A Fever with A Fever

Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream, Claudia Llosa, Chile, 2021)

Samanta Schweblin’s The Man Booker International Prize Shortlisted novel is bought to the screen by her own cowritten (with Llosa) script, which judging by the book review in The Guardian is faithful to the dialogue, although I wonder if there is a new ending. Continue reading →

We Must Love One Another and/or Die

Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart (1985) (Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, directed by Dominic Cooke)

In 2017, the National Theatre revived the two-part, seven and a half hour long Angels in America by Tony Kushner, I think in the Olivier, an account of the early years of AIDS and combination treatments. The following year, the Young Vic mounted a premiere of Matthew Lopez, The Inheritance, a two-part, seven-hour play about a group of gay men across a number of years. Both are sprawling plays and – it has to be confessed – go on a bit. Russell T. Davies’s It’s a Sin (2021) told an equivalent British story, between 1981 and 1991, over five c. 45-minute episodes.

The onlie begetters of these plays are William M. Hoffman’s As If (1985) – which has been filmed – and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985). Kramer, a screenwriter and novelist, started Gay Men’s Health Crisis to warn gay New Yorkers that there was some kind of disease, probably spread by sex, that was killing increasing numbers of people and to offer support to those who were dying. Stopping having sex was not a message gay men wanted to hear and almost no one in authority wanted to help. Kramer changed the names of the people involved and dramatized his campaign.

I saw a production at Nottingham Playhouse in 1987 and I know it had a huge impact on me at the time. We’d had the don’t die of ignorance campaign, so by then AIDS had gained its name and HIV was being used as the name of the retrovirus; it would have been the era of Section 28 (or Clause 27, 28, 29…), forbidding the promotion of homosexuality. There might even have been some debate about whether it was suitable play for school children to see. I can’t remember who played the protagonist, Ned Kramer, but he’d been in other plays at the playhouse, and I largely remember the set of his apartment – and I suspect a New York skyline. I remember a lot of talk. Do I remember Keith Jarrett’s Koln concert being played between scenes?

I also remember a revival of Saturday Night Sunday Morning and overhearing an audience comment during the traumatic illegal abortion scene: “We had a bath like that.” Emotional engagement was trumped by nostalgia.

And it would have been easy for the National to go a well-made play route, fetishizing the fashion and furnishing of a rich, secular Jewish gay man, and show the chintz alluded to in the dialogue. The Olivier is a notoriously largely space to fill – which Angels used spectacle to occupy, along with sets rotating rising and lowering.

Fortunately, they avoided this: staging it a bit in the round (I wish I’d gone for a stage seat), a mainly circular space with a number of curved benches and a handful of telephones. I clocked the triangle shape on the circle before the start, and by the end of the play it had formed a pink triangle. As the play opens, a fire is lit, and this burns above the action for the rest of the play. Characters walk or are wheeled on through the audiences, sometimes announcing the date and location. Very Brechtian. Dropped props slowly fill the space, but never leaving it overcrowded.

So, this leaves the voice. It is a very speechy, preachy play. At its heart is Weeks’s (Ben Daniels)/Kramer’s message to stop having sex, the only reasonable response in the days before safer sex and combination therapies reduced the risks and prolonged lives. But this is little more than a decade after Stonewall and this felt like a demand to stop being gay. The lack of legal support meant it was safer for many people to stay in the closet – in many places even hotel rooms would be illegal to rent – and sex could be found in bathhouses, backrooms and public toilets. Kramer does allow characters to question Weeks’s views and he is eventually removed from GMHC (in real life I think Kramer resigned), but within the context of the play he is right. It is a third of the length of Angels, is less artistically ambitious, but you to be prepared to go along with the speechifying.

The only woman in play, Dr Emma Brookner (Liz Carr), a wheelchair user, is driver Weeks to action and fighting for medical funds. She had treated more AIDS patients than anyone else in the world. Whilst she has some fine acidic dialogue, she again is prone to the monologue. Perhaps the events were too raw, the message to urgent, to turn this into something more naturalistic.

And yet, there is real emotion in the play. We are made to feel horror and grief at young men dying before their time – although for the first half of the play this is more told than shown. Inevitably, HIV comes home, and it is devastating. But there are plenty of laughs, some at the expense of gay men, some at homophobia, some at specific characters. This earns the play its inevitable darkness.

When I first saw the play, there was no cure, no vaccine, little treatment. At some point around then, Ian McKellan came out on a Radio 3 arts programme (I can’t remember why I was listening – I think because I liked theatre, I think I had read his book on acting). This revival was planned as a mark of respect on Kramer’s death in 2020.

COVID scuppered that.

We have diagnosis techniques and mitigating medication. There is still no vaccine. Worldwide reaction to COVID has been patchy, but mostly swifter and more wide ranging than it was to HIV. Money has been thrown at the issue and it seems successfully. As in the early days of HIV there have been the conspiracy theories and the fake news, but the probable vector was identified much more quickly. In the meantime, HIV has spread through Africa and has infected women as well as men. It is great that this play has been revived – the reaction to It’s a Sin indicates that some generations have forgotten and other have never learned. But there are other stories to tell – not least the non-white and less middle-class experience of the epidemic.

Mandarin of the Rings

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021)

Those of you who have submitted yourselves to my shouting at clouds Marvel Universe movies know that they are not my cup of Earl Grey, nor even a guilty pleasure. Well, perhaps the first of the Spider-Men. I suspect Black Panther was the most interesting, but Martin Freeman saving the day rather undercut the thrust of the film. But, like Black Widow, I’m pleased that it exists, even if I am unlikely to rewatch more than once. And there must be several I still haven’t seen — excluding Iron Man III which I am pretty sure I have but wiped from my memory and unfortunately that presumably answers the question of Ben Kingsley.

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Kiss of the Black Widow

Black Widow (Cate Shortland, 2021 film)

I confess I’ve only seen about a third of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I’ve long wondered with something like three hundred films in the franchise now, why the recurring characters were so male and pale. Black Panther challenged this — although for obvious reasons a sequel is problematic. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) seemed to be a character defined by her gynaecology, and I don’t think they ever explained who her husband was. Now she gets her own film and a female director, so as the world ended.

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Tilda Speaks

La voz humana (The Human Voice, Pedro Almodóvar, 2020)

Part way through this English-language short, I got a flash of memory of Law of Desire (1987) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), and realised that Tilda Swinton was channeling Carmen Maura, once Almodóvar’s muse and favourite actor. What I’d forgotten was that Cocteau’s 1930 monodrama, on which this film is loosely based, was performed in Law of Desire and fed into Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Like Tom Stoppard, Almodóvar loves this kind of mise en abîme and the whole film seems to be filmed on a film set. Continue reading →

Water Dropwort

Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020)

This has the feel of a fable — the Yi family move from 1980s California to Arkansas to live in a static caravan where Jacob (Steven Yeun) starts a farm to grow vegetables for Korean restaurants and Monica (Han Ye-ri) works in a chicken sexing unit to try and bring more money in. After a short period, they bring her mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) across for childcare and Korean War vet Paul (Will Patton) helps out.

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Prim and Improper

Joanna Moorhead, The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington (2017, revised edition)

The journalist Joanna Moorhead knew that she had an older cousin, Prim, who was estranged from the rest of her family and was some kind of artist in Mexico. At a party, she discovered that Carrington was not only an artist, but one of the most respected artists in Mexico and was still alive. Moorhead decided to travel across the Atlantic to meet her and the two became friends, with Carrington agreeing that she could write a biography.

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Don’t Try This at Home. Or at Work

Druk (Another Round, Thomas Vinterberg, 2020)

Supposedly, the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud suggests that humans are born with a blood alcohol 0.05% too low. In this comedy, four middle aged, jaded, male teachers decide to keep drinking to ascertain what the psychological effects are and whether it improves their work and personal lives. After initial success, they increase their intake.

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The Write Off Spring

David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020 (Royal Academy of Arts, 23 May–26 September 2021) 

You have to admire Hockney for his prolificness and his ability to reinvent himself in a sixty-odd year career. The Tate retrospective was great but, the 1960s rooms aside, you could imagine at least two surveys of his work that didn’t overlap with that one. Having made art with paint, pencil, charcoal, various kinds of prints and Polaroids, it was hardly surprising that he’d embrace iPads and for some years he has been using them to make landscape images. 

Here we have 116 works drawn on iPads around his newish home in Normandy during the early Covid weeks of 2020, printed above their created size on paper and on the walls of three of the rooms in the Main Galleries (and they will move in August to the slightly smaller Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries). But are they any good? 

Well, they’d look good on a fridge.  

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