Month: February 2014
There was a time, a long time, like from 1996 to about 2011, when many men couldn’t look at Matthew McConaughey’s mug without wanting to punch it. He was so good looking – tall, lean, tan and with that blonde curly hair that always seemed placed just so by an army of hairdresser; and he seemed so smug and self-satisfied with it, like he knew he was God’s gift. And there was a tension between the slick self-confidence he exuded and the audience’s feeling that acting chops had not been included amongst his many blessings. It seemed too that however much he insisted on his just being a ‘reg’lar dude from good ol’ Texas’ he was a manufactured star. Yet here he is now, named front-runner for the Oscar for Best Actor by The Hollywood Reporter for his performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club and enjoying the greatest success of his career on television as well for True Detective, a series that already seems culturally essential.
McConaughey first made an impression in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused in 1993, still a cult film, and one where some of McConaughey’s lines still get an airing: ‘I love freshman chicks; I get older, they stay the same age. Yes they do.’ Fans show a particular appreciation for McConaughie’s relish in saying them, the musical uplift on the ‘Yes they do’ for example. However, McConaughey became famous before any of the movies he starred in were released. He got a Vanity Fair cover in August 1996 with a headline that read ‘Lone Star: Why Hollywood is so hot for McConaughey’ that possibly did him more harm than good. Hollywood might have been hot for McConaughey but audiences like to discover and make their own stars and of the four films he released in 1996 (Lone Star, Larger than Life, Scorpio Rising, and A Time to Kill) only the latter was a big hit, and though he’s very good in it, the film was based on a John Grisham novel, a big draw then, and boasted an all-star cast of which the biggest box-office name was Sandra Bullock, riding high then as now.
It’s worth remembering that McConaughey never touched the upper reaches of stardom: he didn’t command the salaries of the Tom Cruises or Tom Hanks’, audiences were never sure what constituted a ‘Mathew McConaughey film’ and in his whole career he’s never been the sole star of a big box office hit. In fact he’s had very few box office successes for someone with his high profile and, until recently, each has bragged a bigger, top-billed, female co-star to claim a greater portion of the credit for its success: 1996’s A Time to Kill (Sandra Bullock), 1997’s Contact (Jodie Foster), 2001’s The Wedding Planner (Jennifer Lopez) and 2003’s How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days (Kate Hudson).
McConaughey has been one of the most famous men in America for almost twenty years. Photographs of him flashing his pecs with wild abandon appeared in all the weeklies year after year. He was famously arrested playing the bongos naked whilst high. He was named People Magazine’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ in 2005. Yet, with all that, or maybe because of all of that, audiences in general didn’t quite seem to take him to heart. A woman I know used to refer to him as Matthew Mahogany, a nickname which well expresses the mixture of desire and disdain that even women who liked seeing him in romantic comedies used to feel for him. Until recently, I never met a man who liked the sight of him. There’s a wonderful episode of Family Guy that beautifully expresses a large number of people’s views of McConaughie for most of the last 15 years:
Stewie: I’m going to tell Mathew McConaughey how much he sucks. You know Mathew you are just awful. You are one of the worst actors in the history of film and you need to go away.
Mathew: ‘But that’s what I do most of the year. Going away to exotic places, having sex with my beautiful girlfriend, doing sit-ups and counting money.’
Stewie: ‘Contact. They didn’t even need you for that movie. They could have done the whole movie without you’.
Mathew: . ‘I know I told them the same thing but they told me ‘we just need a good looking guy with a great ass and some tight abs to just provide some down-home enthusiasm for this picture’.
Stewie: ‘You make me physically ill to my stomach and I wish that you would get a heart attack’.
All of this began to change in what now seems an intelligent and carefully orchestrated manner from 2011. That year, he gave a very fine performance as Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, a courtroom drama that seemed lean and lush and which got very good reviews but middling box-office. More significantly, the same year, he also played the title role in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, a disturbing noir in which McConaughey chanced playing a religious zealot with a penchant for murder and young girls. It was not a hit but McConaughey proved that he could bring something much more interesting to his roles than his looks — a presence, a threat, a character.
Since then, he’s been extraordinarily adventurous in his choice or roles. In 2012, he played Zac Effron’s older, kinkier, brother in the camp Gothic swampfest that is Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy. Yet, though these movies were getting McConaughey talked about, it seemed to me that he was still better at picking the roles than performing them. Jeff Nichols’ Mud changed my view. It turned out to be one of the most successful indie releases of the last year and McConaughey was also very good in the title role as the romantic stranger who’s killed a man but returns, risking all, to win back the woman he loves.
During this time McConaughey changed people’s perceptions of him as a star and as an actor to such an extent that GQ has named this shift in his career the McConaissance, an irritating way of nicknaming the very real renaissance, some would argue naissance should suffice, of his career. Yet it’s worth remembering that in terms of box-office, the only real mainstream hits he’s had so far have been in supporting parts. First in Magic Mike, where the very theme of the film, how people turn themselves into sex objects for easy money and lose their youth and future choices in a sea of drugs and easy sex, seemed uncomfortably resonant with McConaughey’s own career. Moreover, his part was secondary to Channing Tatum’s stripper, and seemed interestingly consonant with the wise-old-whorehouse-madam roles Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford were reduced to in the latter stages of their careers. His other mainstream hit is of course his superb cameo as Leonardo DiCaprio’s lush and thieving mentor in The Wolf of Wall Street. He’s only in the film for a few minutes but he puts his stamp on it as surely as DiCaprio. These are his only two blockbuster hits since How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days in 2003, a full decade ago.
To me the most interesting aspect of McConaughey’s recent career is that, here he is, unarguably at the peak of it with blockbuster hits (Magic Mike, Wolf of Wall Street), films that are already beginning to be seen as significant and important (Mud, Killer Joe), work with some of the most important directors (Scorcese, Soderbergh, Lee Daniels, Jeff Nichols, William Friedkin), great critical acclaim (for almost all of his recent films but particularly for Dallas Buyer’s Club), front-runner for the Oscars…This is the moment where you’d expect a Hollywood star to get his pick of roles and name his price. And what are we seeing him in and on? True Detective for HBO
Historically TV stars — James Garner, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Tom Hanks, Will Smith – all wanted to leave TV behind because movies were where the big money and the possibility of art both were. Now, the move to TV is not seen as a move down but as a move sideways, one were actors at the top of their game and at the peak of their box office, stars like Mathew McConaughey, can get the combination of serious drama, juicy roles and mainstream audiences that film no longer seems to offer. Whilst he may very well win the Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club, it is on television and in True Detective that McConaughey is proving what a truly great actor he is, one currently associated with culturally essential work. Only Hollywood seemed to be hot for McConaughey in 1996. It’s taken almost twenty years for audiences and critics to agree.
A shorter version of this ran in The Conversation at: https://theconversation.com/columns/jose-arroyo-114860
In Only Lovers Left Alive, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are said to have lived for thousands of years but clearly haven’t spent even ten minutes of them Hoovering their homes. They live in dusty spaces crammed with things they’ve loved enough to keep for centuries, books and music mostly. Some people walked out of the film but I loved it; the anomie, the sadness, the great r&b tracks — particularly Charlie Feathers’ Can’t Hardly Stand It and Denise Lasalle’s Trapped by a Thing Called Love — which speak of loss and loneliness but with an energy that conveys the opposite; the use of drugs as a parable for vampirism; the final insistent choice on life and love. It’s stayed with me all day.
The film begins with Adam, played by Tom Hiddlestone, shy, reclusive, living in Detroit, a city as much of a shell of former glories as he himself, a spectral place with hidden beauties, echoes of former lives and secret places were bodies can easily be disposed of. Adam lives for his music and for his fix. He’s got everything neatly arranged, a doctor who gives him top-grade, really pure blood and a sweet-faced squeaky-voiced young man (Anton Yelchin) on the edges of the music industry who might be pirating and selling on Adam’s compositions but can arrange pretty much everything else Adam might need and is well-paid for doing so. Adam is trying to find a reason to continue living and having trouble finding it.
Meanwhile, Eve (Tilda Swinton) is living in Tangiers, the Tangiers of myth with Pepe Le Moko streets, Paul and Jane Bowles ambiance, and the sheltering sky of balmy nights and a good supply. She’s got a friend there, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, gruff, poetic, endearing) who is also her connection to centuries-old literary gossip and grade-A blood. Her life is neatly arranged until she talks to Adam, finds out the extent of his loneliness and goes out to him. Adam and Eve once, maybe even originary lovers, reconnect as soul-mates, wonder through the nights, talk, find their old maybe unexciting but still essential rhythm with each other, until Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives. The aptly named Ava, with her disrespect for convention, her selfish need to have a good time, her intense focus on her bodily needs and pleasures disrupt the more cerebral, retired life of Adam and Eve and brings chaos: though Adam and Even try to keep the humans they call zombies at bay, Ava has a positive and dangerous relish for them.
I can’t imagine watching Only Lovers Left Alive on anything but a big screen. It has its own pace, one which requires patience, but if you give yourself to its tempo and its conceits, it draws one into its enveloping images and and hazy rhythms, enthralls, involves you in its play of allegory, meaning, sensation. By the end, the audience becomes enveloped and enchanted by the Tangier sky, the night, the music, the feelings and views of worn out junkies in love wondering what the point of it all is, the speculation on the meaning of life and art. Then, when Adam and Eve, and we, hear Yasmine Hamdam sing ‘Hal’ in a café, we understand why art, why evoking what Hamdam conveys and makes us feel, is worth living for — even if the price is murder. And we then realise that Only Lovers Left Alive has provided that as well.
It was nominated for the Palme D’Or at Cannes and worth seeing on the largest screen you can find.
Britishness seemed to be main motif in BBC’s broadcast of the BAFTAS Sunday evening. When host Stephen Fry mentioned that the event was the highlight of the British Film Calendar, he backtracked as he heard what he was saying and asked: Is there such a thing as a British Film Calendar?
He did well to ask because the constellation of stars he took great trouble to show off — Leonardo Di Caprio, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Tom Hanks – is no different than what we’d expect to see at the Oscars, though at the Oscars one wouldn’t have had to rely on Twitter to learn that Brad Pitt and Angelina wore matching Yves St. Laurent tuxedos, Lily Allen was in Vivienne Westwood, Amy Adams wore Victoria Beckham and Cate Blanchett wore McQueen – there would have been a whole series of programmes right up to the start of the broadcast breathlessly recounting every aspect in great details and using the very latest technological developments to broadcast every stitch to an eager public and garner worldwide unpaid publicity for the giant fashion houses. But as Oprah Winfrey said before the show started, ‘this (the Baftas) is not about glitz and glamour’.
But what are the BAFTAS about? What are they for? Presumably it’s to honour, celebrate and promote British Cinema. But one really wouldn’t have known that from the nominees of Best Film (12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Philomena), Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, Steve McQueen, David O. Russell, Martin Scorcese) Best Actor (Christian Bale, Bruce Dern Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejifor, Tom Hanks) or even Best Actress (Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson). Indeed when the first award of the evening was announced and Gravity won for Best British Film, the twittersphere went into a frenzy of speculation as to what was British about it with Droo Padhiar of Peccadillo pictures insisting ‘It is NOT a British film. It is NOT a British film. It is NOT a British Film’. Three times. Just in case one didn’t get the message.
Of course, one need not get too purist about these things. If the nominations don’t necessarily reflect a particular definition of British cinema, one which would probably run something along the lines of: films predominantly financed in Britain, about British stories, with a predominantly British cast and crew (Philomena, The Selfish Giant would be unproblematic examples), they do reflect British film culture: the films celebrated are the films that have entertained, delighted and informed us here, be they British or not. Moreover, later in the show when Cuarón returned to the stage to collect his award for Best Director and had presumably been made aware of the brouhaha over Gravity’s win for Best British Film he said, softly but pointedly: ‘I consider myself part of the British Film Industry. I’ve lived here for 13 years and made about half my films here. I guess I make a good case for the curbing of immigration.’ Yet, at the end of his speech, the cinematic culture Cuarón feels a part of was made clear and partly contradicted his earlier statement when he thanked Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu, Mexican compadres and current colleagues in the higher reaches of global cinema. ‘I wouldn’t order breakfast before consulting them first,’ he said.
The Britishness of the BAFTAS was visible at oblique angles and at ‘special’ moments; thus the event was hosted at the Royal Opera House in London, one won the ‘Alexander Korda Award for Outstanding British Film’, or the ‘David Lean Award for Outstanding Direction’. The Britishness was also evident in the special awards presented. Thus we had the pleasure of seeing Juliet Stevenson, still truly, madly and deeply dazzling with her looks and her eloquence praise Peter Greenway as a visionary who challenged existing cinematic forms and pushed the boundaries of where cinema and painting meet, and to award him the ‘Michael Balcoln Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema’. Greenaway graciously expressed his surprise and commented on the changes in contemporary cinema: It’s not the same as the cinema of our fathers and forefathers. Cinema has to be continuously reinvented.’ Tellingly, the person he singled out for thanks was his Dutch producer Kees Kasander who he said somehow always managed to put together the money for the British director to realise his singular works (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Prospero’s Books, etc). Such is filmmaking today.
A concern with Britishness and the forms of its articulation continued as a recurring motif. Earlier in the show, after Stephen Fry introduced her as a ‘ghastly piece of shrieking, stinking offal, Emma Thomson replied, ‘Is it me or being British that makes being referred to as stinking offal …makes me feel so much better about myself.’ The finale of the evening was when HRH The Duke of Cambridge in his role as President of BAFTA introduced Jeremy Irons to really bring out the pomp and ceremony and recount the highlights Helen Mirren’s career. Accepting the award for her Fellowship of the BAFTAS, Mirren first thanked her old teacher, Alice Welding, who recently died at the age of 102 for having inspired her to desire to live in a world of literature and poetry; and then finished off her acceptance speech with a dazzling oration that invoked both acting and Albion, the ‘stuff that dreams are made on’ speech from The Temptest:
Our revels are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-cappe’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all of which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
is rounded with a sleep
It was a rather theatrical and very British end to a BAFTAS that saw 12 Years a Slave, a film which had Channel Four money, a British director and a large British cast, win Best Film but Gravity with its American money and cast and its Mexican director win Best British film. Chiwetel Ejiofor, black and British, won Best Actor. Oh and The Great Beauty the winner of Best Foreign Film didn’t even make it to the broadcast and was put in the little ‘These awards were handed out earlier’ addendum after the end of the main programme. The Britishness of these BAFTAS seems to be defined by placing America at the centre, various articulations of Britishness on the margins or ‘specialised’ categories, and Europeans out of the picture.
A shorter version of this was published in the conversation as https://theconversation.com/baffled-baftas-dont-know-how-to-be-british-23162
This is about a Hollywood film star, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), kind of lost, marriage failed, all his wishes are met but they’re not really desires because all he’s got to do is look and he gets offered it. He doesn’t even need to ask. Girls flash their tits at him everywhere he turns and, tired though he is, he’s eager to please and be pleased, though sometimes he’s so tired he falls asleep doing it. Once in a while he returns home with his daughter to find random women in his bed and has to shoo them away, but always with a wistful regret that charms and seduces even at the moment of rejection. He’s so agreeable he can’t understand why they keep getting pissed off at him when he can’t give them more. He’s professional in his job and nice to everyone but detached.
The film begins with a beautiful sequence, a long take of a black Ferrari racing around an empty road in the desert. The Ferrari races in and out of the frame whilst the camera maintains its ground gazing emptily at the beautiful but parched scenery until the Ferrari once again drives into frame. A person we will later find out is Johnny gets out of the car. We’re allowed to see the emptiness of the landscape and the car becomes a metaphor for the film and the person: sleek, desirable, celebrated…but driving aimlessly and in a desert. The Ferrari and the Chateau Marmont, the shabby chic hotel where all the cool celebrities in LA stay, are recurring tropes in the film, evoking the luxury and comfort made available by celebrity. The Chateau is contrasted later with the chic, elegant and formal hotel in Italy. Coppola depicts luxury next to, sometimes even as, anomie — the plenitude and glitz of things but always on the verge of the void.
The film, and Johnny, sparks to life when his daughter Cleo (Ellie Fanning) arrives. I can’t think of a better representation of a father-daughter relationship ever depicted on film: sweet, complex, reciprocal, full of feeling but always constrained by external forces partly of their making and partly outside their control. Johnny and Cleo communicate simply, through looks, clearly love each other, each want to spend more time with the other. I love how at the end of the beautiful scene extracted above she tells him about the book she’s reading. clearly referring to Twilight, and how he listens; the film and he both making room for and basking in the girlyness.
She makes him eggs benedict; he loves her eggs benedict. She seems to know all his faults, questions him glancingly on them, sometimes implying ‘really?’ as she sees the next girl he’s bringing over for breakfast. But though she seems to question his actions, she accepts him for who he is and never judges him as a person. He’s clearly crazy about her. She’s what really brings joy to his life and makes it meaningful. When they part, the anomie and the desert kind of re-engulfs him without quite extinguishing him. He gets back on an expensive car and back into an emotional desert. She goes to her mother; he returns to the walking dead. It’s a beautiful and rare relationship on film and it’s a beautiful and rare film.
In a thoughtful piece on Somewhere and how it currently circulates called Searching for Somewhere ‘ (Film Quarterly, vol 64, No. 4), J. M. Tyree writes, ‘Somewhere is a remarkably divisive film that provokes genuine arguments amongst friends — plus it’s actively despised by some reviewers, denizens of the Twitterverse, and members of various online user communities…Searching through Twitter for references to Somewhere reveals a buzzing cloud of haters (not all of them clearly male)’. But I bet most are; and in any case screw ’em: they’re missing out on something rare and beautiful.
The Robocop remake is a mixed bag. I think Joel Kinnaman is a brand new star. In the original, Paul Weller seemed a little robotic and inhuman even before he became a cyborg. Here, Kinneman runs the whole gamut from romantic longing to mechanical catatonia but lets the audience into every aspect of it. The rest of the cast is a treat too. I’ve not seen Michael Keaton better since Beetlejuice. He’s lithe, charismatic and oozes the kind of menacing and sleazy charm that can bribe politicians with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. He’s like a Mafia Don of robocops but one who’ll bring out the jazz hands if needed to seal the sale. His scenes with Gary Oldman — as a scientist emollient to the point of weakness and ambitious past the point of ethics — have a real snap.
Samuel L. Jackson, hair high, almost but not quite straightened and set with enough hairspray to stop any onslaught is a delight as a manipulative Fox-style news presenter: reasonable in a speaking-from-the-pulpit kind of way when setting out a case, impatient when he’s not, and bombastic when speaking directly to the audience. It was lovely to see Jennifer Ehle as well wearing clothes as dark as her morals and with elegant features arranged into a poker face until called to action. I also liked Abbie Cornish as Murphy’s wife though the spectre of Nancy Allen – curvy, saucy, crisp and acid – like biting into a tart apple — is bound to haunt anything ever connected with her.
The film is set in 2028; in a Detroit that seems prosperously reconstructed but still crime-ridden and corrupt; thus is license afforded to critique present-day America. But Robocop doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: corporations rule above governments unimpeded by checks and balances; we live in a surveillance culture that surveys and manipulates the weak and powerless; the media is brutally manipulative and mendacious; life is cheap. The original told us all of that and with a lot more wit, in a setting that seemed more spectacular, and with dialogue that was spare but with enough cutting lines to pack a punch: they relied on irony, conveyed satire, and earned belly-laughs from the audience – who can forget ‘you’re fired!’?
This Robocop doesn’t really overcome the failings that plague cinema in the digital age: the image still seems too thin to me, Padilha hasn’t learned how to make action exciting, lots of people get killed but there’s nothing at stake in their death – or indeed in Alex Murphy/Robocop avoiding his own — and the narrative still hasn’t figured out how to make use of all of story-telling possibilities new technology both diegetically and extra-diegetically make possible. I think what’s really missing is thought on how the new possibilities of dealing with time and the new challenges posed by changing standards of what is believable can result in different ways of communicating meanings and conveying pleasures.
If one could stop thinking about the original however, the film is very enjoyable and worth seeing for the actors alone.
Anjelica Huston’s A Story Lately Told (London: Simon & Schuster, 2013) is her memoir of growing up in an unconventional, bohemian and artistic household; first in Ireland, then London, and later, by the book’s end, in New York, where she starts her first serious love affair with fashion photographer Robert Richardson. She is of course the daughter of the legendary film director John Huston, the maker of classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Fat City, The Man Who Would be King, and many others. Her mother too was famous, ‘the youngest member to join the best dance company in the nation, Ballet Theatre,’ (p.13), gracing the June 9, 1947 cover of Life as ‘Young ballerina, Ricky Soma’ and under contract to David Selznick when she met John Huston.
The story is told with great generosity of spirit, a flair for conveying the drama of incident and a sharp eye for a telling detail that readers appreciate knowing, like her father’s wearing Guerlain’s lime cologne or his middle name being Marcellus – who knew? Huston evokes through naming flowers, animals, the different kinds of colours one finds in Ireland, the obstacles to a hunt. She’s got the vocabulary to convey a range of places things and experiences — and she writes vividly and well.
Anjelica Huston is not only an iconic 1970s model, Academy Award-winning actress (for Prizzi’s Honour in 1985, directed by her father), and a director (Agnes Brown); she’s an American aristocrat. She likes to tell us that she’s descended from Civil War generals and the State Attorney of Ohio on her father’s side; a yogi and owner of the famed showbiz speakeasy Tony’s Wife on her mother’s; that she was born whilst her father was making The African Queen and that Katharine Hepburn was the first person to ask whether her father had had a boy or a girl.
Any film buff will know about her father, or that her paternal grandfather was Dodsworth in the movies and introduced Kurt Weill’s beautiful ‘September Song’ on stage; or that she herself is the third generation of Oscar winners in her family. But like all Twentieth Century aristocrats, though they might derive their power from a particular genealogy grounded in the history of a specific country, they themselves are not rooted to a particular place. The world is their arena of action and the great capitals and fashionable vacation destinations their playground. The ‘jet set’ was the term developed for the late twentieth-century variant of the rich and /or famous to which Anjelica Huston and her family belonged.
In the acknowledgment section of A Story Lately Told, Huston thanks her ‘darling sister Allegra, whose own memoir was an inspiration’ (p.253). And one can understand how that would be the case: Allegra Huston’s book, Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found (London: Bloomsbury, 2009) is also a coming of age story that deals with many of the same places and people. But it is a truism that each child has a different upbringing even when raised in the same family by the same set of biological parents; parents become more experienced, they change, or circumstances change, or each child may bring out a different aspect of the parents’ personality.
Plus, Allegra Huston had a more dramatic story to tell: growing up thinking that she shared the same set of parents as Anjelica she later discovers that her real father was Viscount Norwich, son of Great Britain’s postwar Ambassador to Paris — Duff Cooper – and Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, one of the great beauties of the 20s, and under her married name of Diana Cooper, a sensation on stage in The Miracle for Max Reindhart. There are enough books by or about the Norwich’s to fill a small bookshelf. Their names also appear in the memoirs and letters of Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton and other luminaries of the era. Norwich himself appears as a fictional character guiding tourists through the great sights of Europe in Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred; it was whilst undertaking such tours that Norwich met Allegra’s mother and thus the ‘Love Child’ in the title of Allegra’s book.
It is an indictment of Norwich, and a compliment to Huston, that in spite of her three other siblings having slightly different parentage, she remembers that ‘We were brothers and sisters, and Dad was our father. I never felt I was second best to him. I was as much his child as any of us (p. 218). This couldn’t be said for the Norwich’s; and in her own book Anjelica remembers that, ‘Mum told me that when she was pregnant with Allegra, John Julius’s mother, Lady Diana Cooper, had come by the house with a bunch of violets. Mum was ambivalent about the gesture, feeling that there was something condescending about it, particularly in Diana’s choice of flowers, like a bouquet a grand person might present to a poor relation she said (p.150)..
Part of the great pleasure one experiences when reading A Story Lately Told is the account of the places and people that form the context of a kind of upbringing that might have seemed exceptional in the middle of the last century but might no longer seem so: people travel a lot more and families made up of different baby-daddies and indeed different baby-mommies would, if one believed daytime television, be the norm rather than the exception today.
The first part of the book deals with Ireland as Anjelica’s first memories are of growing up there, or more precisely at St. Clerans, a 110-acre estate in Craughwell, Co. Galway. Jean-Paul Sartre who went there to write a script for John Huston’s film of Freud wrote Simone de Beauvoir, ‘Through this immensity of identical rooms, a great Romantic, melancholic and lonely, aimlessly roams. Our friend Huston is absent, aged, and literally unable to speak to his guests…his emptiness is purer than death.’ But that’s not how Anjelica remembers the house and that’s not how she remembers her father. For her, the house is full of the music of Montand, Sinatra, Holiday, Piaf and Moloudji; it’s full of art books and Penguin Classics. It’s a house where the rugs are Aubusson, the posters are by Toulouse Lautrec, the crystal is Waterford, the silver is Georgian, the couture is by Dior and Balenciaga, and there are Greek marbles, Venetian glass, Imperial jade, Etruscan gold, Louis XIV furniture. Anjelica knows both the price and value of such things. Her father, who gambled for and won a Monet, taught her. But the people she grew up with are the servants, the nannies, the Creaghs who were cook and butler; and she remembers them not only with fondness but with enough feeling to have kept up with them and revel in their successes: the Creagh’s daughter, Karen would later be ‘and All Ireland Champion céili dancer’ Anjelica recounts with warmth and pride (p. 54).
If the chapters on Ireland sketch out a childhood, the chapters in London sketch out her teenage years. It’s Hyde Park and Carnaby Street, crushes on the Beatles, shoplifting at Biba. Part of the pleasure of reading this book is the anecdotes about the famous; Carson McCuller’s visit to St. Clerans where she was taken around the house the first day and then didn’t leave her room for the rest of her stay; Anjelica’s first sighting of Mick Jagger when she was understudying Marianne Faithfull in a play; feeling slightly used by James Fox.
Huston has a storyteller’s gift. I love her evocations of place. But I also love how she dramatises her anecdotes: the story of the Irish lady she met at one of the country hunts who won a paternity suit against the husband she had not lived with for seven years because she claimed they were once guests at the same country house and accidentally ‘shared a sponge’. There are many more like that. The chapter in New York, where she finds herself in fashion, meeting Diana Vreeland, being photographed by Avedon and Bailey, modeling for Halston and Zandra Rhodes. It’s a rich life that Anjelica Huston shares.
A Story Lately Told is a beautifully told tale, one that honours both her mother and her father as well as the three countries in which she grew up. It’s the story of an artist as a confused but interested young woman; and it’s proof that Anjelica Huston is an artist in more than one medium.
Seeing the live National Theatre broadcast of Coriolanus last Thursday brought home once again how we’re all glued to screens now: our eyes rarely far from and seemingly hypnotized by the lure of the light emanating from our phones, tablets, computers and TV’s. But the screen that has always meant most to me – a big one with a movie projected onto it– is decreasing in significance, at least socially. Arguably, movies are better than ever. But we watch them through many outlets other than the cinema – computers, TV, DVD — and when we go to the pictures it’s not always movies we go to watch.
What ‘cinema’ is, where we see it and how we see it is all in flux. Theatre, ballet, opera — even boxing — are only some of the events we can now see as live transmissions onto big screens at cinemas. The picture-houses themselves are evolving to meet the different functions they’re required to fulfill in order to survive. The Electric in Birmingham is now the type of trendy venue where people pay premium prices for the privilege of sinking into big leather sofas to drink in their art with their cocktails. I tried to get tickets for Coriolanus there but they were sold out.
I was luckier at Cineworld because Corolianus was showing on two different screens. Of course, I could have waited to see it on DVD later but it would have lost the dimension of ‘liveness’, the size of the screen would have shrunk, and it would have meant wresting control of ‘time’ from the show’s makers: on DVD, I could pause at any time, make myself a cup of coffee and possibly wreck all the filmmakers’ carefully considered attempts to realise effects that rely on suspense, timing, rhythm.
But what are we watching when we see Corolianus at the ‘pictures’? It’s for sure we’re not watching a movie. There was no evidence of the care with choice of camera angle, camera movement, design, décor and editing that would have gone into conceptualising Corolianus as a movie, evidence clearly visible in, say, Ralph Fiennes 2011 film version. During the live transmission there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for camera set-ups or movement except following the actors. Even the focus on some of the close-ups was poor; and for cinema, that’s as basic as it gets.
It was also clear that the actors had not designed their performances for a big screen. The pitch of their voices and the size of their gestures were aimed at the audience in the Donmar Warehouse, which however cozy in relation to other theatres, is not as intimate as a close-up. The actors’ movements seemed too outsized and their speaking seemed oddly stylized on a big screen. Though I loved some of the performances (Hiddleston’s Coriolanus and Deborah Findley’s Voumnia were particularly memorable), they weren’t designed for the big screen.
If the Coriolanus I saw was not a movie it was also not live theatre. The staging seemed marvelously inventive for theatre but pretty ‘blah’ for the movies, or at least so I deduced from what I could see. For example, one can imagine how the fight sequence must have been thrilling on stage but here it just seemed like a phony, rather well-choreographed little tumble. Tom Hiddleston’s shower and his being hung up near the end must have seemed equally dazzling theatrical moments at the Donmar but didn’t quite thrill through a lens. One could imagine the effects but one didn’t feel them. Moreover, in the cinema even a ‘live’ transmission does not convey presence and one also loses the ability one has in the theatre of letting the eye wonder, of picking and choosing where to lay the focus of one’s attention.
One of the reasons for these live transmissions is to see the great actors of the day perform in great plays old and new. That was the rationale for the old BBC ‘Play of the Month’, which ran from 1965-1983 (Janet Suzman and John Gielgud in George Bernard’s Shaw’s St. Joan from 1968 is but one example), or the series of filmed plays to be sold and screened at cinemas that Ely Landau produced from the 1960s onwards, two of them starring Katharine Hepburn: Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962)and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (Tony Richardson, 1973).
What these live transmissions offer that is new and valuable is the combination of a large screen, a communal and social viewing experience, and the sense of occasion that attends to the ‘liveness’ of the transmission; although these events are recorded and sometimes shown in cinemas later, whenever there seems to be a demand for it (the NT’s production of Frankenstein with Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch played in cinemas long after it ceased its run at the National).
Though I find nothing as boring as seeing ballet on television, I love seeing live broadcasts of ballet on a big screen. Size really does reveal the athleticism and control of the dancers in a way that is impossible on TV or sometimes even on stage. Seeing Sergei Polunin in a live transmission of the Royal Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty was for me an unforgettable experience, one I’d not had in a theatre for a long time. But I’ve still to experience anything remotely close to that when watching a play broadcast at the cinema.
I enjoyed Coriolanus. The language is glorious. It felt it a privilege to be able to see Tom Hiddleston so close up, to see how Mark Gatiss’ Melenius compares to his Mycroft, to evaluate how Brigitte Hjort Sørensen, the lovely Danish reporter from Borgen, spoke Shakespeare. The live transmission is not a replacement for theatre and it’s not a replacement for cinema as we knew it. It is however an addition to an audio-visual ecosystem that is helping to transform and redefine the visual culture that we live in.
Seen Thursday, 30th January at Cineworld Cinemas, Birmingham
A Shorter version of this was published in The Conversation at https://theconversation.com/screening-shakespeare-coriolanus-doesnt-captivate-at-the-multiplex-22682