Sea Shantih Shantih Shantih

Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh, Anthropocene (Scottish Opera, Hackney Empire)

I’ve never really done opera – I went to a couple of modern renderings by something like the London Mozart Players and I dutifully download the semi-staged Proms as part of working my way through the season, but… I don’t get the conventions. And whilst I’m writing this with Górecki on my headphones, I don’t necessarily do modern music.

Anthropecene

Continue reading →

Orpheus in the Deep South

Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018)

There’s a point in this film when driver/body guard Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) tells African American musician Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) that his wife (Linda Cardellini) has bought his version of Orpheus in the Underworld. That’s the one is which the champion lyre player descends into hell to rescue someone.

Continue reading →

It Means Nothing to Me

Somewhat by accident, I stumbled upon a news story about a Pieter Bruegel exhibition in Vienna. I’d known his work with A Level English Literature — Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” features several and I’d been to see some of these in Brussels last year. I’d caught a few more at the Coultard, the three grisailles, and I’d seen his Adoration of the Magi in Bath, along with works by his sons and grandsons and so on. I think I saw The Massacre of the Innocents at the Queen’s Gallery. So seeing as many more in one place seemed like a good idea, although the available long weekends that don’t clash with Christmas were like finding hen’s teeth.

So, January in Vienna.

Continue reading →

Figuring It Out

Face to Face: The Figurative Sculpture of Sean Henry (The Lightbox, Woking, 12 August-5 November 2017)

I first knowingly encountered the sculptures of Sean Henry on a day trip to Newbiggin by the Sea with the Aged P. Faced with the problem of being a north eastern coastal town — and the last pub before Norway not being necessary nor sufficient — they turned to Art and commissioned a giant double statue, Couple, to be placed in the bay, an implicit answer to whatever question was being asked by a certain northern angel.

Continue reading →

And the Real Thing is the Best Thing Yet

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

Some time ago I was doing some research into the history of Detroit, and read that this was an integrated city with little disturbances over racial lines. It was the heart of the American motor industry and then a music industry, which have since collapsed and moved elsewhere. Julien Temple’s extraordinary documentary Requiem for Detroit (2009) documents its collapse and attempts at reconstruction. Having done further research, I’m not sure what the author was talking about — and this film centres on a reconstruction of a devastating event at the heart of a disturbance, at the Algiers Hotel.

An illegal drinking venue is raided by largely white police men, arresting largely African American patrons. This leads to unrest on the streets, which the film labels a riot, over a number of days. An aspiring male vocal group, The Dramatics, have their performance cancelled just before they are due to go on, thanks to the curfew, and they try to find their way home. Larry Reed and Fred Temple book a room at a motel and try to pick up two white tourists, Julie Ann and Karen, who introduce them to Carl Cooper and Aubrey Pollard. Pollard fires a starter gun out of the window, attracting the National Guard, the police — including Philip Krauss, who has shot someone dead in the back — and a security guard, Melvin Dismukes. Krauss starts interviewing every one left in the motel, with sadistic glee, staging mock executions. Then things go really wrong. When the night is over, the white cops and Dismukes are put on trial, with an all-white jury.

There has been a certain amount of fuss about whether this was a story that Bigelow, as a white director can tell this story. It would be interesting to see a John Singleton or Spike Lee version, of this film, but cautious Hollywood rarely gives big budgets to African American directors. Equally, they rarely do so to women — Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight and Wonder Woman being rare exceptions — so perhaps we should celebrate a woman being given a $34 million budget, although that is not huge. Bigelow is the only woman to win a best director Oscar, so perhaps has the chops to swing the gig for an African American director and act as producer; on the other hand she has had a lot of flops, in the arcane world of film accountancy her films are rarely in profit, making about three times the budget at best. At the moment, Detroit is a flop.

It is not an easy film to navigate, as we take a long time to get to the motel and then we have the aftermath to deal with. All of this is necessary. There are a bewildering range of characters in the first half hour, before the set piece kicks in, and this gives us a portrait of a city in crisis, if not the mundane every day life. The context of unrest in 1967 Detroit is sketched in with drawings and captions — the move of workers from the south to work in the car industry and the slow exodus of the white population (the words “white flight” are not used). We don’t get the fall out from Jim Crow laws, the Civil War and slavery, but that was more in the south anyway. We are told that change is inevitable, although it is not clear when or how. Bigelow slips between documentary footage and reconstruction.

In a sense the film is all reconstruction; we are told that it is not clear what happened, even with court testimony and the memory of survivors. Characters will be compressed into composites, dialogue will be invented, people were on their own. This matters because this is an event of political importance — but the story has to be told. There is violence, but we can’t be sure it is the right violence. Above all, we can never quite get into the heads of Krauss and his fellow cops — of what made them racist. Or to behave as they did. Their interrogation is tactical, but we don’t know who set that up.

Sometimes there is a sense of punches being pulled. John Boyega as Dismukes is a Good Man, and no doubt he is, but I wonder whether the actor is in danger of becoming a British Denzel Washington, a guarantor of uprightness. Equally, there are moments of good deeds by white people just in case we have wanted to insist #notallwhitemen. It is telling that the two central characters are played by British actors. Was it too much of a hot potato?

Bigelow has always been a director of contradictions, a female director who had tried to inhabit supposedly male genres, more likely to create meaty roles for men than women (but don’t forget Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel (1987)). Her background is in painting and film theory, with auteurial signatures of night shoots and neon lights, often viewed through smoke, but she has worked with and was married to James Cameron. She has worked in art house and television, with a small role in the extraordinary intersectional sf film Born in Flames, but she’s also had big budget. Repeatedly she makes radical films that end up with a whiff of neoconservatism — her vampire film Near Dark (1987) blurs boundaries of sexuality and gender, but white patriarchy and home wins out; her sf Strange Days (1995) has a female African American protagonist, but a white old man saves the day. Detroit was inspired by events in Ferguson, but the dots of true integration still not being achieved are not filled in.

I think this is a film to be seen — even if it’s not a film to like or enjoy — but perhaps on the level that a flawed attempt to tell a story is better than not to tell it. But perhaps the canvas of a thirteen part television series might have been more suitable.

Casey the Nietzschean Ghost

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

Your response to this film will depend on whether you can buy its central conceit: when a husband dies in a car accident he haunts his wife in a white sheet. In the next house along there is another ghost, in a rather more fetching design. The cumulative effect is it is not certain how seriously you are meant to take the film — is it a comedy, a tragedy, a bitter sweet comedy, a comedy with tragic overtones? Much of the film is in silence, the husband staring, first at his wife, and then at the various later, or perhaps earlier, inhabitants of the house. The cynic is me suspects that they could only afford Casey Affleck for a couple of days, and a stand in plays the ghost, but apparently it is him.

One of the incomers, present at a party, has a speech longer than all the other dialogue put together. Oddly, when a Spanish-speaking family move in, they are not subtitled — perhaps the ghost does not understand them — but the dead neighbour is.

Lowery works within an almost square ratio, something like 4:3, the same as used in silent films, and this adds a sense of voyeurism to the proceedings. The Curzon’s policy of not closing curtains — maybe there are no curtains — to cover the blank screen draws attention to the empty space outside the restrained diegesis. The ghost is often at the edge of the frame, just in view, with the camera held on the tableaux for longer than we are used to and certainly more than is comfortable. I was reminded of the great southern American photographer, William Eggleston, with his focus on the determinedly mundane. It is ordinary, but there is a beauty in it.

Whilst in Manchester By the Sea delayed the final revelation of what the trauma and guilt at the heart of the film was, this is more circumspect. There is tension between the married couple, over whether they should move or not, the chain of tragic events is less laid out for us. Whilst that film denied us catharsis, this one is even more frustrating of audience desires. The pace is glacial at first, but slowly builds, never less than watchable even as it toys with us. The mourning wife, Rooney Mara, binge eats a chocolate pudding, in spoonful after spoonful after spoonful and I hope this was achieved in a single take for the sake of her waist line.

It is not clear whether it is told in linear time — in a sense it isn’t, as we have flashbacks — but the years that the house lies empty should be stretching out from more or less the present, even as a modern metropolis encroaches on the house. They have laptops. Mobile phones. And we also loop back to pioneers. The film’s epigraph is taken from a Virginia Woolf story, “A Haunted House”:

”Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure — a ghostly couple.”

and Woolf repeatedly plays with duration in her work.

On a couple of occasions the husband loses patience with his squatters and haunts them — exploding light bulbs, throwing books around. We see some of the titles: A Farewell to Arms, some Nietzsche. They mean something. Probably. You may lose patience. You may surrender to the film. You should probably cry.

Acute Angels

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part One: Millennium Approaches
(National Theatre, directed by Marriane Elliott)

IMG_1900.JPG

Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Shortly into this seven and a half hour play — twenty minutes? half an hour? — I mused on Walter Benjamin, a thinker I do not know as much about as I should and his musings on the Paul Klee picture and history.

(When I was researching a chapter on John Wyndham, “Random Quest” and the film Quest for Love, I needed to know about Goethe and Elective Affinities and Paul de Man had written an essay on Benjamin’s essay on someone else’s reading of the novel, but that was too far down the rabbit hole.)

Might this unpack a way of unthinking about Tony Kushner extraordinary play? Ah, he says, having googled, Kushner already knows about the angel of history.

It is a document of a different time — always already an history play. It is set in the plague years, the early years of the HIV crisis, when AZT trials were making headway and it might just have been possible to think of living with AIDS rather than a death sentence. Reagan had been reelected (so had Thatcher) and it was necessary to overcome deep, visceral prejudice in order to gain funding and to educate.

In another part of the forest there was The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s (autobiographical) account of the gay communities coming together to organise itself and campaign over HIV awareness (and also As Is). Angels in America chooses a more fantastical route, like Unicorn Mountain, “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals”, Tim and Pete and ”Was…”, leading up to the climactic (and bordering on ridiculous) arrival of an angel at the end of “Millennium Approaches”. In addition to the fantasy, Kushner is evidently aiming for a state of the nation play, via George Bernard Shaw or Arthur Miller.

I can’t imagine what it was like to see the original production, a year or so before the staging of the second half, “Perestroika”. A two hour wait was tough enough. And I have to say, it has aged better than I would have expected. Perhaps President Trump takes us back to a time of Reagan and the sense of a world on the brink of an abyss. I’m not convinced gay marriage was on the agenda in 1986, but clearly same-sex couples were living together even if they would have had few legal rights. A couple of names passed me by — big at the time but lost to history. And as I will note in the next paragraphs, Trump is a partial consequence of one of the characters of the play.

In a sense, the first play is about two couples and that character. WASPy Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), ex-drag queen, reveals to his Jewish boyfriend Louis Ironson (James McArdle) that he has AIDS; Louis can’t handle this and thinks about leaving Prior. He is discovered crying in a bathroom by Mormon Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey), who has been lying to his wife Harper Pitt (Denise Gough) about his true sexuality. Joe, meanwhile, has been offered a promotion by his boss, Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane).

Cohn was chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the McCarthy-Army hearings, he had prosecuted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for treason and had been responsible with McCarthy for getting many gay people fired from government employment. In the 1970s, he was the Trump family lawyer, a formidable and aggressive litigator, who defended by going in the attack (sound familiar?). This character — along with the angel — is what has stayed with me most from the HBO adaptation is Al Pacino chewing the scenery. Lane is dialled back, thankfully, with a bit more of a nuanced performance (but it could hardly be less). He is sweary sweary and the audience find this funny. He is the devil offering Joe a pact, playing semantics, offering to be a father to the Mormon, in an almost invisible seduction. He is Not Gay — gays are losers, gays have no power, he has power, he simply has sex with men. He does not have AIDS — he has liver cancer.

The theme of fathers and sons runs through the first play; perhaps just sons as none of the characters are fathers. And there is also a mother and son, as we meet Joe’s mother towards the end, setting up part two. There is the patriarchy at work, man handing on advice, knowledge, power and wealth to the next generation, except it may all end here, in the coming apocalypse.

We also have the sense of betrayal — lovers of lovers, husbands of wives, Cohn surely of Joe. So many characters want to get out and leave — complaining that they have been out in an impossible situation, not of their making. This sense of inevitability, of predestination, of the elect and the damned connects with an ongoing discussion of guilt. Louis, in particular, has long monologues (even as part of dialogue) about Judaism and guilt, as well as the after life. The scene is set for this by the opening monologue — a funeral oration by a rabbi (played by Susan Brown, who later plays a male doctor and the Mormon mother), which also points to immigration, migration and progress, a theme which develops through the second play.

To take the play at its word as a “Gay fantasia on national themes”, it seems to be a very middle class set of characters — with doctors and lawyers. There is a single African American actor, Nathan Stewart-Jones, who plays an hallucinated travel agent and then Belize, a nurse. In the second play he is given a lot more ideological weight, but not so much here. The female roles are a little thin — with Gough’s Harper playing a hysterical, Valium popping wife who has been driven there by Joe, first leaving her alone as he works and then leaving her alone as he “goes for long walks”. (The gay demi-monde is a little cringe worthy in its representation.) As part of her hallucinations, she sees Prior, and engages in conversations with him, and this seems to be real if impossible. In the third act she appears to go Antarctica, in search of friends, a moment which perhaps plays with Robert Walton in Frankenstein.

Much of the staging involves three revolves (sorry — an awful sentence) that keep shifting locations. The staging is meant to be abstract, not realistic, but sometimes this device gets in the way. And when it all slides back, revealing the whole stage for a snow storm, the release from claustrophobia is striking.

And then, the angel.

The first manifestation, if I recall correctly, is a single feather, and then there is a burst of flames. This risked being comic rather than revelatory. But the apparition is worth waiting for — Amanda Lawrence as a kind of Annie Lennox with half a dozen assistants, actually rather sinister not utopian in tone. It seems a very deus ex machina ending, a brave perhaps fool hardy moment.

And of course, as you recall from his roles other than Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield can act — coy, camp, heart broken, tough, resigned, angry, and scared out of his wits at what May of course be a night hallucination, or may indeed be an angel in New York.

(I rewatched the play as a live relay.)