Thursday, January 24, 2008

OCoen OCoen

The Coen brothers eh, are they too clever by half? A certain lack of soul and empathy amidst the smart stuff? Not quite in the Tarantino league in this regard, but tending in that direction. Of all their movies only the creepily atmospheric "Blood Simple" truly impressed me - although "Fargo" had its moments. I went to see "No Country for Old Men" last night in Dun Laoghaire and fell asleep - that must be the most profound critical judgement; or maybe I had too much wine after dinner. It was beautiful to look at: the great sweeping praries of West Texas; the small town characters and exquisitely accurate settings (where do they find those hotels and motels?); the blood seeping across the floor; the sumptuous shootings etc. But there was something hollow at the heart of the movie, and also of course at the heart of Cormac McCarthy's novel to which the movie was painstakingly true. We get absolutely no insight into what makes any of the main characters tick, or why they do what they do. They are merely types: the affectless killer; the rootless 'Nam veteran; the cartel boss in a smart suit; the aw shucks old cop acting as a kind of chorus; the loyal through thick and thin wife; and of course the nagging mother-in-law. It's comic book stuff. The movie is essentially a series of hits by the persistent hit man and it becomes repetitive and ultimately tedious (albeit beautifully filmed, crisply edited and with some fine terse dialogue). OK, you can see it as an allegory for modern America - a struggle between good and evil where evil wins, but so what.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Steve Earle at Vicar Street

Steve Earle is one of the more interesting inhabitants of Planet Rock. He’s a gifted songwriter and an eclectic musician who’s successfully embraced rock, country, folk, bluegrass (his album "Mountain" with the Del McCoury band is one of his best) and more recently a bit of techno. He's also the author of a smart collection of short-stories (“ Doghouse Roses “). He’s a zealous pussy hound (married 7 times - for God’s sake Steve) and a one-time serious junky. He was rescued from a Texan hotel unconscious with a needle full of blood sticking from his arm – an adventure that led to a stint in prison. He’s also seriously engaged politically, which is often reflected in his song-writing.

I first saw him in the Stadium in the late 80s, he was a very long-haired, elegant, pencil-slim rocker who I remember doing a rousing version of the Sir Douglas Quintets "She's About a Mover". This is a far cry from the burly, bearded, authentic persona that he presents to the world today.

He did an acoustic set in Vicar Street last night accompanied by his current wife, the country singer Alison Moorer. I like an acoustic interlude at his concerts but not a whole gig – I think he needs the lift of a rock band around him. But we had great seats and he gave a decent performance with some virtuouso playing of guitar, steel guitar, mandolin and even a banjo. He looked tired at the start but got going on the crowd's enthusiasm and played for a generous 2 hours and 20 minutes. Moorer did a few numbers but her voice lacks character and she truly murdered the Bessie Smith classic "I Need Some Sugar in my Sugar Bowl" - not the sort of song a corn-fed mid-Western blonde should ever sing. The highlights of Earle's set were "Goodbye", "My Old friend the Blues" and that old chesnut "Billie Austin".

John Waters is a Ninny

John Waters is a ninny – it’s official. I heard him on Newstalk yesterday spluttering incoherently about how all blogs are dangerous, negative, and iliterate. He also claimed that there was something inherently unhealthy about the interaction between man and the internet. As rants go it was beyond parody in its wrongheadnedness. I suppose purveyors of spurious opinion like himself feel threatened by blogs, which do what he does but do it free. It kind of renders him redundant. I can think of dozens of blogs that are superior (coherent, better written, more interesting and illuminating) to anything Waters is capable of. As for his claim that bloggers have their own political agenda, isn’t this the same John Waters that riddled his Irish Times columns with tedious special pleading for unmarried fathers rights. He also spoke of the "controls" exercised by newspapers. Would these be the same controls that ensure the interests of the advertisers are not threatened. Waters seemed, in essence, to be disturbed by the freedom of expression enjoyed on the web. Of course this gets abused, but it also leads to a more liberated and broader discourse.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

John Banville (and a nod towards Philip Larkin)

Our greatest living writer surely - or at least one of the top two or three (Thomas Kinsella and Derek Mahon being the others). There was a portrait of Banville on the excellent Arts Lives series on RTE1 last night. He came across as intelligent and engaging with a fine line in rueful self-deprecation. At one stage he slagged his younger self for writing some line that his mature self would not have countenanced ("I am therefore I think" or some such from "Birchwood"). He also said that his work was not biographical at all because he could find no subject matter is his upbringing. This is very much in contrast to his contemporary John McGahern whose work always seems autobiographical. It also goes against Graham Greene's belief that childhood is capital for a writer. Banville had a dig at Greene, that vinegary old fraud, over his high-handed hijacking of the GPA awards a few years back - and took particular delight in a photograph of Greene glaring balefully at him.

Also, I do prefer Banville's ornate writing to McGahern's spare prose. And his urban worldly milieus to McGahern's rural realism. (Much as I admire McGahern, I found myself hurrying past that scene in "That He May Face the Rising Sun" where he describes preparing a corpse for burial.)

Some of Banville's best writing is to be found in the New York Review of Books where he is a perceptive but not always kind critic. He eviscerated Ian McEwan's "Saturday" early last year and had a pop at sacred cow Hilary Mantel as well. He can also be appreciative when he encounters the real thing, as in the case of Philip Larkin:

"And, pace Eliot, Larkin was—is—a great poet. Poems such as "The Whitsun Weddings," "Show Saturday," "The Old Fools," "Church Going," these are the epics of our time. Yet for anyone who has not yet read this wonderful poet, it might be best to begin not on those peaks, but with, for example, the tiny poem "Cut Grass," one of the most nearly perfect lyrics in the language, plangent with the sense of summer's loveliness and the finality of dusty death:

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death
It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,
White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne's lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer's pace.

Or the heartbreakingly tender "Faith Healing," a poem that no true misogynist could have written:

Slowly the women file to where he stands
Upright in rimless glasses, silver hair,
Dark suit, white collar. Stewards tirelessly
Persuade them onwards to his voice and hands,
Within whose warm spring rain of loving care
Each dwells some twenty seconds. Now, dear child,
What's wrong, the deep American voice demands,
And, scarcely pausing, goes into a prayer
Directing God about this eye, that knee.
Their heads are clasped abruptly; then, exiled
Like losing thoughts, they go in silence; some
Sheepishly stray, not back into their lives
Just yet; but some stay stiff, twitching and loud
With deep hoarse tears, as if a kind of dumb
And idiot child within them still survives
To re-awake at kindness, thinking a voice
At last calls them alone, that hands have come
To lift and lighten; and such joy arrives
Their thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief, a crowd
Of huge unheard answers jam and rejoice—
What's wrong! Moustached in flowered frocks they shake:
By now, all's wrong. In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache,
As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps,
Spreads slowly through them—that, and the voice above
Saying Dear child, and all time has disproved.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Gorgeous Fail

A good gallop through the high life and the low death of Jack Doyle on RTE 2 recently. What a cautionary tale eh. Cobh boy joins the British army and is groomed as a boxer on the basis of his hard and violent upbringing in working-class Cork. He has some success and because of his charm and good looks is boosted beyond his actual talents. A combination of indolence and lack of real boxing skill does for him. Holywood beckons when his boxing career meets its inevitable end and he enjoys his 15 minutes of fame. He couldn’t really act and played the big boy way beyond his actual achievements. And then the long slide to the gutter in Notting Hill Gate.

I met him a few times in London in the late Sixties. We drank in a Finches House called The Hoop in Notting Hill Gate - on the main drag near the tube station. It’s now a financial institution of some kind. He always occupied the same position at the side of the bar – both hands braced on the bar top to support his large and corpulent frame. I remember him as being the soul of affability at all times – no bitter ranting of what was, or might have been. A gentleman in fact despite his straitened circumstances. We always made sure we bought him a pint at some stage during the evening.

I was disturbed to hear that he had a history of physically abusing his women. We never saw a mean streak in him. He lived on until the mid-Seventies by which time he was sleeping rough. What must have gone through his head as he lay in that grim London doorstep. Did he think of his flirtations with the exquisite Carole Lombard or his passionate nights with the fiery Movita. Or of his crossing swords with Clark Gable and other Hollywood luminaries.

No amount of having starred
Makes up for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard
Provide, provide.