, 2013

The current issue of Uncut has a very interesting Best of 2013 supplement, which includes the albums of the year. The list was compiled from Top 20 lists supplied by the magazine's writers. It's a bit arbitrary, of course, but harmless. When I voted I went for the records that haven't moved from the top of the CD player. Here are the top 11. (The other 9 may follow at a later date).

1.         Bill Callahan – Dream River

2.         Hiss Golden Messenger – Haw

3. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

4. .         Chris Forsyth – Solar Motel

5.         Yo La Tengo – Fade

6.         David Bowie – The Next Day

7.         Low – The Invisible Way

8.         The Shouting Matches – The Shouting Matches

9.         William Tyler – Impossible Truth

10.         Pictish Trail – Secret Soundz Vol 2

11.      Denison Witmer – Denison Witmer

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Butler: A Zelig-like Tale of Struggle in Which the Metaphor Wears a Tuxedo.

There’s an extraordinary moment towards the end of The Butler, Lee Daniels’ warm-hearted epic film about the American Civil Rights struggle. It comes when the now-retired White House butler, played with calm authority by Forest Whitaker, makes a pilgrimage to his father’s grave, at an old cotton plantation in Georgia. Whitaker and his wife – an exuberant Oprah Winfrey – are clad in shell-suits, and the moment seems almost comic, until Whitaker starts to wonder aloud about Nazi concentration camps. He looks around at the ruined buildings – where, in the first scenes of the film, he has witnessed his mother being led away to be raped and seen his father murdered. “These camps went on for 200 years,” Whitaker says quietly, “right here in America.”
The scene is startling not only because it equates American history with the Holocaust, but also because, in all the numerous controversies which have surrounded the film, no one has mentioned it.
“I got very nervous writing that,” says Daniels, who was Oscar-nominated for directing Precious. “I was nervous about putting it in the story, but you can’t be nervous about the truth. My children are, needless to say, African-American and they go to a practically all-white school in the Upper West Side in New York City, a very prestigious school. And the fact of the matter is that they know more about the Diary of Anne Frank than they do about their own heritage, about the atrocities that have taken place here in America.”
The Butler was inspired by a Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents, from 1952-86. But Whitaker’s butler is a composite, and the story of his family frames the shifting politics of a single lifetime.
“There are some powerful stories intertwining,” says Whitaker. “But what’s great about the film is that it’s about how those things affected our lives. At the heart of it was a story about holding a family together through hard times and troubles, and the prodigal son returning.”
The Butler’s prodigal, Cecil’s more radical son Louis, is played by British actor David Oyelowo, who also appeared in that other cinematic exploration of racial servitude, The Help. “For me,” says Oyelowo, “The Butler takes the conversation forward. The Help is looking at the lives of the domestic servants through the eyes of the white characters. The Butler goes deeper, because you not only see it through the eyes of a black family, but through the eyes of a black protagonist. This is his story and you see the world through his eyes. That doesn’t happen often.”
The film has been a huge hit, taking $115m so far at the US box office, despite some negative publicity. Much of the controversy concerns the divergence from the facts of the Eugene Allen’s life (there was no rape, no radical son, but he was invited to a state dinner by Nancy Reagan). The (sympathetic) portrayal of Nancy by Jane Fonda has drawn flak, from a Veterans’ group unable to forgive “Hanoi Jane” for her anti-Vietnam campaign. Reagan’s son Michael has also criticised the (largely benign) depiction of his father. “If you knew my father, you’d know he was the last person on Earth you would call a racist,” he wrote.
“Nancy Reagan was very excited to have Jane play the role,” counters Daniels. “She’s seen the movie. Her son and her daughter loved it; all but one, who is a very staunch Republican – that’s the one that always has something to complain about.” President Obama was reportedly moved to tears by the movie, though his endorsement is hardly surprising as the drama concludes with his 2008 election victory.
Ultimately, The Butler is a Zelig-like tale of struggle in which the metaphor wears a tuxe
do. The butler, we learn, must learn to live with two faces, one for his family and friends, and another for public life. He must be present, but unseen.
“You see Cecil with his friends, you see him in a jocular mood, you see him enjoying food with his family,” says Oyelewo. “Then suddenly there’s the public face and the public demeanour – the wallflower. And my character is someone who has lost patience with that way of being, he wants to be true in private and true in public. That’s the clash: toeing the line, versus ‘we’ve had enough’.”
“I remember when Obama became president, I didn’t feel the need to have two faces,” says Daniels. “For so long there was the face that we had for business, and our personal face that we have for family; and for African-Americans to survive in the world there needed to be both. It took me a long time to embrace the fact that I even had two faces. But when Obama became president I became one.”
Daniels was a hands-on director, ordering Winfrey to seek coaching to refresh her acting skills, and urging Whitaker to do less, and trust that his emotions would be transmitted. “It was really remarkable working with Forest,” says James Marsden (who plays JFK), “how measured and calm and specific he was. His nature is very different to Lee’s.”
The director, meanwhile, praises the “zen-like angelic quality” Whitaker brought to the set. “In preparation I had to revisit many of the atrocities that my mother and my grandmother endured,” says Daniels. “I’m 54, so I remember drinking from a ‘colored’ water fountain. You choose to block things out to get on in the world. But when I was doing the research, it was three months of watching things – the beatings, the murders. I came to set the first day angry, Forest saw that anger and he said: ‘Lee, you can’t carry that energy with you, because the minute that you see racism, it becomes real, and if its real, then it eats you alive. You have to rise above it, and act as if it’s not there, even if it’s in your face.’”
“My character comes from a period where, if you didn’t hide your emotions, it could cost you your life,” says Whitaker. “At that time, it meant survival. For myself, I’ve stayed pretty true to what I feel, to what I am, but we’ve had a lot of incidents in the country … Not that long ago, even, near where I was born in Jasper, Texas, someone dragged this guy through the streets. [James Byrd Jr. was murdered by white supremacists in 1998]. Different things go on as we try to evolve as a nation.”
Certainly, the subject matter was familiar to Whitaker (52), who lived in the South Los Angeles area in the 1960s and early 1970s, and was due to be bussed to a school in Compton until his parents told officials that he lived with a cousin, meaning he was sent to a largely-white school. He also has distinct memories of the radical Black Panther movement operating in his neighbourhood.
“I remember not understanding when Dr King was assassinated, not being at school. And the Black Panther party was around the corner from my house. When I would go to school, I saw them every day. They knew my name, they picked me up, invited me to go to a breakfast programme. I also saw when their building was blown up. I walked right by, I looked for them, ’cause these guys were always talking to me.
“The town I was born in (Longview, Texas), in which I spent all my summers with my grandfather, was always divided. There was this side of the river, or the other side of the river. That was the dividing line between race and culture. That happened throughout the movement of my youth. It’s shifting now, but there are remnants of it.”
If the triumphalism of the film’s conclusion seems a little over-stated in the light of the compromises of the Obama’s administration, Whitaker remains optimistic.
“His election brought a lot of hope to people, and it still does. Dr King talked about it. He said a promissory note had been was given – of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is what was in the constitution. This promissory note is what we’ve been working towards.
“As a nation, we’re very young, and the amount of movement that’s occurred in this short span of time is unbelievable.
“Barack is one of those steps that’s moving us there. And it’s a great step. We’ve moved a long way – but we’re still trying to reach a true definition of what we said we were going to be. So in that way, we haven’t become what we’ve promised ourselves.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Remember How The Darkness Doubled? Chris Forsyth's Solar Motel Is Like A Brilliant Sequel To Marquee Moon

Chris Forsyth, it’s true, is a little surprised to find himself described as a new artist, after a decade of service with noise band Peeesseye, and a number of collaborations on the fringes of space rock, free jazz and (it says here) intergalactic glossolalia.
But there is a sense of a sudden snapping into focus on his new solo album, Solar Motel. It’s a fierce, exploratory record, which sounds, in a way, like an instrumental sequel to Television’s Marquee Moon. Not incidentally, Forsyth studied guitar with Richard Lloyd of Television when he was living in Brooklyn in the late 1990s.
“I try to make the phrasing lyrical and concise,” he says. “I like it to be articulate. Television’s like that too. The guitar parts spook you. They can spiral on for 15 minutes, but they’re always really clear.
“Marquee Moon is just in my blood. In the town I grew up in, nobody knew who Television was, so when I stumbled across that when I was 15, 16, a light-bulb went off. Then, studying with Richard automatically makes him/them my biggest influence because he taught me so much. I feel like it’s just something that’s in my DNA. But the exact music wasn’t specifically inspired by it.”
Lloyd, in any case, is not a conventional teacher. “He’s an incredibly brilliant guy – he taught me a lot of fundamental practical things, but he also has a very cosmic approach to music.  So some days we would just learn certain scales or patterns or tricks to get around the neck, and other days he would read poetry and talk to me about the nature of creativity. It’s funny, because Television is referred to as the first punk band in New York, but I think they, and Patti Smith, are actually like the last hippies. There’s definitely a line between that kind of Sixties’questing approach and what they did. They just cut their hair, you know?”
Forsyth’s journey towards Solar Motel was a long, winding journey through the backroads of experimental, improvised music. Peeesseye (a trio with Jaime Fennelly and Fritz Welch) toiled at the coalface of rackety minimalism for a decade, and Forsyth considers their work to be his “first serious musical accomplishment” after a long period “down an experimental rabbit-hole”.
“We always felt like outsiders – we were a little too lyrical for the noise scene and we were a little too freaked out for the rock scene so we didn’t fit anywhere. It was also an anarchic group – nobody told anybody what to do, we improvised a lot, though we also composed pieces. I’m very proud of the records.”
Ultimately, Peeesseye drifted apart geographically, and split when the logistics of living in different cities grew too complicated. “When Brooklyn started to change the various members of the group started leaving New York. First Jamie, then Fritz – he lives in Glasgow now, Jamie lives in Chicago and I moved to Philadelphia. So the band got destabilised.”
Without a band to consider, Forsyth began to concentrate on solo work. “I could really just do exactly what I wanted, so I started going back to roots, playing more lyrically, mostly electric guitar but combining the psychedelic thing with some strong melodic sense.  His luck really changed in 2011, when he was awarded a Pew Fellowship: “It allowed me to not have to bar tend or wait tables or hustle money so much. It allowed me to go deeper into the music.”
The first result of this deeper creative focus was 2012’s Kenzo Deluxe, which can be considered Forsyth’s first true solo album. It was followed quickly by Solar Motel. The music is hard to categorise, though Forsyth is wary of aligning himself with space rock or psychedelia. “I feel like space rock or psychedelic rock is a style that people attach themselves to; I’m trying to make music. It comes out as these extended conversations, or motifs, but the aim is always to have a point, musically.”
For the moment, he has settled, with some reservations, on Cosmic Americana, a label borrowed from a review of his 2011 album Paranoid Cat. “There’s a lot of American roots music that I’m influenced by – blues and country and jazz – although it’s maybe a little less overt. It’s not a stylistic thing to me, more of a musical thing.
“I try to make the phrasing lyrical and concise. I like it to be articulate. Television’s like that too. The guitar parts spook you. They can spiral on for 15 minutes, but they’re always really clear.
“By the same token, one of my all-time favourite guitarists is Richard Thompson, and he would be the ultimate English guitar player. There’s a meeting point in there somewhere.”
Since the album was recorded, over 18 months ago, Forsyth has assembled the Solar Motel Band, with Paul Sukeena (guitar), Steven Urgo (drums), and Peter Kerlin (bass), and says the music has progressed further. “It turned out a really good chemical reactions. There’s also a lot of spaces on the record that are wide open, or improvised. I always want that instant creativity thing happening. That aspect of it has gone into a whole other realm, and the character of the players is really strong. So it’s snowballed.”
Forsyth has also found time to score an experimental soundtrack to Robert Frank’s infamous Rolling Stones film Cocksucker Blues. The Forsyth version is called, Never Meant To Change The World (Cocksucker Blues). “I screen a really degraded bootleg DVD of Cocksucker Blues and I erase 95% of the sound from the film. Mostly it’s just dialogue. There’s all those weird hanger-on bits of dialogue which are some of the most interesting parts of the film, so I left some of that in. But basically I reframed the film with my music. I’m a Stones fan, but I’m a huge Robert Frank fan also, and I think aside from being interesting to Stones fans I think it’s a phenomenal film.”
The film was conceived for a Philadelphia art gallery, under the heading The Big Idea.
“I thought, oh, The Rolling Stones, they were once a very dangerous proposition and, God, that kinda failed.”
Solar Motel is on Paradise of Bachelors.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sandpaper, Factory Records, Joy Division And The Noises In Vini Reilly's Head: The Beautiful Messing Of The Durutti Column

Vini Reilly’s first album, The Return of The Durutti Column, was more notorious for its sandpaper sleeve than the music contained therein. The sleeve was a Factory Records joke, designed to destroy neighbouring albums. Joy Division were employed on a piece-rate to stick the sandpaper sheets onto the sleeves. “I was highly embarrassed,” Reilly recalls. “I hadn’t done anything to help them on their albums. But I had praised them when they were Warsaw. I mentioned them to Tony (Wilson) because I’d seen them twice.”
The Durutti Column’s music, despite borrowing a band name from a group of Spanish anarchists – was less demonstrative, and more rewarding. It also gave Reilly a box-seat during those early, crazy days of Factory. “I remember it being very disorganised. For example, Tony Wilson left me to my own devices after that first album had been done. I didn’t even know it was going to be an album, I just got picked up by (producer) Martin Hannett, was taken to the studio, recorded 30 odd pieces of music off the top of me head, and went away.
“I was very seriously ill at that point, and I went back home and concentrated on being depressed. A couple of weeks later, Tony handed me a white label, and said: ‘Listen to it, see what you think’. I liked it, I said, ‘Yeah, carry on, it’s great. Brilliant.’ After that I was earning a wage from royalties, which meant I could concentrate on just doing music, which was all I ever wanted to do.
“I’d always worked, I’d never been on the dole. I’d been expelled from school, I was all over the place. Anyway, I bought a 4-track reel-to-reel from Bill Nelson of Be Bop Deluxe. It was knackered, it was a very old machine. I bought it off my own bat, just to muck around with. And one night, about three o’clock in the morning – I was staying at my mum’s house, she was quite elderly - I went in the spare bedroom, and I just felt very inspired and I recorded for about three hours, with a very cheap drum machine, a space echo and one guitar, and one very cheap microphone, and that’s LC. I didn’t do it to make an album, I just did it because I was inspired.”
LC (short for “Lotta Continua” – continuous struggle) is no noisier than Reilly’s debut,  though it includes some piano, and skittish drums by Bruce Mitchell of Albertos Y Los Trios Paranoias. Reilly sings occasionally (in the manner of a whispering Bernard Sumner), notably on the beautiful opener, Sketch For Dawn.
“Next day Tony Wilson asked me could he have a listen. I had a very early Walkman, he listened to it, and he wouldn’t give me my Walkman back. He carried on listening to it all afternoon. After a couple of hours he said, ‘This is an album.’ I said ‘I don’t think it is,’ but the next day we went into a very small studio which was really built for jingles, but it meant that Bruce could add his drumkit and I put a piano down. That’s all that was added, and Tony said: 'That’s great, that’s an album’. I didn’t really mind, I was quite happy about that. So if you listen to LC you’ll hear hiss from the space echo, hiss from the quarter-inch tape, a very old tape that had been recorded over and over again. As far as audio people are concerned, sonically it’s terrible. It’s full of hiss and all sorts.”
Broadly speaking, it’s uncategorisable. Reilly – classical by training, derailed by punk - went for “new wave”, by which he meant he was in serious opposition to rock’n’roll, and while he was experimental by intuition, his instincts were towards listenability. There’s a lovely song for Ian Curtis, The Missing Boy, which demonstrates that while Reilly was a Factory man, his music transcends that time and place.
“It’s an instant reaction, because I spoke to Ian after his attempted suicide. I knew him quite well, and I also knew his Belgian girlfriend, Annik, she was a friend of mine. I didn’t really know his wife but I knew Annik very well, when I went to Brussels I used to stay with her. She was very intelligent, sophisticated, worldly, and Ian was spellbound by her. The trouble was, he had epilepsy and the treatment if you had epilepsy in those days was to give you a huge amount of barbiturates, and when you take that sort of medication at that level, you lose any sense of reality, and that’s basically what happened. He was in a difficult situation anyway, because he had a young daughter, who’s been a friend of mine ever since. She came into Factory when she was 14, and Tony pointed at me and said ‘Vini’ll look after you’. I did. And she’s now a fine young woman, a very good photographer and a dear friend.
“The title for The Missing Boy came from when we were in America. It was myself, ACR, and New Order. I was just sat by the hotel swimming pool one day, in LA, and we were feeling very pleased with ourselves, because we were just working class Manchester guys, and here we were in LA. I suddenly turned round, and I said to Tony very clearly, ‘You know who’s missing, don’t you?’ And he looked at me straight away, and he said, ‘Yeah, Ian’. That’s why I called it that – he was missing. And at exactly that point, the piece of music arrived, and that was it. It was just there. These things just arrive. There’s no work involved. There’s no cerebral , intellectual exercise. It’s all simple, very simple, and it’s played as it is in my head.”
Reilly, who is recovering from a series of strokes, confesses to some bemusement at the continuing interest in his old music. “I can’t hear whatever it is that people are hearing in it. All I hear is me messing about, and that’s it.”
Messing about, he suggests modestly, is “all I’ve ever done. It’s hard to explain.  I get a piece of music in my head. You know when you play a piece of music, it’s a series of events that take place over a space of time. When I hear a piece of music – when one arrives in my head from wherever, it’s not like that, it’s complete, a beginning, a middle, an end, it doesn’t happen over a space of time, it’s complete in itself. It just exists in my head – I plug my guitar in and tap into it, and play it. I don’t need to rehearse it, I don’t need to work it out or practice it. I just play it. In that sense, it’s not improvised, it’s complete in its entirety in my brain. Then once I’ve done it, I’ve lost all interest in it, it’s done. Then I’ll go to the next little point in my head which is another complete piece of music. It doesn’t make any sense. I can’t really explain it very well – that’s the best I can do.”
LC has recently been reissued by Factory Benelux

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Chance Martin's In Search: A Lost Missive From The Other Side Of Nashville

Chance with Johnny Cash
Chance Martin has lived many lives, and goes by many names. He has been, variously, Mr Freedom Man, The Stoned Ranger, Johnny Chainsaw, Captain Quick Tour and Orson Green. Currently, Martin is professionally known as Alamo Jones, sidekick to “Cowboy” Jack Clement on Sirius XM, a Nashville-based satellite radio station.  But in 1981, working as Chance, he released the uncategorisable In Search, which went unnoticed, because it was out of tune with the disco era. Actually, the album exists in an era of its own, though the Paradise of Bachelors label has defined it as countrydelic. It sounds, at times, like Isaac Hayes doing the watusi with Captain Beefheart. (Chance, bemused by this comparison, will admit to a fondness for Bob Seger and the Rolling Stones). 
Chance Martin's In Search Of is the kind of totally warped holy grail artifact that I wish Nashville in the golden era had produced more of," says Nashville guitarist William Tyler. “It's hard to imagine a record both so intentionally psychedelic and unintentionally cosmic.
Chance's first proper job was cue-card man on The Johnny Cash TV show. He graduated to lighting and stage design on the Man In Black’s world tours. The Cash connection was a matter of luck and chutzpah.  “I was at a radio station here in Nashville, hanging out with some top disc jockeys,” says Chance, “and I got a call from my mother. My dad was downtown at the hotel where the Johnny Cash Show had set up their headquarters. They were getting ready to do a show, and they had hired several people to take over this cue card business. They didn’t last long. They went through about 10 people trying to find someone. My daddy was down at the hotel, and he overheard the producers talking about it, and told ’em he had the right man for ’em. They told me to come down the hotel and audition. I was 23 years old, I went down, and I didn’t get home for three weeks. They gave me a room at the hotel, and another room for an office. And that was it! I never turned back. I worked in every department. When 58 shows were over, after three seasons, I moved out to Hendersonville. John gave me a place to live. I worked in his publishing house. Eventually I went to work redesigning his bicentennial tour, and was his lighting director and stage manager. I redid his souvenir book, shot an album cover, and totally changed the look of his show.”
Musically, Chance’s influences were diverse. He cites the Alllman Brothers as an influence, while also suggesting that the presence of Jimi Hendrix in Nashville may have had some significance. “I liked the Allmans a lot. They were around here in the Sixties when I was in high school, and I used to go and see ‘em every night at the Briar Patch. They were called the Allman Joys at that time, with Duane and Greg.
“Greg Allman went to school out in Wilson County, where I live, in Mt Juliet. I went to see them in high school, and I was in a band, and we played private parties and skating rinks. When I got out of high school I went to radio school, and I ended up going straight to work for Johnny Cash. So I really put my dream to the side cos I was working with these legends, travelling the world. And one day, in 1977, I said: 'I’m 31, I gotta stop and do this thing.' I took five years and I did it.”
Chance’s recording career was, by necessity, a stop-start affair, with sessions taking place in a spare room above the garage in his parents’ house in South Nashville, nicknamed The Dead End (it was in a cul de sac). “We put a stage in there, we had a bar area and a waterbed where we could crash. It was a good-sized room and we recorded all out rehearsals on a reel to reel, before we’d go to a recording studio and cut one here in Nashville. We always recorded at midnight on a full moon night. We wasn’t in any hurry. I was producing this, and publishing it, and writing songs. We played together for five years and we were real tight, and we enjoyed what we did. We’d perfect the sound that we wanted for each song before we’d go in a studio. And when we did, we usually did one-take stuff. We would go in, and the first hour that we were on the clock at $150 an hour, we’d just sit around and let our instruments breathe, have a few beers and relax and kinda chill, and talk to the engineer, and have some fun, and then when we’d get ready, we’d get up, they would roll tape and we would do it.”
Chance’s tales of the Dead End, as detailed in the album’s sleevenotes, are the stuff of screenplays (and may soon become one). There were 15 foot marijuana plants growing in the garden outside. Chance’s neighbours, he says, were a cop and a pharmacist. Famous musicians would show up – Rosanne Cash came, as did Carl Perkins, who ended the night at a local disco. Tanya Tucker dropped by, and, according to Chance: “She just got her some new boobs and couldn’t wait to show 'em off. Then she started on me with karate!” When Tucker leaves, she drives her jeep straight through the garden fence.
The record sounds like nothing else on earth. “When I recorded it, country music was 90% of the things that were being done in Nashville. What really keyed all this in, for me as a writer, was my lead guitar player Don Mooney. He was a nobody, and he’d never been in a recording studio, but I thought he was a genius. He’d say, ‘Chance, I hear something here we could do backwards’, and they hadn’t been doing that here, except perhaps Hendrix.”
Just 1000 copies were pressed. “Disco hurt me,” says Chance. “I didn’t sell any, I kept them to myself.” A sequel, The Search Is Over, was equally ill-starred, due a few artistic differences with some Miami mobsters.
Still, Chance is encouraged that his original vision has emerged intact after 32 eventful years. “I’ve been on world tours with Johnny Cash,” he says, “and the most fun I’ve had in my life was the five years I spent working on this album.” 
Where does it fit in today? William Tyler says this: “A fully integral sonic rest stop of gratuitous guitar fuzz, wandering beat poetry, nightclub moves, and hi-tech studio possibility, it's an album for the stoned midnight cowboy, the final port of call for the wild and weird era of the Music Row outlaws.”