Sunday, January 31, 2010

Avatar and The Road

Went to both these films in the past two weeks and found neither of them more than mildly diverting. I rarely enjoy films that have loads of CGI flying and fighting sequences - and I have a low tolerance of dragons and the exotic monsters of fantasy. The real world is grim and fantastical enough for me. Star Wars left me cold, for example, and I was unmoved by the Lord of the Rings. Avatar is no doubt a treat for the senses and the 3D effects were stunning. There parallels to be drawn with Yankee imperialism and rampant capitalism, and the remorseless pillaging of the Earth's resources, but the basic story was simplistic in the extreme - full of stock characters and situations. It was entertainment without content - like eating a meringue. The Road on the other hand was content without entertainment - a wholemeal muffin maybe. No film has the right to be so grey. The design and cinematography were sensational - image after image took one's breath away. But there was no break in the relentless grimness of the story. Even Beckett relieves the gloom with an occasional joke. You could admire a lot of it but you were hardly entertained.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Recent Reads 2

J. G. Farrell in His Own Words edited by Lavinia Greacen

This is a combination of the letters and diaries of J. G. Farrell up to his untimely drowning near Kilcrohane. The letters mainly concern the logistics of a writer's life and are not that interesting except to throw light on his early struggles for publication and survival. There's a lot of moving between modest flats and importuning his publishers for advances. A sad irony of his death was that he had (thanks to the Booker prize) just achieved financial independence.There's also an ever changing cast of women with whom he's arranging rendezvouses - while making it clear that he is not the marrying kind. Fair enough I say. Also, touchingly, he continued to write to his parents up to the end. The occasional diary entries from New York, India, Malaysia and Singapore are more interesting as the descriptive powers of the writer are employed. And you get glimpses of the characters he encountered, including Sonia Orwell, David Lean and William Burroughs. The tone throughout is rueful and self-deprecating but underneath you perceive the driven ambitious writer.

The Humbling Philip Roth

In his Last Poems Yeats referred to the perennial nature of the sexual urge: "You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attention upon my old age". Roth's recent novels with their elderly protagonists clearly establish that this is an itch that's never cured. There is a wonderful scene in Everyman where the terminally ill hero encounters a beautiful girl running on the beach and toys with the notion of asking her out. The barrenness of the present compared to the superabundance of the past is the theme of his late novels. In The Humbling the elderly character gets the girl and much unfeasible sex occurs. But this is merely a dying spasm and soon soon he is left with nothing but his lonely decline. A lot of people prefer Roth's earlier more wordy novels, I prefer these pared down minimalist meditations on sex and mortality.

Annapurna by Maurice Herzog

As a rule I love climbing books and admire the insane romantics who write them. But I'll make an exception for Herzog's account of his ascent of Annapurna in 1950. The tone throughout this chaotic book suggests a hubris hardly in keeping with the disastrous venture that he led. He also fails to conceal his contempt for the sherpas and the "coolies" they encountered. A refrain throughout is the dirt and smells in the villages they passed through. What a prig. Structurally the book is a bit of a mess with the climb itself taking a secondary role to the struggle to actually find the right mountain and the disastrous aftermath. Herzog exalts his own leadership qualities, quoting some petty examples of how he exerted his authority. For someone who lost all his toes and most of his fingers, a degree of modesty might have been more apt. He lost his gloves on the summit and climbed down bare-handed, despite the fact he had spare socks in his bag. An expensive oversight eh.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Red by John Logan at the Donmar Warehouse

I do love the Donmar - a theatre with no safety net. The audience sits around the edge of the stage on three sides, or looms over the action in the balcony. It gives it an intimacy and immediacy that is lacking in a more conventional theatre. Given its modest capacity it's inclined to go for more experimental theatre and its audience is invariably young and right on.

I hadn't read any reviews of Red but it had two things going for it: the estimable Alfred Molina was appearing and it was about the last days of Mark Rothko - when he was wrestling with his conscience and the the Four Seasons commission. It turned out to be truly outstanding - Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant were on stage for 100 minutes and there wasn't a false moment - except for one or two of those slightly pretentious ones that discourses on art tend to provide. In addition to Rothko's stricken conscience, as he tried to reconcile art and mammon, the play dealt with the barbarians at the gate as Abstract Expressionism was being threatened by pop art and the garish and glib offerings of Warhol, Jasper Johns and Lichtenstein. But these forays into art history were never dull as the passion of the protagonists brought them to life. There was lots of physical business taking place in the studio where the play was set. Paintings were moved and paint mixed and every now and then the white back wall was exposed - bedecked with drips of gore from the red canvases. There was one beautifully choreographed piece where the two characters primed a giant canvas in unison. Both actors ended up covered in scarlet paint - another intimation of Rothko's bloody end.

Sarah Jane Morris at Ronnie Scott's

First ever trip to Ronnie Scott's last Friday and what a treat it tuned out to be. Firstly the venue is great - it's reasonably small and intimate so that no matter where your table is you are close to the action. We'd made a priority booking and so got a table right at the very front. There's waitress service so we were able to order a bottle of wine and settle back.

Sarah Jane Morris used to sing with the Communards and throughout the show wore her socialist principles on her sleeve - Promised Land being a good example. What a voice - deep, sonorous and melodic. She sang a number of her own compositions which were fine and dandy but it was her three interpretations of other people's songs that raised the show from entertaining to memorable. These were John Martyn's I Don't Want to Know, Tracy Chapman's Fast Car, and Sting's Fragile. The latter in particular raised the hairs on the back of my neck. She is quite a sight: a mop of unruly red hair, layers of gipsy clothes and accessories, and a loads of expressive movement . She was I suspect ravishing in her day. Her spirit is still very much intact - notwithstanding a recent divorce after 25 years of marriage - an event she spoke about ruefully and amusingly. She was accompanied by a super cool and super tight band - with Sting's occasional sideman Dominic Miller on guitar (looking like a more languid William Dafoe) and a guy on bass who looked like BB King's younger and slimmer brother. Great show.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Thoughts out of Season

The Christmas debacle endured and survived and in bed by 23:30 on New Year's Eve - one can't complain. The post-Christmas spiritual recuperation in Schull worked its magic once again: the morning encounter with the congenitally upbeat Tom Brosnan in the local Spar; the lubricious crusty bread that is designed purely for a one-day stand; and then the long walk with the dogs on Toormore, Tragumna, or Barelycove beaches; back to read for a few hours - this Christmas I was reading J. G. Farrell's letters and Roberto Bolano's quirky masterpiece 2666; and then the crucial pre-dinner drinks in Hackett's (or for a change The Irish Whip in Ballydehob) where affairs of family and state are thrashed out (and Lucy from the Czech Republic, behind the bar, adds a frisson); and so to dinner which could be one of Tom Brosnan's succulent pork fillets or could be a trip to Antonio's in Ballydehob - Annies being now de trop.