Thursday 29 September 2005

The smell of "Ulysses"

Our Factification Round His Olfactification of a Work in Progress (an article full of wonder about the smell of T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia)'s copy of Ulysses by James Joyce), from The Chronicle, reproduced by the Harry Ransom Center.

Friday 23 September 2005

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) - ickleReview (cinema)

Unusual little indie film, penned, starred and directed by Miranda July. Female filmmakers are rare, so it's a treat to see a movie made from a different stuff. July plays Christine Jesperson, a taxi driver for the elderly, who makes art movies in her bedroom by voicing over imaginary romantic conversations while filming a still photograph and making sound effects with her TV static. (I wonder if the movie grew out of this, if these home movie experiments were its starting point.) She falls for Richard (John Hawkes), a shoe salesman who has just separated from his wife and burnt his hand with parafin (as you do) in an attempt to save his life. He has two sons, Peter and Robby (Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliff), who stay with him half the time, drawing pictures on their computer made out of letters and punctuation marks, and talking dirty over instant messaging. Two teenage girls flirt with Richard's colleague from the department store, hoping to lose their virginity. They practise their oral skills on Peter, the elder of the two brothers (about 15) to see who's better. Robby, the younger brother, of elementary school age, has a weird idea when talking online: "You poop into my butt hole and I poop into your butt hole...back and forth...forever," and illustrates it thus:


which really appears to turn on their interlocuteur, who suggests a meeting at a local park bench. Meanwhile, Christine also attempts to exhibit her films at the local Center for Contemporary Art, whose curators marvel at a hamburger wrapper in the middle of the floor of a new installation because it looks so "real" (it is real, left there by the artist/workman).

There is a magical long tracking shot in which Christine and Richard walk a block together towards their parked cars, pretending that the block represents the life of their relationship. Part of the walk is in awkward silence, the actors somehow conveying in their looks away, tender smiles and blank turns of the head the full range of emotions experienced in a long-term relationship.

July pushes her characters towards danger and debauchery, but her treatment is so innocent and harmless. People are weird and do weird things; but they don't always hurt each other. There is still sweetness in this world. The humour is light and frequent; the characters, without exception, are likeable; the story wafts about suburbia like a dandelion seed in a warm late summer breeze.

Nugget: a bit like an American Mike Leigh film. The best way to sum it up? "Nice."

Tuesday 20 September 2005

Rocky Road to Dublin & The Making of "Rocky Road to Dublin" (1968; 2004) - ickleReview (cinema)

Black and white documentary about sleepy Ireland in 1968, a year of political and cultural revolution in Europe when Ireland was still strictly Catholic and oddly obedient.

Nugget: quirky but highly informative.

The full review is now available on the FilmExposed website.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Interview with Deborah Wearing from the Observer magazine

Here is an interview with Clive Wearing's wife, which fills in some of the gaps in my own recollection of the TV programme I've just seen. How fragile memory is, how precious. Who would you be if you woke up tomorrow, not remembering a thing?

Thoughts from the man who cannot think

A rare thing occurred tonight: ITV showed a decent television programme. It was about Clive Wearing, a conductor and musician, who used to produce early music for BBC Radio 3, who suffered a rare after-effect of the herpes or cold-sore virus, having contracted a serious bout of the flu that was passing around north London 20 years ago. The virus crossed from his blood into his brain and destroyed the part of it that makes and stores memories. Since 1985 he has had acute amnesia, able to remember anything for little more than 7 seconds. The mind, effectively, of a goldfish. He wakes up constantly, for the first time, over and over again, as his devastating diaries reveal. It's like being dead, he says, over and over again, there's no difference between night and day, it's like being asleep without dreaming. Yet he is unable to remember it for long enough to be bored or become frustrated. He can't remember how awful it is to be alive. He remembers that he was once a musician, but he can't remember any performances; yet he has aural hallucinations, hearing music far away, somewhere deep in his consciousness, a memory in sound that has not been muted. He can somehow sense his wife, Deborah, but he can't remember her having visited as soon as she walks out the door. He remembers strange, useless things, such as the number plate of his parents' car, or his old, four-digit phone number from when he was a child, but he doesn't recognize his own son, and has to guess what his wife's job is.

There are rhythms to his speech, he seems to speak by repitition, and yet he wouldn't be able to remember what he is saying. It's as if he has learnt to live by rote. Although he claims not to be able to think, some of his sayings are most profound, almost as if he has rehearsed them or committed them to some part of his brain that isn't memory. "What does love mean?" his wife asks him. "Zero in tennis; everything in life," he replies, slightly jokingly, with the snort of a schoolboy telling a familiar joke.

Walking arm in arm with his wife, back to his own house, which he of course doesn't recognize, doesn't remember ever having seen, he says what his house means to him: "The opposite of walking outdoors."

What is home to him? "Home is yesterday." Yet, of course, he can't remember yesterday, so he would never feel at home anywhere.

The documentary was profoundly moving. His wife, Deborah, is an inspirational woman. She stayed with him for nine years after his illness and then divorced him and moved to New York, where she conducted a number of unsatisfactory relationships with artists, none of whom was enough like Clive to satisfy her. She realized, eventually, that she would have to go back to him, but that they couldn't be together. They renewed their marriage vows and appear to have developed a way to live and love, if only in the snippets of time between blinking, when all is forgotten, the slate wiped clean like an Etch-A-Sketch. She only seems him, though, on average, once a month, so the appearance of their relationship on film is deceptive. Most of the scenes are quite short, so we don't get a sense of how repetitive their conversations are, how many dead ends and deja-vus she must endure. Even when the conversation does loop, it's edited with an inter-title of "7 seconds later", "45 seconds later", "2 minutes later". If it were a film directed by Gus Van Sant, I imagine it would have been much harder to endure, but much more like what time with Clive Wearing feels like i.e. very wearing. Christopher Nolan made a more sinister film about the condition, Memento, in which the note-writing becomes a weapon, the lack of memory a void to exploit.

Clive Wearing is a man emancipated from time. He lives in an eternal moment that keeps resetting. He has no capacity to learn, no means by which to structure his thought, no footholds in the past, no sense of hope for the future, except the wish not to be alone. Every time someone leaves him, he asks them to come back "at the speed of light". Light-years are measures of unfathomable distances, and it is this lack of comprehension of time that distances Clive from other people in space, suggesting that time and space are linked. That without time, something essential to the human condition is removed. Perhaps that's all that death is: time stops.

Sunday 18 September 2005


I've added a new feature to my ickleReviews: a quickfire rating system so that you can see at a glance whether a movie is worth seeing, whether it's okay/kinda average, if it reeks to high heaven, or whether you should drop whatever you're doing and go watch it now, right this minute. To be honest, I'm not that fond of judging movies like this, but as my reviews are so numerous now, it makes them more user-friendly to have this frontdoor labelling. I'd give you that sort of answer if you asked me in person, so why not do it in print? I don't like the star rating, or the marks out of ten or a hundred. My guide is the way that Roger Ebert does it, although I have replaced stars with other symbols. He rates each movie on its own merit and never gives more than four stars for current releases. He does, however, have classic movies, which equates, somewhat, to my * rating. I don't think my opinion about these * movies will change. Some of them (e.g. the Befores by Linklater) are amongst my favourite films of all-time, but that is not to say they are to everyone's taste. If, however, you don't like them, let that be a sign that you have bad taste and should seek to cultivate it, you heathen. (What a Bloomsbury setter I can be at times!) The good ones (+) are usually top examples of their genre, or just generally a good, fun, harmless watch (most Woody Allen films fall into this category: you know what you're getting). The hohummers are the titles marked with =: these were, you know, okay to watch, but haven't really left an indellible mark on my consciousness and sometimes I struggle to remember what they were about. I rarely give out stinker ratings, but those marked with a minus (-) sink rather than swim, and good riddance to them: I hope the drowning hurt and gives you nightmares still in hell. The most eloquent and encapsulating word they deserve to describe them is the wonderfully succint west of Scotland adjective, pish. They bored me, or were just so dumb (Meet the Fockers, being the prime example) that I'd like to pass on my wisdom to others so that they don't waste their time as well. So here, short and sweet, is my summing up.

* a must-see: miss this and you're a damn fool
+ pooty good: a fair crack of the whip
= so-so: won't give you rabies, but don't break a leg to see it
- stinks royally: avoid like the plague

Now go watch some movies, dude!

Closer (2004) - ickleReview (DVD)

I don't have a great deal to add to what I said about the cinema release. There isn't much extra on this DVD, except the music video of Damien Rice's "The Blower's Daughter", the soundtrack over the opening and closing sequences. On reflection, I think my favourite scene is when Jude Law goes to visit Clive Owen at work, coming into his surgery drookit from the rain. Owen plays the scene brilliantly: cocky, masculine, harsh, but with a tinge of sympathy, only to turn into a right bastard when he plays the cruel psychological trick on Jude Law just as he is about to leave. The women don't have lines quite as cutting as the men, especially Owen's character, who is a bit too much of a slimy get in the first few scenes, but really comes into his own in the scene where he returns from America and Julia Roberts is dressed and waiting for him, ready to break up. That sadomasochism is a wheeze, torturing himself with the gory details of Roberts's affair with Law, as, I think, most men would want to do in his position, perhaps not having the balls to do so in real life.

Nugget: if you've seen the film before, there's no harm in seeing it again. I noticed a reference to The Talented Mr. Ripley, when Jude Law says "Americano" to Natalie Portman, which reminded me of the song he sings in the jazz club in Italy with Matt Damon. A better investment, though, might be the play script, so that you can compare it to the screenplay, yet still appreciate Marber's keen dialogue.

Friday 16 September 2005


And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.

I shall not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green & pleasant Land.

I wonder if people realize what they are singing when they join in this now patriotic anthem, sung before play on the last days of the Ashes at The Oval cricket ground. Do they realize (as Tom Paulin pointed out in his Radio 4 programme "And Did Those Feet", broadcast on Tuesday 28 December 2004) that Blake's words are interrogative? They question whether Christ really did walk upon our lands, whether London really is the New Jerusalem. This is a radical, anti-monarchical, revolutionary hymn, a call to arms "against a sea of troubles", hoping, "by opposing", to "end them". Blake was a Nonconformist; yet now this hymn is sung at Women's Institute meetings in church halls all across England (as, for example, in the film Calendar Girls (2003)), partly because it was sung by the Suffragettes (and thus, was again about overturning the current order). It is a central tenet of the common worship of the Church of England, a symbol of gentle conservatism, and is often sung at funerals and at public school memorial day services - even in Scotland at my own alma mater, Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh. It is often associated with socialist ideals: fighting together to improve society. I suppose, even despite these paradoxes and contradictions, that it is a suitable English anthem, for England prides itself nowadays on being a relatively tolerant and forgiving place (how true this is one could dispute), embracing these sorts of cultural anomalies and traditions, which don't always mean what they did when they started out.

Blake wrote it as the preface to his work Milton: A Poem (1804), but it is mainly known now as the hymn "Jerusalem", set to music by C. Hubert H. Parry in 1916. Its patriotism is echoed in Rupert Brooke's famous First World War sonnet, "The Soldier", the last of a sequence entitled "1914":

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Its sense of liberty echoes also in my memory of the nineteenth-century American poem "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, the concluding lines of which are inscribed at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty (and which I know through the opening animated sequence of Channel 4's old American Football programme, hosted by Gary Imlach in the early 90s):

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Inevitable, also, must be the connection with John of Gaunt's vaunted speech from Shakespeare's Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,-
For Christian service and true chivalry,-
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son:
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leas'd out,- I die pronouncing it,-
Like to a tenement, or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah! would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death.

Thursday 15 September 2005

Rothko's Seagram murals

Rothko, Black on Maroon (1958)Jonathan Jones wrote an enlightening article about "How Rothko's Seagram murals found their way to London" in the Guardian on Saturday 7 December 2002. I wasn't aware of what his influences had been. The article includes a number of useful links at the bottom, including one to Tate Modern, which has good quality reproductions of seven of the paintings.

Monday 12 September 2005

Garden State (2004) - ickleReview (DVD)

Second time I've watched this and it's still good. One of the best films I've seen in the past twelve months. The scene at the abyss which I complained about in my cinema review isn't all that bad, although the CGI isn't totally necessary.

The bonus features are quite good. Once more, you realize the editor's craft because the deleted scenes would have slowed down the movie too much, or spoilt the rhythm of a scene or section. There's a particularly tedious one where Largeman (Zach Braff) talks to his dad (Ian Holm) about how his mom died. Holm hardly features in the film as a result, but it was necessary to cut it.

The Making of is better than average. We learn that Braff wrote the screenplay sporadically throughout college and had incorporated some of the stories he'd been collecting from his hometown and his friends. There are two commentary tracks, but I only listened to parts of one with Braff and Natalie Portman, which seemed worthwhile. There's another with Braff and the techie people like the DOP, which I didn't try. Disappointed that the trailer isn't on the DVD because it's one of the best I've seen, although I'm suspicious that some of those shots were contrived just to make the trailer look good. They give a good sense of the tone of the movie, though. A bit like The Terminal, it gives away some of the funniest bits - most notably the shirt made from the same stuff as the wallpaper.

Nugget: I really wonder if Braff can live up to this. I see on IMDb that he has two in post- and one in pre-production.

Sunday 11 September 2005

Inspector Bowden

The curled dismissal finger is not the only thing that cricket umpire Billy Bowden of New Zealand has in common with his cartoon alter ego, Inspector Gadget. Just look at him taking off with a Gadget Copter, when he should be trying to signal six to the scorers! Thank goodness that light meter is working properly!


An imaginary dialogue on the articulacy of men and women, and the decoding of a kiss

He to she: I had a good time tonight.
She to he: Me too. [Pause] Well, I suppose I'd better -
[Pause. He looks at her. She looks at him. Pause. He kisses her, unexpectedly, like the first time she kissed him. It's not exactly unpleasant, so she doesn't exactly resist that much. Neither of them know if they mean it, or what it means. It goes on because neither wants to be the first to pull away.]
She: I thought I said...
He: I thought you did too...
She: I thought I said I didn't want to.
[Pause. He looks over her shoulder, his right, her left. He tries to look her in the eye. He wants to. It's the right thing to do, or feels like it.]
He: I don't know.
She: I told you about my last...didn't I?
He: Yes, you did. I don't know if I want to believe that.
She: What do you mean?
He: I don't know. It seems like a dream, I've thought about it so much.
She: What do you mean?
He: I don't know. It's just...not what I wanted, want to hear.
[But he keeps telling it to himself anyway.]
She: But...
He: But what? That felt good, didn't it? It was nice.
She: Yes. Yes, I suppose it was.
He: What's the problem then?
She: I don't know.
He: You said yourself the first time didn't mean anything. Didn't mean anything to you. It meant something to me. Did you mean that?
She: Mean what?
He: That it didn't mean anything to you. It must have meant something at the time. Some impulse was true enough at the time to make you do it. I don't usually kiss my friends good night, much as I might like to.
She: Then why did you kiss me tonight?
He: Maybe you're more than a friend.
She: Maybe?
He: Yes, maybe. I know what I want. I don't know if you do.
She: No, nor do I.
He: Then what's the problem of just, you know, going with it? It felt good. I felt good. I hope you felt good. Did you feel good?
She: Yes, I did.
He: Would you like to do it again?
She: When?
He: Right now?
She: Not just yet.
He: Why not?
She: I don't know. I'm confused.
He: Me too, but I do know that felt nice and I'd like to do it again sometime. We should practise and maybe I should take off my glasses so they don't smudge or your cheek.
[Pause. Neither really knows what to say, but he feels like he wants to kiss her again. It's easier that way, not having to say anything - not with words, anyway.]

Orwell and good

So yes, the Spanish Civil War. A source for Nineteen Eighty-Four? What with all the confusion on the Communist-Republican side during the street fighting in Barcelona in May 1937. The propaganda didn't help. Makes one wonder how much of our press today is impartial in its foreign news reporting. The disadvantage of CentCom during the Iraq war (from our point of view) was that the press core had it too easy, being spoon fed their "facts" by Allied press officers - hardly from the horses mouth; more from its manure. How were they supposed to double-source their stories? Comical Ali would hardly be a sensible counterweight, even though he sometimes made more sense than the Yankee poodle. (Back in Spain) a rather sly manoeuvre to accuse the POUM militia of being Fascist (the so-called Trotskyist pro-revolutionary group of gumboots with whom Eric Blair (George Orwell) was fighting. I wonder what his passport said, and how he introduced himself when he turned up ready to have a scrap for the Reds. Does a pseudonym ever really penetrate the bearer's mind as one's own real name does? I can't imagine being called anything other than my moniker, except maybies "Claire", which I was going to be hight if I'd been a girl (some might say I am. When was the last time I relished a game of rugger? Not enough cunt in my game, as Hilly, B.A. Hons., so eloquently put it. Others might say too much).

War is a bloody thing, but it provides the occasion for compelling literature and the odd cracking motion picture. Hemingway faffed around on the front too, although I image he was more cock than Robin, yet - in the words of any shite football pundit, player or manager, to be fair to the lad - he did have the courage to aim the gun at himself in a hotel room, I believe, toward the end of his life, in fact, at the end.

Friday 9 September 2005

Rocky Road to Dublin

Went to a sparsely attended (count 3 of us) press screening at the ICA in London today for the 1968 documentary about the repressed Irish way of life, Rocky Road to Dublin. They were supposed to show the new Making of as well, but the projectionist wasn't told. ::D'oh!:: My review will appear on FilmExposed in due course, and I will link to it from here.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Wednesday 7 September 2005

Crash (2004) - ickleReview (cinema)

Independent American movie directed by Paul Haggis dealing with racial prejudice in LA. Don Cheadle plays a detective who realizes from the start the problem with the City of Angels: "It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In LA, nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something." It's this fear, which in September 2005 has be exposed in New Orleans and the Louisiana-Mississippi Gulf Coast basin after hurricane Katrina. There are parts of America (and the world over) where the separate, segregated ethnic communities don't trust one another, aren't prepared to give each other the benefit of the doubt. It's not just white against black; it's Hispanic against Persian, white against Chinese, black against black. Hip-hop artist Ludacris plays a black guy who is prejudiced against himself, assuming all the worst that everyone else can think of him...and then fulfilling it in spite. Moments of violence are oddly comic, the bigot becomes a clown, morality is inverted. Challenged with a dilemma, the characters do the right thing, only for bad things then to happen as a result of that choice. We, the audience, see that had they taken the other option, they would have been saved.

The abundant handful of stories interweave in the manner of Robert Altman, colliding, crashing into each other in moments of crisis and coincidence too serendipitous to be realistically plausible; but Haggis isn't aiming for that sort of scientific realism; he tells a fable that shuffles closer to the truth of human relations. Too often we imbue the words "humane" and "humanitarian" with optimism. Isn't it just as "humane" to take the selfish option, the easy way out, leaving principle behind and your fellow human beings to suffer?

Haggis's vision is troubling and yet important. He doesn't offer any solution to our problems, but some of his characters learn that the way they behave towards others cannot go on. This time they have got off lightly, but there will always be another outlaw cop, safe from redress in an institutionally racist police force, another customer or tradesman trying to screw you over, another black guy who's going to mug you or steal your car. All this is "humane"; all of us are "human". And yet, inexplicably, when we to crash into one another, there is something reassuring about that human contact, which otherwise we might not have; there is in it a thing of beauty. In Louisiana, middle-class white families are meeting their black neighbours across the blown down garden fence for the first time. They might still go off inside to reload their shotguns, but isn't it better that at least they have realized the other person is human, is more like them than they think, is infinitely capable of breaking down those convenient and necessary stereotypes we burden upon each other?

Nugget: a challenging and important movie, which raises more problems than it solves; but then social cohesion is not the job of the artist, nor of the politician or the policeman; we are all responsible for it and we should all realize our interdependence, regardless of who we are, what we do and where we find ourselves.

P.S. I changed my mind about this film when I saw it on DVD.

Saturday 3 September 2005

Rothko's Prison

Rothko's Prison
Rothko's Prison
Originally uploaded by FredR.

How many other works of art are hiding in the quotidian sights?