Monday, July 13, 2020

It Must Be Heaven (film review)



Cinema going is always a risk. At the moment with the re-opening of the cinemas there seems to be a dearth of product - new product. The BIG films are being held back from launching I guess to ensure a proper audience take-up to ensure a monetary return, as investment due for the risk taken. Fair enough.

So, besides the reprise of many films that have had a proper screen time before the Coronavirus interruption we have been given, in new film, a lot of art film investigations.

IT MUST BE HEAVEN, Directed by Elia Suleiman, in 2019, is one of these. It has had a positive critical response, and I heard Jason Di Rosso rapturing about it on The Screen Show on Radio National.

My addiction urged me to attend.

Elia Suleiman wrote, directed and starred in this project that begins in Palestine, moves to Paris and then New York. It is supposedly a satiric, comic observation that one place is much like the other. The commonality of being human dominates the observations. Suleiman places his character as an observer of the world around him. There is little dialogue and much of the work is made up of animated facial responses to indicate us to places of personal contemplation.

I am not sure of the persona that Suleiman projects: for instance I thought the Paris section spent an inordinate time with the camera directed at the bodies of the young women of Paris passing him by in the streets. I found it cumulatively an uncomfortable experience. a kind of soft-pornography.

Some have mentioned Suleiman's mentors have been Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton. Tati is an earned appreciation and is a difficult one, for me, to view in the full length feature mode. If I could see the Keaton influence I might be more amenable. One wishes he had indulged in the Chaplin politics and entertainment fashion.

My experience of IT MUST BE HEAVEN, was that of an art house dirge with a less than charming 'host'. I wondered if I needed to be Palestinian to appreciate this work. I was so glad when it finished.

One responds with the swings and round-abouts of the cinematic art form and you too may enjoy it as Jason Di Rosso did.

Que sera sera.

The Personal History of David Copperfeild (film review)

The cinema is back. I have an addiction for the cinema experience. So, a friend of mine booked the first morning session: 11am! I just love sitting in my seat as the lights go down, watching the previews and then the feature close to the front, to be enveloped by the width of the screen and surrounded by the sound. I have diagnosed the need to have the stimulation of the flicker of the large image otherwise I can become a little depressed, literally. No matter the quality of the film or its genre I feel so much better when I come out of the darkened 'cave'.

I went to see the new Dickens adaptation of his novel, whose title has been edited down to: THE PERSONAL LIFE STORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Armando Iannucci co-wrote with Simon Blackwell and Directed the screenplay himself. His other work includes the satiric comic television series THE THICK OF IT and VEEP.  In 2017 he Directed THE DEATH OF STALIN - a wondrously dizzy excursion into political satire with a stellar cast of actors, a must see.

The film is an adaptation of the Charles Dickens' novel, THE PERSONAL HISTORY, ADVENTURES, EXPERIENCE AND OBSERVATION OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, THE YOUNGER, which was published first in serial form but arrived as a complete novel in 1840. This was Dickens' favourite work and has an autobiographical aura about it. The novel was special for Dickens - his favourite achievement.

The novel takes us on the maturing journey of David Copperfield who is shaped by the family and friends of his acquaintance who we get to know precipitously through the robust comic caricatures we meet on his life journey. There are liberties taken with the source material but not to any lessening of the adventures we encounter. Iannucci seems to be as in love with the material as Dickens himself was and has a tremendous respectful attitude to the source - as in any novel adaptation there are instances of character and event that have been excised that will, possibly, distress you - but in a 2 hour storytelling,  something has to give in the huge epic that is the book.

The film is boisterous fun set in the many social stratas of the early Victorian era celebrating it with a sense of joy but with an acute and accurate (and subtle) eye for the difficulties of the huge adjustment that the British nation was having shifting into the economic and social challenges of the Industrial Revolution in the city of London and the country, both rural and seaside. It is the Victorian Era writ large with the social, political, satiric energy that made Dickens such an important artist of his time in indicating where the social reforms by government ought to be made.

Iannucci begins the film with David Copperfield arriving on a Victorian theatre stage to read and impersonate the novel much as, famously, Dickens did: acting out his books, creating his characters, performing - he was a famous amateur actor (ham!). The Director then shifts us into natural locations, bantering back and forth from the 'theatrical' locations to naturalistic renderings. It begins much like the Joe Wright adaptation of the 2012 ANNA KARENINA, with Keira Kneightly, but does not pursue the same risky consistent bravura shifts that the Wright film has (I love it, some others were disconcerted by the Wright 'method' - it does take adjustment but it is worth making an effort to do.)

The other offer that Iannucci makes with the film is to practice colour blind casting right across the board. David Copperfield is played by Indian actor Dev Patel. Mr Whitfield is played by British Asian actor Benedict Wong, whose daughter Agnes is played by Rosalin Eleazar. Niki Ameka-Bird plays Mrs Streerforth whose patrician son, James, is played by Aneurin Barnard. There is no question of visual racial contradictions that could intrude on the film as an obstacle to our involvement as the sheer confidence of the company and that each actor is absolutely the best actor for that role sweeps us imaginatively into utter belief - the speed of the film allows no time for quarrel or questioning  the choices. It is a refreshing exercise and ought to be a standard for imaginative casting to come; both in the cinematic world and in the theatre (where it has been in practice for some many years in Europe and the United States.)

This film is also boasting and bursting with actors who, if you are a fan of the work of Iannucci, are a familiar team: Hugh Laurie (Mr Dick), Tilda Swinton (Betsy Trotwood), Peter Capaldi (Mr Micawber), Ben Wishaw (Uriah Heep) are some of them. (I especially loved Dev Patel, who seems to be able to do anything. Ben Wishaw is astonishing and was at first not recognisable.)

The DAVID COPPERFRIELD story was famously told in film  for MGM, directed by George Cukor (one of the Great Directors of the era), in 1935. It was the quality standard bearer of this story and is still a film that is worth watching and loving. The acting company is sublime and the story, for its contextual period, is moving, funny and enhancing. Compare the achievements.

I thoroughly recommend Armando Iannucci"s THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD.

Book Reviews, Non-Fiction, Biographical: By Women Possessed (Eugene O'Neill) and The Letters of Cole Porter

I always try to keep my knowledge of the Performing Arts and the creators expanding to augment my vision and knowledge to teach my students with insights that only Knowledge can give me.
So, here are some of my recent excursions and a brief response.

BY WOMEN POSSESSED: A LIFE OF EUGENE O'NEILL

by Arthur and Barbara Gelb.

The Gelb's, husband and wife, spent a great deal of their creative energies researching and writing investigations into the genius and life of American playwright, Eugene O'Neill.They have written several books on O'Neill and some of the other people of the era. BY WOMEN POSSESSED (2016) is the last of their collaborations and is a dense and gruelling read using O'Neill's relationship with women in his life: His Mother and then his three wives: Cathleen Jenkins, Agnes Boulton and Carlotta Monterey to, perhaps, explain, his driving creative energies - his furious response to what he viewed as the carnivorous woman. Both he and the women seemingly POSSESSED.

The book is wonderfully prepared with a life time of discoveries by these two writers (they have written another biography - 1962). The psychology of cause and effect is woven with an enlightening sensibility by the Gelb's. The writing career, play by play, is examined and parallels with his personal struggle with the demons of his psyche - burying him in fierce states of depression augmented by an addiction to alcohol, from which his fierce plays emerged. The ancient Greeek myths, bible stories and historical context of his world are used to lubricate his visions.e.g. MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS. Later, his auto-biographical penchant is evident. AH, WILDERNESS, A TOUCH OF THE POET, THE ICEMAN COMETH, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, besides the one act sea plays. He was a winner of many Pulitzer Prizes and became a Nobel Laureate for literature.

An American son, his father an actor, a matinee idol (THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO), his mother a convent girl who becomes addicted to morphine, he of a dark Irish temperament determined not to have his writing distracted by women and children. His personal demands were outrageous and facilitated by the context of the times and the macho embrace of his genius. He mesmerised his women to subservience to allow him to write without distractions of the ordinary life.

The book is astoundingly illustrative into the origins of the plays and the explorations - experiments - of form that O'Neill produced. It is a tremendous resource that I recommend as a must if you are working in the O'Neill ouvre. It also reveals the theatre experience in New York and the Americas that helps one to enter and begin to understand the reason why this man wrote those plays and why the audience embraced his work with such interest both savage and felicitous.

Literally the book weighs a ton - difficult to read in bed - but is also a disturbing and turbulent exposure of an unpleasant man that has produced some of the most important plays/visions of life for the theatre.

I recommend but be warned: it is not for the feint hearted reader. It is grinding.  An indispensable background.


THE LETTERS OF COLE PORTER

by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh (2019)


I picked up this book as a result of an article in THE NEW YORKER. I know, really, only a cursory amount about the great musical composers of the early 20th century American era.

This book is a collection of letters (624 pages of them) and are dated from the first decade of the twentieth century to the early 1960's and features correspondence with many of the movers and shakers of the musical world - Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman, Orson Welles as well as many of his friends and lovers. Coming from money, marrying money, he had other money most of his life raining down with the musical genius of tune and lyric. Married, suffering a shattering horse accident, his homosexuality is part of the information we read through. His interaction with the wheels of Broadway and the Hollywood film studios are amusingly, cynically, revealed. The suffering of an artist in the naked reveal of his work and struggling with success as well as failure is recorded first hand.

I found the book a boorish insight and sometimes just plain tiresome. I pushed through it. It is a dip-in, dip-out book and is probably of most interest to the musical theatre tragic. I'm not one of those.

JED HARRIS; THE CURSE OF GENIUS

by Martin Gottfried (1984)

This is a biography of one of the great and legendary Directors of the American Theatre. He was the son of Esther and Meyer Wolf Horowitz who arrived in Newark with their son, Jacob Hirsch Horowitz. He was one of several children but was the bookish one - finding the realm of literature a sanctuary in the harsh life of the Jewish American immigrant. He was a wilful determined person, fractious with his family and locals, who blighted his study at Yale, and gradually bullied his way into the theatre where he produced a series of triumphs one after the other. BROADWAY, THE ROYAL FAMILY, THE FRONT PAGE, OUR TOWN and THE HEIRESS are some of his landmark successes. He worked with playwrights such as Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Arthur Miller, Edward Chodorov.

He died in 1979. At his memorial few people turned up. Most people thought he had long been dead and were surprised he had survived so long. The absence of the collaborators, celebrants of his career life was really his greatest achievement, which the writer Martin Gottfried intimates was his principal objective: to make enemies and to destroy his own legend. He, apparently, succeeded.

Being of Jewish inheritance was a burden and the cruel relationships with the women in his life are presented as some of the combustible fuel of his pernicious artistic drive. Most people worked with him only once. His rages, his quarrels, his feuds, his cruel witticisms, were wanton and shocking - disturbingly vicious. He was a genius of the theatre, with a great sense of finding the play, 'fixing' the play, casting and directing the play, he had the ability to diagnose the problems of the playwrighting and the gifts of his actors. He always cast his plays and rarely changed his mind - his instincts were an exceptional talent but were the undoing of his self - he was a genius in pursuit of perfection and had liitle patience with the less talented or the less motivated. Was it worth enduring him to have success? Time told him: NO. He vanished from sight (It could be seen as a result of a deliberate strategy of his own!)

This book is sometimes a little shallow in its insights but is stuffed with anecdotal references that is enough of a bait to keep one engaged. The background to how the Broadway Theatre 'worked', its history through the century is a great knowledge to have to store in the resources of my own practice. I gained a lot from reading it. I recommend it very much.

JUDITH ANDERSON, AUSTRALIAN STAR, FIRST LADY OF THE AMERICAN STAGE

by Desley Deacon (2019)

I read of this book in the Sydney Morning Herald. Of course I was curious. For Judith Anderson is a world famous actor, stage and screen who was born in Adelaide - in ADELAIDE (As was Helpmann) and found an illustrious future, particularly on the stages of Broadway. How does she achieve such success is what one reads the book for. She died in 1992. Most famously she created Mrs Danvers in the Hitchcock film REBECCA. That performance is an iconic one for cinephiles. But it was her theatre work that is thrilling to discover: her MEDEA is legendary. That career spanned decades. (She toured 'down under').

I am grateful for this book by Desley Deacon but would not recommend it as a satisfactory read. It is rather a documented review of her career and personal life that is not to 'juicy' in its details. Important, undoubtedly, but not riveting. (It was interesting to read that she was one of many women that had a long, off-and-on relationship with the notorious Jedd Harris - as did Ruth Gordon - who, in fact, had an illegitimate child with him, a scandal he ried to hide - James Harris).

If you're an Australian artist then this book is a must. As she is a successful woman in the world theatre it should be part of your knowledge of history. HERSTORY no just history. She, apparently, was a formidable artist. Her film and television career is worth finding: Tony Awards and Emmy.

TONY CURTIS, the autobiography 

By Tony Curtis and edited, supplemented contextually, by Barry Paris. (1993).

Given to me by a friend it was an insightful read into the life and , especially, times of Mr Curtis' career - especially the 40's-60's America.

Things I learnt: Tony Curtis was the son of a Hungarian Jewish family: Bernard Schwartz (I always thought of him as being  of Italian origin). His youthful adventures in the inner city of Manhattan, especially in the 30's during the parallel rise of the Nazi's in the Weimar Republic, there were in the 'ghettos' of the refugee immigrant, German conclaves in New York, gangs of Brown shirts full of the anti-semitic propaganda and violence of the home country. Surviving in that environment was a war in itself. Fascinating insight into history - now there is a Scorsese film to sit beside THE GANGS OF NEW YORK. Enduring that was one of the formative experiences of this young actor's life, as was his relationship with his brutal mother and vagrant father. Formative traits that influenced so much of his direction of career.

It was his incredible good looks that facilitated the career of Tony Curtis, who along with a precocious sex life developed his own approach to acting - personalisation - eschewing the Method as indulgent crap that was the great influence of the period. Brando was a 'genius' and really didn't need the Strasburg influence.

I am not especially excited by autobiographies of artists and read them with a cynical eye. The Biographies are more reliable and the further the book is away from the death of the artist the more interesting and illustrative they are. Read the late biographies of Olivier, for instance, for a most honest assessment of the actor.

What this book did was to remind me of some of the great performances and films of Tony Curtis besides the 'popcorn' commercial ones that entranced us momentarily in the cinema as kids: IVANHOE!

THE DESPERATE ONES, SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, SPARTACUS, THE BOSTON STRANGLER, INSIGNIFICANCE - iconic performances.

Curtis does not skirt his drug and alcohol period of the 70's and 80's and is prepared to talk of his many fractious relationships with women and his children. Reading this book contextualised the Hollywood experience of his era and gave some anecdotal insights to some of the great artists he worked with. Recommended.

You may want to find these books..

Thursday, July 2, 2020

More book reviews Pt 2: "The Offing" and "Smoke and Ashes"

CORONAVIRUS reading time.

Two books that are very different from each other but both easy and good reads.

THE OFFING, by a young writer, Benjamin Myers, was published in 2019. It has some ecstatic reviews.

Set in England just after the end of World War II, Robert Appleyard decides to take a year off after finishing school, and explore the world outside of the Durham Colliery, in which his family have been miners from generation to generation. Is he destined to mine the mines? His family expect so. He is not so sure. This is the vague fuel to the quest he engages in.

He wanders by foot into the countryside, following nature and its flora and fauna, taking on light tasks and camping on properties that he is passing through. It is a journey that connects him to the wonder of the natural world - a world he had not ever before regarded.

Robert finds himself, stumbling onto a bushy hillside with a ramshackle cottage and sheds overgrown by nature, not far from the seaside. There he meets Dulcie Piper, an older bohemian eccentric with her German Shepherd, Butler. She without inhibition invites him to food and alcohol and literature, to poetry. To an ideal of Europe. His world is broken open to a scale, a potential, he had never known before.

The local fishing village have adopted Dulcies' eccentricities and take a care for her surviving, and Robert taking himself away to continue his journey is guided back to Dulcie's with a seafood gift from one of the local fishermen. Robert, then, finds himself further drawn into her influence by taking on small jobs to organise the garden and to restore a shed that reveals itself as a once studio for a foreign artist - a poet, Romy Landau - a companion of Dulcie's who has died.

This is a coming-of-age story for Robert and a resurrection of hope and faith for Dulcie as both participate in the reveal of a lost and unpublished collection of poems by Romy, called The Offing, that had been abandoned in the studio/shed.

Offing is defined as "the distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge". In that space there is possibility and growth.

This short novel is written in descriptive language that sparkles with the reflective light of sparkling jewellery. The language is strangely old fashioned in its vividness and charm but has a disarming energy that wraps about you with a warmth of familiarity and comfort. I found myself propelled into the reading of the book with a sense of delightful ease. The descriptives are overrich yet completely entrancing. Given to me by my friend, a bookseller, it was a present for which I am so grateful.

The grief of a nation flowing out of the destruction of a World War, a land in scattered decay, and a woman devastated by a broken heart are healed by the grafting of a miner's son to a blossoming into a poet - a novelist - into the becoming of joyous simplicity of experiential depths. Robert Appleyard, now an older man, is the voice of this narrative as he recalls the year that changed his life - this is his novel of memory, when his life was changed. THE OFFING may change your life, too. And, if not, you will, at least, have had a very pleasant read.

Highly recommended.

Okay. Let me continue my fandom for the Abir Mukherjee crime detective series which I have written about in an earlier blog post.

SMOKE AND ASHES is the third book in the Sam Wyndham/'Surrender-Not' saga. All three books are set in Calcutta in the 1920's. These two men are members of the British Police Force and are investigators of crime. The books have followed these two men and a collection of other characters in their natural growth, personally and politically, during this highly volatile time in India during the rise of the Gandhi driven Independence movement enveloped in the corrupt collapse of the British Raj.

Wyndham, a cynical survivor of the trenches of World War I, and the death of his young wife, after a short stint with Scotland Yard, is seconded to Calcutta under the aegis of Lord Taggart. He has been commissioned there for some two and a half years. Opium is readily available in this city and he has become addicted intensely - taking risks that could ruin his career.

SMOKE AND ASHES, is set in December, 1921. Wyndham's addiction to opium has become quite intense and this book opens in an opium den where he is woken mid-way through an indulgence as there is a vice squad police raid going on. To be found there will be the end of his career. He takes flight and finishes on a roof where he stumbles over a corpse with its eyes gouged and a ritual stabbing in the chest.

He is not able to report the crime for fear of exposure but when another body is found with similar wounds he becomes alert and is sent with his native detective companion, Surrender-not', to investigate and solve.

These crimes spiral and a pattern of murder becomes revealed in a gradual exposure of a secret British research biological experiment investigating the effect of chemical weapons, illegally using Indian troops as their human 'guinea-pigs'. These new crimes may be revenge actions.

What is thrilling is that as this investigation climaxes, it is set against the non-violent, non-cooperation protests held in Calcutta at this time led by Gandhi deputies: Chitta Rajari Das, Subhash Bose, and Das' wife Basanti Devi, climaxing on the day of the Royal Tour of Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII's, arrival in Calcutta.

As usual, Mukherjee handles the storytelling with a deft speed and a comfortably sensed researched dramatic integration, if not with complete historic accuracy. It gallops along in its twists and turns. Add the development of the individual characters' dilemmas, especially that of Wyndham and his habit, and the native sergeant 'Surrender-not' who has a duty to the Raj as a member of its police force but is also a member of a family highly engaged in the Gandhi confrontation with the white culture. He is torn in his ambitions and loyalties.

SMOKE AND ASHES is the best of the three books, so far, in its drafting and exciting juxtaposed content. The book does stand on its own but is more interesting because the chronological order created is especially arresting.

Recommended