Month: September 2014
Magic in the Moonlight is very pretty, has a serious theme, gorgeous music and a very good cast headed by Colin Firth as Stanley, who under the professional name of Wei Ling Soo performs illusions that other people take as ‘magic’. Under his own name however, Stanley is a professional debunker of all that is not reason and science, and he can get quite stroppy about it. When George (Simon McBurney), a friend and fellow illusionist, asks him to use his knowledge to attempt to discredit a spiritualist, Sophie (Emma Stone), who claims to have visions and talk to the dead but might just be swindling rich people, he doesn’t hesitate. Needless to say, he ends up falling in love with her.
The film is structured around an argument that has as a central matrix juxtapositions between reality versus illusion, magic versus science, reason versus feeling, the evidence of things not seen versus the simple sleight of hand. These are intertwined themes that unfold wittily if predictably during the course of the narrative. Magic also has an Agatha Christie-ish nostalgic feel to it that is quite pleasant, some laughs and more heart than Allen usually offers. But too many elements are not ‘quite’ right –think of what Preston Sturges might have made of the ukulele-playing boyfriend say — and it’s all a bit slapdash, a bit dull but not without its pleasures.
Firth is rather marvellous. He gets a great entrance as Wei Ling Soo (though the sensitive might find this a bit too close to blackface for comfort) and is then able to run the gamut of emotion in a very juicy role. He’s perhaps too restrained, not stylized enough for the period, tempo and mood that the film sets. And one can certainly argue that he doesn’t get as many laughs as he should. But his frustration, his discovery and the mixed emotions of his avowal at the end are a little triumph of acting skill and a pleasure to watch.
There are also lovely actresses doing fine work here: Eileen Atkins, Marci Gay Harding, and I particularly loved Jacki Weaver, as the rich dowager who finds happiness talking to her departed husband on the other side, her widening eyes, high creaky voice and an expression that starts as hesitant and ends as almost smug as she finds the confirmation of his love and fidelity that she seeks, a sheer joy to behold . I also loved how, in spite of Allen’s penchant for anhedonia, it seems the only happy characters are the ones with blind faith, as if in Allen’s terms, the intelligent are cursed to be unhappy. Firth, however intelligent his belief in reason, finally gives in to the idea that there might be things that are unseen and irrational that nonetheless are intensely felt and real. As an added bonus, Ute Lemper appears singing in a cabaret scene, although sadly all too briefly, like the film doesn’t quite know what she has to offer or how best to make use of it. Actors need to fend for themselves in Allen’s films and most do so deliciously here.
This is by no means top-notch Allen. But even journeyman Allen is interesting to me. He’s one of the few director of his generation who continuously plays with form, with different ways of telling stories without making a big fuss about it: Greek Choruses, different narrators, a story told by two different people in the same film; and most of his films have at least four or five good jokes. This is no exciting experiment but it does offer a few gentle laughs, actors who are allowed to thrill us with the type of magic only they can offer, beautiful scenery and gorgeous thirties music. It doesn’t knock your socks off but it does while away 90 minutes or so very pleasantly indeed.
A dear friend asked me to do one of those facebook lists of my top ten books and in spite of trying I simply couldn’t do it. I realized I don’t really read books individually unless they’re not really satisfying. If I fall in love with a book, then I pursue the author, in a sense inhabit their world, read their oeuvre and then sometimes even their influences, until something snaps, I lose attention and I move on to someone else. So here are the ten writers who, for better or worse, I remember now as having marked a period of my life. This of course eliminates a whole series of types of books I read as a child, books where the series was more important than the author and in fact I now struggle to remember who wrote them even though I once lived in the world they created: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsy Twins, Alfred Hitchock and the Three Investigators etc. Thus here we go:
1: J.D. Salinger. I’m a cliché but I did read Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, then Franny and Zooey and all the rest. I annoyed everyone about me for years by wanting to be Holden Caulfield, finding everyone phony, and itching to tell everyone ‘truths’ that a) might not be theirs or b) might be my view but might not be true and c) might in any case be at best inconvenient and at worse offensive. It took me years to realise that Caulfield might be a psychopath.
- Simone De Beauvoir: I came across Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter at a second-hand bookshop and it rather changed my life. This led me to read all of her diaries. Until my very late twenties and beyond I re-read them, partly for pleasure, partly to compare myself to Simone until I reached a point where that comparison became laughable. Reading her diaries led me to read quite a lot of Sartre, all of Camus, all of Genet, some of Nelson Algren’s work. Reading Sartre then led to dabble with Merleau-Ponty until I realized I wasn’t really invested enough. I read all her novels too and The Mandarins led to Koestler and Darkness at Noon. The intellectual rivers that led from De Beauvoir are immeasurable — I could signal what Camus, Genet and Algren in turn led to just as I did with Sartre — and the pleasures ongoing.
- James Baldwin: As a gay teenager trying to understand who I was I came across all the books one is supposed to read: A Boy’s Own Story, The City and The Pillar, A Single Man, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Our Lady of the Flowers and Giovanni’s Room. I liked them all though didn’t fully connect with any. But Giovanni’s Room did lead to If Beale Street Could Talk, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, Just Above My Head and then the rest of Baldwin including and especially, The Fire Next Time and The Evidence of Things Not Seen. For many years I felt Baldwin spoke ‘me’ better than I did myself.
- Margaret Laurence: I grew up in Canada and grew up with bookshops having a section, a tiny one, entitled ‘Canadian Literature’; it wasn’t integrated into the normal literature section, it needed special attention, special care, special nurture; on the other hand, it also had the connotation that it wasn’t quite good enough to simply be literature; that a special case needed to be made for it. In this shelf I made my way though, amongst many others, early Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, all of Mordecai Richler and Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen. But in spite of having grown up in the neighbourhood that Richler wrote about and having to then no experience with the Prairie and West Coast world of Margaret Laurence, it’s The Diviners that became the first Canadian book I loved without qualification and, after reading The Stone Angel, The Fire-Dwellers and the others, Margaret Laurence with her wise, brave, gentle and feminist narratives, became the first Canadian writer I loved without special pleading.
- Michel Tremblay: Tremblay was the leading Quebec playwright whilst I was growing up; from the late sixties onwards he wrote hit after hit. Plays like Les belles soeurs, La duchesse de Langeais, Laura Cadieux, and À toi pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou have become not only canonical but absolutely central works in Québécois culture and are continuously revived. I love the plays but the Tremblay works that are important to me are the novels, which have become collected under the title of Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal: La grosse femme d’à côté est enceinte, Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saint-Anges, La Duchesse et le routier etc. They were all set in the neighbourhood I had grown up in but one unknown to me because it was in French; also some of the characters were central in one novel and then reappeared as supporting characters in others; then marginal characters in one would become central subjects in a later one. I loved those characters, understanding them made me understand a culture I lived in but only marginally had access to and I felt I went on a journey with them from book to book. I haven’t re-read them since but remember them still.
- Shakespeare: I turn to Shakespeare for the same reasons others resort to The Bible; when things go wrong, when they seem beyond understanding, when one can’t quite make sense of one’s feelings or one’s life, Shakespeare seems to provide answers. One finds sublime articulation of one’s feelings in his work; things make sense beautifully. I’m fifty-two so up to now the Sonnets have been a starting point and ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ a kind of leitmotif. The plays have been a constant too though I suspect they might figure more prominently now that I’m entrenched in middle age.
- Anthony Trolloppe. I was very ill for a time many years ago now and I found solace in the world of Barchester. The novels were so quietly enthralling, the world so precise but expansive, that I lost myself in them and found them so comforting that when I got over my illness I decided to save Trolloppe as the security of my old age.
- Pauline Kael: I have been writing on film for over thirty years in one form or another and Pauline Kael got me started. I used to save up money to buy the New Yorker and wasn’t even disappointed when I opened the magazine to see she had written on a film I hadn’t yet seen or wouldn’t even be allowed to see because I wasn’t yet old enough. I still re-read her constantly and I still think no one has written better on film. An array of different types of writers on film (Richard Dyer, V.F. Perkins, David Bordwell, Robin Wood, David Thomson, Andrew Sarris, Thomas Elsaesser — I would even put Susan Sontag on this list – and this is only to name a few) have influenced me in various ways but there’s no one I love reading more. Her sentences have a jazzy flow and a snap; her understanding of American film is vast; no one I can think of has written better on film actors; and in spite of her fame, I still think she’s underappreciated. In my view Susan Sontag is the most significant American intellectual of the twentieth century and Pauline Kael is the best critic.
- Antonio Machado: The poetry that I like to read is in Spanish; it’s my first language, my native tongue. I don’t know if that really has anything to do with this partiality but I suspect it does even though some of my favourite poets (Pablo Neruda, Mario Benedetti [te quiero por que sos mi amor mi complice y todo y porque andando codo a codo, somos mucho mas que dos/ I love you because you are my love my accomplice, everything; and because together arm in arm we are so much more than two]) are not themselves from Spain. Antonio Machado, however, writes in Spanish, is from Castile, and lived in Segovia, not far from where I was born, and I was moved enough by his works, particularly by Campos de Castilla, to make a pilgrimage to the house he lived in. It was emotional to see and made me better understand both he and I, a culture and a landscape he brings to life in his work; one that I left, recognise and once more feel when reading him.
- David Foster Wallace: I know he’s no longer with us but I still consider him my favourite of contemporary writers. He’s got the largest vocabulary of anyone I’ve read; I love the way he mixes different generations of vernacular speech; his collections of essays – Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Things I’ll Never Do Again – are the very best essays I remember reading in the last ten years or so. In fact only Gore Vidal’s — a previous generation’s best American essayist — can really compare…and not favourably. It always delights me to come across one of his essays that hasn’t yet been collected (the one on Federer for example). I’m working my way though his novels at present and haven’t been able to finish Infinite Jest yet though the whole sequence at the beginning where the protagonist is waiting for his dealer has to be amongst the funniest and truest I’ve ever read. I plan to plow on.
There are others of course. As a teenager I read detective novels avidly (all of Agatha Christie, all of Arthur Conan Doyle, all of Dashiell Hammett, as much as I could get of Earle Stanley Gardner, Ross McDonald, even Mickey Spillane, etc); I had a mad passion for the iron curtain adventure novels of Helen MacInnes (Above Suspicion, Assignment in Brittany, The Salzburg Connection, The Venetian Affair, Cloak of Darkness etc: I read them all); I read Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann for the sexy bits; television turned me on to Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man), Alex Haley (Roots), James Jones (From Here to Eternity) and others; I even read Jean Plaidy.
In my early twenties I lived in Stendhal and Fabrice Del Dongo and Julien Sorel are especially meaningful, my favourite characters in fiction to that point. In my first long-term relationship I lived quite a while in the world of Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City without quite rejecting outright that of Capote and Isherwood though both of those were much less appealing than the world of Anna Madrigal. For almost a decade, I went to Barcelona every Spring and discovered the work of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, particularly his series of Pepe Carvalho detective novels. Pepe ritually burned a page of a book a day, cooked a dish, solved a crime and each of his cases offered a social history of an aspect of Barcelona (Andrea Camilleri names his detective Montalbano in hommage to Vazquez Montalban) — I read all his books including the cookery ones; I also lived in Mitford-world for a while and read what all of the sisters published and everything on them to the point that I made the happy discovery of the Mapp and Lucia novels simply because Nancy Mitford loved them. Gabriel García Maquez was and continues to be significant to me though I read just as much of Isabel Allende.
There’s an intellectual formation too, one that doesn’t quite belong here, one that took place in grad school and beyond and that still pervades my working life. But the list above is the after-work dream worlds that can only really take place in times of leisure or sleep,
A friend asked me to list the ‘15 Movies That Will Always Stay With You. The rules are: “Don’t take too long to think about it. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.”
I’ve realized that the movies that made the list are not necessarily the best ones but simply ones that marked my life in some way or that have moments that stay with me.
- The Law of Desire/ La ley del deseo (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain 1987). I was already in my mid-twenties when it came out and couldn’t believe that the film came from a Spain I still saw as medieval in culture and attitudes.
- Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, USA, 1977): Travolta was the first star my generation ‘discovered’ and had a proprietary attitude towards. High school dances were full of boys wearing white suits for several years thereafter.
- Chant d’amour (Jean Genet, France, 1950). At a time when gay imagery was rare and precious if not quite totally absent from the screen, this offered the most powerful and varied expression of gay desire and its influence is still everywhere evident: sailors, jailers, prisoners, cops, games of dominance, blowjobs on guns, blowing smoke through jail cells; a frank glance on an incantatory erotic dream.. Also my first happy encounter with experimental cinema.
- La verité (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France, 1960). Bardot naked in bed insolently chacha-ing her derriere in the face of her sister’s boyfriend; or Sami Frey waiting for her in the rain whilst she jumped on a motor-cycle with another man; or Bardot being on trial for being a woman and citing Simone de Beauvoir in her defence. Lots of unforgettable moments.
- Miracle in Milan (Vittorio de Sica, Italy, 1951). My favourite De Sica film; moments of great beauty, most memorably perhaps the homeless jostling for a bit of sunlight (though the whole beginning in the cabbage patch is beautiful too).
- Rocco and his Brothers (Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1960). My favourite Visconti; the theme of immigration, of family, the gay sub-text and the incredible scene of Alain Delon and Annie Girardot on the roof of the Cathedral in Milan still resonate.
- A tout prendre (Claude Jutra, Quebec, 1963). Claude Jutra’s masterpiece, a new-wave film made in Quebec, experimental, youthful, inter-racial, open-minded, sad. Made a romance out of intellectual aspirations and bohemian lifestyles.
- Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1944). A childhood favourite often seen with family that remains a perfect film.
- Salo (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy, 1975). Saw it as a teenager and had to leave the cinema in the middle of the film to vomit away all the fears and disgust that it incited.
- Foul Play (Colin Higgins, USA, 1978). Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase as a lovely romantic couple. Dudley Moore at his best. An hommage to Hitchcock played for comedy. The first time I ‘knew’ a film had some connection to gay culture without having any gay content. It was a big hit at the time but I’ve yet to meet anyone who shares my affection for it. Hard to get a copy now and I wish someone would re-release it.
- Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953). The first film I saw when I truly felt that cinema was the equal to any other art.
- The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1940) . Still my dream of a perfect romance.
- Scarface (Brian De Palma, USA, 1983) ). I worked as an usher at a cinema when this was released and always rushed in to catch the audience’s reaction to the chainsaw scene. Saw it over thirty times so hard to forget.
- Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942). My first film at a packed repertory theatre; the audience responding to the film in the way that seemed to make it hum collectively; a glistening black and white print: it felt like magic.
- In The Mood for Love (Kar Wai Wong, Hong Kong, 2000). Exquisite longing tinged with swoony sadness; unforgettable.
There are many more. But these were the ones that came to mind first.