Sunday, January 19, 2020

Alan Strachan – ‘Secret Dreams: A Biography of Michael Redgrave’

Michael Redgrave as Ernest Worthing clattering his teacup against its saucer as he proposes to Joan Greenwood’s Gwendoline Fairfax in Anthony Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest has long been one of my favourite moments in film. It’s so nervous, and so perfectly controlled. Gwendoline, of course, is not nervous at all: she has been expecting this, and encourages the moment to its crisis with austere amusement. Ernest (if we leave aside immense wealth, which for these purposes I think we’d better) has only feeling and sincerity on his side and, as will soon become apparent, his birth is wanting. If he is not quite the gentleman he seems, neither is Redgrave’s acting as English as it seems, as Strachan argues in the epilogue of his biography:
despite the brilliant technical sheen of its acting the British theatre of the mid twentieth century was fashioned from theatre itself rather than from reality. In effect, at that time life was used rather than created in the acting on British stages and screens.
        However, at the very core of Michael’s being as an actor […] was the impulse to start from the living natural processes of which the actor must be conscious. This almost sacerdotal belief, which led showmen such as [Tony] Guthrie or actors schooled and happy in the easy West End world’s attitude of ‘just say the lines and don’t bump into the furniture’ to describe Michael at times as ‘difficult’ or over-serious, was grounded in what he took from Stanislavsky and Saint-Denis, based on the latter’s insistence that in all acting the key question should always be ‘Why?’ rather than ‘How?’. The base conviction was that the starting point and development of any part in any play was never the individual role in isolation but the unfolding of a whole course of events and the evolving relationship of each role to the others within the course of the actions in the play, taking place at a specific time and under particular conditions. (pp. 543-4)
He goes on to quote Vanessa Redgrave on working with her father:
At each and every moment he would be listening to and looking at the other actors on the stage, as if for the first time, and allow the events, what they did and said, to activate his actions, thoughts and words. (p. 544)
This is a theatre-centric biography by a theatre director (who directed Redgrave in The Old Boys in 1971), which I found more absorbing as it progressed; possibly because of its subject’s struggles in later life, with anxiety following horrendous treatment by Laurence Olivier during the first season of the National Theatre in 1963 (Olivier plays villain twice in this book, as he also spikes the guns of Redgrave’s planned film of Antony and Cleopatra by pretending to be about to film it himself), and after that with Parkinson’s Disease. It navigates his sex life well, treating a string of extra-marital relationships with men as manifestations of his bisexuality, about which he was honest with his wife, Rachel Kempson, before they got married. It doesn’t claim that this had no effect on their own relationship, or that it didn’t cause considerable pain to Kempson, but it is clear that their marriage was no sham, and that this arrangement worked, for the most part. He didn’t tell her until decades later about a serious relationship during their marriage with another woman, Edith Evans (Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film of Earnest, though the affair was in the 1930s), and it feels much more appropriate to call that an affair. There is a vast quantity of cameos, and it’s the kind of book which enriches and is enriched by other histories of the period, I think. Orson Welles and Fritz Lang are both skewered: the former for the laziness of the Mr Arkadin script; the latter for being a prima donna director trading on his own myth (although the importance of his 1920s films to a young Michael is also stressed). Having recently read Micheál MacLiammóir’s amazing Put Money in thy Purse, an account taken from his diaries of the filming of Welles’ Othello, it was interesting to read of the (I’d always assumed) Irishman:
A genuine spellbinder, MacLiammóir – originally Alfred Wilmore from Kensal Rise – had arrived in Ireland at twenty-eight where he fell in love with [Hilton] Edwards and all the seductiveness of the Celtic Twilight, staying on to reinvent himself and to reject England. (p. 434)
Sensible fellow.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

László Krasznahorkai – ‘Satantango’

Reading this just before Easter, I wondered if there was some deliberate connection between the figure on whom most of the characters pin their hopes, Irimiás, and Jesus. The way they await his coming, to their grim, moribund village, where it always rains, and no-one besides the pub’s landlord has worked since an unspecified big employer left the area many years ago. There is something like a resurrection, too, witnessed by Irimiás. It took a while to place the action in time: an estate is mentioned, the villagers in their hovels seem like serfs, it could be the nineteenth century or earlier, but modernity does intrude now and then (there’s a truck, for instance). In the opening chapter, the lame Futaki is in bed with Mrs Schmidt, and has to get up, sneak outside and come in again when her husband arrives unexpectedly. They then argue about money. In a house nearby a doctor sits at a window drinking, observing the comings and goings of his neighbours and writing down every detail in a set of notebooks, one per person observed. He does this all day every day, and keeps doing it even after everyone has left to follow their saviour, who doesn’t see himself as anything of the sort:
God was a mistake. I’ve long understood that there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our senses, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay […] It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. (p. 220)
The setting, with the squalor, the rain and the mud, is reminiscent of Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel, though without the Southern Gothic flavour. The book is Hungarian, so presumably the setting is Hungary. Irimiás is resolute and mysterious, the above passage is (or seems to be) a rare moment of candour, though it’s also a pointless one, his companion Petrina being a coward and an idiot. Futaki, perhaps the most sympathetic character, has similar thoughts (he reflects on ‘this sty of a world’ (p. 145)), and provides this terrifying assessment of the defense reflex:
It was as if the real threat came from elsewhere, from somewhere beneath their feet, though its source was bound to be uncertain: a man will suddenly find silence frightening, he fears to move, he squats in a corner that he hopes might protect him: even chewing becomes a torture there and swallowing agony, so eventually he doesn’t even notice that everything around him has slowed, that he is ever more hemmed in, and then discovers that his strategic withdrawal is in fact nothing less than petrification. (p. 135)
It’s like ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ again, but in this version aspiration is starting from a lower base than for Tom Hanks’ Steve Wong. Steve wants to have fun bowling; Bartleby prefers not to do anything; Futaki wants to live, but life keeps receding (he also keeps falling over in the mud). Satantango is the end of the road for many of its characters, their only hope a man who gives them the comfort of instructions to follow, but there is nothing behind the instructions, except (it is hinted) an intention to exploit them. The only characters who do not fall into Irimiás’ trap, or the wider worldly trap he outlines above (which sounds a lot like freedom of opportunity) are the insane: the drunken, obese, obsessive doctor, and Esti Horgos, a girl abused by her family who poisons their cat and lays down to die.

Here is a sunrise, though. Ain’t that enough?
Irimiás scrapes the mud off his lead-heavy shoes, clears his throat, cautiously opens the door, and the rain begins again, while to the east, swift as memory, the sky brightens, scarlet and pale blue and leans against the undulating horizon, to be followed by the sun, like a beggar daily panting up to his spot on the temple steps, full of heartbreak and misery, ready to establish the world of shadows, to separate the trees one from the other, to raise, out of the freezing, confusing homogeneity of night in which they seem to have been trapped like flies in a web, a clearly defined earth and sky with distinct animals and men, the darkness still in flight at the edge of things, somewhere on the far side of the western horizon, where its countless terrors vanish one by one like a desperate, confused, defeated army. (p. 47)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Tom Hanks – ‘Uncommon Type’

No one has typewriters anymore, none that work. But typewritten letters are special. Some folks come with letters they’ve composed on a computer they want me to type out for them and make one of a kind. Before Valentine’s or Mother’s Day, I could sit here for hours and type notes for folks lined up around the block. If I charged, I’d be as rich as a good florist. (pp. 381-2, from ‘Our Town Today with Hank Fiset: Your Evangelista Esperanza’)
Typewritten letters are special? No, no, no: handwritten letters are special. But let’s go with it for a while. In the story ‘These Are the Meditations of My Heart’, a typewriter salesman makes his pitch along similar lines: ‘You are seeking permanence’ (p. 235). Most of the characters in these stories (all of which feature typewriters in some capacity) are seeking something like that: they need something to cling to in a world in flux. Some are refugees or newly naturalised citizens; others are film stars or property magnates worth billions of dollars. Some stories are set when typewriters were current technology; most are contemporary. Most feature broken relationships, too, and there is more than a suggestion that while people will inevitably let you down, these sturdy machines, well looked after, will not. The salesman again:
        ‘They are made of steel. They are works of engineers. They were built in factories in America, Germany, Switzerland. Do you know why they are up on that shelf right now?’
        ‘Because they are for sale?’
        ‘Because they were built to last forever!’ The old man actually shouted. In him, she heard her father hollering, ‘Who left those bikes on the front lawn? … Why am I the only one dressed for church? … The father of this house is home and needs a hug!’ (p. 232)
There is a touch of Alan Partridge maleness about this: the reliance on understanding the mechanical as a substitute for understanding people.

Some variations on the nuclear family, cracked or otherwise: the boy in ‘A Special Weekend’ spends a weekend with his mother and her new partner, just prior to his tenth birthday. They take him for a plane ride as a treat, even allowing him to take the controls for a while, but he knows this is no substitute for the home life he has lost, so young. In ‘Welcome to Mars’ a young man goes surfing on his nineteenth birthday, busts his leg on his board, and in trying to get help sees something he shouldn’t’ve: his father kissing a stranger in a car. In ‘Christmas Eve 1953’ two Word War Two veterans drift further apart every year. One is a lone wanderer, and gay; the other is a family man, missing a leg but utterly settled: he loves his family and they love him, there is no longer any story. ‘A Month on Greene Street’ is better: a mother and children move into a new neighbourhood following her divorce, and she tries to avoid encouraging the friendliness and ‘Are you doing anything tonight’-ness (p. 126) of her new neighbour, a teacher with a telescope which fascinates all the children nearby, and some of the parents too. The mechanical substitute, again (isn’t that what’s bad about the internet age? People on their phones ignoring other people? Is the debate about the quality of the distraction?)

Permanence is an illusion for the rich, too, they just have more liberty to chase it, more garish ways to imagine it. In ‘The Past Is Important to Us’ a billionaire pays $6m to travel back in time to the New York World Fair of 1939. He meets a woman there who begins to obsess him, perhaps because she is so obviously unattainable, as the rules of the travel company, and the pseudo-science, dictate that he can only ever travel back to the same day, and can only spend 22 hours there each time. On every trip he manages to spend slightly longer with Carmen and her young niece Virginia, seeing the sights, eating pie, flirting. The interest comes from the variations in the scene which keeps being repeated and extended, as the seemingly spontaneous is revealed to be merely automatic. ‘A Junket in the City of Light’ is about Willa Sax, star of the wildly popular Cassandra Rampart film franchise, and the Paris leg of the press tour to promote the latest instalment, told from the point of view of her much-less-famous co-star Rory Thorpe. A news story breaks about her husband being caught high and with some hookers, and the whole circus stops dead, cancelled. Rory shrugs, does some sight seeing instead. It’s hyper-real and un-real all at once, as though in increasing the possibilities, wealth diminishes the outcomes. The only attachment worth the name in these rich folk stories is in ‘Stay with Us’, when Ms Mercury, personal assistant to a ludicrous property magnate, falls for a mechanic and quits to marry him.

Most of the stories’ settings fall into one socio-economic category or another, but there is a group of three stories which aims for more of a melting pot. In ‘Three Exhausting Weeks’ (which opens the collection), ‘Alan Bean Plus Four’ (which is the funniest thing in it) and ‘Steve Wong is Perfect’ (which closes it, and is the bleakest), four friends hang out, go on holiday, chat, say ‘atta baby’ a lot. Two are rich enough to contemplate a holiday to Antarctica without particularly considering the cost. Two work at a hardware store. One of the latter, MDash, becomes a US citizen in the first story, and has a naturalisation ceremony. The other, Steve Wong, has ‘grandparents [who] were naturalized in the forties’ (p. 3). ‘Steve Wong is Perfect’ reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’. In it, the four friends go bowling to celebrate a year since MDash’s naturalisation. Steve Wong scores all strikes. They go back a few more times over subsequent weeks, and it keeps happening: every time he scores a perfect 300. This gets noticed, and he is offered a $100,000 prize if he can repeat the feat on TV. As the story progresses, Steve takes less and less interest in his performance, and he refuses to engage in the hyperbole of television: ‘Like I said. I bowl for fun’ (p. 396). In fact, the TV appearance stresses him out, and he throws up in the parking lot before going on. I think what is going on is the emptiness at the heart of the American dream. In the land of the free, what if you do take every opportunity? What if your numbers do keep going forever upwards? So what?

Friday, March 22, 2019

Elena Ferrante – ‘My Brilliant Friend’

For obscure reasons [Signor Peluso] attributed his ruin to Don Achille. He charged him with having taken by stealth, as if his shadowy body were a magnet, all the tools for his carpentry work, which made the shop useless. He accused him of having taken the shop itself, and transformed it into a grocery store. For years I imagined the pliers, the saw, the tongs, the hammer, the vise, and thousands and thousands of nails sucked up like a swarm of metal into the matter that made Don Achille. For years I saw his body – a coarse body, heavy with a mixture of materials – emitting in a swarm salami, provolone, mortadella, lard, and prosciutto. (p. 36)
This, the most visually arresting moment early on in My Brilliant Friend, made me wonder if it would go in a magical realist direction, but no, it is very specifically tied to the imagination of a young girl who has been told a cautionary tale and taken it too literally. Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo live a rich imaginative life together, through their dolls, which they play with in the courtyard of the block of flats where they live, together with most of the other characters in the novel. This is ‘the neighbourhood,’ somewhere is suburban Naples in the late 1950s. Lila pushes Elena’s doll through a ground-level window, Elena follows suit, and they make their way to the basement to retrieve them, convinced that the monster Don Achille lies in wait. He doesn’t get the chance to become a real monster, making an early exit, but it’s clear that his reputation comes from his power, which comes from organised crime, so people are afraid of him. When he’s gone, the Solaras are the most powerful family in the neighbourhood: they own the local bar, and the two adult sons drive around in a Fiat 1100, picking on people younger than they are, and in at least one instance indulging in sexual abuse. There is a high degree of acceptance of this behaviour, for instance from Elena’s parents:
They hated Don Achille and were afraid of the Solaras. But they overlooked it and went to spend money both at Don Achille’s son’s, and at the Solaras’, and sent us, too. And they voted for the Fascists, for the monarchists, as the Solaras wanted them to. And they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too. (p. 163)
All this deference to grocers and barmen? Well, the neighbourhood is a small, tightly bound world. The Solaras and the Carraccis (Don Achille’s family) control the supply of food and drink, and the (commercial) public spaces. To begin with, it seems that Elena and Lila, both prodigies at primary school, are going to escape by intellectual means, but while Elena goes to middle and then high school, Lila is kept at home, and gradually abandons her early studiousness (more intense and alive than Elena’s), learning to live in the world instead of through books. She is pursued obsessively by Marcello Solara, who invites himself to dinner at her house several times a week, insinuating himself by his undisputed social power, his bullying entitlement: even after she has rejected him one-on-one, he persists, as he knows her parents won’t want to risk trouble, and in fact would welcome into their family someone wealthy, and able to help their business, which is a small shoe shop. Lila outflanks him by starting a relationship with someone of nearly equal power, Stefano Carracci. She accepts the logic of the neighbourhood, and learns to use it to her advantage. The cost of investing herself fully into her situation is her intellectual self, which she feels deeply, but is determined to leave behind, as Elena discovers when she approaches her for help with an anti-religious article she has written:
        [Lila] circled a sentence and moved it with a wavy line to the top of the page.
        ‘Can I recopy it for you on to another page?’
        ‘I’ll do it.’
        ‘No, let me do it.’
        It took a while to recopy. When she gave me back the notebook, she said, ‘You’re very clever, of course they always give you ten.’
        I felt that there was no irony, it was a real compliment. Then she added with sudden harshness:
        ‘I don’t want to read anything else that you write.’
        ‘Why?’
        She thought about it.
        ‘Because it hurts me,’ and she struck her forehead with her hand and burst out laughing. (pp. 300-1)
Lila is the more headstrong, the more curious, the more self-possessed of the two friends, but by the end of the book she is about to settle down into domesticity, and it is Elena who is full of possibilities and uncertainties.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Robert Forster – ‘Grant & I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens’

It feels terrible to admit this, but I never got on with Grant’s contribution to the final Go-Betweens album, Oceans Apart. My first impression, which stuck, was that his songs were empty, prettified confections (which was maddening, as Robert’s were all brilliant). His ego, kept in check on the other two post-comeback LPs by the modest, as-live sound, inflated like a soft balloon in the vacuum of Mark Wallis’ ornate production, which failed to come close to his work on 16 Lovers Lane. This impression built on an idea of Grant as humourless and conceited, thinking of himself as a rock star, as opposed to Robert, who always had his tongue in his cheek. Then he died. What bad timing: the man who wrote incredible songs like ‘Bye Bye Pride’ and ‘Apology Accepted’, left the world with this nonsense? And why was the consensus all the other way: that he died when his life and his art were at a high point? I didn’t understand. This book is a good counter to that way of thinking. I’m unlikely to change my mind about the Oceans Apart songs, but the story Robert tells about Grant shows how fragile he was, and gives reasons for the bluster that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to forgive.

Here’s an early description of Grant at university, where the pair first met:
Outside, the world was whirring, people were doing things, conducting business. His contribution: reclining in bed in the early afternoon […] reading the latest edition of Film Comment. […] He seemed remarkably unattached from the start; his connection to the world, I was to discover, was through the things he loved, even as they disconnected him further from the world around him. (p. 29)
Nothing too tragic there, you’d have thought, and Forster says something similar of himself, imagining returning from tour with a suitcase full of books and records: ‘Well-stocked seclusion – my favourite position in life’ (p. 236). But where he settles down in later life, marries and starts a family, McLennan almost always lives in shared accommodation, a perpetual student without the discipline of study. His first serious relationship came quite late, with bandmate Amanda Brown, and the big trauma of his life was her leaving him on being sacked from the band, a consequence he had not foreseen. He spent years trying to get her back. He didn’t have the worldliness to think through the consequences, or to deal with the fallout. (Forster: ‘I wanted to say, You’re the innocent one. You’re the one left in the house crying’ (p. 219)). So he drank, and he acted the rock star. It seems likely that what could come across as arrogance was a defence mechanism, because he didn’t know how to deal with the world. And then, too, there is Forster’s bleak assessment of the underlying reason for Grant’s heart attack, and the careless living which led to it: ‘the sour condition of Grant’s soul’ (p. 330). How on earth can that be squared with his ecstatic reaction to hearing ‘Finding You’ for the first time?

Forster doesn’t let the tragedy of the end dominate the book. It’s a detailed and fair assessment of The Go-Betweens’ career, filled with period detail and wry comment. Like this thumbnail sketch when Grant moved flat:
The landlord was known as the Man with the Movable Wig, who upon discovering you were a musician would insist on playing you Switched-on Bach. (p. 82)
Or this summary of 20 years in the political wilderness for his home state of Queensland:
Like most politicians who preach God, Joh [Bjelke-Petersen] had tolerated shonky business deals, had no regard for the environment, and naturally no interest in the arts. (pp. 243-4)
On the music, he judges Before Hollywood, Liberty Belle, 16 Lovers Lane, The Friends of Rachel Worth and Oceans Apart as good records, the other albums wanting. The account of the session for Tallulah’s singles is particularly dispiriting:
With costs high and deposit paid, the best we could do was slink off to a backroom and rehearse the B sides, to be called out one by one over the next four days, like witnesses at a murder trial, and feed our parts into an unremarkable churn that were to be our singles. (p. 174)
The tug between pop potential and the actual sound of the band is one that led to some awful recording decisions, starting with 1984’s Spring Hill Fair, where the drumming which held together Before Hollywood was substituted for drum machines, and the piecemeal approach Forster describes above (I love drum machines, but they aren’t Lindy Morrison). The to-ing and fro-ing between record labels, for which the band could have been named, had they known in advance, was part of the reason for this, as was the era in which they lived, which was in thrall to recording technology (the multi-track, the sequencer) in a way which ours, curiously, isn’t. Although the catalogue is uneven for this reason, it’s interesting, too: there is always jeopardy, the possibility of being dropped by the label giving a hunger to proceedings. When this happened to Forster after his solo LP Warm Nights in 1996, he relocated to Germany with his wife, and he reflects:
As I strode the medieval alleyways in the cold, pull-the-collar-up weather, a new persona was born. Self-preserving, forgotten, withered, proud, discarded – glorious emotions, for how you imagine yourself to be is as important as talent when writing songs. (p. 276)

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